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CL's capsule reviews are rated on a four-star rating system.


The appeal of the Disney Channel's top-rated kids' show Lizzie McGuire can doubtless be traced right to its star, 15-year-old Hilary Duff. Duff plays Lizzie as part Lucille Ball, part Britney Spears (minus the sleaze factor) and part Julie Andrews, serving up a squeaky clean teen whose only flaw seems to be her excessive use of makeup. Perhaps inevitably, we now get the big-screen spin-off, yet while the movie should prove to be manna from sit-com heaven for the show's fan base of kids ages 6-14, there's not much here to excite accompanying parents. Like one of those two-part Brady Bunch or Happy Days episodes that were invariably shown during sweeps weeks, this rounds up the cast of TV regulars and transports them to a foreign setting -- in this case, Italy, which is where a class trip takes Lizzie, best friend Gordo (Adam Lamberg) and her other classmates. This sets the stage for a lame mistaken identity romp (Duff plays both Lizzie and an Italian pop star), yet Duff's vast appeal renders it harmless to the senses. Rating for its target audience: four stars. Rating for the rest of us:

Don't let the title fool you into dismissing this as another Steven Seagal action snooze; on the contrary, this debut feature from writer-director Vanessa Middleton follows in the tradition of the lovely Soul Food as a winning look at well-to-do African-Americans struggling with careers and relationships. Here, the unifying theme among its central characters is that they're all 29 and will be celebrating their 30th birthdays over the course of the film. For most of them, this milestone brings up feelings of anxiety: Natalie (Melissa De Sousa) is a beautiful, brainy career woman who can't understand why she's unlucky in love; Troy (Tracy Morgan) is a stand-up comedian wondering if his breakthrough will ever arrive; Joy (Erika Alexander) and Leland (T.E. Russell) have been together for four years, with visions of matrimony in her eyes but not his; Stephanie (Paula Jai Parker) is an overweight woman who decides to remake herself; and Malik (Allen Payne) is an incurable womanizer who tries his hand at a modeling career. Besides ably tapping into that well of insecurity that invariably accompanies the aging process (and providing several big laughs along the way), Middleton exhibits her skills as a storyteller by making sure each interconnected episode is as engaging as the one that preceded it and also by resisting the urge to neatly tie up every story strand -- in fact, I can already see the sequel: What? 40 Already?!


After delivering subtle, shaded performances in The Pledge and About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson reverts back to his familiar "wild and crazy guy" persona in Anger Management -- and that's actually not a bad thing. Nicholson gamely gets into the swing of the satire as Buddy Rydell, an unorthodox therapist whose methods threaten to completely unnerve his latest patient, a meek businessman (Adam Sandler) railroaded into subjecting himself to the good doctor's anger management program. It's doubtful we'll ever see Sandler tackling Hamlet or Willy Loman (and would we want to?), but both last fall's Punch-Drunk Love and now Anger Management demonstrate that he can be an engaging presence when he drags himself away from projects aimed squarely at mentally deficient frat boys. Even if some of the situations seem overly familiar (the Yankee Stadium climax) or needlessly protracted (ditto), the movie zips by on the strength of some big laughs, sharply cast supporting roles (notably John Turturro and an unbilled Heather Graham) and the two well-matched stars at its core.

Just as the recent City of God seemed to transfer the GoodFellas formula to the Brazilian slums, here's a strong effort from writer-director Justin Lin that places Asian-American high school students in a similar scenario. Lin starts with the stereotype of the Asian-American kid as clean-cut, hard-working and industrious and turns it on its head. At their California school, Ben (Perry Shen) and his three buddies are straight-A students with a laundry list of extra-curricular activities (sports, school newspaper, charity events, you name it) and their pick of Ivy League universities to attend after their impending graduation. But perhaps precisely because they're pegged as harmless, these teens decide that breaking the law should be their next extra-curricular assignment -- they start off small, by selling cheat sheets to other kids, but eventually find themselves trafficking in drugs and even packing pistols. Apparently aiming for the histrionic heights of GoodFellas and Boogie Nights, Lin and his co-scripters carry their story too far -- I didn't believe the reasons and circumstances surrounding a third-act murder for one second -- but they capture teen anxiety beautifully, with a strong cast of unknowns aiding them in their effort.

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