While you were out

By Chris Bellamy, Aaron Allen

If you think The Chronicle’s dynamic duo of movie critic-dom, Aaron Allen and Chris Bellamy, took it easy over the holiday break-think again! They were hard at work, watching all the movies that opened over the break while getting drunk on eggnog and eating all the candies out of a stack of advent calendars. And they did it all for you, dear readers. Talk about dedication.

“The Pursuit of Happyness”Columbia PicturesDirected by Gabriele MuccinoWritten by Steven ConradStarring: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe and Dan CastellanetaRated PG-13/117 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

Will Smith should market a workout tape modeled after his character in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a sublimely uplifting movie in which Smith does so much running, I honestly can’t think of another movie with a more appropriate title (OK, maybe “Snakes on a Plane,” but that one’s in a class of its own).

He plays Chris Gardner, an impoverished single dad who dashes up and down San Francisco streets in 1981, outrunning landlords and cab drivers he can’t pay and sprinting from his unpaid internship at a swanky brokerage to his 5-year-old son’s daycare (the misspelled “Happyness” is taken from the sign outside the building).

You see, Chris spent his life savings on a bunch of bone marrow density machines that no doctor wants to buy-a financial blunder that cost him his home and his wife (Thandie Newton, who evokes nails on a chalk board).

Smith’s performance is both physically and emotionally rigorous. He acts opposite his real-life tater-tot (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), a casting coup that makes Chris’ determination to chase down and nab a better life for him and his son all the more genuine.

After all they suffer through, after all the hard work Chris puts in at his job, it made me deliriously happy at the end to see them get what they deserve.

A.A.

“Dreamgirls”DreamWorks PicturesDirected by Bill CondonScreenplay by Bill Condon, based on the Broadway playStarring: Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover and Keith RobinsonRated PG-13/131 minutesTwo out of four stars

“Dreamgirls” is a movie that is very impressed with itself. It knows exactly what it needs to do to impress Oscar voters, and it does just that. It is so impressed with itself, in fact, that as the end credits roll, it re-runs dozens of clips from the previous two hours, as if to tell producers of the Oscar telecast exactly which clips to show for each category. They might as well have dropped a “for your consideration” banner during the finale.

But how such a shallow, poorly executed musical could fool so many people is beyond me. As a tribute to the great Motown movement of the 1960s (and a thinly veiled biopic of Diana Ross and the Supremes), it does no justice to its subject, bombarding us with an assortment of astoundingly bad musical numbers that, on more than one occasion, bring an already uninspired storyline to a screeching halt. The production numbers not only pale in comparison with the Motown tunes they are trying to emulate, but most of them simply have no life of their own altogether. They serve as nothing more than typical movie montages. It’s as if director Bill Condon took a cue from Trey Parker’s “Montage” song from “South Park” and “Team America: World Police,” and repeated its advice again and again and again.

Such a weakness only draws further attention to the poor construction of the movie as a whole. This isn’t a story; this is a highlight reel. The screenplay jumps from bullet point to bullet point, showing us only the turning points, leaving little to no room for character development (Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy somewhat make up for this with solid performances, but still?).

Basically, “Dreamgirls” is a two-hour trailer; and just because it’s big and loud and bright and sparkly doesn’t mean it’s a great movie. From the time the “Dreams” break out into their abysmal “We Are A Family” number (which is just as bad as it sounds) to a climactic melodramatic moment that should have any audience roaring in laughter, “Dreamgirls” is a perfect example of how NOT to make a Hollywood musical. For your thoughts, here is a sample of the film’s Award-winning lyrics:

We are a family/ Like a giant tree/ Branching out towards the sky/ We are a family/ We are so much more than just you and I/ We are a family/ Like a giant tree, growing stronger, growing wiser/ We are growing free/ We need you/ We are a family?

Case dismissed.

C.B.

“Eragon”20th Century FoxDirected by Stefen FangmeierScreenplay by Peter Buchman, based on the novel by Christopher PaoliniStarring: Edward Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Robert Carlyle and John MalkovichRated PG/103 minutesTwo out of four stars

Whoa, I think I just cracked the code of “Eragon” and its secret to suck-cess. If you substitute the “E” in the title for a “D,” it spells “Dragon!” Hey, young Eragon (Edward Speleers) rides one of those through a movie that plays like a kiddie novelization of a book I hear wasn’t that rich to begin with, full of flimsy plotlines and characters who wear their personalities like plastic Halloween masks with those cheap rubber bands.

Now let’s take our code-breaking a step further. Substitute just about everything in “Eragon”-the orphaned hero chosen by fate to save the world, his scruffy mentor (Jeremy Irons) who schools him in the ways of “magic,” the beautiful princess (Sienna Guillory) who’s been captured by the baddies for stealing something secret-with Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia and an evil galactic empire and you have?well, you get it. George Lucas should sue for plagiarism.

The dragon’s kind of cool, though.

A.A.

“Night at the Museum”20th Century FoxDirected by Shawn LevyScreenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, based on the book by Milan TrencStarring: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan and Robin WilliamsRated PG/108 minutesTwo-and-a-half out of four stars

The extraordinary talents of director Shawn Levy are put to great use once again. Following in the footsteps of Levy’s past efforts-among them “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “The Pink Panther” remake, “Just Married” and “Big Fat Liar”-“Night at the Museum” is a fun romp for the whole family. And by that I mean children will enjoy it.

Ben Stiller mails in his performance as a struggling dad who, it seems, finds his first real job as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. He’s desperate to prove to his son, his ex-wife and the cute tour guide (Carla Gugino) that he can be a real man and make something of himself. The twist, of course, is that everything in the museum-from Teddy Roosevelt to Sacagawea to the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton-comes to life at night, and it’s his job to control it, and make sure nothing gets out.

There are some creative special effects, a nice twist halfway through and an inspired supporting performance from Ricky Gervais (from the original British “The Office”), but mostly there’s just a lot of running around, falling down and horseplay. Enough to keep kids entertained and wrapped around such a trite and hackneyed story, but not much more.

C.B.

“Apocalypto”Touchstone PicturesDirected by Mel GibsonWritten by Mel Gibson and Farhad SafinaStarring: Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena and Morris BirdyellowheadRated R/138 minutesFour out of four stars

In the months leading up to the release of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” I remember seeing production photos in magazines showing Gibson leading his mostly Mexican and American Indian actors through a raging river, probably discussing the staging of a shot. Looking at that photo, I imagined the heat, the strenuous shooting schedule, the absolute commitment Gibson must have had toward his art and I just thought, “Wow. Now that’s the kind of filmmaki
ng moxie I can admire.”

Gibson has made a work of crazy genius, a grand-scale recreation of the Aztec kingdom in its dying days, when the bloodthirsty city folk wrangled up the peaceful villagers as involuntary sacrifice fodder (sucks to be them).

One of these captives, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), escapes and runs back to his home to save his pregnant wife and son from the dogged killers on his tail. It’s not the most original story, but it makes for an exciting and bloody chase movie, one infused with Gibson’s knack for wild-eyed violence that’s as thrilling as it is cringe-inducing. No movie in 2006 was as savage, heart-pounding and all-out alive as this one.

A.A.

“Candy”ThinkFilmDirected by Neil ArmfieldScreenplay by Neil Armfield and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Luke DaviesStarring: Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Budge, Tony Martin and Noni HazlehurstRated R/108 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

The boundaries for depicting addiction on film have long been broken. Once upon a time, “The Lost Weekend” was considered edgy; now, the lives of addicts have been depicted in careful and horrifying detail in such movies as “Trainspotting” and “Requiem for a Dream.”

In that regard, “Candy” doesn’t cover any new ground. The downward spiral of its characters is preordained. As Geoffrey Rush’s character says early on, “When you can quit, you don’t want to. When you want to quit, you can’t.” While the film follows the expected trajectory, “Candy” is elevated into a beautifully tragic exploration of a relationship between 20-somethings Dan (Heath Ledger) and Candy (Abbie Cornish). The film is intently focused on these two characters (in two very good performances) and finds moments of mournful beauty amid the shattered hopes and grim day-to-day realities of depressing oblivion.

C.B.

“Blood Diamond”Warner Bros. PicturesDirected by Edward ZwickWritten by Charles LeavittStarring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Arnold Vosloo and Michael SheenRated R/138 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

Leonardo DiCaprio was great as the doomed undercover cop in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” but he’s even better as a South African soldier of fortune in Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond,” a swiftly-paced and impassioned action film that also happens to be a damning expos on the conflict diamond trade (the rocks are mined in African conflict zones and sold to finance further conflict).

DiCaprio’s journey from selfish diamond smuggler to selfless crusader is fairly believable, spurred on by his growing attraction to photo-journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) and his relationship to Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman whose family was scattered by the war-and who also knows the location of a diamond so huge, even that monotone Shane Company guy on the radio would perk up if he saw it.

I don’t quite understand why a certain character chose to stay behind at a crucial moment toward the end. He seemed to be escaping just fine the moment before. I suppose his sacrifice is meant to give the ending more of an impact, but it just felt forced to me. It’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise superb movie.

A.A.

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”DreamWorks PicturesDirected by Tom TykwerScreenplay by Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Tykwer, based on the novel by Patrick SuskindStarring: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Sian ThomasRated R/147 minutesThree out of four stars

There are serial killer movies, and then there are serial killer movies. But few, if any, have been as strange as “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Maybe that’s because this killer isn’t worried about leaving clever clues for the police to follow his trail. He’s not even attached to most of the victims themselves. To Jean-Baptise Grenouille-who was born with an otherworldly sense of smell-killing is simply the only way he has discovered to capture human scent. Played by Ben Whishaw in a strangely affecting performance, Grenouille is a sad and lonely character completely cut off from practically everything else that makes us human-scent is what he lives for.

The proceedings may be gloomy, but director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) turns an offbeat period piece into an odd supernatural fairy tale. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of it, but it’s nothing if not unique.

C.B.

“Little Children”New Line CinemaDirected by Todd FieldWritten by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Tom PerrottaStarring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley and Gregg EdelmanRated R/130 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

When I watch these movies about dissatisfied housewives and emasculated husbands living in affluent, Pottery Barn-decorated, suburban hells, part of me reaches out to these people and their desire for a life that doesn’t revolve around the same old spouse every day and Baby Einstein DVDs. But another part of me wants to say, “Be grateful for what you have, you whiny babies.”

This paradox has been explored in countless movies, most popularly in “American Beauty” several years ago. So while Todd Field’s similarly plotted “Little Children” may not break any new ground thematically, it’s his stylistic approach to the material that makes the familiar suburban rot feel fresh.

As in Field’s previous movie, the acclaimed “In the Bedroom,” there’s an uncomfortable, restless electricity in the air. Bookish Sarah (Kate Winslet) cheats on her closet-pervert husband with Brad (Patrick Wilson), the stereotypical prom king who would have never given her the time of day back in high school.

All of this-including an interesting, but somewhat disconnected, subplot involving a neighborhood pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley)-is intermittently narrated in a tone that’s both “Frontline” and “The Twilight Zone.” The narration doesn’t necessarily add to or detract from the story, but it does give the movie an odd, anthropological feel. I’m not sure if Field meant for the narration to be satiric or serious-it’s that confusion of tone that can be jarring at times.

The performances, on the other hand, are all pitch perfect, including Jennifer Connelly as Brad’s career-minded wife, and especially Haley as the disconcertingly sympathetic child predator who goes through the most permanent change of all in the end.

A.A.

“Rocky Balboa”MGM PicturesWritten and directed by Sylvester StalloneStarring: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Geraldine Hughes and Tony BurtonRated PG/102 minutesTwo-and-a-half out of four stars

Perhaps it was just a belated reaction to the disaster that was “Rocky V,” but the buzz surrounding the sixth installment of the “Rocky” franchise has been overwhelmingly positive. A return to form, they’ve said.

Such praise seems more like overcompensation to me. “Rocky Balboa,” hopefully the swan song for the iconic character, spends most of its time paying reference to the other five movies. Until the fight sequences finally roll around, Rocky himself spends most of his time walking the streets of Philadelphia and remembering moments (and people) from the first five installments. The fight scenes are solid and it may be a fitting coda to Balboa’s career, but in the end, “Rocky Balboa” is just what we thought it would be: completely unnecessary.

C.B.

“Children of Men”Universal PicturesDirected by Alfonso CuarnScreenplay by Alfonso Cuarn, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fegus and Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. JamesStarring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Danny Huston, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Peter MullanRated R/109 minutesFour out of four stars

There’s a car chase in Alfonso Cuarn’s dystopian sci-fi dazzler “Children of Men” that isn’t like any other car chase you’ve ever seen. The car won’t start, first of all, so Clive Owen pushes the car down a hill while the driver tries to spark the ignition. The bad guys give chase on foot,
only 20 yards or so behind them. Oh, and all of this is done in one continuous shot.

Cuarn not only reinvents the way an action movie is made, he also draws disturbing comparisons between his future society and our current society. If some of the images look familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen images like them captured by cameras in Iraq and Guantanamo.

The year is 2027, no one’s had a baby in 18 years and no one can explain it. The world has been thrown into chaos, but there’s hope in a miraculously pregnant girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey) and the cynical bureaucrat (Owen) who steals her to safety amidst wars between a totalitarian government and rebel fighters who aren’t all that much nicer.

“Children of Men” isn’t the best movie of 2006 just because it’s technically brilliant (there’s a continuous take that follows Owen through a besieged ghetto that boggles the mind with its complexity), but also because it’s one of the leanest, meanest, most urgently told stories of the new millennium.

A.A.

“The History Boys”Fox Searchlight PicturesDirected by Nicholas HytnerScreenplay by Alan Bennett, based on his playStarring: Samuel Anderson, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard Griffiths, Jamie Parker, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, Frances de la Tour and Clive MerrisonRated R/109 minutesTwo out of four stars

If “The History Boys” is to be taken at face value, it seems to be telling us that homosexual men-especially teachers-are all perverts who desperately want to fondle their students. The movie seems to have no problem with this point of view.

Set at an England prep school in the 1980s, “The History Boys” follows the lives of several cocky, pretentious teen boys as they try to gain entrance into Oxford or Cambridge with the help of two professors-Hector (Richard Griffiths), who teaches his students to think outside the box and also enjoys touching their genitals, and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who knows all the tricks and strategies the boys need to learn in order to stand out and gain admission.

The film does, at times, provide an interesting discussion between the two teachers’ drastically varying methods. However, it is far too concerned with being cheeky and clever to ever find any real depth, and it climaxes in such absurd melodramatic contrivance that it’s hard to see how anyone could keep a straight face. And then there’s this gem, spoken by one teacher during the denouement: “I never touch the boys, but it’s always a struggle. Maybe that’s why I’m a good teacher.”

Try explaining that one.

C.B.

“The Good Shepherd”Universal PicturesDirected by Robert DeNiroWritten by Eric RothStarring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, William Hurt, Robert DeNiro, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Lee Pace and Eddie RedmayneRated R/168 minutesThree out of four stars

One of the silly things that I lament about modern American government is the fact that the CIA isn’t cool anymore. It lost its mystique. The ideas that had been hammered into our brains by the movies-covert agents existing anonymously in the shadows, taking down governments, assassinating dictators, gaining access to the world’s most secret of secrets, a life of shootouts and car chases, mercenaries playing both sides against each other-are dead.

The myth of the badass CIA operatives is gone, replaced by an image of the petty bureaucratic pencil-pusher. Corruption and subversive behavior we wanted. George Tenet and Valerie Plame? Not so much.

Robert DeNiro’s “The Good Shepherd” isn’t exactly a Tony Scott-style action movie, but in examining the birth of the agency (intercut with its role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco), the film makes the CIA a little bit cool again. The world of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is indeed one that exists behind closed doors, in shadows, in hiding. Written by Eric Roth, who has penned some of the best movies of recent years (“The Insider,” “Munich” and “Forrest Gump”), the story is a compelling one exploring not only the agency’s political exploits in the mid-20th century, but the toll it takes on the men (yes, just men) who have to live their lives in secrecy. While it meanders at times and suffers from a lack of thematic focus and pacing problems, “The Good Shepherd” (anchored by Robert Richardson’s definitive brand of cinematography) is an at times fascinating look back into history.

C.B.

“The History Boys”

“The Good Shepherd”

“Rocky Balboa”

“The Pursuit of Happyness”

“Perfume

“Night at the Museum”

“Little Children”

“Eragon”

“Dreamgirls”

“Children of Men”