Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

Bedtime Stories (Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, dir. Adam Shankman)
I've never been a Sandler fan, but even people who love his style of humor will probably be bored with this neutered kiddie flick. Sandler sleepwalks through the whole thing like he's just waiting to cash a check, the effects work is lazily uncreative, and there is a disturbing CGI guinea pig with giant eyes who has no reason to exist. At least You Don't Mess With the Zohan had a point, of sorts. Wide release

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, dir. David Fincher)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one seems to have lost its Oscar-frontrunner status to Slumdog Millionaire, although I think it will probably still end up getting plenty of attention come nomination time. It's also been subject to a bit of a backlash, which I think is interesting in the context of Fincher's career. Last year, Zodiac was neglected by the studios and shunned by audiences, and it was taken up by many critics (myself included) as a rallying point. This year, Fincher's new movie is being derided as a cliched Hollywood product by some (although most reviews have been positive), and thoroughly embraced by the studio system. And while it may be warmer and more accessible, I still think Benjamin Button is very much in line thematically and stylistically with Fincher's other work. Its epic love story is surrounded by the constant spectre of mortality, and Fincher's expert craftsmanship is always on display. I found Zodiac more complex, more challenging and ultimately more rewarding, but I still think this is another triumph for Fincher. Wide release

Doubt (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, dir. John Patrick Shanley)
I'm sure this works much better on stage, where its boldface allegory can be viewed as symbolism rather than realism. Set in an actual place and an actual time period, this schematic story of a Catholic priest who may or may not have molested a young boy and the nun determined to bring him down comes off as clumsy and artificial. The actors give it their all, and occasionally manage to make the characters seem close to human, but most of the time they speak and act as if they ought to be walking around with big signs labeled "Doubt," "Faith" and "Certainty." Opened limited December 12; in Las Vegas this week

Frost/Nixon (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, dir. Ron Howard)
This movie is about 90 minutes of setup for one great 15-minute showdown, when Frost actually engages Nixon seriously about the Watergate crimes, and Nixon responds with anger and regret. In those moments, Langella and Sheen live up to the promise of a monumental face-off, but the rest of the movie is just another bland Ron Howard's Great Moments in American History project, as competent and dull as a book report. Opened limited December 5; in Las Vegas this week

I've Loved You So Long (Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, dir. Philippe Claudel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Thomas gets as much mileage as she can out of her performance here, but otherwise this is the slightly arty French version of a Lifetime "stalwart mother endures injustice" movie. She'll probably get an Oscar nomination and then not win, and then everyone will deservedly cease caring about this thoroughly mediocre movie. Opened limited October 24; in Las Vegas this week

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, dir. Frank Miller)
I've never really followed Miller's comics career, although I have of course read The Dark Knight Returns, and I read 300 before seeing the movie. His reputation as a comics creator has taken quite the beating in recent years, and this movie seems to be an extension of that descent into self-parody, with its emphasis on absurd hard-boiled dialogue, bizarre non sequiturs and extreme objectification of women. I liked the Sin City movie, but it featured a style very particular to its subject matter, and slapping that same aesthetic on something else doesn't really work. Miller seems determined to carve out a career as a filmmaker (he's already attached to a proposed Buck Rogers movie), but this is not exactly a promising start. Wide release

Valkyrie (Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, dir. Bryan Singer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The hype on this movie has been so negative for so long that people may be dismissing it before giving it much consideration, but it's actually a pretty good thriller with a surprising amount of suspense. Cruise is miscast, sure, but not egregiously, and Singer's choice to let the actors all use their natural voices is smart. They're not speaking German anyway, so why bother with distracting accents? That always bugs me in movies like this, so I was happy to see at least one director take the pragmatic route. This is well-crafted entertainment; it's not particularly profound despite its subject matter, but it's definitely worth seeing. Wide release

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