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Because I Said So (PG-13) Little more than a Keaton's Greatest Hits package, the kind of flat-footed creation that works on the basis of cobbling together a kind of playlist of "all those things our star does so well." And in this case these mannerisms are slapped onto a character whose only claim to likability is that she's played by Diane Keaton. In ever other capacity, the monster mother who tries to play internet matchmaker for her youngest daughter is anything but likable. Worse, she's reduced to parodying herself and participating in warmed-over Adam Sandler gags. Oh, for the days of Woody Allen! --Ken Hanke

Catch and Release (PG-13) When Gray's (Jennifer Garner) fiancée Grady dies just before their wedding, she's forced to move in with his three befuddled best friends, all of whom fit into a perfect group of superficial stereotypes. The script, from otherwise talented writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is a mess of clichés and odd coincidences, a big bag of characters who are nothing more than artifice and aww moments. It's kind of a shame, too, because most of the cast is pretty good, particularly Kevin Smith as the stock funny fat guy. But they're not enough to overcome the rest. Grant's directorial debut, while not exactly a disaster, suggests she'd be better off sticking to the keyboard. --Joshua Tyler

The Departed (R) Cops-versus-killers has been done to the point of improbability, but in front of Marty Scorsese's lens it's a brand-new game. It's not quite the masterpiece that some of his other recent films have been -- like The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead -- but The Departed is a work of strong vision and sharp personality. For most of its massive running time, the film is an absolutely fascinating exploration, a mix of all kinds of different genres. It's a thriller, a cop procedural, a character drama, and more, all rolled into one -- exactly the sort of complexity you'd expect from a Scorsese movie. Despite the film's last-act misstep, the movie's worth watching just for the journey. Scorsese remains a master, and he's working his finest magic here. --Joshua Tyler

Dreamgirls (PG-13) This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent, or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) delivers a version that's simply, unobtrusively satisfying -- entertainment writ large, and without apology. The obvious román-a-clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you're getting a thinly-disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. On a certain level, it may feel like only a minor variation on a hundred other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame -- A Star is Born with a little more funk in its stride. Yet this is exactly the kind of story that soars with a score. --Scott Renshaw

Epic Movie (PG-13) A self-styled "satire" of epic movies that lacks any semblance of focus or, frankly, satire. Of the many flaws in directing/writing duo Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's approach, the most glaring is the distinct lack of epic movies being spoofed. I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks movies like Nacho Libre, Talladega Nights or Borat are epics by anyone's measure. I guess Movies People Have Probably Seen Movie just isn't as catchy. Boring, obvious, and just plain dumb, it's lowest common denominator filmmaking at it's worst --Ken Hanke

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 Last King of Scotland (R) Everyone's talking about Forest Whitaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland as the African dictator Idi Amin, and that's all right and good: Whitaker is a marvel. If you're the kind of moviegoer who cares about things like craft, and if you revel at seeing an actor at the top of his game, you won't want to miss this film. Based on a novel by Giles Foden, it's the story of a young Scottish doctor, Nick Garrigan (a brilliant James McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in the 1970s, looking for adventure and an opportunity to do some real good, and finds himself swept up in the reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin. Writer Peter Morgan and director Kevin Macdonald have made one of the don't-you-dare-miss-it films of the year. --MaryAnn Johanson

Letters from Iwo Jima (R) Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is considerably better than its counterpart, but that's not saying much by itself. Telling part of the same story (minus the aftermath deconstruction) from the Japanese point of view is a fascinating idea --- and one that enhances the earlier film in many ways. It's also a daunting undertaking and Eastwood only partially brings it off. The idea of putting faces on the men who, in Hollywood's hands, have rarely been more than faceless fanatics is certainly sound. And the revelation that the Japanese were ill-prepared, often disorganized, and cognizant of their own impending doom is strikingly developed. The actors here, especially Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara, are remarkable. But once the film states its case, it tends to be repetitive. A worthwhile, possibly even noble, film, but not a truly great one. --Ken Hanke

The Messengers (PG-13) As movies about haunted sunflower farms go, it's not unwatchable, but it's more funny than frightening. I haven't a clue what message the directors were attempting to convey, but coherence doesn't seem to interest the Pang brothers very much. We're given a female doctor referred to as "he" in the next scene, and told the family has been devastated by two years of hospital bills because of an accident later said to have happened six months ago. This is one of those movies with endless "things" flitting in between the camera and the characters, always accompanied by a loud burst of music. It's also one of those movies that only functions because the characters keep doing stupid things --- like not noticing the painfully obvious fingernail marks on the floor leading to the cellar door. --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

Notes on a Scandal (R) Notes on a Scandal is a huge lark of a movie, an enormous pleasure of smart, intricate performances, twisty plotting, and sinful sensationalism. Imagine Single White Female as mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. To see Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the finest actresses working today, wrestle to the metaphoric ground roaringly stereotyped characters plucked straight from real-life supermarket tabloids or golden-age Hollywood melodrama is a hoot. The clever script is by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller; the excellent direction is by Richard Eyre, who made the little-seen but similarly compelling Stage Beauty. The result is an incisive exploration of what happens when two women who have different ways of coping with life's little prices collide. --MaryAnn Johanson

Pan's Labyrinth (R) I'm not convinced Guillermo del Toro really has anything compelling to say about a juxtaposition between fascist Spain and his intricate fantasy landscape, and that fans aren't simply hunting for an excuse to claim it's more than just a style piece. But so what? You've still gotta groove to the universe he creates for his pre-teen protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who moves with her widowed, pregnant mother in 1944 to live with her new stepfather, an army captain (Sergi López), while also discovering a strange underworld of which she may be the long-lost princess. Someone else can tie himself in knots finding political subtext or coming-of-age rebellion metaphors. The wicked cool creatures -- nasty little insectoid fairies; a beastly fellow with eyes in his palms -- and the squirming-est self-suturing scene since First Blood provide plenty of purely superficial reasons to have a blast. --Scott Renshaw

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

Smokin' Aces (R) A lot of critics went lollipops over Joe Carnahan's 2002 film Narc. Not so with Smokin' Aces, a work that makes Paul McGuigan's Lucky Number Slevin look like a masterpiece of wit. Carnahan was oviously aiming for a kind of quirky Tarantino quality, combined with the cleverness of Guy Ritchie's Snatch and the wonderfully convoluted plot of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. He fails spectacularly at all three. Aces aims at black comedy, but this movie with a bunch of B-list stars as hit men and FBI agents out to either off or protect would-be informer Buddy "Aces" Israel (Entourage's Jeremy Piven) is mostly bloody, brutal and boring. If it's black comedy, it was made by someone with no sense of humor. --Ken Hanke

Stomp the Yard (PG-13) A lot like an extended version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, but with less red leather and more believable gang violence. Stomp the Yard follows a troubled teen as he moves to Atlanta to escape his shady past by enrolling at Truth University, where he soon learns about the importance of Greek life and their traditions involving step dancing. Of course, being the talented hoofer that he is, he's soon being recruited by rival fraternities, despite the fact that his unorthodox street style is at odds with their strict traditions. It's ultimately harmless, but too clichéd to really keep the audience's interest. --Justin Souther

Volver (R) Pedro Almodóvar's 16th film is about the fierce, tortured bonds between mothers and daughters, and women as caretakers of the culture's soul. It's a celebration of women watching out for each other, and a study of the consequences when one woman fails to do so. As with so much melodrama that fetishizes death, separation, and the complicated emotional bonds between family members, Volver is a film of emotional waters barely held back by buckling levies. Almodóvar's sunny direction of even grim events keeps this remarkable film focused on generosity of spirit -- his characters', as well as his own. --Scott Renshaw

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