Opening This Week
August Rush (PG) An Irish guitarist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has an affair with a classically-trained cellist (Keri Russell) and are soon torn apart. Sounds like your basic keg party/morning-after hangover hell. Well, she’s pregnant and because of an extreme circumstance (that we can’t tell you more about for fear of spoiling the whole she-bang) she gives up the baby for adoption. Fortunately, this Movieland story has Robin Williams. He plays a sage boomer-rocker who gives counsel to a young child prodigy. The kid doesn’t know who his parents are. He searches for them while doing some pretty good busking in Central Park. With this kind of set up, August Rush could be touching and warm or it could be sickly sweet. Given Williams’ track record of sticky sentimentality, don’t hold your breath. —John Stoehr
The Mist (R) Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) directs Stephen King’s 1985 story about an evil mist that engulfs a small town.
Enchanted (PG) A young princess living in an animated kingdom is banished to the grit and grime of real-life New York City. It’s Disney. There’s music. It is what it is.
No Country for Old Men (R) See review here.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (R) See review here.
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
Bee Movie (PG) This movie’s animated format at first seems like a perfect match for Jerry Seinfeld. We know he’s quick-witted and savvy, but what would he do in a genre that generally depends on sentimentality — the one thing he conspicuously avoids? The result is something just about as uneven as that improbable pairing might suggest. Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry Benson, a bee just graduated from college in Hive City. He and his best pal Adam (Matthew Broderick) are faced with choosing a job they’ll be required to keep their entire lives — a prospect that greatly alarms Barry. 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
The Darjeeling Limited (R) Can a movie be both cartoonish and authentic at the same time? Yes, and Wes Anderson’s movie is bittersweet and hilarious and makes you want to cry with the perfection of it, with knowing appreciation of its grand sense of kicking itself in the ass. The big epiphany the three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) come to by the end of the film is that they need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, though whether that lesson will take is left up in the air. And you can’t help nodding in agreement with the insight of that lesson, and how you probably won’t take it to heart either. Anderson makes you love his movie and hate yourself at the same time for being precisely the same kind of dork he’s smacking around. —MaryAnn Johanson
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
Gone Baby Gone (R) Directed by Ben Affleck and starring his younger brother Casey, Gone Baby Gone is, at its base, a neo-noir, but it becomes a film about moral ambiguity and the nature of right and wrong. The younger Affleck suits his role perfectly as a small-time, streetwise private investigator hired to find a missing child, but soon gets in deeper than he expected. Ben, on the other hand, reminds us that — his overexposed personal life to one side — he’s actually a talented and intelligent man with his assured handling of the film. —Justin Souther
Into the Wild (R) With one foot in the 1960s and another in our own cautious time, Into the Wild captures the recklessness, the passion, and also the cruelty of youth. Flashing back from Chris’ last stand in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Sean Penn’s film begins in a chaotic, mildly hallucinatory blur. The world seems to rush at Chris (Emile Hirsch) with teeth bared. He sees nothing but ruin in the inevitable transformation of his idealism into the complacency of his parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden). On the road, Chris encounters a rich patchwork of Americans: dropouts and hippies, folk artists and vacationing Euros, a lonely retiree and a rowdy, life-embracing farmer. Into the Wild seems not only aimed at but infused with the values of a college-aged audience, with Chris offered as a messianic hero for those who reject the world’s false values for a higher moral purpose. —Felicia Feaster
Lions for Lambs (R) Robert Redford’s new offering is Hollywood’s latest and perhaps bravest attempt at critiquing the war in Iraq, the current administration, and public apathy (or ennui or malaise). Bravery, alas, did not translate into a good movie. Nor will it overcome the same public apathy (or ennui or malaise) that sunk In the Valley of Elah or Rendition at the box office. Though cleverly structured as three interconnected stories — told in more or less real time — and boasting three major stars (Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise), the film falls apart because of to a clunky script. The scenes between Streep as a zealous reporter and Cruise as a slick neo-con senator are the only ones that really come to life. The rest is too obvious and preachy. —Ken Hanke
Love in the Time of Cholera (R) Visually, it’s luscious. Cartageña, Colombia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is ripe with urban urgency. Alfonso Beato’s cinematography is warm and spicy and almost a character in itself. The music, by Antonio Pinto, is ardent and expressive. There’s more: Star Javier Bardem is luminous and beautiful and heartfelt as a man whose heart, broken in adolescence, never mends. His co-star, Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the forever out-of-reach object of his desire, is magnificent as a woman who denies her desire her whole life and channels it down a path it was not meant to tread. And, of course, director Mike Newell is working from the universally acclaimed novel from the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez. With so many pieces of the puzzle seemingly so perfect, how could anything go wrong? Yet it does, at least for me, because first and foremost I feel a movie, and it seems to me that particularly in this case — in the case of a story about unfathomable heartache and love denied and happiness put off and all that emotional turmoil — you need to feel it. If you don’t feel it, what’s the point? I don’t feel it. I tried. I really did. —MaryAnn Johanson
Lust, Caution (NC-17) It’s World War II in China, and there’s all the hot, sweaty sex, but the Ang Lee flick this is most like is 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, actually. It’s all about how love and desire can drive us to do some things we might not expect of ourselves, and of others. In 1938, the Japanese are occupying China, and bookish Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) joins her university drama group and discovers her calling as an actress. But the leader of the troupe, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), has bigger ideas for all their talents — and especially Wong’s — beyond the patriotic plays they’ve been mounting. They’re going to create a grand charade whose goal is to assassinate a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Wong will become the wealthy lady Mrs. Mak, infiltrate Yee’s society, then seduce him into an affair. From there, it seems to be the idea of these naive idealists that taking him out will be easy. Nothing is easy, of course, not when such things are in play, and Lee — working from a story by beloved Chinese writer Eileen Chang — weaves suspense and a simmer of unease that threatens to boil over into sheer terror out of every moment. —MaryAnn Johanson
Martian Child (PG) This is a classic case of “If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.” Every faux quirky, pseudo-heartwarming aspect of this cinematic blancmange is telegraphed in two and a half minutes of trailer. Watching the movie only adds 105 minutes of utter predictability. John Cusack — at his most Cusackian — stars as David Gordon, a successful sci-fi writer (he appears to live quite nicely off the proceeds of a single book) and widower, who opts to adopt a troubled lad named Dennis (Bobby Coleman), who thinks he’s from Mars. The case worker (Sophie Okonedo) thinks this quirk makes the kid just right for a sci-fi writer (uh huh). The results are predictable, dull, and saccharine. —Ken Hanke
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 offhand acceptance of the magic in the film is what makes it work 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 till the badly judged ending, which is easy to forgive in light of what’s gone before. —Ken Hanke
P2 (R) Even for a torture-porn exercise, P2 — the title refers to the parking garage level on which the action mostly takes place — is thin stuff. Rachel Nicholls stars as Angela Bridges, a workaholic so holic that she’s working way into the night on Christmas Eve. When she finally does leave to descend to the parking garage under her office building, she finds her car won’t start. She then enlists the aid of creepy garage attendant Thomas (Wes Bentley) to get back into the building. Of course, Thomas has other ideas — being that he’s the creepy attendant and all — and soon Angela finds herself stripped to her under garments, lipsticked-up and chained to a chair for Christmas dinner in Thomas’ office. Mayhem ensues. The fact that all this sanguinary silliness could be stopped if Angela would only set off the fire alarm seems to have occurred to no one. Of course then there’d be no movie, and that would suit me fine. —Ken Hanke
Saw IV (R) I can only suppose that Generic Torture Porn Halloween Release is too awkward a title for theater marquees, but it’s so much more descriptive of the film at hand than Saw IV. The ad campaign’s tag line — “It’s a trap!” — is much more honest, since the film clearly is a trap to get the unwary viewer to break loose with some cold hard cash for more warmed-over trash. It’s exactly the same as the last two entries with a lot of dull backstory flashbacks thrown in to fill us in on the unhappy life that created the murderous “Jigsaw” (Tobin Bell). Since most folks are strictly interested in the mayhem, I doubt this will thrill audiences. Otherwise, it’s not even very good torture porn. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. The fractured time-line business is supposed to be new, but it was already used in an earlier entry. Ho-hummery is achieved. —Ken Hanke