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CURRENT RELEASES

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY Taken together, both Bourne films feel like consecutive episodes of a mildly entertaining television drama that can't touch Alias in its attempts at trickery and, more importantly, character development. Here, Matt Damon's ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne is even more tight-lipped than before; without girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente, former co-star reduced to cameo player) to bounce off, he's a rather one-dimensional figure, going through the motions as he tries to find out who's framing him for murder. The good stuff mostly comes during the first half; as the film progresses, the mystery slackens rather than deepens, and the movie culminates with a sloppily edited car chase that goes on for so long that I had to be reminded: Was Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne or Sheriff Buford T. Justice? 1/2

CATWOMAN Only time will tell if this dud will become a camp classic on the order of Myra Breckinridge or Plan 9 From Outer Space, but for now, it will have to content itself with being the best bad movie of the summer. Halle Berry struggles gamely as a mousy murder victim who's resurrected as Catwoman, a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix who looks like the star attraction on an S&M website. The early sequences are deadly dull, but once Berry suits up, the movie enters MST3K territory and never looks back. Ultimately, it's impossible to ascertain what's most laughable: the chintzy effects, the leaden dialogue, or villainess Sharon Stone's attempts to out-vamp Faye Dunaway's similar turn in Supergirl. In any event, cat lovers will be horrified by this film -- does PETA handle defamation suits?

CRIMSON GOLD Remarkably incisive in its examination of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, this import is most startling because of its Iranian setting, bringing a global perspective to a problem that often feels like the exclusive property of the United States. Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) is a portly pizza delivery guy who's barely making ends meet, yet because his job takes him into homes far above his social standing, he gets to witness firsthand how the other half lives. Smacked at every turn by the excesses of the upper class -- and made to suffer petty humiliations -- Hussein eventually decides to take an ill-advised lunge at a piece of the pie. Crimson Gold may not seem especially remarkable as it unfolds, but its cumulative power will smack viewers with all the force of a copperhead to the cheek. 1/2

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE Harold and Maude Go to White Castle might have been a better bet, but this is nevertheless a gross-out comedy with a difference -- it tosses some sharp social satire into the usual mix of amiable dopeheads, repulsive rednecks and homosexual bit players. And instead of making its lead characters typical morons like Bill and Ted, this gives us two smart kids in mild-mannered Korean-American Harold (John Cho) and rebellious Indian-American Kumar (Kal Penn). The plot is lifted from the Cheech and Chong playbook, as Harold and Kumar spend a Friday night getting high and then deciding their munchies can be satisfied only by White Castle burgers. The crass humor works only sporadically, but the movie's knowing digs at the casual racism witnessed by the pair provide it with a whiff of added subtext. 1/2

LITTLE BLACK BOOK Brittany Murphy trots out so many adorable tics during the course of this film that she ends up making Meg Ryan in Sleepless In Seattle seem as dour as Anne Ramsey in Throw Momma From the Train. Better to focus on the excellent performances by Holly Hunter and Julianne Nicholson, the primary reasons that this mean-spirited comedy can be tolerated at all. That the film centers around one of those reprehensible trash-talk TV shows of the "My grandmother is a hooker" variety immediately signals the sort of crowd this is targeting -- it's feeble stuff, with Murphy as a TV show producer whose peek at her boyfriend's Palm leads her to suspect he might be cheating on her. Hunter is stellar as usual, while Nicholson almost humanizes this otherwise nasty tale.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE Granted, this isn't a masterpiece like the '62 edition, which still reigns as one of the finest thrillers ever made. Yet in most other respects, this is that rare remake that paves its own way without exploiting or cheapening its predecessor. No longer a Cold War product, this finds the action updated, with Denzel Washington as an army officer who realizes that a former comrade (Liev Schreiber), now a politician running for his party's Vice Presidential slot, might be the unwitting pawn of a major corporation (Manchurian Global) that's trying to seize control of the country. The film's topicality can't hurt -- this could easily have been called The Halliburton Candidate -- yet director Jonathan Demme's principal goal is to produce a taut, efficient thriller. On that score, he succeeds.

METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) filmed hundreds of hours of footage in an attempt to piece together a movie about Metallica, the world's most successful heavy metal band. But rather than just serving as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the group's "comeback" album St. Anger, the piece is instead a captivating exploration of how the members of the band -- lead singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and producer (and fill-in bassist) Bob Rock -- dealt with internal bickering and outside conflicts on their way to producing a hit album. The Napster controversy is given short shrift, but in most other ways, the picture allows us exposure to musicians in a manner that's raw and real.

THUNDERBIRDS For those not into trivial pursuit, Thunderbirds was a British TV series from the 60s in which the characters were all played by marionettes. This pointless update replaces the wooden dummies with human actors, though one would scarcely notice the difference. The show focused on billionaire astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons, constantly saving the world with the help of their nifty spaceships and submarines. Here, Jeff (Bill Paxton) and the boys are largely tossed aside -- with the focus shifting to the younger cast members, this qualifies as nothing more than a blatant Spy Kids rip-off. It's troubling that the villains are all ethnic or ugly, but maybe I'm reading too much into a film that, by every other indication, contains the depth of a petri dish that's already filled to the rim.

THE VILLAGE There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock didn't write the vast majority of his movies: He knew his forte was directing, and he left the scribbling to others. M. Night Shyamalan would do well to learn from The Master. As a director, he has a distinct visual style, and this thriller about a town whose surrounding woods are filled with monsters includes scenes that shimmer with an eerie beauty. But as a writer, he's becoming a parody of himself: Eager to top the climactic twist of The Sixth Sense, he has masterminded three subsequent movies in which the "gotcha!" endings seem to be the only reason for their existence. This one isn't really worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but Shyamalan's carny act already feels like it's decades old -- it's a shame, because some good ideas are squandered in a muddled piece that ends up duping itself.

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