Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Babel, Charlotte's Webb, Children of Men, others


BABEL (R) Many tongues are spoken and many stories interwoven in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's Babel, but, like those blind men feeling up the elephant, each of the movie's characters has only the foggiest notion of the big picture of which they're a part. Babel continues the patented blend of interlocking narratives and scrambled time frames that Innaritu and screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga dished out in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, a method that links its characters' lives by a series of coincidences rendered cosmic in the unbearable randomness of being. there are some painfully potent moments here, but the filmmakers' grasp sometimes exceeds their reach; simply put, we too often feel the movie straining to supply the connections necessary for making sense of the chaos. Still, Babel is bound and determined to pull off its cosmic hat trick and, even with all the metaphysical doodling and contrived rearranging of structure, the film gives us slabs of emotion that ring raw and true, with an English Patient-esque mix of ingenious editing, seductive cinematography and solid performances that goes a long way toward winning us over. Also stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi and Elle Fanning. 3.5 stars

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (G) An interspecies three-way love story between a spider, a pig and a human (strictly platonic, though, so no worries), Charlotte's Web takes place in a "deeply ordinary place," where the rule of order is thrown out of whack when young Fern (Dakota Fanning) and kindly spider Charlotte make it their mission to save a guileless Gump of a piglet from the chopping block. There are no villains here per se, just the way of the world, which goes a long way toward explaining why the lessons of Charlotte's Web remain so resonant, both for children and adults. The digital effects here are mostly very good and surprisingly tasteful, fitting right in with the simple, unpretentious feel of the movie — and although a few obligatory fart jokes do insinuate themselves into the proceedings (and yes, that's Steve Buscemi's voice you hear, typecast once again as the rat), the movie survives that, too. The characters of Charlotte's Web, human and animal alike, inhabit a world where it's easy to believe that the extraordinary dwells in every moment, that a pig really can be radiant, a spider beautiful and a rat trustworthy. Also stars Kevin Anderson, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, Beau Bridges, John Cleese and Sam Shepard. 3.5 stars

CHILDREN OF MEN (R) A devastating re-tooling of that ol' dystopian sci-fi blues from director Afonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Children of Men puts us uncomfortably up close and personal with a very near-future (2027, to be exact) in which the world has fallen into anarchy, disease and military dictatorships run rampant, and humans are no longer capable of reproducing. Our guide through the chaos is an ex-activist turned civil servant (a rumpled, world-weary Clive Owen) who somehow finds himself charged with seeing to the safety of the world's last pregnant woman. The film eventually becomes less politically charged cautionary tale and more full-blown action-thriller, but Cuaron is equally adept at both. It's all quite exhilarating, in its gritty, downbeat way, and perhaps just a little too believable. Also stars Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam and Claire-Hope Ashitey. 4 stars

DREAMGIRLS (PG-13) A uniquely African-American variation on that old Chicago razzle-dazzle, Dreamgirls lunges from one fabulous musical number to the next, a nearly nonstop hit parade with scattered bits of story thrown in during the downtime. Revolving around the rise of a girl-group called The Dreamettes (The Supremes by any other name), Dreamgirls attempts to tell the story of Motown, but it's all so slick and super-sized that it rarely resonates as it should. Ditto for the characters served up here, all of whom double as big, fat cultural icons in a flamboyantly superficial survey of what is arguably black music's most important decade. (For all the outsized drama, Dreamgirls often unintentionally comes pretty darned close to being soul music's Spinal Tap, minus the jokes.) What saves Dreamgirls is that its core performers — particularly Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson — are talented and charismatic enough that, even when the material is bogus and the movie is just going through the motions, it's a pleasure to watch the singers and dancers vigorously strutting their stuff. Dreamgirls is mostly empty calories but, like most junk food, it's pretty hard to resist. Also stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose and Keith Robinson. 3 stars

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (R) For his second stint in the director's chair, Robert De Niro tackles a subject no less daunting than the birth and growth pains of the CIA and spans some four decades of world-shaking events. And still, amazingly enough, The Good Shepherd is a bore. The film moves at the proverbial snail's pace as it flips back and forth between time periods, none of which are handled with much flair. As if to compensate, it throws in some ostensibly crowd-pleasing dramatic mumbo jumbo about the main character's personal life — daddy issues, a soulless marriage, the girl who got away — before petering out with a predictable subplot about the identity of a double agent. The movie barely simmers for what seems like forever without ever really coming to a boil, and it all culminates in a Sophie's Choice moment that doesn't feel quite earned. Stars Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and Robert De Niro. 2 stars

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