Malcolm McDowell, Dr. Seuss and more

New and current releases

OPENING THIS WEEK

DOOMSDAY (R) The new film from talented writer-director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) arrives without much buzz or even a chance for critics to review it, but we'll ignore the danger signs and hope for the best. This one's an action thriller set in a future where humankind faces imminent disaster. Stars Rhona Mitra, Chris Robson, Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell. Opens March 14 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

FUNNY GAMES (R) Read Lance Goldenberg's review.

HORTON HEARS A WHO! (G) Dr. Seuss is in the house again, with a feature-length adaptation of his tale about a very large elephant who gets in trouble when he pledges himself to protect a very tiny group of fellow creatures. Don't look between the lines for political allegories, and you might have a swell time. Featuring the voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, Isla Fisher, Amy Poehler, Jaime Pressly and Seth Rogan. Opens March 14 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (R) Read Lance Goldenberg's review.

RECENT RELEASES

10,000 B.C. (PG-13) 10,000 B.C. is the latest movie from Roland Emmerich, the man responsible for bombast-fests such as Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, which should give you a fairly good idea of what to expect. Steven Strait and Camilla Belle play early humans running around in animal furs chasing and being chased by saber tooth tigers, wooly mammoths and other big, scary CGI creatures. There are some appealingly bizarre flourishes toward the end involving possible extraterrestrial influences on a quasi-Mayan/Egyptian civilization, but the movie is mainly just dull, silly (although not enough to be truly amusing) and a bit pretentious. Inexplicably, our grimy, dreadlocked heroes speak a stilted, prosaic English from a time when contractions apparently had not yet been invented. Also stars Cliff Curtis, Joel Fry, Tim Barlow and Nathanael Baring.

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 BANK JOB (R) Although it's neither as engagingly moody as Layer Cake nor as cleverly stylish as Guy Ritchie's output, The Bank Job makes for a nice addition to the current crop of British crime dramas. Jason Statham (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) stars as Terry, a small-time thief who's talked into pulling off the titular heist by a former girlfriend (Saffron Burrows) with a suitcase full of ulterior motives. What Terry and his crew of East End bumblers don't know is that, in addition to the millions of pounds stored in the bank they're targeting, the safe deposit boxes contain blackmail photos of highly ranked Brits that a number of shadowy figures are all too ready to kill for. Based on a series of actual events that took place in the early '70s, The Bank Job captures the feel of the period nicely, but is curiously workmanlike in the way it lays out the details of its fascinating and somewhat convoluted story. Seductions and betrayals pile up steadily but without much fanfare for much of the movie's running time, and it's only in its final act, as the violence approaches Tarantino-esque levels, that The Bank Job begins to fully come alive. Also stars Stephen Campbell Moore, Peter De Jersey, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner and Alki David. 3 stars

BE KIND REWIND (PG-13) The latest movie from Michel Gondry, director of The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, largely avoids the provocative, in-your-face artistry of those earlier films, but it's a uniquely entertaining project that only Gondry could have made. Filled with charmingly cheesy special effects that reveal an abiding affection for the raw, the retro and all the dusty, unloved relics of pop culture, Be Kind Rewind takes place, naturally enough, in a video rental store, where all the tapes have been inadvertently erased. This leads to a harebrained scheme where Mos Def and Jack Black replace all of the store's videos with their own homegrown, shot-on-the-fly versions — super-amateurish but heartfelt productions that become inexplicably popular with everyone who sees them. Be Kind Rewind rails against big, formulaic Hollywood movies in a way that's as clever as it is subtle, and it takes the piss out of movies with "heart" while eventually becoming one itself. Gondry has made better films before, but he's never made one so sweet and simply enjoyable we barely notice how truly subversive it is. Also stars Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz and Sigourney Weaver. 3.5 stars

BONNEVILLE (PG-13) A chick flick for the over-50 set, this warm, fuzzy and thoroughly formulaic outing focuses on three women-of-a-certain-age transporting a loved one's ashes cross-country. Jessica Lange is the sensitive, grieving widow, Joan Allen is the prim and proper companion, Kathy Bates is the good-natured earth mama, and each role lazily conforms to the basic screen personae with which each of these actresses is most commonly identified. The women talk about their lives, squabble over issues big and small, hug, cry, and hug some more. Love and loss are encountered in a variety of predictable ways, montages play out to assorted popular tunes, and a long future on the Lifetime channel is assured. Also stars Christine Baranski, Tom Skerritt, Victor Rasuk and Tom Amandes. 2 stars

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. 2 stars

CHARLIE BARTLETT (R) Precocious, privileged Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is booted out of prep school and forced to join the unwashed masses at public school in Charlie Bartlett — a movie that seems determined to recycle Rushmore for a new generation. After being subjected to some cursory bullying, Charlie too-quickly learns to make friends and influence people by supplying them with various highly coveted prescription drugs and playing shrink to his classmates in the boy's bathroom. Robert Downey Jr. is both believable and borderline dangerous, but there's not much else about Charlie Bartlett that's particularly convincing. Too many of the characters are lazily written (the school bully, the depressed loner, the slow, fat kid), the movie's sense of ironic detachment comes and goes (the drug pushing is sometimes played for laughs, sometimes for pathos), and the quirks are often uncomfortably forced. Also stars Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton and Hope Davis. 2.5 stars

CLOVERFIELD (R) The pitch here would barely fill a cocktail napkin — Blair Witch meets Godzilla — and the film never really makes a stab at expanding that conceit. The first half-hour introduces us to both the bogus concept (amateurish shaky-cam footage supposedly translating as a more credible, intensified reality) and to the disposable characters, a bunch of shallow yuppie twerps attending a going-away party for one of their pals. We're forced to sit through endless, headache-inducing footage of these non-entities standing around making small talk before things summarily start blowing up, and the big, bad monster initiates the extended (but not particularly exciting) chase scene that is Cloverfield. We're supposed to believe that everything we're seeing is being shot by one of the characters on his camcorder, but badly framed shots and nonexistent editing can only be excused so far. The giant monster is a huge guilty pleasure (I particularly liked the smaller, even more repulsive creatures that drop from its limbs like lice) — but, a few special effects aside, this mess looks like anyone could have made it, and not in a remotely interesting way. If this is the future of filmmaking, brace yourself for what comes next. Stars Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas and Mike Vogel. 1.5 stars

DEFINITELY, MAYBE (PG-13) This sweet but not exactly starry-eyed romantic comedy challenges us to figure out which of its multiple dreamgirls is the real Ms. Right, keeping us guessing long enough to qualify as the Where's Waldo of rom-coms. Ryan Reynolds stars as a vaguely dissatisfied dad telling his precocious young daughter about how he met her mother. The twist here is that Reynolds relates a tale involving a trio of old flames, giving all of the women pseudonyms in order to prolong the suspense and keep the identity of the woman he'll eventually marry a secret until the last possible moment. The three women — conveniently color coded as a blonde, a brunette and a redhead — are all equally adorable and receive roughly equal screen time, so it's pretty much anyone's guess whom Reynolds will wind up with. The movie overstays its welcome by at least 15 minutes, but it's still nice to see a romantic comedy that doesn't get completely dragged into the pitfalls of formula or fall all over itself aping the new rom-com standards established by Judd Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers. Also stars Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Kline, Derek Luke and Abigail Breslin. 3 stars

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (R) Julian Schnabel's new film is the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the jet-setting editor of French Elle, who was felled by a massive stroke in 1995 that left him unable to speak or move but, shades of Johnny Got His Gun, fully cognizant. Bauby eventually developed a rudimentary form of communication — blinking his left eye (the only part of him that still worked) to signal a specific letter of the alphabet, slowly dictating a best-selling memoir and dying days after the book was published. It's no exaggeration to say that the real star of Schabel's film is cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who is fiendishly ingenious in his use of the camera as a surrogate eye for the movie's protagonist. The entire first half of the movie is presented almost completely from Bauby's perspective, with Kaminski's camera bending and distorting the light in ways that appear random but are actually meticulously calculated, pulling images in and out of focus in order to simulate how the world looks to a one-eyed stroke victim awakening from a coma. The film eventually broadens its perspective, but Schnabel keeps the focus firmly rooted inside Bauby's head, peppering the film with heavy-handed visual metaphors but avoiding melodrama and the temptation to turn his main character into some sort of martyr. Also stars Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Marina Hands and Max Von Sydow. 3.5 stars

A FLASH OF GREEN (NR) Florida's most highly respected filmmaker, Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise, Ulee's Gold), is scheduled to make a personal appearance at this very special free screening of his 1984 film, A Flash of Green. Nunez's acclaimed adaptation of John D. MacDonald's novel about a reporter embroiled in a Florida land development scheme has never been released on DVD, and it has been nearly impossible to see for the past few decades — which makes this one-time-only engagement at the Beach Theatre even more of an event. The movie is as thoughtful and rich in character as anything this filmmaker has done; Ed Harris delivers one of his finest performances as the troubled journalist, and Nunez himself will be on hand for a Q&A after the film, along with many of the other people who worked on the film. Do you need any other reasons to go? Also stars Richard Jordan and Blair Brown. Plays Mon., Feb. 18 at 11 a.m., one time only, at the Beach Theatre, 315 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach, 727-360-6697. The event is free. 4 stars

I AM LEGEND (PG-13) Will Smith stars as the last human survivor of a deadly plague that has turned the world's population into bloodthirsty nocturnal creatures, and virtually the entire first half of the film consists of our hero and his faithful canine companion wandering the deserted streets of New York City. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) imbues these early scenes with both tension and an eerie poetry, finding undeniable power in the post-apocalyptic imagery of a depopulated Manhattan where stray weeds poke up through cracks in the pavement as if once again laying claim to the land. Smith holds down the film fairly well, but his character veers unconvincingly from rational man of science to unhinged paranoid to cartoon action hero, inconsistencies that are hard not to notice since there's so little else going on here. We don't often see the creatures, but when we do, the movie unravels further as they're a pretty derivative lot, a fusion of familiar elements from 28 Days Later and The Descent, all largely rendered via cheap and thoroughly uninspired CGI. Traces of elegantly creepy atmosphere can be found throughout, but the effect is all but ruined by packs of dopey looking zombie dogs (honest) and a little too much Bob Marley music at the wrong moments. Also stars Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson and Willow Smith. 2.5 stars

JUNO (PG-13) Director Jason Reitman's second film is loopy in a more conventional way than his first, Thank You For Smoking, but it's equally clever and, even more crucially, just as much fun. The deliciously baroque plot twists of Smoking are almost entirely absent in Juno, but Reitman makes good use of this new-found, off-kilter minimalism, focusing his often static camera on characters whose endearing qualities rarely get in the way of their monumental oddness. Ellen Page is extremely appealing as the title character, a self-described "freaky girl" who gets pregnant, opts not to abort, and agrees to hand the infant over to a barren couple advertising in the local penny-saver flyer. Things start out impossibly light and bouncy, with everyone speaking in bursts of such glibly stylized strangeness (think Rory Gilmore meets Kevin Smith) that it's sometimes hard to take the characters seriously — but Juno eventually allows just enough cold reality to seep in to get our attention. Still, even when our heroine's water breaks and she's rushed to the delivery room, Juno has time for one last kitsch clarion cry, hollering "Thunderbirds are go!" It's that kind of a movie. Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody seem to be having a ball referencing all the hippest bands and grooviest horror movie directors, and they fill their movie with music by Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, and whimsical pop tunes a la The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You," which are so simple and achingly sincere they seem to cross the line into pomo irony. Just like the movie. Also stars Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. 3.5 stars

THE KITE RUNNER (PG-13) The breathlessly anticipated big screen version of The Kite Runner turns out to be as handsome as it is curiously bloodless — unless, of course, you're counting the picturesque spattering of crimson dotting the ground after a noble character's off-screen rape. Director Marc Foster's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's much-admired book spans several decades and no less than two far-flung worlds while laying out a scrupulously symmetrical tale of friendship, loss and jumbo-sized redemption. The story begins in Afghanistan in the late '70s, where privileged 12-year-old Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and household servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) are the best of friends despite obvious differences in class and ethnicity. The young actors are extremely engaging, but Foster doesn't dig too deep beneath the surface of Hosseini's novel, often reducing political and cultural nuances to glossy ethnic exotica, and eschewing shades of grey for big, black and white emotions. Too many huge upheavals are crammed into too tight a space, with Afghanistan summarily gobbled up by the Soviets and then by the Taliban, followed by a barrage of coming-to-America soap-operatics culminating in an Act of Personal Courage redeeming the hero from the Very Bad Thing that occurred earlier in the film. Also stars Kalid Abdalla, Homayon Ershadi, Shaun Toub and Nabi Tanha. 3 stars

MAD MONEY (PG-13) A feeble yuk-fest for The Great Depression II, Mad Money stars Diane Keaton as an over-educated, under-skilled yuppie who takes up crime when her husband is the victim of downsizing. Callie Khouri (screenwriter of Thelma and Louise) is the director here, so there's plenty of warmed-over girl power going on, as Keaton hooks up with an African-American single mom (Queen Latifah) and a cute space-cadet (Katie Holmes) to stick it to the man, take the money and run. The movie tests our credulity at every step, with friendships forged in perfunctory fashion between its paper-thin characters, gaping plot holes you could do laps in and a heist that's straight out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. By the movie's midpoint, the women are all bumpin' hinies in the bedroom to golden oldies, and the shrinking middle class is just a shot away. The brand of humor here is supposed to get funnier in direct proportion to the bleakness of the times, but even with the New Dark Ages breathing down on our necks, Mad Money is just a drag. Also stars Ted Danson and Stephen Root. 2.5 stars

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (PG-13) Bumbling out-of-work governess Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) worms her way into a gig as a social secretary for a fast-living starlet (Amy Adams) and finds herself lighting up lives, including her own, in the fizzy but thoroughly disposable Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The movie takes place in London on the eve of World War II, which is supposed to add an undercurrent of dramatic tension to the lighter-than-air romantic dalliances here, but mostly serves as an excuse to puff up the fluff with swell-looking period costumes and English accents. There's some fun to be had in watching Adams flit about as the promiscuous, aspiring actress (channeling Marilyn Monroe with her breathy, little-girl voice), but the movie too often feels both predictable and hopelessly stagebound as it goes about the business of showing us McDormand's character magically smoothing over the bumps in the love lives of everyone she encounters. It's obvious from the start who's going to wind up with whom, and by the time the prim and proper Miss Pettigrew loses her inhibitions and hooks up with her own Prince Charming, the movie has all but worn out its welcome. Also stars Lee Pace, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson and Mark Strong. 2.5 stars

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (R) Much has been made of No Country for Old Men being some sort of contemporary Western, but when the filmmakers are Joel and Ethan Coen, you can bet the "Western" in question is going to scream for quotation marks. An expertly crafted nail-biter steeped in the beloved noir the filmmakers have repeatedly tinkered with, the Coen Brothers' new film takes place in a dusty Texas wasteland as redolent with alienation as a vintage Antonioni landscape. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a certified piece of trailer trash who happens upon a drug deal gone south and winds up fleeing the scene of the crime with a briefcase filled with cash. This inevitably puts some very bad people on Llewelyn's trail — chief among them a soulless super-psycho named Anton Chigurh (an exquisitely chilling Javier Bardem) — and right behind is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small-town lawman resigned to the nasty ways of the world. No Country is a beautifully modulated film, folding intense bursts of periodic violence into a carefully orchestrated atmosphere of mounting tension that is both eerily poetic and a bit melancholy. In its elegantly world-weary way, this is as iconic a chase film as The Night of the Hunter, as deeply mysterious as the Coens' masterpiece, Barton Fink, and not without perverse grace notes all its own. Also stars Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper and Woody Harrelson. 4.5 stars

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (PG-13) Sex and sibling rivalry juice up this historical drama about two sisters competing for the attentions of Henry XIII. Stars Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas. (Not Reviewed)

OVER HER DEAD BODY (PG-13) The biggest dose of star power (and the titular dead body of this bland, cookie-cutter comedy) is supplied by Eva Longoria, who turns in a basic variation on her Desperate Housewives shtick, playing a spoiled, over-accessorized bitch who winds up crushed to death by an ice sculpture on her wedding day. One year later, fiancée Paul Rudd still hasn't moved on, so he sees psychic Lake Bell in order to achieve some closure but winds up falling for her — causing Longoria's jealous ghost (who could use a bit of closure herself) to do whatever it takes to come between them. Despite the intriguing prospect of some human-poltergeist catfight materializing, Over Her Dead Body simply bubbles along in its own little hectare of romantic comedy hell, a Ghost-meets-Mr. Woodcock gene-splice in which two competing characters (one living, one dead) squabble over a mutual object of desire. The requisite secondary characters abound, and the whole thing feels considerably closer to a TV sitcom than a big screen production. And with no end in sight for the writers' strike, maybe Over Her Dead Body will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for all those increasingly frustrated viewers jonesing for a disposable TV-styled fix. Also stars Jason Biggs, Lindsay Sloane and Stephen Root. 2 stars

PENELOPE (PG) Christina Ricci stars as a poor little rich girl born with a big heart and a snout for a nose. Penelope is more candy-colored cartoon fantasy than Elephant Man journey into darkness, but both are essentially ugly duckling fairy tales about uncovering the beautiful swan within. There's much to enjoy here, but the problem with Penelope is that it can't quite seem to decide if it wants to be a lighthearted romance or something meatier and more disturbing. The film wraps itself in an actively quirky sensibility and a semi-edgy visual style that, appealing though they can be, are often at odds with the gentle romantic comedy Penelope seems to be on its most basic level. Ricci's Prince Charming turns out to be a down-on-his-luck scoundrel (James McAvoy), and both are transformed by true love, but the movie's symmetry is upset by too many uneven scenes and a truly awful last act that seems to come out of nowhere. The performances are generally very good, but the movie itself feels unfocused, often rambling so noticeably that it seems to rely on Ricci's voiceover narration to hold it all together. Also stars Catherine O'Hara, Simon Woods, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Dinklage and Richard E. Grant. 3 stars

PERSEPOLIS (NR) In the tradition of great comic-book chronicles like Maus and some of the more personal cartoons of Robert Crumb, the animated feature Persepolis reflects modern life with a passion, wit and complexity rarely achieved in the more "legitimate" corners of literature and cinema. Director Marjane Satrapi adapts her own autobiographical graphic novels to relate a story beginning in Iran in the late '70s, just as the Islamic Revolution is gathering steam. Young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) would much rather be watching Bruce Lee movies than talking religion or politics, but when the country transforms into a theological police state, she finds that remaining on the sidelines is no longer possible. The movie cleverly contrasts the girl's oppressive new world with her love for decadent, disposable Western culture. And as the Islamo-Orwellian double-speak intensifies, so does our hero's lust for forbidden ABBA LPs and black market Iron Maiden cassettes. Persepolis doesn't preach, but it offers reams of pointed commentary in the richly drawn journey of its main character. The black-and-white animation is simple and cleanly stylized, almost looking like woodcuts in places, but these 2D images offer more depth than most stories you'll see at the multiplexes these days. Featuring the voices of Gabrielle Lopes, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux and Catherine Deneuve. 4 stars

THE SAVAGES (R) A tragicomedy about death, dissatisfaction and familial dysfunction, The Savages could easily have turned into the Sundance movie from hell. There's an estranged brother and sister who barely survived a childhood so awful they can't even speak of it. There's an emotionally distant father who becomes even more remote when creeping dementia turns him into a zombie writing on walls with his own feces. And pretty much everyone seems cut from that same depressed, sophisticated, self-absorbed cloth as the characters inhabiting, say, Margot at the Wedding or way too many other films that have been projected on walls in Park City, Utah, over the past few decades. And yet this latest movie from director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) transcends most of its own potential limitations, neatly sidestepping clichés through smart, unsentimental writing and tasteful direction. Most of all, The Savages succeeds through the knowing, nuanced performances of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who play siblings Wendy and Jon — aging escapees from Neverland who find themselves saddled with an incapacitated parent, even as their own houses are screaming to be put in order. Wendy and Jon transport their rapidly degenerating dad back East with them, where they anguish over making the nasty old coot comfortable, watching him slip away while allowing his impending death to open a floodgate of painful memories and ridiculous old habits. The understated approach and downbeat subject matter of The Savages requires a little patience, but the movie's aim is true. Also stars Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman and Cara Seymour. 3.5 stars

SEMI-PRO (PG-13) The latest in an apparently never-ending line of sports comedies from Will Ferrell. The subject this time is basketball. Also stars Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Will Arnett and Andy Richter. (Not Reviewed)

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (PG) Freddie Highmore fans will get more than their money's worth watching the young actor doing double duty as twin brothers Simon (the passive, buttoned-up one), and Jared (the rumpled, feisty one), who discover an all-powerful coveted by all manner of fantastical creatures. Some of these creatures are warm and fuzzy constructs, including a porcine Muppet voiced by Seth Rogen and a honey-sucking imp called Thimbletack (Martin Short) who looks like Ben Stein transformed into a 3-inch-tall version of The Hulk. But outside the house lurk swarms of nastier entities in the form of sharp-tooth-and-nailed goblins, commanded by a big-cheese ogre called Mulgrath (Nick Nolte). The special effects and action sequences are nothing to sneeze at, but what really distinguishes The Spiderwick Chronicles is flesh and blood. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the name John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Secret of Roan Inish) listed as one of the movie's screenwriters, and the touchy family dynamics underpinning the film are distinctly his. Also stars Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn and Joan Plowright. 3 stars 1/2

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (R) Loosely based on Uptown Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, this monumentally ambitious new opus from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) offers up chilly scenes from the life of proto-capitalist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a ruthlessly single-minded entrepreneur who makes a fortune raping the land during the early years of the 20th century. It's not always a pretty picture, but as captured by the camera of Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, the process takes on its own kind of dirty poetry. Far from some grand oil-empire epic á la Giant, Blood is essentially a spare, almost painfully introspective art film, more driven by details than narrative momentum or life-changing events, and with moments of heroic power compromised by stretches that feel clumsily confrontational, as if the director were more interested in breaking down walls than advancing his story. Anderson's dazzling, convoluted movie is simply too big a meal to digest at one sitting, and I can't wait to watch again to see where it leads next time. Also stars Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier. 4 stars

VANTAGE POINT (PG-13) Calling Vantage Point a Rashomon-lite is both an insult to Kurosawa's enigmatic classic and an awfully lazy way of describing director Pete Travis' silly, amateurish thriller. It's true that Vantage Point, like Rashomon, offers multiple accounts of the same key event (a presidential assassination), each from the perspective of a different participant. But the similarities end where they begin, and Vantage Point's structure quickly reveals itself as an annoyingly transparent gimmick for making a rather run-of-the-mill action flick seem far more intriguing than it actually is. The titular points of view belong to a shell-shocked secret service agent (Dennis Quaid), an American tourist with a camera (Forrest Whitaker), a Spanish cop with romantic problems straight out of a telenovela (Edgar Ramirez), the president himself (William Hurt) and a bunch of slimy Islamic terrorists. For all the points of view and frantic running around, though, there's very little going on here — just the same information tediously replaying numerous times from slightly different perspectives without really adding much that's new. Also stars Matthew Fox and James LeGros. 1 star

THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP (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. 3 stars

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