"Children of Men" The first words we hear in "Children of Men" come from a broadcast news announcer, who rather blandly reports on "day 1,000 of the siege of Seattle." The startling offhandedness with which tidings of the apocalypse are delivered is the keynote of this bracing, sometimes shocking new film directed by Alfonso Cuar¢n. Based on the novel by P.D. James, the film takes us to a dingy, strife-torn England of 2027, whose people struggle to absorb a stunning fact: For 18 years, and for reasons no one has learned, no woman on the planet has been able to conceive. Making the most of what, in less skilled hands, might be a typically bogus sci-fi premise, "Children of Men" is both an engrossing personal drama and a stark register of contemporary political fears and compulsions. It's been said that fiction shows us a world different from our own, but one to which we feel a tie. Few movies live up to that claim more thrillingly than "Children of Men." (R) 109 min. ***** Thomas Peyser
"The Good Shepherd" "Get out, before you lose your soul." So says Michael Gambon's British agent to Matt Damon's American one in "The Good Shepherd," a movie that recounts the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency. He might as well be telling it to American foreign policy in general. The time is World War II, and the way this film would have it, the event infected some of America's already festering elite with a will to secret power. Alternating between these flashbacks and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the film is also split between providing the events and the big picture. The better parts, the actual cloak-and-dagger stuff, are only sprinkled in between. This is a history of spying, not a spy movie, a fact we are reminded of whenever the movie skips the details of espionage in favor of the history lesson. You'll enjoy parts, but don't be surprised if you find yourself secretly spying at the time on your cell phone. (R) 167 min. ** Wayne Melton
"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. ** W.M.
"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.
"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.
"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.