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Just drive, she said.

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On a late-August night in 1997, just over a year after her divorce from Prince Charles became final, the royal formerly known as Princess Diana is killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel. Almost immediately, the recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair canonizes Diana as "the people's princess," after which the British public waits, and waits, and waits some more for an official royal response. Set during the week that follows, director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan's politically shrewd, unexpectedly funny yet immaculately tasteful docudrama takes us behind the walls of Windsor Castle (and of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral), and what it finds there may come as a surprise. No, the royals of The Queen are not the "bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters" that one dissenting voice (belonging to Blair's wife, Cherie) accuses them of being, but rather a species of prehistoric creature—the seemingly immortal Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms), the rational-to-a-fault Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the aloof Prince Philip (James Cromwell)—clinging obliviously to bygone codes of class and civility. As the resolutely populist Blair (deftly played by Michael Sheen, whose scenes with Mirren have a deliciously oedipal kick) runs interference between an increasingly bitter public and an intractable monarchy, what emerges isn't so much a battle of wills as a clear-eyed portrait of a nation's past meeting its future, the one wondering what (if anything) it might have to learn from the other. At the center of it all, Mirren gives us a profoundly human Elizabeth, saddened less by the loss of Diana than by the thought that she may have grown fatally out of touch with her subjects, yet resourceful enough (she was a mechanic in World War II after all) to admit that even bluebloods make mistakes, pick themselves up and move on. It's a truly magnificent performance in which Mirren taps into the inner life of a public figure who has always existed at a forbidding distance—a statue behind thick velvet ropes. In short, she does the seemingly impossible: She transforms marble into flesh. (Scott Foundas) (Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana)

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When his uncle (Ewan McGregor) dies unexpectedly on an alleged business trip, ordinary English teenager Alex Rider (Alex Pettyfer) soon learns that there's a family tradition of secret agents, and he's next in line. Initially reluctant, he quickly gets into the swing of things when his American au pair (Alicia Silverstone, oddly miscast) is threatened with deportation by the head of MI6 (Bill Nighy, delivering more entertainment value with one eyebrow than everyone else in the movie combined). Alex must infiltrate the headquarters of an eccentric software mogul, who for some odd reason is played by Mickey Rourke under a bad wig and inches of thick pancake makeup, a misstep so wrong it's almost right. Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Andy Serkis, and Distraction host Jimmy Carr round out the cast, which would be fine if this were a comedy, but it's ostensibly an action movie, and the action is so poorly shot as to be embarrassing; even a Donnie Yen-staged martial arts sequence is ruined in the editing. (Luke Y. Thompson) (Countywide)

The second Grudge movie is worlds better than The Ring 2, but it would seem that the trend toward American remakes of Japanese horror movies about pissed off demon girls with long stringy hair has run its course. In Tokyo, Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) has arrived from the U.S. to rescue her older sister (Sarah Michelle Gellar, in a brief cameo), who was terrorized in the first film by the angry ghost of a murdered woman and child. Ignoring some very sensible advice, Aubrey enters the dead people's creepy house. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a young boy (Matthew Knight, superb) begins to suspect that there's something evil lurking in the apartment next door. Generating gore-free unease through sound effects and scary faces is the specialty of director Takashi Shimizu, who helmed the original series (known in Japan as Ju-On). He creates some unsettling moments here, particularly a well-staged scene involving a body under the sheets and a man in a shower, but the evil ghost itself is a predictable, one-trick pony. The finale, in which the separate stories come together in America, isn't an ending at all, but a setup, it's clear, for a third film, which looks to be something along the lines of The Grudge Takes Manhattan. (Chuck Wilson) (Countywide)

See "Repeat Offender." (Countywide)

See "Voter Fraud." (Countywide)

WWE champion John Cena plays a marine so elite he can uncover Al Qaeda fortresses in Iraq. But as those who've seen Cena beat up Vince McMahon know, he has a problem with authority. Discharged from the service and fired from his first civilian job for getting in a fight, he's on a nice peaceful vacation with his wife (Kelly Carlson) when he runs afoul of a gang of diamond thieves led by Robert Patrick. A lengthy chase through the apparently alligator-infested swamps of South Carolina ensues. As an action hero, Cena's no Rock, though he could be the next Roddy Piper except for the fact that he appears to have taken his catchphrase "You Can't See Me" too literally, becoming a peripheral player in his own movie. Patrick and henchman Anthony Ray Parker dominate, the latter hilariously recounting childhood traumas involving rock candy. Tongues are planted firmly in cheek; it's impossible to endorse a full price ticket, but fans of campy action should check this out. (Luke Y. Thompson) (Countywide)

With its spate of blood curses, power-mad usurpers and holocausts narrowly avoided, the Old Testament story of the Jewish queen Esther of Persia certainly doesn't lack for drama. But in this overlong costume epic courtesy of producers Matthew and Laurie Crouch (they of The Omega Code fame) and director Michael Sajbel, the tale of Esther — her unlikely ascent from orphan girl to regent and her heroic subversion of the traitorous Haman's plans for a Jewish genocide — plods across the screen with the thudding portent of an earnest Sunday-school lesson. Despite spirited supporting work from the redoubtable John Rhys-Davies (as Esther's father, the court scribe Mordecai) and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Peter O'Toole (as Samuel the prophet), most of the cast — including the beautiful but vacant Tiffany Dupont, a former Miss University of Georgia, who plays Esther — look and act like refugees from a Roger Corman remake of Gladiator. (Though there is some perverse pleasure to be had in seeing horror-movie staple Tommy "Tiny" Lister cast as a royal eunuch.) Those viewers who found anti-Semitism lurking under every stone in The Passion of the Christ may rejoice in this celebration of Jewish heroism; all others should rest assured that falling asleep in the cinema is not a mortal sin. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide) 

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