report card / staff critics' takes on the top movies

The Baltimore Sun

The Dark Knight

What it's about: Citizens, lawmen and criminals - and an anarchistic freak called the Joker - respond to the emergence of the Caped Crusader.

Rated: PG-13

The scoop: As the Joker, Heath Ledger (above) detonates a savage sick joke or two, but the whole movie is set up for him to be the jiving put-on artist of destruction, outwitting the squares.

Grade: ** ( 2 STARS)

Death Race

What it's about: A souped-up destruction derby auto race, played to the death, on the grounds of Terminal Island, a prison for extreme violent offenders.

Rated: R

The scoop: Jason Statham (above) and Joan Allen waste their talents on this tapestry of bent metal, shredded flesh and spurting blood.

Grade: 0 stars


What it's about: An aging critic and academic (Ben Kingsley) sees an intoxicatingly beautiful student (Penelope Cruz, above) as his last chance for ecstasy.

Rated: R

The scoop: Kingsley is miscast, but Cruz and the supporting players (Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard and Dennis Hopper) are superb.

Grade: *** ( 3 STARS)

Hamlet 2

What it's about: The drama coach at a Tucson high school strives to save his program by mounting the wildly ambitious Hamlet 2 - like The Godfather Part II, both a sequel and a prequel to a work of genius.

Rated: R

The scoop: Ace British comic actor Steve Coogan (above) gets his best chance so far to strut his smart-silly stuff in an American movie, and he nails it; he creates a character whose exuberance knows no limits. Neither does his bad taste.

Grade: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

What it's about: Lucasfilm's new feature-length cartoon gives fanboys and fangirls their chance to see sweeping big-screen images of the Jedi (including Yoda, above) using their clone armies to protect the Republic.

Rated: PG

The scoop: It's not exactly thrilling, but its good humor and faith in the Force will put adults in a Saturday-morning frame of mind.

Grade: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)


What it's about: Don Cheadle (above) plays a righteous Muslim connected to Islamic extremists who are plotting to blow up scores of buses across America simultaneously.

Rated: PG-13

The scoop: Cheadle's ability to suggest hidden pockets of thought has never been stronger, but his rich emotionality and sense of humor have gone seriously missing in Traitor.

Grade: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

Tropic Thunder

What it's about: A failing action star (Ben Stiller, above), a drug-addicted comic (Jack Black) and a celebrated Australian actor (Robert Downey Jr.) stumble onto real guerrillas while making a war film.

Rated: R

The scoop: Downey is daringly funny as a white man from Down Under playing an African-American soldier. At its best, this movie wrings divine madness from wretched excess.

Grade: *** ( 3 STARS)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

What it's about: In Barcelona, romantic complications swirl around an artist (Scarlett Johansson, above), a grad student (Rebecca Hall), a painter (Javier Bardem) and the painter's ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).

Rated: PG-13

The scoop: Woody Allen's affectionate, enlightening and, best of all, blissfully entertaining movie shows how much residue sexual desire or experience leaves in the brain and gut and heart.

Grade: **** ( Four STARS)

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