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Week of December 14, 2006

Candy. (R) Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish play unbelievably gorgeous heroin junkies in Candy, a don't-try-this-at-home melodrama adapted from Australian author Luke Davies's aptly billed "novel of love and addiction." Essentially the film is Requiem for a Dream, with a lot less of that overrated indie's shooting-gallery pizzazz, although director Neil Armfield does put his smacked-out couple on one of those centrifugally forceful amusement-park rides in the very first scene, in order to suggest that their young lives are, you know, spinning out of control. Cornish, Kidmanesque in her elusive, look-but-don't-touch allure, may have the title role here, but Ledger, longhaired and so soft-looking you'd think he was being shot slightly out of focus, is the movie's real eye candy. Any drug movie's effectiveness can be measured by the strength of its detox, and Candy doesn't sweeten the cold turkey. Too bad it's a downward spiral from there, in more ways than one. (Rob Nelson) TV

Charlotte's Web. (G) Breathe easy: Gary Winick's live-action Charlotte's Web does not screw up one of the seminal works of American children's literature. In fact, the film manages to modernize this classic tale without losing the gravity and essential dignity of animals grappling with mortality. Winick skillfully undercuts the seriousness of the subject matter (Wilbur, the porcine protagonist, is essentially on death row for the entirety of the film) with contemporary sarcasm and a liberal dose of potty humor. While Dakota Fanning does well by Fern, the film's pig-loving heroine, John Cleese, with his clipped British delivery, is the real scene-stealer as elitist sheep Samuel. Then there's Steve Buscemi as scheming Templeton the rat and the always hilarious Thomas Haden Church as an addled crow — both perfectly pitched comic relief. The only true weak spot in this basically charming adaptation is Wilbur. The cardinal sin in children's movies is crossing the line from cute to cloying, and Dominic Scott Kay's high-pitched, overly precocious whine is more saccharine than sweet. Still, with such stellar source material, this Charlotte's Web won't disgrace your childhood memories — or your child. (Jessica Grose) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Driving Lessons. (PG-13) Helping out crazy-looking old people as a means to come into one's own as an adult is a time-honored literary and cinematic conceit. In this case it's also semi-autobiographical, as writer-director Jeremy Brock worked for Dame Peggy Ashcroft as a lad. Rupert Grint, capably different here from his Harry Potter persona, plays Ben, the vicar's son, pressured by his understated-yet-overbearing mother (Laura Linney, doing valiant battle with an English accent) to get a job. Circling the first appealing ad in the newspaper, Ben finds himself housekeeper and assistant to Evie Walton (Julie Walters), a loud, mercurial former Grande Dame of the stage who is mainly remembered for her stint on an '80s daytime soap. Initially, she's too much for Ben to handle, but you just know that by the end of the day they will learn important lessons from one another. The sentiment's a bit thick sometimes, but Walters remains sharp, and is sure to inspire drag queens everywhere. (Luke Y. Thompson) PF

Eragon. Those ain't chickens: A farm boy finds a dragon egg and, after an adventure, finds himself fighting to save his home. This tale won't be over easy. (NR) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

The Pursuit of Happyness. (PG-13) Reviewed in this issue ARN, CGX, DP, EG, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. (PG) Front-loaded with family discord, terminal cancer, prodigal jailbait, a cute kiddie and other accessories of the ready-to-wear soap opera, Zhang Yimou's new movie about father-son reconciliation is as sincere and soggy with nostalgia as some of his other homages to the virtues of peasant life in backwater China. Slow and pretty and duller than you'd hope for from an art house sophisticate like Zhang, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles tracks a strong, silent old Japanese man on a road trip through rural China, where obediently colorful characters, meaningful parallels and an ancient Chinese opera pave the way to self-discovery and rebirth. The movie's early flirtation with a promising idea — "backward" China's tense history with high-tech Japan — soon falls away to reveal a fatally reverential vehicle for veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura and the greater glory of the post-Mao proletariat. Beautifully photographed by Zhao Xiaoding, Riding Alone dutifully offers up expected scenic pleasures — the majestic sweep of a mountain range, the brightly colored abundance of a village feast. But though Zhang was after "the look of a still-life painting," he has merely sent us a fancy little postcard. (Ella Taylor) TV

 
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