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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 11

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AMELIA In its effort to be one of the first Oscar-bait titles out of the gate, the stately but sterile Amelia ends up stumbling over its own feet. A handsome production that fusses over every detail in order to provide the proper look, this biopic forgets to include any sort of spark necessary to get its motor running. As Amelia Earhart, Hilary Swank adroitly mixes tomboy charm with feminist strength, but she's let down by a script (by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan) that doesn't allow her to burrow even an inch under her character's skin. Her Amelia is painted in broad strokes, and as such, the dramatizations of her aerial achievements don't carry the power that should automatically go with lofty historical territory of this caliber. Where the movie most succeeds in its exploration of Amelia's relationships with two distinct men. Publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) was the person who discovered Amelia and guided her career; they eventually married, but the film posits that she embarked on an affair with fellow aviation pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) before returning to her loving husband. Swank and Gere don't exude magnetism in their scenes together, but it's not that kind of relationship: Theirs is a partnership forged from mutual respect and common ground, and it's a credit to both performers that the union feels authentic and enviable. The final portion of the picture naturally centers on the ill-fated 1937 flight that led to the disappearance of Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) over the Pacific Ocean. Despite knowing the outcome, this segment is inherently tense, although some feeble fabrications surrounding the tragedy prove to be as daft as the cinematic theory that the Titanic sank into the chilly depths because the watchmen were too busy watching DiCaprio and Winslet smooch to notice the iceberg right in front of them. **

ASTRO BOY Superheroes are known for showing up on the scene just in the nick of time, but in the case of Astro Boy and his big-screen debut, it's clear that his arrival comes when it's too late to really matter. The star of both comics and television as well as an early model for anime, Astro Boy has been around for well over a half-century, finding immediate success in his Japanese homeland before marching on to international acceptance. A big-budget animated extravaganza from Hollywood was probably a predetermined fate, but turning up at a time when slick superhero sagas are often the rule rather than the exception – even in the toon field (The Incredibles, Bolt) – limits the film's ability to stand out from the pack. In a futuristic city that hovers well above a largely forgotten Earth, the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is so attached to his young son Toby (Freddie Highmore) that, after the boy is accidentally killed, the grief-stricken scientist elects to revive him in a manner that mixes elements of both Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Tenma places Toby's memories in an advanced robot powered by a celestial power source, but he soon realizes he hasn't exactly created (in Geppetto's words) "a real boy." But while Tenma ends up shunning Toby, the opportunistic General Stone (Donald Sutherland) realizes he can use the lad for his own nefarious schemes. Astro Boy is full of incident, and it picks up steam when its title character lands on Earth's surface and falls in with a Fagin-like scoundrel (Nathan Lane) and his young charges. Yet attempts at profundity (themes of societal prejudice are emphasized) yield erratic results, and while the film is visually attractive and the vocal performers are well chosen, at the end of the day there's little to really distinguish this from similar family films about a young outcast who combats loneliness before meeting other colorful characters. Just dub this one Where the Mild Things Are. **1/2

CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT Based on a series of books for kids, this would seem to be aimed at either those young viewers with an affinity for the Twilight franchise or perhaps at those young viewers seeking an alternative to the adventures of Bella and Edward. Either way, this PG-13 confection would seem to be geared primarily at the teen crowd, with adult attendance a mere afterthought. But older moviegoers who can recall the spate of like-minded horror flicks from the 1980s will find much to appreciate as well. Those '80s efforts like Fright Night, Vamp and The Lost Boys placed teen protagonists in horrific situations and armed them with plenty of humor to go along with those wooden stakes. Like its predecessors, this film similarly mixes comedy with fantasy, and I'd be surprised if writer-director Chris Weitz and co-scripter Brian Helgeland hadn't studied those pictures before embarking on this project (on the other hand, similarities to 1932's classic Freaks and 1972's forgotten Vampire Circus were probably coincidental). Here, the school-age hero is 14-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia), who, at the urging of his rebellious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), sneaks out to catch a one-night-only presentation by a traveling freak show. The lineup includes a snake boy (Patrick Fugit) and a psychic who can sprout a beard at will (Salma Hayek), but it's spider-wrangler Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) who catches the boys' attention. Crepsley turns out to be a "good" vampire (dazes rather than kills humans, taking just enough blood for sustenance), and while Steve gets rejected for having "bad" blood, Darren soon becomes the vampire's protégée and finds himself having to steer clear of the soul-sucking Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and an army of "bad" vampires. Reilly hardly conjures up images of suave bloodsuckers like Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but his casting proves to be a real boon to the film, providing it with a central vampire whose wit is as sharp as his teeth. Beyond him, there's plenty to enjoy here – too much, since the picture ultimately collapses under the weight of its busy storyline and fails to adequately utilize its strong supporting cast. **1/2

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