opening this week
Alpha Dog (R) A hypothetical re-creation of the crime that made a Californian pot dealer (Emile Hirsch) one of the youngest men to end up on the FBI's most-wanted list.
Arthur and the Invisibles (PG) Animated. Ten-year-old Arthur, in a bid to save his grandfather's house from being demolished, goes looking for some much-fabled hidden treasure in the land of the Minimoys, a tiny people living in harmony with nature.
Curse of the Golden Flower (PG-13) Reviewed at left.
Dreamgirls (PG-13) Based on the Broadway musical, a trio of black female soul singers cross over to the pop charts in the early 1960's.
Miss Potter (PG) Reviewed on page 47.
Primeval (R) A news team (Dominic Purcell and Orlando Jones) is sent to South Africa to capture and bring home a legendary 25-foot crocodile. The stakes are raised even higher when a warlord targets them for death.
Stomp the Yard (PG-13) A young Los Angeleno (Columbus Short) avoids a juvenile hall sentence by enrolling at a black university in Atlanta. At school, he's wooed by two fraternities, both of which realize his street-dance moves are the key to winning the national stepshow competition.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (PG-13) A documentary on the life of John Lennon, with a focus on the time in his life when he transformed from a musician into an antiwar activist and was deemed a national threat by the F.B.I.
Children of Men (R) Alfonso Cuarón's futuristic look at a dystopian society delivers in spades. The story is set in Britain of 2027. The world has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. A neo-Fascist Britain has closed itself off, rounding up any non-Brits and placing them in camps or deporting them. Women have become infertile, and no baby has been born in 18 years, so the human race is dying out. At least it seems that way until disillusioned former political activist Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by a terrorist group headed by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), and recruited to help get an inexplicably pregnant refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), past the British authorities to the safety of a ship being sent by the nearly mythical Human Project. Intensely and pointedly political (with a leaning toward 1960s activism), it's also entertaining and exciting — and some of the best filmmaking of 2006.
Code Name: The Cleaner (PG-13) A witless, tedious mess of a comedy. Cedric the Entertainer plays Jake Rodgers, a man who wakes up in a hotel room with amnesia, not to mention in bed next to a dead FBI agent. Jake then spends the next third of the film believing he's a secret agent, then finding out he's actually a janitor, but still believing that he's some type of super spy and so on. If you want 90 minutes of Cedric the Entertainer mugging for the camera, then this movie is for you. If you want a movie that's jokes have seemingly been lifted from rejected Bud Light commercials, then this movie is for you as well. For the rest of the world, you've been warned. —Justin Souther
Freedom Writers (PG-13) Uncompromising in its manipulation and filled with teeth-gnashing bad guys, Freedom Writers is strictly for fans of the "teacher who made a difference" sub-genre. It's the "true story" (naturally) of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), who inspired and empowered a classroom full of inner city kids by urging them to write their stories in theme books. When writer-director Richard LaGravense sticks to the kids' stories, his film is on surer footing than when he deals with the backstory of Gruwell and the classroom itself, which come off like suspiciously melodramatic variations on James Clavell's To Sir, With Love so much that you keep waiting for Lulu to show up and sing a theme song. —Ken Hanke
The Good Shepherd (R) It's difficult not to admire Robert De Niro for making The Good Shepherd. I certainly have no quibble with its politics, nor with the intentions behind it. But the film is simply so emotionally neutered that it's impossible to care about what happens on the screen. Telling the story of the C.I.A. as the biography of a fictional character, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), sounds like a good idea, because it puts a human face on the story, but De Niro is less interested in creating a fictionalized portrait of one man than in tackling the institution of the C.I.A. As a result, the man (especially as played by Matt Damon) is scarcely human. When the most likable character in a movie is a Nazi-sympathizing college professor (Michael Gambon) with a taste for hitting on his more handsome students, there's a problem. —Ken Hanke
Happily N'Ever After (PG) If you'd like Exhibit A of what is currently wrong with the state of American animation, look no further than Happily N'Ever After. This retelling of the Cinderella story is never as clever as it thinks it is, and is never anything more than a poor man's Shrek — right down to the celebrity voice casting (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sigourney Weaver, Freddie Prinze Jr. ... well, celebrities and borderline cases). Everything about this movie screams "generic," from the character models to the animation to the plot. The whole mess is dull and unfunny. —Justin Souther
Happy Feet (PG) George Miller's new film is the Moulin Rouge! of animated all-singing, all-dancing penguin movies. Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Miller takes an array of pop/rock songs -— a little Queen, a pinch of Prince, a dash of Elvis -— and uses them to create a musical tapestry of a soundtrack. As with Luhrmann's film, there's surprising depth and feeling to the use of the music that occasionally outdoes the originals. And Miller has crafted a visually stunning film with a simple yet subtext-rich tale of a misfit penguin, Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who, unlike others of his kind, can't sing, but dances like Astaire (an activity denounced as a perversion by the elders of the tribe). This and an ecology-minded subplot work well, but the structure is amazingly sloppy and meandering, making the film less than it might have been. —Ken Hanke
Little Children (R) Every year there's at least one wildly praised indie production that leaves me scratching my head over what all the fuss is about. This year it's Todd Fields' Little Children — an airless, condescending, self-important drama about the hypocrisy and lies underneath the picture-perfect facade of a Massachusetts bedroom town. Just about everyone in the town harbors a kinky secret or a crushed dream, while they distract themselves by banding together against the local child molester (Jackie Earle Haley). Part heavy-handed drama and part black comedy, the film never escapes the sense of being made by big city folk who like to feel superior to their suburban counterparts. It's well acted by an impressive cast — Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson — but it's also slow as molasses and cursed with a narration so pretentious in literary tone that it's unintentionally amusing. —Ken Hanke
Night at the Museum (PG) A middling high-concept, effects-driven star comedy that quickly turns out to be a concept in search of a plot. Ben Stiller plays a perennial loser who gets a job as night watchman in a museum where the displays come alive after hours. That's fine, but once we've seen him chased by a T. Rex skeleton, menaced by Atilla (Patrick Gallagher) and his Huns, insulted by a talking Easter Island head, nearly eaten by lions, outwitted by a cunning capuchin, and being advised by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) in the first 30 minutes of the movie, where can it go? The answer is not much of anywhere, so it simply repeats itself, then tacks on an unwieldy plot about the previous watchmen (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs). It's so-so family entertainment and completely disposable, but I don't think it will harm you. —Ken Hanke
Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13) Will Smith's latest offers for your consideration the heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad named Chris Gardner in the economically ravaged early 1980s and putting him in a shelter for the homeless with his absolutely adorable five-year-old tyke (Smith's actual son, Jaden) while working an unpaid internship at a high-powered brokerage-house. Happyness is based on Gardner's true story, but enough has been changed to make Gardner's situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was. Thankfully, screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino have taken great pains to squeeze all overt sentimentality out of the story. There's a smartness and a subtlety to Smith's performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. —MaryAnn Johanson
The Queen (PG-13) In an early scene, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) stares regally at the camera as she poses for a portrait. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan aim to take Her Royal Majesty down from the wall, but in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Exploring the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the filmmakers observe Elizabeth and new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) responding to the public grief, both of them struggling to understand the role of the monarchy in the modern world. An extended hunters-equals-paparazzi metaphor extends a touch too far, but the impressive performances — Sheen is nearly as terrific as the already much-lauded Mirren — contribute to a compelling, compassionate character study. —Scott Renshaw
Rocky Balboa (PG) The sixth, and presumably final, installment of the long running Rocky series, finds Rocky coming out of retirement for one last shot at glory. The movie works when it's examining the washed-up, aging, oafish Rocky (there are also parallels that can be drawn between Rocky and the career of writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone), which means your enjoyment of the film really depends on how much you buy into the character. The film is surprisingly good up until its climax, which is poorly paced and flatly directed, and has nothing even resembling tension. —Justin Souther
Thr3e (PG-13) The second release from Fox Faith films is billed as a Christian horror movie. Fair enough, but Thr3e (notwishstanding its copycat title, it's not even a tenth as scary as Se7en) is actually a psychological thriller, requiring God to be dragged in -—and strangely not emphasized. Apart from making the lead a seminary student and a last-minute line about needing God to teach us good and evil, this is just an incredibly lame and tame (even by PG-13 standards) affair. How tame? Well, the worst deed our killer ever manages is to incinerate a dog (offscreen). Serial killers work better when they actually kill someone. Ghastly performances and worse special effects make this an early contender for worst movie of 2007. —Ken Hanke
We Are Marshall (PG) We Are Marshall opens by boldly proclaiming, "This is a true story." I have no doubt that the essential facts are true. Similarly, I don't dispute that the 1970 plane crash that killed the bulk of the Marshall team and its coach was a tragedy, nor do I argue with the idea of bringing the story to the screen. None of this, however, makes the film itself anything other than a standard-issue uplifting sports movie, with heaps of clichés, syrupy music, and crane shots. A lead performance by Matthew McConaughey that can only be called peculiar doesn't help. —Ken Hanke