Capsule Reviews of current and ongoing movies 

Opening this Week

Punisher: War Zone (R) Ray Stevenson stars as the skull T-shirt-wearing Marvel Comics vigilante, replacing Thomas Jane. This time the Punisher takes on the menacing Jigsaw (Dominic West).

Critical Capsules

Australia (PG-13) Here we have a pampered English rose named Sarah who has been sheltered from unpleasantness, and the moment she lands in the frontier territories of northwest Australia in September 1939, she's confronted with the racial and cultural prejudices of the European-descended whites toward the native aboriginals, and they enrage her. Australia isn't quite a pastiche of The Grapes of Wrath meets Dances with Wolves, or of Gone with the Wind meets Out of Africa, but almost. But you know that Luhrmann's tongue is just a little bit in his cheek when he introduces us to the hero for his heroine, Hugh Jackman's Drover, who comes crashing into the movie in a pub brawl that's straight out of a Golden Age Western. And there are other moments later for the Drover, too, that evoke Clark Gable and the shock of him taking his shirt off in 1934's It Happened One Night, or of any time Humphrey Bogart wore a white tuxedo jacket. It's all deliciously corny and pretty darn honest and wonderful at the same time. —MaryAnn Johanson

Bolt (PG) About the most enthusiasm I can muster for Disney's newest entrant in capturing the hearts and minds of children (and the pocket books of their parents), Bolt, is that it exists. Beyond that, there isn't much more to say about this film. It's an innocuous and bland animated movie with more formula than a chemistry book, but since Bolt never tries to be anything more, it'll be perfectly satisfactory for youngsters and consummately dull for parents. John Travolta voices Bolt, who plays a heroic, super-powered canine on a TV show, where he runs around saving young Penny (Miley Cyrus) from the clutches of the nefarious Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). The problem is that Bolt doesn't realize his life is primetime programming, so when he escapes into the real world, yes, he thinks he has super powers. The film becomes a PG-rated story of animated self-discovery, as Bolt realizes the fraudulence of his life up to this point (how existential!) before, of course, overcoming all this in the final act. Standard fare all around, enlivened at some theaters by being in 3-D. —Justin Souther

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13) Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a classic case of a filmmaker mistaking the importance of his subject for the importance of his film. Sure, the movie's goal of viewing the Holocaust through the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of an eight-year-old German is heavy stuff to begin with, and a fresh enough take on the subject on its own. But Herman has decided that this simply isn't enough, as he's gummed up the works in breast-beating histrionics and a contrived final act, all of which continually makes the movie feel phony and undermines any emotional resonance it might've had. The basic premise — the inevitably tragic friendship between the son (Asa Butterfield) of the Nazi officer (David Thewlis) in charge of a concentration camp and a little Jewish boy (Jack Scanlon) imprisoned in that camp — is strong, but the execution falls far short of its potential. —Justin Souther

Four Christmases (PG-13) The Christmas moviegoing season is officially upon us with Four Christmases, a film so monstrously awful that it will probably make a fortune, spawn sequels, and cause a mania for gags involving projectile vomiting babies. Never underestimate the power of any Christmas-themed movie — no matter how dreadful — to pack 'em in at this time of year. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, exuding zero chemistry, play an altogether too perky couple who are forced to spend Christmas visiting their respective divorced (and generally crazy) parents (Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight). The misery of the experience causes them to re-evaluate their lives and learn that, despite the film's amassed evidence to the contrary, nothing is as important as family. Spectacularly unfunny and, occasionally, downright creepy. —Ken Hanke

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (G) As plastic as a Tupperware convention, the big-screen incarnation of the Disney-ific High School Musical has stolen the Halloween season box office from Saw V, which is in itself something, though by the 30-minute mark of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, I'd have been overjoyed to see all these shiny, perky, squeaky-clean kids stumble into a Saw movie. I suppose it all depends on whether you're a fan of the TV films, but really this is little more than a collection of improbably pretty people energetically performing blandly photographed production numbers of incredibly unmemorable songs — smiling for all they're worth. What dramatic tension there is seems to center on whether Zac Efron will choose his love of basketball or his love of theater (though the latter is scarcely conveyed). If that's not enough, you can bite your nails over whether the fuel pump on his junker truck will hold out. That's about as exciting as it gets. Fans will feel differently. Its popularity probably assures us a series that might well end up in grad school. —Ken Hanke

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (PG) Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa may seem a little dubious, since the island of Madagascar belongs to Africa, but then it doesn't seem like a whole lot of deep thinking went into this inevitable sequel to the popular Madagascar. Indeed, the film seems less like a sequel than a retread of the original, relying very heavily on reproducing what made the first movie a box office hit. On that score, the new film obviously works. In other words, if you liked the first picture and want exactly more of the same, you'll find what you want here in this tale of our heroes (and their pricey voice actors) trying to get back to civilization in a makeshift plane (courtesy of the popular Madagascar penguins) and crashing on the continent. It's pleasant enough, and fans of voice actors Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen, et al. will be happy with it, as will kids and people who liked the first outing. —Justin Souther

Quantum of Solace (PG-13) Casino Royale was widely hailed as a revitalizing tonic to the often static Bond brand, adding a meaty new dimension to a personality we thought we knew, and the possibility for a more soulful metrosexual spy. Fans of Casino Royale held out hope that Quantum of Solace would be another foray into the brooding Bond. For this Bond, Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, and The Kite Runner) would be at the helm. Quantum's mission feels quite different: to inject real-world issues courtesy of a screenplay by Paul Haggis (Crash) and Neal Purvis. The resulting Syriana-esque willingness of former good guys like Britain and America to do business with bad guys for the love of oil makes for a more topical, though not necessarily more thrilling, or engaging, Bond. —Felicia Feaster

Role Models (R) It would be easy to dismiss David Wain's Role Models as a Judd Apatow knock-off. In fact, star Seann William Scott has said as much in TV interviews. However, Wain's film has its own vibe going, is more tightly structured, and leaves a sweeter after-taste. It clearly follows the formula of mixing raunchy comedy and nudity with a feel-good storyline, though its main characters are at least a step up from Apatow's man-boys in that they at least have fairly lucrative, if deliberately silly, jobs. Scott and Paul Rudd star as reps for an energy drink that they hawk at schools as part of an anti-drug campaign. Scott likes the job (even if he has to dress up on a Minotaur costume), but Rudd doesn't, which leads to a freakout on his part and a good bit of property damage that lands them with community service sentences involving mentoring trouble youths — an über-nerd (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad's McLovin) and a foul-mouthed black kid of 10 (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who's obsessed with "boobies" and equates all white guys with Ben Affleck. It's all surprisingly funny, clever, and pleasantly entertaining. —Ken Hanke

Secret Life of Bees (PG-13) Bees is a lovely story about an ugly time, the summer of 1964, when the new Civil Rights Act was making life in the American South more complicated for the very people it was meant to help. When Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) dares to talk in a way less than 100 percent deferential to a white man in rural South Carolina, she is made to pay for it, to the horror of her adolescent charge, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), and this becomes the last straw in Lily's own personal upset. Haunted by memories of her long-dead mother and desperate to find out more about her — as well as to get away from her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), who has turned his misery on his daughter — Lily hits the road, dragging Rosaleen along, to another town she has reason to believe may hold some answers. —MaryAnn Johanson

Soul Men (R) Malcolm D. Lee's Soul Men is a humdrum, forgettable R-rated comedy redeemed by the undeniable magnetism of leads Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac. The plot itself is a sturdy enough foundation, with the duo playing Louis (Jackson) and Floyd (Mac), a couple of washed up, estranged back-up singers who grabbed some acclaim while a part of the soul group Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. But it seems after their early success, frontman Marcus (musician John Legend) left the group to pursue a lucrative solo career while Louis and Floyd were left to slowly fade into obscurity. This changes when Marcus dies and the now-embattled pair are reunited for a memorial show at the Apollo. The results are moderately entertaining, but make for a sorry farewell to Mac, who died this year. —Justin Souther

Transporter 3 (PG-13) It's big, dumb, preposterous, occasionally nonsensical, and more often than not, utterly ludicrous. This, however, does not keep it from being 100 minutes of entertainment wrapped up in a ridiculous action movie. Directed by Olivier Megaton (yes, well), this latest entry in the series finds our hero, Frank Martin (Jason Statham) seemingly retired from his transporting days. It's not until his old friend and fellow transporter (David Atrakchi) fails to deliver a package that he's coerced into finishing the job for him. So Frank sets off in his Audi, accompanied by a mysterious Ukrainian (newcomer Natalya Rudakova) with a Zagat's-like encyclopedic knowledge of European seafood restaurants and each sporting a wristband that'll explode if either one goes more than 75 feet from the car. It all has something to do with the Ukrainian president (Jeroen Krabbe) and a cargo ship full of toxic waste that looks an awful lot like baked beans. Great filmmaking? No. But it more than passes muster as a solid actioner. —Justin Souther

Twilight (PG-13) It's critic-proof, has a pre-sold fanbase, and since it appears to reproduce the goopy smoldering teen romance of the books in all its madly purple glory, it will likely find ready favor with that fanbase. In every other capacity, it's a dreadful movie that compounds its dreadfulness by being remarkably boring. Calling it a horror movie is an overstatement, since it's really all about raging teen hormones (nevermind that one of the teens is really about 108 years old). The plot involves Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a quasi-goth girl of unnatural pallor who moves to the rain-swept Pacific Northwest where she meets hunky vampire boy Edward (Robert Pattinson). If Lord Byron had been the love child of James Van Der Beek and Jack Elam and shopped at Hot Topic, he'd have looked a lot like Edward. This — and the fact that Edward glowers at the camera with the intensity of a mopey twink — means that Bella is immediately smitten. They stare at each other for what seems like hours until the film takes a U-turn to become a pretty dull thriller in which Edward has to save Bella from a bad vampire (Cam Gigandet). Fans will love it. Everyone else can shiver with dread that the sequel is already in the works. —Kan Hanke


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