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I Am Bland 

Smith's great in 'I am Legend,' but the sappy windup bites

Previews

The Christmas onslaught kicks into overdrive beginning this Friday, Dec. 21, and continues on Christmas day. Based on George Crile's 2007 book of the same title as adapted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV's The West Wingand the short-lived Studio 60) and helmed by veteran Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War is about how the swinging Texas Democratic congressman (Tom Hanks), with the help of Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a glammed-up Julia Roberts), conspired to give money and weapons to the Mujahideen to help the Afghans defeat the Russians in the 1980s. Co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and rising star Amy Adams (Enchanted). Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use. 107 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is another entry in the dreary but popular Nicolas Cage series, directed again by Jon Turtletaub with the acting-challenged Diane Kruger reprising the role of Abigail Chase. Here, the duo is on the trail of 18 missing pages from the diary of John Wilkes Booth. Maybe the truth behind Kennedy's assassination will also be revealed. Co-starring Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris and Harvey Keitel. Rated PG for some violence and action. 134 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

A potential multi-hankied romance/comedy/drama, P.S. I Love You, based on the novel by Cecelia Ahern, stars Hilary Swank as a young widow who discovers that her prematurely dead husband has left her a list of 10 things to do to get her life back on track. What a thoughtful guy. Co-starring Lisa Kudrow, Gerald Butler, Gina Gershon and Kathy Bates. Rated PG-13 for sexual references and brief nudity. 136 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

Co-written by the indefatigable Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a country music mockumentary starring John C. Reilly as the singing star whose career we follow from childhood. Jenna Fischer (The Office) co-stars as his backup singer. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. 106 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

Three additional films open Dec. 25. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (too much to hope for), whose connection to Christmas seems tenuous, is about a battle between a single predator and a group of aliens (are these fair odds?) in a small Colorado town following the crash of a Predator scout ship. A sequel to 2004's AVP. Rated R for violence, gore and language. 96 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

Another entry in the stand-and-deliver/underdog genre, The Great Debaters stars Denzel Washington (who also directs) as a professor at a small black college in Texas who coaches his debate team in lessons of life and argument, leading the team to challenge Harvard for the national championship. The story is based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, who taught Speech and English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality. 133 m. At the Broadway.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is a family fantasy about a Scottish boy named Angus (Alex Etel, Millions) who discovers an egg that grows into a friendly sea creature. Emily Watson, who might actually get me to see the film, plays Angus' mother. Rated PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking. 121 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek

Reviews

I AM LEGEND: I Am Legend is the third major film version of Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel, after The Last Man on Earth(1964, starring Vincent Price) and The Omega Man (1971, starring Charlton Heston).

The latest film makes some changes to the original story, which took place in Southern California in the late '70s. In Matheson's novel, protagonist Robert Neville also appears to be the last normal human on earth, but he is not a military virologist. Besides Neville, there are two orders of beings present: vampires and another breed that have found a way to arrest the disease. However, as they appear the same during the day, when they hibernate, Neville kills both indiscriminately, thus becoming a sort of terrorist to the people who are neither vampire nor traditional human. The ending, which I'm not going to reveal, is considerably different from that in the present film.

Music video director Francis Lawrence's version, starring Will Smith as Neville, is set in Manhattan. The opening sequence, following a short introduction, is nicely accomplished as we see Neville and his German shepherd roaming around a deserted Manhattan, where cars block streets and grass is already taking over from the pavement. He attempts to get a clear shot at one of the many deer that now populate the island, and generally goes about his daily chores. At night, he barricades himself in his roomy townhouse.

How his world came to this sorry state is revealed in a series of flashbacks that tell the viewer about the anti-cancer virus that a doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) developed. It turned out to be anti-human. We also discover what happened to his wife and daughter — played by Smith's real daughter, Willow — as the military quarantined Manhattan in a failed attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

In addition to his daily rounds, Neville sends out regular broadcasts hoping to find others who, like him, survived and are still healthy, and he experiments on humans who survived but have turned into zombies/vampires (they crave human flesh, but die in the daylight).

The inner story, though, is about Neville's attempt to maintain a grip on sanity in the midst of utter loneliness, and he also blames himself for failing to find a cure for the virus that ran amok. Other than his dog, his only relationships are human dummies that he has arranged in various positions in a music/video store and, of course, the series of formerly human creatures on whom he has unsuccessfully experimented in his basement lab.

Just as total despair sets in, a woman named Anna (Alice Braga, City of God) appears with her son, Ethan (Charlie Tahan), and she appears to know about a colony of healthy humans who live in Vermont.

But what may be Neville's salvation dooms the film's concluding section, which deteriorates into yet another zombie grope with a dash of new age religiosity thrown in. Ironically, the post-apocalyptic landscapes where only Neville and his dog seem to exist are by far the most intriguing aspects of the film; as soon as other humans appear, insipid sentimentality sets in.

Will Smith is an entirely appealing actor, and he has some very strong moments on this film, as when he cuddles his dog after infected dogs attack it. The fact that I find his film choices to be generally bland may just be a problem with my taste, but I wish he would find material a little more complex than the five-hankie The Pursuit of Happyness or the Men in Black quasi-action films. Of course, compared to Nicholas Cage's choices, his material seems positively Shakespearean. And, no, I am not judgmental. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. 111 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

Continuing

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS.Based on the 1950s cartoon series about chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, who sing in three-part harmony. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

AMERICAN GANGSTER.True, juggernaut success story of cult crime hero from the streets of 1970s Harlem. Rated R. 157 m. At The Movies.

AUGUST RUSH.A street musician in New York that was orphaned by circumstance, August Rush uses his talents to find the parents from whom he was separated at birth. Rated PG. 113 m. At the Broadway.

BEE MOVIE.A bee, disillusioned with the prospect of never-ending honey collection, breaks bee rules and talks to a human. Rated PG. 91 m. At The Movies.

BELLA.An international soccer star and a waitress's lives are turned upside down until an impetuous action brings them together and turns an ordinary day into an unforgettable experience. Rated PG-13. 91 m. At The Movies.

BEOWULF.The mighty warrior Beowulf slays the demon Grendel and incurs the wrath of its monstrous yet seductive mother, in a conflict that transforms king into legend. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At The Movies.

ENCHANTED.A fairytale princess changes her views on life and love after being thrust into present-day New York City by an evil queen. Rated PG. 108 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

FRED CLAUS.Saint Nick's rabble-rousing big brother Fred jeopardizes the jolliest holiday of the year, Christmas. Rated PG. 116 m. At The Movies.

GOLDEN COMPASS.A young girl's epic quest set in a world where people's souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars and Gyptians and witches coexist. Rated PG-13. 113 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

HITMAN.Agent 47, a professional assassin, gets caught up in a political takeover and is pursued across Eastern Europe by Interpol and the Russian Military. Rated R. 100 m. At The Movies.

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM.Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a strange, fantastic and magical toy store where everything comes to life. Rated G. 94 m. At and The Movies.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.Coen Brothers' adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy touches on themes as varied as the Bible and this morning's headlines. Rated R. 123 m. At the Broadway and the Minor.

STEPHEN KING'S THE MIST.A small town comes under attack by creatures prowling in a thick, unnatural mist said to be originating from a nearby, top-secret military base. Rated R. 127 m. At The Movies.

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