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The Baltimore Sun

STAFF CRITICS' TAKE ON THE TOP MOVIES

Babylon A.D.

What it's about : Vin Diesel (above) stars as a sullen bruiser who must reluctantly escort a mysterious, angelic young person (Melanie Thierry) to a far-off destination - the promised land of New York.

Rated: R

The scoop : This is not a terrible movie, but it quickly degenerates into chases and gunfights and not much else.

Grade : * 1/2

Bangkok Dangerous

What it's about: Nicolas Cage (above) plays a stoic assassin who could use some Zoloft but instead sullenly drifts from murder to murder.

Rated: R

The scoop: It's a watered-down remake. What's left is a standard tired-warrior-finds-meaning-of-life, wants-out-of-the-killing-biz yarn.

Grade: *

Elegy

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: ***

Frozen River

What it's about: A hard-bitten wife and mother (Melissa Leo, above), living in a small town outside the Mohawk Reservation on the border with Quebec, partners with a cryptic Mohawk (Misty Upham) to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border.

Rated: R

The scoop: It's Leo's movie; her character can be racist, crude and reckless, yet without pleading, Leo takes you so far into her soul you never reduce her to a sociological label.

Grade: ***

Hamlet 2

What it's about: The drama coach at a Tucson, Ariz., 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

The House Bunny

What it's about: The members of a struggling sorority have a thing or two to learn from a banished Playboy bunny (Anna Faris, above), and vice versa.

Rated : PG-13

The scoop: The underdog plot isn't anything new. Faris, as the ditzy but good-hearted ex-bunny, delivers a flat-out hilarious performance.

Grade : ** 1/2

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: ***

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

What it's about: In Barcelona, Spain, 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: ****

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