opening this week
THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO'S POND
In this horror outing, friends (including Danielle Harris, James Duval and Sean Lawlor) vacationing in a Victorian home on a private island discover a killer game that brings out the worst in its players. Robert Patrick (as the residence's resident caretaker) rounds out the starring cast for actor-turned-director Gabriel Bologna, who continues in the family business; he's the son of showbiz veterans Renée Taylor Joseph Bologna. At multiple locations. (91 min.) R; bloody horror violence and gore, profanity, drug use, sexuality/nudity.
Reviewed on Page 28.
LETTERS TO GOD
In this fact-based heartwarmer, an 8-year-old fighting cancer (Tanner McGuire) writes the title missives -- which end up inspiring a beleaguered, booze-addicted postal carrier (Jeffrey Johnson). David Nixon, who co-produced the faith-powered drama "Fireproof," directs with writer Patrick Doughtie. At multiple locations. (110 min.) PG; thematic material.
In '70s Southern California, teen rebels Joan Jett ("Twilight's" Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Stewart's "Eclipse" enemy, Dakota Fanning) fall under the influence of manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) to lead the title rockers. Floria Sigismondi (who's directed music videos for Marilyn Manson, Christina Aguilera, the White Stripes and David Bowie, among others) directs this rock chronicle inspired by Currie's book. At multiple locations. (109 min.) R; profanity, drug use, sexual content -- all involving teens.
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.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
(C) Curiouser and curiouser: All the whimsical wonder that made Lewis Carroll's original such a demented delight have gone down the rabbit hole in director Tim Burton's visually vivid, thematically vapid version; it's almost as if Alice ("In Treatment's" Mia Wasikowska) took a wrong turn and wound up in Narnia (or on the Yellow Brick Road), where she encounters, among others, the Red Queen (hilariously unhinged Helena Bonham Carter), the Cheshire Cat (sly Stephen Fry) and the madcap Mad Hatter (who else but Johnny Depp?). It's demented, yes, but not exactly delightful. (109 min.) PG; fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, a smoking caterpillar. (C.C.)
(B-) Dances with "Aliens": Writer-director James Cameron ("Titanic") takes us to the 22nd-century planet Pandora, where paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (clunky hunk Sam Worthington) joins a corporate mining operation's scientific program -- and finds a new life when he encounters the native Na'vi. A spectacular effects extravaganza that might have been a genuine landmark -- if only Cameron had paid as much attention to story as he does to technology. Winner of three Academy Awards, including best visual effects. (162 min.) PG-13; intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sexual references, profanity, smoking. (C.C.)
THE BLIND SIDE
(B-) This heartwarming, fact-based crowd-pleaser focuses on future NFL tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a gentle giant who rises from virtual homelessness to football stardom with an assist from a force-of-nature Southern belle (sassy Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock) who takes him under her wing, and her roof. If it weren't a true story, it would be tough to believe, yet writer-director John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") tackles a few gritty issues between the stand-up-and-cheer and lump-in-the-throat moments. (126 min.) PG-13; brief violence, drug and sexual references. (C.C.)
BOOK OF ELI
(C) Ready for another post-apocalyptic odyssey? This time, a loner (a well-cast Denzel Washington) fights his way across country to protect a sacred book that may hold the key to saving humanity: the last remaining Bible. Gary Oldman (as the resident bad guy) and Mila Kunis co-star for filmmaking twins Albert and Allen Hughes ("From Hell"), who mix preachiness and bloodshed to queasy effect; this is "The Road" with twice the plot, four times the ammunition -- and half the brains. (118 min.) R; brutal violence, profanity.
THE BOUNTY HUNTER
(D+) The ex-cop title character (smirking Scot Gerard Butler) gets the chance to bring in, and get back at, his ex-wife (Jennifer Aniston), a reporter who's chasing a murder cover-up story -- until everybody starts chasing them in an alleged action comedy that has little to offer besides some face-time with its handsome stars. And that's not enough to redeem either the stars -- or the movie. (106 min.) PG-13; sexual content including suggestive comments, profanity, violence.
(C) The lives of three cops from New York's crime-ridden 65th Precinct -- a patrolman nearing retirement (Richard Gere), a secretive narcotics cop (Ethan Hawke) and an undercover officer (Don Cheadle ) -- intertwine, at the same deadly location, in this bloody mess of a cop drama. Despite a fine cast (including Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin, Vincent D'Onofrio and Lili Taylor), director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") grinds viewers down through the movie's relentlessly bleak and barbarous approach. (140 min.) R; bloody violence, strong sexuality, nudity, drug content, pervasive profanity.
(C) Guilty, but no pleasure: A gynecologist (Julianne Moore) who suspects her professor husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating on her hires an escort ("Dear John's" Amanda Seyfried) to test his fidelity. Writer-director Atom Egoyan (a two-time Oscar nominee for "The Sweet Hereafter") adapts the 2003 French drama "Nathalie," in which Gérard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Béart originated the central roles. What's more boring than watching dull sex on screen? Listening to people talk about dull sex on screen, and that's how "Chloe's" characters spend (too) much of their time. (96 min.) R; strong sexual content including graphic dialogue, nudity, profanity.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
(C) "Avatar's" hunky, charisma-free Sam Worthington returns in a high-tech revamp of the campy 1981 extravaganza, as Perseus, the human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), tries to prevent nasty Hades (Ralph Fiennes, having a blast) and his underworld underlings from spreading evil to the heavens -- and Earth. Decent but forgettable digital effects, combined with and a disappointing 3-D conversion, make for a long, joyless slog. (118 min.) PG-13; fantasy action violence, frightening images, brief sensuality.
(D+) It's buddy-cop comedy time yet again, as two of New York's semi-finest (Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan) go after a memorabilia-obsessed gangster who's stolen a rare baseball card -- meant to finance the wedding of one of the cop's daughters. Seann William Scott, Jason Lee, Adam Brody and Kevin Pollak co-star in a clumsy, post-modern example of a tired genre that stuffs as many genre references as it can into the ceaseless Willis-Morgan patter. (110 min.) R; pervasive profanity including sexual references, violence, brief sexuality.
(B) The horror remake parade continues with "Sahara" director Breck Eisner's insane-in-the-membrane update of George A. Romero's 1973 chiller about small-town Iowans (played by, among others, Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell) who ingest water, tainted with a mysterious toxin, that makes them go (you guessed it) crazy. It's not exactly a zombie movie, but derives much of its horror from the same fear that the enemy lurks both within and without you -- and there's a very real chance you might turn into a monster. (101 min.) R; bloody violence, profanity.
(B+) Bad to the bone: Running-on-empty country singer Bad Blake (Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges) strikes a chord with an aspiring music journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who just might be just the good-hearted woman to save a good-timin' man -- for whom the good times ended long ago. Actor-turned-filmmaker Scott Cooper takes us down a well-traveled road, but his keen eye for detail -- and Bridges' subtle spellbinder of a performance -- make the journey worthwhile. Winner of two Academy Awards: best actor, best song. (111 min.) R; profanity, brief sexuality. (C.C.)
(C) Nothing to write home about: The spring-break romance between a young Army Ranger (a strained, pained Channing Tatum) and an idealistic college student (beatific Amanda Seyfried of "Mamma Mia!") is sorely tested by the events, and impact, of Sept. 11, 2001. The latest in a seemingly endless line of movies based on a seemingly endless line of Nicholas Sparks best-sellers ("The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle," etc.), this one's another big ol' sloppy tub of mush -- and while lots of people may like the taste, it's tough to work up an appetite for yet another heaping helping of the same warmed-over sentiment. (105 min.) PG-13; sexual references, violence. (C.C.)
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
(B-) Get in touch with your inner wimp -- and surrender to the impish charm of this adaptation of Jeff Kinney's illustrated novel, about the misadventures of a middle-school misfit (irresistible smarty-pants Zachary Gordon) trying to survive a daunting rite of passage: sixth grade. This inventive comedy integrates Kinney's witty drawings with live-action antics, presenting some painful -- and painfully funny -- life lessons in a movie that's endearing child's play for kids of all ages. (120 min.) PG; rude humor, profanity. (C.C.)
EDGE OF DARKNESS
(C+) It's been seven years since his last starring role, but Mel Gibson's still playing martyr, this time as a vengeful Boston cop investigating the murder of his activist daughter. Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") directs this remake of an award-winning British miniseries, which benefits from strong performances by Ray Winstone and Danny Huston. But it's Gibson's urgent, contemporary rage that gives this a definite, if unsettling, edge. (117 min.) R; strong bloody violence, profanity.
THE GHOST WRITER
(B) An exiled former British prime minister (dynamic, Tony Blair-ish Pierce Brosnan), holed up to write his memoirs, finds himself at sea when a longtime aide drowns. Enter a professional ghostwriter (a wry Ewan McGregor), who's utterly unprepared for the political and sexual intrigue swirling around him. Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski delivers an absorbing, sometimes edgy adaptation of Robert Harris' best-selling "The Ghost." Not on a par with such Polanski classics as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" (what could be?), yet still packs a slyly macabre punch. (128 min.) PG-13; profanity, brief nudity/sexuality, violence, drug references. (C.C.)
(C) He's not quite Bourne again, but Matt Damon reunites with "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass for this topical thriller, about a U.S. Army officer who goes rogue in wartime Iraq, hunting for weapons of mass destruction after he uncovers evidence of faulty intelligence. It may be a visual and visceral knockout, but all the war-zone authenticity in the Arab world can't salvage the silly Hollywood plot at the heart of things. (115 min.) R; violence, profanity.
(B) House-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles, a post-breakdown mid-life New Yorker (an engaging Ben Stiller) tries to figure out his unfathomable life. This edgy, perceptive comedy from writer-director Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") conveys a happy-sad authenticity that makes it endearing despite its title character's off-putting qualities; mumblecore favorite Greta Gerwig has a breakout role as an aspiring musician with her own self-esteem issues. Together, they're anything but shallow, standard-issue big-screen lovers. (107 min.) R; strong sexuality, drug use, profanity.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
(C) Crazy '80s: Three middle-aged buddies (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson) who've had it with adulthood discover their own personal wayback machine when a ski resort hot tub transports them back to 1986 heyday, enabling them to settle old scores and mess with the timeline for personal profit. Alas, this dude-where's-my-youth adventure is not so excellent; fitfully amusing, it's mostly as lazy, self-involved and garish as the chintzy '80s themselves. (100 min.) R; strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use, pervasive profanity.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
(B) Up and away: In this sometimes exhilarating animated romp (especially in 3-D), a scrawny Viking teen wounds, then befriends a dragon he dubs Toothless, discovering that Toothless and his fellow flying terrors aren't so terrifying after all. "She's Out of My League's" Jay Baruchel (Hollywood's nerd du jour) and "Bounty Hunter's" brawny Gerard Butler lead the vocal cast of an adventure that truly soars when human and dragon take to the skies. (98 min.) PG; sequences of intense action and some scary images, brief mild language. (C.C.)
THE LAST SONG
(C) Heard the one about two photogenic kids who meet cute and fall madly in love, only to find that tragedy trumps hormones? No, it's not "Dear John" -- it's the latest from "Dear John" author Nicholas Sparks, about a rebellious teen (Miley Cyrus) stuck in a Southern beach town to reconnect with her estranged father (a too-good-for-this-movie Greg Kinnear). Cyrus, now 17, has undeniable presence -- but she needs an acting coach. Then again, not even Meryl Streep could save Sparks' latest tub o' mush. (107 min.) PG; thematic material, some violence, sensuality, mild profanity.
THE LAST STATION
(B) It's 1910, and the world's leading novelist, Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) finds himself torn between his idealistic principles and his imperious wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), who's determined to keep her husband's literary profits all in the family. Paul Giamatti (as Tolstoy's devoted yet devious friend) and James McAvoy (as a naive witness to the intrigue) deliver deft support in a handsome period drama that reminds us that great actors in action create special effects no computer-generated imagery could ever approximate. (112 min.) R; sexual situations, nudity. (C.C.)
OUR FAMILY WEDDING
(C) Feuding fathers (Carlos Mencia, Forest Whitaker) reluctantly come together when their children ("Ugly Betty's" America Ferrera, Bonanza High School graduate Lance Gross) become engaged in this culture-clash comedy featuring Taye Diggs, Diana-Maria Riva and Regina King. Despite the inherent cheesiness of the wedding genre -- and the equally checkered history of stridently ethnic movies -- this one manages to find the charm within the clichés. (90 min.) PG-13; sexual content, brief profanity.
PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF
(C) No spark: This latest attempt to find a new "Harry Potter" (from Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter movies) adapts the first installment of Rick Riordan's five-book series about a teen (Logan Lerman) who discovers he's the descendant of a Greek god -- and must undertake an odyssey to Mount Olympus. (Via Las Vegas, which is seen in second-unit footage filmed here.) Uma Thurman's snake-haired Medusa and Pierce Brosnan's studly centaur almost make this worth seeing, but despite the starry supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Sean Bean, Kevin McKidd and Catherine Keener), this is more a list of ingredients than a magic movie. (119 min.) PG; action violence and peril, scary images, suggestive material, mild profanity.
(B+) In a French prison, a friendless, virtually illiterate Arab teen (understated, inscrutable Tahar Rahim) finds himself under the thumb of a wily Corsican gangster (the magnetic Niels Arestrup), learning life -- and death -- lessons. Part prison melodrama, part crime thriller, part character study, this Oscar-nominated drama (in French, Arabic and Corsican, with English subtitles) finds writer-director Jacques Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Read My Lips") energizing genre movie conventions with idiosyncratic, imaginative flair. (154 min.) R; strong violence, sexual content, nudity, profanity, drug use. (C.C.)
(C) A rebellious NYU student ("Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson, still in full brooding mode) meets his match in a fellow student (Emilie de Raven), but their relationship is threatened by the very thing that brought them together in this dread-filled character study featuring Pierce Brosnan (once again demonstrating his character-actor chops) and always solid Chris Cooper. Set in the summer of 2001, this romanticizes -- and pretentiously revels in -- tragedy and its aftermath. (128 min.) PG-13; violence, sexual content, profanity, smoking.
(D) In a future where human organs can be bought, sold -- and repossessed -- a repo expert (Jude Law) suffers cardiac arrest and gets a new heart, but can't pay the bill, prompting the company to send his former partner (Forest Whitaker) after him. Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, RZA and "Black Book's" Carice Van Houten headline the supporting cast of a trashy, empty-headed thriller that offers its slick dystopian vision as an excuse to indulge in gut-wrenching gore. But there's a key organ missing: a brain, replaced by a memory bank of other, better movies. (111 min.) R; strong bloody violence, grisly images, profanity, sexuality, nudity.
SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE
(C) Can a hottie and a nottie find true romance? An average guy ("Tropic Thunder" scene-stealer Jay Baruchel) tries to maintain an unlikely relationship with a perfect 10 who's on the rebound ("Starter for 10's" Alice Eve) in a blandly raunchy romantic comedy featuring Mike Vogel ("Cloverfield") and Krysten Ritter ("Woke Up Dead"). Too bad the filmmakers forgot to give Baruchel's character an actual personality that might appeal to the opposite sex; as a result, there's no reason to believe what happens to this nice-guy non-entity. (105 min.) R; profanity, sexual content.
(C-) In Victorian-era London, the title sleuth (Robert Downey Jr.) and his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) take on a sinister serial killer ("The Young Victoria's" Mark Strong) in an anachronistic adventure that trashes one of the world's most beloved literary characters, transforming him into a brash action hero. "Rocknrolla" director Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic style puts the focus on brawn rather than brain, which seems a cruel fate for an actor as smart as Downey -- and a character as brilliant as Holmes. (128 min.) PG-13; intense sequences of violence and action, startling images, suggestive material. (C.C.)
(C+) Shudder Island: Director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Departed," "The Aviator") reunite for this adaptation of "Mystic River" author Denis Lehane's novel, set in 1954, about a haunted U.S. marshal searching for a murderous escapee from a hospital for the criminally insane. Exquisitely crafted, but an exercise in B-movie melodrama, albeit with an A-level cast: Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson are among the heavy hitters trying to score. Scorsese works hard (too hard) conjuring a creepy atmosphere, but creating sustained suspense seems beyond him. (138 min.) R; disturbing violent content, profanity, nudity. (C.C.)
THE SPY NEXT DOOR
(C-) Former CIA agent Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) finds himself back in the spy game while babysitting his girlfriend's kids -- one of whom accidentally downloads a top-secret formula, prompting a visit from Bob's longtime nemesis, a Russian terrorist. Amber Valletta, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez round out the eclectic starring cast of yet another lazy, kid-pleasing comedy about a man unprepared for fatherhood who's suddenly saddled with children he must win over in order to win the heart of their hot single mom. Luckily, that man is Chan, who's still fit and charming -- even in a charmless movie like this. (92 min.) PG; action violence, mild rude humor.
THAT EVENING SUN
(B+) Times change -- but some people have no intention of changing with them, including a flinty retirement-home escapee (an Oscar-caliber Hal Holbrook) determined to regain control of his Tennessee farm from the struggling loser ("The Blind Side's" Ray McKinnon) leasing it. Writer-director Scott Teems' quietly insightful feature debut provides yet another reminder (as if we needed one) of Holbrook's ability to inhabit characters who don't say a whole lot -- but have a lot to say about the human condition. (110 min.) PG-13; brief profanity, violence, sexual content, thematic elements. (C.C.)
WHY DID I GET I MARRIED TOO
(C-) Writer-director Tyler Perry returns with this sequel to the 2007 hit "Why Did I Get Married," as four couples reunite to vacation and analyze their problems: neglect (Perry, Sharon Leal), joblessness (Jill Scott, Lamman Rucker), adultery (Tasha Smith, Michael Jai White) and a dead child (Janet Jackson, Malik Yoba). Once again, storylines ramble, scenes fizzle, actors shout and weep embarrassingly and nuance is obliterated by sermonizing. (121 min.) PG-13 ; thematic material including sexuality, profanity, drug references, domestic violence.