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Alpha Dog, Borat, Casino Royale

HAPPY FEET

George Miller, he of the hallowed Babe, was going to have to work very hard to overcome this critic's chronic penguin fatigue, but he's pulled it off with this goofy, gorgeous animated musical set among the emperor penguins of Antarctica. Pup Mumble (Elijah Wood) suffers from low self-esteem brought on by the fact that his prowess as a tap dancer brands him a geek to all but his mother and a fetching young empress (Nicole Kidman and Brittany Murphy, respectively). Banished by the tribe with the blessing of his uncomprehending dad (Hugh Jackman), Mumble is taken in by Latino penguins with cool dance moves; before long he's tapping toward self-actualization. (ET) (AMC Downtown Disney, Anaheim; Edwards Tustin Marketplace; Regal Foothill Towne Center, Foothill Ranch)

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

An adequate thriller redeemed by Forest Whitaker's sensational turn as Idi Amin, this novice venture into narrative features by documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September) stars James McAvoy as a callow young Scot who becomes the dictator's personal physician and close adviser, and lives to rue the day. Based on the 1998 novel by Giles Foden, the movie feels awkwardly derivative of Under Fire, Salvador, and other superior thrillers of Westerners entangled in the legacy of imperialism. (ET) (Countywide)

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

The simple act of mirroring can't help but seem provocative in a movie that's about to be released into a nation at war—a war, like most others, predicated on absolutist notions of good and evil. But in Letters From Iwo Jima, as in Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood seems less concerned with provocation than with contemplation of a popular military campaign and its supposed days of glory. Letters narrows its focus to Iwo Jima and the Japanese troops who endured weeks of food shortages and dysentery epidemics only to perish in hails of bullets, or, in some cases, impaled by their own swords. (SF) (Countywide)

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)

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