Arts+Movies » Capsule Reviews

Capsule Reviews of current and ongoing movies

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Opening this Week

Bolt (PG) A celebrity dog has to learn how to use his real-life special powers. Stars the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, and Susie Essman.

Twilight (PG-13) The much-anticipated movie adaptation of Stephanie Meyers' first novel stars Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Billy Burke.

Appaloosa (R) Ed Harris' Appaloosa has the solid appeal of the traditional type of western picture, which is to say that it more resembles Kevin Costner's Open Range than James Magnold's 3:10 to Yuma. There's little moral ambiguity here in good guys and bad guys. But at the same time, it's revisionist in its sexual politics as concerns both the character of its heroine (Renee Zellweger) and the relationship of the two leads (Harris and Viggo Mortensen). In fact, the film's romance is more between the two men than it is between Harris and Zellwegger. Harris and Mortensen are essentially hired killers of a special kind in that they're employed by small towns in need of law and order. Their latest town is Appaloosa where the city fathers, headed up by a very nervous Timothy Spall (in a performance that alone would make the film worth seeing), have become fed up with the lawless ways of a local bad man (Jeremy Irons). What follows is satisfying if standard fare made into something far more worthwhile by virtue of the characterizations. ­—Ken Hanke

Body of Lies (R) Throughout David Ignatius' 2007 novel Body of Lies, you can feel the potential for creating something ... deeper. While the surface markings were those of an age-of-terrorism espionage thriller, there were also hints of Mystic River author Dennis Lehane — the portrayal of a world in which moral decision-making was virtually impossible, and the best a soul could hope for was to make the least immoral decision. But whenever these ideas seemed ready to bubble over into something seriously probing, Ignatius would fall back on over-plotted genre convention. Director Ridley Scott's adaptation — working from a script by William Monahan (The Departed) — at times teases with the same promise of piercing insight into a no-win situation. While the film strips away much of the fat from Ignatius' storytelling, it also winds up frustratingly superficial. It's a nuts-and-bolts action drama putting on the undercover persona of something with a message. —­Scott Renshaw

Changeling (R) Christine (Angelina Jolie) is a flinty single mother who works as a telephone switchboard supervisor and takes responsibility for nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose deadbeat father abandoned him at birth. She is, in other words, a type: a noble, suffering, hard-working Madonna from the Gish sisters school who's about to have her trial by fire. That trial is too bizarre to be anything but true and centers on the disappearance of Walter when Christine is kept late at work. After months of waiting, the scandal-plagued Los Angeles Police Department tries for a not especially well-thought-out PR gambit: They hand Christine a boy roughly her son's age and claim they've reunited mother and child. But Christine will have none of the switcheroo. Few genres are left untouched, as director Clint Eastwood dips into horror and the sordid fixation on sex crimes. In moments that test the limits of good taste, Eastwood can't simply tell us that children suffer, but also sensationalizes that suffering. And yet, for all the blood, Changeling is a remarkably lifeless affair. —Felicia Feaster

Happy-Go-Lucky (R) Maybe it's a sign of the jaded times we live in, but I kept waiting for the ax to fall in Mike Leigh's comedy Happy-Go-Lucky. In another film, especially one of Leigh's own consistently downbeat tracts, an irrepressibly silly, upbeat woman like Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) would turn out to be a victim ... or maybe a murderess. But, surprise, surprise, not Leigh's Poppy. In many ways, bright and chipper Poppy is the sunny-side-of-the-street bookend to the splenetic, scabrous antihero of Leigh's 1993 Naked. It's hard to take Poppy seriously at first glance, as she traipses to the discotheque with her posse of cross-eyed drunk chums. Quite literally testifying to her flightiness, Poppy's exercise regimen is jumping on a trampoline, which Leigh captures several times over the course of the film, the ebullient, joy-filled woman rising and falling like a helium balloon. But Poppy is, contrary to Leigh's initial suggestion, not just a directionless flake. She's a teacher. And a good one at that, who snaps out of her frilly reverie when she sees one of her young students bullying another one. Poppy is a palliative, who wants to heal the troubles around her, from the schizophrenic homeless man she visits one night to the misanthropic, racist driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) who she meets every Saturday for lessons. —Felicia Feaster

The Haunting of Molly Hartley (PG-13) Films like The Haunting of Molly Hartley exist solely to make the longevity of the Saw series explicable. The idea, of course, is to provide the multiplexes with fodder for the PG-13 set on Halloween — mindless of the fact that a motivated pre-17-year-old is quite likely to find a way into the forbidden Saw V. What we have here is a TV-friendly cast shunted into a tepid tale of terror that would have been embarassing had it appeared as an ABC Movie of the Week back in 1971. These are bottom-of-the-dust-bin Satanic shenanigans sure to try the patience of anyone with even a cursory knowledge of horror movies. The incredibly low-wattage Honey, I Sold the Kid to the Devil scenario is more transparent than the invisible man in a roomful of Saran Wrap. There are neither thrills nor surprises as our titular heroine makes her way toward her fateful 18th birthday when she has a date with Lucifer, while the climax itself may well qualify as the least exciting ending ever to festoon a horror picture. —Ken Hanke

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (G) As plastic as a Tupperware convention, the big-screen incarnation of the Disney-ific High School Musical has stolen the Halloween season box office from Saw V, which is in itself something, though by the 30-minute mark of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, I'd have been overjoyed to see all these shiny, perky, squeaky-clean kids stumble into a Saw movie. I suppose it all depends on whether you're a fan of the TV films, but really this is little more than a collection of improbably pretty people energetically performing blandly photographed production numbers of incredibly unmemorable songs — smiling for all they're worth. What dramatic tension there is seems to center on whether Zac Efron will choose his love of basketball or his love of theater (though the latter is scarcely conveyed). If that's not enough, you can bite your nails over whether the fuel pump on his junker truck will hold out. That's about as exciting as it gets. Fans will feel differently. Its popularity probably assures us a series that might well end up in grad school. —Ken Hanke

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (PG) Unless you happen to be a geographically-challenged vice presidential candidate, the very title Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa may seem a little dubious, since the island of Madagascar belongs to Africa, but then it doesn't seem like a whole lot of deep thinking went into this inevitable sequel to the popular Madagascar. Indeed, the film seems less like a sequel than a retread of the original, relying very heavily on reproducing what made the first movie a box office hit. On that score, the new film obviously works, since it's far and away the big money winner this past weekend. In other words, if you liked the first picture and want exactly more of the same, you'll find what you want here in this tale of our heroes (and their pricey voice actors) trying to get back to civilization in a makeshift plane (courtesy of the popular Madagascar penguins) and crashing on the continent. It's pleasant enough, and fans of voice actors Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen, et al. will be happy with it, as will kids and people who liked the first outing. —Justin Souther

Max Payne (PG-13) When Shakespeare penned the words "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I believe he looked some 400 years into the future and caught a glimpse of Max Payne. Rarely have I seen a movie so full of incident that was also completely and thoroughly dull and uninteresting. Yes, much happens ­— some of it incomprehensible and most of it pointlessly preposterous, and all of it slightly less involving than watching algae grow on a stagnant pond. Mark Wahlberg — in one of the more dubious choices of his post-Marky Mark career — plays Max Payne, a glum cop out to avenge the death of his wife and infant child. In attempting to pick up the trail, he finds himself involved with a woman, who is subsequently killed. Her vengeance-obsessed sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), teams up with Max in the belief that the murders are related. And, of course, they are — and all of it has to do with a conspiracy by the very upper echelons of power of a drug company for whom Max's wife worked. As a result, much duplicity ensues. Much entertainment does not. —Ken Hanke

Pride and Glory (R) Likely to impress those who are impressed by a big-name cast and tons of murky cinematography (the film looks gloomier than Saw V), Gavin O'Connor's Pride and Glory is apt to be an endurance test for anyone else. It's a tale cobbled together (I wouldn't call it written) by O'Connor and the mystifyingly overrated Joe Carnahan. You've seen it a good 100 times before, and if only 85 of those 100 are actually better, the other 15 aren't any worse. It's Generational Police Drama 101 at its dullest — right down to its tightly-knit American "Oirish" family who all like to gather at one of those watering holes and quaff copious quantities of Jameson while pseudo-Celtic folk tunes spin on the jukebox. This rubbish was old back when Pat O'Brien was still getting lead roles in A pictures (roughly pre-1938). It's dull, depressing, predictable, and wastes both Edward Norton and Colin Farrell. —Ken Hanke

Quantum of Solace (PG-13) Casino Royale was widely hailed as a revitalizing tonic to the often static Bond brand, adding a meaty new dimension to a personality we thought we knew, and the possibility for a more soulful metrosexual spy. Fans of Casino Royale held out hope that Quantum of Solace would be another foray into the brooding Bond. For this Bond, Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, and The Kite Runner) — would be at the helm. Quantum's mission feels quite different: to inject real-world issues courtesy of a screenplay by Paul Haggis (Crash) and Neal Purvis. The resulting Syriana-esque willingness of former good guys like Britain and America to do business with bad guys for the love of oil makes for a more topical, though not necessarily more thrilling, or engaging, Bond. —Felicia Feaster

Role Models (R) It would be easy to dismiss David Wain's Role Models as a Judd Apatow knock-off. In fact, star Seann William Scott has said as much in TV interviews. However, Wain's film has its own vibe going, is more tightly structured, and leaves a sweeter after-taste. It clearly follows the formula of mixing raunchy comedy and nudity with a feel-good storyline, though its main characters are at least a step up from Apatow's man-boys in that they at least have fairly lucrative, if deliberately silly, jobs. Scott and Paul Rudd star as reps for an energy drink that they hawk at schools as part of an anti-drug campaign. Scott likes the job (even if he has to dress up on a minotaur costume), but Rudd doesn't, which leads to a freakout on his part and a good bit of propery damage that lands them with community service sentences involving mentoring trouble youths — an über-nerd (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad's McLovin) and a foul-mouthed black kid of 10 (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who's obsessed with "boobies" and equates all white guys with Ben Affleck. It's all surprisingly funny, clever, and pleasantly entertaining. —Ken Hanke

Secret Life of Bees (PG-13) Bees is a lovely story about an ugly time, the summer of 1964, when the new Civil Rights Act was making life in the American South more complicated for the very people it was meant to help. When Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) dares to talk in a way less than 100 percent deferential to a white man in rural South Carolina, she is made to pay for it, to the horror of her adolescent charge, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), and this becomes the last straw in Lily's own personal upset. Haunted by memories of her long-dead mother and desperate to find out more about her — as well as to get away from her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), who has turned his misery on his daughter — Lily hits the road, dragging Rosaleen along, to another town she has reason to believe may hold some answers. —MaryAnn Johanson

Soul Men (R) Malcolm D. Lee's Soul Men is a monument to the difference that onscreen talent can make for a movie. For all intents and purposes, Soul Men is a humdrum, forgettable R-rated comedy that's yanked up to the ranks of entertaining mediocrity simply by the undeniable magnetism of leads Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac. The plot itself is a sturdy enough foundation, with the duo playing Louis (Jackson) and Floyd (Mac), a couple of washed up, estranged back-up singers who grabbed some acclaim while a part of the soul group Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. But it seems after their early success, frontman Marcus (musician John Legend) left the group to pursue a lucrative solo career while Louis and Floyd were left to slowly fade into obscurity. This changes when Marcus dies and the now-embattled pair are reunited for a memorial show at the Apollo. Much bickering ensues, but it's bickering that works on the strength of the stars' combined charisma and ability to swear with more amusing aplomb than anyone with the possible exception of R. Lee Ermey. The results are moderately entertaining, but make for a sorry farewell to Mac and Isaac Hayes (playing himself), both of whom passed away shortly after shooting. —Justin Souther

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (R) Kevin Smith practically invented "comedy porn." The strange, almost innocent thing about Zack and Miri Make a Porno is that it seems to be an idea as old as Clerks, at least if one is to judge from the premise. Our titular protagonists, Zack Brown (Seth Rogen) and Miri Linky (Elizabeth Banks), are lifelong platonic pals sharing a Pittsburgh apartment that they can barely afford on their service-sector incomes. It's clear, however, that Smith is just looking for a thin, naughty excuse on which to hang a tale of two friends who figure out they love each other — sort of a When Harry Fucked Sally on Camera for Money. In so doing, he ventures into the territory where he always has the most difficulty: capturing actual emotion. —Scott Renshaw

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