opening this week

A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13) Director Robert Altman brings us a fictional take on what goes on backstage during the last broadcast of America’s most celebrated — and very real — radio show, where a country music siren (Meryl Streep), singing cowboys Dusty (John C. Reilly) and Lefty (Woody Harrelson), and a host of others hold court. With a screenplay from the host himself, Garrison Keillor.

Cars (G) Reviewed at left.

The Omen (R) Reviewed on page 63.

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

Ballet Russes (Not Rated) Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s rousing documentary tells the story of a once-celebrated, now long-defunct ballet company that changed the face of modern dance. Although Ballets Russes has an admirable sense of humor about itself, there’s a holiness here that’s easy to sign onto. Curiously, it’s the ballet corps — members of which grew up into a pioneering gay porn director (Wakefield Poole) and Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) — who sound the most reverential about the companies. The stars are less dewy-eyed, but when they gather for a reunion in 2000, it’s obvious that dance is a bug they caught young and never got over. There is one scene in particular that’s a hell of a heartbreaker, in which George Zoritch and Nathalie Krassovska re-create a scene from Giselle, which they danced 50 years prior … the moment — and the movie — are nothing short of majestic. —Kimberley Jones

The Break-Up (PG-13) Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the characters dumbed-down to double-digit IQs. The Break-Up is easily as much fun as lobotomizing yourself with a dull spoon. Marketed as a romantic comedy, the film is blessed with neither romance nor comedy. A pre-credit sequence explains how — but not why — Jennifer Aniston’s character hooked up with Vince Vaughn’s character (apparently she’s a sucker for a free hot dog and a little snappy patter). The entirety of the charismatically-challenged couple’s relationship is detailed in “candid” snapshots (raising the question of who took the pictures of them in bed) behind the credits. The remaining 90-odd minutes of the movie exists merely to demonstrate how annoying and unlikable they are. It does a splendid job of that long before the movie has the decency to end. —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

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 villain (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

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. Now a born again Christian, Page’s biopic promises to be the ultimate in good ol’ sin and redemption.

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. —KH

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 Johanson

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

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

X-Men: The Last Stand (PG-13) Compared to other comic book movies, the X-Men trilogy puts its social politics on its leather sleeves. No matter whether they’re “good” X-Men, led by civilized Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), or the more militant “evil” mutants led by Magneto, the franchise’s minority population of super-powered genetic aberrations stands in for any despised underclass. It would be great if all films lived up to their relevant themes or operatic aspirations. But The Last Stand features enough subplots for a bookcase full of graphic novels, including a teenage love triangle and the resurrection of a character from the previous film. With so many heroes, villains, henchmen, and political figures jockeying for screen time, everyone gets short shrift except for overreaching Magneto and anguished Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, the series’ MVP). —Curt Holman