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LORD OF WAR PP

Lord of War is a sober look at international gunrunning, and the opening credit sequence, which follows a single bullet from its creation in a factory to its final destination inside the skull of a young boy, promises that this picture will take no prisoners. Yet what dooms Lord of War right from the start is its central character. Speaking to the camera as if he fancied himself Ferris Bueller, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) informs us he’s an international arms dealer who’s made a successful life for himself by acquiring and selling weapons to anyone, anywhere. Yuri takes us back to the beginning, relating in GoodFellas mode how a restless kid from Brooklyn’s Little Odessa decided to pursue this line of occupation for the thrill and the dough. We follow him as he lands his dream girl (Bridget Moynahan), takes his coke-addled brother (Jared Leto) under his wing, orchestrates deals with mass murderers across the globe and eventually has a crisis of conscience so small that it seems to last only a nanosecond. It’s Scarface all over again, to such an extent that I almost expected Yuri to point at his arsenal of AK-47s and bellow, “Say hello to my little friends!” But Scarface (both the 1932 and 1983 versions) made no bones about the fact that the title gangster was a vile human being. By contrast, Lord of War keeps soft-pedaling its central character: Yuri defends his despicable actions not only by using the feeble argument that, hey, if he wasn’t doing it, somebody else would, but also by delivering a risible speech in which he declares that he hopes all the bullets he sells miss their targets so that nobody gets injured! The improbabilities and contradictions make this an impossible character to play, and Cage immediately falls back on his established mannerisms (namely, sleepy-eyed indifference) to coast through this film. Director Andrew Niccol would have had more success if he had placed his data in the context of compelling entertainment -- for inspiration, he should have studied 1999’s Gulf War flick Three Kings, where the dark humor served to complement the movie’s anti-war stance.

JUST LIKE HEAVEN PP1/2

A pastiche of Ghost, Ghostbusters, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and seemingly every other ghost story this side of Bill Cosby’s disastrous Ghost Dad, Just Like Heaven is the latest Reese Witherspoon vehicle that makes ample use of her winsome movie star appeal while largely ignoring the deeper acting chops employed in earlier pics like Election and Freeway. Yet as far as these things go, audiences can do worse, as a clever concept and ideally cast roles make this more bearable than it has any right to be. Not especially funny but nevertheless breaking down audience barriers through sheer likability, this romantic comedy casts the plucky actress as Elizabeth, a workaholic who seemingly gets killed while driving home from her job at a San Francisco hospital. She continues to haunt her apartment, which proves to be a problem since the place is now occupied by David (Mark Ruffalo), a new tenant who for personal reasons has shut himself off from the rest of the world. Hostile at first, the pair eventually try to bring each other back to life -- physically in her case, emotionally in his. Ruffalo’s shaggy dog demeanor offers an unexpected counterpoint to Witherspoon’s polished spunk -- they make a good on-screen match -- while Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder summons some laughs as a laid-back bookstore employee with the ability to sense the presence of spirits.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE P1/2

There’s a reason that some communities back in 1973 sought to prevent teens from seeing The Exorcist even though the R rating meant that theoretically they could check it out with a parent by their side. The idea of Satan or one of his minions taking complete control of someone’s body is a terrifying concept, certainly not suitable for impressionable young minds. But this is 2005, not 1973, and more often than not, the rule at the multiplex is to make sure every picture is sanitized to the point that it earns no harsher than a family-friendly PG-13. And so we get The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a rigidly literal-minded horror yarn that’s no more frightening than a Chihuahua with a bad disposition. Newcomer Jennifer Carpenter is the title character, the product of a deeply religious farm family who heads off to college and promptly becomes possessed by demonic forces. The family priest (Tom Wilkinson) is summoned to perform an exorcism, but after the girl dies in his care, he finds himself being defended against involuntary manslaughter charges by an agnostic lawyer (Laura Linney). Tedious rather than tense and sabotaged by its full range of one-dimensional characterizations, the movie alternates between Dolby-enhanced possession scenes that could benefit from some projectile vomiting (or at least a spinning head) and droning courtroom sequences that wouldn’t pass muster on the weakest episode of “Matlock.”

THE CONSTANT GARDENER PPP1/2

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles seemingly came out of nowhere to make his mark on international cinema with the powerful City of God, and it’s nice to see that he hasn’t cut himself any slack with his follow-up feature. Strong enough that it should have been held for year-end release rather than tossed away during the waning days of summer, The Constant Gardener is a gripping film that somehow manages to make its central romance even more compelling than all the attendant global intrigue. Based on the novel by John Le Carre, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat living in Kenya with his outspoken activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). They don’t seem like the most compatible match, and after Tessa is murdered, further details emerge that cast a dark spell on her fidelity and paint their marriage as a troubled one. Unfazed, Justin is nevertheless determined to solve the mystery of her death, and what he uncovers is a scandalous affair involving pharmaceutical conglomerates, low-life assassins and high-ranking British officials. With its unblinking (and accurate) examinations of the soulnessness of corporations and the grotesque manner in which the western world continues to ignore the plight of impoverished African nations (an angle it shares with Hotel Rwanda and The Interpreter), The Constant Gardener reverberates with a torn-from-the-headlines urgency. Yet what’s most startling about the movie is the gale force of its love story, featuring characters so vividly brought to life (both Fiennes and Weisz are terrific) that you leave the theater with a lump in the throat to accompany the fire in the belly.

THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN PPP1/2

The summer’s most unexpected surprise mixes honest sentiment and raunchy humor in a manner that’s more satisfying than in just about any comparable modern comedy, including the current hit Wedding Crashers -- in fact, not since There’s Something About Mary has a movie combined these disparate elements so seamlessly. Displaying a spark of comic invention in small roles in Bewitched, Anchorman and Bruce Almighty, Steve Carell catches on fire here, playing a sympathetic character that he created with director Judd Apatow (both men are credited with the screenplay). Carell plays Andy, a man-child who sports an impressive collection of comic books and action figures (all in mint condition, of course), rides a bicycle to work every day, and never has even come close to knowing the joys of a relationship, let alone the attendant carnal pleasures. His three co-workers at the electronics store (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen) make it their mission in life to hook Andy up; he eventually bumps into a few prospects, the most promising being Trish (excellent Catherine Keener), a divorcee with three kids and a flailing Internet business.



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