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By Jeremy Mathews

Cheaper by the Dozen 2
1/2 (out of four)
20th Century Fox
Rated PG

If the 2003 remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen” was a tedious exercise in clumsy humor and forced sentimentality, its sequel holds twice the qualities of the original. “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” which could have at least been called “Cheaper by the Baker’s Dozen,” teams Steve Martin up with Eugene Levy as a rival father of eight who is wealthy and has kids who seem perfect, yet secretly don’t like their father's overwhelming demands.

While Martin and Levy may sound like a solid comic team, they’ve got nothing to do but act like jackasses until they realize the error of their ways, which Martin already did in the first film. Bonnie Hunt, Hillary Duff, Carmen Electra, a guy who almost looks like Ashton Kutcher—well, not really—and too many kids join them to stand around for more than 90 minutes in the hopes that a screenplay will turn up. You know the filmmakers are desperate when, in the year 2005, they not only use the fake-yawn-and-stretch-to-put-arm-around-date move, but actually feel the need to spend a scene explaining it.

Fun with Dick and Jane
(out of four)
Columbia Pictures
Rated PG-13

Without enough laughs or guts, “Fun with Dick and Jane” meanders in the land of almost-good comedies.

In a new remake of the 1977 film starring George Segal and Jane Fonda, Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni play an upwardly mobile married couple who lose their job due to corporate corruption and turn to a life of robbery to pay the bills. After being promoted to vice president and telling his wife to quit her job, Dick finds out, on live TV, that his company’s crooked executives (Alec Baldwin and Richard Jenkins) have diverted its funds, leaving it bankrupt and him jobless. Humiliating jobs in retail, desperate interviews and fire sales ensue.

Despite a slew of promising ideas, the film never manages to be consistently funny. A few moments, like when Carrey goes nuts playing with a voice distorter, or goes nuts and steals patches of grass from other people’s lawns, work. But too much of “Fun with Dick and Jane” simply flounders, not funny enough to maintain interest with laughs, too nice to make a strong attack against corporate culture.

Memoirs of a Geisha
(out of four)
Columbia Pictures
Rated PG-13

“Memoirs of a Geisha” looks great, but that’s pretty much all it does. The film is a shallow, male-fantasy glimpse into the world of high-class prostitutes who are sold into the lifestyle of creating an exotic mystery for sad, lonely rich men. Neither enlightening nor moving, the film is a series of contrivances punctuated by the occasional semi-interesting look behind the scenes of seduction.

Based on Arthur Golden’s hit novel and not an actual memoir (if it had been and the film were loyal, the person who wrote it would have led one ridiculously clichéd life), the film follows Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), who is sold to a Geisha school as a child and, after some soap operatics, grows up and becomes a last-minute Geisha. Ken Watanabe plays a the Chairman, a businessman who buys her candy when she’s a child, and whom she loves ever after.

Obviously, a big-budgeted film like this one is going to have trouble getting made if the characters actually speak Japanese, so it's in English. But the actors from different corners of Asia speak English with different accents of varying thickness, creating a hard-to-ignore distraction. Listening to each other speak, none of these characters would have heard accents, but it’s hard to hear anything but them. It takes effort to understand some of the dialogue, and this effort only draws attention to how trite most of the lines are.

Director Rob Marshall, whose work in “Chicago” was overrated, fails to bring any real insight to the characters as the plot mechanics churn slowly along. By the end, we’re left with nothing but shoddy voice-over narration that tries to make something meaningful and artistic out of a perfectly silly ending.

Mrs. Henderson Presents
(out of four)
The Weinstein Company
Rated R

“We never closed,” reads the proud slogan of the Windmill Theatre in London, where soldiers went to see the first—and, in some cases, the only—naked women they would ever see and civilians took a look at the amusing spectacle of it all. In a time of war, the theater offered both dependability and escape, while its operators faced their own lives that clashed with the fantasy on stage.

“Mrs. Henderson Presents” dramatizes the life of upper-class English widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) who, at the break of World War II, started a musical revue and decided to run it all day long and make some of the women topless. Due to the British being a bit stuffier than the French, however, the girls can only go nude if they stand still, like a painting. The somewhat adversarial, lower-class mastermind of her productions is Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), with whom Mrs. Henderson is a bit bemused and a bit in love.

At times, Dench’s character has too much upper-class spunk, and the screenplay occasionally runs out of steam. But director Stephen Frears provides lively direction that captures the theater’s varied personalities, close-knit relationships and the exuberant joy that accompanies each production.

(out of four)
Universal Pictures
Rated R

Steven Spielberg made himself the one of the most recognizable directors in film history with huge blockbusters like “Jaws,” tear-jerkers like “Schindler’s List” and visionary sci-fi like “Minority Report,” but I don’t think anyone was expecting something like “Munich.” The film is one of the director’s most idiosyncratic, challenging and thought-provoking films. It flirts with political controversy as it studies a world spiraling out of control with violence in the wake of terrorist attacks.

The film isn’t so much about the 1972 assassination of Israeli athletes during the Olympic games in Munich as it is a study of the event’s aftermath. Determining that covert killing is its best retaliation, the Israeli government enlists Avner (Eric Bana) to be a Mossad agent who officially works for no one. He must distance himself from his friends and family and team up with four other specialists as they live in isolation and try to track down and kill 11 people who, according to the government, were involved in the terrorist attacks.

With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg uses gritty photography and blown-out light to capture the atmosphere of outsiders heading down a path of confusion and paranoia. The assassination scenes aren’t about slick, show-offy execution. The team isn’t a solid group of trained assassins, but a bunch of people who were selected precisely because they have no background in the field and can’t be traced. And triumph doesn’t come easy for them. In one scene, when a bomb doesn’t go off as planned, we see the bloody aftermath of the explosion.

While some groups have criticized the film of being anti- whatever group they’re defending, Spielberg isn’t out to assign blame or take sides. He simply observes the results of the dangerous belief that violence is the best way to solve problems.

The Passenger
Sony Pictures Classics
Not reviewed

Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychological, meditative suspense story follows a burnt-out journalist through Africa, Spain, Germany and England as he exchanges identities with a dead man.

The Producers
1/2 (out of four)
Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13

Gene Wilder has had a good year in 2005, as remakes keep reminding us of his brilliance. Whether an actor tries to go in a completely different direction, like Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” or imitate him, like Matthew Broderick in “The Producers,” Wilder’s past work towers over that of the newcomers.

As Nathan Lane and Broderick reprise their stage roles in the new film version of the recent stage musical version of the classic 1968 comedy by Mel Brooks, it’s hard not to remember the hilarity of the original scenes. The original actors, Zero Mostel as a crooked Broadway producer and Wilder as a neurotic accountant, brought such energy to the story of fraudulent producers trying to come up with a guaranteed flop that the only reason to see Lane and Broderick in the roles would beto see the material performed live. This new version isn’t so much a bad film as a superfluous one.

Susan Stroman, who directed the stage version, basically sets up the camera up in front of the action and doesn’t do much beyond making a high-budget documentation of the stage production that includessome exterior sets.

Lane and Broderick were apparently so happy with the raves they received for their work on stage that they delivered the exact same performances on film, projecting towards the back wall of the theater instead of dialing it down for the more intimate medium. Better performances come from Uma Thurman as sexy Swedish secretary Ulla and Will Ferrell as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Gary Beach is also very funny in the title character of the should-be-guaranteed-flop play “Springtime for Hitler.”

If you haven’t seen the original “The Producers,” go see it right now. If you have seen it, go watch it again. If you’re still in the mood for more, see this version.

The Ringer
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated PG-13
Not reviewed

Johnny Knoxville stars in the Special Olympics version of “Juwanna Mann” (the man in the WNBA). But apparently the Special Olympics people dig it, so don’t worry about offending people with your ticket purchase.

Rumor Has It…
(out of four)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13

Here’s to you, Shirley MacLaine. Almost 40 years after the release of “The Graduate,” the Mrs. Robinson role is still the most interesting character in “Rumor Has It…”

Jennifer Aniston plays Sarah, who realizes that her Pasadena, Calif. family was the basis of the book that became the hit film “The Graduate.” It’s her perky little sister’s (Mena Suvari) wedding weekend, and she is hiding her own engagement to Jeff (Mark Ruffalo—very funny). She says she doesn’t want to draw attention away from her sister, but she really isn’t sure who she is, who her family is or if she’s ready for commitment.

Her mother, who might have made for some interesting drama, is dead and didn’t run off with Benjamin Braddock, whose real name is Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner). She just had a fling with him before her wedding. When she learns this news, Sarah is no longer sure who her father is, and sets off to find her true identity. The resulting story is sometimes funny, sometimes overdone, but consistently well acted.

Visually, Rob Reiner’s film is often clunky and occasionally incompetent, with non-matching cuts that might inspire more picky directors to reshoot. But a script this harmless doesn’t require much more than a few good performances to accomplish its goals. And this film certainly has that.

The Warrior
Miramax Films
Rated R
Not reviewed

British director Asif Kapadia’s “The Warrior” combines samurai action, performances from untrained actors and landscape photography. If that didn’t convince you to see it, it’s about a an ancient Indian warrior who travels from the desert to snowy mountain peaks in search of peace—and fights.

Wolf Creek
1/2 (out of four)
Dimension Films
Rated R

“Wolf Creek” is one of those movies in which sinister overtones creep in, then interrupt ordinary life. What begins as a fun, flirtatious trip becomes a gripping struggle for survival. In his feature debut, Australian writer/director Greg McLean turns an allegedly fact-inspired occurrence into an engaging and well-crafted thriller that transforms the stereotypical jolly man from the Australian outback into a nightmarish monster.

Somewhat inspired by the Dogme 95 movement (like “28 Days Later,” though he conceived it before that movie came out), McLean has produced a film inexpensively by shooting digitally and on location. But it is still very well shot and looks about as good as HD transferred to film can.

The movie indicates that all is not right from the opening titles, which tell us that of the Australians who go missing, 90 percent are found within a month…but some are never found. Then, in classic thriller tradition, a calm, observational tone starts things off before the horror cranks up. We get to know the characters so that the horrifying payoff, which begins from one confused character’s perspective, is all the more frightening.

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