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Quick Flicks

Capsule reviews of current films.

"Batman Begins" -- Quirky young director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") promised some of the off-kilter energy that Tim Burton brought to the first installments in this superhero series. But like a certain Sith currently lording it over the box office, Nolan has given in to the dark side. In a prequel to the other Batman movies, we're taken back to the murders that scarred Bruce Wayne's boyhood, then whisked off to a Himalayan fortress where Wayne (Christian Bale), now a young man, is trained in the ways of the Ninja by a vigilante squad led by Liam Neeson. Ninjas? A double handful of current events and traditional Hollywood bogeymen give "Batman Begins" an air of the haphazard. The movie ends up just another bit of overdigitized Hollywood schlock, buoyed occasionally by its striking tableaux or a flash of wit. (PG-13) ** -- Thomas Peyser

"Cinderella Man" -- Multiple Oscar nominations are written all over this one thanks to a compelling script that's expertly acted and directed. Russell Crowe brings his estimable talents to bear as a Depression-era family man and boxer (Jim Braddock) who keeps his priorities straight in the face of unrelenting social turmoil. Renée Zellweger rises to the acting challenge opposite Crowe as Jim's loyal wife who provides a stable if worried guardian of familial well-being. But it's Paul Giamatti who glues the story together as Jim's commendable boxing manager Joe Gould. Director Ron Howard expertly uses the music of silence to underscore this deeply felt movie based on real-life boxing underdog James J. Braddock. The boxing sequences here are better than those of Martin Scorsese's bar-setting "Raging Bull." (PG-13) ***** -- Cole Smithey

"Crash" — Screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby") makes an impressive directorial debut with a telescoping deliberation on American race prejudices as viewed through a lens of day-to-day life in the melting pot of Los Angeles. Haggis rivals Robert Altman's nimble ability to balance numerous characters across a broad narrative canvas in this tale of multiple story threads involving a racist cop (Matt Dillon), his honest partner (Ryan Phillippe), a duo of car thieves (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), a Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser), his thin-skinned wife (Sandra Bullock) and a sexist police detective (Don Cheadle). Most outstanding is up-and-comer Terrence Howard as a successful television director whose dignity is challenged by his high-maintenance wife (Thandie Newton) and the demands of his social milieu. "Crash" is a provocative drama that stands with the socially conscious American theatrical dramaturgy of the '30s and '40s. (R) **** — C.S.

"Downfall" — Were the Oscars an international affair, it would have been a crime to deny Bruno Ganz a Best Actor statue for his portrayal of Hitler in this first-rate historical reconstruction. Though not a particularly artistic work, "Downfall" has an exacting attention to detail and accuracy balanced by Hollywood-quality realism and a superb cast. The military action, like that in most recent war pictures, owes a great debt to "Saving Private Ryan," but the many behind-closed-doors discussions are kept taut by the inevitably macabre subject matter. Whether it's Hitler talking over tea how best to shoot oneself or Goebbels' wife gently murdering her own children, "Downfall" is gripping cinema. (R) ***** — Wayne Melton

"Howl's Moving Castle" -- The pairing is novel itself: a British children's book, produced by Disney and adapted by a Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, following his Oscar winner "Spirited Away." (It also ended up making Christian Bale and Lauren Bacall former lovers.) Miyazaki, just becoming well known here, is a superstar in his own country, a Disney in his own right with entire memorabilia stores dedicated just to him. Perhaps The Mouse figured if someone were making a popular animated product he might as well be making it for them. Thankfully, the result is very un-Disney, meaning you will not walk out needing six Tylenols and a martini. It also, believe it or not, means you can make an animated film without musical numbers. The Japanese have their own flavor of corny, but it is not the kind of "just believe in yourself" tripe we are used to. Miyazaki offers a surprising anti-authority, anti-war message, and we'd be lucky if it became this generation's "Bambi." Likeably voiced by Bale, Bacall and Billy Crystal, among others. (PG) **** -- W.M.

"The Interpreter" — Perhaps more than any other genre, the thriller is ruled by the clock, whose every unrelenting tick brings us nearer potential disaster. Sad to say, director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa") and a team of no fewer than five writers have thrown this simple rule out the window. The premise of "The Interpreter," a new would-be thriller, is simple enough. A United Nations linguist (Nicole Kidman) overhears a plot to knock off an African dictator and spends the balance of the movie dodging the assassins who fear she might be able to identify them by their voices. The movie exhausts us with excursions backward and to the side, intent on unloading a dump truck's worth of insight into the history and present political posture of the fictional African land of Matobo. The result is a cross between Hitchcock at low ebb and a State Department white paper. Thrilling it's not. (PG-13) *** — T.P.

"Ladies in Lavender" -- Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith take the lead roles in this regrettably titled film by director Charles Dance about two elderly ladies who discover a young man (Daniel Br�hl) washed up on their beach in Cornwall, nurse him to health, discover his gift for the violin and fall in love with him. The young man bonds with his new guardians, but the dreams of a career and a pretty intruder (Natascha McElhone) threaten to break up their isolated group. Though bookended by stock emotion, the interior of this period piece -- haunted throughout by the coming World War II -- shines with compelling secondary characters and plots, along with fine performances by Dench, Smith and Br�hl, who came to prominence in "Good Bye Lenin!." Low-key but pleasant, with music by Joshua Bell. (PG-13) *** -- W.M.

"The Longest Yard" — Peter Segal ("Anger Management," "50 First Dates") successfully helms his third Adam Sandler project in this funny modernized retooling of Robert Aldrich's 1974 original. Sandler steps into Burt Reynolds' shoes as former pro football quarterback Paul Crewe, the latest addition to a prison community where he's called on by the warden (James Cromwell) to lead a team of inmates to play a climactic football game against the guards. The maturity that Sandler has recently acquired in his comic approach pays off as the story balances drama and comedy with hip touches of nuance and physical burlesque. (PG-13) ***1/2 — C.S.

"Madagascar" — A foursome of digitally animated zoo animals escape the inner-city confines of Manhattan's Central Park Zoo in search of freedom that's not all it's cracked up to be in this well-defined children's comedy. Ben Stiller voices Alex the egotistical lion to Chris Rock's confident but anxious Marty the Zebra, while Jada Pinkett Smith does gentle vocal honors as Gloria the Hippo. Along with Melman the Giraffe, the crew takes a wrong turn at Grand Central Station and ends up shipwrecked in Madagascar, where Marty's primal feline instincts threaten every living thing around him, including his best friends. Sacha Baron Cohen ("Da Ali G Show") is exceptional as the voice of self-proclaimed Lemur King Julien. (PG) ***1/2 — C.S.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" -- Husband and wife John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are both highly trained, well-armed hit men. The twist: Neither knows the other is a hit man. Jolie's character works for a company that looks like Charlie's Angels cast in an old Calvin Klein Obsession ad. Pitt works for Vince Vaughn, a much less clichéd, goofier representative in the murder-for-hire business. (During its all-too-brief Vaughn moments the movie takes off with a buoyant impertinence that was obviously the goal.) When the dangerous duo eventually find each other out, they realize with a wry smile that they are now free to solve six years of bickering and bad sex by killing each other. We, on the other hand, realize we've just been duped out of our ten bucks for a strange concept, and a rather gross one at that. (PG-13) * -- Wayne Melton

"Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" -- Until the last quarter of this, the last movie, it's pretty hard to make sense of these prequels, and it doesn't get much easier. Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is secretly living with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in some kind of swanky penthouse in the stratosphere (wouldn't somebody miss her?) as her hubby battles the Sith with his mentor/sidekick Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) like double Rambos, and Yoda takes to the streets with his Wookiee friends. Meanwhile, Anakin is faced with a severe career decision: Remain spindly Jedi Chosen One or become seven-foot-tall throat-crushing Darth Vader? Here on Earth, one trip to the grocery store, stacked floor to ceiling with Obi-Wan-approved Frosted Flakes and C-3PO Cokes, tells you all you need to know: This phenomenon can only be explained as the dark side of popular entertainment. (PG-13) *1/2 -- W.M.

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