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THE FAMILY STONE Yuletide comedy-drama The Family Stone begs the question: Why steer the guests toward warm milk when everyone really wants spiked eggnog? Initially more reminiscent of the brittle Thanksgiving yarns Home For the Holidays and Pieces of April than the warm-and-fuzzy titles usually foisted upon us at Christmas, this ensemble piece centers on the Stone family, a liberal New England clan whose members prove to be remarkably close-minded when it comes to accepting a conservative prude into their abode. Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his parents (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson) and siblings, but except for his laidback brother Ben (Luke Wilson), all the family members -- especially bitchy sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) -- treat their guest poorly, finding it impossible to warm up to her sheltered viewpoints and physical eccentricities. The arrival of Meredith's younger sister Julie (Claire Danes) only makes matters worse, as she's everything (warm, witty, understanding) that her sister is not. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha tips his PC hand early by making one family member (Ty Giordano) deaf, gay and attached to a black lover (Brian White), but he nevertheless manages to make the various strained character interactions believable, doing a nice job of capturing the way that folks who seemingly come from different planets must try to coexist peacefully whenever the calendar says it's time for another familial gathering. But refusing to follow through on the messy reality of his story (or, let's face it, of life), he slams down on the brakes heading into the final half-hour. Instead, he shamelessly decides to change direction by giving every character (except the one designated as sacrificial lamb, of course) a happily-ever-after fadeout by making sure no one is left out in the cold -- either physically, mentally or emotionally. ** 1/2

Current Releases

AEON FLUX While director Karyn Kusama may deserve a lavish Hollywood mansion and three-picture deal as much as the next filmmaker, she's one person whose career might have benefited more had she stayed hungry. Her low-budget debut feature, 2000's Girlfight, was an indie knockout, signaling her arrival as a moviemaker with grit, determination and something to say. Five years later, Kusama's back with her sophomore effort, and it's dispiriting to see that it's a big-budget production deemed so awful by its own studio that it wasn't even screened in advance for critics. Based on an animated MTV series, this futuristic romp stars Charlize Theron as the title warrior, one member of a revolutionary outfit seeking to overthrow a corrupt government. An impersonal slab of sci-fi sameness, Aeon Flux wears its lethargy like a badge of honor, with Kusama's draggy direction and Theron's monotonous performance up front and center in virtually every scene. * 1/2

CHICKEN LITTLE With its hand-drawn animation division boarded up and its partnership with Pixar in flames, Walt Disney Pictures has taken the next step by creating its own fully computer-animated movie. Yet if Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. The story is serviceable, centering on a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals. And to be fair, the film has its moments, most of them courtesy of a character known as Fish Out of Water (basically an animated Harpo Marx). But the central thrust -- a standard "underdog wins the day" slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus. **

DERAILED The inaugural feature from The Weinstein Company recalls the formation of TriStar Pictures back in the 80s, when the quality of its initial slate was so dreadful that one critic suggested the company should change its name to OneStar. Certainly, Derailed is deserving of whatever critical scorn is tossed its way, whether it's in the form of a solitary star, a down-turned thumb or even an extended middle finger. The film stars Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston as unhappily married business drones whose attempt at an affair gets interrupted by a French thug (Vincent Cassel) with blackmail on his mind. Armed with only a plot synopsis, I (like many others) figured out the major plot twist even before stepping into the theater, yet this movie is so fundamentally brain-dead on so many levels that predictability turns out to be the least of its problems. *

GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN' Rapper 50 Cent may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he's as relevant as a dead mic. His starring vehicle, about a drug dealer trying to make it as a rap star, is yet one more uninspired crime pic that liberally borrows from all the violent "dis dis bang bang" titles that preceded it. Yet the movie it most resembles -- coincidentally, given the proximity of the release dates -- is this past summer's Hustle & Flow (in which a pimp tried to make it as a rapper). It's fascinating to place both films side by side and see how one succeeds while the other doesn't. With its rich characterizations and pungent atmosphere, Hustle flows. Get Rich Or Die Tryin', with its frayed theatrics and stiff performance by 50 Cent, isn't worth a plugged nickel. * 1/2

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