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July 18, 2008

Capsules by Michael Sragow. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

The Dark KnightHeath Ledger gives a bravura performance as the Joker in this handsome piece of work. But it goes from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then goes on for two hours more. It's scaled to be an urban epic about the deterioration of hope and possibility in Batman's (Christian Bale) hometown, Gotham City, but there isn't a single inspired moment in it. It's all about the responses of citizens, lawmen and criminals to the emergence of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. But they and Batman end up vulnerable to the takeover plans of that ultimate wild card. Yes, Ledger detonates a savage sick joke or two. But it's a Pyrrhic acting victory. The whole movie is set up for him to be the jiving put-on artist of destruction outwitting the squares. Director Christopher Nolan's use of incessant tension music and gun-to-the-head jeopardy cheapens even the classiest bits. True believers may buy into the gloom and doom, but many will ask, with the Joker, "Why so serious?" PG-13, 140 minutes. C

The Children of Huang ShiJonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a noble performance as a British war correspondent who travels to China in 1937 to assess the looming Japanese occupation and instead becomes a teacher and savior of 60 Chinese children. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, depicts tragedy from a point of view that draws us into human loss, rather than merely making us flinch at ugliness, and with the help of a cast that includes Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, creates the rare movie that deserves to be called "inspirational." R 114 minutes A

Get SmartSteve Carell's knack for sneaking humanity into broad comedy is all wrong for Maxwell Smart, the blundering, incredibly lucky agent for the super-secret government spy agency CONTROL. In a misguided equivalent to a comic-book "origin story," the movie portrays Smart's entrance into the world of field agents as a revenge of the nerds. (He even has a couple of lovable funky-geeky sidekicks.) He's now a former fatty and ace analyst who yearns to be as effective in harm's way as in the briefing room. Carell hasn't lost his comic timing, and at times his amiability wins you over. But the movie is a time-killer without a killer instinct. You never get the sense that the director, Peter Segal, knows where the funny is, whether in his star or in the story. Even if it lolls you into a pleasant mood, it evaporates from your mind the minute you leave the theater. PG-13 110 minutes C+

GonzoAlex Gibney's documentary biopic about "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson uses any means at hand to make the rare movie that actually takes us into a writer's head. It pulls you through the manic vortex of a man who attempted to embody the mood swings of his time until he shot himself in the head in 2005, at age 67. This movie is both subjective and objective: It's some paradoxical kind of great documentary. R 118 minutes. A

Gunnin' For That #1 SpotThe lives of eight high school basketball players who dribble, pass and shoot their way into the ultimate city-park game: the "Elite 24" tournament at Rucker Park in Harlem, N.Y. in 2006. The movie becomes a true melting pot jamboree: The Summer Olympics may offer more high-stakes spectacles, but nothing will top the last half-hour of this film for high spirits. PG-13 90 minutes B

HancockWill Smith stars as a surly, feckless Los Angeles superhero who makes nice with humanity under the guidance of a big-hearted public-relations man (Jason Bateman). Smith and Bateman are cute together, and they trigger some theater-shaking belly laughs. Yet once their story line runs its course, the filmmakers resort to a twist that fills the movie with unearned sentiment and cheap suspense. PG-13 90 minutes. B-

Hellboy II: The Golden ArmyGuillermo del Toro designs this follow-up to his 2004 Hellboy as a battle between the magical and fearsome creatures who roamed J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis's Narnia and a handful of agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, including the burly red demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the female human torch Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), the aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and, new to this entry, the protoplasmic medium Johann Krauss (the voice of Seth McFarlane). Del Toro stuffs the film with wit and wonderments. Yet, coming out now, it often plays like a lovingly crafted synthesis of the superhero and fantasy sagas we've been seeing all decade, and especially this summer. PG-13 120 minutes B

The Incredible HulkIdealistic scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) tries to find an antidote to the gamma-radiation poisoning that makes him transform into the Hulk in states of excitement or stress. This movie brings new meaning to the phrase "hit or miss" - when a legendary figure like the Hulk hits, the impact is startling, and even when he fans, he generates gale force. PG-13 114 minutes B

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