THE POLAR EXPRESS (G, 93 minutes)
An often spectacular-looking experiment with a new animation technology, "The Polar Express" is nevertheless a weird and airless fable. Based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, it recounts the adventures of a little boy who regains his belief in Santa Claus during a magical train trip to the North Pole on Christmas eve. "The Polar Express" was made with real actors (including Tom Hanks in several roles) whose movements and facial expressions were mapped in a computer program, then wedded to virtual costumes, sets and backgrounds. The result has a you-are-there three-dimensionality, but little emotional pull and a presumably unintentional creepiness.
"The Polar Express" is geared to little kids, but for many reasons may scare those under 6 and quite a few older than that -- the characters' faces look neither human nor animated, but eerily masklike; the ultra-heightened action sequences show the Polar Express careering out of control down mountains and across a frozen lake; a ghostly hobo lives atop the train and dematerializes at will. Especially on a big screen, this film could really spook little ones.
As the nameless boy protagonist (Hanks) goes to bed, he overhears his parents worry about his wavering belief in Santa. Suddenly a huge locomotive thunders up in the snow next to the house (also a scary scene). The conductor (Hanks again) invites the boy aboard the Polar Express. The trip is occasionally delightful (wildly tap-dancing waiters serving cocoa) but more often harrowing. The other kids -- a nice girl, an obnoxious know-it-all and a sad boy -- are barely developed. Santa's village is an arid place with secular holiday tunes echoing in the air and swarms of anonymous elves. The message, about holding onto the magic of Christmas and childhood, is somber and joyless.
AFTER THE SUNSET (PG-13, 93 minutes)
High schoolers may eke some enjoyment out of this disappointing caper comedy with its haphazard plotting and tired jokes, but after noting the tropical scenery, thong bikinis and umbrella rum drinks, they're more likely to yawn. Inappropriate for middle schoolers, "After the Sunset" has a raunchy edge to its alleged humor -- crude, unsubtle sexual innuendo, awful homophobic jokes (straight guys share a bed -- people walk in on them) that feel a decade out of date. The movie includes steamy near-sexual situations in states of partial undress, relatively bloodless gun and knife violence, occasional profanity and drinking. And there is one other element -- the unstated theme that crime pays handsomely.
Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek play Max and Lola, diamond thieves who have eluded FBI agent Stan (Woody Harrelson) for seven years. Now they've retired to a Caribbean paradise. Lola wants Max to marry her and give up crime, but Max is bored. Stan appears, determined to lure Max into a last, incriminating heist. The movie's central joke is that the thief and the lawman actually like each other, but their relationship unfolds in bad jokes.
BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON (R, 101 minutes)
A smart, grown-up romantic comedy is a rare treat, and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" is, happily, nearly as big a hoot as "Bridget Jones's Diary" (R, 2001). This sequel may try a bit too hard to concoct comic situations, but then so did author Helen Fielding in the second Bridget Jones novel. The terrific comic acting and delicious, semi-hysterical, self-aware tone are all present. Remember, though, that the Bridget Jones mystique is that of a sexually active woman in her early thirties looking for true love. "The Edge of Reason" is not really appropriate for high schoolers under 17, which doesn't mean teen girls won't be trying to see it. The movie implies sexual situations rather mildly, but also features crude sexual language, lots of sexual innuendo, profanity, a home pregnancy test, smoking, drinking, drug use and toilet humor. Scenes at a women's prison in Thailand use grim conditions for humor and the women as stereotypes.
This time, the always endearing, slightly overweight, self-esteem-challenged Bridget (Renee Zellweger) is happily in love with human rights lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) and doing ridiculous stunts as a TV reporter, such as parachuting into a pigpen. She becomes convinced that Mark is in love with someone else (Jacinda Barrett). After an argument Bridget is suddenly a "singleton" again and off to Thailand to shoot a travel show with her ex-lover, the caddish Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant).