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THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (R) Actor/director Peter Mullan's film is hyperbolic and at every turn rigged to inspire outrage. But it is also a highly effective, darkly engrossing condemnation of the checkered history of religious abuses of power. The drama takes place at one of Ireland's "Magdalene Asylums," which operated from the 19th century until 1996 as a virtual prison for girls accused of "moral crimes" ranging from being raped, to out-of-wedlock childbirth to flirtatiousness. Mullan's women-in-prison formula follows three young girls who are nearly destroyed by the sadism of the nuns who oversee their work in the asylum's grueling laundries. --FF
MATCHSTICK MEN (PG-13) A con artist (Nicolas Cage) afflicted with obsessive-compulsive tics gets a new outlook on life when he meets the teenager daughter (Alison Lohman) he never knew he had. Cage's twitchy, showy performance feels like a technical exercise, but the affectionate give-and-take of the father and daughter holds the film together. Like many other recent con man movies, Matchstick Men means to bamboozle the audience, but even if you see through its tricks, the film's central relationship is strong enough to keep you from feeling swindled. --CH
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (R) Robert Rodriguez's third film in the El Mariachi trilogy he inaugurated in 1992 shows signs of wear and tear. Antonio Banderas returns as the gunslinger/musician with revenge on his mind as he goes after the general planning to assassinate Mexico's president. But the outrageous gunplay and ironic violence borrowed from Hong Kong films has now become as tired as old-style Hollywood action formula, while Rodriguez's indie irreverence has soured into cynicism in this cryptically plotted, banal mayhem. --FF
OPEN RANGE (R) Kevin Costner (who also directed and co-produced) plays a conflicted cattle driver pitted against a greedy land baron. A sleepy opening and sometimes tedious pacing make the first hour drag, but Robert Duvall's fine performance as a fatherly cow poke keeps things moving along until the explosive final gun battle, which is worth the wait. --TB
THE ORDER (R) Two words: Holy shit. Composed mostly of dull conversations, The Order is about the "Sin Eater" (Benno Furmann), who redeems people dying outside the Catholic church by taking their sins into himself -- with fava beans and a good Chianti (well, bread and salt). After 600 years he's ready to pass the job on to a young priest (Heath Ledger) as his chosen successor. Ledger goes through the movie with a pained expression, as will viewers. Shannyn Sossamon is the love interest required for films about modern priests. --SW
THE PETERSBURG-CANNES EXPRESS (PG-13) A beautiful Russian revolutionary plans to escape the title train in this romantic adventure directed by Oscar-winning producer John Daly. At Madstone Theaters Parkside.
SECONDHAND LIONS (PG) Secondhand plots, anyone? Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment play two uncles and the boy dumped on them for a summer. Writer-director Tim McCanlies combines tall tales, a child coming of age among eccentric relatives and greedy relatives hovering over a huge inheritance. Caine's never at his best trying to drawl (remember Hurry Sundown?) but he's okay and the other two are great. Be prepared for heavy, family-friendly sentimentality mixed with considerable humor. --SW
SIDE STREETS (1998) (NR) Merchant/Ivory produced this film about five interlocking stories of immigrants in five different boroughs of New York City, featuring Rosario Dawson and Shashi Kapoor. At Madstone Theaters Parkside.
SPY KIDS 3D: GAME OVER (PG) Director Robert Rodriguez's playful use of 3-D effects -- complete with red-and-blue glasses -- make the third Spy Kids film a gimmicky delight. Half-pint secret agent Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) enters a virtual video game to save the world's children from the maniacal Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone). Coherence runs low, especially if you don't know gaming jargon, but the visual creativity soars sky-high (imagine Tron meets Looney Tunes), and some clever Matrix satire sets up the year's funniest cameo. --CH
STEP INTO LIQUID (NR) The pictures are worth thousands of words, but that doesn't stop surfilosophers from adding thousands more in Dana Brown's continuation of the work of his surfer documentarian father, Bruce Brown (the Endless Summer movies). Well timed to appeal to extreme sports fans, Liquid highlights new wrinkles (tow-in surfing and foil boards) and old, wrinkled (and some younger) surfers in locations from Chile to Vietnam to Wisconsin. Gnarly, dude, but next time shut up and surf. At Landmark Midtown Cinema. --SW