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Casino Royale and Stranger Than Fiction among best bets



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FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION The latest from Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind) is a swipe at all the hoopla surrounding Oscar season, with Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer and Christopher Moynihan cast as actors whose latest film, an indie project called Home For Purim, is being touted as a possible Academy Award nominee. As Marilyn Hack, the cast member deemed most likely to earn an Oscar nod, O'Hara delivers a tour de force performance, channeling all the hopefulness, rage and despair that will doubtless strike a chord with aging, frequently unemployed and quickly forgotten thespians all across Los Angeles (Posey also benefits from landing one of her best screen roles to date). The knowing screenplay by Guest and Eugene Levy yields plenty of laughs until the last act, at which point the resolution of the Oscar nom race becomes obvious to predict and the subsequent grilling of the non-nominees comes across as both cruel and unlikely. Clearly, out of these four Guest titles, For Your Consideration will have to settle for fourth place. But when one looks at the stellar competition, that's hardly meant as a dig. ***

THE FOUNTAIN To dismiss The Fountain out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that writer-director Darren Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watchable epic. The auteur has set his sights on nothing less than matters of life and death, using his ambitious yarn to examine the manner in which the act of dying is viewed -- as a finality, as a rebirth, as a disease, as a shot at immortality. Ultimately, the film's philosophy may be no more weighty than the "Circle of Life" theory espoused by The Lion King, but Aronofsky offers plenty of food for thought (and refuses to spell out anything). I wish that the film, which finds Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing characters in the past, present and future, were longer than its 95 minutes: A troubled production history doubtless contributed to its short length, choppy structure and thin characterizations. But it's easy to see why some viewers will despise this while others will adore it -- although in the middle, I lean toward the latter group, and further believe this will benefit from repeat viewings. One thing's for sure, though: I was wrong when I recently wrote that Marie Antoinette would be 2006's premiere love-it-or-leave-it title. That throne has already been usurped. **1/2

A GOOD YEAR Moviegoers who condemn Shortbus as porn might want to take a look at A Good Year, which offers a different form of hedonistic pleasure. Set in the south of France, it's unabashed erotica for wanna-be world travelers, offering orgasmic visions of the provincial countryside and its attendant vineyards, chateaus and lusty locals. Based on Peter Mayle's novel, this stars Russell Crowe as a ruthless London trader who discovers his own humanity after he inherits an estate owned by his late Uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Director Ridley Scott, used to overseeing weighty projects, tries to pump up this slender tale into something more meaningful: His tactic of choice is to bully us into always feeling something, which leads to an astonishing amount of clumsy comedy and overreaching sentiment. Crowe, on the same wavelength as his director, oozes charm in every scene, a decision that makes it all the more difficult to accept the fact that his character is initially supposed to be a heartless profiteer. Minor annoyances such as these pop up throughout the picture, but then along comes another cheesecake shot of gorgeous wine country, and whoops, off scampers our one-track mind. **1/2

STRANGER THAN FICTION Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent whose dull life is marked by rigid routine, learns that he has inadvertently become the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). What affects the character also affects him, a disaster once he realizes that the author is plotting to kill off her creation. Despite the innovative premise, the script by Zach Helm never matches the existential, mind-bending depths of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or I Heart Huckabees. This remains a resolutely mainstream offering, with flights of fancy that lightly tickle the brain but never really challenge it. The upside is that this allows a conventional love story to take root amid the high concept, and as enacted by Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing a baker who awakens Harold's dormant passions), it's both charming and disarming. Stranger Than Fiction promises a heady experience, but it ultimately heads for the heart instead. ***