While You Were Out

“Dead Silence”Universal PicturesDirected by James WanWritten by Leigh WhannellStarring: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Laura Regan, Bob Gunton and Judith RobertsRated R/90 minutesOpened March 16, 2007Two out of four stars

I’m always up for a haunted, serial-killing puppet movie and James Wan’s “Dead Silence” meets the amusingly low expectations of the genre.

A bunch of good-looking, nobody actors (and Donnie Wahlberg, who meets half of that description-guess which half) are stalked by the ghost of a murdered ventriloquist woman.

There’s no possible way this movie could’ve been more than shrug-worthy on the “Was it good?” scale, but on the “Was it what you expected from a serial-killing puppet movie?” scale, it scores reasonably high, with some genuinely creepy moments. Ventriloquist dummies are just evil by nature. Shudder!

-A.A.

“The Hills Have Eyes 2″Fox AtomicDirected by Martin WeiszWritten by Jonathan Craven and Wes CravenStarring: Michael McMillian, Jessica Stroup, Daniella Alonso, Jacob Vargas, Lee Thompson Young and Flex AlexanderRated R/89 minutesOpened March 23, 2007One out of four stars

Yes, it’s the second chapter in the ongoing “Hills Have Eyes” saga and it makes part one look like an exercise in taste and restraint.

The radioactive, cannibalistic, New Mexico desert-dwellers are back, this time preying on a laughably unconvincing group of U.S. National Guardsmen. I didn’t know so many of our brave men and women looked like one of those ethnically diverse, touch football-playing gangs from those American Eagle ads.

At least part two gets the most gruesome scene out of the way first, as we watch a wrist- and ankle-bound woman who looks like the Sloth victim from “Se7en” give birth to a bloody, mutated child that only H.R. Giger could love. You’d think the movie could only climb up from there, but it simply flat-lines. Beeeeeeeeeeeep.

-A.A.

“The Host”Magnolia PicturesDirected by Joon-ho BongWritten by Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong and Won-jun HaStarring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae, Ah-sung Ko and Scott WilsonRated R/119 minutesOpened March 23, 2007Three-and-a-half out of four stars

There are strange genre combinations, and then there is “The Host.” Joon-ho Bong’s latest offering hails from the tradition of monster movies, but doubles as a comedy, a genuine family drama and a scathing political commentary. No doubt Sean Hannity and his ilk will freak out (assuming such people have refined taste and actually seek out foreign and independent movies, which I doubt) at the movie’s anti-American sentiment. But it’s no different from what the original “Godzilla” did. In that 1954 classic, the monster is created as an unintended side effect of American nuclear testing. In “The Host,” a giant fish-like creature-which hilariously rumbles toward its victims in plain sight, rather than hiding in the shadows like most movie monsters-is created after an irresponsible Army surgeon dumps hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, and into Seoul’s Han River.

It takes years before the creature actually makes its appearance and begins terrorizing the citizens of South Korea, but when it does, panic starts to spread. People are quarantined because of a mysterious virus supposedly caused by contact with the monster. The government intervenes as does, eventually, the American government. (You can see where the allegory is going here-America tries to intervene and solve a problem that it caused in the first place.)

At the center of the human story-and this is a surprisingly human movie-is Park Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), who must escape the hospital in which he’s held captive to rescue his young daughter, who has been taken by the monster. “The Host” is not just another B monster movie. There’s a reason it’s the biggest box-office hit in Korean history. Driven by an offbeat, matter-of-fact humorous sensibility, “The Host” is brilliant with its deliberate cheesiness, surprising with its heart and completely effective as a hybrid political/thriller/comedy. Godzilla, eat your heart out.

-C.B.

“The Last Mimzy”New Line CinemaDirected by Robert ShayeScreenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin and Toby Emmerich, based on the short story Mimsy Were the Borogoves, by Henry Kuttner and C.L. MooreStarring: Timothy Hutton, Joely Richardson, Rhiannon Leigh Wryn, Chris O’Neil, Rainn Wilson, Kathryn Hahn and Michael Clarke DuncanRated PG/90 minutesOpened March 23, 2007Three out of four stars

If Steven Spielberg had gotten his hands on the story that is the basis for “The Last Mimzy,” he could have made a timeless family classic. Think “E.T.,” except weirder and with more new-age hippie oddity.

As it is, this is still a charming, if uneven, fantasy, with imagination to spare. Two siblings, Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) and Noah (Chris O’Neil) find?um, something on the beach one day, which contains objects that seem to be of extraterrestrial origin. All of a sudden, these seemingly average kids can do seemingly impossible things. They certainly catch the attention of Noah’s teacher, Mr. White (Rainn Wilson) as well as the federal government. That tends to happen when you black out the entire power grid in the state of Washington.

Like “E.T.”-a clear influence on this movie-“The Last Mimzy” focuses a lot on the kids’ gradual understanding of what is happening to them. At first, the rocks that levitate, the “paperweight” that can move objects from one spot to another instantaneously and the technologically advanced stuffed rabbit that seems to be able to communicate with the children all just seem like toys. It is only when the stakes get raised that the kids-and their parents, and their teachers and the government-begin to see what is happening with a true sense of wonder and amazement.

-C.B.

“The Lives of Others”Sony Pictures ClassicsWritten and directed by Florian Henckel von DonnersmarckStarring: Ulrich Mhe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Martina Gedeck and Charly HbnerRated R/137 minutesOpened March 16, 2007Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Nothing changes the fact that “Pan’s Labyrinth” should have won Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars. But “The Lives of Others”-a German film that went home with the statuette instead-is at least a solid alternative. Billed as a thriller, this is more of a dual character study. On one side, there is Georg Dreyman, a popular playwright whose very inconspicuousness draws the attention of East Germany’s secret police. On the other side is Officer Hauptman, the man who oversees an extensive surveillance operation on Dreyman’s life. Not surprisingly, Dreyman is not as loyal as he appears, but the way Hauptman responds to his discoveries-what he reveals to his superiors and what he keeps secret-is the most surprising development.

When we first see Hauptman, we instantly see a villain. With his almost mathematically ruthless stare and dedication to even his most dubious interrogation techniques, he cannot be liked. But then we see the real person-he’s a completely isolated man, perhaps more damaged from his government job than the people whose lives he exposes and sometimes destroys.

“The Lives of Others” examines the ways in which a culture of surveillance not only intrudes on people’s lives, but controls them. And, even further, the effects it has on the collective psyche of an entire people.

-C.B.

“Reign Over Me”Columbia PicturesWritten and directed by Mike BinderStarring: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows and Donald SutherlandRated R/124 minutesOpened March 23, 2007Three out of four stars

Adam Sandler in a serious role! A story about a grieving 9/11 widower! Yes, there’s more to “Reign Over Me” than those two whopping distractions.

Writer/director Mike Binder, one of the most kidding, generous filmmakers around, couldn’t write a two-dimensional character if he tried. Even a judge played by Donald Sutherland who presides over the case t
o decide if Sandler should be institutionalized (it’s about time!) is given a scene of grizzly, colorful dialogue that no judge in reality would ever speak, but it sure sounds good in this movie.

Don Cheadle plays the old college roommate of Sandler’s post-traumatic-stricken widower (he looks and acts like an autistic Bob Dylan). They play “Shadow of the Colossus” on the PS2, which has all sorts of metaphorical value, I’m sure, but I’m just happy to see such an awesome game get such a shameless promotional plug.

The 9/11 angle in “Reign Over Me” feels a little heavy for a movie that skirts dangerously close to the sitcom level, but Binder and his actors pull it off with awkward, touching grace.

-A.A.

“Shooter”Paramount PicturesDirected by Antoine FuquaScreenplay by Jonathan Lemkin, based on the novel by Stephen HunterStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pea, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, Elias Koteas and Ned BeattyRated R/124 minutesOpened March 23, 2007Two-and-a-half out of four stars

Don’t mess with Mark Wahlberg. Even funnyman Will Ferrell knew this when he called out serious actors during that hilarious musical number at the most recent Academy Awards.

“MARK WAHLBERG! WHERE ARE YOU? I won’t mess with you. You’re actually kind of bad-ass. Once again, I hope we’re cool. You are very talented.”

In Antoine Fuqua’s “Shooter”-a mostly pedestrian throwback to ’70s and ’80s vigilante flicks mixed with ’90s man-on-the-run, political thriller nonsense-Wahlberg plays super-sniper Bobby Lee Swagger, a name that couldn’t sound more profanely masculine even if it were changed to Manly McFisterson. It nicely sums up Wahlberg’s performance as a tough guy who is framed by some bad government types for trying to assassinate the president.

The story (written by Jonathan Lemkin, based on the novel by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, who should know better) starts off realistic enough but gets more and more preposterously Rambo-esque as it goes along. Although you’ve gotta love a scene in which the bad guys smoke cigars and drink brandy while they chuckle smugly about how they got away with it all?only to have their sentry guard come crashing down through the skylight. You guys are wrong! Dead wrong! Don’t mess with Marky Mark and his funky bunch!

-A.A.

“TMNT”Warner Bros. PicturesDirected by Kevin MunroeScreenplay by Kevin Munroe, based on the comic book and characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter LairdStarring the voices of: Nolan North, James Arnold Taylor, Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart, Mako, Ziyi Zhang and Laurence FishburneRated PG/87 minutesOpened March 23, 2007Two-and-a-half out of four stars

Wait a second?the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are popular again? What am I, nine years old again? What’s happening? Everyone in this generation loved the Turtles growing up. We all had the action figures, we all got up on Saturday morning to watch the cartoon, we were all at the front of the line when the first live-action Turtles movie came out on March 30, 1990. Anyone my age who didn’t like the Ninja Turtles is probably a Communist.

But why a new movie? Why an all-animated movie geared almost exclusively toward kids and overly nostalgic 20-somethings? A few years ago, did writer/director Kevin Munroe come to a shattering realization that his generation was utterly meaningless and without character and so, in a desperate attempt to hearken back to the halcyon days of his youth, he decided to make another Turtles movie? That’s probably what happened. In fact, I’d put money on it.

“TMNT” is like last year’s “Curious George”-it’s not as sophisticated or mature as most modern animated features in the digital Pixar era. The story is every bit as simple and childish as the Saturday morning cartoon, and that has its delights. The story is easy to digest and, for those of us that grew up in the ’90s, all the characters are recognizable. As we all know, Raphael is the greatest Turtle of all-the sarcastic, rebellious bad-ass who thinks for himself and is hesitant to embrace the outdated collectivism of Splinter’s world ethos. In “TMNT,” he’s once again having his problems with that little sissy Leonardo, and once again, they will all come together to defeat the bad guys-in this case, a bunch of ancient warriors brought back from the dead.

Aside from possibly being offensive to the Asian community, “TMNT” isn’t bad.

Well, maybe it’s bad, but only for grown-ups, and that’s not the target audience. And after all, we are talking about giant mutated turtles that eat pizza and fight crime.

-C.B.

“TMNT”

“The Host”

“Shooter”

“Reign Over Me”

“The Lives of Others”

“The Last Mimzy”

“The Hills Have Eyes 2”

“Dead Silence”