"Apocalypto" In Mel Gibson's latest film made in a largely unknown language (following "The Passion of the Christ") is a pre-Columbian America tale about a young hunter trying to save his pregnant wife after a raid by fierce warriors takes him to a Mayan city. A lot of the film is almost clumsily obvious in its devotion to Screenwriting 101 first-act structure. But once the fundamentals of our protagonist's plight are established, Gibson sets the quest in motion and rarely lets it rest. At over two hours, "Apocalypto" is a minor masterpiece of pacing, the propulsive momentum of the set pieces keeping Jaguar Paw's survival imperative always at the forefront. (R) 135 min. *** Scott Renshaw
"Babel" Alejandro Gonzalez I¤arritu's "Babel" tells three separate but linked stories very sad ones that unfold on three continents, zooming us every few minutes from Mexico to Morocco to Tokyo and back again. If you've just noticed that all these locales end with the letter "o," and if such connections set your pulse racing, this is the movie for you. Others would be well-advised to keep their distance from this well-shot, ill-conceived bouquet of suffering. "Babel" is, at least, well-titled, although probably not for the intended reason. I¤arritu wants us to think of the chaos that followed God's scattering of the peoples and confusion of their tongues. But the movie is really like the tower itself: an attempt at grandeur that falls flat. (R) 142 min. ** Thomas Peyser
"Borat" The full name of Borat's new movie is the wonderfully awkward "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Borat, a Kazakh journalist, is off to visit America, where he preys on the hapless citizenry, and chases the dream of marrying Pamela Anderson. "Borat" might be a faker, but the people who fall for him aren't. Cohen and his con-team swoop in for an interview with a stack of contracts the mark doesn't have the time or inclination to read. The result is usually a disaster for the interviewee and comedic gold for Borat. Cohen's character is one of the funniest mainstream satirists in pop culture today. (He would be the funniest without those DVD box sets of "The Simpsons.") He's leagues above the funny race car driver, news anchor and other characters created by Will Ferrell. Ferrell, after seeing "Borat," is reputed to have lamented he'd never top it. That's likely true. (R) 82 min. ***** Wayne Melton
"Casino Royale" All fears surrounding the future of cinema's longest running franchise are put to rest with Daniel Craig more than capably filling 007's shoes in a Bond film that shatters formula constraints and delivers nail-biting action. Ian Fleming's 1953 inaugural James Bond novel provides the source material for Bond to earn his 007 stripes before facing off against a terrorism-financier. With a $10 million bankroll, Bond travels to Montenegro to play a high stakes game of poker opposite the over-leveraged villain whose impatient investors wait with loaded guns. However, 007 will have to do more than win at cards in this gritty and witty action movie. (PG-13) 144 min. *** Cole Smithey
"Charlotte's Web" Steve Buscemi's invigorating vocal characterization of Templeton theRat is the only high point in this sleep-inducing live-action/animated revamp of the 1973 animated classic based on E.B White's 1952 children's book. The ever-insufferable Dakota Fanning plays Fern, the precocious little farm girl who saves the life of a runty pig she names Wilbur. The pig needs the exhaustive assistance of a kindly spider named Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts) in order to avoid ending up hanging upside down in the smokehouse. Everything about the movie is a rote retelling of the story set in a vaguely '50s era Americana where nothing happens that doesn't revolve around farm animals. Director Gary Winick ("Tadpole") never varies the film's dirgelike rhythm as he walks through the plot as if he's passing around a collection plate at a late night church service. (G) 96 min. ** - C.S.
"Déjà Vu" Denzel Washington's reliable charm carries this sci-fi thriller about a New Orleans ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) who is introduced to a time-warp brand of 3-D satellite video surveillance after a ferry full of soldiers is blown up. Carlin becomes obsessed with going back in time to save the life of an innocent girl targeted by a terrorist. The time machine element of the movie gets hokey, but the visuals are intriguing and director Tony Scott wrenches suspense and tension from every scene. (PG) 128 min. ***
"Dreamgirls" Set amidst the R&B heyday of the '60s, "Dreamgirls" is a musical that owes as much of its harmonious heritage to the Memphis Stax records sound as it does to the Motor City where the story takes place. Director Bill Condon (screenwriter on "Chicago") captures the musical set pieces with vitality as our trio of soul singers The Dreamettes climb the ladder of success before their leader Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) is kicked to the curb by the group's manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). By the time the ever-modulating songs start to expose their monotonous arrangements, it becomes clear that Effie's replacement Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) is no match for Jennifer Hudson in the singing or charisma departments. Eddie Murphy gives the strongest performance of his career as James "Thunder" Early, an aging James Brown kind of performer unable to adjust to the musical changes occurring around him. However, it is newcomer Jennifer Hudson who owns the movie with her magnetic presence and go-tell-it-on-the-mountain voice. (PG-13) 131 min. *** - C.S.
"The Holiday" This year's Christmastime romantic comedy might not be the gift you were hoping for. Iris (Kate Winslet) pines for Jasper (Rufus Sewell), a romantically unavailable co-worker, from the comfort of her cozy English countryside cottage, while Amanda (Cameron Diaz) expels her unfaithful beau Ethan (Edward Burns) from her palatial Beverly Hills mansion. The two women meet on the Internet and arrange a house swap that finds Amanda offering her body up to Iris' smarmy brother (Jude Law) on the first night in her modest temporary digs. Meanwhile, Iris splits her time between a famous elderly screenwriter (Eli Wallach) and a film composer (Jack Black), who may or may not be on the outs with his girlfriend. Dialogue hits the floor like frozen eggnog in writer/director Nancy Meyers' protracted exercise in cliché-mining. (PG-13) 138 min. ** C.S.
"Miss Potter" Renee Zellweger plays British children's book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter as she goes from obscurity, living with her privileged but closed-minded parents, to celebrated literary figure and land conservationist. Guiding the formulaic biopic proceedings is director Chris Noonan ("Babe") emphasizing the doomed romance of Potter's love affair with her publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) whose tie-wearing sister Millie (Emily Watson) also has a crush on Beatrix. Noonan captures the difficult early 20th century social milieu that Potter penetrated by way of her gifted imagination for the farm life of the English Lake District. The movie is made to measure for mothers, aunts and grandmothers who would share Potter's books, such as "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," with tikes of any generation. (PG) 92 min. *** - C.S
"The Queen" Elizabeth II ascended the throne just a few weeks after Eisenhower became president, yet Stephen Frears' smart, moving and altogether engrossing "The Queen" is the first feature film about her. It's likely to remain the best. Set mostly in the week following the death of Princess Diana, "The Queen" traces the aging monarch's attempt to come to grips both with a population whose extraordinary outpouring of grief is entirely beyond her comprehension and with a new, media-savvy prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose political antennae vibrate in perfect sympathy with the mood swings of the masses. The result is a fascinating and telling confrontation of old-fashioned British phlegm and newfangled demands that all public figures be emotionally accessible to the people. It's the story, in other words, of how politicians and sovereigns can hold onto their positions only if they consent to become just a special kind of celebrity. (PG-13) 97 min. ***** T.P.
"Rocky Balboa" The only surprise about seeing a 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone step into the well-worn character that made him a screen legend is how well the working class incarnation holds up as a repository for entertainment. A computer-generated matchup reveals that, in his prime, Rocky would win against the reigning boxing champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon. The televised publicity inspires Rocky to take a hiatus from telling the same old stories to patrons of the Italian restaurant he owns and go to work preparing for a charity exhibition match against Mason . Composer Bill Conti returns to the franchise, laying the musical foundation for Rocky to prove himself in the ring one last time. Stallone wrote and directed this cinematic ride down memory lane that puts a final grace note on his indelible creation, Rocky Balboa. (PG) 102 min. ** - C.S.