Capsule reviews of films currently 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 cautionary tale, in which two young friends search for a way out and up from the underground city holding humanity's survivors before its power generator dies. Timely lessons come through among mightily impressive sets and gadgets; some are applied with a heavy hand, others 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. Portraying 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 capital "C" costume drama. Grade: B
"The Express" The weak-side safety of football movies, Gary Fleder's truth-inspired 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-
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" Despite the title, this feels less like an eternal journey and more like a better-than-average, but still lacking, teen comedy about a dumped and mopey bass player (Michael Cera), a pseudo friend of his ex (Kat Dennings) and the wacky misadventures they have together in New York City. There's a nod to Juno in some of the forced banter, and though the promising Dennings isn't quite up to Ellen Page's level yet, the film does eventually find its own entertaining footing. Grade: B-
"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
"The Secret Life of Bees" On the heels of Lakeview Terrace and The Express comes Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel about race relations in the civil rights-era South, in which Dakota Fanning's neglected 14-year-old finds a home among the cultured, independent Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo). The filmmaker has trouble finding the right mix of sweetness without cloying, but the flaws are outweighed by a wealth of unique, enjoyable women characters. Grade: B-
"Sex Drive" This teen comedy following a high-school grad on a long road trip to meet an online crush suggests that today's viewers want a star-crossed journey of love to involve things like public urination and Amish keg parties. In other words, something that makes Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle seem as noble as The Odyssey, which isn't a bad thing here, given the likeable cast and rather hilarious screenwriting. Grade: B
"The Universe of Keith Haring" NEW! Documentary filmmaker Christina Clausen has a wonderfully fun and fascinating subject in artist Keith Haring, who did as much as anyone to bridge the gap between graffitied walls and galleries, and whose flame burned very brightly in the 1980s before he was lost to complications from AIDS in 1990.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker's interviews-and-archives portrait feels scattershot, like an arrangement of Polaroids capturing details of a bigger picture that don't really give a sense of the whole. And a visual flourish used to introduce each interview subject grows tired very quickly.
The film screens Wednesday, Nov. 5, at the Wexner Center Film/Video Theater. Grade: C+ --Melissa Starker
"W." Oliver Stone's biopic of our current president isn't controversial; it's sometimes funny and often boring instead. Bouncing between George W. Bush's (Josh Brolin) years at Yale and his hawkish decision to invade Iraq in the White House, stopping to cover his stint of heavy drinking and his troubled relationship with his father (James Cromwell), Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser consistently tread middle ground: too subjective to claim accuracy, too tame to spark interest. Grade: C
"What Just Happened" NEW! Based on a memoir by producer Art Linson, Barry Levinson's new comedy offers the view of someone deeply embedded in our moviemaking capital and dancing as fast as he can to keep his place there.
A week in the life of Ben the A-list producer (Robert De Niro) starts with a visit to the ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) he's trying to win back, but is mostly focused on reining in a rogue filmmaker (Michael Wincott) who insists on keeping the laughably horrific ending to his new movie, and convincing the star of another project -- Bruce Willis as a bloated, hairy, belligerent version of himself -- to shave his beard before shooting starts.
Ben's tasks involve some really strong supporting players, like Willis and Catherine Keener as a fabulously icy studio head, and a good share of moments are funny or hilarious depending on your personal movie knowledge.
But audiences might see a bigger problem with Ben than his rogue talent. It seems like viewers are supposed to feel sorry for him, and when he gets to the part of his week that involves a night of sex and ecstasy with a lovely young stranger, that's like asking Willis to grow a head of hair. Grade: B-