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WALK THE LINE PPP

One generally encounters a sense of déjà vu when watching a biopic about a celebrity, since they all trace the expected ups and downs in the most conventional manner possible (Oliver Stone’s whacked-out The Doors possibly excepted). So never mind that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash may have been one-of-a-kinds in real life: By boiling down their life experiences to sketchy outlines, we end up with pretty much the same story. Both were raised in rural Bumfuck; both lost a beloved brother at a young age; both landed their big breaks during exciting and volatile times for music; both were fond of womanizing and taking drugs, much to the chagrin of sympathetic wives cooling their heels at home with the kids; and both cleaned up their lifestyles enough to endure as musical icons until their deaths earlier this decade. Yet a conventional film doesn’t automatically mean a boring one, and for all its familiarity, there’s plenty to like about Walk the Line. First and foremost the film positions itself as a love story, one that finds Cash locating his soulmate in country star June Carter. A vivacious firecracker who takes her time in committing to this troubled individual, June has her own demons to tame, most notably attempting to reconcile her two divorces with her strict Christian upbringing. Just as Ray lived or died on the powerhouse performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing) to carry it over the line. Phoenix, all hunched shoulders and slow-burn stares, commands the screen, yet even he’s topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election. Phoenix may provide the movie with its voice, but it’s Witherspoon who delivers its soul.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE PPP

There’s a reason that this is the first movie in the franchise to earn a PG-13 rating, and it’s not because there’s suddenly heavy petting between Hermione and her best buds Harry and Ron (this is Harry Potter, people, not Thirteen). Instead, director Mike Newell, the first British director attached to this veddy British series, and scripter Steve Kloves, forced to whittle down Rowling’s enormous tome, steadfastly refuse to coddle the youngest audience members, “family film” status be damned. The Triwizard Cup competition, undertaken by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and three older students, is fraught with such perils as fire-breathing dragons and piranha-toothed mermaids. A key supporting character -- a likable one, at that -- is unexpectedly killed. And the evil Lord Voldemort, who hasn’t been seen since he murdered Harry’s parents 13 years earlier, finally makes an appearance (Ralph Fiennes is suitably slimy in the role). Yet the series’ greatest strength -- namely, the dead-on portrayals by Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione -- never fails to deliver, and even an overstuffed plot doesn’t slow down the proceedings as much as convey that there’s much at stake in Harry’s increasingly sinister world.

In effect, the Harry Potter pack is filling the void left by the departure of the Star Trek film franchise by offering characters we care about in fantastical adventures. As long as they don’t tamper with the formula, this series should likewise live long and prosper.

YOURS, MINE AND OURS P

A descent into the pits of hell disguised as a motion picture, Yours, Mine and Ours is the sort of broad, insincere schmaltz that moviegoers seem to eat up at this time of year. A widower (Dennis Quaid) with eight kids bumps into his former high school sweetheart, now a widow (Rene Russo) with 10 children. On a whim, they decide to get married, but managing a household comprising 18 minors proves to be a formidable challenge.



PRIDE & PREJUDICE



PPP

Did we really need a new film version of Pride & Prejudice? After the ‘90s spate of Jane Austen adaptations -- not to mention the recent P&P updates Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride & Prejudice -- moviegoers understandably might proceed with caution. Yet all reservations dissipate as soon as the lights go down and this satisfactory version gets underway. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have done an exemplary job of making us care all over again about the plight of the Bennet sisters, five young girls whose busybody mom (Brenda Blethyn) sets about finding them suitable husbands against the backdrop of 19th century England. The oldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) immediately lands a suitor, but the independent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) finds herself embroiled in a grudge match with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen).

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK PPP1/2

There's David Strathairn as journalist Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney himself as producer Fred Friendly, Frank Langella as CBS head William Paley and Senator Joseph McCarthy as… George W. Bush? Karl Rove? Bill O'Reilly? The film, which marks Clooney's second stint as director (he also co-wrote the script with producer Grant Heslov), looks at an inspiring moment in U.S. history, when Murrow did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who was destroying lives left and right by denouncing everyone who didn't subscribe to his petty politics as card-carrying Commie Pinkos. On one fateful evening in 1954, Murrow's TV show See It Now devoted an episode to sticking it to McCarthy. It wasn't long afterward that the Army-McCarthy hearings, featuring Judge Joseph Welch's famous smackdown of the Senator ("Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"), effectively ended McCarthy's reign of terror. At times, the laser-beam focus on both the setting and the situation at hand makes the film feel as if it's been sealed inside a Zip-Loc bag: There's no mention of Richard Nixon, no Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, no Hollywood Ten, certainly no Ronald Reagan. The movie's genius, however, is in its integration of actual newsreel footage into the fictionalized framework. No actor was hired to play Joe McCarthy because none was needed: The Senator is entirely represented through archival footage seen on TV screens. Apparently, Clooney felt that no performer could have captured this odious individual.

JARHEAD PPP

If anything, this is the pioneer in a new genre: the anti-war-movie movie. With steadfast determination, it refuses to take sides, name names, push agendas or do anything that might potentially inspire the wrath of moviegoers, Oscar voters, Op-Ed editors, war hawks or pacifists. In adapting Anthony Swofford's book, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) apparently felt that they had to be solely sympathetic to the travails of the foot soldiers -- in this case, the Marine "jarheads" who were dispatched to Iraq back in the early 90s to take part in the Gulf War. In much the same fashion as Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead opens stateside, as we see the basic training undergone by "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to mold himself into a military man of steel. From here, it's off to the Middle East, where these young men -- pumped up by visions of macho exploits, bonding with their phallic rifles and whipped into a feeding frenzy by a screening of Apocalypse Now's Wagnerian interlude -- are ready to kill countless Iraqis for God and country.

GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ P1/2

Rapper 50 Cent (or Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, as he’s billed here) may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he’s as relevant as a dead mike.



DERAILED P

An awful thriller featuring a post-Friends (and post-Brad) Jennifer Aniston attempting to jumpstart a movie career. Mining that fertile Fatal Attraction terrain, this finds unhappily married business executives Charles Schine (Clive Owen) and Lucinda Harris (Aniston) meeting as strangers on a train, engaging in flirtatious banter before deciding to get down and dirty in a seedy hotel room. But they’re suddenly disturbed by Laroche (Vincent Cassel), a French thug who rapes Lucinda (shades of Cassel’s Irreversible), beats Charles and murders the English language.

ZATHURA PP1/2

Children’s author Chris Van Allsburg scored big with his picture book Jumanji, so it’s no surprise that he dipped into the same well for Zathura, which can easily be summed up as “Jumanji in space.” Yet moviegoers who caught the screen version of Jumanji at some point over the past decade might still be interested in checking out the new cinematic take on Zathura, which differs in that it focuses on a strained sibling rivalry, showcases better visual effects, and replaces Jumanji’s Robin Williams with a manic, defective robot (on second thought, that last point might not qualify as a difference).

CHICKEN LITTLE PP

If Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. To be fair, this toon flick -- a frantic yarn about a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an impending alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals in the town of Oakey Oaks -- has its moments. But the central thrust of Chicken Little -- a standard “follow your dream” slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus.



THE LEGEND OF ZORRO



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It’s been seven years since the delightful swashbuckling adventure The Mask of Zorro hit theaters, and the lengthy interim suggests this follow-up was an afterthought on the part of Columbia Pictures. Maybe so, but at least nobody can accuse this of being hastily put together to cash in on the success of the first film. This finds Don Alejandro de la Vega (returning star Antonio Banderas) having trouble shedding his day job as Zorro in order to spend more time with his lovely wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But once Alejandro learns of a plan that threatens not only California but the rest of the nation, he steps back into his role as the other Man In Black.

THE WEATHER MAN PPP

Nicolas Cage, who throughout the past decade has been more grating than ingratiating, here delivers one of his better performances in a movie that mines much of the same emotional terrain as About Schmidt. A serio-comic piece written by Steven Conrad, this finds Cage cast as David Spritz, a Chicago TV weatherman whose lack of legitimate credentials hasn’t slowed down his career ascension. An affecting tale about a man who has trouble seeing the big picture because all of life’s little asides keep obstructing his view. The film’s sensibilities are just off-center enough to make it interesting, yet there’s always a tug of universal recognition in David’s travails.

DREAMER PP1/2

Taking a well-worn formula and adding flavor through rich characterizations, Dreamer centers on the circumstances that transpire when horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) elect to nurse an injured horse named Sonador (Spanish for Dreamer) back to health.

ELIZABETHTOWN PP

Orlando Bloom, nothing special but getting the job done, stars as Drew Baylor, a failed shoe designer who temporarily shelves his own demons in order to attend the funeral of his dad back in the title Kentucky town. Along the way, he meets a chatty flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who stirs him out of his stupor.

IN HER SHOES PPP

Women will grab their tissues while males will roll their eyes. But In Her Shoes isn’t designed for any of these people; instead, it will attract viewers who have little use for societal labels and who anticipate a well-crafted blend of comedy and pathos. Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette are Maggie and Rose, two sisters who have nothing in common except their shoe size. In this case, the ties that bind have been shredded down to a mere string, one which snaps when Maggie betrays Rose in an act of thoughtlessness. Banished, Maggie heads to Florida to meet Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), the grandmother she only recently met.



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More by Matt Brunson

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    Again combining a fairly standard morality tale with eye-popping visuals, Disney has another hit in Moana, a rollicking yarn centered on a young lass (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) coming of age on a South Pacific island.
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    A motion picture that turns out to be far more focused on humanity than on otherworldly visitors, it’s a transcendent viewing experience that gets under the skin and into the heart.
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