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NEW RELEASES

RADIO Inspired by a true story, this concerns its noble little heart with the matter of James Robert "Radio" Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a mentally challenged kid in Anderson, SC, and Harold Jones (Ed Harris), the high school football coach whose interest in the lad transformed both their lives. Films like this one are created solely to pummel our tear ducts with bleeding-heart hammers and make them bust wide open, yet Radio left me curiously unmoved. Maybe it was because Mike Tollin directed this with all the flair and imagination of a TV after-school special. Maybe it was because scripter Mike Rich has again revealed himself as an utterly shameless huckster (he also penned The Rookie and Finding Forrester, the latter an especially manipulative piece of pap). Maybe it was because Gooding (actually somewhat restrained, given the circumstances) is never allowed to play a three-dimensional character but rather a manifestation of a white man's cause, human currency to be handed around whenever a character needs his or her consciousness raised (and how is it that the evil specter of racism never gets addressed directly, even though this is set in a small Southern town in the 1970s?). Maybe it was because I was aghast at how this film wastes Debra Winger (as the coach's wife), a great actress in the 80s who as an older woman is having trouble making her way back into Hollywood's inner circle. Then again, maybe it was simply because the theater's air conditioning unit was drying up my contacts something fierce, making tears an impossible acquisition.

SCARY MOVIE 3 A few weeks ago, I overheard a woman state that she was dying to see Scary Movie 3 because "it has everyone in it." Wow, how could I possibly have missed the announcement that Nicholson, Hackman, Cruise and Eastwood (among others) all would be making, at the very least, cameo appearances? My mistake. By "everyone," she meant the likes of Charlie Sheen, Pamela Anderson, Simon Cowell and a Michael Jackson clone -- certainly some folks' idea of a good time, but little more than an act of sheer desperation as far as I'm concerned. Then again, this series has always been about low-brow entertainment, but at least the original picture delivered more than its share of raunchy laughs. The first sequel, on the other hand, offered raunch but few chuckles, while this one, the first to be rated PG-13 rather than R (as well as the first made by someone other than the Wayans family), seems reluctant to serve up much in the way of anything. Operating like an inferior issue of Mad magazine with all the pages mixed up, this randomly ping-pongs between tepid take-offs of The Ring, Signs, The Matrix Reloaded and 8 Mile, with side swipes at The Others, TV sweeps weeks, and pedophilic priests just to make sure every angle is covered. The notion of Leslie Nielsen playing the US President is funny in theory, but this film even blows the comic potential of that situation. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

CABIN FEVER You know the routine: Five idiotic kids with sex and drugs on the brain hole up in a shack in the middle of nowhere (filming largely took place in North Carolina); after spending some time making fun of the inbred locals, they're suddenly confronted with a terror that ends up picking them off one by one. In this case, it's a disease (spread through water) that causes the victim's flesh to peel off, eventually leaving only blood, bones and very toothy grimaces. Like the summer sleeper 28 Days Later, the film's power derives not from its scare angle (which isn't too fantastical in this era of SARS and AIDS) but from its depiction of the manner in which humans will turn on each other when their own survival is at stake. 1/2

CASA DE LOS BABYS For his latest stab at a subject most other filmmakers wouldn't even consider, writer-director John Sayles looks at the practice of Americans adopting infants from foreign countries. Here, the setting is an unspecified South American city, as six women -- naive Maggie Gyllenhaal, spiritual Daryl Hannah, bitchy Marcia Gay Harden, struggling Susan Lynch, optimistic Mary Steenburgen and forthright Lili Taylor -- hang out together as they wait for government clearance to cart kids back to the US. The abrupt ending is probably intentional -- it's Sayles way of saying that life goes on and nothing will really change -- but with a running time of only 95 minutes, it also cheats us of spending more time with these interesting characters.

THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS Cuba Gooding Jr., so animated a performer that he even appears to be overacting on this movie's poster, plays a crafty New York ad executive who returns to his hometown of Montecarlo, GA, to attend the funeral of his beloved aunt. Before he can collect his inheritance, though, he must fulfill his aunt's wish of steering the church choir to success in the prestigious Gospel Explosion. For the most part, the movie's non-musical segments are painfully formulaic bits centering around Gooding's wholly uninspired character, yet when the gospel tunes take center stage (which thankfully is often), the movie transcends its trite surroundings and emerges as a theater-shaking crowd-pleaser. 1/2

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