opening this week

The Notorious Bettie Page (R) Director Mary Harron gives us the story of Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), über-successful 1950’s pin-up model, one of the first sex icons in America, and the target of a Senate investigation motivated by her bondage photos.

X-Men: The Last Stand (PG-13) Reviewed on this page.

critical capsules

Akeelah and the Bee (PG) Akeelah is pretty darn wonderful: uplifting without being sappy, inspiring without being unrealistic. I confess I got a bit sniffly at the end, even though I saw the ending coming from, well, from the moment when all those Akeelah and the Bee flashcards started getting plastered all over every damn Starbucks in America. What keeps Akeelah from being a truly great film is its predictability: It’s so conventional as to be clichéd: the underdog student no one expects to succeed, the wounded teacher who will be rejuvenated by the joie de vivre of this young person taken under his wing. Writer/director Doug Atchison won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting contest in 2000 with this, and it’s shocking and saddening to imagine that this was one of the top five scripts out of the 4,500 entries that year. Where Akeelah succeeds, it is despite its script, not because of it. —MJ

Art School Confidential (R) Max Minghella (Bee Season) stars as an idealistic art student with the modest goal of becoming “the greatest artist of the 21st century” in this bitterly cynical satire of art and art schools from director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes. Much like their previous collaboration, Ghost World, Art School Confidential has an air of terminal coolness to it all -— but it’s coolness of a weirdly adolescent stripe. It’s funny and clever, but it’s so superior and intellectualized that it lacks any real emotional resonance. A dark subplot about a serial killer on campus doesn’t help matters. But the various posers, frauds and nut-cases at school are spot-on, and the writing is very nearly as clever as the filmmakers seem to think it is. Great supporting turns from John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Anjelica Huston, and Steve Buscemi. —KH

The Da Vinci Code (PG-13) First of all, anyone whose faith can be undermined by a Ron Howard picture is probably on pretty shaky ground belief-wise to start with. There’s nothing very shocking about The DaVinci Code — except maybe for the mauling it’s gotten from some critics. What were they expecting? A daring visionary work? It’s a film version of a middlebrow pop novel made by the quintessential middlebrow pop director of our age. Howard delivered exactly the film I expected — a glossy, well-made, utterly impersonal work that questions the divinity of Christ for seven reels only to turn around and conclude that belief in that divinity is essential in the eighth. It’s entertaining — especially when Ian McKellen is onscreen — but hardly substantial. —KH

Ice Age: The Meltdown (PG) It’s the last days of the ice age, and the cold-weather animals that have for thousands of years frolicked on earth’s frozen surface are blissfully unaware of the warm-up that’s coming. It’s the end of the world as they know it, and they feel fine. Meltdown is a big step up from the original Ice Age. The story is sharper, smarter, and funnier. It helps that there’s no time wasted with cavemen in this one, allowing the film to focus entirely on its animal characters. But the script is just flat-out funnier and the animation is better, too. It’s still of considerably lower quality than the work of Pixar or DreamWorks, but Fox’s Blue Sky animation department seems content to be third best. —Joshua Tyler

Mission Impossible III (PG-13) Two solid hours of preposterous stunts, ridiculous plotting, Tom Cruise’s biceps and lots of things blowing up — all in bone-jarring Dolby sound. No, it’s not unwatchably bad, but it’s remarkably undistinguished. The big development this time is giving Cruise a girlfriend/fiancee/wife (Michelle Monaghan) for the villian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to imperil. This affords Cruise the chance to emote. Unfortunately, Cruise’s tears seem about as sincere as his trademark smile, while his scenes of soulfully gazing into Monaghan’s eyes suggest less rapturous devotion than the star studying his own reflection therein. —KH

Over the Hedge (PG) “It goes on forever!” screams one of the animal characters in Over the Hedge, describing the new shrubbery that popped up around their woodland home while they hibernated. But that also nicely describes the urban sprawl hidden behind it: Thousands of humans packed in tract housing, driving minivans, talking on cell phones, and paving over anything that gets in their way. Far from another computer animated classic, Over the Hedge nevertheless is a cute, clever little movie that gets on the screen, entertains, and then gets off. It’s succinct and sweet. Good enough.

Poseidon (PG-13) There’s a website where you can use your keyboard to rock an S.S. Poseidon in a bottle till it finally capsizes. It’s a tremendous waste of time, yes, but less so than Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon, and considerably more entertaining. Petersen’s remake of the much-loved camp-and-cheese 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure is a mind-numbing combination of bad writing, characterless characters, and terabytes of state-of-the-art CGI work. The writing (what there is of it) transcends every known standard of terrible. After the ship has turned over thanks to the film’s “rogue wave” and hundreds of people have been killed in a sequence that looks like the prom from Carrie minus the pig blood, someone actually asks, “How bad is it?” Petersen puts his B-list cast through their paces and does create a few tense moments, but it’s a lot of effort for very little return. —KH

Roving Mars (Unrated) Director George Butler, whose previous IMAX outing took him to Antarctica, delivers an eye-popping mix of people and machine, of genuine images and computer-assisted animations based on real pictures from NASA’s two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity — all of it accompanied by a magnificently ethereal score from composer Philip Glass. This is space-geek nirvana. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be any more in love with the idea of Mars — of going there, of exploring the planet, of seeing the Martian sights. But after seeing Roving Mars, I am. —MaryAnn Johansen

R.V. (PG) R.V. is more than just a bad movie — it’s symptomatic of a kind of bad movie that seems to be proliferating like cinematic cockroaches. Cut from the same bolt of polyester as Cheaper by the Dozen, Johnson Family Vacation, Are We There Yet?, The Shaggy Dog and god only knows how many other exercises in mediocrity passing for “family comedies.” The premise is the same in each: take one name star and subject him to humiliations various and sundry, all involving children who make you reconsider your objections to grievous corporal punishment. Then turn everything around in the final reel by pouring treacle over it, so that everyone learns a valuable life lesson for a picture-perfect future that would have embarrassed Norman Rockwell at his most saccharine. The major difference here is that you get to see Robin Williams covered in what the film coyly calls “fecal matter.” —KH

See No Evil (R) Former porn director Gregory Datk’s film more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do — hole-up its no-name cast in a decrepit hotel and have them offed one by one by a six-foot-nine pro-wrestler (Glen Jacobs, aka: Kane) in various excessively anti-social ways. The goal is not terribly lofty. But the movie’s never even remotely frightening. Oh, it’s gory. It attains moments of repulsiveness for their own sake. But Datk can’t even work up a good shock effect. He has a single trick: large homicidal maniac appears, hooks teen victim, plucks out victim’s eye. The hotel is an OK set and has clearly earned the Psychotic Housekeeping Seal of Approval, so it’s no surprise that the killer’s appearance is always heralded by the sound of buzzing flies. Then again, the insects may simply be drawn by the smell of the movie. —KH

The Sentinel (PG-13) In the words of David Bowie, “the film is a saddening bore, because you’ve seen it 10 times or more.” The Sentinel can best be described as just another “wrong man” suspense flick of the generic political kind — complete with the usual pseudo-technical/procedural trappings and the requisite nonpartisan president. Michael Douglas plays a highly-placed Secret Service agent who comes under suspicion when he fails a lie-detector test (because he’s been knocking boots with the First Lady), placing him in a bad position that gets worse when he has to thwart an assassination attempt — and his protégé and former best friend (Kiefer Sutherland) is out to bring him down. Absurd, but even so, fairly competent. The real problem is that it’s the sort of thing that hasn’t been fresh in 40 years. —KH

Thank You for Smoking (R) Written and directed by Jason Reitman, son of veteran Hollywood funny filmmaker Ivan Reitman, Thank You for Smoking is pretty much what you’d expect from a born-to-the-Malibu Mansion post-liberal. Depending entirely on a craven assumption of its audience’s cynicism to cover up its corrupt, pro-whorish heart, it offers a message for our troubled times: In a world where everyone seems to be a crook, the only truly admirable man is he who admits to and revels in his corruption. Of course, in a comedy, a panoply of sins can be forgiven if your film is, you know, funny. But as with conservative humor in general — already a contradiction in terms — all Thank You can manage is a series of smirks. —IG

The Wild (G) Pleasantly unappalling. For all its problems — ranging from lack of originality to uneven animation to indifferent writing — it’s a darn sight better than such recent movie misfortunes as Doogal and Hoodwinked!, not to mention Disney’s own filmic flotsam like The Jungle Book 2 and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. Yes, it’s pretty much a cross of Madagascar and Finding Nemo, but it’s not unwatchable. Some of the animation is effective, especially the opening, but might be too scary for the smaller kids. The characters are largely forgettable, though William Shatner does his best as the voice of the evil wildebeest with a a penchant for choreogaphy and a desire to turn carnivore. Still, it’s pretty tepid stuff. —KH

United 93 (R) When it happened, for those of us watching it on TV from our living rooms and offices, the events of September 11, 2001 seemed almost like some Hollywood disaster movie. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, many might not have been surprised to see the name Roland Emmerich emblazoned somewhere in the breaking news broadcast’s credits. But now that day is a movie; a movie which, oddly enough, feels every bit as real as that day didn’t. Don’t see United 93 unless you are sure you’re ready for it. —IG

Wild Safari 3D: A South African Adventure (Unrated) The Charleston IMAX reaches back to 2005 for a kid-friendly 3D tour through South Africa’s national parks in search of the world’s top five big game animals: the elephant, the Cape buffalo, the rhinoceros, the leopard, and the lion. It’s mostly a film for the 12-and-under set, as the pacing moves at Teletubby speed. The film rolls as if the audience is seated in the back of a topless Range Rover; it’s supposed to make one feel in the middle of the action, but the only action you’re likely to feel is car sickness. As with most IMAX films, the entertainment quotient is at least matched by the fun-fact-and-educational quotient. But for those not toting tots, consider passing on this one and taking in the remarkable Roving Mars instead. —Kinsey Labberton

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