MOVIE REVIEWS: BEDTIME STORIES

Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times begins his review of Bedtime Stories with a prediction: "This is a harmless and pleasant Disney comedy and one of only three family movies playing over the holidays," he writes. (The other two are the animated The Tale of Despereaux and Marley & Me). "It will therefore win the box-office crown big time, with Adam Sandler crushing Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet and others not in harmless Disney comedies." In his lede, Ebert also remarks that the movie "is not my cup of tea. Even the saucer." It's not most other critics', either. "If you listen carefully to the strains of 'When You Wish Upon a Star' during the Disney corporate intro, you may hear Walt moaning in his grave," comments Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal. Claudia Puig in USA Today calls it a "ho-hum tale," while Kyle Smith in the New York Post dismisses it as a "bizarrely clunky kiddie flick." The real issue, Liam Lacey suggests in the Toronto Globe & Mail boils down to what he calls "a taste test for moviegoers: Do you prefer your Adam Sandler regular strength or in the new mild format?" (Lacey suggests he prefers neither.) But Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News observes that Sandler seems "at home" playing parts like his character in Bedtime Stories. "Sandler's shambling Yogi Bear-ness will be the big appeal to holiday-vacation audiences," he writes. And Jonathan Curiel concludes his review in the San Francisco Chronicle by writing, "For prepubescent kids, Bedtime Stories will be a perfectly enjoyable work -- a PG-rated introduction to a heralded comic actor trying to inspire a new generation of Adam Sandler fans."

MOVIE REVIEWS: VALKYRIE

You can say this about Tom Cruise's Valkyrie: The reviews for it were far worse before anyone had seen it than they are now that it's out. It's almost as if some Hollywood gossips were sounding the drumbeat for the film's failure in order to put that vanilla, sofa-jumping Scientologist in his place for daring to play the leader of a German plot to assassinate Hitler during World War II. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the reviews refer to the early blasts at the film by gossip columnists. Citing "those who've gotten an early glimpse" of the film, Courtney Hazlett, who turns out MSNBC.com's Scoop column, wrote, "Cruise's performance elicits uncomfortable and inappropriate laughs." The major critics are not laughing, however. "Tom Cruise is perfectly satisfactory, if not electrifying, in the leading role," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, adding, "I'm at a loss to explain the blizzard of negative advance buzz fired at him." Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer comments similarly: "What's surprising about Valkyrie ... is that the film isn't half bad. It's certainly not the unwitting laugh riot that many (me included) expected." Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe & Mail also comes to Cruise's defense, although with identical coolness. "As for Cruise playing a career German officer, don't be too hard on his eye patch and his heel-clicking and that undiluted valor. Things could be much worse," he remarks. Another unenthusiastic commendation comes from Tom Maurstad in the Dallas Morning News: "Mr. Cruise is fine, providing his character with the requisite dash and determination." And Manohla Dargis in the New York Times comments that Cruise "gives a fine, typically energetic performance in a film that requires nothing more of him than a profile and vigor." Indeed the film itself receives mostly decent reviews and a few that are quite admiring. Ty Burr begins his review in the Boston Globe this way: "It is my duty to report -- to the possible chagrin of more than a few readers -- that Valkyrie -- is not a disaster. On the contrary: It's a smooth, compelling ... World War II action-drama in which an intriguing (but not electrifying) star performance is buttressed by stellar support." And Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post concludes that "against all expectations, [Cruise] has fashioned a successful if not exceptional film." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal comes to the same conclusion. "Mr. Cruise's performance turns out to be brisk and reasonably plausible, though unexceptional, while the production as a whole succeeds as an elaborate procedural, impressively staged in historical locations," he writes. And Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times judges it to be made "with impeccable professionalism."

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may suffer from the opposite problem faced by Tom Cruise's Valkyrie -- too much advance positive buzz, particularly for Brad Pitt (who co-starred with Cruise 15 years ago in Interview With the Vampire.) The premise of the film -- a man is born old and dies an infant -- is fatal to the movie, Roger Ebert suggests in the Chicago Sun-Times. It "devalues any relationship, makes futile any friendship or romance, and spits, not into the face of destiny, but backward into the maw of time," he remarks. Likewise Mick LaSalle comments in the San Francisco Chronicle comments: "In every way, the movie looks like somebody's idea of a great movie, just as its length -- 167 minutes -- proclaims its importance. But the proclamation is untrue, and all the trappings are in the service of a story that's emotionally false and fundamentally unimportant." Joe Neumaier writes in the New York Daily News, "The problem is that there's no point. Benjamin could have aged normally and been the same nonreactive hero." Strip away the film's gimmick, says Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post, "and it's utterly conventional and predictable, its moral payoff nothing more than a maudlin, anodyne mumble." To be sure, the film has enough supporters to help thrust it onto the lists of award nominees -- if not for best picture and director (David Finch), then certainly for best actor (Pitt) and makeup (33 makeup artists are credited). "It takes a world-class storyteller and a great yarn to rivet your attention for nearly three hours," Lou Lumenick says in the New York Post. "This very classy, old-school movie -- employing cutting-edge technology that will make your eyes pop -- did it for me." It did it for Christy Lemire of the Associated Press, too, who wrote: "It's the damnedest thing. You look into the elderly man's blue eyes behind a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, look at the sweet smile ringed by wrinkles, and you know that's Brad Pitt under there. But the special effects are so dazzling, and Pitt's performance is so gracefully convincing, that you can't help but be repeatedly wowed." And Wesley Morris comments in the Boston Globe: "At its most profound, Benjamin Button isn't about anything more important than Pitt's very handsomeness, which, for a surprising stretch of time, is a wonderful subject for study. There is a sad scene that requires him to leave a room, and the sheer fact of how young he seems really is breathtaking. [Pitt is actually 44.] I almost gasped at one point."

MOVIE REVIEWS: MARLEY & ME

Marley & Me, starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, and 22 Labrador Retrievers playing Marley, is another holiday-slotted film aimed at the family crowd. Certainly not at critics. "Marley & Me might be easy to watch, but -- even for die-hard canine lovers -- it's as easy to forget," Claudia Puig remarks in USA Today. "At the end of Marley & Me you don't leave the theater with a sense that anything much has been learned," A.O. Scott concludes in the New York Times. "There is so little truth, not to mention plot, in Marley & Me, that it starts to feel like animal cruelty because of how much director David Frankel relies on the dog," comments Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News. And Kyle Smith in the New York Post writes his review as if he were a dog out on a date. It's written, of course, in doggerel. "It's when the couple goes to Ireland/Things turned so dull I took a snooze/The movie's fit for me to pee upon./Like the Sunday Daily News." Nevertheless, other critics are charmed by the movie. "A dog movie that isn't a dog of a movie -- what a pleasant Christmas surprise," says Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe & Mail. And Chris Kaltenbach in the Baltimore Sun remarks that the movie appears aimed at "all those enlightened souls ... who have experienced the redemptive joy of coming home from a hard day at work feeling like the saddest sad sack in the universe, only to be greeted by a dog who just knows you're the best thing in the world. ... It understands."

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE SPIRIT

The Spirit, based on the Will Eisner comic book,has got into the spirit of the season by allowing critics to burst forth in all their bah-humbug glory. Consider how much Roger Ebert must have reveled in writing his opening paragraph in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The Spirit is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material. The movie is all style -- style without substance, style whirling in a senseless void." Here are a few other descriptions of the movie: Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Hard boiled and half-baked;" Jason Anderson, the Toronto Star: "a desperate, offensive and thoroughly misguided travesty;" Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News: "one of the worst movies of the year." And then there's A.O. Scott's take on the movie: "What is most striking about The Spirit," he writes, "is how little pleasure it affords." Finally, Carina Chocano, who was recently let go by the Los Angeles Times, turns up as a reviewer for the Washington Post. Her conclusion: "Good comic books suggest action through abstraction, but The Spirit plays like an overproduced diorama. Watching it is like watching three dimensions trying to pass themselves off as two."

<