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January 05, 2007|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.

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 opportunistic 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+

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

Eragon -- is the story of a boy and his dragon, and of the war for freedom they help lead. It isn't much, but its baby dragon sure is adorable. A sword-and-sorcery saga that desperately wants to be another Lord of the Rings, Eragon succeeds in being only the palest of imitations. It lacks scope, grandeur, humanity and style. What it does have is a teen-heartthrob hero, plus some passable special effects and a handful of big-name stars on hand to collect a paycheck. (C.K.) PG 106 minutes C-

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+

Happy Feet -- wants to be March of the Penguins: The Musical. But a singing version of the surprise documentary hit would need to be far better than this tedious, animated effort that spends too much time in the mistaken belief that people can never get enough of singing penguins. (C.K.) PG 96 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

The Holiday -- stars Cameron Diaz as Amanda, an L.A. movie-trailer tycoon who decides that a house-swap with a gal 6,000 miles away is just the ticket to romantic recovery. Her partner turns out to be Kate Winslet as Iris, the lovelorn wedding writer for London's Daily Telegraph. Humor with heart: That's writer-director Nancy Meyers' admirable goal. The movie would be trimmer and livelier if she relaxed, too. She undervalues her natural gift for making naughtiness nice with the likes of Diaz, Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black. (M.S.) PG-13 131 minutes B-

Night at the Museum -- offers a great conceit - that every night at New York's Museum of Natural History, all the statues and mummies and dioramas and dinosaur bones come to life. But the filmmakers seem to waste all their inspiration in the first 20 minutes (when the new security guard played by Ben Stiller discovers what he's up against) and don't know where to go from there. (C.K.) PG 108 minutes C+

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