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NEW RELEASES

BEING JULIA It's not entirely accurate to state that Annette Bening is the show, the whole show, and nothing but the show in Being Julia, but let's just say that without her presence, the curtain would fall a lot faster on this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theatre. Bening is awfully fun to watch as she whirlwinds her way through this backstage yarn about an aging actress in 1938 London. Julia Lambert (Bening) is an unqualified success in front of an audience, but the rigors of her profession and her own insecurities about growing older suggest that a nervous breakdown is just around the corner. Her manager-husband (Jeremy Irons), her best friend (Bruce Greenwood), her loyal dresser (Juliet Stevenson) and even the spirit of her former mentor (Michael Gambon) all try to be understanding, but Julia's lust for life only gets reawakened once she engages in an affair with a young fan named Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans). But is this American kid really in love with her, or is he only using her to help further the career of the aspiring actress (Lucy Punch) who might be sharing his bed behind Julia's back? The film's greatest strength rests in the character dynamics, particularly the understated manner in which Julia's true allies always seem to know exactly what's going on with the leading lady in their lives without having to be explicitly told. Its biggest flaw comes from the miscasting of the bland Evans, whose flat performance makes it impossible to believe that the dynamic Julia would fall so strongly for a drip like Tom.

CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger's Jingle All the Way has there been a Yuletide film as fascistic -- or as odious -- as Christmas With the Kranks. Based on John Grisham's book Skipping Christmas, this stars Jamie Lee Curtis (who deserves better) and Tim Allen (who doesn't) as a suburban couple who elect to bypass Christmas altogether and use the money to treat themselves to a 10-day Caribbean vacation over the holiday season. It's a decision that draws instant revulsion from their friends and neighbors, as everyone unites to make the couple's lives miserable in an attempt to force them to renounce their decision and again embrace the commercialism of the period. Simply on a comedic level, the movie would earn one star for failing to deliver a single, solitary laugh (the slapstick sequences are especially painful to endure), but dig a little deeper and what you'll find is a repugnant yarn whose idea of morality wouldn't be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies. The Kranks aren't allowed to think or act for themselves lest they upset their upper-middle-class burg's status quo, and the intrusive, overbearing, conformist neighbors are ultimately depicted as heroes for "converting" the pair to their narrow-minded way of thinking. The film is sure to become a holiday staple around the Bush-Cheney White House for the next four years, but thoughtful citizens who believe in freedom of choice without persecution will see right through this turkey and reject its unsettling -- and decidedly un-American -- overtures.

FINDING NEVERLAND Almost one year after being treated to a delightful live-action version of Peter Pan, we now get a fanciful tale that seeks to explain how playwright J.M. Barrie initially came up with the idea for this children's classic. What ends up on the screen is as much fiction as fact (probably more so), but it's the sort of inspirational saga that will make audiences wish this was the way it really happened. A gentle Johnny Depp is just right as Barrie, who, as the story begins, is unhappy with both his work (his latest play is a bomb) and with his marriage to a beauty (Radha Mitchell) who doesn't share his passions. He eventually finds inspiration through a widow (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, particularly the moody Peter (Freddie Highmore), but these newly formed friendships are hampered by interference from the widow's stern mother (Julie Christie) as well as his own neglected wife. Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and scripter David Magee have made a film that's bursting with warmth and wit, and the sequence in which an ailing Winslet gets drawn into an impromptu staging of Peter Pan should moisten the eyes of every ticket holder in the auditorium. Dustin Hoffman contributes some nice moments as Barrie's patient producer, while Highmore's impressive performance as young Peter bodes well for his starring role as Charlie (opposite Depp as Willy Wonka) in Tim Burton's upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

CURRENT RELEASES

AFTER THE SUNSET As a celebration of the incomparable beauty of Salma Hayek, After the Sunset surely ranks as a four-star affair, lovingly photographing this earthbound Aphrodite as she sashays around the film's tropical setting in any number of bikinis and low-cut gowns. Oglers of Pierce Brosnan should also find this a thumbs-up affair: While the retiring James Bond has apparently made the switch from martinis to milkshakes, he's still dashing enough to provide the necessary yang to Hayek's sensual yin. But beyond the eye candy represented by the stars and their sun-soaked surroundings, there's little else that's memorable about this disposable tissue of a movie in which an FBI agent (an overripe Woody Harrelson) tries to trip up a pair of jewel thieves

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