Capsule reviews of films now playing in theaters.
"Body of Lies" Behind the explosions and the bankable names of Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio lies an intricate film about the U.S. intelligence community's work against terrorism in the Middle East. It can be highly frustrating to watch as Crowe's physically and emotionally removed CIA veteran subverts the work of DiCaprio's morally troubled man on the ground, but the helpless feeling of watching our boys screw up is actually what sets this film apart. Grade: B
"City of Ember" Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) and screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) apply steampunk production design and a little hipster casting to their adaptation of Jeanne Duprau's 'tween-friendly cautionary tale.
Set in an underground city that holds the last of humanity, which has been locked away from the ailing earth's surface for 200 years, the story follows the efforts of young friends Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) to find the exit before the city's power generator seizes -- a path that was laid out by their forefathers but lost in the lineage between the first mayor and the current, corrupt, ineffectual one (a bemused-looking Bill Murray).
It all plays out among mightily impressive sets and gadgets, and there are timely lessons about environmental impact and how apathy and routine can be deadly -- or at least soul-crushing, in the case of Doon's inventor father (Tim Robbins). At times these are applied with a heavy hand, and at others they barely register an impact, but there's almost always something interesting on screen. Grade: B
"The Duchess" Falling between the confectionary delights of Marie Antoinette and the overcooked melodrama of The Other Boleyn Girl is this latest historical tale of a woman under the gun to produce a male heir. A reasonably compelling portrait of one of Princess Di's real-life, 18th century ancestors -- Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley) -- the film evokes the powerlessness of women in arranged marriages, while Georgiana's real-life fashion-plate status provides an opportunity for a costume drama with a capital "C." Although Knightley holds up well under her towering wigs, it's Ralph Fiennes who really gets under your skin with his slimy, all-too human portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire. Grade: B
"The Express" The weak-side safety of football movies, Gary Fleder's truth-inpsired tale of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American player to win the Heisman Trophy, feels less like a series of passionate civil rights challenges than a parade of all the necessary points to hit in an inspirational biopic. Despite Dennis Quaid's pleasurable performance as Davis' coach, there's not much to make a person rise and cheer. Grade: B-
"Flash of Genius" Greg Kinnear's Bob Kearns is an interesting sort of movie hero -- the wronged inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper wages a true-life David-and-Goliath battle against the big automakers, but he also puts that struggle above everything, including his family. The actor quietly and masterfully conveys Kearns' initial thrill of invention, the angst of realizing his idea had been stolen and the near obsession he falls into as he seeks vindication. Kinnear makes the best of the part, despite a less-than-urgent treatment of the story. Grade: B
"The Lucky Ones" Cowriter-director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) earns points for trying something different with Iraq War soldiers than another dour drama, but his new approach -- a kind of wacky comedy involving three returning soldiers traveling cross-country in a van -- doesn't work. Costars Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena are badly mishandled, like the script, which isn't funny enough or deep enough. What it definitely is, nearly throughout, is contrived. Grade: D+
"Quarantine" Anyone who suffered motion sickness through Cloverfield won't get relief from this, the latest cameraman's-eye view of horrific happenings. Following a TV news reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) on a drive-along with firemen that ends in an old apartment house, the camera shakily captures tenants coming down with a cross between rabies and the rage virus from 28 Days Later.
As fast as you can say "biohazard," the TV crew, firemen and everyone else is separated from the outside world by plastic sheeting and a SWAT team. Trapped with them, the audience is exposed to some stereotypically stupid behavior from those in peril, and mishandling of the climax by director-cowriter John Erick Dowdle. Nonetheless, portions of the movie have an undeniable visceral power. Grade: C
"Religulous" Steered by Borat director Larry Charles, comedian and devout skeptic Bill Maher travels the world speaking to scholars, church leaders and everyday followers, questioning the wisdom of organized religion. Unfortunately, Maher can't cast the first stone in the area of passing judgment, and he blows an opportunity to discuss why so many different cultures develop similar systems of belief. But for fellow skeptics, there's some very funny stuff here, especially Charles' insidious use of film clips and a chat with a real riot of a Vatican official. Grade: B
"Righteous Kill" Given the lackluster quality of work we've seen in recent years from Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, it was a little silly to expect great things from their long-awaited onscreen reunion. Still, it's disappointing to see the two greats re-team for a clunky and conventional cop thriller, playing longtime partners on the force investigating a string of murders connected by painfully bad poems left at the crime scene. Pacino has a lot more fun with his role, while De Niro downplays his part so much, it could've been filled by anyone. Grade: C-