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May 05, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW AND CHRIS KALTENBACH | MICHAEL SRAGOW AND CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITICS

Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach, except where noted. Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Akeelah and the Bee -- follows a formula, one of the oldest in all of fiction: an underdog, struggling against the odds, seeks fame, fortune and -- most importantly -- self-respect. Sure, we've seen it all before, but what makes this one of the most winning movies of 2006 is its abundance of great intentions. Twelve-year-old Keke Palmer plays a young girl living in a tough L.A. neighborhood who has a talent rarely celebrated in mainstream American films. She's smart. And when the school spelling bee rolls around, she's torn between competing, and possibly winning, and showing disdain for the whole process, which would certainly make her seem more cool. (C.K.) PG 112 minutes B+

American Dreamz -- wants to be a wild satire of politics and pop culture. But it's really just a cornpone comedy for the age of big media, with the president (Dennis Quaid) as the global village idiot, a Simon Cowell-like reality show host (Hugh Grant) as the evil Lothario, and the international TV audience as the denatured salt of the earth, able to get caught up in the spectacle of their fellow men and women aspiring to be stars. (M.S.) PG-13 103 minutes C

Basic Instinct 2 -- retains much of what made the earlier film scurrilous but little of what made it interesting. Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell races her sports car through London, engaged in sex with a soccer player. Tramell loses control of both herself and the car, sending it to the bottom of the Thames with soccer guy still inside. If this film does nothing more than wash Catherine Tramell out of Stone's system, all will not be lost. (C.K.) R 114 minutes C-

Brick -- is a remarkable oddity, audacious and engaging. This film noir for the young and the feckless spills over with suburban bravado and unrelenting wit. Our antihero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), tries to get to the bottom of a narcotics underworld that has swallowed up his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The movie is deliriously disarming in the way it laces life-and-death heartbreak in and out of cozy-seedy circumstances. (M.S.) R 110 minutes A-

Lucky Number Slevin -- features lots of cool dialogue but doesn't provide much of a movie in which to showcase it. Josh Hartnett is the mysterious Slevin, who visits New York and is mistaken for his friend Nick, who owes rival crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) big money. (C.K.) R 110 minutes C+

Mission: Impossible III -- will provide a satisfying ride for series fans; others may regard it as TV squared. It's all a riff on the unbearable lightness of being an IMF field agent. The action hinges physically on Tom Cruise's abilities to race through city streets like the Flash or soar through the air and land safely thanks to super bungee chords and his virtuoso ways with a parachute. It hinges emotionally on the hero's desperate attempt to set down roots. Director-cowriter J.J. Abrams, the man who invented Lost and Alias, has concocted a big-screen M:i entry that's an Alias story arc with the quirks and emotional heft reduced and the explosions augmented. An hour after you see it, you may be hungry for a real movie. (M.S.) PG-13 125 minutes B-

Neil Young: Heart of Gold -- turns two Young performances into an intimate epic. Director Jonathan Demme, like his star, knows the power of plain utterance. But to generate this movie's tsunami of emotion, Demme doesn't rely on the yearning that pours out from Young's Prairie Wind album. Shot by shot, choice by choice, he magnifies the feelings and multiplies the meanings of each verse or chord, each glance between performers or faraway look in their eyes. The result is a vision of American life as moving, funny and rueful as John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. (M.S.) PG 103 minutes A+

RV -- Barry Sonnenfeld's remake (in spirit, if not in name) of National Lampoon's Vacation is a comedy in which Robin Williams doesn't resort to his standard shtick (except for one overlong and unfunny scene in which he gets to gangsta rap). Like Chevy Chase in Vacation, Williams is a dad who takes his brood on a cross-country vacation, during which they finally come to realize that dad isn't such a doofus after all. The film has some real laughs, mostly thanks to Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth as a hick family who refuse to be left behind. Still, it's impossible to shake the feeling that we've seen all this before. (C.K.) 92 minutes PG-13. B-

United 93 -- returns us to Sept. 11 with immediacy, intelligence and a full-bodied human impact. Instead of weepiness, it offers us insight and revelation -- and what James Joyce in The Dead called "generous tears." What you feel for the passengers that learn of the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and decide to overpower the terrorist hijackers goes beyond respect or admiration. You understand their action fully, not as a reasoned and heroic suicidal response, but as a fight for life: They aim to take back the plane and fly it, or die trying. There's no cheap uplift to their victory, no pop catharsis. What's great about United 93 is that you never feel it's just a movie -- even though, as a movie, it's terrific. (M.S.) R 111 minutes A+

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