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Movies today

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Capsules are by critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach, plus wire services. Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Aeon Flux, -- the movie Paramount was hiding from movie critics, is just a good-looking, empty-headed, empty-hearted sci-fi failure. And there's no shame in that. Four hundred years in the future, a depopulated Earth is reduced to living in one big city. A "chairman" (Marton Csokas) runs the show. Rebels are trying to kill him. Frances McDormand, dolled up like the Bride of Frankenstein, orders the hit. And Aeon (Charlize Theron) is her ace assassin. Teamed up with Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), Aeon must penetrate the leader's offices and take him down. Yes, Theron has her supermodel body back, which she slides into a kicky jumpsuit. But the movie has no sex, little skin and only a couple of decent catfights, nothing we didn't see once a week on TV's Alias when Jennifer Garner wasn't pregnant. Alas, Aeon Flux is not so bad that it's fun. (Orlando Sentinel) PG-13 95 minutes C-

Bee Season -- is a drama in which a couple's marriage unravels as a daughter advances in a national spelling bee. While its reverence for language is refreshing, the film ultimately is a letdown. Richard Gere plays Saul, a professor and one of those dads around whom the entire family is collapsing while he remains blissfully unaware. His wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche), seems vaguely dissatisfied, his daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), sullen, his son, Aaron (Max Minghella), on the cusp of rebellion. Things change when Eliza wins her class spelling bee, then keeps winning. The look of self-satisfaction on Gere's face says it all, making us understand that Saul is congratulating himself more than his daughter. Things get wrapped up at the national contest, where the family's fate ends up in Eliza's hands. Her solution displays all the trappings of a grand, selfless gesture, but it's tough to say what it accomplishes. Which, sadly, can be said about Bee Season. (C.K.) Rated PG-13 104 minutes C+

Capote -- is a bleakly funny, profoundly unsettling depiction of Truman Capote as a young literary lion, or maybe an overgrown cub, on the scent of his Next Big Thing: a "nonfiction novel" about a Kansas murder. It begins as a deft high comedy about a cosmopolitan man of letters endearing himself to the boondocks. Then it expands into a heart-stabbing, dizzying examination of the exploitation that occurs in friendships, work relations and the connection between a journalist and his subject. As Capote bonds with killer Perry Smith, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman takes the writer from tenderness to brute emotional force and then denial. He creates the odyssey of a man who achieves a self-knowledge that defeats instead of strengthens him. (M.S.) R 114 minutes A+

Chicken Little -- represents Disney's answer to its recent string of so-so animated films: Ditch the traditional hand-drawn animation in favor of computers and bring on that hoariest of animated movie cliches, the adorable-animal flick. The movie, which presents its hero as both an alarmist and a worry to his father, includes labored messages about parental love and believing in yourself. Yes, the story is lame, but that chicken is cute. (C.K.) G 78 minutes C

Derailed -- lands an audience in the puritanical pits. Clive Owen brings off the role of an ineffectual ad exec with a fetching teacher wife (Melissa George) and a model daughter (Addison Timlin) with juvenile diabetes. But it's a thankless feat. As a character who risks everything to protect the good name of a woman he's infatuated with yet barely knows (Jennifer Aniston), Owen has to play beneath his normal intuition and intelligence. The narrative is like a Rubik's cube with half the squares removed; the possibilities are limited, so there are no real surprises, just momentary jolts as the pieces click together. (M.S.) R 110 minutes D+

First Descent -- can be a sight for sore eyes - when it can keep itself from babbling on and on about its subject's importance. It's never more eloquent than when it simply shows a snowboarder slicing a path over cliffs and rough patches down a forbidding slope. Or another boarder barely slipping past what could have been a nasty avalanche. Maybe this stuff seems teased for dramatic effect. But if it was First Descent's intention to pique curiosity as to how some of the top riders in the sport will do at next year's Olympics, then it gets some, if not all, of the love it's seeking so aggressively. (Newsday) PG-13 110 minutes B-

Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- is 50 Cent's attempt to take the "come-to-me" attitude of stoic action stars a step further, to "I dare you to come to me." You wonder what's behind the slabs of muscle and confidence, the ingratiating smiles and, even worse, the ingratiating tears - but you're not motivated to find out. The moviemakers slam down our gullets the broad-stroke perception of crime as the main way urban blacks can "get rich or die tryin'," as if it's medicine. (M.S.) R 118 minutes C+

Good Night, and Good Luck -- tells several interlocked stories with passion, wit and sting. At its red-hot center is the attempt of CBS star newscaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) to expose anti-communist witch hunter Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. The movie dramatizes professionalism and collegiality under stress in ways that are subtle and intense. (M.S.) PG 90 minutes A

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- pits the wizard and pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) against the turmoil of teenage crushes and competition under the gaze of the evil, and increasingly close, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Daniel Radcliffe does yeoman's work as the spooked and always-endangered hero. Yet Hermione is the one who lets all the comic-dramatic complications of their age play out across her face. Director Mike Newell stages the opening of the Quidditch World Cup with kitschy abandon; it's as if Vegas were hosting the Olympics, complete with tasteless, crowd-pleasing gestures like an exploding aerial leprechaun for the Irish team. Newell doesn't cheat the Potter audience. Yet I don't think he wows it, either. (M.S.) PG-13. 157 minutes B-

The Ice Harvest -- is a foul-mood comedy in which every potentially likable man or woman proves to be malignant, painfully limited or just pitifully weak. And that's what makes it satisfying. It's a rhythmless, graceless piece of filmmaking. But if you have an ounce of misanthropy in your body, a picture like this can draw it to the surface the way a leech draws blood. John Cusack plays a Kansas mob lawyer and Billy Bob Thornton his partner-in-crime in a rancid wish fulfillment about getting away with grand larceny and murder. (M.S.) R 88 minutes B-

Jarhead -- has a title that is slang for Marine. Anthony Swofford, or "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal), tells us in the voiceover that it may derive from the "tight, high" haircut or that if you lift the lid of hair you find an empty jar. In this movie, that's a certainty. It might as well have been called Jughead. It's about what happens to normally messed-up American boys if you egg them on toward a testosterone-fueled insanity that only brutality can control. The setting is the first Gulf War. The movie gives you no characters or feelings or ideas to hang onto, only desert vistas of hell on earth. (M.S.) R 123 minutes C+

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- has an itchy-funny story that's even better when it's spooky-funny or kooky-funny. At any moment a red herring or a dead body is apt to pop up like a jack-in-the-box. Most of all, it has Robert Downey Jr. as a thief who escapes from a botched robbery attempt into a casting call that lands him a possible role in a movie thriller, and Val Kilmer as the homosexual Hollywood private eye assigned to show him how to navigate the criminal pile-ups in the fast lane. The endlessly inventive Downey strikes priceless comic sparks with the granitic yet fey Val Kilmer. (M.S.) R 102 minutes A-

The Legend of Zorro -- is a Spy Kids-style sequel to the 1998 hit starring Antonio Banderas as the masked savior of Old California and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his lady fair. The filmmakers dump in everything from a 10-year-old son to the rise of the Confederacy and weapons of mass destruction. What escapes them is the cool, clear line of action that would enable Banderas and Zeta-Jones to flaunt their amorous charms without huffing and puffing and stretch their swashbuckling muscles with dash, not balderdash. (M.S.) PG 126 minutes C+

Pride & Prejudice -- as directed by Joe Wright is more earthy and athletic than balletic. It's not what you expect from the classic tale of a smart single girl without money who falls into love-hate with a wealthy man at a time when most women needed marriage to achieve independence. Wright gives Austen's 1813 novel buoyancy and swing. Only when Elizabeth and Darcy approach partnership does the movie lose its beat. (M.S.) PG 127 minutes B-

Prime -- offers Uma Thurman as Rafi Gardet, recently divorced, vulnerable and falling for David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), 15 years younger and himself a bit confused. Rafi's therapist, Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep), urges her patient to seize the moment. David's mom, meanwhile, pressures him to find a nice Jewish girl, which Rafi is not. Maybe this is a good time to point out David's mom and Rafi's therapist are the same person. Therapists may take a dim view of Prime, which features some of the worst therapeutic advice ever to appear onscreen. Everyone else will be too busy chuckling to care. (C.K.) PG-13 105 minutes B

Rent -- features sensational performances from Rosario Dawson as exotic dancer Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne, the lawyer lover of a bisexual performance artist and drama queen. But even these breakout actors can't break away from the mawkishness of this East Village version of La Boheme, played as a late-'80s period piece. Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical offers an ode - or is it a howl? - to arty friends helping arty friends confront drug addiction, HIV and a buppie sometime friend (Taye Diggs) who helps his landlord boss and father-in-law buy up blocks of seedy property to develop a digital industrial park. The characters relentlessly celebrate their status as struggling artists and tortured street saints or sneer at middle-class values. They scream their romantic come-ons and conflicts in one would-be showstopper after another. (M.S.) PG-13 135 minutes C-

Roll Bounce, -- with Bow Wow as a kid struggling to establish himself on the roller rink and within his family, is a nostalgia-tinged look at being young and finding all the happiness you need is skates and good friends. (C.K.) PG-13 107 minutes B

Saw II, -- a horror film decidedly not for the squeamish, brings back the Jigsaw Killer, determined to take life from those he believes don't deserve it. Jigsaw locks eight people in a house full of booby traps. Saw II is decidedly, disturbingly gruesome. And yet, there's an honesty that elevates it a cut above standard slasher fare. (C.K.) R 93 minutes B-

Shopgirl -- presents itself as a modern, thoughtful rumination on today's dating scene. But there's a central dishonesty that undercuts much of what the film is trying to do and renders moot much of what it is trying to say. Still, the acting is superb, especially Claire Danes as an introvert who has to choose between a perpetual adolescent who loves her (Jason Schwartzman) and a rich smoothie (Steve Martin) who may not. (C.K.) R 104 minutes B

The Squid and the Whale, -- bitterly funny about divorce, is even sharper and more original about intellectuals and their discontent. Writer-director Noah Baumbach plies the autobiographical fiction-maker's art of making the intimate universal in this rendering of his parents' breakup, set in Brooklyn in 1986. Like a Woody Allen freed of pretension and merciless about his own prejudices and neuroses, Baumbach has an unerring ear for affectation. He also has a natural tragicomic touch. Baumbach and his cast (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the parents, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as their sons) make you care about their characters' fouled-up feelings. (M.S.) R 80 minutes A-

Walk the Line -- uses the real-life stories of country singers Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to conjure a full and lyrical and improbably persuasive tale of love conquering all. The movie is like one long, beautifully sustained torch song done as a duet. It doesn't demonize Cash for wanting some family of his own before he knows his core identity or his authentic feelings. And the movie doesn't lionize Carter, either: She doesn't know exactly what Cash's demons are. She knows only that if he doesn't get off drugs and change his life, he'll be dead before she lets herself love him. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon act with every bone and inch of flesh and facial plane, and each tone and waver of their voices. (M.S.) PG-13 135 minutes A

Yours, Mine and Ours -- updates the 1968 comedy that featured Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball as middle-aged newlyweds with 18 kids between them. Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid are the parents of this expansive family this go-round, but they lack the cinematic heft necessary to make a slight film like this work. Not that they're the only things wrong with 2005's Yours; Raja Gosnell's direction is spiritless, Ron Burch and David Kidd's screenplay witless. (C.K.) PG 90 mins. C-

Zathura -- has nasty aliens, marauding spaceships and a flying house, all arising from about the best board game anyone could ever want to play. Danny and Walter are ever-squabbling brothers who start playing a board game that actually sends their house blasting into space. Of course, there's a moral to be learned, a lesson in brotherly forbearance. But the film doesn't turn heavy-handed until the very end, and the moment passes quickly. Zathura is a guaranteed good time, regardless of which star system you call home. (C.K.) PG 113 minutes B+

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