For the first time, LaBute is not directing from his own script, which might explain why, if I didn't know better, I would have sworn I was watching a Coen brothers movie. Who else would put a fantasy dancing sequence on the edge of the Grand Canyon at night?
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But here, the downtrodden vibe has more complexity than Clockwatchers, as does the storyline. Co-written with sister Karen, Sprecher's screenplay follows a series of New York City tales that, aside from their underlying themes, are apparently unconnected... or are they?
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David Mamet's latest project is far from conventional fare, and ultimately that works in his favor. From the opening scene, where two soldiers pursue each other through a jungle, Mamet keeps us guessing. What kind of movie are we watching? Within about 10 minutes, the bones of the story are made clear: the president's daughter (Kristen Bell) has been kidnapped from her dorm room, and the Secret Service pulls out all the stops to get her back. That includes recruiting special operations soldier Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), an uncannily capable military man who's as intuitive with people and motives as he is skilled with weapons.
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Director Anthony Fuqua doesn't seem terribly interested in the plot of "Bait," a impotent "Enemy of the State" knock-off that reeks of a sloppy re-write designed to accommodate the comedy stylings of Jamie Foxx in the Will Smith-type role.
Fuqua's main focus is turning the picture into a resume-builder and he spends the whole two hours showing off his technique. Dripping with visual flair overkill, the chase scenes, stunts and explosions get the deluxe treatment. A 30-second sex scene is shot from about 20 angles. Even a throwaway speech Foxx gives about missing his father (it's just a line to get his ex-girlfriend in the sack) is filmed with four or five cameras -- one of them restlessly circling him as he mock-emotes -- and edited with slow-motion effects and multiple fade-ins and fade-outs.
"Lookie what I can do!" Fuqua seems to be saying, much as he did in "The Replacement Killers," Chow Yun-Fat's Hong-Kong-style American debut. "Please don't send me back to making music videos!"
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The rise to fame of Billie Frank -- the struggling songstress played by ear-piercing pop diva Mariah Carey in the witless showbiz fairytale "Glitter" -- is so absurdly easy you'd think you're supposed to hate her for it.
After a quickie boo-hoo introduction in which young Billie is abandoned by her bar-singer ghetto mom for no adequately explored reason and put in an orphanage, director Vondie Curtis Hall ("Gridlock'd") fast-forwards to a nightclub scene in 1983 (symbolized by the occasional butt-ugly costume). There our girl, now all grown up curvy, gets offered a gig as a backup singer to a tone-deaf rising star, solely based on the way she wiggles her booty.
During the ensuing recording session, the pimp-daddy producer (Terrence Howard, "Angel Eyes") turns up Billie's microphone and substitutes her voice for his star's. In the next scene an influential DJ called "Dice" (some scruffy-handsome English actor named Max Beesley spouting the most laughable white-boy street lingo ever spoken with a straight face) hears the tape, hears Billie sing, realizes who the real talent is and offers to make her famous.
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David Mamet's "Spartan" is Tom Clancy without the pop-literature pretense. It's "24" for those who like more of a cerebral challenge -- a tense, tightly paced political action-thriller with provocatively elusive twists that don't feel contrived for shock value.
It's a movie in which intellect trumps exposition to the point that most of the characters aren't clearly identified, making all of them seem more shadowy and dangerous. The story counts on your ability to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions about evidence trails, incidents, alibis, motives and intentions -- then pulls those conclusions out from under you more than once with substantial surprises that make you think even harder. And it has a palpable atmosphere of pressure-cooker urgency, kept doggedly in check by government agents for whom eye-on-the-prize callousness is compulsory.
Val Kilmer stars as a terse military espionage operative called in by the Secret Service to work with a clandestine team searching for a missing -- likely abducted -- First Daughter before the headline-hungry press gets wind of the notoriously rebellious girl's disappearance.
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Heretofore known for his viciously incisive, very black socio-sexual satires, director Neil LaBute takes a joyride in antic comedy territory with "Nurse Betty." It's charming effort of pure entertainment about a gentle, bouncy Kansas waitress who becomes convinced she's a part of her favorite soap opera after being sent into post-traumatic shock by witnessing a murder.
The murder was that of her abusive, redneck husband (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart in another amazing chameleon performance) -- a retribution for a shady business deal gone wrong.
The waitress, Betty Sizemore, is the kind of bona fide wide-eyed innocent most Hollywood actresses wouldn't be able to play without slipping into a hammy, ignorant hayseed routine and winking ironically at the audience. But in the hands of Renée Zellweger -- who proved her sweetheart credibility in "Jerry Maguire" -- Betty is 100 percent genuine sugar.
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The unnerving concept behind the almost riveting real-time urban thriller "Phone Booth" is chilling and inspired in its simplicity: An unseen sniper calls a pay phone and threatens to kill the man who answers if he dares to hang up.
It's the kind of idea Alfred Hitchcock could have spun into cinematic gold. But in the hands of high-gloss director Joel Schumacher ("Bad Company," "Batman and Robin") the film's intelligence and creativity have to fight for screen time with invasive popcorn-movie superficiality.
Although the story takes place almost entirely within an old glass-box telephone booth at 54th St. and 8th Ave. in Manhattan, "Phone Booth" opens in outer space with a superfluous shot of a communications satellite. A zoom in on the Earth follows, passing down through the clouds until it reaches the pay phone in question while a "Twilight Zone"-like narrator invites us to "meet the man who will be the final occupant of that booth."
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In the intricate ensemble think-piece "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," karma-fueled philosophical allegories revolve around contentment, resentfulness, self-fulfillment and other cinematic soul-food themes.
An intelligent, earnest, intimate film that drops the ball only when it pauses for blunt exposition to make sure you're getting its metaphysical point, this second effort from the writing-directing sisters Karen and Jill Sprechter ("Clockwatchers") consists of a knotted string of stories that are not necessarily profound or even all that memorable. But it's a movie with such realistic characters and humbly consequential performances that it leaves a subconscious impression nevertheless.
The interwoven vignettes imagined by the Sprechters begin with a punctilious, moth-eaten academic (John Turturro) leaving his wife (Amy Irving) after a mugging that leads him to decide he's been living an unsatisfying life. But soon he's even more frustrated because he hasn't a clue how to find that missing satisfaction.
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