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The Lake House

Facing no direct competition from romantic dramas and boasting the marquee allure of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, it will entice initial interest, particularly among women, before word travels that this tale of frustrated love is an unfulfilling fantasy, lovely to look at and confounding to the core.

Time-slip sagas have a built-in intrigue, and film is a perfect medium for exploring ruptures in the temporal continuum. But concept alone isn't enough. The not-quite fully baked idea at the center of "Lake House" is an appealing metaphor for romantic destiny: Two lonely souls who live in the same house at different times begin communicating across a distance of two years. Adoring shots of building facades notwithstanding, the story's passion is subdued to the point of absence. And even within its wobbly framework of metaphysical logic, the payoff is such a cheat that viewers who aren't punch-drunk from being pingponged between the film's two time periods will be left only with questions -- but not the kind that will bring them back for second viewings.

Adapting "Il Mare," a 2000 South Korean fantasy/romance, Argentine director Alejandro Agresti ("Valentin") and screenwriter David Auburn ("Proof") strain for a sense of portent and wonder. Auburn forsakes dramatic tension and pacing to fill characters' mouths with dialogue that spells out his themes with such obviousness that Vanna White or Akeelah wouldn't be out of place. He further lards the proceedings with forced literary and cinematic allusions.

With the help of Rachel Portman's restrained score, Nathan Crowley's production design and the elegant, sumptuous precision of cinematographer Alar Kivilo's compositions, "Lake House" does capture the way certain places become imbued with feeling. The titular abode is a breathtaking glass box on stilts (built for the film), whose symbolism is helpfully explained by characters using words like "disconnected" and "incomplete." Moving from the North Shore retreat to take a hospital job in Chicago, Dr. Kate Forster (Bullock) leaves a letter for the next tenant requesting that her mail be forwarded. The note's recipient, Alex Wyler (Reeves), having moved into the "abandoned dump" his father designed years earlier, is baffled by her claims. But soon they're exchanging daily missives via the house's mailbox, only to discover that he's writing from 2004 while she lives in 2006.

Introspection and solitude are rich cinematic subjects, but here the reunited "Speed" stars play characters whose personalities are so recessive that they inspire only indifference. Bullock is quite good at conveying Kate's discontent without overstating the matter, even if the script does, pushing the worn notion that single career women are the saddest people on the planet. Kate plays chess with her dog; her only real-world contacts are unsatisfying exchanges with an ex-boyfriend (Dylan Walsh), her mother (Willeke van Ammelrooy) and a colleague (Shohreh Aghdashloo).

Reeves, who like his co-star has done his most interesting recent work in small independent films and whose true forte is comedy, brings an inscrutability to Alex that's a detriment. He's an architect who, unlike his younger brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), has taken a gauche detour into condo development. Agresti stops the action, as it were, so that Christopher Plummer, as their imperious father, can deliver a lecture on the quality of light with a mad-artist twinkle in his eye.

But there is no illumination at the end of this time-lapse tunnel, whose participants sense a connection that the audience never does. Though it's not without lovely moments -- a tree Alex plants for Kate in 2004 suddenly appears before her, full-boughed -- too much of this would-be love story unfolds via voiceover readings of letters loaded with backstory, trying to fill in what the film can't bring alive in the present.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Vertigo Entertainment production

Director: Alejandro Agresti
Screenwriter: David Auburn
Based on the motion picture "Il Mare" produced by Sidus
Producers: Doug Davison, Roy Lee
Executive producers: Erwin Stoff, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman, Mary McLaglen
Director of photography: Alar Kivilo
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Music: Rachel Portman
Co-producer: Sonny Mallhi
Costume designer: Deena Appel
Editors: Lynzee Klingman, Alejandro Brodersohn
 Alex Wyler: Keanu Reeves
 Kate Forster: Sandra Bullock
 Simon Wyler: Christopher Plummer
 Henry Wyler: Ebon Moss-Bachrach
 Kate's mother: Willeke van Ammelrooy
 Morgan: Dylan Walsh
 Anna: Shohreh Aghdashloo
 Mona: Lynn Collins


While the other guys are still hawking talking animals, the folks at Pixar continue to up the anthropomorphic ante with terrific characters and crowd-pleasing storytelling that are as much a part of the company's much-deserved success as all that state-of-the-art technology.

Although the latest model -- concerning a hotshot hot rod who takes an unanticipated detour from life in the fast lane -- takes a little while to achieve traction, it ultimately hits all the key emotional and comedic checkpoints.

Given a fan base that spans virtually all demographics, "Cars" will handily take first place in its opening weekend and is destined to emerge as one of the season's biggest performers.

After spending the past seven years in an executive producer capacity, John Lasseter logs his first directing credit since 1999's "Toy Story 2" with this soulful road picture about a *****y rookie race car (voiced by Owen Wilson) who is en route to the Piston Cup Championship in California when an unfortunate chain of events lands him smack dab in the sleepy Route 66 town of Radiator Springs.

To make matters worse, Lightning McQueen has quickly succeeded in raising the ire of the local judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), who won't allow him to leave until he makes amends for tearing up the town's main street.

But before the repairs are done, he finds himself drawn to Radiator Springs' once-thriving past and its colorful denizens, particularly the knowing Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a sporty 2002 Porsche and former Los Angeles lawyer who drove off one day in search of a more meaningful life; and the sweet-natured Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a good ol' boy, bucktoothed tow truck.

By the time McQueen gets back on track, he finds his priorities have been seriously realigned.

Maybe it has something to do with that sleepy rural vibe, or a running time that creeps up on the two-hour mark, but whatever the reason, the picture's pacing hits some potholes during its extended sojourn in Radiator Springs.

For those accustomed to smoother Pixar rides, the shifts in rhythm might be a tad too noticeable, but Lasseter, who also penned the script along with Dan Fogelman, the late Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray & Phil Lorin and Jorgen Klubien, still manages to cross the finish line in style.

You can't miss with that dream team of a voice cast, which, in addition to Wilson, Newman, Hunt and an irresistible turn by comedian Larry the Cable Guy that turns scene stealing into grand theft, includes George Carlin as Fillmore, a hippie dippy VW bus, Tony Shalhoub as Luigi, an emotional '59 Fiat and Michael Keaton as Chick Hicks, McQueen's ruthless competitor.

Then there's the eye-popping technology which once again outdoes itself, breaking fresh ground with extensive ray tracing that provides photo-realistic reflections in all that polished metal and chrome, not to mention those striking, dusty Route 66 vistas.

Those who stay until the end of the credits will be rewarded with a hilarious tribute to Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger (who marks his seventh collaboration here as a not-so-trusty transport truck) as well as a touching one to Pixar animator Ranft, who passed away in August.

Settling the score, meanwhile, is Randy Newman, whose fourth Pixar collaboration ambles along agreeably, accompanied by drivin' tunes performed by Rascal Flatts, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley that are perfect for coasting along those alternate routes.

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Pixar Animation Studios film

Director: John Lasseter
Co-director: Joe Ranft
Producer: Darla K. Anderson
Screenwriters: Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray & Phil Lorin, Jorgen Klubien
Story: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Jorgen Klubien
Editor: Ken Schretzmann
Music: Randy Newman.
Voice cast:
 Lightning McQueen: Owen Wilson
 Doc Hudson
 Paul Newman
 Sally Carrera: Bonnie Hunt
 Mater: Larry The Cable Guy
 Ramone: Cheech Marin
 Luigi: Tony Shalhoub
 Guido: Guido Quaroni
 Flo: Jenifer Lewis
 Sarge: Paul Dooley
 The Sheriff: Michael Wallis
 Fillmore: George Carlin
 Lizzie: Katherine Helmond
 Mack: John Ratzenberger
 Chick Hicks: Michael Keaton
 The King: Richard Petty.

The Omen

Director John Moore, who previously demonstrated his penchant for remakes with "Flight of the Phoenix," takes great pains to replicate the dramatic set pieces of the original, with almost all of them replicated in slavish fashion. But though he's crudely effective in his re-creations, the filmmaker lacks the slick style with which Richard Donner infused the original. The result, once again written by original screenwriter David Seltzer, seems like a pale imitation, an impression that is only reinforced by the casting of the lead roles.

Replacing Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the beleaguered parents are Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles. As diplomat Robert Thorn and his ill-fated wife, Katherine, who are bringing up their young son while unaware that he is the spawn of the devil, the talented performers seem to be playing at being grown-up. Stiles in particular seems far too young and childlike for the role, while the normally effective Schreiber lacks the gravitas that would seem necessary for his character's elemental struggle against evil. Too often, his dark looks and menacing scowl deliver the wrong signals about whose side he's on.

The casting is much more effective in the supporting roles, with British veterans David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Gambon delivering juicy turns as, respectively, the reporter and priests attempting to warn Thorn of the impending apocalypse. As the literal nanny from hell, Mia Farrow uses her inherent strangeness -- not to mention her "Rosemary's Baby" resonance -- to excellent effect. And young Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick is about as creepy a devilish tyke as one could hope for.

Most of the scenes that worked in the original, from Thorn's menacing encounter with Damien's new guard dog to the horrific suicide of Damien's first nanny to the particularly colorful demises of the reporter and priest, are once again effective. But such original flourishes as working in footage of the Sept. 11 attacks and the tsunami disaster to indicate the impending apocalypse seem rather tacky, and the repeated use of dream sequences featuring eardrum-shattering sound effects are a cheap way of garnering scares.

One element that should have been recycled from the original, Jerry Goldsmith's supremely chilling musical score, has been jettisoned, with the new score by Marco Beltrami proving thoroughly ordinary.

A 20th Century Fox production

Director: John Moore
Screenwriter: David Seltzer
Producers: Glenn Williamson, John Moore
Executive producer: Jeffrey Stott
Director of photography: Jonathan Sela
Production designer: Patrick Lumb
Film editor: Dan Zimmerman
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: George L. Little.
Katherine Thorn: Julia Stiles
Robert Thorn: Liev Schreiber
Mrs. Baylock: Mia Farrow
Jennings: David Thewlis
Father Brennan: Pete Postlethwaite
Bugenhagen: Michael Gambon
Damien: Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.

The Break-Up

And he still might -- one of these days.

In the meantime, there's "The Break-Up," a major disappointment of an anti-romantic comedy for which Vaughn shares producer and story credits in addition to sharing the screen with real-life squeeze Jennifer Aniston.

After a promisingly quirky start, "Break-Up" suffers a major breakdown from which it never recovers.

Audiences expecting a good time will instead be rewarded with wildly unsympathetic lead characters and uncomfortably long stretches without a laugh in sight. While they might initially be drawn in by the marketing department's promise of something a lot more entertaining, the end boxoffice result will likely be less than amicable.

Initially meeting at a baseball game, Chicago tour guide Gary Grobowski (Vaughn) manages to persuade art gallery employee Brooke Meyers (Aniston) to dump her male friend and go out with him basically by buying her a hot dog.

Flash forward to the couple living in what isn't exactly domestic bliss, with Brooke running around getting ready to host a dinner party for their families while Gary contentedly parks himself in front of the television.

With the cracks in their relationship finally reaching the breaking point, Brooke finally calls Gary for the jerk he is, but in her little schemes to make him realize the errors of his ways, Brooke only ends up matching him in the bad behavior department.

But what could have at best played out like a wilted "War of the Roses" ends up looking a lot more like Rob Reiner's misbegotten "The Story of Us."

It would have helped if director Peyton Reed ("Bring It On," "Down With Love") had been as concerned with giving his audience characters worth investing in as he was with all those stylish visual compositions, but the script, by first-time feature writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, constantly leaves its actors in the lurch.

While Vaughn and Aniston do some solid emoting, the comedic element, such as it is, never feels organic to the rest of the film. Hints of what might have been can be found in colorful supporting turns from Vaughn's old "Swingers" pal Jon Favreau as his bartender buddy Johnny O; Judy Davis as Aniston's hysterically harsh gallery boss, Marilyn Dean; and especially Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins as Aniston's brother, Richard, who is obsessed with singing in his all-male a cappella group, the Tone Rangers.

But by the time the tacked-on ending to end all tacked-on endings arrives -- in which Vaughn's considerable, continuity-throwing weight loss is dealt with by Aniston noting, "You've lost weight" -- "The Break-Up" and its audience have long ago parted ways.

Universal Pictures presents a Wild West Picture Show production

Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender
Story by: Vince Vaughn, Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender
Producers: Vince Vaughn, Scott Stuber
Executive producers: Peter Billingsley, Stuart Besser
Director of photography: Eric Edwards
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Editors: David Rosenbloom, Dan Lebental
Costume designer: Carol Oditz
Music: Jon Brion
Gary Grobowski: Vince Vaughn
Brooke Meyers: Jennifer Aniston
Maddie: Joey Lauren Adams
Wendy Meyers: Ann-Margret
Riggleman: Jason Bateman
Marilyn Dean: Judy Davis
Dennis Grobowski: Vincent D'Onofrio
Johnny O: Jon Favreau
Lupus Grobowski: Cole Hauser
Richard Meyers: John Michael Higgins
Christopher: Justin Long

X-Men: The Last Stand

With creative force Bryan Singer having vacated the X-Men universe for the highly anticipated "Superman Returns," Brett Ratner has taken the reins, and though the picture is not without its wow-inducing, SFX-driven moments, that potent X-factor is considerably diminished in Singer's absence.

Arriving Friday on the heels of tonight's splashy Cannes premiere, the film should still enjoy an X-cellent opening weekend, but less assured is its ability to scale the $214.8 million-grossing heights of 2003's "X2: X-Men United."

The gang's pretty much all here for the purported final go-round, which sees the makings of a virtual mutant civil war ignited by the introduction of a pharmaceutical cure for their afflictions/attributes.

That promise of conformity offered by the crusading Warren Worthington Sr. (Michael Murphy) further alienates the mutant society with its double-edged ramifications.

Unsurprisingly, the "cure" triggers a sociological showdown between the ever-tolerant Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the mercurial Magneto (Ian McKellen), who vows to obliterate both the remedy and its adherents, human and mutant alike.

Meanwhile, on a more local level, Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is thrown for an emotional loop when the extremely telepathic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) emerges from what was believed to have been her watery grave with her powers notably undiluted.

But while the setup, with its underlying themes of sexual identity and alienation more pronounced than ever, is intriguing enough, "Last Stand" is more concerned about getting to the next special effects sequence than it is about tapping into those relevant undercurrents.

Sticking mainly to the surface, Ratner, who came on board after the hasty departure of "Layer Cake" director Matthew Vaughn, keeps things moving swiftly enough, but his writing team (Singer took previous "X-Men" scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to the "Superman" movie) -- including Simon Kinberg ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith") and Zak Penn -- fails to nail the requisite tone.

So while Jackman, Janssen, McKellen, Stewart, Halle Berry's Storm, Rebecca Romijn's Mystique, as well as newcomer Kelsey Grammer's hairy, blue-tinged Dr. Henry McCoy/Beast are all in fine fighting form, their superpowers ultimately are rendered useless in the face of some ultradumb dialogue that truly misses the "X-Men" mark.

Visual effects supervisor John Bruno, meanwhile, doesn't disappoint with some franchise-worthy set pieces -- among them a dramatic repositioning of the Golden Gate Bridge and a rather extreme makeover of Grey's suburban home -- that are worthy of the Marvel moniker.

X-Men: The Last Stand
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox presents in association with Marvel Entertainment a Donners Co. production of a Brett Ratner film

Director: Brett Ratner
Screenwriters: Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter, Avi Arad
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, John Palermo
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Edward Verreaux
Editors: Mark Helfrich, Mark Goldblatt, Julia Wong
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Music: John Powell
Visual effects supervisor: John Bruno

Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Storm: Halle Berry
Professor Charles Xavier: Patrick Stewart
Magneto: Ian McKellen
Jean Grey: Famke Janssen
Rogue: Anna Paquin
Dr. Henry McCoy/Beast: Kelsey Grammer
Cyclops: James Marsden
Mystique: Rebecca Romijn
Bobby Drake/Iceman: Shawn Ashmore
Pyro: Aaron Stanford
Juggernaut: Vinnie Jones
Warren Worthington III/Angel: Ben Foster
Kitty Pryde: Ellen Page
Callisto: Dania Ramirez

The Da Vinci Code

Bottom line: A jumble of historical myth, religious symbology and international thriller-action makes for an unwieldy, bloated melodrama.

Strictly as a movie and ignoring the current swirl of controversy no amount of studio money could ever buy, the Ron Howard-directed film features one of Tom Hanks' more remote, even wooden performances in a role that admittedly demands all the wrong sorts of things from a thriller protagonist; an only slightly more animated performance from his French co-star, Audrey Tautou; and polished Hollywood production values where camera cranes sweep viewers up to God-like points of view and famous locations and deliciously sinister interiors heighten tension where the movie threatens to turn into a historical treatise. The movie really only catches fire after an hour, when Ian McKellen hobbles on the scene as the story's Sphinx-like Sir Leigh Teabing. Here is the one actor having fun with his role and playing a character rather than a piece to a puzzle.

True believers and those who want to understand what all the fuss is about will jam cinemas worldwide in the coming weeks in sufficient numbers so as to fulfill probably even the most optimistic projections of Sony execs.

But the movie is so drenched in dialogue musing over arcane mythological and historical lore and scenes grow so static that even camera movement can't disguise the dramatic inertia. Such sins could cut into those rosy projections.
For those who vacationed on Mars for the past few years, "The Da Vinci Code" is the second of Brown's thrillers starring Harvard professor of iconography and religious art Robert Langdon (Hanks). The books seek to put contemporary ticking bombs into dusty historical disputes. In this one, the murder of a highly respected curator in the Louvre in Paris, where Langdon fortuitously happens to be while on a speaking engagement, embroils the professor in a race against time to locate nothing less than the Holy Grail.

His companion is police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou), and his seeming nemesis is bulldog police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno, largely wasted), who for no plausible reason believes Langdon to be the killer. But other potential villains loom: Jet-setting Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), from the ultraconservative Opus Dei branch of Catholicism, and Silas, an albino-monk assassin (Paul Bettany).

The plot is driven not by its characters but by solutions to puzzles, the breaking of codes, interpreting covert references in works of art and a dazzling display of historical knowledge, all of which works terrifically in the novel but puts the brakes to all screen action. Hanks' character is far too reactive and contemplative for a movie action hero, and the cliched nature of those drifting in and out of his orbit hits home with jolting simplicity.

Screen adapter Akiva Goldsman has definitely punched up Brown's third act. He has actually improved on the novel -- at least for those who buy in to the historical controversy that Jesus left behind a royal French bloodline -- by giving the story a broader, more fulfilling payoff than the novel. If one doesn't buy into that controversy, then the story becomes just that much more forced and corrupt. (The final revelation produced a few titters in the first press audience to see the film.)

Howard and Goldsman can't do much, though, with mostly colorless characters designed around idiosyncrasies and weird scholarly talents -- sort of academic X-Men -- rather than flesh-and-blood personalities. No chemistry exists between the hero and heroine, and motivation remains a troubling sore point. Why does the innocent professor flee? Why is Sophie so eager to help? Why is anyone doing what he does when so many characters and subplots turn into red herrings?

One questionable "cinematic" addition to the film are flashbacks to ancient biblical and medieval historical tableaus in the Holy Land and Europe that illustrate Prof. Langdon's continuous lectures on religious history. These look as if some prankster spliced scenes from last year's "Kingdom of Heaven" into the film as a bad joke.

Howard proves a smart choice as a director because his middlebrow tastes inspire him to go for broad strokes and forget making any real sense of these logic-busters. But why did he allow such a solid, attractive cast to turn in such stiff, unappealing performances? Salvatore Totino's glistening cinematography, Allan Cameron's assured production design and Hans Zimmer's driving score are definitely pluses. Yet "Da Vinci" never rises to the level of a guilty pleasure. Too much guilt. Not enough pleasure.

Columbia Pictures
Imagine Entertainment

Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Akiva Goldsman
Based on the novel by: Dan Brown
Producers: Brian Grazer, John Calley
Executive producers: Todd Hallowell, Dan Brown
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Allan Cameron
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costumes: Daniel Orlandi
Editors: Dan Hanley, Mike Hill.

Robert Langdon: Tom Hanks
Sophie Neveu: Audrey Tautou
Sir Leigh Teabing: Ian McKellen
Captain Fache: Jean Reno
Silas: Paul Bettany
Bishop Aringarosa: Alfred Molina
Vernet: Jurgen Prochnow
Remy Jean: Jean-Yves Berteloot

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

But under the façade of friendly neighbours, lies a web of lies, deceit and lots of hardcore gun power. For, John and Jane Smith, who live in a holly-lined suburban bungalow, are not the simple business people that they seem.

The innocuous garden shed doubles up as a high-tech weapons store, the oven opens up with an array of guns because Mr. Smith (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. Smith (Angelina Jolie) are the world's deadliest assassins - only they don't know about each other's secret identity.

So they visit a shrink, say "I don't answer the question" when asked "So how many times do you have sex?" and talk about dinner table discussions which revolve around the addition of peas in a recipe.

Director Doug Liman ("Bourne Identity") certainly knows a thing or two about action flicks, brings all the razzle-dazzle that a big budget 20th Century Fox thriller should possess, including the zipping car chases and the millions of bullets.

There is a dashing thrill about watching two of the world's most beautiful people display their much talked about chemistry - whether they are doing the tango or are in white underwear in a bashed up car.

That chemistry, every bit of it, oozes out on screen as Pitt and Jolie play the bored husband and wife and then, deadly killers, with equal aplomb.

One of the 'moments' in the film comes when, after both of them have finished a kill (including Jolie floating down from a skyscraper aided by a single stretchable rope) - the duo go to party next door.

And Jolie, as Mrs. Jane Smith, sits toying with some insipid wine, when suddenly a baby is handed to her. A baby! She looks stricken.

After such woes, the action heats up when the duo discover each other's real identities and now have a new assignment - to kill each other.

That's what they do. Jane Smith tries to bomb to oblivion John Smith, who in turn tries to shoot his wife dead. And then, there is that fascinating hand-to-hand smash up, where they punch and kick and bash with great gusto.

The sudden cold heartedness with which they try to kill each other is a little abrupt but Liman makes sure that there is some emotion here and there - like when Jane sees a teddy bear that John had given her being torn to bits in the battle and the solitary tear that she sheds thinking he is dead.

The writing is fabulous, especially the car chase sequence when, while battling half a dozen cars, they own up to the lies that they've told. And then, Pitt's disgust when he confesses to having slept with "50 or 60 women" and Jolie says her figure is "312".

And the final shootout is choreographed like a dream with the Smiths firing away back to back to survive. All in all, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is a brilliant coming together of two uniquely glamorous stars.

Are they having an affair? Well, many would say, we hope so.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie
Director: Doug Liman
Producer: 20th Century Fox

Kung Fu Hustle

 The cauldron of seething characters huddle in hysterical heroic postures in an indeterminate part of Shanghai to kick some serious butt.

There are no ifs and buts in "Kung Fu Hustle", only non-stop action designed to provide audiences with the kind of martial mayhem that Quentin Tarantino would consider cool, if only he were Chinese.

The action in this febrile flick is so intensely gratuitous you are never very sure what Stephen Chow intends to do.

Is this a homage to the Kung Fu action film? Or does it mock Hollywood's savage actioners from Brian de Palma to Tarantino? Beats me. Beats the baddies.

The violence is so brutal, it's funny. The gangsters known as Axe Men strut around with axes, hacking off legs and limbs to the sound of an invisible rap beat. They are confronted by a ghetto outside the city run by a landlady who's a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Austen Powers, with a little bit of Lucy Liu thrown in.

A lot of the action involves the uncouth landlady whose jeering self-assertions leave a lot of the men in the ghetto looking like impotent imbeciles.

Heroism in "Kung Fu Hustle" is defined not by intellect but simply by the characters' gut-level responses to violent situations.

The aggression isn't just relentless, it's also merciless. The people in the film are largely scruffy souls searching for ways to express themselves in a plot that has more curves than the hero's torso.

Amidst the tumult of grimacing bad guys and unlikely heroes - there's a whole line-up of middle-aged martial arts heroes who suddenly shed their peasantry to fly across the sky in implausible gestures of masterly machismo - there's Chow playing a man on the street with an obese sidekick.

In his character, Chow encompasses both the yin and yang aspects of heroism. He's a fighter who hates violence. He's a lover who spurns the woman who adores him, and a brave heart who hides in traffic-signal enclaves to vent his spleen.

The narrative takes us through Chow's adventures with the baddies until we come to a state of nirvana in the plot that bludgeons audiences into stupefied silence.

"Kung Fu Hustle" is like a deliberately complicated jigsaw puzzle where you suspect, some of the pieces aren't meant to fit in. The characterisations are self-consciously askew. And the pseudo-philosophy is meant to accentuate the action.

You could watch "Kung Fu Hustle", as a straightforward martial arts movie with special effects that boggle the mind and eyes. Going deeper, you encounter craggy passages of uneven transition from violence to metaphysics, which leave you scratching your head.

Remarkably enough, the film's kitschy presentation and hammy performances follow a unique rhythm. The film packages its pyrotechnics with a hawk-eyed regard for the baser instincts of the audience. There's love and raunchy humour colonizing Hang-Sang Poon's zigzagging camera.

Devilishly dizzying, "Kung Fu Hustle" offers the kind of bizarre funky thrills that would make Alfred Hitch***** squirm.

Unlike Hitch*****'s "Psycho", there's no girl murdered in the shower. The psychos in Stephen Chow's film don't take a shower.

Starring:Stephen Chow
Directed by Stephen Chow

Batman Begins

For the first time, the tale is centered firmly on the Batman himself, or in this case Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), and not on one of his over-the-top enemies. Now, the non-comics audiences can witness--and understand--the sequence of events that led an orphaned billionaire to dress up like a bat and scare the bejeezus out of bad guys. Expanding The Batman's world beyond the claustrophobic confines of Gotham, the film opens on a tormented and rudderless Wayne abroad in Asia, recruited by hypnotic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to join the world-redefining forces of the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) by way of some serious ninja schooling. All the while Bruce flashes back on his parents' violent murder and his growing sense of impotence against injustice, despite the attentions of childhood sweetie and future D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Unwilling to mete out Ra's extreme form of "justice," Wayne returns to Gotham City to launch his own unique campaign to clean up the city's corrupt and crime-plagued streets, with three key allies: his faithful family valet Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine); Gotham's only clean cop, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman); and tech-savvy Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who provides the Batman's wonderful toys from Wayne Enterprises' experimental arsenal. Now trying on two different masks--Batman's crime-hating fury for the back alleys and a foppish playboy façade for the public--Wayne soon finds himself pitted against an inventive doomsday plot instigated by psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane, better known as the sinister Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who uses fear as a weapon almost as formidably as The Batman himself. We're finally given a noble post-modern Batman who, with compelling motivation, will not resort to lethal force.

Bale leads the all-star cast, making the best movie Batman since Michael Keaton's excellently eccentric 1989 performance. Whereas Keaton's slight, intensely brilliant Wayne seemed to don the Batsuit to gain an edge of intimidation, Bale's Batman is simply a dark emblem expressing the rage and fury roiling underneath the billionaire's surface. His is a ferocious Dark Knight indeed. He's also effective portraying two other sides of the character's persona: the silly, randy public face of Bruce Wayne and the tortured real man underneath both guises. Of the potent supporting cast, Caine imbues Alfred with the appropriate fatherly warmth and wit while adding a fresh element of authority and capability as well; Neeson's multidimensional Ducard leaves one guessing if he's a hero, antihero, villain or all of the above; and Freeman is clearly having a ball as Batman's own "Q." Holmes is comely, capable and utterly superfluous; Tom Wilkinson tastefully chews the scenery as crime boss Carmine Falcone; and Murphy (once a close contender for the role of Batman himself) is tantalizingly creepy and villainous--the film could have used more of his off-kilter charisma. The only minor speed bump is Oldman's Gordon. His acting is always on the mark, but the character, so well-developed in the seminal comic book tale Batman: Year One, is never utilized to its fullest potential.

Along the way, every element of the Batman's back story is fleshed out in almost excruciating detail. Here's how he found the Batcave. Here's where he got the Batmobile. Here's why he has little pockets on his utility belt. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But some clever plot twists from director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter/professional comic book scribe David S. Goyer fuel the story's forward momentum. Nolan and Goyer work hard to inventively crib together a mélange of origin elements and plot points from influential comic book storytellers including original Batman creator Bob Kane, unsung early writer Bill Finger, Sin City's Frank Miller, David Mazzuccelli, Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams and others (even bits and pieces from a comic story penned by Ducard's creator Sam Hamm, also the screenwriter behind Burton and Keaton's 1989 film). All these patches are effectively sewn into a clever quilt, creating a cohesive original tale told with entertaining gusto. However, the film does lack a certain knockout visual flair that defines the best comics--great, imposing "money shots" of the fearsome Batman are few and far between--and the action sequences are a tad too choppy, close-up and over-edited. Plus, for a film about a dude dressed as a winged mammal, it takes itself so darn seriously. The movie would definitely have benefited from a jolt of loopy outlandishness akin to Burton's undeniably quirky vision. And--despite the reigning notion that the previous films overdid the villains--a crazier, more charismatic bad guy would have done wonders to liven up the stately proceedings. There's a reason the audience burst into wild applause in the screening I saw at a third-act allusion to one of Batman's more famous adversaries. Let's hope for a little more inspired lunacy in the sequel.

Bottom Line
Far more than just "Batman, Again?," Batman Begins is indeed a fresh start for the film franchise, capturing the best aspects of the Dark Knight's dark beginnings and--in the film's greatest strength--the noblest aspects of his caped crusade against crime. Like the Batmobile itself, the superhero icon has been retooled and supercharged, roaring to ferocious new life for a new generation.

The Perfect Man

This happy-feel-good-but-let's-learn-a-lesson tale centers on teenager Holly Hamilton (Hilary Duff), who just wants to settle down. She's tired of moving every time her single mom Jean (Heather Locklear) has another personal meltdown involving yet another second-rate guy. And can you blame her? Even though mom professes her undying love and devotion to her daughters (there's a little sis, too), dragging them all over the country just 'cause she's too depressed to stay in the same place after her boyfriend dumps her doesn't necessarily earn her the Mother of the Year award. But when the family of transients lands in Brooklyn, Holly decides she's going to distract her mother from making another mistake by finding her the "perfect" man. Borrowing her friend's charming and handsome Uncle Ben (Christopher Noth) as a role model, Holly concocts an imaginary secret admirer who romances Jean via emails and instant messaging, thus boosting her shaky self-esteem. But soon Holly finds herself resorting to increasingly desperate measures to keep the ruse alive because a) mom is really happy but, of course, wants to meet Mr. Perfect and b) well, mom wants to meet Mr. Perfect. So just how is Holly going to get herself out of this, keep her mother's trust and realize Ben really is the perfect man? Oh, the drama!

Hilary Duff seems to be the main perpetrator of this entirely overcooked genre (The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Cinderella Story), although her colleagues Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, Amanda Bynes (What a Girl Wants), the Olsen twins (New York Minute) and, yes, even Lindsay Lohan are all guilty of it as well. The young actress-singer still commands the attention of most tweens, and she continues to be a very likable screen teen. But her breathy, squeaky delivery of such syrupy material as The Perfect Man is starting be more gag-inducing than entertaining. Duff needs to rip her shirt off, stick a needle in her arm, and do SOMETHING dark, for Pete's sakes, even if she may not have the acting chops to pull it off. Here's an idea: maybe Hathaway, Duff and Lohan should play crack whores in some indie. Now that would be something. Not sure what Heather Locklear and Christopher Noth are doing in this movie, though. Sure, Locklear has distanced herself from years as one of TV's queen *****es, and Noth has left his Sex and the City days forever, but for both of them to stoop as low as The Perfect Man? Like we are supposed to believe a woman who looks like her and a guy as sexy as him can't find someone to love them. Please. Doesn't she know Mr. Big's waiting for her?

Director Mark Rosman is clearly a Hilary Duff fan, having guided her through other such sticky sweet fluff as Cinderella Story and episodes of Duff's former Disney Channel show The Lizzie McGuire Show. He doesn't do anything glaringly wrong with The Perfect Man either. There are all the right beats and poignant moments. The familial bonding. The romantic interests. The pop-song filled soundtrack. The youthful characters sporting the latest and coolest fashions. But just a few niggling questions entered my brain as I watched the movie. First of all, how does this woman find all these jobs and apartments all over the country on such short notice? Does she have a network of people on the lookout for her? And for someone who moves around a lot, they sure do have a lot of cool furniture. Of course, I should have been all wrapped up in the story, how Jean realizes what an idiot she's been, teaching her daughters the wrong kind of lessons. But instead I'm thinking about what a pain in the ass it is to move.

Bottom Line
Your tween daughter and her friends will probably chirp over Hilary Duff's oh-so-precious and Perfect moments. But you'll most likely want to throw up and call it a night after swallowing this big ball of cotton candy.

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