Freedom Writers (Paramount). Mixed reviews for this true-life tale about a sheltered white teacher taking a job in a tough school in Long Beach, Calif. The Los Angeles Times rhapsodizes, "Among the lessons to be learned from the inspiring, feel-good drama Freedom Writers is never to underestimate the persuasive powers of Hilary Swank." In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes that the film "isn't only about an amazingly dedicated young teacher who took on two extra jobs to buy supplies for her students … it's also, emphatically, about some extraordinary young people." But others are not as taken with the film's sentimentality. The Washington Post gripes that Swank's character's "strategic little victories at Wilson High follow excruciatingly familiar patterns, ringing of the trite business we associate with Fame and other hokey classroom fables." (Buy tickets to Freedom Writers.)
Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse). Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's fantastical film about a young girl during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War gets rave reviews. Slate's Dana Stevens loves how del Toro "has reached into the depths of our collective unconscious—not to mention the fertile swamp of his own mind—and pulled out a fever dream of a movie." In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane gives the film a nearly unqualified positive review—a rare feat—and muses, "It is, I suspect, a film to return to, like a country waiting to be explored: a maze of dead ends and new life." A.O. Scott sees greater implications in del Toro's masterpiece, intoning, "Mr. Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete." (Buy tickets to Pan's Labyrinth.)
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (DreamWorks). This graphic tale of an 18th-century perfumer is based on the international best seller by Patrick Süskind, but some critics take issue with the way it was adapted to film. While Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum concludes that director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and star Ben Whishaw "blend the movie into something quite heady in its own bottle," the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano is not so enthralled: "The monster of the book, a freak of nature and nurture whose singular biological quirk makes him a pariah, becomes a handsome cipher in the film." The Washington Post is similarly unenthused, remarking that Perfume"has its moments, particularly as a visual experience. … But the film is an uneven experience." (Buy tickets to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.)
The O.C. cancelled. Fox pulled the plug on the fourth season of the once-popular series about Southern California teenagers; the last episode airs Thursday, Feb. 22. The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes notes acerbically, "Fox started the new year right, announcing yesterday it was putting onetime sensation The O.C. out of its misery next month." The OrganGrinder blog at the Guardian (United Kingdom) goes along with the general consensus, remarking that the series' "great premise" nonetheless "had no legs and ended up rehashing the same situations and storylines as the second and third seasons progressed." But on The Watcher blog, the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan prefers to reminisce about a happier time in Orange County, imploring, "Let's use this moment to remember that, in its heyday, The O.C. was a delightful bit of escapism."
Carly Simon, Into White (Columbia). The '70s songstress has released a follow-up to 2005's top-10-hitting Moonlight Serenade, and like its predecessor, this one's an album of reinterpreted pop standards. Despite the predictability of the songs ("Blackbird," "You Are My Sunshine," etc.), Salon muses that "Simon's voice has deepened and coarsened over the years and that quality … lends much-needed poignancy to a set of songs that, just barely, manage to enhance sleep rather than induce it." Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Stephen Holden compares the experience of the album to "tiptoeing into an enchanted garden," lauding the "mood of deep, dreamy calm that is sustained over 14 songs." She'll also be promoting the album with a performance Friday on the QVC shopping channel. (Buy Into White.)
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens (PBS). The season's final installment of the PBS series American Masters takes a reverent look at the famed photographer's career. "Profilers and portraitists are not generally among society's most forthcoming, and so it is refreshing to witness Ms. Leibovitz speak openly about her life," considers the New York Times. Among her most famous shots are those of a naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken hours before Lennon's murder. Despite her fame, Leibovitz is "an apparently likable person who does not seem the least bit precious or pretentious about what she does," remarks the Los Angeles Times. But the Houston Chronicle observes, "By the end, [Leibovitz is] a master subject, but one that remains out of focus." (Watch Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.)
Children of Men (Universal). Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of P.D. James' apocalyptic novel is a hit with critics. The film "may be something of a bummer, but it's the kind of glorious bummer that lifts you to the rafters, transporting you with the greatness of its filmmaking," enthuses the New York Times' Manohla Dargis. Slate's Dana Stevens raves that Cuarón's "dense, dark, and layered meditation on fertility, technology, immigration, war, love, and life itself may be the movie of the still-young millennium." The Washington Post is likewise enthralled, calling the film a "ray of hope for the future of cinema itself." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is more measured, griping that "its vision hasn't been well thought out, and, again and again, it struck me as a sloppy piece of storytelling." (Buy tickets to Children of Men.)
Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight). Critics are creeped out by this film, based on the novel by Zoë Heller about the dangerous turns of a female friendship. New York magazine's David Edelstein calls it "another squirm-und-drang movie: too creepy-sad to be a comedy, too intense to watch quietly, without letting out frequent whoops." The Chicago Tribune attributes the film's power to its two stars, namely "the way Judi Dench toys with Cate Blanchett, not unlike a cat playing with a mouse at lunchtime." But in the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano is unimpressed with the way Heller's novel has been brought to the screen, arguing that the director and screenwriter have "tossed the book's subtlety out the window." (Buy tickets to Notes on a Scandal.)