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Youth Without Youth, more

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PENELOPE An ugly duckling of a movie, Penelope is a sweet but clumsy fable that's pleasing without being particularly distinguished. Christina Ricci essays the title role, a poor little rich girl suffering from an ancient family curse that saddled her at birth with a pig's snout. Now 25, Penelope has been basically kept a prisoner in her own home by her busybody mother (Catherine O'Hara), who only allows blueblood bachelors to visit her daughter in the hopes that one of them will look past her deformity and ask for her hand in marriage (the curse can only be broken when Penelope's loved by "one of her own"). A tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) who's forever been trying to get a photo of Penelope hears of this arrangement, and he hires a down-and-out playboy (Atonement's James McAvoy) to gain entry into the home and take the snapshot; needless to say, real feelings develop, hearts get broken, and, as in Babe: Pig In the City, our snout-sporting protagonist finds herself adrift in a major metropolis. A piggy proboscis does little to curtail Christina Ricci's beauty, so the fact that her suitors hurl themselves out of second-story windows in a rush to get away from her is rather absurd; still, this is basically a fairy tale, so exaggerations are expected in the recounting of the fantasy yarn. But despite being blessed with a distinguished cast – Dinklage is particularly sharp, and Reese Witherspoon (who also produced) shows up in a small role as a no-nonsense delivery woman – director Mark Palansky, working from a wobbly screenplay by Leslie Caveny, can only muster so much charm in his muted attempt to make this picture truly take off. **1/2

SEMI-PRO In 1962's Only Two Can Play, Peter Sellers portrays a librarian who's tasked to write a theater review for the local newspaper. He pens the piece beforehand without even seeing the play, using the time he's supposed to be at the theater as a cover for an affair; the only reason he's caught is because the theater housing the production burns to the ground on opening night – after it's too late to stop the edition running his review. Barring a similar disaster happening at the AMC Carolina Pavilion, I probably could have written a review for Semi-Pro without having even attended the advance screening, using the covered time to catch up on my sleep. Will Ferrell as an idiotic guy prone to infantile outbursts – check. Ferrell MAKING LOUD NOISES and running around like a goofball in a desperate attempt to generates laughs – check. Ferrell sporting a laughable hairstyle (this one vintage 1970s) – check. Ferrell surrounding himself with his comedian friends, some with extremely limited talent – check. Ferrell resorting to ca-ca and pee-pee level jokes with alarming regularity – check. Ferrell MAKING MORE LOUD NOISES – check. And so it goes, reaching a point of such creative bankruptcy that Ferrell stands poised to become as tiresome a screen jester as Robin Williams. The plot, as if anyone couldn't guess after watching 10 seconds of the trailer, finds Ferrell cast as Jackie Moon, the self-adoring owner of (and player on) the Flint Tropics basketball team. When it appears that there's a chance for this dreadful squad to join the NBA, Moon does his best to whip his players into shape – but not enough to whip this into a watchable film. *1/2

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES Another movie season, another attempt to jump-start a film franchise aimed at family audiences. Yet The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, is one of the better adaptations in this field, which has taken some severe body blows lately with the dismal failures of the cluttered The Golden Compass and the dreadful The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Smoothly directed by Mark Waters, the miracle worker responsible for Lindsay Lohan's two best performances (Freaky Friday and Mean Girls), Spiderwick displays a lighter touch than other fantasy films of this nature, meaning that its thrills are all the more unexpected – and effective. Freddie Highmore, the talented young star of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, essays the roles of twin brothers Jared (troublemaker) and Simon (bookworm), who, along with mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), take up residence in an ancestral home that harbors some interesting inhabitants. And living in the woods beyond the house are a murderous ogre (voiced by, of all people, Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions, all hell-bent on obtaining a book (presently in Jared's possession) that would wreak havoc both on our world and the one inhabited by fairies and other mystical creatures. The CGI characters (including ones voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen) are sure to delight the kids, but for older viewers, they represent the least memorable aspects of this movie; far more affecting (and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's earliest blockbusters) are the sequences that center on the relationships between the Graces – all struggling to cope with Helen's impending divorce – and how the notion of family directly plays into their interactions with the fantasy world in their backyard. ***

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