Capsule Reviews of current and ongoing movies 

Opening This Week

Notorious (R) Jamal Woolard is at the center of the life and times of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G.

Hotel for Dogs (PG) All the dogs you've ever loved all in one movie. Co-stars Lisa Kudrow (Friends), Kevin Dillon (Entourage), and Don Cheadle (Crash).

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG) Kevin James (The King of Queens) stars in a movie about a mall cop on a mission from God.

Defiance (R) See review on page 38.

Critical Capsules

Bedtime Stories (G) I wish I could've worked up the same enthusiasm for Adam Shankman's Bedtime Stories that the eight-year-old boy sitting by himself a few seats down from me had. Not only was he wound up enough to give a running commentary throughout the film — often punctuated with cackling laughter and proclamations of "She's hot!" whenever supporting actress Teresa Palmer would make her way onscreen. I still wish I could develop that kind of excitement that accompanied my treks to the movies as a kid. In those days, it wasn't the movie that mattered, but the simple fact that I was at the movies. My mind wandered back to those more whimsical times, only to be yanked back into reality once I remembered that I was sitting through a damned Adam Sandler movie. And despite its "family friendly" pose and a better than usual supporting cast, this is every inch an Adam Sandler movie, complete with all the usual hanger-on suspects (yes, Rob Schneider shows up — wearing Nicole Kidman's old Virginia Woolf nose). Rarely funny (unless you're 8) and not as fanciful as it thinks, it's ultimately not much of anything. —Justin Souther

Bride Wars (PG) There are two essential ingredients for a romantic comedy. Can you guess what they are? If you answered "romance and comedy," then you're apparently savvier than the folks who put together Bride Wars, which is neither romantic nor terribly funny. It is, however, pretty terrible. The idea was probably that it didn't matter that the screenplay had no discernible merit. The resulting film could coast on the combined star power of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway. Well, it doesn't. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie — including what pass for its big jokes — and saved 89 minutes of tedium in the bargain. It entirely consists of two best friends whose weddings get booked on the same day trying to sabotage each other's nuptials by various childish means. Predictable, dull, and slightly unlikable. Hathaway emerges more or less unscathed, Hudson less so, and the film continues her streak of ill-advised career choices. As one of the producers, Hudson has only herself to blame for agreeing to the script and a hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Hilary Duff and a shrunken head. —Ken Hanke

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

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

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

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) Not Easily Broken is the latest in the now lucrative business of inspirational Christian moviegoing. Based on a novel by Bishop T.D. Jakes, the obvious comparison is Tyler Perry — with the film's African-American target audience — by way of Sherwood Baptist Church and Alex Kendrick's Fireproof, which has the same message about the connection between God and marriage. However, Not Easily Broken is better in most respects than those films. 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 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

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

The Spirit (PG-13) I've read many of the criticisms and many of the very things they're railing against are precisely the elements that I found entertaining about The Spirit. It's possible I'm somehow more in tune with Miller's mindset here than they are. It's also possible that they do indeed "get it," but they don't want it. Perhaps they don't want it for the simple reason that The Spirit is a film that takes the piss out of the comic book movie. It's a loopy affair — make no mistake. It makes sport of both comic books and hard-boiled detective fiction, yet it does so by utilizing and adhering to the conventions of each. If you're willing to go with this approach, you're likely to have fun with the film, which is a lot shrewder and cleverly developed than its detractors are willing to admit. —Ken Hanke

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 this week's 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. That's the sort of thing that will turn cheesy horror into an enjoyable 87 minutes of moviegoing experience, while having nothing to do with the actual quality of the film. I cannot imagine what a tough slog this might have been in any other setting — nor do I plan on finding out. 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

Valkyrie (PG-13) While Tom Cruise isn't especially good in the film, he's not embarrassingly bad ("Long live sacred Germany!" aside), just terminally miscast. The film itself is an awkward mix of plodding history and general adequacy with occasional flourishes of visual panache that seem to be from some other, more stylish movie. Having Cruise affect no accent doesn't really work, but it's probably less funny than having him do a Conrad Veidt impression while Nazi-lipping cigarettes would have been. Strong support from Bill Nighy and Terence Stamp helps the film, but the whole thing suffers from that lack of suspense that comes from a story where you know the outcome the minute you sit down. It's not a disaster, but it's not exactly special. —Ken Hanke

Yes Man (PG-13) That Yes Man is less irritating than most Jim Carrey films is the sense that maybe it wasn't initially written as a Jim Carrey showcase. Sure, the movie is of the high-concept variety, but it's not tailor-made for the patented Carrey screen-mugging. This doesn't keep his usual hamming from creeping in from time to time, but it's kept to a minimum. Carrey never embarrasses himself and is smart enough not to over-indulge himself too much. In this regard, it's less a movie built around Carrey's "talents" as it is one that just happens to star the actor. Carrey plays a man who tends to say "no" to everything until he encounters a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) who convinces him to say "yes" to any and every thing for a year. Not surprisingly, this changes his life — in both positive and comedic ways. Great? No, but pleasant enough and surprisingly restrained and well-acted. —Justin Souther


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