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Movies today

January 04, 2008

Capsules by Michael Sragow unless noted. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Charlie Wilson's War -- follows a sybaritic East Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) as he uses his connections to wangle funding for Afghan rebels during the Soviet invasion. With Julia Roberts as a Houston socialite and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an earthy CIA man, it brings Broadway fizz to D.C., Texas and Middle Eastern cocktail parties; but if it refreshes you after ponderous events or "event films," it also leaves you longing for a more substantial experience. PG-13 97 minutes B+

Enchanted -- Fairy-tale characters tumble down a well in the storybook land of Andalasia and come rocketing up a manhole in Times Square, New York. This film has Amy Adams as Giselle, and she carries the film gracefully and uproariously on her creamy shoulders. Adams gets to be a full-blown romantic whose transition to full-grown romantic is in turn sweet, stirring and blissfully funny. PG 107 minutes B+

The Golden Compass -- The free-thinking young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), runs afoul of the Magisterium, the sprawling institution that oppresses her Earth. This swift, smart fantasy spectacle goes by a bit too quickly; you want the film to slow down so you can savor its quirky characters (including animal alter egos known as daemons) as well as its alternate-universe England. PG-13 118 minutes B

The Great Debaters -- The superb debate squad from all-black Wiley College in East Texas witness every indignity and injustice of the Jim Crow South in the course of one year (1935), then use it all to fuel its showdown with a champion white team at Harvard. Denzel Washington as the coach, Denzel Whitaker as the youngest debater and Forest Whitaker (no relation) as his theologian dad deliver knock-out performances, but too much of the movie is simultaneously stirring and pat. PG-13 123 minutes B-

I Am Legend -- Will Smith plays the last man standing in New York, and possibly on Earth, after a virus manufactured to cure cancer turns most of mankind into ravenous, vampirelike zombies. The pulp ironies grow so crude and deafening that despite Smith and stellar cinematography, the movie leaves you emotionally parched. PG-13 101 minutes C

Juno -- An upper-middle-class couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) agree to adopt the baby of the title character, a middle-class teenage girl, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who wins over her parents (J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney) and even the father of her child (Michael Cera) with her hyper-verbal feistiness. Although the movie calms down and becomes more bearable at roughly the half-hour mark, it never stops being as self-adoring as its all-too-spunky heroine. PG-13 92 minutes C+

The Kite Runner -- charts the ups and awful downs of the asymmetrical friendship between Amir, a well-off Pushtan boy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Hassan, his servant and bosom pal from the oppressed Hazara tribe. The movie lives in the galvanic performances of two young Afghan actors, Zekeria Ebrahimi (Amir) and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada (Hassan). PG-13 127 minutes B

National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- A black-market antiquities trader (Ed Harris) goes public with the charge that the great-great-granddad of "treasure protector" Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) was party to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln. The moviemakers use the first film in the series as a sewing pattern: The elaborate car chase (this time through London) and the subterranean cliffhangers (this time under the Black Hills) simply provide different colored versions of the exact same cut, and it wears awfully thin. PG 124 minutes C+

No Country for Old Men -- A still-young good old boy (Josh Brolin) chances on $2 million; chasing it and him are a chilling sociopath and an old-school West Texas sheriff. It deserves not merely a rave review but a Johnny Cash song about matter-of-fact killings in shady hotels and sun-scoured landscapes. It's a tragic melodrama without tears but with surprising amounts of heart. R 103 minutes A

The Savages -- A college-teacher brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his unproduced playwright sister (Laura Linney) make an uneasy team of caregivers when their father (Philip Bosco) lapses into Parkinson's dementia. With a bracing, merciless honesty and surprisingly elastic sense of humor (and pathos), writer-director Tamara Jenkins picks up on how they drive each other crazy - and then sane. R 113 minutes A-

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