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Alpha Dog, Borat, Casino Royale

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Reviews by David Chute, Scott Foundas, Jessica Grose, J. Hoberman, Nathan Lee, Rob Nelson, Jean Oppenheimer, Jim Ridley, Ella Taylor, Luke Y. Thompson and Robert Wilonsky.

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ALPHA DOG

Based on the real-life murder of a 15-year-old San Fernando boy by a gang of teens allegedly led by Jesse James Hollywood—who escaped to Brazil, was arrested there in 2005 and still awaits trial—Alpha Dog lays out a horrific tale of suburban indulgence gone wrong. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes prepped for this movie by poring over off-limits files leaked by the case's prosecutor, and he presents Hollywood, here named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), not as a great criminal mastermind, but merely a baby-faced punk who deals weed to spoiled Valley girls and their hip-hopped-up boyfriends. (RW) (Countywide)

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN

Sacha Baron Cohen's ersatz Kazakh TV reporter, the ineffably oafish Borat Sagdiyev, goes looking for America—from New York to LA by way of Mississippi, and well beyond the boundaries of taste. It's a documentary. Borat specializes in one-on-ones with unwary professionals, snared by their desire to appear on (even Kazakh) TV. The audience doesn't laugh so much as howl. How does Baron Cohen keep a straight face? (JH) (Regency Charter Centre, Huntington Beach; Picture Show at Main Place, Santa Ana; Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

CASINO ROYALE

To say Casino Royale ranks among the best James Bond offerings is not intended as backhanded praise. Absolutely it goes on too long (clocking in at 144 minutes), and absolutely half of the damned thing makes no sense at all, but it works hard enough to merit its prolonged coda and nonsense storytelling. Because beneath all the gimmicks and gadgets—chief among them a collection of cell phones capable of doing things of which Catherine Zeta-Jones never dreamed—is the actor Daniel Craig, who brings to Bond all the things he's lacked since Sean Connery fought the Cold War in a toupee. (RW) (Regency Charter Centre, Huntington Beach; Edwards Tustin Marketplace)

CHARLOTTE'S WEB

Breathe easy: Gary Winick's new, live-action Charlotte's Web pic does not screw up one of the seminal works of American children's literature. In fact, the film manages to modernize this classic tale without losing the gravity and essential dignity of animals grappling with mortality. Winick skillfully undercuts the seriousness of the subject matter (Wilbur, the porcine protagonist, is essentially on death row for the entirety of the film) with contemporary sarcasm and a liberal dose of potty humor. While Dakota Fanning does well by Fern, the film's pig-loving heroine, John Cleese, with his clipped British delivery, is the real scene-stealer as elitist sheep Samuel. (JG) (Countywide)

CHILDREN OF MEN

Alfonso Cuaròn's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James's sci-fi novel functions equally well as fantasy and thriller. Like War of the Worlds and V for Vendetta (and more consistently than either), Children of Men attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. Infertility may be the metaphor that enables Children of Men to entertain the possibility of No Future but the war against terror and the battle for Iraq are powerfully present. (JH) (Countywide)

DHOOM 2

Sanjay Gadhvi's sequel tp the first Dhoom (a.k.a. Blast, in the sense of "having a…") is a globe-trotting succession of elaborate robbery and chase sequences. Judged purely as a crime movie, it's a mess, littered with unanswered questions and dangling plot threads. As an entertainment that has more in common with a variety show than with a well-made narrative, it lives up to its title. In spite of all the CGI- and wire-assisted heavy lifting, the most impressive special effects here are the sinuously athletic dance moves of leading man Hrithek Roshan (Krrish), who plays the dashing cat burglar everyone else is chasing—a wall-climbing, sky-diving master of disguise. (DC) (Naz 8, Artesia)

DREAMGIRLS

By now, so much of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls' prime real estate has been overdeveloped by the rash of Broadway and big-screen music biographies (Ray, Walk the Line, Jersey Boys) that it's tough to get too worked up over yet more scenes of naïve, young vocalists hearing their song on the radio for the first time, encountering the ugly face of racism, and discovering that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. Still, the movie version of Dreamgirls, which was written and directed by Bill Condon, is by far the best of the recent Hollywood musicals. (SF) (Countywide)

GURU

Gifted Indian moviemaker Mani Ratnam's enthralling and eventful new picture is one of his best yet. Inspired by the rags to riches story of a real-life Indian petrochemical tycoon, the late Dhirajlal "Dhirubhai" Ambani, it's a realistically textured biographical thriller staged on an operatic scale. Re-named Gurukant "Gurubhai" Desai and played with high-stepping enjoyment and focused determination by Abishek Bachchan, he's a hero not in spite of the fact that he's a crafty corporate Capitalist but because of it; his textile factories have created tens of thousands of jobs, and the ordinary people he recruited as shareholders have been hoisted out of poverty by his success. (DC) (Naz 8, Artesia)

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)

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) (Picture Show at Main Place, Santa Ana; 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) (AMC 30 at the Block, Orange; Edwards Brea Stadium East; Edwards Westpark, Irvine)

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SERAPHIM FALLS

Really, you have to love the casting of Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson—two Irishmen—as Civil War vets sprinting across the Western plains, with Neeson the pursuer and Brosnan the pursued. The whole project, filled with familiar faces in teensy roles, reeks of old-fashioned Big Studio entertainment—this could have been made sometime between, oh, 1953 and 1978. Seraphim Falls has decent pep in its step till the final 30 minutes, when it's finally revealed why Neeson's bounty hunter is after Brosnan's surly mountain man. The flashback finale and all that comes after (and keeps on comin') drags on so long the leads even look exhausted. (RW) (Edwards University, Irvine)

SMOKIN' ACES

Writer-director Joe Carnahan's third feature might have been pitched as the world series of assassins. It's a busy-busy-busy movie with no particular narrative—just a bunch of rival killers fighting their way up to a mob informer's Tahoe suite. Posturing is universal and for all its bloody mayhem, this degenerate Ocean's 11 has a light touch; the laugh count is low but Carnahan compensates with a well developed, if mumbling, sense of the absurd. (JH) (Countywide)

VENUS

Maurice Russell, the protagonist of Roger Michell's slight but pleasing film, is a suit lovingly tailored to Peter O'Toole's ravaged but commanding frame. O'Toole plays a septuagenarian actor facing the end of his career and life who gets a burst of late-blooming lust from a sassy, sullen teenage girl (Jodie Whittaker). What keeps Venus from sinking ass-deep in Golden Pond is its sexual reverie—and a star that couldn't play a cutely neutered grumpy old man if commanded by God. (JR) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine; Mann Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel)

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