Capsule film reviews

"Australia"

Although Baz Luhrmann's lavish return to the big screen after a seven-year absence covers a large part of the Australian Outback, it's engorged with a sincere appreciation of classic Hollywood spectacle. He aims simultaneously for a love story, a Western saga, a WWII docudrama and an Aboriginal history lesson, which makes for a whole lot of movie. Some may find it too much, but Luhrmann's work is meaty with entertainment and gorgeous to behold, between the natural scenery and co-stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Grade: B

"Bolt"

The new Disney animated movie looks great, and its tale of a dog TV actor (John Travolta) who believes he's a superhero traveling cross-country to find his "person" (Miley Cyrus) is 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. As for the dog star, the slow, painful awakening to his utter normalcy involves physical punishment that one-ups Bambi's mother in the area of animated animal cruelty. Grade: B-

"The Day the Earth Stood Still"

In this new remake of the classic 1951 sci-fi cautionary tale, Keanu Reeves illustrates another of the brilliant role choices that has kept his career aloft. Once again he settles on a character that's human but not, a humanoid alien who's arrived on Earth with a super-slick giant robot to kill humanity for the sake of the planet. Unfortunately, guessing what the actor will do next is more interesting than his performance, the emotional connection his character makes with scientist Jennifer Connelly and a grating Jaden Smith, or the de rigeur destruction of U.S. landmarks. Grade: C+

"Four Christmases"

This tale of a happily unmarried couple (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) forced to give up their tropical vacation and spend Christmas with each of their divorced parents is an agreeable addition to the holiday genre, even if it's not destined to become a classic. In typical date-movie form, some of the gags are targeted exclusively at men or women, and the couple's story plays out a little too predictably. But Vaughn and Witherspoon have a comfortable chemistry, while the supporting cast is full of great heavyweights (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek) and nice surprises (cameos by Dwight Yoakam and A Christmas Story's Peter Billingsley). Grade: B-

"Let the Right One In"

In Tomas Alfredson's Swedish coming-of-age/horror hybrid, a 12-year-old boy with anger issues over being bullied finds an unexpected soulmate in the girl vampire who moves in next door. As the two of them solidify a relationship of mutual need - his for affection, hers for human blood - the filmmaker allows a silence to permeate much of the snow-covered film, making the sporadic scenes of ultra-violence all the more shocking. It's easy to see where the story's headed, but formal precision, heartfelt emotion and genre satisfaction make the trip memorable. Grade: B+

"Milk"

In his film about the life of assassination victim Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S., director Gus Van Sant creates not only a heartfelt tribute to a devoted gay rights leader, but an up-close look at the rise of San Francisco's gay subculture and a resonating message movie. The result feels timely and fresh, even to those familiar with the tragic story, with Sean Penn toning down his usual overacting to play Milk as a joyful, slightly flamboyant and completely charming politician. 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. 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-

"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

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Danny Boyle's latest takes the form of questions and seamlessly edited answers, surrounding an uneducated Mumbai slum dweller (charismatic newcomer Dev Patel) in police custody who's forced to explain how he's gotten one question away from winning the jackpot on the Indian Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? without cheating. The energy and imagery the filmmaker harnesses in Mumbai is plenty to get happily lost in, but what really makes this film so loveable is its remarkably clever balance between tragedy, comedy, personal drama, global pop culture and life-consuming romance. Grade: A

"Transporter 3"

Making his U.S. debut, French director Olivier Megaton jumps on the Transporter formula of intricate conspiracy plot for the sake of insane car stunts and bone-breaking fights that often leave star Jason Statham shirtless. While those stunts and car chases are undeniably cool, Megaton's style is so frenetic, at times the only tool the viewer has to make sense of things is the predicable fact that whichever blur is doling out the biggest whomping must be Statham. Grade: C

"Twilight"

Playing tortured-yet-hunky vampire Edward in the first movie adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's hugely popular teen-romance novels, Robert Pattinson has been christened as the Tiger Beat model for a new generation. Fortunately, he isn't a bad actor either, even when he and his excellent co-star Kristen Stewart are forced into simple, slightly cheesy dialogue exchanges. Meyer's emphasis on forbidden vampire-human relations and the associated teen angst reveals a heart that's more romantic than horror-minded, and her output can sometimes resemble bad poetry. But director Catherine Hardwicke mostly triumphs over the material, turning it into a realistic portrayal of the messiness of young love. Grade: B

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