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PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006) (****)

Guillermo del Toro (HELLBOY) has fashioned an adult fairy tale so visually inventive with such a compelling story that it is certain to become a classic. If there is one perfect film of 2006, it is certainly this one.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, FRAGILE) is a young girl who tries to forget about the war torn world she lives in by delving into the fantasy world of books. The fascists are battling the rebels in Spain. After her father is killed in the fighting, Ofelia's mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil, 1998's DON JUAN) remarries Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS), a brutal fascist who cares more about the welfare of his unborn son over that of his new bride, who is having a very difficult pregnancy.

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CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) (****)

I love smart sci-fi films. Heck, I'm a sucker for sci-fi in general. However, Alfonso Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN is not your average sci-fi thriller; it tells of an apocalyptic future with an ingenious twist — man's impending doom is rooted in the fact that humans can no longer reproduce.

Based on P.D. James' novel, the year is 2027 and there hasn't been a new baby born in 18 years. The youngest human on the planet — Baby Diego (Juan Gabriel Yacuzzi) — has been killed. Various countries including the U.S. have fallen into chaos. Thousands of refugees stream into countries that are more stable. One of those countries is Britain where illegals are rounded up in cages and shipped back out of the country.

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EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005) (***1/2)

Actor Liev Schreiber adapts Jonathan Safran Foer's novel from which he directs his first feature, developing three quirky characters that set out on a rigid search to find out more about their pasts. This bittersweet comedy shows us just how many factors go into our identities.

Foer (Elijah Wood, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS) is a neurotic fellow who collects random things to remind him of his life's experiences and the people who have touched him. He puts dirt, bugs, false teeth, whatever in Ziploc bags and tacks them to the wall. After his grandmother (Jana Hrabetova) passes, Jonathan sets out to find out more about his grandfather Safran (Stephen Samudovsky), who he knows very little about. His grandfather's prized possession was a picture of himself with a woman named Augustine (Tereza Veselkova), who he claimed was the reason he was able to escape the Nazis as they invaded the Ukraine. So Jonathan takes a tour of his grandfather's homeland specifically designed for Jews looking for their heritage.

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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006) (****)

Earlier in the year, director Clint Eastwood chronicled the Battle of Iwo Jima from the U.S. point of view and how its heroes were used to support the war in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Now comes the companion piece to that film — this time from the point of view of the Japanese. Much like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT that is from the point of view of “the enemy,” this film humanizes the men fighting on both sides, making the strong point that wars happen and good men die and what’s the point?

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, THE LAST SAMURAI) is assigned to defend the island of Iwo Jima from an impending American invasion. To his scared soldiers, he makes the call that if they lose then others will have to fight the Americans on homeland Japan. We fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here — sounds familiar doesn’t it? The General is a good-humored man, who is fair to his soldiers. However, as he begins to prepare for the battle, he knows that he has been assigned a suicide mission. There are not enough troops, there will be no air or naval support and they supplies are low. The Japanese can’t just give the island to the Americans, but they are certain to lose nonetheless. One of those “nameless” soldiers being sent off to be slaughtered is young Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, Japanese pop star), who has been drafted into service, leaving behind his pregnant wife Hanako (Nae, ULTRAMAN).

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DREAMGIRLS (2006) (****)

This rousing musical is full of life and will go down in history for one of the greatest musical performances captured on screen. It introduces former AMERICAN IDOL contestant Jennifer Hudson as a bona fide star.

Based on the 1980s Broadway musical, the story is an amalgam of various real life R&B stars into one fictional tale about how black artists and their music made it to the pop charts. The Dreamettes — Effie White (Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles, PINK PANTHER) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose, FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY) — are a struggling R&B group, who are discovered by car salesman/artist manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx, RAY). He offers them a chance to sing backup for soul singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, TRADING PLACES), who is notorious for romancing the women he works with. Soon, Curtis pressures Early’s manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover, THE COLOR PURPLE) to try a different sound for Early courtesy of Effie’s songwriting brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson, TV’s POWER RANGERS LIGHTSPEED RESCUE). However, Marty is stuck in his old ways and believes that black artists will never cross over to the mainstream white charts. As the story proceeds, we watch as The Dreams become successful and the pressures of the industry tear them apart.

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ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006) (**1/2)

This rendition of Robert Penn Warren’s famed novel is like a puzzle where we can clearly make out the picture from the completed border, but lacks the full impact because too many pieces from the middle are missing.

Willie Stark (Sean Penn, MYSTIC RIVER) is a local politician who tries to fight corruption in his town and gets knocked down. However, when the corruption comes to light years later, he looks like a hero. This makes low-rung businessman Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini, TV’s THE SOPRANOS) think he might be a good candidate for governor. But when reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law, ALFIE) tells Willie that he’s really just a patsy to take votes away from one candidate thus making it easier for another candidate to win, Willie decides to run on his own, playing up his hick roots to get the poor on his side. After Willie wins in a landslide, the rich folks of Louisiana team to get him impeached. Willie hires Jack to find dirt on Burden family friend Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). As Jack digs, he reunites with his first love Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) and her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME), who are the children of a beloved former governor.

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THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2006) (***1/2)

This Romanian film reminded me of the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have won the top prize at Cannes twice. It has a slow build that takes getting use to, but with patience, the rewards are well worth the time.

Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu, 1996’s TOO LATE) has been not feeling well since the morning. He has a stomach and headache and can’t keep anything down, except some alcohol. His sister doesn’t want to hear the bellyaching of her 63-year-old brother the drunk, who survives through the kindness of her husband, Virgil. Mr. Lazarescu gets fairly much the same reaction from his preoccupied neighbors, Sandu and Miki Sterian (Doru Ana & Dana Dogaru). He has called the ambulance, which takes forever. The attendant Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu, CODE UNKNOWN) gives him an injection and tells him to go see the doctor who operated on his ulcers. But when Mr. Lazarescu passes out in the bathroom, she decides to take him to the hospital. This will start the long arduous ordeal that Mr. Lazarescu must take to get the medical care that he needs.

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MIAMI VICE (2006) (***)

Director Michael Mann is one of the first rate action directors around. In trying to revamp the 1980s TV series he produced, Mann creates a gritty procedural, which captures our minds with its attention to detail.

The film kicks off with undercover Miami detectives James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell, PHONE BOOTH) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx, COLLATERAL) on a case at a club where human trafficking is taking place. Then Sonny gets a frantic call from an informant named Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW). Turns out a leak in the FBI has led to Alonzo being forced to sell out his partners to save girlfriend. FBI agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds, MUNICH) recruits Sonny and Rico to find the leak while trying to take down drug dealer Jose Yero (John Ortiz, NARC). Yero is actually only the middleman for top dealer Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar, TAKE MY EYES), who has his money laundered by his beautiful Chinese girlfriend, Isabella (Gong Li, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE). Sonny and Rico uses contact Nicholas (Eddie Marsan, THE NEW WORLD) to get to Yero posing as drug transporters. The detectives’ team is made up of Rico’s girl Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris, TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez, TV’s E.R.), Larry Zito (Justin Theroux, TV’s SIX FEET UNDER) and Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi, TV’s THE WIRE).

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THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006) (****)

Robert DeNiro's tale about the birth of the CIA reminded me a great deal of THE GODFATHER. From its epic scope to its family drama to the central character's obligations, it's not surprising that Francis Ford Coppola was an executive producer on the film.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon, GOOD WILL HUNTING) was born into a wealthy, well-respected family, which affords him little choice to pick the direction of his life. He will follow in the footsteps of his father, Thomas (Timothy Hutton, KINSEY), and go to Yale where he will become a member of elite Skull & Bones Society. At the early stages of World War II, General Bill Sullivan (DeNiro) calls on Edward to help serve his country and operate as a spy for a newly formed foreign intelligence agency of the U.S. government. What other choice does he have then to say yes? Despite being in love with a sweet deaf girl named Laura (Tammy Blanchard, STEALING HARVARD), Edward is obligated to marry rich Margaret "Clover" Russell (Angelina Jolie, TOMB RAIDER) after he gets her pregnant. Edward's quiet demeanor and cold detachment make him a perfect spy, but will all the lying he does, especially to himself, cost him his soul?

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HAPPY FEET (2006) (***1/2)

There hasn't been an animated musical this fun in quite some time. George Miller's first animated feature is bursting with songs, which are actually woven into the fabric of the film's world.

Penguins Memphis (Hugh Jackman, FLUSHED AWAY), who actually sounds a lot like Elvis, and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman, MOULIN ROUGE), who sounds a tad like Marilyn Monroe, have a son named Mumble (Elijah Wood, LORD OF THE RINGS). In their penguin world, each member of their society must find their heart song, so they can woo a mate. Right from birth, Mumble has his eyes on Gloria (Brittany Murphy, 8 MILE), who has some serious pipes. However, Mumble sings worse than I do (ask my wife she can tell you all about it), so he is made an outcast. Alienating him even more is his "happy feet." He was born with the need to tap dance; it's his form of expression.

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APOCALYPTO (2006) (***1/2)

Tackling many of the same issues as his BRAVEHEART, Mel Gibson's APOCALYPTO is an edge-of-your-seat adventure made all the more compelling via its unique setting. Gibson knows how to dramatize action and make us care about his characters.

Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, SPIRIT: THE SEVENTH FIRE) is a young Mayan warrior, who cherishes his family — pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez, film debut) and young son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez, film debut). He listens intently to the wise advice of his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead, TV's INTO THE WEST) and he loves to poke fun at his younger brother Blunted (Jonathan Brewer, DREAMKEEPER), who is having a hard time conceiving a child. However, their idyllic life comes crashing down when their small village is attacked by Mayan warriors looking to take slaves. Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo, THE NEW WORLD) leads the savage warriors, which include the slimy Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios, screen debut).

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CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006) (***)

For the last few years, director Zhang Yimou has been crafting epic, martial arts fantasies like HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER may be his most epic yet. However not in the action set-piece sense of the world, but more so like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) is slowly being poisoned by her heartless husband Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON). The Empress is having an affair with her stepson Prince Xiang (Liu Ye, THE PROMISE), who is sleeping with Chan (Man Li, film debut), daughter of the imperial physician (Dahong Ni, TO LIVE). Returning home from battle is middle son, Prince Jie (Jay Chou, HIDDEN TRACK), who is torn between his devotion to his mother and his loyalty to his father. Jie is idolized by his younger brother Cheng (Qin Junjie, film debut). Also figuring into the mix is a mysterious ninja (Chen Jin), who holds dark secrets to the Emperor's past.

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INVINCIBLE (2006) (***)

Ever since their success with THE ROOKIE, Walt Disney Pictures has carved out a nice niche for themselves with a host of inspirational sports films. For the most part, they have all worked quite well.

INVINCIBLE is based on the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg, THE DEPARTED), a bartender who never played college football who tries out for the Philadelphia, Eagles during an open try-out and makes the team. Papale is down on his luck — big time. He can't keep a steady job teaching and his wife has just left him. And to make matters worse his beloved Eagles stink. College coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, AS GOOD AS IT GETS) is hired to turn the Eagles around. As a good-will gesture to the Philly fans, he holds an open try-out. At first Papale is not interested in trying out, but his friends push him. Papale's talents stand out and he is the only person at the open try-outs to be invited to training camp. Now Papale has to balance between holding his own against the more experienced players, his newfound celebrity and the pretty barmaid Janet Cantrell (Elizabeth Banks, SLITHER).

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LADY IN THE WATER (2006) (**)

Not nearly as awful as it was made out to be, M. Night Shyamalan's bedtime story for grown-ups stumbles via the filmmaker's self indulgence and lack of 100% commitment to his risky experiment.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, AMERICAN SPLENDOR) is a lonely handyman at The Cove apartment complex. One night he finds a narf (aka water nymph) in the swimming pool. As legend states, the creatures of the Blue World will visit humans from time to time to inspire them. However, the narfs are in danger as grass-like wolves called scrunts stalk the water creatures. So Cleveland sets out to help the narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, THE VILLAGE) find the writer she is supposed to inspire.

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THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2006) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, December 28, 2006 at 11:54am

This interesting biopic looks at the seemingly contradictory personality of famed pin-up model Bettie Page. Driving its appeal is the infectious lead performance of Gretchen Mol, who previously had smaller roles in DONNIE BRASCO and ROUNDERS. This is a star-making performance, which is sadly being forgotten now that it's Oscar season.

Beginning when Bettie was young, the film chronicles her life under the rule of her religious mother Edna (Ann Dowd, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) and her brief, abusive marriage to Billy Neal (Norman Reedus, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS). After the tragedies of her early life, Bettie bounces back and moves to NYC to take a stab at acting, where she falls into modeling, which leads to nude posing and later fetish films for the nice couple Paula (Lili Taylor, SAY ANYTHING…) and Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer, BROKEN FLOWERS). The story follows Bettie's career leading up to Senate hearings on pornography run by Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.).

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SCOOP (2006) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 6:00pm

Even when Woody Allen isn't working at his best, he still makes films infinitely wittier than most comedies produced today. Even when he's being silly, he never dumbs down the content. He has mined the world of murder mysteries before and returns again in SCOOP.

Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson, MATCH POINT) is a beautiful, yet awkwardly direct, American journalism student visiting her wealthy friend Vivian (Romola Garai, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE) in London. During a magic act performed by Sid Waterman (Allen), Sondra is visited from the great beyond by the recently deceased reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, TV's DEADWOOD), who is compelled to inform her of a big scoop he overheard while floating down the River Stix — Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman, X-MEN), son of Lord Lyman, may be the Tarot Card Killer. So Sondra recruits Waterman to pose as her father and help her get close to the possible killer. However, the dashing man wins her over and she has a hard time believing that he may be a murderer.

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M. HULOT'S HOLIDAY (1953) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 4:40pm

For all intents and purposes, this entire film is one long string of gags. So why is it so great? It's because director/star Jacques Tati is able to weave the gags into an overall story that riffs on many of the fond feelings folks have toward summer vacations as well as linking them to the central character Monsieur Hulot.

The film begins as vacationers arrive at a small seaside hotel for summer holiday. Hulot travels there in his old-fashioned automobile, which seems like it could bust apart at any moment. We don't even see Hulot until about 10 minutes into the film when his arrival through the front door wrecks havoc as the wind from outside disrupts the activities of the people relaxing in the lobby.

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UMBERTO D. (1956) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 3:25pm

Vittorio De Sica is chief among the neo-realists of the post-WWII era. His BICYCLE THIEVES is considered one of the greatest films ever made. He would write simple stories, filmed them with pacing that lacked any hint of manipulative drama and cast untrained actors who he felt embodied the parts naturally. This tale about an old man and his dog is a shining example of the power that those details combined can create.

Working from a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, the tale begins with a crowd of elderly pensioners marching in the streets demanding an increase in their meager wages. Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti, only film performance) is retired from the public works office and can now barely support himself and his loyal pet dog, Flike. He is way behind on his rent and his snobbish landlady Antonia (Lina Gennari, THE SIGN OF VENUS) threatens to evict him if he doesn't pay the full amount that he owes by the end of the month. As the situation gets worse for Mr. Ferrari, he struggles to make ends meet while retaining his dignity.

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AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006) (***1/2)

In a compelling way, this documentary presents the startling scientific data on the looming global warming crisis. Part of why it's compelling is that it's presented by Al Gore, who has taken the issue as a personal crusade. Compelling and Al Gore in the same sentence, you say? Yes. Gone is the Gore-bot 3000 of the 2000 election.

The film has two threads interwoven — Al Gore's slideshow presentation on global warming and personal reflections on Gore's life. I've read some critics who said that the "Gore worship" parts are distracting, however I couldn't disagree more. The personal information presented about Gore helps bring an emotional connection to the issue. This is key to the overall effectiveness of the film, because it makes a complex issue that seems to affect the average person from a distance more personal. How can politicians or even scientists make the average Joe care about global warming, if they can't understand it? This film succeeds in doing so, because it makes us see global warming and its effects.

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CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (**1/2)

Originally titled WITCHFINDER GENERAL in England, this film is set during the British civil war between the Royalists and Parliamentary Party when men were paid by locale magistrates to torture confessions of witchcraft out of innocent citizens. The U.S. title, CONQUEROR WORM, really has nothing to do with the story, having been taken from an Edgar Allan Poe poem as a way to capitalize on the popularity of star Vincent Price's other Poe films. For the U.S. release, the distributors also included Price reading a Poe poem over the beginning and end segments.

Loosely based on historical fact, Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a witchfinder who coldly moves along the countryside doing God's work, which is murdering "witches." It's one of Price's best performances, as well as one of his more interesting characters. The plot is simple — after Hopkins elicits sexual favors from his fiancée Sarah (Hilary Dwyer, THE BODY STEALERS) and murders Sarah's uncle John (Rupert Davies, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD), young solider, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, DEATH BECOMES HER), sets out for revenge. Aiding Hopkins is his torturer John Stearne (Robert Russell, 1967's BEDAZZLED).

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BLOOD DIAMOND (2006) (***1/2)

Director Edward Zwick, who has made his career up of smart action films, makes his most socially conscience film to date. This film takes a scathing look at the diamond industry at the end of the 20th Century. Blood diamonds or conflict diamonds are being smuggled out of civil war torn places like Sierra Leone to fund the bloody slaughter of people within Africa.

The film begins with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, IN AMERICA) walking his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers, film debut) to school when RUF rebels raid their village gunning down anyone in sight. Solomon is able to get his family to safety, but he is captured in the process and sent to a mining camp to dig for diamonds. While there, he finds a huge pink stone well over 100 carats and makes the very dangerous decision to pocket the jewel. In jail, smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, THE DEPARTED) learns of Solomon's pink diamond from the murderous rebel leader Capt. Poison (David Harewood, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE), who vows to find the diamond himself.

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CHINATOWN (1974) (****)

This neo-noir simmers with sin and corruption. J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST) is a former cop who worked the seedy streets of Chinatown where he eventually became so disillusioned by the violence and sleaze that he left the force and became a private eye. However, that move still doesn't remove him from violence and sleaze as he becomes notorious for making his living taking incriminating pictures of people. His life seems to be trapped in a vicious circle of meaning well, but always causing others to get hurt.

Then walks in his next case, Mrs. Mulwray wants her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling, GREASE) followed, because she suspects that he is cheating on her with a younger woman. So Gittes watches the big wig in the water department as he battles others in the city government who want to build a new dam to supply much needed water to the drought plagued city of Los Angeles. When Gittes and his men get shots of Hollis with the young girl, they end up on the front page of the paper, which is followed by the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, NETWORK) wanting to sue and finally Hollis' murder.

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IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) (****)

This crime mystery is one of my all time favorite films. The murder of a prominent businessman plays a central role in the narrative, but the homicide is not what the film is about.

Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) finds the dead body of Philip Colbert in an alley. The small town of Sparta, Mississippi doesn't see crimes like this one, so gruff police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, ON THE WATERFRONT) sends out his officers to pick up any and all possible suspects. Sam finds black man Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, A PATCH OF BLUE) at the train depot and arrests him without question. When the chief interrogates Virgil about where he got the large sum of money in his wallet, Virgil says he earned it — as a police officer in Philadelphia.

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BREAKING AND ENTERING (2006) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 13, 2006 at 1:00am

Writer/director Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) crafts a multilayered drama that investigates the criminal heart in all of us.

Will (Jude Law, CLOSER) is a landscape architect working on a project to turn an impoverished area of London into a viable quarter. He lives with his long-term girlfriend Liv (Robin Wright Penn, NINE LIVES) and her autistic daughter Beatrice (Poppy Rogers, FROM HELL). Will and Liv’s relationship is on the rocks. Will and his partner Sandy (Martin Freeman, HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY) set up their new office in the very neighborhood they are trying to revive. However, this leads to several break-ins, conducted by free runners, including Miro (Rafi Gavron, film debut), who works for a group of immigrant crooks.

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