Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Opening this Week

Encounters at the End of the World (G) See review here.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (PG-13) See review here.

Critical Capsules

Casablanca (NR) Surely an American classic of political and romantic melodrama set in an Islamic city whose name in English means "white house" must have something important to tell us about today's world. It certainly is a reminder that America just can't seem to make wars, or movies, like it used to. Yes, here is the film that first gave the order to "round up the usual suspects" — to defy due process, in other words, with righteous moral privilege — as a way of protecting liberty from tyranny. Today, we're more likely to hear that phrase uttered with bitter irony, as a blown whistle against the perceived protection of tyranny from liberty. Conservatives will lay nostalgic claim to the movie as an exemplar of tradition to be gotten back to; liberals like it, because its idealism is worldy, not naïve, and tough enough to triumph over both wrongness and cynicism. It endures as a classic because both parties are essentially correct — and because it's so elegantly written, acted, directed, photographed, scored, and edited. —Jonathan Kiefer

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. But are parents really prepared for thugs impaled on pencils? Adorable towheaded children threatened with a gun to the head? Hand grenades thrust in the mouths of bank executives who try to foil a robbery by blasting the thieves into Swiss cheese? And a villain whose preferred tactic is a knife held menacingly at his victim's face? It seems almost cruel to take beloved child archetypes and turn them into projections for adult angst. Any kid who watches The Dark Knight will be ruined for anything but Peckinpah and Scorsese. Is it Gotham that's the darkest place on earth? Or is it the multiplex? —Felicia Feaster

Hancock (PG-13) If it were possible for a movie to be tone-deaf, Peter Berg's Hancock would be that movie. Berg and screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have taken a surefire concept and turned into a damp squib — and since star Will Smith is also a producer, it seems likely he had a hand in this, too. The idea of a drunken, foul-mouthed, shabbily-dressed superhero with an attitude problem being reshaped for public consumption by a publicist is pretty fresh and irreverent (maybe it owes something to Robert Altman's spinach-hating Popeye). Unfortunately, the movie seems to be in a race to see which it can kill off first, the freshness or the irreverence. —Ken Hanke

Get Smart (PG-13) When he was created in 1965 by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, Agent 86, a.k.a. Maxwell Smart, was just a television bumbler who spoofed the smooth-as-butter spy movie hero and commented upon Cold War insecurity. But in 2008, a spy who speaks into his shoe dwells in a more complicated comic landscape, one where America's domestic and international bungling have become a larger slice of the comic pie. Get Smart's globe-trotting plot is as forgettable as the wrapper you shuck to get to the candy bar. However, Get Smart manages to escape from its mediocre, second-generation comedy conventions in the moments of demented slapstick which rely more on the contrast of Carell's stoic woodenness and manic pratfalls than on writer Tom Astle and Matt Ember's wan riffs on the old television show. —Felicia Feaster

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (PG-13) The first Hellboy movie was crazy mad insane, like you couldn't even figure out what the frak was going on, but it didn't matter. It was wildly entertaining in its geeked-out glory. And now Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just kinda there, like it has accepted its insanity and douses itself with a big handful of lithium every six hours, and is feeling much better now, honestly, and don't forget to buy the Hellboy Happy Meal on your way home. I'm still thinking, four years later, about how wacky Hellboy was, and yet I can barely remember Hellboy II, and I saw that mere days ago. I want to say that Hellboy II is pure dumb popcorn fun while you're watching it and instantly forgettable the moment the credits start to roll, but actually, I was forgetting it while I was still in the process of watching it. —MaryAnn Johanson

Journey to the Center of the Earth (PG) It's a stripped-down (there are essentially three characters) sort of post-modern (the movie acknowledges the existence of the book it's based on) variation on the Jules Verne novel with — depending on where you see it — the added novelty of 3-D. (Even if you see a 2-D print, you won't be able avoid noticing where the 3-D approach, especially when Brendan Fraser spits his toothpaste in your face.) While this latest big screen Journey clearly benefits from having 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

Kung Fu Panda (PG) It's the story of Po (Jack Black), a portly panda who works in his dad's (James Hong) noodle shop in China. Po dreams (literally, and hilariously) about being a great martial arts hero like his idols the Furious Five, but doesn't think there's any way his lumbering body can become a feared weapon of awesomeness. That's before he stumbles into a tournament at the legendary Jade Palace to determine the great Dragon Warrior and finds the old master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) giving Po that high honor. Predictable complications ensue. A vicious villain looms on the horizon, and there's no way this fuzzy, cuddly lump of a would-be Dragon Warrior could ever rise to the challenge. Right? Wrong. It's the journey toward that perhaps-inevitable resolution that provides so much simple satisfaction. —Scott Renshaw

Mamma Mia! (PG-13) There are people out there who will not only love Mamma Mia!, they will adore it. I wish them well. Look, if you're keen on ABBA and actually like a lot — I mean a whole lot — of people singing and dancing (not necessarily very well), squealing with spurious delight, and wearing hearty fake smiles in an attempt to convince you that they're having a Great Time and you should be, too, this is your movie. Enjoy it and read no further. 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

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. But Brennan and Dale are more than 40-year-old losers; they're 40-year-olds trapped in 12-year-olds' emotional development. Brennan struggles not to burst into tears when Dale insults him, and Dale avoids the nearby playground with its bullying schoolchildren. They're equally fascinated with Chewbacca, night-vision goggles, and Hustler. And, of course, 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

WALL-E (G) Because writer/director Andrew Stanton and his Pixar cohorts are such extraordinary storytellers, there has been plenty of metaphorical content strewn throughout the computer-animation pioneers' consistently delightful features: a critique of radical egalitarianism in The Incredibles, Cars' paean to the roadkill left on the superhighway to "progress." In WALL-E, Stanton recognizes his little robot has developed a soul because of what he does that's not part of his mundane routine. Being human, he reminds us, is about the ability to recognize beauty — the kind of beauty you find in a work of art like this breathtaking little miracle of a movie. —Scott Renshaw

X-Files: I Want to Believe (PG-13) What X-Files creator Chris Carter wants to believe is that there's still an audience for his old TV show — and that that audience will turn out for this big screen attempt at resuscitation. The evidence of its opening weekend says no, and not without reason. The chemistry between the show's stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, is still there, but it's about the only thing holding the film together. The attempt to make the film work for both fans and newcomers isn't apt to satisfy either, while the effort to make the movie "say something" feels grafted on and ultimately rather dull. Despite a tabloidesque plot involving illegal surgery, black market organ transplants, a psychic pedophile, and even a two-headed dog, it's simply not exciting. It takes a special gift to make a two-headed dog boring, but Carter seems to have that gift. —Ken Hanke


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