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Short Subjectives 

Capsule reviews of recently released films

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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

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