Opening this week

Miracle at St. Anna (R) The story of four black soldiers who become heroes in World War II. Stars Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, and Omar Benson Miller.

Eagle Eye (PG-13) A man and a woman race against time. Gives you goose-bumps, don’t it? Stars Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, and Rosario Dawson.

Nights in Rodanthe (PG-13) Diane Lane smolders again as a woman in dire straights who’d give anything for a good man to come along. Also stars
Richard Gere.

The Lucky Ones (R) Three veterans of the Iraq War try to find themselves again in a cross-country trip. Stars Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, and Michael Peña.

Fireproof (PG) Kirk Cameron (yes, that one) tries to get along with his wife.

Critical Capsules

Bangkok Dangerous (R) I guess the Pang Brothers settled on calling their remake of their own Bangkok Dangerous, Bangkok Dangerous (what an inspiration!), because more truthful titles like Bangkok Boring, Bangkok Tedious, and Bangkok Moronic didn’t have immediate audience appeal. This may have oozed on over into September, but it’s every bit as bad as the previous month’s studio-floor sweepings. The film’s biggest sin is that it’s just damned dull. Even the sight of Nicolas Cage sporting some sort of matted animal pelt on his head offers insufficient amusement to enliven this moribund melange. Oh, sure, lots of things happen, but they’re only surprising in their complete lack of surprise. Cage is an emotionless hitman doing the ubiquitous “one last job,” when he meets a Thai street hustler who believes in him as a good man, and a pretty deaf mute Thai pharmacist who falls for him. Fill in the rest and see something else. —Ken Hanke

Burn After Reading (R) Burn After Reading continues the Coens’ recent interest in the semiotics of hair. No Country for Old Men boasted the homicidal Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in a demented Prince Valiant ‘do. And the monstrous ballbuster in Burn After Reading, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), boasts a crown of fire: flame-red hair to bespeak her inner hellfire. Post-Michael Clayton, Swinton is becoming the go-to gal for uptight lady execs, this time as a tightly-wound British pediatrician who appears to despise children, her husband, CIA op Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), and even the twitchy married lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who shares her bed. The Coens have always delighted in setting caricatures against a flat-line American landscape of casual sex and violence. What does a lackluster project matter, coming off four Academy Awards and a devout fan base? Like Wal-Mart and obesity, the Coens are an American institution with no chance of going away despite anyone’s protests. With four film projects currently in the works, the Coens abide. —Felicia Feaster

Death Race (R) If nothing else Paul W.S. Anderson’s (no relation to Wes or Paul Thomas) Death Race is a sterling example of truth in advertising — there is a race and there is death. There’s a lot of death, in fact. We have death by bludgeoning, gunfire, explosion, fire — and, for the viewer, the occasional threat of death by ennui. The film’s a noisy knock-off of Paul Bartel’s 1975 campy sci-fi satire, Death Race 2000. The satire is mostly absent and replaced by “lots of stuff blowing up real good.” The race is now confined to a prison island and — apart from a plot that doesn’t matter much — is nothing more than drivers offing each other on the track to boost ratings on the warden’s (Joan Allen, who I’m tired of making excuses for when she shows up in crap) pay-per-view TV show of the carnage. The cast is better than the movie, and makes it all nearly passable. —Ken Hanke

Ghost Town (PG-13) Far and away the best movie to open this week is David Koepp’s Ghost Town. Unfortunately, it seems to be a film that not too many people are terribly interested in seeing — in part, I suspect, due to that God-awful generic title. Is Ghost Town really the best Koepp and co-writer John Kamps could come up with? The film deserves better. The story — involving a nasty-tempered dentist (Ricky Gervais), who briefly dies during a colonoscopy and afterwards can see and talk with ghosts no one else can see — may be nothing more than Topper by way of The Sixth Sense, but what the film and performers do with this material is pretty special. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ghost Town is the savviness with which it balances comedy and romance, and the fact that its comedy is almost always rather kind and character-based. The blend of humor and humanity is just right. In some ways, it’s a throwback to an earlier time. It’s just possible, however, that these are its true strengths — the very things that give it something all too often lacking in mainstream movies these days: an identity. —Ken Hanke

The House Bunny (PG-13) I’m convinced that The House Bunny was written by taking random pages from the screenplays for Revenge of the Nerds and Legally Blonde, throwing them in the air, putting them together however they landed and turning the results over to the tastemakers at Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions for crudening up. The results are astonishingly less awful than you might suspect. This is no thanks to the screenplay or the flat direction by Fred Wolf. Two things make the movie likable — Anna Faris and Emma Stone — both of whom deserve better than this thin tale of a dispossesed Playboy bunny who becomes house mother and mentor to the geekiest, gawkiest sorority imaginable. It’s all horribly predictable and rarely very funny, but the two stars make it imposssible to actually dislike. —Ken Hanke

Igor (PG) As a kid movie, it’s probably fine. As adult entertainment, it’s never more than fair. Any film where the best gag is the existence of a mad scientist named Dr. Schadenfreude is a little wanting. In all fairness, there are some briefly amusing gags involving Scamper (voiced by Steve Buscemi), an existentially-minded rabbit (I think) with a death wish, whose desire is constantly thwarted by having been granted immortality. Mostly, this is tepid stuff with a plot so transparently predictable that even the savvier five year olds will be saying, “I’ve seen it.” John Cusack gives voice (but not all that much life) to Igor, hunchbacked assistant to an inept mad scientist, but he’s an Igor with a dream. He wants to become a great mad scientist in his own right and take first prize at the annual Evil Science Fair. Ultimately, this is dismissable kiddie fodder that’s mildly tarted-up with recognizable — if not exactly luminary (Arsenio Hall?) — names in the voice department. —Ken Hanke

Lakeview Terrace (R) If there’s a good thing to be said when it comes to Neil LaBute’s Lakeview Terrace, it’s that it’s not as certifiably awful as it appeared it might be. For the most part, it’s actually entertaining. I say “for the most part” since the movie does ultimately turn into the generic thriller the trailer threatened. This also means the film turns into a disappointment instead of the surprise it should’ve been, since whatever it had on its mind goes down in a blaze of histrionics due to no one seemingly knowing what, exactly, to do with the potentially incendiary topics the film has on its mind. Samuel L. Jackson is great as the power-obsessed cop who hates interracial couples and sets out to make life hell for the one (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington) that moves into his neighborhood, but he can’t save the movie from itself, making Lakeview Terrace just one more mediocre picture Jackson’s the best thing in. -—Justin Souther

My Best Friend’s Girl (R) In its favor, two things can be said of My Best Friend’s Girl. It isn’t quite the torturous abomination I had actually anticipated. The worst I can say is that it merely induces that dull pain at the back of the head that’s the result of brain cells crawling away to die of embarassment. And, there’s a certain scientific value to the film in the study of relativity, since it conclusively proves that Dane Cook looks a lot better when put alongside Jason Biggs. Cook plays Tank, a lout who makes a living by being boorish to women in order to make their boyfriends look better. This comes crashing down when creepy best friend Dustin (Biggs) asks him to do this with the stalking fetish of his dreams, Alexis (Kate Hudson). Nothing goes right, of course, and Tank falls in love with Alexis, etc. The real problem is that it never makes us like these people. They’re obnoxious cardboard characters going through the conventions of a genre that requires a light touch and something other than a lout, a creep, and a dimwit at its center. —Ken Hanke

Righteous Kill (R) Righteous Kill‘s sole selling point is the teaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. What the film’s advertising fails to mention is that this isn’t the picture’s only reunion, as Pacino and director Jon Avnet have worked together previously, on the egregiously terrible 88 Minutes. Maybe the biggest disappointment in Righteous Kill isn’t the two leads phoning in their performances, but that it’s never as unintentionally hilarious as 88 Minutes. What the two movies have in common is their convoluted, largely incoherent nature, but in this case, there’re no exploding cars, no babe-magnet sexagenarians, no runaway fire trucks, no murderous lesbians. Instead, we get a plot that’s just as pointless and inane, but instead wrapped up in a self-serious tone due to its “important” actors. It’s a tame “which cop is taking the law into his own hands” mystery with a twist that’s obvious from around the 10-minute mark. ­—Justin Souther

Traitor (PG-13) The way Traitor came to pass is this: Steve Martin, in the throes of Bringing Down the House, had an idea for an espionage thriller. It involved an undercover U.S. military operative deep into war-on-terror territory in the Middle East, possibly at the center of a murderous international conspiracy, and on the run from terrorists and feds alike. And it ended with a major twist. Martin told his idea to a producer, who is said to have liked it but didn’t seem to be doing anybody any favors by hiring Jeffrey Nachmanoff — the co-writer of that glum, dumb, global-warming disaster-flick The Day After Tomorrow — to write it up and direct. Still, Nachmanoff had a twist of his own to offer, which was that the protagonist should be a Muslim American, deeply conflicted about the moral imperatives of his actions. —Jonathan Kiefer

Transsiberian (R) I only know writer-director Brad Anderson from his horror picture Session 9, a film that struck me as the work of someone who had access to a terrific location that he really had no idea how to use. In his latest film, Transsiberian, Anderson has come up with at least three terrific locations — a deteriorating concrete bunker, the decaying shell of a Russian Orthodox church, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad itself — and this time, he has lots of ideas of what to do with his settings. And most of them are good. Some, however, are brilliant. Husband and wife missionary workers Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) in China decide to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Moscow. The more we see of the pair, the more it becomes obvious that things are not exactly right between them, something that becomes more complicated with the arrival of another couple, who may be drug smugglers. Further complexities pile up leading to unexpected thriller developments. Being, ultimately, a train thriller, the film has been compared to Hitchcock, but make no mistake, this isn’t a simple romp, it’s a densely-layered, disturbing drama in thriller clothing. —Ken Hanke

Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys (PG-13) Tyler Perry’s latest opus is just more of the same. It’s silly soap with ham-handed characterizations, dubious depictions of “family values” (here extended to watching a cuckolded husband backhand his wife across a lunch counter with the intent of generating a cheer from the audience), and impossibly clunky dialogue. Yet for all that, The Family That Preys is also the first Perry film that actually looks like it belongs on a movie screen rather than a TV set or projected on a basement wall in a church. More, the casting of Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as two long-time friends trying to hold their respective interconnected familiies together was a shrewd move on Perry’s part. Unfortunately, the pair can only do so much with the material at hand, and it’s not enough to raise the movie out of the realm of the cheap melodrama that has marked all of Perry’s movies. Perhaps if he’d get a co-writer and stop listening to the fans who tell him he’s a genius, Perry might make a good movie. This isn’t it. —Ken Hanke

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