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By Michael Summers
Copley News Service
BEING JULIA - Blithely purring, brightly superficial romp through 1930s London theater, with an "All About Eve" element. (From Somerset Maugham's novel "Theater"). Annette Bening is in catnip heaven as a posing, imposing star. Also Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Irons (like a sexy Neville Chamberlain) and Shaun Evans as a sponging stud. (Elliott).
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director: Istvan Szabo. Writers: Ronald Harwood, Somserset Maugham. Cast: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Lucy Punch, Bruce Greenwood, Shaun Evans, Juliet Stevenson and Rita Tushingham. Running time: 1 hr., 50 min. Rated R. 3 stars.
VERA DRAKE - Imelda Staunton gets her indelible role as a Vera, a sweetly perky teapot of London cheer in postwar (1950) Britain. The cast is great, and chalky lighting accents the acted truths in Mike Leigh's film. But it poses Vera as a sort of addled martyr to naive goodness - she does secret abortions for no pay, and this tough issue is folded into her sad, mousey pathos as a do-gooder gone wrong.
A Fine Line Features release. Director, writer: Mike Leigh. Cast: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Alex Kelly and Ruth Sheen. Running time: 2 hr., 5 min. Rated R. 3 stars.
TARNATION - Assembled like a vanity mirror collage from home movies of his painful upbringing (gay son of a mother driven into schizophrenia, partly by her parents), Jonathan Caouette's film is a model of zip-budget imagination and therapeutic exhibitionism, both touching and irritating.
A Wellspring Media release. Director, writer: Jonathan Caouette. Cast: Jonathan Caouette, Renee Caouette, Rosemary Davis and Adolph Davis. Running time: 1 hr., 28 min. Unrated. 2 stars.
AROUND THE BEND - As music twinkles, Michael Caine shows up cute and then smartly exits this soft huggie about grump Josh Lucas, foxy dude Chris Walken and a nice kid tracking family truths in a plodding road trip to sweet completion, with plugs for KFC chicken.
A Warner Independent release. Director, writer: Jordan Roberts. Cast: Michael Caine, Christopher Walken, Josh Lucas and Jonah Bobo. Running time: 1 hr., 25 min. Rated R. 1 star.
THE FINAL CUT - Elaborately contrived but involving thriller, with Robin Williams in his most serious acting face. As a man who edits memories from implanted brain discs, he exorcises his own past. Mira Sorvino is his unlikely lover and Jim Caviezel a badly bearded activist. Omar Naim directed with chill noir style to prance over the conceptual implausibles.
A Lions Gate Films release. Director, writer: Omar Naim. Cast: Robin Williams, Jim Caviezel, Mia Sorvino and Mim Kuzyk. Running time: 1 hr., 44 min. Rated PG-13. 2 1/2 stars.
I HEART HUCKABEES - From the title on, a deluge of ticklish whimsies and "hip" non sequiturs. David O. Russell takes a dud stand against corporate expansionism in his comedy about a dorky ecologist (Jason Schwartzman), "existential" detectives (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin), a noir souffle (Isabelle Huppert) and a ditz (Naomi Watts). This pampered inanity is like a pile of New Yorker cartoons: the reject pile.
A Fox Searchlight release. Director: David O. Russell. Writers: David O. Russell, Jeff Baena. Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts and Isabelle Huppert. Running time: 1 hr., 48 min. Rated R. 1 1/2 stars.
SHALL WE DANCE? - Peter Chelsom's blithe remake of the Japanese charmer about a suited business cog who limbers into living, via a dance studio and its best teacher. Richard Gere uses his matured urbanity, Jennifer Lopez is cogently alluring, comic types are fun, Chicago gleams, dances salute yet gently deflate ballroom mania.
A Miramax Films release. Director: Peter Chelsom. Writer: Audrey Wells. Cast: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Anita Gillette and Bobby Canavale. Running time: 1 hr., 44 min. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.
STAGE BEAUTY - Billy Crudup strains as a Restoration (1660s) sensation whose stardom as a drag "actress" is ended by the foppish king (amusing Rupert Everett). Claire Danes plays a dresser who aspires to act, and their shared "Othello" is oh, hell, no. This gender-twist theatrical oddity is often as subtle as a pratfall, though its trappings are fine.
A Lions Gate Films release. Director: Richard Eyre. Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher. Cast: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin and Richard Griffiths. Running time: 1 hr., 45 min. Rated R. 2 stars.
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE - Team America superheroes swing into marionette action when a bloody dictator sells bad weapons to terrorists. No, not part of the Bush-Cheney campaign. Trey Parker and Matt Stone pull the strings, and Alec Baldwin stars.
A Paramount Pictures release. Director: Trey Parker. Writers: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Pam Brady. Cinematographer: Bill Pope. Voices: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Paul Lewis and Elle Russ. Running time: 1 hr., 38 min. Rated R. 3 stars.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - Pumped-up ambivalence about high school football mania in West Texas, from H.G. Bissinger's book. Billy Bob Thornton has sly fortitude and "inspired" screaming down as the coach in Odessa, a doggy town with an underdog team in 1988, facing huge bruisers from Dallas. The action is hyped by excess editing, the ugliness of the town and the brutal absurdity of gridiron mania is constant. This heavy hustle doesn't dig into the material.
A Universal Pictures release. Director: Peter Berg. Writer: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Garrett Hedlund and Lee Jackson. Running time: 1 hr., 57 min. Rated PG-13. 2 stars.
RAISE YOUR VOICE - A fluffy Hilary Duff showcase, in which Miss Adorable escapes family blues for music school in L.A., a cute British guitarist (Oliver James) and, after a pale pass at Handel, her slight, pure voice rising in "Star Search" song. So transparently commercial it's fairly likeable, with John Corbett, David Keith, Rebecca De Mornay and lotsa teens.
A New Line Cinema release. Director: Sean McNamara. Writers: Mitch Rotter, Sam Schreiber. Cast: Hilary Duff, Oliver James, John Corbett and Rebecca De Mornay. Running time: 1 hr., 38 min. Rated PG. 2 1/2 stars.
SAINTS AND SOLDIERS - A Battle of the Bulge film, and not bad, about soldiers who get away from the Malmedy Massacre into more trouble. The title and the lead character being called "Deacon" (appealing Corbin Allred) clue you to Mormon production involvement, but the movie (drawn from actual people) doesn't preach, and Ryan Little directed a fine cast effectively.
An Excel Entertainment release. Director: Ryan Little. Writers: Geoffrey Panos, Matt Whitaker. Cast: Corbin Allred, Larry Bagby, Peter Asle Holden, Kirby Heyborne and Lincoln Hoppe. Running time: 1 hr., 32 min. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.
SHARK TALE - The sea critters of "Shark Tale" are constantly talking, joking, kvetching, snapping zingers through the liquid depths. To speak for the animated fish there is a whole aquarium of star actors. The animation is drunk on colors, the energy never flags, songs wail and jostle in a sort of Jersey Atlantis, and some inspired figures include Jamaican jellyfish with huge Rasta-dude heads like light shows. Some fine marine moments, but the story feels like TV filler and you might think: Am I consuming this, or is it consuming me? Most kids will be hooked.
A DreamWorks release. Directors: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman. Writers: Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, Michael Wilson. Voice cast: Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, Robert De Niro, Jack Black, Martin Scorsese and Michael Imperioli. Running time: 1 hr., 40 min. Rated PG. 2 1/2 stars.
LADDER 49 - With a post-9/11 passion, firefighters enter the big blazes. Jay Russell directed the men, hoses and ladders. Ponderously pious, macho-club treatment of Baltimore firemen. John Travolta is the tough but caring guy in charge, and stolidly dutiful Joaquin Phoenix the appointed martyr (no surprise in that). In a post-9/11 way this pulper might get to people.
A Buena Vista Pictures release. Director: Jay Russell. Writer: Lewis Colick. Cast: John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels and Balthazar Getty. Running time: 1 hr., 40 min. Rated PG-13. 2 stars.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES - Gael Garcia Bernal of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" portrays rebel hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, in Walter Salles' film of young Che's cycling trip to political awareness in South America. This is Che before "Che," before Mao-fed ideology captured his ideals. And before the new Cuban dictatorship and its Maximum Leader used Che until his fated end. Pablo Neruda (whom Che quotes) would have loved this film, even though he was hurt that Che in power greeted him with booted feet on his Havana desk. The young, bourgeois Ernesto wouldn't have made that gaffe, but his crusade for the poor and afflicted, begun with his trek across the beautiful continent, is an Amazon of soul on which these spirits still travel.
A Focus Features release. Director: Walter Salles. Writer: Jose Rivera. Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mia Maestro and Jorge Chiarella. Running time: 2 hr. Rated R. 4 stars.
THE FORGOTTEN - After 14 months, Telly (Julianne Moore) is nowhere near accepting the death in a plane disaster of her cherished son Sam, though her therapist (Gary Sinise) urges her to make closure, suggesting that she is delusional as everyone else seems to be forgetting the boy. Husband Jim (lean, dithery Anthony Edwards) seems unsure what to believe. The boy is gone, but perhaps is not dead. There seems to be a foul scheme, even "an experiment." Director Joseph Ruben sustains Lower Manhattan chills as the mystery curves into sci-fi surprises and shocks, not factual but engrossing. It is not easy for a parent to watch, or anyone who has cared about a child, but not making it easy is what lifts Ruben in good form above the go-for-it thrill grinders.
A Revolution Studio release. Director: Joseph Ruben. Writer: Gerald Di Pego. Cast: Julianne Moore, Dominic West, Gary Sinise, Alfre Woodard and Anthony Edwards. Running time: 1 hr., 47 min. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.
4 STARS - Excellent.
3 STARS - Worthy.
2 STARS - Mixed.
1 STAR - Poor.
0 - Forget It.
NR - Not Rated.