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December 29, 2006|By Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach | Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critics

Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach unless noted. Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Apocalypto -- pits a spotless young Mayan man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), against evil marauders led by their majestically efficient captain Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and the satanically sadistic Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios). Although it's told in a Mayan dialect, with English subtitles, the movie is just an arthouse film for jocks. Only the surface is exotic: the Mayan empire in its late-decadent phase. Otherwise, the life-or-death jeopardy is so basic, director Mel Gibson might as well be filming a good guy trying to stop a train before it hits the damsel tied to the railroad tracks. (M.S.) R 138 minutes C-

Blood Diamond, -- an adventure film that spotlights the practice of using the trade in precious stones to fund violence in certain African countries, has the unenviable job of serving two masters. It has to be exciting, but not so much that its message is lost. It has to be moralistic without being preachy. It's only in what amounts to the film's epilogue that things fall out of whack. But by then, the film, with compelling star turns by Leonardo DiCaprio (as an opportuistic South African soldier of fortune) and Djimon Hounsou (as a desperate father struggling to reunite his family), has earned too much good will to let a few stumbles kill its momentum. (C.K.) R 138 minutes B+

Bobby, -- a star-filled fictional account of what 22 disparate people were doing at the Ambassador Hotel the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, is a lament of what might have been. With sincerity and untempered hero worship, it offers Kennedy as a paradigm of what a leader should be. For those who believed in RFK, Bobby will pack an emotional wallop. (C.K.) R 112 minutes B+

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- features a terrific, risky comic creation: a village idiot for the global village. A TV reporter from Kazakhstan comes to the United States and discovers everything you always wanted to know about America but were afraid to ask. British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles give Borat the high-low genius of an aces episode of South Park. (M.S.) R 85 minutes A

Casino Royale -- showcases the superb, gutsy actor Daniel Craig as he and the whole creative team go back to novelist Ian Fleming's original conception of the super-agent as a somber, driven operative on Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's a shrewd and often exciting relaunching of a franchise, but the filmmakers show too much of their sweat. (M.S.) PG-13 144 minutes B

Charlotte's Web, -- a first-rate family fantasy based on E.B. White's great children's book, follows a valiant young girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning) as she saves the runty pig Wilbur from her father's ax. Then Charlotte, a spider in her uncle's barnyard, saves Wilbur from becoming a Christmas ham. It's impossible to think of anyone besides Dakota playing Fern and bringing the same rapture and strength to the character. But here she's merely the first among equals, including the vocal cast led by Julia Roberts as Charlotte and Dominic Scott Kay as Wilbur. And Gary Winick proves to be the rare filmmaker who is a true heart and a good director. (M.S.) G 98 minutes A-

Dreamgirls -- threads the history of black entertainers crossing into mainstream pop through the story of the rise and dissolution of a Supremes-like group. Writer-director Bill Condon's uncanny ability to combine artifice, reality, choreography and improv, and the astonishing performances of Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy make this the true heir to Chicago as a great movie musical. The talent floods off the screen and leaves you drenched in emotion and street wit. (M.S.) PG-13 131 minutes A

The Good Shepherd -- uses a fictional counterintelligence expert (Matt Damon, at his subtlest and savviest) to trace the founding of the Office of Strategic Services before the Second World War and the OSS' postwar transformation into the Central Intelligence Agency. As Monty Python might have put it, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, bang-bang: The material is all bad manners and worse behavior in high places, complete with private codes and deadly secret gestures, but the movie is anemic and humorless. (M.S.) R 160 minutes C+

The History Boys -- are eight gifted middle- (or lower-middle-) class kids from unconnected households. The headmaster of a Yorkshire grammar school believes they'll give his school a shot at landing a record number of scholarships for Oxford and Cambridge. Playwright Alan Bennett and his adapter-director Nicholas Hytner treat teaching as an art and make it thrilling. Richard Griffiths, as the unconventional instructor at the center of this fresh, unfailingly witty comedy-drama, is both a heartbreak and a joy. (M.S.) R 109 minutes A

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