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Film Clips

Capsule reviews of recently released movies

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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

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

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. ***

ERAGON This draggy dragon yarn bored me silly, but I imagine it might appeal to folks who have never before seen a fantasy flick. Specifically, it might fill the bill for kids who have somehow managed to miss all the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films (are there any?). The movie is based on the wildly popular book written by Christopher Paolini when he was a mere lad of 15, and if it's faithful to its source material, then the lawsuit-happy George Lucas corporation has grounds to sue for plagiarism. Let's see, a naive farmboy decides to take on an evil empire (more so after his harmless uncle is murdered by soldiers seeking the boy) with the help of a wisdom-spouting mentor and a devil-may-care maverick. Plus, he also has to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil ruler and his supernaturally endowed enforcer. The key difference is that instead of a lightsaber, the lad comes equipped with his very own dragon -- and there's no Death Star in sight, just a deadly star in the form of lead Ed Speleers. As Eragon Skywalker, newcomer Speleers is about as charismatic as a comatose possum, and even capable actors like Jeremy Irons (as Brom Kenobi), Djimon Hounsou (as Ajihad Calrissian) and Robert Carlyle (as Darth Durza) are soundly defeated by the dreadful dialogue and indifferent pacing. *

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