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Postmen in the Mountains, The Aviator ... 

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Information is correct at press time. Film release schedules are subject to change.

Beyond the Sea **

See review p. 44. Opens Jan. 29 at theaters valleywide. (PG-13)

Postmen in the Mountains ***

If China had an equivalent of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” it would probably serve as the theme song to this satisfying little Chinese import from director Huo Jianqi. In a remote area of Hunan, a longtime postal carrier (Teng Rujun) prepares to retire and turn over his route to his 24-year-old son (Liu Ye). The father accompanies the son on his first three-day journey into the isolated mountain villages, which also becomes the most time the two men have ever spent together. At times, the simple story feels like it’s about to turn into Most Extreme Postman Challenge—icy river crossings! steep mountain rope-climbing! 50-yard sprint after wind-blown letters!—but Postmen always settles down into relationship dynamics. While those dynamics might have been even more poignant without persistent voiceover narration alerting us to how poignant it all is—a holdover, one suspects, from the short story that was the source material—those nits don’t warrant too much picking. Enjoy the lush, lovely landscapes, and that whole “when ya comin’ home, Dad; I don’t know when” vibe. Opens Jan. 31 at Tower Theatre. (NR)—Scott Renshaw


The Aviator ***

On a fundamental level, Martin Scorsese’s version of the life of Howard Hughes is nothing more than a series of snapshots of the oft-mythologized millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio). But snapshots are never as kinetic or riveting as The Aviator manages to be at its best, even if the stretches between the best are bumpy. Covering the two decades of Hughes’ greatest influence, Scorsese creates several brilliant set pieces to accompany Cate Blanchett’s astonishing performance as Katharine Hepburn. He also can’t resist more distracting cameos—Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner—or avoid the problem of DiCaprio in a mustache still looking like a high school student play-acting at being a grown-up. Get past the filler and the stunt casting, and you’ve got vintage Scorsese visual riffs that get more out of a genius-turned-to-madness tragedy than standard biopic rhythms. (PG-13)—SR

Blade: Trinity *.5

Wesley Snipes’s vampire hunter returns in a tedious third installment of his nocturnal adventures in supernatural slaughter, the inevitable watering-down of once intriguing characters and situations compensated for by cranking up the fetishized violence and cinematic lovemaking to guns, blades and bullets. The one really original concept here is that, hey, the longbow can be a way-cool bringer of mayhem, too. This time out, Blade battles the “patriarch” of all vampires (Dominic Purcell), who was “born perfect” and has all sorts of intriguing demonic powers like shape-shifting, yet is still no match for a mere pseudo-vampiric dude with a mean Eddie Munster widow’s peak. Unfortunate additions to the crew include the uncannily bland Ryan Reynolds and the remarkably generic Jessica Biel as “hip” Van Helsings. He cracks wise and she grooves to her iPod while on their bloodsucker-killing sprees—it’s vigilantism played as inconsequentially as an intense workout. (R)—MaryAnn Johanson

Closer **

You’d expect a movie with this much sex talk in it to be ... well ... sexier. That’s ostensibly the point: Look how cold and passionless contemporary relationships are! Certainly Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman are lovely to look at, sliding through their sleek London lives, cheating and lying and hurting those they purport to love. But even this impressive cast and director Mike Nichols can’t keep sitting through the film from feeling like a chore. One imagines that Patrick Marber, adapting his own stage play, sees this as a modern drawing-room comedy, full of sharp, witty observations on how cruel people are to one another. But this isn’t a mature exploration of why adult relationships can sometimes be so childish. It’s just faux-sophisticated adults who think they’re smart doing all they can to avoid real intimacy, and learning nothing at all from their romantic misadventures. (R)—MAJ

Darkness *.5

What do you get when you shamelessly crib elements from The Sixth Sense, The Ring, The Others, Stand By Me and The Shining, just for starters? A movie that’s only scary to actors who must find a place to hide it on their résumés. Director Juame Balaguero made an R-rated version of this derivative haunted house thriller two years ago, but Dimension Films is just getting around to releasing a PG-13 cut. Anna Paquin plays the daughter of a man who moves his family into a spooky house in the same Spanish countryside where he and six friends disappeared during a lunar eclipse 40 years ago. Arbitrary goofiness ensues as Paquin attempts to figure out why her little brother is scared. Its inability to focus is infuriating, and Balaguero can manage only ham-handed replications of psychological or visceral thrills. Except for snatches of impressive work by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, Darkness is frightfully crappy. (R)—Greg Beacham

Fat Albert *.5

In the early 1970s, Bill Cosby created an animated series based on his childhood pals in North Philly, a gentle vessel for life lessons that diversified Saturday morning TV’s lily-white landscape—and he sullied that legacy by signing off on this pointless live-action version. Kenan Thompson plays the rotund cartoon, who dives into the real world with the gang when he senses that high schooler Doris (Kyla Pratt) needs help. But she couldn’t possibly need more help than this script by Cosby and Charles Kipps, a tired conglomeration of fish-out-of-water moments and sincere speeches that mostly ignores the Roger Rabbit-esque possibilities of cartoon characters existing in reality. And don’t count on My Big Fat Greek Wedding director Joel Zwick to add flavor to the proceedings. Sure, it’s inoffensive—unless you consider it offensive that so much money is shoveled into dead-on-arrival nostalgia acts like this. Hey hey hey, stay away. (PG)—SR

Flight of the Phoenix ***

There’s an element of the preposterous in this remake of the 1965 film of the same name—but who cares? It’s a rip-roarer of a flick, bristling with adventure and suspense, pulled off by a director (John Moore, Behind Enemy Lines) who knows what makes a movie too popcorny good to be dismissed. Dennis Quaid deploys his usual charm as the hotshot pilot who crashes his C-119 plane into the ass end of the Gobi desert. He’s carrying a load of oil-rig-worker passengers and their oh-so convenient cargo of welding equipment, gas generators and Craftsman tools—just what’s needed to, say, build a new plane from the wreckage and fly the hell out of there. It’s nowhere near so easy to do, of course, not when fun-scary Giovanni Ribisi’s apparently joonbug-loony airplane designer is the one who suggests such a wacky plan. Absurd it may be, but it’s still wonderfully gripping. (PG-13)—MAJ

Finding Neverland ****

Oh, this is a magical film, one that transports us not only to another, more delightful, place and time—a slightly idealized Edwardian England—but to within the vivid flights of fancy of a writer whose fantastical inventions of Neverland, Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell continue to mesmerize us a century after their debut. This isn’t the precisely true story of how J.M. Barrie was moved to write the play, but it does take its inspiration from reality. A perfectly cast Johnny Depp, as the writer and a man immersed in his own imagination, combines the exhilaration of a child at play with an adult melancholy that comes from being profoundly aware of the fleetingness of moments of unbound joy. And director Marc Forster, with a light, playful touch, gives us seamless transitions from reality to fantasy, seeing the world simultaneously through the eyes of both child and adult. (PG-13)—MAJ

I Heart Huckabees **

Director David O. Russell desperately wants everybody to think he’s as smart and subversive as Charlie Kaufman and his ilk. He has just about sucked his thumb down to the bone to produce this ponderous fable of environmentalism, corporate politics and existential detective work featuring a cast of characters who could never exist doing things that mean nothing to anybody, either in their convoluted movie world or our humble real life. Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin and Mark Wahlberg caper about in tacky clothes and bad haircuts, reciting fortune cookie aphorisms such as, “Everything is the same, even when it’s different,” while the circular story jogs along. There are a few genuine Buddhism Lite epiphanies and a few chuckles at Russell’s usual festival of pratfalls, but nothing to convince us we’re watching anything more meaningful than a director determined to seem much smarter than he probably should be. (R)—Greg Beacham

The Incredibles ***

All right, Pixar, this is what you get for setting the standard for contemporary movie magic: You make something that’s only really good, and it feels like a disappointment. Writer/director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) spins the tale of a middle-aged ex-superhero (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) who emerges from forced retirement and suburban hell to face an old nemesis, bringing his super-powered family along for the ride. Beginning with an homage to Connery-era Bond—a late-1960s setting, brassy music, underground lairs—Bird crafts something that’s clever and satisfying. When all is said and done, though, The Incredibles is essentially another superhero action-adventure movie, one that covers thematic ground already hashed out more effectively in Spider-Man and X-Men movies. It’s a fast, fun ride in a world where making a fast, fun ride is too often the goal. We’ll have to settle for mere quality rather than genius. (PG)—SR

Kinsey **

There’s only a little bit of nookie in this profile of pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and it’s a clinical, cringing sort of action. Liam Neeson gives a sharp-eyed portrayal of the film’s humorless, indefatigable subject, the Indiana University human behaviorist who dragged sexual education into the 20th century. But writer-director Bill Condon’s film moves to a standard biopic metronome, with conflicts and dalliances and resolutions proceeding with tidy tedium. Condon then stretches awkwardly to find movie-worthy drama in the third act, detailing Kinsey’s boring battles to find funding, or the petty squabbles among his lieutenants. Sure, you’ll see frontal nudity from Peter Sarsgaard and a killer scene from Bill Sadler as a voracious bisexual pedophile, but it doesn’t shed much light on the research’s impact on the world. Kinsey was many things—but he’s not all that cinematic. (R)—GB

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events **

Using the language of narrator Lemony Snicket, how do we define the appropriate expression for what Jim Carrey does to this adaptation of material from Daniel Handler’s first two Snicket books? Carrey plays Count Olaf, the dastardly actor who becomes caretaker to the orphaned Baudelaire children—14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and bite-happy infant Sunny—so that he can acquire the fortune to which they are heirs. This is the stuff of classic kid-lit—orphaned protagonists, dark themes—and when the young stars are the focus, director Brad Silberling’s version occasionally lives up to the source material, despite groan-inducing and sometimes inappropriate captions for Sunny’s babbling. Then Carrey, whose riff-heavy Grinch already spoiled one beloved children’s tale, will intrude with a funny voice or a silly disguise—and no, it’s no excuse that the character is a show-off actor. The appropriate expression is “ham”—a word which here means, “not kosher.” (PG)—SR

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ***.5

It’s not actually Wes Anderson’s smartly poignant film that’s stuck in the ’70s, though it might seem so at first glance. It’s Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) himself, a once-celebrated maker of nature documentaries now trying to salvage his legacy. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach weave the disconnect between Zissou’s reality and the reality he’s trying to show to the outside world into nearly every scene, creating a funny, sad portrait of coming to terms with who you really are. Throw in weird stop-motion creatures by Henry Selick and great supporting work by Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum, and you’ve got an effort that should even confound those who’ve griped at the ironic distance in Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. This one is all about manipulation of perception to achieve an effect. The Life Aquatic shows that the bravest act is showing the side of yourself that’s not a fictional character. (R)—SR

The Machinist ***

You might’ve heard that Christian Bale dropped 63 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose in order to play the titular workman in this depressed, atmospheric noir, but you’ve still gotta see it. Director Brad Anderson shoots his shirtless star from countless shadowy angles to accent his concave chest and hideously bony back. Once you get past the gag reflex, he’s like the smallest dinosaur in Jurassic Park. We spend the film trying to figure out what has prevented Trevor Reznik from sleeping or maintaining weight for over a year. We meet his whore (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his Madonna (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), but they’re no help. Though Anderson struggles to find a coherent line between the cool thriller literalism and the supernatural theatrics of Reznik’s growing paranoia, there’s plenty of creepy-crawly fun as Trevor struggles to hang onto sanity. As a bonus, you might think twice about denying yourself that last Oreo. (R)—GB

Meet the Fockers **.5

One takes pleasures where one finds them, and one could do a lot worse than finding pleasure in Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this otherwise tepid sequel to Meet the Parents. Two years later, it’s time for Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) to introduce his future in-laws to his own parents—Barbra Streisand as sex therapist mother Focker, and Hoffman as dad. Much forced clashing between the hippie-fuzzy Fockers and suspicious, tight-sphinctered ex-CIA man Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) ensues, all directed by Jay Roach with an elbow to the ribs. It’s all part of the Theater of Humiliation brand of comedy, but Hoffman’s role as the emotionally open Bernie Focker is a keeper—this clunky contraption feels lighter on its toes thanks to his crinkled smiles. And yeah, La Barbra has fun, too, making it a lot more entertaining meeting the Fockers than meeting anyone we already knew from the original film. (PG-13)—SR

National Treasure **.5

Or, The Da Vinci Clone. Stealing the thunder—and the basic premise—of a planned adaptation of Dan Brown’s megabestseller, this Jerry Bruckheimer production casts his favorite Everyhero Nicolas Cage as heir to a family obsession with a mythical hidden treasure. Knights Templar, Freemasons and a series of clues unlocking a history-changing mystery are involved as Cage chases down clues (including one supposedly hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence), so you can see where the comparison to Brown might be the teensiest bit apropos. And you can also see why the concept is so popular, as director Jon Turtletaub crafts a fast—if incredibly dumb—treasure hunt, one that throws historical detail into the mix so chewing on brain candy actually feels like mental exercise. If you don’t think about it too hard, it’s the kind of kernel that ultimately makes for a fluffy piece of popcorn cinema. (PG-13)—SR

Ocean’s Twelve **.5

For one 15-minute stretch—a brilliant sequence showcasing Julia Roberts as Tess Ocean, now the twelfth member of husband Danny’s (George Clooney) crew—Ocean’s Twelve snaps with the kind of energy and pop smarts that made Ocean’s Eleven such an irresistible treat. But for too much of this sequel—which finds the group reunited when Eleven’s victimized hotelier Andy Garcia tracks them down and demands payback—it feels like the cast is simply riffing and enjoying a European vacation on the studio’s dime. While there are fun bits of business strewn throughout, director Steven Soderbergh and company never find a focus. With every winking cameo appearance, the film appears less concerned with telling a story than with bathing in its own Hollywood cool. Eleven actually felt like a movie with characters; Twelve, amusing though it may be at times, is a feature-length Friars’ Club roast. (PG-13)—SR

The Phantom of the Opera **

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher join forces for this adaptation of the überpopular musical about a disfigured specter (Gerard Butler) haunting the Paris opera house—and the romance between Christine (Emmy Rossum) and Raoul (Patrick Wilson)—in 1870. Those who find Lloyd Webber’s work excruciating probably won’t be won over by this version; it’s also the case that his somewhat defensive supporters (*cough*) may be left disappointed. Melodrama like this may only work on the stage, where grand gestures don’t look quite so silly in 12-foot-high close-up. And where Schumacher doesn’t send his camera swooping into the catacombs through cracks between stones. And where the guy playing the Phantom can actually, you know, carry a tune. The production is suitably sumptuous, and Minnie Driver does fine, funny work as the opera’s resident diva. Otherwise, Phantom proves yet again that movies were never meant to be Lloyd Webber’s medium. (PG-13)—SR

The Polar Express *.5

One would like to grit one’s teeth and request, in an insistent parental tone, that director Robert Zemeckis use his inside voice. He’s blown up a quietly magical Christmas Eve train trip to the North Pole into an advertisement for a Runaway Polar Express theme-park attraction surely coming soon to a Six Flags near you. Shall pajama-clad child passengers be put in mortal peril along the way, as the train fishtails across iced-over lakes and zooms down grades so steep that they have no use for the laws of physics? Why not? It’s Christmas, after all! Sadly, Zemekis fails even in his attempt to re-create the delicate luminousness of Chris Van Allsburg’s achingly lovely oil-and colored-pencil illustrations in the picture book upon which the film is based. There’s a fake, plastic sheen to photorealistically animated human faces that even competent voice performances by actors such as Tom Hanks can’t overcome. (G)—MAJ

Sideways ****

Director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election) moves to the head of his class of American filmmakers with this exquisitely nuanced tale of nearly-middle-aged male bonding. During a weeklong trip to central California wine country, a frustrated writer named Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his actor friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), indulge in booze, women and Xanax—and Payne creates humor and enlightenment out of a rather ordinary road trip setup. With hungry actors reveling in their meaty roles, with a thousand Easter eggs of character development hidden within his frames, Payne makes a film that vibrates with authenticity, warmth and optimism. His four films are a small chorus of our time, with a thousand voices saying beautiful small things in a language we all speak. Oh, and his script is also funny as hell. In a movie about stalled lives, everything is in perfect motion. (R)—GB

Spanglish **.5

James L. Brooks couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title for his film: It tries hard to say two things at the same time, and ends up saying neither of them particularly well. It’s framed as the story of Flor (Paz Vega), a single mom Mexican immigrant whose desire for a better life for her daughter leads her to Los Angeles, and eventually a housekeeping job with the wealthy Clasky family. They’re played by Adam Sandler (as a sweetly understanding chef) and Téa Leoni (as his super-achiever wife), and Brooks sets us up to think the story of their marital crisis will matter as well. But the Claskys’ tale is never resolved, as though TV veteran Brooks is setting up a next episode that will never come. While Brooks knows how to craft great punch lines, great individual scenes and impressive comic performances, everything in Spanglish is about bits and pieces. (PG-13)-SR

A Very Long Engagement ***.5

This labor of love for Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet combines a particularly Gallic comic sensibility with the nightmare of the Great War trenches. It leaves you not despairing at the cruelty of humankind, but inspired by the hopeless hope that allowed those caught up in it to survive. That wonderful weirdness and ruthless barbarism can coexist here without lessening the appeal of the first or the enormity of the second is a triumph to be savored. You’ll be tempted to ask for a cheat sheet to keep track of the sprawling cast of characters and the enchantingly convoluted, time-jumping plot, but you won’t need it. This small, lovely story against an enormous background is filtered through Audrey Tautou’s quick but dreamy Mathilde, who is searching for her lover who was lost on the battlefield but may not be dead. If you’re along with her for the ride, you’ll be fine. (R)-MAJ

What the Bleep Do We Know? *

It’s an audacious, fresh idea for a movie: Physicists, scientists, professors and at least one chiropractor stands in front of a camera, each expounding theories about nearly everything in the universe from quantum mechanics to the existence of God. In between, Marlee Matlin wanders around Canada running into alternate versions of herself to illustrate several metaphysical principles. Yes, it’s audacious and fresh—and it’s also some of the most execrable, pseudointellectual, morally disingenuous psychobabble-rific hooey ever to reach the big screen. It pretends to illustrate new ways of thinking or looking at life’s big questions when it’s actually begging everybody to look at everything from the same arrogant-grad-student perspective. More than that, it’s horribly boring for the longest stretches, particularly when Matlin’s baffling metaphor thing is going on. It’s simultaneously impenetrable and laughably simplistic, and almost none of it is watchable. I don’t know much, but I know what sucks. (NR)—GB

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