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ELF It could stand to be a little more naughty and a little less nice, but Elf isn't a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like The Santa Clause or Gov. Schwarzenegger's disastrous Jingle All the Way. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum have managed to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, elevating this fable about a baby who's adopted by Santa Claus and his elves. Raised as an elf at the North Pole, Buddy (Will Ferrell) only learns that he's actually a human once he reaches the age of 30; feeling dejected, he heads to New York to find his real dad (James Caan) and in the process manages to spread some much-needed cheer onto the mean streets of the city. Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell's broad performance become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and wicked laughs helping matters along. Also aiding immeasurably is a game supporting cast: Ed Asner as Santa, Bob Newhart as Papa Elf, the luminous Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls) as Buddy's love interest, and The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage as a children's book author. 1/2

LILYA 4-EVER Say this for writer-director Lukas Moodysson: The man hops genres with an ease comparable to that of John Sayles. Show Me Love (1998) was an enchanting tale about two high school girls falling in love, while Together (Tillsammans) (2000) employed off-kilter humor to examine a 70s hippie commune in which, for starters, a kid named Tet (after the 1968 Offensive, of course) and his friend took turns playing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a game of torture. This time, Moodysson's mood turns totally dark, producing what has to rank as one of the most depressing movies I've ever squirmed through. The result is absorbing without being particularly illuminating, centering on a cute 16-year-girl (Oksana Akinshina) struggling to survive in the former Soviet Union. After her mother abandons her to move to the US with her new boyfriend, the cold, broke and hungry Lilya is forced to turn to prostitution to survive. She meets a clean-cut guy who seems willing to take her away from her harsh environment, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist -- or even a crackhead -- to figure out where this particular plot strand is leading. An end credit states that the film is dedicated to the countless children forced into the global sex trade, but Moodysson's unavoidable message -- that some people are simply better off dead rather than even attempting to exist on this planet -- may not sit well with all viewers. (Lilya 4-Ever is being presented as part of this month's Charlotte Film Society series; call 704-414-2355 for complete details.) 1/2

MAMBO ITALIANO Like the lucky 10th caller to a radio station contest hotline, I suppose I should congratulate myself on being the 1,000th reviewer to refer to this film as My Big Fat Gay Italian Wedding. It's not that plagiarism is the order of the day among the critical community, or even that this sprang to life in the wake of My Big Fat Greek Wedding's still-hard-to-believe box office haul (based on a play, this began shooting before Wedding fever broke out). But in both conception and execution, this trades heavily on the same sort of cultural caricatures and sit-com situations as its predecessor. Wedding was successful thanks to Nia Vardalos' lovely lead performance and a script that gently tweaked stereotypes even as its characters wallowed in them; Mambo, by comparison, plays everything so absurdly broad that it's impossible to take even its relevant issues seriously. The story focuses on an Italian-Canadian family and what happens when Mom (Ginette Reno) and Dad (hammy Paul Sorvino, doing enough acting for 10 people) discover that their son (Luke Kirby) is gay and has settled down with a former schoolmate (Peter Miller). The script is timid when dealing with the young men's relationship yet charges like a bull when it's time for those wacky Italianos to start-a with the "meat-a-balls" and "whack-a you upside the head" routines. After watching the expected shtick play out repeatedly over 90 minutes, only one thought takes hold: Where are the GoodFellas when we really need them? 1/2

TUPAC: RESURRECTION After just a few minutes into the film, it's clear to even those with no interest in astrology that Tupac Shakur was a Gemini, a fact that the late rapper himself confirms in interview footage shown midway through this incisive documentary. On one hand, here was a kid who took dance during his school years, who listed Don McLean, Lorraine Hansbury and William Shakespeare as influences, and who displayed enormous sensitivity in the film Poetic Justice. Yet he was also a social misfit who often submerged his finer qualities to foster a harsher persona, who exhibited streaks of misogyny on more than one occasion, and who lived a violent lifestyle even as he spoke about achieving goals through peaceful means. Clearly, Tupac never quite fit the stereotypical image of the gangbanging thug, and the strength of this movie is that it never flinches in showing us why he made the choices he felt he had to make -- even though they ended up costing him his life. Director Lauren Lazin was fortunate to have ample material with which to work -- everything from home movies to private journals -- and although Tupac's mother, former Black Panther Afeni Shakur, serves as an executive producer, this is no sanitized whitewash: While the notorious war between the East Coast and West Coast rappers isn't explored in much depth (see Nick Broomfield's Biggie & Tupac for a more focused study), other prickly points in Tupac's career are admirably placed front and center.

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