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DARK BLUE WORLD It's a simple equation, really: Pearl Harbor minus dopey dialogue plus interesting characters divided by a fraction of a gargantuan budget equals Dark Blue World, the latest feature from Czech director Jan Sverak (the Oscar-winning Kolya). Like that bloated Hollywood epic, this one also focuses on a love triangle set against the backdrop of World War II; in this case, the players are two Czech pilots (Ondrej Vetchy and Krystof Hadek) who escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, join England's Royal Air Force and fall in love with the same British lass (Tara Fitzgerald). The romantic dilemma is familiar material played out in a fairly satisfying manner, yet it's the subtext involving the men's separation from their country (both during the war and, as we see in scenes interspersed throughout the picture, during the post-war Communist rule) that makes this film stand out.

DRAGONFLY Say you're a studio head, and you have this sensitive, soulful, supernatural love story that, if nurtured properly, could turn out to be a commercial bonanza on the order of Ghost or The Sixth Sense. Would you then turn around and hand the project to the guy responsible for such inconsequential, ham-fisted works as Patch Adams and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? That's the kamikaze approach taken here, as a potentially moving tale about a doctor (Kevin Costner) who believes his recently deceased wife may be trying to communicate with him is torpedoed by the oblivious efforts of director Tom Shadyac. That's not to say the script by David Seltzer, Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson is flawless -- for one thing, it's not too difficult to figure out the twist ending that the picture has in store for us. But for a movie that's supposed to be about airy, ethereal elements, Shadyac moves this along at a torpid pace and frequently undermines any notions of everlasting love by tossing in the sort of cheap scares more suitable to a horror yarn.

IRIS Alzheimer's might have been a more accurate title for what is ostensibly a biopic about British writer Iris Murdoch, since the focus isn't so much on the woman's literary achievements as it is on the disease that mentally crippled her late in life. Certainly, there are numerous scenes set in her earlier years, when she was a young hedonist falling in love with her opposite -- the shy, stammering literary critic John Bayley. Yet the heart of the story rests in the scenes set in their twilight years, as John contends with the maddening Alzheimer's that pulls Iris away from him. Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville are quite good as the young Iris and John, but the picture belongs to the actors playing the characters in their later years: Jim Broadbent is enormously moving as the devoted husband, while Judi Dench's interpretation of a person coping with this terrible disease is so authentic, it's often painful to watch. Dench, Broadbent and Winslet all picked up Oscar nominations for their work in what's ultimately an eloquent love story.

QUEEN OF THE DAMNED It's difficult to make a truly boring vampire picture, but the folks behind this draggy adaptation of Anne Rice's bestseller have done just that. Neil Jordan, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and the rest of those responsible for the arresting screen version of Rice's Interview With the Vampire are sorely missed this time around; instead, given the tedious exploits of the notorious bloodsucker Lestat (blandly played by Stuart Townsend) in this outing, the movie's sole claim to fame would seem to be as the final film project of the late singing star Aaliyah. She's cast as Akasha, the Mother of All Vampires, but it's impossible to gauge her thespian abilities based on this performance: She only arrives during the final half-hour, buried under reams of makeup and jewelry and boasting an electronically altered voice that sounds like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Twiki the robot from that 70s Buck Rogers series. There's probably a compelling film version to be made from this particular chapter in the vampire chronicles, but this moribund (and occasionally laughable) take ain't it. 1/2


COLLATERAL DAMAGE The latest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick arrives on the scene wielding enough heavy baggage to drag even an ocean liner to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Slated for an October 5 release but yanked following 9/11, this action yarn about a firefighter who seeks revenge on the terrorist who killed his family became the poster child for the ongoing debate on how Hollywood should start treating scripts featuring terrorism. Are such movies cathartic escapism that elevates national pride or insensitive, exploitative junk that plays right into the image of Hollywood (and, by extension, America) as a soulless land that worships the bottom line above all else? It's often a tricky business, finding this line between moral decency and moral debauchery, but overall, films of this nature are probably no more heinous than the scores of WWII films produced after the fact. In the middle of this raging discourse, it seems almost incidental whether or not this one's a good movie. For the record, it's not: Rather, it's a working-class model of the standard action flick, with very little to distinguish it from the other run-of-the-mill "red meat" endeavors that periodically test the effectiveness of our theaters' Dolby Digital sound systems.

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