OPENING THIS WEEK
Philip Roth’s novella "The Dying Animal" inspires this drama of a renowned, skirt-chasing academic (Ben Kingsley), whose affair with a Cuban-American graduate student (Penélope Cruz) awakens his sense of sexual possessiveness, throwing his life into emotional disarray. Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard co-star for director Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me," "The Secret Life of Words"). At Village Square. (108 min.) R; sexuality, nudity, profanity.
FOR THE FIRST TIME
A rich, impulsive teen playboy (Richard Gutierrez) and an ambitious prude marked by past tragedy (KC Concepcion), unlikely summer sweethearts on the Greek island of Santori, try to determine whether their romance can last once they return to Manila, especially with their parents at odds in a business deal. This Filipino romance from director Joyce E. Bernal teams two TV stars from rival networks for the first time. In Tagalog. At Village Square. (130 min.) NR; rated PG-13 by the Philippines ratings board.
He sees dead people — and doesn’t like it one bit — when his unexpected death, and even more unexpected revival seven minutes later, enable obnoxious Bertram Pincus ("The Office’s" Ricky Gervais) to see ghosts, one of whom (Greg Kinnear) hopes he’ll break up the impending marriage of his widow (Téa Leoni). Screenwriter David Koepp ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Spider-Man") directs for the first time since 2004’s Stephen King adaptation "Secret Window." At multiple locations. (102 min.) PG-13; profanity, sexual humor, drug references.
In this animated monster bash, a lowly lab assistant (voiced by John Cusack) who dreams of becoming a scientist gets his chance when his cruel master dies a week before the annual Evil Science Fair, enabling Igor to build his own creature — and battle an even more evil plot to destroy his world. John Cleese, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes, Eddie Izzard, Jennifer Coolidge and Molly Shannon round out the vocal cast. At multiple locations. (87 min.) PG; thematic elements, scary images, action, mild profanity.
"Blue’s Clues" creator Todd Kessler goes for a somewhat older demographic as co-writer and director of this drama, fresh from Saturday’s world premiere at Mandalay Bay, about a popular high school senior ("One Tree Hill’s" Elisabeth Harnois) who falls for the title character (teenthrob Jesse McCartney), a new kid in school who’s harboring a dark and deadly secret. At multiple locations. (93 min.) NR.
MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL
A lovelorn guy (Jason Biggs) tests his best friend’s loyalty by hiring his pal (Dane Cook) to take his ex-girlfriend (Kate Hudson) on a rotten date — so she’ll realize what a mistake she’s made by breaking up with him. Alec Baldwin co-stars in this romantic comedy from director Howard Deutch ("The Whole Ten Yards," "The Replacements"). At multiple locations. (101 min.) R; strong profanity and sexual content, including graphic dialogue and nudity.
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.
(D-) Babble on: In this futuristic thriller, a post-apocalyptic mercenary (Vin Diesel) escorts a mysterious young woman (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian (Michelle Yeoh) from Russia to New York while trying to elude sinister kidnappers. This odd, solemn disaster refuses to make any sense at all, combining badly executed action sequences with mystic mumbo-jumbo that not even a two-disc, director’s-cut DVD could make comprehensible. No wonder director Mathieu Kassovitz has all but disowned it; audiences should follow suit. (90 min.) PG-13; intense violence and action, profanity, sexuality.
(D) Dangerous? Ridiculous is more like it, as a lone-wolf hit man (a slumming Nicolas Cage), on assignment in Thailand, bonds with his errand boy (Shahkrit Yamnarm) — and falls for a winsome deaf-mute shopgirl (Charlie Young). It worked much better the first time around Hong Kong brothers Danny and Oxide Pang ("The Eye") directed it, in their 1999 breakthrough; this dark, grim actioner has little plot and even less emotional traction. As a cinematic experience, it’s like being locked in a coffin for an hour and a half. (100 min.) R; violence, profanity, sexuality.
BURN AFTER READING
(B-) After the towering achievement of last year’s Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen lower their expectations with this off-kilter black comedy about two dim-bulb gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt) who find a computer disc belonging to a disgruntled, drunken CIA agent (John Malkovich) — and launch a doomed-to-fail blackmail scheme. "Michael Clayton" teammates George Clooney and Tilda Swinton join the spyjinks (he’s a goofball serial philanderer, she’s an adulterous ice queen) and they’re all swell, but not even the dream-team cast can make this anything more than a fitfully amusing diversion. It’s a cosmic joke, all right, but not a particularly funny one. (96 min.) R; violence, sexual situations, profanity. (C.C.)
(D) Flunking out: It’s wild-weekend time for three high school seniors (Drake Bell, Andrew Caldwell, Kevin Covais) visiting a local college when a rowdy fraternity recruits them as pledges, putting them through endless humiliation — until they attract the attention of some sorority babes. How dumb do the filmmakers think teens are? Let’s hope they’re smart enough to avoid this misfire, which plays like a twisted after-school special, getting preachy after all the lowbrow hijinks. (94 min.) R; pervasive crude and sexual content, nudity, profanity, drug and alcohol abuse.
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 new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in a sequel to 2005’s "Batman Begins" that wants desperately to be taken seriously. Mostly, it deserves to be — except when it takes itself too seriously for its own good. It’s so overstuffed with characters, plots and counterplots that Batman sometimes seems like a supporting character, but Ledger’s Joker is one for the ages. (152 min.) PG-13; intense violence and menace. (C.C.)
(C) In this supercharged remake of Roger Corman’s 1975 cult fave "Death Race 2000," a ruthless prison warden (Joan Allen) taps an inmate (Jason Statham) for the title competition, the ultimate demolition derby in which combatants drive to kill — or die. Ian McShane and Tyrese Gibson co-star in a relentless, soulless action fantasy that’s "Ben Hur" for video junkies: imposing on the surface, hollow at the core. (89 min.) R; strong violence and profanity.
(D) Diminishing returns: The folks behind "Scary Movie," "Date Movie" and "Epic Movie" continue their downward spiral with this virtually laugh-free romp in which unsuspecting 20-somethings find themselves bombarded by a variety of natural catastrophes — and takeoffs of movies from "Cloverfield" to "The Dark Knight." The references feel tired and the humor (if you can call it that) seems even more exhausted. Stars Matt Lanter and Vanessa Minnillo are likable enough and Kim Kardashian’s cleavage justifies her paycheck, but why watch a bad movie about better movies when you can see the originals? (90 min.) PG-13; crude and sexual content throughout, language, drug references and comic violence.
THE FAMILY THAT PREYS
(B-) Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard star as the matriarchs of two very different Atlanta families — one wealthy, the other working class — who find their long friendship threatened by scandal in this undeniably entertaining melodrama from writer-director Tyler Perry, which features Sanaa Lathan, Cole Hauser, Taraji P. Henson, Robin Givens — and Perry himself, this time out of drag as a true-blue hard hat. Defiantly old-school, this shiny, two-timing throwback to 1950s melodramas (and prime-time TV soaps) proves Perry can whip up the suds with the best of ’em. (111 min.) PG-13; thematic material, sexual references, brief violence.
FLY ME TO THE MOON 3-D
(D) Buzz kill: In the first animated feature created for 3-D, a trio of houseflies stow away aboard Apollo 11 and try to stop a conniving Soviet spy fly from sabotaging the moon shot. Alas, this animated kiddie cartoon is as tedious and irritating as a real fly. (89 min.) G; all ages.
(A) When her husband leaves her with two kids and a mountain of unpaid bills, a beleaguered dollar-store cashier (Melissa Leo, already generating Oscar buzz) forms an uneasy alliance with an equally desperate single mother (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian, in a scheme to smuggle immigrants across the frozen river separating Quebec from upstate New York. Writer-director Courtney Hunt’s debut feature has the crackling pace of an action movie, the racking suspense of a thriller, the unexpected resolution of an O. Henry tale — and, like its heroines, a homespun poetry that makes it urgent and incomparably moving. (97 min.) R; profanity.
(B) Brit wit Steve Coogan (alias "Tropic Thunder’s" haplessly pretentious director), finally gets a movie all to himself: the sublimely silly saga of a failed actor turned drama teacher, who tries to save his high school’s embattled theater program with a sequel to Shakespeare’s "bummer" original, featuring new characters from Albert Einstein to Jesus Christ — the latter as the centerpiece of a musical extravaganza titled "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." From slapstick disaster to clueless self-absorption, Coogan’s irresistible comic zing makes "Hamlet 2" swing. (92 min.) R; profanity, sexual references, brief nudity, drug content. (C.C.)
(C) After he’s saved by a boozy, surly superhero (Will Smith), a struggling L.A. marketing expert (Jason Bateman) volunteers to rehabilitate the snide good guy’s tarnished image. An intriguing concept, but iffy execution — and director Peter Berg’s inability to meld the movie’s jokey first half with its anguished, emotional conclusion — makes for a bumpy ride, even with Charlize Theron rounding out the classy starring cast. (92 min.) PG-13; intense sci-fi action and violence, profanity. (C.C.)
THE HOUSE BUNNY
(C) A Playboy Bunny (Anna Faris) gets booted from the mansion — and finds refuge with clueless sorority sisters who are about to lose their house — in a campus comedy featuring Colin Hanks (yes, his dad’s named Tom), Rumer Willis (yes, her dad’s named Bruce), "American Idol’s" Katharine McPhee — and, inevitably, Mr. Playboy himself, Hugh Hefner. Despite a winning performance from Faris, this falls on its tail so many times that, before long, the perky pinkness turns a bruising black-and-blue. (97 min.) PG-13; sex-related humor, partial nudity, brief profanity.
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 title realm. Without 3-D, it’s just another empty-calories cinematic thrill ride; with 3-D, it’s a relatively fun thrill ride, with reach-out-and-touch images guaranteed to make you giggle, squirm — or both at the same time. (92 min.) PG; intense adventure action, scary moments. (C.C.)
(B) A Pop Warner football coach (Ice Cube) finds a secret weapon: an 11-year-old quarterback ("Akeelah and the Bee’s" Keke Palmer) who happens to be a girl. Ex-Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst directs this fact-based heart-tugger, and it’s a rough but heartfelt diamond; both Cube and Palmer are irresistible in a triumph-of-the-underdog sports movie where the triumph goes beyond a team to include a whole town. (94 min.) PG; thematic elements, mild profanity, brief rude humor.
(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 living on a Greek island, whose three ex-flames (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsg?rd) show up at her daughter’s wedding. Occasionally entertaining, often excruciating, this boasts a stellar cast (augmented by "Big Love’s" Amanda Seyfried and scene-stealers Christine Baranski and Julie Walters), but the narrative thread’s flimsier than dental floss. True Super Troupers will want to catch the sing-along version, complete with on-screen lyrics to every musical number — as if you don’t already know them by heart. (108 min.) PG-13; sexual references. (C.C.)
(D) Shine off: A fire-ravaged department store harbors a horrific secret that threatens a cop-turned-security guard (Kiefer Sutherland) and his family. Inane, dull and about as scary as a bottle of Windex, this "Shining" rip-off substitutes a deserted department store for "Shining’s" hotel and a strung-out Sutherland for strung-out Jack Nicholson, making this minor chiller a major downer from talented "High Tension" director Alexandre Aja. (100 min.) R; strong violence, disturbing images, profanity, brief nudity.
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
(C-) The third time’s definitely not the charm for this poor man’s Indiana Jones franchise, which reaches new depths of absurdity as intrepid Rick O’Connell (a game Brendan Fraser) and his archaeologist wife Evelyn (miscast Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz), retired from globe-trotting, head to China when their rebellious son (a charmless Luke Ford) unearths the remains of a cursed, shape-shifting emperor (martial arts whiz Jet Li). More often labored and lumbering than fun, this proves the "Mummy" saga should stay buried. (112 min.) PG-13; adventure action, violence. (C.C.)
(B-) Reefer madness: In the latest romp from producer Judd Apatow’s comedy factory, a hapless stoner ("Knocked Up’s" Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote the script) witnesses a murder — and runs for his life, his even more hapless pot dealer (a delightful James Franco) in tow. Powered by their pricelessly dopey repartee, "Pineapple Express" proves uproarious in fits and starts, but eventually falls victim to its own randomness — and a nasty violent streak that undercuts the movie’s sweetly addled bromance. (111 min.) R; pervasive profanity, drug use, sexual references, violence. (C.C.)
(C) After sharing one scene in 1995’s "Heat," Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share a whole movie; too bad it’s this often turgid thriller about veteran New York City detectives trying to figure out the connection between a current murder and a case they thought they had solved years ago. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Brian Dennehy and "Frozen River’s" Melissa Leo co-star in what’s essentially a "Law & Order" episode stretched beyond recognition; De Niro’s minimalist behavior and Pacino’s maximalist performance provide only minimal interest. (110 min.) R; violence, pervasive profanity, sexual situations, brief drug use.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2
(B) The magic jeans are an even better fit the second time around, as the four title characters (America Ferrara, Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel and Amber Tamblyn) face the first summer after freshman year on their own, from a Vermont theater festival to an archaeological dig in Turkey, before reuniting on the picturesque Greek isle of Santorini. All four, especially standouts Ferrara and Tamblyn, are far more nuanced performers than in the 2002 original, and while this isn’t exactly deep, it is deeply felt — and a refreshing change from most movies aimed at, and about, teenage girls. (117 min.) PG-13; mature material, sexual references.
(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. 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.
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS
(C) The "Star Wars" saga explores a new cinematic galaxy — animation — as Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda lead the Jedi knights struggling to save the Galactic Republic. Harmless and mostly charmless, this truly cartoonish animated adventure is to "Star Wars" what karaoke is to pop music, making the special magic of that long-ago galaxy seem far, far away indeed. (98 minutes.) PG; sci-fi action violence, brief profanity and smoking.
(C-) "Talladega Nights" teammates Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly take a big step downward as two overgrown cases of arrested development forced together when one’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) marries the other’s dad (Richard Jenkins). Ferrell and Reilly 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.)
(B) A former U.S. special operations officer (Don Cheadle), a practicing Muslim with terrorist connections, finds himself the target of federal agents (Guy Pearce, Neal McDonaugh) in a topical, globe-trotting thriller that wants to pump up your conscience along with your adrenaline. It does the latter better than the former, but not even Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s diffuse direction can defuse the power of Cheadle and Pearce’s cat-and-mouse intrigue. (110 min.) PG-13; intense violent sequences, mature themes, brief profanity. (C.C.)
(B-) Mystery train: A wintry eight-day train trip from China to Moscow sets the stage for intrigue when married Americans (Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer) encounter a Russian narcotics detective (Ben Kingsley) and a mysterious couple (Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara) aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Despite a tricky narrative track, "Transsiberian" telegraphs many of its contrived plot moves, but the chilly setting and Mortimer’s layered performance help compensate for the obvious. (111 min.) R; violence, torture, profanity, sexual situations. (C.C.)
(B+) When the studio pulls the plug on their bloated Vietnam War epic, the self-absorbed stars (Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Ben Stiller, who also directs) bungle into the jungle — and wind up battling real-life bad guys. Gory, vulgar and wickedly funny, this equal-opportunity offender gleefully bites the Hollywood hand that feeds it before licking the very same hand and hoping the folks who finance big-budget movies like "Tropic Thunder" won’t take it too personally. Even so, this wimps out far less than most wannabe showbiz satires — and the top-chop cast, led by the peak-form Downey, makes the most of its irreverence. (107 min.) R; pervasive profanity, sexual references, violence, drug use. (C.C.)
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
(A-) Another year, another minor Woody Allen triumph. This one’s a deceptively blithe, breezy tale of two American students in Spain — one free-spirited and sexually adventurous (Scarlett Johansson), the other serious and strait-laced (Rebecca Hall) — who become entangled with a seductive painter (Javier Bardem) and his fiery, troubled ex-wife (Penélope Cruz, the newest member of Woody’s Oscar-caliber pantheon). Reminiscent of French New Wave master François Truffaut (especially "Jules and Jim"), this bittersweet meditation on love, art and the way we live now won’t make you forget "Annie Hall" or "Hannah and Her Sisters," but will remind you why Allen still matters. (96 min.) PG-13; sexual references, smoking. (C.C.)
(C) They just don’t remake ’em like they used to, as this remake of the all-distaff 1939 classic (from "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English) demonstrates, focusing on has-it-all Meg Ryan — wife, mother, fashion designer, saint — who discovers her Wall Street tycoon husband has taken up with a sultry shopgirl (Eva Mendes), throwing her life, and her best pals (career gal Annette Bening, earth mama Debra Messing, lesbian writer Jada Pinkett Smith) into a collective tizzy. The original’s a catty blast; this is a declawed, defanged exercise in smug self-entitlement, full of you-go-girl sisterly bonding and lots (and lots) of yupscale fashion frenzy. And they call this progress? (114 min.) PG-13; sexual references, profanity, drug use, brief smoking. (C.C.)