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THE BREAK-UP There's a fine movie trapped inside The Break-Up, and it's a shame that it couldn't break free. As it stands, this picture about a rocky relationship is never able to compensate for the staggering miscalculation that cripples it. From the start, Gary (Vince Vaughn) is painted as a self-centered, insensitive man-child, while Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) is intelligent, classy, mature and patient. He's a prick; she's a saint. Um, why exactly would we have a vested interest in whether these two remain together? Simple answer: We don't. Vaughn is a guy's-guy kind of actor -- his characters are more comfortable shooting pool or knocking back beers than getting romantic -- so it's no surprise that the chemistry he generates is with Jon Favreau (as his best friend) rather than Aniston (this fraternal rapport is also why he and Owen Wilson clicked in Wedding Crashers). But Vaughn and Aniston do a nice job of creating genuine tension whenever their characters find themselves immersed in yet another nasty argument, although what this says about the pair's future as a real-life couple, I'll leave for the tabloids to dissect. **

CARS Ever since Pixar Animation Studios began its incredible run with Toy Story back in 1995, haven't most observers been wondering when the company would hit a critical and/or commercial roadblock and watch its latest effort crash and burn? Newsflash: It hasn't happened yet, and it ain't happening with Cars. The storyline seems a little hoary: A big-city slicker learns to slow down and smell the flowers -- or, in this case, the diesel -- in a small town in the middle of nowhere. But the picture's six scripters expand the parameters of this plot description to make an entertaining and even poignant tale about the lure of the open road and the passing of a quaint chapter in modern American history. That race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) will find redemption in the small town of Radiator Springs (populated by vehicles played by, among others, Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt) is never in doubt, but like the best storytellers, John Lasseter and his co-writers make the journey to self-discovery as interesting as possible. So for all its high-gloss NASCAR trappings, Cars is ultimately a paean to Route 66. ***1/2

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

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH The cacophonous naysaying has already begun (by those who haven't seen the movie, natch), but this absorbing documentary about global warming gently pushes a message that all Americans of sound mind and good conscience can embrace: Let's work together to make the world a better place. It's a tall order, but the beauty of the film is that it inspires audience members to actually believe they can be a part of something important -- as Gore notes, all the resources are already available for combating global warming, and the only thing that's missing is "political will." Personal anecdotes, charts, slide shows and even cartoons are employed to allow the information to be easily digested by almost anyone. As for Gore, he's far more personable and animated than he ever was on the campaign trail -- what remains unchanged is his blazing intelligence, a far cry from the monosyllabic chimp presently sitting in the White House. As has been the case with Jimmy Carter, getting ousted from office might end up being the best way for Gore to serve his country. ***1/2

KEEPING UP WITH THE STEINS Scott Marshall, the director of Keeping Up With the Steins, is the son of Garry Marshall (The Princess Diaries) and the nephew of Penny Marshall (Awakenings). As a Hollywood dynasty, this bunch doesn't exactly compare with the Hustons or the Fondas, but like father and aunt, it appears that Scott can be counted on to contribute harmless, middle-of-the-road pap guaranteed not to furrow brows or trouble minds. This is a benign comedy-drama in which 13-year-old Benjamin Fiedler (Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara) eyes his upcoming bar mitzvah with a mixture of dread and resignation. Garry Marshall, a director-writer-producer who occasionally appears in front of the cameras, does his son a solid, since his energetic (but not overcooked) performance as Benjamin's grandfather turns out to be the film's strongest asset. The other cast members likewise contribute to the congenial mood, but the comic quotient is increasingly tepid and the life lessons tossed around like seeds aren't especially original, earthshaking or inspiring. **

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