Capsule reviews from recently reviewed movies

Arthur and the Invisibles, Notes on a Scandal

UPCOMING RELEASES

ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES (PG) Action stylist Luc Besson dives head first into family viewing territory with this animated children's fantasy (adapted from his own book) about a young boy who shrinks to bug-size, encounters various talking bugs and other strange creatures, and becomes embroiled in the inevitable cosmic showdown between Good and Evil. Despite the bad buzz, this might be worth a glance if only for the voice talent assembled, a cast that includes Madonna, David Bowie, Snoop Dogg, Robert De Niro, Mia Farrow and Harvey Keitel. Opens Jan 12 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

NOTES ON A SCANDAL (R) A fierce performance by Cate Blanchette and an even more remarkable one by Judi Dench are the main reasons to see Notes on a Scandal, a solid little thriller that has something bad to say about nearly all of its characters. Blanchette stars as Sheba Hart, a greenhorn teacher who gets taken under the wing of veteran instructor Barbara Covett (Dench), an oddball spinster whose affection for the younger woman goes from creepy to deadly. Blanchett's character is no angel either, and her steamy affair with one of her 15-year-old students only complicates the film's nasty turn of events and snowballing head games. In the end, the film doesn't really amount to much more than a retooled and interestingly textured variation on your basic Fatal Attraction cat-and-mouse, but some of the twists and turns are surprisingly effective, and Dench and Blanchette are a pairing made in cat-and-mouse heaven. Also stars Bill Nighy. Opens Jan 12 at local theaters. HHH 1/2

RECENT RELEASES

APOCALYPTO (R) For those of you completely over Mel Gibson after his recent tirades, and wondering if there might be any possible reason to be interested in yet another foray into subtitled, gore-soaked sadism from this controversial celebrity, I urge you to give Mel another chance. Although it's just a chase movie at its stripped-down core (think The Most Dangerous Game by way of John Woo's Hard Target), Apocalypto does what it does exceedingly well. The film's exotic flourishes are as intoxicating as they are omnipresent, even as Apocalypto plows ahead with the energy and compelling forward momentum of a Mad Max popcorn epic. It begins in a small jungle village, explodes into the head-spinning chaos and terrible beauty of a full-blown Mayan city, then resolves itself in a final burst of speed and motion, as the protagonist races to elude his murderous pursuers and make it home alive. Apocalypto is no masterpiece, but it's a more-than-respectable effort from a director who, at his best, produces some of the most visceral moviemaking Hollywood has to offer — no small feat in these blandest of times. Perhaps most important, Apocalypto reminds us that worthwhile art can issue from even the most flawed human beings, and that alone might be worth the price of admission. Stars Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Raoul Trujillo and Rodolfo Palacios. 3.5 stars

BABEL (R) Many tongues are spoken and many stories interwoven in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's Babel, but, like those blind men feeling up the elephant, each of the movie's characters has only the foggiest notion of the big picture of which they're a part. Babel continues the patented blend of interlocking narratives and scrambled time frames that Innaritu and screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga dished out in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, a method that links its characters' lives by a series of coincidences rendered cosmic in the unbearable randomness of being. In Babel's version of chaos theory, a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere and a Japanese businessman on vacation gives his hunting rifle to a Moroccan guide, eventually resulting in the guide's youngster accidentally putting a bullet in Brad Pitt's wife (Cate Blanchette). This in turn causes Pitt's and Blanchette's housekeeper, on the other side of the world, to risk missing her son's wedding unless she brings the couple's kids with her to Mexico, where beautiful and dangerous things await. And so on and so on. There are some painfully potent moments here, but the filmmakers' grasp sometimes exceeds their reach; simply put, we too often feel the movie straining to supply the connections necessary for making sense of the chaos. Still, Babel is bound and determined to pull off its cosmic hat trick and, even with all the metaphysical doodling and contrived rearranging of structure, the film gives us slabs of emotion that ring raw and true, with an English Patient-esque mix of ingenious editing, seductive cinematography and solid performances that goes a long way toward winning us over. Also stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi and Elle Fanning. 3.5 stars

BORAT (R) A subversive mockumentary after the style of Christopher Guest (but pound-for-pound funnier), Borat is a road trip across America in which many of the key players appear bizarrely unaware that they're participants in a massive hoax. Our guide is British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, adopting the persona of clueless Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdivev (a recurring character from his Da Ali G Show), who travels coast to coast in a feces-smeared ice cream truck, ostensibly in an effort to see what makes this country tick. A typical Kazakh (which is to say, Cohen's lampooning of otherness manifested as a "typical" Kazakh), Borat is a sweetly contemptible, hygienically-challenged moron, a product of a decimated, inbred environment with a rabid fear of Jews, independent women, homosexuals and virtually anything else that moves. Borat plays into just about every conceivable stereotype, and half the fun of the movie is watching the reactions of the people he encounters, many of them presumably ignorant of the fact that he's an actor playing a part. Some of these people react to Borat's wildly inappropriate words and deeds in stunned revulsion, others with disturbing affection, but either way the way the results are as spontaneous as they are hilarious. Also stars Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson, Pat Haggerty and Alan Keyes. 4.5 stars

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