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Capsule Reviews of Current Movies

"ATL" — Well-meaning but confused and sloppy, "ATL" focuses on a clutch of Atlanta high-schoolers struggling to imagine some way out of the hood or succumbing to its darker temptations. At the center of it all is Rashad (Tip Harris), leader of a group of boys who strut their stuff at the local roller-skating rink in elaborately choreographed group routines. As these friends stumble against various obstacles, they become symbols of issues that would not be out of place in an after-school special. Subsequently, the movie never quite manages to convey either the despair or verve of life in the ATL. Instead, it tries to stake out something like a thesis, and the characters and plot shed their plausibility. (PG-13) 103 min. ** — Thomas Peyser



"Basic Instinct 2" — In spite of Sharon Stone's hearty encore performance as the ultimate femme fatale, "Basic Instinct 2" falls unbearably flat. Husband-and-wife screenwriters Leora Barish and Henry Bean employ such labored plotting and clinical bits of sex and violence that there isn't anything to savor. There is not a trace present of the Hitchcock-inspired suspense that director Paul Verhoeven powerfully exerted over the original. Instead, we get a futile change of locale for Catherine Tramell (Stone) who has moved her novel-writer's desk to London in search of high-risk episodes of sexual gratification. Director Michael Caton-Jones ("Scandal") proves himself incapable of handling the rigid demands of a suspense thriller, even a poorly written one. (R) 114 min. ** — Cole Smithey



"The Benchwarmers" — Puerile, inane and filled with gross-out humor, "The Benchwarmers" is a comedy, ostensibly aimed at preteen nerds, that will only seem funny to children interested in picking boogers. Rob Schneider, David Spade and Jon Heder are three developmentally arrested adults who form a three-man baseball team to take on Little League teams. Jon Lovitz plays a nerd-turned-billionaire who finances the three goofballs after they rescue his son from a group of bullies. "The Benchwarmers" is an exploitation comedy that reeks of everything nauseating about underachievers, regardless of their age. (PG-13) 85 min. * — C.S.



"Failure to Launch" — This limp romantic comedy finds Sarah Jessica Parker playing the demoralized romantic Paula next to Tripp (Matthew McConaughey), a 35-year-old live-at-home bachelor whose parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates) hire Paula to seduce and lure him away from the nest. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember toss in a dose of screwball animal antics to take our attention away from the actual movie. Zooey Deschanel spices up the proceedings in her well-worn trademark role as post-modern cynical "it" girl. (PG-13) 97 min. ** — C.S.



"Inside Man" — Since bankrupting his film production company with dreadful movies like "Bamboozled" and "She Hate Me," Spike Lee has been reduced to a Hollywood gun-for-hire, here creating a blasé and muddy suspense police drama. Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, a bank-robbing mastermind who holds 50 New Yorkers hostage in an enormous downtown bank owned by a former Nazi profiteer (well played by Christopher Plummer). Denzel Washington plays a hostage negotiator assigned to resolve the crisis. Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz mistakenly emancipates much of the story's potential suspense by revealing the fate of Dalton's hostages in early flashback segments. However, it's Spike Lee who commits the film to utter mediocrity with ballad-tempo music, an equally dragging cadence from the actors and poor attempts at visual flourish. (R) 128 min. ** — C.S.



"Lucky Number Slevin" — Hamming it up in a yawn-inducing, emotional con job, Josh Hartnett plays the tough-talking title role in this genre mash-up, a comedy-action-suspense-romantic-techno-thriller that is too stylish and clever for anyone's good. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley seem to be on loan from previous movies as rival crime bosses staring at each other from sky-high penthouses across a Manhattan avenue, both working their nefarious purposes on Slevin. By the time the plot gets to fully fleshing out Bruce Willis' role as an international assassin, you'll be justified in your suspicion that the best intentions were not employed in this "Usual Suspects"/ "Get Shorty"-inspired wreck, constrained by a near pathological lack of real feeling. (R) 109 min. * — Wayne Melton



"The Notorious Bettie Page" — Gretchen Mol is physically stunning in her uninhibited portrayal of the '50s pinup queen and S&M movie star cum pop-culture icon, but reveals more skin than depth of character in this new biopic. In her defense, she wasn't given enough of the story to work with. Director Mary Harron fails to acknowledge the psychological pain inflicted on Bettie from the sexual abuse she suffered as a young woman before abandoning her hometown of Nashville for Manhattan. She further weakens the narrative by framing it within an underdeveloped version of the 1955 Senate subcommittee hearings investigating the impact of Page's pornographic material on juvenile delinquency. Beautifully stylized but emotionally flat, "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a confined but enjoyable conception of Page's brief-but-influential career. (R) 90 min. ** — C.S.



"Phat Girlz" — This saucy comedy about the plight and mindset of plus-size women in America compensates for its amateurish blemishes with a ringing chord of genuine sincerity. Mo'Nique gives an ebullient performance as Jazmin Biltmore (get it?), working in the women's clothing department of an upscale department store with her best friend Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson). Jazmin designs and makes her own clothes with the hope of someday starting a fashion line for "sexy, succulent" women. Her life takes an abrupt turn when she wins a trip to Palm Springs. With Stacey and her cousin in tow, Jazmin meets a doctor from Nigeria who appreciates her larger assets. Debut writer/director Nnegest Likké shows great promise and passion but would have benefited from a more experienced editor than newcomer Zack Arnold. (PG-13) 99 min. ** — C.S.



"Slither" — If there were still drive-in cinemas around, "Slither" would be a perfect B horror movie to sit in your car and watch to the sound of shrieks and one-liner jokes blasting around a hilly parking lot from so many tiny speakers. Small-town Americana is turned upside down when an alien-bearing meteor crashes in the woods only to be discovered by the rebuffed-but-loyal husband of the best-looking girl in town. Hubby gets impaled by an alien stinger that sends him on a feeding frenzy of livestock and the horny seduction of a local slut, who in turn blows up bigger than a Cadillac before releasing thousands of slug creatures, which turn nearly everyone in the town into walking zombies. "Slither" has just the right formula of humor, suspense and over-the-top gore to keep audiences jumping and laughing in their seats. (R) 93 min. *** — C.S.



"Take the Lead" — After the success of last year's documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," Hollywood has thrown together a narrative riff on the idea of New York public school students learning ballroom dance as a way of socializing impoverished kids out of their lower-class traps. Antonio Banderas saunters through his performance based on a real-life ballroom dance teacher who brings his classical dance training to bear on a group of tin-eared, hip-hop-crazed high school misfits. Improper camera work worsens the ill-conceived choreography — things you notice in a movie about people dancing. Even the subplots wilt on the vine. "Take the Lead" is a redundant movie lacking narrative focus. (PG-13) 108 min. ** — C.S.



"Thank You for Smoking" — Big Tobacco is indicted in "Thank You for Smoking," a satire based on a novel by Christopher Buckley about a spokesperson/spin doctor for the cigarette industry (Aaron Eckhart) — or, as the character puts it, one of the few people in the world who "knows what it's like to be truly despised." Nick is so chipper and oily that he even triumphs on an "Oprah" episode featuring a 15-year-old lung-cancer patient. His son, Joey (Cameron Bright), asks questions about Dad's dubious propaganda, but Nick answers simply, "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong." The fact that there's a doctor who can back up Nick's slick sell with data says it all: "This man," Nick says, "could disprove gravity." (R) 92 min. **** — Tricia Olszewski



"V for Vendetta" — Like its namesake hero, who quotes Shakespeare and believes mass media is more powerful than the sword, or the occasional bomb, this not your everyday update of a comic book. Written by the Wachowski brothers of "The Matrix" series (and directed by James McTeigue) V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked vigilante of justice and an anarchist bent on reducing society to rubble, with the help of his sidekick Evey (Natalie Portman). "V" is more interested in reducing contemporary wars of ideology than pumping out a slick action film, and the results are alternately forceful and appalling. The movie demonstrates a steady wit, but also a shallow sense of history that risks undermining everything it tries to accomplish. (R) 132 min. *** — W.M.



"The Wild" — Obvious plot similarities to Dreamworks' "Madagascar" aside, this is a far superior CG animated story about a group of New York zoo animals who go for an unexpected boat trip to an African jungle. Disney produced this story about Samson the Lion (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), who has convinced his lion cub son and the rest of the zoo animals of his mythic experiences in the wild. The king of the zoo wears his mighty roar like a badge of honor that his little cub can barely hope to emulate with his slight whimper of a howl. When the forlorn cub steals away from the zoo in a shipping container, Samson and his best friend, a squirrel named Benny (Jim Belushi), are joined by a koala bear, a giraffe and a goofy anaconda to rescue him from the wilds of Africa. (G) 85 min. *** — C.S.
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