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It’s not that the new Star Wars films are bad -- far from it. The Phantom Menace was a mixed bag, with its positive aspects overshadowed in the press by that infernal twosome of Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd. And I actually awarded a positive review to the equally maligned Attack of the Clones, which, in its best moments, recaptured the spirit and flavor of the original three-pack. But overall, Phantom and Clones never felt part of a whole with the original trilogy, any more than the belated Godfather III felt organically connected to the first two Mob installments or the dismal Exorcist sequels to their powerful predecessor. Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith tries its best to supply those connective tissues, and while it eventually succeeds on a narrative level, it fails to make the leap in most other regards. Still, once the movie settles into an appropriate groove for the second half, it takes off like a cheetah, leaving most objections in the dust. Lucas has declared that this is the darkest film in the series (certainly, The Empire Strikes Back is the only chapter that compares), and the MPAA obviously agreed by pasting the movie with a PG-13 rating instead of the usual PG. It’s here that we witness the final transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) from a young idealist who’s been tagged as the “Chosen One” by the Jedi Council to an agent of evil for the power-hungry lords of the Sith. Despite efforts by his wife Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to keep him from turning to the dark side of the Force, Anakin instead chooses to follow the advice of the nefarious Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a megalomaniac determined to decimate his political opponents and establish his own insidious, fascistic government. (If that sounds suspiciously like America 2005 as opposed to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, be aware that Lucas includes plenty of topical parallels.) Bluntly speaking, the opening acts are dreadful. Lucas begins by showing us a high-speed vehicular chase that, to quote William Shakespeare (whose sparkling words are, needless to say, worlds removed from Lucas’ often plodding prose), is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. A few more missteps still lay on the path ahead. Christopher Lee, betrayed by Peter Jackson when the director decided to chop his scenes from the final Lord of the Rings flick, now finds himself at the mercy of Lucas, who, after establishing Lee’s Count Dooku as a formidable villain in Attack of the Clones, has him mowed down about as quickly as the swordsman who takes a fatal bullet from Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas then introduces another villain -- General Grievous, leader of the droid army -- but this clunky character seems more afterthought than inspiration. And so it goes, until something inspiring occurs: The mythology takes over. As Lucas rounds the final curves, he begins to focus on the elements of the story that directly tie into events first recorded in the original Star Wars flick back in ‘77. We see how the Jedi knights are exterminated with extreme prejudice, with only Ben Kenobi and the Jedi Muppet Yoda left to hoist the flag for the old guard; we witness the births of twins Luke and Leia, and note how they’re shuttled off to different corners of the galaxy; and, of course, we’re privy to the climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the fateful duel that will lead directly to the birth of Darth Vader. For the first time since, well, 1977, Lucas seems completely in control of his craft, and these sequences resonate beyond the screen, fueled as much by our own nostalgic twinges as by the filmmakers’ ability to send the series off in style.


The “underdog sports comedy,” which hasn’t been run into the ground as much as it’s been pureed in a top-model blender, travels as far as it probably can go these days in Kicking & Screaming, an immensely likable if somewhat toothless family film in which even the notorious Mike Ditka comes across as a stuffed panda bear. Will Ferrell ably tackles his most complete role to date: He plays Phil Weston, a wimpy husband and father whose entire life has been spent in the shadow of his ultra-competitive dad Buck (Robert Duvall), a bullying jock who also happens to be the coach of the vicinity’s best boys’ soccer team. After his own son gets traded by Buck to the worst team in the league, Phil takes it upon himself to become the ragtag outfit’s new coach; he enlists ex-Chicago Bears coach Ditka (playing himself) as his assistant, learns that coffee can provide a person with unlimited amounts of energy, and eventually becomes just as dictatorial on the field as his old man. Duvall, channeling huge chunks of his Bull Meechum characterization from The Great Santini, seems to have wandered in from a much more serious movie, and the usual sports flick cliches (right down the Climactic Big Game) are pretty much repeated verbatim. What elevates the movie is Ferrell himself: While his patented shtick can grow tiresome, here it’s in the service of an actual character, and that seems to make the difference.


The setting is 1930s Cornwall, as two elderly sisters (Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) discover that a young man has washed up on the beach next to their quaint little cottage. As they nurse him back to health, one of the sisters (Dench’s Ursula) slowly begins to fall for this lad who’s approximately a half-century her junior; meanwhile, it emerges that this guest (who speaks no English) is a Polish violinist, and that a beautiful artist vacationing in the area (Natascha McElhone) might have both a personal and a professional interest in him. Although it looks like a product straight off the “Masterpiece Theatre” assembly line, Ladies In Lavender is a movie marked by major surprises: It’s surprising that the first half is so perceptive, and equally surprising that the second part is so preposterous.


Set during the Crusades, this dutiful slog through revisionist history stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a tormented blacksmith (his wife committed suicide after the death of their child) who learns that his father (Liam Neeson) is a revered knight and decides to accompany him to Jerusalem. There, he finds himself in the middle of a growing feud between the Christians and the Muslims, both of whom lay claim to the holy city. Comparisons to recent sword flicks like Troy and Scott’s Gladiator are natural, but despite the lofty ambitions of William Monahan’s literate yet arid script, such contrasts do this lumbering movie no favors. If nothing else, at least those other films moved; beyond that, they also featured several morally ambiguous characters (as opposed to the cut-and-dry saints and sinners showcased here), handed juicy roles to vets like Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed (Kingdom’s name actors labor mightily in colorless parts), and, in the case of Troy, made a stronger case for contemporary relevance (even today, Christians are still bullying their way into the Middle East, but Kingdom is too timid to make many lacerating observations). As the courgeous Balian, Bloom has the heroic glower down pat but brings little else to the role.


It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams’ cult phenomenon -- which had already moved from radio to print to television -- would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. The picture gets off to a great start, as drab human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns from his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an intergalactic freeway. These early passages present the film at its finest: Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, they embody a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot.


A high-tech update of Agatha Christie’s classic Ten Little Indians, the story finds a band of FBI agents sent to a remote island off the coast of North Carolina, where they’re expected to complete their training by taking part in an exercise that draws upon their skills as profilers of serial killers. But they soon realize that there’s a real killer on the island, and that he or she comes from within their own ranks. Could the murderer be the detective (LL Cool J) who joins the outfit at the last minute? The agent (Kathryn Morris) still troubled by a tragedy in her past? The FBI supervisor (Val Kilmer) who arranged the whole excursion? Or one of the other half-dozen agents on the island? A couple of clues make it relatively easy to deduce the identity of the killer. Regardless, the screenplay doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but director Renny Harlin has churned out a fairly engrossing film that doesn’t denigrate its (uncredited) source material.


Jane Fonda returns to the big screen, and young ‘uns who’ve only heard about her standing as one of the finest actresses of the 1970s will automatically assume their parents have been pulling their legs all these years. Fonda, whose performances in Klute and The China Syndrome (among others) still have the power to stun, is an embarrassment in Monster-In-Law, betrayed both by director Robert Luketic’s mishandling and by her own rusty instincts. Jennifer Lopez, continuing to headline the sort of inane features that Fonda for the most part avoided in her heyday, stars as Charlie, a jill-of-all-trades who finds the perfect man in Dr. Kevin Fields (Alias’ Michael Vartan). All goes well until Charlie meets his mother Viola, who hates Charlie because… why exactly? That’s never clear, but Viola immediately attempts to railroad the couple’s impending marriage by running Charlie off through all types of juvenile stunts. w


Maybe not a “D,” but this coming-of-age yarn from writer-director-actor David Duchovny certainly rates no better than a “C.” The former “X-Files” star here plays Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in Paris who flashes back on a pivotal time during his childhood years in Greenwich Village. Thirteen-year-old Tommy (appealing Anton Yelchin) lives with his pill-popping mom, who’s in a fog following the recent death of her husband -- the fact that Duchovny’s character’s mom is played by his real-life wife Tea Leoni brings up Freudian connotations that I’d rather avoid. Meanwhile, young Tommy’s best friend is a mentally challenged janitor who gets erect watching horror flicks and who’s prone to telling teenage girls that he’s got a big penis -- as if this isn’t frightening enough, also consider that the character is played by Robin Williams in full cuddly-creepy mode. Truly, there’s much in House of D that’s ghastly -- and clearly the work of an actor still cutting his teeth on the other side of the camera -- yet there are also plenty of small moments of sensitivity and insight that save this from being utterly unbearable. Whether it’s the kid who repeatedly yells “Sabbath!” to the DJ while standing in the middle of the dance floor or the stern yet fair priest (Frank Langella) whose lame jokes don’t cut it with his pupils, there are some choice bits to offset the amateurishness.


Sydney Pollack is no stranger to the paranoia thriller. He directed one of the best: 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, in which CIA reader Robert Redford must figure out why he’s been marked for termination -- possibly by the very agency for which he punches out a living. That Pollack would now be helming something like The Interpreter points out how much cinema has changed over the ensuing decades. It takes a filmmaker of rigid moral fiber -- and a studio willing to finance such an endeavor -- to actually blanket multiplexes with a fictional tale that might ruffle feathers in high places. As one of the few movies out there that doesn’t blatantly cater to the kids or to the Tarantino fanatics, this earns high marks for remembering that movies once upon a time had meaty plots, intricate character dynamics and a relaxed storytelling style. Nicole Kidman ably portrays the title character: She’s Silvia Broome, who escaped a troubled past in her African homeland to become an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. Late one night, she just happens to overhear two voices discussing a plot to assassinate African president Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former freedom fighter who’s now a mad butcher prone to slaughtering his own people. Relaying the info to the police (veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu has a couple of nice scenes as the chief), she then finds herself being interrogated by Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, more relaxed than usual) and Dot Woods (a sharp Catherine Keener).

As a thriller, The Interpreter is efficient enough, and it contains one dazzling set piece in which various characters -- heroes and villains and suspects alike -- all jockey to get the upper hand. Moments like these help disguise the implausibilities that define the plot.


A Lot Like Love is a lot like When Harry Met Sally crossed with Serendipity, as two people wonder whether they’re better off remaining friends or whether the stars have something more intimate in mind. After spotting each other at the L.A. airport and then wordlessly boffing in an airplane lavatory, Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) wants to know all about his new lady friend while Emily (Amanda Peet) becomes aloof. Over the next few years, they keep bumping into each other, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. But rather than commit to each other and get us out of the theater after a half-hour, the pair keep bumping up against labored plot developments that drive them apart and insure at least one more trip to the concession stand. While painless to sit through, the film never convinces us that these two need to be together. Part of the problem is the lack of chemistry between Kutcher and Peet, while the rest of the blame falls on scripter Colin Patrick Lynch, who creates two likable protagonists who could doubtless find happiness in the arms of countless other kids with a shared interest in junk food, Jon Bon Jovi and afternoon quickies. w


Since an alarming number of people have this pathological need to designate all movies as either “chick flicks” or “dick flicks”, I submit the new comedy Fever Pitch for their perusal. The theatrical poster - with stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon looking all cute and bubbly as they press up against each other - and the boy-meets-and-loses-and-regains-girl scenario would suggest that this skews female. But Fever Pitch’s true subject isn’t the love between a man and a woman but between a man and his favorite sports team. Fallon, the “Saturday Night Live” vet trying to salvage his burgeoning film career after Taxi crashed and burned so spectacularly last fall, plays Ben Wrightman, a mild-mannered school teacher who decides to ask the sexy and successful consultant Lindsey Meeks (Barrymore) out on a date. Lindsey isn’t used to dating guys like Ben — i.e. men without cash to burn and designers suits lining their closets — but she takes a chances and likes what she sees — really likes what she sees. Then he drops the bomb: He’s a Boston Red Sox fan. Initially, Lindsey thinks she can work around his undying devotion to the “cursed” team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 (indeed, the movie’s ending had to be rewritten during filming to incorporate the team’s miracle win last year). But her patience starts to wear thin once she realizes that he will never love her the way he loves the Sox. As the working girl who finds reality impeding on her fairy tale romance, Barrymore sparkles brightly, as she always does when faced with these sorts of rom-com predicaments. Less successful is Fallon, a vanilla comedian who doesn’t always capture his character’s overriding passion for the Sox or his burgeoning affection for Lindsey.


Sahara may be based on the bestseller by Clive Cussler, but it feels like it wants to be either a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a send-up of the James Bond oeuvre, or an instant sequel to last year’s National Treasure. Matthew McConaughney, a semi-movie star whose appeal still escapes me, plays the role of dashing adventurer Dirk Pitt as if he were a party-hardy frat boy who ventured out into the real world after all campus kegs were tapped dry. Steve Zahn, an ersatz character actor whose appeal likewise eludes me, plays the role of Dirk’s wisecracking sidekick Al Giordino. And Penelope Cruz, a Spanish beauty whose appeal vanishes in English-language films, tags along for the ride as the dedicated Dr. Eva Rojas, although the actress seems so disinterested in what’s happening around her that it’s hard to believe her character would even have the medical know-how to prescribe aspirin. The storyline, a thick hodgepodge involving a Civil War battleship that went MIA in the title desert, a mysterious disease that’s wiping out scores of Africans, and a sneering French villain (Lambert Wilson) to placate the yahoos who fell for that “freedom fries” nonsense, never grabs viewers by the collar, making Sahara an adventure tale in which the action is more exhausting than exciting.


The problem with Woody Allen these days isn’t that he’s run out of ideas; the problem is that he’s running out of ways in which to frame these ideas in compelling contexts. Melinda and Melinda starts with a typically inspired concept: Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) discussing whether life is inherently tragic or comic both hear an anecdote involving a young woman named Melinda. The playwright who specializes in tragedies envisions the story as a downer in which Melinda is a distraught, suicidal woman who’s perpetually on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks, while the playwright known for comedies views it as a sparkling tale in which Melinda’s an endearing free spirit involved in frothy romantic entanglements. The plastic bubble that surrounds Woody Allen movies is still as firm as ever: His stories continue to take place in a hermetically sealed New York in which money is no object and everyone talks like a philosopher. But his instincts clearly aren’t as sharp as before, since the comic half isn’t especially funny and the tragic half isn’t especially heartbreaking.


Seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), still coping with the death of his mother, receives regular visits from history’s honored saints (Francis, Peter, etc.), so when a bag of cash lands in his lap, he figures it came straight from God and he should dole it out to the poor. But his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) has a firmer grasp on the advantages of wealth and tries to convince his sibling that they should hunt for sensible business investments instead. What neither boy knows is that the loot is actually stolen, and that the thief (Christopher Fulford) is determined to recover it at all costs. Forget the tepid Robots: Parents who actually care about quality entertainment should take their kids to see this instead.


When director Robert Rodriguez first decided to bring the graphic novels by Frank Miller to the big screen, he chose to lift many of the images and accompanying dialogue exactly as they appeared on the page, with scarcely any changes in the angles or lighting that defined these individual panels. By remaining so faithful to Miller’s vision, Rodriguez has bridged the gap between cinema and comics more explicitly than any filmmaker before him, in essence leveling the playing field and not allowing fans of either medium to establish a foothold of superiority. In the manner of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the movie is a circuitous affair in which the disparate storylines — all taking place in Basin City (Sin City for short) — occasionally overlap and characters in one vignette might appear briefly in another segment. The glee with which Rodriguez films the sadism may be off-putting, but the joy with which he pays tribute to both the comic form and film noir is positively infectious.


A textbook example of formula filmmaking at its most dim-witted. When Gracie’s superior (Ernie Hudson) comments that Gracie will be the most famous celebrity in Vegas, we use the half-second pause that follows to predict that the punchline will involve Wayne Newton. Voila: “Unless Wayne Newton’s in town!” Equally witless are the characters, starting with an offensive gay stylist (Diedrich Bader).


Applying role reversal to the original 1967 template, Guess Who stars Bernie Mac as Percy Jones, a bank loan officer who’s on the verge of throwing a 25th wedding anniversary party with his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott) when he learns that his lovely daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) is coming home with her new boyfriend in tow. As Percy states at one point, he’s expecting his child to bring home a Denzel Washington; instead, she drags in some punk’d white boy named Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher). For all its attention to the racial divide, Guess Who isn’t as interested in being the new Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is in taking its place as the next Meet the Parents.

Exploring issues pertaining to blacks and whites is fine, but as we all know, the color that truly matters in Hollywood is green.


The original Ring (itself a remake of the popular Japanese flick Ringu) established that the only way the demonic girl Samara could work her evil on the world was through the playing of the aforementioned videotape. In this sequel, reporter Rachel Keller (returning star Naomi Watts) destroys the object at the outset, so scripter Ehren Kruger decided that he might as well make up new rules as he scribbled along, thus rendering this sequel not only illogical but inconsequential as well. w


Bruce Willis has woken up in time to deliver a committed performance in this adaptation of Robert Crais’ novel. Opening with a stylized, eye-popping title sequence that might lead viewers into thinking they’re catching an early sneak of the new Batman flick, Hostage then settles into familiar crime territory with the introduction of Willis as Jeff Talley, an LAPD hostage negotiator whose botching of a tense standoff leaves him with innocent blood on his hands and prods him into moving to a sleepy community where the crime rate hovers around zero. But once three ruffians attempting to steal a car end up killing a police officer and taking a family hostage, Talley finds himself back in the sort of situation he would like to avoid.


Visually, the film is yet another triumph for computer programmers, as their blood, sweat and bytes have enabled them to create a wondrous landscape that’s a joy to behold. But whenever any of the metallic characters that populate this world open their mouths, it’s like listening to rusty bolts across a chalkboard.


Yet one more lazy sequel to a great film, Be Cool is a major disappointment that fails to capture the essence of what made Get Shorty such a memorable experience. In adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, director Barry Sonenfeld and scripter Scott Frank knew that the key to success rested in the capable hands of John Travolta, whose work as shylock-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer remains a career best. Travolta owned that picture, yet he received more than adequate support from Sonenfeld’s playful direction, Frank’s character-driven screenplay and a stellar supporting cast that included Danny DeVito. Alas, F. Gary Gray (the tepid remake of The Italian Job) is no Sonenfeld, Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) is no Frank, and a promising cast is largely left to flounder in the middle of a movie that never provides a compelling argument for its own existence. w


The gorgeous Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) gets to display her acting chops as Helen McCarter, who’s stunned when her husband of 18 years, a prominent Atlanta lawyer (Steve Harris), demands a divorce and forcibly throws her out of their mansion to make room for his gold-digging girlfriend (Lisa Marcos). A huge hit with African-American audiences, Tyler Perry’s play has been adapted (by the author himself) into a movie that’s overflowing with positive Christian ideals as well as an honest assessment of the intrinsic desire for seeking retribution versus the spiritual need for giving absolution.


From the connotations of its hero’s name (Constantine was the Roman emperor who endorsed Christianity more for personal gain than for any spiritual fulfillment) to depictions of Hell that borrow heavily from the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Constantine tries hard to include heady material that will allow for post-screening discussions around the water cooler or in cinephile trades (something The Matrix accomplished masterfully with its rampant theology). But as was the case with the muddled Jacob’s Ladder, Constantine never brings its debates into focus, choosing instead to pile on its issues like so many toppings onto a baked potato.


A warm and witty comedy that unfortunately runs itself into the ground during its final act, the picture benefits immeasurably from the presence of Will Smith, who may or may not be a great actor but who is most assuredly a great movie star. He's at turns sly, suave and sexy as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who bills himself as the Date Doctor because of his ability to make a living by advising other men how to land the woman of their dreams. He finds his biggest challenge in the form of Albert (Kevin James), a clumsy, overweight accountant who's hopelessly under the spell of beautiful super-model Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). But Hitch unexpectedly finds his own romantic inclinations rising to the surface once he meets Sara Melas (Eva Mendes). Mendes, who's always come across as a Jennifer Lopez who can't act -- no, wait, that would still make her Jennifer Lopez -- initially has trouble keeping pace with a leading man prettier than she is, but ends up holding her own. w



Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) runs The Hit Pit, a boxing gym located in downtown Los Angeles, with the help of his only friend, Scrap (Unforgiven co-star Morgan Freeman). Scrap serves as the facility's caretaker, yet in his day he was a plucky fighter with a lot of promise, a quality he instantly spots in the young girl who wanders into the gym intent on becoming a champion boxer. Her name is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and, as Scrap notes at one point during the film's effective voice-over narration, "Maggie grew up knowing one thing: She was trash." Up until this point, Million Dollar Baby contains all the familiar trappings of crowd-pleasers like Rocky and The Karate Kid. Yet what makes this portion of the film soar is the attention to character that's provided by Eastwood (as director) and scripter Paul Haggis (adapting short stories from F.X. Toole's critically acclaimed book Rope Burns). w