Upcoming 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. Opens Dec. 14 at local theaters. 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

AUGUST RUSH (PG-13) A quasi-mystical fable about the healing power of music, and a gushing love letter to the nuclear family, August Rush is a movie where twists of fate fall from the sky and where couples are destined to be together because of the alliterative qualities of their names. So musicians Louis and Lyla (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Keri Russell) fall in love at first sight, then are immediately and tragically separated — but not before conceiving a prodigiously talented child, the eponymous August (Freddie Highmore), who is likewise summarily whisked away. August Rush positively overflows with sincerity and cosmic concurrences, and we're obviously not meant to take any of it literally (the characters are clearly ciphers: Russell and Meyers are simply supposed to look good together, and Highmore's brave little face is mainly required to cry buckets on cue) — but the movie's magical reality unfolds in such a fantastically slick, superficial way that it almost feels like we're watching an extended trailer rather than the movie itself. August Rush is not without its glib charms, but the cumulative effect is like scanning a series of bumper stickers for New Age churches. The path of the movie's loved ones toward one another is as efficient and inexorable as the trajectories in Sleepless in Seattle and brimming with warmed-over sentiments pilfered from everything from Mr. Holland's Opus to Forrest Gump. Also stars Terrence Howard and Robin Williams. 2 stars

BEE MOVIE (PG) Jerry Seinfeld returns from the stand-up comedy wilderness with this CGI-animated offering about a spunky little bee who wants more (as apparently do all animated creatures these days). The voice cast alone might be reason enough to investigate: Besides Seinfeld, Renee Zelwegger, Matthew Broderick and John Goodman, there's an eclectic ensemble including Rip Torn, Sting, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. (Not Reviewed)

BEOWULF (PG-13) Another animated dip into flesh and fantasy for the graphic novel-reading crowd, Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf pumps up the "motion capture" techniques pioneered in Polar Express, coming up with a testosterone free-for-all that out-300's 300. Co-scripters Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) and fanboy guru Neil Gaiman manage to remain faithful to their source's thousand-year-old essence while bringing a distinctly modern sensibility to this epic about a warrior-king's confrontation with a monster and his mother. Zemeckis and his writers pump up the story with some juicy pop psychology, irreverent humor and a pervasive bawdiness that pushes the limits of the movie's PG-13 rating. The contemporary feel extends to the title character, who morphs into a curiously modern hero by nature of crucial, hidden flaws that link him to the very monster he vows to destroy. Best of all is the monster himself, the marvelously imperfect Grendel, who stumbles about with his skin turned inside-out, alternately howling and blubbering like a cross between the ravaged soul from Hellraiser and an overgrown special-needs child (an effect sealed by the exquisitely pathetic voice supplied by Crispin Glover). Visually, Beowulf kicks ass, but the only way to fully appreciate the movie is to see it in Imax 3-D, where the film's digital animation takes on a scale and a depth that's nothing short of thrilling. Features Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson and Crispin Glover. 3.5 stars

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