"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" Andrew Adamson's new film of the first and best-known volume doesn't have the epic heft or tragic undertones of Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy. It's hardly supposed to. The national drinks of Narnia are tea and cocoa, not mead. But these less-stout brews are served up with literate charm and technical skill. The chief narrative strength of the movie may be the way it only very gradually reveals the gravity of the brooding conflict. When the youngest Pevensie, Lucy (Georgie Henley), becomes the first to discover Narnia, she meets only a befuddled faun (James McAvoy), thoroughly English down to his umbrella and brown paper packages tied up with string. By playing to our now apparently insatiable appetite for the quaintly British, the film primes us to expect nothing more sinister than a stale piece of seedcake or a leaky thatched roof. It's therefore all the more unsettling when we discover that there are torture chambers in this snowy paradise and packs of wolves that patrol it with Gestapo-like rigor. Approvingly evoking the trappings of the Crusades, "Narnia" is marked by a peculiarly English celebration of the Church Militant. That noted, it's also a ripping yarn. (PG) 140 min. **** Thomas Peyser
"Chicken Little" Disney wisely chose tasteful vocal performances by a talented cast including Zach Braff, Garry Marshall and Steve Zahn for its first in-house all-computer-generated animation movie. The parable centers on an alien invasion that threatens Earth. After Chicken Little (Braff) is publicly dismissed as a nut case by the community and his father (Marshall) for his famous "sky is falling" incident, he attempts to win respect by joining a baseball team with the support of his fellow outcast friends Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack) and Runt (Zahn). Characters break into song and dance over '70s pop hits that would be better left forgotten. Try as they might, these music-video trappings can't relieve the inadequate story line. "Chicken Little" doesn't hold a candle to "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." (G) 81 min. ** Cole Smithey
"The Family Stone" Sarah Jessica Parker gives a fearless comic performance as Meredith Morton, the high-strung New Yorker girlfriend to Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), the eldest sibling in a family of New England bohemians. With the exception of Everett's brother Ben (well played by Luke Wilson) the Stone family bare their fangs at Martha's endless string of faux pas even while the family matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) keeps a secret that will upturn everyone's priorities. Rachel McAdams ("Red Eye"), Claire Danes and Paul Schneider ("Elizabethtown") add considerably to the zippy humor of this light holiday comedy. A sprinkle of patronizing tragedy puts a kiss of death on the satiric and slapstick fun. (PG-13) 102 min. *** C.S.
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" With the inane promise of making the "darkest" Harry Potter movie yet, Mike Newell takes on directing duties to issue a gruelingly sluggish film in the latest installment of the vastly overrated franchise based on J.K. Rowling's children's books. On the heels of puberty, the bushy browed Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends return from their summer vacation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A special tournament consumes half of the film's overlong two-and-a-half hour running time before giving way to the promise of a dance. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" ticks along like a watch with a dying battery. If "darker" means that it makes you close your eyes for extended periods, then this Harry Potter episode will seem very dim indeed. (PG-13) 157 min. * C.S.
"King Kong" -- The good news for people anticipating this release is that "King Kong," for all its mighty resources (the budget is rumored to be around $200 million), is not crushed beneath them. That said, any movie this big is bound to get loose now and then. After three installments of "Lord of the Rings," there is a predictable dichotomy of what's good and what's not in a Peter Jackson movie. The action scenes, almost needless to say, are thrilling. Kong looks like a real 25-foot gorilla (except during those times when he looks like a 30-foot gorilla or a 35-foot gorilla). He's a silverback down to the bad teeth and unruly nose hairs. The worry, of course, is that Jackson's version, which is to the original in technical achievement as Xbox 360 is to Pong, will be like a new video game (which it is, actually -- on the Xbox 360 as a matter of fact). With a few modifications, the essential story is the same. An infamous movie producer (Jack Black) talks a poor but beautiful young woman (Naomi Watts) into staring in a movie shot on a South Seas island. Kong captures her, and a party led by Adrien Brody sets out to rescue her. Most are killed along the way, stomped by giants and devoured by creepy crawlies. The girl is eventually rescued anyway, and the giant Kong brought back to New York to star in an exhibition. Jackson hasn't made a straight scene-for-scene remake, of course, and there are some curious decisions in his changes. *** -- W.M.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" Visually sumptuous but lacking in empathetic characters, this adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel is a fluffy and contrived drama that reeks of soft soap dropped in mud. Although the movie goes to great pains to distance the Japanese tradition of geisha from that of prostitution, it fulfils that capitalist endeavor when the film's heroine Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) eventually sells her virginity to the highest bidder. Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") finds his stride during the film's memorable dance sequence, but can't avoid the story's unsavory elements of an orphaned girl with a father fetish and an older man (Ken Watanabe) who devotes his life to cultivating the little girl to eventually be his own. (PG-13) 144 min. *** C.S.
"Munich" -- There are not many filmmakers in Hollywood besides Steven Spielberg who could pull off a movie like "Munich," a fictional story about Israeli assassins sent to get those thought responsible for the Palestinian terrorist attack during the 1972 Olympics. And not just because of its amazing cinematography, editing and character development, all of which contribute to this very good movie (that is perhaps a bit too long). It's a movie about Jews, and there are some things in it best addressed by a fellow Jew. The humor is a primary example. Larry David could have written the scene in which a shadowy accountant asks the lead Mossad assassin (Eric Bana) for receipts, a hilarious addition to an otherwise clichéd moment that sends the audience reeling with laughter. But being a movie about Jews also mars an otherwise excellent film that tries very hard to be politically independent. Spielberg, for all his talents, cannot count moral independence among them. "Munich" is his most serious attempt that I can think of where he tries to leave behind this tendency and move into a more contemplative realm of storytelling. Though the film is both visually exciting and intellectually compelling, it falls short of its lofty goals. R 164 min. **** -- W.M.
"The Polar Express: An IMAX Experience" IMAX movies and Santa Claus have a lot in common. Both produce a certain cynicism in weary adults and a sense of wonder in wide-eyed little ones. Fitting, then, that Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express" has been retooled for release in IMAX theaters. The animated story of a young boy who doubts Santa's existence but is then whisked away to the North Pole by train stars Tom Hanks in multiple roles. The storybook visuals and several awe-inspiring scenes are considerably enhanced by the IMAX format, which takes up your entire field of vision. Cynical or not, when a 20-foot-tall Santa towers over you, you'll believe in him. Though the impressive technology can't rescue the handful of cheesy moments, it will reaffirm children's sense of wonder and may even reawaken it in a few adults. (G) 99 min. *** Daryl Grove
"The Producers" Mel Brooks' record-breaking Broadway musical, and former 1968 movie, gets an enthusiastic makeover by director Susan Stroman. However, as with past productions, Brooks' top-heavy script crumbles in the second half. The well-paired Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick give highly polished onscreen performances thanks to their time spent together performing the play on Broadway. Brooks' nutty story follows the rise and fall of washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Lane) as he induces his straight-laced accountant, Leo Bloom (Broderick), to go in on a sure-to-fail musical production about Hitler. Their scheme to become millionaires, from their blue-haired backers, backfires when the play becomes an overnight hit. Uma Thurman adds zest as Ulla, the producers' bombshell secretary. (PG-13) 129 min. ** C.S.
"Rent" Among fans of the Broadway musical "Rent," opinion about the merits of the new movie version appears to be divided. This is always the case whenever Hollywood fiddles with a play or novel around which a cult has formed. Chris Columbus, the film's director, is no stranger to such controversy, having taken on the first two installments of the "Harry Potter" franchise and risked the ire of fans who count every deviation from the original as sheer villainy. In "Rent," much has been done to preserve the flavor of the original, including the retention of several members of the original Broadway cast, but this endeavor isn't likely to win many new converts to the cause. Despite its creators' best intentions, and a heart as big as a dump truck, this hymn to youth and art comes across as a vain attempt to recapture a moment irretrievably lost. PG-13 135 min. ** T.P.
"Syriana" Based on a best seller by Robert Baer, who wrote a tell-all about his operations as an intelligence agent in the Middle East after the Cold War, "Syriana" is a noble but failed attempt to fictionalize and examine the characters and plots in America's very real military industrial complex. Full of shady corporate dealings, political hypocrisies and the sad failures of a few honest men (including George Clooney and Matt Damon as two of the too many central characters), the movie version is a Michael Moore nightmare come to life. What it lacks is Michael Moore's gift for reducing complex issues to easily understandable ideas. By mixing a convoluted plot and difficult concepts and putting them in a hurried, experimental framework, it risks talking over everyone's head and pushing away the very people it seeks to educate. Written and directed by "Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan, the movie's points are right on, it just doesn't make them very clearly. (R) 128 min. *** W.M.
"Walk the Line" -- Originality is not a ring of fire that this Johnny Cash biopic dares to cross. Directed by James Mangold ("Girl, Interrupted"), the movie is enjoyable but routine and safe, drawing largely on Cash's autobiographies. It is a serviceable entertainer, with decent if not great performances by its leads (Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter), but it is marred by one glaring and unfortunate characteristic: It's just like last year's Ray Charles biopic, "Ray." The likeness is due in some degree to unavoidable coincidence, but lack of imagination is also partly to blame. No matter how you explain it, the similarity nags the viewer with the notion that "Walk the Line" is simply a crass attempt to, well, cash in on a genre. PG-13 136 min. ** --W.M.
"Wolf Creek" Australian debut writer/director Greg McLean has made an unredeemable and queasy horror movie loosely based on Australia's "Backpack Killer." Morbid action unfolds when two college-aged British girls and their sturdy male companion go on a day trip to Australia's desolate Wolfe Creek Crater National Park. Upon returning to their suddenly inoperative car, the trio hitch a ride with a dubious outback mechanic who tows them to his desolate farm, where his ghastly intentions become realized. The film's bleak ending makes it an all-around unpleasant experience even by gross-out horror movie standards. There isn't a speck of humor to be had in this dead-end movie. (R) 95 min. * C.S.
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