The Family Filmgoer
Arthur and the Invisibles (PG, 94 minutes)
Kids fidgeted through the middle of "Arthur and the Invisibles" during a recent showing, and it's easy to see why. When the film shifts from its live-action first act into its computer-animated middle section, the human warmth and wonder so apparent in the first scenes nearly disappear. The animation is hyperactive, confusing and charmless, with over-designed characters and flat-footed, jokey dialogue. Still, the film could be modestly engaging fare for kids 6 and older. The animated segments include flying battles (on what look like dragonflies), sword fights, floods and rapids, yet the action has a harmless feel. The bad-guy elf looks like a weird skeleton-grasshopper hybrid and could briefly creep out some younger kids. There are themes about a boy who feels abandoned by his busy parents and an anguished grandmother worried when he goes missing.
Arthur (wonderful Freddie Highmore) is spending summer break with Granny (Mia Farrow) on her farm because his parents are off looking for jobs. Granny tells Arthur stories about his brilliant grandfather, an inventor in Africa. He also learns of the tiny elf people, the Minimoys, whom his grandfather met there. When Arthur finds out that his grandmother is about to lose her farm to a nasty developer, he discovers his grandfather's instructions on how to enter the Minimoys' world. They seem to live beneath Granny's garden now, and it's there Arthur might find the rubies his grandfather buried, which could save the farm. Arthur enters their world and temporarily morphs into one himself. With Princess Selenia (voice of Madonna) and her brother (Jimmy Fallon), Arthur sets off to face the evil Maltazard (David Bowie) and get the rubies.
6 and Older
"Night at the Museum" (PG). Enjoyable, if under-realized and internally illogical comic romp (live-action with computer-generated effects) about a shlump (Ben Stiller) who gets a job as the night guard at New York's Museum of Natural History; his aged predecessors (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs) don't mention that the exhibits -- a T. rex skeleton, Attila the Hun, Sacagawea, Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), miniature Roman legions, Civil War soldiers and cowboys (Owen Wilson in a cameo) -- come alive and tear up the place at night; he must rein in the chaos, keep his job, impress his son (Jake Cherry) and woo a tour guide (Carla Gugino). Little kids may jump at the dinosaur chasing Stiller or the Huns grabbing him; toilet humor; rude expressions.
"Stomp the Yard." Cliched college saga uplifted by exuberant dancing: A Los Angeles inner-city teenager and ace street dancer (Columbus Short) loses his brother in a brawl and is sent, still grieving, to live with relatives in Atlanta; he enters a historically black university and works part time for his uncle (Harry J. Lennix), the school's groundskeeper; snobby students look down on him; he enters the fraternities' big "stepping" competition (a synchronized dance style inspired by African gumboot dancing) and aims to impress a girl (Meagan Good), overcome the dislike of her dad (Allan Louis) and win her from an arrogant boyfriend (Darrin Henson). Fatal shooting; midrange profanity; racial slurs; implied overnight tryst between college students, suggestive dancing by girls, rapper-style crotch-grabbing by guys, shots of young women's jeans-clad behinds. Too much swearing, macho posturing for middle schoolers.
"Freedom Writers." S atisfying drama mostly overcomes cliches in fact-based story of Erin Gruwell (a cleareyed Hilary Swank in pearls), who taught high school English in the early 1990s to "unteachable" inner-city teenagers in Long Beach, Calif.; trying to defuse racial and gang tensions in class, she gets students to keep journals, talk about violence and prejudice in their own lives and read "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl"; they meet Holocaust survivors and gain empathy, confidence and academic focus. Nongraphic but intense portrayals of shootings, including a little boy playing disastrously with a gun; fights; talk of a girl and her mother being beaten; some profanity; racial slurs. More for high schoolers.
"Dreamgirls." Fun, high-gloss, well-sung and long-awaited film adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit musical about the tempestuous rise of a 1960s girl group inspired by the Supremes; Beyonce Knowles as the pretty Deena; terrific Jennifer Hudson as the talented, temperamental Effie; Jamie Foxx as their Machiavellian manager; Eddie Murphy as the eccentric soul singer who hires them as a backup trio; much cultural history of the era neatly woven in. Drug abuse; implied extramarital affairs; unwed motherhood; male singer strips to his skivvies on television; mildish profanity, mostly the S-word. Okay for most teenagers.
"The Pursuit of Happyness." Fine, refreshingly un-Hollywood film takes hard look at living one paycheck away from the street; Will Smith as a down-on-his-luck family man scrambling to get out of debt and into a real job in San Francisco, circa 1981; Smith's real son Jaden, a charmer, plays his film son, with Thandie Newton as the despondent wife who leaves them; loosely based on entrepreneur Chris Gardner's life. Rare profanity, including the F-word as a graffito and spoken by a child; smoking; a disintegrating marriage; selling blood for cash; father and son spend nights in a homeless shelter and a subway restroom; shoving, shouting but no real violence. Teenagers.
"Venus." Wonderfully conceived, bittersweet comedy stars Peter O'Toole in a marvelous, poignant turn as Maurice, an aging London actor who falls for the sullen young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who is supposed to care for his best friend (Leslie Phillips); she rejects Maurice and his "old man smell" at first, but eventually they become friends and, seeing his longing, she lets him touch her, within limits; the sometimes harrowing friendship transforms both people. Moments of explicit sexuality (not exactly sexual situations, but sexual behavior); brief, nongraphic bedroom scene; understated but upsetting violence against an elderly person; doctor's visit with strongly implied prostate exam; brief nudity; strong profanity, sexual slang; drinking and smoking. 17 and older.
"Pan's Labyrinth." Extraordinary film -- stunningly acted and visualized, but for adult audiences -- explores how a child survives wartime violence and loss by escaping into a darkly beautiful fantasy world; set in Franco's fascist Spain in 1945, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) comes with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to an outpost where her stepfather (Sergi López), an army captain, finds and kills anti-Franco guerrillas; as her mother weakens and her stepfather proves a true monster, Ofelia escapes into a fairy world (portrayed with puppetry and animation) through an old garden maze; a horned faun, Pan (Doug Jones), gives her "tasks"; she survives a creature with eyeballs in his palms who tries to kill her; her courage is tested most when her fairy world and the real one merge. Numerous, bloody point-blank shootings; knifings; strongly implied torture; a bloody childbirth; a fatal beating; a drug overdose; strong profanity; drinking. In Spanish with subtitles. 17 and older.
"Primeval." Surprisingly not-awful B-movie thriller about TV journalists on the trail of a killer crocodile during African nation of Burundi's recent civil war; the "leads" (Brooke Langton and Dominic Purcell) are cookie-cutter types and the croc looks fake, but Orlando Jones is fun as the cameraman and his lines crackle; tackiness of setting a creature feature against a human tragedy is mitigated by vivid portrayal of the political mayhem, poverty. War violence -- a beheading (by machete), point-blank shootings; mass grave full of decaying corpses of war dead; scenes with croc tearing up victims are more stylized than graphic, but still no lack of blood or quick glimpses of guts; strongly implied that a swimming child will be a croc victim, but attack is not shown; profanity; homophobic humor; crude sexual slang; smoking, drinking. 16 and older.
"Alpha Dog." Talented cast overacts mightily in profane, lurid, soulless potboiler about America's youth gone sour with drugs, casual sex, violent video games and brainlessness; based on a real incident, the story follows a suburban Los Angeles teenage marijuana dealer (Emile Hirsch), the son of a mob-connected guy (Bruce Willis); angry at a pothead (Ben Foster) who owes him money, the dealer and his pals kidnap the guy's 15-year-old kid brother (Anton Yelchin); every choice they make is bad; Sharon Stone as the boy's anguished mom; Justin Timberlake as one of the dealer's hangers-on. Profanity, explicit sexual language; drug use; explicit sexual situations with nudity; climactic gun murder; fights; ethnic slurs; steaming profanity. 17 and older.