Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Opening This Week

Lust, Caution (NC-17) Following his critically acclaimed films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain (let's just forget about Hulk, shall we?), director Ang Lee returns with another tale of danger and romance. Set in 1942 in war-torn Shanghai, Lust, Caution tells the story of a young actress who finds herself in love (and exchanging steamy looks) with the very man she's supposed to help assassinate. Chinese acting star Tony Leung stars as a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee, a traitor to China, a torturer, and opportunist. The wealthy and secretive Mrs. Wak (Tang Wei) infiltrates his inner circle. Her task is to become her target's lover, setting him up to be killed. But first, sex. Lots of it, which won this film its NC-17 rating. Love, lust, and danger. Ang Lee does it again. —John Stoehr

Fred Claus (PG) From the director of Wedding Crashers comes 2007's first Christmas-themed movie starring rat-a-tat talking Vince Vaughn as Santa's derelict older brother. He's constantly compared to Nicholas (played by Paul Giamatti), the beloved saint every child loves. Things, of course, get worse from there.

Lions for Lambs (R) A new movie by Robert Redford tells three stories: about duty and honor, about youthful disillusionment, and about political power. Also starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep.

P2 (R) A high-powered executive pays the price when she chooses to work insteading of sharing Christmas dinner in this fright flick starring Wes Bentley (Ghost Rider) and Rachel Nichols (Alias).

Critical Capsules

30 Days of Night (R) The concept — vampires descend on an isolated town in the most remote part of Alaska to take advantage of the month-long night of winter — is slightly intriguing, but the execution is blander than star Josh Hartnett's screen presence. What promised a new deal in vampire movies is really just the same old false shuffle — right down to a Dracula-like vampire king (Danny Huston) and a Renfield-style henchman (Ben Foster) — in a novelty setting. It's clearly positioned so that its purely perfunctory plasma-pumping pleasures pass muster as disposable Halloween fare. ­—Ken Hanke

Across the Universe (R) Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is an imperfect film, but it's a terrific imperfect film. The enormity of what it achieves — combined with the impossibility of what it tries to achieve — makes it an essential film, regardless of its occasional missteps. Her ambitious attempt to present a portrait of the 1960s in terms of Beatles songs — hooked to a slender love story about two young people (Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) — is both daring and satisfying. The key to the enterprise is that Taymor clearly loves and respects the songs. The new arrangements never trivialize the material even when — as in the case of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" — they reimagine it. —Ken Hanke

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

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (R) At 160 minutes, Andrew Dominik's revisionist take on the death of Jesse James may slightly outstay its welcome, but it remains a fascinating noirish psychological rendering of a too-often romanticized tale. As the title suggests, the film is as much about Jesse's murderer as it is about the famous outlaw. In fact, it's ultimately the story of Ford's unabashed hero-worship of James that leads to a fatal fixation (yes, there are days of subtext here) that ultimately seals the fate of both men. Brad Pitt gives a strong portrayal of James as an unraveling psychotic, but the real star of the film is Casey Affleck, who makes Ford into a character at once creepy and pitiable. —Ken Hanke

The Comebacks (PG-13) A puerile, idiotic spoof of sports movies in the vein of Date Movie and Epic Movie, The Comebacks is every bit as overwhelmingly horrid as it sounds. David Koechner plays a washed-up coach who takes one last shot at glory by coaching a small-time college football team. It's the usual parade of lame pop culture references and poorly executed slapstick, usually in the form of shots to the groin. Despite claims that it spoofs the "great sports movies," it really does little more than pointlessly reference the most recent examples of the genre with a TV skit mentality. —Justin Souther

Dan in Real Life (PG-13) Dan in Real Life keeps walking that tightrope between contrivance and authenticity, with director Peter Hedges managing to keep the balance slightly in his favor. Nowhere is this trick more evident than in a late scene involving a family talent contest, as Dan (Steve Carell) and Mitch (Dane Cook) perform a duet of Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" — with only Dan and love-interest Marie (Juliette Binoche) aware that both men are singing to her. Sitcom awkwardness gives way to real awkwardness, a truly poignant moment of a guy trying to deal with love again. Hedges may resort to the obvious, even in his resolutions, but he knows how to wrap it in the stuff of real life. And ultimately, that's so much more compelling than the clichés of movie life. —Scott Renshaw

Darjeeling Limited (R) Can a movie be both cartoonish and authentic at the same time? Yes, and Wes Anderson's latest is bittersweet and hilarious and makes you want to cry with the perfection of it and 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, and that's just fine. —MaryAnn Johanson

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (R) Fie on those who have trashed this entertainingly overheated historical conceit! Yes, it's completely indefensible as history. So what else is new? As someone noted years ago about the much respected Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) in terms of history, the movie got it right that he wore funny hats, was fat, and had eight wives. Not much has changed in 74 years. Here we have Cate Blanchett as a pretty preposterous Queen Elizabeth I, hopelessly in love with swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), while battling court intrigue, Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), and the Spanish Armada. The whole thing is over-directed by Shekhar Kapur like a Busby Berkeley musical and is a lot of fun — if not taken seriously. —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

The Heartbreak Kid (R) The film is based on a 1972 Elaine May film from a script by Neil Simon — a mildly cynical PG-rated affair that has here been trashed and tarted up into an outpouring of unrestrained sleaze. It's 116 minutes of tedium punctuated with outbursts of tastelessness. The best thing about it are the Bowie songs on the soundtrack — buy a CD instead. You can keep the songs and avoid the movie. —Ken Hanke

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

Lars and the Real Girl (PG-13) Despite its deliberately outre premise, this movie is at heart a pretty traditional affair — all the way to its utterly inevitable resolution. In all honesty, the movie telegraphs where it's going early on and could rightly be called predictable, but it's a predictability born of the fact that it's the only resolution it could have and still retain its identity. What could have been a one-joke premise becomes instead a quietly funny film of immense charm thanks to the central performances of Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, and Patricia Clarkson, not to mention a good screenplay from Nancy Oliver. The direction by Craig Gillespie is largely utilitarian, but any filmmaker who can make the audience care about a "love doll" is doing something right. —Ken Hanke

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

Michael Clayton (R) High-powered legal drama that once again proves that George Clooney is the movie star of our age. Playing the title role, Clooney stars as the "fixer" of a powerful New York law firm (headed by Sydney Pollack). He's the guy they call in to clean up other people's messes, and he's handed a beauty when the firm's top litigator (Tom Wilkinson) — a brilliant, but unbalanced man — goes off his medication and proceeds to scuttle a multi-billion dollar class action suit in a fit of conscience. It's not entirely believable, but the dialogue is so literate and the performances from Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton are so good that the film's occasional improbabilities hardly make a dent. Those in search of a satisfying, adult thriller aren't likely to do better. —Ken Hanke

Rendition (R) Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon) can't find her husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), an immigrant from Egypt who has lived, legally, in the U.S. since he was a teenager. He seems to have disappeared without a trace while en route from South Africa, where he was attending a professional conference, to their home in Chicago. She's distraught, of course, and fortunately she has a contact in the office of a U.S. senator, her old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), so she pretty rapidly learns what has probably happened to her husband. I like how the film doesn't fetishize the suicide bombing that sets the plot in motion, doesn't ignore the truth, and doesn't overplay the villainy of even the villains, like Meryl Streep's CIA honcho. I like how it highlights the endless cycles of injustice and retribution that fuel so much of the violence we live with. —MaryAnn Johanson

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

Tyler Perry's Why I Didn't Get Married (PG-13) Having learned — after the box office flop of Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls — that his films fare better with his fan base if he actually appears in them (even if not in drag as the popular Madea character), writer-director Tyler Perry is back with another critic-proof serving of pseudo-high-minded drama with lashings of religiosity. This round he focuses on four couples and their various marital strifes. It all plays like a bad Lifetime TV movie and a catalogue of every marriage problem you could hope for. Platitudes, homililes and bromides abound — all feeling like they were cribbed off bumper stickers. Perry's fan-base will flock to it. Everyone else should be very wary indeed. —Ken Hanke

We Own the Night (R) A competently made film that unfortunately suffers from being too emotionless and too unaffecting, We Own the Night tells the story of a nightclub manager with ties to the mob who must help his brother and father, both cops, survive threats from the Russian mafia. The familial aspect never feels genuine, and the performances are either a waste (Mark Wahlberg) or too detached or glum (Joaquin Phoenix) so that the movie lacks any likable characters. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity and is ultimately forgettable, despite the talent involved. If you want a real thriller, Eastern Promises is probably still playing somewhere. —Justin Souther


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