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*American Beauty (R)

Strong visual style, fabulous acting, and quirky writing all conspire to create an erotic, humorous, captivating film. Kevin Spacey is given a funny, dry script by screenwriter Alan Ball and uses it confidently, moving between bumbling idiot, threatening asshole and tender father with ease. Annette Bening perfectly captures the manic acquisitiveness and just-below-the-surface despair of professional-class America with a physical, comedic presence that most actresses would never dare attempt. And Wes Bentley portrays the disturbed boy next door with a quiet gravity that intensifies every scene he graces. See full review.-- AL

Silver Cinemas

*The Big Kahuna (R)

See full review.

Tinseltown

*Center Stage (PG-13)

Fierce physical training vs. fun, talent vs. determination, real life vs. art, the sexy lead male dancer vs. the earnest up-and-coming rookie are all played out with intelligence and style in Center Stage. And best of all, they are largely staged on the dance floor, enacted by a whirlwind cast of beautiful, talented young dancers, including American Ballet Theater's rising star, Ethan Stiefel. Director Nicholas Hytner's (The Madness of King George, The Crucible) staging and camera work are exemplary. We are treated to overhead shots that emphasize the patterns of the ballet; foot level shots that reveal the intricacies of the dance; long shots, short shots and swirling crane shots that embrace the beauty and difficulty of ballet with affection and knowledgeable vision. See full review.-- KCE

Chapel Hills; Carmike 10; Tinseltown

*Cider House Rules (PG-13)

John Irving, who wrote the novel, did an excellent job of paring down his long, Dickensian work into a cogent screenplay that doesn't sacrifice its heart in the translation. The characters' quirks and charms are intact, especially those of Dr. Larch, an eccectric abortionist played by Michael Caine with an overwhelming kindness and vulnerability. His scenes glow with humanity, and Tobey Maguire's low-key performance as Homer, Larch's disapproving proteg, provides an interesting counterpart. A heartwarming film. See full review.-- KCE

Tiffany Square; Silver Cinemas

*Erin Brockovich (R)

Erin Brockovich succeeds quietly, thanks largely to director Steven Soderbergh's (Out of Sight) sure hand, even with a diva like Roberts in front of the camera, and to a compelling true story. Roberts transcends Brockovich's exploitative wardrobe with a gritty performance, precise comic timing, a foul mouth and intense focus.See full review. -- KCE

Broadmoor; Silver Cinemas

Frequency (PG-13)

Director Gregory Hoblit knows how to create tension, and succeeds here with dark lighting, a cast of compelling characters and the magnetic charm of late 1960s New York summer nights. Unfortunately, Hoblit was swayed somewhere in the production process, and gradually the threads of the story he set out to tell begin to unravel as he throws in too much stuff -- like cheap special effects in the climactic scene -- and succumbs, finally, to a completely illogical and smarmy happy, happy ending. The intent of the filmmakers and the cast is admirable, but delivery is side-stepped by overwrought sentiment. See full review.-- KCE

Tinseltown; Chapel Hills; Academy Station 6; Citadel Terrace (closes Friday)

*Gladiator (R)

Russell Crowe (The Insider) acts up a righteous storm in his Roman get-up, proving once and for all that his versatility as an actor matches his prowess. Though director Ridley Scott would like you to think Gladiator is about strength, honor, duty, democracy and the danger of mob rule, in truth, it is an old-fashioned revenge drama -- and a pretty good one at that. Crowe as Maximus, beloved general of Roman troops turned slave, then gladiator, and Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, insecure usurper to the throne, make marvelous foes. Unfortunately, Scott is so enamored of his production team's ability to show heads, hands and other body parts being severed, that the fight scenes become clamorous and redundant. See full review.-- KCE

Carmike 10; Chapel Hills; Academy Station 6; Tinseltown

Held Up (PG-13)

There's more to Held Up than Tired-Stereotypes-For-Fun-and-Profit. Jamie Foxx is great to watch -- he's handsome, a good actor, and has terrific comic timing -- and Nia Long is a good foil to his silliness. That said, Held Up isn't a miserable failure, just a disappointment. Ultimately, it tries to be nice to everybody (if still clinging to a few rural-and-inbred stereotypes), and if it doesn't succeed brilliantly, neither does it completely crash and burn. See full review.-- AL

Tiffany Square

I Dreamed of Africa (PG-13)

Based on the 1995 memoir of Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger), a wealthy young Italian woman who marries an adventurer (Vincent Perez) and goes, with him and her 7-year old son, to live on a decrepit ranch in Kenya. Despite exciting battles with wild animals, gorgeous scenery and a good soundtrack, the film moves incredibly slowly. Writer Paula Milne didn't seem to know how to get the characters in and out of a scene. The creators could have taken liberties with Kuki Gallmann's life and made a real story out of it, but they chose mostly to stick to the biographical facts, presenting them as a set of independent events, some of them terribly interesting in their own right, but none of them inexorably leading to a climax.See full review. -- AL

Tiffany Square

*Keeping the Faith (PG-13)

Gifted young actor and now director Edward Norton comes forward with a sweet Gen-X piece in which three childhood best friends -- Brian (Norton), now a Catholic priest; Jake (Ben Stiller), now a rabbi; and Anna (Jenna Elfman) -- are reunited at the crest of real adulthood, just as they turn 30. When Anna returns to New York City, Jake and Brian hook back up with her, and both of them immediately fall hopelessly in love. The resulting complications echo classic screwball romances of the 1940s. The three young actors maintain a believable, warm rapport throughout the film. See full review.-- KCE

Tinseltown (closes Friday); Tiffany Square

*Love & Basketball (PG-13)

Love and Basketball is a lovely falling-in-love-with-the-boy-next-door movie, energized by a great dose of Title IX. Sanaa Lathan's Monica is tough and driven and far from perfect, but her obvious passion for basketball, and her attraction to Quincy (Omar Epps) are very compelling. If you're not afraid of some explicitly sexual situations, I'd definitely recommend taking your daughter, or your son, to this one. It is a wonderful love story, but also a great view of the complex relationships between men and women who want the same thing.See full review. -- AL

Tinseltown

*M: I-2 (Mission: Impossible 2) (PG-13)

See full review.

Tinseltown; Citadel Terrace; Carmike 10; Chapel Hills

My Dog Skip (PG)

There isn't really much that holds this film together besides a rather ponderous narration that says, "Skip helped me turn from a child to a boy," or "Skip helped me turn from a boy into a man." Most compelling are the dogs who play Skip -- the wizards of Hollywood animal training are able to teach these dogs to do great things on command, from climbing into a toilet to running wide choreographed circles to disrupt a baseball game. See full review.-- AL

Silver Cinemas

*Toy Story 2 (G)

Toy Story 2 manages to construct even wilder gags, and to stretch even further the idea of the secret life of toys than the first, but it also leaves an even more bittersweet aftertaste. At its most heart-wrenching, this chipper cartoon is also a parent's stricken fantasy of being outgrown by their children. The mix of silliness, affection and piercing nostalgia -- and yes, artistry -- keeps kids and adults engaged simultaneously.See full review. -- Jim Ridley

Silver Cinemas

28 Days (PG-13)

Pretty, feisty Sandra Bullock is Gwen, a New York party girl and writer (one of those who is fabulously successful despite the rare appearance of any work in her life), whose drinking and drugging lifestyle eventually lead her to a court-enforced stay in a rehab center. Once there, Gwen falls in with an eccentric cast of inmates who spend the bulk of the movie intoning the tenets of addiction treatment programs while looking like the cast of Friends. This kind of dark comedy is hard to pull off, and director Betty Thomas' interpretation of Susannah Grant's script is merely functional -- it gets the point across, but loses any memorable characterizations in its predictability. -- KCE

Tinseltown (closes Friday)

*The Virgin Suicides (R)

See full review, page 43

Kimball's Twin Peak

Where the Heart Is (PG-13)

Director Matt Williams has a solid handle on the rough-hewn, working class sensibility of white middle America, but shows here he knows far less about structuring a movie whose story spans almost six years. Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel treat Letts' book like a serial sit-com, lining up all the funny tales in a row, interrupting the flow of what's good in the movie -- namely, the cast. Natalie Portman is Novalee Nation, a pregnant 17-year-old who gets dumped by her boyfriend outside an Oklahoma Wal-Mart. She plays the part well but, ultimately, is miscast. Her inate coolness and sophistication make it impossible to believe her as a free-spirited, dirt poor savant who has managed to survive in spite of a compete lack of worldliness. See full review.-- KCE

Academy Station 6; Chapel Hills (closes Friday); Tinseltown; Citadel Terrace


OPENING THIS WEEK

The Palm Beach Story (not rated)

Claudette Colbert plays a married woman who becomes the object of a billionaire's desire while seeking investment capital for her husband's business. Meanwhile, the billionaire's sister falls in love with the husband.

Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St. Tues., May 30, 7:30 p.m.

Timecode (R)

Director Mike Figgis shot four stories about a murder, an affair and a Hollywood mystery in one day, in sequence, with a hand-held digital camera. The unedited film is shown simultaneously on a screen split four ways, weaving the characters into a darkly comedic and thrilling climax. Starring Salma Hayek, Kyle MacLaughlin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgard.

Kimball's Twin Peak

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