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May 12, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW AND CHRIS KALTENBACH

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+

Ask the Dust -- both honors and transforms John Fante's 1939 novel about a first-generation Italian-American novelist, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), and his tortured relationship with an immigrant Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), in Depression-era Los Angeles. Writer-director Robert Towne turns it from a brilliant pathological nightmare to an authentic, gritty romance about the self-hatred that contorts love and the urge for transcendence that makes love real. (M.S.) R 117 minutes A-

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-

Friends With Money -- has Jennifer Aniston as an unhappy single woman with, as the title suggests, not much money. Her friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack) have money and husbands, but are also not happy people. Aniston's Olivia is a woman with so little self-respect that she essentially pays a dim-bulb personal trainer (Scott Caan) to go with her to the houses she cleans and have sex. A story that centered more on her and less on the standard-issue emotionally crippled people surrounding her would have been an insightful movie. (C.K.) R 88 minutes C+

Hoot -- needs more owls. And more Florida. This adaptation of Carl Hiassen's novel is ostensibly about some adorable owls about to have their homes bulldozed, but it's more about three teens (Logan Lerman, Brie Larson and Cody Linley) who pledge to do whatever's necessary to stop it. At least the owls are cute and have big eyes and haven't had a lot of movies made about them; the kids are bland and generic. The movie could have been something special if it had focused more on what a quirky-cool place Florida can be, but it needs more than a few establishing shots of the wonderful scenery and a star turn by Mr. Margaritaville himself, Jimmy Buffett, playing a junior high science teacher, to accomplish that. (C. K.) PG 94 minutes C

Ice Age: The Meltdown -- offers some good news: The nut-nutty squirrel of the first Ice Age is back. Otherwise, the movie has exactly the same flaws as its predecessor. It's a glacier-paced mastodon quest, just critters on the run from extinction. The ice is melting. Manny the mammoth tries to hurry everybody along to safety before the ice walls break. It's all very Land Before Time, or the first Ice Age, without the kids-lose-their-parents pathos. (Orlando Sentinel) PG 85 minutes C-

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 and co-writer 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-

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