Capsules by Michael Sragow unless noted. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.
Bedtime Stories: * ( 1 STAR) If you look closely at Bedtime Stories, it is almost possible to see how the cast and crew were making up the movie as it went along. No one would notice this lack of direction if the movie were at least funny. Adam Sandler plays the latest in his long line of lovable losers. This one is Skeeter Bronson, a hotel handyman who longs for the day he will be in charge. Bronson discovers, when he must watch his niece and nephew for a week, that elements of his made-up bedtime stories come true the next day. He decides to use this gift to get the job he has wanted for many years. Director Adam Shankman should stick to musicals like Hairspray. That format enables him to take the action over the top without looking stupid. PG 105 minutes. (Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapers)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: **** ( 4 STARS) It starts in 1918, when Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born with an old face and dilapidated plumbing and wrinkled skin over an infant body, and ends in 2005, when his true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), completes the telling of his story. Every chapter in between brings with it a fresh air of discovery. And the movie's emotional completeness leaves you poised between sobbing and applauding - it comes from a full comprehension not just of one man's life, but of the intersection of many lives over the course of the 20th century. The director, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), working from a robust yet tender script by Eric Roth, weds his painter's eye to a composer's rhythm. His filmmaking has the musical beat, and the heartbeat, of a prime E.L. Doctorow novel (such as Ragtime) rather than the wan F. Scott Fitzgerald story it's actually based on. PG-13 159 minutes.
Doubt: ** ( 2 STARS) From the start of this sadly familiar and stagy tale, set in a Bronx church and Catholic school in 1964, the stern headmistress (Meryl Streep), suspects her priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of sexual misconduct. Director John Patrick Shanley, working from his own play, refuses to satisfy an audience's desire to know what "really" happened between the priest and a lonely boy and to experience a catharsis over the unveiling of "the truth." Yet Shanley's tactics become just as mechanical as melodrama, without the pleasures of precision engineering. You know you're going to be taught a woefully basic lesson about men and women containing more complexity than can be explained in a series of charges and countercharges. Only Amy Adams as a naive nun and Viola Davis as the boy's mother resemble real, surprising human beings. PG-13 104 minutes.
Frost/Nixon: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS) Ron Howard has made his best movie, an electric political drama with a skin-prickling immediacy. Howard and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan (who also wrote the original play) have the wit to portray British TV interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) as David and Goliath. Frost's slingshot is a weapon that proved deadly to Nixon once before, during the Nixon/Kennedy TV debates: the all-seeing eye of the close-up lens. The film whizzes by with shrewd vignettes of showbiz and political negotiations, leading to their intersection in the interviews, the apex of media-political events. Langella superbly invests Nixon with Shakespearean dimension. Sheen is nonpareil at playing verbally glib characters who articulate deep feelings in subtle or fleeting expressions. His Frost is always ready for his close-ups. R 122 minutes.
Marley & Me : *** ( 3 STARS) Based on the autobiographical book by newspaper columnist John Grogan, Marley & Me is about a newly married couple who bring home a puppy. Aspiring journalist Grogan (Owen Wilson) buys the dog for his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), ostensibly to take her mind off wanting to have kids. Though initially listless, Marley, named for the visionary Jamaican reggae singer, quickly develops into an uncontrollable force of energy. Over the course of their years together, John, Jennifer and Marley have their share of adventures, but that's not really what Marley & Me is about. Instead, it's about the simple act of inviting an animal to share your life and marveling at how dependent you become on each other. PG 120 minutes. (Chris Kaltenbach)
The Reader: ** ( 2 STARS) The Reader wonders what would have happened if Benjamin Braddock had discovered that Mrs. Robinson was a Nazi war criminal. Newcomer David Kross and Ralph Fiennes play young and older versions of Michael Berg, a German lawyer who, as a wide-eyed teenager, had an affair with an older woman, a streetcar conductor named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who turns up later in the course of a war crimes trial. The crux of the film is not why Hanna did what she did (about which the film is purposefully vague), but how Michael should feel about it and her. Ponderously self-important and smugly Socratic, brimming with unfinished sentences and pregnant pauses, the film wastes finely nuanced and calibrated performances from Winslet (with a convincing German accent) and Kross. R 123 minutes. (Chris Kaltenbach)
Valkyrie: ** ( 2 STARS) This film ploddingly depicts the heroic attempts of a handful of German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler and thus bring down the Nazi regime. It sounds like surefire "what-if?" thriller material, and Tom Cruise gives a game physical performance as the officer at the center of the plot, but the German officer's moment of conscience occurs off-screen, and the director, Bryan Singer, and the screenwriters, Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, apparently paralyzed by the seriousness of their subject, scant the sidelong ironies of a military aristocrat fashioning highest treason for the greater good. As the slippery head of Germany's Reserve Army, Tom Wilkinson summons impressive inner reserves of gravity and wit and alone proves that a suspense film thrives on intriguing characters struggling to survive. Nothing else in this film is as compelling as watching tides of calculation crash across Wilkinson's face. PG-13 120 minutes.