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Capsule Reviews of Current Movies

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Opening This Week

Beowulf (PG-13) With all the Marvel Comics-based computer-enhanced action flicks that have come out in recent years, it was just a matter of time before Hollywood turned to an ancient poem full of heroes and demons (and that also happens to constitute the foundation of the Western literary canon). The Old English epic (wonderfully translated by Seamus Heaney in 2001, highly recommended) tells the story of the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) who saves a kingdom by killing the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Things are looking good until an even darker threat emerges. If you thought Grendel was bad, wait till you see his mom (Angelina Jolie). Hopefully, this "performance-capture animation" (meaning, actors wear special suits affixed with computer sensors), directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) with the help of Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series), will do justice to the old chestnut. Even if it doesn't, though, the story's been around for a couple of millennia. It'll be around for a couple more. ­—John Stoehr

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (G) Dustin Hoffman stars as an old magician who saves a toy store. Also starring Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman.

Love in the Time of Cholera (R) See review here.

Critical Capsules

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 to be 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 achieves — 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

American Gangster (R) The world is not good and decent, perhaps, but sometimes people are, and sometimes only accidentally. In Ridley Scott's American Gangster, Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, a New Jersey cop, a rough-edged working-class guy who's trying to better himself by studying law in night school. He's a cocky bastard who hangs out with a childhood friend who's now a mafioso. Oh, and he's kinda mean to his ex-wife and kinda ignores his kid. When he stumbles onto Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his criminal endeavors, Richie latches onto the case like a bulldog. Lucas was a driver and general dogsbody to the godfather of Harlem, until the godfather died and Frank, looking to better himself, took over the operation. Before long, he's selling junk twice as good as anything on the street at half the price. Oh, and Frank is utterly ruthless and won't hesitate to put a bullet in the brain of anyone who steps on his toes, but he believes himself a gentleman, and he is, in his own perverse way. He's even good to his mother. —MaryAnn Johanson

Bee Movie (PG) This movie's animated format at first seems like a perfect match for Jerry Seinfeld. We know he's quick-witted and savvy, but what would he do in a genre that generally depends on sentimentality — the one thing he conspicuously avoids? The result is something just about as uneven as that improbable pairing might suggest. Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry Benson, a bee just graduated from college in Hive City. He and his best pal Adam (Matthew Broderick) are faced with choosing a job they'll be required to keep their entire lives — a prospect that greatly alarms Barry. Taking a chance on a trip outside the hive before committing to a lifetime of drudgery, Barry encounters humans for the first time, including a kindly florist named Vanessa (Reneé Zellweger). Bee Movie feels like it should have been the animated equivalent of a Seinfeld episode: no plot per se, just a bunch of funny situations spinning out of Seinfeld's imagination. Every attempt the story makes at an overarching narrative winds up jumbled. The result is a movie about ... well, about nothing. —Scott Renshaw

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 love-interest Marie (Juliette Binoche) aware that both men are singing to her. 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

The Darjeeling Limited (R) Can a movie be both cartoonish and authentic at the same time? Yes, and Wes Anderson's movie is bittersweet and hilarious and makes you want to cry with the perfection of it, 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. —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 as a pretty preposterous Queen Elizabeth I, hopelessly in love with swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), 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

Fred Claus (PG) Vince Vaughn stars as Fred Claus, the surly, bitter, ne'er-do-well brother of Santa Claus. However clever the film thinks it is by deconstructing the myth behind St. Nick, it's still a wholly predictable Christmas flick — one in a long line of many. It's so clichéd they even manage to squeeze in an orphan. The only thing close to a surprise is the absence of Tim Allen — a blessing of sorts. In his stead you get Vince Vaughn at his most Vince Vaughn-ish, while name actors like Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, and Kathy Bates are on hand to be nothing more than that: name actors. At 116 minutes, it's just too bloated to be simple disposable entertainment. —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

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. 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 utilitarian, but any filmmaker who can make the audience care about a "love doll" is doing something right. —Ken Hanke

Lions for Lambs (R) Robert Redford's new offering is Hollywood's latest and perhaps bravest attempt at critiquing the war in Iraq, the current administration, and public apathy (or ennui or malaise). Bravery, alas, did not translate into a good movie. Nor will it overcome the same public apathy (or ennui or malaise) that sunk In the Valley of Elah or Rendition at the box office. Though cleverly structured as three interconnected stories — told in more or less real time — and boasting three major stars (Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise), the film falls apart because of to a clunky script. The scenes between Streep as a zealous reporter and Cruise as a slick neo-con senator are the only ones that really come to life. The rest is too obvious and preachy. —Ken Hanke

Martian Child (PG) This is a classic case of "If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie." Every faux quirky, pseudo-heartwarming aspect of this cinematic blancmange is telegraphed in two and a half minutes of trailer. Watching the movie only adds 105 minutes of utter predictability. John Cusack — at his most Cusackian — stars as David Gordon, a successful sci-fi writer (he appears to live quite nicely off the proceeds of a single book) and widower, who opts to adopt a troubled lad named Dennis (Bobby Coleman), who thinks he's from Mars. The case worker (Sophie Okonedo) thinks this quirk makes the kid just right for a sci-fi writer (uh huh). The results are predictable, dull, and saccharine. —Ken Hanke

Michael Clayton (R) High-powered legal drama that once again proves that George Clooney is the movie star of our age. In 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

P2 (R) Even for a torture-porn exercise, P2 — the title refers to the parking garage level on which the action mostly takes place — is thin stuff. Rachel Nicholls stars as Angela Bridges, a workaholic so holic that she's working way into the night on Christmas Eve. When she finally does leave to descend to the parking garage under her office building, she finds her car won't start. She then enlists the aid of creepy garage attendant Thomas (Wes Bentley) to get back into the building. Of course, Thomas has other ideas — being that he's the creepy attendant and all — and soon Angela finds herself stripped to her under garments, lipsticked-up and chained to a chair for Christmas dinner in Thomas' office. Mayhem ensues. The fact that all this sanguinary silliness could be stopped if Angela would only set off the fire alarm seems to have occurred to no one. Of course then there'd be no movie, and that would suit me fine. —Ken Hanke

Saw IV (R) 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 entries with a lot of dull backstory flashbacks thrown in to fill us in on the unhappy life that created the murderous "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

Tyler Perry's Why I Didn't Get Married (PG-13) Having learned his films fare better with his fan base if he actually appears in them (even if not in drag as the popular Madea character), writer-director Tyler Perry is back with another critic-proof serving of pseudo-high-minded drama with lashings of religiosity. This round he focuses on four couples and their various marital strifes. It all plays like a bad Lifetime TV movie and a catalogue of every marriage problem you could hope for. Platitudes, homililes, and bromides abound — all feeling like they were cribbed off bumper stickers. Perry's fan-base will flock to it. —Ken Hanke

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