Milk. 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. 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 eyepopping 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-uncomfortablethan-hilarious moments with Kate’s batch of manhungry 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)
Australia. Its grandiose title might encourage visions of a sweeping, epic romance but Baz Luhrmann’s bloated and boisterous movie is little more than a computer-graphic assisted western that takes place over the period of a few months.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a refined Brit who leaves England to be with her cattleraising husband on the wild plains of Australia. Too bad for Lady Ashley that hubby has just been murdered when she arrives at their enormous, rural estate, where a 13-year-old half-aborigine boy named Nullah (memorably played by Brandon Walters) and his mother live. Lady Ashley fires the estate’s thieving manager (David Wenham) and takes on a freelance cattle driver referred to only as “the Drover” (played by Hugh Jackman) to help deliver a heard of cattle to a seaside point of sale. Luhrmann never sets a consistent tone for this movie. There’s too much camp for the film to be taken as a serious drama, and the filmmaker flirts with outdated ‘30s-era cinema conventions of John Ford westerns like “Stagecoach.” Most disconcerting is David Hirschfelder’s cheesy score that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of “Bonanza.” The fact that Luhrmann tries to wrap it all up in a vaguely political statement about the treatment of aborigines in Australia is infuriating for its paucity of depth. (20th Century Fox) Rated PG-13, 165 mins. (C-)
Quantum of Solace. The road to a modicum of consolation for Daniel Craig’s tightly-wound James Bond is riddled with glass shards, bullets and a couple of fiercely beautiful women in an action-packed addition to cinema’s longest running franchise. The Bond films have always been about tone, and Craig’s world-weary, cold-blooded approach to tracking his enemies is not without a steel strand of wry humor. When a global exploiter masquerading as an eco-friendly magnate (played by Mathieu Amalric) tells Bond, “My friends call me Dominique,” Bond replies, “I’m sure they do.” It’s a far stretch from the jokey Bond of earlier incarnations, and for the world’s very real simmering economic and ecological crisis it seems a more appropriate match. From Siena, Tuscany, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the film’s exotic locations fill the demands of the series even if its sparse script fails to support the action. Although not as good as Craig’s initial outing as Bond in “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace” signals better things to come for the baddest spy in cinema. (Sony) Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-)
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