Quick reviews of movies currently in theaters.
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 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-
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"
Anna Faris is a comic actress deserving real excitement and respect, yet for her big foray outside the soul-sucking Scary Movie franchise, someone thought it best to set her 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, including Emma Stone in glasses and Kat Dennings in a bad wig, 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 and only one genuinely funny line. Grade: C-
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 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 away from ancient crypts. But no - and we all pay a price. Grade: D+
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
Studio 35 stays up late this Friday and Saturday with 11:30 p.m. screenings of this eye-popping 2005 collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and comic artist Frank Miller, in which style gives substance a bloody pounding. Miller's graphic novel provided the template and a computer provided virtually everything on screen that isn't an actor; as for those, Mickey Rourke is terrific and Elijah Wood is as creepy as they come. -Melissa Starker
"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
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+
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+
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
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