- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

OPENING

• Black Christmas (2006) (R). An update of the unlamented 1974 horror thriller, which used the approach of Christmas as a backdrop for entrapping coeds, stalked in their sorority house by a serial killer. Glen Morgan, who remade “Willard” three years ago, wrote and directed this reprise, which casts Andrea Martin as a protective house mother for potential victims Michelle Trachtenberg, Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Opens Monday.

• The Children of Men (2006) (R). A dystopic thriller about worldwide biological panic and social breakdown later this century from the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Representing a desperate government, Clive Owen plays a bureaucrat pledged to protect the human race’s lone remaining pregnant woman. The cast includes Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. Opens Monday.

• Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) (R). Zhang Yimou completes a trilogy of lavish historical spectacles with this account of the rivalry and intrigue at the court of a 10th century Tang Dynasty emperor, portrayed by Chow Yun Fat, whose headaches include Gong Li as an estranged empress. In Chinese with English subtitles.

• Dreamgirls (2006) (PG-13). A belated movie version of the 1981 Broadway hit, adapted by Tom Eyen and directed by Bill Condon. He casts Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose as the members of a pop vocal trio of the early 1960s whose formation, success and personality conflicts were suggested by the emergence of Diana Ross and the Supremes. With Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover as the men who attach themselves to the group. Opens Monday.

• The Good German (2006) (R). An attempt to evoke aspects of “The Third Man,” not to mention “Chinatown” and “Casablanca.” This mystery melodrama is set in Berlin, circa 1945, on the eve of the Potsdam Conference between Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, who make only fleeting newsreel appearances. The plot lurches along with George Clooney, a journalist in uniform who longs to rescue old flame Cate Blanchett from intrigue and treachery. With Tobey McGuire and Beau Bridges. Directed in black-and-white by Steven Soderbergh.

• The Good Shepherd (2006) (R). A character portrait of a first-generation CIA recruit, Yale grad Matt Damon, whose initial idealism and dedication are sorely tested by Cold War failures and betrayals. Robert De Niro directed from a screenplay by Eric Roth. Mr. De Niro also has a principal role, along with Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton and John Turturro.

• Notes on a Scandal (2006) (R). One grotesque consequence after another results from the misbegotten association of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, respectively the new art teacher and veteran history teacher at a mind-boggling high school in London. Miss Blanchett indulges an affair with a student, prompting Miss Dench to become her confidante and tormentor. Directed by Richard Eyre from Patrick Marber’s adaptation of a novel by Zoe Heller. Opens Wednesday.

• Off the Black (2006) (R: Adult language) A teenager (Trevor Morgan) with a strained relationship with his father forges an unlikely bond with a new father figure (Nick Nolte). Their relationship deepens when the older man asks his new friend to pose as his son and attend his 40th high school reunion with him.

• Volver (2006) (R). The latest Pedro Almodovar fable, a convoluted soap opera with ghost-story motifs in which struggling but resourceful Penelope Cruz must dispose of a wretched consort, care for a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo), account for the curious behavior of her sister (Lola Duenas) and adjust to the astonishing reappearance of her mother (Carmen Maura). In Spanish with English subtitles.

• We Are Marshall (2006) (PG: Disturbing themes and some football violence). The 1970 plane crash that wiped out Marshall University’s football program is the source for this dramatic film. Matthew McConaughey stars as the university’s new football coach, a man facing near-impossible odds in starting a competitive team from scratch. “Marshall” co-stars Matthew Fox and Ian McShane of “Deadwood” fame.

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) —***.Three starslaboration 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

• 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

• Charlotte’s Web (2006) (G) — ***. A live-action remake of E.B. White’s beloved children’s book. Dakota Fanning stars as Fern Arable, the little girl who adopts a runty pig named Wilbur. Out in the barn, our porcine friend meets barnyard characters of all sorts, most notably an extremely dexterous spider named Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts), who will ultimately save his life. While lacking the fun musical accompaniment of the earlier film version, the movie is wholesome, incredibly touching, and likely to leave you teary-eyed. — Jenny Mayo

• Eragon (2006) (PG: Battle sequences and some frightening moments) — **1/2. 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. Some nifty dragon effects will win over younger viewers, but everyone else will be hamstrung by the tin-ear dialogue and false sense of adventure. — 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

• 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) — ***.Three stars. 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

• 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 nerve-wracking 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. Not reviewed.

• The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) (PG: Some language) — **1/2. Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a single father with little formal education — and no home — who pursues his dream of becoming a stockbroker. Mr. Smith’s real son stars along with him in this inspiring, true-life tale. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Rocky Balboa (2006) (PG: Boxing violence) — ***. Sylvester Stallone’s iconic hero returns for one last sequel. Rocky is lured back into boxing by the buzz surrounding an ESPN computer fight that matches him against the current champ, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver). Mr. Stallone, who wrote and directed, reaches back to give “Balboa” much of the heart from the first “Rocky.” — Christian Toto

• 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.

• 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 clever premise gives way to a mundane thriller which wastes a fine cast (including Greg Kinnear and Jim Caviezel). — Christian Toto MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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