Will Smith in I Am LegendI AM LEGEND

In Francis Lawrence's sci-fi/thriller I Am Legend, the images of a desolated Manhattan island are so extraordinarily rendered, and Will Smith is such an appealing one-man-show, that it's heartbreaking - and more than a little annoying - that the movie itself isn't better than it is. Based on Richard Matheson's novel, the film concerns a virus that has (seemingly) annihilated the entire human race save for Smith and a pack of predatory, zombie-like humanoids, and it presents a weird dichotomy; everything about the digitally-enhanced locale, and much of Smith's performance, feels absolutely real, and nothing else feels nearly real enough. It's B-grade comic-book material severely outclassed by its visuals and leading man.

The movie opens with a stunningly suggestive TV-news flashback, in which we discern that a 2009 cancer cure led to the unintentional destruction of the planet. Yet before we can get an adequate measure of the horrors, Lawrence begins the film proper, set in 2011, with an extended car chase through the deserted streets of New York City, as Smith's soldier/scientist and his German shepherd (the Wilson volleyball to Smith's Tom Hanks) engage in a bit of high-speed deer-hunting. The sights in this post-viral Manhattan are evocative and terrifying - weeds bursting through pavement, torn billboards littering Broadway - but in this opening scene, at least, you have to catch them in quick glances. Rather than allowing us to luxuriate in the creepy mise en scène here, Lawrence propels us into the first of many boffo-socko action-flick set-pieces - both animal and "human" creatures are forever leaping into the frame accompanied by high-decibel "Gotcha!" sound effects - which provide nowhere near the interest, or enjoyment, of the film's set-up and design.

This is an incredible shame, because there are marvelous, memorable images galore (Smith playing golf on an abandoned aircraft carrier is especially fine), and when the director allows the movie to slow down and breathe - until its depressingly, conveniently sentimental final third, that is - I Am Legend is a more thoughtful, disturbing entertainment than audiences may be anticipating. (And, it turns out, than Lawrence obviously wanted.) Certainly, Smith seems game about playing his character's grim subtext. For long stretches, his reassuring level-headedness throws us off track, as it takes several reels to recognize that this prototypically stalwart-yet-funny hero - the iconic Will Smith role - is actually, and understandably, quite a bit crazy. Yet Lawrence, shrugging off the actor's suggestions of madness as mere eccentricity, doesn't seem much attuned to Smith's nuance, and too many of the actor's scenes are indifferently directed; Smith could be the generic gun-toter in any Hollywood blockbuster.

What Lawrence does seem jazzed about are his frenetically edited zombie attacks, and these sequences are unfortunately the film's weakest because the undead, put simply, are just not scary. Bald and shrieking, the baddies here are as colorless as their pigmentation - a video-game "other" to be routinely exterminated - and I Am Legend's most frightening moment, in truth, has nothing to do with the infected marauders. At one point, Smith is seen gassing up his vehicle, and we discover that gas prices in 2009 were hovering around seven dollars per gallon. Now that's scary.


Alvin & the ChipmunksALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS

There was reason to fear the worst from Alvin & the Chipmunks within the movie's opening seconds, which found the forest-dwelling Alvin, Simon, and Theodore busily storing food for the winter while harmonizing to Daniel Powter's American Idol anthem, "Bad Day." Our heroic rodents' voices were as enjoyably helium-filled as ever, but seriously... "Bad Day"? The movie wasn't even a minute old and I was already dreading the inevitable onslaught of dated pop-culture references designed to make the 50's novelty characters "hip" to a grade-school demographic; I slumped in my seat and readied myself for Shrek: Junior Edition.

Blessedly, it never comes to that. Though filled with "modern" musical selections and the requisite kiddie-flick slapstick (though, if I counted correctly, only one fart joke), Tim Hill's live-action/CGI combo turns out to be quite charming, in large part because the film seems to respect its goofy origins. David Seville's beloved "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" is presented with surprising deference - and Jason Lee offers a first-rate delivery of "Alvin... Alvin... ALVIN!!!" - while the sentimentality is handled with a welcome wink, and although the comedic conceits are repetitive, they're not lazy; no one, from the movie's animators to the brilliantly subversive David Cross and Jane Lynch, is caught slumming. Even the musical updates yield some good things; the chipmunks' rendition of "Funkytown," complete with vocal percussion, was pretty great, and the hip-hop version of Seville's "Witch Doctor" was even better. Oddly, the only thing really missing from Alvin & the Chipmunks is a memorable Alvin; he's given far fewer amusing routines than Simon and Theodore, which is strange considering that the wonderfully snarky, deadpan Justin Long provides the title character's voice. Of course, better for Long's Alvin to blend into the ensemble than for him to engage Dave in a debate about why Macs are better than PCs.

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