Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Opening this Week

Bangkok Dangerous (R) Nicolas Cage is an assassin assigned to carry out four jobs in Bangkok when he, wouldn't you know it, falls in love. Also stars Shaun Delaney and Steve Baldocchi

Critical Capsules

Bottle Shock (PG-13) In Bottle Shock's credit sequence, Napa is introduced in helicopter shots, bathed in golden light and touched by the gods, ready to take its place in wine history. Amidst the grapes, a scruffy family dynasty, hippies, a comely bartender, Mexican field hands, and a pretty blonde vineyard intern named Sam (Rachael Taylor) argue for the supremacy of the local wine in a pre-Sideways California. Director Randall Miller must have really put the thumbscrews to the already hammy Alan Rickman, whose face is a rippling landscape of arched eyebrows, bald delight, and animated surprise as he tastes the local wines, and other regional delicacies like guacamole, for the first time. Such moments typify Miller's tendency to advertise intent with a flashing neon arrow, but run counter to the film's otherwise easygoing, shaggy pace. The anecdotally interesting, but artistically underwhelming Bottle Shock is based on a true story, the so-called 1976 "Judgment of Paris" in which wine experts blind-tasted French and California wines to determine which was supreme. —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

Death Race (R) If nothing else Paul W.S. Anderson's (no relation to Wes or Paul Thomas) Death Race is a sterling example of truth in advertising — there is a race and there is death. There's a lot of death, in fact. We have death by bludgeoning, gunfire, explosion, fire — and, for the viewer, the occasional threat of death by ennui. The film's a noisy knock-off of Paul Bartel's 1975 campy sci-fi satire, Death Race 2000. The satire is mostly absent and replaced by "lots of stuff blowing up real good." The race is now confined to a prison island and — apart from a plot that doesn't matter much — is nothing more than drivers offing each other on the track to boost ratings on the warden's (Joan Allen, who I'm tired of making excuses for when she shows up in crap) pay-per-view TV show of the carnage. The cast is better than the movie, and makes it all nearly passable. —Ken Hanke

Hamlet 2 (R) Steve Coogan is Dana Marschz, the kind of never-was actor whose career highlights included a commercial for herpes medication. Now living in Tucson with his miserable wife (Catherine Keener), Marschz scrapes out a living as a drama teacher at West Mesa High School, where budget cutbacks have forced many reluctant kids to sign up for his elective. It probably shouldn't work at all, except that Coogan holds it together. His Marschz is an inspired gloss on the kind of earnest drama enthusiast who should have been weeded out of actual theater long ago. When the supporting characters score big — as Keener does, or Amy Poehler as a ball-busting ACLU attorney — they never threaten Coogan's anchoring work. The best comedy in Hamlet 2 comes from watching a character who only barely grasps his limitations. —Scott Renshaw

The House Bunny (PG-13) I'm convinced that The House Bunny was written by taking random pages from the screenplays for Revenge of the Nerds and Legally Blonde, throwing them in the air, putting them together however they landed and turning the results over to the tastemakers at Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions for crudening up. The results are astonishingly less awful than you might suspect. This is no thanks to the screenplay or the flat direction by Fred Wolf. Two things make the movie likable — Anna Faris and Emma Stone — both of whom deserve better than this thin tale of a dispossesed Playboy bunny who becomes house mother and mentor to the geekiest, gawkiest sorority imaginable. It's all horribly predictable and rarely very funny, but the two stars make it imposssible to actually dislike. —Ken Hanke

The Longshots (PG) I present to you Fred Durst, the frontman of rap-metal outfit Limp Bizkit and director of the latest inspiring sports opus to hit theaters, The Longshots. Yes, the movie is one of these "based on a true story" ordeals that takes a few nuggets of true story and expounds upon them in order to create a treacly, heartwarming tale of perseverance in the face of, we are assured, overwhelming odds. Here it's Keke Palmer as the first girl to play — thanks to her uncle (Ice Cube) — in the Pop Warner football league. It's nothing more than Uplifting Sports Drama 101, with its schmaltzy clarinet score and swelling string accompaniment. It even ends with the inevitable rising crane shot. You've seen it before, and you've seen it better. —Justin Souther

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 Rocker (PG-13) Rainn Wilson plays Rob "Fish" Fishman, who was playing in the mid-'80s with hair-metal band Vesuvius, but was booted out just before they became mega-stars. Twenty years later, a still-bitter Fish bounces from menial job to menial job, and lives with his sister (Jane Lynch) and her family. So it's only natural that when his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) and Matt's high-school bandmates lose their drummer before the big prom gig, Fish would be asked to step in — and, when the band begins to gain momentum, attempt to live the rock-star party life that once was denied him. But the fact that the supporting cast stands out points to what doesn't work about The Rocker: It's got too flimsy a center. The bit players overshadow the "star" because as talented as Wilson is in a specific context, he is a bit player, playing dress-up as a leading man. —Scott Renshaw

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (PG) 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

Traitor (PG-13) The way Traitor came to pass is this: Steve Martin, in the throes of Bringing Down the House, had an idea for an espionage thriller. It involved an undercover U.S. military operative deep into war-on-terror territory in the Middle East, possibly at the center of a murderous international conspiracy, and on the run from terrorists and feds alike. And it ended with a major twist. Martin told his idea to a producer, who is said to have liked it but didn't seem to be doing anybody any favors by hiring Jeffrey Nachmanoff — the co-writer of that glum, dumb, global-warming disaster-flick The Day After Tomorrow — to write it up and direct. Still, Nachmanoff had a twist of his own to offer, which was that the protagonist should be a Muslim American, deeply conflicted about the moral imperatives of his actions. —Jonathan Kiefer

Tropic Thunder (R) The movie begins with a series of previews, the first of which is an outrageously dirty commercial for rapper Alpa Chino's (played by comedian Brandon T. Jackson) Booty Sweat (a soft drink) and Bust-A-Nut (a candy bar). It's very telling that the audience, at least the audience I was with, didn't know it was a joke until it was almost over. The satire works because we have become trained to accept black men acting the fool on television. Blackface alone isn't to blame for that. There's a lot to be disturbed by in pop culture. (Any given VH-1/Flavor Flav enterprise, for example.) Tropic Thunder isn't one of them. Intent matters here. Robert Downey's bravura performance is clearly meant to poke fun at pompous white actors (like himself), not mock black people or black culture. Yet, I can understand those who object to Downey achieving that performance through blackface. Be that as it may, I still believe not all blackface is created equal. —Conseula Francis

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. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an old man's movie about young and restless women. If critics do bother to engage him, Woody 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 are the women. 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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