STAGE BEAUTY Cross the artistic integrity of Shakespeare In Love with the bawdy behavior of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and you might come up with Stage Beauty, a movie that recognizes the poetry in both Shakespeare and Benny Hill. Set during the reign of King Charles II (Rupert Everett) in 17th century England, the movie continues the recent trend of mixing and matching fact and fiction, with Billy Crudup cast as Ned Kynaston, the most celebrated actor during a period in which women were forbidden from performing on the stage. Making his mark solely in female parts -- his latest triumph is portraying Desdemona in Othello -- Ned finds his livelihood cut out from under him when the King issues a decree stating that, effective immediately, women are now allowed to act and men can only play male roles. So while Ned wallows in self-pity and sexual confusion (he only knows how to "act" feminine), his dresser (Claire Danes), who's long had her eye on the stage, suddenly finds herself regarded as the community's top new talent. Director Richard Eyre and scripter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his own play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty) fare best when they tackle the issue of gender identification while also debating its theatrical implications ("Where's the trick in that?" bellows Ned when learning that women will play women, hinting that the art comes from the mimicry rather than the shared experience between actor and role); they have less success in curtailing the piece's anachronistic tendencies. 1/2
AROUND THE BEND Product placements are nothing new, but what compelled Kentucky Fried Chicken to partner with writer-director Jordan Roberts on his low-budget debut? This family drama is sooo dull and dreary that the company might want to brace itself for plummeting stocks. Michael Caine plays an old codger who drops dead 20 minutes into the film; his will stipulates that his survivors -- son (Christopher Walken), grandson (Josh Charles) and great-grandson (Jonah Bobo) -- will bond over KFC lunches and the spreading of his ashes over the landscape. Well-intentioned but not even remotely involving, this leaves plenty of time for either dozing or daydreaming. My moment of inspiration during my frequent mental drifts: Given the plotline, how about a KFC promotion in which their chicken is sold in a bucket that's shaped like an urn? 1/2
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS A true-life yarn that was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as "one of the greatest sports stories of all time" has now been turned into one of the dullest sports films of recent years. Peter Berg has adapted his cousin H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed novel but in the process stripped it of any complexity, leaving only a generic pigskin tale. Set in 1988, the story unfolds in the small Texas town of Odessa, where practically every resident is glued to the fortunes of the local high school team. An underlying theme is that this cracker town's obsession with football is an unhealthy one, yet Berg skirts around this important issue simply so he can spend more time on motivational speeches and gridiron heroics -- in other words, the same-old same-old.
THE GRUDGE Japanese director Takashi Shimizu helms the American remake of his wildly popular scarefest Ju-On: The Grudge, but even his participation isn't enough to elevate this terror tale in any discernible manner. Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as an exchange student whose volunteer work takes her to a house that's subject to a terrible curse, a manifestation of evil that spells doom for anybody who enters. Ju-On's success rested in its powerful atmosphere, the sense of dread that Shimizu instilled in virtually every frame. Yet that aura only presents itself sporadically in the Yankee Grudge, most notably when the director meticulously recreates the original film's shock moments. The rest of the time, we're stuck with sterile expository scenes, a repetitious framework and the spectacle of Gellar trying to emote.
I ♥ HUCKABEES Or, Being Charlie Kaufman, as writer-director David O. Russell tries to expand the parameters of mainstream cinema as much as the scripter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet while Russell's movie doesn't quite capture the freewheeling dementia of Kaufman's output, it's still a noteworthy effort, with enough engaging hi-jinks -- not to mention a high-wattage cast -- to distract us from the frequent fuzziness of its psychobabble involving a young man's (Jason Schwartzman) search for the meaning of life. The passion with which the characters rail against their unbearable lightness of being is inspiring, and the uniformly fine cast (Dustin Hoffman, Naomi Watts, Jude Law, among others) provides shadings that otherwise might not have been there.