NOTE: To read opening-day reviews of GRAN TORINO (***) and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (***1/2), head to www.theclogblog.com on Friday, Jan. 9.
AUSTRALIA Director Baz Luhrmann's frenzied approach, which worked just fine for Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet, ends up hurting this roller coaster of a romantic epic. As Lady Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband's cattle ranch from being taken over by rival King Carney (Bryan Brown), Nicole Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role – too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest – make that close to the (bare) chest – and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing. The worst culprit of overacting is David Wenham, whose dastardly henchman Fletcher ends up being perhaps the most risible movie villain since Billy Zane took shots at Leonardo DiCaprio as the Titanic sank into the chilly depths. In between scenes of Nicole and Hugh gettin' sweaty and sequences involving the Japanese advancement during World War II, Australia touches upon the country's horrific treatment of its half-caste children (produced when whites raped Aboriginal women), although with so much territory to cover, the movie doesn't provide more than a surface look. What it does provide, in those moments when Luhrmann isn't allowing the material to spin out of control, is the sort of old-fashioned yarn Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis, with sweeping vistas providing backdrops for couples clinched in love. But for a primer on the land down under, you'd do just as well renting Crocodile Dundee. **1/2
BOLT In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn't for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio's entire animation department. So while Bolt isn't a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed here as executive producer), and that might possibly be the reason this fast-paced confection is far better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet. But make no mistake: This is still a long way from the giddy heights of the Pixar pack. It mixes the speed of an ADD Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It's entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it's over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters. There are some clever inside-Hollywood touches, but the lack of any real tension means that the scripters are ultimately forced to turn to a burning building to serve as the "villain" of the piece. Still, the visual design is inventive, and kids and adults alike are sure to love Rhino (Mark Walton), a portly hamster always on the go in his plastic ball. Whenever he's on screen, you can be sure he keeps the movie rolling. **1/2
A CHRISTMAS TALE Had France submitted Arnaud Desplechin's family saga as its official entry for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, it would have stood a good chance of being nominated; instead, the country went with The Class, relegating this to no more than an extreme long shot for a Best Original Screenplay nod. No matter: Desplechin and co-writer Emmanuel Bourdeu have constructed a warmly inviting motion picture that needs no statues to declare its worth. If the Hollywood hit Four Christmases takes family dysfunction to its comic extremes, A Christmas Tale plays it closer to real life, finding both humor and heartbreak as it focuses on the members of the Vuillard clan gathering over the holidays. The most recognizable names (or, for those not versed in French cinema, most recognizable faces) are those of French superstar Catherine Deneuve, still lovely after all these decades, and Mathieu Amalric, suddenly all over the place thanks to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Quantum of Solace (in which he portrays Bond's nemesis). She plays Junon, the matriarch faced with fatal illness; he plays oldest son Henri, who doesn't get along with either his mother or his sister (Anne Consigny). Their younger brother (Melvil Poupaud) also figures into the proceedings, as do various spouses, nephews and friends. The performances are uniformly fine, although it's the raspy-voiced Jean-Paul Roussillon who steals scenes as Junon's husband, the perpetually patient paterfamilias who serves as the eye of the hurricane in this tumultuous household. ***