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GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY Just as studios send out "For Your Consideration" screener cassettes to Academy members during Oscar season, what would it take for the Democratic party to bankroll distributor THINKFilm in order to ship out "For Your Election Day Consideration" passes to this film -- not only to the Undecideds but to every Independent or moderate Republican not completely brainwashed by the right? This compelling documentary from director George Butler (Pumping Iron) leaves no doubt that Kerry is clearly more honorable, more courageous and more decisive than the criminal currently occupying the White House, illustrating in detail how the soft-spoken Massachusetts intellectual went from being a Vietnam War hero to a morally conscientious protestor of the conflict. Voters who've been duped by those preposterous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads concocted by weaselly John O'Neill (seen here in a vintage clip getting one-upped by Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show) may be interested to learn that Richard Nixon's office had formally tapped O'Neill to run a smear campaign against Kerry; indeed, the most sobering aspect of the film is its ability to subtly highlight all the uncanny -- and frightening -- parallels between then and now (in effect reinforcing the famous adage that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them). Yet while its shelf life as a political tool may be limited, the movie will continue to resonate for its value not only as a chapter in the Vietnam War chronicles but as a moving look at the struggles of those returning vets who had to come to terms with a venal government, with a hostile nation and with their own personal convictions. 1/2

LADDER 49 It was probably inevitable -- perhaps even desirable -- for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If there's an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. Basically, only three types of scenes exist in the film: domestic interludes between good-hearted fireman Jack Morrison (a beefy Joaquin Phoenix) and his family, macho antics down at the firehouse between the avuncular station captain (a beefier John Travolta) and his men, and action scenes between the firefighters and their incendiary adversary. In an effort to elevate all these men to the level of heroes, Colick has stripped them of most traits, in effect leaving us with a roomful of cardboard characters (only Robert Patrick, as the outspoken senior member of the team, is allowed any complex shadings). The firefighting scenes are competently presented but tend to blur into each other -- for all its faults, the mediocre Backdraft at least made similar set pieces exciting -- and the movie's running time is stretched out long enough to accommodate not only a karaoke sequence but at least two music-backed interludes designed more to fill out a CD soundtrack than advance the plot in any interesting fashion. 1/2


CELLULAR After being kidnapped for reasons unknown, a teacher (Kim Basinger) is able to jerry-rig a busted telephone so that it's able to make one random call. She ends up dialing the cell phone number of an aimless kid (Chris Evans) who believes her pleas for help; after a failed attempt to notify the authorities, he decides he's the woman's only hope, though a conscientious police officer (William H. Macy) soon realizes something's up and begins his own investigation. This nifty thriller employs a full-speed-ahead approach that suits the material at hand, even if it never quite conceals the sheer improbability of the piece.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 For those still undecided (inconceivable as it may seem at this point), here's your final chance to be persuaded by Michael Moore's blockbuster documentary... well, at least until it's released on video and DVD October 5. As is often the case with Moore, this cinematic diatribe against the Bush family works best when he removes himself from the equation and lets his subjects hang themselves through existing news footage. Still, for all its political pelting, this is at its most gripping when it simply focuses on the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed either by the heinous terrorists or by the abhorrent policies of this administration. 1/2

MARIA FULL OF GRACE A different kind of drug movie -- one that dives straight into the trenches -- this one isn't about the cops, the kingpins or the clients; instead, it focuses on the mules, the (usually) impoverished folks who agree to smuggle the contraband material across borders, risking arrest or even death along the way. Newcomer Catalina Sandeno Moreno delivers a memorable performance as the 17-year-old Colombian girl who agrees to swallow dozens of heroin pellets and deliver them to a pair of pushers in New York City. Maria Full of Grace is an eye-opening experience that sidesteps any political or moral rhetoric in an effort to paint a grim portrait of an independent woman who's neither saint nor sinner, but merely a working stiff whose ill-advised decisions never subjugate her humanity. 1/2

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