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December 14, 2007|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Capsules by Michael Sragow unless noted. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

American Gangster -- plays like a deluxe network-TV miniseries, but with all the nudity, profanity and gore the networks would cut out. (M.S.) R 160 minutes C+

Beowulf -- Geats champion Beowulf (Ray Winstone) conquers the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) and goes on to confront Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) and, later, a dragon. Robert Zemeckis' garishly digitalized version of the medieval epic owes more to the sword-and-sex-play fantasies of 12-year-olds than the traditions of Old English poetry. (M.S.) PG-13 113 minutes C-

Bee Movie -- Jerry Seinfeld's amiably bent view of bee-ness supplies this film with its modest charm. (M.S.) PG 90 minutes B-

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an overweight would-be criminal mastermind who ropes his alimony-poor brother (Ethan Hawke) into trying to stick up a mom-and-pop jewelry store owned by their own mom and pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). The movie has all the elements of black comedy, yet it isn't laugh-out-loud funny; it's brutal and punishing, the psychological equivalent of a torture film. But the ensemble goes so far into their roles that you feel their sweat through your own pores. (M.S.) R 123 minutes B-

Enchanted -- Fairy-tale characters tumble down a well in the storybook land of Andalasia and come rocketing up a manhole in Times Square, New York. This film has a piquant idea and enough good jokes to overcome its uneven moviemaking; best of all, it has Amy Adams as the gorgeous maiden Giselle, and she carries the film gracefully and uproariously on her creamy shoulders. As a maiden who believes that the greatest power in the universe is "true love's kiss," Adams gets to be a full-blown romantic whose transition to full-grown romantic is in turn sweet, stirring and blissfully funny. (M.S.) PG 107 minutes B+

Fred Claus -- Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) agrees to lend his ne'er-do-well brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) the money to open an off-track betting office in Chicago if Fred helps with the holiday rush up at the North Pole. This movie will do anything for a laugh or a tear, but doesn't get any laughs or tears; against all odds, though, Giamatti makes a superb St. Nick. (M.S.) PG 116 minutes D+

The Golden Compass -- The free-thinking young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), runs afoul of the Magisterium, the sprawling institution that oppresses her Earth with its arbitrary dogma and authority. This swift, smart fantasy spectacle goes by a bit too quickly; you want the film to slow down so you can savor its quirky characters (including animal alter egos known as daemons) as well as its alternate-universe England. (M.S.) PG-13 118 minutes B

No Country For Old Men -- A still-young good old boy (Josh Brolin) chances on $2 million; chasing it and him are a chilling sociopath and an old-school West Texas sheriff. It deserves not merely a rave review but a Johnny Cash song about matter-of-fact killings in shady hotels and sun-scoured landscapes. It's a tragic melodrama without tears but with surprising amounts of heart: a hard-boiled requiem for dead souls in a harrowed and harrowing country. (M.S) R 103 minutes A

This Christmas -- The universal strains that secrets and doubt create among brothers and sisters and parents come to the surface - and then get overcome - during a Christmastime family reunion. A cast headed by Loretta Devine and Delroy Lindo makes it the rare movie about a cozy household at holiday time that's as funny, dramatic and poignant as any seasonal family get-together should be. (M.S.) PG-13 117 minutes B+

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