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Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach, except where noted.

Full reviews at


Akeelah and the Bee -- follows a formula, one of the oldest in all of fiction: an underdog, struggling against the odds, seeks fame, fortune and - most importantly - self-respect. Sure, we've seen it all before, but what makes this one of the most winning movies of 2006 is its abundance of great intentions. Twelve-year-old Keke Palmer plays a girl living in a tough L.A. neighborhood who has a talent rarely celebrated in mainstream American films. She's smart. And when the school spelling bee rolls around, she's torn between competing, and possibly winning, and showing disdain for the whole process, which would certainly make her seem more cool. (C.K.) PG 112 minutes B+

Art School Confidential -- is intermittently exhilarating. Director Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa) skewers not just the jocks who taunt the artist hero (Max Minghella) in high school, but the clueless members of his family and, most of all, the pseuds who surround him at the Strathmore Institute, a fashionably decrepit art school. When the hero falls for a smart, gorgeous art model (Sophia Myles), it becomes an unwieldy combination - bitter and semisweet. But robust, intelligent contempt is so rare that we should treasure the caustic pieces of it here. (M.S.) R 102 minutes B


Brick -- is a remarkable oddity, audacious and engaging. This film noir for the young and the feckless spills over with suburban bravado and unrelenting wit. Our antihero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), tries to get to the bottom of a narcotics underworld that has swallowed up his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The movie is deliriously disarming in the way it laces life-and-death heartbreak in and out of cozy-seedy circumstances. (M.S.) R 110 minutes A-

The Da Vinci Code -- issues a spray of perspiration - not from the hero (Tom Hanks) and heroine (Audrey Tautou) outrunning forces set on framing them for multiple murders, but from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman sweating buckets of unholy water as they try (and fail) to stay on top of novelist Dan Brown's heavy, exposition-riddled plot. Howard treats Brown's book as holy writ. It's a fatal mistake for an adaptation of a novel whose sole virtue is irreverence. (M.S.) PG-13 149 minutes C

Down in the Valley -- features Edward Norton as a cowboy who ambles into the contemporary San Fernando Valley with a couple of shirts and a duffel filled with gear and creates a walking pocket of calm in the dull suburban roar of engines and air conditioners. As a Valley Girl who says she's been waiting for life to happen and doesn't know what will start it, Evan Rachel Wood ferments yearning and concupiscence into essence-of-adolescence. The balance between his courtliness and her readiness gives this film's magical first hour the unexpected sensual lilt of a lithe, spontaneous dance. The movie has a trick second half that ends up spelling out nearly all the conflicts more potently left implicit in the earlier part of the film. Still, writer-director David Jacobson and his actors do so much with the characters that they leave an ambiguous residue of blood-streaked regrets and sadness. (M.S.) R 125 minutes B+

Ice Age: The Meltdown -- offers some good news: The nut-nutty squirrel of the first Ice Age is back. Otherwise, the movie has exactly the same flaws as its predecessor. It's a glacier-paced mastodon quest, just critters on the run from extinction. The ice is melting. Manny the mammoth tries to hurry everybody along to safety before the ice walls break. It's all very Land Before Time, or the first Ice Age, without the kids-lose-their-parents pathos. (Orlando Sentinel) PG 85 minutes C-

Inside Man -- is a slick, briskly paced tale of bank robbers who think they're at least twice as smart as everybody else, and maybe are. Clive Owen is the robber determined that everyone play his game, Denzel Washington is the detective assigned to the case, and Jodie Foster is a mysterious operative working desperately to keep something inside one of the bank's safe-deposit boxes from coming out. (C.K.) R 129 minutes B+

Just My Luck -- does for Lindsay Lohan something unmatched by any of her previous films. It makes her boring. Billed in some quarters as her first grown-up movie, it's really nothing of the sort; it's just as juvenile as anything she's done previously. The only difference is that here, as a woman who unwittingly trades her fabulous luck with a guy (Chris Pine) who has no luck whatsoever, she gets to kiss a lot of guys. It isn't until the character loses her imperviousness to fate that Lohan gets a handle on the character; she's much more appealing as a klutz, pratfalling and shrieking and finding misfortune around every corner. (C.K.) PG-13 100 minutes C

Keeping Up With the Steins -- is equal parts a rumination on the rapacious silliness that comes from efforts to keep up with the Joneses and a tale of family rapprochement. Too bad the filmmakers couldn't settle on one plotline and stick with it. The resulting film is affable enough, featuring an endearing turn from Garry Marshall as an eccentric grandfather who, on the occasion of his grandson's bar mitzvah, seems the only person in the universe concentrating on the boy's best interests, and not the scope of the celebration. Ultimately, however, the film tries to do too much, with too many changes of tone. Worse, it wastes the talented, chronically under-appreciated Jeremy Piven, saddling him with a one-note character who comes across as simply pigheaded, while the story would have us believe he's much more. (C.K.) PG-13 99 minutes C+

Mission: Impossible III -- will provide a satisfying ride for series fans; others may regard it as TV squared. The action hinges physically on Tom Cruise's abilities to race through city streets like the Flash or soar through the air and land safely thanks to super bungee cords and his virtuoso ways with a parachute. It hinges emotionally on the hero's desperate attempt to set down roots. Director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, the man who invented Lost and Alias, has concocted a big-screen M:I entry that's an Alias story with the quirks and emotional heft reduced and the explosions augmented. An hour after you see it, you may be hungry for a real movie. (M.S.) PG-13 125 minutes B-


Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont -- stars veteran British actress Joan Plowright as an aging widow casually ignored by her daughter and grandson. Not wanting to be a bother to anyone, she moves into a seen-better-days London hotel whose elderly residents find themselves in straits similar to hers: alone, neglected and living out their final days with whatever dignity they can muster. Relative newcomer Rupert Friend is a young writer who takes to her, as both a surrogate grandmother and an inspiration for his work. There's a steady drumbeat of melancholia that winds its way through, but the movie is far from turgid, and Plowright is too fine an actress to commit a one-note character to the screen. The main actors and director Dan Ireland know not to push too hard, to let the relationship between Mrs. Palfrey and Meyer play out slowly and honestly. (C.K.) Unrated 108 minutes B

The Notorious Bettie Page -- makes its way to the finish line on Gretchen Mol's back - and every other body part. With a wholesome gusto, she inhabits the role of a Tennessee woman who moved to New York and, there and in Florida, became the pin-up gal of the Fifties. Despite the flimsy script by Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron, Mol effortlessly sells their vision of a guileless, generous gal making her way through life by doing what she does best: having fun in front of the camera. Mol reminds us that attitude doesn't have to mean snarkiness. She evinces a pure delight in acting that lends a smidgen of depth to the concept. (M.S.) R 91 minutes B

Over the Hedge -- is the tale of a bunch of forest critters and their wide-eyed introduction to the pleasures and dangers of suburbia. It has funny animals that will appeal to the young, humor that will appeal to adolescents, tongue-in-cheek sophistication that will endear itself to adults and an appreciation of its animated predecessors that should warm the hearts of veteran moviegoers. How can you not love a film that casts William Shatner as a possum, thus giving Hollywood's most unregenerate ham the chance to give voice to death scene after death scene? If that isn't inspired casting, what is? (C.K.) PG 86 minutes A-

Poseidon -- fails to provide even the dubious excitement of seeing a handful survive and hundreds of passengers and crew drown when a monstrous wave overturns a cruise ship. Instead of archetypal characters from the 1972 version, like Gene Hackman's rogue minister, we get clumsy hybrids, like Kurt Russell as a former New York firefighter and ex-mayor. It's clear no one's on the open sea, just in some studio tank, stuck up Remake River without a paddle. (M.S.) PG-13 99 minutes D

RV -- Barry Sonnenfeld's remake (in spirit, if not in name) of National Lampoon's Vacation is a comedy in which Robin Williams doesn't resort to his standard shtick (except for one overlong and unfunny scene in which he gangsta raps). Like Chevy Chase in Vacation, Williams is a dad who takes his brood on a cross-country vacation, during which they finally come to realize that dad isn't such a doofus after all. The film has some real laughs, mostly thanks to Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth as a hick family that refuses to be left behind. Still, it's impossible to shake the feeling that we've seen all this before. (C.K.) 92 minutes PG-13 B-

United 93 -- returns us to Sept. 11, 2001, with immediacy, intelligence and a full-bodied human impact. Instead of weepiness, it offers us insight and revelation - and what James Joyce in The Dead called "generous tears." What you feel for the passengers that learn of the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and decide to overpower the terrorist hijackers goes beyond respect or admiration. You understand their action fully, not as a reasoned and heroic suicidal response, but as a fight for life: They aim to take back the plane and fly it, or die trying. There's no cheap uplift to their victory, no pop catharsis. What's great about United 93 is that you never feel it's just a movie - even though, as a movie, it's terrific. (M.S.) R 111 minutes A+


Water -- offers a fervid outcry against ancient yet extant Hindu laws that say widows of all ages - even child brides who never knew their husbands - should either throw themselves on their spouse's funeral pyre, adopt a life of renunciation or, with the family's permission, marry a brother of the deceased. But this flowery, literary feature too often takes the form of a romance novel rather than robust or muckraking fiction. Set in 1938, primarily to connect the liberation of widows to the calls for truth and justice emanating from the nationalist movement of Mahatma Gandhi, the movie tries for and only sometimes achieves the lyrical, limpid storytelling of Satyajit Ray masterpieces like The Home and the World. (M.S.) PG-13 114 minutes B-

X-Men: The Last Stand -- does stay true to the franchise: Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his band of virtuous mutants negotiate peacefully with mainstream society, while his nemesis, Magneto (Ian McKellen), raises an opposition culture, this time to destroy a new-found "cure" for the mutant gene. But too many characters stand around with their mouths open. The one standout is Kelsey Grammer's Dr. Hank McCoy, aka Beast, a jolly blue giant who likes to hang upside-down for his sanity, as if single-pawedly bringing back the gravity boot. (M.S.) PG-13 104 minutes B-