Snap Judgment: Movies

Written and directed by Doug Atchison

Finally, a "Hoosiers" for the utterly unathletic. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett are the big names in this irresistible tale of an 11-year-old inner-city girl's quest to win the National Spelling Bee. The real stars are the kids, though: Akeelah (Keke Palmer), her bee buddy Javier (J. R. Villarreal) and her archrival Dylan (Sean Michael Afable). "Akeelah" obeys every sports-movie rule--surly Dylan has a domineering dad, natch--but trading end-zone dances for etymology gives it a geeky innocence. What's the word? Splendiferous.

Directed by Paul Weitz

Politics and pop culture collide in Weitz's swing-for-the-fences satire. The dim-bulb president of the United States (Dennis Quaid), whose poll numbers are in the toilet, is persuaded to be a judge on an "American Idol"-like show whose finalists include a show-tune-loving Arab terrorist (Sam Golzari) and a ruthlessly ambitious good ole girl (Mandy Moore). Hugh Grant plays the show's slick, loathsome Brit host. Promising more bite than it delivers, "Dreamz" is pitched too broadly to get very deeply under your skin. Still, there are some smarts at work here, and it will make you laugh.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This unflinching epic of the French Resistance, starring Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret, was made in 1969 but never released in the United States. Seen in a newly restored print, it's a revelation--a lost classic uncovered. Infused with the bleak romanticism of Melville's gangster movies ("Le Samouraï," "Bob le Flambeur"), and deepened by his own experiences in the Resistance, this hard-bitten tribute to freedom fighters makes most current movies look flabby and undisciplined. Don't miss it.