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•LITTLE CHILDREN 4 stars (R) One of the rare films that improves on a novel, Todd Field's film adaptation of Tom Perrotta's (Election) snarky social comedy has real tenderness for and insight into its characters despite their myriad problems ranging from selfishness and porn-addiction to antisocial sexual urges. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson are the married parents of young children who meet on the playground and soon tumble into bed in a leafy Massachusetts suburb where adultery is just a way of momentarily escaping deeper anxieties. -- Feaster
•LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE 3 stars (R) When a bubbly 7-year-old (Abigail Breslin) aspires to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, her quirky relatives (including Greg Kinnear as a failed motivational speaker and Steve Carell as a suicidal Proust scholar) take a road trip across country. Not since National Lampoon's Vacation has such a Whitman's Sampler of freaks crammed into a car. This feather-light film proves the increasing mainstreaming of independent film. -- Feaster
•MAN OF THE YEAR (PG-13) Writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian (Robin Williams) became president of the United States. It's a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson's approach is so timid that it makes last spring's soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. Williams delivers the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passé around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. -- Brunson
•MARIE ANTOINETTE 3 stars (PG-13) Eighteenth-century Versailles meets high school in Sofia Coppola's girly-girl take on France's most famous teenage queen. Kirsten Dunst is pearly perfection as the Austrian babe traded to the French as the wife to future King of France XVI (Jason Schwartzman), who prefers his hunting pals to making babies with Marie A. Coppola has never failed to let her cool-girl flag fly, and her injection of '80s pop tunes and California attitude into the 18th century royal court is often a gas. However, it's not enough to cover for Marie A's distinct lack of an inner life or some compelling take on this famous female rebel. -- Feaster
•THE MARINE (PG-13) WWE wrestler John Cena makes his film debut as John Triton (which, frankly, makes a better wrestler name), a Marine who returns from the Iraq War only to see more combat stateside when his wife his kidnapped by an evil gang.
•THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) 4 stars (PG) The skeletal lord of Halloween gets a case of Christmas spirit and decides to replace Santa Claus, with chaotic results, in this stop-motion animated musical produced by Tim Burton. With more big laughs and fewer downbeat Danny Elfman songs, it could be a genuine classic. As is, it offers such visual delights that nearly every frame qualifies as a work of art. Re-released in 3-D IMAX. -- Holman
•ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING (PG) This retelling of the biblical story of Esther, who rises from slavery to become advisor to a king, includes supporting performances from Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif and John Rhys-Davies.
•OPEN SEASON (PG) A sheltered grizzly bear (voiced by Martin Lawrence) and a gabby mule deer (Ashton Kutcher) become unlikely allies in the wilderness. The presence of former Replacements singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg providing the film's music helps set it apart from this year's herd of mammal-based computer-animated films (The Wild, Over the Hedge, Barnyard, etc.).
•THE PRESTIGE 4 stars (PG-13) Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival Victorian-era stage magicians in an enchanting, intricate period piece. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) raises the suspense and emotional stakes of Christopher Priest's seemingly unfilmable novel, which features fascinating behind-the-scenes details of an illusionist's craft as well as the eternal tension between showmanship and technical perfectionism. The Prestige provides plenty of razzle-dazzle and clever construction that will reward a second viewing, even if the ambiguous ending prompts arguments about how they did it. -- Holman
•THE QUEENM 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. The grieving British masses demand a public funeral, but the monarch resists and chipper new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) steps in to run interference. 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. -- Felicia Feaster
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