recommended viewing

The Baltimore Sun

Capsules by Michael Sragow. Full reviews are at

Burn After Reading: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2) The movie is so fleet and silly that it's sometimes disarming, and it boasts a Cracked magazine roster of characters, including Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as, respectively, doltish and body-obsessed gym workers; George Clooney as a philandering U.S. Treasury Department agent; John Malkovich as a burned-out CIA agent; and Tilda Swinton as this former CIA man's fed-up, straying wife. The script is clever and would be brilliant if it worked. R 107 minutes

City of Ember: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2) The builders of the subterranean city of Ember wanted humanity to survive an unspecified apocalypse. Two hundred years later, though, the city is falling apart, and only the intrepid young Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and his alert, nimble friend Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) intend to escape its slow death and discover whether it's true that outside Ember, all is darkness. It may sound irretrievably gloomy and doomy, but it boasts a loony originality that grows on you. The director, Gil Kenan, who made the computer-animated hit Monster House, gives Ember itself a higgledy-piggledy design that's engaging, not alienating in the now-cliched Blade Runner manner. PG 96 minutes

Ghost Town: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2) Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who finds himself falling head-first for a brainy, beautiful Egyptologist (Tea Leoni) after the ghost of her dead husband (Greg Kinnear) enlists him to prevent her second marriage. Director David Koepp and his ace ensemble put over a tender yet hilarious vision of loved ones unconsciously using their own unresolved feelings to summon their dear and departed - leading to a New York City overrun with specters. And Gervais gives it all a rich, bittersweet center. PG-13 102 minutes

Miracle at St. Anna: *** ( 3 STARS) It follows four "Buffalo Soldiers" - African-Americans fighting in segregated units - as they leapfrog over the rest of the Army's positions and land in a hamlet filled with terrified villagers. Even when the scene-making is prosaic, as they talk about interacting more easily with Italians than with white Americans, the actors' total identification with their roles transcends everything that's awkward or obvious. Omar Benson Miller brings a touch of the poet to a bighearted GI who becomes known as "the Chocolate Giant." R 155 minutes

Religulous : *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2) Bill Maher brings his disarmingly direct humor to the topic of organized religion in this bracing and funny documentary. Maher's central subject is religion as it is really practiced in the suburbs, the country and the streets (and even, increasingly, in our halls of government). Until the heavy-handed ending, he manages to debunk blind faith with a twinkle in his eye. R 110 minutes

Tropic Thunder: *** ( 3 STARS) This parody of Vietnam War movies, though broad and hit or miss, takes full advantage of the big screen when it offers dizzying burlesques of the pretensions and excesses of runaway filmmaking. When director-star Ben Stiller rockets into manic reflections of real 'Nam epics like Apocalypse Now, he displays gifts for frenzy and hyperbole straight out of vintage Mad magazines. No one in the cast is more daring than Robert Downey Jr. as a Russell Crowe-like actor assuming the role of an African-American soldier. R 107 minutes

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