the best of the rest

Capsules by Michael Sragow. Full reviews are at

Frozen River : *** ( 3 STARS) This solid, satisfying, ruthlessly character-driven thriller focuses an unblinking eye on the fraying lives of Native Americans and struggling whites living in and around the Mohawk Reservation on the New York-Canada border. It creates a charged emotional atmosphere in which you feel anything can happen. As a working-class mother who smuggles illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River, Melissa Leo brings a ferocious brusqueness to a downward-spiraling character and is never less than galvanic. R 97 minutes


Ghost Town: **** ( 3 STARS) Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who finds himself falling head-first for a brainy, beautiful Egyptologist (Tea Leoni) after the ghost of her dead husband (Greg Kinnear) enlists him to prevent her second marriage. Director David Koepp and his ace ensemble put over a tender yet hilarious vision of loved ones unconsciously using their own unresolved feelings to summon their dear and departed - leading to a New York City overrun with specters. And Gervais gives it all a rich, bittersweet center. PG-13 102 minutes

I Served the King of England: **** ( 3 STARS) A randy Czech waiter with a gift for garnishing dishes (including his lovers) hones his talents during the rise of the Third Reich and keeps practicing them while Hitler annexes the Sudetenland and then takes all of Czechoslovakia. He comes to be the worst kind of escapist: the kind who diddles while his country burns. The brilliance of the film is that it consistently makes its points through comedy. R 120 minutes


The Lucky Ones: *** ( 3 STARS) Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena and Tim Robbins play Iraq war soldiers who join forces to face the confusions of the home front. The movie has its own emotional sorcery. In a raw, humorous way, it grasps how hope and desperation spur magical thinking and, sometimes, real magic. McAdams is glorious as a woman who is as tough and scrappy as she is emotionally open, and Robbins acts with rare subtlety as a man whose life turns upside down just when he hopes to take it easy. R 113 minutes.

Miracle at St. Anna: *** ( 3 STARS) It follows four "Buffalo Soldiers" - African-American soldiers fighting in segregated units - as they leapfrog over the rest of the Army's positions and land in a hamlet filled with terrified villagers. Even when the scene-making is prosaic, as they talk about interacting more easily with Italians than with white Americans, or try out jokes and come-ons that sound fresh to their new friends, the actors' total identification with their roles transcends everything that's awkward or obvious. Omar Benson Miller brings a touch of the poet to a bighearted GI who becomes known as "the Chocolate Giant." R 155 minutes

Star Wars: The Clone Wars : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS) Lucasfilm's new feature-length cartoon gives fanboys and fangirls their chance to see sweeping big-screen images of the Jedi using their clone armies to protect the Republic against the Dark Lords of the Sith and their droid armies. It's not exactly thrilling, and it doesn't cover much new ground, but young audiences will lap it up like ice cream, and its good humor and faith in the Force will put adults in a Saturday-morning frame of mind, even at midnight showings. PG 98 minutes

Step Brothers : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS) Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as 40-year-old men who act like 12-year-olds; when their single parents marry, they go through a ticklish parody of buddy-movie emotions. The film is wildly erratic and just outrageous enough to acquire a cult. It's a slacker farce done as performance art and a midnight movie you can catch at a matinee. R 95 minutes

Tell No One : **** ( 4 STARS) This modest marvel from France is a terrific, humane suspense film. On the eighth anniversary of his wife's abduction and apparent murder, a Paris-based pediatrician (Francois Cluzet) receives an e-mail containing a link to a video Web site on which he thinks he spots her alive. The e-mail comes with the warning "tell no one," because people will be watching. The movie, like its hero, is shrewd about the small lies and mini-corruptions that can lead to major crimes. Unrated 125 minutes

Traitor: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS) Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a righteous Muslim connected to Islamic extremists who are plotting to blow up buses across America. Guy Pearce plays an FBI counterterrorist agent who starts tracking Samir after he lands in a Yemeni prison for selling detonators to an Islamic militant cell. Although earnest and intelligent, this film is like an elaboration of that old hair-dye commercial: "Does she or doesn't she?" Only this time, it's "Does he or doesn't he harbor a secret anti-terrorist agenda?" PG-13 110 minutes

Tropic Thunder: *** This parody of Vietnam War movies, though broad and hit or miss, takes full advantage of the big screen when it offers dizzying burlesques of the pretensions and excesses of runaway filmmaking. When director-star Ben Stiller rockets into manic reflections of real 'Nam epics like Apocalypse Now, he displays gifts for frenzy and hyperbole straight out of vintage Mad magazines. No one in the cast is more daring than Robert Downey Jr. as a Russell Crowe-like actor assuming the role of an African-American soldier. R 107 minutes.