Aliens, Debaters, Jack Nicholson

This week's new releases

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (R) Two sci-fi franchises, one once noble and one not-so, go head to head again as undemanding fans line up to watch the acid-blood fly. Stars Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz and Ariel Gade. Opened Dec. 25 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

THE BUCKET LIST (PG-13) Director Rob Reiner layers on the schmaltz, and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman supply the star power in a meathead's delight that might just have well been called Grumpy Old Terminally Ill Men. Freeman's obligatory opening voice-over sets the tone, cramming in the words "love," "fate," and "folks" in under a minute, as dying roommates Carter (Freeman) and Edward (Nicholson) decide to spend their final months, and a sizeable chunk of the latter's fortune, doing all the things they never got around to doing. Endless footage ensues of the old coots skydiving, getting tattoos, driving fast cars, and popping up in a virtual travelogue encompassing the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Freeman's wise but slightly prickly character periodically pontificates on the nature of the world, eventually teaching the meaning of life to the considerably richer but far more cynical Nicholson, and it all feels like the spitting image of a made-for-TV movie. Also stars Sean Hayes and Beverly Todd. Opened Dec. 25 at local theaters. 2 stars

THE GREAT DEBATERS (PG-13) Denzel Washington stars and serves as director in this inspirational drama about the unexpected triumphs of a debate team from a small black college during the Depression. Based on a true story, as if you didn't know. Also stars Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett. Opened Dec. 25 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

THE WATER HORSE (PG) A charming coming-of-age fantasy filled with local color, The Water Horse is the legend of the Loch Ness monster recast as E.T. in the Scottish countryside during World War II. Wee Angus (Alex Etel), an overly serious lad pining for his departed dad, brings home a magical egg that promptly hatches a mythical beastie resembling a slightly cuter version of the mutant baby from Eraserhead. The creature soon evolves into a playful puppy-like thing with flippers, and boy and beastie bond as battalions of soldiers station themselves around the area, and chaos ensues within the household. The adults with guns predictably freak out as the titular creature eventually grows to terrifying proportions, momentarily transforming the movie into a dark Iron Giant-esque allegory about death and war, but The Water Horse just misses the mark for that sort of substance. Also stars Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and David Morrissey. Opened Dec. 25 at local theaters. 3 stars

RECENT RELEASES

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS (PG) You might expect that Dave Seville's singing rodents would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but they make the transition fairly painlessly thanks to this sweet and occasionally amusing big-screen outing. Jason Lee stars as the aspiring songwriter who learns about family and responsibility (and all the other things people are supposed to learn in movies like this) when a trio of talking chipmunks moves into his house and turns his world upside down. The CGI is fairly high quality, and the fart and poop jokes are held to a blessed minimum, but even at not-quite 90 minutes, the movie feels padded, and the last act drags on for what seems like forever. On the up side, the hip-hop beat grafted onto "Witchdoctor" isn't quite as ridiculous as you might imagine. Also stars David Cross, Cameron Richardson, Jane Lynch and Ross Bagdasarian. 2.5 stars

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (R) A languorous art-western in the fabled mold of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Heaven's Gate and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Andrew Dominik's two-hour-and-40-minute The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Some will see it as a pretentious slog, others as sheer poetry, but one thing's for sure: They don't make 'em like this anymore. The film presents Jesse James (Brad Pitt) as an early contender in the Cult of Personality — he and Mark Twain were the only Americans known in Europe in the late 19th century — and much is made here of the urge to bask in the outlaw's celebrity, of people wanting to hang around him, even to be him. Meandering back and forth through time, the movie lays out its elliptical story assisted by a melancholy, matter-of-fact voice-over that gives up its details as methodically as Robert Bresson making his case in The Trial of Joan of Arc. The movie throws out much of the James legend, meditating upon its anti-hero as he goes through wild mood swings, alternately depressed, buoyant and unhinged, and ultimately even takes on a weirdly Christ-like aspect, wondering which of his squabbling gang members is going to betray him. James' Judas turns out to be Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a confused hanger-on whose obsession borders on the homoerotic and whose titular act of violence briefly makes him even more famous than the celebrity killer he kills. An appreciation of The Assassination of Jesse James hinges less on suspension of disbelief than on suspension of our reliance on snappy pace and linear plotting, but those who do give themselves over to the film's demanding poetry may find themselves well rewarded. Also stars Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Parks. 4.5 stars

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