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Blades of Glory, Fracture, Hot Fuzz, others

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BLADES OF GLORY Unless he keeps his eye out for innovative fare like Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell might find himself driving his career into a rut. Blades of Glory shows the strains of the comedian trying to keep himself contained in a box: His Chazz Michael Michaels, a coarse sex addict who's also an unlikely skating champion, mines the same comic territory as most Ferrell performances, ranging from Talladega Nights to Anchorman and beyond. Since Ferrell is only playing variations on a theme, it's costar Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) who provides most of the modest chuckles. As Jimmy MacElroy, a rival figure skater who's forced by circumstances to team with Chazz to become the first male-male figure skating team in history, Heder plays up his character's delicate traits to the point that they offer a pointed contrast to Ferrell's predictable boorishness. "You're like a 15-year-old girl," taunts Chazz, "only not hot." After a sluggish beginning, the laughs pick up during the midsection, and I appreciate that Queen's Flash Gordon theme plays a prominent role in the finale. Otherwise, this is one more assembly line comedy by the Ferrell-Stiller-Vaughn-Wilsons conglomerate (Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are AWOL, but Ben Stiller serves as a producer and Luke Wilson pops up in a tiny role). For a similar yet superior film, rent the Farrelly brothers' 1996 bowling flick Kingpin. Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and especially Bill Murray offer moments of lunacy so inspired, they make Ferrell in Blades of Glory look like a visitor to the comedy genre. **

FRACTURE For the most part, Hollywood has grown so inept at staging whodunits that it's a blessing to come across a film like Fracture, which lets audiences know from the outset that he-done-it. The "he" in question is wealthy engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who has just shot his adulterous wife (Embeth Davidtz). With the identity of the villain in place, Fracture can then borrow a page from the Columbo playbook by following the protagonist as he tries to piece together the details of the crime. But the lawman here is a far cry from Peter Falk's lovably rumbled detective; rather, he's Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a hotshot attorney who's used to winning and who agrees to prosecute Ted because, hey, the man has already signed a confession, right? But in his arrogance, Willy has underestimated Ted, and it's a disastrous move that might end up costing him his career. Fracture has its fair share of plotholes -- enough that you might be tempted to grab a shovel and a bag of cement mix -- but it features an exquisite cat-and-mouse game that makes it easier to overlook its flaws. And for once, here's a film in which it's not instantly obvious to predict every twist resting just over the horizon. The film grows flabby in the midsection thanks to a superfluous subplot involving Willy's romance with his new boss (Rosamund Pike), but once it gets back to focusing on business rather than pleasure, it straightens itself out. Hopkins is solid in a role that veers toward Hannibal Lecter terrain, but it's Gosling who gooses the proceedings with a thoughtful performance. ***

HOT FUZZ The team that brought us Shaun of the Dead -- writer-director Edgar Wright, writer-star Simon Pegg and costar Nick Frost -- now take a shot or 12 at the police procedural with Hot Fuzz, a funny if distressingly overlong comedy that also manages to evoke memories of The Wicker Man, Plague of the Zombies and other spooky yarns centering on eccentric villagers inhabiting the less-traveled paths of the British Isles. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a dynamic, by-the-book cop who's so efficient at nailing the bad guys that his three superiors (cameos by familiar English actors) ship him off to the remote hamlet of Sandford so he won't keep embarrassing the rest of the London force. Upon arriving in Sandford, he realizes that his commanding officer (Jim Broadbent) is a flake and his peers are morons, although he does strike up a friendship with Danny Butterman (Frost), a well-meaning cop who finds spiritual guidance in the movies Bad Boys II and Point Break. But a string of gruesome accidents convinces Angel that some dark secret exists in Sandford, and he enlists the bumbling Butterman to help him get to the bottom of the mystery. Hot Fuzz appears to be England's attempt to prove to Hollywood that it can make brawny, blustery blockbusters every bit as noisy as those churned out by Tinseltown on a weekly basis, but even this pissing-contest mentality can't drown out the satiric edge that earns this a recommendation. But did the film have to feature more faux-endings than even The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? ***

LUCKY YOU Director Curtis Hanson has spent the last decade delivering nothing but winning hands, so it's not without a measure of irony that his luck has run out with Lucky You. After the incredible run of the critical darlings L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, the box office hit 8 Mile and the underrated In Her Shoes, Hanson (co-scripting with Eric Roth) finds himself at the helm of a film so disowned by its parent studio (Warner Bros.) that not only has its release date already been changed at least twice, but it ended up serving as the sacrificial lamb chosen to open against Spider-Man 3. In truth, it deserves a less gruesome fate, even if it never reaches its full potential. Eric Bana, nicely underplaying, stars as Huck Cheever, a Las Vegas poker ace who's allergic to responsibility and constantly at odds with his father L.C. (Robert Duvall), a poker champ who abandoned him and his mother decades earlier and now haunts the same casinos as his son. But Huck finds his heart softening -- and his infrequently employed principles hardening -- once he meets struggling nightclub singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), whose sincerity and naivety win him over. The romance between Huck and Billie isn't credible, partly because Billie isn't sufficiently fleshed out but mainly because Barrymore delivers an atypically flat performance that leaves her costar stranded. Far better are the scenes between Huck and L.C., and Hanson and Roth make sure to surround this pair with a wide array of interesting characters, including Little Children's Phyllis Somerville as a pawnbroker and Jean Smart as a fellow card enthusiast (even an unbilled Robert Downey, Jr. and Borat's manager make appearances!). But did it all have to climax with, yes, a championship poker tournament? **1/2

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