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Vicky Cristina Barcelona: European vacation 

Plus, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Hamlet 2, Henry Poole Is Here

A ménage a trois between the luscious, Olympic-worthy team of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz is one of the various expressions of intimacy found in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but viewers shouldn't attend the movie expecting to see explicitness on the order of, say, Shortbus or Henry & June. After all, Woody Allen is the auteur, and he's always been much more interested in exposing the intricacies of the heart than the pleasures of the flesh.

Yet therein lies the major problem with the picture: Allen has basically told a tale that depends on carnal knowledge as much as anything else, and the soft-pedaling of the harsher aspects of the story makes this feel, well, as if it were made by a 72-year-old filmmaker who's tentatively stepped outside his comfort zone. The end result is an interesting misfire, perhaps even worthy of a second viewing.

Rebecca Hall and Johansson, the female co-leads in The Prestige, play pragmatic Vicky and impulsive Cristina, Americans vacationing in the lovely Spanish city when they're propositioned by sensual artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) to join him for a weekend of wine and sex. Both women do succumb to his charms (albeit at different points), only to find matters growing more complicated once his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz, stealing the show) re-enters his life.

Allen can hardly be accused of phoning in this script: The movie stumbles over itself while bringing fresh life to a number of issues, among them our need for familial security (at whatever cost) versus our desire for hedonistic experimentation; the ability of one's artistic impulses to be awakened by a foreign culture (this speaks as much about Allen as it does budding photographer Cristina, with Allen filming exclusively overseas since leaving Manhattan for England for 2005's Match Point); the dangers inherent in an unchecked creative lifestyle; and the viewpoint that sex in itself need not be a shallow vice but rather a passageway into deeper understanding between people. The notions presented on screen are worthy of discussion, but I just wish Allen had given them more of a chance to be heard. Instead, there's a reticence about the film that stops even the most interesting scenarios short. The hoary show biz axiom may declare, "Always leave them wanting more," but in this case, I wish Allen hadn't kept us hanging.

POP QUIZ, HOTSHOT. Which line of dialogue does not appear in a Star Wars movie?

A) "May the Force be with you."

B) "Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."

C) "So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause."

D) "Does sweet'um want some num-nums?"

I wish I could say that the correct answer is D), but actually all four lines appear in one installment or another, with that atrocious final snippet of dialogue appearing in the new animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The early word is that only Star Wars fanatics will enjoy this latest addition to the franchise, but that's grossly inaccurate: As someone who was 11 years old when the original film hit theaters back in the summer of 1977 and thus has always considered it a rite-of-passage milestone, I was nauseated upon stumbling out of George Lucas' latest sorry attempt to squeeze every last penny out of this franchise. Lucas produced the disastrous Howard the Duck back in the 1980s, but instead he should have set his sights on the avaricious Scrooge McDuck, given their shared lust for lucre.

Set in the period between Episodes II (Attack of the Clones) and III (Revenge of the Sith), this focuses on the war that helped the evil Empire take over the galaxy. The principal story strand concerns the efforts of Anakin Skywalker and his teenage apprentice, a sassy girl named Ahsoka Tano (Lucasfilm, meet the Disney Channel), to rescue Jabba the Hutt's kidnapped baby boy (nicknamed "Stinky" by Ahsoka) from Count Dooku and his posse. What sort of nonsense is this? And there's more: Jabba also has a swishy relative (Ziro the Hutt) who speaks exactly like Truman Capote(!). And while Jar Jar Binks is thankfully nowhere to be found, the battle droids prove to be every bit as idiotic and insufferable -- and there are lots of them in the movie.

The CGI animation, which director Dave Filoni states was inspired by both Japanese anime and the puppets from the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds, is harsh on the eyes and proves to be aesthetically unpleasing. A couple of action sequences do manage to elevate this film out of the realm of utter despair, but for the most part, this is curdled cinema that even the fans will upchuck.

A FAILED HOLLYWOOD ACTOR -- a never-was as opposed to a has-been -- ends up as the drama teacher at a Tucson, Arizona, high school, where his screen-to-stage adaptations (his latest: Erin Brockovich) are enjoyed by absolutely no one. But when it turns out that the drama department is on the verge of being dissolved, the instructor makes a last-ditch effort to keep the class afloat by writing and staging his own sequel to one of Shakespeare's most enduring plays.

That's the irresistible premise of Hamlet 2, and while the film rarely delivers the gutbusters one might reasonably expect, it does offer nonstop smiles from first frame to last. Steve Coogan, currently seen as the anxious director in Tropic Thunder, delivers an appropriately unhinged performance as Dana Marschz, whose conception of Hamlet 2 dictates that it be performed as a sci-fi musical extravaganza in which the showstopper is a tune called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" (with Dana himself portraying the Son of God). Naturally, the school board, the parents and the local community all mount protests, but Dana and his gung-ho students won't be stopped, especially after they find their backs covered by an acerbic ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler, very funny). Dana also takes inspiration from Elisabeth Shue, who, in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, plays herself as a former actress who got tired of the Hollywood rat race and moved to Tucson to become a nurse.

The movie lays it on a bit thick with Dana's daddy issues, and the domestic scenes involving his sarcastic girlfriend (Catherine Keener, perilously close to being typecast) and their roommate (David Arquette) contribute little. Yet as long as the picture remains focused on the efforts to mount Hamlet 2, it follows the Bard's lead by making sure that -- in the words of the melancholy Dane himself -- "The play's the thing."

FAITH-BASED MOVIES aren't exactly overflowing at the multiplexes, so it's nice to see sincere religious overtones in a picture that flies in the face of typical mainstream fare which generally paints all Christians as close-minded, intolerant rubes. Of course, considering there are enough of these hypocritical dimwits populating the country to put the "born-again" Bush into office twice, you can't really blame Hollywood for its own myopia, but still, the gesture behind Henry Poole Is Here is appreciated. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't know when to quit, and what begins as a thoughtful examination of spirituality versus skepticism turns irrevocably heavy-handed by the end.

Luke Wilson plays Henry, a dying man (from what, we never learn) who moves into a shabby house in a California suburb with the intention of spending his last, lonely days there. But a nosy neighbor (Adriana Barraza) changes all that after she insists that the water stain on the backyard wall of Henry's house is actually the face of Christ.

Soon, unexplained "miracles" begin occurring to those who touch the wall, with local believers lining up to pay respect to the image. Henry, who doesn't believe in much of anything, is angered by all this unwanted attention, though he does let down his guard enough to strike up a relationship with his lovely next-door neighbor (Radha Mitchell).

Henry Poole Is Here is initially interesting in its ambiguity, and it benefits from strong work by Mitchell and Rachel Seiferth as a grocery store clerk who senses Henry's misery. But once the mystery surrounding the water mark dissipates, the film begins to bark at viewers like a tent-revival evangelist, and sober discussions give way to a clumsily handled finale that doesn't stand a prayer of satisfying most discerning viewers.

To see trailers from select reviewed films, go to www.qccltv.com. And check out the CLog (www.theclogblog.com) on Friday for opening-day reviews of Death Race and The House Bunny.

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