Hellboy II: Big-budget bizarro

Guillermo del Toro's dazzling sequel

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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

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (G) This first feature film inspired by the mighty American Doll franchise turns out to be a surprisingly classy and, dare I say it, literate production. Things get a little dry here and there, but this handsome, wholesome period piece compensates with just enough kid-friendly gestures to keep even the youngest viewers interested. The movie is set during The Great Depression (the last one, in case you were wondering), and stars Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin as a plucky, resourceful 10-year-old whose upper-middle-class family finds itself reduced to taking in boarders to make ends meet. At root, of course, this is just a light family entertainment (culminating in a Nancy Drew mystery, complete with dastardly crooks and buried treasure), but the movie doesn't shy away from troubling topics like kids coping with vanishing social status or fathers deserting families they can no longer support, underscoring the fragility of prosperity (now a timelier notion than ever) while fleshing out its occasionally poignant essaying of life in the 1930s. Even with its misbehaving monkey, a gaggle of wacky characters and a climactic, slapstick-heavy chase through the woods, Kit Kittredge is a movie for children who like to think, even if they won't admit it. Also stars Julia Ormond, Chris O'Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Zach Mills, Wallace Shawn, Glenne Headly and Willow Smith. 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

THE LOVE GURU (PG-13) Say hello to Mike Myers' first new character since his shagadelic secret agent — a goofy self-help guru who, in real life, has already drawn complaints of being a hurtful stereotype and demeaning to Indians. That said, don't count out the possibility of another Powers-like franchise on the horizon if the movie does well. Also stars Jessica Alba, Ben Kingsley and Justin Timberlake. (Not Reviewed)

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