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The Baltimore Sun

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

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 Invisibles, who aren't invisible at all, just very, very small - are blandly animated, with expressionless faces and precious little warmth. 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. (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 and Chocolate, -- a flick about a Bucharest werewolf in love with a human, never frightens. It rarely lands a laugh. And while it isn't cheap looking, the primitive editing and optical-effects "transformation" of these shape-shifters and the no-name cast tell you they didn't have the money to do anything interesting with this exhausted genre of film horror. (Orlando Sentinel) PG-13 95 minutes F

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+

Catch and Release, -- stars Jennifer Garner as a gal whose fiance gets killed in a sporting accident on a bachelor-party getaway. He leaves his betrothed with a wilting wedding cake, multiple waffle irons and the revelation that he had a masseuse mistress in Los Angeles. Garner brings to professional performing the kind of adolescent posturing meant to stop unwanted admirers in their tracks. That's part of her charm. But director Susannah Grant hasn't given her enough of a character. The whole film demonstrates the downside of mellow. (M.S.) PG-13 115 minutes. C

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-

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

Epic Movie -- has nothing to do with epics. But the producers of this parody show how easy it is to fake a Narnia (Gnarnia), a pirate ship and a chocolate factory full of little people. Pity they couldn't find anything funny to do once they'd built the sets and found dead ringers for Anna Faris, Paris Hilton, P. Diddy and Jack Black. (Orlando Sentinel) PG-13 85 minutes D

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. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B

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 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

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. Blanchett is brilliant, but even closet sadists who adore seeing spiders trap flies may not find enough of an excuse to keep watching this asensual orgy of manipulation and victimization. (M.S.) R 91 minutes C+

The Painted Veil -- is the superbly acted love story of a mismatched British bacteriologist (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

Smokin' Aces, -- in which a gaggle of the world's deadliest and most colorful assassins vie for the $1 million bounty placed on the head of a Tahoe-based mob stoolie (Jeremy Piven), has no idea where it's going. But as a careening roller-coaster ride masquerading as a movie, it's such a hoot to be on, who really cares? Writer-director Joe Carnahan injects a steady stream of black humor into the proceedings, and his film revels in its absurdities. (C.K.) R 106 minutes B

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