Birdsong (Spain, 2008) - Albert Serra retells the story of the Three Magi in his second feature. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12, and 5 p.m. Saturday, March 14.
Che - An epic-scaled biopic without a single conventional biopic moment, Steven Soderbergh's staggeringly ambitious Che breaks most of the rules of commercial cinema while achieving near greatness on its own sui generis terms. Split into two parts of roughly 135 minutes apiece, Che demands to be seen from start to finish - preferably with a bathroom/smoke break in between. The film's first half is the more classically structured, as it follows Che (Benicio del Toro) from his first meeting with Fidel Castro (a superb Demian Bichir) in 1955 to his key role in the Cuban Revolution that began a year later. Part two is devoted exclusively to Che's failed Bolivian expedition of 1966-67 that fittingly ends with his execution at the hands of the Bolivian army. The end result is a self-contained film festival that's unquestionably the cinematic event of the season. Cedar Lee Theatre. (Milan Paurich)
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. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Saturday, March 14 and at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 15. (Paurich)
Hobson's Choice (Britain, 1954) - David Lean's comedy about a demanding bootmaker stars Charles Laughton and John Mills. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 18.
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Japan, 1967) - Nagisa Oshima turns the Japanese lovers' ritual upside down with this film. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:50 p.m. Sunday, March 15.
Pleasures of the Flesh (Japan, 1965) - An imprisoned embezzler blackmails a teacher in this Nagisa Oshima comedy. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Sunday, March 15.
Sing a Song of Sex (Japan, 1967) - Four Japanese high school boys fantasize about sex in this early Nagisa Oshima film. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:10 p.m. Friday, March 13.
Three Resurrected Drunkards (Japan, 1968) - This Nagisa Oshima comedy comes off like a Beatles film shot by Godard. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 13.
Timecrimes (Spain, 2007) - While spying on a naked girl in the densely wooded area behind his home, middle-aged layabout Hector (Karra Elejalde) is attacked by a sinister apparition whose facial bandages conceal his face. Outrunning his attacker, Hector seeks shelter in a nearby house whose sole resident is a possibly insane scientist (writer-director Nacho Vigalondo) working on a time-travel device. Things get progressively weirder from there. High-concept to the max, first-time writer-director Vigalondo's crafty Spanish-language thriller skillfully uses its space-time continuum hook to generate more suspense than head-scratching obfuscation. (Take that, J.J. Abrams.) Not surprisingly, this diabolically clever low-budget sleeper is set for an American remake later this year. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9 p.m. Thursday, March 12, and 9:45 p.m. Saturday, March 14. (Paurich)
Confessions of a Shopaholic - Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) has run into a bit of bad luck. The home and garden magazine she writes for has just shut down, and she can't afford to pay her rent. Instead of adopting a frugal lifestyle, however, she continues to frequent sample sales and a variety of designer-clothing boutiques. She simply can't stop shopping, and her addiction to buying new clothes is so bad that the mannequins have even started talking to her. It's ironic, then, when she gets a job working at a business magazine and launches a column about how to stay out of debt. It's inevitable that her inability to control her own spending habits will be exposed and undo the celebrity status she attains through her column. Based on the Sophie Kinsella novel, P.J. Hogan's film has some good moments (mostly because Fisher is so adept at physical comedy, tripping and flinging herself around relentlessly). But the film quickly fizzles as it takes on a more serious tone and develops the rather routine love story between Rebecca and her editor Luke (Hugh Dancy). (Jeff Niesel)
Coraline - This animated adaptation of a Neil Gaiman book attempts to be something like The Nightmare Before Christmas, though the 3-D doesn't pop with nearly the same magnitude. The storyline involves a young girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) who discovers a secret passage to an alternate version of her life where her parents actually listen to her and treat her like the queen she thinks she is. Turns out it's all a ruse by a wicked witch who's trying to steal her soul, and Coraline has to come up with an elaborate scheme in order to return to the real world. With its array of colorful foliage and talking animals, the film's fantasy world is certainly stunning. The story, however, has a few too many lulls and follows a pretty predictable trajectory. 1/2 (Niesel)
Fired Up - When high-school football stars Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) get wind of an upcoming cheerleading clinic where they can meet some 300 young co-eds, they quickly weasel their way out of football training camp and convince head cheerleader Carly (Sarah Roemer) that they really want to be part of the cheer team. Hijinks ensue, and the two guys find the gorgeous girls ready, willing and able. Along the way, Shawn falls for Carly and starts taking the whole cheerleading competition seriously, something that annoys his more frivolous pal. Needless to say, there's a finale during which Shawn and Nick overcome their aversion to cheering to bond with their teammates. While some of the fast-talking dialogue and repartee is clever and funny, the pedestrian directing, average acting and predictable storyline make this flick completely disposable. (Niesel)
Gran Torino - In Gran Torino, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit autoworker mourning his recently deceased wife. Walt's hatreds are many: He grumbles at his teenage granddaughter's belly ring, the doting attention of his son and daughter-in-law (Brian Haley and Geraldine Hughes), the Asian family next door ("Damn barbarians!"), and at Father Janovich (Christopher Calrey), the round-faced young priest who urges Walt to come to confession. Walt is an unapologetic racist, trading ethnic jokes and scurrilous insults with his barber. He's also, for the sake of drama, hiding some unspecified, coughing-up-blood illness. There's considerable interest in the way the movie incorporates Eastwood's pet themes: the hero with the dark past he's trying to forget, and the gulf between mythologized heroics and ugly reality. With its unholy mix of cultural tolerance, racial stereotypes and gun violence, Gran Torino mirrors the contradictions of its director/star, a vegan, pro-gun pacifist who likes George Bush, hates the Iraq War and once threatened to kill Michael Moore. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)
He's Just Not That Into You - Director Ken Kwapis (License to Wed, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) assembled an all-star cast to film this unfilmable book of anecdotes about why men treat women badly even when they like them. While the acting is generally solid across the board, the movie, much like the book, has only moments of inspiration. The intertwining relationships - Janine (Jennifer Connelly) is married to Ben (Bradley Cooper) who's having an affair with Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who's been in and out of a relationship with Conor (Kevin Connolly), who's just blown off Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), who now seeks comfort from Conor's friend Alex (Justin Long) - seem a bit too fabricated here, making the setting (a very spruced-up Baltimore) seem more like some kind of small town. Still, Goodwin is terrific as the frightfully insecure Gigi and the always solid Connelly (not the typically smug Connolly) is excellent as a woman who'll do anything to save her marriage. 1/2 (Niesel)
Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience - A gimmicky, for-fans-only concert flick starring Disney Channel tweener sensations Kevin, Nick and Joe Jonas. Footage of Anaheim and Madison Square Garden arena shows are interwoven with the boys' (strictly G-rated) offstage antics for the chaste delectation of 12-year-old girls everywhere. The brothers themselves - albeit reasonably talented and likable enough - come across as so squeaky clean (each wears a "promise ring") that they make fellow Mouse House cash-cow Miley Cyrus, the previous subject of a three-dimensional doc by director Bruce Hendricks, seem like Jenna Jameson by comparison. And Hendricks' labored attempt to recast the Jonases as some sort of nouveau Fab Four via a recurring homage to A Hard Day's Night feels like wishful thinking. But at a swiftly paced, blessedly brief 76 minutes, the movie is rarely dull, and it should have little trouble satisfying the Jonas faithful, even at an inflated 3D ticket price. (Paurich)
Madea Goes to Jail - Tyler Perry's latest film makes use of an obvious gimmick, as the writer-director dresses in drag to portray the loud-mouthed old woman who won't take no for an answer. And while a man in women's clothes always guarantees a laugh, there's also something about the ugly and overweight Madea that makes you like her despite her obvious flaws (an uncontrollable temper, a propensity for troublemaking, etc.). Too bad the Madea plot (she's in trouble with the law - again) takes a back seat to the storyline about Joshua (Derek Luke) and Linda (Ion Overman), two lawyers in love. Filled with the kind of soap opera-like drama that's become a cliché of a Tyler Perry film (Josh wants to stay true to his roots, while Linda has become so obsessed with wealth and power that she could care less about what goes on in the ghetto), Madea Goes to Jail really gets bogged down by its polarizing politics. (Niesel)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop - The climate of low expectations that made some commentators twist themselves into pretzels insisting Bush was a fine president also makes movie comedies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop seem pretty darn good. And in truth, Mall Cop isn't nearly as bad as it ought to be, given its shopworn plot (misfit who lives with his mom becomes an unlikely hero) and unexceptional lead, King of Queens' Kevin James. Directed by Steve Carr (Are We Done Yet?, Daddy Day Care) and written by James with Nick Bakay, it earns a passing grade for being agreeable, fitfully amusing and considerably less offensive than most movies of its type. 1/2 (Zoslov)
The Pink Panther 2 - This time around, a master thief called the Tornado is swiping famous ancient artifacts, like the Shroud of Turin. A "Dream Team" of detectives - Andy Garcia as an Italian lothario, Alfred Molina as a blustery Brit and Yuki Matsuzaki as a Japanese tech whiz - from around the globe is called in to investigate. They're accompanied by a Tornado expert, played by Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai. Meanwhile, Clouseau (Steve Martin) is handing out parking tickets, when his shocked superior (John Cleese, replacing the first film's Kevin Kline, who wisely bowed out of this mess) informs him that he'll represent France in the all-star detective team. There isn't much of a plot here, just a series of sight gags (involving wine bottles, a flamenco troupe and the pope) mixed with Clouseau's unintelligible French (yes, the earlier film's mangling of the word "hamburger" makes a return appearance). The whole thing rides that thin line between childish and stupid. 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)
The Reader - At its best - which fortunately is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax, the mom-and-pop (literally) company that Harvey and Bob Weinstein started three decades ago in their parents' basement. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed 1995 best-seller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (the ineffable Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz among others), The Reader is the kind of accessible, sumptuously crafted highbrow movie that used to be the Weinsteins' bread and butter. Told in a series of flashbacks (Schlink related the story chronologically in his book), the bulk of the action takes place in three timeframes. In 1958 Berlin, 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross) makes the acquaintance of "older woman" Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Despite the brilliant Winslet's typically fearless performance, Hanna remains a cruel, tantalizing enigma until the very end. It's precisely that sort of richly purposeful ambiguity that makes the film such a rewarding experience. 1/2 (Paurich)
Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's latest is an irresistible, ingeniously structured hodgepodge of Bollywood (the souped-up romanticism and Day-Glo colors) and Charles Dickens (a classical narrative arc). The story of 18-year-old street kid Jamal (Dev Patel, amiable if emotionally opaque) raised in the Mumbai ghetto who makes a killing on that country's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it's a rags-to-riches fairy-tale shot in glittery, in-your-face fashion, with lots of jump cuts and distorted fisheye lenses. Convulsively entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire certainly looks like no other film, and it's only afterwards that the whole thing begins to disassemble a bit in your head. Is Boyle merely serving up a kickier form of colonial imperialism, tsk-tsking the sad lot of disenfranchised third-worlders like Jamal and his ragamuffin friends? After just one viewing, it's not certain. But the bitter aftertaste that kicks in once the sugar rush fades makes you wonder if Slumdog Millionaire isn't really just a Richard Attenborough movie in flashier threads. (Paurich)
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li - Based on the popular, long-running video game, this movie has the element of surprise in that it's not nearly as terrible as you'd expect. Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) sets out to rescue her father and take down bad guy M. Bison (Neal McDonough). But before Chun-Li gets to the big boss, she'll have to make it past a series of henchpersons, including the bad-ass boxer Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan). The film mostly eschews CGI and overly complicated stunts in favor of old-school martial arts ass-kicking and wire work, which is kind of refreshing. Kreuk makes an appealing lead, McDonough is a thoroughly despicable villain and, with the exception of Chris Klein as police officer Charlie Nash, the entire cast is surprisingly good. It's nothing amazing or original. It's just a low-budget action film directed with competence and starring a cast of agreeable B-listers. 1/2 (Ignizio)
Taken - After years of work as a "preventer," Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is putting his life back in order. He's moved to Los Angeles to be close to his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), of whom he's very protective, even though she now lives with her mother (Famke Janssen). So when Kim tells her dad she's going to Paris to vacation with a girlfriend, he worries about her safety. When she's abducted by a group of scumbag Albanians who turn unsuspecting young tourists into prostitutes, he does what any father with a background in espionage and intelligence affairs would do: He sets out to find the bastards and kill them. Like James Bond or even Jason Bourne, Bryan Miller gets himself in and out of one improbable situation after the other. Neeson, though more than up for the role's physical requirements, isn't quite as charismatic as a Daniel Craig or Matt Damon. Still, the movie's suspenseful enough and packs plenty of action into its lean 90-minute running time. 1/2 (Niesel)