Opening this Week
The Wrestler (R) See review on page 32.
Frost/Nixon (R) See review on page 33.
Inkheart (PG) A little girl saves her dad (Brendan Fraser), who can bring storybook characters to life. Also stars Andy Serkis and Eliza Bennett.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (R) This has a built-in audience: people who know, or care about, what a “lycan” is. Actor Michael Sheen, as the chief werewolf (yes, that’s what a lycan is), puts on some fancy duds after being buttoned up for Frost/Nixon. Also stars Rhona Mitra and Bill Nighy.
Killshot (R) Mickey Rourke continues his comeback with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel about an old-school hitman (Rourke) who needs to kill an innocent couple (Thomas Jane, Diane Lane) to protect his identity.
Defiance (R) Holocaust cinema hasn’t yet witnessed the likes of brawny and brave brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber). Before the war, the Bielski brothers existed outside the respectable Jewish community, smuggling goods and living by their wits. And these qualities serve them well in their forest community of freedom fighters. They train their comrades in the beauty of firepower and communal labor and create a utopian community. Director Edward Zwick favors storytelling devices that sink his film into the muck of the obvious and expected. In a typical moment of “A Diamond Is Forever” poetry, when Tuvia learns that his wife has been killed by the Nazis, his despair is enunciated in artistically falling leaves and plaintive violin music. Such visual clichés are legion. —Felicia Feaster
Doubt (PG-13) Meryl Streep is at first glance a far less appealing, judgmental, and stern figure than the likable, progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who wants to take his students on camping trips and offers dating advice over lemonade during informal chat sessions with his male students. But her outer brittleness occasionally cracks to reveal something more complicated. She embraces tradition, but is also trapped within it. She visibly blanches during a meeting with Father Flynn when he takes her chair behind her desk and expects to be waited on with tea and sugar by the sisters. The question arises: Is her suspicion of Flynn grounded in fact or in resentment over the privileges he holds over her head? —Felicia Feaster
Gran Torino (R) Gran Torino squanders some of the penance it pays for Eastwood’s previous directorial effort, the dully clunky Changeling, by becoming ridiculously, leadenly heavy in and of itself. When it ends, it is not so comedic — not intentionally anyway — and not so fun. Maybe that’s just how it has to be. Even given Nick Schenk’s uneven script, and several uneven performances, including one from its star, Gran Torino needn’t be perfect to seem like the perfect, career-summarizing Clint Eastwood film. —Jonathan Kiefer
Hotel for Dogs (PG) It’s a movie called Hotel for Dogs and it’s true to its title—– there’s a hotel and there are dogs. Oh, yeah, and the requisite children, not to mention Don Cheadle for some inexplicable reason. In short, no, it’s not a good movie. (Did you seriously think it would be?) In fact, it’s indefensible on any number of levels with a plot that holds up to scrutiny about as well as a slice of Swiss cheese would serve as a windbreak. However, if I were 10 years old — or if I had a 10-year-old — I’d be more than happy with the movie. Really, I cannot imagine how any kid isn’t going to be entranced by seeing movie-style resourceful siblings with a cool rundown hotel all to themselves and an abundance of dogs that do all those clever things that dogs do in the movies. Blessedly, the dogs don’t talk and they largely appear to be of the trained pooch variety, which is to say that their cleverness isn’t all CGI jiggery-pokery. There’s enough plot to hold it together. What more do you expect? —Ken Hanke
Last Chance Harvey (PG-13) Just why Joel Hopkins’ gentle, charming, completely unassuming Last Chance Harvey was foisted on critics and the like with an eye toward awards season, I have no idea. I think it probably worked more against the film than for it, since it suggested a degree of importance that the film simply doesn’t have. This is merely a romantic comedy-drama star vehicle with two mildly unusual hooks — the ages of the stars and its use of London as a romantic setting (has London been used in this manner since the Swinging London of the 1960s?). Both are reasonable attractions, but neither make the film awards’ fodder. The mismatched casting of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (probably inspired by their appearance together in Stranger Than Fiction) is what gives the film its special quality. They’re believable and warm, as the aging composer and the perpetually disappointed woman who meet in London when Harvey goes there for his daughter’s wedding. Nothing big or earth-shaking happens, but it’s a minor pleasure to spend an hour and a half in their company. —Ken Hanke
My Bloody Valentine 3-D (R) The basic stalk-and-stab slasher movie gets no respect — and probably doesn’t deserve much, even if it looks positively creative and relatively harmless when put up against today’s torture porn. One of the earlier such offerings was 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, which somehow spawned no franchise, but returns to us now in remake form with a brand-new coat of 3-D (in select theaters) to make it shimmer and gleam anew. And that brand-new coat of 3-D is about all you get that’s of any actual merit — except in that special realm of so-bad-it’s-good moviegoing. What you have are a bunch of TV-pretty 30-somethings giving wooden performances and delivering some of the worst dialogue in living memory. The images may boast an extra dimension, the characters do not. That doesn’t keep it from being nasty fun, but let’s face it, a lot of the fun stems from the mind-boggling awfulness of people saying lines like, “She’s my wife — we have sex!” Even so, the 3-D, and if you see it, see it in 3-D, is absolutely the best I’ve ever seen, which might be recommendation enough. —Ken Hanke
Not Easily Broken (PG-13) By putting veteran filmmaker Bill Duke behind the camera and the likable Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson in the leads, the picture manages to sidestep the painful amateurism of Tyler Perry and — even more so — Fireproof. It all at least looks and feels like a real motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s also a rather dull affair. The plot revolves around the marital strife of a struggling couple (Chestnut and Henson) and the melodrama that follows them around like Jason Voorhees chases after a pack of teenagers. Strangely, there’s never a mention of Jesus, no one is saved, no one prays, and there are never any great revelations. Instead, it’s almost as if God is handled in a more metaphysical, spiritual sense with a dash of religion thrown in. —Justin Souther
Notorious (R) Let’s be honest, if real life were so hot to begin with, we wouldn’t need movies in the first place, meaning there’d be no need for Errol Flynn or the Shaw Brothers or Rambo. So when a biopic gets greenlit, in a perfect world, it needs to have something exceptional going for it outside the usual Hollywood formula of ascendence and failure. Which brings us to George Tillman, Jr.’s Notorious, the story of rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G. (newcomer Jamal Woolard), a movie that for all its attempts at showing the transcendent power and drama of its larger-than-life subject can’t help but fall into the same formulaic traps that plague so many musician-centric biopics. The biggest issue is that these episodes are handled with about as much zest and freshness as they are original. None of it’s terribly exciting or interesting, because we’ve all seen it before. Maybe the only difference is that Biggie spends about 90 percent of the movie being a complete and total lout, wallowing in his own solipsism and reveling in the kind of aggression and misogyny that hip-hop is so often criticized for. —Justin Souther
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG) The apparent idea was to boost Kevin James from the realm of genial supporting player — Hitch, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry — to some kind of stardom. The idea may have merit. The one joke premise of the resulting movie is another matter. The fact that James co-wrote the film lays the blame pretty squarely on him, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t factor in the largely non-existent direction of Steve Carr, the man who brought us Are We Done Yet?, as part of the formula. Judging by the movie’s holiday setting, it would seem as if the folks at Happy Madison and Columbia Pictures didn’t think the results were terribly inspiring and chose to dump it in the annual January white-sale of stinkers. The irony is that opening day business suggests that there actually is a market for movies predicated on the idea that a fat guy on a Segway is howlingly funny. All I can say is cross yourself quick and offer up a prayer to H.L. Mencken. The plot is all about whether or not Blart can save the mall he’s “sworn to protect” from a gang of crooks and win the hot babe at the hair-extension kiosk in the process. How do you suppose that works out? Exactly. —Ken Hanke
The Reader (R) Admirers of the last collaboration between director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare, The Hours, should find much to please them in The Reader. Like their previous film, The Reader is heavy stuff. And it’s haunting and deeply disturbing — perhaps even more so than The Hours. It’s clear why this material would appeal to them, but The Hours was very much in the “women’s picture” mode. It could be — in many ways was — taken as an art-house soap opera. The Reader comes from a darker place altogether. It concerns an affair that begins in 1958 between a woman (Kate Winslet) in her 30s and a 15-year-old boy (David Kross), but that’s not the crux off the film, which deals with their later lives, her guilt as a guard at Auschwitz, his own mirrored guilt in not speaking up when he should have, and the price both ultimately pay. Beautifully made, splendidly acted, and of greater substance than most movies, The Reader poses some very difficult questions. Which means it’s a somewhat uncomfortable film. It’s smart enough, however, to know it need not answer them, and so leaves it up to the viewer. Demanding? Yes. But that’s also why it’s such a worthwhile accomplishment. —Ken Hanke
Slumdog Millionaire (R) Slumdog Millionaire is a feel-good coming-of-age story that offers a transcendent tale of a mistreated waif. And this story is buoyed along by its simple love story. Jamal strives to reunite with Latika, who has grown into a gorgeous young woman and whose beauty has become a liability. The improbabilities tend to stack up as the film sails along. There are atmospheric, romantic reunions at train stations that seem too perfectly-timed to be true. And some of the slumdog children have supernatural memories, able to recognize former buddies by the sound of their voices. 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 Unborn (PG-13) The first thing you’ll notice about David S. Goyer’s The Unborn is that it’s a lot funnier than the purported comedy release, Bride Wars. The second thing is that this wasn’t the idea. I can’t say I hated it, but I blame this mostly on the fact that I saw it with a theaterful of teenagers, who screamed, laughed, and shouted on cue in a manner that would have warmed Pavlov’s cockles. Despite an intriguing premise involving Jewish folklore and possession by a dybbuk, the film quickly degenerates into a standard exorcism story with all the trappings, a barrage of sometimes amusing shock effects, a few atmospheric scenes, and one truly scary moment — the threat of a sequel. —Ken Hanke