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Capsule Reviews Of Films Playing Now 

OPENING

Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938) - A 13th-century prince drives Teutonic invaders from Russia in Sergei Eisenstein's film. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21.

Ballast (U.S., 2008) - When a poor black man commits suicide, his ex-wife (Tarra Riggs), son (JimMyron Ross) and twin brother (Michael J. Smith Sr.) all have different ways of dealing with the tragedy. His twin withdraws, and his ex becomes enraged and fights to get the house and small storefront he owned put in her name. His son gets in trouble with a few local hoodlums and drops out of school. It's all very grim in Lance Hammer's minimalist film which won awards at last year's Sundance festival. The film features strong, realistic performances but is so slow-moving, it's virtually mind-numbing. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18. (Jeff Niesel)

Great Expectations (Britain, 1948) - David Lean's adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel shows in a restored 35mm print from the British Film Institute. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Britain, 2008) - When Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has her bicycle nicked at the beginning of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, her only response is a melancholic "Ahhhh - we didn't have the chance to say goodbye." Poppy (short for Pauline) is so exuberantly Pollyanna-ish she even seems to enjoy being jostled while riding mass transit, something she's forced to do after the theft of her bike. It's not surprising to learn Poppy is a primary-school teacher since she has the easy, unfiltered enthusiasm of a kid herself. How you respond to Poppy - and Hawkins' performance - is a good litmus test for Happy-Go-Lucky. If you think Poppy's got a screw (or two) loose, the film and the character can be endurance tests. But if you're tickled by her incessant joie de vivre, you'll probably love Poppy and the movie. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:20 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, and 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. 1/2 (Milan Paurich)

The Human Condition Part II: Road to Eternity (Japan, 1959) - The movie's hero enters the Japanese army and tries to reform its brutal treatment of young recruits in Masaki Kobayashi's film. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15.

Last Chance Harvey - While en route to London for his daughter's wedding, New York music-jingle composer Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) learns that he's about to be phased out of his ad agency. Already depressed, Harvey soon discovers that his daughter (Liane Balaban) has asked stepdad Brian (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle. Ouch! Deciding to skip the post-nuptial reception and make a quick getaway after the ceremony, Harvey makes the acquaintance of fortysomething singleton Kate Walker (Emma Thompson at her most deliciously imperious) at an airport lounge. Although Kate has no patience at first for the gregarious, supremely needy American tourist, Harvey ultimately wins her over during an impromptu lunch. So slight and winsome that it's liable to be dismissed by hard-hearted cynics, Last Chance Harvey is as refreshing as a tart lemon soufflé served after a groaning board of overcooked holiday leftovers. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. 1/2 (Paurich)

Loins of Punjab (India, 2007) - Attempting to come off as something like a Christopher Guest parody, The Loins of Punjab is a spoof about the Asian Idol version of American Idol. Dubbed Desi Idol, the competition attracts a strange group of contestants, including a struggling actress who can't speak Hindi, a white guy who knows the full repertoire of traditional Indian songs and a gangsta rapper who goes by the name of the Turbanotorious B.D.G. They all converge on a New Jersey hotel to compete for the grand prize (a paltry $25,0000) and a series of mishaps ensues as the contestants engage in the kind of ridiculous backstabbing you find at marginal talent shows. While the film has some funny moments, its satire simply isn't sharp enough and its outcome isn't entirely unpredictable. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, and 9:35 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17. 1/2 (Niesel)

Oliver Twist (Britain, 1948) - David Lean's adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel shows in a restored 35mm print from the British Film Institute. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18. Splinter (U.S., 2008) - This minimalist torture porn is kind of like an Eli Roth splatterfest scripted slightly up to grad-student level. Setting is some unnamed old-growth forest in the boondocks (filmed in Oklahoma). A camping couple, a mild-mannered biology PhD (Paolo Costanzo) and his incongruously sexy girlfriend (Jill Wagner), are taken hostage by a misunderstood white-trash desperado (Shea Whigham) and his junkie girlfriend (Rachel Krebs). Then all four run afoul of a fungus-like organism that rapidly and insidiously spreads by contact with the black sliver-like spines that sprout on its victims, who crunchily transform into lurching, marionette-like zombies. Aside from some B-movie scientific mumbo-jumbo about its feeding habits (which you may or may not even hear properly, thanks to mumblecore dialogue), there's no explanation for the hideous contagion - just a no-frills overnight battle for survival in an isolated gas station besieged by the living dead (or bits of them). Viewers who don't want to see amputations and mutilations should stick with Marley & Me. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, and 9:15 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. (Charles Cassady)

ONGOING

Bedtime Stories - When Marty Bronson (Jonathan Pryce) has to sell his mom-and-pop motel to developer Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths), he does so with the understanding that his son Skeeter (Adam Sandler) will eventually run the place. Well, Marty gets his wish. Sort of. Skeeter does take over but as the maintenance manager. Skeeter gets his chance to advance, however, when Barry announces a contest for the design of a new hotel he plans to build. To win the competition, Skeeter enlists the help of his niece and nephew, whom he's been babysitting. He hopes that because the bedtime stories he tells them magically come true, he'll have an advantage. But he ends up getting more than he bargained for when he tries to control the outcome of the final bedtime story. Sandler relies on his usual bag of tricks (talking like he's a little kid and making immature jokes), and his performance is nothing special. But Brit funnyman Russell Brand steals the show in a limited role as Skeeter's dim-witted sidekick. (Niesel)

Bride Wars - Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Liv (Kate Hudson) are best friends who've dreamed of getting married at New York's Plaza Hotel ever since they were kids. So when the time finally comes and their respective weddings accidentally get booked on the same day, neither is willing to give up the date. Things get nasty as the two engage in the catfight of all catfights, going to great lengths to sabotage the other's wedding. Emma starts anonymously sending Liv cookies and candy so she won't be able to fit into her wedding dress, and Liv switches the sentimental video Emma plans to play at her wedding with some racy footage from a wild spring break. And try as she might, wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) just can't get the girls to make up. Of course, it's not giving too much away to say the sisters eventually work it out for themselves in this predictable movie that's simply too cute for its own good. (Niesel)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Director David Fincher bookends The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with two pieces of American history: U.S. troops fighting in World War I and the looming threat of Hurricane Katrina. In between, a timeline of historical and not-so-historical events plays out as one man grows up, or more accurately, becomes a boy. "There are no rules," Benjamin (Brad Pitt) says of his unconventional life. And the movie does play around with convention (foremost, there's that whole aging-in-reverse thing). Still, it's Fincher's most traditional film. He's never been so sentimental or aimed this high (not even in the rule-breaking Se7en, Fight Club or last year's under-seen but terrific Zodiac). He stages nearly every scene with an awe that mirrors Benjamin's. By the time he reaches his 20s, Benjamin has 60 years behind him. As a result, he never really feels like he belongs. This charming fantasy, however, fits right in with other end-of-the-year Oscar hopefuls. (Michael Gallucci)

Doubt - Playwright/screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own stage drama is directed with Clint Eastwood austerity and set in a working-class Catholic parish and parochial school in 1964 NYC. There, schoolchildren are kept in line by stern principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep in a hedge-clipped Bronx accent), a flinty alpha female of the old ways, who disdains even putting sugar in her tea. Sister Aloysius' spre spot jovial Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the popular boys' basketball coach and a recent arrival at the parish. One of Flynn's altar boys, 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), is the first black to be admitted to the school. Intuiting that Donald is friendless and vulnerable, Father Flynn takes a special interest in him. Soon Sister Aloysius launches into a personal investigation into Father Flynn, accusing him directly of being a calculating child molester. Doubt is a story intended to afflict the comfortable and, while the cast couldn't be better, it's hard not to discern the moments that worked electrifyingly well in the intimacy of a stage presentation that were somewhat lost in the translation to film. File this in Catholic-movie purgatory alongside that Jane Fonda version of Agnes of God. 1/2 (Cassady)

Frost/Nixon - Ron Howard's intelligent drama, derived from the Peter Morgan stage play, aspires to history written with lightning, but Oliver Stone's majestically flawed 1995 Nixon was there first, with more fire and operatic flair. This one feels like history written as a People nostalgia piece. The subject is a series of ballyhooed 1977 TV interviews done by English chat-show host and satirist David Frost (easily impersonated by Michael Sheen), who wrangled a costly Q&A with the infamously resigned Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, in a characterization not unlike Stone's, a gifted and wily statesman toting a massive psychological burden because he never felt as loved and accepted as JFK). Some of this feeds into lofty themes about the limits of power, culpability and owning up - and some of it just reduces this Watergate epilogue to an American Idol popularity competition: Frost vs. Nixon, who looks better on TV? 1/2 (Cassady)

Gran Torino - In Gran Torino, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit autoworker mourning his recently deceased wife. Walt's hatreds are many: He grumbles at his teenage granddaughter's belly ring, the doting attention of his son and daughter-in-law (Brian Haley and Geraldine Hughes), the Asian family next door ("Damn barbarians!"), and at Father Janovich (Christopher Calrey), the round-faced young priest who urges Walt to come to confession. Walt is an unapologetic racist, trading ethnic jokes and scurrilous insults with his barber. He's also, for the sake of drama, hiding some unspecified, coughing-up-blood illness. There's considerable interest in the way the movie incorporates Eastwood's pet themes: the hero with the dark past he's trying to forget, and the gulf between mythologized heroics and ugly reality. With its unholy mix of cultural tolerance, racial stereotypes and gun violence, Gran Torino mirrors the contradictions of its director/star, a vegan, pro-gun pacifist who likes George Bush, hates the Iraq War and once threatened to kill Michael Moore. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)

Marley and Me - Virtually nothing happens in the first half of this mundane romantic comedy that stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as John and Jennifer Grogan, a happy couple who leave the Midwest for the warmer Florida climate. She's an established journalist, and he has aspirations of being a hard news reporter. When John begins to worry that Jennifer will want kids right away, he gets her a puppy instead. An unruly lab named Marley, the dog soon becomes a handful, but the couple learn to love it all the same. And after a cranky old editor (Alan Arkin) decides to give John his own column, he thrives, infusing his daily musings (many about Marley) with wit and humor. Things get a little tougher after the couple starts having kids, but their lives are generally conflict-free, something that makes the film a real bore to sit through. And given that uneventful first half, it comes as an unwelcome surprise when tragedy strikes at its conclusion. (Niesel)

Milk - Gus Van Sant's docudrama about the life of activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), California's first openly gay elected politician, who helped transform San Francisco's Castro into a gay-friendly neighborhood, is a return to form for the filmmaker who hasn't had a movie of consequence in some time. Penn is terrific as the eccentric politician who created a movement of sorts out of a photo shop, transforming the neighborhood into the gay mecca it is today. The supporting cast (featuring James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and Alison Pill) is excellent too. (Niesel)

Not Easily Broken - Directed by Bill Duke and based on a T.D. Jakes novel, Not Easily Broken features Muscular heartthrob Morris Chestnut, who plays Dave Johnson, a former high school athlete who works construction and can't please his wife, Clarice (Taraji P. Henson, so good in Benjamin Button). Their marriage is strained by Clarice's materialistic ambitions and Dave's unfulfilled desire to have kids. Clarice, who sells real estate, is jealous of the time Dave spends with "his boys," which include not only his buddies, but also the Little League team he lovingly coaches. The Johnsons have forgotten the words of the Bishop (Albert Hall), who married them and told them they were bound by three unbreakable cords, the third of which is God. The Almighty steps in with a car accident that seriously injures Clarice and prompts her mean, meddlesome mom (Jennifer Lewis) to move in and drive the couple apart. When many black-oriented films still patronize audiences with noisy pratfalls, a spiritual drama isn't a bad thing. The movie is thoughtful and sympathetic, with many moments of emotional power. Find a longer version of this review at clevescene.com. 1/2 (Zoslov)

The Reader - At its best - which fortunately is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed 1995 best-seller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (the ineffable Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz among others), The Reader is the kind of accessible, sumptuously crafted highbrow movie that used to be Miramax's bread and butter. Told in a series of flashbacks, the bulk of the action takes place in three timeframes. In 1958 Berlin, 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross) makes the acquaintance of "older woman" Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Despite Winslet's fearless performance, Hanna remains a cruel, tantalizing enigma until the very end. It's precisely that sort of purposeful ambiguity that makes the film such a rewarding experience. 1/2 (Paurich)

Revolutionary Road - Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's first pairing since Titanic made them stars in 1997 is a totally different kind of love story. Totally different. In fact, most of the time Revolutionary Road is a hate story about a 1950s suburban couple who can barely stand each other. DiCaprio and Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, who meet at a party in the film's opening minutes. The movie is expertly acted, especially Michael Shannon as the mentally unstable son of a nosy neighbor (Kathy Bates, also terrific) who unnerves the usually reserved Frank. Still, the film is mostly a showcase for the 33-year-old Winslet, who grows more refined as she ages. Every line in her face reflects April's frustration. "No one forgets the truth," she says at one point. "They just get better at lying." It's one of the year's best and most honest performances. (Gallucci) Seven Pounds - Seven Pounds reunites actor Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino, the same director who made The Pursuit of Happyness. And like his character in that film, Smith plays Ben Thomas, a guy who's seemingly always running from one problem to the next. Posing as an IRS agent, Ben visits people in need and makes personal sacrifices so that their lives can become better. And yet, because he doesn't want to live with his pain anymore, he's on the verge of suicide and not even unexpectedly falling in love with a terminally ill woman he meets (Rosario Dawson) can save him. The whole drama gets to be a bit much, as the film often settles for sentimentality and goes to extremes to evoke emotions. (Niesel)

Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's latest is an irresistible hodgepodge of Bollywood (the souped-up romanticism and Day-Glo colors) and Charles Dickens (a classical narrative arc). In it, 18-year-old street kid Jamal (Dev Patel, amiable if emotionally opaque) makes a killing on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It's a rags-to-riches fairy tale shot in glittery, in-your-face fashion, with lots of jump cuts and distorted fisheye lenses. Convulsively entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire looks like no other film. It's only afterwards that the whole thing begins to disassemble a bit in your head. Is Boyle merely serving up a kickier form of colonial imperialism, tsk-tsking the sad lot of disenfranchised third-worlders like Jamal and his ragamuffin friends? After just one viewing, it's not certain. (Paurich)

The Unborn - In The Unborn, writer/director David S. Goyer delivers something like the Jewish version of The Exorcist. He isn't above stealing random scenes from just about every other horror movie he can think of either. The basic plot concerns college student Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman), who discovers that a nasty spirit called a Dybuk is trying to take possession of her. For some reason not quite explained, this is hard for the demon to do, even though it has no problem possessing other cast members, some of whom have heads that spin around just like Linda Blair. You'll feel like your head is about to spin around, too, as you try to make sense of this mess. Not only is the screenplay bad, but Goyer's direction is also flat and the performances are horrible. Even the normally reliable Gary Oldman seems like he's trying to blend into the background in a vain effort to avoid embarrassment. (Robert Ignizio)

Valkyrie - Writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander went to great lengths to make sure everything in this Bryan Singer film about an attempt to assassinate Hitler is as close to accurate as possible. Based on the story of German Resistance fighter Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who led an attempt to overthrow Hilter on July 20, 1944, the film has an undeniable air of authenticity. The assassination attempt led by Stauffenberg, who carried a bomb in a briefcase to a meeting with Hitler, also included several key military members, including Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) and Otto Ernst Remer (Thomas Kretschmann). The supporting cast is one of the film's strong points as Cruise brings too much of a Top Gun/Few Good Men feel to the role of Stauffenberg. 1/2 (Niesel)

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