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IRON MAN (PG-13) Even if every aspiring blockbuster released over the next few months turns out to be a massive dud, the summer of '08 will be fondly remembered for Iron Man, a credit to popcorn movies everywhere. Marvel Comics' metal-suited superhero is shepherded to the big screen by director Jon Favreau (Elf, Made) and co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men), a talented team that supplies a surprisingly smart story that moves briskly while beautifully balancing humor and darker moments. There's also a super cast including Gwyneth Paltrow as pitch-perfect girl Friday Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges as a towering weapons magnate with Daddy Warbuck's cue-ball head — but this is ultimately Robert Downey Jr.'s show, who invests the role of Iron Man's alter ego, playboy wunderkind Tony Stark, with enough charm, pathos and irreverent edge to keep us glued to the screen. Although not as visually poetic as the superhero movies of Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) or as existentially engrossing as the darker-than-dark Batman Begins, Iron Man is the real deal — a first-rate comic-book flick as suitable for grown-ups as it is for kids. Also stars Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub and Hilary Swank. 3.5 stars

KUNG FU PANDA (PG) Kung Fu Panda doesn't offer much more than a reasonably pleasant but surprisingly savvy stew of talking animals engaged in grand quests, and Joseph Campbell's theory of the Hero's Journey isn't the only mythos to be reckoned with here. George Lucas' shadow likewise looms large, with Jack Black's fuzzy, flabby hero, Po, inexplicably chosen for his world-shaking mission and trained by a wise, Yoda-like master (a pint-sized mouse voiced by Dustin Hoffman), while a promising Jedi leopard (Ian McShane) slinks over to the dark side to become the movie's monumental Darth Vader figure. Fleshing out the story's bare bones is a goodly amount of slapstick, some fairly clever one-liners, several lavishly choreographed, martial-arts-based action sequences and an eye-catching animation style that owes as much to ancient Asian scroll paintings as it does to the classic Shaw Brothers films of the '60s and '70s. There's a little something for almost everyone here, but kung fu fanboys will take particular delight in touches like the legendary schools of martial arts made literal via Po's anthropomorphic sidekicks — a snake, crane, mantis, monkey and tiger (the last two given voice by Jackie Chan and Angelina Jolie). Also features the voices of Seth Rogan and Lucy Liu. 3.5 stars

SEX AND THE CITY: THE MOVIE (R) Romantic relationships are fleeting but a designer handbag is forever in Sex and the City: The Movie, nearly two hours of product placement disguised as a feature film. Although basically just a criminally bloated chick flick, the big-screen Sex often feels more like a slightly revamped sitcom from decades past, with its four gal pals coming off as if Mary and Rhoda had cloned themselves, consumed a steady diet of Danielle Steele, scrounged up the cash for better wardrobes, and spent more of their time talking about, and occasionally having, sex. Writer-director Michael Patrick King dutifully trots out a stream of minor infidelities, misunderstandings, bedroom problems, commitment issues and the like, but the threadbare plot is essentially driven by the three S's — shoes, shopping and sex (or, more specifically, the idea of sex, since there's surprisingly scant shtupping in this rather tame project, save for a horny little dog who shows up to hump a pillow or a pile of laundry whenever the movie requires a laugh). Those who thrill to spotting fabulous designer items by Prada, Gucci and Chanel will be in heaven here. Those of us less enamored of montages of dresses, jewelry and stiletto heels will discover a brand of fashion porn every bit as dubious as the so-called torture porn dished out by some movies these days. Fans of the series probably won't be much dismayed by the lack of depth — think of it as Transformers transformed as a chick flick — but the rest of us will find so little of interest that it's hard not to start fixating on how the little wart on Sarah Jessica Parker's chin seems to change size from scene to scene. Stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth and Jennifer Hudson. 2 stars

SON OF RAMBOW (PG-13) Raised in an austere religious sect forbidding modern diversions like movies, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a pop-culture-deprived kid whose conduit into the modern world is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), an underaged hellion who changes the boy's life by introducing him to the Stallone testosterone-fest First Blood. The effect is nothing less than a ritual deflowering opening up the floodgates of movie love, and Lee puts Will's newly realized passion to good use, enlisting him to work on an amateur production he's entering in a BBC competition — but it turns out that everybody really does want to direct, and Lee's film gets co-opted, first by Will (who turns it into a Rambo remake filtered through his own Freudian demons) and then by an impossibly pretentious French exchange student named Didier (Jules Sitruk), who commandeers it for his own personal vanity project. Son of Rambow's final act sets out to overcome this obstacle, along with a series of other tall orders that reach critical mass before arriving in a neat and tidy place located somewhere between heartwarming and cloying. The movie isn't terribly ambitious, but its coming-of-age tale rings true while offering up a charming testament to the power of movies, along with a bit of crowd-pleasing slapstick and some funny/scary reminders of that moment in the early-'80s when New Wave killed everything that was good about Punk. Also stars Jessica Hynes, Jules Sitruk, Neil Dudgeon and Ed Westwick. 3.5 stars

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