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NEW RELEASES

VANITY FAIR A condensation -- and softening -- of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, this adaptation finds director Mira Nair (helmer of the wonderful Monsoon Wedding) filtering the tale through her own sensibilities. That translates into plot nods toward her native India that weren't in the source material, a visual scheme that's far more colorful than what one usually encounters in British period pieces of this nature, and an approach that sentimentalizes many of the characters. Yet her liberties don't cripple the piece -- more often, they provide a welcome sheen to a movie that often threatens to buckle under the weight of so many characters and plot strands. Reese Witherspoon stars as the poor but plucky Becky Sharp, the 19th century social climber determined to carve out a better life for herself. Using her quick wit and feminine wiles, she inspires lust in men and scorn in women; eventually, she marries a dashing gambler (James Purefoy), but her real troubles are only just beginning. Although the episodic nature of the screenplay sometimes gets in the way of narrative propulsion (the final half-hour especially dawdles), the lively characters -- and the hypocrisies they inadvertently champion -- always remain watchable. Witherspoon makes a perky protagonist, though her character needs a nastier edge to be truly believable. 1/2

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?

COLLATERAL The notion of matinee idol Tom Cruise playing a hardened assassin may sound like a gimmick, but his performance in director Michael Mann's drama is a fine one, nicely seasoned with just the right touch of piquantness. Sporting salt-and-pepper hair that suits him well, Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer who forces a cab driver named Max (solid Jamie Foxx) to ferry him around nocturnal Los Angeles so he can carry out his hits. Scripter Stuart Beattie creates some interesting give-and-take dynamics between Vincent and Max, yet he and Mann (Heat) seem to be equally interested in the peripheral elements, a decision which gives the film added resonance.

GARDEN STATE With his first endeavor as writer-director-star, actor Zach Braff (TV's Scrubs) does more than knock it out of the park -- this one reaches all the way to the county line. Braff plays Andrew "Large" Largeman, a struggling LA actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown to attend his mother's funeral. While in town, Large hooks up with his old high school acquaintances, yet his most significant relationship turns out to be with someone new to his circle: Sam (Natalie Portman), a vibrant life force who's the perfect remedy for an emotionally bottled-up guy trying to make some sense out of his muddied existence. Braff drastically switches gears from providing laughs to imparting poignant life lessons; it's a gamble that pays off, resulting in a film that gives our emotions a vigorous workout. The performances are uniformly fine, with Portman nothing short of sensational. 1/2

HERO A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this Chinese epic should satisfy anyone who couldn't get enough of the visual splendors exhibited in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) has assembled an all-star cast for this opulent tale centering on a warrior (Jet Li), who claims to have single-handedly vanquished the legendary assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). Yet is the hero telling the truth, or are there some Rashomon dynamics at play here? The performers punch across the importance of the story's themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice, and the different color schemes employed throughout are breathtaking -- it's unlikely that many other movies this year will match this one's ravishing visuals.

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