"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 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-
"The Edge of Heaven" NEW!
The tensions between EU-sanctioned Germany and the less politically stable Turkey bring not only a theme but a personal intensity to the work of Fatih Akin. A German of Turkish descent, he touched on the cultural clash in his breakthrough film, 2004's Head-On, to visceral and memorable effect.
Those qualities come through again in his latest, an ensemble drama and Cannes prize winner that circles six interconnected characters in a looping narrative, from an elderly Turk in Germany who offers a prostitute steady wages in exchange for living with him, to the children they each have and the new people they meet in the course of the film.
While the individuals may not recognize every shared bond, the audience is in on all the affinities, grudges and missed opportunities. At times the information gap generates a delectable level of suspense, but Akin earns greater bragging rights by creating characters that jump naturally from the screen to the viewer's imagination, where they develop a life beyond the final reel. Grade: A
Based on Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, director Isabel Coixet's introspective look at male late-life crisis falls somewhere between The Wackness and The Love Guru on the Ben Kingsley quality scale. As a professor experiencing uncertainty and too-strong feelings in relation to his latest affair with a student (Penelope Cruz in her best English-language role to date), the actor gives a solid performance, but the film is a bit too slow and the third act a bit too basic. Grade: B-
Based on the main character of talentless thespian-turned-high school drama teacher Dana Marschz, filmmaker Andrew Fleming and his cowriter Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) clearly know their Waiting for Guffman, and they pay homage to that comedy with some smart, funny dialogue and surprising insight. Elsewhere, the movie's uneven and predictable, but star Steve Coogan has moments of greatness throughout, and you'll be hard-pressed to control the urge to leave humming "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." Grade: B-
"The House Bunny"
Talented comic actress Anna Faris is set up with two of the oldest girl gags in the book. First is the blond, brainless bimbo, Faris' ousted Playboy bunny, who finds a new career as a sorority housemother. The second involves her new, nerdy charges, who are just a quick makeover and a few feminist pretensions away from being the hottest girls on campus. The cast does its best not to walk away embarrassed, with Faris' efforts approaching the Herculean, but there's only so much she can accomplish with a script that gives her no respect. Grade: C-
"Man on Wire"
Some stories are so completely thrilling and compellingly told, they pull you to the edge of your seat even if you already know the outcome. Documentary filmmaker James Marsh has such a story in a self-taught French wirewalker who fulfilled his dream of crossing a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and has a storyteller worthy of the tale in his central subject, Philippe Petit, an impish presence and born conversationalist. Grade: A
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+
With a concept borrowed from School of Rock and an underwear-heavy leading role that seems tailored for Will Ferrell instead of star Rainn Wilson, this comedy about a never-was who gets a shot at rock stardom through his nephew's prom band doesn't win any bonus points for creativity. It also could've been leaner, cleaner and funnier, but as is, a number of witty little lines and clever touches make this one of the strongest comedies of the summer. 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 lifelike, and fans of all ages should be offered more than this. Grade: C
Cowriter-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and producer-star Don Cheadle set a more ambitious goal than usual for a summer release, trying to fit in one film an action extravaganza, a crime procedural and a timely morality tale about the evils of generalizing your enemy. It wins points for an intelligent viewpoint and for Hollywood's first devoutly Muslim action hero, well-played by Cheadle, but the weight of its many story elements brings the film to a near standstill. Grade: C
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 trapped in a real war 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