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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 21 

ABDUCTION Sure, it's easy to pick on the Twilight guy. Because who's gonna rush to his defense other than smitten Team Jacob fans? Make no mistake about it: Abduction, in which Taylor Lautner is handed his first starring role in a motion picture, will never, ever, ever be mistaken for a good movie. But the declarations (from critics and Twilight bashers alike) that it's the worst picture of the year strike me as armchair grandstanding — hey, it may star a wooden werewolf, but at least it's thankfully free of any zoo animals who talk like Sylvester Stallone and Adam Sandler. John Singleton, whose Boyz N The Hood remains continents removed from most of his subsequent work, slides further into irrelevance with a Junior G-Men-type tale that features a stellar supporting cast, some decent action sequences, and a leading man who reacts to every dire situation as if he's just been asked to clean his room. Lautner plays Nathan, a high school kid who has Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for a psychiatrist and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and the Coyote Ugly bar owner (Mario Bello) for parents. When he and his classmate Karen (Lily Collins, whose performance is about as monotonous as most of daddy Phil's music) embark on a school assignment that inexplicably leads them to do research on a missing persons web page, they discover an old photo of a little boy who looks like a pre-Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner. IMs are swapped, Euro-trash baddies arrive to blow up the house, and suddenly Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run. As these crazy kids try to discover why Nathan is being pursued by grown men who are clearly not Stephenie Meyer devotees, they must also decide whether or not to trust Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the CIA agent assigned to the case. Fifteen years later, I still fondly recall the priceless Siskel & Ebert moment when Roger Ebert dismisses the action flick Fled by stating, "I guess it sort of holds your attention while it's happening. I mean, something is moving on the screen, so you look to see what it is." (To which a laughing Gene Siskel retorts, "What a compliment!") Abduction inspires the same level of commitment: You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls. *1/2

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Folks who worship at the altar of Aardman Animations as much as they do at the temple of Pixar (raising my hand here) will quickly realize — say, 20 minutes into the movie — that Arthur Christmas won't come close to matching the giddy heights of the British studio's Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit films. Its characters are more commonplace, its plotline is more conventional, its sentiments are more predictable. What this means, though, is that instead of blazing its own path, the film instead manages to beat the other studios' efforts at their own game, effortlessly rising above the filmic fray involving Gnomeo & Juliet, Puss in Boots and other 2011 'toon disappointments. Most of the major laughs come toward the beginning of this clever contraption in which the present Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) might finally be ready to retire, set to pass along the reindeer reins to his technically savvy son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The doddering Santa doesn't even consider his other son Arthur (James McAvoy) for the position, since the gangly youth is obviously too clumsy and awkward for such a responsibility. Yet when a wayward present means that a little girl in Cornwall won't be receiving a gift this year, it's Arthur, not his dad or sibling, who does everything in his power to insure that she receives the present. The idea of a Santa with a non-American accent will probably irk the same stateside folks who bristle at the thought of a non-Caucasian Jesus, but the mostly British cast has been carefully selected, with an unusually animated (in both senses of the word) Bill Nighy especially enjoying himself as the long-retired Grandsanta. There are sharp sight gags galore — I especially like the handheld device that gauges a child's naughty-or-nice ratio and fills the stocking accordingly — and while this all leads to a predestined ending, at least said conclusion goes down as smoothly as marshmallow-endowed hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. ***

THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2

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