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Movies today

January 18, 2008

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

Atonement -- The crush of an upper-class teen on her housekeeper's son (James McAvoy) catalyzes a devastating accusation that ruins his life and that of the girl's older sister (Keira Knightley). This beautifully acted, remarkably visualized adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel sums up the need for charity and generosity in art and life. (M.S.) R 123 minutes A

The Bucket List -- A pair of dying cancer patients (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) draw up a list of things to do before they kick the bucket. Freeman and Nicholson are fun to watch, but these endless stream of life-affirming "Happiness Is ..." moments come across as more mass-produced greeting card than movie. (C.K.) PG-13 97 minutes C+

Charlie Wilson's War -- follows a sybaritic East Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) as he uses his connections to wangle funding for Afghan rebels during the Soviet invasion. With Julia Roberts as a Houston socialite and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an earthy CIA man, it brings Broadway fizz to D.C., Texas and Middle Eastern cocktail parties; but if it refreshes you after ponderous events or "event films," it also leaves you longing for a more substantial experience. (M.S.) R 97 minutes B+

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- At age 43, a devastating stroke sends Jean-Dominique Bauby, a smart, chic Parisian, into "locked-in syndrome," which leaves thoughts and feelings intact within an inert body. It provides an ecstatic lift for movie lovers, despite the tragic subject; director Julian Schnabel achieves a thrilling creative fusion of realism and lyricism. (M.S.) PG-13 112 minutes A+

First Sunday -- A pair of hard-luck ex-cons (Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan), hard up for money, decide to rob their local church and its good-hearted parishioners. Though played for laughs, this "comedy" isn't funny. Uneven and toneless, this ode to forgiveness asks its audience to forgive too much. (C.K.) PG-13 96 minutes C

The Great Debaters -- The superb debate squad from all-black Wiley College in East Texas witnesses every indignity and injustice of the Jim Crow South in the course of a year, then uses it to fuel its showdown with a champion white team at Harvard. Denzel Washington as the coach, Denzel Whitaker as the youngest debater and Forest Whitaker (no relation) as his theologian dad deliver knock-out performances, but too much of the film is at once stirring and pat. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B-

Juno -- An upper-middle-class couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) agree to adopt the baby of the title character, a middle-class teenage girl, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), who wins over her parents (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney) and even the father of her child (Michael Cera) with her hyper-verbal feistiness. Although the movie calms down and becomes more bearable, it never stops being as self-adoring as its all-too-spunky heroine. (M.S.) PG-13 92 minutes C+

National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- A black-market antiquities trader (Ed Harris) goes public with the charge that the great-great-granddad of "treasure protector" Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) was party to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln. The moviemakers use the first film in the series as a sewing pattern: The elaborate car chase (this time through London) and the subterranean cliffhangers (this time under the Black Hills) simply provide different colored versions of the exact same cut, and it wears awfully thin. (M.S.) PG 124 minutes C+

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'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

The Orphanage -- A woman (Belen Rueda) hopes to run a home for children with special needs in the abandoned orphanage where she grew up, but instead loses her son to unseen forces. It isn't as suggestive, but it does bring adult horror back to the screen, and it's crisply told as well as frightening and haunting. (M.S.) R 98 minutes B

The Savages -- A college-teacher brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his unproduced playwright sister (Laura Linney) make an uneasy team of caregivers when their father (Philip Bosco) lapses into Parkinson's dementia. With a bracing, merciless honesty and surprisingly elastic sense of humor (and pathos), writer-director Tamara Jenkins picks up on how they drive each other crazy -- and then sane. (M.S.) R 113 minutes A-

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