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THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK The 2000 sleeper hit Pitch Black turned out to be one of the better Alien rip-offs to hatch over the years, but anyone expecting a repeat of that movie's high level of excitement and imagination will be sorely disappointed by The Chronicles of Riddick. While refusing (perhaps admirably) to simply churn out a rehash of his previous success, writer-director David Twohy has instead taken the lead character of Riddick and placed him in an entirely different type of sci-fi flick. Foregoing the fast-paced thrills of Pitch Black, Twohy has elected to spin a fantasy yarn in the dour Dune/Stargate mold, as the marble-mouthed anti-hero (again played by Vin Diesel) finds himself waging a personal war against a race of conquerors known as Necromongers. Deadly dull at the outset -- here's one Diesel-fueled vehicle that's neither fast nor furious -- the picture improves as it progresses, though not enough to warrant two hours of invested time. Diesel's Riddick is part of the problem: An intriguing character when kept in the shadows for much of Pitch Black, he's become infinitely less interesting as an out-and-out action hero, losing all sense of mystery and reduced to cracking one-liners along with cracking heads. But give Twohy credit for creating a convincing galaxy from scratch: The movie's art direction, costume designs and visual effects all earn top marks.

I'M NOT SCARED On the outskirts of a rural Italian village in 1978, 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is startled to discover there's a boy (Mattia Di Pierro) his age who's chained in the cellar of an abandoned farmhouse. Blissfully naive (or simply wary?), he leaves the lad in his prison but befriends him and carts him food and water on a regular basis. But before long, he begins to pick up clues that the adults in his tiny town, including his own parents (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon and Dino Abbrescia), are responsible for the child's incarceration, and he's forced to race against time to devise an appropriate course of action. Based on the novel by Niccolo Ammaniti (who co-wrote the script), this material sounds like prime fodder for a fast-paced thriller, but the movie is actually something more special: a tender-hearted rumination on the loss of innocence among children once they're confronted by the vices of the adult world. As he did in his previous film, the forgettable Oscar winner Mediterraneo, director Gabriele Salvatores uses plenty of film stock to capture the unsullied beauty of nature and the characters' desire to lazily lounge around in its sun-soaked embrace. Yet here there's a pointed dichotomy, as the splendor in the grass is in sharp relief to the deceit, betrayals and broken trust that Michele experiences as he learns that childhood doesn't last forever, parents aren't perfect, and, in the film's memorably staged finale, true friendship can flow from either direction.

SAVED! By trying to be all things to all people, Saved! is doomed to become the sort of movie that ends up not really satisfying anybody. Hard-line Christians will think it goes too far; open-minded Christians will think it doesn't go far enough; and non-Christians will think it doesn't go anywhere at all. The odd thing is that there's probably some measure of truth in all these viewpoints. Set at American Eagle Christian High School, the film casts Donnie Darko's Jena Malone as Mary, a kind-hearted teenager whose act of religious charity ends up leaving her pregnant. Now ostracized by her best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), the most popular girl in school as well as the most vocal in her adoration of God, Mary finds herself hanging around with the outcasts, including Hilary Faye's paraplegic brother (Macaulay Culkin) and a rebellious Jewish girl (Eva Amurri). The cast couldn't have been better chosen, and the movie clearly has its heart in the right place with its message that the best Christians -- indeed, the best people -- are those who are able to accept the imperfections in their fellow sinners. Yet all too often, writer-director Brian Dannelly and writer Michael Urban don't bother to make it clear for the literal-minded that their rough draft of a script is attacking sanctioned hypocrisy rather than religious devotion. As for the comedy quotient, it runs hot-and-cold: In fact, the funniest thing in the picture isn't a line of dialogue but a bumper sticker that reads, "Jesus Loves You; Everyone Else Thinks You're An Asshole." 1/2


THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW If anything, this end-of-the-world extravaganza could stand to be stupider. That's not to say that Mensa members will feel mentally stimulated; it's just that when it comes to making a big, loud, occasionally laughable but undeniably fun disaster flick, Roland Emmerich could have taken an extra page or two from the genre pictures that dominated the 70s. The effects are cool and the dialogue terrible, but the cast (Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, etc.) is too respectable -- where are the has-been movie stars, the marginal celebrities, the wooden athletes? The Airport series at least showcased the likes of Charo, Jimmie Walker and Helen Reddy as a singing nun, so clearly, this could have benefited from the presence of, say, Ralph Macchio, Kobe Bryant, Clay Aiken or Michael Jackson as a singing priest. 1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN The third and weakest of the Potter adaptations to date, with the boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) squaring off against escaped criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), isn't the darkest as promised; instead, with predictable plot twists and an emphasis on effects over characters, it's often the one most geared toward children. Still, despite its pitfalls, the movie can be recommended on the basis of a pair of considerable strengths: namely, the interplay between its three youthful leads (Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) and a second half that, with its rapidly escalating dangers and labyrinthine leaps in plot, picks up some much-needed steam and ends the picture on an upward trajectory. 1/2

SHREK 2 While most sequels slide down that slippery slope of diminishing quality, the eagerly awaited Shrek 2 is on a par with its predecessor. In this outing, newlywed ogres Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), with the self-professed "annoying talking animal sidekick" Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow, travel to the Kingdom of Far, Far Away to receive the blessing of Fiona's human parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews). Little kids will enjoy the colorful characters, while older audiences will dig the inspired sight gags and sly references to other films. But the movie's real ace is Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas), a debonair swashbuckler -- or at least when he's not busy coughing up hairballs. In a movie filled with imaginative bits, he emerges as the cat's meow.

SOUL PLANE As punishing as a four-hour flight delay. Bland Kevin Hart stars as a young man who, after winning millions in a lawsuit against a major airline, decides to use the settlement to create his own afro-centric company, NWA Airlines. The maiden voyage (Flight 069 -- how ingenious!) is packed with nothing but formulaic figures: a dope-smoking pilot (Snoop Dogg), a randy homosexual flight attendant (Gary Anthony Williams), a dope-smoking lavatory assistant (D.L. Hughley), a randy security guard (Mo'nique), and a white nerd (Tom Arnold) who's actually named "Elvis Hunkee" (pronounced "honky," of course). Writers Bo Zenga and Chuck Wilson should be ashamed of themselves, not only for a lazy script that staggers between brain dead crudity and cheap sentiment but also for reinforcing infinite stereotypes.

OPENS Wednesday:



DODGEBALL: Ben Stiller, Rip Torn.

I'M NOT SCARED: Giuseppe Cristiano.

SUPER SIZE ME: Morgan Spurlock, Ron English.

THE TERMINAL: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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