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El Cantante, The Nanny Diaries, Stardust, others

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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

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM The third time's the charm with The Bourne Ultimatum, the best in the series of films based on the Robert Ludlum novels. Admittedly, I wasn't as great a fan as everyone else when it came to the first two entries in the series, 2002's The Bourne Identity and 2004's The Bourne Supremacy. While I appreciated the films' efforts to bring the spy flick back to its gritty and less gadget-oriented roots (an approach better accomplished by last year's James Bond reinvention, Casino Royale), both Identity (directed by Doug Liman) and Supremacy (helmed by Paul Greengrass) felt as if they were constantly getting stuck in the same grooves, with repetitive action sequences, a squandering of great talent in throwaway roles, and a tight-lipped protagonist so one-note that viewer empathy was next to impossible. These problems haven't all been rectified in Ultimatum, but they don't nag as consistently as before. Matt Damon, suitably taciturn even though he's still too young for the role, again stars as Jason Bourne, the former CIA assassin whose continuing bout of amnesia regarding his past perpetually keeps him searching for the truth, even as his agency handlers seek to have him terminated. Greengrass, returning to the series after taking time off to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for United 93, tops himself with action set pieces that prove to be more exciting than those on display in his Supremacy (or Liman's Identity). One of the lengthy chase scenes is especially impressive, and makes one wonder if Damon elected to forego a straight salary in order to be paid by the kilometer.  ***

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

HAIRSPRAY A testing of the mainstream waters, maverick moviemaker John Waters' 1988 Hairspray was a critical hit that was eventually turned into a Broadway musical before now being brought back to the screen. A similar screen-to-stage-to-screen journey didn't help The Producers, but here's betting that Hairspray meets with more success. It's one of this summer's few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the themes that made Waters' film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore, stars peppy newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream to dance. The film's hot-topic issues (including racism) are presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. It's first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). All of the principals are allowed to belt out at least one number apiece, and their enthusiasm and energy is positively infectious. The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, John Travolta (in drag as Tracy's plump mom), who fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply, well, divine in Waters' original screen version. As for John Waters, he stuck around to make sure that the circle was complete. Look for him in a split-second cameo at the beginning: He's the pervert who flashes a trio of housewives on the street.  ***1/2

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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