Capsule reviews of current movies 

Opening this Week

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (G) Do we still call it High School Musical after they've all gone to college? Stars Zac Efron, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale.

Saw V (R) How to win friends and influence people with power tools. Stars Scott Patterson, Costas Mandylor, and Tobin Bell.

Passengers (PG-13) Anne Hathaway is a psychologist working with plane crash survivors when she notices something — her clients end up missing. Also stars Patrick Wilson and David Morse.

Pride and Glory (R) Edward Norton gets top billing over Colin Farrell in a movie about the bonds of family coming head-to-head with the rights of justice. Also stars Jon Voight, Noah Emmerich, and Jennifer Ehle.

Critical Capsules

An American Carol (PG-13) Since my political views are exactly opposed to those of born-again conservative David Zucker's newest spoof, An American Carol, I freely admit that I am not the target audience for this movie. But I disagree with its right-wing political message mostly because its ideas are too tangled, contradictory, and irresponsible to be the effective screed it aims for. Zucker sees the film as a satire of liberal Hollywood and, by extension, the "liberal media," which, I assume, encompasses me. Therefore, any denigration of the film's politics immediately dredges up the sticky wicket of biased critics — essentially making the film critic proof to its core audience. But in the end, the film is just too willfully and painfully unfunny for there to be even be a debate on its final merits as filmmaking. Put simply, it's a mess that offers blinding revelations such as the fact that Michael Moore is overweight. —Justin Souther

Appaloosa (R) Ed Harris' Appaloosa has the solid appeal of the traditional type of western picture, which is to say that it more resembles Kevin Costner's Open Range than James Magnold's 3:10 to Yuma. There's little moral ambiguity here in good guys and bad guys. But at the same time, it's revisionist in its sexual politics as concerns both the character of its heroine (Renee Zellweger) and the relationship of the two leads (Harris and Viggo Mortensen). In fact, the film's romance is more between the two men than it is between Harris and Zelwegger. Harris and Mortensen are essentially hired killers of a special kind in that they're employed by small towns in need of law and order. Their latest town is Appaloosa where the city fathers, headed up by a very nervous Timothy Spall (in a performance that alone would make the film worth seeing), have become fed up with the lawless ways of a local bad man (Jeremy Irons). What follows is satisfying if standard fare made into something far more worthwhile by virtue of the characterizations. ­—Ken Hanke

Body of Lies (R) Throughout David Ignatius' 2007 novel Body of Lies, you can feel the potential for creating something ... deeper. While the surface markings were those of an age-of-terrorism espionage thriller, there were also hints of Mystic River author Dennis Lehane — the portrayal of a world in which moral decision-making was virtually impossible, and the best a soul could hope for was to make the least immoral decision. But whenever these ideas seemed ready to bubble over into something seriously probing, Ignatius would fall back on over-plotted genre convention. Director Ridley Scott's adaptation — working from a script by William Monahan (The Departed) — at times teases with the same promise of piercing insight into a no-win situation. While the film strips away much of the fat from Ignatius' storytelling, it also winds up frustratingly superficial. It's a nuts-and-bolts action drama putting on the undercover persona of something with a message. —­Scott Renshaw

City of Ember (PG) It's nice to look at, the direction is occasionally inspired, and the story is engaging, yet there's something just not quite right about Gil Kenan's City of Ember. My initial inclination is to pin the whole thing on Bill Murray's performance, but this, I think, is merely a symptom of what's wrong. Caroline Thompson's screenplay offers him little or no characterization, and this isn't limited to Murray. Where are the pleasantly quirky supporting characters? The slightly subversive futuristic fantasy is a great story in itself and the two leads — Harry Treadaway and Saoirse Ronan — are fine, but they're backed by a bunch of good actors stuck playing pretty colorless stiffs. That's a significant downside in a movie that operates on the whimsical. On the plus side, the production design is gorgeous and the film is overall surprisingly dark and thoughtful for a kid flick. —Ken Hanke

The Duchess (PG-13) Yes, The Duchess has a certain air of Masterpiece Theatre-itis about it, and there's no getting away from it. It's a little too genteel, a little too mannered. It has that peculiar air of characters who say things as if they knew all along that someday someone would make a film about them. But this somewhat fictionalized tale of the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley) is also notable for a degree of wit and intelligence not seen much in theaters right now. The performances are top flight with Knightley proving once more that she can carry a movie. The real star, though, may be Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, since he manages to make a pretty unlikable character at least understandable. There's a cheerfully amoral tone to it all that lends an air of sophistication. Meanwhile director Saul Dibb shows himself to be very adept with the moving camera. Unless costume pictures just aren't your thing, this is well worth your time. —Ken Hanke

The Express (PG) Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) tries to make his newest film, The Express, stick out from the crowd by making it agonizingly dull. The story, which centers around former Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown, Stop-Loss), has all the ingredients for this variety of cinema. Let's see, we have racism, humble beginnings, perseverance, an aging family member, and even leukemia. The biggest issue (aside from the "been there, done that" feeling the movie constantly sweats) is that Fleder has no clue how to piece these features together. So instead of a generic sports movie, we get a generic sports movie that moves like molasses. —Justin Souther

Max Payne (PG-13) When Shakespeare penned the words "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I believe he looked some 400 years into the future and caught a glimpse of Max Payne. Rarely have I seen a movie so full of incident that was also completely and thoroughly dull and uninteresting. Yes, much happens ­— some of it incomprehensible and most of it pointlessly preposterous, and all of it slightly less involving than watching algae grow on a stangnant pond. Mark Wahlberg — in one of the more dubious choices of his post-Marky Mark career — plays Max Payne, a glum cop out to avenge the death of his wife and infant child. In attempting to pick up the trail, he finds himself involved with a woman, who is subsequently killed. Her vengeance-obsessed sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis), teams up with Max in the belief that the murders are related. And, of course, they are — and all of it has to do with a conspiracy by the very upper echelons of power of a drug company for whom Max's wife worked. As a result, much duplicity ensues. Much entertainment does not. —Ken Hanke

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (PG-13) Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive guy still mooning over being dumped by his ex Tris (Alexis Dziena) when he's not playing bass as the token straight boy in a queercore band. Norah (Kat Dennings) is Tris' private school classmate who knows of Nick from the killer mix CDs Tris dumps in the school trash, and loathes Tris's queen-bee pity. So when all three of them find themselves at the same nightclub, Norah pleads with "random stranger" Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend — only later realizing that this is "Tris' Nick." A meet-cute rarely rings hollow if the chemistry ends up working, and there's clearly a zing between these two sarcastic puppy-dogs. Cera — and I'd like it on the record that this writer was noting his vintage Cusack-ian quality long before all the similar comments you'll see relating to this movie — brings both instant likeability and a sly intelligence to Nick, while Dennings matches him in both categories. This clearly isn't a case of opposites attracting; they're two perfect-for-each-other kids simply trying to navigate through life. —Scott Renshaw

Quarantine (R) The story follows a TV newswoman (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris, who's rarely seen since he's supposed to be shooting it all), who are shadowing a group of firemen when they find themselves locked in the building by the CDC in order to prevent the spread of whatever unknown disease has turned an old lady into a raving lunatic with the extremely anti-social tendency to bite large chunks out of people's necks. Not surprisingly, this quickly degenerates into all manner of wholesale zombiosity as the hopelessness of the situation becomes ever more apparent. In other words, carnage ensues. It's moderately effective in "Boogey! Boogey! Boogey!" manner, but nothing great. —Ken Hanke

Religulous (R) Bill Maher attacks religion for what he perceives as its preposterousness, its ability to divide rather than unite us, and its basic irrationality. True enough as far as it goes, but Maher isn't selling a replacement dogma per se. He's selling the idea that there's nothing wrong with saying, "I don't know," but he compounds this by insisting — and this will be a problem for a lot of people — that neither does anyone else. But since the movie's intent is to be confrontational and provoke controversy, is that a failing? That's a call you can make for yourself. If a movie that functions on that basis is going to offend you, it's simple enough to stay away, though the fact that Religulous was the surprise hit of last weekend — coming in at No. 10 in a mere 502 theaters — indicates a lot of folks aren't staying away. The whole thing is irreverent, very funny, occasionaly insightful, and possibly offensive. —Ken Hanke

Sex Drive (R) Sex Drive is one of those teen sex comedies that places an inordinately high value on gross-out gags. Apparently, the more repellent a thing is, the funnier it is. In this instance, anything that can be produced by the human body — they may have missed earwax, come to think of it — is a surefire laugh-getter. As a result, I don't think I've ever seen a movie as obsessed with bodily fluids as this one. By way of a plot we have nerdy kid Ian (Josh Zuckerman) who gets involved with a hot girl on the Internet, and is convinced by his equally nerdy, but somehow more sexually successful, friend (Clark Duke) to drive from Chicago to Knoxville to get his virginity cured. This involves borrowing Ian's brother's vintage muscle car, which of course is a bad idea. Somehow the local girl Ian really loves comes along for the ride. This too is a bad idea. Standard road trip mirth — wild Amish folks (headed up by Seth Green), a kinky trailer trash babe with an angry boyfiend, car trouble, etc. You've seen it before. You've seen it better. You hardly need to see it again. —Ken Hanke

W. (PG-13) A strange, extremely personal and fascinating look at George W. Bush from Oliver Stone, W. is a film that seems determined to not quite please anybody. Those hoping for a hatchet job on Bush are apt to find the film too soft. Those hoping for a valentine to the president probably aren't going to see it in the first place. Stone has hardly made a pro-Bush movie, though he has made one that is — if not sympathetic — at least not unsympathetic. The film has the feel of a filmmaker trying to understand his subject: what he is, what made him what he is, how he got where he did, and why. This results in a wholly subjective portrait of Bush, arrived at by piecing the facts together with the perceptions in a way that makes sense to Stone. Whether you agree with his conclusions is another matter. Josh Brolin is brilliant in the title role, and the supporting cast is rock solid with Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney probably taking the highest honors. For Stone, the film is surprisingly restrained and balanced, but whether Bush can be reduced entirely to daddy issues is debatable. It's certainly worth seeing in any case. —Ken Hanke


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