Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Babel, Charlotte's Webb, Children of Men, others

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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

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. The movie's arc is fairly predictable, with most of the characters working through their pain, getting in touch with their humanity, finding redemption and, finally, reaching an understanding that approaches, as Lou Reed once had it, some kinda love. Also stars Liev Shrieber. 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

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