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Capsule reviews of recently released movies 

The Painted Veil, Night at the Museum, Children of Men and more

Opening Friday

THE PAINTED VEIL 3 stars. (PG-13) See review.

Duly Noted

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. star as monster-movie icons alongside the legendary comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Generally considered the best of the countless Abbott and Costello films, this horror spoof could probably teach a thing or two to the creators of Scary Movie. Silver Scream Spook Show. Sat., Dec. 30, 1 and 9:30 p.m. The Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) (R) The cult classic of cult classics, the musical horror spoof follows an all-American couple (Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) to the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a drag-queen/mad scientist from another galaxy. It's all fun and games until Meat Loaf gets killed. Dress as your favorite character and participate in this musical on acid. Midnight Fri. at Lefont Plaza Theatre and Sat. at Peachtree Cinema & Games, Norcross.

Continuing

APOCALYPTO 2 stars. (R) A young Mayan villager (Rudy Youngblood) faces unspeakable horrors after being captured and marked for ritual sacrifice. Mel Gibson's all-subtitled historical action film generates enough momentum to distract from speculation about the movie star's apparent anti-Semitism, but renews questions about his sadomasochistic tendencies as a filmmaker. Despite some lose themes about the decline and fall of civilizations, Apocalypto proves mostly an exercise in violence and torture, although admittedly the final act's extended chase scene is well executed. ­-- Curt Holman

BABEL 4 stars. (R) A freak mishap has far-reaching repercussions that effect the lives of a pair of American tourists (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), two young Moroccan shepherds, a Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) and a deaf Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi). Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu presents another gripping, gritty and well-acted set of intersecting narratives that feature raw performances (particularly from Rinko Kikuchi) and moments of nearly unbearable suspense. On reflection, Iñárritu's themes of language, globalization and human connection don't quite come together, but Babel's passion and visceral image give it power that transcends borders. -- Holman

BLACK CHRISTMAS (R) Michelle Trachtenberg and Lacey Chabert star in this remake of the 1975 thriller (also known as Silent Night, Evil Night) about a slasher stalking a sorority house.

BLOOD DIAMOND 3 stars. (R) A white soldier-turned smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a black fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) become unwilling partners in the effort to recover a huge, uncut diamond amid the chaos of a civil war in Sierra Leone. Glory's Edward Zwick directs a crisply paced, superbly photographed film, replete with magnificent vistas and harrowing action scenes. Despite the film's justified indignation over "conflict diamonds," however, the plot proves utterly familiar and the horrific black-on-black violence will more probably stick with the audience more than contempt for the Western corporations that profit from it. -- Holman

BORAT: CULTURE LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN 4 stars. (R) British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen pranks the United States by traveling the nation in his guise as Borat Sagdiyev, a disarmingly cheerful but sexist, anti-Semitic and colossally ignorant journalist from Kazakhstan. -- Holman

THE BRIDESMAID 3 stars. (NR) Claude Chabrol's latest clammy chamber piece shows a murder disrupt ordinary French life. The Piano Teacher's splendid Benoît Magimel plays as a decent, hardworking salesman who falls hard for a creepy, mystery-shrouded bridesmaid (Laura Smet) at his sister's wedding. Taut and layered, Chabrol proves when it comes to crafting satisfying, low-key thrillers, he still has it. -- Felicia Feaster

CASINO ROYALE 3 stars. (PG-13) A necessary revision in the post-Austin Powers age, Martin Campbell's (GoldenEye) adaptation of Ian Fleming's first novel in his spy series begins at the beginning, with the British spy making his first kills, achieving 007 status and establishing the Bond mystique. -- Feaster

CHARLOTTE'S WEB 3 stars. (G) Like a marketing genius, a friendly spider (voiced by Julia Roberts) used web-based messages to boost the profile -- and spare the life -- of a runty but good-hearted young pig named Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay). This live-action adaptation of the classic children's book features barnyard, bodily-function humor that would have been unthinkable in author E.B. White's day. -- Holman

CHILDREN OF MEN 5 stars. (R) See review.

DECK THE HALLS 1 star. (PG) This agonizing holiday comedy pits Matthew Broderick as an anal retentive Christmas-lover who bristles when his boorish neighbor (Danny DeVito) steals his thunder with an obsessive scheme to make his home Christmas lights visible from outer space. Christmas decoration seems like a funny real-world trend suitable for a holiday film, but this one just emphasizes labored slapstick and contrived feuds before building to a bogus sentimental solution. Plus, it just looks bad, so the mean-spirited film proves to be ugly on the outside and the inside. -- Holman

DéJà Vu 2 stars. (PG-13) The latest from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott is movie porn for the electronic media set, a techno-thriller deeply in love with its own hardware. It's also a disappointment, a high-gloss action film that grows increasingly silly as it introduces each new wrinkle in its spiraling plot. -- Matt Brunson

THE DEPARTED 4 stars. (R) In this exciting, almost insanely intricate crime thriller set in Boston, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover cop trying to ingratiate himself with an Irish mobster (Jack Nicholson), who has a mole in the police force passing as a high-level cop (Matt Damon). -- Holman

DREAMGIRLS 4 stars. (PG-13) Based on the long-running Broadway musical, Bill Condon's rousing film adaptation parallels the rise of a fractious girl group inspired by The Supremes with the changes in African-American culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Playing a role based on Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jamie Foxx virtually drives the plot but lacks a show-stopping number of his own, hinting that there's a hole in the material. It's still a delightfully cast show, featuring Beyoncé Knowles as a Diana Ross-esque chanteuse, Eddie Murphy as an electrifying R&B star hitting the skids and newcomer Jennifer Hudson as a demanding, discarded diva; a role that's already made the "American Idol" contestant the front runner for this year's Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. -- Holman

ERAGON 1 star. (PG) After finding a dragon egg, a farmboy (Ed Speleers) in a faraway land meets a mystic mentor (Jeremy Irons), gets a sword, rescues a princess and otherwise retraces the plot of Star Wars. The dragon (voiced by Rachel Weisz) is a splendid computer-animated creation, but Eragon otherwise proves to be a flat and dreary piece of escapism. Incidentally, the original book was written by a teenager, which may explain why the film offers such a callow, adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy. -- Holman

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION 3 stars. (PG-13) Filmmaker Christopher Guest reunites with his usual comedic cohorts for this portrait of the distorting effects that "Oscar buzz" has on a lame-looking, low-budget Southern drama called Home for Purim. The film suffers from too many characters and tired Hollywood stereotypes, like co-writer Eugene Levy's insincere agent, but at least it has some plot (unlike Guest's prior outing, A Mighty Wind) and it provides plenty of score-settling insights into the price of fame. -- Holman

THE GOOD GERMAN 3 stars. (R) A cynical journalist (George Clooney) in Berlin for the Potsdam conference renews ties with the femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) he loved before World War II. Director Stephen Soderbergh offers a loving but labored black-and-white homage to 1940s film noir, but the more German tries to look and sound like Casabalanca the more awkward and distant it becomes. Tobey Maguire perfectly captures the kind of fresh-faced sidekick performance of the era before turning out to be a violent, foul-mouthed black marketeer, but whether Soderbergh wants to pay tribute to Hollywood's Golden Age or undermine it becomes increasingly unclear. -- Holman

THE GOOD SHEPHERD 2 stars. (R) Director Robert De Niro presents a kind of shadow history of the CIA, flashing back from the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 to the group's Ivy League origins. Despite its antiseptic lack of style, Shepherd attempts to be something akin to The Godfather for American espionage, juxtaposing WASPy rituals with the moral hollowness of the spy game. Instead of an engaging, evolving character like Michael Corleone, however, Shepherd focuses on a soulless company man (Matt Damon) whose tepid personal dilemmas never attain tragic dimensions. The big-name supporting cast includes Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, William Hurt and Angelina Jolie. -- Holman

HAPPY FEET 3 stars. (PG) Forever improving on nature, Hollywood offers an animated answer to the crowd-pleasing penguin doc March of the Penguins. A mix of environmental message and "American Idol"-song and dance extravaganza, the energetic adventure centers on a penguin who, unlike his peers, cannot sing, but can hoof like there's no tomorrow. -- Feaster

THE HISTORY BOYS 2 stars. (R) Eight bright schoolboys in Northern England spend their final term preparing for entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge in this faithful adaptation of the surprise hit play by Alan Bennett. The film features sparkling dialogue, lovely moments and good performances, led by Richard Griffiths as a passionate but old-fashioned teacher. Yet it also draws maddening conclusions, such as its tendency to be entirely too forgiving of what me might call inappropriate Mark Foley behavior. Though praised as an alternate to the sappy portrait of prep-school education in Dead Poets Society, The History Boys proves nearly as sentimental and black-and-white as the Robin Williams film. -- Holman

THE HOLIDAY 3 stars. (PG-13) There is a great deal of charm to this tale of smart, recently heartbroken singletons, played by city mouse Cameron Diaz and country mouse Kate Winslet. They swap their respective homes in L.A. and the English countryside over the Christmas holiday and just so happen to meet the loves of their lives on new soil. The presence of faux-Hollywood trailers and an old movie screenwriter (Eli Wallach) offers an interesting, self-reflexive commentary on some of the shallow values of New Hollywood compared to the Tinseltown of old. -- Feaster

IMAX THEATER Deep Sea (NR) Get an up-close-and-personal look at sea turtles, giant octopi and other strange and colorful marine life in this visit to the ocean floor. Greece: Secrets of the Past (NR) This documentary explores the archeological secrets of Ancient Greece and features the Parthenon in its original glory as well as the volcanic eruption that buried the island of Santorini. Fernbank Museum of Natural History IMAX Theater, 767 Clifton Road. 404-929-6300. www.fernbank.edu.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND 3 stars. (R) Based on Giles Foden's novel, this thriller imagines 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker) appointing a naive Scottish doctor as his personal doctor. As their relationship develops, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) also becomes Amin's political confidante, witnessing his growing paranoia and murderous reign firsthand. The film begins as a rousing study of Amin's charismatic, outsize personality amidst a black power and folk music-infected Africa. But it soon descends into an absurd white man's nightmare as Garrigan finds himself trapped in the baroque horrors of Amin's Uganda. Though there is implausibility galore and a disturbing use of Africa as the source of both the white world's fantasies and fear, Whitaker rises above the often exploitative material to deliver a performance of astounding humanity and appeal that gets you into the dark, divided heart of the dictator. -- Feaster

THE NATIVITY STORY 2 stars. (PG) Like a well-meaning, pro-Jewish prequel to The Passion of the Christ, this Bible epic recounts the courtship of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) against a background of immaculate conception and Roman exploitation. . Despite the sympathetic and respectful performance of Castle-Hughes, the results prove stodgy and solemn, with the last 20 minutes resembling the most pain-staking live nativity re-enactment you can imagine: There's the star, there's the shepherds, here come the comic-relief wise men, etc. -- Holman

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 4 stars. (PG) See review.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS 3 stars. (PG-13) Will Smith is earnest and appealing, even if his enthusiasm is more believable than his sorrow in this fact-based film about a man struggling to change his life. In this valentine to the American dream, Chris Gardner (Smith) has been abandoned by his wife to care for his 5-year-old son while trying to change from a homeless medical supply salesman with a high school diploma to a Dean Witter stockbroker. Just when director Gabriele Muccino digs beneath his glossy Hollywood tale and shows the domino-effect hardship of being poor, something fraudulent or superficial steals his thunder. But the story's sentimental take on black fatherhood and the well-done father-son relationship account for a great deal of its appeal. -- Feaster

THE QUEEN 4 stars. (PG-13) Helen Mirren is enthralling as the emotionally flummoxed Queen Elizabeth II who finds herself stuck in the middle of royal protocol and modernization when former princess Diana dies. An often hilarious portrait of the bizarre WASP rituals of the royals and the media blitzkrieg surrounding Diana's death, Stephen Frears exceptionally enjoyable tragicomedy is a tour de force all around. -- Feaster

ROCKY BALBOA 2 stars. (PG-13) The sixth Rocky movie is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star-groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it's hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. Rocky Balboa has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he's essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive; and what should be the central storyline -- Rocky comes out of retirement to fight a champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age -- only takes shape once the picture's nearly over. -- Brunson

STRANGER THAN FICTION 3 stars. (PG-13) Dull IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) learns that he has inadvertently become the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Despite the innovative premise, this never matches the existential, mind-bending depths of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and remains resolutely mainstream, with flights of fancy that lightly tickle the brain but never really challenge it. The upside is that this allows a love story to take root amid the high concept, and as enacted by Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing a baker who awakens Harold's dormant passions), it's both charming and disarming. -- Brunson

TURISTAS 3 stars. (R) Director John Stockwell crazy/beautiful, Blue Crush offers a subversive spin on the Hostel impale-the-tourists formula by managing to sympathize with both its victims and its "Others." The hot American tourists who get stranded in the hostile Brazilian countryside are relatively likable, while the Brazilian locals have legitimate reasons to resent their lowly position in the global economy. In Turistas the girls get to fight back, the gore is more chilling than graphic and the film is a cut above the usual teen-exploitation.

UNACCOMPANIED MINORS (PG) A group of young people snowed in at a Chicago airport find unexpected fun in a bad situation. It sounds sort of like Home Alone meets The Terminal.

VOLVER 5 stars. (R) Pedro Almodóvar proves yet again that he is one of the most engaging filmmakers working today. He balances intense feeling and giddy silliness without sacrificing humanity or heart in this tale of a devoted mother, played by an intoxicating Penélope Cruz, who finds herself disposing of a dead husband, running an illegal restaurant and fending off her mother's ghost. Blending elements of Italian neorealist cinema, classic Hollywood melodramas like Mildred Pierce and outrageous Almodóvarian wit, Volver is an earthy, heartfelt pleasure from top to bottom. -- Feaster

WE ARE MARSHALL (PG) Matthew McConaughey stars in this inspirational sports drama about the Marshall University football team's death in a plane crash and a coach's efforts to keep the program together. This tale, based on a true story, marks a change of pace for Charlie's Angels director McG.

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