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MOVIES

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.

Motion Picture Association of America ratings:

G – General audiences, all ages.

PG – Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 – Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children under 13.

R – Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian.

NC-17 – No one under 17 admitted.

NR – Not rated.

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER*

(B-) America’s love affair with steroids inspires this acclaimed documentary, which explores the chemical underbelly of American sport — and the all-American emphasis on winning, regardless of cost. Filmmaker Chris Bell could have focused on his family’s experience — both of his brothers are body builders who’ve wrestled with steroids — but he sees the issue of drugs and sports as a metaphor for the overachieving ethos of Americans at large (no kidding) and their ability to see exactly what they want to see. A journey out of naiveté is what this film is all about. (105 min.) PG-13; thematic material involving drugs, profanity, sexual content and violence.

BRICK LANE

(B) A Bangladeshi transplant to East London (Tannishtha Chatterjee), forced into an arranged marriage at 17, yearns for her rural village, the sister she left back home — and a young Muslim garment worker (Christopher Simpson) — to rescue her from her passionless life. This quietly observant (and quite beautiful) adaptation of Monica Ali’s 2003 novel boasts strong performances and a heartbreaking story, delivering a rich, revealing and rewarding portrait of its central character — and her conflicted world. (101 min.) PG-13; sexual situations, profanity.

THE DARK KNIGHT

(B) Why so serious? This sequel to 2005’s "Batman Begins" wants desperately to be taken seriously. Mostly, it deserves to be — but it sometimes takes itself too seriously for its own good, as the Joker (an indelible Heath Ledger) wreaks havoc in Gotham City, prompting the interest of not only the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) but crusading new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). So overstuffed with characters, plots and counterplots that Batman sometimes seems like a supporting character in his own movie, but Ledger’s Joker is one for the ages — or, more precisely, this age. Even without the actor’s tragic death, this sequel cloaks itself in funereal black. It’s as if somebody sprinkled ashes in the popcorn. (152 min.) PG-13; intense violence and menace. (C.C.)

GET SMART

(C+) Missed it by that much: Steve Carell steps into the (phone-equipped) shoes of Don Adams to play bumbling Maxwell Smart, a world-class intelligence analyst who finally gets the chance to trade his desk job for a globe-trotting field assignment, accompanied by savvy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway). By grafting a typical origin story onto a typically breakneck espionage plot, "Get Smart" fails to capture the delirious slapstick lunacy of the classic ’60s sitcom that inspired it. Sorry about that, Chief. (110 min.) PG-13; rude humor, action violence, profanity. (C.C.)

HANCOCK

(C) After he’s saved by a boozy, surly superhero (box-office king Will Smith), a struggling L.A. marketing expert (Jason Bateman) volunteers to rehabilitate the snide good guy’s tarnished image. It’s an intriguing concept, but the iffy execution — and director Peter Berg’s inability to meld the movie’s jokey first half with its anguished and emotional conclusion — makes for a bumpy ride indeed. With Smith, Bateman and Charlize Theron headlining the classy cast, it’s a downright shame imagining what might have been — if only "Hancock" had lived up to their potential. (92 min.) PG-13; intense sci-fi action and violence, profanity. (C.C.)

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY

(B) When the mythical world rebels against humanity, hoping to take over Earth, cigar-chomping, beer-guzzling demon superhero Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his team — including pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), aquatic empath Abe (Doug Jones) and protoplasmic mystic Johann — lead the charge to save the planet. Like its 2004 predecessor, this has a middling storyline, but it’s made memorable by the dark, freaky visions of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who seems to have transplanted every weird creature he couldn’t cram into "Pan’s Labyrinth." In case you’re wondering, that’s a good thing. (110 min.) PG-13; sci-fi action and violence, profanity.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

(C+) No smash! Edward Norton (who co-wrote the script with "X2’s" Zak Penn) takes over from 2003 "Hulk" Eric Bana as troubled physicist Bruce Banner, who keeps trying to extinguish his inner monster, even as he’s hounded by a military that wants to harness his mean green power. Starts great, but finishes in noisy, effects-heavy waves of tedium, stranding such capable actors as Norton, William Hurt and Tim Roth. Alas, it’s no "Iron Man" — although if you sit through the credits, a jokey Robert Downey Jr. cameo will remind you how much better "Iron Man" is. (138 min.) PG-13; sci-fi action violence, disturbing images, brief partial nudity.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

(A) Whip-crackin’ good: Indiana Jones (inimitable, irreplaceable Harrison Ford) returns to derring-duty, reuniting with director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas for an exhilarating, thrill-a-minute romp that recaptures "Raiders of the Lost Ark’s" gleeful spirit. This time out, it’s 1957, and a graying, gritty Indy teams up with a rebellious teen (Shia LaBeouf) and "Raiders" flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) to battle Soviet spies (led by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett) hot on the trail of a mystical Amazon artifact that may hold the key to life on earth — and beyond. (124 min.) PG-13; adventure violence, scary images. (C.C.)

IRON MAN

(B) Up, up and away: The summer blockbuster season gets off to a flying start with this fast, funny retooling of the tired superhero genre, as jet-setting zillionaire arms merchant Tony Stark (a magnetic Robert Downey Jr.), captured by terrorists, devises a flying metal suit and weapons system, transforming himself from war profiteer to hero-with-a-conscience. It’s still the same old story, but a top-chop cast (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard) and a sly sense of humor make almost everything old new again. (126 min.) PG-13; sci-fi action and violence, brief sexual references. (C.C.)

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

(B-) In your face, in more ways than one: The first live-action feature shot in digital 3-D is an update of Jules Verne’s durable 1864 fantasy, about an absent-minded professor (Brendan Fraser), his surly teenage nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and an Icelandic guide (Anita Briem) on a fantastical, and possibly fatal, journey to the otherworldly (innerworldly?) title realm. Without 3-D, this is just another empty-calories cinematic thrill ride; with 3-D, it’s still a cinematic thrill ride, but at least it’s a relatively fun one, chock full of reach-out-and-touch images guaranteed to make you giggle, squirm — or do both at the same time. (92 min.) PG; intense adventure action, scary moments. (C.C.)

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL

(B) "Little Miss Sunshine’s" Abigail Breslin stars as the first "American Girl" heroine to make it to the big screen; she’s a plucky Depression-era lass who’s determined to get an article published in the local newspaper — and help the down-on-their-luck hoboes haunting her neighborhood. This classy, heart-on-its-sleeve movie’s commitment to down-home values, meticulously researched back stories and be-all-you-can-be girl power has a seductive wholesomeness — and laudable life lessons appropriate for any era, including our own. (100 min.) G; all ages.

KUNG FU PANDA

(C) Kung phooey: This computer-animated romp follows the fortunes of roly-poly Po (voiced by Jack Black), a pot-bellied panda who’s plucked from obscurity to train as a martial arts warrior under the tutelage of pint-sized Master Shifu (a wry Dustin Hoffman). Kids will adore the broad slapstick (and maybe even the "you gotta believe" homilies), but the all-star vocal cast (including Jackie Chan, David Cross, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Ian McShane) is largely wasted and the movie never figures out how mesh its comedic and chop-socky elements. (124 min.) PG; martial arts action. (C.C.)

MAMMA MIA!

(C) S.O.S.: Meryl Streep (having a blast, even when we’re not) turns singing-and-dancing queen in this adaptation of the hit ABBA musical about a former rock singer, now running an inn on a remote Greek island, whose three ex-flames (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsg?rd) show up at her daughter’s wedding. Occasionally entertaining, more often excruciating (especially when poor Pierce tries to sing), this movie may have a stellar cast (augmented by "Big Love’s" Amanda Seyfried and veteran scene-stealers Christine Baranski and Julie Walters), but the narrative thread’s flimsier than dental floss — and director Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed the stage original, hasn’t the slightest idea how to direct a movie. But never mind; this show’s legion of fans undoubtedly won’t. (108 min.) PG-13; sexual references. (C.C.)

MEET DAVE

(C+) Newly arrived New Yorker Dave Ming Chang (Eddie Murphy) seems suspiciously uncomfortable in his own skin — possibly because he’s not really a he at all, but a space ship built in the image of its miniature-sized captain. Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union and Scott Caan co-star for Murphy’s "Norbit" director, Brian Robbins, in a family-friendly sci-fi comedy that might have been developed for Murphy’s "Bowfinger" co-star Steve Martin. Murphy is frighteningly funny at suggesting that Dave is a sophisticated piece of machinery occupied by a crew at cross purposes; once again, he proves he can do anything — even in a movie that’s not up to his talents. (90 min.) PG; bawdy and suggestive humor and action, profanity.

MONGOL

(B) This sweeping, Oscar-nominated epic, from award-winning Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov ("Prisoner of the Mountains"), traces the rise of Genghis Khan (played by Japanese pop star Tadanobu Asano) from nomadic boy prince to conqueror — and founder of the 12th-century realm that became history’s largest contiguous empire. Highly entertaining and replete with highly stylized mayhem and even romance; if Bodrov’s goal was to humanize a man synonymous with conquest and invasion, he’s succeeded. In Mongolian with English subtitles. (124 min.) R; bloody combat sequences.

PRICELESS

(C) "Amélie’s" Audrey Tautou stars as a serial gold-digger on the Riviera who mistakes a hotel bartender ("The Valet’s" disarming Gad Elmaleh) for a wealthy guest, igniting his passions in a frothy French romantic comedy that plays like a broadly amoral take on "Breakfast at Tiffany’s." Alas, it suffers from a serious case of who-should-we-care-for: He’s a sap, she’s a soulless vamp and their patrons are either cruel, self-deluding or both. In French with English subtitles. (104 min.) PG-13; sexual content, nudity.

SEX AND THE CITY

(C) Let’s not get Carried away: After a four-year hiatus, the HBO comedy’s fab four — Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) — return for what feels like an entire season of shoe love, true love and everything in between, all crammed into one loooooooooong sitting. Fans undoubtedly will revel in every bloated moment, but this never finds a middle ground between its TV roots and its big-screen incarnation, so those who never acquired an addiction to the series may wonder what the frenzy was, and is, all about. (145 min.) R; strong sexual situations, graphic nudity, profanity. (C.C.)

SPACE CHIMPS

(D) The wrong stuff: Astronaut chimps, led by the slacker grandson of the first chimp in space (voiced by "Saturday Night Live’s" Andy Samberg), go ape during a mission to a distant planet, where they help embattled residents fight a tyrannical leader. The plot couldn’t be more boring, the unattractive animation evokes the Teletubbies (not a good thing) and young kids won’t get some of the jokes — not that they’re funny. Sure, it’s just a G-rated romp, but does that mean it has to be dull and unimaginative? Anybody who’s seen "Wall-E" knows the answer to that. (81 min.) G; all ages.

STEP BROTHERS

(C-) "Talladega Nights" teammates Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, reunited with director Adam McKay, take a big step downward for this alleged comedic romp about two overgrown, unemployed cases of arrested development forced together when one’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) marries the other’s dad ("The Visitor’s" Richard Jenkins). Ferrell and Reilly may share a fearless, anything-for-a-laugh abandon, but the doofus deadpan chemistry that made "Talladega Nights" such a hoot has all but vanished, replaced by a strident obnoxiousness bordering on desperation. (95 min.) R; crude and sexual content, pervasive profanity. (C.C.)

WALL-E

(A) Play it again, Pixar: "Finding Nemo" writer-director Andrew Stanton strikes again with a wonderful, full-of-wonder tale about a lonely garbage-compactor robot, stranded on an abandoned 29th-century Earth, who follows an alluring probe droid back to her mother ship — and discovers what happened to the humans who used to occupy the planet. Skipping from poignant comedy to sly satire, "Wall-E" deftly synthesizes cinematic influences from Charlie Chaplin to "Star Wars’ " R2-D2, yet never feels derivative, thanks to a magical blend of soaring imagination and down-to-earth emotions. Preceded by the hilarious short "Presto," about an arrogant magician, his hungry bunny and not one but two magic hats. (97 min.) G; all ages. (C.C.)

WANTED

(C-) Un-"Wanted": Angelina Jolie plays a kick-butt killer training a mild-mannered office drone ("Atonement’s" James McAvoy) to take his place in an ancient, clandestine society of assassins. This mindless, soulless action workout directed (make that overdirected) by Russia’s Timur Bekmambetov ("Nightwatch," "Daywatch") confuses quantity with quality, style with substance, adrenaline with artistry. Not content to concentrate on mere mayhem, it aims for something more, and winds up achieving less, trying to pass off a heaping helping of the old ultra-violence as something visionary and profound. (110 min.) R; strong bloody violence, pervasive profanity, sexual situations. (C.C.)

THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE

(C) We want to believe in this sequel to 1998’s first "X-Files" movie (not to mention the cult-fave TV series that left the airwaves in 2002), but this gloomy, serpentine follow-up will make believers of no one who’s not already a diehard X-phile. This time around, reclusive ex-FBI agent Fox "Spooky" Mulder (David Duchovny) and partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), now a surgeon, joining two FBI agents (Amanda Peet, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) investigating a defrocked priest (Billy Connolly) who claims psychic powers. Alas, director Chris Carter, the series’ creator, throws out such a hodgepodge of stalker and serial killer clichés that whatever point he’s trying to get at remains puzzling, vague and, well, unbelievable. (104 min.) PG-13; violent and disturbing content, mature themes.

YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN

(B-) Adam Sandler plays an Israeli secret agent who, tired of endless stand-offs with his Palestinian nemesis (John Turturro), fakes his death so he can reinvent himself — as a New York hairstylist. Sure, there’s the familiar Jewvenile humor, but this crude, idiotic, ridiculous romp also happens to be flat-out hilarious — and Sandler’s funniest film in years, less about a manic man-child than it is a raunchily wholesome message movie that deploys stereotypes in order to smash them. (113 min.) PG-13; crude and sexual content, profanity, nudity.

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