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THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT: Mum's the word for undercover cops Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Starsky & Hutch
  • THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT: Mum's the word for undercover cops Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Starsky & Hutch
NEW RELEASES

STARSKY & HUTCH Having now appeared together in several films, it might be time to regard Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Hollywood's latest certified comedy team, a tradition that includes classic twofers like Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, and Lemmon and Matthau. Like their predecessors, these guys are able to bring out the best in each other, a vital ingredient in making Starsky & Hutch more tolerable than most movies based on past TV shows. Wilson's Hutch, a rascally bad-boy cop, serves as the perfect counterpoint to Stiller's Starsky, a bungling, by-the-book detective, and this disheveled knock-off of the Paul Michael Glaser-David Soul series works best when the sheer force of their personalities overcomes the shoddy writing. The story pits the couple against a businessman (Vince Vaughn) who's managed to develop a new strain of cocaine that's undetectable to both cops and canine units alike; their short-tempered captain (Fred Williamson) doesn't approve of their methods, but informant Huggy Bear (an aptly cast Snoop Dogg) hesitantly agrees to help their investigation. The film's smug swipes at 70s artifacts are too obvious to be effective, but give this credit for being the first movie in many a moon to include jokes about doughnut-eating cops and mimes that are actually funny. **1/2


CURRENT RELEASES

AGAINST THE ROPES The real-life story of Jackie Kallen, the first female manager in the history of boxing, is a captivating one, and someday I'd like to see a movie about it. In the meantime, there's Against the Ropes, which is "inspired" by Kallen's life but ultimately has as much to do with her story as Schindler's List did with the War of 1812. Hollywood frequently bastardizes history for the sake of producing an interesting yarn, but when what's put on the screen is far less compelling than the actual events, it's like shooting yourself in the foot but having the bullet pass through the kneecap as well. Ropes clearly fancies itself a companion piece to Erin Brockovich, but really, it's just a third-rate Working Girl, with Meg Ryan working overtime as the plucky working-class heroine. *1/2

BARBERSHOP 2: BACK IN BUSINESS This doesn't feel like a sequel to the 2002 hit as much as a continuation, with the entire primary cast returning to protect the establishment from yet another outside threat. In the first film, it was a loan shark who wanted to turn it into a strip joint; here, it's a slick businessman (Harry Lennix) whose ambition to "upgrade" the neighborhood includes opening a chain salon (Nappy Cutz) directly across the street from the venerable family shop owned by Calvin (series star Ice Cube). No better and no worse than its predecessor, this likable, lackadaisical comedy proves more focused than the first film yet lacks much of its comic bite, with even Cedric the Entertainer (as opinionated Eddie) forced to marginally tone down his act. **1/2

BROKEN LIZARD'S CLUB DREAD The five-man troupe Broken Lizard presents this comedy in which the vacation resort Pleasure Island becomes a stomping ground for a masked maniac with a very large machete. Yet here's the kicker: Club Dread doesn't exactly feel like a comedy. The genuine laughs are few, the gore quotient is high, and the youthful characters are no more sophisticated than the dolts who populate Jason and Freddy movies. The result, then, is basically an ordinary, run-of-the-mill slasher flick, with the usual amount of fleeting T&A tossed in to mollify the Playboy perusers in the audience. *1/2

DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS Just as Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey infused the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing with their vibrant personalities and swift moves, so do Diego Luna and Romola Garai provide some lift to this otherwise forgettable "re-imagining." Set in 1958 Cuba, on the eve of Castro's revolution, the film centers on an American student (Garai) who strikes up a friendship with a local lad (Luna) who shares her passion for dancing. The storyline is trivial in the extreme, and the film never establishes its explosive era in any believable sense -- despite some tacked-on moments of chaos, this might as well be set in 1986 Miami as 1958 Havana. Yet Luna and Garai make an appealing couple, while fans of the original Dirty Dancing will be rewarded with an extended cameo by Swayze as a dance instructor. **

THE DREAMERS Yes, Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of Gilbert Adair's novel has indeed been awarded the NC-17 rating. And yes, there are copious amounts of full-frontal nudity (both male and female), as its young leads engage in sexual mind games in 1968 Paris. But the puritans who will lambaste this film for being about nothing more than sex will largely miss the point. Sure, there's sex, but there's also politics, cinema, psychology, and the sort of ruddy-faced idealism that once upon a time fueled numerous motion pictures made by filmmakers with international aspirations. But even though the movie is more ambitious than it initially appears, its overall success can't quite rival its heady intentions. **1/2

50 FIRST DATES Even many of the folks who don't like Adam Sandler have conceded that The Wedding Singer is fairly decent, with cinema's top-earning frat boy ably subverting his obnoxiousness in pursuit of a sweet romance with Drew Barrymore. This new film features an even more intense love story between the pair, yet this winning hand is repeatedly set down in order to make room for the sort of juvenile antics that will remind Sandler bashers why they hate this kid in the first place. Meshing Groundhog Day with Memento, this Hawaii-set comedy casts Sandler as an aquarium vet who falls for a school teacher (Barrymore) who suffers from short-term memory loss. Too bad lowbrow antics repeatedly get in the way of the agreeable love story. **1/2

THE FOG OF WAR Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War might reasonably be expected to serve as a mea culpa on the part of the former Secretary of Defense for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a plea for forgiveness for his role as one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. Yet Errol Morris' latest picture, an Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, proves to be an infinitely more comprehensive -- not to mention more ambiguous -- piece of nonfiction, as McNamara discusses just about every facet of his life yet still remains tantalizingly opaque regarding certain subjects. The film offers many lessons to mull over, yet the most meaningful one might be the axiom about history repeating itself: One look at the current mess in Iraq and it's chilling to note how little has been learned by those in charge. ***

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING The plot can be dismissed by crotchety viewers as borderline soap opera -- in more modern times, its character dynamics could easily play out on the Ewing ranch in Dallas -- but this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's speculative book about 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) and his 17-year-old muse (Scarlett Johansson) soars primarily because of its visuals, an appropriate strength for a movie about an artist. Vermeer's pieces are notable for their meticulous attention to detail as well as their astonishing capture of light and use of color; working in tandem with ace cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Ben Van Os, director Peter Webber follows suit by transforming his film into a live-action facsimile of a Vermeer painting. ***

HIDALGO A sprawling mess of a movie, Hidalgo is also the sort of old-fashioned popcorn entertainment that has become increasingly rare on the current movie scene -- and in this case, the pro far outweighs the con. Viggo Mortensen stars as a cowboy who, along with his trusty horse Hidalgo, is invited to take part in a grueling 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert, a contest in which most participants perish under the merciless sun and the few survivors must contend with duplicity and double-crosses at every turn. What follows is a rousing adventure yarn that includes breathtaking vistas, worthy comic relief, occasionally terrible CGI effects, a supporting role for Omar Sharif (as the Sheik overseeing the race), and plenty of exciting derring-do in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones. ***

MIRACLE This Disney release is being promoted as "From The Studio That Brought You The Rookie And Remember The Titans," and that's clearly the best way to market this piece. Like those sports-illustrated endeavors, this one's also an acceptably middlebrow drama that asks nothing more of its audience members than to cheer at the appropriate moments and, if theater management doesn't mind, get a "Wave" going during the climactic Big Game. Here, the focus is on coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) and the 20 kids who formed the US Ice Hockey team that somehow managed to beat the formidable Russian squad during the 1980 Olympics. **1/2

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST Many of Mel Gibson's movies have displayed a fetishistic fascination with blood and guts, and this one's no exception. In relating the saga of Jesus Christ from his betrayal by Judas through the crucifixion, Gibson has taken the greatest story ever told and turned it into a snuff film. Jesus's essentially pacifist teachings don't just take a back seat to the beatings suffered by Christ (played by Jim Caviezel) -- they're locked away in the trunk, with Gibson paying them only fleeting lip service. The emphasis is squarely on employing the best visual effects, makeup designs and slo-mo camerawork that money can buy to lovingly reveal every whip mark slashed across Jesus' back, every thorn driven into His head, every nail hammered into His flesh. This is Kill Bill for the churchgoing crowd, an unrelenting orgy of evangelical ire that's sorely missing any type of meaningful context. **

TWISTED Ashley Judd has made more than her fair share of dum-dum thrillers (Double Jeopardy, High Crimes, etc.), yet Twisted stands out through the sheer fact that it's the worst one yet, a preposterous yarn about a detective who becomes a leading suspect in her own investigation when the victims all turn out to be her former lovers. Accounting for the risible dialogue, the gaping plotholes and the utter predictability of the killer's identity isn't too difficult -- after all, this is scripter Sarah Thorp's first produced credit -- but it's almost inconceivable that the director of this total misfire is Philip Kaufman, the immense talent behind The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. *

WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT Maybe Ray Romano's shtick works on TV, where undemanding sit-coms possess the ability to easily amuse undemanding couch potatoes. But as far as his big-screen debut is concerned, the man's a washout, a zero, a big fat nada. This movie about a former US president (Gene Hackman) who runs for mayor against the town's plumber has been designed to showcase Romano's comedic prowess, yet his performance is about as funny as Sean Penn's in Mystic River -- which is to say, not funny at all. Hackman's spirited performance is better than this picture deserves, while Maura Tierney, as the no-nonsense recipient of both men's amorous advances, brings warmth and resolve to an otherwise thin character. But the comedy quotient, waning from the start, becomes nonexistent whenever it's placed in Romano's clumsy mitts. *1/2

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