City of God, Head of State, The Core, Basic

Meirelles and Lund spent months casting, training and rehearsing their mostly amateur teenage cast, all of whom came from Cidade de Deus and other slums. The result of this is undeniable. You will be blown away by these amazingly authentic performances. ***** (In Portuguese with subtitles.)

"Head of State" (PG-13) — The very funny comic Chris Rock stars and directs this illogical, uneven but often awfully funny satire of American politics. Rock plays Mays Gilliam, an activist and city alderman from from Washington, D.C. who sports diamond ear studs and lots of inner-city attitude. Democratic power brokers see him on the news and cynically tap him to replace their recently deceased presidential candidate. Why, you ask? Well, because they want to lose the election. But as is always the case in these underdog-type movies, our hapless hero is grossly underestimated and comic hijinks ensue. Well, they're supposed to, at least. His handlers (Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker) script and school him to lose, but when his running-mate and bail bondsman brother (a hilarious Bernie Mac) tells him to speak his mind — the polls change. Bernie Mac definitely steals the show, but that's not saying much. **

"The Core" (PG-13) — Despite its underwhelming special effects, this sci-fi movie offers viewers a winning cinematic trifecta: distinct characters, terrific dialogue and crisp direction by Jon Amiel. Aaron Eckhart plays a brilliant professor who discovers that the Earth's core has stopped rotating, causing the planet's electromagnetic field to go haywire and threatening its complete destruction in less than a year. Teaming up with shuttle pilot (Hilary Swank), a weapons specialist (Tcheky Karyo), a vain scientist (Stanley Tucci) and nutty inventor (Delroy Lindo), Eckhart takes his not-so-merry crew of "terranauts" on a last-ditch secret mission to the center of the Earth. Once there, they attempt to jump-start the core by nuking it. Even with its cheesy computer-generated effects, "The Core" is a total trip. ****

"Basic" (R) — As with so many movies lately, it's the lead performance and not the plot that make the picture worth the price of a matinee admission. With this so-so, quasi-military thriller, it's John Travolta's tough-talking, swaggering portrayal of a bad-boy DEA agent that holds our interest through the numerous unfocused stretches of the purposely murky plot. Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a former Army ranger turned federal agent who's called in to help a less-experienced investigator (Connie Nielsen) figure out why a despised drill sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson) wound up dead after a jungle-training exercise. Director John ("Die Hard") McTiernan presents the puzzle to us "Rashomon"-style, offering stylized recreations of the murder from various point of view. And it's fun watching Travolta's cagey Hardy zero in on the truth. However, for moviegoers who require more than a single interesting performance to pull them into the theater, "Basic" will be a frustrating experience.

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