OPENING THIS WEEK
BURN AFTER READING
After last year’s Oscar-winning triumph with "No Country for Old Men," filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen return 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 CIA agent (John Malkovich) — and launch a doomed-to-fail blackmail scheme. "Michael Clayton" teammates George Clooney and Tilda Swinton round out the starring cast. (96 min.) R; violence, sexual situations, profanity.
THE FAMILY THAT PREYS
Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard star as the matriarchs of two very different families — one wealthy, the other working class — who find their long friendship threatened by scandal in this drama 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 construction worker. (111 min.) PG-13; thematic material, sexual references, brief violence.
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) agrees to smuggle immigrants across the frozen river separating Quebec from upstate New York in writer-director Courtney Hunt’s acclaimed debut feature. At Village Square. (97 min.) R; profanity.
This documentary explores a broad tapestry of flag-waving themes, from historical sites to natural wonders to tales of we the people, focusing on stories that illustrate all-American themes of tolerance and freedom, including an immigrant family, an inner-city youth who rejects gangs and drugs and a neighborhood battling hate crimes. At multiple locations. (90 min.) PG; mild thematic elements.
After sharing one scene in 1995’s "Heat," Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share a whole movie in this 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 for Pacino’s "88 Minutes" director, Jon Avnet. At multiple locations. (110 min.) R; violence, pervasive profanity, sexual situations, brief drug use.
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.
(B) More than 25 years after the hit British miniseries captivated PBS audiences, novelist Evelyn Waugh’s classic tale of pre-World War II England shifts to the big screen, as young artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) becomes embroiled with gay Oxford classmate Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and his aristocratic family (including Emma Thompson as Sebastian’s chilly, intensely Catholic mother and Hayley Atwell as his sensuous sister). Julian Jerrold ("Becoming Jane") directs this lush, intellectual adaptation, which ventures where the fabled ’80s miniseries couldn’t. (135 min.) PG-13; sexual content.
(B) A corker, with engaging subplots, a heady bouquet and a good nose, this fact-based tale rates a toast. Alan Rickman stars as a snobby Brit who hopes to revive his faltering Paris wine shop by teaming up with a struggling Sonoma winemaker (Bill Pullman); their partnership shakes the wine world at a 1976 taste test in which the humble California wines best their pedigreed French counterparts. (110 min.) PG-13; brief profanity, sexual content, drug use.
(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.
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.
(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.)
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY
(B) When the mythical world rebels against humanity, hoping to take over Earth, demon superhero Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his team — including pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) — lead the charge to save the planet. Like its 2004 predecessor, this has a middling storyline, made memorable by the 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 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 still a thrill ride, but at least it’s a relatively fun one, 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 — in case 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.)
ROMAN DE GARE
(B) French New Wave legend Claude Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") returns with this twisty thriller (its title translates loosely as "Airport Novel") about a celebrated crime novelist (Fanny Ardant), her missing ghostwriter — and a serial killer. It’s vintage Lelouch, a cinematic page-turner racing from chic winery to hardscrabble farm to sleek yacht on the Mediterranean. In French with English subtitles. (103 min.) R; brief profanity and sexual references.
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 they were 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 beer-guzzling Joe Sixpack (Kevin Costner) becomes the sole deciding vote in a deadlocked presidential election, sparking a media circus in his New Mexico hometown — and a chance for his precocious daughter (Madeline Carroll) to get her goofball dad to act his age. This timely, yet timeless, political comedy boasts a winning supporting cast (including Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci) and provides a welcome reminder that Costner can still make contact when he gets a pitch he can hit. (110 min.) PG-13; 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 Transsiberian 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 nobody will take it too personally. (Especially the folks who finance big-budget movies like "Tropic Thunder.") Even so, this wimps out far less than most wannabe showbiz satires — and the top-chop cast, led by the brilliant 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.)
(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 it never feels derivative, thanks to a magical blend of soaring imagination and down-to-earth emotions. (97 min.) G; all ages. (C.C.)