Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Freedom Writers, We Are Marshall

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UPCOMING RELEASES

CHILDREN OF MEN (R) A devastating re-tooling of that ol' dystopian sci-fi blues from director Afonso Cuaron. See this week's feature review by Curt Holman, p. 47. Opens Jan. 5 at local theaters.

FREEDOM WRITERS (PG) In the days immediately following the Rodney King blow-up, with racial tensions soaring at inner city schools around the country, naïve and ridiculously perky first-time teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) walks into her scary new classroom with a big smile and a string of perfect pearls around her neck. "I give this bitch a week," smirks one of her wildly misbehaving students. But Erin is a teacher who genuinely cares and, as if you couldn't guess, these rough and embattled kids quickly begin responding. She gives them diaries in which to express themselves, makes stirring speeches about the horrors of prejudice,and eventually takes them on a field trip to the Holocaust Museum, where these dyed-in-the-wool gang members suddenly see the light (and the soundtrack similarly transforms from de rigueur rap to schmaltzy strings). Despite the movie being based on true events, Freedom Writers feels thoroughly canned, with sincere but soft-edged performances, transformations that occur far too neatly,and an overly symmetrical story arc that has our hero's success with her students rising as her relationships with peers (school bureaucrats and a neglected hubby) hit road bumps. It's all as predictable as it is well-meaning, an utterly unsurprising retread of a dozen other movies you've seen and barely remember. Opens Jan. 5 at local theaters. 2.5 stars

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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