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El Cantante, The Nanny Diaries, Stardust, others

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EL CANTANTE Wouldn't it be nice to see a screen biopic about a musician that focused on, you know, the music? Of course, depicting the act of creating art in any medium is extremely difficult (though not impossible) for a movie to pull off, and most filmmakers lazily opt to wallow in the mire instead, ignoring the inspiration in favor of the vices that render the central character human ... and, as a screen presence, oh-so-predictable. At least Ray and Walk the Line could boast of slick production values and award-winning performances; stripped of those attributes, El Cantante feels minor-league every step of the way. The film purports to tell the life story of Hector Lavoe, the Puerto Rican singer who revolutionized Salsa music and introduced it as a legitimate musical sound across the country. His wife Puchi remained by his side over the years, even as his self-destructive behavior and personal tragedies took their toll on the pair. As Hector and Puchi, real-life couple Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez aren't bad, but their performances rarely elevate the material. And material like this needs all the help it can get: Rather than paying real service to the music, writer-director Leon Ichaso (who cowrote the script with David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello) reduces a potentially fascinating film into merely another cautionary story about a self-absorbed celebrity-junkie-whore. As expected, the soundtrack is hopping, but as a movie, this one's tone deaf. *1/2

THE NANNY DIARIES Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind 2003's American Splendor, return with an adaptation of the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. As before, they attempt to embellish their tale with all manner of visual flourishes and eccentric details, but working from a blueprint that doesn't always lend itself to such touches, the results are more forced than before. That's not to say that this doesn't offer several rewards of its own making, starting with the strong performances by Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a college graduate who, wary of the demands of a career in high finance, ends up landing what she believes will be a less stressful gig as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple known as Mr. and Mrs. X (Paul Giamatti and Linney). Her young charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art), proves difficult at first but over time softens toward Annie, who's merely the latest in a long line of nannies. Annie's main grievances are with the boy's parents, an aloof jerk who's carrying on with his secretary while away on week-long trips and a trophy wife who's too busy socializing to spend any quality time with her lonely son. A spiritual companion to The Devil Wears Prada (Nanny preceded Prada in print by one year, and in the film, one of the characters can be glimpsed reading the fashion industry tell-all), this offers some nicely staged sequences to help gloss over the broad characterizations. Incidentally, a gag involving a George W. Bush mask doesn't match the brilliant employment of a Nixon mask in The Ice Storm, but it still provides the picture with one of its largest laughs.**1/2

Current Releases

BECOMING JANE Perfectly pleasant yet also somewhat pointless, Becoming Jane comes across less as a motion picture and more as a victim of identity theft. Given the glut of exemplary films based on the works of Austen -- from the fairly faithful (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) to the radically reworked (Bridget Jones's Diary, Clueless) -- the only sound reasons to create a movie based on Jane herself would be either to suggest some insights into what turned this country girl into one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language or to provide a comprehensive overview of her life and times. But Becoming Jane prefers to take a more narrow view, focusing on one small period in her life (and, based on historical records, a spotty one at that) and trumping up the details of her brief flirtation with a dashing rogue named Tom Lefroy. As a result, the Jane in this film never feels real, ultimately coming across as fictional a creation as Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood or any other Austen heroine. Still, within its own self-contained chamber, it's an agreeable period romp, missing the spark of the high-end Austen adaptations but firmly in command of its own romantic devices. Anne Hathaway, all-American in The Devil Wears Prada and Brokeback Mountain, adopts a British accent and makes for a lively Jane, while James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) brings the proper measure of rakish charm to the part of Lefroy. It all goes down smoothly, and if the incomplete portrait of Jane Austen sends even one person to the library to hunt down more info, so much the better. **1/2

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