- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

OPENING

• Because I Said So (2007) (PG-13). A reverse-spin variation on “The Perfect Man,” in which Hilary Duff presumed to act as matchmaker for mom Heather Locklear. Now a well-meaning but errant mother played by Diane Keaton blunders online in hopes of finding a suitable boyfriend for daughter Mandy Moore. With Lauren Graham and Piper Perabo as Miss Moore’s older sisters.

• Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) (No MPAA rating; adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence within a documentary format). A belated documentary feature by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith that recalls the countercultural nightmare engineered by Jim Jones. A pastor from the Midwest, Mr. Jones revealed megalomaniacal attributes after relocating to San Francisco and fostering a congregation that followed him to communual suicide in Guyana in 1978. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• The Messengers (2007) (PG-13). A debut American project for the Asian fraternal team of Oxide and Danny Pang. Sponsored by the Sam Raimi apparatus, the Pangs orchestrate supernatural alarm around a farm family in North Dakota. With Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, Kristen Stewart and Dylan McDermott.

• Opal Dream (2006) (PG). A whimsical new feature from Peter Cattaneo, director of “The Full Monty,” who observes the behavior of an imaginative little girl of the Australian Outback named Kellyanne, whose fanciful playmates seem as real to her as family and townspeople.

NOW SHOWING

• Absolute Wilson (2006) (No MPAA rating) — ***. A documentary about the life and work of avant-garde stage director and playwright Robert Wilson. Mr. Wilson’s frank revelations are front and center. Other luminaries interviewed include composer (and “Einstein on the Beach” collaborator) Philip Glass, critic Susan Sontag and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Alpha Dog (2007) (R: Pervasive drug use, mature language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity) — *1/2. The true-life kidnapping and murder of an L.A. teen is brought to life in this exploitative and numbing thriller. “Dog” collects a curious array of stars to tell its gruesome tale, including Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis and Emile Hirsch. — Christian Toto

• Arthur and the Invisibles (2007) (PG: Some mild peril and slightly violent scenes) — **. Through computer animation and live-action sequences, Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) brings his children’s book “Arthur and the Minimoys” to three-dimensional life. When Arthur (Freddie Highmore), a real-life boy, and his grandmother face eviction, he shrinks himself down to a tiny, computer-animated version of himself in order to enter the miniature world of the Minimoys and elicit help. Featuring the vocal talents of Madonna, David Bowie and Snoop Dogg, “Arthur” is an interesting hodgepodge of cultural references and, though it takes a few missteps, succeeds in being one of the more creative CGI films in recent years. — Jenny Mayo

• Blood and Chocolate (2007) (PG-13). A werewolf fable set in Bucharest, where heroine Agnes Bruckner works for a confectioner and struggles to overcome a girlhood lupine infection, which makes her susceptible to pack leader Olivier Martinez. On the hopeful side, it also makes her an object of passionate solicitude to Hugh Dancy, an American comic-book writer. Not reviewed.

• Catch and Release (2007) (PG-13: sexual content, language and some drug use) — **1/2. Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant helms her first film with this fun, if slightly saccharine, romantic dramedy. A tragic accident turns Gray Wheeler’s (Jennifer Garner) wedding day into her fiance’s funeral. While turning to her love’s best guy friends for consolation, she finds not only companionship but also a surprise love interest. She’ll need these relationships to help her deal with the secrets she’ll soon learn about the man she thought she knew through and through. — Jenny Mayo

• Children of Men — (2006) (R: Strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity)— ***his 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. Three Oscar nominations, including best screenplay. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• 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. Eight Academy Award nominations, including Eddie Murphy for supporting actor and Miss Hudson for supporting actress. — Robyn-Denise Yourse

• Epic Movie (2007) (PG-13). A burlesque of recent movie spectacles, written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who prepped on the “Scary Movie” farces. The targets include “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “X-Men” and the “Harry Potter” adventures. With Kai Penn, Adam Campbell and Jennifer Coolidge. Not reviewed.

• Freedom Writers (PG-13: Some violent content, mature themes and language) — **. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese tells the true-life story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a bright-eyed young teacher who enters a Long Beach, Calif., public high school in the wake of the Rodney King riots. Encountering a community plagued by violence coupled with a school system that lacks a means to effectively reach its students, she resolves to make a difference. She gives her students journals and educates them about other young people who have lived through wars (such as Anne Frank), and the results are miraculous. Unfortunately, the film is a bit cliche. — Jenny Mayo

• God Grew Tired of Us (2007) (PG: thematic elements and some disturbing images) — ***1/2. Director Christopher Quinn’s documentary joins three Sudanese “lost boys” who fled their homes following the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983) and ended up at a Kenyan refugee camp, then ultimately the United States through humanitarian efforts. Mr. Quinn’s cameras find three boys struggling to adapt to work-centric American life and bending beneath the weight of friends and family they left behind in Africa. While zipping through the historical context a bit, the film is funny, incredibly touching and likely to leave audiences questioning more than just the situation in Sudan. — Jenny Mayo

• The Good Shepherd — (2006) (R: Some violence, sexuality and language) — **1/2. A stellar cast headlines Robert De Niro’s second directorial effort. A fictionalized telling of the founding of the CIA, “The Good Shepherd” is a technical achievement but a story without a soul. — 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. Oscar nomination for best animated feature. — 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

• Inland Empire (2007) (R: Language, some violence, sexuality, nudity) — ***. David Lynch’s latest film stars Laura Dern as an actress and her big-screen alter ego. If you thought “Mulholland Drive” was too linear, you’ll love “Inland Empire.” — Kelly Jane Torrance

• 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 earned 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

• Letters From Iwo Jima (2007) (R: Graphic war violence) — ***1/2. Clint Eastwood’s second, and superior, World War II epic in the past few months focuses on the Japanese soldiers forced to fight in the waning days of the war. Weary troops dig in at Iwo Jima as the Allied forces advance for a major battle, and the director makes every element of it feel brutal and real. In Japanese with English subtitles. Four Academy Award nominations, including best movie and direction. — 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.

• Notes on a Scandal (2006) (R: Language and some aberrant sexual content) — ***1/2. Few moviegoing experiences this year were as pleasurable as watching Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the best actresses of their generations, go at each other in “Notes on a Scandal.” Miss Blanchett is a teacher having an illicit affair with a student, while Miss Dench uses her friend’s secret for her own purposes in this literate thriller turned melodrama. Oscar nominations to Miss Dench for best actress and Miss Blanchett for supporting actress. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Painted Veil (2006) (PG-13: Sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content) — ***1/2. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts star as a British couple reeling from infidelity and boredom in this exquisitely crafted take on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. They travel East to help Chinese villagers battle a cholera epidemic and learn about their fractured relationship in the process. — Christian Toto

• Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) (R: Graphic violence and some language) — ****. With his dark fairy tale for adults set in Franco’s Spain, which explores good and evil, childhood, imagination and politics in the tradition of Terry Gilliam, director Guillermo del Toro has made a masterpiece whose images are not soon forgotten. In Spanish with English subtitles. Three Oscar nominations, including best foreign-language film. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• 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. Academy Award nomination to Mr. Smith for best actor. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Queen (2006) (PG-13: Brief strong language) — ***. Helen Mirren gives a savvy, thoughtful interpretation of Queen Elizabeth II, who, as the film would have it, jeopardized the monarchy because she was insufficiently upset about the death of her son’s ex-wife, Diana, Princess of Wales — and is taught a thing or two about the public and the press by her green new prime minister, Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. With James Cromwell as Prince Philip. Four Oscar nominations, including best movie, best direction and best actress (Miss Mirren). — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Smokin’ Aces (2007) (R: Strong violence, pervasive adult language, some nudity and bloody imagery) — **. A Las Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) decides to squeal on the mob, and the mob strikes back with a vengeance. A team of man-hunters, including Ben Affleck and singer Alicia Keys, set out to shut up Mr. Piven’s character permanently while the FBI tries to keep him alive. It’s loud, nonsensical and bloody, but a few scenes display a light, comic touch. — Christian Toto

• Stomp the Yard (2007) (PG-13). An inspirational dance fable about a Los Angeles teenager, DJ (Columbus Short), who is admitted to the predominantly black Truth University in Atlanta, joins an unfashionable fraternity and brings glory to the house by adapting his “street” dancing style to the annual National Step Show Championship. Not reviewed.

• Venus (2007) (R: Nudity, adult language and mature themes) — ***1/2. Peter O’Toole stars as an aged ladies’ man who falls for his friend’s nurse despite their massive age difference. Their relationship isn’t sexual or even reciprocal, but it lets Mr. O’Toole’s character come alive for what could be the last time. Mr. O’Toole is his usual brilliant self, but co-star Jodie Whittaker holds her own as the object of his inappropriate affections. Oscar nomination to Peter O’Toole for best actor. — 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. Oscar nomination to Penelope Cruz as best actress. — Jenny Mayo MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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