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BASIC INSTINCT 2 While many reviewers (to say nothing of Razzie Award voters) consider Sharon Stone a miserable actress, I can honestly say I would require all four fingers and the thumb of one hand to count her memorable performances. That number includes her fine work in last summer's Broken Flowers, as well as her star-making performance as the ice pick-wielding author Catherine Tramell in the 1992 smash hit Basic Instinct. But what Hollywood giveth, Hollywood taketh away, meaning that the role that made her an A-lister might now be the same role that effectively kills her struggling career. In BI2, Stone is simply awful, replacing the sexy insouciance from the first film with a beady stare that would seem more appropriate coming from a dead codfish than a calculating nympho adept at playing twisted mind games. This needless sequel is badly photographed, flatly directed, indifferently acted and wretchedly scripted -- a train wreck all the way around. *

FAILURE TO LAUNCH In this sputtering romantic comedy, Matthew McConaughey plays Tripp, a 35-year-old who still lives at home with his parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). Anxious to get their grown boy out of the house, the folks hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), a professional consultant who -- get this -- makes a career out of building up the self-esteem of adult males still living at home by romancing them and then dumping them once they feel independent enough to move out on their own. McConaughey and Parker try, but they can't save a premise as insipid as this one. Instead, the fun can be found in the margins: Bradley Cooper and Justin Bartha have their moments as Tripp's friends, Zooey Deschanel adds some much-needed edge as Paula's droll roommate, and Bates and Bradshaw invest their characters' relationship with the humor and empathy that's sorely missing from the top-billed stars' dalliances. **

FRIENDS WITH MONEY Movies like Friends With Money can often be termed "slice of life" films, but when they're as tasty as this one, a slice won't suffice: We end up longing for the whole pie. Set in LA, this rich seriocomic gem centers on the daily activities of four close female friends. Three of them indeed have money: screenwriter Christine (Catherine Keener), clothing designer Jane (Frances McDormand) and stay-at-home mom Franny (Joan Cusack). The friend without money is Olivia, whose lifestyle forces the others to reflect upon their own circumstances. I greatly enjoyed writer-director Nicole Holofcener's previous two pictures, 1996's Walking and Talking and 2002's Lovely & Amazing, but this might be her most accomplished work yet. Her greatest strength as a writer rests not in her dialogue (though it's top-grade) but rather in the manner in which she proves to be enormously generous of spirit with all her characters. ***1/2

INSIDE MAN Inside Man is A Spike Lee Joint, sho nuff, which may explain why it isn't your typical heist flick in either structure or spirit. Bank robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his crew take over Manhattan Trust, bully the hostages and make the usual demands from an NYPD repped by Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) -- so far, so Dog Day Afternoon. But the addition of a mysterious power player (Jodie Foster) to the equation takes the story in a different direction, and it eventually becomes clear that Lee and writer Russell Gewirtz aren't as interested in the thriller components as in making astute observations about contemporary society, especially as it relates to a post-9/11 mindset. For better or worse, Lee downplays his usual technical flourishes, though one defining Spike Lee signature move is certain to draw cheers from the faithful. ***

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN The latest hollow exercise in hipster chic is the sort of convoluted, twist-packed yarn that strains to be unpredictable but is actually even easier to figure out than those Jumble puzzles that appear in the dailies. Josh Hartnett, cinema's favorite lightweight, plays Slevin, a seemingly guileless guy who finds himself caught in a power struggle between two rival crime lords (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley). Bruce Willis is on hand as, natch, the taciturn hitman who turns out to be more involved than he initially appears. Hartnett would seem hard-pressed to carry a basket of laundry, let alone carry a motion picture, while the three reliable vets seem almost bored trying to keep up with the plot's changes of direction. The movie's saving grace is Lucy Liu: Cast as a chatty neighbor who helps Slevin piece together the mystery, she's a breath of fresh air in a genre that too often suffocates on its own fumes of pungent testosterone. **

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR A small movie with big emotions, Preaching to the Choir -- directed by York, SC, native Charles Randolph-Wright -- receives this month's Truth In Advertising Award: There's not much on tap that's particularly surprising, meaning that this may have trouble luring anyone besides the faithful (read: target audience) into the fold. Yet the lack of pretension, the exuberant musical numbers and the conviction of the actors easily overcome some narrative rough spots to transform this into an agreeable picture for moviegoers of all persuasions. The story centers on two orphaned brothers growing up in Harlem; Wes (Darien Sills-Evans) becomes the neighborhood preacher while Te (Billoah Greene) goes on to become a hardcore rapper in Hollywood. But circumstances force Te to return home, and his decision immediately affects all the members of this staid community, particularly his brother. The two lead actors are as likable as everything else in this dulcet entertainment. ***

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