Opening Christmas Day

Bedtime Stories (G) Adam Sandler tells bedtime stories to his niece and nephew only to find the tales are starting to come true. Also stars Keri Russell and Courteney Cox.

The Spirit (PG-13) Director and graphic artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) returns with another superhero called the Spirit, who’s come back from the beyond. You know him from his trademark fedora and red tie. Stars Gabriel Macht as the hero, Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss, Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus, and Eva Mendes as Sand Saref.

Valkyrie (PG-13) Here come the Nazis, here come the Nazis! (Sung like “Here Comes Santa Claus.”) Tom Cruise is an officer of the Third Reich who’s feeling the pangs of conscience. He decides to assassinate Hitler. Too bad we know how that turned out. Also stars Bill Nighy and Carice van Houten.

Marley & Me (PG) Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were evidently absent from class the day we learned to never work with children or animals.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13) Brad Pitt plays a man who is born old and then ages backwards. Directed by David Fincher and also stars Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton.

Doubt (PG-13) See review here.

Critical Capsules

Australia (PG-13) Here we have a pampered English rose named Sarah who has been sheltered from unpleasantness, and the moment she lands in the frontier territories of northwest Australia in September 1939, she’s confronted with the racial prejudices of whites toward the native aboriginals, and they enrage her. Australia isn’t quite a pastiche of The Grapes of Wrath meets Dances with Wolves, or of Gone with the Wind meets Out of Africa, but almost. But you know that Baz Luhrmann’s tongue is just a little bit in his cheek when he introduces us to the hero for his heroine, Hugh Jackman’s Drover, who comes crashing into the movie in a pub brawl that’s straight out of a Golden Age Western. It’s all deliciously corny and pretty darn honest and wonderful at the same time. —MaryAnn Johanson

Bolt (PG) There isn’t much to say about this film. It’s an innocuous animated movie with more formula than a chemistry book, but since Bolt never tries to be anything more, it’ll be perfectly satisfactory for youngsters and consummately dull for parents. John Travolta voices Bolt, who plays a heroic, super-powered canine on a TV show, where he runs around saving young Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the clutches of the nefarious Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). The problem is that Bolt doesn’t realize his life is primetime programming, so when he escapes into the real world, yes, he thinks he has super powers. —Justin Souther

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13)
Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a classic case of a filmmaker mistaking the importance of his subject for the importance of his film. Sure, the movie’s goal of viewing the Holocaust through the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of an eight-year-old German is heavy stuff to begin with, and a fresh enough take on the subject on its own. But Herman has decided this simply isn’t enough, as he’s gummed up the works in breast-beating histrionics and a contrived final act, all of which continually makes the movie feel phony. The basic premise — the inevitably tragic friendship between the son (Asa Butterfield) of the Nazi officer (David Thewlis) in charge of a concentration camp and a little Jewish boy (Jack Scanlon) imprisoned in that camp — is strong, but the execution falls far short of its potential. —Justin Souther

Cadillac Records (R) As far as biopics are concerned, Cadillac Records has it all. Violence, alcoholism, racial tension, heroin overdoses, womanizing. Name a genre trope and this picture likely has it. And while it certainly makes for an interesting story, it’s also where Cadillac Records falls a bit short since there’s a vague sense of biopic basics that runs throughout the film. What keeps it engaging is its ace casting. Led by Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, and an underused Mos Def, there isn’t a bad performance in the entire movie. It’s writer-director Darnell Martin’s ensemble cast that keeps everything moving and entertaining. The film tells the story of the ascension of Chicago’s Chess Records, as well as its eventual decline, namely through the relationship of founder Leonard Chess (Brody), the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, and Muddy Waters (Wright), a former share cropper turned musician. It’s a story about money, power, and status and its ultimate ability to corrupt. But it’s also, to a lesser extent, a story of the struggles of black musicians and the larger fame of the white musicians they eventually influenced. Definitely worth a look. —Justin Souther

The Day the Earth Stood Still (PG-13)
Ye gods, does this thing stink on ice! It redefines dull mediocrity at its most expensive. It would be easy to blame Keanu Reeves, but there’s enough blame to go around. It’s all about a space ship that comes to earth bearing an alien, Klaatu, and his robot, Gort. In the old movie, Klaatu comes bearing a vaguely fascistic message of “straighten up or face annihilation,” because earth is threatening to spread its warring ways into space. In the new version, Klaatu arrives to set off the destruction of life on earth before we render the place uninhabitable, in case someone less destructive might get the good out of it. After an abundance of wooden dialogue and not-very-special special effects, we’re deemed worth getting another chance — on the strength of Bach and hugging. —Ken Hanke

Four Christmases (PG-13) Never underestimate the power of any Christmas-themed movie to pack ’em in at this time of year. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, exuding zero chemistry, play a perky couple forced to spend Christmas with their divorced (and generally crazy) parents (Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight). The misery of the experience causes them to re-evaluate their lives and learn that, despite the film’s amassed evidence to the contrary, nothing is as important as family. Spectacularly unfunny and, occasionally, downright creepy. —Ken Hanke

Milk (R) Milk appears shortly after a fiercely-contested battle over gay rights in California. And, as it happens, one of the central dramatic events in the film involves a fiercely-contested battle over gay rights in California. It’s hard to shake the emotional reaction that comes from watching the history that eventually would repeat itself, even as it’s hard to shake the feeling that, without such a context, Milk would feel like a fairly mundane cinematic biography. Its subject certainly is a compelling figure: Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who emerged from a life-long closet in his early 40s after moving to San Francisco’s Castro district in 1972 with his boyfriend Scott (James Franco). Initially desiring nothing more than to run his camera shop and be left alone, he’s inspired to political action by open hostility from other local merchants. After rallying the Castro’s growing gay population to boycotts of “gay-unfriendly” businesses, he begins efforts to be elected to the San Francisco City Council, ultimately succeeding in 1977 as the state’s first openly gay elected official. Milk is a perfectly decent biographical drama on its own terms, but it exists today, right now, in a place beyond those terms. In December 2008, it means something. In 2009? I’ll concern myself with it then. —Scott Renshaw

Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13) This Latino-flavored knock-off of The Family Stone is largely innocuous, and probably well-intended. It’s also predictable, mechanical, and dull. It’s basic dysfunctional family at a holiday gathering stuff, complete with a secretly ailing family member and the prospect of, yes, the possibility that this will be a “last Christmas together.” There’s really nothing more to be said. —Ken Hanke

Seven Pounds (PG-13) I understand why critics have been asked to eschew spoilers in their reviews of this. If I told the film’s secrets and you believed me (which I find unlikely), you’d probably burst out laughing. What could the studio do if I did spill the beans? Make me sit through the damned thing again? Well, I’m not risking that, so all I’m saying is that Seven Pounds manages the not inconsiderable feat of being painfully predictable and preposterous to the point of dementia at the same time. You’ll likely spend most of this idiotically contrived Will Smith weeper thinking that the plot can’t possibly go where it seems it will, only to learn that, yes, it will — and more. Smith plays a guilt-plagued IRS agent trying to expiate some un-named sin (don’t worry, it gets named — after you’ve figured it out) by trying to help seven people he uses IRS information to find. These include Woody Harrelson as a blind vegan telemarketer for a meat company and Rosario Dawson (giving the film its only weighty performance) as a woman with a $56,000 IRS debt, who needs a heart transplant and has a rare blood type. What happens? Nothing remotely believable, but you’ll never be able to look at a jellyfish the same way again. —Ken Hanke

Slumdog Millionaire (R) Director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog is a vivid, kinetic adventure story of one boy striving to pull himself out of miserable poverty along with the girl he loves. It’s all set against a schizophrenic backdrop of sparkling modernity and centuries-old poverty. Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and as an adult by Dev Patel) and older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Madhur Mittal) are introduced as barefoot urchins in grimy clothes who are chased by police wielding clubs from their impromptu playground on an airport runway. Despite some outwardly grim circumstances, Slumdog Millionaire remains surprisingly ebullient. It’s filled with movement and candy colors, and Boyle is able to see the wonder of slums through the eyes of children who race through this vibrant universe. This is a feel-good coming-of-age story that offers a transcendent tale of a mistreated waif. To truly enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, you have to give yourself over to a film smartly released at a very opportune cultural moment. —Felicia Feaster

The Tale of Despereaux (G) There’s nothing actually wrong with Despereaux, but there’s nothing all that right with it either. The story is surprisingly convoluted in that it is a good bit less about its tiny hero with the big ears, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), than it’s about a decidedly less cute representative of rodentia, the rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), as well as the plight of a somewhat bland princess (Emma Watson), and the reasonable resentment of an aptly named serving girl/wanna-be princess Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman) — not to mention the whole downbeat populace of the land of Dor. The strange thing about all this is that individual bits and pieces don’t really lead to enough drama or action or anything else that could be termed terribly exciting. —Ken Hanke

Yes Man (PG-13) That Yes Man is less irritating than most Jim Carrey films is the sense that maybe it wasn’t initially written as a Jim Carrey showcase. Sure, the movie is of the high concept variety, but it’s not tailor-made for the patented Carrey screen-mugging. This doesn’t keep his usual hamming from creeping in from time to time, but it’s kept to a minimum. In reality, it’s likely a movie that would’ve have been helped by casting a younger, lesser known actor as its lead, someone who doesn’t have a screen persona to live up to. Regardless, Carrey never embarrasses himself and is smart enough not to over-indulge himself too much. In this regard, it’s less a movie built around Carrey’s “talents” — as it’s been marketed — as it is one that just happens to star the actor. Carrey plays a man who tends to say “no” to everything until he encounters a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) who convinces him to say “yes” to any and every thing for a year. Not surprisingly, this changes his life — in both positive and comedic ways. Great? No, but pleasant enough and surprisingly restrained and well acted. —Justin Souther

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