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Alias Run Amok 

Secret identities at crux of new films

Strictly a meat-and-potatoes kind of filmgoer -- thumbs up to John Wayne and Burt Reynolds, thumbs down to fantasy yarns and art-house flicks -- my father would have made an interesting film critic if he could have gotten away with writing reviews no longer than 10 or 12 words. Even when we disagreed on films, his pithy retorts always amused me: He blasted Picnic at Hanging Rock as being "nothing more than close-ups of flies buzzing around," dismissed Poltergeist as "that silly movie where giant fans kept blowing around everything on the set," and wrote off Die Hard as "endless scenes with Bruce Willis going, "Oops, I can't get out this way' and "Oops, I can't get out that way.'" And until he passed away in 1992, he insisted that Marlon Brando's best performance was as the Goodyear blimp in Black Sunday.

It's not hard to imagine how my pop, a Robert Ludlum fan, would have described the loose screen adaptation of the author's bestseller The Bourne Supremacy (**1/2 out of four): "Two hours of that Matt Damon kid being chased around, then chased some more, and then chased even more." On this one, I'd have to say that Dad would have nailed it on the head. Even more than its successful antecedent, 2002's The Bourne Identity, this second installment slips into a worn groove as familiar as the repetitive template for, say, the Friday the 13th series (slice, dice, wince, repeat). And by the umpteenth time I watched Damon's character evade his pursuers by stealing a car or climbing onto a rooftop or rigging some makeshift electronic device, I felt like the needle had gotten permanently stuck in that groove.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy many parts of The Bourne Supremacy, but it doesn't strike me as being much more than an adequate piece of workmanship; it's the same reaction I had to its predecessor, a movie that admittedly everyone else liked more than me. Taken together, both films feel like consecutive episodes of a mildly entertaining television drama that nevertheless can't touch Alias in its attempts at trickery and, more importantly, character development.

Here, Damon's ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne is even more tight-lipped than in the first picture; without girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente, former co-star reduced to cameo player) to bounce off, he's a rather one-dimensional figure, going through the motions as he tries to find out who's framing him for murder and theft.

The good stuff mostly comes during the first half: The limited but effective work by Joan Allen and returning Julia Stiles as government suits; an exciting scuffle between Bourne and another CIA-sanctioned killer; the tantalizing vagueness of how all the fragmented pieces of the story will fit together. But as the film progresses, the mystery slackens rather than deepens, and the movie culminates with a sloppily edited car chase that goes on for so long that I had to be reminded: Was Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne or Sheriff Buford T. Justice?

My dad wouldn't even have wasted the loose change found under the couch cushions for something as outlandish as Catwoman (* out of four). Certainly we parted ways in our appreciation of fantasy flicks, yet in this instance he would have made the right call. About the only purpose this DC Comics adaptation serves is to answer that age-old question: What would an Ed Wood movie look like had the hack auteur ever been handed a sizable studio budget?

The answer is that he probably would have spent all the money and yet still produced something as cheap-looking -- and as unintentionally funny -- as Catwoman. Only time will tell if this dud will become a camp classic on the order of Myra Breckinridge or Showgirls or Wood's own Plan 9 From Outer Space, but for now, it will have to content itself with being the best bad movie of the summer. If only all turkeys could crash and burn with such razzmatazz.

Michelle Pfeiffer made a sensational Catwoman in Batman Returns, and it's a shame she never got to repeat the role in a once-discussed vehicle of her own. Instead, we're stuck with this dog (not to mix animal expressions or anything), which casts Halle Berry as mousy (oops, did it again) Patience Phillips. Murdered after she discovers that a new facial cream about to hit the streets is actually hazardous to one's health, Patience finds herself resurrected as the naughty-and-nice Catwoman, a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix who looks like the star attraction on an S&M website.

Patience's Catwoman persona takes her time making her first screen appearance; instead, painful minutes crawl by as we're leisurely subjected to Patience's romance with a hunky cop (Benjamin Bratt) and her friendship with a co-worker who's perpetually in heat (annoying Alex Borstein, who seems to be auditioning for an inane TV sit-com). These segments of the film are deadly dull, but once Berry suits up, the movie enters MST3K territory and never looks back.

Director Pitof doesn't even disguise the fact that his visual effects are basically video game simulations, and, as with Van Helsing, this film is so gaga over CGI that it's employed even for such simple shots as a cat meowing (last time I checked, this was something felines could do on their own with no difficulty whatsoever).

Ultimately, it's impossible to ascertain what's most laughable: the chintzy effects, the leaden dialogue, or villainess Sharon Stone's attempts to out-vamp Faye Dunaway's similar turn in Supergirl. In any event, cat lovers will be horrified by this film -- does PETA handle defamation suits?

The sooner some realities regarding the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (*** out of four) are accepted by fans of the 1962 edition, the sooner they can settle down and enjoy the film. This isn't a masterpiece like the '62 version, which still reigns as one of the finest thrillers ever made. Meryl Streep, while quite good, can't touch Angela Lansbury's bone-chilling portrayal of evil disguised as matronly concern; likewise, solid Liev Schreiber doesn't quite match Lawrence Harvey's multilayered performance as her tortured son. And a newly added plot twist -- the bracing type that feels like a slap across the face -- will have audience members choking on their popcorn, but it leads to a disappointing conclusion that doesn't make sense no matter how it's dissected.

But enough with the negativity. In most other respects, this new Candidate is that rare remake that paves its own way without exploiting or cheapening its predecessor. No longer a Cold War product, this finds the action updated to the present, with Denzel Washington in Frank Sinatra's old role as a career army officer who realizes that a former comrade (Schreiber), now a politician running for his party's Vice Presidential slot, might be the unwitting pawn of a major corporation (Manchurian Global) that's trying to seize control of the country.

The film's topicality can't hurt -- this could easily have been called The Halliburton Candidate, since the company in the film is accused of price gouging and war profiteering -- yet any political posturing is vague enough that it will only register with viewers looking for it. At any rate, social commentary places a distant second to director Jonathan Demme's desire to produce a taut, efficient thriller that will keep viewers perched on the edge of their seats.

Even my Republican dad would have approved.

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