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LITTLE BLACK BOOK Is it possible for an actress to out-twinkle Meg Ryan? In movie after movie, Ryan too often falls back on those mannerisms that once endeared her to Middle America: that lopsided grin, that crinkling of the nose, that squinting of the eyes. Brittany Murphy has apparently not only learned from the champ but has also supplanted her: This rising actress trots out so many adorable tics during the course of this film that she ends up making Ryan in Sleepless In Seattle seem as dour as Anne Ramsey in Throw Momma From the Train. She's a cutie for sure, but 90 minutes of watching her declare her fabulousness is ultimately as exhausting as jogging to Nashville and back. It's better to focus on the excellent performances by Holly Hunter and Julianne Nicholson, the primary reasons this mean-spirited comedy can be tolerated at all. That the film centers around one of those reprehensible trash-talk TV shows of the "My grandmother is a hooker" variety immediately signals the sort of crowd this is targeting -- here, it's the fictional Kippie Kann (Kathy Bates) who's the queen of the airwaves, with Murphy and Hunter cast as two of her show's associate producers. Egged on by her co-workers, Murphy decides to sneak a peek inside the Palm of her boyfriend (Ron Livingston), whereupon she discovers the names of three women whom he might be seeing behind her back: a sensitive chef (Nicholson), a self-centered gynecologist (Rashida Jones) and a shallow model (Josie Maran). We've come to expect the best from Hunter, so the real surprise is Nicholson, who almost humanizes this otherwise nasty tale.

THUNDERBIRDS For those not into trivial pursuit, Thunderbirds was a British TV series from the 1960s (now a popular cult item) in which the characters were all played by marionettes. This pointless update replaces the wooden dummies with human actors, though one would scarcely notice the difference. The series focused on billionaire astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons, who spent every episode saving the world with the help of such nifty vehicles as spaceships and submarines ("Thunderbirds are go!"). Here, Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and the older boys are largely tossed aside for most of the running time, leaving it up to Jeff's youngest son (Brady Corbet) and his pals (Soren Fulton and Vanessa Anne Hudgens, the latter so pleased to find herself in a movie that she usually forgets to act) to take on a dastardly villain known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley). Clearly, the emphasis on the brats tags this as a blatant Spy Kids rip-off, but for a supposedly wholesome family film, there are disturbing distractions -- namely, that the clean-cut Tracy heroes seem almost Aryan in design, while the main villain is a dark-skinned foreigner, his right-hand man is a murderous Anglo-African thug (Deobia Oparei) constantly lusting after white women, and their accomplice is a brainy lady (Rose Keegan) whose homeliness is meant to suggest that she deserves neither love nor respect. But maybe I'm reading too much into a movie that, by every other indication, contains the depth of a petri dish that's already filled to the rim.

THE VILLAGE There's probably a reason Alfred Hitchcock didn't write the vast majority of his movies: He knew his forte was directing, and he left the scribbling to others more seasoned at putting pen to paper. M. Night Shyamalan, who's absurdly been compared to Hitchcock more than once, would do well to learn from The Master. As a director, Shyamalan has a distinct visual style, and there are scenes in The Village that shimmer with an eerie beauty. But as a writer, he's becoming a parody of himself: Eager to top the climactic twist of The Sixth Sense, he has masterminded three subsequent movies in which (unlike Sense) the "gotcha!" endings seem to be the only reason for their existence. The Village isn't really much worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but Shyamalan's carny act already feels like it's decades old -- it's a shame, because some good ideas are squandered in a muddled thriller that ends up duping itself. William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and promising newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's daughter) are among those playing the residents of a 19th century burg that's surrounded by woods containing fearsome monsters. As long as the townspeople stay put, there's no danger, but one inquisitive citizen (Joaquin Phoenix) toys with the idea of overstepping the boundaries. Disney elected not to screen The Village for reviewers until the last possible moment -- that's generally a sign that a studio is worried about poor critical reception, though Disney insists it's because they wanted to avoid leaks about the ending. Whatever you say, guys.

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