THE PERFECT MAN With the lovely Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants still in theaters, only the most ardent Lizzie McGuire fanatic would conceivably make this imperfect movie her top choice for a night out with the girls. Hilary Duff, a personable but one-note actress who seems to be playing Lizzie even when her characters are named something else, tackles the role of Holly Hamilton, a teenager who doesn't like the fact that her single mom (Heather Locklear) uproots the family every time she gets dumped by a loser. Landing in Brooklyn, Holly decides to cheer up her mother by fabricating a Mr. Right: Taking suggestions from her friend's unwitting uncle (Chris Noth), Holly anonymously sends her mother flowers, writes her poems and shoots her cheery Instant Messages. But it never occurs to Holly that, duh, her mom might eventually want to meet this seemingly perfect man in the flesh, and that's when her scheme begins to unravel. Even allowing that this is supposed to be a frothy comedy aimed at younger viewers, the film is so casually cruel in its treatment of its characters (particular Locklear's pathetic single woman, who craves a man like a junkie craves his next fix) that a bad taste lingers even after everybody instantly learns a valuable life lesson during the final 10 minutes. And Hollywood's gay panic continues unabated: On the heels of Miss Congeniality 2's masochistic stylist and The Longest Yard's parade of swishy queens, we now get a mincing bartender (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Carson Kressley) who practically has an orgasm as he wipes the brow of a sweaty construction worker. Enough already! 1/2
RIZE Mad Hot Ballroom may be currently earning kudos (and rightly so) for showing the positive effects that formal dance training can have on select 11-year-olds attending New York's public schools, but for an even better nonfiction feature that also shines its light on a particular mode of "dance fever," check out the raw and incendiary Rize. Directed by renowned photographer David LaChapelle, this compelling feature centers on a vibrant musical revolution that's been all but ignored by the media (both mainstream and alternative). Born from the ashes of civil unrest in the wake of the Rodney King beat-down, "clowning" was a new form of artistic expression in which LA's inner-city blacks found release by emulating the very violence that was perpetually raging around them. "Clowning" eventually gave way to the harsher "krumping" (less makeup, more thrashing), and Rize masterfully shows how these two musical manifestations have since provided young African-Americans - most stranded in the war zones of South Central - a path away from the guns'n'poses of the area's self-styled gangstas and drug lords. Rize doesn't pretend that clowning and krumping can magically solve all the problems of its participants: Death is still a grim reality for even the most innocent of bystanders, and tempers (and egos) flare during a massive clowning-vs.-krumping contest held in an LA coliseum. Yet beyond a reverence for the creative impulse and its ability to often fashion triumph out of tragedy, the movie also earns its keep simply by focusing on the sort of ordinary Americans who don't usually find their way onto the nation's movie screens. As for the dancing, it's hot enough to burn the celluloid on which it's been captured. 1/2
BATMAN BEGINS One of the finest superhero films ever made, Batman Begins marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship - between the creative forces who have resurrected a popular franchise and the fans who felt betrayed when that same franchise went belly up in the late 90s. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has created a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous works as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader. To dismiss this as escapist fare would be to ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear. Christian Bale leads a sterling cast that also includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson; their committed performances help make this that rare summer movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. 1/2
HIGH TENSION In this dismal French import badly dubbed into English, a filthy guy (Philippe Nahon) in mechanic's garb murders a married couple and their little boy before setting about raping the daughter (Maiwenn). But unbeknownst to the killer, the girl has a pal (Cecile De France) who tries to figure out a way to rescue her friend from the clutches of this madman. There are slivers of genuine style to be found in writer-director Alexandre Aja's approach - here's a man who, for better or worse, is trying to deliver a no-holds-barred exercise in grueling horror, and he has the technical savvy to back him up. But any semblance of psychological complexity remains a no-show until an absurd final twist: The film isn't scary, suspenseful, thought-provoking or - heck - even remotely entertaining, and the murderer goes through the motions as mechanically as the slashers in the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises.