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What it's about : A dog who plays a superhero on TV thinks he is one in real life, which presents all sorts of problems.

Rated: PG

The scoop : The script is smart, its conceit a heart-tugger in the finest of senses, and it's the first Disney effort in way too long to be more concerned with being a movie than with being a breeding ground for product tie-ins.

Grade ***: 1/2

Cadillac Records

What it's about : Leonard Chess, a self-made Chicago "record man," puts Muddy Waters and then Chuck Berry on the nation's turntables, thus inventing rock 'n' roll.

Rated: R

The scoop : Writer-director Darnell Martin goes for the throat of this killer subject, and the actors, including Beyonce (above) as Etta James, reward her with indelible performances.

Grade: ***

A Christmas Tale

What it's about : Catherine Deneuve (above) has never been more magnificent as Junon, a French-provincial matriarch who approaches terminal illness and family upheaval with breathtaking directness.

Rated : Unrated

The scoop : At last, a great contemporary holiday movie that's for grown-ups - a holiday movie that really is a moviegoer's holiday from desultory fare.

Grade: ****

The Day the Earth Stood Still

What it's about : Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, above), an alien in human form, and Gort, his bioengineered protector, want to save Earth, because it's one of the few orbs capable of supporting complex life.

Rated: PG-13

The scoop : For a while, this movie also seems capable of supporting complex life - thanks mostly to great casting. Then the inspiration and energy run out.

Grade: ** 1/2

Four Christmases

What it's about : After years of leaving the country for Christmas, a couple are forced to spend the holiday with their families.

Rated: PG-13

The scoop : Yet another "Holidays+Families=Hell" comedy, but this one's surprisingly funny. Vince Vaughn, as one-half of the trapped couple, is his usual boorish self, but Reese Witherspoon (above) explores her lighter side to great effect.

Grade : *** 1/2


What it's about : Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, above), a community activist in San Francisco, struggles to become the first openly gay man elected to high public office in a major U.S. city.

Rated: R

The scoop : The film rests so exclusively - and solidly - on its performances that audiences won't realize how strong its mojo is until an assassin's bullets break the spell.

Grade : *** 1/2

Slumdog Millionaire

What it's about : The unlikeliest epic hero ever: a ragamuffin (Dev Patel, above) in Mumbai who becomes a contender on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Rated: R

The scoop : Director Danny Boyle outdoes himself with a blend of hair-raising social melodrama, earthy humor and mystic adventure. The result is a Dickensian extravaganza.

Grade: ****


What it's about : Good-guy vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, above) and human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) fall into a love that's immediate and absolute and at the same time not to be consummated.

Rated : PG-13

The scoop : This flesh-biter of a movie never turns into a nail-biter. The emphasis is on swooning, and even the amorous thrills fade.

Grade: **

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