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RAISING HELEN Director Garry Marshall makes shiny, happy movies for shiny, happy people -- even Exit to Eden, a film about S&M, turned out to be as threatening as a butterfly with a broken wing. Therefore, the plot of Raising Helen alone is enough to break even the most hardened of criminals and leave him blubbering in the corner: It's about a perky modeling agency executive who's forced to change her fast-lane lifestyle after her sister dies and leaves her in charge of her three children. The film is the sort of sitcom-by-way-of-Hallmark material we can expect from Marshall, yet it's marginally easier to take than one would expect from this reliably clumsy moviemaker -- and certainly easier to endure than Kevin Smith's thematically similar Jersey Girl. For starters, Kate Hudson is ideally cast in the lead role, graciously sharing her scenes with her co-stars and aptly conveying her character's uncertainty and insecurity (it's probably her least diva-like performance to date). More importantly, the other surviving sister is played by Joan Cusack, in a strongly delineated turn that provides most of the movie's surprises. The film can't resist ending on a bogus note, and Helen's relationship with the neighborhood's hunky pastor (John Corbett) never rings true. Still, it's hard to totally dismiss any movie that takes time out to give the New Wave band Devo its due. 1/2


BON VOYAGE Set during World War II, this French flick evinces the elan of those vintage all-star opuses like Grand Hotel, though its spirit clearly rests with Casablanca, another movie in which the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of -- well, you know the routine. Gregori Derangere plays a writer who finds himself implicated in a murder committed by a spoiled actress (Isabelle Adjani), aiding a scientist (Jean-Marc Stehle) and his shapely assistant (Virginie Ledoyen) smuggle contraband to England, mixing it up with a waffling government official (Gerard Depardieu) and a secretive journalist (Peter Coyote), and somehow still finding time to write his novel. It's all as believable as those comic shorts in which The Three Stooges smacked around Adolph Hitler -- and no less entertaining.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS The Reagans wasn't the only recent film to largely vanish because of fears it would anger Republicans: Buffalo Soldiers was barely released before being booted to Videoland. (It reaches town via the Charlotte Film Society.) Its crime? It dares to show the military in a less-than-flattering light, as an institution in which some of its officers are incompetent or psychotic and many of its foot soldiers corrupt and drug-addled. While no M*A*S*H, it's still a sharply scripted seriocomedy in which an opportunistic GI (Joaquin Phoenix), running illegal operations under the nose of his inept commander (Ed Harris) right before the end of the Cold War, runs afoul of a hardnosed officer (Scott Glenn) and escalates the antagonism by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin).

KILL BILL VOL. 2 An inability to notice that the emperor had no clothes - not even a bandanna - helped turn Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 into a critical darling and a favorite of fan-boys everywhere. But although originally conceived as one movie until the length dictated the creation of two separate flicks, the Kill Bill volumes couldn't possibly be further apart - in style, tone or content. Volume 1 diehards will inevitably feel let down by the emphasis on talk rather than action, but Volume 2 is nevertheless the superior movie. It's better written, better acted (especially by Uma Thurman and David Carradine), and more emotionally involving, although it's still obvious that Tarantino should have taken the scissors to his project and carved out a single kick-ass movie instead of two bloated ones. 1/2

LAWS OF ATTRACTION The 1950 comedy Adam's Rib cast Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as husband-and-wife lawyers who end up on opposite sides of a major case; this clearly hopes to be its modern-day equivalent, but it's so inconsequential that it wouldn't even cut it as Adam's Hangnail. That's a shame, because the star pairing of Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore promises much more than this movie actually delivers. Brosnan is as casually charismatic as always, while Moore, taking a break from award-friendly projects, gleefully throws herself into her change-of-pace role. They're an engaging team, which makes it all the more frustrating that they're let down by a trite screenplay.

MAN ON FIRE This is a remake of a forgotten 1987 flick starring Scott Glenn; that version barely ran 90 minutes, and it's a sign of director Tony Scott's arrogance that this ugly revamping clocks in at 140 minutes. The movie starts off OK, with Denzel Washington effectively cast as a former government assassin whose constant boozing is interrupted once he agrees to serve as the bodyguard for an American girl (Dakota Fanning) living with her parents in Mexico City. Scott's meaningless stylistics immediately grate on the nerves, but the strong work by Washington and Fanning -- and the bond they create together -- cuts through all the hipster b.s. and draws us into the picture. But once the child gets kidnapped and is then believed to be dead, this turns into a tedious revenge yarn. 1/2

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