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January 26, 2007|By Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach | Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critics

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

Alpha Dog -- centers on a passel of drugged-out teen reprobates for whom every word is a four-letter one beginning with F, every action is a reaction to some perceived slight and every waking moment is an opportunity to be squandered. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes clearly sees his film as a cautionary tale. But the deck is too stacked. (C.K.) R 117 minutes B-

Arthur and the Invisibles -- tries way too hard. The creatures at its heart -- the Invisibles, who aren't invisible at all, just very, very small -- are blandly animated, with expressionless faces and precious little warmth. To compensate, the filmmakers over-accessorize the creatures, adding so many details, such as beards and armor, that it becomes distracting. And the story, of a boy who shrinks himself down to their size and ends up being a hero of both the world he came from and the world he's visiting, mistakes frenzy for wit. There's always something going on, but it's often hard to figure why or to what end. (C.K.) PG 102 minutes C

Babel, -- in which director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu suggests that the world's peoples do a lousy job of talking to one another, doesn't devolve into babble, but it comes perilously close. Inarritu employs multiple story threads that unfold with little regard to chronology, but the device seems arbitrary and unnecessary. The film comes across as more clever than profound. (C.K.) R 142 minutes B-

Blood Diamond -- is an adventure film that spotlights the practice of using the trade in precious stones to fund violence in certain African countries. (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. (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. (C.K.) R 106 minutes B-

Code Name: The Cleaner -- is 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+

Curse of the Golden Flower -- Gong Li plays the Empress who is being slowly poisoned by the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat). Does he know she has been sleeping with her stepson, the Crown Prince (Liu Ye)? Director Zhang Yimou tries to top the breathtaking poetic spectacle of his masterpiece, House of Flying Daggers, and instead plummets into self-parody. (M.S.) R 114 minutes C

The Departed -- illuminates, with a blowtorch, the tangled roots of urban corruption when a Boston Irish kingpin (Jack Nicholson) puts a mole (Matt Damon) in the State Police and the police put a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the mob. The direction (Martin Scorsese) and the writing (William Monahan) burst with exposed-wire energy; so does the ensemble, including the scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg as a police sergeant. (M.S.) R 149 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. Astonishing performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy make this the true heir to Chicago as a great movie musical. (M.S.) PG-13 131 minutes A

Freedom Writers -- follows 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. (M.S.) PG-13 123 minutes B

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+

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