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THE BALTIMORE SUN

Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach, except where noted. Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Aquamarine -- is a movie only 14-year-old girls can love. Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (Joanna Levesque) are bumming. Hailey's mom has landed a dream job in Australia. Then a storm deposits a mermaid (Sara Paxton) in their Florida pool. She must find someone to love her in three days or marry her father's pick. For their help, she'll trade one wish. But the boy Aquamarine wants is Raymond (Jake McDorman), whom both girls have a crush on. (C.K.) PG 100 minutes B-

ATL -- marks a promising feature debut from director (and Harford County native) Chris Robinson. This tale, of black teens in Atlanta trying to escape their neighborhoods, excels at moving beyond conventional Hollywood stereotypes. If only Robinson and screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism had paid as much attention to matters of story and narrative flow. Still, the film presents a complex depiction of the pressures faced by teens, particularly black youths. And at a time when much of what Hollywood regards as popular entertainment offers trite views of a world where nuance seems a dirty word, ATL entertains without oversimplifying and offers empathy without condescension. (C.K.) PG-13 108 minutes B-

Ask the Dust -- both honors and transforms John Fante's 1939 novel about a first-generation Italian-American novelist, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), and his tortured relationship with an immigrant Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), in Depression-era Los Angeles. Writer-director Robert Towne turns it from a brilliant pathological nightmare to an authentic, gritty romance about the self-hatred that contorts love and the urge for transcendence that makes love real. (M.S.) R 117 minutes A-

Basic Instinct 2 -- retains much of what made the earlier film scurrilous but little of what made it interesting. We're reintroduced to Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell as she races her sports car through the streets of London, engaged in sex with a soccer player. Tramell loses control of both herself and the car, sending it to the bottom of the Thames with soccer guy still inside. Scotland Yard enlists a psychiatrist, Michael Glass (David Morrissey), to interview Tramell and, before a judge, paint her as the psychopath she is. But the judge lets her off anyway. Now it seems poor Glass might be next. If this film does nothing more than wash Catherine Tramell out of Stone's system, all will not be lost. (C.K.) R 114 minutes C-

The Benchwarmers -- severely tests the maxim that "There's no such thing as a bad movie about baseball." David Spade and Jon Heder are nerds whose lifetime of getting picked on is avenged when they join pal Gus (Rob Schneider), for a three-on-nine baseball scrimmage against some Little League bullies, and Gus single-handedly crushes them. Billionaire former nerd Mel (Jon Lovitz) sponsors a "Build a ballpark" tourney featuring the "benchwarmers" against the best adolescent teams in the region, and Nerd Nation tunes in (on the Web) to see their humiliation avenged. (Orlando Sentinel) PG-13 80 minutes D+

The Boys of Baraka -- provides eloquent and infuriating testimony to the failures of the Baltimore public school system. But the two-year program it's based on - sending a score of 12- and 13-year-old black boys to a boarding school in Kenya - remains a sign of hope, even after the program disintegrates. And the movie is a sign of hope, too. It's unceasingly involving and entertaining. (M.S.) Unrated 84 minutes A

CSA: The Confederate States of America -- provocatively presents the world as it would be if the South had won the Civil War. The clever conceit behind CSA is not just to show the mock documentary, but to place it in the context of an evening of Confederate network TV. That means commercials that add up to the kind of ferocious satire on race in America not seen since Spike Lee's Bamboozled. There's an ad for Runaway, a reality show on the capture of fugitive slaves, and The Slave Shopping Network. In taking us up to the present day, CSA uses a wide and inventive variety of bogus footage. Among the fakes are a 1950s pro-slavery educational documentary for schoolchildren and public service announcements for government bureaus like the Office of Racial Identity, concerned with unmasking people who are passing for white. (Los Angeles Times) Unrated 89 minutes B

Curious George -- gives the fabled Man in the Yellow Hat a name (Ted), but otherwise all is as it should be in this winsome adaptation of H.A. and Margret Rey's tales of a mischievous monkey and his innocent adventures. The story is about Ted's search in Africa for a giant idol that will save his museum from bankruptcy and the little monkey who follows him home. Curious George is a charmer. (C.K.) G 87 minutes B

Duck Season -- is an ironic, carefully crafted comedy, the latest indication that Mexican cinema is in one of its spasmodic periods of renaissance. Two adolescent friends, trading affectionate vulgarities, play violent video games under the aliases "Bush" and "bin Laden." Their teenage neighbor barges in to bake herself a birthday cake. And the pizza guy is there long enough to deliver his entire life's history/philosophy, while just hoping to get paid. The four are initially antagonists, but turn into allies over a pan of Rita's pot brownies: The marijuana causes a crescendo of latent unrest bursting to breathe free, and there's nowhere to go but down (and into an orgy of junk food). But almost everything that happens - and almost everything happens within the apartment - is food for dry humor and very recognizable humanity. (Newsday) R 85 minutes A

Failure to Launch -- offers Matthew McConaughey as Tripp, a 35-year-old yacht broker who still lives at home. Though they don't really mind having Tripp around, Mom and Dad (Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw) eventually hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), who makes a living out of luring overgrown boys out of parents' houses. But Tripp's a tough case, especially after she falls for him. Failure to Launch resorts to mismatched-couple formulas. But it also keeps the atmosphere light and the laughter steady. (C.K.) PG-13 95 minutes B

Final Destination 3 -- continues the movie franchise in which some teen and a group of his or her friends somehow cheat death, only to discover soon thereafter that the Grim Reaper doesn't like taking no for an answer. As the movie progresses, the teens meet their ends in grisly ways. Granted, there's a certain perverse fun in trying to outguess a movie like this. But this is the third trip to the same cinematic trough, and it's hard to believe even hard-core fans aren't getting a little tired of the repetition. (C.K.) R 90 minutes C

Ice Age: The Meltdown -- offers some good news: The nut-nutty, saber-toothed squirrel of the first Ice Age - the best, funniest thing in the movie - is back. Otherwise, the movie has exactly the same flaws as its predecessor. It's a glacier-paced mastodon quest, just critters on the run - OK, slow, slow walk - from extinction. The one-liner-friendly cast - Ray Romano as a woolly mammoth, John Leguizamo as a lisping sloth, Denis Leary as a bored saber-tooth tiger - has too little to say or do that's funny. The ice is melting. Manny the mammoth tries to hurry everybody along to safety before the ice walls break and the prehistoric super-gators can stalk them. It's all very Land Before Time, or the first Ice Age, without the kids-lose-their-parents pathos. (Orlando Sentinel) PG 85 minutes C-

Last Holiday -- is best when it matches the endearingly low-key performance of Queen Latifah, who ratchets down her outsized persona to great effect in this comedy about a store clerk who, discovering she has only weeks to live, decides to live it up at a European resort. The film's genius is that her decision doesn't make her in any way insufferable; but instead lets her finally enjoy who she is. (C.K.) PG-13 112 minutes B

Inside Man -- is a slick, briskly paced tale of bank robbers who think they're at least twice as smart as everybody else, and maybe are. It's also among Spike Lee's best works, benefiting from his unrivaled ability to portray his native New York onscreen. Issues of race, religion and culture percolate just under the surface, in ways that seem real and important to the story. Clive Owen is the robber determined that everyone play his game, Denzel Washington the detective assigned to the case and Jodie Foster a mysterious operative working desperately to keep something inside one of the bank's safety-deposit boxes from coming out. (C.K.) R 129 minutes B+

The Libertine -- crashes to Earth with a sickening thud. As degenerate John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and Charles II's sometime-ally in the House of Lords, Johnny Depp brings neither debauched grace nor lucidity to this wastrel. And John Malkovich, as the king, lets his false nose, sickly skin and wig do most of the acting. (M.S.) R 130 minutes C-

Lucky Number Slevin -- features lots of cool dialogue but doesn't provide much of a movie in which to showcase it. Josh Hartnett is the mysterious Slevin, who visits New York and is mistaken for his friend Nick, who owes rival crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) big money. The movie exists as an exercise in misdirection, and one's taste for this sort of thing depends on two variables: a willingness to be jerked around and a love of style for style's sake. The movie wants to be another Pulp Fiction, but when the characters in Pulp Fiction talked, it felt real - and more important, it felt new. By comparison, Slevin feels like a contrivance, and a retread contrivance at that. (C.K.) R 110 minutes C+

Nanny McPhee -- offers a great time to be had at the movies. Emma Thompson stars in repulsive makeup as a nanny who shows up to care for the unruly children of widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth), a bankrupt mortician. He has accepted the financial help of autocratic Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who has one condition: that he marry again. That doesn't sit well with his kids. Nanny McPhee's strange powers soon cow the kids into submission. Then Mr. Brown proposes to a horrible woman from town. Whatever will they do? (C.K.) PG 97 minutes B

Neil Young: Heart of Gold -- turns two Young performances into an intimate epic. Director Jonathan Demme, like his star, knows the power of plain utterance. But to generate this movie's tsunami of emotion, Demme doesn't rely on the yearning that pours out from Young's Prairie Wind album. Shot by shot, choice by choice, he magnifies the feelings and multiplies the meanings of each verse or chord, each glance between performers or faraway look in their eyes. The result is a vision of American life as moving, funny and rueful as John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. (M.S.) PG 103 minutes A+

Phat Girlz -- isn't a bad movie, but it's a badly made one. Comic Mo'Nique plays the full-figured Jazmin, who wants to design clothes for women her size. Problem is, she can't seem to make up her mind. On one hand, she champions the plump woman, but on the other, she's constantly dieting in hopes of finally wearing that size five dress in her closet. She and her pals escape to a resort where a group of Nigerian doctors eyes the big girls with love and lust. Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis) particularly admires Jazmin, but as their relationship grows, so do her insecurities. This is Phat Girlz's problem. Jazmin's neuroses become annoying. She demands respect, yet doesn't give any to small and/or white women. She's fixated on getting a man, but rejects Tunde's genuine admiration. (Zap2it.com) PG-13 99 minutes C-

The Pink Panther -- features Steve Martin tying himself into a knot trying to play Inspector Clouseau. Seeing Martin wreak changes on a classic slapstick character is like watching a lab experiment in a comedy clinic. Martin is so inherently graceful, dance-like and cerebral that when he plays clumsy the laughs must derive from bizarre choreography, not inspired, spontaneous idiocy. And even that happens only a few times here. (M.S.) PG 95 minutes C

She's the Man -- centers on spunky, soccer-loving Viola (Amanda Bynes), who strains an audience's credulity with her impersonation of a frisky teenage male. She pastes on wispy fake sideburns, battens down her breasts, wears a soup-bowl-haircut wig and drawls like Gomer Pyle. Bynes' performance is so bumptious it makes you hunger for the seasoned craft of Lindsay Lohan. (M.S.) PG-13 105 minutes D

16 Blocks -- marks an intriguing new chapter in an established actor's career and an exciting milestone in that of a relative newcomer. The veteran would be Bruce Willis, here as boozy cop Jack Mosley, who gets a shot at redemption. Mos Def is Eddie Bunker, a small-time hood who's decided to turn his life around. Mosley's assignment is to take Eddie from the station to the courthouse just 16 blocks away. But Eddie's the key witness in a police-corruption case, and a bunch of cops are determined to see he doesn't make it alive. (C.K.) PG-13 105 minutes B+

Slither -- is an old-fashioned creature-feature where the emphasis is on cheese. A meteor crashes near tiny Wheelsy, S.C. Bugs get out. And the first guy they invade is local rich guy and cradle-robber Grant (Michael Rooker). Grant begins infecting the rest of the town and hunting every bit of raw meat on the menu. The sheriff rounds up a posse. Writer-director James Gunn sets this farce in the middle of deer-hunting season in the bad-grammar, missing-teeth, date-your-cousin belt of redneck America. The stereotypes run deep. (Orlando Sentinel) R 97 minutes C-

Swimmers -- is a remarkably nuanced and self-assured second film from Easton's own Doug Sadler, a slice-of-life story about a disintegrating Eastern Shore family that is both heartbreaking and, in ways that sort of sneak up on you, quietly hopeful. Eschewing grand gestures in favor of reflective moments more intimate and far more satisfying, Sadler's film gives its characters room to grow, while never demanding that they do. Newcomer Tara Devon Gallagher stars as 11-year-old Emma Tyler, who watches helplessly as both her family and their way of life slowly unravel. (C.K.) Unrated 88 minutes A-

Take the Lead -- is To Sir, With Love - just add tango. It's the story of a dedicated teacher struggling to get through to New York kids that gets by mainly on the charisma of star Antonio Banderas. It's based very loosely on the story of Pierre Dulaine, profiled in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. Take the Lead simplifies things, pours on the cliches and hopes audiences will be too busy tapping their toes to notice. And yet, Banderas almost makes it work. He's so handsome, so smooth, so effortlessly cool, that it's not hard to see his Dulaine reaching these kids. But Take the Lead makes it all appear way too simple. It rarely comes across as anything but staged, offering a story we've seen too many times before. (C.K.) PG-13 108 minutes. C

Thank You for Smoking, -- a barbed satire from writer-director Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as the world's most successful (and least contrite) big-tobacco lobbyist. It aims equally at smoking and sanctimony, but also at journalists, politicians, spin-doctors, grade-school career days and just about every other target in sight. Even while laughing at all the well-deserved jibes, one can't help but wonder where Reitman's sympathies rest. Everything gets skewered; the film offers plenty to root against, but counterbalances that abundance with little to root for. That said, it's hard to think of a film since Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog that so devastatingly lampoons the moral ambiguity it sees at the heart of corporate America. (C.K.) R 92 minutes B

Transamerica -- courses on the jet-stream of Felicity Huffman's performance as Stanley "Bree" Osbourne, a man determined to become a woman. With humor and sanity, Huffman portrays a quest for self-definition without pleading for sympathy or selling a panacea. (M.S.) R 103 minutes B+

V for Vendetta -- reconfirms the Wachowski brothers' status as our reigning masters of murk. You've got to picture them and their director, James McTeigue, squealing like three witches in Macbeth as they prepared their adaptation of the Alan Moore-David Lloyd graphic novel about a rabble-rousing vigilante - a full-body burn victim who wields daggers and swords and wears the mask and costume of Guy Fawkes - at odds with a totalitarian England. (M.S.) R 132 minutes B+

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