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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, A Mighty Heart, Ocean's Thirteen

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MR. BROOKS Forget A Tale of Two Cities. What we have here is a tale of two halves, one superior, the other execrable. Assembling three actors whose careers have seen better decades -- Kevin Costner, William Hurt and Demi Moore -- director Bruce A. Evans has crafted an initially intriguing thriller about a beloved philanthropist (Costner) who occasionally moonlights as a serial killer whenever the voice inside his head (personified in the flesh by Hurt) urges him to go hack somebody up. The detective (Moore) who's been on his trail for years feels that she's getting close to breaking the case, thanks to the presence of an eyewitness (Dane Cook) who might turn out to be as certifiable as Mr. Brooks himself. The film's first half is powerful stuff, thanks to the unique setup (presenting Mr. Brooks' alter ego as a physical manifestation shouldn't work, but it does), Evans' moody direction and exquisitely matched performances by Costner and Hurt. It's a shame, then, to see the second part go to hell, as the screenplay by Evans and Raynold Gideon gets out of too many narrative jams by relying on whopping coincidences (these don't stretch credulity, they shatter it in a million pieces) and one ill-advised (and obvious) dream sequence. Like its leading character, Mr. Brooks suffers from a split personality, and it's unfortunate that the wrong one comes out on top. **1/2

NANCY DREW Unless I miss my call, Nancy Drew is the sort of kids' movie that will be treated with kid gloves by most critics, who will at worst dismiss it as a mere mediocrity. Don't you believe it. Nancy Drew is a glorious achievement of the so-bad-it's-brilliantly-bad variety -- I won't go so far as to state it's Battlefield Earth for the Clearasil crowd, but it's clearly a turkey no matter how it's sliced up. Author Carolyn Keene's teen heroine has endured in print as an old-school sleuth, but the makers of this featherbrained film, assuming (perhaps correctly) that setting this any earlier than, oh, 2004 would spell disaster at the box office, have updated it to function as a here-and-now preppy piece, as clueless about its deficiencies as Clueless (its obvious role model) was savvy about its milieu. Emma Roberts, portraying Nancy as something of a pill, quickly grates as her precocious character moves (along with dad Tate Donovan) from her comfy little hometown of River Heights to a spooky Los Angeles mansion, whereupon she immediately begins investigating the death of a famous actress who passed away decades earlier. Between its portrayal of a faded Hollywood as awash in corruption and decay and its casting of Laura Harring as the murdered starlet, this often feels like a demented attempt to make a kid-friendly version of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. -- if only this one had also included a freaky white-haired cowboy to bump off the multitude of insufferable characters. And speaking of insufferable, the top honor in that category goes to Spencer Breslin wannabe Josh Flitter, a mini-Lou Costello who contributes more ham than the deli section in any given supermarket. *

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN The Return of the King aside, isn't it accepted -- in fact, isn't it pretty much gospel -- that the third picture in any given trilogy is when the series has totally lost it, when the filmmakers have been completely replaced by pimps and profiteers? So how is it possible that Ocean's Thirteen has emerged as the best of this star-studded franchise? True, all three films have basically been an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh and his high-voltage friends to take paid vacations in trendy, plush locales under the pretense of making motion pictures -- if life was fair, then resort timeshares would have been handed out with movie tickets so that audiences could also join in the festivities. But Ocean's Thirteen is the first of the trio to truly feel like there's something at stake in its convoluted, house-of-cards plotline. Male-on-male love (platonically speaking, of course) has always been the driving force in this series, and this one milks that sense of camaraderie for all it's worth. When one of their own (Elliott Gould) gets swindled by a venal casino owner named Willy Bank (Al Pacino), it's up to the gang fronted by dapper Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to set matters straight. Because there are so many characters competing for attention, there will always be casualties when it comes to screen time. Yet because this is the most briskly paced of the three, and because the revenge angle provides its protagonists with a strong rooting interest, it's hard to get bogged down in the flaws. I wasn't a fan of the previous two pictures in this series, but Ocean's Thirteen qualifies as the first to even approach a winning hand. ***

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