Openning this week

The Great Debaters (PG-13) Oh, you can just smell the Academy Award bids in the air. Here, we have the triumvirate of Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and Oprah Winfrey challenging the Oscar Bloc of Hollywood with this retelling of a true story about a debate team from an all-black college in rural Texas taking on a team from Harvard University. Whitaker plays an envious father who admires the debate team’s coach (Washington) while Winfrey as producer gives more evidence of her influential (i.e., endorsing Barack Obama) and expanding (movies, magazines, TV, an all-girls school in South Africa) empire. —John Stoehr

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG) A young boy bonds with a giant lizard (it might be Nessie, but who knows?) in this movie adaptation of a popular children’s book. Emily Watson stars.

Critical Capsules

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem (R) More of the same.

Alvin and the Chipmunks (PG) The best that can be said of Alvin and the Chipmunks is that the results are better than the same director’s Garfield 2 — not a major accomplishment. The problem is that no matter how you dress it up with modern references and hip-hop-infused versions of “Witch Doctor,” the whole thing is predicated on the 1958 idea that speeding up a vocal track and saying that chipmunks are singing is cute, clever and funny. Whether it was all that then, it’s merely tired and irritating now. The story has the singing chipmunks letting fame go to their heads before learning the requisite life lesson inherent in these movies. Anyone over three or four is apt to find it tedious or even downright grueling. —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

August Rush (PG) Evan Taylor is an 11-year-old boy lost but supremely centered. Stuck in an orphanage where other boys deride him as a “freak,” he refuses to stop believing that his parents want him, that maybe they’re just lost and haven’t been able to find him. Though he’s never touched an instrument, he lives and breathes music, hears it “in the air, in the light,” in everything all around him. He believes music connects him to his parents. Then one day he sets out to find them, an odyssey to New York City and all the strange, dark magic of that 21st-century Oz. —MaryAnn Johanson

Awake (R) You won’t lose sleep over Awake. In fact, you’ll be lucky if you make it all the way through the movie’s scant 84 minutes (including credits) without nodding off. What we’ve got here is a 30-minute premise — man finds himself conscious, but immobile, and unable to speak, during surgery — padded to feature length thanks to a soap opera set-up and a ridiculous sorry-wrong-number subplot. Two of the most vapid stars of our age — Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba — go to the mat trying to prove who has less talent (I’m calling it a draw), while the film disintegrates into cosmic preposterousness around them. Apart from the grim fascination of watching the film get more stupid by the minute, there’s no possible reason to even consider seeing this stinker. —Ken Hanke

Bee Movie (PG) Jerry Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry Benson, a bee just graduated from college in Hive City. 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

Beowulf (PG-13) The legendary epic poem about the heroic Beowulf fighting the monster Grendel comes to the big screen courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis. It’s mostly an excuse for another Old World epic — one of those movies where everyone screams their lines while staggering around gloomy settings. Done in the same performance-capture process Zemeckis used on The Polar Express, all the characters look like the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks, which is creepy, but not in the right way. The only exception is the monstrous Grendel, who appears to have been formed from moldy pizza. He also has no genitals, which might account for his irritable nature. There’s much screaming and mayhem — and naked animated Angelina Jolie (with stiletto heels) as Grendel’s mama doing her Countess Dracula voice from Alexander. But who really cares what happens to these people? —Ken Hanke

Enchanted (PG) Kevin Lima’s Enchanted offers us five stars’ worth of Amy Adams in four stars’ worth of movie. That’s not a bad average. With this film, Adams comes into her own with a starring vehicle that’s almost as good as she is — and which is beautifully tailored to her talents. Even though the film is part and parcel of the post-modern trend in fairy tales, it’s never snarky and it lets Adams play it straight as the cartoon princess who finds herself turned human and transported by an evil queen (Susan Sarandon) to New York City. Its spoofs — like its musical numbers — are gentle and cleverly work as the real thing, while its sly message that humanity lies somewhere between our reality and Disney’s standard cartoon world is refreshing. It may be a little uneven, but Adams is always on hand to keep it from mattering. —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 Golden Compass (PG-13) Armed with the knowledge that author Philip Pullman — on whose His Dark Materials trilogy Compass is based — is an avowed atheist, the Catholic League and others have sounded the alarm that the big-screen fantasy targeting younger audiences could be a gateway drug to abandoning faith. Won’t someone please think of the children?! It turns out no one really needed to be quite so concerned. It’s true The Golden Compass, while not necessarily anti-God, is clearly anti-institutional religion. Pullman would have delighted in inspiring questions of dogma. But this film may ultimately work on exactly the opposite level. Somehow, The Golden Compass manages to make heterodoxy as boring as ass. —Scott Renshaw

Hitman (R) Hitman is based on a series of video games that revolve around a mysterious, bald-headed, suit-wearing assassin who runs around killing people for money. This movie is nothing but generic, mindless action — and rather tedious and humorless action at that. —Justin Souther

I Am Legend (PG-13) In 2012 Manhattan, Robert Neville (Will Smith) appears to be the only survivor of a virus — originally a genetically-engineered cure for cancer — that wiped out most of the human race three years earlier. Others reacted differently to the virus, becoming mindless vampire-like creatures that emerge only at night, forcing Neville to hole up in his Central Park townhouse. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) effectively employs digitally-doctored images of New York landmarks to capture the bustling city rendered shockingly silent, but just as thrilling is Robert Neville: a desperately lonely man. Lawrence captures him not just prowling the city for the wild deer that roam the streets, but prowling a video store he has populated with mannequins. There aren’t many actors like Smith who can carry a quiet drama like The Pursuit of Happyness and a science-fiction blockbuster like I, Robot, but he combines those two personas here for an involving portrait of a guy trying to convince himself there’s a reason to stay alive. —Scott Renshaw

Margot at the Wedding (R) If you think Nicole Kidman is icy and aloof as lady villain Mrs. Coulter in the alterna-world fantasy The Golden Compass, wait ’til you see her in Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s noiselessly explosive domestic drama, which couldn’t be more stranded in the bitter real world. Kidman’s Margot is selfish, vain, indifferent, uninvolved as a mother, and seemingly determined, in an unthinking, inattentive way, to sabotage everyone around her. It’s almost as if her casual destructiveness were an accidental byproduct of her own self-involvement. Thing is, Margot ain’t happy. Or perhaps she’s only happy, and then only briefly, when she’s spreading her misery around, like a particularly virulent contagion. Margot’s carelessness is Kidman’s genius here. The actress makes no attempt to ingratiate herself with us, which ends up making Margot thoroughly unlikeable but totally fascinating. —MaryAnn Johanson

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (G) Were it not for an altogether too abrupt and not completely satisfying ending, Zach Helm’s Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium might have found its way onto my best-of-the-year list. As it stands, it’s a film of sufficient charm and largeness of heart that I don’t hesitate to recommend. Dustin Hoffman’s approach to the 243-year-old Magorium takes a little getting used to, but finally seems dead-on, while Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman are perfect from the onset. The big effects take a back seat to little touches like the sock monkey that wants to be Henry’s friend and the Slinky that’s afraid to walk down to steps. At almost every turn, simple charm and human interaction outweigh any sense of spectacle — at least ’til the badly judged ending, which is easy to forgive in light of what’s gone before. —Ken Hanke

The Mist (R) A gusty storm brings down power lines in a small town. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) drive into town to pick up supplies and groceries before the shelves are picked clean. They’re all in the supermarket when a thick mist descends, obscuring the view out the windows beyond a few feet. Then a bloodied man runs into the store, screaming about monsters in the fog. It’s quiet inside the store for a while. Panic sets in full-bore when other, more deadly, things begin to occur. Much of this is what you’d expect from a horror movie. But there’s something that’s even more terrifying here: the collapse of a civil, ordered society. —MaryAnn Johanson

No Country for Old Men (R) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is Evil itself. Meanwhile, a simple man — Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in the West Texas desert — stumbles upon the scene of heroin deal-turned-bloodbath with $2 million in cash still close at hand. Moss grabs the money and runs, and thereby immediately becomes the target of Chigurh, brought in by the dealers to track down the money (though he eventually decides he’d rather be a free agent). Back and forth between Texas and Mexico, Moss tries to stay a step ahead of Chigurh — while local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) manages always to be a step behind Chigurh’s latest victim. Bardem performs with such casual mastery that it feels as though he has originated the concept of a sociopathic killer. It’s hard to convey the precision with which he repeats the same question three times during his pursuit of Moss — not with the faintest hint of annoyance, but with a matter-of-fact monotone that suggests refusing to answer can’t possibly change the ultimate outcome. In a film full of exceptional performances, Bardem stands out not because his role is flashy, but because he makes it precisely the opposite of flashy. He is the bad thing that happens indiscriminately to the sinner or to the saint, its own logic oblivious to constructed human morality. —Scott Renshaw

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R) Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical brings with it the operatic grandeur of a through-sung story. Or at least it would, if the film version had been able to take that approach. Tim Burton’s visually dazzling interpretation falls short of its potential largely thanks to one not-insignificant choice: He cast two leads who can barely carry a tune in a bag. When Depp opens his mouth to sing, he gives away his amateur status. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, the proprietor of a meat-pie shop housed below Sweeney’s old apartments and anyone who can sit through her trilling of “The Worst Pies in London” without wincing simply doesn’t grasp the insinuating splendor of Sondheim’s music. —Scott Renshaw

This Christmas (PG-13) Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II apparently wants to be the West Coast Tyler Perry. He’s studied the Perry playbook carefully. He even has a character named Ma’Dere (Loretta Devine), whose name is pronounced uncomfortably close to that of Perry’s drag incarnation. But strangely, Whitmore can’t seem to reproduce the maestro’s flat-footed directing style, his ham-fisted religiosity, or his limburger-laden melodrama. The result is a breezily likable little film that feels more like a movie than a cockeyed sermon. It’s nothing special — a large and largely dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas — but it all goes down pleasantly. If you’re in the holiday mood, you could do a lot worse, though chances are you won’t remember a lot about it a few hours later. —Ken Hanke

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