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LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD Looking for comedy is fine, but it would have been better if Albert Brooks had gone looking for balance in his latest screen undertaking. Fans of the self-effacing comic will find many moments to cherish here, but overall, Brooks never has a clear handle on the material and as a result the movie slips away from him. Playing himself, Brooks finds that he's been chosen (only because more popular comedians weren't available) by the US government to go to I

ndia and return with a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. Assisted by two low-level bureaucrats (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) and a bright Indian student (lovely Sheetal Sheth), he hits the streets of Delhi, puts on a concert and even illegally sneaks across the border into Pakistan to interview some aspiring comedians. Even taking into account its sizable Muslim population, India proves to be a curious setting for a film that should logically take place in the Middle East, but a similar half-baked attitude plagues the entire production, which contains several choice moments but never gathers any real steam as it heads toward its soggy conclusion. Despite a few soft jabs at topical issues -- for instance, how the mere suggestion of an American presence on foreign soil might be enough to create an international incident -- the movie is ultimately more about Brooks' attempts to gauge his own waning popularity than to provide any insights into another culture. Rating: **

Current Releases

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN The secret behind this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is that behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any cinematic love story of recent times. Scripters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee have managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. In detailing the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain is about longing and loneliness as much as it's about love -- indeed, loss and regret become tangible presences in the film. Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance, but this is clearly Ledger's show: He's phenomenal as Ennis, and his character's anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf. Rating: ***1/2

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this epic yarn. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven Narnia adventures -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy tale that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color and the brisk story line fuels the imagination. Rating: ***

HOODWINKED This independent toon flick isn't exactly awful, but with its crude animation, lumbering story line and forgettable songs, it's hard to envision any demand even for its mere existence. Clearly aping the Shrek films, this attempts to put a spin on the classic children's fairy tales by adding all manner of so-called "hip" references and grownup-geared plot maneuverings, approaches that grow more stale with each passing year. Hoodwinked is basically Little Red Riding Hood by way of Rashomon, as amphibious Detective Nicky Flippers (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) hears variations on the saga from four different participants: Red (Anne Hathaway), Granny (Glenn Close), the Wolf (Patrick Warburton) and the Woodsman (Jim Belushi). Viewers who haven't completely Zenned out during the showing will easily guess the identity of the true culprit. Rating: *1/2

KING KONG Does Peter Jackson's heavily hyped remake of the 1933 masterpiece improve on its landmark predecessor? Of course not. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any area in which it's better than the original -- even the occasionally crude effects from 1933, crafted from blood, sweat, tears and tiny models, stir the soul more than the CGI trickery on view here. But on its own terms, this new version gets the job done. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) journey to Skull Island, meet the great ape and bring him back to New York City. Despite an abundance of thrills, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story between woman and beast -- and it's a measure of Watts' skills that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that's created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. Rating: ***1/2

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