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NEW RELEASES

DOWN WITH LOVE Trying to replicate those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies from the late 50s/early 60s was a clever idea; cross-pollinating it with the Austin Powers movies before letting it reach the screen was a terrible one. Indeed, it's the smarmy, smutty humor that single-handedly threatens to torpedo this kitschy throwback that nevertheless contains enough appealing elements to just barely overcome its fondness for awkward double entendres. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and his crew get the look right, from the Technicolor saturation to the lavish sets to the ab-fab costumes, and scripters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake have come up with an acceptable plotline involving a playboy-journalist (Ewan McGregor) and his attempts to tame the author (Renee Zellweger) of a best-selling pre-feminist manifesto. McGregor and Zellweger are likable in their roles, even if they're far more mannered than Hudson and Day ever were. Still, movies of this ilk were often stolen by the supporting players, and that's the case here as well, with Sarah Paulson and especially David Hyde Pierce delightful as the leads' confidantes. Had this steered clear of the juvenile gags that pop up every now and then (the split-screen phone conversation sequence is downright dreadful), it might have been closer to last year's Far From Heaven as both a homage and a deepening of vintage classics; instead, it's merely an adequate comedy with eye-popping visuals. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

DADDY DAY CARE There's been a lot of grousing lately about how any time Eddie Murphy appears in a family film, he's wasting the hard-edged skills that initially made him a star in such R-rated hits as 48HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. I'd be more sympathetic to this argument had Murphy only made good R-rated flicks, but the truth is that he's far easier to take in pictures like Mulan and now Daddy Day Care than in foul-mouthed turkeys like Beverly Hills Cop II, Harlem Nights and Vampire In Brooklyn. In fact, Murphy's charming performance proves to be one of the stronger aspects of this PG-rated piffle about two marketing executives (Murphy and Jeff Garlin) who, after losing their jobs, decide to open their own day care center. The usual unimaginative touches are on view -- several flatulence bits, over-the-top comic foils (played by Anjelica Huston and Kevin Nealon), etc. -- but an acceptable number of decent gags, a sweet turn by Steve Zahn as a Daddy Day Care employee with a Star Trek obsession, and Murphy's strong rapport with his young co-stars (especially Khamani Griffin as his son) make this more enjoyable than any level-headed adult could have reasonably expected. 1/2

THE GREY ZONE Roman Polanski's The Pianist may have been showered with Oscar glory a couple of months ago, but the best Holocaust film of 2002 was actually this overlooked drama starring David Arquette, Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi. Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's film goes one step further than The Pianist, which itself went one step further than the traditional Holocaust epic: Whereas Polanski's protagonist was painted not so much as a hero but a valiant survivalist, many of the characters here are painted as morally compromised survivalists who will do almost anything to stave off death for just a while longer. The picture centers on a remarkable tidbit of history: the only successful uprising that ever occurred at the Nazi death camps during World War II. Its primary players are members of the Sonderkommando, a special squad of Jewish prisoners who helped the Germans usher the rest of the Jews into the crematoriums in exchange for a few extra months of life. Some of them maintain a stiff upper lip while plotting a revolt, while others are more outwardly emotional, nagged by a crushing sense of guilt over what they're doing to their countrymen. It can be argued that most Holocaust pictures are ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit; befitting its title, this one is more cloudy than that, exploring murky mindsets amid murky circumstances. 1/2

HOLES Louis Sachar's award-winning children's book might be a "must-read" among students and teachers, but the widely circulated trailer made the new screen version look like a "must-avoid." Luckily, the finished product is far more engaging than the clumsy preview would lead anyone to believe -- in fact, it's good enough to be enjoyed equally by kids and their attendant parents. Sachar himself wrote the script, which focuses on the plight of hapless teen Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf of the Disney Channel's Even Stevens), who's wrongly convicted of robbery and sent to Camp Green Lake, a boys' correctional facility located in the middle of a desert. There, he and the other guys are subjected to the demands of the warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her two sidekicks (Tim Blake Nelson and a hilariously over-the-top Jon Voight), who order the boys to spend every day digging holes. Sachar and director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) have crafted a fresh comedy-drama that weaves the present-day story together with related flashbacks set in the Old West (Patricia Arquette stars in this section of the film); while the ending may tie everything up a bit too tidily, there's no denying that there's real imagination at work here.

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