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Capsules by Michael Sragow. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

The Dark KnightHeath Ledger gives a bravura performance as the Joker in this handsome piece of work. But it goes from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then goes on for two hours more. It's scaled to be an urban epic about the deterioration of hope and possibility in Batman's (Christian Bale) hometown, Gotham City, but there isn't a single inspired moment in it. It's all about the responses of citizens, lawmen and criminals to the emergence of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. But they and Batman end up vulnerable to the takeover plans of that ultimate wild card. Yes, Ledger detonates a savage sick joke or two. But it's a Pyrrhic acting victory. The whole movie is set up for him to be the jiving put-on artist of destruction outwitting the squares. Director Christopher Nolan's use of incessant tension music and gun-to-the-head jeopardy cheapens even the classiest bits. True believers may buy into the gloom and doom, but many will ask, with the Joker, "Why so serious?" PG-13, 140 minutes. C

The Children of Huang ShiJonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a noble performance as a British war correspondent who travels to China in 1937 to assess the looming Japanese occupation and instead becomes a teacher and savior of 60 Chinese children. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, depicts tragedy from a point of view that draws us into human loss, rather than merely making us flinch at ugliness, and with the help of a cast that includes Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, creates the rare movie that deserves to be called "inspirational." R 114 minutes A

Get SmartSteve Carell's knack for sneaking humanity into broad comedy is all wrong for Maxwell Smart, the blundering, incredibly lucky agent for the super-secret government spy agency CONTROL. In a misguided equivalent to a comic-book "origin story," the movie portrays Smart's entrance into the world of field agents as a revenge of the nerds. (He even has a couple of lovable funky-geeky sidekicks.) He's now a former fatty and ace analyst who yearns to be as effective in harm's way as in the briefing room. Carell hasn't lost his comic timing, and at times his amiability wins you over. But the movie is a time-killer without a killer instinct. You never get the sense that the director, Peter Segal, knows where the funny is, whether in his star or in the story. Even if it lolls you into a pleasant mood, it evaporates from your mind the minute you leave the theater. PG-13 110 minutes C+

GonzoAlex Gibney's documentary biopic about "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson uses any means at hand to make the rare movie that actually takes us into a writer's head. It pulls you through the manic vortex of a man who attempted to embody the mood swings of his time until he shot himself in the head in 2005, at age 67. This movie is both subjective and objective: It's some paradoxical kind of great documentary. R 118 minutes. A

Gunnin' For That #1 SpotThe lives of eight high school basketball players who dribble, pass and shoot their way into the ultimate city-park game: the "Elite 24" tournament at Rucker Park in Harlem, N.Y. in 2006. The movie becomes a true melting pot jamboree: The Summer Olympics may offer more high-stakes spectacles, but nothing will top the last half-hour of this film for high spirits. PG-13 90 minutes B

HancockWill Smith stars as a surly, feckless Los Angeles superhero who makes nice with humanity under the guidance of a big-hearted public-relations man (Jason Bateman). Smith and Bateman are cute together, and they trigger some theater-shaking belly laughs. Yet once their story line runs its course, the filmmakers resort to a twist that fills the movie with unearned sentiment and cheap suspense. PG-13 90 minutes. B-

Hellboy II: The Golden ArmyGuillermo del Toro designs this follow-up to his 2004 Hellboy as a battle between the magical and fearsome creatures who roamed J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis's Narnia and a handful of agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, including the burly red demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the female human torch Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), the aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and, new to this entry, the protoplasmic medium Johann Krauss (the voice of Seth McFarlane). Del Toro stuffs the film with wit and wonderments. Yet, coming out now, it often plays like a lovingly crafted synthesis of the superhero and fantasy sagas we've been seeing all decade, and especially this summer. PG-13 120 minutes B

The Incredible HulkIdealistic scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) tries to find an antidote to the gamma-radiation poisoning that makes him transform into the Hulk in states of excitement or stress. This movie brings new meaning to the phrase "hit or miss" - when a legendary figure like the Hulk hits, the impact is startling, and even when he fans, he generates gale force. PG-13 114 minutes B

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullIndiana Jones (Harrison Ford) fights a Soviet super-agent for the Crystal Skull of Akator, an otherworldly artifact possessing mystical powers. Amid a string of hilarious and outlandish shocks, Harrison Ford makes Indy more engaging than ever. You also get Karen Allen and Shia LaBeouf. PG-13 120 minutes B+

Iron ManRobert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a self-absorbed munitions tycoon who, after a political kidnapping, gains a novel slant on life that makes him a dynamite do-gooder. He creates new-millennial armor that turns him into a superhero and alters his relationship to close associates, including his right-hand gal, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his business partner and surrogate father, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). What gives the movie its sky-high lift is that it plays these changes for humor and pathos as well as thrills and suspense. PG-13 120 minutes A-

Kit Kittredge: An American GirlAbigail Breslin plays a plucky young Cincinnati lass who maintains her honor and high spirits while her father (Chris O'Donnell) tries to find work in Chicago and her mother (Julia Ormond) turns their home into a boarding house. The story becomes a blunt cautionary tale of prejudice, with hobos standing in for all stigmatized or oppressed groups. The movie itself is a sort of hobo stew, full of ingredients that only fitfully cohere. G 101 minutes C

Kung Fu PandaReared to be a noodlemaker, a jovial panda named Po (Jack Black), the hero of this martial-arts cartoon, leaps into the chop-socky big leagues when he accidentally wins a competition to find the Dragon Warrior destined to defeat an evil snow leopard. The film hits its stride when Po goes one on one with Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a red panda who is as fleet and sharp as Po is roly-poly and fuzzy. Overall, it has a cuddly kapow. (M.S.) PG 88 minutes B

The Love GuruA pop philosopher who yearns to seize Deepak Chopra's mantle as America's favorite spiritual guide, Guru Pitka (Mike Myers) has grown convinced that a shot on Oprah will make him top dog. He can earn that shot if he meets the public challenge of reuniting a depressed Toronto Maple Leafs star (Romany Malco) with his estranged wife (Meagan Good) during the NHL finals. Myers is so outsized that all the rest of the characters can do is laugh at him or punch him or bow to his pseudo-genius. PG-13 88 minutes. C-

Meet DaveIn this benign, pedestrian, kiddie-level comedy, Eddie Murphy plays a miniature space captain - we're talking Tom Thumb-size - from the distant Planet Nil. But he also plays the captain's spaceship, which looks and sounds exactly like the captain and obeys the captain's commands. Spaceship Dave (the film's original title) is also human-size - and, especially in New York, can easily pass as a human being. It's all light and genial, and the miniature scale keeps the obligatory action climax from becoming too much of an assault. But the movie hems in Murphy: there's not enough juice in his captain to power up Spaceship Dave. PG 90 minutes C

Sex and the CityThe movie extends the series finale's soapier aspects into an agony-thon about Miranda's marriage, Samantha's efforts to stay faithful and Carrie's on-and-off romance with Mr. Big. At 2 1/2 hours, it's a case of pathetic excess, more like a single TV episode padded out than five episodes stitched together. R 135 minutes C-

WALL-Eis the first dystopian parable that's actually ecstatic fun. It's also the closest the Pixar animation studio has come to making a full-length silent movie. The hero is a beeping, whirring Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, or WALL-E. Squat and scrappy, with binocularlike eyes as warm and eloquent as Bambi's, WALL-E looks like a cross between R2D2 and a Cubist portrait of a geek. He's the sole survivor of a mammoth cleanup operation, and he's lonely - until a sleek female robot named EVE comes looking for signs of organic life. The result is a romantic comedy for the ages - and a romantic comedy for all ages. G 90 minutes A

Wantedgoes postal with wireless speed. It's a tall tale of skyscraper proportions: the gory story of a put-upon accountant (James McAvoy, in a star-making performance) who discovers that he's the son of a top assassin in a secret world of super-assassins. The film pulls you by the scruff of the neck and makes you thankful for it. And Angelina Jolie gets to show what a jolly performer she can be when she's enjoying herself. She knows that less is more when it comes to playing femme fatales; her emotion is pointed yet minimal, her flesh revealed in peek-a-boo fashion. R 110 minutes B+

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