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Capsules by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach unless noted. Full reviews are at

Alpha Dog -- centers on a passel of drugged-out teen reprobates for whom every word is a four-letter one beginning with F, every action is a reaction to some perceived slight and every waking moment is an opportunity to be squandered. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes clearly sees his film as a cautionary tale. But the deck is too stacked. (C.K.) R 117 minutes B-


Arthur and the Invisibles -- tries way too hard. The creatures at its heart -- the Invisibles, who aren't invisible at all, just very, very small -- are blandly animated, with expressionless faces and precious little warmth. To compensate, the filmmakers over-accessorize the creatures, adding so many details, such as beards and armor, that it becomes distracting. And the story, of a boy who shrinks himself down to their size and ends up being a hero of both the world he came from and the world he's visiting, mistakes frenzy for wit. There's always something going on, but it's often hard to figure why or to what end. (C.K.) PG 102 minutes C

Babel, -- in which director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu suggests that the world's peoples do a lousy job of talking to one another, doesn't devolve into babble, but it comes perilously close. Inarritu employs multiple story threads that unfold with little regard to chronology, but the device seems arbitrary and unnecessary. The film comes across as more clever than profound. (C.K.) R 142 minutes B-


Blood Diamond -- is an adventure film that spotlights the practice of using the trade in precious stones to fund violence in certain African countries. (C.K.) R 138 minutes B+

Charlotte's Web, -- a first-rate family fantasy based on E.B. White's great children's book, follows a valiant young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning) as she saves the runty pig Wilbur from her father's ax. Then Charlotte, a spider in her uncle's barnyard, saves Wilbur from becoming a Christmas ham. It's impossible to think of anyone besides Dakota playing Fern and bringing the same rapture and strength to the character. But here she's merely the first among equals, including the vocal cast led by Julia Roberts as Charlotte and Dominic Scott Kay as Wilbur. (M.S.) G 98 minutes A-

Children of Men -- is a sci-fi thriller that has less to do with the plot -- disease has left all the women sterile -- than with the director's vision of where our culture is headed. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that the director is Alfonso Cuaron, one of current cinema's most striking visual stylists. (C.K.) R 106 minutes B-

Code Name: The Cleaner -- is clearly envisioned as a star vehicle for Cedric the Entertainer. But Cedric has yet to show he has the chops to carry a film. Still, it features a wonderfully appealing turn by Lucy Liu, who gets to show off both martial-arts skills and a light-hearted comic persona that has been only suggested in her earlier films. (C.K.) PG-13 90 minutes C+

Curse of the Golden Flower -- Gong Li plays the Empress who is being slowly poisoned by the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). Does he know she has been sleeping with her stepson, the Crown Prince (Liu Ye)? Director Zhang Yimou tries to top the breathtaking poetic spectacle of his masterpiece, House of Flying Daggers, and instead plummets into self-parody. (M.S.) R 114 minutes C

The Departed -- illuminates, with a blowtorch, the tangled roots of urban corruption when a Boston Irish kingpin (Jack Nicholson) puts a mole (Matt Damon) in the State Police and the police put a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the mob. The direction (Martin Scorsese) and the writing (William Monahan) burst with exposed-wire energy; so does the ensemble, including the scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg as a police sergeant. (M.S.) R 149 minutes A

Dreamgirls -- threads the history of black entertainers crossing into mainstream pop through the story of the rise and dissolution of a Supremes-like group. Astonishing performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy make this the true heir to Chicago as a great movie musical. (M.S.) PG-13 131 minutes A

Freedom Writers -- follows gang members at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., as they get the luckiest break of their young lives: enrollment in the English class of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a novice instructor who refuses to give up on them. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B


The Good Shepherd -- uses a fictional counterintelligence expert (Matt Damon, at his subtlest and savviest) to trace the founding of the Office of Strategic Services before the Second World War and the OSS' postwar transformation into the Central Intelligence Agency. As Monty Python might have put it, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, bang-bang: The material is all bad manners and worse behavior in high places, complete with private codes and deadly secret gestures, but the movie is anemic and humorless. (M.S.) R 160 minutes C+

Happily N'ever After -- is a Shrek-light fractured fairy tale. Sarah Michelle Gellar as the voice of Princess Ella and Freddie Prinze Jr. as her royal dishwasher beau don't carry much heft, especially compared to Sigourney Weaver as the over-the-top stepmother and Andy Dick and Wallace Shawn as comic relief. (Los Angeles Times) PG 87 minutes C

The Hitcher -- is a poor cousin to the original, 1986 thriller about a young man on a cross-country trip and a psychotic killer. The new version turns the single driver into a cute college couple -- including a fetching Sophia Bush -- and bleaches out the existential psychosis of the original, opting instead to just make everything bigger and louder. (Los Angeles Times) R 84 minutes D

The Last King of Scotland -- is Idi Amin, the Scot-loving, infamous Ugandan dictator who staged a coup in 1971. Forest Whitaker gives a performance huge in size and spirit and terrifying in its downward-spiraling momentum as Amin. James McAvoy has a giddy self-awareness as the co-antihero, a reckless Scottish doctor who becomes Amin's personal physician. (M.S.) R 121 minutes A-

Letters from Iwo Jima -- Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers offered a Marines'-eye view of the Battle of Iwo Jima; in this companion piece, he follows the battle from the Japanese point of view. The movie means to involve us in the plight of dedicated soldiers caught in a horrific conflict; it aims to clear the air of racist propaganda. But the chronology is hazy, the exposition haphazard and confused. You're trapped with the Japanese in their tunnels, in the dark. Every now and then, an explosion illuminates their faces, but never their characters. (M.S.) R 141 minutes C

Night at the Museum -- offers a great conceit -- that every night at New York's Museum of Natural History, all the statues and mummies and dioramas and dinosaur skeletons come to life. But the filmmakers seem to waste all their inspiration in the first 20 minutes. (C.K.) PG 108 minutes C+


Notes on a Scandal -- is a tale of two flawed teachers: the fetching art instructor (Cate Blanchett), who sleeps with a 15-year-old student, and the battle-ax history department head, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who uses knowledge of the affair to forge a closer bond with her. (M.S.) R 91 minutes C+

The Painted Veil -- is the superbly acted love story of a mismatched British bacteriologist in Shanghai (Edward Norton) and a seemingly shallow London woman (Naomi Watts) who marries him in a desperate attempt to escape her family. (M.S.) PG-13 124 minutes B+

Pan's Labyrinth -- trips the dark fantastic: In 1944 Spain, a pro-Franco military thug tries to squash a stubborn pocket of resistance, while his virtuous, spunky stepdaughter enters a fairy-tale kingdom that will name her its princess if she fulfills three tasks before the next full moon. This picture marks writer-director Guillermo del Toro as a moviemaking fabulist with imagination, emotion and the ability to reflect life in a haunted-funhouse mirror. (M.S.) R 112 minutes A

The Queen -- is Helen Mirren: As Queen Elizabeth II she does an exhilarating, death-defying tightrope walk in sensible shoes, and Michael Sheen, as her new Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, spots her brilliantly. (M.S.) PG-13 97 minutes A

The Pursuit of Happyness -- tells a small, fictionalized piece of the life of Chris Gardner, a struggling medical-equipment vendor who stakes his future on becoming a top stockbroker. As Gardner, Will Smith practices the highest form of acting: the kind that seems artless. (M.S.) PG-13 117 minutes A

Rocky Balboa -- is strictly for nostalgia lovers, resurrecting everyone's favorite underdog heavyweight boxing champ for one last go at the title. Hero worshipers who cherish the Rocky character will doubtless enjoy a stroll down fantasy lane, as the 60-year-old Balboa revisits his old haunts and tries to recapture some of the old magic. Others, however, should recognize Rocky Balboa for the self-indulgent exercise it is and wonder why star-writer-director Sylvester Stallone couldn't once again have left well enough alone. (C.K.) PG 102 minutes C


Stomp the Yard -- is as predictable as movies come: Loner with a chip on his shoulder finds acceptance and maturity by channeling his talents into something socially acceptable and finding the love of a great gal. But at least that workhorse of a formula is being used in service of a film that extols the virtues of higher education and a proud tradition in the black community. (C.K.) PG-13 109 minutes C+

Volver -- revolves around a newly single mother, played by Penelope Cruz, who runs a Madrid restaurant on the sly while grappling gamely with the aftermath of violence and abuse and maybe the ghost of her own mother. Writer-director Pedro Almodovar returns to comic form, and Cruz is sensational in this movie -- she's its lifeblood, its raison d'etre and its meaning. (M.S.) R 121 minutes B+