MOVIES

OPENING THIS WEEK

AVATAR

In his first feature since "Titanic" swept the Oscars, writer-director James Cameron takes us to the year 2154 on the planet Pandora, where a paraplegic ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) joins a corporate mining operation’s scientific program and finds a new life when he encounters the native Na’vi population. Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez and Stephen Lang lead the supporting cast of this visual extravaganza. At multiple locations; in 3-D and IMAX 3D at select locations. (162 min.) PG-13; intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sexual references, profanity, smoking.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?

After witnessing a murder, feuding Manhattanites (Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker) find themselves in the witness protection program — and exiled to the wilds of Wyoming — in this comedy from writer-director Marc Lawrence, who also helmed Grant’s "Two Weeks Notice" and "Music and Lyrics." At multiple locations. (103 min.) PG-13; sexual references, momentary violence.

ME AND ORSON WELLES

In 1937, a teen ("High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron) with Broadway aspirations bluffs his way into the cast of "Julius Caesar" — as produced by theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles (Christian McKay). Claire Danes and Ben Chaplin co-star in this drama from director Richard Linklater ("Before Sunrise," "Dazed and Confused"). At the Suncoast. (114 min.) PG-13; sexual references, smoking.

THE ROAD

A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander a post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to survive — with their humanity intact — in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") directs; Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce lead the supporting cast. At multiple locations. (111 min.) R; violence, disturbing images, profanity.

UP IN THE AIR

Read Carol Cling’s review.

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.

ARMORED

(D+) Something old, nothing new: Veteran armored truck guards (led by Matt Dillon) coerce the newbie in their midst (Columbus Short) to steal a vehicle with $42 million aboard — but their supposedly foolproof plan isn’t, triggering dishonor and dissent among thieves. Supporting players Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno and Skeet Ulrich have their moments, but none of them leads to anything other than a factory film made from recycled parts. (88 min.) PG-13; intense violence, disturbing images, brief strong profanity.

THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL — NEW ORLEANS

(B) Nicolas Cage takes on the title role — playing a crackpot (not to mention crackhead) law-enforcement officer emerging from the primal ooze of post-Katrina New Orleans — in Werner Herzog’s luridly entertaining police noir, which shares a title and little else with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 "Bad Lieutenant." It’s a one-of-a-kind experience with a twice-in-a-lifetime performance from Cage, who hasn’t gone this deep into the abyss since 1989’s "Vampire’s Kiss." When Cage is good, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad, he’s better. (122 min.) R; drug use, profanity, violence, sexuality.

THE BLIND SIDE

(B-) This heartwarming, fact-based crowd-pleaser — a natural for both football and holiday seasons — 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 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 in between the stand-up-and-cheer and lump-in-the-throat moments. (126 min.) PG-13; brief violence, drug and sexual references. (C.C.)

THE BOONDOCK SAINTS II: ALL SAINTS DAY

(C) Almost a decade after their first cinematic appearance, the vigilante McManus brothers (Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus) return to Boston to avenge the death of their beloved hometown priest. Billy Connolly, Clifton Collins Jr., Judd Nelson and Peter Fonda co-star for writer-director Troy Duffy in a sequel that, unlike the original, doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out. It’s just a scurrilous, sub-Tarantino action comedy that goes in all directions at once — especially over the top. (118 min.) R; bloody violence, profanity, nudity.

THE BOX

(C-) A simple wooden box arrives on the doorstep of a married couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden), giving them the chance at a million dollars — but only, as a mysterious stranger (the great Frank Langella, shamefully treated) explains, at the cost of someone else’s life. Writer-director Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko") delivers a preposterous chiller, based on a short story by the legendary Richard Matheson ("Twilight Zone," "I Am Legend"). Like a magician’s prop, this gives the illusion that it’s full of stuff — ideas, portents, clues, meaning — when it’s all but empty. (115 min.) PG-13; thematic elements, violence, disturbing images.

BROTHERS

(B-) When a Marine (a peak-form Tobey Maguire) disappears in Afghanistan, his black-sheep, ex-con brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to comfort his sister-in-law (Natalie Portman) and her children in this remake of the 2004 Danish standout, which never achieves the naturalistic impact of the original but is worthy on its own terms. Under the direction of Jim Sheridan ("In America," "My Left Foot") the movie packs a wallop; it’s just not the knockout it could (and should) have been. (110 min.) R; profanity, disturbing violent content.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

(C) Humbug: Charles Dickens’ holiday classic gets writer-director Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture animation treatment in a visually impressive adaptation that’s utterly uninterested in its characters (led by Jim Carrey’s Ebenezer Scrooge and Gary Oldman’s Bob Cratchit) as anything more than decorative figures populating a pageant of in-your-face special effects. (Which are especially in-your-face if you see this in 3-D or IMAX 3-D.) It’s a cruel trick, transforming a heaping helping of holiday cheer into a coldly efficient cinematic thrill ride. (96 min.) PG; scary sequences and images. (C.C.)

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS

(B) A wacky inventor (voiced by Bill Hader) discovers a way to create storms of food in a 3-D animated romp (inspired by a beloved children’s book) that’s clever and zippy, with a terrific vocal cast (including Anna Faris, James Caan, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Neil Patrick Harris and Andy Samberg) and some actual nutritional value hidden among the fun. (90 min.) PG; brief mild profanity.

AN EDUCATION

(A) Head of the class: One of the year’s best movies, this smashing coming-of-age drama (set in early-’60s Britain) focuses on a bright, college-bound teen (Carey Mulligan, delivering an Oscar-caliber, star-is-born performance) who becomes involved with a smooth-talking sophisticate (Peter Sarsgaard) almost twice her age. Author Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy") adapts British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir; he and director Lone Scherfig capture the endless, timeless conflict between book learning and the school of heartbreak with witty, rueful power. (95 min.) PG-13; mature thematic material involving sexual content, smoking. (C.C.)

EVERYBODY’S FINE

(C+) Sentimental journey: When his grown children cancel on a family reunion, a gruff blue-collar widower (Robert De Niro) hits the road to make surprise visits to each of them: an advertising executive (Kate Beckinsale), a musician (Sam Rockwell) and a Las Vegas dancer (Drew Barrymore). Despite the impressive cast, this comedy-drama (based on a 1990 Italian original starring Marcello Mastroianni) seldom strays from its mechanical, manipulative course; it’s only when it stops trying to be cute and concentrates on being honest that it generates genuine emotional impact. (100 min.) PG-13; thematic elements, brief profanity. (C.C.)

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

(B+) Quirky director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") goes from live-action to stop-motion animation with a captivating tale of a sly fox (voiced by George Clooney) who outsmarts the vengeful farmers out to get him. Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Willem Dafoe, among others, lend their vivid voices to this fanciful story from Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach"), which proves an ideal vehicle for Anderson’s trademark playful whimsy. (87 min.) PG; action, smoking, slang humor. (C.C.)

THE FOURTH KIND

(C) After 40 years of mysterious disappearances in an Alaska town, a psychologist (Milla Jovovich) begins videotaping sessions with traumatized patients — and discovers disturbing evidence of alien abductions, and a possible federal cover-up. This fact-based, flat-lining thriller serves up a close encounter that buries an interesting idea under a barrage of gimmicky hokum. (98 min.) PG-13; violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements, brief sexuality.

THE HURT LOCKER

(A) Three members of an Army bomb-defusing squad –a cocky sergeant (Jeremy Renner), his steady second-in-command (Anthony Mackie) and a scared-spitless rookie (Brian Geraghty) — hit the streets of Iraq hoping to save lives, including their own. In this riveting action drama, one of the year’s best movies, director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break," "K-19: The Widowmaker") demonstrates her mastery of action (and psychology), exploring how dehumanizing — and how addictive — combat can be. (131 min.) R; war violence, profanity. (C.C.)

INVICTUS

(B-) In post-apartheid South Africa, president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) enlists the captain of the country’s white-dominated rugby squad (Matt Damon) to help unite the divided nation as the team competes for the 1995 world championship. This fact-based drama, director Clint Eastwood’s latest, blends elements of the great-man movie and the underdog-sports movie — elements that sometimes work against each other. But it’s unapologetically rousing, despite its earnest ambitions and stately, schmaltzy conventionality. (134 min.) PG-13; brief profanity. (C.C.)

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

(D+) A victim of miscarried justice (Gerard Butler) vows to wreak revenge after a plea bargain sets his family’s killers free. His No. 1 target: the prosecutor (Jamie Foxx) who engineered the deal. This hapless crime drama provides the sad spectacle of a movie far less intelligent than the one its filmmakers thought they were making. But it’s nothing a new script, a new director and a couple of committed actors couldn’t fix. (107 min.) R; strong bloody brutal violence and torture, including a scene of rape, pervasive profanity.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS

(B-) In Iraq, a gung-ho reporter (a wryly endearing Ewan McGregor) encounters a special forces agent (ace goofball George Clooney, playing a character inspired by real-life Las Vegan John Alexander) who reveals the existence of a secret Army unit employing paranormal powers. Jeff Bridges (in welcome "Lebowski"-lite form) and Kevin Spacey (as a seething, sneering villain) round out the starring cast of this absurdist, likably lightweight wannabe satire that’s not quite as smart as it thinks it is. (93 min.) R; profanity, drug content, brief nudity. (C.C.)

NINJA ASSASSIN

(D+) A young ninja (Asian pop star Rain, one of "Speed Racer’s" rivals) turns his back on the orphanage where he was raised, triggering a martial arts showdown. Thanks (or no thanks) to the dire script, flat performances and slick, tricked-out fight scenes, it gets increasingly hard to care about what goes on, even on those rare occasions when the action’s visible without the use of night-vision goggles. (99 min.) R; strong bloody stylized violence, profanity.

OLD DOGS

(D-) It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey, and in "Old Dogs,” we have the season’s blue-ribbon gobbler, about friends and business partners (Robin Williams, John Travolta) forced to play daddy to 7-year-old twins. Yes, it’s supposed to be a comedy — but unless you think it’s fun to watch elderly canines urinate, middle-aged movie stars overact or Seth Green get hit in the groin by a golf ball, be prepared to sit and squirm at this witless, mean-spirited farce. (88 min.) PG; mild rude humor.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

(B-) A young couple (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat) moves into a suburban "starter" house — one that seems to be occupied by a demonic spirit. Writer-director Oren Peli’s micro-budget chiller, expanding from sold-out midnight screenings, mines the unknown (and unknowable), using small moments and virtually no special effects to build a this-is-really-happening vibe. That makes it more fun than most studio horror films. But is it scarier? Only occasionally. (99 min.) R; profanity.

PIRATE RADIO

(B-) When stuffy BBC officials ban rock ‘n’ roll in the swingin’ ’60s, DJs take to the high seas and broadcast from offshore, rocking the boat by blasting tunes and raising hell. A dream cast (led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans as the radio rogues, Kenneth Branagh as the government prude) parties hearty for writer-director Richard Curtis ("Love Actually"), but Curtis still hasn’t figured out that, cinematically speaking, less is more. The result is almost a great soundtrack in search of a movie, but the cast’s comic energy keeps it afloat. (135 min.) R; profanity, sexual content including brief nudity. (C.C.)

PLANET 51

(C-) In this cute but clichéd animated space romp, an American astronaut (voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) lands on the title sphere and discovers little green people living in fear of alien invaders — just like him. "Shrek’s" Joe Stillman scripts, but this is no "Shrek." Instead of spinning its spoof of 1950s sci-fi paranoia in new directions, the movie trades in potty humor and tired "Terminator" and "Star Wars" send-ups. (126 min.) PG-13; brief violence, drug and sexual references.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE

(B) Set in 1987 Harlem, director Lee Daniels’ acclaimed drama focuses on Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a black teen who’s pregnant (for a second time) by her absent father, stuck at home with her abusive mother (Mo’Nique), virtually illiterate — and determined to find dignity in, and endure, her unendurable situation. Harrowing and marked by heroic performances (especially from Sidibe and Mo’Nique), "Precious" looks squarely in the wounded eyes of its title character and sees a girl with poetry in her. (109 min.) R; profanity, violence, sexual abuse. (C.C.)

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG

(A) Let the good times roll: The magic’s back in this Disney delight, a traditionally animated tale set in Roaring ’20s New Orleans, about nose-to-the-grindstone Tiana (voiced by "Dreamgirls’ " Anika Noni Rose), who dreams of running her own restaurant — until a close encounter with a voodoo-cursed prince changes everything. Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin") serve up a scrumptious jambalaya of smart storytelling, spectacular visual set pieces and a memorable Randy Newman score; the result is the best traditionally animated Disney feature since 1991’s instant classic "Beauty and the Beast." (97 min.) G; all ages. (C.C.)

RED CLIFF

(B+) Actionmeister John Woo ("Face/Off," "Mission: Impossible II") returns to his native China for this stirring epic (China’s all-time box-office champ), about a legendary first-century battle that changed the course of history. Tony Leung (as a heroic war counselor), Takeshi Kaneshiro (as a wily military tactician) and You Yong (as a besieged nobleman) lead the charge — along with 300 horses and a literal cast of thousands — in a movie with impressive sweep, strong characterizations and the kind of idiosyncratic flourishes that make Woo such an irresistible storyteller. In Mandarin with English subtitles. (148 min.) R; epic warfare sequences.

A SERIOUS MAN

(B+) Seriously funny: Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, multiple Oscar winners for 2007’s "No Country for Old Men," return to their own country — suburban Minnesota, circa 1967 — for this darkly comic tale about a beleaguered physics professor (Broadway veteran Michael Stuhlbarg) whose seemingly rational life unravels, Job-like, before his eyes. As usual, the Coens blur the line between the serious and the comic with almost sadistic expertise, exploring life’s cosmic jokes with deadpan delight. =(105 min.) R; profanity, sexual situations, nudity, brief violence. (C.C.)

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON

(C-) The second bite(s): Where would Hollywood be without that old standby, the vampire-werewolf-schoolgirl love triangle? In this chapter of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series, Bella (Kristen Stewart) discovers that the course of true love never does run smooth, especially when her beloved Edward Cullen (brooding Robert Pattinson) leaves town with his vampire family rather than endanger her life. Good thing her friend Jacob Black (hunky Taylor Lautner) is still around — but he’s got a deep dark secret all his own. Director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy," "The Golden Compass"), taking over from "Twilight’s" Catherine Hardwicke, goes double on the swoon factor, transforming the urgency of teen lust into a dour, draggy mopefest. (130 min.) PG-13; violence and action. (C.C.)

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

(B) Let the wild rumpus start: Mischievous 9-year-old Max (the aptly named Max Records) acts out, then runs away to avoid the inevitable punishment, finding refuge with an assortment of squabbling monsters (voiced by, among others, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker). Writer-director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") transforms Maurice Sendak’s kid-lit classic to suit his own offbeat sensibilities, delivering a melancholy, madcap live-action romp that speaks to the wild child inside us all. (100 min.) PG; mild thematic elements, adventure action, brief profanity. (C.C.)

ZOMBIELAND

(B) It’s alive! The zombie comedy, that is, as four hapless travelers (Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) try to survive the ravenous undead as they head for a California amusement park that may (or may not) be ghoul-free. "Zombieland" makes up in laughter what it lacks in screams, and the arch weariness with which it looks out at undead America hides a frisky yet disturbing message: We’re closer than we think. (82 min.) R; horror violence/gore, profanity.

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