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Catch a Fire, Flicka

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MAN OF THE YEAR It's junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn't just a job; it's an adventure -- and I'm owed some serious combat pay. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for U.S. president, finds himself on the ballot and making progress in the polls. It's a decent premise for a piercing satire, but writer-director Barry Levinson's approach is so timid that it makes last spring's soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn't playing a fictional character running for president as much as he's playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it's the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passé around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. Soon, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal thriller plotline involving inaccurate Diebold-style voting machines. *

THE PRESTIGE In this twisty thriller about the rivalry between two tortured magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), writer-director Christopher Nolan has crafted an exemplary drama that explores his usual recurrent themes while serving up a cracking good mystery yarn. In Memento and Batman Begins, Nolan took the time to painstakingly explore issues of identity; in this regard, he recalls David Cronenberg, who frequently returns to the topic of competing identities. Nolan is the more guardedly optimistic of the pair, believing that people have as much chance of improving themselves as they do debasing themselves. It's this moral uncertainty that provides The Prestige with most of its power, since it allows the characters to evolve in intriguing ways. The movie isn't simplistic enough to pit a "good" magician against an "evil" one; instead, it recognizes the duality of each man's nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree. It can be argued that the story becomes too fantastical for its own good -- it's more compelling when it's rooted in reality rather than when it enters the realm of science fiction -- but except for a nagging final shot, the filmmakers at least take care to cover all their narrative bases with acceptable explanations and believable character arcs. ***1/2

OPENS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 27:

CATCH A FIRE: Derek Luke, Tim Robbins.

SAW III: Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell.

SHORTBUS: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson.

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