Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Bridge to Terabithia, Factory Girl, Ghost Rider

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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

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