FILM ‌ Capsule Reviews 

Our takes on recent movies

Because I Said So (PG-13) Little more than a Keaton's Greatest Hits package, the kind of flat-footed creation that works on the basis of cobbling together a kind of playlist of "all those things our star does so well." And in this case these mannerisms are slapped onto a character whose only claim to likability is that she's played by Diane Keaton. In every other capacity, the monster mother who tries to play Internet matchmaker for her youngest daughter is anything but likable. Worse, she's reduced to parodying herself and participating in warmed-over Adam Sandler gags. Oh, for the days of Woody Allen! --Ken Hanke

The Departed (R) Cops-versus-killers has been done to the point of improbability, but in front of Marty Scorsese's lens it's a brand-new game. It's not quite the masterpiece that some of his other recent films have been -- like The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead -- but The Departed is a work of strong vision and sharp personality. For most of its massive running time, the film is an absolutely fascinating exploration, a mix of all kinds of different genres. It's a thriller, a cop procedural, a character drama, and more, all rolled into one -- exactly the sort of complexity you'd expect from a Scorsese movie. Despite the film's last-act misstep, the movie's worth watching just for the journey. Scorsese remains a master, and he's working his finest magic here. --Joshua Tyler

Dreamgirls (PG-13) 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 received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you're getting a thinly-disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. On a certain level, 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

Hannibal Rising (R) There are certainly worse things in this world than Peter Webber's Hannibal Rising, but few things more superfluous. Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter, clearly figured he could squeeze one last pint from his cash cow, but was there a commensurate want by the general public to learn the origins of the character? Even if there was, this exercise in pap psychology hardly fills that theoretical want. It may explain why Hannibal became a cannibalistic serial killer, but it hardly explains how the callow Gaspard Ulliel would mature into the witty uber-genius of Hannibal's subsequent adventures. It might have made for good pop trash, but everyone takes it so seriously that no one realizes that lines like, "You ate my sister," are so risible. --Ken Hanke

The Last King of Scotland (R) Everyone's talking about Forest Whitaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland as the African dictator Idi Amin, and that's all right and good: Whitaker is a marvel. If you're the kind of moviegoer who cares about things like craft, and if you revel at seeing an actor at the top of his game, you won't want to miss this film. Based on a novel by Giles Foden, it's the story of a young Scottish doctor, Nick Garrigan (a brilliant James McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in the 1970s, looking for adventure and an opportunity to do some real good, and finds himself swept up in the reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin. Writer Peter Morgan and director Kevin Macdonald have made one of the don't-you-dare-miss-it films of the year. --MaryAnn Johanson

The Last Sin Eater (PG-13) Fox Faith's latest offering, The Last Sin Eater, is a fairly typical representative of the new faith-based cinema. It's not so much the setting that is typical, which in this case is an isolated 1850s Appalachian community of Welsh immigrants. Nor is it a protagonist like 10-year-old Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato), who -- after a traveling preacher (Henry Thomas, erstwhile buddy of E.T.) arrives with the Good News -- questions her community's pagan tradition of designating one among their number as an outcast "sin eater" to purge the dead of their transgressions. No, the sadly typical thing about The Last Sin Eater is that it's a mess -- earnest, but only marginally competent.

Letters from Iwo Jima (R) Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is considerably better than its counterpart, but that's not saying much by itself. Telling part of the same story (minus the aftermath deconstruction) from the Japanese point of view is a fascinating idea --- and one that enhances the earlier film in many ways. It's also a daunting undertaking and Eastwood only partially brings it off. The idea of putting faces on the men who, in Hollywood's hands, have rarely been more than faceless fanatics is certainly sound. And the revelation that the Japanese were ill-prepared, often disorganized, and cognizant of their own impending doom is strikingly developed. The actors here, especially Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara, are remarkable. But once the film states its case, it tends to be repetitive. A worthwhile, possibly even noble, film, but not a truly great one. --Ken Hanke

The Messengers (PG-13) As movies about haunted sunflower farms go, it's not unwatchable, but it's more funny than frightening. I haven't a clue what message the directors were attempting to convey, but coherence doesn't seem to interest the Pang brothers very much. We're given a female doctor referred to as "he" in the next scene, and told the family has been devastated by two years of hospital bills because of an accident later said to have happened six months ago. This is one of those movies with endless "things" flitting in between the camera and the characters, always accompanied by a loud burst of music. It's also one of those movies that only functions because the characters keep doing stupid things --- like not noticing the painfully obvious fingernail marks on the floor leading to the cellar door. --Ken Hanke

Night at the Museum (PG) A middling high-concept, effects-driven star comedy that quickly turns out to be a concept in search of a plot. Ben Stiller plays a perennial loser who gets a job as night watchman in a museum where the displays come alive after hours. That's fine, but once we've seen him chased by a T. Rex skeleton, menaced by Atilla (Patrick Gallagher) and his Huns, insulted by a talking Easter Island head, nearly eaten by lions, outwitted by a cunning capuchin, and being advised by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) in the first 30 minutes of the movie, where can it go? The answer is not much of anywhere, so it simply repeats itself, then tacks on an unwieldy plot about the previous watchmen (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs). It's so-so family entertainment and completely disposable, but I don't think it will harm you. --Ken Hanke

Norbit (R) Norbit isn't your ordinary shitty movie. This is a shitty movie for the ages -- the sort of crap that makes the legendary Pootie Tang look like the work of a genius auteur. In terms of production values, Norbit actually resembles Pootie Tang, which is to say that it looks like it cost a good $1.95 to make. Everything about the film is cheap beyond words -- including the whole concept. In fact, there's nothing to the film but concept: the concept that Eddie Murphy as a Jerry Lewis-like nerd is funny, that Murphy made up as a racist Chinese man is a laff riot, that Murphy in fat suit drag as his own monstrous wife is the pinnacle of comedy. Sadly, none of it is funny, while all of it is mean-spirited and offensive. --Ken Hanke

Notes on a Scandal (R) Notes on a Scandal is a huge lark of a movie, an enormous pleasure of smart, intricate performances, twisty plotting, and sinful sensationalism. Imagine Single White Female as mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. To see Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the finest actresses working today, wrestle to the metaphoric ground roaringly stereotyped characters plucked straight from real-life supermarket tabloids or golden-age Hollywood melodrama is a hoot. The clever script is by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller; the excellent direction is by Richard Eyre, who made the little-seen but similarly compelling Stage Beauty. The result is an incisive exploration of what happens when two women who have different ways of coping with life's little prices collide. --MaryAnn Johanson

Pan's Labyrinth (R) I'm not convinced Guillermo del Toro really has anything compelling to say about a juxtaposition between fascist Spain and his intricate fantasy landscape, and that fans aren't simply hunting for an excuse to claim it's more than just a style piece. But so what? You've still gotta groove to the universe he creates for his pre-teen protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who moves with her widowed, pregnant mother in 1944 to live with her new stepfather, an army captain (Sergi López), while also discovering a strange underworld of which she may be the long-lost princess. Someone else can tie himself in knots finding political subtext or coming-of-age rebellion metaphors. The wicked cool creatures -- nasty little insectoid fairies; a beastly fellow with eyes in his palms -- and the squirming-est self-suturing scene since First Blood provide plenty of purely superficial reasons to have a blast. --Scott Renshaw

Smokin' Aces (R) A lot of critics went lollipops over Joe Carnahan's 2002 film Narc. Not so with Smokin' Aces, a work that makes Paul McGuigan's Lucky Number Slevin look like a masterpiece of wit. Carnahan was oviously aiming for a kind of quirky Tarantino quality, combined with the cleverness of Guy Ritchie's Snatch and the wonderfully convoluted plot of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. He fails spectacularly at all three. Aces aims at black comedy, but this movie with a bunch of B-list stars as hit men and FBI agents out to either off or protect would-be informer Buddy "Aces" Israel (Entourage's Jeremy Piven) is mostly bloody, brutal and boring. If it's black comedy, it was made by someone with no sense of humor. --Ken Hanke

Stomp the Yard (PG-13) A lot like an extended version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, but with less red leather and more believable gang violence. Stomp the Yard follows a troubled teen as he moves to Atlanta to escape his shady past by enrolling at Truth University, where he soon learns about the importance of Greek life and their traditions involving step dancing. Of course, being the talented hoofer that he is, he's soon being recruited by rival fraternities, despite the fact that his unorthodox street style is at odds with their strict traditions. It's ultimately harmless, but too clichéd to really keep the audience's interest. --Justin Souther


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