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LAST HOLIDAY A remake of a 1950 British comedy starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday is better than expected thanks to its retooling as a vehicle for Queen Latifah. Director Wayne Wang, who probably eyes the career of Ang Lee and wonders where he went wrong, has long been demoted from indie darling (Smoke) to mainstream hack (Maid In Manhattan), and his desire to appease the studio gods means that there's very little innovation on view in this predictable picture. But Queen Latifah and her supporting cast -- to say nothing of the gorgeous location shooting and eye-popping shots of delectable food dishes -- go a long way toward making this digestible. Latifah stars as Georgia Byrd, a working-class woman who, upon learning that she'll die in three weeks, cashes in all her assets and heads off to the Grandhotel Pupp (located in the Czech Republic) with the intent of winding down her life in luxury. While at the hotel, she befriends the cook (Gerard Depardieu -- how I've missed him!), offers sage advice to assorted individuals (among them Giancarlo Esposito's silky Senator and Alicia Witt's kept woman) and butts heads with her former boss, the hardhearted CEO of a national retail chain (Timothy Hutton). Meanwhile, her love interest (LL Cool J) back home discovers her dark secret and hightails it to be by her side. The message of the film is that everyone -- no matter their lot in life -- should be treated with dignity and respect, but after watching Latifah receive endless massages, hit the snowy slopes and chow down on lobster and lamb, most moviegoers will be forgiven for believing that the true message of the picture is that (duh) it's better to be rich than poor. Rating: ** 1/2

Current Releases

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO Given the film's unsteady start, patience is integral to one's enjoyment of Neil Jordan's adaptation of the novel by Patrick McCabe. As the movie progresses, Jordan's eccentric choices and the life journey of his never-say-die protagonist both begin to click: The movie springs from hard-to-watch to difficult-to-resist, and by the end, it's hard to let it go. Jordan follows the misadventures of transvestite Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Murphy) as the lad navigates his way through the often dangerous terrain of Ireland and England in the 1960s and 1970s. Taking a whimsical approach to the episodic structure, Jordan's movie feels like a melding of Forrest Gump, Candide and the strain of "magical realism" that was so fashionable in the foreign cinema of the 1990s. Murphy initially appears to be coasting on Kitten's flamboyant traits, yet as our understanding of the character deepens, his bravura turn grows in stature. Rating: ***

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN The secret behind this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is that behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any cinematic love story of recent times. Scripters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee have managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. In detailing the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain is about longing and loneliness as much as it's about love -- indeed, loss and regret become tangible presences in the film. Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance, but this is clearly Ledger's show: He's phenomenal as Ennis, and his character's anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf. Rating: ***1/2

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this epic yarn. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy tale that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color and the brisk story line fuels the imagination. Rating: ***

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE It wouldn't take much for Fun With Dick and Jane to emerge as a superior remake, given that the 1977 original looks especially dismal these days. That laughless comedy employs two actors of marginal comedic abilities -- Jane Fonda and George Segal -- in a lumbering yarn about a well-to-do married couple who turn to crime once the husband loses his job. This new version one-ups its predecessor right out of the starting gate by casting two bona fide comedians -- Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni -- in the central roles. This is strictly a congenial, end-of-year trifle aimed at providing families with somewhere to go after all the presents have been opened. It's a pleasant enough diversion, offering a few chuckles, allowing Carrey to occasionally mug and keeping the paying customers satisfied. Rating: **1/2

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