Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Opening This Week

Death Race (R) A tough guy with a good heart finds himself in a mean situation. There's only one way out. And that involves fast cars, fast babes, and lots of explosions. Also stars Jason Statham.

House Bunny (PG-13) It's basically Legally Blonde without Reese Witherspoon.

The Longshots (PG) Ice Cube tries not to outshine his female co-star.

Hamlet 2 (R) Steve Coogan's newest. Opens at the Terrace Friday.

Critical Capsules

Brideshead Revisited (PG-13) Evelyn Waugh's novel is a story about Catholic grace as witnessed through the eyes of atheist Charles. But like so many British dramas, Brideshead derives no small measure of entertainment from its portrait of the British class hierarchy and Charles' aspirations to a higher class standing. Early in Brideshead Revisited, as Charles gawks at the oil paintings and statues and splendor of Brideshead, Sebastian chides him: "Don't be such a tourist!" And so he remains, a tourist in the strange country of class and religion and the other country of the Flyte family. Waugh was accused by some of elitism, of propping up the aristocratic world he longed to join. Director Julian Jarrold might occasionally be accused of the same. Wealth and privilege have rarely looked so luscious. By comparison, forays outside Mother England are imbued with the frightening aura of the Other. Where Brideshead Revisited flags is in how the thrills of its opening half stack up against the relatively diminished charms of its second part. As any British drama worth its salt will assert, repression always trumps consummation. And so the chemistry in the homosexual flirtation between Charles and Sebastian is more intense, funnier, and it tends to make Charles' later ardor for Julia almost anticlimactic. As the film wears on, its energy dissipates to some extent: How many fervid love affairs, after all, can one film support? —Felicia Feaster

The Dark Knight (PG-13) In director Christopher Nolan's (Memento) and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan Nolan's new, über-dark Batman story, the Joker personifies the allure of destruction and mayhem. And though The Dark Knight clucks its tongue and cops a moralistic attitude about the propensity for violence that lurks in all people, the Joker represents the film's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude. The jaw-dropping explosions, car chases, and creative murders unleashed by the Joker prove the point: Destruction is a gas. —Felicia Feaster

Journey to the Center of the Earth (PG) While this latest big screen Journey clearly benefits from having Brendan Fraser as the male lead (in 1959, it was Pat Boone!) and a reasonably brief running time of 92 minutes, the decision to drop the earlier version's human villains and lost civlization reduces the dramatic tension to a bare minimum. It's strictly an effects show with one Tyrannosaurus Rex and some indeterminate toothy flying fish for menaces. The thrills are more of the theme-park ride nature, but they're solidly done and the whole thing's family-friendly. —Ken Hanke

Mamma Mia! (PG-13) The movie (and its stage original) is basically an excuse to string about 20 ABBA songs together (most of which are scarcely connected to the proceedings) by means of a plot that makes no sense (how could a daughter conceived ca. 1968 be 20 years old?). A lot of very fine actors embarass themselves unduly in the process of bringing this to the screen. It's about one percent inspiration and 99 percent desperation. On the plus side, where else will you see Meryl Streep goosed by a goat? —Ken Hanke

Mirrors (R) Your feelings about Alexandre Aja's Mirrors are almost certainly going to depend on how you feel about his High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes. If you found those movies great horror pictures, then this one will undoubtedly disappoint you and then some. If, on the other hand, you found Aja's previous films repellent, vile, and stupid, Mirrors may make you rethink your probable decision to dismiss him as nothing more than Eli Roth with a French accent. Mirrors is old-fashioned — albeit often very gruesome — horror of the supernatural variety that depends more on atmosphere than violence. It's also wildly derivative, featuring bits and pieces of House on Haunted Hill, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Silent Hill, and a large dose of The Ring, but it's a generally good mix of "inspirations." Plus, it's central setting of a fire-damaged department store is brilliantly creepy. A terrific musical score by Guillermo del Toro composer Javier Navarette helps to smooth over the rougher parts. —Ken Hanke

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (PG-13) I wasn't expecting a lot from this one, not with the departure of creator, writer, and director Stephen Sommers, and not with the departure of Rachel Weisz, though this was of slightly less concern. And I was expecting to have to justify and rationalize how entertainingly goofy I'd find it. I anticipated being overly generous in my estimation of it — and not caring. But even with the bar set low and my unconditional love set high, I cannot freakin' believe how cruelly Tomb rips out my geeky little heart and stomps on it. All the magic, all the life, has been surgically excised from this charmless exercise in overblown action that is utterly clueless about how overblown-actiony it is. —MaryAnn Johanson

Pineapple Express (R) The conceit of a couple of stoners with a real reason to be paranoid is pretty sweet. At its best Pineapple Express latches on to its protagonists' misguided responses to well-founded fears. The most priceless segment finds Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco) hiding out in the woods, their reactions swinging between Blair Witch-level panicked freakouts and spending an inordinate amount of time visiting with a caterpillar. These situations are paired with Rogen and fellow screenwriter Evan Goldberg's gift for truly demented bon mots — like Saul describing the aroma of his best product as being "like God's vagina" — and a delightfully goofy performance by Danny McBride as Saul's supplier. It ain't Shakespeare, but it's funny. —Scott Renshaw

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (PG) Unfortunately, this film doesn't have much going for it. It's basically The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Returns, this time dealing with growing-up and growing apart, all of which is filtered through the lens of after-school special melodrama. While pleasant enough, the movie suffers from mismanaging too many subplots and having no clue what ultimately needs to be done with them. OK for fans, but newcomers will find little of interest. —Justin Souther

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (PG) George Lucas took one look at this made-for-TV cartoon, proclaimed it to be too good for television, and thrust it onto an unsuspecting moviegoing public. This speaks volumes — large, weighty volumes — about Lucas' complete lack of taste and about his contempt for Star Wars fans. This is bad. This is very, very bad — bad animation, worse writing, atrocious voice acting, and non-existent direction rule the day. For some reason, the drawing makes the characters look like they're badly carved puppets (think Thunderbirds minus the quaint charm), which kind of fits the wooden dialogue, I suppose. You spend the movie's set-up about rescuing Jabba the Hutt's kidnapped son (Stinky the Hutt is what he's called in the dialogue) waiting for the plot, only to discover that this is all the "plot" there is. Well, after all, this was made by people who don't seem to realize that lines like, "I smell Dooku in this," might be unintentionally funny. Anyone over the age of eight should be very wary. ­—Ken Hanke

Step Brothers (R) Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) — the titular pair in Step Brothers — are 40-year-old losers, unemployed and still living at home with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) when those parents meet and decide to get married. There is nothing funnier to them than naughty words as punch lines. Sometimes, as in the writing/directing works of Judd Apatow (a producer here), low humor can be ridiculously entertaining. But when it works, it's because there's something else going on besides the impulse to offend. There's a difference between using your f-bombs as seasoning and offering them up as the meal itself. And that's what Step Brothers turns into — a three-course banquet of fuck soup, fucking roast beef, and motherfucker sorbet. —Scott Renshaw

Swing Vote (PG-13) Like a landed fish, Swing Vote not only arrives with a resounding splat, it flops around on the dock for so long that you're tempted to put it out of its misery. The toothlessness of this purported political satire is such that it would have a hard time chewing its way through a bowl of Cream of Wheat. The movie's so afraid of offending either liberals or conservatives that it winds up being not much of anything. Kevin Costner holds the screen as the Boobus Americanus on whose vote a presidential election improbably hinges, but it's a hollow victory for anything other than his charisma. A few moments — the anti-abortion commercial, for instance — shine, but too few to make this worth sitting through to get a lemon of an outcome and a ninth grade civics lecture. —Ken Hanke

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG-13) Rather than concern itself with strenuous thematic ambitions and contrivances of technique, here's a film that opts for what is perhaps a more enduring vitality, of empathetic candor. Here's a film that simply appreciates the emotional richness of life, and therefore nimbly dramatizes it. To be clear, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an old man's movie about young and restless women. If critics do bother to engage him, Allen likely will have to contend with accusations of misogyny and delusion. But these claims would be false; to those who can admit that they recognize themselves in Allen's yearning characters, his film will feel more like attentive reportage. Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) are the women. Barcelona is the city in which they spend a fateful summer becoming variously involved with a beguiling bohemian artist (Javier Bardem) and his emotionally unstable ex-wife (Penélope Cruz). It's best not to go into all the details. —Jonathan Kiefer


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