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Casino Royale and Stranger Than Fiction among best bets

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BABEL An award winner at Cannes, Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (excellent Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel. But because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing. **1/2

BOBBY If the late Robert Altman had been dropped on his head as a toddler, Bobby is the sort of movie he might have ended up making. Writer-director Emilio Estevez has clearly adopted Altman's MO for this ambitious effort that's only tangentially about Robert F. Kennedy -- we get the all-star cast, the overlapping dialogue, the furtive glances at the ever-changing American landscape -- but despite a few scattered scenes worth preserving, the overall picture is shallow, tedious and ultimately insignificant. Set in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in the hours leading up to Kennedy's assassination, Bobby is inspired by the sort of multistory TV shows Estevez grew up with (Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, etc.). So while Democratic staffers are busy prepping for Kennedy's visit, soggy melodramas involving employees and guests are being played out in the site's corridors and rooms (Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy and Laurence Fishburne are among the wasted thespians). Bobby is as much about Robert Kennedy as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product. **

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN Originally conceived as a character on HBO's Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary -- and there's your plot in a nutshell. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they're being questioned by a foreign reporter. If Borat is staged in any way, then it's a "mockumentary" that stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point -- after about an hour, you'll be satisfied. Yet if the filmmakers' claim that everything is on the level is true, then this is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking that's able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny, but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which our societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie. ***

CASINO ROYALE In most respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years, just a shade below the likes of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and the criminally underrated For Your Eyes Only. Basically, it wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. As intensely played by Daniel Craig, this James Bond isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. With memorable characters and exciting action scenes, Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating. ***1/2

FLUSHED AWAY It's a textbook Faustian example of selling one's soul to the devil. Great Britain's Aardman Animations, the studio behind the delightful Wallace & Gromit films, has always ignored the American modus operandi of churning out loud and obnoxious toon flicks by sticking to its veddy British guns and producing works that relied on clay animation rather than CGI and clarity instead of chaos. Flushed Away, however, reveals that the devil is starting to collect his due. The story of a pet mouse (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in an underground city populated by rats, frogs, slugs and other critters, the film exhibits the frenzied pace and overbearing characterizations that have become standard in US-born-and-bred animated features. The story is strictly perfunctory -- and further hampered by the sort of puerile gags that have come to define Yankee toon flicks. Where the Aardman wit is retained -- and what significantly elevates the film's worth -- is in the small details, tossed-off asides and background imagery: Keep your eyes on the margins and you'll remain satisfied by the gems found among the clutter and cacophony. **1/2

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