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Capsule Reviews of Current Movies


Bee Movie (PG) It's been a long time since Jerry Seinfeld got as much national attention as he will with the opening Friday of Bee Movie, the animated film he spent four years making for Dreamworks. Not since canceling his TV show in 1998 will so many people hear his nasal, whiny wisecracking and ironic, episodic repartee. For those who've seen his stand-up routine, it's hard to imagine anything better — it's organic, seamless, universally appealing. Given the amount of personal commitment to Bee Movie, though, when he has no real need to be personally committed (he sometimes markets the flick by dressing up in a honeybee costume), Bee Movie has the promise of his stand-up comedy, though whether it reaches the comic heights of Seinfeld is another question entirely.

American Gangster (R) Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington star in Ridley Scott's new crime saga (see review at here)

Martian Child (PG) John Cusack is a widower raising an "extraterrestrial" foster child.

30 Days of Night (R) The concept -— vampires descend on an isolated town in the most remote part of Alaska to take advantage of the month-long night of winter -— is slightly intriguing, but the execution is blander than star Josh Hartnett's screen presence. What promised a new deal in vampire movies is really just the same old false shuffle — right down to a Dracula-like vampire king (Danny Huston) and a Renfield style henchman (Ben Foster) -— in a novelty setting. It's clearly positioned so that its purely perfunctory plasma pumping pleasures pass muster as disposable Halloween fare. ­—Ken Hanke

Across the Universe (R) Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is an imperfect film, but it's a terrific imperfect film. The enormity of what it does achieve — combined with the impossibility of what it tries to achieve — makes it an essential film, regardless of its occasional missteps. Her ambitious attempt to present a portrait of the 1960s in terms of Beatles songs — hooked to a slender love story about two young people (Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) — is both daring and satisfying. The key to the enterprise is that Taymor clearly loves and respects the songs. The new arrangements never trivialize the material even when — as in the case of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" — they reimagine it. —Ken Hanke

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (R) At 160 minutes, Andrew Dominik's revisionist take on the death of Jesse James may slightly outstay its welcome, but it remains a fascinating noirish psychological rendering of a too-often romanticized tale. As the title suggests, the film is as much about Jesse's murderer as it is about the famous outlaw. In fact, it's ultimately the story of Ford's unabashed hero-worship of James that leads to a fatal fixation (yes, there are days of subtext here) that ultimately seals the fate of both men. Brad Pitt gives a strong portrayal of James as an unraveling psychotic, but the real star of the film is Casey Affleck, who makes Ford into a character at once creepy and pitiable. —Ken Hanke

Dan in Real Life (PG-13) Dan in Real Life keeps walking that tightrope between contrivance and authenticity, with director Peter Hedges managing to keep the balance slightly in his favor. Nowhere is this trick more evident than in a late scene involving a family talent contest, as Dan (Steve Carell) and Mitch (Dane Cook) perform a duet of Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" — with only Dan and Marie aware that both men are singing to the same woman. Sitcom awkwardness gives way to real awkwardness, a truly poignant moment of a guy trying to deal with love again. Hedges may resort to the obvious, even in his resolutions, but he knows how to wrap it in the stuff of real life. And ultimately, that's so much more compelling than the clichés of movie life. —Scott Renshaw

Darjeeling Limited (R) Can a movie be both cartoonish and authentic at the same time? Yes, and Wes Anderson's is bittersweet and hilarious and makes you want to cry with the perfection of it, and with knowing appreciation of its grand sense of kicking itself in the ass. The big epiphany the three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) come to by the end of the film is that they need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, though whether that lesson will take is left up in the air. And you can't help nodding in agreement with the insight of that lesson, and how you probably won't take it to heart either. Anderson makes you love his movie and hate yourself at the same time for being precisely the same kind of dork he's smacking around, and that's just fine. —MaryAnn Johanson

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (R) Fie on those who have trashed this entertainingly overheated historical conceit! Yes, it's completely indefensible as history. So what else is new? As someone noted years ago about the much respected Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) in terms of history, the movie got it right that he wore funny hats, was fat, and had eight wives. Not much has changed in 74 years. Here we have Cate Blanchett (in a performance somewhere between Glenda Jackson and a drag queen) as a pretty preposterous Queen Elizabeth I, hopelessly in love with swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, who looks nothing like the picture on the tobacco can), while battling court intrigue, Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), and the Spanish Armada. The whole thing is over-directed by Shekhar Kapur like a Busby Berkeley musical and is a lot of fun — if not taken seriously. —Ken Hanke

The Game Plan (PG) The story of a hotshot, self-centered football player who suddenly finds out he has a long-lost daughter who turns his life upside-down, The Game Plan is passable family entertainment that suffers from being wholly predictable and about 15 minutes too long. Think along the lines of The Pacifier or Kindergarten Cop, with the majority of the humor revolving around Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson being emasculated. —Justin Souther

Gone Baby Gone (R) Directed by Ben Affleck and starring his younger brother Casey, Gone Baby Gone is, at its base, a neo-noir, but it becomes a film about moral ambiguity and the nature of right and wrong. The younger Affleck suits his role perfectly as a small-time, streetwise private investigator hired to find a missing child, but soon gets in deeper than he expected. Ben, on the other hand, reminds us that -— his overexposed personal life to one side -— he's actually a talented and intelligent man with his assured handling of the film. ­—Justin Souther

The Heartbreak Kid (R) The film is based on a 1972 Elaine May film from a script by Neil Simon — a mildly cynical PG-rated affair that has here been trashed and tarted up into an outpouring of unrestrained sleaze. It's 116 minutes of tedium punctuated with outbursts of tastelessness. The best thing about it are the Bowie songs on the soundtrack — buy a CD instead. You can keep the songs and avoid the movie. —Ken Hanke

Into the Wild (R) With one foot in the 1960s and another in our own cautious time, Into the Wild captures the recklessness, the passion, and also the cruelty of youth. Flashing back from Chris' last stand in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Sean Penn's film begins in a chaotic, mildly hallucinatory blur. The world seems to rush at Chris (Emile Hirsch) with teeth bared. He sees nothing but ruin in the inevitable transformation of his idealism into the complacency of his parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden). On the road, Chris encounters a rich patchwork of Americans: dropouts and hippies, folk artists and vacationing Euros, a lonely retiree and a rowdy, life-embracing farmer. Into the Wild seems not only aimed at but infused with the values of a college-aged audience, with Chris offered as a messianic hero for those who reject the world's false values for a higher moral purpose. —Felicia Feaster

Lars and the Real Girl (PG-13) Despite its deliberately outre premise, this movie is at heart a pretty traditional affair — all the way to its utterly inevitable resolution. In all honesty, the movie telegraphs where it's going early on and could rightly be called predictable, but it's a predictability born of the fact that it's the only resolution it could have and still retain its identity. What could have been a one-joke premise becomes instead a quietly funny film of immense charm thanks to the central performances of Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider and Patricia Clarkson, not to mention a good screenplay from Nancy Oliver. The direction by Craig Gillespie is largely ultilitarian, but any filmmaker who can make the audience care about a "love doll" is doing something right. —Ken Hanke

Michael Clayton (R) High-powered legal drama that once again proves that George Clooney is the movie star of our age. Playing the title role, Clooney stars as the "fixer" of a powerful New York law firm (headed by Sydney Pollack). He's the guy they call in to clean up other people's messes, and he's handed a beauty when the firm's top litigator (Tom Wilkinson) — a brilliant, but unbalanced man — goes off his medication and proceeds to scuttle a multi-billion dollar class action suit in a fit of conscience. It's not entirely believable, but the dialogue is so literate and the performances from Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton are so good that the film's occasional improbabilities hardly make a dent. Those in search of a satisfying, adult thriller aren't likely to do better. —Ken Hanke

Rendition (R) Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon) can't find her husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), an immigrant from Egypt who has lived, legally, in the U.S. since he was a teenager. He seems to have disappeared without a trace while en route from South Africa, where he was attending a professional conference, to their home in Chicago. She's distraught, of course, and fortunately she has a contact in the office of a U.S. senator, her old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), so she pretty rapidly learns what has probably happened to her husband. I like how the film doesn't fetishize the suicide bombing that sets the plot in motion, doesn't ignore the truth and doesn't overplay the villainy of even the villains, like Meryl Streep's CIA honcho. I like how it highlights the endless cycles of injustice and retribution that fuel so much of the violence we live with. —MaryAnn Johanson

Saw IV I can only suppose that Generic Torture Porn Halloween Release is too awkward a title for theater marquees, but it's so much more descriptive of the film at hand than Saw IV. The ad campaign's tag line -— "It's a trap!" -- is much more honest, since the film clearly is a trap to get the unwary viewer to break loose with some cold hard cash for more warmed-over trash. It's exactly the same as the last two entiies with a lot of dull backstory flashbacks thrown in to fill us in on the unhappy life that created the muderous "Jigsaw" (Tobin Bell). Since most folks are strictly interested in the mayhem, I doubt this will thrill audiences. Otherwise, it's not even very good torture porn. There's nothing here you haven't seen before. The fractured time-line business is supposed to be new, but it was already used in an earlier entry. Ho-hummery is achieved. —Ken Hanke

We Own the Night (R) A competently made film that unfortunately suffers from being too emotionless and too unaffecting, We Own the Night tells the story of a nightclub manager with ties to the mob must help his brother and father, both cops, survive threats from the Russian mafia. The familial aspect never feels genuine, and the performances are either a waste (Mark Wahlberg) or too detached or glum (Joaquin Phoenix) so that the movie lacks any likable characters. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity and is ultimately forgettable, despite the talent involved. If you want a real thriller, Eastern Promises is probably still playing somewhere. —Justin Souther

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