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NEW RELEASES

ALEX & EMMA For the second straight movie, Kate Hudson has demonstrated that she's better than the material at hand. That's certainly a change from the past, when she proved to be among the weakest links in films like The Four Feathers and Almost Famous, but it may just be that she's an actress who's better suited to romantic comedies than anything else. That's certainly no crime -- Meg Ryan (for one) has managed to milk that teat for all it's worth -- and in both How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and now this, Hudson has revealed an enviable ability to mix doe-eyed sentiment with zesty slapstick, the perfect combo for a screwball comedy heroine. In director Rob Reiner's first film since the horrific The Story of Us, Hudson plays Emma Dinsmore, a stenographer who's hired by successful author Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) to help him whip out a manuscript in 30 days so he can collect his advance and pay off a gambling debt. The twist here is that as Alex relates his period piece melodrama for Emma to type, the same two actors are also seen as the protagonists in the movie's fiction-within-the-fiction, leading to various comic situations as Alex and Emma try to hammer out the details of his novel and their changes invariably affect the actions of the characters he created. The easygoing rapport between Hudson and Wilson, as well as an amusing (if wafer-thin) look at the volatile nature of the writing process, helps disguise the formula at the heart of this half-clever, half-contrived fluff. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

BRUCE ALMIGHTY In this hit-and-miss comedy, Jim Carrey, frequently playing to the rafters in what in anybody else's hands would have been a fairly restrained character, stars as Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter who's tired of fluff pieces and yearns to become the new anchorman. But instead of getting his wish, he ends up enduring the worst day of his life, leading to a tirade directed at God. Faced with this outburst, God (Morgan Freeman) pays Bruce a visit and offers him a challenge: Take charge for a while, and see if you can do a better job of overseeing the planet. If, as the saying goes, God is in the details, then that's also where to look in Bruce Almighty for some of the film's finest moments, as the throwaway bits are generally funnier than the big set pieces. Naturally, Carrey's adept (if overly exaggerated) with the comic shtick, but the quasi-serious scenes in which he expresses self-righteous anger are actually among the movie's strongest -- it's no wonder that at one point It's a Wonderful Life is shown playing on TV, because Bruce's predicament, a decent man who's been drop-kicked by life yet given the chance to envision an alternate reality, is the same one that plagued James Stewart's George Bailey. But because this is a summer popcorn flick, the movie backs away from taking Bruce to the edge -- he never flirts with the dark side, as George Bailey did. What's left is harmless, acceptable entertainment, just not the galvanizing religious experience that was within its almighty grasp. 1/2

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS Javier Bardem was already a superstar in his native Spain before his superb, Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls made US viewers take notice. But if his performance as gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas showed off his talents as a chameleonic thespian, his work in The Dancer Upstairs trumpets his arrival as a down-to-earth movie star, the hunky "old school" sort best exemplified by the taciturn likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. An absorbing drama that marks the directorial debut of John Malkovich, this adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare's novel feels like a page ripped from the Costa-Gavras filmography, though its most recent screen antecedent would be The Quiet American, another crackling political thriller grounded by an excellent central performance. Bardem stars as Agustin Rejas, a detective in an unnamed Latin American country (though it's based on events that occurred in Peru in the 1980s) who's as baffled as everyone else when dead dogs start hanging from lampposts and pert schoolgirls suddenly whip out machine guns to mow down government emissaries. A messy revolution appears to be underway, and Rejas doggedly tracks down clues, only pausing now and then to woo his daughter's ballet instructor (Laura Morante). Marred by a late-inning coincidence that's more suited to the inane likes of Hollywood Homicide, this is otherwise an intelligent motion picture that's especially effective at conveying a specific sense of time, place and mood.

FINDING NEMO As far as trivial pursuits go, ranking the Pixar/Disney animated efforts seems as futile an exercise as ranking favorite Beatles tunes: Because the high level of consistency between them is so comparable, we're basically talking about slight degrees of separation rather than quantum leaps in quality. In that regard, expect Finding Nemo to be hailed by many as Pixar's best movie to date while leading just as many -- myself included -- to deem it a delightful summer flick that still falls short of being an instant classic (on my scale, it's better than A Bug's Life but below Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story twofer). Its animation is truly stunning, awash in a dazzling array of colors, and the storyline is a sturdy one, centering on the efforts of timid clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) from an aquarium. But for all its visual splendor and great gags, this falls short of most Pixar films primarily because too many characters seem more like "types" than unique individuals. What's more, two specific creations -- a blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and Crush, a surfer-dude turtle voiced by director Andrew Stanton -- are as likely to alienate viewers as envelop them. (Crush actually emerged as my fave, but Dory's scatter-brained routine wore me down.) Still, it's downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit.

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE A few weeks ago when The Matrix Reloaded opened, much of the talk centered around the highway chase sequence that lasts a full 15 minutes. But that set piece is mere child's play when compared to the climactic chase that closes Hollywood Homicide: This one lasts a full three hours. Or so it seems. Truth be told, I can't pinpoint exactly how long this interminable sequence goes on, because during that portion of this dreadful action-comedy, my brain was so numb that even a lobotomy would have seemed like a welcome diversion. Charitable moviegoers -- and I use "charitable" to the extent that Mother Teresa comparisons are in order -- might describe this disaster as the perfect popcorn picture, but even that's provided you like your bag filled with burnt pieces and unpopped kernels. Harrison Ford (tired and bored) and Josh Hartnett (bland and boring) play the usual mismatched cops -- one's old and cranky, the other young and sensitive -- who spend as much time pursuing outside interests (real estate and acting, respectively) as they do investigating the slayings of four rappers. Writer-director Ron Shelton, a long way from the career high point of Bull Durham, has crammed this picture with the sort of forced comedy generally found in bad Nora Ephron movies, while the action sequences prove to be clumsily staged and rarely exciting. Hartnett is a Next Big Thing who deserves to become a Where Are They Now?; as for Ford, there's simply no way to defend his sell-out choices anymore.

THE IN-LAWS While certainly no classic, The In-Laws is an enjoyable comedy that includes among its attributes a clever premise, a witty script that's packed with choice dialogue, two beautifully matched lead actors, and a supporting performer who makes off with the picture like a Bechtel bandit in the night. But enough about the 1979 version. The new In-Laws is a sorry excuse for a comedy, a movie that completely disregards all the elements that made its predecessor such a delight. Instead of Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, we get Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas, with Brooks cast as a meek podiatrist who gets caught up in the misadventures of his daughter's future father-in-law (Douglas), a CIA agent whose reckless behavior places them in numerous dire predicaments. This deadening action-comedy hybrid is neither exciting nor funny, and it further suffers from an embarrassing turn by David Suchet as a homosexual arms dealer who spends an exorbitant amount of screen time trying to get Brooks out of his pants so he can admire his "fat cobra" (Suchet is obviously meant to be this movie's scene stealer, but he's no match for the original's Richard Libertini, who was a hoot as an eccentric Latin American dictator). Forget the movie's wedding theme: On the contrary, funeral services are now being held at a multiplex near you.

INTACTO Producers who foster burgeoning young talent don't receive much ink, so let's hear it for Spain's Fernando Bovaira: The man who (among other achievements) helped writer-director Alejandro Amenabar bring both Abre Los Ojos and The Others to the screen more recently served as executive producer on this striking work of originality from debuting writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. This unique drama posits that "luck" isn't some intangible element that randomly occurs to people but rather a commodity that can be fostered, traded and even stolen by those who can recognize and harness its awesome might. Fresnadillo's story (co-written with Andres Koppel) smoothly follows four interesting characters who are all blessed (cursed?) with the "gift": a Holocaust survivor (Max Von Sydow) against whom all other lucky souls are measured; his former protege (Eusebio Poncela), stripped of his powers and now seeking retribution; a bank robber (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who's also the sole survivor of an airplane crash that killed hundreds of people; and a dedicated cop (Monica Lopez) haunted by the deaths of her husband and daughter. Coming up with this unique concept was only half the battle, but Fresnadillo wins the war outright in a manner that's both playful -- the games that these gamblers hold to test their limits are clever -- and profound: Does an individual always create his or her own luck, or does fate occasionally supersede? 1/2

THE ITALIAN JOB The 1969 version of The Italian Job is a minor cult classic, which isn't the same thing as saying it's a particularly good movie. Still, it beats this new version, which retained the title but not much else. Instead of the offbeat casting of the original's Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill, we now get the more conventional, Hollywood-glam teaming of Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron, with Wahlberg cast as the leader of a high-tech criminal gang, Norton playing the member who betrays the team, and Theron as the daughter of Wahlberg's late mentor (Donald Sutherland), now seeking revenge against Norton for killing her dad. Beyond some good performances from the supporting players (Mos Def, Jason Statham, Seth Green), this ho-hum heist flick lacks color and flavor -- it's completely bereft of the attention to atmosphere, dialogue and characterization that distinguished another recent caper yarn, Neil Jordan's superior The Good Thief. The word is that the studio forced Norton to make this film against his will, as part of a studio contract he was obligated to honor; such a mandatory arrangement would certainly explain the actor's dull and detached performance. But here's the good news: Just because Norton was forced to make the film doesn't mean you're forced to watch it.

SPIDER Despite a title that suggests David Cronenberg might be back to his icky ways (this is, after all, the man who gave us a bloodsucking armpit in Rabid and exploding heads in Scanners), Spider actually turns out to be one of the most subtle pictures the Canadian filmmaker has ever made. Working from Patrick McGrath's novel, Cronenberg spins a psychological tale about a mentally disturbed man (Ralph Fiennes) who, having just been released from an insane asylum, sets up residence in a halfway house run by an unfeeling landlady (Lynn Redgrave). Immediately, he becomes lost in the tangled memories of his youth, agonizing over a past in which he witnessed his loutish father (Gabriel Byrne) neglecting his demure mother (Miranda Richardson) in order to pursue the town tart (also played by Richardson). There's a twist ending that's absurdly easy to figure out almost from the start, so it's best not to approach this as a conventional drama but rather as a knotty character study about a warped individual so traumatized by his inability as a youth to get a grip on his burgeoning sexuality (the Oedipal complex and Madonna/whore syndrome both come into play) that he's never able to reconcile his own tainted memories with the reality of his childhood. As the muttering, fidgety protagonist, Fiennes delivers an extraordinary performance that, above all else, is surprisingly sympathetic.

2 FAST 2 FURIOUS Never rising much above the level of a mediocrity, the 2001 sleeper smash The Fast and the Furious at least had two things going for it: the magnetic presence of co-star Vin Diesel and plenty of spectacular stunt work involving car races, car chases and car crashes. But with Diesel deciding to commit himself to other projects (namely, follow-ups to Pitch Black and XXX), this sequel's appeal is immediately cut in half -- and it's reduced even more by the fact that the car sequences don't match the visceral impact of the first film's auto focus. Whereas 1 Fast 1 Furious centered on illegal street racing, part deux relies on that standard plotline known to B-movie aficionados worldwide: the efforts of an undercover cop to... yawn... infiltrate a crime kingpin's inner circle and expose his corrupt ways. Returning star Paul Walker remains as dull as ever, but he's no worse than his co-stars: the hammy Tyrese as his best friend and the wooden Eva Mendes as a fellow undercover operative who may have switched allegiances. Director John Singleton once earned an Oscar nod for Boyz N The Hood but has now been reduced to this drivel. Still, let's not be too hard on him -- after all, John Boorman made Exorcist II: The Heretic a few short years after Deliverance and still managed to work his way up again. 1/2


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