Australia - Is Baz Luhrmann's sprawling epic Australia a love story? An adventure pic? A war flick? In the grand tradition of old-school Hollywood movies, Luhrmann's $130 million movie is all of these. Set in 1939, on the eve of Australia's involvement in World War II, English aristocrat Sarah Ashley (played with proper stick-up-her-ass form by Nicole Kidman) inherits property in Australia. A conniving cattleman and his evil henchman have other plans for the land. Enter outback cowboy Drover (a dashing Hugh Jackman) to save the day. While Luhrmann doesn't paint Australia with the stylish pop-art colors he applied to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, he does inject some fantasy elements. Luhrmann clearly loves his country, as do native stars Kidman and Jackman. "This land has a strange power," someone says to Sarah near the beginning of the movie. Indeed. Australia, like The Wizard of Oz, has a dreamlike pull. The film represents the country at its most old-Hollywood magnificent. And at its hoariest. 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - A lovely adaptation by British filmmaker Mark Herman (Little Voice) of a novel by Irish author John Boyne, a fable about an 8-year-old German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father, Ralf (David Thewlis), is an ambitious Nazi kommandant. The family relocates from its comfortable Berlin mansion to "the countryside" (actually Poland) after his father is promoted to a position overseeing a concentration camp (Auschwitz, though never named; in the book Bruno understands it as "Out-With"). Bruno, an imaginative child who wants to become an explorer, is unhappy in the isolation of their gloomy new home. His child's mind doesn't grasp the horrors of the Nazi atrocities happening in his country and backyard; he wonders about the nearby "farm" and its inhabitants who wear "pajamas" (striped prison uniforms with numbers). Shot in Budapest, the movie is impeccably made, with fine performances and lapidary cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)
Chafed Elbows (US, 1966) - In his breakthrough film, Robert Downey Sr. stars as a New Yorker who bums around the city. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7.
A Christmas Tale - Despite that treacly title which makes it sound like a Very Special Hallmark Hall of Fame TV flick, A Christmas Tale upends virtually every cliché known to connoisseurs of holiday-themed fare. For starters, it's the first "Christmas" film inspired by a treatise on organ transplants (La greffe by psychoanalyst Jacques Ascher and hematologist Jean-Pierre Jouet). Ho-ho-ho indeed. The extended family of Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) gathers round the yule log, trying to figure out who would make the most compatible bone-marrow transplant donor. Another pall cast over the festivities is the looming shadow of youngest Vuillard child Joseph who died at age seven from lymphoma. Nothing says holiday cheer like a dead child and a dying mother, right? But by the time it's over, you feel like an honorary member of the Vuillards as you get to know each and every one of them. (Paurich)
The Crystal Liturgy: Olivier Messiaen (France, 2002) - A portrait of the French composer with interviews, archival material and music. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7.
Four Christmases - "How can you appreciate someone for who they are if you don't really know them?" Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth) asks sis Kate (Reese Witherspoon) in Four Christmases, a holiday-themed rom-com co-starring Vince Vaughn. So, for 90 minutes, three-year-old couple Kate and Brad (Vaughn) get to really know each other. But it turns out that they really don't like, let alone appreciate, each other afterward. Four Christmases essentially plays like a quartet of vignettes (some funny, some not so much), each featuring its own squabbling siblings, puking babies and horny old folk. Vaughn plays his usual fast-talking, smartass Everyguy; Witherspoon pretty much tags along as his best-girl buddy. Director Seth Gordon (who helmed last year's terrific videogame doc, The King of Kong) parades movie vets Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek across the screen as Kate and Brad's parents. He's more inspired, however, with Vaughn's old Swingers pal Jon Favreau as Brad's "semi-professional cage fighter" brother, a 'roided up a-hole who greets Brad with headlocks and body slams. (Gallucci)
July Rain (USSR, 1966) - A New Wave-inspired film about a group of twentysomethings living in Moscow. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:40 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4.
Let the Right One In - This Norwegian vampire movie is a love story as much as a horror flick. Tomas Alfredson's movie is so beautifully shot, the scenes of bloodsucking are almost transcendent. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a shy 12-year-old who's regularly bullied at school. When it turns out his new 12-year-old neighbor Leni (Lina Leandersson) is also a loner, he falls in love with her, taking her advice to "hit back" when he's attacked. Oskar starts hitting the weights and the next time the bully comes to get him, he's ready. But Leni is soon the scourge of the town after several witnesses see her attacking her victims. When she's forced to leave, Oskar has to decide if he should follow. The young characters are well-defined and the tragic story is compelling, even if you're not a fan of the genre. (Niesel)
The Passionate Friends (Britain, 1966) - A former lover disrupts the life of his old flame, now married, in this David Lean film that's based on a story by H.G. Wells. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6.
Quantum of Solace - Casino Royale, the first Bond film to star the brooding Daniel Craig as the debonair spy, borrowed heavily from the Bourne franchise and did some reinventing of its own. And it goes way deeper than the leaps and bounds of the breathtaking chase scene. Bond killed men with his bare hands (just like Bourne!), he relied on brains rather than some high-tech thingamajig to get out of jams (just like Bourne!) and it all ended on a downer note (yep, just like Bourne). That's where Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond film, picks up. Immediately after the death of his girlfriend at the hands of the enigmatic Quantum organization, Bond speeds through Italy's winding mountain roads - in a gripping pre-titles sequence - with one of the group's masterminds tied up in his trunk. But before Bond and his secret-service colleagues (including boss M, played by a stern Judi Dench) have a chance to question the shadowy Mr. White, he escapes with the help of a Quantum mole. While Quantum of Solace features a typically convoluted Bondsian plot, it's mostly personal this time, as Bond and a new gal pal (Olga Kurylenko) set out for revenge. (Gallucci)
Repo! The Genetic Opera - Repo! The Genetic Opera, a gothic-rock musical and midnight-movie hopeful, shows what can happen when a person with no musical talent locks himself in a room with the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Moulin Rouge, and decides, "Hey, I can do that!" No words yet exist to describe how wretched this movie is. It originated as a play by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich about a graverobber in debt to an organ-repossession man. For some reason, the play was successful enough to be made into this unwatchable movie, an all-singing gore-fest replete with vivisections, oozing intestines and music that, if used to compel terrorist confessions, would violate the Geneva convention. The film targets young viewers, who may find something entertaining about it and don't insist that songs have such things as melodies. But the movie has no discernible point. Is it a satire about the modern mania for easy credit and plastic surgery? A warning about a future corporate-controlled dystopia? Both, or nothing at all? (Zoslov)
Santouri: The Music Man (Iran, 2007) - Banned in Iran, Santouri follows Ali (Bahram Radan), a popular singer-songwriter and player of the santoor (an ancient stringed instrument), as he spirals into heroin addiction and destroys his life and career. Radan gives a gut-wrenching performance as the film's talented but severely flawed protagonist who loses everything and alienates the people closest to him because he can't control his addiction, which, the film implies, is the by-product of living in a repressed country. A mix of modern and traditional music, the soundtrack is terrific, too. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5 and at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6. (Niesel)
Synecdoche, New York - The love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year, Synecdoche, New York will definitely separate Charlie Kaufman-come-latelys from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Being John Malkovich scenarist's hardcore fans. After only one viewing, it's not easy to comprehend the film. But that's a normal reaction to any film as meta, multi-layered and crazily ambitious as this homegrown variant on Fellini's epochal, hallucinatory, "artist-through-the-looking-glass" masterpiece 8 1/2. The fact that Caden's theatrical crazy-quilt more closely resembles a movie than a stage piece - a huge, out-of-control movie in which an auteur director has been given carte blanche by deep-pocketed Hollywood suits - is surely deliberate. Yet there's method to Kaufman's madness, and Synecdoche, New York is as exhilarating and (frequently exasperating) as it is spectacularly entertaining. (Paurich)
Transporter 3 - Directed by the wonderfully named Olivier Megaton from a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Transporter 3 seems to have been written by taking the first film's screenplay, crossing out the names of the supporting characters and substituting new ones. Add a few new stunts and fights, and you've got the movie. The film is Jason Statham's third go-around as driver-for-hire Frank Martin, who once again has to deliver a package for some bad guys. It's no surprise said package is an attractive young red-headed girl (Natalya Rudakova) who also doubles as Frank's love interest. His job is to keep her safe from a group of thugs out to get both her and him. That's the primary plot. Aside from Statham's undeniable screen charisma, Transporter 3 is a pretty typical Grade B action film. It's got just enough plot to string together the action scenes and is full of utterly ridiculous moments, but it does deliver the goods if you like car chases and karate chops. 1/2 (Robert Ignizio)
Walking the Streets of Moscow (USSR, 1963) - This buddy film set in Moscow follows three young friends whose lives get complicated by a beautiful young woman. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4.
Cadillac Records Held together by an awkward voiceover by Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), this chronicle of the history of Chess Records comes off as a made-for-TV movie, despite good intentions. Emphasizing the topsy-turvy relationships between rivals Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Cadillac Records is too concerned with drama to appeal to true music buffs. Not helping matters is the unrequited love between singer Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and label owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), which plays out like a sad soap opera. A brief appearance by Chuck Berry (Mos Def) comes off as an afterthought in a film that simply tries to cover too much ground in too little time. (Jeff Niesel)
Punisher War Zone It doesn’t really matter if Punisher War Zone is a sequel to 2004’s The Punisher or a reboot of the franchise. With a drastically different tone than its predecessor, this latest take on Marvel Comics’ grim vigilante tale stands on its own. Where the original Punisher strived for respectability with a top-notch cast and PG-13 rating, War Zone takes its cue from the revenge flicks that originally inspired the character. This movie not only earns its R rating but also seems determined to give Rambo a run for its money as the most violent film of 2008. Taking over the title role from Thomas Jane, Ray Stevenson is suitably menacing as he blows away underworld scum. But the most enjoyable performances are from Dominic West and Doug Hutchison, chewing up the scenery (and the occasional supporting actor) as villainous brothers Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim. There may be better films playing this holiday season, but none features a better dinner-table decapitation scene. (Robert Ignizio)