SLUMDOG WINS FIRST MAJOR AWARD

The National Board of Review, which launches the movie awards season each year, named Fox Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire best film of the year Thursday. The Danny Boyle film, about a poor boy, played by newcomer Dev Patel, who emerges from the slums of Mumbai to become wealthy, thanks to India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, is regarded as a top contender in the Oscar derby. Patel also won for best breakthrough performance by an actor. Boyle, however, was passed over for the best director award, which went to David Fincher for his The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Clint Eastwood took the best actor award for his performance in Gran Torino, and Anne Hathaway, the best actress award for Rachel Getting Married. The National Board of Review is composed of film historians, students and academics. Its awards will be presented in New York on January 14.

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE PUNISHER: WAR ZONE

Roger Ebert is disappointed. The Chicago Sun-Times critic writes, "You used to be able to depend on a bad film being poorly made. No longer." What irks Ebert is the latest Marvel Comics-to-film entrant, The Punisher: War Zone, which Ebert pronounces "one of the best-made bad movies I've seen." He goes on: "It looks great, it hurtles through its paces and is well-acted. The soundtrack is like elevator music if the elevator were in a death plunge. The special effects are state of the art. Its only flaw is that it's disgusting." Kyle Smith in the New York Post obviously thinks that Ebert gives the film far too much credit. "With its dopey fight scenes, grimy look and goopy gore, this movie is so far from ept that inept is the wrong word. It's anti-ept," he remarks. Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News goes further, saying that the movie "looks like it was made expressly to fill up discount bins." A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes that he sat through the film wonder, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" He's more specific: "Guys get their heads blown off, or severed, or pierced with chair legs, or pulverized with fists, because that's what they have coming and that's what the fan base will pay money to see. But does it have to be so witless, so stupid, so openly contemptuous of the very audience it's supposed to be pandering to?" But Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle insists the movie should go down well among those who "can appreciate the high level of gore and assorted sadistic weirdness." He observes that a relatively low budget "ensured that director Lexi Alexander was going to make a B movie, so she embraces its B-movie qualities and crafts a memorable piece of entertainment." And Ty Burr in the Boston Globe figures that the moviegoers who buy tickets for Punisher recognize that it exists "for the mayhem, not the characters. ... If most of the budget has gone to ordnance and blood squibs, director Lexi Alexander films the sprays of gore with an artisan's eye, and the results make effective if morally indefensible movie red meat."

MOVIE REVIEWS: CADILLAC RECORDS

Cadillac Records , which takes a look at the early origins of rock 'n' roll at Chess Records in Chicago, has got critics dancing in the aisles. Writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times: "So much passion, so much pain, so much tenderness and violence. If you dig up an album from the heyday of Chess Records, you'll find all that and more. And Cadillac Records is nearly as good as one of those albums, which is saying a lot." Rafer Guzmán in Newsday agrees: "Fast, crisp and lively, the film packs a half-dozen stories into two hours with little time for melodrama or sermonizing. The dialogue is quick and sharp; short scenes make powerful points. The film's main flaw is doting on its overwrought star, Beyoncé Knowles, but then she's an executive producer," he writes. On the other hand Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirer admires Knowles's performance: "Beyoncé delivers," she writes, "if more powerfully as actress than as a soul thrush." And Bob Strauss concludes in the Los Angeles Daily News: "It's not the most incisive or even focused show-biz history flick, but the music is great, the performances delightful." But Michael O'Sullivan in the Washington Post comments that the film "feels disappointingly bloated and too fast-paced by half. It's an LP record played at 45 rpm. (If you don't know what that means, ask your parents.)"

MOVIE REVIEWS: NOBEL SON

Critics are awarding Nobel Son -- in which Alan Rickman plays an unlikable winner of a Nobel Prize in chemistry -- faint praise. Manohla Dargis writes in the New York Times that the movie is "an aggressively noisy exercise in style over substance about nasty people doing nasty things to one another in (sigh) Southern California." Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune says the plot amounts to a "ripe premise left out in the sun too long." Ruthe Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle calls it "a dreary little thriller that irritates more than it thrills." And Liam Lacey concludes his review in the Toronto Globe and Mail this way: "With every new torture scene, grotesque death, improbable plot switch or musical action sequence, I found myself silently cursing all the fan-boy directors like Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Darren Aronofsky for what they have inspired. Weak movies used to be just dull; now they're frenetically so. Even if you can summon some admiration for Nobel Son's editing or snippets of clever dialogue, the movie is so relentlessly self-congratulatory, you can't help becoming thoroughly sick of it."