Capsule reviews of films opening this week:
"Defiance" If only the movie itself were as spirited and feisty as the title suggests. And it held such promise, too. The real-life story of brothers who lead their fellow Jews into the forest of Belarus during summer 1941 to fight Nazis and form their own community offers a glimpse into a facet of the Holocaust we might not have known about before. Such a new angle is hard to find, especially recently, when there's been a slew of films with Holocaust themes including "Valkyrie," "The Reader" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." But director Edward Zwick's movie never finds a way to grab you emotionally, despite typically strong performances from Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as two of the Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus. It's as if Zwick was more concerned with making sure we know the movie is about Something Important which should be obvious based on the subject matter alone rather than taking any narrative or aesthetic risks or delving into the complexity of the characters. Tuvia is the stoic leader; younger brother Zus is the bloodthirsty rebel; Jamie Bell, as the youngest of the three, is caught somewhere in the middle. There's something too muted, too respectful and, ultimately, too didactic about Zwick and Clayton Frohman's script, based on the book by Nechama Tec. You're more likely to walk away feeling wowed by the romantic cinematography from veteran Eduardo Serra (who also shot Zwick's "Blood Diamond"), with its lush green meadows that give way to blinding whites as winter envelops the ever-growing encampment. R for violence and language. 137 min. Two stars out of four.
• Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic
"Hotel for Dogs" The premise would seem to be foolproof: It's about a hotel ... for dogs! How cute is that? How much fun would that be? Say no more. Unfortunately, that's all "Hotel for Dogs" is: a clever concept that quickly runs out of room to roam. Kids might be entertained by the canine antics, and certainly the film's ideas about the importance of loyalty and family are worthwhile for little ones to ponder. But even serious dog lovers among adults in the audience and that includes yours truly will be severely bored. It's not that director Thor Freudenthal's film sits up on its hind legs and shamelessly begs for approval; on the contrary, it performs a few tricks, then rolls over on its back and plays dead. (Sorry, had to go there, the metaphor was irresistible.) Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin co-star as 16-year-old Andi and her younger brother, Bruce, who've been bouncing between various foster homes since their parents died. Now that they live a pair of deluded, wannabe rock stars (an obnoxiously one-note Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), they've been forced to hide their inordinately resourceful and perpetually hungry Jack Russell terrier, Friday. When the scruffy white pooch scampers off, and Andi and Bruce follow him into an abandoned hotel, they find a 160-pound bull mastiff and an energetic Boston terrier who already cause the place home. PG for brief mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor. 100 min. Two stars out of four.
• Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic
"Notorious" You love to hear the story, again and again: Young boy trapped in poverty, chooses crime over the classroom, rises to infamous heights only to be gunned down at the apex of success. But this biography of the rapper Notorious B.I.G. transcends gangster-flick clichés because of the outsized talents of the artist and the actor who portrays him. B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, was an artist of unique skill and charisma all of which is captured in a pitch-perfect, and at times, even moving performance by the obscure rapper Jamal "Gravy" Woolard. Unlike recent music biopics such as "Ray" or "Walk the Line," whose audiences may have been unfamiliar with some biographical events, most "Notorious" viewers will know exactly what's coming: The classic hits; the illogical beef with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), birthing the East-West feud; the twin killings of these gifted storytellers. But "Notorious" manages to add something new to Biggie's exhaustively chronicled story. The interwoven stories of the women in his life give fresh insight into Biggie's music and personality. No matter how bad his behavior, they always gave him one more chance: his mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett); his baby's mother; the girl who Biggie plucked off the corner and Svengalied into the sex bomb Lil' Kim; and his wife, singer Faith Evans. With Voletta Wallace as a producer and Sean "Puffy" Combs (played by Derek Luke) as executive producer, you might have expected the worst of B.I.G.'s life to be blacked out. But it's all there and it makes the film that much better. R for profane language, graphic sex, drugs and violence. 120 min. Three stars out of four.
• Jesse Washington, AP National Writer