Opening this Week
Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13) A family tries to heal itself in Nothing Like the Holidays. A star ensemble cast is directed by Alfredo De Villa. Stars John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodríguez, and Debra Messing.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (PG-13) A remake of the 1950s classic in which a robot from Outer Space looks at us blankly and says, “Whoa.” Stars Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, and Kathy Bates.
Delgo (PG) An animated movie that’s said to have been lying around since 2003. A teenager is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Stars the voices of Freddie Prinze Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Val Kilmer, and Anne Bancroft (who died in 2005). Directed by Marc F. Adler and Jason Maurer.
Frozen River (R) Two days before Christmas, Ray Eddy finds herself abandoned, alone, and in trouble after her husband gambles their life savings away. Stars Melissa Leo and Misty Upham. Opens Friday at the Terrace.
Australia (PG-13) Here we have a pampered English rose named Sarah who has been sheltered from unpleasantness. The moment she lands in the frontier territories of northwest Australia in September 1939, she’s confronted with the racial and cultural prejudices of the European-descended 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 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. And there are other moments later for the Drover, too, that evoke Clark Gable and the shock of him taking his shirt off in 1934’s It Happened One Night, or of any time Humphrey Bogart wore a white tuxedo jacket. It’s all deliciously corny and pretty darn honest and wonderful at the same time. —MaryAnn Johanson
Bolt (PG) About the most enthusiasm I can muster for Disney’s newest entrant in capturing the hearts and minds of children (and the pocket books of their parents), Bolt, is that it exists. Beyond that, there isn’t much more to say about this film. It’s an innocuous and bland 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. The film becomes a PG-rated story of animated self-discovery, as Bolt realizes the fraudulence of his life up to this point (how existential!) before, of course, overcoming all this in the final act. Standard fare all around, enlivened at some theaters by being in 3-D. —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 that 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 and undermines any emotional resonance it might’ve had. 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
Four Christmases (PG-13) The Christmas moviegoing season is officially upon us with Four Christmases, a film so monstrously awful that it will probably make a fortune, spawn sequels, and cause a mania for gags involving projectile vomiting babies. Never underestimate the power of any Christmas-themed movie — no matter how dreadful — to pack ’em in at this time of year. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, exuding zero chemistry, play an altogether too perky couple who are forced to spend Christmas visiting their respective 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
Happy-Go-Lucky (R) In many ways, Mike Leigh’s comedy Happy-Go-Lucky is the sunny-side-of-the-street bookend to his splenetic, scabrous Naked. It’s hard to take Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) 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
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (PG) 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. 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
Nobel Son (R) It’s one of those perfect-crime kinda flicks, wrapped up in familial angst as a black-comedy topping. That it’s all rather ridiculous and overly complicates itself in the process is almost beside the point — though not entirely. Arrogant college prof and working scientist Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) has just learned some exciting news — he has won the Nobel Prize — and some not-so-exciting news: his son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), a Ph.D. candidate who has forsaken his father’s legacy to study (horrors!) another field, has just been kidnapped, and, oh yes, his abductors would like Eli to turn over his $2 million prize in exchange for his son. Eli is disinclined to do so. Writer-director Randall Miller (scriptwriting duties shared with Jody Savin) crams a lot into a flick: marital infidelity, bad poetry, and what is, admittedly, the best use of a Mini Cooper in a crime caper since The Italian Job. Yes, it collapses under the weight of its own presumed cleverness before it’s done wringing you out, but not before Rickman walks away with the movie thanks to his most scenery-chewing, over-the-top, gooey-chocolate performance yet. His Eli is a miserable rotten bastard who deserves everything he gets, and he gets quite a bit. —MaryAnn Johanson
Punisher: War Zone (R) I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more pointlessly excessive movie. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never encountered a sillier screenplay with worse dialogue or a lamer plot. And I’m 100% certain that Punisher wins the big prize for most amazing aggregation of bad performances packed into a single film. This is the midget clown car of bad performances — you sit in rapt wonder as more and more awkward awfulness rolls out of the damned thing. Ray Stevenson plays this lower echelon Marvel Comics hero with a demeanor so dour that Christian Bale’s Batman seems like the life of the party. When he isn’t blasting bad guys, he mopes in his not-very-secret subway lair. The central conflict between the Punisher and arch villain Jigsaw (Dominic West) is more interesting as a contest to see which Brit actor can do with worst “New Yawk” accent than as actual drama. It hardly matters since the whole point seems to be how many bullets can be fired, how much blood can be squirted, how many heads can explode and how much viscera can fly across the screen. Absolutely dreadful. —Ken Hanke
Synecdoche, New York (R) Director Charlie Kaufman’s stand-in for himself is playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is living in Schenectady directing plays when he wins one of those genius awards, which comes with a ton of money and hence allows him to embark on his dream of creating a play that means something. So he heads to New York City and buys an enormous warehouse in which to mount this grand production, which begins to take shape as he tells his cast that “we’ll start by talking honestly and out of that a piece of theater will emerge,” and around which further reality accrues like so much intellectual flotsam and jetsam as Caden begins to build a full-size replica of New York City within the warehouse. Actors start to play real people and reenact the real life scenes happening outside the warehouse, some of which is also happening inside the warehouse. So an actor comes onboard to play Caden the director, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) his wife and stage manager, and so on. Eventually, of course, a replica warehouse must inevitably become part of the story, with actors playing actors playing actors. It’s like putting two mirrors face to face with each other and seeing how their images infinitely regress. It’s like seeing life as a theatrical work-in-progress, where there are always lines to tweak so they sound more natural and notes to take from the director on how best to replicate reality and make sure the emotion of a piece rings true. —MaryAnn Johanson
Transporter 3 (PG-13) It’s big, dumb, preposterous, occasionally nonsensical, and more often than not, utterly ludicrous. This, however, does not keep it from being 100 minutes of entertainment wrapped up in a ridiculous action movie. Directed by Olivier Megaton (yes, well), this latest entry in the series finds our hero, Frank Martin (Jason Statham) seemingly retired from his transporting days. It’s not until his old friend and fellow transporter (David Atrakchi) fails to deliver a package that he’s coerced into finishing the job for him. So Frank sets off in his Audi, accompanied by a mysterious Ukrainian (newcomer Natalya Rudakova) with a Zagat’s-like encyclopedic knowledge of European seafood restaurants and each sporting a wristband that’ll explode if either one goes more than 75 feet from the car. It all has something to do with the Ukrainian president (Jeroen Krabbe) and a cargo ship full of toxic waste that looks an awful lot like baked beans. Great filmmaking? No. But it more than passes muster as a solid actioner. —Justin Souther
Twilight (PG-13) In every other capacity, this is a dreadful movie that compounds its dreadfulness by being remarkably boring. Calling it a horror movie is an overstatement, since it’s really all about raging teen hormones (nevermind that one of the teens is really about 108 years old). The plot involves Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a quasi-goth girl of unnatural pallor who moves to the rain-swept Pacific Northwest where she meets hunky vampire boy Edward (Robert Pattinson). If Lord Byron had been the love child of James Van Der Beek and Jack Elam and shopped at Hot Topic, he’d have looked a lot like Edward. This — and the fact that Edward glowers at the camera with the intensity of a mopey twink — means that Bella is immediately smitten. They stare at each other for what seems like hours until the film takes a U-turn to become a pretty dull thriller in which Edward has to save Bella from a bad vampire (Cam Gigandet). Fans will love it. Everyone else can shiver with dread that the sequel is already in the works. —Ken Hanke