Capsule reviews of recently released movies

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

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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

LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (R) Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was one of the most colorful madmen in modern history, and Forest Whitaker, who is the main reason to see this movie, captures all of Amin's bluster and creepy pathos beautifully, from the smallest private insecurity to the most grandiose derangement. Painting a portrait of Amin through an outsider's eyes, The Last King of Scotland invents a hero — a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) — who becomes an insider in Amin's regime and then, having made his deal with the devil, proceeds to succumb to the considerable temptations of hell. Director Kevin MacDonald wants us to focus on how easy it is to be seduced by evil, so for much of the movie's running time we share Garrigan's cluelessness as to the extents of Amin's outrages. Only gradually do we begin to suspect the immense divide between the carefully mediated image and the barbaric reality of Idi Amin, and it's not until nearly an hour into the film that the real story begins to emerge. We don't begin to get the full measure of Idi Amin until a bit too late in the game in The Last King of Scotland, but when the movie finally plays its hand, it's the real deal. Also stars Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson. 3.5 stars

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (R) A staunchly humanist drama in the form of a war movie, Letters from Iwo Jima offers what is basically the reverse angle of Flags of our Fathers, a movie that barely allowed us a glimpse of the eyes behind the guns blowing holes in young American soldiers. Clint Eastwood returns here to the pivotal WWII battle that consumed his earlier film, but this time the director attaches faces to his invisible enemy, as well as names, histories and personalities, daring to turn former foes into human beings who weep and bleed. The two films are similarly structured as well: Both Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima mix extended and extremely graphic battle sequences with more serene, intimate moments (often in the form of somewhat awkward flashbacks) detailing the moral dimensions of their characters. In Flags, Eastwood focused on American soldiers falsely promoted as heroes, hammering home how war is packaged, sold and sanitized into a curiously bloodless symbol of patriotism. Letters concentrates on the flipside of the same equation: Japanese soldiers realizing they're being lied to by leaders who order them to die for a cause that's already lost. Both movies are ultimately mad as hell about the same exact thing: the idiocy of buying into illusions that governments try to impose on their people — and yes, the parallels with our current mess in Iraq are unavoidable. Stars Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase and Shindou Nakamura. 3.5 stars

THE PAINTED VEIL (PG-13) A classy picture postcard with a good performance or two tucked inside, The Painted Veil's credits are impeccable, from its well-respected source (Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name) to its well-respected stars, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Watts is in particularly fine form as pretty but shallow Kitty, a spoiled Londoner forced by her cuckolded husband (Norton) to accompany him on a virtual suicide mission to a cholera-ridden village in China. The Painted Veil doesn't seem all that comfortable sustaining the slow-burning intensity of the couple's strained relationship, and so it deflects our attention with detours to a world-weary neighbor (Toby Jones) and with various representatives of the budding, anti-imperialist nationalism sweeping China in the 1920s. The movie's arc is fairly predictable, with most of the characters working through their pain, getting in touch with their humanity, finding redemption and, finally, reaching an understanding that approaches, as Lou Reed once had it, some kinda love. Also stars Liev Shrieber. 2.5 stars

PAN'S LABYRINTH (NR) Besides functioning as a brutally incisive account of life during wartime, Pan's Labyrinth is something of a fairy tale, a classic fable shaken and stirred with a modern twist (including a wicked, obsessive-compulsive stepfather, a trio of tasks to be completed before the moon is full and a bionic-insect fairy for a guide). The movie is also an elegant coming-of-age tale, taking place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, and filtering that conflict through the imagination of a 10-year-old girl who absorbs the messy suffering into a richly ordered fantasy world of her own device. Taking us down the rabbit hole and straight through the looking glass, Pan's Labyrinth layers its real-world wartime drama with glimpses of a parallel universe where anything is possible, where pagan myth and Jungian symbols collide and magical realism mixes freely with grotesque imagery straight out of Goya. The film is a fairy tale in the best and darkest sense (a baby-killing, eyeless monster dining by an enormous pile of tiny shoes is just one of its terrible pleasures), so be aware that this is most decidedly not, repeat not, an entertainment for children. Stars Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadne Gil and Alex Angulo. 4.5 stars

SMOKING ACES (R) Smokin' Aces offers us the worst of all worlds, setting things up and attempting to tie them together with miles of dull, droning exposition, while bombarding us with gratuitous ultra-violence edited with all the rhythmic elegance of a seizure. The basic idea here is that we get to gawk at a slew of super-assassins, all competing to collect a sizeable bounty on Las-Vegas-entertainer-turned-Mafia-snitch Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven). Piven's character holes up in a penthouse suite with a seemingly endless supply of coke and hos, while the killers — a self-consciously "colorful" assortment of tough black chicks, cold-blooded masters of disguise and raving bully boys straight out of a Mad Max movie — knock off various FBI agents and each other as they advance upon their objective. The dialogue is largely lifeless and awkwardly delivered, the action strictly cartoonish, and the last-minute Usual Suspects-esque attempt to make sense of the proceedings is, unintentionally, perhaps the most ludicrous sequence in the whole movie. Also stars Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds. 1.5 stars

VOLVER (NR) Pedro Almodovar's abiding obsession with female mystique reaches a whole new level in Volver, a film that seems to take place in a world entirely depopulated of males. The setting is modern day Madrid, actually, where we quickly discover that the women outlive the men by miles — a truism demonstrated when the movie's first (and practically only) male character appears at the 14-minute mark, only to get knocked off (by one of the resident females) barely five minutes later. That murder provides one of the central plot points around which Volver's various and sundry females scurry, although all of the undeniably amusing or odd twists and turns don't really add up to much. The director achieves a seemingly effortless blend of his standard elements here — comedy, farce, melodrama, a touch of kitsch, even a bit of Hitchcockian noir — all delivered with his customary wit and style. But Volver doesn't approach the levels of depth and focus that we've come to expect from latter-day Almodovar and winds up a watchable but distinctly lighter-than-air concoction. Stars Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo. 3.5 stars

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