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February 16, 2007|By Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach | Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critics

Capsules by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach unless noted. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Because I Said So -- Diane Keaton is a mother who can't bear the thought of her lovelorn daughter (Mandy Moore) spending one more minute unattached. This is a relationship film put together by people who think TV sitcoms are reality shows. Granted, some truths about mother-daughter love get touched. But those are hardly worth all the waste and banality leading up to them. (C.K.) PG-13 111 minutes D

Dreamgirls -- threads the history of black entertainers crossing into mainstream pop through the story of the rise and dissolution of a Supremes-like group. Writer-director Bill Condon's ability to combine artifice, reality, choreography and improv, and the performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, make this the true heir to Chicago as a great movie musical. The talent floods off the screen and leaves you drenched in emotion and street wit. (M.S.) PG-13 131 minutes A

Freedom Writers -- follows gang members at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., as they get the luckiest break of their young lives: enrollment in the English class of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a novice instructor who refuses to give up. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B

Hannibal Rising -- relates how Hannibal Lecter learned cannibalism as a young boy when starving Lithuanian irregulars, at the end of World War II, ate his sister; after the war he seeks revenge, with samurai skills he learns from his Japanese aunt and surgical skills he learns in med school. This movie offers plodding explanations for a monster who was scarier when unexplained. (M.S.) R. 117 minutes. C

The Hitcher -- is a poor cousin to the original 1986 thriller about a young man on a cross-country trip and a psychotic killer. The new version turns the single driver into a cute college couple and bleaches out the existential psychosis of the original, opting to just make everything bigger and louder. (Los Angeles Times) R 84 minutes D

Letters from Iwo Jima, -- Clint Eastwood's companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, follows the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view. The chronology is hazy, the exposition haphazard and confused. You're trapped with the Japanese in their tunnels, in the dark. Every now and then, an explosion illuminates their faces, but never their characters. (M.S.) R 141 minutes C

The Messengers -- The Solomon family - particularly Dad (Dylan McDermott), Mom (Penelope Ann Miller) and 16-year-old Jess (Kristen Stewart) - find horror in the heartland as they move to North Dakota. (LAT) PG-13 90 minutes D

Music and Lyrics -- is an affable romantic farce about a washed-up '80s pop star (Hugh Grant) who needs a lyricist to help him write a comeback hit - and finds one in his replacement plant-watering gal (Drew Barrymore). Grant once again proves himself the prince of erotic dither, Barrymore plays a peach with aplomb, and Haley Bennett is a real find as a Britney Spears-type pop star. (M.S.) 110 minutes B

Norbit -- is Eddie Murphy as a nice guy who gets married to Eddie Murphy in a billowing fat suit as the vile Rasputia; then lithe, ultra-nice Thandie Newton, as Norbit's true love Kate, comes back to town. It took huge amounts of craft to create the separate but equal shticks for Norbit, Rasputia and Murphy's third creation, Mr. Wong, whose long-toothed, crooked smile is the only thing keeping him from spewing out put-downs with the rapidity of a Chinese Don Rickles. But the script never builds an entire comic architecture. (M.S.) PG-13. 102 minutes. C-

Notes on a Scandal -- is a tale of two flawed teachers: the fetching art instructor (Cate Blanchett), who sleeps with a 15-year-old student, and the battle-ax history department head, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who uses knowledge of the affair to forge a closer bond with her. (M.S.) R 91 minutes C+

Pan's Labyrinth -- trips the dark fantastic: In 1944 Spain, a pro-Franco military thug tries to squash a stubborn pocket of resistance, while his virtuous, spunky stepdaughter enters a fairy-tale kingdom. (M.S.) R 112 minutes A

Smokin' Aces, -- in which a gaggle of the world's deadliest and most colorful assassins vie for the $1 million bounty placed on the head of a Tahoe mob stoolie (Jeremy Piven), has no idea where it's going. But as a careening roller-coaster ride masquerading as a movie, it's a hoot. (C.K.) R 106 minutes B

Stomp the Yard, -- is as predictable as movies come: Loner with a chip on his shoulder finds acceptance and maturity by channeling his talents into something socially acceptable and finding the love of a great gal. But at least that workhorse of a formula is being used in service of a film that extols the virtues of higher education and a proud tradition in the black community. (C.K.) PG-13 109 minutes C+

Venus -- is about curiosity mingling with arousal when the aging British actor Maurice Russell (Peter O'Toole) claps his glittering eyes on a sullen, barely literate teenager named Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). The movie follows their May-December - make that March-December - semi-romance with an observant and unruly wit that overflows with insight about growing up and growing old. O'Toole is phenomenal. (M.S.) R. 97 minutes. A

Volver -- revolves around a newly single mother (Penelope Cruz) grappling gamely with the aftermath of violence and abuse and maybe the ghost of her own mother. Writer-director Pedro Almodovar returns to comic form, and Cruz is sensational. (M.S.) R 121 minutes B+

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