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AQUAMARINE (PG) It's Splash for teens when a pair of starry-eyed 13-year-olds (Joanna Levesque and Emma Roberts) make friends with a totally hot mermaid looking for the meaning of true love. Also stars Sara Paxton and Jake McDorman. Opens March 3 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY (R) Hip-hop, humor and a whole lot of socially conscious music are featured in this live concert film shot by cutting edge image-maker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Acts include Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Big Daddy Kane, The Roots, Kanye West and a reportedly stunning reunion of The Fugees, with concert organizer Chappelle making with the funny stuff in between the music. I wasn't able to screen the film in advance, but of the dozen or so colleagues I've talked to who have seen it, not a single one has been less than enthusiastic. Also features Talib Kweli and Jill Scott. Opens March 3 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)


ANNAPOLIS (PG-13) This predictable drama chronicles the tale of a working-class kid (pretty boy Spiderman star James Franco) who just barely makes it into the United States Naval Academy. Defiant but determined, he proves himself by boxing his way to respect. There aren't too many surprises here: the comic relief is handled by the fat guy (played by Vicellous Reon Shannon), the hero gets the girl (a too-tan Jordana Brewster) and every student at the Naval Academy could moonlight as a model. Perfectly timed to inspire young bucks to trade in their baggy jeans for starched white sailor suits, this family-friendly film is Rumsfeld-approved. Justin Lin directs; also stars Tyrese Gibson and Donnie Wahlberg. 2 stars Erin Rashbaum

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (R) As nearly everyone in North America knows by now, Ang Lee's movie is the epic tale of two rough and tumble cowboys who discover, to their great amazement, that they only have eyes for each other. A delicate study in repressed emotions, Brokeback Mountain follows the star-crossed Jack and Ennis (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) over the years, through loveless marriages, failed attempts to forget one another, and covert reunions where passions are quickly reignited. If it's subtext you're after, there's subtext aplenty here; American iconography inevitably takes on interesting new shapes while the whole movie occasionally feels like a vintage Douglas Sirk melodrama-cum-social-critique, gently massaged into a realm where men and women have so little interest in one another that they can't even be bothered with the so-called war of the sexes. At root, though, Brokeback is something profound in its simplicity, a deliriously romantic and deeply elegiac tale of a love that dares not speak its name. Also stars Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Randy Quaid. 4.5 stars

CACHE (NR) Michael Haneke's minimalist anti-thriller, like all the director's films, plays ping-pong with our heads while confronting our most self-destructive urges and our insatiable appetite for violence. Caché details the effects upon a well-heeled Parisian couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), when they begin receiving a series of videotapes that let them know they're being watched by an unknown stalker. No demands are made, no elaborate blackmail schemes hatched, and virtually none of the traditional components of the thriller genre, psychological or otherwise, manifest themselves — leaving the increasingly beleaguered pair plenty of time to bicker between themselves about what the tapes mean, who might be sending them and what to do about it. That ambiguity and uncertainty drives everything in Caché as Georges and Anne's cultivated and well-fortified world deteriorates into chaos. Haneke makes much of the couple's well-appointed, book-lined townhouse with its imposing metal door and sturdy stone walls, but the implication is that neither brute strength nor the niceties of civilization can stave off the barbarians at the gates. The outcome may be up in the air, but the message is clear — don't bother seeking safety, because safety does not exist. As in all of Haneke's movies, the real dangers lurk within, terrors of the imagination that prove every bit as potent as the actual terrors on the ground. Haneke keeps things open-ended right up until the bitter end and beyond, allowing meticulously accumulated tensions to boil over into some nameless, endless state of existential dread. Viewers demanding resolution are advised to look elsewhere, because all the best bits in Caché (and there are many) are found between the lines. Also stars Maurice Benichou. Lester Makedonsky and Annie Girardot. 4.5 stars

EIGHT BELOW (PG-13) Human thespians play second fiddle to a pack of furry critters in Eight Below, a Disney adventure that succeeds nicely as family entertainment and maybe a touch more. Paul Walker is the nominal star here, but the bulk of the movie is devoted, happily so, to the trials and tribulations of a sled team of dogs stranded and struggling to survive in the Antarctic winter. Don't expect March of the Penguins, but you will find an unexpectedly satisfying sense of authenticity to this project, with moments that are both exciting and (yes, you knew this was coming) inspirational grounded in events that feel not so far removed from real life. There are a few false notes (including an awful CGI misfire) but the story has a nice, Jack London-esque feel, and the film's cinematography is almost as gorgeous as its husky and malamute heroes. Also stars Bruce Greenwood. 3 stars

FINAL DESTINATION 3 (R) All gore and no heart, this third stab at a movie that didn't even deserve a sequel is just painful to watch. Exposition is skipped under the assumption that the viewer has seen the previous Final Destination films, thus allowing a calculable, yet ridiculously brutal bloodfest to ensue without delay. Characters are one-dimensional, dialogue is inane and high school clichés abound. 1.5 stars Erin Rashbaum

FIREWALL (PG-13) "Machine-like precision" is usually something filmmakers aspire to, but the by-the-numbers thriller Firewall is so lacking in excitement or imagination that it feels mechanical in the worst possible sense. The movie often seems to have been written and performed exclusively by barely-functioning robots. Harrison Ford stars as a bank security expert forced to hack into his own computer system by bad guys who have taken his family hostage. A toothless and generic fusion of home invasion movie and high-tech heist flick, Firewall is mainly notable for its numerous plot holes and bizarre leaps in logic that will have audience members scratching their heads or tittering. There's a paltry pay-off to the slog in the last 30 minutes, at which point Ford gets to haul his grizzled carcass across the screen for a few scenes in an unconvincing attempt to make like an action hero. Also stars Virginia Madsen, Paul Bettany, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Robert Patrick. 2 stars

FREEDOMLAND (R) There are at least two or three interesting stories that bump up against each other like strangers in the night and never quite gel in the overstuffed and undercooked drama Freedomland. Each of these stories contains moments worth watching, but none of the individual tales is strong enough to carry the entire movie. On one hand, you have the racial tensions complicating the investigation of the reported abduction of a white child in a black neighborhood in New Jersey. On the other hand, you have a character study of the missing child's mother, a flakey ex-junkie played with blotchy white-trash gusto by Julianne Moore. And then there's the story of the investigating detective (Samuel L. Jackson), a well-intentioned black cop who's trying to play both sides of the racial divide, and who has one or two secrets of his own. Things take an even more unsatisfying turn at the midpoint, when Freedomland drops the ball on its racial angle and turns its attentions to the back stories of a group of concerned women also searching for the missing child. Price and director Joe Roth eventually attempt to fuse all of their disparate elements into a rambling lament for abused and neglected children everywhere, but by this point the movie is already 20 minutes too long, and none of it is particularly convincing. Also stars Edie Falco and Ron Eldard. 2.5 stars

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (PG-13) Ostensibly, actor-turned-director George Clooney's remarkable new film is a more-or-less true account of that pivotal moment in American politics when CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow dared speak out against Joseph McCarthy, the Commie-hunting U.S. Senator who turned paranoia into a national pastime. David Strathairn is an effective presence as Murrow, a 1950s proto-liberal media star (Murrow might just be the Anti-O'Reilly) who spoke his mind and crusaded tirelessly for the truth, brow furrowed earnestly and a burning cigarette permanently wedged between his fingers. Clooney chose to shoot in black and white, a wise decision that lets us know that Good Night and Good Luck is art, too, while blending seamlessly with the extensive archival footage of McCarthy incorporated into the film. Also stars Robert Downey Jr, George Clooney, Ray Wise, Patricia Clarkson and Frank Langella. 4 stars

HOODWINKED (PG) A clever but overly convoluted kiddie flick that re-envisions the Red Riding Hood story as a Rashomon-like conundrum of competing and overlapping narratives. Featuring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Jim Belushi and Andy Dick. 3 stars

THE MATADOR (R) Director Richard Shepard's new movie is nothing if not image conscious, with Pierce Brosnan chewing the scenery as an eccentric professional assassin who takes the piss out of his famous 007 persona at every opportunity, and Greg Kinnear. who seems to have found his niche in the movies playing straight men, doing just that in grandly bland style. A half-humorous, half-serious study in contrasts, The Matador features Brosnan as a seedy, burnt-out hitman who meets up with a thoroughly average businessman (Kinnear) and can't resist rocking his world by telling him what he does for a living. What ensues is an inconsequential but mostly appealing odd-couple buddy movie bolstered by likable performances from Brosnan and Kinnear. The movie strains a bit mixing its black humor with some thoroughly sudsy dramatics, but it all looks very nice, with vibrant pop-py colors and lively editing, and some fine chemistry between its leads (which, in movies like this, is at least half the battle). Also stars Hope Davis. 3.5 stars

MATCH POINT (R) Woody Allen's latest is a smart movie, but smart in ways we don't typically associate with this filmmaker. It's also filled with passion (!), murder (!!), sex (!!!), and there's not a single stammering neurotic in sight. Match Point is set in London, far from Allen's usual Manhattan haunts, and concerns a young working class stiff (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who ingratiates himself with an upper crust families and then threatens to topple his own house of cards because of an uncontrollable urge for a husky-voiced American femme fatale (Scarlett Johansson). Match Point unfolds like film noir crossed with one of those tragic Verdi operas that its characters are constantly listening to, and although are a handful of lighter moments as well, one person's tragedy is another's comedy (as with all of Allen's films). Essentially, though, the glass is not only half-empty but decidedly smeary in Match Point, with a tough, engrossing, pretense-free story the likes of which we've really never seen before from this famous filmmaker. Also stars Brian Cox, Matthew Goode and Emily Mortimer. 4 stars

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (PG-13) Beautiful to look at and with barely a thought in its pretty little head, Memoirs of a Geisha takes what might have been a culturally-specific slice of Asian subject matter and inexplicably infuses it with heaping helpings of that old Chicago razzle-dazzle. The film takes place in Japan around the time of the Second World War, but it's a Hollywood fantasy-Japan, where everybody speaks English and acts like they're in an American movie. We're thrust headlong into the tale of Sayuri (Zhang Zyiyi), a penniless waif who is forced into service at a geisha establishment and eventually inducted into their ways. An overlong film that feels rushed at all the wrong moments, Memoirs turns out to be a visually impressive but hopelessly generic soap gussied up with a few superficial exotic flourishes. 2.5 stars

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (R) Bland, British and boring — three words that should never have to go together but too often do. The movie — which is one of the first productions from ex-Miramax honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein's new company — is meant to be taken as "classy" (it's a WWII period piece, after all, and then there are all those English accents), but the script reeks of shallowness and clichés. Dame Judi Dench stars as a wealthy widow who buys an old theater and eventually begins putting on all-nude reviews, which she defends as being good for national morale. Bob Hoskins is the theater manager who develops feelings for Dench's character, and much is made of the aimless, incessant bickering of the film's two leads (who we're assured are actually deeply in love) and the naughtiness of female flesh being paraded across the screen. Also stars Will Young and Christopher Guest. 2 stars

MUNICH (R) Despite a marketing campaign that sells it as a more-or-less straight-ahead suspense thriller, Munich is a glum, oddly muddled affair, so consumed with wallowing in ethical ambiguities and hand-wringing over endless cycles of violence that it forgets to give us an engaging story. Director Steven Spielberg focuses on the aftermath of the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics — when a hit squad was dispatched to assassinate the Palestinian organizers of the massacre — but Munich is less concerned with creating a visceral thrill ride out of the often horrifying mechanics of revenge than with grinding our noses in the pointlessness of it all. If you were expecting a Kill Bill adrenaline rush recast as a less guilty pleasure, forget it. Spielberg leans over so far backward in an effort to be evenhanded that there's really no one to root for or against, a problem exacerbated by too many forgettable characters saddled with flat-footed dialogue endlessly re-stating the movie's thesis that violence begetting violence can only be wrong. Stars Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer and Michael Lonsdale. 3 stars

NANNY MCPHEE (PG) The screenplay here, which Emma Thompson adapted from Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books, begins in a place just macabre enough and even a wee bit perverse — much like the seven supremely naughty children featured in Nanny McPhee. This unmanageable brood pride themselves on having driven away scores of hearty nannies screaming in terror. Enter the eponymous Nanny McPhee, a snaggle-toothed, warty, anti-Mary Poppins played by Thompson herself as a cross between a drill sergeant, a Zen master and a troll. As expected, the supernaturally-powered uber-nanny butts heads and eventually bonds with the wild beastie-boys-and-girls, magic is unleashed, and tough love conquers all. The movie winds up a little too eager to warm hearts and never quite lives up to the promising Roald Dahl/Edward Gorey darkness of its set-up, but Nanny McPhee gets most of what it does right. Also stars Colin Firth, Angela Landsbury, Kelly MacDonald, Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi. 3 stars

THE PINK PANTHER (PG) Another pointless remake that will stink up the theaters for a few weeks before finding its way to home video. Steve Martin steps into Peter Sellers' shoes in the classic role of bumbling, oddly-accented Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and the results are predictably disappointing. While it's probably not quite cricket comparing vintage Sellers to the 2006 version of Martin, a comedian who hasn't been particularly funny for the better part of a decade, the former wild-and-crazy-guy's overly literal interpretation of Clouseau makes comparisons unavoidable. The material doesn't help either, with fart jokes and lame Viagra gags sprinkled throughout the movie's main course of uninspired physical comedy. The murder-and-missing-diamond plot is inconsequential and Henry Mancinci's brilliant original music is barely audible beneath the generic hip-hop remix. Also stars Jean Reno, Kevin Kline and Beyonce Knowles. 1.5 stars

RUNNING SCARED (R) Running Scared is the sophomore effort from director Wayne Kramer, and although it's a marked departure from his character-driven debut The Cooler, it's anything but an improvement. The film stars Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious), who's also trying to stretch out here, but just doesn't have the chops to get beyond that Rob Lowe/Keanu Reeves pretty boy image. Walker adopts a not-quite-believable New Jersey tough-guy accent and dutifully chews the scenery as Joey Gazelle, a petty crook desperately racing against time to recover a gun used to kill a cop and that can be traced back to him. The gun turns out to be in the possession of a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright, the spooky kid from Birth), and Joey's frenzied search brings both characters into contact with various denizens of the night, including Russian gangsters, pimps, hookers, dirty cops and, in the film's most gratuitously yucky scene, a smiling yuppie couple who make pedophiliac snuff films. All of these encounters and characters are so stylized they border on the surreal and, since the entire movie takes place over the course of a single evening, Running Scared often seems like a cross between a wannabe After Hours and a wannabe Night of the Hunter. Not that you're likely to notice those lofty ambitions, since Running Scared is mostly interested in pouring on the blood and moving the camera around in pointlessly flashy ways that recall the worst excesses of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Also stars Chazz Palminteri, Vera Farmiga and Karel Roden. 2 stars

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (R) An old-school western for new-school sensibilities, Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut cleaves fairly close to classic western models, but not without a few idiosyncratic detours along the way. Jones himself takes the lead as a grizzled Texas ranch hand whose personal code of honor demands he abduct his dead friend's presumed killer and force him along on a trek to Mexico to give his pal a proper burial. That journey is at the heart of the film, but the movie sets it all up from multiple, Roshomon-esque perspectives, employing a fractured chronology in keeping with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's previous time scrambling in Amores Perros and 21 Grams. All of the film's individual stories eventually intersect, with the teasing tail-chasing of the first half crystallizing as the strange odyssey of two men and a corpse trekking across the Tex-Mex landscape. Fellow travelers are met along the way, with Three Burials revealing a world that's essentially one long border crossing, where cultures and individuals collide and inevitably transform each other in the most curious ways. The movie segues neatly from neo-western to Greek tragedy to macabre, absurdist farce, as notions of revenge, redemption and other frequent staples of the western genre are gently shredded and manipulated with considerable black humor. And for what it's worth, this may go on record as the first western ever where a character pulling out his gun is interrupted by the sound of somebody's cell phone ringing. Also stars Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam Melissa Leo and January Jones. 4.5 stars

TRANSAMERICA (R) Felicity Huffman, who snagged a well-deserved Golden Globe for her performance here, is the main reason to see Transamerica, but the rest of the film isn't too shabby either. Huffman stars as a woman trapped in the body of a man, and whose long-awaited sex change surgery is put on hold when a troubled teenaged son (Kevin Zegers) appears out of the blue and demands rescuing. Father/mother and son pack up their belongings into a beat-up car and head for the coast, as Transamerica becomes an episodic and pleasantly eccentric road movie (is there any other kind?) in which the characters eventually reveal themselves to each other. The film strains a bit to work out the correct balance of sweet and sour, and nothing in the movie even begins to measure up to Huffman's tour-de-force performance, but Transamerica is a trip well worth taking, filled with moments both whimsical and penetrating. Also stars Graham Greene and Fionnula Flanagan. 3.5 stars

WALK THE LINE (PG-13) Walk the Line is an engaging, star-studded production that gives us a more or less accurate accounting of Johnny Cash's life, but there's a generic feeling to the movie very much at odds with the edginess of its subject. The movie follows Cash's rise to stardom in the '50s and his subsequent fall, duly noting the marital problems, the drug problems, the inevitable cold turkey turn-around and the eventual comeback. The film is a little too concerned, though, with creating an overly tidy arc out of the events of Cash's life, and there's little here of the epic scope of Ray, no real sense of why Cash was important. Joaquin Phoenix does a serviceable job evoking Cash's physical presence, and Reese Witherspoon's perky Carter is a lot of fun to watch (and fun to listen to; she's a surprisingly strong country singer) — but, frankly, this couple could be almost any pair of innocuously attractive lovebirds. 3 stars

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