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A SLIPPING-DOWN LIFE So exactly how long has this adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel been sitting on the shelf? Let me put it this way: When it first saw the light of day at a past Sundance Film Festival, there was a Democrat in the White House, The Real World was about the only significant "reality" series on TV, and no one had even heard of a matrix outside of math class. Five years of dust-gathering seems harsh (reportedly, distribution woes added to the delay), but there's probably not much of an audience for a turgid drama whose monotonous tempo rarely fluctuates from one scene to the next. Tyler's book centered on a teenage girl who becomes infatuated with a young rock star; here, Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce -- both 32 at the time of filming -- play the leads, and while this isn't quite as outrageous as, say, the casting of 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer as the teenage lovers in the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet, it soon becomes clear (even to those unfamiliar with the book) that these actors are clearly too old for these roles. There are a couple of nice moments and a few interesting character quirks, but not nearly enough to make writer-director Toni Kalem's picture more than a passing curiosity. The local film industry may bristle at the fact that, although set in North Carolina, shooting took place entirely in Texas. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

BON VOYAGE Set during World War II, this French flick possesses the elan of those vintage all-star opuses like Grand Hotel, though its spirit clearly rests with Casablanca, another movie in which the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of -- well, you know the routine. Gregori Derangere plays a writer who finds himself implicated in a murder committed by a spoiled actress (Isabelle Adjani), aiding a scientist (Jean-Marc Stehle) and his shapely assistant (Virginie Ledoyen) smuggle contraband material to England, mixing it up with a waffling government official (Gerard Depardieu) and a secretive journalist (Peter Coyote), and somehow still finding time to write his novel. It's all about as believable as those comic shorts in which The Three Stooges smacked around Adolph Hitler -- and no less entertaining.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW If anything, this end-of-the-world extravaganza could stand to be stupider. That's not to say that Mensa members will feel mentally stimulated; it's just that when it comes to making a big, loud, occasionally laughable but undeniably fun disaster flick, Roland Emmerich could have taken an extra page or two from the genre pictures that dominated the 70s. The effects are cool and the dialogue terrible, but the cast (Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, etc.) is too respectable -- where are the has-been movie stars, the marginal celebrities, the wooden athletes? The Airport series at least showcased the likes of Charo, Jimmie Walker and Helen Reddy as a singing nun, so clearly, this could have benefited from the presence of, say, Ralph Macchio, Kobe Bryant, Clay Aiken or Michael Jackson as a singing priest. 1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN Director Alfonso Cuaron's resume (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) all but guaranteed he'd be given the free ride that Chris Columbus (helmer of the first two flicks) never enjoyed, but the truth is that this is the weakest of the films to date. For starters, it isn't the darkest as promised; instead, with predictable plot twists and an emphasis on effects over characters, it's often the one most geared toward children. Still, despite its pitfalls, the movie can be recommended on the basis of two considerable strengths: the interplay between its youthful leads (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) and a second half that, with its rapidly escalating dangers and labyrinthine leaps in plot, picks up steam and ends the picture on an upward trajectory. 1/2

KILL BILL VOL. 2 The inability to notice that the emperor had no clothes -- not even a bandanna -- helped turn Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 into a critical darling and a favorite of fan-boys everywhere. But although originally conceived as one movie until the length dictated the creation of two separate flicks, the Kill Bill volumes couldn't possibly be further apart -- in style, tone or content. Volume 1 diehards will inevitably feel let down by the emphasis on talk rather than action, but Volume 2 is nevertheless the superior movie. It's better written, better acted (especially by Uma Thurman and David Carradine), and more emotionally involving, although it's still obvious that Tarantino should have taken the scissors to his project and carved out a single kick-ass movie instead of two bloated ones. 1/2

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