Blood Diamond (R) Blood Diamond proves that good intentions and passion really can transcend limited skill sets. Director Edward Zwick — last employed stage managing Tom Cruise’s vanity in The Last Samurai — uses his workmanlike abilities to Blood Diamond‘s advantage, neutering any trace of the maudlin in his 90’s-set Africa horror story. It’s like the atrocities infecting modern Africa, whether the microcosm of the diamond trade referenced in the film’s title and the neo-imperialist opportunism of which such crimes are a symptom, were constantly nipping at their heels, provoking both to avoid the usual gaffes of the “issue film.” It’s not a truly great movie, but perhaps more importantly, it’s essential. —Ian Grey

Catch and Release (PG-13) When Gray’s (Jennifer Garner) fiancée Grady dies just before their wedding, she’s forced to move in with his three befuddled best friends, all of whom fit into a perfect group of superficial stereotypes. The script, from otherwise talented writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is a mess of clichés and odd coincidences, a big bag of characters who are nothing more than artifice and aww moments. It’s kind of a shame, too, because most of the cast is pretty good, particularly Kevin Smith as the stock funny fat guy. But they’re not enough to overcome the rest. Grant’s directorial debut, while not exactly a disaster, suggests she’d be better off sticking to the keyboard. —Joshua Tyler

Charlotte’s Web (G) Gary Winick’s film version of E.B. White’s 1952 children’s book is a quiet work of some charm and wit that captures the essence of White’s story with a minimum of pandering to modern tastes. The film’s embellishments — apart from the requisite flatulence gags — are rarely jarring, and the all-star voice casting isn’t allowed to get in the way. The vaguely period setting gives the film a timeless quality that works well. On one level, this is simply a tale of friendship and of the sacrifices we sometimes have to make for our friends. But there’s more here than that. It deals with the whole life cycle — going from birth to death to birth with time out for subtle observations about our own changes as we go through life, not to mention a bit of satire about the cult of celebrity and the power of advertising. —Ken Hanke

The Departed (R) Cops-versus-killers has been done to the point of improbability, but in front of Marty Scorsese’s lens it’s a brand-new game. It’s not quite the masterpiece that some of his other recent films have been — like The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead — but The Departed is a work of strong vision and sharp personality. For most of its massive running time, the film is an absolutely fascinating exploration, a mix of all kinds of different genres. It’s a thriller, a cop procedural, a character drama, and more, all rolled into one — exactly the sort of complexity you’d expect from a Scorsese movie. Despite the film’s last-act misstep, the movie’s worth watching just for the journey. Scorsese remains a master, and he’s working his finest magic here. —Joshua Tyler

Dreamgirls (PG-13) This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent, or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) delivers a version that’s simply, unobtrusively satisfying — entertainment writ large, and without apology. The obvious román-a-clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you’re getting a thinly-disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. On a certain level, it may feel like only a minor variation on a hundred other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame — A Star is Born with a little more funk in its stride. Yet this is exactly the kind of story that soars with a score. —Scott Renshaw

Epic Movie (PG-13) A self-styled “satire” of epic movies that lacks any semblance of focus or, frankly, satire. Of the many flaws in directing/writing duo Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s approach, the most glaring is the distinct lack of epic movies being spoofed. I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks movies like Nacho Libre, Talladega Nights or Borat are epics by anyone’s measure. I guess Movies People Have Probably Seen Movie just isn’t as catchy. Boring, obvious, and just plain dumb, it’s lowest common denominator filmmaking at it’s worst —Ken Hanke

Freedom Writers (PG-13) Uncompromising in its manipulation and filled with teeth-gnashing bad guys, Freedom Writers is strictly for fans of the “teacher who made a difference” sub-genre. It’s the “true story” (naturally) of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), who inspired and empowered a classroom full of inner city kids by urging them to write their stories in theme books. When writer-director Richard LaGravense sticks to the kids’ stories, his film is on surer footing than when he deals with the backstory of Gruwell and the classroom itself, which come off like suspiciously melodramatic variations on James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love so much that you keep waiting for Lulu to show up and sing a theme song. —Ken Hanke

The Hitcher (R) Slice-and-dice mayhem of the lowest order. Apart from wasting 84 minutes of my time and helping to insure my continued gainful employment, I can find no justification whatsoever for Dave Meyer’s The Hitcher. It’s not scary. It’s not tense. It’s not even unintentionally funny. In fact, it’s just not much of anything. The 1986 version with Rutger Hauer was hardly a classic, but it was a moderately effective thriller with one truly shocking set piece. The new version reproduces that one attention-grabbing shock, but it’s no longer shocking when you expect it. Worse, any illusion of characterization has gone out the window. Sean Bean as the homicidal hitcher seems more peevish than psychotic (maybe he finally read the script). Zachary Knighton as the object of his murderous desires is cosmically vapid, and leading lady Sophia Bush demonstrates the same acting skills she evidenced in Supercross. —Ken Hanke

The Last King of Scotland (R) Everyone’s talking about Forest Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland as the African dictator Idi Amin, and that’s all right and good: Whitaker is a marvel. If you’re the kind of moviegoer who cares about things like craft, and if you revel at seeing an actor at the top of his game, you won’t want to miss this film. Based on a novel by Giles Foden, it’s the story of a young Scottish doctor, Nick Garrigan (a brilliant James McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in the 1970s, looking for adventure and an opportunity to do some real good, and finds himself swept up in the reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin. Writer Peter Morgan and director Kevin Macdonald have made one of the don’t-you-dare-miss-it films of the year. —MaryAnn Johanson

Notes on a Scandal (R) Notes on a Scandal is a huge lark of a movie, an enormous pleasure of smart, intricate performances, twisty plotting, and sinful sensationalism. Imagine Single White Female as mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. To see Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the finest actresses working today, wrestle to the metaphoric ground roaringly stereotyped characters plucked straight from real-life supermarket tabloids or golden-age Hollywood melodrama is a hoot. The clever script is by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller; the excellent direction is by Richard Eyre, who made the little-seen but similarly compelling Stage Beauty. The result is an incisive exploration of what happens when two women who have different ways of coping with life’s little prices collide. —MaryAnn Johanson

Pan’s Labyrinth (R) I’m not convinced Guillermo del Toro really has anything compelling to say about a juxtaposition between fascist Spain and his intricate fantasy landscape, and that fans aren’t simply hunting for an excuse to claim it’s more than just a style piece. But so what? You’ve still gotta groove to the universe he creates for his pre-teen protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who moves with her widowed, pregnant mother in 1944 to live with her new stepfather, an army captain (Sergi López), while also discovering a strange underworld of which she may be the long-lost princess. Someone else can tie himself in knots finding political subtext or coming-of-age rebellion metaphors. The wicked cool creatures — nasty little insectoid fairies; a beastly fellow with eyes in his palms — and the squirming-est self-suturing scene since First Blood provide plenty of purely superficial reasons to have a blast. —Scott Renshaw

The Queen (PG-13) In an early scene, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) stares regally at the camera as she poses for a portrait. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan aim to take Her Royal Majesty down from the wall, but in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Exploring the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the filmmakers observe Elizabeth and new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) responding to the public grief, both of them struggling to understand the role of the monarchy in the modern world. An extended hunters-equals-paparazzi metaphor extends a touch too far, but the impressive performances — Sheen is nearly as terrific as the already much-lauded Mirren — contribute to a compelling, compassionate character study. —Scott Renshaw

Smokin’ Aces (R) A lot of critics went lollipops over Joe Carnahan’s 2002 film Narc. Not so with Smokin’ Aces, a work that makes Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin look like a masterpiece of wit. Carnahan was obviously aiming for a kind of quirky Tarantino quality, combined with the cleverness of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and the wonderfully convoluted plot of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. He fails spectacularly at all three. Aces aims at black comedy, but this movie with a bunch of B-list stars as hit men and FBI agents out to either off or protect would-be informer Buddy “Aces” Israel (Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven) is mostly bloody, brutal and boring. If it’s black comedy, it was made by someone with no sense of humor. —Ken Hanke

Stomp the Yard (PG-13) A lot like an extended version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, but with less red leather and more believable gang violence. Stomp the Yard follows a troubled teen as he moves to Atlanta to escape his shady past by enrolling at Truth University, where he soon learns about the importance of Greek life and their traditions involving step dancing. Of course, being the talented hoofer that he is, he’s soon being recruited by rival fraternities, despite the fact that his unorthodox street style is at odds with their strict traditions. It’s ultimately harmless, but too clichéd to really keep the audience’s interest. —Justin Souther

Volver (R) Pedro Almodóvar’s 16th film is about the fierce, tortured bonds between mothers and daughters, and women as caretakers of the culture’s soul. It’s a celebration of women watching out for each other, and a study of the consequences when one woman fails to do so. As with so much melodrama that fetishizes death, separation, and the complicated emotional bonds between family members, Volver is a film of emotional waters barely held back by buckling levies. Almodóvar’s sunny direction of even grim events keeps this remarkable film focused on generosity of spirit — his characters’, as well as his own. —Scott Renshaw

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