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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 11

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON David Fincher's groveling Oscar bait is a desperate lunge by a normally exciting genre filmmaker to earn some year-end accolades by helming An Important Movie With Life-Affirming Values. But when faced with results such as this, I'll take the comparative cheap thrills of Fincher's Seven or Zodiac any day of the week. Except for one bravura sequence near the end of the picture – a beautifully staged scene of a life winding down – Button is curiously listless, with all of its passion apparently expended on its technical feats. Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this deals with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who's born as an 80-year-old man but becomes gradually younger as time passes. Like his cinematic soulmate Forrest Gump, Benjamin leads a rich and varied life, although his heart always belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, like Forrest's Jenny, is a callow free spirit who doesn't realize the depths of her fondness for Benjamin until it's almost too late. Benjamin Button is primarily a passive character, and he's in turn played by Pitt in a passive manner. It's not the actor's finest work, as he's upstaged by his own makeup as well as the CGI trickery that (in old-age mode) turns him into a diminutive figure. Even Pitt is finally freed from the movie magic and allowed to look like himself, it's to no avail, largely because he and Blanchett have no chemistry together. As for the movie's themes, they're basically a series of homilies about the beauty of life and how we shouldn't waste a single precious moment of it. Point taken: I won't spend another second reflecting on this motionless motion picture. **

DEFIANCE The 1970s TV miniseries Holocaust and the 2002 theatrical release The Grey Zone touched upon the topic, but Defiance might be the first celluloid outing to focus exclusively on the efforts of Jews to violently oppose their Nazi oppressors during World War II. Certainly, it's an overdue entry in the long history of Hollywood Holocaust flicks, but it's a shame that such an intriguing story didn't receive a more distinguished rendering. Adapted by director Edward Zwick and co-scripter Clayton Frohman from Nechama Tec's nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, this centers on three siblings who battle the German threat from within the Belarus Forest. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), is the tentative leader; middle son Zus (Liev Schreiber) is far more tempestuous; and youngest lad Asael (Jamie Bell) is a greenhorn who soon gets his initiation under fire. The Bielskis soon earn a reputation for their guerilla tactics that keep the Nazis off balance, and before long, scores of other Jews join them in their forest sanctuary. Zwick's epics (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) have never lacked for propulsive power, but Defiance is the first to constantly stumble over itself even as it tries to get its tale in gear. Episodic in nature, it places stock characters (fresh-faced intellectual, gently questioning rabbi, vicious troublemaker, foxy lady to frolic in the forest with Tuvia) in stock situations that require characters to spout off inspirational clichés every few scenes. Still, Craig and Schreiber make for interesting contrasts in masculinity, and it's commendable that somebody finally got around to paying tribute to these woodland warriors. **1/2

DOUBT While Ron Howard transforms Frost/Nixon into a living, breathing motion picture, writer-director John Patrick Shanley never quite makes it past the curtain call with Doubt. Adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Shanley doesn't possess Howard's cinematic instincts, resulting in a movie that remains resolutely stage-bound. But that's not necessarily a sign of defeat: No one could ever really argue that Mike Nichols' superb Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? managed to shuck the playhouse chains, either. Doubt is no Woolf, of course, but blessed with a quartet of strong performances, it's weighty enough to earn its bookings. Set in 1964, the film examines a battle of wills taking place at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the strict principal of the school, isn't crazy about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose desire for a more progressive direction within the Catholic church flies in the face of her old-school ideology. So when timid Sister James (Amy Adams) airs her suspicions that Father Flynn is being a bit too chummy with an altar boy, Sister Aloysius works on getting him ousted. But is she truly convinced of his guilt, or is she merely using the issue as a way to force out the theological thorn in her side? Pulitzer notwithstanding, Shanley's play was disappointing in the manner in which it took the obvious way out. The movie can't overcome that hurdle, though it can be argued that Shanley adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. Still, what really matters is the cast, and there's no doubt that Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Viola Davis (as the mother of the allegedly molested student) all do heavenly work. ***

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