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The Bucket List, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Orphanage, others

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ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS About the best one can say about this occasionally rancid but mostly just dull film is that it's not as excruciating as Garfield: The Movie, another ill-conceived project that placed CGI animals in the real world. Here, Jason Lee is the hapless human who serves as the sacrificial-career lamb: He plays Dave, a failed songwriter who also has trouble getting close to anyone, including a predictably va-va-voomish girlfriend (Cameron Richardson). But along come our all-talking, all-singing chipmunk siblings – Alvin, Simon and Theodore – to not only help him produce a smash single but also teach him the importance of friendship and family. The requisite villainy rears its head in the form of Dave's old college chum Ian (David Cross), now a record company mogul who decides to work the 'munks into the ground via world tours and the like. The three rodents' lines are spoken by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney, but their voices are so digitally altered that they might as well be lip-synched by Hillary, Barack and Mitt. Then again, that speaks to the whole impersonal tone of the project, which has so little regard for the brand name's nostalgic factor that it updates the concept by briefly putting the trio in rappers' outfits in one scene and allowing Simon to eat Theodore's turd in another. Desperately conceived on every level, this forlorn family film amounts to little more than celluloid roadkill. *

THE BUCKET LIST If Morgan Freeman and Judi Dench ever made a film together, would the world simply explode? After all, Freeman always plays the smartest character in his movies and Dench always plays the wisest character in her pictures, so wouldn't this fall under some sort of "irresistible force meets immovable object" scenario? At any rate, it's an idea more worthy of discussion than any of the pseudo-weighty nonsense on view in The Bucket List, an interminable film about terminal patients who learn important life lessons before, yes, kicking the bucket. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who's beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (or at least daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned "bucket list" of activities they've always wanted to do. The list includes such items as "go skydiving" and "laugh until I cry"; unfortunately, "entertain audiences who pay to see this Bucket of you-know-what" is nowhere to be found. A lazy and condescending package from top to bottom (with uninspired efforts put forth by director Rob Reiner and scripter Justin Zackham), The Bucket List isn't nearly as torturous as the similar, "laughing in the face of death" Patch Adams; then again, neither is a broken back. *1/2

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR It hasn't helped that all recent films about wartime politics have been promoted with all the appeal of a plate of vegetables being plopped in front of an 8-year-old (i.e. "It's Good For You" cinema), so trust canny old lion Mike Nichols to recall how to do it right. Charlie Wilson's War is sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Working from a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (from George Crile's nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much each viewer wants to put into it. Minimum-effort audiences, therefore, will be happy to roll with the engaging performance by Tom Hanks, but those digging a little deeper will recognize its merit in sniffing out that snatch of history that might serve as the missing link between the fall of Communism and the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism. Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows blustery Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) as he becomes interested in Afghanistan's ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie's spurred to get involved at the insistence of his politically savvy friend (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), but it isn't until he teams up with a prickly CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves. But at what cost to the future? The film doesn't answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response. No Supreme Court tampering is necessary this time around: Charlie Wilson's War is an outright winner. ***

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY The apex to The Bucket List's nadir, this French effort from director Julian Schnabel takes a comparable blueprint – how a person moves forward with life after his body fails him – and makes it come alive via a startling visual style, knotty characterizations and a terrific central performance. Based on a true story, the film centers on Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the cocky editor of the French Elle magazine who suffers a stroke at the age of 43 and thereafter finds himself in a paralyzed state. The only part of his body he can move is one eye, but while wags may want to dismiss this as My Left Eye, Bauby's story and Schnabel's approach turn this into a different type of biopic than the Daniel Day-Lewis Oscar winner My Left Foot. Propelled by Ronald Harwood's delicate script (which gives us access to Bauby's inner monologues in a crisp and believable manner) and camerawork (courtesy of Saving Private Ryan lenser Janusz Kaminski) that allows the film to break away from the tale's inherently claustrophobic atmosphere, this steadfastly avoids reducing the notions of perseverance and heroism to convenient catchphrases. Amalric is excellent in a tricky role, and there are further stellar contributions by Emmanuelle Seigner as his devoted wife and especially Max von Sydow as his father – the latter's two scenes are the emotional high points of the film. ***1/2

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