- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

OPENING

• — The Painted Veil (2006) (PG-13: Sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content.) A new movie version of the Somerset Maugham novel, an MGM vehicle for Great Garbo 75 years ago. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts star as a British couple reeling from infidelity and boredom. They travel east to help Chinese villagers battle a cholera epidemic and learn about themselves in the process.

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 Maya 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 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 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. Not reviewed.

• 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). Though 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 superagent. 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 ultimately will save his life. Though 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

• Children of Men — (2006) (R: Strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity)— ***. The masterful Clive Owen stars as a cynic recruited to save the world in this carefully crafted dystopian sci-fi piece. In London 2027, no children have been born in 18 years. When rebels discover a pregnant woman, warring factions will stop at nothing to use her for their own ends. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) (R: Violent swordplay and mature themes) — **1/2. Director Zhang Yimou brings his visual brilliance to a tale of a Chinese emperor battling with his dysfunctional clan. “Curse” lacks the grandeur of Mr. Yimou’s best work (“House of Flying Daggers”) but it still has a brilliant moment or two for patient audiences. In Chinese with English subtitles. — Christian Toto

• Dreamgirls — (2006) (PG-13: Language, racism, some sexuality and drug content) — ***1/2. Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose play the members of a pop vocal trio of the early 1960s loosely based on the Supremes. For the most part, the $70 million big-screen adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit is as good as its hype — as is Jennifer Hudson as Effie White, in an astonishing film debut. Director Bill Condon skillfully translates the musical to the big screen in this timeless tale of backstage ambition, racism, heartache and redemption that spans the 1960s and ‘70s. — Robyn-Denise Yourse

• 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 effect 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 that 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 its 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 fantasyland 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

• The Good German — (2006) (R: Language, violence and some sexual content) — ***. Steven Soderbergh’s homage to the golden age of Hollywood was made using only 1940s filmmaking techniques. The result is a visually stunning but thematically uneven take on love and betrayal during wartime. George Clooney and Cate Blanchett approach the greatness of Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Good Shepherd — (2006) (R: some violence, sexuality and language) — **1/2. A stellar cast headlines Robert De Niro’s sec;l

• 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 Los Angeles 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 Miss Myers finds a way to make it feel new — just in time for the holidays. — Jenny Mayo

m 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 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 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.

• 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.

• 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. Mr. Nolte’s stellar work is nearly matched by Mr. Morgan, who keeps his young character from becoming a hackneyed teen figure. — Christian Toto

• 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.

• 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 that wastes a fine cast (including Greg Kinnear and Jim Caviezel). — Christian Toto

• Volver — (2006) (R: Morbidity, mild violence and adult themes) — …. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s 16th full-length feature. The tenured writer-director returns to the big screen and to his homeland of La Mancha to tell this tale of two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), whose mother (Carmen Maura) re-enters their lives as a ghost. The cloud of magical realism hangs over this pastiche of hilarious, heartwarming and painfully honest vignettes, making for a beautifully textured film. In Spanish with English subtitles. — Jenny Mayo

• We Are Marshall (2006) (PG: Disturbing themes and some football violence) — .1/2. The 1970 plane crash that wiped out Marshall University’s football program is the compelling source for this poorly realized film. Matthew McConaughey gives a woeful performance as the university’s new football coach trying to start a competitive team from scratch. — Christian Toto MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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