- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

OPENING

• Babel (2006) (R). A third collaboration for the Mexican team of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez, who did “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams” and specialize in overlapping plots about aggrieved characters. The echoing scenarios now concern four families in different countries. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal star. Some dialogue in Moroccan, Spanish and Japanese with English subtitles.

• Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) (R: Nudity, adult language, disturbing imagery and vulgar humor). Sacha Baron Cohen brings his irreverent Borat character to the big screen. Naive Borat, a journalist from Kazakhstan, travels to the U.S. to bring back lessons on what makes a country great.

• Driving Lessons (2006) (PG-13). A vehicle of his own for Rupert Grint, who portrays Ron in the Harry Potter adventures. He plays a vicar’s son whose trying summer, dominated by driving lessons with his mother (Laura Linney) and volunteer work at a retirement home, is transformed by a part-time job with a retired actress (Julie Walters).

• Flushed Away (2006) (PG). A collaboration between the Aardman animation studio of “Wallace & Gromit” renown and DreamWorks that transposed the pretext to a computer animation format. Envisioned as a nutty variation on “The African Queen,” the plot follows a posh society rat after he’s flushed down a toilet and befriended by a resourceful subterranean prole. Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Ian McKellen are the vocal co-stars.

• La Moustache (2006) (No MPAA rating). A whimsical comedy-thriller about a man who shaves his moustache, an adornment throughout his adult life, only to discover that no one seems to notice any difference in his appearance. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006) (PG). Martin Short is the farcical troublemaker, an envious Jack Frost, in this third seasonal installment of the Tim Allen comedy series about a divorced suburban dad recruited to carry on the identity of Santa Claus. With Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin.

NOW SHOWING

• Catch a Fire (2006) (PG:13: Scenes of torture, adult language and mature themes) — ***. Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit Proof Fence”) directs this 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 Mr. Noyce keeps a firm balance between the political and thriller themes. — Christian Toto

• Conversations with God (2006) (PG: Mature themes, some mild adult language) — *1/2. Neale Donald Walsch’s popular book series comes to the big screen. A middle-aged radio show host (Henry Czerny) asks some tough questions of God, which starts an inspirational dialogue. “Conversations” means well, but its hokey staging and laughable dialogue strip it of any meaningful purpose. — Christian Toto

• Death of a President (2006) (R) — **. In this mock-documentary, British filmmaker Gabriel Range envisions the assassination of President George W. Bush on Oct. 19, 2007. The film is neither as good nor as a bad as the pundits say. The film does not revel in the president’s death — in fact, the event is treated with a surprising lightness of touch. The real achievement is that this talented director has made an astonishingly good-looking, realistic pseudo-documentary at the bargain basement price of $2 million. It sets the stage for a compelling political study, but Mr. Range only hints at the difficult questions such an audacious project should be asking. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Departed (2006) (R: Brutal violence, pervasive adult language, some strong sexual content and drug material) — ***. Director Martin Scorsese re-teams with Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) in a tale about going deep undercover with a Boston mafia boss (Jack Nicholson). Mr. Scorsese’s latest is as good, and as bloody, as it gets for the film’s first two-thirds. Sadly, the ending lacks the emotional resonance this disturbing saga demands. The terrific cast includes Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin. — Christian Totoç

• Employee of the Month (2006) (PG-13: Lewd and crude humor and language) — **. The first movie comedy vehicle for HBO headliner Dane Cook, cast as the resident slacker at a discount retail store. He is suddenly motivated to ingratiate himself with a new checkout clerk, Jessica Simpson, whose dating standards exclude guys without enough initiative to compete for Employee of the Month honors. It must have sounded like a comedy lover’s dream. Unfortunately, the end product is like a trip to SuperClub: You got some necessities — tuna, multivitamins, etc. — but mostly, you ended up with a whole lot of junk you didn’t really need. — Jenny Mayo

• Flags of Our Fathers (2006) (R) — ***. The first of two combat sagas about the battle of Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood. This forerunner derives from the best-selling chronicle by James Bradley, whose father was one of the five Marines and a Navy corpsman immortalized in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi in 1945. The film centers largely on the three flag-raisers who survived: John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) — heroes exploited by War Bond tour organizers who call on them to help raise money to keep the war going. It’s an important history lesson taught by an impressive cast, and it calls into question our very notions of heroes and history. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Flicka (2006) (PG) — *1/2. This newest rehashing of Mary O’Hara’s beloved book, “My Friend Flicka,” is fine if you’re a horse-loving kid with a faded, dog-eared copy of the book in hand. The tale of a Wyoming rancher’s 16-year-old daughter who finds and tames a majestic black mustang is wholesome, endearing and visually just lovely. Adults who have to sit through all the melodrama, the proselytizing about preserving the spirit of the West, and even some rainy crying scenes, may find it’s time to put “Flicka” out to pasture. Alison Lohman plays the girl and Tim McGraw and Maria Bello her parents. — Jenny Mayo

• The Guardian (2006) (PG-13) — **. “Top Gun” meets “The Perfect Storm” in this admiring Coast Guard showcase. Kevin Costner plays an emotionally wounded Coast Guard rescue swimmer who gets stuck training a bunch of know-nothing cadets, among them Ashton Kutcher as a whippersnapper with attitude. But forget the testosterone, the over-the-top effects, the stock female characters and the hackneyed lines. The film wants viewers to see the sacrifices the Coast Guard, particularly rescue swimmers, makes daily to save lives, and it does succeed in illuminating the experiences of a silent elite. — Jenny Mayo

• Infamous (2006) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; graphic depictions of a murder) — *.1/2. The other movie about Truman Capote while he was researching and writing “In Cold Blood.” In this colorful portrait, Capote (British actor Toby Jones) isn’t just eccentric and slightly effeminate, he’s flamboyant. The foil to his over-the-top behavior comes by way of his reserved research companion and childhood friend, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock in a joy of a performance). And here the sexual tension between the writer and murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) steams right to the surface. “Infamous” is a very good film that’s well acted, particularly by Miss Bullock and Mr. Jones. But it’s too bad that “Capote” came out first. — Jenny Mayo ***. The British black comedy is a wonderful institution, and this one is one of the funniest on screen in quite some time. Maggie Smith plays a Mary Poppins-like new housekeeper with homicidal tendencies who brings order — in her own mysterious way — to the dysfunctional family of an absent-minded vicar (Rowan Atkinson) and his adulterous wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). Rarely has wrongdoing been so much fun. Patrick Swayze co-stars. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Last King of Scotland (2006) (R: Some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language) — …***edical missionary who becomes Amin’s personal physician and eventually an unwitting partner to his crimes, guarantees Forest Whitaker an Oscar nomination for his nuanced and mesmerizing turn as Amin. As the physician, the rising young Scottish actor James McAvoy plays a naive idealist whose portrayal suggests that idealists may be the world’s most dangerous people. 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

• Little Children (2006) (R) — **1/2. A romantic melodrama about a triangle involving Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly, interconnected suburbanites in East Wyndham, Mass. Director Todd Field probes the topics of love, marriage, career, violence and, most important, the relationships between parents and their children, with subtlety and deftness. But he allows Tom Perrotta’s novel, from which the film is adapted, to dominate the film via a voiceover narrative that is unnecessary and annoying. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Man of the Year (2006) (PG-13) — *1/2. An awkward mix of satire and suspense that stars Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-like talk show comedian who gets elected president. It’s a perfect illustration of Hollywoo’d’s tendency to turn Washington into a version of itself, plying politics as show business. The climactic final speech even occurs on a broadcast of “Saturday Night Live.” The compression required in a two-hour film makes accurate depictions of politics a challenge — one that “Man of the Year,” certainly, fails to meet. With Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Linney, Lewis Black, Faith Daniels, Tina Fey and James Carville. — Peter Suderman

• Marie Antoinette (2006)— (PG-13) — ** . Sofia Coppola’s attempt at historical costume melodrama and whimsy, with Kirsten Dunst as the ill-fated consort of Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). Miss Coppola accompanies the period charades with a contemporary rock score. On the surface, the film is a frothy piece of eye candy impossible not to savor. But what starts out as a character study devolves in tableaux of gambling, shopping and lovemaking that waste one of the year’s best casts Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noialles, Rip Torn as Louis XV and Steve Coogan as the Austrian ambassador. In the process, the generic monarch loses all sympathy, and Miss Coppola’s film ends up being all style, no soul.

— Kelly Jane Torrance

• Open Season — (2006) (PG: Occasional slapstick vulgarity)— ***. The debut film by Sony Pictures Animation, this goofy and witty buddy flick about a tame bear (voiced by Martin Lawrence) that liberates a deer (voiced by Ashton Kutcher) on the eve of hunting season is one both young and old can appreciate. Lush animation, a complex story line, funny one-liners and physical comedy make it very entertaining. — Jenny Mayo

• The Prestige (2006) (PG-13) ***1/2. Christopher Nolan’s new movie is a period piece, a Hitchcockian thriller and a science-fiction picture rolled into one as the friendly competition between two illusionists (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) in turn-of-the-20th-century London devolves into lethal obsession. The look of the film is impeccable, and as the rivalry between the two becomes more intense, so does the suspense. “The Prestige” named for the part of a magic trick that offers something shocking is one of the most entertaining films of the year. With Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• The Queen (2006) (PG-13: Brief strong language) — ****. It used to be war, poverty and assassination that kept monarchs up at night. Now it’s whether they feel enough. That odd change in Western society is dramatized in “The Queen,” with Helen Mirren in a savvy, thoughtful interpretation of the queen 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. The supporting cast includes James Cromwell as Prince Philip. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• Running With Scissors (2006)(R — language, mild violence and mature themes) — ***. Writer-director Ryan Murphy, who has a penchant for the sensational, 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. It’s a neat story, one in which its protagonist discovers peace and even comedy amid anguish. And it’s 100 percent well-acted. Miss Bening, in particular, is riveting. — Jenny Mayo

• Saw III (2006) (R). Another sequel to the torture dungeon horror franchise, with Tobin Bell still on board as the resident fiend, called Jigsaw. Shawnee Smith also returns as his apprentice. The victim list includes Angus Macfadyen. Darren Lynn Bousman once again directs, collaborating with the same sadistic sceenwriters, Leigh Whannell and James Wan. Not reviewed

• Sweet Land (2006) (No MPAA rating). An elegiac independent feature about immigrant families in rural Minnesota, written and directed by Ali Selim with a cast that includes Ned Beatty, Lois Smith and Paul Sand. Not reviewed

• Tideland (2006) (No MPAA rating). The latest Terry Gilliam movie, an adaptation of a book by Mitch Cullen about the dream life of a girl (Jodelle Ferland) whose imagination runs wild in seclusion, when she moves to a country home with her widowed father, a druggie rock musician played by Jeff Bridges. The cast also includes Jennifer Tilly and Janet McTeer. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Not reviewed

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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