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MOVIES: Quick Flicks

Capsule reviews of current films.

"Bad News Bears" — How the game is played takes precedence over winning or losing in a remake of the classic baseball comedy from 1976. With only slight adjustments to the original story line, director Richard Linklater regulates the comic tone toward making a fundamental statement about sportsmanship and even about American political conduct with our global rivals. Billy Bob Thornton is enjoyable although not entirely comical as Morris Buttermaker, a former pro baseball player turned rodent exterminator who takes on a job coaching a team of Little League baseball misfits. Linklater's "Bad News Bears" doesn't approach the giddy comedy of the original, but it does inspire an attentive contemplation on the similarities and differences between adults and children in approaching the game of life. (PG-13) **1/2 — Cole Smithey

"Batman Begins" — Quirky young director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") promised some of the off-kilter energy that Tim Burton brought to the first installments in this superhero series. But like a certain Sith currently lording it over the box office, Nolan has given in to the dark side. In a prequel to the other Batman movies, we're taken back to the murders that scarred Bruce Wayne's boyhood, then whisked off to a Himalayan fortress where Wayne (Christian Bale), now a young man, is trained in the ways of the Ninja by a vigilante squad led by Liam Neeson. Ninjas? A double handful of current events and traditional Hollywood bogeymen give "Batman Begins" an air of the haphazard. The movie ends up just another bit of overdigitized Hollywood schlock, buoyed occasionally by its striking tableaux or a flash of wit. (PG-13) ** — Thomas Peyser

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" — Tim Burton's latest film is a more ambitious and much funnier adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book. It is contemporary, sophisticated satire and spoof, whereas "Willy Wonka," with its melancholy titular character and obsession with spies, was mustier, Cold War Dickens. In the new version, the poverty of Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his family (Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, David Kelly) is played for laughs rather than tears. Charlie, in fact, though returned to the title, is exiled to the background once he finds his golden ticket. The show is mostly Burton until we get to Wonka's extravagant lair, and after that moment all Burton as channeled through Depp, the zaniness culminating in a homage to "2001." Whether or not kids will think it's funny is hard to say, but their parents will surely wonder what happened to the book's message about honesty being its own reward. (PG) **** — Wayne Melton

"Dark Water" — This miserable remake of another Japanese thriller by Hideo Nakata splashes around in another water-themed ghost story about a little girl haunting a mom and her kid (… la "The Ring"). Jennifer Connelly plays the single mom whose young daughter develops an imaginary friend after they move into a faulty high-rise apartment building. Ceilings drip with moldy water, and every faucet exudes brown crud as Connelly's single parent seeks aid from her questionable attorney (Tim Roth) to protect her from her husband's accusations that she's losing her mind. Brazilian director Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") made a bad decision to take this as his first Hollywood outing, a horror movie that will drown you in boredom. (PG-13) *1/2 — C.S.

"Four Brothers" — John Singleton directs a clumsy modernist revision of John Wayne's Western "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965) with a multiracial group of four adopted brothers who bond over a mission to avenge their mom's brutal killing. Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund do competent jobs of representing a tough brand of macho charisma but never compensate for the script's artificial underpinnings. Chiwetel Ejiofor is positively menacing as a brutal mob boss responsible for killing the boys' mother. Corrupt cops and politicians, blazing gun battles and uncertain stabs at sentimentality accompany this revenge thriller that's more spectacle than content. (R) ** — C.S.

"The Great Raid" — Recounting a heroic, mostly forgotten episode from the closing days of World War II — the liberation of more than 500 American soldiers from a brutally administered Japanese POW camp in the Philippines — "Raid" is an earnest, large-scale attempt at a very old-fashioned kind of picture. There's a kind of grim innocence to the whole enterprise, and locations are often scrupulously, ravishingly re-created. But the film also abounds in simplistic history lessons and glorification of its American protagonists. Characters are stiff, depthless and unapproachable, like figures engraved on a banknote. It's moving to think about the bravery of the prisoners and the soldiers who rescued them, but "The Great Raid" itself is not in the least a brave movie. It wants to honor history, but thinks the way to do it is to leave out murk, ambiguity, irony — in other words, history. (R) ** — T.P.

"Hustle & Flow" — Steeping his tale of a drug-dealing pimp's (Terrence Howard) last-ditch attempt at a rap career within American values of redemption and ambition, writer/director Craig Brewer identifies subtle areas of American existence that are rarely exposed in the media or Hollywood films. He does so with such a highly developed sense of detail and loving regard for his characters that the film lifts the audience in a deeply emotional, yet unsentimental, way. The gritty raps that DJay (Howard) writes and records are unexpectedly catchy and stay with you long after the movie is over. "Hustle & Flow" is a perfect example of an American independent film that boldly embraces its rarefied subject and squeezes out sparks from every scene and every line of subtext-rich dialogue. (R) *****— C.S.,/i>

"The Skeleton Key" — Chilling suspense thriller turns on courtly notes of discord between the talented Kate Hudson, a New Orleans hospice worker, and the extraordinary Gena Rowlands as the matron of an old Louisiana mansion where Hudson tends for Rowlands' dying husband (John Hurt). Hudson soon discovers that the mansion is haunted by a pair of century-old spirits of slaves who met their demise on the property. "The Skeleton Key" is an entertaining ghost story with enough of a clever hook ending to give audiences a frightening surprise. Direction by Iain Softley and cinematography by Dan Mindel create an appealing gothic atmosphere of brooding terror. (PG-13) **1/2 — C.S.

"War of the Worlds" — For subtext-plumbers as well as people just munching popcorn in the dark, there's no misinterpreting the war-on-terror imagery, with dust-soaked people running from a centralized catastrophe, a father assuring his kids it wasn't terrorists and a race being annihilated by a remorseless, mechanized occupying force. As for the pipe-laying and bloodsucking that follow, you can draw your own conclusions. Though Spielberg's sci-fi remake stumbles over a few "Jurassic Park" moments and makes little use of Tom Cruise, it is never lost in grandiosity or overdone special effects. "War of the Worlds" admirably goes beyond the H.G. Wells story, but the thrills are simply monsters chasing us around in the dark. (PG-13) ***1/2 — W.M.

"Wedding Crashers" — The premise seems full of raunchy promise: two good-for-nothings troll assorted nuptials in hopes of bedding women whose defenses have already been lowered by witnessing rites of love. Vince Vaughn, the embodiment of articulate sleaziness, and Owen Wilson, a Texas charmer going gently to seed, seem perfectly cast as the scoundrels in question. But sodden direction by David Dobkin and amateurish work by novice screenwriters Steve Faber and Bob Fisher have conspired to produce an astonishingly dreary, unfunny, and overlong comedy. (R) * — T.P.

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