capsule reviews

Apocalypto (R) If Mel Gibson were not such a polarizing figure, we probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to a subtitled drama without a single familiar actor, which happens to be set in the Yucatan peninsula 500 years ago. But Apocalypto turned out to be a purely, primally effective piece of filmmaking. In pre-Columbian America, the film begins with a village and a young hunter named Jaguar Paw, who’s taken captive when his peaceful village is raided by Holcane warriors, and marched to a Mayan city to become a sacrifice. Apocalypto is the kind of clear and stripped-down adventure that any kind of moviegoer could find gripping — because the people on the screen ultimately matter more than the guy behind the camera. You may not understand the language of Yucatec, but it’s hard not to understand Gibson’s language of pure visual cinema. —Scott Renshaw

Blood Diamond (R) Blood Diamond proves that good intentions and passion really can transcend limited skill sets. Director Edward Zwick — last employed stage managing Tom Cruise’s vanity in The Last Samurai — uses his workmanlike abilities to Blood Diamond‘s advantage, neutering any trace of the maudlin in his 90’s-set Africa horror story. It’s like the atrocities infecting modern Africa, whether the microcosm of the diamond trade referenced in the film’s title and the neo-imperialist opportunism of which such crimes are a symptom, were constantly nipping at their heels, provoking both to avoid the usual gaffes of the “issue film.” It’s not a truly great movie, but perhaps more importantly, it’s essential. —Ian Grey

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (R) I dare anyone to watch Sacha Baron Cohen dash naked through a hotel ballroom full of shocked conventioneers in Borat, and tell me that there is an artist anywhere more fully committed to what he does — or who yields such breathtakingly brilliant results from that commitment. With the film debut of his regular Ali G character Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen has taken guerrilla reality comedy to staggering new heights. Thanks to his willingness to push every possible boundary, Cohen and director Larry Charles have created not just the best comedy of the year, but probably the best film of any kind. Cohen has made a film that soars precisely because it hasn’t been timidly focus-grouped and scrubbed clean of anything that could possibly give offense. Like the man himself, it’s utterly fearless. —Scott Renshaw

Casino Royale (PG-13) For the latest James Bond flick, Sony Pictures has gone back to Ian Fleming first novel, Casino Royale, the only Bond adventure not done as a “serious” adaptation in the official series. The 1953 Bond has received a dubious updating, complete with terrorism and 9/11 references. And he’s been taken down a notch or two — he plays poker now instead of baccarat — but he still moves in a fantasy world of finely tailored clothes and beautiful, accommodating women who never wear the same gown twice. If you’re willing to buy into this slightly unwieldy mix, Casino Royale is a first-class actioner with a veneer of sophistication. In fact, this is probably the best Bond movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. New Bond Daniel Craig brings a freshness to the role with a dark, brooding approach that helps overcome the excessive running time. —Ken Hanke

Charlotte’s Web (G) Gary Winick’s film version of E.B. White’s 1952 children’s book is a quiet work of some charm and wit that captures the essence of White’s story with a minimum of pandering to modern tastes. The film’s embellishments — apart from the requisite flatulence gags — are rarely jarring, and the all-star voice casting isn’t allowed to get in the way. The vaguely period setting gives the film a timeless quality that works well. On one level, this is simply a tale of friendship and of the sacrifices we sometimes have to make for our friends. But there’s more here than that. It deals with the whole life cycle — going from birth to death to birth with time out for subtle observations about our own changes as we go through life, not to mention a bit of satire about the cult of celebrity and the power of advertising. —Ken Hanke

Copying Beethoven (PG-13) Immortal Beloved, Bernard Rose’s 1994 take on the composer, was surely no model of historical veracity. But its liberties pale next to those in the script for Copying Beethoven, which has invented the character of Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), through whose eyes we see everything. In the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with such a narrative convenience, but, in this case, she’s not so much a device as she is a central character. Ed Harris — playing a role reminiscent of his work in Pollock — is as good as he can be as the composer, given the outrageous hokum level of the screenplay. But what sinks the film is the combination of the preposterous script and the casting of Kruger. The actress, best known as Helen in Troy, is easy on the eyes, but she’s simply awful in this role. —Scott Renshaw

Deck the Halls (PG) There’s a rumor that at one point in its creation Deck the Halls contained an original idea. But the producers were so outraged by this affront to their commercial sensibilities that the idea was surgically excised and the perpetrator summarily executed. Yes, this witless drivel-fest is that bad. It’s actually worse than that bad, because Deck the Halls manages the not inconsiderable feat of making both Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick painfully unfunny in the process of spreading prefab “Christmas cheer” for 95 minutes. It’s a box of Christmas movie clichés wrapped in tired slapstick and tied up with a bow made of trite lessons about the “true meaning of Christmas,” with less depth and appeal than a holiday display at Wal-Mart. —Ken Hanke

Déjà Vu (PG-13) Any Tony Scott movie with Denzel Washington playing an ATF agent who travels back in time to save a dead woman he’s fallen in love with is going to work better if you don’t think too hard about it. The time travel aspect is, however, inventive and even makes a degree of sense — at least till the very end when the movie cheats to get itself out of a corner. Some of its more outrageous moments are highly dubious. But let’s face facts, Déjà Vu wasn’t meant for heavy thinking; it’s simply designed as an entertainment. On that level, it’s hard to fault. The level of excitement, the aforementioned cleverness, the nicely sketched-in characterizations all combine to make it work more often than it doesn’t. —Ken Hanke

Dreamgirls (PG-13) Dreamgirls arrives as the latest attempt at a stage-to-screen musical translation — and in the wake of the double-whiff that was last year’s Rent and The Producers, even those of us always eager to tap our toes were crossing our arms in show-me skepticism. This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent, or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) delivers a version that’s simply, unobtrusively satisfying — entertainment writ large, and without apology. The obvious román-a-clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities make the story even more appealing. It may feel like only a minor variation on a hundred other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame — A Star is Born with a little more funk in its stride. Yet this is exactly the kind of story that soars with a score. —Scott Renshaw

Eragon (PG) Visual effects wizard Stefen Fangmeier turns director and proves himself the logical successor to Uwe Boll. Not since Dr. Boll’s idiot masterpiece BloodRayne have so many good actors been so humiliated in search of a paycheck. Oh, sure, the actors have only themselves to blame, and Fangmeier had the help of screenwriter Paul Buchman in putting this tripe together, but in the end the blame is Fangmeier’s alone. Few directors could possibly get performances of this … uh … caliber out of John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, Rachel Weisz, and Djimon Hounsou. It’s a silly affair based on a book by a 15 year old that rips off Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and grafts dragons onto them. The result is unintentially hilarious, if you can bear it. —Ken Hanke

The Good German (R) Steven Soderbergh evidently made The Good German in the style he thinks a studio director like Michael Curtiz might have adopted had Curtiz had the freedom of today’s rating system. The resulting film looks and feels like the films it specifically copies — Casablanca, A Foreign Affair, and The Third Man (which isn’t a Hollywood film anyway) — about as much as my 1998 Chevy resembles a vintage Bugatti. Too bad, because the story itself — New Republic correspondent George Clooney goes to post-war Berlin, finds his old girlfriend (Cate Blanchett) is now a hooker who may have collaborated with the Nazis, and is soon up to his ears in murder and intrigue — isn’t bad, but the film undermines it with all its faux stylishness. Clooney looks like a movie star, Blanchett looks like the bride of Dracula, and Tobey Maguire just looks uncomfortable. —Ken Hanke

Happy Feet (PG) George Miller’s new film is the Moulin Rouge! of animated all-singing, all-dancing penguin movies. Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Miller takes an array of pop/rock songs -— a little Queen, a pinch of Prince, a dash of Elvis -— and uses them to create a musical tapestry of a soundtrack. As with Luhrmann’s film, there’s surprising depth and feeling to the use of the music that occasionally outdoes the originals. And Miller has crafted a visually stunning film with a simple yet subtext-rich tale of a misfit penguin, Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who, unlike others of his kind, can’t sing, but dances like Astaire (an activity denounced as a perversion by the elders of the tribe). This and an ecology-minded subplot work well, but the structure is amazingly sloppy and meandering, making the film less than it might have been. —Ken Hanke

The History Boys (R) The History Boys is intellectual in that show-offy way that lets you feel smart and superior for being in the company of wiseasses who quote T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy in contextually appropriate ways and you get it. Which lends an ironic edge to the film’s major downside: It’s too stagey, and yet it lacks the vital energy of the stage production it is adapted from; it doesn’t use the medium to bring us into an intimate new space we can share with the characters, one that the stage couldn’t give us. It’s trying to be a film, but it’s nowhere near cinematic enough to succeed on the emotional level it clearly wants to claim. This is meant to be a dramedy aching with the clashing angsts of adolescence, of intellectualism, of late middle age, but director Nicholas Hytner doesn’t delve into the middle of the psychic space: he keeps a distance, keeps us — frustratingly — just on the outside peeking in. —MaryAnn Johanson

The Holiday (PG-13) Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday is the best of the year’s Christmas movies to date, but that’s not saying much. It slavishly emulates films like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually, and it doesn’t come close. The elements are in place -— a smart cast headed by Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Jack Black -— and the mood is right, but Meyers beats every gag over the head, worries every plot point to death, and indulges her cast’s “specialties” to the hilt. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, all of it could stand pruning. Nothing about The Holiday merits 138 minutes of screentime, and what could have been a mildly pleasant movie becomes an endurance test. —Ken Hanke

The Nativity Story (PG) It seems that in an effort not to offend people to whom Jesus Christ is, well, everything, normally provocative director Catherine Hardwicke delivers a movie that will appeal only to them. Slavishly reverent, The Nativity Story is accidentally hilarious in its earnestness — and in its sincere attempts at a touch of humor. (Here, the Three Wise Men have been turned into something close to the Three Stooges.) And so we get a movie with all the drama — and the humor — of an elementary school Christmas pageant. You may want to give milk and cookies to everyone involved for their effort, but it’s still not going to thrill anyone not heavily invested in the story to begin with. —MaryAnn Johanson

Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13) Will Smith’s latest offers for your consideration the heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad named Chris Gardner in the economically ravaged early 1980s and putting him in a shelter for the homeless with his absolutely adorable five-year-old tyke (Smith’s actual son, Jaden) while working an unpaid internship at a high-powered brokerage-house. Happyness is based on Gardner’s true story, but enough has been changed to make Gardner’s situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was. Thankfully, screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino have taken great pains to squeeze all overt sentimentality out of the story. There’s a smartness and a subtlety to Smith’s performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. —MaryAnn Johanson

The Queen (PG-13) In an early scene, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) stares regally at the camera as the she poses for a portrait. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan aim to take Her Royal Majesty down from the wall, but in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Exploring the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the filmmakers observe Elizabeth and new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) responding to the public grief, both of them struggling to understand the role of the monarchy in the modern world. An extended hunters-equals-paparazzi metaphor extends a touch too far, but the impressive performances — Sheen is nearly as terrific as the already much-lauded Mirren — contribute to a compelling, compassionate character study. —Scott Renshaw

Stranger than Fiction (PG-13) In Marc Forster’s (Finding Neverland) new film, mild-mannered IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) comes to realize that he is a literal literary hero when he begins to hear a woman’s (Emma Thompson) voice narrating his life as if he were a character in a book. The result is a wonderfully unapologetic fantasy: Fiction offers no explanation for its deliciously bizarre premise, it just has a whole lot of thinky fun with its ramifications. When Crick hears his narrator announce that “little does he know” his own tragic death is imminent, the layers of complicated metaphysics get enchantingly confused. How does that knowledge change what we do, and what we don’t do? The blending of the intellectual and the emotional that Stranger Than Fiction achieves is so rare, and so rarely done this well. —MaryAnn Johanson

Unaccompanied Minors (PG) Born as a story on NPR’s This American Life, Unaccompanied Minors has been turned into a basic ‘tween adventure comedy. Where a group of kids are snowed in at an airport during a blizzard, and hijinks ensue as they escape into the terminal and attempt to avoid airport security and the man in charge of the airport, Oliver (Lewis Black), who, of course, hates Christmas (but will see the error of his ways in time. It’s essentially Home Alone meets The Breakfast Club — with a few nods to cult culture via appearances of some former Kids in the Hall. Kids will probably enjoy it, while adults can find solace in the fact that it’s only mildly painful. There are certainly worse holiday movies out there right now. Justin Souther