- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

OPENING

• Absolute Wilson (2006) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter). A biographical portrait of the avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson, compiled by Katharina Otto-Bernstein. Her interview subjects include David Byrne, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, Jessye Norman and the late Susan Sontag. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• 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.

• Catch and Release (2007) (PG-13). A romantic comedy that revives the vintage Hollywood convention of requiring the heroine to choose among three suitors. The switch here is that Jennifer Garner has just lost a fiance to sudden death and discovers he was not everything she believed. The potential replacements are played by Kevin Smith, Sam Jaeger and Timothy Olyphant.

• 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.

• 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 killers, 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.

NOW SHOWING

• 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 exploitive 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, while it takes a few missteps, succeeds in being one of the more creative CGI films in recent years. — Jenny Mayo

• 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

• 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

• 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

• 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’ve lived through wars (like 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 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 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. — 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 Hitcher (2007) (R). Another superfluous remake of Robert Harmon’s 1986 thriller about the folly of offering rides to psychopathic hitchhikers. A hulking but semi-hallucinatory Rutger Hauer terrorized Jennifer Jason Leigh and C. Thomas Howell in the original, which spawned a straight-to-video remake only five years ago. This replica, directed in New Mexico by Dave Meyers, threatens college sweethearts played by Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton. With Sean Bean. Not reviewed.

• 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 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

• Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) (R: Graphic war violence) — ***1/2. Clint Eastwood’s second, and superior, World War II epic in the last 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. — Christian Toto

• Miss Potter (PG: Brief mild language) — **1/2. Renee Zellweger stars as Beatrix Potter in this bland biopic about the author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Neither star nor script invests this extraordinary Edwardian with much depth. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• 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. — 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 that 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. — 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. — 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. — Kelly Jane Torrance

• 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. — 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 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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