Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Bridge to Terabithia, Factory Girl, Ghost Rider

Upcoming Releases

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (PG) Katherine Paterson's much-loved children's book comes to the big screen, with Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as the lonely kids who enter a magical fantasy world. Also stars Zooey Deschanel and Robert Patrick. Opens Feb. 16 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

FACTORY GIRL (R) Sienna Miller stars as Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, who crashed and burned following a brief reign as the darling of New York's underground scene. Wish we could tell you more, but the film's distributors couldn't get it together to screen this in time for our review. Also stars Hayden Christensen, Jimmy Fallon, Mena Suvari and Guy Pearce (as Warhol). Opens Feb. 16 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

GHOST RIDER (PG-13) Nicolas Cage is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore. Regardless of what else might be going on here, it should be fun watching Cage camp it up as a flaming, skull-faced biker from hell, in what is almost sure to be a special-effects-laden comic book extravaganza. Also stars Wes Bentley, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliot and Peter Fonda. Opens Feb. 16 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)


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

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (G) An interspecies three-way love story between a spider, a pig and a human (strictly platonic, though, so no worries), Charlotte's Web takes place in a "deeply ordinary place," where the rule of order is thrown out of whack when young Fern (Dakota Fanning) and kindly spider Charlotte make it their mission to save a guileless Gump of a piglet from the chopping block. There are no villains here per se, just the way of the world, which goes a long way toward explaining why the lessons of Charlotte's Web remain so resonant, both for children and adults. The digital effects here are mostly very good and surprisingly tasteful, fitting right in with the simple, unpretentious feel of the movie — and although a few obligatory fart jokes do insinuate themselves into the proceedings (and yes, that's Steve Buscemi's voice you hear, typecast once again as the rat), the movie survives that, too. The characters of Charlotte's Web, human and animal alike, inhabit a world where it's easy to believe that the extraordinary dwells in every moment, that a pig really can be radiant, a spider beautiful and a rat trustworthy. Also stars Kevin Anderson, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Beau Bridges, John Cleese and Sam Shepard. 3.5 stars

CHILDREN OF MEN (R) A devastating re-tooling of that ol' dystopian sci-fi blues from director Afonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Children of Men puts us uncomfortably up close and personal with a very near-future (2027, to be exact) in which the world has fallen into anarchy, disease and military dictatorships run rampant, and humans are no longer capable of reproducing. Our guide through the chaos is an ex-activist turned civil servant (a rumpled, world-weary Clive Owen) who somehow finds himself charged with seeing to the safety of the world's last pregnant woman. The film eventually becomes less politically charged cautionary tale and more full-blown action-thriller, but Cuaron is equally adept at both. It's all quite exhilarating, in its gritty, downbeat way, and perhaps just a little too believable. Also stars Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam and Claire-Hope Ashitey. 4 stars

DREAMGIRLS (PG-13) A uniquely African-American variation on that old Chicago razzle-dazzle, Dreamgirls lunges from one fabulous musical number to the next, a nearly nonstop hit parade with scattered bits of story thrown in during the downtime. Revolving around the rise of a girl-group called The Dreamettes (The Supremes by any other name), Dreamgirls attempts to tell the story of Motown, but it's all so slick and super-sized that it rarely resonates as it should. Ditto for the characters served up here, all of whom double as big, fat cultural icons in a flamboyantly superficial survey of what is arguably black music's most important decade. (For all the outsized drama, Dreamgirls often unintentionally comes pretty darned close to being soul music's Spinal Tap, minus the jokes.) What saves Dreamgirls is that its core performers — particularly Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson — are talented and charismatic enough that, even when the material is bogus and the movie is just going through the motions, it's a pleasure to watch the singers and dancers vigorously strutting their stuff. Dreamgirls is mostly empty calories but, like most junk food, it's pretty hard to resist. Also stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose and Keith Robinson. 3 stars

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. 2.5 stars

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (R) For his second stint in the director's chair, Robert De Niro tackles a subject no less daunting than the birth and growth pains of the CIA and spans some four decades of world-shaking events. And still, amazingly enough, The Good Shepherd is a bore. The film moves at the proverbial snail's pace as it flips back and forth between time periods, none of which are handled with much flair. As if to compensate, it throws in some ostensibly crowd-pleasing dramatic mumbo jumbo about the main character's personal life — daddy issues, a soulless marriage, the girl who got away — before petering out with a predictable subplot about the identity of a double agent. The movie barely simmers for what seems like forever without ever really coming to a boil, and it all culminates in a Sophie's Choice moment that doesn't feel quite earned. Stars Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and Robert De Niro. 2 stars

HURRICANE ON THE BAYOU (PG) Hurricane Katrina isn't even mentioned for the first 20 minutes (which is basically half way through this latest IMAX featurette), but the presence of that devastating natural disaster is the elephant in the room from the get-go. Hurricane on the Bayou eases us into its crisis, beginning with some inviting glimpses of New Orleans' local color and then dividing its time between pleasant travelogue sequences and earnest science lectures about how the eroding wetlands are an open invitation to catastrophe. Our primary guides here are a pair of Louisiana natives as passionate about the environment as they are about their music — Cajun bluesman Tab Benoit and 14-year-old fiddle prodigy Amanda Shaw — and by the time Katrina finally shows up to wreck everyone's lives (in a mixture of actual footage and effective CGI recreations), we feel the tragedy on a scale both epic and intimate. Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke is still the Shoah of Katrina films, but this one's got state-of-the-art IMAX technology and 10,500 square feet of screen to show us that its heart is in the right place. Also features Allen Toussaint and Chubby Carrier. 3.5 stars

LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (R) Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was one of the most colorful madmen in modern history, and Forest Whitaker, who is the main reason to see this movie, captures all of Amin's bluster and creepy pathos beautifully, from the smallest private insecurity to the most grandiose derangement. Painting a portrait of Amin through an outsider's eyes, The Last King of Scotland invents a hero — a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) — who becomes an insider in Amin's regime and then, having made his deal with the devil, proceeds to succumb to the considerable temptations of hell. Director Kevin MacDonald wants us to focus on how easy it is to be seduced by evil, so for much of the movie's running time we share Garrigan's cluelessness as to the extents of Amin's outrages. Only gradually do we begin to suspect the immense divide between the carefully mediated image and the barbaric reality of Idi Amin, and it's not until nearly an hour into the film that the real story begins to emerge. We don't begin to get the full measure of Idi Amin until a bit too late in the game in The Last King of Scotland, but when the movie finally plays its hand, it's the real deal. Also stars Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson. 3.5 stars

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (R) A staunchly humanist drama in the form of a war movie, Letters from Iwo Jima offers what is basically the reverse angle of Flags of our Fathers, a movie that barely allowed us a glimpse of the eyes behind the guns blowing holes in young American soldiers. Clint Eastwood returns here to the pivotal WWII battle that consumed his earlier film, but this time the director attaches faces to his invisible enemy, as well as names, histories and personalities, daring to turn former foes into human beings who weep and bleed. The two films are similarly structured as well: Both Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima mix extended and extremely graphic battle sequences with more serene, intimate moments (often in the form of somewhat awkward flashbacks) detailing the moral dimensions of their characters. In Flags, Eastwood focused on American soldiers falsely promoted as heroes, hammering home how war is packaged, sold and sanitized into a curiously bloodless symbol of patriotism. Letters concentrates on the flipside of the same equation: Japanese soldiers realizing they're being lied to by leaders who order them to die for a cause that's already lost. Both movies are ultimately mad as hell about the same exact thing: the idiocy of buying into illusions that governments try to impose on their people — and yes, the parallels with our current mess in Iraq are unavoidable. Stars Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase and Shindou Nakamura. 3.5 stars

LITTLE CHILDREN (R) Little Children, the new film from In The Bedroom director Todd Field, unfolds in a contemporary suburbia where the quirky meets the profound a little easily, and where abject darkness morphs into the blinding light of a pop mysticism familiar to anyone who's seen American Beauty. Our main players are drab Sarah (Kate Winslet) and pretty boy Brad (Patrick Wilson, looking very Paul Newman-ish circa mid-'50s), two vaguely frustrated members of the community who find themselves involved in a strange, adulterous affair with one another. As the movie's title suggests, there's more than a touch of the infantile in all of the adult characters here — Sarah's too much of a kid to deal with her own child and fancies her extramarital fling as qualifying her for tragically larger-than-life Madame Bovary status, while almost cartoonishly arrested adolescent Brad lives life with one foot firmly rooted back in high school. There's much more going on here as well, and in many way it's the fringe characters — all of whom are "at war with their own desires" — who turn the movie into something genuinely interesting, as it continues to shift in a variety of curious and unexpected ways. At the core of it all is the registered sex offender Ronnie (a remarkable Jackie Earle Haley) who's returned to live in this sleepy, child-crammed neighborhood, and with whom everyone is completely obsessed. Also starts Jennifer Connelly and Noah Emmerich. 3.5 stars

NORBIT (PG-13) That's Eddie Murphy under all that latex and digital masking, back in full-blown Nutty Professor mode as multiple characters of varying shapes and sizes and sexes. And once again, from the sound of it, facilitating an unholy marriage of romantic comedy and fart jokes. Also stars Thandie Newton, Cuba Gooding, Charles Murphy and Eddie Griffin. (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. 3.5 stars

THE PAINTED VEIL (PG-13) A classy picture postcard with a good performance or two tucked inside, The Painted Veil's credits are impeccable, from its well-respected source (Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name) to its well-respected stars, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Watts is in particularly fine form as pretty but shallow Kitty, a spoiled Londoner forced by her cuckolded husband (Norton) to accompany him on a virtual suicide mission to a cholera-ridden village in China. The Painted Veil doesn't seem all that comfortable sustaining the slow-burning intensity of the couple's strained relationship, and so it deflects our attention with detours to a world-weary neighbor (Toby Jones) and with various representatives of the budding, anti-imperialist nationalism sweeping China in the 1920s. And then there are those adorable but tragically doomed nuns at the local orphanage where Kitty volunteers. Also stars Liev Shrieber, Diana Rigg and Anthony Wong. 2.5 stars

PAN'S LABYRINTH (NR) Besides functioning as a brutally incisive account of life during wartime, Pan's Labyrinth is something of a fairy tale, a classic fable shaken and stirred with a modern twist (including a wicked, obsessive-compulsive stepfather, a trio of tasks to be completed before the moon is full and a bionic-insect fairy for a guide). The movie is also an elegant coming-of-age tale, taking place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, and filtering that conflict through the imagination of a 10-year-old girl who absorbs the messy suffering into a richly ordered fantasy world of her own device. Taking us down the rabbit hole and straight through the looking glass, Pan's Labyrinth layers its real-world wartime drama with glimpses of a parallel universe where anything is possible, where pagan myth and Jungian symbols collide and magical realism mixes freely with grotesque imagery straight out of Goya. The film is a fairy tale in the best and darkest sense (a baby-killing, eyeless monster dining by an enormous pile of tiny shoes is just one of its terrible pleasures), so be aware that this is most decidedly not, repeat not, an entertainment for children. Stars Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadne Gil and Alex Angulo. 4.5 stars

PERFUME (R) Faithfully adapting Patrick Suskind's cult novel, director Tom Twyker offers up the life and times of Jean Baptiste Grenouille, a strangely repellent 18th-century Frenchman with a preternaturally developed sense of smell, but who gives off absolutely no odor himself (almost as if he doesn't quite exist in the same physical dimension as the rest of us). Perfume vividly brings to life the ineffable otherness of this man who fell to earth, with Twyker (working territory infinitely more refined than the rat-a-tat razzle-dazzle of Run Lola Run) retaining the agreeably overripe essence of Suskind's novel while expanding its moral scope. Grenouille is transformed here into a sympathetic monster in the classic mold of the one created by Dr. Frankenstein, where monstrousness is essentially innocence gone tragically wrong. At once noble, blasphemous, pathetic and stark raving bonkers, Grenouille ultimately morphs into a Nietzschean Jack the Ripper, but even when Perfume eventually threatens to turn into this week's serial killer thriller, the movie remains utterly unique — a heartbreaking love song to beauty, sung by a beast of a man who, lacking a soul of his own, attempts to feed upon the soul of the world. Stars Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman and John Hurt. 4 stars

VENUS (R) Venus is less a showcase than an advertisement for O'Toole, who basically plays himself here — a once-famous, once-dashing actor who now resembles a cloudy-eyed bag of loose skin. Maurice, O'Toole by any other name, now spends his time cheerfully self-medicating, dreaming of glory days and hanging out with fellow long-in-the-tooth thespian Ian (Leslie Phillips), whose dim-witted, jailbait niece (Jodie Whittaker) becomes the unlikely object of O'Toole's affections. It's not a pretty sight. Directed by Roger Michell and scripted by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), Venus is a curiously upbeat but inelegant and mildly disagreeable fusion of pandering sentimentality and self-conscious "edginess." The movie's Grumpy Old Men shtick blends uneasily with the snarkier details of Maurice's masochistic obsession with his nubile protégé (she lets him sniff her neck, smacks him when he inhales too deeply) as corny slapstick inexplicably melds with the mock-grotesque. O'Toole holds down the center through it all, and that regal voice is still something to hear, but even he seems a little lost here, and the end result is something best forgotten. 2.5 stars

VOLVER (NR) Pedro Almodovar's abiding obsession with female mystique reaches a whole new level in Volver, a film that seems to take place in a world entirely depopulated of males. The setting is modern day Madrid, actually, where we quickly discover that the women outlive the men by miles — a truism demonstrated when the movie's first (and practically only) male character appears at the 14-minute mark, only to get knocked off (by one of the resident females) barely five minutes later. That murder provides one of the central plot points around which Volver's various and sundry females scurry, although all of the undeniably amusing or odd twists and turns don't really add up to much. The director achieves a seemingly effortless blend of his standard elements here — comedy, farce, melodrama, a touch of kitsch, even a bit of Hitchcockian noir — all delivered with his customary wit and style. But Volver doesn't approach the levels of depth and focus that we've come to expect from latter-day Almodovar and winds up a watchable but distinctly lighter-than-air concoction. Stars Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo. 3.5 stars

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