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By The Inlander & r & & r &


BABEL


Babel concludes a really good trilogy (with Amores Perros and 21 Grams) about guilt and loss with a just OK meditation on the way people grieve all over the globe. From sexually reactive Japanese teens to an affluent, unhappy American couple (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, both very good), Babel proves we're all connected and we're all sad. (LB) Rated R





BECAUSE I SAID SO


When perpetually single mom Daphne (Diane Keaton) makes it her mission in life to find Mr. Right for her somewhat flighty youngest daughter, Milly (Mandy Moore), there is no pleasure to be found, only guilt. Lots and lots of guilt. The loose plot is more of a frame on which to hang the series of sappy scenes and frankly offensive mother-daughter sexual banter. And the plot is about as revelatory as a bad Hallmark card. Rated PG-13 (Toddy Burton)





BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE


An angsty clan of fashionable Eastern European werewolves is infiltrated by a scruffy writer. Drama about "tradition" and "inner nature" dominates most of this talky film, while the transformations from human to wolf look as convincing as old Star Trek beaming-up technology. Rated PG-13 (MD)





BLOOD DIAMOND


This is really two films. There's the horrifying view of the conflict diamond situation. You have warlords, and you have the common folk -- like Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) -- who are raped, mutilated, tortured and enslaved to mine the diamonds. On the other hand, you have all the running and shooting of good, brainless action. Blood Diamond is disjointed but effective. (LB) Rated R





BUGS


Real-life footage of bugs (mainly a praying mantis and a caterpillar) tells the story of their life in the rain forest. The IMAX screen closes in on the insects with a childlike intensity, but the directors have spiced things up with occasional effects -- such as Mantis Vision. Judi Dench, the film's narrator, brings a Shakespearean relish to discussions of what it feels like to eat your opponent's head. (MD) Imax, Not Rated





CATCH AND RELEASE


Jennifer Garner's fianc & eacute; dies. In the process of getting over that tragedy (like in so many other films with this exact plot), she finds love where she least expects it. (LB) Rated PG-13





CHARLOTTE'S WEB


The new live-action version of the classic E.B. White book features great CGI work, and a barn spider (voice of Julia Roberts) who is determined to save the life of a runt pig will appeal to young kids. The bittersweet story concerns life and death on the farm, but there's plenty of slapstick to keep kiddies occupied. (ES) Rated G





CHILDREN OF MEN


In the future, humanity has been infertile for 18 years, and Theo Feron must get Kee, nine months pregnant, past Britain's army, rebels and riotous mobs, to safety. The success of this film is not primarily in writer/director Alfonso Cuar & oacute;n's dialogue, but in the story he tells without speech. (LB) Rated R





THE DEPARTED


Martin Scorsese returns to form in this gritty remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film. Set in contemporary Boston, the story's premise is that the cops have a rat (Leonardo DiCaprio) in mobster Jack Nicholson's Irish gang, and Nicholson has one (Matt Damon) infiltrating the cops. Solid acting from all, tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, and an eclectic rock soundtrack. (ES) Rated R





DREAMGIRLS


Eddie Murphy's singing and acting as soul-rock star James "Thunder" Early shine even brighter than performances by the (fictional) Dreams (Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose) in this musical about the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of black performers in 1960s Detroit. The songs aren't memorable, but the film is flashy. (ES) Rated PG-13





EPIC MOVIE


With a cast that ranges from Carmen Electra to Fred Willard to Crispin Glover, the funny possibilities for Epic Movie are nearly endless. Unfortunately the plot doesn't leave as much room for laughter, spinning itself out as a skewering of Hollywood's recent superproductions (think Harry Potter and Superman). Weren't those films ridiculous enough on their own? (MD) Rated PG-13





ERAGON


Nurtured on the original Star Wars trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings saga, Eragon is little more than a fantasy amalgamation of those works' main moments minus the good filmmaking that made them meaningful. (MD) Rated PG





FREEDOM WRITERS


Hilary Swank plays real-life teacher Erin Gruwell, who, in the early '90s, got a classroom of troublemakers to learn tolerance by keeping journals. But this is no retread; this is sensitive storytelling, with great performances from the leads as well first-timers. (ES) Rated PG-13





THE HITCHER


A remake of 1986's The Hitcher, Sean Bean steps into the role of the ride-hitching killer, and brings heavy ambiguity to his crimes. Sophia Bush is the sexier half of a couple that gets caught up in his killing spree. Director Steve Meyers' adherence to Alfred Hitchcock's rules of terror makes the movie hideously plausible, despite some bad acting. (MD) Rated R





LAST KING OF SCOTLAND


Big Forest Whitaker steals this fictional film with his portrayal of the monstrous real-life Ugandan dictator General Idi Amin. But James McAvoy (the faun in Chronicles of Narnia) holds his own as a na & iuml;ve young Scottish doctor who settles in the African country to help villagers and then becomes, against his will, Amin's personal physician. The ending is flawed, but just about everything leading up to it is spellbinding. (ES) Rated R





LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA


Aside from being an American-made movie in Japanese about the Empire of Japan's side of the Iwo Jima battle, nothing distinguishes Clint Eastwood's companion film to Flags of Our Fathers. Ken Watanabe has the intensity to match the dark story, but his co-star -- young Kazunari Ninomiya -- can't keep from overacting throughout. (MD) Rated R





THE MESSENGERS


The Ring has almost single-handedly ruined the cinematic ghost story. Nearly every film produced in its wake contains the same things: pale ghost children with big eyes who walk like jerky spiders. The only thing that changes, usually, is where the creepy house the kids inhabit is located. That's true here too, though this time the kids come to a sunflower ranch in South Dakota. (LB) Rated PG-13





NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM


Putting Ben Stiller in a situation that's going to get out of control has been standard comedy formula for five years now. Night at the Museum brings nothing more to the mix than a special effects-driven set piece. (MD) Rated PG





NOTES ON A SCANDAL


Bill Nighy is really good as the cuckold in this tale of underage love and gay self-loathing, as is Cate Blanchett as his wife, the child abuser. Andrew Simpson is surprising as the object of her affection. Judi Dench... well, she's absolutely horrifying as the crone who so desperately wants Blanchett she'd gladly destroy her. The screenplay, though, is a bit lopsided in presenting motivations. (LB) Rated R





PAN'S LABYRINTH


As fairy tales for adults go, this one's a keeper. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Hellboy) takes us to post-Civil War Spain and shows us that world through the eyes of an imaginative young girl. But she's having a rough time with real life and desperately wants to believe in fairies. The film is stocked with figurative as well as real monsters (the girl's brutal stepfather, creatures in the woods) and has a fascinating take on life, death, and rebirth. Not at all for young kids. (ES) Rated R





THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS


Will Smith makes it hard for critics to write unkind things about him by starring in this family drama with his real-life son Jaden. As a father who goes to great lengths to keep his son from hardship, Smith has the kind of based-on-real-life material to make Oprah cry. (MD) Rated PG-13





THE QUEEN


The story of how Queen Elizabeth II dealt with the death of Princess Di, The Queen lives and breathes on the power of Helen Mirren's performance. The Queen centers on whether the queen's actions were the result of precedent, propriety or simply pride. (LB) Rated PG-13





SMOKIN' ACES


Jeremy Piven stars as a Vegas magician who's hooked up with the Mob and ends up as a target for all kinds of hit men. It's as funny as it is bloody, and it would be wise not to root even for characters played by familiar actors. This is similar in rapid-action style to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. (ES) Rated R





STOMP THE YARD


Oh, those crazy kids at Truth U. They're at a (fictional) black school in Georgia, so you know they're passionate about civil rights. If only they didn't have to spend so much time jukin' in all those step dance competitions. (MB) Rated PG-13





WE ARE MARSHALL


With uneven pacing, confusing tone shifts and ham-fisted direction, this film is a nice diversion at times, but fails on some pretty basic levels. (LB) Rated PG





CORRECTION


In the Jan. 25 issue, we incorrectly identified the setting of Pedro Almod & oacute;var's Volver as Barcelona and surrounding Catalonia. Several astute readers have suggested (and shooting locations seem to confirm) that the film actually takes place in Madrid and the bordering region of Castilla-La Mancha.

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