"Bad News Bears" ** (111m | PG-13)
When the executives at Paramount Pictures saw Billy Bob Thornton play a bitter, abusive, drunkard shopping-mall Kris Kringle in 2003's raunchy, bitingly funny "Bad Santa," they must have said to themselves, "If we water this down to a PG-13, we'll make a mint!" Thus was born this lackluster remake of a once-edgy yet family-friendly Little League comedy full of cursing pre-pubescent underdogs that has lost both its bite and its heart. Thornton is uncharacteristically flat filling in for Walter Matthau as the kids' boozehound coach, and the usually creative Richard Linklater ("Before Sunset," "Waking Life") provides uncharacteristically lazy direction. About half the kids are terrible actors, leaving many jokes falling to the dugout floor with a wet thud, and the central plot about the players' come-from-behind transformation into a cohesive team has similar problems: Linklater shows their early failings (accompanied by Bizet's "Carmen," as in the original) and later shows them winning, but offers up very little struggle in between. "Bad News Bears" does hit several home runs with bad-taste one-liners, but there's nothing about this remake that feels fresh or refurbished.
"BATMAN BEGINS" **1/2 (130m | PG-13)
Taking a cue from the wildly successful "Spider-Man" movies, director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") delves deeply into Bruce Wayne's psyche in this fresh reboot for the fallen "Batman" franchise. Returning to the dark roots of the character, half the picture takes place on a spiritual journey before the stoic young billionaire (played with portentous, anguished magnetism by Christian Bale) even dons the now-bulletproof Batsuit (fashioned from experimental body-armor). Wayne returns to Gotham -- a vast industrial metropolis in the throes of a modern Depression and in the grips of the mafia -- with a determination to "turn fear on those who prey on the fearful." This Batman is refreshingly grounded in something resembling reality. Even the villains are less cartoony than in any other superhero movie to date. Unfortunately, the pragmatic reinvention is countered by several equally pedestrian blunders, like fashionably chop-edited fight scenes with sloppy continuity, moments of clumsy exposition in an otherwise potent and contemplative script, bursts of action-flick silliness, and the invention of a standard-issue former childhood sweetheart (Katie Holmes) who becomes a standard-issue damsel in distress. The result is an entertaining origin story with a mixed tone that keeps the film from fulfilling its potential greatness.
"CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY" *** (106m | PG)
The playfully warped imagination of director Tim Burton is ideally suited for remaking Roald Dahl's twisted-as-taffy children's tale, and the result is a sourball confection of pure movie magic. Gifted Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland") plays Charlie, the impoverished lad who wins a coveted tour of a mysterious candy plant. Once inside, Burton brings delicious, Technicolor-bright life to Dahl's chocolate rivers, everlasting gobstoppers, magic glass elevators and Oompa Loompas. He also delights in dispatching the bratty quartet of other tour winners by way of various candy-making contraptions amusingly befitting their particular disciplinary problems. But the film gets much of its off-kilter energy from Johnny Depp's daffy, benignly sinister Willy Wonka, who is prone to flashbacks of a Burtonesque childhood (a new addition in John August's excellent screenplay). Decked out in a plum velvet evening coat, purple surgical gloves and a top hat resting on his doll's-head pageboy trim, Depp takes the character in a more psychotically childlike (and possibly Ritalin-addled) direction than Gene Wilder did in 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and to witty effect. While this "Charlie" has imperfections (why does Burton let composer Danny Elfman run roughshod over the soundtrack?), its spell isn't broken until the closing credits roll.
"CINDERELLA MAN" *** (138m | PG-13)
Capturing the same rousing, Depression-era, hero-of-the-underclasses spirit that "Seabiscuit" did in 2003, "Cinderella Man" may be, in many ways, just another boxing movie (training montage here, point-of-view punches there, Big Fight finale), but it's one with an effectively and unabashedly uplifting emotional core. Directed by Ron Howard with a masterful eye for period authenticity, the film's driving force is the never-give-up performance of Russell Crowe, starring as legendary 1930s comeback boxer Jim J. Braddock. Predictable? Of course. But the film is awash in character detail that keeps it feeling fresh until hand-wringing tension takes over in the 15-round championship climax. Although Jim is portrayed as a virtual saint, Crowe's gut-level personification humanizes him, and coupled with Renee Zellweger (bringing heft to the role of the Worrying Wife), these two provide palpable through-thick-and-thin heart to the story. The boxing scenes don't break any new ground and Howard does have some trouble incorporating a tone-setting, historical-context subplot about a family friend (Paddy Considine) beaten up for trying to unionize the docks, but "Cinderella Man" never loses its genuine feel-good essence.
"Dark Water" 0 stars (102m | PG-13)
I walked out in the middle of this torpid, trite Japanese ghost-story remake, which by the halfway mark wasn't the least bit scary, just unrelentingly unpleasant. After a messy divorce, miserable single mom Jennifer Connelly moves into a drab, creepy cinderblock slum with her sad-eyed daughter (Ariel Gade). Soon the kid has an "imaginary friend" she won't talk about, their ceiling is dripping gooey black liquid from an abandoned (and eerily flooded) apartment upstairs, and the building's greasy manager (John C. Reilly) and bug-eyed, hollow-cheeked building superintendent (Pete Postlethwaite) both seem to be hiding something sinister. Director Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") drags out these routine, oppressively glum establishing scenes to a mind-numbing degree, yet gives away the entire plot in transparent foreshadowing (so I didn't see much point in sticking around). The talented cast serves only to provide an ersatz air of serious drama and respectability for what is the most contemptible kind of cinema horror: putting little kids in peril for cheap thrills. Of course, I do not begrudge any reader who dismisses this review out of hand because I didn't suffer through the whole picture. But don't say I didn't warn you.
"Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" 1/2* (77m | R)
After Rob Schneider's last two no-brow comedies ("The Hot Chick" and "The Animal") underperformed at the box office, he couldn't get work outside of his requisite cameos in Adam Sandler flicks. So he sat down with his buddies and wrote this second "Deuce Bigalow" clunker based on the ludicrous notion that there are lonely women out there desperate enough to pay to have sex with him. Far beyond just laughless, the sequel is downright boring and entirely dependent on every character being an imbecile in order for the plot to advance. This time around witless, troll-like Deuce is in Copenhagen (insert dozens of obvious, telegraphed legal pot and prostitution jokes here), where the inept cops can't figure out who's killing all of Europe's top "man-whores." Taking matters into his own hands, he has to date, as bait, a series of mutant female suspects (insert dozens of obvious, telegraphed physical-deformity cheap-shots here). Schneider's performance is so tediously inept it quickly becomes clear why nobody but Sandler will hire him to act. If he had to audition for his parts, the guy would never work again.
"The Dukes of Hazzard" ** (97m | PG-13)
Once the largely inept and uncouth cast shuts the heck up (i.e. stops trying to act) and starts burnin' rubber and wreckin' cars, there's some good ol' fun to be had in this slipshod TV rehash. But the first hour of the movie is a punishing parade of protracted establishing, colorless characters and painful performances that make the picture's amusingly harebrained 1980s inspiration look like sophisticated action-comedy by comparison. Seann William Scott (Stiffler from "American Pie") and Johnny Knoxville (MTV's "Jackass") play the once-charming (on TV) moonshine-running country cousins Bo and Luke Duke as the Appalachian equivalent of drunken frat boys. Candy-pop professional celebrity Jessica Simpson is such a catastrophe as sexpot Daisy Duke that every time she opens her Barbie-doll mouth, her fake Georgia drawl and fumbled dialogue might make your ears bleed. In the porous, sloppy, slapped-together plot (as inane as the show ever was, and lathered up with PG-13 vulgarity), the Dukes must save Hazzard County from being strip-mined, while also winning an off-road rally in their bright orange, Confederate-flag emblazoned, thunder-engined, nearly indestructible 1969 Dodge Charger. These energetic, absurd, over-the-top race and chase scenes are the only things saving the movie from complete disaster.
"Four Brothers" ** (108m | R)
Mark Wahlberg is perfectly cast in "Four Brothers" as an angry, scruffy Detroit greaseball returning home to avenge his foster-mother's murder in a convenience store robbery. While not known for his emotional range, here his soft-featured scowl embodies resounding heartbreak without giving an inch on toughness and bravado. Reunited with his foster brothers -- fellow former delinquents played well by Garrett Hedlund, Andre Benjamin and Tyrese Gibson -- it isn't long before they're literally beating a path through the ghetto toward any suspects they can find. Unfortunately, it isn't much longer before a convoluted conspiracy begins to emerge. Inspired by Westerns and Blaxploitation flicks, director John Singleton fills "Four Brothers" with moody darkness as these boys' impulsive, haphazard vigilantism risks their lives and takes a toll on their souls. Singleton gets another kind of tension from an incredible midnight car chase and an out-manned, out-gunned firefight that would do Sergio Leone proud. But despite its strengths, and a chilling villain performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Melinda and Melinda"), the movie falls apart in the last act. A total fantasy laughably dependent on Ejiofor behaving 100-percent predictably as the brothers spring retribution traps, the absurd finale is a fatal blow to an otherwise solid, gritty revenge flick.
"Fantastic Four" * (110m | PG-13)
Who are these half-wit Hollywood clowns that keep hiring cleavage-candy actresses with no measurable talent to play laughably bespectacled scientists in action movies? This bumbling, big-budget but Z-movie-bad adaptation of Marvel comics' "Fantastic Four" is a train wreck, exemplified by the casting of ring-a-dingy Jessica Alba -- hitherto known for playing dancers and strippers -- as Sue Storm, a 23-year-old "director of genetic research. Sent into space along with a paper-thin cast of compatriots (a geneticist ex-boyfriend, her cocky failed-astronaut brother, an ex-NASA pilot and a transparently evil billionaire), Sue and this group of supposed geniuses can't even keep track of the glowing cloud of gases they're supposed to be studying. Promptly overrun when the interstellar storm apparently sneaks up behind their space station, each of them returns home with strange new powers. The C-list cast (Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Julian McMahon) is subject to obsolete CGI effects and a horrible highlights-reel screenplay that is little more than a catalog of obvious contrivances, atrocious exposition, and time-wasting "extreme, dude!" action scenes of snowboarding and motocross racing. Easily the worst comic-book movie since "Batman and Robin" almost buried that franchise eight years ago.
"HAPPILY EVER AFTER" *** (99m | R)
French actor Yvan Attal has now written and directed two films in which he and wife Charlotte Gainsbourg played a couple having marital problems -- and he's getting better at it. Here he abandons the the emotional immaturity of 2002's comically autobiographical "My Wife Is an Actress" and creates a pensive, more down-to-earth effort that asks just what makes a satisfying, successful relationship -- just what does "happily ever after" really mean? The picture begins following three 40-something buddies who envy one another's lots in life -- one (Attal) bored with his loving marriage, one miserable under the thumb of a bitter wife, and one playboy dissatisfied with meaningless flings. But as the story evolves, the focus turns slowly, smoothly and absorbingly toward Gainsbourg (as Attal's wife), whose quiet knowledge of her husband's infidelity becomes the catalyst for her own heart to wander. Plain yet curiously and intelligently sexy, Gainsbourg provides a wonderfully complex heart for the film as it touches on the small changes that can throw a relationship off course and the seemingly unimportant factors that can keep two people together, whether they're happy or not. Attal wraps up parts of his story too neatly and superficially, but its central relationships ring true nonetheless.
"HAPPY ENDINGS" *** (128m | R)
In this comedy-of-life roundelay about several sexually mixed-up Los Angelinos, writer-director Don Roos returns to the sardonic psychological territory he trod in his stinging black-humor debut "The Opposite of Sex." With a humorously detached narration style of on-screen captions ("No one dies in this movie. It's a comedy. Sort of.") he delves into the lives of a bitter abortion-clinic councelor (Lisa Kudrow), who secretly gave up a baby for adoption at age 16; her gay stepbrother (Steve Coogan), who didn't know he was the father; and a wannabe filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) blackmailing Kudrow into being part of a documentary by claiming to know her son's identity. Meanwhile, a blunt, sultry, free-spirited young gold-digger (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seduces both a sexually conflicted rich kid (Jason Ritter) and his lonely dad (Tom Arnold). Although these (and other) interconnected stories couldn't stand on their own and sometimes slide in disingenuous directions (often based on sitcom-y misunderstandings), Roos has a gift for weaving good laughs out of human failings and frailties. Plus, he knows how to churn up trauma and unsuspected depth in actors (who knew Tom Arnold could emote?), and it's the interesting and complicated performances that make this ironically titled picture work.
"HEIGHTS" *** (93m | R)
A deft ensemble drama with a hard emotional veracity reflecting the complexity that sexual histories can impose on modern relationships, "Heights" takes place over 24 hours that prove unexpectedly pivotal to each of its of cross-pollinating Manhattan lives. At the center of one of the film's concentric social circles is an aspiring photographer (Elizabeth Banks) stuck in an uncertain engagement to a handsome young lawyer (James Marsden). The other revolves around her blunt, outwardly self-confident mother (Glenn Close), whose liberal open marriage has taken its toll on her psychological buoyancy. Around these two women revolve several men with secret pasts that all collide in one evening's revelations, upsetting the tenuous balance of their hearts. Director Chris Terrio provides a vérité style and handsomely cold blue-gray cinematography that gives visceral substance to the film's dampened, sometimes stylized emotions. Banks and Close lead the uniformly genuine cast with nuanced performances that tap mother-daughter animosity and the palpable subconscious anxiety of knowing their lives may not be going as planned. Nagging imperfections keep "Heights" from sticking with you like a good meal, but it certainly gets to the gut of how sex can fuel -- or obliterate -- love.
"HERBIE: FULLY LOADED" *** (95m | G)
Every time Lindsay Lohan and Disney join forces to update a kiddie movie from the studio's slap-dash period of the 1960s and '70s, they've come away with a winner. Like 1998's "The Parent Trap" and 2003's hilarious "Freaky Friday," this revival is a witty and creative follow-up to the dumb but endearing "Love Bug" movies about a race-crazy Volkswagen Beetle that comes to life. Lohan plays the speed-demon daughter of a struggling NASCAR driver (Michael Keaton) grounded from racing after a bad crash. For her high school graduation present, Daddy takes her to a junkyard to pick out a fixer-upper, and she reluctantly chooses the rusty, forgotten Herbie and gets far more than she bargained for. Impromptu street races with the little Beetle taking control lead to a nitrous-fueled desert showdown, then a demolition derby and -- after some serious souping-up with a roll cage, fat tires, a spoiler, and passing mention of a rules loophole -- a shot at NASCAR glory. Clever and subtly subversive, "Fully Loaded" enthusiastically embraces its own absurdity and emerges victoriously fun, even though the movie does stumble over a handful of conspicuously nonsensical plot points.
"The Longest Yard" ** (109m | PG-13)
In this off-balance remake of Burt Reynolds' 1974 prison-football comedy, Adam Sandler's underwritten character loses all personality after the opening scene, in which his washed-up, alcoholic loser, ex-NFL quarterback takes police on a drunken high-speed chase. Soon he's in a dusty desert prison, leading a team of big, mean inmates in a football game against the abusive, steroid-pumped guards for the enjoyment of a nasty warden (James Cromwell) who wants novelty ESPN exposure for his budding political ambitions. The standard Big Game plot sees lackluster Sandler (who doesn't have the body mass to be credible as a former football player) severely upstaged by transvestite cheerleaders and muscle-bound toughs, played by wrestlers or former pro football linemen who can't act. Director Peter Segal ("50 First Dates") figures out how to use these lugheads for laughs, but he can't handle the movie's awkward jumble of comedy (mostly race-based one-liners) and drama (attempts at poignancy fall awkwardly flat). Had "The Longest Yard" been either a little dumber or a little smarter, and had the gridiron scenes not felt so scripted, it might have overcome its underdeveloped game plan and uninteresting lead character. But Segal and Sandler fumbled the ball.
"Madagascar" **1/2 (86m | PG)
A largely forgettable, computer-animated screwball adventure about four animals who escape from the Central Park Zoo and eventually end up lost on a tropical island, "Madagascar" has good energy, fairly steady chuckles for kids (fart jokes and spit-takes galore), and a few out-loud laughs for adults (mostly stemming from hilarious homages to movies from "Chariots of Fire" to "American Beauty" to "Planet of the Apes"). But eliciting more than a passing interest in the creature characters and their escapades is another matter. While the animation is creatively stylized (blocky toes, spiraled nostrils and amusing flexibility), their personalities have no panache because the voices of Ben Stiller (egotistic lion), David Schwimmer (hypochondriac giraffe) and Jada Pinkett-Smith (sassy hippo) lack verve. Chris Rock's impish zebra, whose itch to explore is the catalyst for their adventure, has some personality, but even he's upstaged by an incidental passel of prison-thug penguins who are also zoo escapees. While amusing enough for a cheap Saturday matinee, "Madagascar" doesn't have the Pixar-like originality, panache, heart and ageless humor required to stand the test of time.
"MR. & MRS. SMITH" **1/2 (115m | PG-13)
Palpable sexual electricity between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie provides this comedy-action-thriller with all the power it needs to overcome a very silly plot about suburbanites whose waning marriage is revitalized by discovering (the hard way) that they're both undercover assassins. Arguably the two sexiest stars in Hollywood, and both underappreciated talents as a result, the pair make trying to kill your spouse seem entertaining and almost erotic. Directed by Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity") with tongue-in-cheek panache and an eye for metaphorical conflicts of real marriage, the film spends a reel humorously juxtaposing their mundane domesticity with their killer instincts before they're assigned to kill each other in a plot twist that works better than it should. Now in each other's crosshairs, Pitt and Jolie trade double-entendres and dangerous looks that give the film tingle and zing, but underneath the farce and firepower this couple is genuinely trying to figure out if they can save their marriage. While "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is clever and satisfying, what it's not is smart. Plot holes abound, and the picture has so many trappings of brain-dead action-flick excess that it's painfully obvious how bad it would have been without this particular director and these particular stars.
"Rebound" ** (87m | PG)
Martin Lawrence plays his usual immature, loud-mouthed clown in this kiddie-friendly underdog sports comedy so predictable that director Steve Carr doesn't even bother with scenes of its basketball team of generic 13-year-old misfits discovering their skills and a love of the game. He just assumes you know the formula and keeps the movie's focus on Lawrence, playing an egomaniac coach who is booted out of college ball for his temper and can't get a job anywhere except back at his old junior high school, where he eventually becomes a life-affirming altruist full of feel-good advice and game-winning strategy. Somehow this sloppy, mechanical movie (even the minimal game scenes lack vibrancy) manages to dig up some energy and spirit in the last act, which keeps it from collapsing under the weight of its own ineptitude. Kids may like it, not knowing enough to recognize its failure to relate to them, and accompanying parents won't want to claw their eyes out. But it's clear that while Carr seems comfortable with Lawrence's utter insincerity as an actor, he doesn't know what to do with real talent. Megan Mullally ("Will and Grace") and Patrick Warburton (Puddy on "Seinfeld") are wasted in throw-away roles.
"STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH" ***1/2 (139m | PG-13)
This may well be the best of all six "Star Wars" movies -- with the caveat that you need to have seen the other five films to truly grasp its significance. The cunning dexterity and gravitas with which George Lucas snaps into place every remaining puzzle piece in his 30-year story arc is remarkable. The talent of Hayden Christensen will surprise his detractors as he portrays a complex, compounding crisis of conflicting loyalties (between the Jedi Order and deceptively kindly Senator Palpatine, the future Emperor) that tear Anakin Skywalker apart, leading him to slip ever more rapidly toward the Dark Side of the Force during the zenith of the Clone Wars. The potent sensations of betrayal and inevitability that fuel his climactic duel against former master Obi-Wan Kenobi are positively goosepimpling, even though the outcome has been known since 1977. These elements, coupled with much improved dialogue, fewer video-game-like scenes, and genuinely compelling emotions make up for a myriad of small shortcomings (Yoda's goofy backwards diction has become distractingly acute), a few larger ones (Natalie Portman's role has been reduced to fretting and crying), and a couple "what was George thinking?" moments (Obi-Wan rides a giant lizard). This movie delivers on the promise of "Star Wars" with more than just incredible special effects and spectacular light-saber duels -- it redefines the entire saga to such a degree that even if "Sith" isn't universally considered the finest of the bunch, it is unquestionably the most pivotal.
"Rebound" ** (87m | PG)
Martin Lawrence plays his usual immature, loud-mouthed clown in this kiddie-friendly underdog sports comedy so predictable that director Steve Carr doesn't even bother with scenes of its basketball team of generic 13-year-old misfits discovering their skills and a love of the game. He just assumes you know the formula and keeps the movie's focus on Lawrence, playing an egomaniac coach who is booted out of college ball for his temper and can't get a job anywhere except back at his old junior high school, where he eventually becomes a life-affirming altruist full of feel-good advice and game-winning strategy. Somehow this sloppy, mechanical movie (even the minimal game scenes lack vibrancy) manages to dig up some energy and spirit in the last act, which keeps it from collapsing under the weight of its own ineptitude. Kids may like it, not knowing enough to recognize its failure to relate to them, and accompanying parents won't want to claw their eyes out. But it's clear that while Carr seems comfortable with Lawrence's utter insincerity as an actor, he doesn't know what to do with real talent. Megan Mullally ("Will and Grace") and Patrick Warburton (Puddy on "Seinfeld") are wasted in throwaway roles.
"Undiscovered" * (92m | PG-13)
He's a sexy young struggling musician who never has to struggle. She's an aimless young model who wants to be an actress but never goes on auditions. Apparently, they're meant for each other but just too stupid, young and shallow to let it happen without a lot of soap-operatic fuss. So can somebody please tell me why we're supposed to care about these one-dimensional MTV-spawned caricatures? Writer John Galt and director Meiert Avis sure haven't offered any clues. Hunky, pouty Luke (Steven Strait, "Sky High") and boney, peppy Brier (Pell James) dance around each other through the whole picture, but he's busy trolling around with vapid models as his star rises during pedestrian music-video montage sequences, and she refuses to date any more musicians. Of course, eventually all this comes down to a last-minute epiphany and one character's mad race to an airport to make an over-scripted romantic declaration before the other leaves for good -- in front of an applauding crowd, of course. The stunt-casting of talentless "singer" Ashlee Simpson (she who infamously mangled her Orange Bowl half-time performance) in a best-friend role is the rancid cherry on the dog dropping that is "Undiscovered."
"THE WAR OF THE WORLDS" **1/2 (118m | PG-13)
Steven Spielberg's huge-budget update of H.G. Wells' seminal 1898 alien-invasion novel is a problematic blockbuster with one essential saving grace: It's profoundly frightening in a way that few directors have the talent to capture. It has the fear of uncertainty, the fear of grand-scale devastation that humanity is powerless to stop. It's a fear that fills the air like a storm and creeps up your spine in a way that's hard to shake, and it comes more from the terrified performances of Tom Cruise and the remarkable 10-year-old Dakota Fanning -- as a dock-worker deadbeat dad and his daughter on the run from 100-foot alien killing machines -- than from the film's hyper-realistic special effects and monsters (which aren't that different from the ones in the shamelessly corny "War of the Worlds" rip-off "Independence Day"). Unfortunately, if you look beyond this seat-gripping scare factor and the spectacular imagery of towering, tentacled, three-legged alien tanks firing building-leveling, human-crisping heat-rays, the plot is full of holes and weighed down by Spielgerg's ongoing fixation with fatherhood issues. But the picture still has the power to twist your gut in enough knots to provide a goosepimpling good time -- and probably a few nightmares.