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Short Subjectives 

Capsule reviews of recently released films

Opening Wednesday

MUSIC AND LYRICS (PG-13) In this romantic comedy, Hugh Grant plays a 1980s one-hit wonder who teams with a younger lyricist (Drew Barrymore) to write a hit pop song for a teen idol. Written and directed by Marc Lawrence, co-writer of Miss Congeniality.

TYLER PERRY'S DADDY LITTLE GIRLS (PG-13) See feature.

Opening Friday

BECKET (1964) 5 stars (NR) See review.

BREAKING AND ENTERING 2 stars (R) See review.

HANNIBAL RISING (R) This prequel thriller presents some of the back-story of everyone's favorite cannibal head-shrinker, Hannibal Lecter, back when he was a creepy European youth (A Very Long Engagement's Gaspard Ulliel) orphaned in World War II.

NORBIT (PG-13) A Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for Dreamgirls, Eddie Murphy plays multiple roles, including a vulgar, obese woman and the nerd who marries her, only to meet the girl of his dreams (Thandie Newton) afterward.

INLAND EMPIRE 4 stars (R) David Lynch, 61, is at it again, this time bringing his forays into the unconscious to viewers via newfangled digital video. His reliable muse Laura Dern plays another innocent dipping into the world's dark side as an actress who finds playing a slatternly character bleeds into her real life, splitting her consciousness into two. Lynch's film bounces between Hollywood and Lodz, Poland (home of the country's national film school), reality and surreality, innocence and corruption. Even more than Mulholland Drive, Lynch's meandering waking nightmare explores the dangers ever present in a Hollywood where acting and other creative endeavors threaten to split the psyche into two. -- Felicia Feaster

Duly Noted

EVE AND THE FIRE HORSE (2005) (NR) Julie Kwan's debut film draws on her own experience growing up Chinese in Vancouver in the 1970s. Canada's Best. Sat., Feb. 10. 8 p.m., Woodruff Arts Center, Rich Theatre. 1280 Peachtree St. $7. 404-733-4570. www.high.org.

FLEEING BY NIGHT (2000) (NR) This love story set in Tianjin in the 1930s finds thwarted romance involving a cellist and an opera singer. Celebrating Taiwan's Cinema. Fri. Feb. 9. 8 p.m., Woodruff Arts Center, Rich Theatre. 1280 Peachtree St. $7. 404-733-4570. www.high.org.

MARIE ANTOINETTE 3 stars (PG-13) Eighteenth-century Versailles meets high school in Sofia Coppola's confectionery, 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-dude pals to making babies with Marie. 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. But it's not enough to cover for Marie A's distinct lack of an inner life (gazing wistfully out of windows doesn't count), or some compelling take on this famous female rebel. Feb. 9-15. Cinefest, GSU University Center, Suite 211, 66 Courtland St. $5 ($3 until 5 p.m.). 404-651-3565. www2.gsu.edu/~wwwcft. -- Feaster

THE MESSAGE (1976) (NR) As part of Islamic Awareness Week, Cinefest presents free screenings of The Message, a controversial 1976 film about the foundation of Islam featuring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas and Michael Ansara. Feb. 12, 14 and 16. Cinefest, GSU University Center, Suite 211, 66 Courtland St. Free. 404-651-3565. www2.gsu.edu/~wwwcft. -- Curt Holman

THE NINTH DAY (2004) (NR) A priest released from Dachau concentration camp has nine days to convince the bishop of Luxembourg to work with the Nazi occupiers or return to imprisonment. Looking at History. Wed., Feb. 14, 7 p.m. Goethe-Institut Atlanta, 1197 Peachtree St. $3-$4. 404-894-2388.

PINKEYE QUEER MOVIE SALON (NR) For February the monthly program of gay-themed film features "Dirty South," a program of "local queer indie erotica." Wed., Feb. 14, 8 p.m. Eyedrum. 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Price TBA. 404-522-0655. www.eyedrum.org.

RENAISSANCE 2 stars (PG-13) In Paris of 2054, a high-tech cop (voiced by James Bond-to-be Daniel Craig) tries to track down a kidnapped geneticist. The most conspicuous feature of this European animated film is its color scheme or lack thereof: Director Christian Volckman films live actors and renders their animated doppelgangers in super-high contrast black-and-white, a striking technique that induces eyestrain after a while. Renaissance also offers a fascinating vision of futuristic Parisian architecture, but the terrible dialogue and inexpressive features flatten an the familiar sci-fi noir story. Feb. 2-8. Cinefest, GSU University Center, Suite 211, 66 Courtland St. $5 ($3 until 5 p.m.). 404-651-3565. www2.gsu.edu/~wwwcft. -- Holman

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

BABEL 4 stars (R) A freak mishap has far-reaching repercussions that affect 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

BECAUSE I SAID SO (PG-13) Diane Keaton stars as a meddling mother who can't stop interfering with her daughters' love lives in this rom-com that features Lauren Graham, Piper Perabo and Mandy Moore as besieged siblings. From the director of Heathers and The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Expect it to be more like the latter.

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (PG-13) Two great tastes that taste great together. In this horror flick reminiscent of Underworld, a would-be werewolf (Agnes Bruckner) grapples with her supernatural destiny in modern-day Bucharest.

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

CATCH AND RELEASE 2 stars (PG-13) Jennifer Garner of "Alias" plays a young woman who mourns the death of her fiance, then learns to embrace life and romance anew. This debut film from Susannah Grant, screenwriter of Erin Brockovich and Charlotte's Web, seems aware of the film's rom-com clichés without being able to avoid them. As the love interest, Timothy Olyphant, who seethes so forcefully on "Deadwood" here merely stands around looking like a handsome actor and lets Kevin "Silent Bob" Smith steal the film, which increasingly looks like a promotion video for both Boulder, Colo., and Celestial Seasonings herb tea. Really. -- Holman

CHILDREN OF MEN 5 stars (R) In England of 2041, following a global epidemic of infertility, a cynical Englishman (Clive Owen) becomes caught up in a revolutionary group's plan, hinging on the miraculous secret of a young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Alfonso Cuaron, director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, retains the premise but departs from the spirit of P.D. James' novel to focus on xenophobia, homeland security and urban unrest. Trading high-tech sci-fi trappings for gritty, present-day concerns, Children of Men practically shimmers with tense scenes and rich themes, culminating with a breathless, wordless extended sequence that pleas for peace and the recognition of our shared humanity. -- Holman

CONSTELLATION (PG-13) This drama depicts the tribulations of an African-American family in the South and features Billy Dee Williams, Rae Dawn Chong, Lesley Ann Warren and some actors who have less than three names.

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 frontrunner for this year's Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. -- Holman

EPIC MOVIE (PG-13) Some of the creators of the Scary Movie franchise branch out to poke fun at seemingly every big-budget movie from the past year or so, including The Chronicles of Narnia, Superman Returns, The Da Vinci Code and Snakes on a Plane. At least someone still remembers Snakes on a Plane.

FREEDOM WRITERS (PG-13) In this drama inspired by a real person, two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays a young teacher who inspires a class of young, at-risk students to learn tolerance and pursue education beyond high school.

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

THE HITCHER (R) Sean Bean reprises Rutger Hauer's role as an inexplicably murderous hitchhiker who plays cat-and-mouse with the young driver dumb enough to pick him up. A remake of the extremely dark, controversial but undeniably terrorizing cult horror flick from 1986.

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.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA 3 stars (R) Clint Eastwood's follow-up to his WWII drama Flags of Our Fathers looks at the definitive battle of Iwo Jima through the eyes of Japanese grunts trying against hopeless odds to protect their island from an onslaught of American invaders. Eastwood's decision to imagine history through the Other's eyes and film his drama in Japanese with English subtitles was an impressive creative gamble. Much of the film has a depressing fatalism matched by Eastwood vet Tom Stern's eerie cinematography, though it doesn't feel as if Eastwood has really reconceptualized the war film in any larger sense.-- Feaster

THE MESSENGERS (PG-13) The Pang Brothers, directors of such Hong Kong horror flicks as The Eye, helm this suspense story in which children see ominous apparitions invisible to adults at a secluded North Dakota farm.

MISS POTTER 2 stars (PG) Chris Noonan (Babe) should have stuck to the barnyard. His sugar-dusted biopicture of the English creator of Peter Rabbit and a rash of cheery children's tales imagines Beatrix Potter as a perky Victorian cheerleader too chipper to let even meanie-pie old death get her down. A teeth-gnashingly annoying Renee Zellwegger brings a sunny disposition and little else to this shallow tale of a woman who defied the repressive British social codes of her day in both her writing, scientific pursuits and conservation efforts. -- Feaster

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 4 stars (PG) The occasionally unfunny Ben Stiller is inspired and feeling his comic imp in this very enjoyable romp about a slacker divorced dad Larry (Stiller) who tries to win back his son's affection by taking a job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History and discovers that the displays of animals, explorers, cavemen and soldiers come alive at night. With its subtext of male anxiety and championing of book learnin' and the lessons of history, Shawn Levy's film offers equal entertainment for adults and children including a crack-comic cast featuring "The Office's" Ricky Gervais as the museum boss and a dementedly funny Mickey Rooney as a retiring night guard. -- Feaster

NOTES ON A SCANDAL 4 stars (R) If you need an antidote to the usual schoolroom inspirational a la Freedom Writers, then this nasty slice of Brit-misanthropy should be just the ticket. From Patrick Marber's script and Zoe Heller's novel, the film begins as an engrossing thriller about the parasitic relationship between a beautiful, bourgeois inner-city London schoolteacher (Cate Blanchett) and the older dominatrix schoolmarm (Judi Dench) who develops an unhealthy fascination with her colleague's indiscretions and supple flesh. But its initially thrilling knee-deep cynicism soon mutates into a blatantly misogynist, homophobic portrait of Dench's hellbent crone, a turnaround which makes it into a very guilty pleasure indeed. -- Feaster

OFF THE BLACK 3 stars (R) Athens-born, Columbia University-educated filmmaker James Ponsoldt makes his film debut with a mellow drama in the Sideways mold about a hard- drinking loner (Nick Nolte) who develops an unlikely, poignant friendship with a high school baseball player (Trevor Morgan). Ponsoldt is clearly interested in showing the tenderness and loneliness of these men's lives. You come away with a respect for the director's sincerity and for Nolte's portrait of a tragic baseball umpire, even if the film never completely emotionally gels and can often feel too self-consciously "meaningful" for its own good. -- Feaster

THE PAINTED VEIL 3 stars (PG-13) English newlyweds (Naomi Watts and Edward Norton) wrangle with their marital difficulties against the backdrop of a cholera outbreak and political unrest in rural China in the 1920s. Watts reunites with John Curran, her director for We Don't Live Here Anymore for a visually impressive, emotionally intimate tale with tensions that hit closer to the bone than the usual straight-laced Merchant-Ivory period piece while conveying more breadth of feeling than Curran's previous film. Norton and especially Watts superbly convey the spouses' different difficulties in expressing themselves. -- Holman

PAN'S LABYRINTH 4 stars (R) Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's (Hellboy, Cronos) exquisitely gothic fairy tale concerns a little girl (Ivana Baquero) who escapes the nightmarish Spanish fascist stepfather and violence of the adult world in prolonged fantasies of descent into a magical underworld overseen by an enormous talking faun, Pan. Del Toro, supported by an excellent cast of female actresses, delivers an achingly beautiful parable about the willful desire of children to imagine an alternative reality. -- Feaster

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

SMOKIN' ACES (R) Smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Narc director Joe Carnahan helms this hip action flick that features Jeremy Piven of Entourage as "Aces," a Vegas performer whose decision to snitch incurs the wrath of various mob hitmen. The cast includes Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds and such unusual suspects as Jason Bateman and Alicia Keys.

STOMP THE YARD (PG-13) A troubled 19-year-old dancer from Los Angeles enrolls in Atlanta's fictional Truth University, where he gets caught up in romance and the "step show" competitions of black fraternities.

VENUS 3 stars (R) An elderly English character actor (Peter O'Toole) moons over a coarse but comely young woman (Jodie Whittaker) while grappling with the prospect of his mortality. Having played kings, artists and madmen throughout his career, Venus brings O'Toole down to earth for one of his most touching, naturalistic performances. O'Toole's Oscar-nominated work elevates a pleasant but minor film that reveals a surprisingly pointed sense of humor, particularly in O'Toole's scenes with the excellent Leslie Phillips, who plays his bickering best friend. -- Holman

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 such as Mildred Pierce and outrageous Almodóvarian wit, Volver is an earthy, heartfelt pleasure from top to bottom. -- Feaster

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