"Batman Begins" Quirky young director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") promised some of the off-kilter energy that Tim Burton brought to the first installments in this superhero series. But like a certain Sith currently lording it over the box office, Nolan has given in to the dark side. In a prequel to the other Batman movies, we're taken back to the murders that scarred Bruce Wayne's boyhood, then whisked off to a Himalayan fortress where Wayne (Christian Bale), now a young man, is trained in the ways of the Ninja by a vigilante squad led by Liam Neeson. Ninjas? A double handful of current events and traditional Hollywood bogeymen give "Batman Begins" an air of the haphazard. The movie ends up just another bit of overdigitized Hollywood schlock, buoyed occasionally by its striking tableaux or a flash of wit. (PG-13) ** Thomas Peyser
"Bewitched" All of Nicole Kidman's talents are wasted in this remake of the popular old television show. Will Ferrell saves us time and again from slicing our wrists with the edge of the nearest plastic soda top as he hams for the camera. But even his expert clowning is not enough to save the movie as it crumbles around midpoint, about when you'd expect a '60s TV show extrapolated into a feature length film to go. Director Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle") and producer Penny Marshall ("A League of Their Own") have fun setting up the story. Then with a thunderous clap comes the inevitable realization that there actually isn't one. (PG-13) *1/2 Wayne Melton
"Cinderella Man" Multiple Oscar nominations are written all over this one, thanks to a compelling script that's expertly acted and directed. Russell Crowe brings his estimable talents to bear as a Depression-era family man and boxer (Jim Braddock) who keeps his priorities straight in the face of unrelenting social turmoil. Renée Zellweger rises to the acting challenge opposite Crowe as Jim's loyal wife who provides a stable if worried guardian of familial well-being. But it's Paul Giamatti who glues the story together as Jim's commendable boxing manager Joe Gould. Director Ron Howard expertly uses the music of silence to underscore this deeply felt movie based on real-life boxing underdog James J. Braddock. The boxing sequences here are better than those of Martin Scorsese's bar-setting "Raging Bull." (PG-13) ***** Cole Smithey
"Fantastic Four" Stan Lee has turned into a greedy arch-villain right out of one of his comic books. One look at the role models here a big, dumb fatherly figure (Michael Chiklis, as stone man The Thing), a young hotshot who loves extreme sports (Chris Evans, as the Human Torch), a nerd (Ioan Gruffudd, the pliable Mr. Fantastic) and a pretty, but otherwise invisible, female (Jessica Alba, the Invisible Woman) says it all about who this mutation mess is aimed at. Forget comparisons to the recent "Spider-Man" films. "Fantastic Four" doesn't even measure up to the ones they made in the '70s. One turgid scene involves an argument over special powers, filmed in front of a backdrop of gargantuan banners for Dell, Activision, Dos Equis, Wal-Mart, etc. Mr. Fantastic: "Is it just about making money and getting girls?" The Human Torch: "What else is there? You know what, this is who we are. Accept it. Or better yet, enjoy it." Sounds like the movie industry is trying to tell us something. (PG-13) * W.M.
"George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" A zombie anti-hero emerges in the guise of a black mechanic known as "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark) in Romero's fourth installment in the series of films that famously began with his heart-stopping 1968 opus "Night of the Living Dead." Big Daddy leads an army of beautifully gruesome zombies as they seek entry into their demolished city's well-defended skyscraper of civility that protects the richest members of society (led by fiendish capitalist Dennis Hopper). Romero keeps the political and social satire subtle but consistent as a group of heavily armed mercenary cowboys perpetrate violent anarchy against zombie civilians whose future is as bleak as that of their occupiers. Gory sight gags and intestine eating abound in this must-see movie for fans of the horror genre. (R) *** C.S.
"Herbie: Fully Loaded" The "Lohan" (Lindsay) hits a G-rated homerun as college grad Maggie Peyton, the daughter of a famous car-racing family, opposite a self-possessed Volkswagen bug named Herbie. A short-term graduation gift from Maggie's widowed father (Michael Keaton), Herbie escorts Maggie from the junkyard to street racing in the time it takes you to go out for popcorn. Unscrupulous NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) holds a personal grudge after Herbie smokes him in an impromptu race with Maggie concealed beneath a crash helmet in Herbie's driver's seat. The movie dips too much into generic rock songs like "Born to Be Wild" to varnish montage sequences, but provides ample kid-level suspense and safe humor that parents will appreciate. "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is an ideal summer movie for the tykes. (G) *** C.S.
"Ladies in Lavender" Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith take the lead roles in this regrettably titled film by director Charles Dance about two elderly ladies who discover a young man (Daniel Br�hl) washed up on their beach in Cornwall, nurse him to health, discover his gift for the violin and fall in love with him. The young man bonds with his new guardians, but the dreams of a career and a pretty intruder (Natascha McElhone) threaten to break up their isolated group. Though bookended by stock emotion, the interior of this period piece haunted throughout by the coming World War II shines with compelling secondary characters and plots, along with fine performances by Dench, Smith and Br�hl, who came to prominence in "Good Bye Lenin!." Low-key but pleasant, with music by Joshua Bell. (PG-13) *** W.M.
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" Husband and wife John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are both highly trained, well-armed hit men. The twist: Neither knows the other is a hit man. Jolie's character works for a company that looks like Charlie's Angels cast in an old Calvin Klein Obsession ad. Pitt works for Vince Vaughn, a much less clichéd, goofier representative in the murder-for-hire business. (During its all-too-brief Vaughn moments the movie takes off with a buoyant impertinence that was obviously the goal.) When the dangerous duo eventually find each other out, they realize with a wry smile that they are now free to solve six years of bickering and bad sex by killing each other. We, on the other hand, realize we've just been duped out of our ten bucks for a strange concept, and a rather gross one at that. (PG-13) * W.M.
"War of the Worlds" For subtext-plumbers as well as people just munching popcorn in the dark, there's no misinterpreting the war-on-terror imagery, with dust-soaked people running from a centralized catastrophe, a father assuring his kids it wasn't terrorists and a race being annihilated by a remorseless, mechanized occupying force. As for the pipe-laying and bloodsucking that follow, you can draw your own conclusions. Though Spielberg's sci-fi remake stumbles over a few "Jurassic Park" moments and makes little use of Tom Cruise, it is never lost in grandiosity or overdone special effects. "War of the Worlds" admirably goes beyond the H.G. Wells story, but the thrills are simply monsters chasing us around in the dark. (PG-13) ***1/2 W.M.
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