Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Sweeney Todd (R) Reviewed here.

P.S. I Love You (PG-13) Hilary Swank is a widow who can't get on with life until she finds letters left behind by her dead husband.

Charlie Wilson's War (R) Mike Nichols' new movie about a rich Texan funding Afghanistan's Mujahideen. Stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Margot at the Wedding (R) Reviewed here.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (R) Starring John C. Reilly, this mockumentary is another home run by producer Judd Apatow, who also made Superbad and Knocked Up this year.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (PG) A sequel to the 2004 movie that itself was trying to profit from the buzz of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Stars Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, and Diane Kruger.

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

August Rush (PG) Evan Taylor is an 11-year-old boy lost but supremely centered. Stuck in an orphanage where other boys deride him as a "freak," he refuses to stop believing that his parents want him, that maybe they're just lost and haven't been able to find him. Though he's never touched an instrument, he lives and breathes music, hears it "in the air, in the light," in everything all around him. He believes music connects him to his parents. Then one day he sets out to find them, an odyssey to New York City and all the strange, dark magic of that 21st-century Oz. —MaryAnn Johanson

Awake (R) You won't lose sleep over Awake. In fact, you'll be lucky if you make it all the way through the movie's scant 84 minutes (including credits) without nodding off. What we've got here is a 30-minute premise — man finds himself conscious, but immobile, and unable to speak, during surgery — padded to feature length thanks to a soap opera set-up and a ridiculous sorry-wrong-number subplot. Two of the most vapid stars of our age — Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba — go to the mat trying to prove who has less talent (I'm calling it a draw), while the film disintegrates into cosmic preposterousness around them. Apart from the grim fascination of watching the film get more stupid by the minute, there's no possible reason to even consider seeing this stinker. —Ken Hanke

Bella (PG-13) Bella took the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, but it's easy to see why no one was in a big hurry to get it into theaters. Bella simply isn't a very exciting movie — nor is it a terribly persuasive one. Mexican soap star Eduardo Verastegui plays Jose, a former soccer player turned chef, who spends the movie counseling a pregnant waitress named Nina (Tammy Blanchard) not to have an abortion. The plot ranges from the far-fetched — like the idea that Jose's great tragedy would have, in reality, resulted in jail time — to the silly — like how Jose's ex would immediately recognize him after over four years apart and the great big bushy beard he's grown in the interval. It's well intended, but it lacks the weightiness it aims for. —Ken Hanke

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. But who really cares what happens to these people? —Ken Hanke

Enchanted (PG) Kevin Lima's Enchanted offers us five stars' worth of Amy Adams in four stars' worth of movie. That's not a bad average. With this film, Adams comes into her own with a starring vehicle that's almost as good as she is — and which is beautifully tailored to her talents. Even though the film is part and parcel of the postmodern trend in fairy tales, it's never snarky, and it lets Adams play it straight as the cartoon princess who finds herself turned human and transported by an evil queen (Susan Sarandon) to New York City. Its spoofs are gentle and cleverly work as the real thing, while its sly message that humanity lies somewhere between our reality and Disney's standard cartoon world is refreshing. It may be a little uneven, but Adams is always on hand to keep it from mattering. —Ken Hanke

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. It's simple disposable entertainment. —Ken Hanke

Golden Compass (PG-13) Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) does a fine job of bringing Philip Pullman's alternate London to life. A fantasy set in a world intended to be much like our own presents a unique challenge, but The Golden Compass looks distinctive without straining too hard. Unfortunately, no one seemed to strain too hard to make the film compelling. The heroine, Lyra Belacqua, while clearly intended to be a spunky sort with a yen for adventure, never really develops a distinct personality, nor does her actor, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, leap off the screen with charismatic presence. She's surrounded by characters who similarly fill pre-assigned roles without ever coming to life. —Scott Renshaw

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. 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, 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

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (G) 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. Simple charm and human interaction outweigh any sense of spectacle — at least 'til the badly judged ending. —Ken Hanke

The Mist (R) A gusty storm brings down power lines in a small town. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) drive into town to pick up supplies and groceries before the shelves are picked clean. They're all in the supermarket when a thick mist descends, obscuring the view out the windows beyond a few feet. Then a bloodied man runs into the store, screaming about monsters in the fog. Panic sets in full-bore when other, more deadly, things begin to occur. Then there's this: the collapse of a civil, ordered society. —MaryAnn Johanson

Noelle (PG) From all accounts, this is a story with a religious underpinning, something wholesome in a menu of Christmas movies that includes the seemingly scandalous Golden Compass. An official of the Catholic diocese of Cape Cod, Mass., finds himself in need of redemptation as he investigates an old boozing priest who's using parish funds to support an elderly parishioner. Meanwhile, a woman gets involved. Love enters the picture. Problem is, the chick's el prego. What can an official of the Catholic diocese to do? Even Aquinas would struggle with that one. —John Stoehr

No Country for Old Men (R) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is evil itself. Meanwhile, a simple man — Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in the West Texas desert — stumbles upon the scene of heroin deal-turned-bloodbath with $2 million in cash still close at hand. Moss grabs the money and runs, and thereby immediately becomes the target of Chigurh, brought in by the dealers to track down the money (though he eventually decides he'd rather be a free agent). Back and forth between Texas and Mexico, Moss tries to stay a step ahead of Chigurh — while local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) manages always to be a step behind Chigurh's latest victim. It's hard to convey the precision with which Bardem repeats the same question three times during his pursuit of Moss — not with the faintest hint of annoyance, but with a matter-of-fact monotone that suggests refusing to answer can't possibly change the ultimate outcome. In a film full of exceptional performances, Bardem stands out not because his role is flashy, but because he makes it precisely the opposite of flashy. He is the bad thing that happens indiscriminately to the sinner or to the saint, its own logic oblivious to constructed human morality. —Scott Renshaw

The Perfect Holiday (PG) Picking the single dumbest element in this extremely dumb movie is easy. It's not the forced cuteness of the forced romance between Morris Chestnut's shopping mall Santa/wannabe songwriter and Gabrielle Union's lonely single mom whose adorable moppet of a little girl asks that Santa to find a man for mommy. It's not the obvious humor that is oddly unconnected to anything else going on in the story. It's not the obnoxious product placement. It's not even Queen Latifah's narrator. Nope: the single dumbest element here is Terrence Howard. I weep to think what kind of bet this phenomenal actor lost to reduce him to such grotesquerie. —MaryAnn Johanson

This Christmas (PG-13) Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II apparently wants to be the West Coast Tyler Perry. He's studied the Perry playbook carefully. But strangely, Whitmore can't seem to reproduce the maestro's flat-footed directing style, his ham-fisted religiosity, or his limburger-laden melodrama. The result is a breezily likable little film that feels more like a movie than a cockeyed sermon. It's nothing special, but it all goes down pleasantly. If you're in the holiday mood, you could do a lot worse, though chances are you won't remember a lot about it a few hours later. —Ken Hanke


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