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. ***
DREAMGIRLS Jennifer Hudson couldn't even make it to the top on American Idol, so what could she possibly bring to the big screen? If Dreamgirls is any indication, plenty. Delivering a knockout performance, Hudson is a revelation in the role of Effie, the lead singer for the R&B outfit the Dreams who's relegated to backup vocals once savvy yet sleazy manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides that the noticeably thinner Deena (Beyonce Knowles) would better help the Supremes-like group hit it big (the third member, well-played by Anika Noni Rose, is content to remain in backup mode). On the narrative level, this adaptation of the Broadway smash is only too happy to wallow in its show biz clichés, content to let other ingredients (the music, the acting) carry it along. Yet Hudson is so powerful that the film suffers whenever we're left with just Beyonce or Foxx. Luckily, Eddie Murphy is on hand providing some prickly tension as fading star James "Early" Thunder, while writer-director Bill Condon stages the musical numbers for maximum impact. But it's Hudson who owns Dreamgirls; her delivery of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is worth a standing ovation -- or at least a recount on American Idol -- all by itself. ***
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA Before this picture, director Clint Eastwood had already helmed one film in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the American soldiers who hoisted Old Glory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during the World War II battle. Whereas the respectable Flags provided the Yankee point of view, this superior picture gives us the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and, for the most part, died in this bloody skirmish. Eastwood and scripters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita stay away from the politics of the war in the Pacific, choosing instead to focus on the humanity of the Japanese men required to defend this island from a U.S. takeover. The name actor attached to Letters is the magnetic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai); he plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the author of the film's literary source), a sensible leader who knows that he and his army are doomed but still does the best he can in an impossible situation. War movies used to be a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood, but recent times have seen them become almost as rare as the Western and the musical. Here's one that comes along at the right time. As Bush callously plots to send 20,000 troops to their potential deaths, here's a film that reminds the rest of us that all soldiers have names and faces -- and most deserve better than to end up as body bag fodder simply to serve the interests of petty tyrants who incorrectly fancy themselves great leaders. ***1/2
LITTLE CHILDREN Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, Todd Field's richly textured drama offers a petri dish dissection of the residents of a Massachusetts suburb in which most of the adults' lives are defined by the manner in which they relate to the kids who scamper around the margins of both their lives and the movie itself. Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) are both unhappily married stay-at-homes who engage in an adulterous tryst scheduled around outings to the pool and the park with their small fry. First, though, they have to navigate their way around the disapproving clucks of their neighborhood's soccer moms, robo-parents whose familial devotion has stripped them of anything resembling a personality. And then there's Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender whose emergence in this quiet community understandably draws attention, though it also allows the other residents the opportunity to smooth over their own flaws. The entire cast is superb -- as Ronnie's blind date, Jane Adams is sensational in a role that would draw award attention were it not so brief -- but it's former 70s child star Haley who's the most memorable. His sexual predator is by turns loathsome and sympathetic -- not unlike most of the "normal" characters in the film -- and Haley is able to locate the humane within the inhuman. It's a complex portrayal, perfectly suited to the weighty movie that shelters it. ***1/2
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM This family film plays with fire by employing the services of three overexposed actors -- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams (only Will Ferrell is missing) -- and potentially allowing them to run rampant through an overstuffed fantasy yarn. Mercifully, though, Stiller is muted, Williams is similarly restrained, and Wilson ... well, Wilson is still pretty annoying (two out of three ain't bad). Stiller plays Larry Daley, the new night watchman at a museum where the exhibits come to life after the venue closes for the day. The benevolent Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) is helpful to have around, but Larry has his hands full evading Attila the Hun, dealing with a mischievous monkey, and settling squabbles between a miniature cowboy (Wilson) and an equally diminutive Roman commander (Steve Coogan). A clever premise (adapted from a children's book) is hampered by lackluster scripting and directing, though Ricky Gervais provides some choice comic moments as the supercilious museum head. If nothing else, this should command the attention of kids who are already bored with their Christmas presents. **
NOTES ON A SCANDAL Judi Dench is so good at what she does that in recent years, she's become something of a bore. Because she's always cast as the no-nonsense matriarch with more brains and gumption than anyone else in the room, her career's been in a depressing holding pattern. Notes On a Scandal doesn't exactly find her breaking away from this mold, but because she's given so many more nuances to explore, she's able to excel via her finest work in quite some time. Cate Blanchett, (not surrendering an inch of the screen to her formidable costar), plays Sheba Hart, a newly arrived instructor at the same British school where the humorless Barbara Covett (Dench) also teaches. Initially irked by the presence of this luminous newcomer, Barbara eventually becomes her confidante, imagining in her mind that their affection for each other might even run deeper than mere friendship. After Sheba foolishly starts an affair with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), Barbara feels betrayed, but also realizes that she now has a perfect instrument of blackmail at her disposal. Notes On a Scandal is little more than a lurid melodrama -- one that could benefit from some late-inning twists, I might add -- but Dench and Blanchett, slinging around juicy dialogue by scripter Patrick Marber (from Zoe Heller's book), turn this into something more. Think of it as Masterpiece Theatre filtered through Days of Our Lives. ***
THE PAINTED VEIL Naomi Watts and Edward Norton are the leads in The Painted Veil, and the fact that they're also credited as two of the film's producers suggests that this adaptation of the 1925 Somerset Maugham novel might be little more than a vanity project squared. Instead, this tale of strangers in a strange land has been fashioned as a poignant love story, with its buried passions forcefully breaking the surface as the film rounds the bend toward its satisfying conclusion. Watts plays Kitty, a socialite who's rushed into marrying Walter (Norton), a doctor who barely raises her pulse. After the couple move to Shanghai, Kitty has an affair with a fellow foreigner (Liev Schreiber); learning about this deception, Walter drags Kitty along with him to the desolate Chinese countryside, where he's assigned to keep a cholera outbreak in check. Watts and Norton are so credible portraying spouses who grow to loathe the sight of each other that it's genuinely exciting to watch as they eventually discover the small spark that allows them to build a real marriage out of the heretofore dying embers. There's some Chinese political intrigue that rears its head every now and then, but the focus is clearly the love story. On that front, The Painted Veil will keep romantics content at least until Valentine's Day. ***
PAN'S LABYRINTH Let's make this clear from the start: Pan's Labyrinth is not one for the kiddies. Even with that inviting title, even with fairy tale trappings full of faunas and faux-Tinkerbells, even with memories of the family-friendly Jim Henson-David Bowie concoction Labyrinth, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's R-rated adventure is packed with disturbing images, political subtext and gory interludes. In short, when was the last time a fantasy flick brought to mind Schindler's List? It's as if del Toro had uncovered the darker aspects of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland adventures and found a home for them in his own fractured fairy tale. Set in 1944 Spain, the story centers on young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who along with her pregnant mother (Aridna Gil) has journeyed to a remote outpost to join her mom's new husband, a brutal Fascist officer (Sergi Lopez) in Franco's army who's assigned to wipe out the resistance fighters in his midst. Steering clear of her stepdad, Ofelia stumbles upon a magical world lorded over by a faun (Doug Jones). But this fantasy realm isn't a peaceful retreat from the horrors of the everyday world; rather, it's a manifestation of the fears and pains that define one's daily existence. Full of wondrous and disturbing images (The Pale Man is one of the great monsters in recent cinema), this is a rich viewing experience that demands additional viewings. ***1/2
VOLVER Perhaps no performer gets lost in translation as much as Spain's Penelope Cruz. In her American titles to date, she's proven to be a big fat zero, yet return her to Spanish-speaking fare, and she reveals herself as a warm, witty and accomplished actress. That's especially evident in Volver, the latest confection from writer-director Pedro Almodovar. So memorable as the troubled nun in Almodovar's All About My Mother, Cruz is equally up to the task here; she portrays Raimunda, a headstrong woman who has her hands full managing the other females who inhabit her orbit. This would include her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), who just killed the stepfather who was trying to rape her; Raimunda's sister Sole (Lola Duenas), a plain-Jane counterpart who tries to keep up with her glamorous sibling's whirlwind activities; Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a family friend trying to solve a mystery involving missing parents; and, most perplexing of all, Raimunda and Sole's mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who keeps popping up to offer advice even though she's been dead for several years. Almodovar's in a playful mood here (no other living director works with splashy colors as effectively), yet there's no mistaking the seriousness with which he takes the movie's theme of empowerment through sisterhood. ***
OPENS FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2:
BECAUSE I SAID SO: Diane Keaton, Mandy Moore.
THE MESSENGERS: Dylan McDermott, Kristen Stewart.
PEARL DIVER: Joey Honsa, Amy Jean Johnson.