- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

OPENING

• Charlotte’s Web (2006) (G). A new movie version of the E.B. White classic about a remarkable barnyard menagerie, shot in Australia with a blend of live-action and photorealistic animation in the manner pioneered by “Babe” a decade ago. With Dakota Fanning as Fern plus the voices of Julia Roberts as Charlotte, Oprah Winfrey as Gussy and Robert Redford as Ike. The cast, vocal or visible, also includes John Cleese, Steve Buscemi, Reba McEntire, Thomas Haden Church, Kathy Bates and Cedric the Entertainer.

• Eragon (2006) (PG: Battle sequences and some frightening moments). The popular fantasy novel by Christopher Paolini is reborn as a motion picture gunning for the “Lord of the Rings” demographic. Young Edward Speleers plays Eragon, who slowly learns it’s his fate to become a Dragon Rider and fight an evil king. Oscar winner Rachel Weisz voices a computer animated dragon and John Malkovich plays the king.

• Night at the Museum (2006) (PG-13). The “Jumanji” method is revived in this comic fantasy about a new night watchman, Ben Stiller, who discovers the nervewracking aspects of his workplace, a museum whose exhibits come magically — and sometimes alarmingly — to life in the dead of night. With Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams, impersonating Theodore Roosevelt. Opens Wednesday.

• The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) (PG). A sentimental comedy about a single dad striving to work his way out of poverty while looking after his little boy, with Will Smith and his son Jaden as the heartwarmers and Thandie Newton as an eventual reward.

• Rocky Balboa (2006) (PG-13). The retired champ, again portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, also doubling as writer-director as he neared 60, is persuaded to defend his pride in an improbable heavyweight grudge bout, prompted by the publicity that surrounds a speculative computer fight matching him against the current title holder, Antonio Tarver. Opens Wednesday.

• Unknown (2006) (NR: Adult language, disturbing images and mature themes). Five men find themselves trapped in an abandoned warehouse with no memory of how they got there. Some are wounded, others are tied up, and slowly memories of how they got there start coming back to them. The thriller features Greg Kinnear and Jim Caviezel as two of the five men.

NOW SHOWING

• Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter) — ***1/2. A documentary feature by the Washington-based conjugal team of Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim, who uncover the bizarre, politically volatile case of a teenage Japanese girl kidnapped by the North Korean government in 1977. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. — Christian Toto

• Apocalypto (2006) (R: Extreme violence, gore, torture and bloodshed) — ***. Mel Gibson moves from the Bible to a civilization’s end with this thrilling adventure surrounding a Mayan family’s struggle for survival. A peaceful village gets attacked by a neighboring tribe, forcing a family man (Rudy Youngblood) to take extreme measures to protect his wife and child. The movie can’t convince us of Mr. Gibson’s larger themes of how civilizations collapse, but audiences will be too entertained to notice. Minimal dialogue, all in Mayan. — Christian Toto

• Babel (2006) (R) — ***. A third collaboration for the Mexican team of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez, who specialize in overlapping plots about aggrieved characters. The echoing scenarios now concern four families in different countries. This sprawling human drama is really an intimate film about relationships writ large, with every character well drawn and treated with delicate sympathy. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal star. Some dialogue in Moroccan, Spanish and Japanese with English subtitles. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Black Gold (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter) — **. This sounds like a good idea: a documentary about how Ethiopian coffee farmers are struggling to support their families while Western corporations skim the fat off the developed world’s $4-latte-a-day habit. Unfortunately, filmmakers Nick and Marc Francis produce a mild brew that preaches more than teaches, leaving audiences drowning in a watery, muddled discussion of too many issues. A tighter focus could have caffeinated the punch line a bit better. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. — Jenny Mayo

• Blood Diamond (2006) (R) — ***. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a South African smuggler pursuing a 100-karat pink diamond with the former slave who found it (Djimon Hounsou). While it won’t stop Americans from buying diamonds, this action-packed expose of an industry should make them care about a country torn apart by greed. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Bobby (2006) (R: Adult language, sexual situations, drug use and bloody imagery) — ***. Writer-director Emilio Estevez enlists a cavalcade of stars, from Anthony Hopkins to Sharon Stone, for this complicated yet loving ode to the late Robert F. Kennedy. The film follows 22 characters interacting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the site of Mr. Kennedy’s assassination. “Bobby” inspires while it entertains, even if it’s overly reverential to Mr. Kennedy. — Christian Toto

• Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) (R: Adult language, excretory humor, disturbing imagery, nudity and alcohol use) — ****. The ultimate in politically incorrect comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character visits the United States on a fact-finding mission to see what makes this country great. It’s merely an excuse for Mr. Cohen to stage a number of howlingly funny interviews with unsuspecting targets. — Christian Toto

• Casino Royale (2006) (PG-13: Intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity) — ***1/2. The James Bond franchise hits the rewind button as newcomer Daniel Craig assumes the license to kill. “Royale” is based on the first James Bond novel and shows how 007 became a super agent. This Bond is grittier and more realistic than his predecessors, yielding one of the best films in the spy canon. — Christian Toto

• Catch a Fire (2006) (PG-13: Scenes of torture, adult language and mature themes) — ***. A stirring true story of a South African who became radicalized after being tortured for a crime he didn’t commit. Patrick (Derek Luke) lives a tranquil life in South Africa under apartheid until police come calling after a terrorist bombing at the plant where Patrick works. Mr. Luke’s work is mesmerizing, and director Phillip Noyce keeps a firm balance between the political and thriller themes. — Christian Toto

• Ever Again (2006) (NR: Some disturbing imagery) — ***. Kevin Costner narrates this documentary tracking the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond. The film cautions that the hatred which peaked during the first half of the 20th century could be happening again. Only this time, according to the movie, the movement is being fed by Islamic extremists, not Hitler’s Germany. The documentary lacks visual pizazz, but it’s message is both haunting and well defined. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. — Christian Toto

• Flushed Away (2006) (PG: Crude humor and mild mouse peril) — **1/2. This computer animation begins with a rather vile premise: A hoity-toity pet mouse accidentally gets flushed into London’s sewers. After pulling some jokes from humor’s lowest depths, the film vaults beyond its odoriferous setup into a playful, innovative fantasy land where rodent bad guys ride electric mixers like Jet Skis and slugs become unintentional heroes. Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Ian McKellen are the vocal co-stars. — Jenny Mayo

• For Your Consideration (2006) (PG-13: Sexual references and adult language) — ***. The folks behind “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” are back with a new improv-based comedy, showing what happens when the cast of a low-budget film get sidetracked by Oscar buzz. “Consideration” features the same sly wit shown in those aforementioned comedies along with some needed swipes at our shallow culture. — Christian Toto

• The Fountain (2006) (PG-13: Some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language) — ***. A mystical-epic romantic saga spread over a millennium by writer-director Darren Aronofsky, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as his recurrent love match. The chronicle begins in 1500 with Mr. Jackman as a conquistador, continues in 2000 when he’s become a medical researcher and concludes in 2500 when he’s an astronaut. As the story bounces between centuries, it can be difficult at first to figure out what is going on. But patient viewers will be rewarded by one of the most beautiful films of the year, both visually and emotionally. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Happy Feet (2006) (PG: Some rude humor and mild peril involving hungry sea lions) — **. The latest animated flick from Warner Bros. In it, penguin-parents Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) beget the adorable, happy-footed Mumble (Elijah Wood). Rather than developing the requisite singing skills of his breed, Mumble shows more prowess in tap dancing, which eventually causes him to be cast out and sent on a journey to explore himself and his world. — Jenny Mayo

• The History Boys (2006) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor). ***1/2. The smash stage play becomes one of the year’s most thoughtful and entertaining films. Eight Yorkshire boys aim to get into Oxford and Cambridge with the help of their teachers, who argue over the importance of art to life. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Holiday (2006) (PG-13) — **1/2. A star-studded romantic comedy from writer-director Nancy Meyers. Two women, one in L.A. and the other in London (played respectively by Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet), swap houses during the holidays in hopes of washing their respective men out of their hair. In the process, however, they open the door to new trysts (with Jude Law and Jack Black). The film’s themes of finding love in unexpected places and making it last in adverse circumstances might be age-old. But somehow, the talented Ms. Myers finds a way to make it feel new — just in time for the holidays. — Jenny Mayo

• The Last King of Scotland (2006) (R: Some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language) — ***1/2. This fictionalized study of Ugandan despot Idi Amin guarantees Forest Whitaker an Oscar nomination for his nuanced and mesmerizing turn as Amin. The rising young Scottish actor James McAvoy plays a Scottish medical missionary, a naive idealist who becomes Amin’s personal physician and eventually an unwitting partner to his crimes. The film offers not just a sophisticated understanding of the cult of personality but, with Mr. Whitaker’s performance, an engrossing tale right from the start through its bloody end. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Nativity Story (2006) (PG: Some violent content) — ***. Director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) gives audiences the story behind the nativity scene millions hold so dear. “Nativity” follows young, pregnant Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as she travels to Bethlehem with her new husband, Joseph (Oscar Isaac). This “Story” takes great pains not to upset the faithful, and its delicate renderings of Mary’s plight should entrance even nonbelievers. — Christian Toto

• Running With Scissors (2006) (R: Language, mild violence and mature themes) — ***. Writer-director Ryan Murphy re-creates — or at least re-imagines — the zany environment of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir about life with calamitous bohemian parents (Alec Baldwin and Annette Bening) in the 1970s. After they divorced, Mr. Burroughs was entrusted to the family of his mother’s psychiatrist (Brian Cox), a family equally zany. The neat story is 100 percent well-acted. Miss Bening, in particular, is riveting. — Jenny Mayo

• Stranger Than Fiction (2006) (PG-13: Some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity) — ***. Will Ferrell discovers that his life parallels the plot of a novel being written by Emma Thompson, who wants to kill off his character. Mr. Ferrell, playing it straight, brings a surprising amount of pathos to the IRS agent who only starts learning to live when he learns he’s about to die. A funny film with some clever writing and welcome turns by Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Linda Hunt. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny (2006) (R: Adult language, vulgar humor and drug use) — **. Jack Black’s comical side project Tenacious D makes its big-screen debut. The film shows how Tenacious D band mates JB (Mr. Black) and KG (Kyle Gass) first met and decided to become the greatest rock band in the world. “Pick” is as silly as it sounds, but the duo stage a few inspired comic sequences. — Christian Toto

• Ten Items or Less (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter) — **1/2. The talents of Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega turn this slight character piece into something special. Mr. Freeman is an out-of-work movie star whose research leads to an unlikely friendship with a down-and-out supermarket clerk. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Unaccompanied Minors (2006) (PG). A holiday farce in the spirit of “Home Alone,” set at a snowed-in airport where an anxious official, Lewis Black, is harassed by five mischievous kids as they wait out a blizzard. Not reviewed. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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