MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS When exactly did one of cinema's most accomplished actresses turn into one of its most boring? Except for a couple of exceptions (most notably her atypical -- and smashing -- turn in Iris), Judi Dench has been delivering the exact same performance dating back to 1997's Mrs. Brown and running through last fall's Pride & Prejudice (a mercifully small role) -- that of the frosty, tart-tongued Englishwoman who's clearly smarter than everyone else in the room. She's at it again in Mrs. Henderson Presents, a predictable bit of piffle that follows the "quirky English film" template (see also: Calendar Girls, The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine, etc.) as precisely as, say, Wolf Creek stuck to the slasher film formula or Hitch adhered to the romantic comedy blueprint. Based on a true story, this finds Dench cast as a wealthy widow who elects to invest in a dilapidated theater in 1930s London. Along with her gently combative partner (Bob Hoskins, faring the best), she decides to turn the Windmill Theater into a showcase for vaudeville revues staged with naked young women. The theater proves to be a raging success, but then World War II comes along to rain on everyone's parade. Daffy humor makes way for maudlin drama (complete with the requisite wartime speeches), but except for the chance to catch Hoskins in his own one-man rendition of The Full Monty, there's nothing here to indicate that accomplished director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) is doing anything but coasting. The blue-hairs will dig it, though. Rating: **
NANNY MCPHEE With her gaunt features, careful Brit enunciation and nose for distinguished projects, Emma Thompson has often seemed like the modern-day equivalent of Julie Andrews in her 1960s prime. So it makes perfect sense that Thompson should finally get around to making a film that owes its origins to Mary Poppins. Nanny McPhee may be based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books, but its cinematic predecessor is clearly the family film that turned "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" into the longest household word ever recorded. Reminiscent of the black comedies routinely made by Danny DeVito (most notably, his delightful Matilda), this finds director Kirk Jones and Thompson (who also penned the script) similarly employing menacing situations, questionable comic material and oversized, often grotesque characters in an unorthodox attempt to arrive at a sentimental conclusion. Thompson, delivering a sharp performance under pounds of facial latex, plays the title character, a snaggletoothed, wart-sprouting nursemaid who mysteriously shows up to help a widower (Colin Firth) contend with his seven monstrous children. As Nanny McPhee helps transform these little devils into little angels, she also becomes involved in the family's strained affairs with an interfering aunt (Angela Lansbury) and a husband-hunting harridan (Celia Imrie). Most of the screen time is spent on the children, which is a shame, since Thompson's character is by far the most interesting one on view. Nanny McPhee should play well with the small fry, though adults may be more bothered by the clumsy shifts in tone. Rating: **1/2
SOMETHING NEW From Silver Streak to Bringing Down the House, there have been countless movies in which an uptight Caucasian is taught how to loosen up by an African-American acquaintance. Something New reverses that formula, but beyond this little-seen novelty, there's not much about this romantic comedy that transcends the story's expected ebb and flow. Here, the rigid individual is Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a workaholic who doesn't have time to look for her IBM (ideal black male). When she finally does make time to go on a blind date, she's stunned to discover that the guy, a landscape architect named Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), is white. Initially resistant, she soon realizes he'd make a suitable boyfriend. But once Kenya is introduced to her "perfect mate," a black businessman (Blair Underwood) who shares her work ethics and outlook on life, she's forced to make a decision between what she wants and what society expects. This potential sleeper from director Sanaa Hamri and screenwriter Kriss Turner (both making feature-film debuts) is a diamond in the rough, blessed with a vibrant leading lady and choice moments dealing with racial tensions but marred by occasional clunky dialogue and perfunctory supporting characters. Something New delivers more often than not, but for a truly exemplary love story starring Sanaa Lathan, rent Love and Basketball. Rating: **1/2
TRANSAMERICA I daresay that even the Weinstein Company, the studio behind Transamerica, is pushing the movie as a one-hit wonder, as a standard vehicle whose only noteworthy component is the stellar performance by Felicity Huffman in the central role. But Transamerica deserves more credit than that, as writer-director Duncan Tucker has made a picture that is by turns funny, touching and blessed with a generosity of spirit. Huffman, best known as one of TV's Desperate Housewives, inhabits the type of role that seems to automatically win trophies; indeed, she's already snagged several prizes, including Golden Globe and SEFCA awards for Best Actress. But this is no mere parlor trick of a performance: If anything, Huffman approaches her role of Bree, a transsexual ready to make that transition from "he" to "she," in a surprisingly understated fashion, playing up the character's conservative qualities while ignoring the more flamboyant elements that would have made the part more familiar to connoisseurs of independent fare. Bree's journey begins just prior to her operation, when she learns that her one tryst with a woman 17 years earlier has left her with a son, a street hustler named Toby (Kevin Zegers). Unable to reveal to Toby her true identity, she pretends to be a church lady involved in charitable activities, which in this case means allowing the boy to travel with her cross-country to get back to LA. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters (the scenes with Graham Greene are lovely), stop off to see Bree's unaccepting parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) and learn to grudgingly open up to each other. Transamerica is ultimately a road movie as much as it's a character study, and it proves to be satisfying on both fronts. Rating: ***
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN The secret behind this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is that behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any cinematic love story of recent times. Scripters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee have managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. In detailing the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain is about longing and loneliness as much as it's about love -- indeed, loss and regret become tangible presences in the film. Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance, but this is clearly Ledger's show: He's phenomenal as Ennis, and his character's anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf. Rating: ***1/2
HOODWINKED This independent toon flick isn't exactly awful, but with its crude animation, lumbering story line and forgettable songs, it's hard to envision any demand even for its mere existence. Clearly aping the Shrek films, this attempts to put a spin on the classic children's fairy tales by adding all manner of so-called "hip" references and grownup-geared plot maneuverings, approaches that grow more stale with each passing year. Hoodwinked is basically Little Red Riding Hood by way of Rashomon, as amphibious Detective Nicky Flippers (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) hears variations on the saga from four different participants: Red (Anne Hathaway), Granny (Glenn Close), the Wolf (Patrick Warburton) and the Woodsman (Jim Belushi). Viewers who haven't completely Zenned out during the showing will easily guess the identity of the true culprit. Rating: *1/2
KING KONG Does Peter Jackson's heavily hyped remake of the 1933 masterpiece improve on its landmark predecessor? Of course not. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any area in which it's better than the original -- even the occasionally crude effects from 1933, crafted from blood, sweat, tears and tiny models, stir the soul more than the CGI trickery on view here. But on its own terms, this new version gets the job done. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) journey to Skull Island, meet the great ape and bring him back to New York City. Despite an abundance of thrills, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story between woman and beast -- and it's a measure of Watts' skills that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that's created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. Rating: ***1/2
LAST HOLIDAY There's very little innovation on view in this predictable picture (a remake of a 1950 comedy starring Alec Guinness), but Queen Latifah and her supporting cast -- to say nothing of the eye-popping shots of delectable food dishes -- go a long way toward making it digestible. Latifah plays a store clerk who, upon learning that she'll die in three weeks, cashes in all her assets and heads off to a swanky European resort to spend her final days in luxury. The message of the film is that everyone -- no matter their lot in life -- should be treated with dignity and respect, but after watching Latifah receive endless massages, hit the snowy slopes and chow down on lobster and lamb, most moviegoers will be forgiven for believing that the real message is that (duh) it's better to be rich than poor. Rating: **1/2
LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD Looking for comedy is fine, but it would have helped matters immeasurably if Albert Brooks had gone looking for balance in his latest screen undertaking. Fans of the self-effacing comic will find many moments to cherish here, but overall, Brooks never has a clear handle on the material and as a result the movie slips away from him. Playing himself, Brooks finds that he's been chosen (only because more popular comedians weren't available) by the US government to go to India and return with a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. Despite a few soft jabs at topical issues -- for instance, how the mere suggestion of an American presence on foreign soil might be enough to create an international incident -- the movie is ultimately more about Brooks' attempts to gauge his own waning popularity than to provide any insights into the Muslim world. Rating: **
THE MATADOR If someone were to greet James Bond by stating, "You look good," the answer would doubtless be something on the order of "Why, thank you" or "That's true." But here, the reply is bitter and blunt: "I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the Navy's left town." OK, so it's not actually Agent 007 who utters this sharp retort, but coming from Pierce Brosnan, cast as another character who's been given a "licence to kill," it's the next best thing. Brosnan stars as Julian Noble, a career assassin whose life exists on a never-ending loop of getting drunk, getting laid and getting his target. Burning out at a rapid clip, he opens up to a businessman (Greg Kinnear) he meets in a bar in Mexico City, thereby jumpstarting an unusual relationship. Brosnan is performing his own high-wire act here, daring us not to like his sleazy, vulgar, insensitive, immoral character. As a human being, Julian's not much, but as a movie character, he's a keeper. Rating: ***
MATCH POINT An upwardly mobile tennis instructor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in London woos a rich woman (Emily Mortimer) but finds himself lusting after an American actress (Scarlett Johansson). Writer-director Woody Allen may have caught a showing of Fatal Attraction before embarking on his screenplay, but more likely, he was inspired by classics of film and literature (most notably Crime and Punishment). Given his reference points, this finds him in a contemplative mood, examining the tug-of-war between love and lust and allowing his protagonist plenty of opportunities to mull over the degree to which blind luck shapes our lives. The film is exceedingly well-written and exquisitely performed (Johansson stands out in her best performance to date), yet for all its dissimilarities to past Allen films, it still ends up playing like a remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors: Allen could have offered more surprises and still retained his thematic stance. But for the most part, Match Point delivers on its premise, and it's gratifying to see Woody back in the game. Rating: ***
THE NEW WORLD It seems almost incidental that Terrence Malick uses actors and scripts and props while creating his works, because what he's producing are visual poems. As always, the cameraman is the star, yet any ambience created in tandem by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick repeatedly dissipates in the face of the plodding treatment of fascinating material: the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and, more specifically, the relationship between lithe Native American girl Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and sensitive English settler John Smith (Colin Farrell). Hitchcock once cracked that actors should be treated like cattle, but Malick seems to have adopted that statement as philosophy: His indifference to the accomplished performers milling around the set (Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale among them) is so apparent that one almost wonders why he didn't just cast this with mannequins (he seems equally bored with prose). Where's a mischievous raccoon when you really need one? Rating: **
OPENS FRIDAY, FEB. 3:
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins.
SOMETHING NEW: Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS: Camilla Belle, Tommy Flanagan.