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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 17 

AUSTRALIA Director Baz Luhrmann's frenzied approach, which worked just fine for Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet, ends up hurting this roller coaster of a romantic epic. As Lady Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband's cattle ranch from being taken over by rival King Carney (Bryan Brown), Nicole Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role – too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest – make that close to the (bare) chest – and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing. The worst culprit of overacting is David Wenham, whose dastardly henchman Fletcher ends up being perhaps the most risible movie villain since Billy Zane took shots at Leonardo DiCaprio as the Titanic sank into the chilly depths. In between scenes of Nicole and Hugh gettin' sweaty and sequences involving the Japanese advancement during World War II, Australia touches upon the country's horrific treatment of its half-caste children (produced when whites raped Aboriginal women), although with so much territory to cover, the movie doesn't provide more than a surface look. What it does provide, in those moments when Luhrmann isn't allowing the material to spin out of control, is the sort of old-fashioned yarn Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis, with sweeping vistas providing backdrops for couples clinched in love. But for a primer on the land down under, you'd do just as well renting Crocodile Dundee. **1/2

BOLT In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn't for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio's entire animation department. So while Bolt isn't a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed here as executive producer), and that might possibly be the reason this fast-paced confection is far better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet. But make no mistake: This is still a long way from the giddy heights of the Pixar pack. It mixes the speed of an ADD Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It's entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it's over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters. There are some clever inside-Hollywood touches, but the lack of any real tension means that the scripters are ultimately forced to turn to a burning building to serve as the "villain" of the piece. Still, the visual design is inventive, and kids and adults alike are sure to love Rhino (Mark Walton), a portly hamster always on the go in his plastic ball. Whenever he's on screen, you can be sure he keeps the movie rolling. **1/2

FOUR CHRISTMASES The purpose of trailers, as I see it, is to showcase the film's best scenes in an effort to get folks to the box office during opening week and beyond. The trailer for Four Christmases fails this test, as it focuses almost exclusively on barf gags, pratfalls and other broad, physical comedy sure to draw the yahoo crowd but not necessarily anyone else. A more representative trailer, on the other hand, would have revealed a movie that's worth seeing – a smart, tart confection whose observations about family dysfunction will make viewers squirm in their seats even as the laughs pour off the screen. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon headline as Brad and Kate, a couple who always bypass their families at Christmastime in order to take overseas vacations. But complications force the pair to visit their relatives after all, and since both sets of parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek are his, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen are hers) are divorced, that means four familial gatherings in one day. It proves to be a grueling endurance test, as each is humiliated in turn by parents, siblings and other assorted in-laws. Movies of this nature always follow the humor with an excruciating final half-hour of phony moralizing or cheap sentiment, so it's a credit that this one not only keeps this sober-minded portion of the film short but also makes it develop naturally from the situations that have preceded it (in other words, the character evolution feels natural rather than the work of a hack screenwriter). But honestly, who's here for anything besides laughs? On that front, Four Christmases soundly delivers on the ho-ho-hos. ***

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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