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Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Children of Men, Curse of the Golden Flower, Dreamgirls

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CHILDREN OF MEN No matter how closely I scoured each scene in Children of Men, I couldn't find Charlton Heston lurking anywhere in the background. Yet a Heston cameo would have been apropos, given that this adaptation of P.D. James' book harkens back to the cinema of the early 1970s, when Hollywood was hell-bent on churning out nightmarish visions of the future in such works as The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring Heston). Aided by spectacular cinematography and set design, director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) creates a future world (the film is set in 2027) that is utterly believable and quite frightening, not least because it looks so much like our present-day world. The premise here is that women haven't been able to get pregnant in nearly 20 years, meaning that humankind is on its way out. As a result, chaos is the order of the day, and only in London does there exist a pretense of a (barely) functional society. But when it's revealed that an immigrant (Clare-Hope Ashitey) somehow finds herself carrying a child, it's up to a working drone (Clive Owen in a forceful performance) to protect her from the various political factions that would exploit her for their own cynical means. The multi-tentacled storyline begs for a mini-series length, but armed with only a feature-film running time, Cuaron still manages to pack a lot of incident into this exciting tale of our world as one gargantuan war zone. ***1/2

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER Will the real Zhang Yimou please stand up? This extraordinary talent was once responsible for such towering features as Ju Dou, To Live and Raise the Red Lantern, opulent epics that nevertheless managed to display the heartbeat of personal drama. But as of late, Yimou has become fascinated with movie technology, shifting from people to props, from storylines to stunts. Yet even staunch defenders of his recent opuses Hero and House of Flying Daggers might throw their hands up when confronted with this excessive extravaganza. It's based on a play by Yu Cao but seems to have been adapted by Yimou after he sat through a marathon viewing of soap operas. For all its attention to duplicity, incest and murder most foul, it's less William Shakespeare and more Susan Lucci. Set in 928 A.D., it concerns the power plays that exist between Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) and their sons (Jay Chou, Ye Liu and Qin Junjie). The costume and set designs are staggering, but the story unfolding amidst all the pageantry is strained and even silly. Still, the dialogue-heavy sequences prove to be more compelling than the action scenes, which generally rely on repetitive battle footage and wholly unconvincing CGI work. After enduring countless sequences filled with complex wirework and trick photography, I found myself yearning for the relative simplicity of a Bruce Lee kick to the chest. **

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. ***

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA Before this picture, director Clint Eastwood had already helmed one film in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the American soldiers who hoisted Old Glory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during the World War II battle. Whereas the respectable Flags provided the Yankee point of view, this superior picture gives us the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and, for the most part, died in this bloody skirmish. Eastwood and scripters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita stay away from the politics of the war in the Pacific, choosing instead to focus on the humanity of the Japanese men required to defend this island from a U.S. takeover. The name actor attached to Letters is the magnetic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai); he plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the author of the film's literary source), a sensible leader who knows that he and his army are doomed but still does the best he can in an impossible situation. War movies used to be a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood, but recent times have seen them become almost as rare as the Western and the musical. Here's one that comes along at the right time. As Bush callously plots to send 20,000 troops to their potential deaths, here's a film that reminds the rest of us that all soldiers have names and faces -- and most deserve better than to end up as body bag fodder simply to serve the interests of petty tyrants who incorrectly fancy themselves great leaders. ***1/2

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