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Posted 12/9/2009

CINEMA PARADISO Guiseppe Tornatore's sentimental 1988 art-house smash packs pretty much every precious movie-adoration cliché into its 155 minutes and then finishes with a highlight reel of deleted love just in case you missed the point. In mid-1950s Sicily, the local movie house where everybody goes is run by the older Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) and where the young boy Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio) comes to call home. Salvatore spends hours inside the womb of the projection room watching the greats of film flash onscreen, nurturing a lifetime love of cinema. It's insufferably nostalgic, yet can still work its magic if you've recently loss a friend or a dog or something. At the Towson University's Van Bokkelen Hall Auditorium Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

COAL COUNTRY Mari-Lynn Evans and Phyllis Geller's documentary examines contemporary coal mining, which still provides more than half of America's electric power. Interviewees include the irrepressible Judy Bonds, one of the many impassioned sources featured in Catherine Pancake's Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Search for Coalfield Justice. At Red Emma's Bookstore and Coffeehouse Dec. 11 at 6 p.m.

HOLIDAY AFFAIR Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh star in director Don Hartman's admittedly schmaltzy Christmastime romantic comedy. The story finds single-mom Leigh considering a marriage of convenience just for financial security, but finding herself drawn to a shop clerk (Mitchum playing sweet, before he got tapped for the charismatic menace he can convey so effortlessly) who takes a shine to her and her son. At the Enoch Pratt Central Library's Wheeler auditorium Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.

THE POLAR EXPRESS The boy is getting too old, really, to believe in Santa Claus, and this Christmas he's teetering in his convictions. That snowy night, a steaming locomotive manifests out of the dark and pulls up to a stop outside his house. The gruff conductor steps off the platform and asks, would he like a Christmas Eve ride to the North Pole? Based on Chris Van Allsburg's bittersweet picture book of the same name, director Robert Zemeckis has done his best to stretch its unalloyed magic into a two-hour animated retelling, with predictably diluted results. Perennial everyman Tom Hanks plays, well, every man, thanks to new motion-capture technology that allows him to turn into multiple CGI avatars; even when the characters' movements are stiff and blocky, their faces still flex with Hanks' impeccable timing. The movie glows with the same soft pastels as Van Allsburg's magic-realist illustrations, but the fable's haiku-like simplicity gets cluttered after being plumped out with subplots about missing tickets, hobo angels, and--aaagh!--original songs. (Violet Glaze) At the Enoch Pratt Southeast Anchor Library Dec. 12 at noon.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG This Disney animated feature takes the old yarn about the frog prince and transports it to Jazz Age New Orleans. Opens Dec. 11.

SMALLTIMORE Local writer/director Jeanie Clark debuts her new romantic comedy, starring artist Joyce Scott. At the Charles Theatre Dec. 9 at 7 p.m.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER Ernst Lubitsch's earnestly heartwarming 1940 romantic comedy stars Jimmy Stewart as Alfred Kralik, the young head salesman for a Budapest retailer Matuschek and Co. Alfred has regular personality clashes with his co-worker Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Problem is, each has been writing romantic letters to an anonymous pen pal without knowing that the object of their affection, naturally, is their despised co-worker. Lubitsch perfectly places this effective romance against a nuanced backdrop of small but significant details in the daily lives of the shop's other employees, building toward a Christmas Eve when everything comes to a head. This movie's sexual sparring operates like a great screwball comedy slowed down a few notches; think It Happened One Night dosed with NyQuil. As such, Shop doesn't shimmer as Lubitsch's unbeatable Trouble in Paradise does, nor does it scale the same heights of hilarity as do the Billy Wilder-penned Lubitsch treats Ninotchka and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. Still, the degree of warmth emanating from this movie is extremely rare. (Eric Allen Hatch) At the Enoch Pratt Central Library's Wheeler auditorium Dec. 12 at 10 a.m.

TO SHOOT AN ELEPHANT Documentarian Alberto Arce traveled with the International Solidarity Movement from Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009 for this portrait of Gaza under the Israeli embargo. At Red Emma's Bookstore and Coffeehouse Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE At the time of its release, Cecil B. DeMille called Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 Trouble in Paradise "a present from Cartier's with the tissue paper just removed." But while such doily praise certainly conveys the shimmering sophistication of this landmark Art Deco comedy, it also distracts from how much bite Trouble still musters. Two young jewel thieves--Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Gaston (Herbert Marshall)--fall for each other, but a love triangle forms as the two conspire to relieve wealthy, attractive Mariette (Kay Francis) of some glittering possessions. The dialogue, while elegantly phrased, gets downright savage in its implications at times. Furthermore, its release just before the Production Code allowed Lubitsch to portray sexually liberated characters without worrying about punishing their crimes--literal or moral. It's one of the greatest comedies of the 1930s, and one of the all-time greatest movies never to have had an official home-video release. (Eric Allen Hatch) Screens at the Charles Theatre at noon Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. Dec. 14, and 9 p.m. Dec. 17.

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