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January 12, 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 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. (M.S.) G 98 minutes A-

Children of Men -- is a sci-fi thriller that has less to do with the plot -- disease has left all the women sterile -- than with the director's vision of where our culture is headed. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that the director is Alfonso Cuaron, one of current cinema's most striking visual stylists. But as great as the film looks, the story, with Clive Owen and Julianne Moore among those trying to protect the first pregnant woman to turn up in nearly 20 years, never quite comes into focus. Is it about the importance of fighting for an ideal? The need to focus on the future? The redemptive power of love? Or the utter (and ultimate) stupidity of men. (C.K.) R 106 minutes B-

Code Name: The Cleaner -- sounds like a parody of The Bourne Identity, what with its main character waking up with no memory of who he is, and it's clearly envisioned as a star vehicle for Cedric the Entertainer. But Cedric has yet to show he has the chops to carry a film. Still, it features a wonderfully appealing turn by Lucy Liu, who gets to show off both martial-arts skills and a light-hearted comic persona that has been only suggested in her earlier films. (C.K.) PG-13 90 minutes C+

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 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

Freedom Writers -- follows black, Asian-American and Latino gang members at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., as they get the luckiest break of their young lives: enrollment in the English class of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a novice instructor who refuses to give up on them. The result is the rare inspirational-teacher film that is filled with genuine, jaw-dropping coups of real-life poetry. Swank has the gift of emotional transparency. No one's better at playing characters who arrive onscreen nearly blank and get shaped by experiences that unfold before our eyes. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B

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 instructor at the center of this fresh, unfailingly witty comedy-drama, is both a heartbreak and a joy. (M.S.) R 109 minutes A

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+

The Painted Veil -- tells the tangled love story of a mismatched British bacteriologist in Shanghai (Edward Norton) and a seemingly shallow London woman (Naomi Watts) who marries him in a desperate attempt to escape her family. The splendid Watts breathes life into a sad young British woman with a yen for experience and a family forcing her to be proper. And no one has done the pride, pain and remorse of an unloved and possible unlovable husband better than Norton. (M.S.) PG-13 124 minutes B+

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