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 gorgeous to behold, between the natural scenery and co-stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Grade: B

"A Christmas Tale"

Though the title suggests an innocuous holiday movie, Arnaud Desplechin's latest is actually a gift of fascinating and unpredictable characters. There's a family full of them, including dying matriarch Catherine Deneuve and ne'er-do-well son Matthieu Almaric, and as they go about their days together for a Christmas reunion, funny and devastating revelations arise naturally (or with help from alcohol). After over two hours in their company, it's hard to pull away. Grade: A-

"The Day the Earth Stood Still"

In this 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. 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. 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-

"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

"Seven Pounds"

The reunion between Will Smith and Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino is a surprisingly engaging flick, particularly if you know next to nothing about it. Suffice to say that Smith, as an IRS agent playing karmic Robin Hood, probably won't snare another Oscar nod, but he scores points for the degree of difficulty in generating sympathy for the profession. Muccino lays the sap on thick, but his storytelling is effective enough to smooth over some cringe-worthy dialogue and awkwardly developed romance. Grade: B

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Danny Boyle's latest takes the form of questions and seamlessly edited answers, surrounding an uneducated Mumbai slum dweller (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

"The Tale of Despereaux"

A little more spice is needed in this animated saga of soup love, rodents and fighting back fear for honor, based on Kate DiCamillo's Newberry-winning children's book. Its Old Masters-influenced style is gorgeous, and its voice cast - Matthew Broderick, Sigourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman and more - is stellar. But after an hour or so in the movie's fairy tale world, both adults and children will be looking for the exit. 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 reveals a heart that's more romantic than horror-minded. But director Catherine Hardwicke mostly triumphs over the material, turning it into a realistic portrayal of the messiness of young love. Grade: B

"Yes Man"

The commercial may suggest more of the talking-out-his-butt Jim Carrey that no one's missed since 1994, but his new movie actually plays more like Liar Liar, a comedy with heart. Despite a trite third act and director Peyton Reed's episodic tendencies, Carrey has a sharp and pleasant return as a depressed bank loan officer forced by a New Age guru (Terence Stamp) to say yes to everything, including the always amazing Zooey Deschanel. Grade: B