FILM ‌ Capsule Reviews 

opening this week

The Dead Girl (R) The stories of five seemingly unrelated people (Giovanni Ribisi, Toni Collette, et al) just might lock together to reveal the circumstances surrounding the death of a young prostitute (Brittany Murphy).

The Hitcher (R) Collegiate couple Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) hit the road for spring break, but their trip soon turns into a waking nightmare after encountering a mysterious hitchhiker (Sean Bean).

The Last King of Scotland (R) Reviewed at left.

Pan's Labyrinth (R) Critics are going bonkers for Guillermo del Toro's (Hellboy) Spanish-language fairy tale about a small family in Spain who moves into an old house in 1943 after the rise of Fascism. Their eldest daughter, 12, falls in love with a mystical fawn who lives in the old, ruined labyrinth behind their new decrepit home.

Volver (R) Reviewed on page 39.

critical capsules

Alpha Dog (R) The "true life" story of a group of drug dealers who also happen to be wealthy, bored 20-somethings, and what happens when they kidnap a teen has the potential, somewhere deep down, to be a decent movie -— a fast paced, tense crime drama rife with social commentary that examines the consequences behind the glamorization of violence and crime. The problem is that director Nick Cassavettes didn't make that film, he made this one. And he seemingly has no purpose in mind, allowing the film to meander aimlessly before abruptly ending with no real payoff. Ben Foster and Justin Timberlake give good performances, but they're mostly wasted. —Justin Souther

Arthur and the Invisibles (PG) Almost insultingly derivative, lifting material from sources as disparate as Stuart Little and the Harry Potter franchise —- not to mention The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Crystal, a few touches of Tim Burton. It's a mess -— like something cobbled together by a kid who's desperately trying to ape all the movies he thinks are cool. But in its favor, it's a personal mess from legend Luc Besson — so there's nary a whiff of corporate think. This isn't just the crummy CGI animated movie of the week, cash in on a family market that sits through any rubbish that's tossed out. It's deeply flawed, but it has a handmade, personal feel that finally affords it a cockeyed endearing quality. —Ken Hanke

Curse of the Golden Flower (PG-13) Yes to opulence, yes to passion, yes to political murder and courtly intrigue and illicit sex and all that. But no — please god no — to histrionics overblown on a nuclear scale and impenetrable plotting. Zhang Yimou's recent films — Hero and House of Flying Daggers — left me in breathless awe of their dangerous beauty. But this this grotesquerie of a cinematic disaster is a total disconnect from cinematic reality. —MaryAnn Johanson

Dreamgirls (PG-13) This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent, or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) delivers a version that's simply, unobtrusively satisfying — entertainment writ large, and without apology. The obvious román-a-clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you're getting a thinly-disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. On a certain level, it may feel like only a minor variation on a hundred other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame — A Star is Born with a little more funk in its stride. Yet this is exactly the kind of story that soars with a score. —Scott Renshaw

Primeval (R) A singularly appalling effort, even in the realm of oversized animal movies. It's mostly just dull -— not to mention borderline incoherent. A bunch of bad actors are sent to Africa to do a TV report on a marauding supersized crocodile -— and the network head actually wants the critter brought back alive. It could have been enjoyable schlock, but it's tepid stuff and beast in question isn't terribly convincing. We do learn, however, that it's unwise to huddle together in a rickety gazebo perched over the water when a 25-foot reptile with a voracious appetite is on the prowl. —Ken Hanke

Stomp the Yard (PG-13) A lot like an extended version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, but with less red leather and more believable gang violence. Stomp the Yard follows a troubled teen as he moves to Atlanta to escape his shady past by enrolling at Truth University, where he soon learns about the importance of Greek life and their traditions involving step dancing. Of course, being the talented hoofer that he is, he's soon being recruited by rival fraternities, despite the fact that his unorthodox street style is at odds with their strict traditions. It's ultimately harmless, but too clichéd to really keep the audience's interest. —Justin Souther

Children of Men (R) Alfonso Cuarón's futuristic look at a dystopian society delivers in spades. The story is set in Britain of 2027. The world has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. A neo-Fascist Britain has closed itself off, rounding up any non-Brits and placing them in camps or deporting them. Women have become infertile, and no baby has been born in 18 years, so the human race is dying out. At least it seems that way until disillusioned former political activist Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by a terrorist group headed by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), and recruited to help get an inexplicably pregnant refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), past the British authorities to the safety of a ship being sent by the nearly mythical Human Project. Intensely and pointedly political (with a leaning toward 1960s activism), it's also entertaining and exciting — and some of the best filmmaking of 2006.

Code Name: The Cleaner (PG-13) A witless, tedious mess of a comedy. Cedric the Entertainer plays Jake Rodgers, a man who wakes up in a hotel room with amnesia, not to mention in bed next to a dead FBI agent. Jake then spends the next third of the film believing he's a secret agent, then finding out he's actually a janitor, but still believing that he's some type of super spy and so on. If you want 90 minutes of Cedric the Entertainer mugging for the camera, then this movie is for you. If you want a movie that's jokes have seemingly been lifted from rejected Bud Light commercials, then this movie is for you as well. For the rest of the world, you've been warned. —Justin Souther

Freedom Writers (PG-13) Uncompromising in its manipulation and filled with teeth-gnashing bad guys, Freedom Writers is strictly for fans of the "teacher who made a difference" sub-genre. It's the "true story" (naturally) of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), who inspired and empowered a classroom full of inner city kids by urging them to write their stories in theme books. When writer-director Richard LaGravense sticks to the kids' stories, his film is on surer footing than when he deals with the backstory of Gruwell and the classroom itself, which come off like suspiciously melodramatic variations on James Clavell's To Sir, With Love so much that you keep waiting for Lulu to show up and sing a theme song. —Ken Hanke

The Good Shepherd (R) It's difficult not to admire Robert De Niro for making The Good Shepherd. I certainly have no quibble with its politics, nor with the intentions behind it. But the film is simply so emotionally neutered that it's impossible to care about what happens on the screen. Telling the story of the C.I.A. as the biography of a fictional character, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), sounds like a good idea, because it puts a human face on the story, but De Niro is less interested in creating a fictionalized portrait of one man than in tackling the institution of the C.I.A. As a result, the man (especially as played by Matt Damon) is scarcely human. When the most likable character in a movie is a Nazi-sympathizing college professor (Michael Gambon) with a taste for hitting on his more handsome students, there's a problem. —Ken Hanke

Happily N'Ever After (PG) If you'd like Exhibit A of what is currently wrong with the state of American animation, look no further than Happily N'Ever After. This retelling of the Cinderella story is never as clever as it thinks it is, and is never anything more than a poor man's Shrek — right down to the celebrity voice casting (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sigourney Weaver, Freddie Prinze Jr. ... well, celebrities and borderline cases). Everything about this movie screams "generic," from the character models to the animation to the plot. The whole mess is dull and unfunny. —Justin Souther

Happy Feet (PG) George Miller's new film is the Moulin Rouge! of animated all-singing, all-dancing penguin movies. Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Miller takes an array of pop/rock songs -— a little Queen, a pinch of Prince, a dash of Elvis -— and uses them to create a musical tapestry of a soundtrack. As with Luhrmann's film, there's surprising depth and feeling to the use of the music that occasionally outdoes the originals. And Miller has crafted a visually stunning film with a simple yet subtext-rich tale of a misfit penguin, Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who, unlike others of his kind, can't sing, but dances like Astaire (an activity denounced as a perversion by the elders of the tribe). This and an ecology-minded subplot work well, but the structure is amazingly sloppy and meandering, making the film less than it might have been. —Ken Hanke

Little Children (R) Every year there's at least one wildly praised indie production that leaves me scratching my head over what all the fuss is about. This year it's Todd Fields' Little Children — an airless, condescending, self-important drama about the hypocrisy and lies underneath the picture-perfect facade of a Massachusetts bedroom town. Just about everyone in the town harbors a kinky secret or a crushed dream, while they distract themselves by banding together against the local child molester (Jackie Earle Haley). Part heavy-handed drama and part black comedy, the film never escapes the sense of being made by big city folk who like to feel superior to their suburban counterparts. It's well acted by an impressive cast — Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson — but it's also slow as molasses and cursed with a narration so pretentious in literary tone that it's unintentionally amusing. —Ken Hanke

Night at the Museum (PG) A middling high-concept, effects-driven star comedy that quickly turns out to be a concept in search of a plot. Ben Stiller plays a perennial loser who gets a job as night watchman in a museum where the displays come alive after hours. That's fine, but once we've seen him chased by a T. Rex skeleton, menaced by Atilla (Patrick Gallagher) and his Huns, insulted by a talking Easter Island head, nearly eaten by lions, outwitted by a cunning capuchin, and being advised by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) in the first 30 minutes of the movie, where can it go? The answer is not much of anywhere, so it simply repeats itself, then tacks on an unwieldy plot about the previous watchmen (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs). It's so-so family entertainment and completely disposable, but I don't think it will harm you. —Ken Hanke

Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13) Will Smith's latest offers for your consideration the heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad named Chris Gardner in the economically ravaged early 1980s and putting him in a shelter for the homeless with his absolutely adorable five-year-old tyke (Smith's actual son, Jaden) while working an unpaid internship at a high-powered brokerage-house. Happyness is based on Gardner's true story, but enough has been changed to make Gardner's situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was. Thankfully, screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino have taken great pains to squeeze all overt sentimentality out of the story. There's a smartness and a subtlety to Smith's performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. —MaryAnn Johanson

The Queen (PG-13) In an early scene, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) stares regally at the camera as she poses for a portrait. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan aim to take Her Royal Majesty down from the wall, but in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Exploring the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the filmmakers observe Elizabeth and new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) responding to the public grief, both of them struggling to understand the role of the monarchy in the modern world. An extended hunters-equals-paparazzi metaphor extends a touch too far, but the impressive performances — Sheen is nearly as terrific as the already much-lauded Mirren — contribute to a compelling, compassionate character study. —Scott Renshaw

Rocky Balboa (PG) The sixth, and presumably final, installment of the long running Rocky series, finds Rocky coming out of retirement for one last shot at glory. The movie works when it's examining the washed-up, aging, oafish Rocky (there are also parallels that can be drawn between Rocky and the career of writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone), which means your enjoyment of the film really depends on how much you buy into the character. The film is surprisingly good up until its climax, which is poorly paced and flatly directed, and has nothing even resembling tension. —Justin Souther

Thr3e (PG-13) The second release from Fox Faith films is billed as a Christian horror movie. Fair enough, but Thr3e (notwishstanding its copycat title, it's not even a tenth as scary as Se7en) is actually a psychological thriller, requiring God to be dragged in -—and strangely not emphasized. Apart from making the lead a seminary student and a last-minute line about needing God to teach us good and evil, this is just an incredibly lame and tame (even by PG-13 standards) affair. How tame? Well, the worst deed our killer ever manages is to incinerate a dog (offscreen). Serial killers work better when they actually kill someone. Ghastly performances and worse special effects make this an early contender for worst movie of 2007. —Ken Hanke

We Are Marshall (PG) We Are Marshall opens by boldly proclaiming, "This is a true story." I have no doubt that the essential facts are true. Similarly, I don't dispute that the 1970 plane crash that killed the bulk of the Marshall team and its coach was a tragedy, nor do I argue with the idea of bringing the story to the screen. None of this, however, makes the film itself anything other than a standard-issue uplifting sports movie, with heaps of clichés, syrupy music, and crane shots. A lead performance by Matthew McConaughey that can only be called peculiar doesn't help. —Ken Hanke


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