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KANDAHAR The plotline is contrived, the performances (by non-professionals) are poor, and the dialogue is needlessly repetitive and frequently forced. Yet elements that would cripple most movies don't seem to matter much in Kandahar, an open wound of a film that offers a unique peek into modern-day Afghanistan (if that's not an oxymoron). Like Casablanca or The China Syndrome, this feature from director Mohsen Makhmalbaf unexpectedly benefited from fortuitous timing, making its stateside debut soon after 9/11 turned the Afghan city (and Taliban stronghold) into a familiar household word. The story centers on Nafas (Niloufar Pazira), an Afghan native who fled the country years earlier to start a new life in Canada; she returns to her homeland to rescue her sister, a paraplegic (her legs were blown off by a land mine) who has vowed to kill herself in a few days' time. Initially forced to pose as an elderly man's fourth wife in order to break into the country, Nafas soon finds herself continuing her journey on her own; along the way, she receives some much-needed assistance from an American doctor, an orphan boy and a one-armed peasant. The Taliban is rarely (if ever) mentioned by name, but the unadulterated evil impulses that rule the region are evident in almost every scene, from a woman helpfully explaining to little girls not to pick up a doll lest it has a land mine under it, to the decree that only males are allowed to attend school and receive a proper education.

MURDER BY NUMBERS Drawing its inspiration from the infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case (the historically challenged should take care not to confuse this pair with Lerner & Loewe or even Kate & Leopold), this fitfully entertaining thriller casts Michael Pitt (the object of affection in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Ryan Gosling (The Believer) as two privileged high school seniors who elect to pull off the perfect murder. At first, everything goes according to plan, including pinning the crime on their school's janitor (Chris Penn), but the scheme threatens to unravel under the persistent sleuthing of a troubled detective (Sandra Bullock) lugging around her own set of secrets. Bullock, who's spent the bulk of her career in comedies, initially seems miscast as the hard-bitten cop but eventually grows into the role. Regardless, her portion of the film isn't nearly as interesting as the scenes centered around the teen killers: Pitt and Gosling are superb as completely different members of the high school set (one shy and studious, the other smarmy and outgoing) who nevertheless find common ground in their interest in exploring the criminal urge firsthand, and as long as the picture places them front and center, it avoids the standard "cop flick" trappings. 1/2

THE SCORPION KING In the ripe-cheese tradition of Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror and dozens of grade-Z sword-and-sorcery epics that invariably featured the hammy likes of Jack Palance or Richard Lynch as the sneering villain, we now get The Scorpion King, a made-on-the-run quickie meant to transform the wrestling world's The Rock into the latest Schwarzenegger model. A prequel to last year's The Mummy Returns (which itself was a sequel to 1999's The Mummy), this relates the back story of the villainous character played by The Rock in that blockbuster's prologue, showing how he once was a likable anti-hero, a mercenary with a soft spot for kids, camels and comely sorceresses. In this outing, he squares off against a ruthless Russell Crowe wanna-be (Steven Brand) and a duplicitous warrior (Peter Facinelli) who looks like Christian Bale and talks like Tom Cruise. You also get a shapely co-star (Kelly Hu) who wears just enough clothing to maintain a PG-13 rating, a slumming Oscar nominee (The Green Mile's Michael Clarke Duncan) as a fellow fighter, special effects that are often downright laughable (dig those goofy ants), and a monolith of a leading man whose undeniable screen presence constantly wages war against his wooden line delivery. Thanks to its awareness of its own limitations, The Scorpion King is watchable enough, but you'll be satisfied after an hour.


BIG TROUBLE Scheduled for release 10 days after the 9/11 tragedy but instantly pulled due to a climax involving a bomb aboard a hijacked plane, this new comedy from director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, Get Shorty) is finally being released with the hope that audiences will now be more forgiving toward its more unfortunate plot points. It's possible, but what moviegoers won't be as quick to forgive is the simple fact that this is a spectacularly unfunny film, a dismal attempt by Sonnenfeld to recreate the rat-tat-tat patter and inspired casting that made Get Shorty such a smashing success. Alas, Sonnenfeld's instincts seem to have deserted him for this insufferable adaptation of Dave Barry's novel about how a mysterious suitcase ends up impacting the lives of roughly a dozen characters, including a mild-mannered single dad (Tim Allen), a miserable housewife (Rene Russo), and a hippie (Jason Lee) who lives in a tree. With screwball antics that are annoying rather than amusing, Big Trouble wears on the nerves as thoroughly as a hyperactive 5-year-old with a new drum set. Dennis Farina as a sarcastic hit man and Janeane Garofalo as a cool-centered police officer arguably come off best; Stanley Tucci as a seedy businessman and Tom Sizemore as a bumbling crook inarguably come off worst. 1/2

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