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Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, Casino Royale, Happy Feet, others

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APOCALYPTO Mel Gibson may or may not be a sorry excuse for a person, but as has been the case since the first brutish caveman painted a beautiful mural on the cavern wall, it's as important as ever to separate the individual from his artistry. And for the first half of Apocalypto, it looks as if he has succeeded in creating something special. Gibson takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization: The story drops us off in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants are soon attacked by warriors who rape the women, abandon the children, and drag the men back to their city to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Up until now, Apocalypto has proven to be a compelling yarn marked by charismatic performers (most notably lead Rudy Youngblood, as a tribesman fighting to make it back to his family), splendid production values and Gibson's fluid direction. But anyone who's seen Gibson's previous directorial efforts, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, knows that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust wrapped around a straightforward chase picture. Sadistic to a fault, Gibson has become cinema's reigning gore-to guy. **

BLOOD DIAMOND The message of this public service announcement masquerading as a movie is that consumers should take care not to buy "conflict diamonds," baubles obtained by mercenaries using slave labor, then smuggled out of war torn countries. Since the film (set in Sierra Leone) establishes early on that these "conflict diamonds" are mixed in with legitimate diamonds at an early stage in the marketing process, it's never made clear how exactly consumers are supposed to avoid said jewels (buy roses instead?). At any rate, the movie's lofty intentions are hamstrung by having to coexist uneasily with stock characters. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong performance) is a devil-may-care opportunist who discovers he has a heart of gold as large as the diamond he's seeking. Solomon Vandy (magnetic Djimon Hounsou, once again typecast) is a fisherman brutalized and forced into mining the diamond fields. And Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, working overtime to add spark to a thin character) is an American journalist who sounds like an Information Please almanac every time she opens her mouth. Director Edward Zwick and his team are presumably sincere in wanting to shed some light on a tragic real-world situation, but the clumsy Blood Diamond simply can't cut it. **

BOBBY If the late Robert Altman had been dropped on his head as a toddler, Bobby is the sort of movie he might have ended up making. Writer-director Emilio Estevez has clearly adopted Altman's MO for this ambitious effort that's only tangentially about Robert F. Kennedy -- we get the all-star cast, the overlapping dialogue, the furtive glances at the ever-changing American landscape -- but despite a few scattered scenes worth preserving, the overall picture is shallow, tedious and ultimately insignificant. Set in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in the hours leading up to Kennedy's assassination, Bobby is inspired by the sort of multistory TV shows Estevez grew up with (Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, etc.). So while Democratic staffers are busy prepping for Kennedy's visit, soggy melodramas involving employees and guests are being played out in the site's corridors and rooms (Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy and Laurence Fishburne are among the wasted thespians). Bobby is as much about Robert Kennedy as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product. **

CASINO ROYALE In most respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years, just a shade below the likes of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. Basically, it wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. As intensely played by Daniel Craig, this James Bond isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. With memorable characters and exciting action scenes, Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating. ***1/2

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