opening this week

An American Haunting (PG-13) Based on the true story of the legendary Bell Witch: Between the years 1818-1820, the Bell Family of Red River, Tenn., was visited by an unknown presence that haunted the family — and eventually ended up causing the death of one its members.

Hoot (PG) A young man (Logan Lerman) moves from Montana to Florida with his family, where he’s compelled to engage in a fight to protect a population of endangered owls.

Mission Impossible III (PG-13) Once again dispatched by the IMF, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) confronts Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an international arms dealer with no conscience and no remorse.

Tsotsi (R) Reviewed on page 51.

Walk the Line (PG-13) On Thursday evening, the City Paper‘s Movies in Marion Square presents the Oscar-winning biopic about Johnny Cash, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. (Vendors open at 6 p.m., movie begins at dusk.)

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

American Dreamz (PG-13) Both disappointing and not, American Dreamz confirms the suspicion that Paul Weitz is too much the humanist to be a wholly effective satirist. Weitz has himself claimed that his new film isn’t a satire but a comedy. The truth is that it’s more of a satirical farce than anything else, and the two forms might fuse into a workable whole — but not in the hands of a filmmaker who wants to like his characters as badly as Weitz does. Satire can survive much, but one thing it can’t survive is a soft center. Some of it still works — targets like American Idol and the Bush administration are too big to miss — and the complex interweavings of the characters is engaging, but it needed a Billy Wilder to pull it off. —Ken Hanke

Deep Sea 3D (Unrated) Directed by renowned underwater cinematographer Howard Hall, Deep Sea 3D takes viewers through a pastiche of some of the ocean’s oddest creatures, many of which we’ve seen before in superior documentaries like the BBC’s Blue Planet. Still, with the underwater vistas leaping out from a five-story-tall IMAX screen, it really is remarkably like being underwater. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the music of frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman; when a small anemone extends a series of seemingly never-ending branch-like arms accompanied by a jaunty Elfman ditty, one can’t help but wonder, just for a second, if it’s real or animation. —Sara Miller 

Failure to Launch (PG-13) This somewhat repellent romantic comedy is about a woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) who specializes in duping 30-somethings still living at home by pretending to fall in love with them — thereby making them want to strike out on their own and get a house with an attic and a cookie jar, a wife, and 2.3 children. Since this is rom-com world, we aren’t supposed to wonder what happens when she dumps them, but merely be charmed when her scheme backfires and she falls for one of her subjects (Matthew McConaughey). It’s frankly not funny, romantic, or even remotely charming. —KH

Friends With Money (R) I enjoyed Friends with Money well enough while I was watching it. I didn’t think it was especially clever or profound, but it was entertaining in its slight way, and for a change I didn’t spend the bulk of a Jennifer Aniston movie wondering what the fuss over her is all about — perhaps because she plays a character over whom no one would make a fuss. The problem is that its slightness seems slighter and slighter the further you get from the film. The aim is to explore four characters — Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack — but the focus isn’t there and the bonding of the four principles never adds up. Good performances and clever dialogue pass the time pleasantly, but there’s no resonance. —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

Inside Man (R) Spike Lee’s new film may not be the incendiary filmmaker’s best work, but it just might be his most purely enjoyable and sophisticated. Clive Owen stars as a bank robber who holds a bank full of people hostage while he matches wits with hostage negotiation specialist Denzel Washington. At the same time, powerful forces far above them — embodied by the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer) and a high-priced “fixer” and damage-control expert (Jodie Foster) — try to keep a secret locked away in the bank from coming to light. Stylish to a fault and very entertaining (thanks in part to a sharply sarcastic script from newcomer Russell Gerwitz), it’s the most wholly satisfying film so far of 2006. —KH

Lucky Number Slevin (R) The biggest of several problems with this would-be ultra-cool, postmodern, con-artist black comedy is that it’s too concerned with being clever. The constant barrage of pop-culture references are all surface, and the end result feels like a bloated episode of Remington Steele gone bad. The impossibly arch dialogue is entertaining in its own right, but it’s like nothing ever uttered by human beings in real life. Still, there’s a fair degree of fun to be had with Lucky Number Slevin, mostly based on the performances, which are not wanting in terms of liveliness. And it’s fun watching the movie twist and turn to get to its surprise conclusion. Someone should tell the filmmakers that it’s unwise to evoke Cary Grant when your star is Josh Hartnett. —KH

Phat Girlz (PG-13) Ultra low-budget (shot on hi-def video) comedy that attempts to turn Mo’nique into a movie star a la Queen Latifah. It doesn’t work. First of all, Mo’nique is no Queen Latifah. Instead of being amusingly outspoken, she’s mostly just abrasive. Worse, this clunky story of plus-size female empowerment is hypocritical to its very core. Mo’nique’s character bemoans the fact that women of her proportions have trouble landing a man, because of society’s emphasis on rail-thin model types. Fair enough — but when she does find a man who wants her, he is the embodiment of what society dictates is a hot guy. Can you say “double-standard”? —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

Scary Movie 4 (PG-13) More disposable than a two-week-old Good News razor, David Zucker’s Scary Movie 4 is strictly a movie for the moment. As with Zucker’s first outing in the series, it’s entirely reliant on the supposition that the viewer has seen (in this case) Saw, The Grudge, War of the Worlds, The Village, Million Dollar Baby, and Brokeback Mountain. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but in a couple of years this film will be about as relevant as a 1962 Bob Hope Oscar monologue. But it’s harmless, it’s often pretty funny, and it manages to weave something like an almost coherent plot out of its sources: a fair achievement. —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

Silent Hill (R) I’m perplexed by the number of people who can’t seem to follow Chrisophe Gans’ Silent Hill. Hard to swallow, maybe, but hard to follow? Based on a popular series of videogames, the film basically follows a mother’s (Radha Mitchell) search for her adopted daughter (Jodelle Ferland) in the nightmarish alternate reality of the town of Silent Hill, in the process uncovering the real secret of the town and her child’s connection to it. The movie’s less about story than mood and monsters. It’s very imperfect — too long, impossibly bad dialogue by Roger Avary, poor structure etc. But it has a genuine creepiness, truly disturbing monsters, and a nice nasty edge. It’s also a treat to see plain, non-postmodern supernatural horror in an age where sadism and torture have largely destroyed the genre. —KH

Stick It (PG-13) No doubt this tale of female empowerment (with time out for adolescent boys leering at gymnasts in lascivious positions) will find favor with its ‘tween and teen target audience, but I can’t imagine it having a lot of resonance with any other group. Missy Peregrym (TV’s Smallville) stars as a rebellious teen whose antics land her back in the world of gymnastics — something she thought she had escaped — where she will learn the error of her ways. Writer Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On) here takes over the directing chores in this attempt to do for gymnastics what Bring It On did for cheerleading. It’s harmless, but also a bit on the forced side, with improbable dialogue and the usual genre clichés. —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

V for Vendetta (R) The Wachowski brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel — about a dystopian future U.K. crushed under a faith-based totalitarian government — and James McTeigue’s treatment of it, is fearless. It never shirks from the gleefully obvious (a fat, pill-popping asshole talk radio host) the utterly horrific (a Dachau-like government atrocity leading to hundreds of lime-coated bodies dumped into a pit) or Goon Show-style absurdity. While certainly not perfect, V for Vendetta is a feast of ideas, a furious Molotov cocktail of a tale, a valentine to the idea that art and information can change things, and the first genuinely relevant film of this bad new century. —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