OPENING THIS WEEK
NEW IN TOWN
"Passion of the Christ's" Jim Caviezel headlines this action fantasy (postponed from last week) about a strange visitor from another planet, who crash-lands on Earth -- during the Viking era -- and introduces some newfangled technology that will help vanquish a monstrous alien creature called the Moorwen. Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman co-star. At multiple locations. (115 min.) R; violence.
Liam Neeson kicks butt as a former CIA agent out to rescue his kidnapped daughter (Maggie Grace) from human traffickers in this Paris-set thriller from writer-producer Luc Besson, who brought you "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional." Famke Janssen co-stars for director Pierre Morel ("District B13"). At multiple locations. (94 min.) PG-13; intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, drug references, profanity.
After a stint in a mental hospital, a girl ("Lemony Snicket's" Emily Browning) returns to find her aloof father (David Straithairn) engaged to her late mother's nurse (Elizabeth Banks) -- and her mother's ghost warning of danger -- in this remake of the South Korean chiller "A Tale of Two Sisters." At multiple locations. (87 min.) PG-13 for violent and disturbing images, thematic material, sexual content, language and teen drinking.
ALREADY IN THEATERS
Movies are rated on a letter-grade scale, from A to F. Opinions by R-J movie critic Carol Cling (C.C.) are indicated by initials. Other opinions are from wire service critics.
(B-) Good on ya: Nicole Kidman reunites with "Moulin Rouge!" director Baz Luhrmann for this sprawling saga, set on the eve of World War II, about a starchy British aristocrat (Kidman) who inherits a remote cattle station and reluctantly teams up with a hard-riding drover (Hugh Jackman) to save it from a rival beef baron (Bryan Brown). Defiantly old-fashioned, this overlong, over-the-top Down Under Western-meets-war-movie scrambles romance, action, melodrama and historic revisionism into a crazy cinematic salad that's often utterly ridiculous -- and often ridiculously entertaining. Nominated for one Academy Award: Costume Design. (165 min.) PG-13; violence, sexual references, brief profanity. (C.C.)
(C+) A typically sophomoric Adam Sandler goes the family-friendly route in this Disney romp, playing a hotel handyman whose life changes when the outlandish bedtime tales he tells his niece and nephew magically come true. Keri Russell, Courteney Cox, Guy Pearce and Russell Brand co-star in a movie that's baloney on Wonder Bread with a Kraft Single and some Miracle Whip. In other words, it's edible but not exactly nutritious -- or delicious. (99 min.) PG; mild rude humor, mild profanity.
(B) A coddled canine TV star (voiced by John Travolta) discovers he's not quite the super-dog he plays on TV when he's forced to deal with the real world on an accidental New York-to-Hollywood trek. Disney's latest computer-animated romp (showing in both 2-D and 3-D versions) covers familiar territory but shows that the Disney folks still know how to bring a story to life. Nominated for one Academy Award: Best Animated Feature. (96 min.) PG; mild action and peril.
(D) I don't: Lifelong friends (Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson) who've been planning their weddings since girlhood inadvertently schedule their respective big days on the same day (and at the same place), thereby transforming themselves from BFFs to Bridezillas. Despite the Hudson-Hathaway team's collective charm, this unhatched chick flick proves excruciating. (90 min.) PG; sexual references, profanity, rude behavior. (C.C.)
(B) Don't let the title fool you -- this is the rockin', raucous story of Chess Records, the house that Muddy Waters (the terrific Jeffrey Wright), Howlin' Wolf (a feral Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def, a duck-walking hoot) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles, demonstrating marked improvement since "Dreamgirls") built. As history, it's downright suspect -- but, as a jukebox musical, you can't stop (or resist) the beat. (109 min.) R; profanity, sexuality. (C.C.)
(B-) Director Clint Eastwood's fact-based 1920s melodrama focuses on a single mother (Oscar nominee Angelina Jolie) whose son vanishes -- and takes on Los Angeles' corrupt police department when they try to convince her that the little boy they've found isn't really her son. A fascinating true story, but "Changeling" wrestles with even more questions of identity than its embattled heroine. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Cinematography. (140 min.) R; violent and disturbing content, profanity. (C.C.)
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
(C+) Brad Pitt reunites with "Se7en" director David Fincher (and "Babel" co-star Cate Blanchett) for an ambitious tale, set in post-World War I New Orleans, about the title character, who's born with the face and ailments of an 80-year-old man and ages in reverse, getting younger as the years roll by. Overlong and overdone, "Benjamin Button" (loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale adapted by "Forrest Gump" Oscar-winner Eric Roth) emerges as a technical marvel, but in pondering the Big Picture, the movie too often falls under the spell of its own epic sweep. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Director and Adapted Screenplay. (167 min.) PG-13; brief war violence, sexual content, profanity, smoking. (C.C.)
THE DARK KNIGHT
(B) The Joker (an indelible Heath Ledger) wreaks havoc in Gotham City, prompting the interest of not only the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) but crusading D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in a sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins" that sometimes takes itself too seriously for its own good. It's so overstuffed with characters, plots and counterplots that Batman often seems like a supporting character, but Ledger's Joker is one for the ages. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Supporting Actor (Ledger), Cinematography and Visual Effects. (152 min.) PG-13; intense violence and menace. (C.C.)
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
(C+) An extra-terrestrial (amusingly impassive Keanu Reeves) comes down to Earth, accompanied by his faithful robot companion Gort, to warn heedless humans of impending doom in a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic that soars in the first half but plummets in the second, as flashy effects replace coherent storytelling and everyone goes all weepy over the innate decency of humanity. (103 min.) PG-13; sci-fi disaster images, violence.
(B-) Reigning 007 Daniel Craig returns to his dramatic roots as the eldest of three Jewish brothers (a standout Liev Schreiber and "Billy Elliot's" Jamie Bell play his siblings) battling Nazis from a Belorussian forest camp during World War II. As he did in "Glory," "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," director Edward Zwick explores a fascinating, fact-based subject, but can't resist diluting the story's stark power with action-flick clichés, dunderhead dialogue and Hollywood hokum. Even so, it's an undeniable rouser. Nominated for one Academy Award: Best Original Score. (129 min.) R; violence, profanity. (C.C.)
(B-) In 1960s New York, a hard-case nun who runs a Catholic school (Meryl Streep) and an innocent underling (Amy Adams) suspect their parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school's lone black student. A scene-stealing Viola Davis co-stars for writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who adapts his own Tony-winning drama -- and undermines (and overplays) some great performers with ominous, overly obvious symbols and odd camera angles that make "Doubt" hopelessly stagebound. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Adams, Davis) and Adapted Screenplay. (104 min.) PG-13; sexual references, mature themes. (C.C.)
(A-) Tony-winner Frank Langella and "The Queen's" Michael Sheen reprise their Broadway roles as the disgraced ex-President and the debonair British TV personality in Peter Morgan's adaptation of his hit play about the landmark 1977 interview between the two. Director Ron Howard maintains the dramatic core of Morgan's play while expanding its cinematic vision; Oscar-caliber performances from Langella and Sheen do the rest. Compared to the clunky "Doubt," this is a textbook example of how to transfer a stage hit to the screen. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Langella), Director and Adapted Screenplay. (122 min.) R; profanity. (C.C.)
(C) Ho, ho, ho? So, so, so. Leisure-obsessed San Franciscans (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) find themselves fogbound and unable to take their annual exotic holiday vacation, forcing them to endure multiple Yuletide celebrations with multiple divorced (and remarried) parents (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight). The jokes may be old, but at least they hit as often as they miss. (88 min.) PG-13; sexual humor, profanity.
(A-) One of those rare movies that feels like a slice of painfully real life, writer-director Courtney Hunt's stirring debut finds homespun poetry in the unlikely alliance between two desperate women -- a single mother (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and a Mohawk Indian (Misty Upham) who enlists her to help her smuggle illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Canadian border. Nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress, original screenplay. (97 min.) R; profanity. (C.C.)
(C+) A widowed Korean War vet (growling, glowering Clint Eastwood) in a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood finds his prejudices challenged when he becomes an unlikely neighborhood hero to the fatherless Hmong teens (Bee Vang, Ahney Her) next door. Eastwood says this vigilante melodrama will be his on-screen swan song, and it's a trip to watch Clint the Squint channel the ghosts of Eastwood past, but this underpowered star vehicle stalls and backfires at least as often as it shifts into high gear. (116 min.) R; pervasive profanity and racial epithets, violence. (C.C.)
HOTEL FOR DOGS
(C) Two melancholy foster kids ("Nancy Drew's" Emma Roberts, Disney Channel's Jake T. Austin) secretly take in strays at an abandoned house. Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon round out the starring cast of a circusy romp that departs from its source material (Lois Duncan's charming novel) in so many ways that it leaves you wondering what Animal Planet we're on. But there's no denying the appeal of the purebreds and pound puppies assembled for our awe -- and awws. (100 min.) PG; brief mild thematic elements, profanity, crude humor.
(B-) Fiction becomes reality when a "Silvertongue" (Brendan Fraser) discovers he can bring literary characters to life -- and must try to vanquish a medieval villain (Andy Serkis) who's escaped from, and refuses to return to, life between the covers of a book. This "Harry Potter" wannabe makes a pleasant enough diversion, thanks to its fanciful premise and ace supporting cast (led by Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent and a fire-breathing, scene-stealing Paul Bettany, but it never conjures much magic. (106 min.) PG; fantasy adventure action, scary moments, brief profanity. (C.C.)
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
(B) Like at first sight: After striking sparks as supporting players in "Stranger Than Fiction," Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson team up for this charmer about the hapless title character, whose trip to London for his daughter's wedding turns disastrous -- until he meets a quiet loner who just might be his perfect match. Movies about perfectly nice people being perfectly nice often can be perfectly boring, but Hoffman and Thompson are clearly having such a delightful time, we do too. (C.C.)
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
(B+) Bloody good show: This spooky import (which won best narrative feature at 2008's Tribeca Film Festival) focuses on a 12-year-old outcast (K?re Hedebrant) who finds a friend in a strange new neighbor (Lina Leandersson), who happens to be a vampire. Yes, there's an inevitable Hollywood remake, but it's unlikely to be as elegant (or haunting) as this exceptional movie, which warms your heart even as it chills your blood. In Swedish with English subtitles. (114 min.) R; violence. (C.C.)
MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
(B) The zany former denizens of the Central Park Zoo (voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer), accompanied by wacky lemur king Julian ("Borat's" Sacha Baron Cohen) -- all of whom we met in 2005's "Madagascar" -- return to their roots, when their plane crash-lands on the African savanna. It's a typical tale of self-discovery, but at least it's punctuated by genuine hilarity and top-flight animation. (89 min.) PG; mild crude humor.
MARLEY & ME
(B-) Animal magnetism: Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson bond with a naughty, neurotic -- and utterly lovable -- yellow Labrador retriever in this adaptation of John Grogan's best-seller. A shaggy-dog tale in more ways than one, anybody who agrees with the assertion that happiness is a warm tongue bath will lap up this heartwarming canine comedy. Those who don't will dismiss it as a long-winded yarn in which nothing -- and everything -- happens. (123 min.) PG; thematic material, suggestive content, profanity.
(B+) Sean Penn delivers an Oscar-nominated performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a major political office -- until Dan White (Oscar nominee Josh Brolin) guns him down in 1978. A timely introduction to a pivotal public figure who still inspires, three decades after his death. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Penn), Supporting Actor (Brolin), Director and Original Screenplay. (128 min.) R; profanity, sexual content, brief violence. (C.C.)
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
(D) In this pick-axe-in-your-eyeball remake of the 1981 slasher hit (in 3-D at selected theaters), Jensen Ackles of TV's "Supernatural" plays a guy who inadvertently triggered a 22-victim Valentine's Day massacre 10 years ago -- and becomes the prime suspect in the mass murders when he returns home. A generally graceless outing, with a plot that staggers from the absurd to the ridiculous, but at least it provides a few good "gotchas." (101 min.) R; graphic brutal horror violence, grisly images, sexual situations, graphic nudity, profanity.
NOT EASILY BROKEN
(C) Megachurch evangelist T.D. Jakes' novel inspires a preachy drama about a troubled married couple (Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson) whose bonds are tested by a car accident and its aftermath. Well-acted and involving, but this relationship drama may put some people off with its overt sentimentality, its moralizing -- and its female caricatures. (99 min.) PG-13; sexual references, mature themes.
(C+) The life and death of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, the Brooklyn street hustler turned rap legend. Jamal Woolard takes on the title role; "Soul Food's" George Tillman Jr. directs a cast that also includes Angela Bassett, Derek Luke (as Sean "Puffy" Combs) and "Eagle Eye's" Anthony Mackie (as Tupac Shakur). Like a piece of well-crafted bling, this looks good and parts of it shine, but behind the gilded façade, there's not much there. (100 min.) R; pervasive profanity, sexual situations, nudity, drug content.
PAUL BLART: MALL COP
(C) Sitcom stalwart Kevin James stars and co-writes this comedy about a mild-mannered single dad trying to make ends meet as a New Jersey mall cop forced to take on insidious Santa's Helpers. Completely forgettable, yet frequently funny and weirdly satisfying -- in a Jersey-Loser-Gets-Respect kind of way. (87 min.) PG; violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, profanity.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE
(C) Bland, James, bland: After a slam-bang reboot in 2006's "Casino Royale," the James Bond franchise suffers definite sophomore slump as a vengeful Bond (Daniel Craig, icy as ever) globe-trots in pursuit of an enigmatic eco-entrepreneur -- and his own inner demons. As 007 himself might summarize it, not shaken -- and definitely not stirred. PG-13; intense action violence, sexual content. (C.C.)
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
(B) Sprung from rehab to attend her sister's wedding, a troubled young woman (Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway) demonstrates her insatiable need to steal the spotlight, even from the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt). Yet another portrait of yet another dysfunctional family, but the acutely observed screenplay (by Jenny Lumet), slice-of-life direction (by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme) and standout performances (including Oscar-worthy support from Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as the bride's divorced parents) put us in the midst of jittery people trying desperately to ignore their jitters. Nominated for one Academy Award: Best Actress. (113 min.) R; profanity, brief sexuality. (C.C.)
(B) In post-World War II Germany, the passionate affair between a student (David Kross) and an older tram conductor (Oscar nominee Kate Winslet) reverberates through both lives -- especially when the grown student (Ralph Fiennes) ponders the impact of their life-changing liaison. "The Hours" team of director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare reunite for a thoughtful, somewhat restrained, adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical best-seller, which provides a stunning showcase for Winslet's uncanny ability to get under the skin of her contradictory character. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay. (123 min.) R; sexual situations, nudity. (C.C.)
(B) "Titanic" sweethearts Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both in top form, reunite as a golden suburban couple in '50s Connecticut who wonder whatever happened to the extraordinary life they planned. "American Beauty's" Sam Mendes (Winslet's husband) directs this devastating yet flawed adaptation of Richard Yates' novel in long takes that have the unintentional effect of transforming wrenching emotional drama into a series of theatrical tableaux. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Michael Shannon) and Art Direction. (119 min.) R; profanity, sexual situations, nudity.
(C-) An enigmatic IRS agent (Will Smith, in full messianic mode) embarks on a quest for redemption that involves seven strangers -- who might not be strangers at all. Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and Barry Pepper co-star in a convoluted tearjerker (from Smith's "Pursuit of Happyness" director Gabriele Muccino) that turns out to be an inspirational bummer suffering from murky camerawork and even murkier emotions. Not even the obligatory uplift at the end can make up for the less-than-credible plot contrivances we have to sit through to get there. (123 min.) PG-13; mature themes, disturbing content, sexual references. (C.C.)
(B+) A beguiling Bollywood fairy tale (complete with plucky hero, damsel in distress, powerful villain and daunting trials in which our hero must prove his mettle), as an orphaned Mumbai teen (Dev Patel) becomes an unlikely contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- not for money, but for love. Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later") scores with yet another trademark combination of humor, hope and horror that soars on the strength of its winning characters and exotic setting. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Adaptated Screenplay. (120 min.) R; violence, disturbing images, profanity. (C.C.)
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX
(C+) Mighty (and mighty cute) mouse Despereaux Tilling, who prefers reading books to eating them, befriends a banished rat, falls in love with a lonely princess and rescues his kingdom from the tyranny of grief in a computer-animated tale that's a bit too derivative, and desperate, to be loved. (94 min.) G; all ages.
(B-) This adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling tale of the ultimate star-crossed romance (except for "Romeo and Juliet" "Wuthering Heights" and ...) emerges as a fanciful, if fitfully engaging, amalgam of teen angst and vampire lore, as high school junior Bella Swan (appealing Kristen Stewart) falls under the spell of dreamy biology lab partner Edward Cullen (brooding Robert Pattinson) -- who's been undead since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917. "Thirteen" director Catherine Hardwicke's affinity for everyday teen traumas keep the movie grounded in emotional reality. (120 min.) PG-13; violence, sensuality. (C.C.)
(C) "Dark Knight" screenwriter David S. Goyer writes and directs this horror tale about a young woman ("Cloverfield's" Odette Yustman) battling a spirit -- which could be her twin, who died at birth -- trying to possess her. Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino, James Remar and "Twilight" baddie Cam Gigandet also turn up in a mostly dumb but generally passable horror flick. (88 min.) PG-13; intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images, mature themes, sexual references, profanity.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS
(C) In this third "Underworld" tale, Kate Beckinsale's out -- and Rhona Mitra's in as the kick-butt heroine of an action workout that explores the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between aristocratic vampires and their onetime slaves. "Frost/Nixon's" Michael Sheen plays a young Lycan who rallies his werewolf brethren against Bill Nighy's cruel vampire king in a silly, convoluted prequel only partially redeemed by its Goth style and reputable lead actors, who expertly devour scenery with their pointy teeth. (92 min.) R; bloody violence, sexuality.
(B-) During World War II, high-ranking German officers plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a fact-based thriller that reunites director "X-Men" director Bryan Singer with his Oscar-winning "Usual Suspects" screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie. Despite the gripping story and Singer's able direction, there's an inescapable vacuum at the center: star (and executive producer) Tom Cruise, whose all-American presence as the plot's ringleader clashes with the understated dramatic power displayed by such supporting all-stars as Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson and Kenneth Branagh. (121 min.) PG-13; violence, brief profanity. (C.C.)
(B+) Mickey Rourke makes an Oscar-nominated comeback in this gritty, moving character study of a broken-down professional wrestler struggling to make a comeback. Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei (who earns another nomination as Randy's stripper girlfriend) co-stars for "Requiem for a Dream" director Darren Aronofsky, who downplays his customary visual flamboyance to keep the spotlight on Rourke and Tomei. Nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actor, Supporting Actress. (115 min.) R; violence, sexual situations, nudity, profanity, drug use.
(B-) Jim Carrey makes a welcome return to comedy as a chronically depressed loan officer who accentuates the positive -- by becoming a guy who can't say no for an entire year. A formulaic yet diverting comedy that boasts welcome charm and a worthwhile message. (104 min.) PG-13; crude sexual humor, profanity, brief nudity.