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Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Children of Men, Letters From Iwo Jima, Pan's Labyrinth, others

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BABEL Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, this is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (excellent Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel, but because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing. **1/2

CHILDREN OF MEN No matter how closely I scoured each scene in Children of Men, I couldn't find Charlton Heston lurking anywhere in the background. Yet a Heston cameo would have been apropos, given that this adaptation of P.D. James' book harkens back to the cinema of the early 1970s, when Hollywood was hell-bent on churning out nightmarish visions of the future in such works as The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring Heston). Aided by spectacular cinematography and set design, director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) creates a future world (the film is set in 2027) that is utterly believable and quite frightening, not least because it looks so much like our present-day world. The premise here is that women haven't been able to get pregnant in nearly 20 years, meaning that humankind is on its way out. As a result, chaos is the order of the day, and only in London does there exist a pretense of a (barely) functional society. But when it's revealed that an immigrant (Clare-Hope Ashitey) somehow finds herself carrying a child, it's up to a working drone (Clive Owen in a forceful performance) to protect her from the various political factions that would exploit her for their own cynical means. The multi-tentacled storyline begs for a mini-series length, but armed with only a feature-film running time, Cuaron still manages to pack a lot of incident into this exciting tale of our world as one gargantuan war zone. ***1/2

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER Will the real Zhang Yimou please stand up? This extraordinary talent was once responsible for such towering features as Ju Dou, To Live and Raise the Red Lantern, opulent epics that nevertheless managed to display the heartbeat of personal drama. But as of late, Yimou has become fascinated with movie technology, shifting from people to props, from storylines to stunts. Yet even staunch defenders of his recent opuses Hero and House of Flying Daggers might throw their hands up when confronted with this excessive extravaganza. It's based on a play by Yu Cao but seems to have been adapted by Yimou after he sat through a marathon viewing of soap operas. For all its attention to duplicity, incest and murder most foul, it's less William Shakespeare and more Susan Lucci. Set in 928 A.D., it concerns the power plays that exist between Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) and their sons (Jay Chou, Ye Liu and Qin Junjie). The costume and set designs are staggering, but the story unfolding amidst all the pageantry is strained and even silly. Still, the dialogue-heavy sequences prove to be more compelling than the action scenes, which generally rely on repetitive battle footage and wholly unconvincing CGI work. After enduring countless sequences filled with complex wirework and trick photography, I found myself yearning for the relative simplicity of a Bruce Lee kick to the chest. **

THE DEPARTED At this point in his career, it's hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker's hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that's what's taking place with The Departed, which isn't an original screen story but rather a remake of the excellent 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Like its predecessor, this boasts an ingenious premise: A lawman (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover and infiltrates the inner circle of a crime lord (Jack Nicholson) while a mob underling (Matt Damon) simultaneously works his way up through the ranks of the police department. Neither informant knows the other's identity, prompting both men to feverishly work to uncover the plant on the other side of the fence. Given that powerhouse punch of a scenario, it's perhaps not surprising that Scorsese elected to rework someone else's property while also embellishing it with his own distinctive style. The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and they occasionally verge on overkill. But with weighty issues of identity, duplicity and deception remaining constants throughout the film, it's refreshing to find a stateside remake that for once doesn't feel the need to dumb down for the sake of Yank audiences. ***

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