"Eight Below" Esteemed director/producer Frank Marshall (director on "Alive," producer of "Raiders of the Lost Ark") successfully retools a story suggested by the Japanese movie "Antarctica." At a bottom-of-the-world U.S. National Science Foundation research base in Antarctica, resident guide Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker) cares for his prized team of eight sled dogs. The dogs' remarkable acting abilities admirably serve the bulk of the movie after a severe blizzard sends Jerry and his research team comrades on an evacuation that leaves the dogs behind. (PG) 120 min. *** Cole Smithey
"Failure to Launch" This limp romantic comedy finds Sarah Jessica Parker playing the demoralized romantic Paula next to Tripp (Matthew McConaughey), a 35-year-old live-at-home bachelor whose parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates) hire Paula to seduce and lure him away from the nest. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember toss in a dose of screwball animal antics to take our attention away from the actual movie. Zooey Deschanel spices up the proceedings in her well-worn trademark role as post-modern cynical "it" girl. (PG-13) 97 min. ** C.S.
"The Libertine" "I don't want you to like me," announces the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), 17th-century noble, patron of the theater and friend to Charles II (John Malkovich). So why shouldn't we again? Depp's Wilmot is a genius miscreant, a wealthy, womanizing scribbler commissioned by the king to outdo Shakespeare in his honor. That the long-locked young earl takes this opportunity to create a vulgar phallic ode of Monte Python proportions seems reason only to like him more. It's harder to like the film he's in. Director Laurence Dunmore should be given much applause in this era of eternal sunsets for making the times look as uncomfortable as they probably were. His London oozes and drips with a fecund squalor and lack of hygiene. Unfortunately, so does much of the dialogue. "The Libertine" is given to misty visions and even mistier speeches, though it's doubtful you'll remember much of it afterward. What you will wonder is what it was all about. (R) 114 min. ** Wayne Melton
"Nanny McPhee" Set in a distinctly unglamorous corner of Victorian England, "Nanny McPhee" follows the fortunes of a widowed undertaker (Colin Firth) beset by a brood of very naughty children and a wicked aunt (Angela Lansbury) who, for reasons never really explained, has threatened to cut off her crucial financial support unless he takes a wife. His children have proved the match of every nanny in the district when McPhee (Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay) arrives on the scene and begins, with ruthless efficiency and magical powers, to set the house to rights. Based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand, the movie has a rather oddly unfocused and disjointed quality. But the ragged edges of the plot are mostly offset by, or perhaps even a product of, the movie's anarchic glee, its chief merit. (PG) 97 min. *** Thomas Peyser
"Syriana" Based on a best seller by Robert Baer, who wrote a tell-all about his operations as an intelligence agent in the Middle East after the Cold War, "Syriana" is a noble but failed attempt to fictionalize and examine the characters and plots in America's very real military-industrial complex. Full of shady corporate dealings, political hypocrisies and the sad failures of a few honest men (including George Clooney and Matt Damon as two of the too many central characters), the movie version is a Michael Moore nightmare come to life. What it lacks is Michael Moore's gift for reducing complex issues to easily understandable ideas. By mixing a convoluted plot and difficult concepts and putting them in a hurried, experimental framework, it risks talking over everyone's head and pushing away the very people it seeks to educate. Written and directed by "Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan, the movie's points are right on, it just doesn't make them very clearly. (R) 128 min. *** W.M.
"V for Vendetta" Like its namesake hero, who quotes Shakespeare and believes mass media is more powerful than the sword, or the occasional bomb, this not your everyday update of a comic book. Written by the Wachowski brothers of "The Matrix" series (and directed by James McTeigue) V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked vigilante of justice and an anarchist bent on reducing society to rubble, with the help of his sidekick Evey (Natalie Portman). "V" is more interested in reducing contemporary wars of ideology than pumping out a slick action film, and the results are alternately forceful and appalling. The movie demonstrates a steady wit, but also a shallow sense of history that risks undermining everything it tries to accomplish. (R) 132 min. *** W.M.
"Why We Fight" The real question motivating the documentary "Why We Fight" is, of course, "Why are we in Iraq?" Writer and director Eugene Jarecki steadfastly concentrates on America's homegrown incentives for the invasion, namely a thirst for oil and the voracious appetite of armaments manufacturers. This bracingly corrosive vision certainly has its place as an antidote to mindless, gee-whiz enthusiasm served up by the networks. But as history, "Why We Fight" is a flop. (PG-13) 98 min. ** T.P.
"The World's Fastest Indian" Looking too literally like a vehicle for Anthony Hopkins, "The World's Fastest Indian" tells the real-life story of Burt Munro, who traveled in 1967 from New Zealand to Utah so he could race his vintage motorcycle to record-breaking glory on the Bonneville Salt Flats during Speed Week. Munro actually did many of the things pictured in this movie, exploits that in themselves were unique and compelling (his record still stands). Alas, the story has been delivered into the hands of Roger Donaldson, fellow New Zealander whose credits include "Dante's Peak," "Cadillac Man" and "Cocktail" (all of them better movies). Long fascinated by the topic, Donaldson made a documentary on Burt early in his film career. But with this version, he seems out of his element, trying to tell the small story with the big Hollywood conventions he's used to. (PG-13) 127 min. ** W.M.
Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St., Richmond, 353-9911.
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