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DOWN IN THE VALLEY Writer-director David Jacobson's Down in the Valley seeks to pay homage to the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and various scenes also bring to mind Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. We're talking classic cinema here, folks, yet for all of Jacobson's ambitions, his movie doesn't really deserve to be mentioned in the same newspaper as those pictures, let alone the same sentence. That's a shame, because for a good while, this moody drama clicks on most cylinders -- less for its Western trappings than for its look at an ill-fated romance. Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood, best known for playing a rebellious LA teen at odds with her single mom in Thirteen, here plays a rebellious LA teen similarly at odds with her single dad. While protective of her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), Tobe appears to have nothing but contempt for her father Wade (David Morse). She meets and falls in love with Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton), a much-older man whose cowboy duds and "aw, shucks" mannerisms make him an odd figure in the hustle-and-bustle concrete landscape of Los Angeles. Tobe and Lonnie think he's the genuine article, while Wade smells a phony -- audience members, on the other hand, can't initially peg him one way or another, thanks to Norton's finely nuanced performance. A shocking incident midway through the movie promises to elevate the story to another level, but instead, the film unravels at breakneck speed, degenerating into a mishmash of scarcely credible shootouts and leaden symbolism. It's possible that we're in the early stages of the latest cinematic fad -- the revisionist Western -- but with its crippling second half, this one ultimately turns out to be a brokeback movie. **

Current Releases

AKEELAH AND THE BEE The pattern holds that every decade's midway stretch gives us an underdog worth supporting. In the 1970s, it was Rocky, in the 1980s, it was the Karate Kid, and in the 1990s, it was Babe. And now here comes 11-year-old Akeelah to carry the torch for the little people. Akeelah and the Bee, which in addition to its underdog roots also manages to come across as a mesh between the documentary Spellbound and Boyz N the Hood refitted with a happy ending, centers on Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a south LA girl who, with the help of her mentor (Laurence Fishburne), works her way through the national spelling bee circuit. What sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah's triumphs end up lifting the entire community: Her success is their success, and it's truly inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life throw their support behind her. There's no need to hide that lump in your throat or tear in your eye -- this movie earns its sentiment. ***

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL The latest from the Ghost World team of director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes starts out as a great movie that devolves into a pretty good one, as a stinging expose of campus life gives way to the more rigid narrative demands of a police procedural. The film follows college freshman Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as he discovers that it's difficult to become a great artist when his teachers turn out to be hypocrites and his fellow students produce amateurish works that are instantly hailed as cutting-edge. Burdened with so much disillusionment, it's no wonder he's barely aware that a serial killer is trolling the campus grounds. This works best when it taps into the uncertainties of an adolescent existence suddenly liberated from the confines of home and family, or when it deconstructs the notion of what truly constitutes being a success in one's chosen field. It's at its weakest when it clumsily tries to tie together its points by employing a sensationalistic device that detracts from its astute observations. ***

THE DA VINCI CODE Forget the comparisons to Dan Brown's monumental bestseller: On its own cinematic terms, Ron Howard's adaptation is a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and more food for thought. Yet however this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller that's heavily dependant on predictable directions taken by the storyline and character revelations that are painfully obvious to astute audience members. Tom Hanks stars in the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist who, while being chased for a murder he did not commit, attempts to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Amelie's Audrey Tautou (as Langdon's sidekick), Paul Bettany (as a homicidal monk) and French national treasure Jean Reno (as a persistent cop) lend Hanks support, though it's animated Ian McKellen, as a British scholar, who earns MVP honors. **1/2

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