"Letters From Iwo Jima" The idea that we can climb inside the uniforms of our enemy is a minefield this movie isn't nimble enough to cross. The main characters include island commander Lt. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe); his friend Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic champion; a former baker named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya); and Shimizu (Ryu Kase), sent to the island after being discharged from an elite corps. Kuribayashi and Nishi, who both studied in America, represent the Japanese nobility sent off to fight, while the other two men and their companions are used to reflect the thinking and heroics of the common soldier. "Letters" tries hard to be a thoughtful and sensitive portrait of men at war, but its steadfast allegiance to the tropes of the genre only demonstrate director Clint Eastwood's limitations. As on so many Eastwood landscapes, we must probe like amateur archaeologists, trying to guess at the thoughts behind the artifacts as best we can. (R) 141 min. ** Wayne Melton
"Notes on a Scandal" This sharp story reminds us that some of the itchiest dramas break out among the most common bodies, in the most unassuming settings. More films should turn our attention toward the quiet machinations of everyday people the mailman or the druggist or, in this case, a couple of bored high-school teachers in London. This is where Barbara (Judi Dench), an aging history teacher nearing retirement, spies and befriends the comely new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Here's the gist: Sheba gets a little too extracurricular with a student; Barbara catches them; all hell breaks loose. Off and on narrated by Barbara, who's keeping all the action in her diary while both falling in love with Sheba and trying to destroy her, "Notes" avoids heroes and villains in favor of honest human frailty. Real people, real troubles. And in a swift 98 minutes, it's also real juicy fun. (R) 98 min. **** W.M.
"The Painted Veil" Is marriage a plague? That's probably not what M. Somerset Maugham was trying to say with his novel "The Painted Veil," part battle with infidelity and part battle with a major epidemic in the Chinese back country. This new adaptation, about a doctor (Edward Norton) who drags his adulterous wife (Naomi Watts) into a sick village, is in some ways an old-fashioned movie a light period drama whose charms emerge equally from grand scenery and clever dialogue. It's also a bit predictable and a bit melodramatic, but "The Painted Veil" is comfortable with living quietly. As long as the characters are interesting, and their lives seem real, it's fine that we walk away thinking whatever we want about them, or very little. (PG-13) 125 min. *** W.M.
"Pan's Labyrinth" This tale of Spaniards living under Francisco Franco's fascist regime is an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Right around the time the Allies are planning to storm the beaches of Normandy, a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives by car with her mother (Ariadna Gil) at a rural supply station guarded against hill-dwelling guerrilla fighters by an evil army captain (Sergi L¢pez). Ofelia's inspired imagination conjures vivid adventures in the fairy world, but the story is a little too simple to support the movie's attempt at analogy. It's easy to get into "Pan's Labyrinth," but harder to figure out what's supposed to be gotten out of it. (R) 120 min. *** W.M.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" This new Will Smith vehicle begins with the cautiously phrased announcement, "inspired by a true story." Whether inspired by one or not, "The Pursuit of Happyness," the tale of a father's desperate attempt to pull himself and his son out of poverty, is emphatically not a true story. It mostly inhabits a familiar world of wish-fulfilling make-believe, but only uncomfortably. It aspires to a grittiness it hasn't the stomach for, and so gets stuck in a narrative no-man's-land between fantasy and realism. To some extent, however, Smith's bottomless capacity for charm saves the movie from itself. (PG-13) 117 min. *** T.P.
"Volver" The opening shots of Pedro Almod¢var's lyrical, emotionally lush "Volver" feature a band of women, young and old, vigorously scrubbing down the tombs of their provincial town's menfolk. Driven mad by the east winds of La Mancha (like Don Quixote, perhaps), they die young, one of the women offhandedly explains, as if describing an affliction visited on her goats. Men, in fact, are almost entirely shooed off the screen in "Volver," sometimes violently, the better to bring one of the great Spanish director's abiding themes to the fore: the endurance of women and the bonds that unite them. "Volver" means "to come back," and with this movie Almod¢var is himself returning to the feminine world of such earlier works as "Women on the Verge Nervous Breakdown" (1988) and "All About My Mother" (1999). (R) 121 min. ***** T.P.
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