Opening this Week

The Uninvited (PG-13) Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin, W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno) gets to be scary, as the stepmother of a girl (Emily Browning) who suspects the worst.

Taken (PG-13) See review

New in Town (PG-13) Renée Zellweger plays a big-city manager who comes face-to-face with the “real” America when she tries to turn a small-town factory around. Also stars Harry Connick Jr. and Nathan Fillion.

Critical Capsules

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13) While I would recommend David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as worth seeing, I simply cannot work up any great love for it. More curious than the case of Benjamin Button is the detached feeling of the movie. It’s well made — if at least 30 minutes too long — and the story is interesting. And I’m impressed that the premise of a main character who ages backwards works at all, but it’s emotionally distant, in part because it centers around the most passive main character since Forrest Gump. (It’s probably not coincidental that Eric Roth wrote both movies.) Fincher’s direction doesn’t help. Who thought that the guy who made Seven and Zodiac should tackle this kind of Tim Burtonish whimsical romance? He approaches the material like he’s determined to incorporate things he’s seen in other fantasies, but has no idea how to integrate them. —Ken Hanke

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. 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 spectacular playing Sister Aloysius, who often repels our affection. Her worries seem trite: She is disturbed by the sorry state of penmanship and secular Christmas hymns, and has a profound dislike of the morally corruptive power of sugar. In the early 1960s, she seems to represent a grotesque fear of change and a frightening inflexibility. She 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

Frost/Nixon (R) Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their roles from the award-laden stage version (a hit first in London and then on Broadway), and so it should be; the casting is definitive. Sheen, so memorably exact as Tony Blair in The Queen (another Morgan script), brings Frost alive more loosely, with a palpable combination of playboy cockiness and vulnerable status anxiety — as befits a ratings-sensitive, reasonably famous media personality who’s not taken seriously as a journalist and not entirely sure he wants to be. Langella is not the first and probably won’t be the last actor to portray the disgraced 37th president on the big screen, but his ownership of the role — crass and charming, sonorous and lumbering, venomous and self-loathing — is total. This is so much more than merely an impersonation, and so completely consistent, that every once in a while it becomes hard to remember what the real Nixon looked and sounded like. —Jonathan Kiefer

Gran Torino (R) Never mind that Archie Bunker had this routine down when Gran Torinos were still fresh on Ford’s assembly line. This is Clint Eastwood, after all. And besides, the movie goes further — deeper and darker — than a sitcom ever could, limning the troubled legacy of tribalist masculinity rituals, positing vigilantism as an articulation of racial anxiety and fear of progress, and, well, yadda yadda. Which is to say that 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

Inkheart (PG) Regardless of the muddled application of the rules of its own mythology, the basic concept of Inkheart — that characters from books can cross into our world and vice versa — is intriguing and developed with some degree of cleverness that happily misses a sense of postmodern smugness. The set-up is solid. Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) inadvertently sent his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), into a book called Inkheart while reading it aloud. In so doing, he also caused characters from that book — Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and Capricorn (Andy Serkis) — into our world. The book in question has become increasingly difficult to find in the intervening nine years that bring us to modern times. Mo’s pursuit of this book — with the idea of somehow reading Resa “out” of it — has become his major preoccupation. It’s also high on the list of Dustfinger, who wants to be read back “into” the book, and Capricorn, who has other ideas. Likable supporting characters, and actors like Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, help make this agreeable entertainment, but Iain Softley’s flat-footed direction (especially at the end) keeps trying to sink it. —Ken Hanke

Last Chance Harvey (PG-13) 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

Milk (R) 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. There’s the impact of watching the gay community exult in a political power it had never known before, even as that same community refuses to remain silent in defeat 30 years later. 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

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

The Reader (R) The Reader comes from a dark place. 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. Demanding? Yes. But that’s also why it’s such a worthwhile accomplishment. —Ken Hanke

Slumdog Millionaire (R)
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. 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

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (R) Rarely is a movie so “exactly what you expect” as Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It is, as you’ve probably guessed, a prequel to Underworld, meant to illustrate just how the great antipathy between the quasi-civilized vampires and the barbaric lycans came about in the first place. It mostly comes down to the vampires enslaving and abusing the werewolves to the point where one of their number, the most civilized of his breed, Lucian (Michael Sheen) leads his brother lycanthropes in revolt against their masters. This Spartacus plot isn’t sufficient in itself, so we also have a forbidden romance between Lucian and the vampire Sonja (Rhona Mitra), daughter of the big cheese of vampiredom Viktor (Bill Nighy). This, of course, is intended to foreshadow his romance with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in the first film. There is also much court intrigue, and, of course, it’s all bathed in that dull monochromatic blue-color scheme that defines the look of the series. Nothing happens to surprise the viewer, and the cartoonish CGI werewolves prevent the movie from ever being remotely scary. Fans of the series may be satisfied, but it’s unlikely to create any converts. —Ken Hanke

The Wrestler (R) The Wrestler seems tailor-made for these hard economic times. It’s an uncommon tale of old age and dwindling opportunities. Who can’t at some point in their lives relate to the idea that the best days may be in the past? Randy’s emotional impact and lovability owe much to Mickey Rourke, 56, who has often hinted at a tragic sensitivity beneath his pretty boys and tough guys. Rourke’s bashed and rearranged face, twisted by his own hard living and plastic surgery, has left him with a kind of sad humanoid mask, a fighter’s exterior that occasionally crumbles with disappointment and pain. His poignant, brilliantly nuanced Randy has a hard body and a soft heart, playing Nintendo with the kids in his trailer park, fumbling to reconnect with his grown daughter Stephanie, and exhibiting an affection for people that extends from the wrestling locker room to the deli counter where he works. A consummate showman, he’s given the fans his best, but he’s the one who looks shocked when his superhero facade falls apart. —Felicia Feaster