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NEW RELEASES

L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE Xenophobes and the old at heart need not apply, but most discerning moviegoers will get a hedonistic kick out of L'Auberge Espagnole (translated as the Spanish Inn), a French import that was a deserving critical and commercial hit in its homeland. Invoking the spirit of such youth-themed fare as The Graduate and National Lampoon's Animal House, this light-hearted romp with serious undercurrents follows the odyssey of Xavier (Romain Duris), a 25-year-old French exchange student who leaves behind his fussy girlfriend (Amelie's Audrey Tautou) to attend college in Barcelona. After briefly staying with an obnoxious doctor and his sexually repressed wife, Xavier ends up sharing an apartment with several other students who, combined, represent a United Nations of sorts (one's British, one's German, one's Italian and so on). With so many characters and so many subplots crowding the screen, it's almost inevitable that not every story strand will flow smoothly (one embarrassing interlude would have been right at home on Three's Company). But rarely has a modern movie done such a sound job of capturing the messy, giddy, self-centered realizations that accompany the flush of youthful vigor, or convincingly pushed the soulful benefits of global fraternization (as someone who partied in Europe during his youth, I can attest to the movie getting these vibes right). In fact, with its scenes of members of different nations co-existing peacefully, this film should be required viewing for the current administration and its lockstep supporters, who've effectively built a wall of fear and bigotry around this nation's borders.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN A fascinating fiasco, this adaptation of the graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is clearly a failure on just about every level, yet like the best "bad" movies, it holds our interest if only because we're dying to see what it will do wrong next. The concept is certainly fiendishly clever (and oh-so-calculated): At the turn of the previous century, a ragtag band comprised of famous literary characters must unite in an effort to stop a masked megalomaniac known as The Fantom from instigating a world war. Thus, we get adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), late of King Solomon's Mines, leading a motley crew that also includes Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous alter ego Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), Dracula vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Oscar Wilde's immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), and Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who has grown up to become a secret agent for the US government (I kid you not). It's a promising premise that's immediately undermined by the casting of several of the most boring actors imaginable (even Connery's asleep at the wheel) in roles that never break past the "gimmick" stage. Add to this dilemma a script that lurches from one schizophrenic set piece to the next, unappealing art direction that screams "Clutter Chic," and plotholes big enough to steer Nemo's sub Nautilus through them, and what's left is a blockbuster bust. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE One's enjoyment of Charlie's Angels will likely determine that same viewer's tolerance of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This follow-up to that 2000 hit isn't so much a sequel as an extension -- if movies weren't so time- and cost-consuming, it'd be easy to picture a new Angels flick hitting the multiplexes on a weekly basis (in that respect, it emulates the 70s TV series on which it's based). Like its big-screen predecessor, this new T&Angels adventure features countless scenes that serve as nothing more than mini-vanity projects for its three lovely leads (Cameron Diaz as giggly party girl Natalie, Drew Barrymore as street-smart riot grrl Dylan, and Lucy Liu as sophisticated smart girl Alex), reams of smarmy double entendres that are sure to elicit as many groans as giggles, and several stunt-heavy, death-defying feats that are simply absurd beyond reason. But so what? Indefensible as it may be on a hoity-toity level, this works more often than not because of the infectious atmosphere generated by its leading ladies as well as returning director McG. I've never been a fan of Demi Moore, so her much ballyhooed "comeback" in this picture (as a former Angel gone bad) means nothing to me, and the unfortunate reliance on smutty humor brings it perilously close to Austin Powers territory. But let's face it: When our heroines are disguised as welders at one point, who doesn't want to hear Irene Cara's Flashdance... What A Feeling playing in the background? 1/2

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE 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.

HULK With a fan base that rivals those of other Green Party members (Kermit, Gumby, Shrek), it's only fitting that Marvel's not-so-jolly green giant gets his own movie. Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the recent batch, as the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon team of director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus have created a film that unwittingly condescends toward the comic book medium even as it's trying to elevate it to another plateau. The effortless affinity that exists between hero and reader has been lost on the pair; wanting to create something more "meaningful" than a mere popcorn flick, they've decided to add import to their assignment by making a movie that's as much about family dysfunction and harnessing one's untapped potential as it is about a guy who turns into a monster. That's all well and good, but in trying to come up with something of substance, they've largely left out the sharp sense of humor and gee-whiz level of excitement that have ignited the best of superhero cinema, not grasping that these aren't hindrances on the road to respectability but the very things that drive the journey. The CGI-created Hulk looks fine in close-up but fake in the distant shots, while dull Eric Bana, as his alter ego, is a human flatline. Lee's visual scheme, which often provides the cinematic equivalent of a comic's splashy color panels, is fun, but these are about the only moments that make us feel like we're actually flipping through a comic book rather than lumbering through an arid college textbook.

LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED, WHITE AND BLONDE As the father of a 12-year-old girl who's a big fan of Legally Blonde, I've seen all or parts of Reese Witherspoon's commercial breakthrough more times than I care to admit. Yet repeat viewings haven't tired me of Witherspoon's vivacious Elle Woods; instead, I've become fond (within stringent critical reason, of course) of both the film and the character at its pink center. Yet it's doubtful that excessive viewings of this sequel will render the same verdict; on the contrary, once is certainly enough. Lazily copying the first film's template to a staggering degree, this excursion finds Elle, now a full-fledged lawyer, hoofing it to Washington, DC, to introduce a bill that would prevent animals from being used as cosmetic test subjects. There, she's taken under the wing of prominent Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), befriended by a hotel doorman (Bob Newhart) who might be the most politically savvy man in town, and forced to lock horns with Rudd's cynical chief of staff (the great Regina King, sadly wasted here). Part of the appeal of the original film was in watching Elle Woods grow from a shallow sorority girl into a self-aware woman genuinely surprised at the breadth of her own potential; here, the character has grown stagnant, and the herky-jerky script relies on recycled gags and pompous speeches to cover up this lamentable fact. There are a few bright spots along the way, but not enough to prevent this from being declared legally bland.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL It's long been established that movies based on video games are a dismal lot, so the odds are automatically against a film that engages in the even more desperate ploy of being based on a theme park attraction. Yet this take-off of Disney's popular park feature proves to be one of the brightest of the summer blockbusters, with appealing characters, a sturdy screenplay, and plenty of derring-do. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, known as the Antichrist in cineaste circles (Armageddon, Con Air, and on and on and on), bypassed his usual stable of hacks and tapped versatile Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt, The Mexican) to man the ship; aided by the scripters of Shrek and The Mask of Zorro, he provides notable visual panache to this rollicking yarn about an eccentric pirate (Johnny Depp) and a stalwart blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who attempt to rescue a governor's daughter (Keira Knightley) from the clutches of a band of supernaturally affected pirates. More heavily plotted than one might expect, this 135-minute epic might test the patience of younger audience members but wears its length well for older viewers. Bloom and Knightley are suitably striking, while Geoffrey Rush adds the proper degree of hammy menace as the captain of the cursed pirate crew. Still, this movie wouldn't be half as memorable were it not for the patently bizarre turn by Depp, who transforms a conventional anti-hero into a fey, garrulous scoundrel whose antics constantly keep the other characters (and us) wondering what he'll do next.

SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS Despite its frequent reliance on computer graphics, this largely hails from the "old school" of hand-drawn animation, and like most recent efforts in that vein, it proves to be one dull affair. The advent of other modes of toon expression (seen in the eye-popping likes of Shrek, Chicken Run and the current Finding Nemo) doesn't mean that the traditional animated epic should now be treated as the domain of formula fodder -- the recent Spirited Away proved that -- but studios with their hands in the cartoon pot, like Disney, Fox and DreamWorks (which produced Sinbad), seem to be unable to break away from the paralyzing blueprint that rarely wavers from one hand-drawn film to the next. So just as Treasure Planet and The Road to El Dorado have already maintained the status quo of "been there, done that," so too does Sinbad elicit familiar yawns, reactions to its limp storyline about a plucky bad-boy hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) who tirelessly banters with a spunky lady love (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while battling a wicked goddess named Eris (I guess The Little Mermaid's Ursula wasn't available, though listening to Michelle Pfeiffer's purr in the part isn't exactly a chore). There are a pair of nifty sequences that pay tribute to such past fantasy tale spinners as Ray Harryhausen and Jules Verne, but for the most part, this is rough going -- even without the obligatory Bryan Adams tune clogging the soundtrack's arteries.

SPELLBOUND This may sound like so much hyperbole, but in a season packed with reloaded action sequels and superhero sagas, it's shocking to note that the most exciting movie of the summer is actually a modest documentary centering around words. Like Hoop Dreams and many of the other landmark documentaries, this Oscar-nominated gem is only ostensibly about one subject: At first glance, it's merely a piece about eight bright kids who are among the 249 finalists taking part in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. On this level alone, director Jeff Blitz has made a wonderful movie crammed with genuine suspense: Having become familiar with these eight students, we're sweating as each one is confronted with a word that most of us have never heard of before (let alone used), knowing that if they misspell it, they're out of the competition for good. Yet Blitz operates on other plateaus as well, forging subtle yet powerful examinations of the often unrealistic pressures parents place on their offspring, the social stigma among youths of being perceived by their peers as too smart, the ability of this one competition to represent different things to different families depending on their socioeconomic standing, and, especially significant in these pseudo-patriotic times, the real meaning of what it means to reach for that treasured piece of idealism known as the American Dream, blissfully ignoring the conditions that might prevent one's reach and grasp from squarely matching up.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES In the category of Completely Unnecessary Sequels That Were Clearly Made For The Sole Purpose Of Milking More Money Out Of Franchises That Were Already Adequately Wrapped Up, it's just possible that this might be the new king of the hill. Clearly, sights are adjusted southward for this belated follow-up to two excellent Terminator films helmed by James Cameron, but on its own terms, this isn't bad, even if it's occasionally too redundant for its own good. Cameron is somewhat missed behind the camera and Linda Hamilton (the real series star) is largely missed before it, but director Jonathan Mostow and a trio of scripters treat the property with respect and, in effect, don't screw it up the way that, say, Alien 3 and The Fly II soiled the intent of their notable predecessors. Arnold Schwarzenegger's back in "good Terminator" mode, playing another T-101 who's been reprogrammed to journey back in time to our present to protect future leader John Connor (Nick Stahl) from being killed by the female T-X (Kristanna Loken), the most sophisticated cyborg created in the future world. Some interesting plot developments and a smashing (in both senses of the word) chase scene can't quite erase the familiarity of it all (nor the fact that Loken's T-X isn't even as half as interesting as Robert Patrick's T-1000 from the second flick), but this is still a valiant effort by all concerned. 1/2

28 DAYS LATER Is 28 Days Later a title or a threat? A follow-up to 28 Days, Sandra Bullock's "feel-good" film about alcohol addiction? Pass the booze, indeed. Thankfully, though, this has nothing to do with zombies (the rum'n'brandy variety) and everything to do with zombies (the flesh-eating kind). It's been a while since we've had a decent genre flick of this nature, and while this effort from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) doesn't add much to the canon of the undead, it's still a worthy entry. Each zombie flick creates its own version of what turns ordinary citizens into the walking dead; here, it's a virus feeding off of people's "inner rage." But instead of turning green like the hulking creature in another new release, this rage transforms them into mindless ghouls with a nasty desire to nibble on the uninfected. The film can be split into three acts, and, as the saying goes, two out of three ain't bad. The first part captures that fever-dream sensation of being one of the only people left alive (Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris play the survivors), while the second chunk ratchets up the suspense by placing the protagonists out on the open road. But much of the energy drains during the third act, which comes off as a lackluster imitation of a similar scenario in George Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead. Still, the grainy shooting style adds to the ambience, and those seeking contemporary subtext will have no problem equating the plague with SARS or any other recent epidemic.

WHALE RIDER A star is born in Whale Rider: New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who proves to be the best young import from that part of the world since Anna Paquin in The Piano. In writer-director Niki Caro's adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's 1986 novel, Castle-Hughes stars as Pai, a 12-year-old girl who had survived a difficult birth that killed her mother and twin brother. Pai is a descendant of Paikea, who, as the legend goes, first arrived in what would become the clan's village riding on the back of a whale. Pai certainly displays all the characteristics that would enable her to one day become the village's latest leader, but because she's female, her tradition-minded grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) dismisses her from consideration, showing controlled love for her as his flesh and blood but lashing out at her whenever she attempts to step outside what he perceives as her lot in life. Employing dashes of fantasy in what is largely a realistic family drama (in many respects, it begs comparison to John Sayles' equally enchanting The Secret of Roan Inish), Whale Rider is above all a moving drama about a young girl's efforts to find her place in the world while simultaneously seeking the love and respect of a patriarch whose own stubbornness blackens an otherwise noble spirit. As Pai, Castle-Hughes delivers a clear-headed performance that, like the film which embraces it, never succumbs to cloying sentiment but instead finds heartbreak and hope in a naturalistic manner.

OPENS FRIDAY:

LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE: Angelina Jolie, Noah Taylor.

L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou.

SEABISCUIT: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges.

SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER: Antonio Banderas, Sylvester Stallone.

HOME THEATER

THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970) For their latest showstopper, the folks behind The Criterion Collection have dragged out a cult item whose reputation far exceeds the Trivial Pursuit tidbits that it was a personal favorite of Francois Truffaut, or that Martin Scorsese was the original director until he was fired 10 days into production. The movie's writer, Leonard Kastle, ended up taking control (after a second director was also let go), and to this day it remains his only screen credit. His minimalist approach is largely what earned the film instant notoriety -- rather than wallow in sensationalism (an easy route, given the sordidness of this based-on-fact story), he shoots it straight, with the same sort of chilled reserve seen in latter-day offerings like Henry ... Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog. As Ray Fernandez, a con man who woos lonely women with the sole purpose of bilking them out of their money, and Martha Beck, a 220-pound nurse who hooks up with Ray and helps him murder the women who don't "cooperate," Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler are wholly believable, and the film's murder set pieces remain among the most startling ever committed to celluloid. DVD features include an interview with Kastle, the theatrical trailer, and, best of all, an essay that relates the entire true-life tale (thus allowing for easy comparison with the screen version's accuracy). Movie: / Extras:

THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002) Rather than Adrien Brody, it was Michael Caine who deserved the Best Actor Oscar for his work in this second screen adaptation of a Graham Greene novel whose ideas seem perpetually topical. Caine stars as Thomas Fowler, a London Times journalist stationed in Saigon in the 1950s; his strong relationship with a gorgeous Vietnamese woman (Do Thi Hai Yen) encounters some unexpected turbulence with the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic American who makes no bones about the fact that he's fallen instantly in love with Fowler's young sweetheart. Director Phillip Noyce, who was two-for-two last year (having also helmed Rabbit-Proof Fence), has crafted a smart piece of entertainment that works equally well on the personal and political fronts, placing a complex love triangle at the center of a sobering dissertation that questions the US's continuous policy of meddling in other countries' affairs. DVD features include audio commentary by Noyce, Caine, Fraser and others, a making-of piece, three book reviews (written back in the day) of Greene's novel, and an excellent Vietnam Timeline that charts the country's turbulent history. Movie: 1/2 / Extras:


-- Matt Brunson


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