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Doubt

While Ron Howard transforms Frost/Nixon into a living, breathing motion picture, writer-director John Patrick Shanley never quite makes it past the curtain call with Doubt. Adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical triumph, Shanley doesn’t possess Howard’s instincts in front of the camera, resulting in a movie that remains stage-bound. Set in 1964, the film examines a battle of wills between the holy rollers at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the (mostly) humorless head of the school, striking fear not only in the students but also in some of the more timid nuns like Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister Aloysius isn’t crazy about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose desire for a more progressive and open-minded direction within the Catholic church flies in the face of her old-school ideology.

The Curious Case ofBenjamin Button

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is this year’s equivalent of Tim Burton’s Big Fish: a desperate lunge by a normally exciting genre-filmmaker to earn some year-end accolades by helming An Important Movie With Life-Affirming Values. Drastically altering a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, scripters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord move the setting from Baltimore to New Orleans, thereby allowing the modern-day framing sequences to occur in the midst of Katrina (a narrative decision that’s arguably tasteless but certainly clumsy). The bulk of the story deals with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who’s born as an 80-year-old man but becomes gradually younger. Like his cinematic soulmate, the title character in Forrest Gump (a far more interesting film also written by Roth), Benjamin leads a rich and varied life, although his heart always belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, like Forrest’s Jenny, is a callow free spirit who doesn’t realize the depths of her fondness for Benjamin until it’s almost too late.

The Reader

The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (the team behind the thoughtful adaptation of The Hours), arrives with all the obvious trappings of a year-end “prestige” picture. But since more time is spent exposing the milky white breasts of Kate Winslet than exposing the horrors of the Holocaust, viewers might be forgiven for thinking they stumbled into a big-budget remake of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Winslet’s Hannah Schmitz is a streetcar conductor in post-WWII Germany who enters into a passionate affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross). Just as Susan Sarandon’s Bull Durham character enjoyed the reading of poetry as a form of sexual foreplay, Hannah likes the literary word both before and after intercourse, urging Michael to read to her from the classics. In the blink of an eye, she drops out of his life, and it isn’t until a few years later, as he’s attending college, that she reappears — as a former Nazi guard on trial for atrocities during the war. At first glance, the movie’s shifts through time periods (Ralph Fiennes is suitably moody as the older, troubled Michael) allow the tale to keep us on our toes, but they eventually reveal themselves to be gimmicky to the point of distraction.

Valkyrie

Based on a true event that occurred in 1944, this handsome yet emotionally distant film centers on the efforts of a group of proud Germans to assassinate Adolf Hitler and wrest control away from the murderous tyrants who served under him. Chief among these conspirators is Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who’s aided by a mix of officers, soldiers and politicians (among the familiar players are Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Terence Stamp). Valkyrie is defeated by a thin script that fails to flesh out a single character, instead employing them all as pawns in a chess match in which the deck is already heavily stacked.

Marley & Me

Even given my status as a big dog lover, the notion of spending two hours watching puppies frolic during the course of Marley & Me seemed like a pretty one-note way to spend a matinee. Welcome, then, to one of the season’s most pleasant surprises, as this family film proves to be far more thematically rich than its simplistic trailer reveals. Major-league screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Get Shorty) and middle-league screenwriter Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) adapt John Grogan’s fact-based novel about his family’s pet, a Labrador retriever named Marley. Both journalists, John (Owen Wilson) and wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) agree that Marley is “the world’s worst dog,” given his penchant for always getting into trouble. Ultimately, though, the film makes a point that every dog owner -- indeed, every pet owner -- long ago took as gospel: A family doesn’t begin and end with merely its two-legged members.

Milk

The Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk offered a flawless look at the career of this passionate progressive, so it’s a testament to the richness of Gus Van Sant’s direction and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay that this fictionalized version feels authentic in every movement. Like Good Night, and Good Luck (another movie exploring right-wing zealots and their scapegoats), Milk expertly mixes archival footage with the dramatic recreations, and the climactic candlelight vigil is so expertly handled that it’s inspiring in both its artistic expression and emotional impact. As Milk, Sean Penn delivers the performance of his career, and he’s backed by a superlative cast containing only one weak link: Diego Luna as Milk’s insecure lover, Jack Lira (James Franco fares much better as Harvey’s previous lover, Scott Smith). But this is a small misstep in an otherwise excellent production.

Seven Pounds

The last time Will Smith teamed up with director Gabriele Muccino, the result was the box office smash The Pursuit of Happyness. With their latest collaboration, it seems as if the pair were engaged in the pursuit of crappyness. Smith, charisma intact, stars as Ben Thomas, an IRS agent clearly up to something good. Reaching into the lives of strangers, he tries to get to know them before bestowing his blessings — and his finances — upon them.

Yes Man

No one can blame Jim Carrey for returning to the same spastic well time after time. When the actor attempts to stretch, as in the underrated Man on the Moon or the time-wasting The Number 23, audiences usually stay away in droves. The difference here is that there’s a winning romance to go along with his hyperactivity -- for once, he’s as sweet as he is sweaty. Much of the credit goes to co-star Zooey Deschanel, who matches up better with the comedian than either Bruce Almighty’s Jennifer Aniston or Me, Myself & Irene’s Renee Zellweger, to name but two past movie g.f.s expected to stand aside as he cut loose. Deschanel, often cast as a charming flake, mines similar ground here, allowing Carrey to maintain his goofy brand of humor while also displaying a softer side. cs

The Spirit

If looks could kill, The Spirit, an adaptation of Will Eisner’s seminal comic strip, would wipe out entire auditorium audiences after every showing. Its eye-popping visual template mirrors that of Sin City, with its graphic stylistics lending a crisp, cool look to its tale of a masked hero who has returned from the grave to fight the evildoers who threaten the city he loves. But in this case, eye candy is hardly enough to compensate for the rest of this 10-ton turkey that fails on every other conceivable level.

The Day The Earth Stood Still

The 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still still holds up beautifully, but I’ll refrain from using a cherished original to bludgeon a shoddy remake. Keanu Reeves is so stiff in this outing that you fear rigor mortis will set in. Reeves plays Klaatu, an alien who arrives on Earth with the intention of -- what? Initially, he asks to speak to our planet’s leaders, presumably to provide them with an ultimatum. But the next minute he’s settled on wiping out the human race, because all he knows about us is that we love violence. It comes as a shock that humans, as repped by scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), are capable of love.

Twilight

Working from the first novel in Stephenie Meyer’s literary franchise. director Catherine Hardwicke and scripter Melissa Rosenberg have made Twilight a love story first and a vampire tale second. Kristen Stewart stars as Bella, who moves to the small town of Forks, Washington, to spend time with her police-chief father (Billie Burke). Before long, she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Edward (Robert Pattinson), who, like all his siblings, sports a pasty-white complexion and avoids the company of the other high school kids. But he soon discovers that he is likewise drawn to Bella, and as their relationship grows, he eventually exposes his true nature to her. Twilight is occasionally overwrought, yet Hardwicke turns that into a blessing rather than a curse. The director, who previously helmed the raw and uncompromising Thirteen, understands her teen protagonists well, and rather than speak down to them she allows their angst-filled behavior to register as the most important thing in the world. This ripeness in the movie’s form and content fuels the heated romance between Edward, who worries that he can’t control his bloodlust around his beloved, and Bella, who eventually declares that she wants him to lose control. The movie has fun dabbling in the clichés of the high school flick, although it saves most of its innovation for bending the rules of the vampire game: Twilight’s bloodsuckers can move about during the daytime (albeit only on cloudy, overcast days), and especially interesting is that this particular clique considers itself vegetarian because its members only eat animals, not humans.

Bolt

Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn’t for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio’s entire animation department. It mixes the speed of a Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It’s entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it’s over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic. cs

Favorite

More by Matt Brunson

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  • Review: Moana

    Again combining a fairly standard morality tale with eye-popping visuals, Disney has another hit in Moana, a rollicking yarn centered on a young lass (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) coming of age on a South Pacific island.
    • Nov 29, 2016
  • Review: Manchester By The Sea
  • Review: Manchester By The Sea

    A film that cuts close to the bone, with gentle humor only occasionally serving as a buffer against the harsh realities of these characters’ lives.
    • Nov 29, 2016
  • Review: Arrival
  • Review: Arrival

    A motion picture that turns out to be far more focused on humanity than on otherworldly visitors, it’s a transcendent viewing experience that gets under the skin and into the heart.
    • Nov 15, 2016
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