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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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