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Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"American Teen"

Technology's changed a lot in high school, but most other things stay the same, as evidenced by Nanette Burstein's enjoyable enough documentary following real-life high school students in Indiana. It goes beyond typical Hollywood high school tales by getting kids to spill their biggest fears and deepest secrets, but the inclusion of animated dreamlike sequences is regrettable, and they don't help elevate this to the enthralling level of the genre's best. Grade: B-

"Bottle Shock"

Co-writer-director Randall Miller recreates the story behind the scandalous Paris wine tasting of 1976, in which California wines were declared superior to the French and, in the process, finds the rare circumstance in which wine doesn't go well with cheese. Beautiful wine-country scenery is cluttered with hokey dialogue, loud '70s country rock and a cheap, silly romantic subplot. Only Alan Rickman, as the British snob who hosts the tasting, hits all the right notes. Grade: C- -Melissa Starker

"The Dark Knight"

Director Christopher Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan display an ambition that ultimately pays off on two levels: there's the wildly dark and dense - but still action-packed - superhero saga exploring the personal price paid by Bruce Wayne for his growing comfort in the bat suit, then there's the subtext that considers the moral price for him, the city of Gotham and humanity in general. An extraordinary cast mines everything it can from both levels, but Heath Ledger genuinely deserves singling out as the Joker. His is the most haunting version of the character ever put on screen. Grade: A-

"Henry Poole is Here"

In the frustrating new film from director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), Luke Wilson stars as Henry, an antisocial drinker who buys a house and can't get rid of the devoutly Catholic neighbor (Adriana Barraza) who's convinced she sees the face of Christ in his exterior stucco work. The interesting ideas that could've been raised about the existence of something greater in the universe are lost amid too many holes and convenient choices made by the screenwriter, which don't serve the performers well either. Looking uncomfortable throughout, Wilson gets the worst of it. Grade: D

"Holding Trevor" NEW!

Taking up the long tradition of actors writing their own script or personally developing a project for a career boost is Brent Gorski, first-time screenwriter and star of this indie drama about a young, gay man in L.A. who's trying to break free of his damaging junkie boyfriend with the help of his two BFFs (Melissa Searing, Shortbus' Jay Brannan) and the hot ER doctor (Eli Kranski) he meets during the junkie's latest OD.

While he's good at concocting scenes of drama and he knows enough to include a transitional music montage in which all the key characters look purposefully off into space, unfortunately for Gorski, he's at a loss for crafting a compelling, well-rounded storyline.

Director Rosser Goodman has a better sense of things visually, but she doesn't get consistency from her cast and she's tone-deaf to the narrative, piling on student-film earnestness when a lighter touch was desperately needed. Grade: D -Melissa Starker

"Journey to the Center of the Earth"

With the addition of 3-D to this epic about a scientist who accidentally leads a small expeditionary party on the trip of the title, the back of star Brendan Fraser's head is far more prominent, but his action-adventure shtick is just as wooden. Visual effects supervisor-turned-director Eric Brevig takes every advantage of the format, to the point of tedium, but at least the movie's mild enough for the only audience likely to get anything out of it - kids. Grade: D+

"Mamma Mia"

Just like the Broadway play on which it's based, the "plot" of this musical comedy serves solely to work in as many ABBA songs as humanly possible. Why talented actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth signed up for its silly tale of a bride-to-be on a quest to find her father is a mystery, and watching Streep prance and writhe in a pair of hideous denim overalls for two hours is a pain. As for Brosnan's musical numbers, you may never be able to look him in the face again. Grade: D-

"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor"

This may rank alongside Santa Clause 3 in creating one of the least needed, least wanted trilogies ever. On a mission to return an ancient artifact to China, the O'Connell family - Brendan Fraser, Luke Ford and, sporting a horrific British accent, Maria Bello - unite just in time for the mummy of an ancient emperor (Jet Li) to be resurrected. Having already faced a different mummy twice, you'd think they'd know enough to stay far away from ancient crypts, especially those of brutal tyrants bent on eternal life. But no, and we all pay a price. Grade: D+

"Pineapple Express"

The latest addition to the growing roster of Judd Apatow-produced bromances is, at heart, about the relationship that develops between a druggie (Seth Rogen) and his pot dealer (James Franco) as they're chased down by a demented drug lord, and its appeal is in large part thanks to the chemistry between the two. Unfortunately, director David Gordon Green lets the violent climax devolve too far, but the movie's tons of fun. Grade: B+

"Star Wars: The Clone Wars"

Despite its arrival on the big screen, this animated entry in the Star Wars canon feels decidedly small-screen. It's probably just a matter of setting the proper expectations - and generating a lot of hype - for the animated series premiering this fall on Cartoon Network, but the character design is harsh and rigid, the dialogue does nothing to help characters appear more life-like, and fans of all ages should be offered more than this. Grade: C

"Step Brothers"

Playing 40-year-old men still living at home who become foes when their single parents marry and everyone moves in together, Talladega Nights co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly prove once again that they don't do their best work together. The movie's sometimes so unapologetically stupid that it's hard not to laugh, but it's also so unfocused and jokey, it feels more like someone's improv sketch than a full-fledged feature. Grade: C+

"Swing Vote"

Taking a page out of Frank Capra's book, co-writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and producer-star Kevin Costner offer a pro-democracy fable in which Costner's drunken screw-up becomes a central figure in the election of the next president (Kelsey Grammer or Dennis Hopper). His character's slow political awakening plays out simplistically, sometimes to the point of condescension, but the movie's heart is in the right place. And the wild, pandering flip-flopping both candidates partake of in campaign ads is pretty hilarious. Grade: C+

"Tropic Thunder"

Despite the protests from advocates for the developmentally disabled, co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller doesn't skewer the mentally challenged in his new, very funny film, but rather the weird ways of Hollywood. For the most part, his satirical look at a group of pampered stars united for a prestige epic and trapped in a real jungle conflict hits its marks, and in the role of a ruthless producer, it delivers Tom Cruise's best performance since Magnolia. But Robert Downey Jr.'s surgically darkened Australian Method actor is the best reason to see it. He deserves a special Oscar of his own. Grade: B+

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

Opening up under the Spanish sun, Woody Allen uses archetypical characters for a funny, sexy romantic comedy about the chemical reactions that lead us in and out of love. It centers on two American tourists in Barcelona (Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall), the artist attracted to them both (Javier Bardem) and his violent, tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The dynamic between them is much fun to watch, and the view is enhanced by both the gorgeous natural scenery and the actors' ample physical charms. Grade: B


Flying solo for the first time as writer-director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) adds another funny, disarming work to the Pixar canon, this time with a strong pro-environment, anti-ignorance message. His 28th-century story of a desperately lonely little trash compactor left to clean up an abandoned Earth cleverly enfolds movie history, from Chaplin to Hello, Dolly! to Idiocracy, and tugs harder at your heart than any Pixar film before it. Grade: A