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New releases: W., Max Payne 

W.

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that George W. Bush is a remarkably controversial figure, so how is it possible that Oliver Stone has managed to make a movie that’s about as incendiary as Kung Fu Panda? Stone has been down this road before, when he tried to inject sympathy and dignity into the tale of Tricky Dick in his 1995 effort, Nixon. Yet that feature looks as hard-hitting as All the President’s Men when compared to W., which suggests that Dubya’s only real character flaw is that he isn’t always the sharpest tack in the box. The film flashes back and forth between the years, but it never manages to find time for any mention of, for starters, his ineptitude in the face of Katrina or his paralyzed state during those first fateful moments of 9/11. Its primary focus from 2000 to now is how sweet, trusting George was largely duped into attacking Iraq since his advisors convinced him that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. Stone further decides that every move Dubya makes in his life is to seek approval from a perpetually disappointed father (played by James Cromwell). The two women in his life -- wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and mom Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) -- do little more than offer, respectively, support and criticism. As W., Josh Brolin provides the proper mix of swagger and insecurity. In fact, practically all of the actors are solid, even if they don’t really represent the real-life figures they’re playing. Jeffrey Wright probably comes closest: His Colin Powell is a conscientious man who’s ultimately too weak-willed to stand up against the warmongers surrounding him. Thandie Newton is amusing as Condoleezza Rice -- she elicited audience giggles whenever she spoke in that clipped accent. Scott Glenn is suitably oily as Donald Rumsfeld, and this character comes off as the only truly odious one in the film. Yes, you read that right. Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney seems more like a well-meaning if occasionally cantankerous uncle, while Toby Jones’ Karl Rove comes across as a smart, likable guy who’s no worse than any other political player.

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees is the sort of Southern-spun, honey-soaked confection that, in the wrong hands, could have turned out dreadful. Yet Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood largely stays away from grandiloquent gestures designed to manipulate audience emotions, relying instead on sound storytelling and a set of accomplished performers to punch across the story’s humanist appeal. Set in 1964 South Carolina, the story centers on young Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who’s haunted by memories of her late mother (Hilarie Burton) and ill-treated by her unfeeling father (Paul Bettany). Hoping to learn more about a mom she barely remembers, she runs away from home, dragging her caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) along with her. She heads to a town where she knows her mother once stayed, and, upon arrival, she and Rosaleen end up taking shelter in the home of the Boatwright sisters: patient August (Queen Latifah), suspicious June (Alicia Keys) and sentient (if simple-minded) May (Sophie Okonedo). There, Lily not only finds the answers she seeks but also the family she never had. It’s only been two years since I last saw Fanning (in Charlotte’s Web), yet she seems to have passed that vaguely defined mark between adorable moppet and self-assured teen. No longer able to count on the safety net of precociousness (not that she ever really did), the 14-year-old is expected to deliver a full-bodied performance here, and she handles the task like a seasoned pro. Her co-stars prove to be equally memorable, and it’s especially nice to see Hudson handed a role somewhat more substantial than the discarded-tissue part she had in Sex and the City.

Max Payne

Imagine The Constant Gardener after a frontal lobotomy, and that’s basically Max Payne in a nutshell. The latest bomb based on a popular video game, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character, a New York cop who, years after the fact, is still solely obsessed with solving the murders of his wife and baby. It sounds like standard Death Wish fare; the picture even opens with Max luring three drug addicts into a subway restroom, then proceeding to inflict Payne -- excuse me, pain -- on them. But as in The Constant Gardener, a major pharmaceutical outfit figures into the proceedings, though it’s safe to say that Ralph Fiennes never had to contend with winged demons flying all over the cityscape. That’s not the case with Wahlberg, whose character also has to deal with invincible super-soldiers (created for the War on Terror, natch), a leggy druggie (played by upcoming Bond babe Olga Kurylenko) and a career assassin (a miscast Mila Kunis) who’s about as menacing as a Scooby-Doo plush doll. Rather than focusing on making a kick-ass action flick (presumably what fans of the video game would crave), director John Moore (the lame remake of The Omen) and novice scripter Beau Thorne dress up their simplistic revenge yarn with various twists and turns -- all of which are absurdly easy to predict (if the revelation of the piece’s final villain surprises you, you really need to add more mysteries to your moviegoing diet). Yet even when they do get around to the shootouts and fisticuffs, they prove to be flagrantly opportunistic, rehashing both The Matrix and the John Woo oeuvre to diminishing returns.

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