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NIGHTS IN RODANTHE Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. The former made the most of its setting and its star, resulting in a winning romantic comedy whose love-struck spirit rubbed off on audience members eager to lap up its sense of joie de vivre. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe, on the other hand, starts off well as Tuscan Sun's more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of the shameless plot devices thrust upon it by author Nicholas Sparks and adapters Ann Peacock and John Romano. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time (following 1984's The Cotton Club and 2002's Unfaithful), plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend's (Viola Davis) beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband (Christopher Meloni) is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgery procedure that went tragically wrong. As the only two people stuck at the inn, Adrienne and Paul open up to each other and gradually fall in love. For a while, Nights in Rodanthe works as a mature and even touching drama, but then the melodramatic devices take over with the force of a hurricane. And speaking of hurricane, the second-act emergence of this force of nature is but one of the hoary aspects that sink the production, along with a sour twist that is as expected as it is defeatist. **

TOWELHEAD As Towelhead opens, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl named Jasira (played by Summer Bishil, 19 at the time of shooting) is living with a dim-bulb mom (Maria Bello) who ends up shipping her off to live with her humorless Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi) in a tidy Texas suburb. As if dealing with his strict rules isn't bad enough, she also has to contend with the lecherous advances of one of the neighbors (Aaron Eckhart), a bigoted army reservist who finds himself drawn to this jailbait. A string of incidents – the reservist's hands-on actions, her first period, the erotic charge from looking through adult magazines, romance (and more) with a schoolmate (Eugene Jones) – leaves poor Jasira in a confused and vulnerable state, and the only neighbors who seem concerned for her welfare are a pregnant woman (Toni Collette) and her husband (Matt Letscher). Needless to say, any movie that explores the sexual awakening of a teenage girl in such depth is going to be subject to microscopic scrutiny and potential charges of exploitation, but Towelhead, based on the novel by Alicia Erian, deftly sidesteps the muckraking and instead serves up an affecting drama about a lovely child who can't seem to catch a break from most of the adults surrounding her. Yes, it's unremittingly downbeat for stretches at a time, but the movie is made palpable by the understated direction by Alan Ball (creator of TV's Six Feet Under) and the central performance by Bishil, a relative newcomer who seems to have shed the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel spots that until now have served as her bread and butter. ***

THE WOMEN The 1939 screen version of The Women, based on Clare Booth Luce's play and helmed by "woman's director" George Cukor, has been refashioned as a Sex and the City wanna-be, in the process losing the smoldering conflicts and zesty subplots of its classic predecessor. In that version, Norma Shearer's angelic society woman had to decide whether to stay married to a husband who dared to dally with Joan Crawford's skanky shopgirl. With nary a male in sight but an all-female-cast to die for (Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were also part of the ensemble), the picture examined females as complicated beings forced to simultaneously respond to social duties, duplicitous acquaintances, and the demands of their own independent hearts. Predictably, this new version opens with a nod toward modern materialism and then proceeds to offer contemporary stereotypes rather than memorable individuals. Here, everything has been smoothed out to the point of tepidity: Eva Mendes (as the hubby-swiper) is merely naughty where Crawford was lethal, and Russell's role as a backstabbing "frenemy" has been transformed into Annette Bening's tough-yet-tender magazine editor. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan (as the jilted spouse) doesn't stray too far from her established screen persona, while Jada Pinkett Smith's casting in a worthless role (cut it, and the film doesn't change) demonstrates that writer-director Diane English was more interested in covering all demographics (black and lesbian, in the case of Smith and her character) than in making any salient points about 21st-century girl power. **

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