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Film Clips

Capsule reviews of recently released movies

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APOCALYPTO Mel Gibson may or may not be a sorry excuse for a person, but as has been the case since the first brutish caveman painted a beautiful mural on the cavern wall, it's as important as ever to separate the individual from his artistry. And for the first half of Apocalypto, it looks as if he has succeeded in creating something special. Gibson takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization: The story drops us off in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants are soon attacked by warriors who rape the women, abandon the children, and drag the men back to their city to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Up until now, Apocalypto has proven to be a compelling yarn marked by charismatic performers (most notably lead Rudy Youngblood, as a tribesman fighting to make it back to his family), splendid production values and Gibson's fluid direction. But anyone who's seen Gibson's previous directorial efforts, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, knows that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust wrapped around a straightforward chase picture. Sadistic to a fault, Gibson has become cinema's reigning gore-to guy. **

BLOOD DIAMOND The message of this public service announcement masquerading as a movie is that consumers should take care not to buy "conflict diamonds," baubles obtained by mercenaries using slave labor, then smuggled out of war-torn countries. Since the film (set in Sierra Leone) establishes early on that these "conflict diamonds" are mixed in with legitimate diamonds at an early stage in the marketing process, it's never made clear how exactly consumers are supposed to avoid said jewels (buy roses instead?). At any rate, the movie's lofty intentions are hamstrung by having to coexist uneasily with stock characters. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong performance) is a devil-may-care opportunist who discovers he has a heart of gold as large as the diamond he's seeking. Solomon Vandy (magnetic Djimon Hounsou, once again typecast) is a fisherman brutalized and forced into mining the diamond fields. And Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, working overtime to add spark to a thin character) is an American journalist who sounds like an Information Please almanac every time she opens her mouth. Director Edward Zwick and his team are presumably sincere in wanting to shed some light on a tragic real-world situation, but the clumsy Blood Diamond simply can't cut it. **

CHARLOTTE'S WEB Charlotte's Web is the new live-action treatment of E.B. White's beloved children's book, but there's already been a dazzling screen version of this tale. No, I don't mean the 1973 Hanna-Barbera animated take; instead, I refer to the 1995 feature Babe. OK, so it wasn't based on White's book, but with its story centering around a cute little pig learning about farm life, it shares the same sense of magic and wonderment (not to mention setting). This version of Charlotte's Web is mostly faithful to its source material (though some expected -- and tiresome -- flatulence gags have been added), but because Gary Winick's direction rarely rises above the level of competent, and because Babe has already perfected the talking-animal feat via its Oscar-winning effects, the end result is pleasant but not much more than that. As the voice of Charlotte, the spider who befriends Wilbur the pig and plots to save him from the slaughterhouse, Julia Roberts is suitably soothing, while Steve Buscemi provides the proper measure of ego and arrogance as Templeton. The supporting voice actors, including Oprah Winfrey as a goose and horse whisperer Robert Redford as a horse, tend to get lost in the occasional frenzy of the tale, which on screen works better in the more mature passages (e.g. Charlotte explaining the cycle of life to Wilbur) than those focusing on slapdash antics. **1/2

DREAMGIRLS Jennifer Hudson couldn't even make it to the top on American Idol, so what could she possibly bring to the big screen? If Dreamgirls is any indication, plenty. Delivering a knockout performance that all but dares the Academy to ignore her for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Hudson is a revelation in the role of Effie, the lead singer for the R&B outfit the Dreams who's relegated to backup vocals once savvy yet sleazy manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides that the noticeably thinner Deena (Beyonce Knowles) would better help the Supremes-like group hit it big (the third member, well-played by Anika Noni Rose, is content to remain in backup mode). On the narrative level, this adaptation of the Broadway smash is only too happy to wallow in its show biz clichés, content to let other ingredients (the music, the acting) carry it along. Yet Hudson is so powerful that the film suffers whenever we're left with just Beyonce or Foxx. Luckily, Eddie Murphy is on hand providing some prickly tension as fading star James "Early" Thunder, while writer-director Bill Condon stages the musical numbers for maximum impact. But it's Hudson who owns Dreamgirls; her delivery of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is worth a standing ovation -- or at least a recount on American Idol -- all by itself. ***

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