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ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS About the best one can say about this occasionally rancid but mostly just dull film is that it's not as excruciating as Garfield: The Movie, another ill-conceived project that placed CGI animals in the real world. Here, Jason Lee is the hapless human who serves as the sacrificial-career lamb: He plays Dave, a failed songwriter who also has trouble getting close to anyone, including a predictably va-va-voomish girlfriend (Cameron Richardson). But along come our all-talking, all-singing chipmunk siblings – Alvin, Simon and Theodore – to not only help him produce a smash single but also teach him the importance of friendship and family. The requisite villainy rears its head in the form of Dave's old college chum Ian (David Cross), now a record company mogul who decides to work the 'munks into the ground via world tours and the like. The three rodents' lines are spoken by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney, but their voices are so digitally altered that they might as well be lip-synched by Hillary, Barack and Mitt. Then again, that speaks to the whole impersonal tone of the project, which has so little regard for the brand name's nostalgic factor that it updates the concept by briefly putting the trio in rappers' outfits in one scene and allowing Simon to eat Theodore's turd in another. Desperately conceived on every level, this forlorn family film amounts to little more than celluloid roadkill. *

ATONEMENT This year's automatic Oscar entry mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn't possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. In this adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, Keira Knightley plays Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant's upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush on Robbie, and she grows jealous of the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a family tragedy as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. Knightley's role doesn't allow her to flourish as she did in Pride and Prejudice (her previous collaboration with Atonement director Joe Wright), which is fine, since this is Briony's story and McAvoy's film. As played by Ronan, Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It's a memorable performance, yet it's McAvoy who excels the most: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and the actor expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames. It's a shame that the denouement doesn't completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice. ***

BEOWULF For the record, this isn't a review of Beowulf. It's a review of Beowulf in Digital 3D, and I have to assume that might make some degree of difference. Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2004 The Polar Express felt like an animated feature that had been embalmed, again employs the "performance capture" technique with far greater success, overlaying real actors with a cartoon sheen and placing them in the middle of a CGI landscape. In 2D, which is how the film is being shown in most theaters, this runs the risk of looking as soulless as many other CGI works, but in 3D (at select venues), it results in a positively astonishing experience. Tossed coins roll directly toward the camera, spears poke directly out at audience members, and even an animated Angelina Jolie's, umm, assets seem more pronounced than usual. Based on the ancient poem, the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary doesn't always match the movie's visual splendor, but their modifications to the text are more often than not respectful. After the gruesome monster Grendel (snarled by Crispin Glover) wreaks havoc on the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), the heroic (and boastful) Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to save the day. Yet he finds himself not only having to confront Grendel but also the misshapen creature's mother (Jolie) and, in the climactic pièce de résistance, a fierce dragon. Given the massive advances in 3D technology – and depending on the success of this picture – it's possible that more and more movies will be presented in this format. Anyone up for Shortbus 2 in Digital 3D? ***

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR It hasn't helped that all recent films about wartime politics have been promoted with all the appeal of a plate of vegetables being plopped in front of an 8-year-old (i.e. "It's Good For You" cinema), so trust canny old lion Mike Nichols to recall how to do it right. Charlie Wilson's War is sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Working from a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (from George Crile's nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much each viewer wants to put into it. Minimum-effort audiences, therefore, will be happy to roll with the engaging performance by Tom Hanks, but those digging a little deeper will recognize its merit in sniffing out that snatch of history that might serve as the missing link between the fall of Communism and the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism. Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows blustery Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) as he becomes interested in Afghanistan's ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie's spurred to get involved at the insistence of his politically savvy friend (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), but it isn't until he teams up with a prickly CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves. But at what cost to the future? The film doesn't answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response. No Supreme Court tampering is necessary this time around: Charlie Wilson's War is an outright winner. ***

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