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Alpha Dog, Borat, Charlotte's Web

NOTES ON A SCANDAL

This grim piece of work—brilliantly adapted by Patrick Marber from the darkly comic Zo Heller novel—is Fatal Attraction for the art-house crowd. Rookie prep-school art instructor Bathsheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), or "Sheba," as she likes to be called, is a beauty tethered to a frustratingly middle-class existence in London with her slightly disheveled older husband (Bill Nighy) and their two children. To fill the void, Sheba has an affair with a 15-year-old student, but she is also wooed by a friendless teacher at the school, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who covets the pretty young thing—as a friend, she would have us believe as our unreliable narrator. (RW) (Countywide)

THE PAINTED VEIL

John Curran's fresh take on Somerset Maugham's novel is sober and delicate but downright buoyant compared to a dull 1934 adaptation starring a miscast Greta Garbo, and a 1957 remake, The Seventh Sin, that tanked on arrival. Edward Norton makes a pretty impressive stiff himself as Walter, a research doctor who, after marrying up and badly to bored socialite Kitty (a suitably brittle Naomi Watts), moves to Shanghai, where he immerses himself in the study of infectious disease, while she immerses herself in a caddish vice-consul (Liev Schreiber). (ET) (Countywide)

 

PAN'S LABYRINTH

Literally and figuratively marvelous, writer-director Guillermo del Toro's rich, daring mix of fantasy and politics begins with a "once upon a time," then becomes utterly specific. Spain 1944: The civil war is over, and Franco's Falangists have long since subjugated the country. The Maquis, last remnants of Republican resistance, are fighting a rearguard action in the forested northern hills. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her ailing, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) have been relocated there, to a remote military base commanded by her new stepfather, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), a cold and brutal autocrat. From Ofelia's perspective, there are all sorts of monsters, human and otherwise. (JH) (Countywide)

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

Despite its title, this isn't one of those noxious, neo-Dickensian fantasias that tend to arrive during the holiday season—you know, the ones where overpaid studio executives seem to be working through their guilt about being rich by evoking the nobility of the starving class. Inspired by the true story of Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith), this is about a man who is abandoned by his wife (Thandie Newton) and left to care for his 5-year-old son (played by Smith's own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) as he races about the streets of 1980s San Francisco, peddling the very thing that was to have been his ticket to ride but instead landed him in financial shackles. (SF) (Countywide)

 

THE QUEEN

More fun than any movie about the violent death of a 36-year-old woman has a right to be (and as exotic an English-language picture as the season is likely to bring), Stephen Frear's skillful docudrama is set in the peculiar bestiary that is Britain's royal family during the traumatic week between Diana Spencer's fatal car crash and the state funeral that the British public forced into existence. Whether or not Tony Blair actually saved the British monarchy, Frears has made it seem so and even worth doing. Could the actual Elizabeth exhibit anything approaching Helen Mirren's wit or timing? (JH) (Countywide)

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Stranger Than Fiction, a fanciful confection about a nebbish who finds out he's a character in a novelist's unhappy ending, may not add up to much more than the standard studio-made exhortation to live your life, not your fears or fantasies. But the movie, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) from a screenplay by Zach Helm, teems with ideas both literary and existential, which might make it unbearably precious, were it not redeemed by woozy charm and some serious acting from Will Ferrell. (ET) (Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

VOLVER

The title of this latest and highly enjoyable comic melodrama from beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodòvar translates as Coming Back—as in "back from the dead," referring to the amusingly matter-of-fact resurrection of Irene (Carmen Maura), an old grandmother who refuses to let mortality get in the way of unfinished familial business. For the filmmaker, Volver represents a return of other sorts as well: to his childhood home of La Mancha, to lighter material after Bad Education, and to All About My Mother's Penèlope Cruz, who, cast here as Irene's catering daughter Raimunda, delivers her most loose-limbed and endearing performance. (RN) (Countywide)

 

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ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES

Adapted from wildly uneven French writer/director/producer Luc Besson's own series of children's books, this predictable and overly busy live-action/computer-animated hybrid follows 10-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore), who, in order to save the home he shares with his somewhat addled grandmother (Mia Farrow), must decipher his grandfather's diary. Following the clues, Arthur, now a 3-D animated figure, enters the mythical Seven Kingdoms, where he joins forces with sexy CGI princess (Madonna) and her chubby, rubber troll of a brother (Jimmy Fallon) as they battle the evil Lord Malthazard (David Bowie) for buried treasure. (JO) (Countywide)

BABEL

In Alejandro González Iñárritu's kaleidoscopic study of tone-deaf culture collision and dislocation, a rifle links the fates of a Moroccan goatherder's young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid), a grieving California couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza) stranded with her privileged charges, and a deaf-mute Tokyo schoolgirl (Rinto Kikuchi). The director and his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga mean to show the butterfly effects of American arrogance and post-9/11 solipsism throughout the world, but after a strong first hour the movie settles for cheap ironies and climactic calamities rigged to unfold almost in unison. (JR) (Countywide)

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