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NEW RELEASES

SHACKLETON'S ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE Taking a break from functioning as one of the world's largest science classes (thanks to titles like Blue Planet and Dolphins), Discovery Place's OMNIMAX Theatre instead becomes one of the world's largest history classes with its presentation of a real-life event that has also been the subject of approximately a dozen recent books, a newly discovered documentary from 1919, a recently produced documentary that will come to town in January (courtesy of the Charlotte Film Society), and an upcoming feature film starring Kenneth Branagh. With a standard IMAX running time of 40 minutes, this invariably feels like the Reader's Digest version of this incredible true story, but between Kevin Spacey's sturdy narration and some choice archival footage, it provides a solid introduction to the saga. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton attempted to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent; instead, his ship the Endurance became trapped in -- and eventually crushed by -- the packed ice in the Weddell Sea. Yet even faced with bleak circumstances that continued to darken, Shackleton took extraordinary measures in an effort to lead his crew of 27 out of their frozen prison and back to civilization. The setting allows the filmmakers ample opportunities to dazzle viewers with breathtaking shots of this gorgeous region, but the real drawing card is the vintage footage shot by Frank Hurley, a photographer who was part of Shackleton's expedition back in the day.

CURRENT RELEASES

DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE Outside of family films, the general rule regarding a movie that runs less than 90 minutes is that the studio initially deemed it such a lost cause, they butchered it in the editing room in order to make some sense out of it and dumped it into the marketplace to fend for itself. Given that this one clocks in at 88 minutes and arrives missing at least one scene featured in the trailer, it's safe to say this John Travolta vehicle (filmed in Wilmington) fell into that camp, although I imagine director Harold Becker would insist he was just trying to make a trim and efficient thriller. Certainly, there's no excess fat on this puppy, but there's also nothing we haven't seen before, from the ordinary joe who must stand alone to the villainous outsider threatening to rip a family apart to the ineffectual cops who show up only after all the heavy stuff has gone down. In fact, this is schematically so similar to movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The River Wild that the only thing missing is the moment when the family's golden retriever attacks the bad guy just as he's getting ready to shoot the hero. Travolta is appealing as the divorced dad who believes his son (Matt O'Leary) when the latter tells him he witnessed his new stepdad (Vince Vaughn) murder another man, and Steve Buscemi steals the film in his brief scenes as the victim. But Vaughn's character is clearly up to no good, Teri Polo's mom is too slow on the uptake to earn much sympathy, and the climax is simply ludicrous. 1/2

FROM HELL Known for their contemporary urban dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, The Hughes Brothers (aka Allen and Albert Hughes) have returned with a thriller that's set in 1888 London and focuses on Jack the Ripper. It's admirable when any artist is able to break the shackles of preconceived notions, but for those still requiring some sort of connective tissue, it's fairly obvious that From Hell is no different from its predecessors in that they all deal with the poverty, violence and drugs that are readily found on the mean city streets. In fact, what makes this more than just a slasher flick with a pedigree is its insistence on presenting its sordid tale at ground level, exploring the social chasm that existed between the upper and lower classes as much as recreating the killer's grisly handiwork. This may not possess the macabre sense of showmanship that made Sleepy Hollow such a kinky kick (both films, incidentally, star Johnny Depp as a detective investigating bizarre murders), but on its own terms, it's an effective thriller that's densely plotted and well-paced. And as Depp's character becomes more immersed in his investigation, we become more immersed in the period world that the Hughes and their crew have created. Between Martin Childs' sets, Kym Barrett's costumes, and Peter Deming's mood-setting cinematography, this exudes authenticity right down to the last cobblestone. Well, OK: The Marilyn Manson song that plays over the closing credits may not exactly conjure images of 1888 London, but that's a small concession I'm willing to make.

K-PAX Watching two great actors on the order of Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges squander their talents on something as ghastly as K-PAX is akin to spending your savings on the purchase of a fondue restaurant and using its facilities to create nothing more than grilled cheese sandwiches. Offensively sanctimonious, flagrantly derivative and just plain dull (don't see K-PAX without NO-DOZ), this insufferable picture casts Spacey as Prot, who's sent to a hospital's mental ward after he turns up in a New York train station claiming to be from another planet (in the real-world New York, this sort of ranting can be heard on a daily basis and wouldn't even raise an eyebrow, so why the fuss here?). Prot's case comes under the supervision of Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), who initially dismisses the patient as yet another flake but soon starts to suspect there might be some veracity to the otherworldly claims. The first half of the film plays like Patch Adams minus the bedpans on the feet, as Prot engages in a lot of "cute" behavior (like eating bananas with the peels left on) and offers guidance to his twinkly fellow patients. The second part shifts gears but doesn't get any better: It's like a nightmare version of an actor's theater workshop, as Powell uses hypnosis to learn about Prot's past. Spacey's performance is built on nothing but putrid platitudes and affected mannerisms -- frankly, I didn't think it was possible for him to ever be this bad -- while Bridges' cardboard role is far beneath this fine actor's capabilities.

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