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AWAY FROM HER Iris would have seemed to be the first and last word on movies dealing with Alzheimer's disease, yet here comes Away From Her to provide it with troubled company. Like that somber drama, this new picture, which marks the assured directorial debut of 28-year-old actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), proves to be a difficult, unsettling watch, all the more so for those who have lost someone to that dreadful disease. Yet what both films also share is a commitment to portraying the ravages of that affliction with clear-eyed honesty, tracking not only the effects on its victims but also on the caretakers who provide support even as their loved ones are fading away right before their eyes. Judi Dench was remarkable in Iris, yet it was Jim Broadbent who walked away with an Oscar. Similarly, early reviews have focused on Julie Christie's superlative performance, but it's really the Canadian veteran Gordon Pinsent who holds the film together. As his character watches his wife place a frying pan in the freezer or bond with a fellow patient (Michael Murphy) because she can't recall that she even has a husband, he draws us in with his stillness, his whispered frustrations, his seething impotence. His character's silence is deafening; you can hear his heart break a mile away. ***1/2

THE EX I have no idea how he takes his coffee, but when it comes to comedy, Danny DeVito takes it black -- as evidenced by the string of dark satires he's helmed over the course of two decades. In his hands, one can only speculate how far The Ex would have taken its dark comic undercurrents, but in the mitts of director Jesse Peretz and novice screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, it doesn't take them quite far enough. Still, The Ex offers enough in the way of laughs to earn it some measure of approval. Zach Braff plays Tom Reilly, who, along with his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) and their newborn son, leaves NYC for Smalltown, Ohio, to work for his father-in-law (Charles Grodin). The trouble starts immediately when Tom is paired at the office with Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman), a paraplegic who still carries the torch for Sofia from their school days. Hoping to win her back -- and taking an instant dislike to her husband -- Chip sabotages Tom at every turn, embarrassing him in front of coworkers and alienating him from his family. The material is too often played for broad laughs that fail to achieve their purpose, but there's some nasty pleasure to be had in watching the escalating feud between Tom and Chip. It's just a shame the movie cops out by pulling its punch toward the end. By displaying a little more nerve, the filmmakers could have had a vicious pit bull of a comedy, on the order of Kingpin or DeVito's The War of the Roses. But by neutering themselves, they've delivered a comedy whose bark is ultimately worse than its bite. **1/2

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. ***

GEORGIA RULE On the heels of Jane Fonda's disastrous return to the screen in Monster-In-Law, it's clear that the career resuscitation isn't going exactly as planned. Fonda's Georgia, a family matriarch who runs her household the way a drill instructor lords over greenhorn recruits, is a one-note shrew, and one of this schizophrenic movie's greatest failings is that it never acknowledges that it's this woman's puritanical behavior which started the chain reaction partly leading to the miserable circumstances that plague her daughter Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and her granddaughter Rachel (Lindsay Lohan). Then again, it's not just Fonda's fault that Georgia is a poorly realized character; blame also must be directed at scripter Mark Andrus and director Garry Marshall. Marshall in particular has no clue how to orchestrate the movie's heavy themes involving alcoholism (Lilly), nymphomania (Rachel) and possible child abuse (Rachel claims she was repeatedly molested by her stepdad when she was 12); after all, he's the director who viewed mental retardation as little more than an amusing character quirk in The Other Sister. Here, he tries to lighten the movie's mood by having Rachel give a blowjob to a nice Mormon boy who's seriously trying to serve God (har har) and then painting the lad's girlfriend and her pals as the story's heavies. Worthy mother-daughter sagas reached their zenith with 1983's magnificent Terms of Endearment; Georgia Rule, by contrast, fails to elicit much in the way of any genuine emotion. If there's not a dry eye in the house when Lilly and Rachel finally hug, it's only because audiences will have cleared out by that point. *1/2

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