Capsule film reviews

"Ashes of Time Redux"

Fourteen years after its initial release, Wong Kar Wai's entry into the swordfighting wuxia genre gets a full U.S. rollout, in a Redux version that's been tightened and technically enhanced by the director. Leslie Cheung's self-exiled middleman between vengeful villagers and hired swordsmen is the center from which loosely collected plot strands emanate. A trancelike state can result if you go with it, between the filmmaker's rhythms and the intoxicating imagery of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Grade: B

"Bolt"

The new Disney animated movie looks great, and debut feature directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams pack its tale of a dog TV actor (John Travolta) who believes he's a superhero traveling cross-country to find his "person" (Miley Cyrus) full of action. But it's actually a newfound buddy, fat trailer-park hamster Rhino (voiced by animator Mark Walton), who steals almost all the laughs in the film.

While Hollywood in-joking and a couple of story-pitching pigeons provide a few more laughs, they're matched by Bolt's slow, painful awakening to his utter normalcy. The physical punishment involved one-ups Bambi's mother in the area of animated animal cruelty for dramatic effect. Grade: B-

"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"

Writer-director Mark Herman's holocaust movie - for kids! - is one seriously miscalculated effort. While it offers a committed cast and an imaginative view of life next to a concentration camp through the eyes of the eight-year-old son (Asa Butterfield) of a Nazi commander (David Thewlis, with Vera Farmiga as the boy's mother), it also employs an especially ruthless form of audience manipulation, the kind that makes you feel like walking it off. Grade: C-

"Changeling"

Clint Eastwood turns his deliberate pacing and gorgeously spare cinematography on an extraordinary true story - the experience of a '20s-era mother (Angelina Jolie) whose son goes missing one day, and who's eventually given the wrong boy back - and Jolie turns in a fearless performance as a very fearful but resolute parent. Yet by sticking to the known facts of the case, a lot of questions are left unanswered, and you can't help wondering whether a bit of fiction would've been more satisfying. Grade: B+

"Happy-Go-Lucky"

British veteran Mike Leigh isn't really thought of as a feel-good-movie kind of guy, but he makes up for it with his character study of ebulliently positive 30-year-old schoolteacher Poppy (an extraordinary Sally Hawkins). Her outfits may be loud and her first impression is ditzy, but Poppy's truly remarkable, as much for her willed optimism as the effect it has on others like her sad, hateful driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Though there's some strong apprehension created by their scenes together, in the end, you'll be sharing Poppy's infectious grin. Grade: A

"Quantum of Solace"

In his second outing as James Bond, Daniel Craig's hard face and physique serve the spy's newly consuming anger well, with Judi Dench's M distilling a fear chaser after discovering that a shadowy global crime operation has gotten very close to her. Based in such primal emotions and an in-your-face aesthetic from director Marc Forster, Quantum has the capacity to hit on a visceral level, especially in the opening and closing action scenes. But its immersion in darkness keeps the story from cohering and, sadly, French film star Mathieu Amalric is underutilized as Bond's new nemesis. Grade: B-

"Rachel Getting Married"

Director Jonathan Demme adopts handheld camerawork and natural lighting, while star Anne Hathaway takes on bad hair and a damaged, ragingly narcissistic character, for this intense view of a deep family wound reopened by a weekend wedding. Unwelcome distraction comes from the more exhausting parts of her performance and a forced feeling of multiculturalism throughout. If you can tune out that loudness, you'll find a touching statement about punishing the ones you love, made in a style that's right for the material. Grade: B

"Role Models"

If you're not a fan of live-action medieval role-playing, you might want to steer clear of David Wain's comedy about a couple of slackers (Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott) who end up as mentors in a Big Brothers-like program in a community service plea bargain. Most of the laughs come from the early, pre-mentoring scenes, but there's plenty that's not funny, including jokes about one boy's obsession with breasts and bad language and the other's all-consuming mock swordplay habit. Grade: C

"Synecdoche, New York"

Like all the movies made from his pretzel-logic screenplays, Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut isn't really light watching, even when it's funny. Yet its portrait of an artist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose life passes by with increasing speed and culminates in an epic theater piece is grounded. Like Kaufman's best work, it explores something universal and surprisingly touching. The filmmaker's ambitious vision, along with Hoffman's excellent performance and a supporting cast of some of the best actresses working, yield a truly fascinating film, one of the year's best. Grade: A

"Transporter 3" NEW!

With a name like Olivier Megaton, you'd better deliver an explosive action movie, and the French director does his damnedest in his American feature debut.

Working with series vets Luc Besson as writer-producer, Jason Statham as morally upright, emotionally stingy driver Frank Martin, and Francois Berleand as French policeman Tarconi (Claude Rains to Statham's Bogie), Megaton jumps on the Transporter formula of intricate conspiracy plot for the sake of insane car stunts and bone-breaking fights that often leave our anti-hero shirtless.

Those stunts and car chases are undeniably cool. There's also equal-opportunity eye candy in Natalya Rudakova's Valentina, a mysterious, intermittently annoying Ukrainian who rides shotgun in Frank's Audi after he's forced at gunpoint into a potentially deadly job. But Megaton's style is so frenetic, it can be hard to read the imagery. All you have to rely on then is the predicable fact that whichever blur is doling out the biggest whomping must be Statham.

Conversely, no matter how much new visual trickery Megaton applies, he can't hide old-fashioned fight choreography in which, in a 10-on-one face-off, only one guy jumps on Statham at a time while the rest form an agitated circle around them. Grade: C

-Melissa Starker

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno"

Kevin Smith's latest is refreshingly simple, a story of two childhood friends (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to earn some quick cash by filming their own amateur skin flick. As usual for Smith, it's high on the immaturity, quick with the inappropriate and consistent with the hysterical, but Rogen and Banks really bring this film to life with their natural chemistry. Grade: A-