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November 17, 2006|By Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach | Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critics

Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach. Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- features a terrific, risky comic creation: a village idiot for the global village. A TV reporter from Kazakhstan comes to the United States and discovers everything you always wanted to know about America but were afraid to ask. Conceived and acted by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the character of Borat catalyzes uncommon combinations of hospitality and hostility at every stratum of American society. Cohen and director Larry Charles give Borat the high-low genius of an aces episode of South Park. (M.S.) R 85 minutes A

Babel, -- in which director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu suggests that the world's peoples do a lousy job of talking to one another, doesn't devolve into babble, but it comes perilously close. As usual, Inarritu employs multiple story threads that unfold with little regard to chronology, but the device seems arbitrary and unnecessary. One thread, involving a deaf Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) struggling with the emotional devastation caused by her mother's suicide and the frustrating uncertainty wrought by her blossoming sexuality, belongs in a different movie altogether. The others, centering on Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt as an American couple traveling in Morocco and Adriana Barraza as the nanny watching their kids back in San Diego, work to varying degrees. But the film comes across as more willfully clever than profound, leaving us to applaud the message while pondering why the messenger had to strain so hard to get it across. (C.K.) R 142 minutes B-

Catch a Fire, -- based on the story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a black South African whose torture at the hands of the apartheid government transformed him from an apolitical family man to a dedicated counterrevolutionary, is both a condemnation of torture as a political tool and a tribute to the bravery that exists within everyone. Director Phillip Noyce clearly sees parallels between South Africa in the 1980s and what's happening in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, firmly establishing that it's more than their own humanity that the authorities put at risk. What emerges is a compellingly righteous film condemning torture and inhumanity in the name of the law that seems as much a warning to the abuser as a commemoration of the abused. (C.K.) PG-13 101 minutes B+

The Departed -- illuminates, with a blowtorch, the tangled roots of urban corruption when a Boston Irish kingpin (Jack Nicholson) puts a mole (Matt Damon) in the State Police and the police put a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the mob. The direction (Martin Scorsese) and the writing (William Monahan) burst with exposed-wire energy; so does the ensemble, including the scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg as a police sergeant. (M.S.) R 149 minutes A

Flags of Our Fathers -- purports to tell the story of Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima and the iconic photo that was snapped during the battle to take the island during World War II. The film has all the coherence and lucidity of a fragmentation bomb. It spews out cliches about the ambiguous nature of heroism - failed cliches, at that - and they fatally wound any authentic character or artistic notion that it has. (M.S.) R 132 minutes C-

Flushed Away -- an animated tale of pampered versus plucky rats (voiced by Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen and others) spends a good bit of its time spinning its wheels and debating whether to be witty or settle for grade-school-level funny. When the latter wins out, Flushed Away shifts from inventive to pedestrian. But the filmmakers have a secret weapon: a Greek chorus of singing slugs, certainly the most talented gastropods to ever hit the big screen. Their appearances never fail to delight, and the gleeful sense of whimsy they nurture helps Flushed Away rise above its tendencies to opt for the lazy laughs. (C.K.) PG 84 minutes B

A Good Year -- features Russell Crowe as a ruthless London bond trader who inherits a chateau and vineyard in Provence from his uncle (Albert Finney) and rediscovers his soul. It's ideal cold-weather entertainment, but apart from the moments of flesh and fantasy provided by female co-stars Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish, it lacks the lyric impulse that would make a swank fantasy take flight; this over-produced frolic seems like proof that money can't buy happiness. (M.S.) PG-13 120 minutes B-

Harsh Times -- is a rough South-Central L.A. buddy movie about a slacker (Freddy Rodriguez) and a war-vet psycho (Christian Bale) who all-too-easily retreat into the feckless, footloose ways of their youth. Bale's inability to shake his combat-honed, homicidal reflexes makes this one of the most miasma-ridden examples yet of the human-ticking-bomb movie. (M.S.) R 120 minutes C+

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