OPENING THIS WEEK
LAND DOWN UNDER
This Filipino romance focuses on a star-crossed couple from the Bukidnon ranching region (Piolo Pascual, Angel Locsin) separated when a family crisis forces one to go to Australia. In English and Tagalog. (120 min.) NR; rated PG-13 in the Philippines.
"Passion of the Christ’s" Jim Caviezel headlines this action fantasy about a strange visitor from another planet, who crash-lands on Earth — during the Viking era — and introduces the Vikings to some newfangled technology that will help them vanquish a monstrous alien creature called the Moorwen. Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman co-star. At multiple locations. (115 min.) R; violence.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS
In this third "Underworld" tale, Kate Beckinsale’s out — and Rhona Mitra’s in as the kick-butt heroine of a prequel that explores the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between aristocratic vampires and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. Michael Sheen (alias "Frost/Nixon’s" David Frost) plays a young Lycan who rallies his werewolf brethren against Bill Nighy’s cruel vampire king. At multiple locations. (92 min.) R; bloody violence, sexuality.
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.
(B-) Good on ya: Nicole Kidman reunites with "Moulin Rouge!" director Baz Luhrmann for this sprawling saga, set on the eve of World War II, about a starchy British aristocrat (Kidman) who inherits a remote cattle station and reluctantly teams up with a hard-riding drover (Hugh Jackman) to save it from a rival beef baron (Bryan Brown). Defiantly old-fashioned, this overlong, over-the-top Down Under Western-meets-war-movie scrambles romance, action, melodrama and historic revisionism into a crazy cinematic salad that’s often utterly ridiculous — and often ridiculously entertaining. (165 min.) PG-13; violence, sexual references, brief profanity. (C.C.)
(C+) A typically sophomoric Adam Sandler goes the family-friendly route in this Disney romp, playing a hotel handyman whose life changes when the outlandish bedtime tales he tells his niece and nephew — from racing an ancient chariot to rescuing a medieval damsel in distress — magically come true. Keri Russell, Courteney Cox, Guy Pearce and Russell Brand co-star for "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman in a movie that’s baloney on Wonder Bread with a Kraft Single and some Miracle Whip. In other words, it’s edible but not exactly nutritious — or delicious. (99 min.) PG; mild rude humor, mild profanity.
(B) A coddled canine TV star (voiced by John Travolta) discovers he’s not quite the super-dog he plays on TV when he’s forced to deal with the real world on an accidental New York-to-Hollywood trek. Disney’s latest computer-animated romp (showing in both 2-D and 3-D versions) covers familiar territory and lacks the magic (and emotional impact) of "Wall-E" and other Pixar triumphs, but this charmer shows that the Disney folks still know how to bring a story to life. (96 min.) PG; mild action and peril.
(D) I don’t: Lifelong friends (Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson) who’ve been planning their weddings since girlhood inadvertently schedule their respective big days on the same day (and at the same place), thereby transforming themselves from BFFs to Bridezillas. Despite the collective charm of Goldilocks Hudson and Cinderella Hathaway, this unhatched chick flick proves so excruciating that Hudson’s sunshine can’t warm it — and Hathaway’s rose-in-bloom bouquet can’t mask its stench. (90 min.) PG; sexual references, profanity, rude behavior. (C.C.)
CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHINA
(C) In this culture-clash romp, billed as the first Bollywood kung-fu comedy, the two cultures are Indian and Chinese — and the comedy begins when a lowly vegetable cutter in Delhi’s historic Chandni Chowk marketplace (Akshay Kumar) is mistakenly identified as the reincarnation of an ancient martial-arts warrior — and winds up in China, trying to free a village from a vicious oppressor (Gordon Liu). As with all Bollywood movies, this delivers the works: adventure, thrills, romance, song, dance, stunts. And while it starts too frantically, it eventually settles down to become an enjoyable, if slight, romp. (153 min.) PG-13; violence, martial arts action.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
(C+) Brad Pitt reunites with "Se7en" director David Fincher (and "Babel" co-star Cate Blanchett) for this ambitious tale, set in post-World War I New Orleans, about the title character, who’s born with the face and ailments of an 80-year-old man and ages in reverse, getting younger — and wiser — as the years roll by. Overlong and overdone, "Benjamin Button" (loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale and adapted by "Forrest Gump" Oscar-winner Eric Roth) emerges as a technical marvel, but in pondering the Big Picture, the movie too often falls under the spell of its own epic sweep, inviting us to join its makers in marveling at the marvelousness of it all. (167 min.) PG-13; brief war violence, sexual content, profanity, smoking. (C.C.)
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.)
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
(C+) An extra-terrestrial (the amusingly impassive Keanu Reeves) comes down to Earth, accompanied by his faithful robot companion Gort, to warn heedless humans of impending doom in this remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic featuring Jennifer Connelly, John Cleese and Jaden Smith (who co-starred with his dad, Will Smith, in "Pursuit of Happyness"). Gravity gets the best of this environmentally conscious reworking, which soars in the first half but plummets in the second, as flashy effects replace coherent storytelling and everyone goes all weepy over the innate decency of humanity. (103 min.) PG-13; sci-fi disaster images, violence.
(B-) Reigning 007 Daniel Craig returns to his dramatic roots as Tuvia Bielski, the eldest of three Jewish brothers (played by a standout Liev Schreiber and "Billy Elliot’s" Jamie Bell) who lead resistance fighters against the Nazis from a Belorussian forest camp during World War II. As he did in "Glory," "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," director Edward Zwick explores a fascinating, fact-based subject, but he can’t resist muddying the waters with action-flick clichés, dunderhead dialogue and Hollywood hokum, diluting the story’s stark power. Even so, it’s an undeniable rouser. (129 min.) R; violence, profanity. (C.C.)
(B-) In 1960s New York, a hard-case nun who runs a Catholic school (Meryl Streep) and an innocent underling (Amy Adams) suspect the parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school’s lone black student. A scene-stealing Viola Davis co-stars for writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who adapts his own Tony-winning drama — and demonstrates that Shanley the writer should never hire Shanley the director ever again. As director, he undermines (and overplays) some great performers with ominous, overly obvious symbols (from howling winds to burned-out lightbulbs) and odd camera angles — all of which fail to render "Doubt" anything but stagebound. All the ingredients for a standout movie are here; alas, Shanley doesn’t know what to do with them. (104 min.) PG-13; sexual references, mature themes. (C.C.)
(A-) Tony-winner Frank Langella and "The Queen’s" Michael Sheen reprise their Broadway roles as the disgraced ex-President and the debonair British TV personality in Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his hit play about the landmark 1977 interview between the two. Director Ron Howard maintains the dramatic core of Morgan’s play while expanding its cinematic vision; Oscar-caliber performances from Langella and Sheen do the rest, with able assistance from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen. Compared to the clunky "Doubt," this is a textbook example of how to transfer a stage hit to the screen with its attributes not only intact but amplified. (122 min.) R; profanity. (C.C.)
(C) Ho, ho, ho? So, so, so. Leisure-obsessed San Franciscans (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) find themselves fogbound and unable to take their annual exotic holiday vacation, forcing them to endure multiple Yuletide celebrations with multiple divorced (and remarried) parents (played by Oscar-winning pros Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight). The jokes may be old, but they hit as often as they miss in what turns out to be the cinematic equivalent of a gift card: utterly generic, but still deserving of a little gratitude. (88 min.) PG-13; sexual humor, profanity.
(C+) A retired, widowed Korean War vet (a growling, glowering Clint Eastwood) in a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood finds his prejudices challenged when he becomes an unlikely neighborhood hero to the fatherless Hmong teens (Bee Vang, Ahney Her) next door. Eastwood says this vigilante melodrama (his second directorial effort of the year, preceded by "Changeling") will be his on-screen swan song, and it’s a trip to watch Clint the Squint channel the ghosts of Eastwood past, but this underpowered star vehicle stalls and backfires at least as often as it shifts into high gear. (116 min.) R; pervasive profanity and racial epithets, violence. (C.C.)
(A-) Being happy doesn’t always have to be serious business. Just ask Poppy (the wonderful Sally Hawkins), the irrepressible life force of this deceptively low-key character study from "Vera Drake" director Mike Leigh. A plucky primary-school teacher, Poppy responds to life’s challenges — a stolen bike, a troubled student, a dour driving teacher (Eddie Marsan) — with the same breezy optimism, challenging others to share her hopeful outlook. As usual, Leigh draws complex, compelling performances from the cast members who help him shape his down-to-earth human comedy; also as usual, the result is rueful, resonant and wise. (118 min.) R; profanity. (C.C.)
HOTEL FOR DOGS
(C) From "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Bolt" to "Marley and Me," cinematic canines are hot, which helps explain this family-friendly romp about two melancholy foster kids ("Nancy Drew’s" Emma Roberts, Disney Channel’s Jake T. Austin) who secretly take in strays at an abandoned house. Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon round out the starring cast of a circusy romp that shares the title of Lois Duncan’s charming novel but departs from its source material in so many ways that it leaves you wondering what Animal Planet we’re on. But there’s no denying the appeal of the purebreds and pound puppies assembled for our awe — and awws. (100 min.) PG; brief mild thematic elements, profanity, crude humor.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
(B) Like at first sight: After striking sparks as supporting players in "Stranger Than Fiction," Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson team up for this charmer about the hapless title character, whose trip to London for his daughter’s wedding turns disastrous — until he meets a quiet loner who just might be his perfect match. Movies about perfectly nice people being perfectly nice often can be perfectly boring, but Hoffman and Thompson are clearly having such a delightful time, we do too. (C.C.)
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
(B+) Bloody good show: Suffering "Twilight" withdrawal? This spooky import — winner of the best narrative feature award at 2008’s Tribeca Film Festival — focuses on a 12-year-old outcast (K?re Hedebrant) who finds a friend in a strange new neighbor (Lina Leandersson), who happens to be a vampire. Yes, there’s an inevitable Hollywood remake, but it’s unlikely to be as elegant (or haunting) as this exceptional movie, which warms your heart even as it chills your blood. In Swedish with English subtitles. (114 min.) R; violence. (C.C.)
MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
(B) The zany former denizens of the Central Park Zoo (voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer), accompanied by wacky lemur king Julian ("Borat’s" Sacha Baron Cohen) — all of whom we met in 2005’s "Madagascar" — return to their roots, when their plane crash-lands on the African savanna. It’s a typical tale of self-discovery, but at least it’s punctuated by genuine hilarity and top-flight animation. (89 min.) PG; mild crude humor.
MARLEY & ME
(B-) Animal magnetism: Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson bond with a naughty, neurotic — and utterly lovable — yellow Labrador retriever in this adaptation of John Grogan’s best-seller featuring Alan Arkin, Kathleen Turner and McSteamy himself, Eric Dane of "Grey’s Anatomy." A shaggy-dog tale in more ways than one, anybody who agrees with the assertion that happiness is a warm tongue bath will lap up this heartwarming canine comedy. Those who don’t will dismiss it as a long-winded yarn in which nothing — and everything — happens. (123 min.) PG; thematic material, suggestive content, profanity.
(B+) If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," you’ve already seen the definitive cinematic account of the first openly gay man elected to a major political office — until Dan White, his former colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, gunned him down, along with his political ally, Mayor George Moscone, in 1978. For those who haven’t seen the documentary, however, this not only showcases a standout title-role performance by Sean Penn (along with sterling support from Josh Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch) but offers a timely introduction to a pivotal public figure who still inspires, three decades after his death. (128 min.) R; profanity, sexual content, brief violence. (C.C.)
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
(D) In this pick-axe-in-your-eyeball remake of the 1981 slasher hit (in 3-D at selected theaters), Jensen Ackles of TV’s "Supernatural" plays a guy who inadvertently triggered a 22-victim Valentine’s Day massacre 10 years ago — and returns to his hometown, only to become the prime suspect in the mass murders. This is a generally graceless outing, lacking the subtlety or horror foreplay of the original as the plot staggers from absurd to ridiculous, but at least it provides a few good "gotchas." (101 min.) R; graphic brutal horror violence, grisly images, sexual situations, graphic nudity, profanity.
NOT EASILY BROKEN
(C) Megachurch evangelist T.D. Jakes’ novel inspires a preachy drama about a troubled married couple (Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson) whose bonds are tested by a car accident and its aftermath. Maeve Quinlan, Eddie Cibrian, Jenifer Lewis and Niecy Nash co-star for actor-turned-director Bill Duke ("Sister Act 2," "Hoodlum"). Although it’s well-acted and involving, this relationship drama may put some people off with its overt sentimentality, its moralizing — and its almost comical female caricatures. (99 min.) PG-13; sexual references, mature themes.
(C+) The life and death of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, the Brooklyn street hustler turned rap legend. Jamal Woolard takes on the title role; "Soul Food’s" George Tillman Jr. directs a cast that also includes Angela Bassett, Derek Luke (as Sean "Puffy" Combs) and "Eagle Eye’s" Anthony Mackie (as Tupac Shakur). Like a piece of well-crafted bling, this looks good and parts of it shine, but behind the gilded façade, there’s not much there. (100 min.) R; pervasive profanity, sexual situations, nudity, drug content.
PAUL BLART: MALL COP
(C) Sitcom stalwart Kevin James stars and co-writes this comedy about a mild-mannered single dad trying to make ends meet as a New Jersey mall cop who’s forced to take on insidious Santa’s Helpers plotting to take over the shopping center. It’s a lot like one of those Pixy Sticks that the title character sips to boost his blood sugar: It has absolutely no nutritional value, but it makes you giddy. Bottom line: The film is completely forgettable, yet frequently funny and weirdly satisfying — in a Jersey-Loser-Gets-Respect kind of way. (87 min.) PG; violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, profanity.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE
(C) Bland, James, bland: After a slam-bang reboot in 2006’s "Casino Royale," the James Bond franchise suffers definite sophomore slump as a vengeful Bond (Daniel Craig, icy as ever) globe-trots from Europe to South America in pursuit of an enigmatic eco-entrepreneur ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric) — and his own inner demons. We get bullets flying, stuff blowing up real good and slice-and-dice editing that renders all that action all but impossible to follow. And while Bond’s always movie, he’s never moved. Neither are we. Or, as 007 himself might summarize it, not shaken — and definitely not stirred. PG-13; intense action violence, sexual content. (C.C.)
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
(B) Sprung from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding, a troubled young woman (Anne Hathaway) demonstrates her insatiable need to steal the spotlight, even from the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt). Yet another portrait of yet another dysfunctional family, but the acutely observed screenplay (by Jenny Lumet), slice-of-life direction (by "Silence of the Lambs" Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme) and standout performances (including Oscar-worthy support from Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as the bride’s divorced parents) put us in the midst of the jittery gathering — and the jittery people trying desperately to ignore their jitters. (113 min.) R; profanity, brief sexuality. (C.C.)
(B) In post-World War II Germany, the passionate affair between a young student (David Kross) and an older tram conductor (Kate Winslet) reverberates through both their lives — especially when the grown student (Ralph Fiennes) ponders the impact of their life-changing liaison. "The Hours" team of director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare reunite for a thoughtful, somewhat restrained, adaptation Bernhard Schlink’s provocative, semi-autobiographical best-seller, which nevertheless provides a stunning showcase for Winslet’s fierce, fearless performance — and her uncanny ability to get under the skin of her contradictory character, even (and especially) when she’s exposing as much skin as possible. (123 min.) R; sexual situations, nudity. (C.C.)
(B) "Titanic" sweethearts Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both in top form, reunite as a golden suburban couple in ’50s Connecticut who wonder whatever happened to the extraordinary life they planned. Sam Mendes (Winslet’s husband) directs this devastating yet flawed adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel, returning to the theme of suburban malaise he previously explored in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty," filming the movie in long takes that intensify the drama but have the unintentional effect of transforming wrenching emotional drama into a series of theatrical tableaux. (119 min.) R; profanity, sexual situations, nudity.
(C-) An enigmatic IRS agent (Will Smith, in full messianic mode) embarks on a quest for redemption that involves seven strangers — who might not be strangers at all. Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and Barry Pepper co-star in a convoluted holiday tearjerker (from Smith’s "Pursuit of Happyness" director Gabriele Muccino) that turns out to be an inspirational bummer suffering from murky camerawork and even murkier emotions. Not even the obligatory uplift at the end can make up for the melodramatic (and less-than-credible) plot contrivances we have to sit through to get there. (123 min.) PG-13; mature themes, disturbing content, sexual references. (C.C.)
(B+) A beguiling Bollywood fairy tale (complete with plucky hero, damsel in distress, powerful villain and daunting trials in which our hero must prove his mettle), as an orphaned Mumbai teen (Dev Patel) becomes an unlikely contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" — not for money, but for love. Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later") scores with yet another trademark combination of humor, hope and horror that soars on the strength of its winning characters and exotic setting. By the time the cast members assemble for the all-dancing finale, you may be tempted to join in. (120 min.) R; violence, disturbing images, profanity. (C.C.)
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX
(C+) Mighty (and mighty cute) mouse Despereaux Tilling, who prefers reading books to eating them, befriends a banished rat, falls in love with a lonely princess — and rescues his kingdom from the tyranny of grief — in this computer-animated adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning best-seller. Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson and Tracey Ullman lead the vocal cast, but they can’t disguise the fact that "Despereaux" — with echoes of (in no particular order) "Ratatouille," "Flushed Away," "Gulliver’s Travels," "Shrek" and several Grimm fairy tales — is a bit too derivative, and desperate, to be loved. (94 min.) G; all ages.
(D+) The third time’s the bomb (and not in a good way) as unstoppable Jason Statham returns as human FedEx Frank Martin, who speaks softly and carries a big stickshift; this time around, he’s shackled (literally) to the kidnapped daughter (Natalya Rudakova) of a Ukrainian environmental official (Jeroen Krabbe) targeted by shady eco-villains (led by "Prison Break’s" Rob Knepper). A poorly paced, paint-by-numbers reproduction, but probably not quite bad enough to stop "Transporter 4." (105 min.) PG-13; intense action and violence, sexual content, drug material.
(B-) This adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling tale of the ultimate star-crossed romance (OK, except maybe for "Romeo and Juliet" "Wuthering Heights" and …) emerges as a fanciful, if fitfully engaging, amalgam of teen angst and vampire lore, as high school junior Bella Swan (appealingly direct Kristen Stewart) falls under the spell of dreamy biology lab partner Edward Cullen (brooding Robert Pattinson) — who’s been undead since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917. "Thirteen" director Catherine Hardwicke’s affinity for everyday teen traumas keep the movie grounded in emotional reality, even during its most far-fetched flights of fantasy. (120 min.) PG-13; violence, sensuality. (C.C.)
(C) "Dark Knight" screenwriter David S. Goyer writes and directs this horror tale about a young woman ("Cloverfield’s" Odette Yustman) battling a spirit — which could be her twin, who died at birth — trying to possess her. Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino, James Remar and "Twilight" baddie Cam Gigandet also turn up in this occasionally effective, mostly dumb but generally passable horror flick. It helps if you haven’t seen "The Exorcist" — or, for that matter, any horror film. (88 min.) PG-13; intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images, mature themes, sexual references, profanity.
(B-) Cruise control: During World War II, high-ranking German officers plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize power from the Nazis and negotiate an end the war in a fact-based thriller that reunites director Bryan Singer ("X-Men," "Superman Returns") and his Oscar-winning "Usual Suspects" screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie. Despite the gripping story and Singer’s able direction, there’s an inescapable vacuum at the center of the enterprise: star (and executive producer) Tom Cruise. His contemporary, all-American presence as the plot’s ringleader clashes with the understated dramatic power displayed by the an all-star, all-British supporting cast, led by Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard and Kenneth Branagh. They’re a lot more convincing than Cruise — and the rest of the movie. (121 min.) PG-13; violence, brief profanity. (C.C.)
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
(A-) Woody Allen’s latest triumph is 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 it definitely will remind you why Allen still matters. (96 min.) PG-13; sexual references, smoking. (C.C.)
(B+) Mickey Rourke makes an acclaimed comeback in the title role of broken-down professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who’s struggling to make a comeback on the independent circuit. Marisa Tomei (as Randy’s stripper girlfriend) and Evan Rachel Wood (as his estranged daughter) co-star for "Requiem for a Dream" director Darren Aronofsky, who downplays his customary visual flamboyance to keep the spotlight on Rourke and Tomei, who inhabit their roles with a conviction that goes far beyond "acting" in this gritty, moving character study. (115 min.) R; violence, sexual situations, nudity, profanity, drug use.
(B-) Jim Carrey makes a welcome return to comedy as a chronically depressed loan officer who accentuates the positive — by becoming a guy who can’t say no for an entire year. Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, John Michael Higgins and Terence Stamp co-star for director Peyton Reed ("The Break-Up," "Down With Love"). Despite some brief vulgarity, this formulaic yet diverting comedy also boasts charm and (surprise!) and a worthwhile message. Given the gloom of so many recent releases, it’s positively cheering just to see a character turn his frown upside down. (104 min.) PG-13; crude sexual humor, profanity, brief nudity.