Reviews in Short

By Cole Smithey

Doubt. Playwright John Patrick Shanley adapts his award winning ’60s-era drama for the silver screen with mixed success. Shanley’s narrative presents a double-edged problem by painting Catholic priest Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a concerned good-guy to Meryl Streep’s baleful Sister Aloysius, who accuses him of impropriety with the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). In light of the countless priests who have been indicted on pedophilia charges in recent years, the material brings into question Shanley’s motivations for writing what is a tacit apology for suspicions raised against male clergy.

Convincing performances from Amy Adams (as Sister James), Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman do little to mitigate the material’s buried agenda. (Miramax Films) Rated PG-13. 104 mins. (C)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Visually arresting but woefully short on substance, David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgearld’s short story about a man who ages backward is like a parlor game that wears out its welcome.

Great CGI pains were gone to in creating Brad Pitt’s physical bearing as Benjamin Button, a baby born in 1861 as an old man who sees the world before his condition catches up with him. The death of Benjamin’s mother during childbirth causes Benjamin’s wealthy father, Thomas, to abandon the baby on the doorstep of a New Orleans retirement home run by a kind woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin’s urbane demeanor inspires people to treat him fairly well in spite of the oddity of his looks.

Benjamin falls in love with a young girl named Daisy, to whom he will eventually return when their ages intersect. Eric Roth (the screenwriter for "Forest Gump") can’t refrain from a steady stream of platitudes that substitute for any actual philosophically or ideologically-charged viewpoint. Benjamin Button might seem like a rocket scientist compared to Forest Gump, but he’s still a glorified idiot savant. Rated PG-13. 159 mins. (C )

Sean Penn’s Oscar-worthy physical and psychological embodiment of San Francisco gay activist politician Harvey Milk fits hand-in-glove with Gus Van Sant’s even-handed treatment of his inspirational subject. In light of his otherwise spotty career, "Milk" is clearly the film that Van Sant was destined to make, and the filmmaker seamlessly blends archival footage with tasteful set pieces to tell the doomed story of Milk’s political career. Resonant ensemble performances from James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Alison Pill are rounded out by a solid portrayal from Josh Brolin as city council member Dan White, a deeply conflicted individual unable to come to grips with his place in society. Look for "Milk" to garner multiple nominations come Oscar time. (Focus Features) Rated R. 127 mins. (A-)

Slumdog Millionaire.
Director Danny Boyle has made a cross-cultural milestone that plays with the edgy energy of "Trainspotting," albeit with considerable influence from its vibrant Mumbai (formerly Bombay) locations and talented cast. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s terse script pedals between the set of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," a hugely popular Indian television game show, and the past life of 18-year-old "slumdog" orphan Jamal

Malik (well-played by Dev Patel), as it informs his correct answers to multiple choice questions that have won him 10 million rupees so far. On the eve of Jamal’s return to the show, where he will answer one last question that could double his winnings, the show’s suspicious host (Anil Kapoor) sends the boy to be interrogated by a local police inspector (Irrfan Khan) to discover if and how the uneducated boy cheated.

Flashbacks reveal Jamal’s troubled childhood that saw his mother brutally murdered during a random attack against Muslims in their impoverished ghetto. A propulsive musical score helps define the unbridled joy that underlies every frame of this fast-paced explosion of comedy and drama. (Fox Searchlight) Rated R, 116 mins. (A-)

Bolt is a revved-up, animated 3-D kids movie about a canine TV star named Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), capable of all sorts of amazing feats on his self-titled TV show. For the sake of Bolt’s convincing performances, the show’s producers have convinced him that his super powers are real. The tow-headed little pooch performs all sorts of eye-popping stunts to protect his action hero mistress Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus), until an accidental fall sends Bolt unaccompanied from L.A. to Manhattan, where the confused little guy meets up with a streetwise cat named Mittens (Susie Essman). Desperate to return to Hollywood, Bolt gets Mittens to help navigate the cross-country journey. Along the way the pair attract a chubby hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton) who gets around via a clear plastic ball. Walton deserves special praise for his infectiously funny performance. Unlike “The Incredibles” or “Cars,” this is an animated effort that could spawn a sequel, or perhaps even a spin-off. “Action Hamster” anyone? (Disney) Rated PG. 96 mins. (A-)

Transporter 3.
The little James Bond knock-offfranchise-that-could from producer Luc Besson picks up some steam in its third installment with the help of unconventional, international it-girl Natalya Rudakova as Valentina, the kidnapped daughter of a Russian diplomat. As the sexy luggage that driver extraordinaire Frank Martin (Jason Statham) must transport from Western to Eastern Europe, Rudakova balances the film’s intense and varied action sequences with her flirtatious charm. Frank and Valentina are fitted with explosive bracelets that will ignite if they are separated by more than 75 feet from Frank’s car. It’s thanks to the “Transporter” series that there is an international super-action genre outside of James Bond. That’s a good thing. Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-)

Four Christmases.
Although it starts out as a zippy, holiday comedy “Four Christmases” loses focus and disperses into a less-than-satisfying comic experience. Anti-Christmas yuppies Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) have a tradition of spending the holidays in tropical locales in order to avoid their dysfunctional families. Heavy airport fog and a roving television crew instigate the couple into making the rounds at the homes of their respective families. First on their list is Brad’s unkind father (played by Robert Duval) and mixed-martial-arts practicing brothers. Slapstick physical comedy ensues, and it’s off to mom’s house, where Sissy Spacek plays Brad’s sexually adventurous mother who has taken up with his former best friend. Perhaps funny on paper, the segment falters, and cracks in the script give way to some more-uncomfortable-than-hilarious moments with Kate’s batch of man-hungry kin who try to sink their teeth into Brad. “Four Christmases” is a sporadically funny movie that never quite comes together. (Warner Bros.) Rated PG-13, 83 mins. (C)

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