Capsule reviews of recently released movies

Babel, Charlotte's Webb, Children of Men, others

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SMOKING ACES (R) Smokin' Aces offers us the worst of all worlds, setting things up and attempting to tie them together with miles of dull, droning exposition, while bombarding us with gratuitous ultra-violence edited with all the rhythmic elegance of a seizure. The basic idea here is that we get to gawk at a slew of super-assassins, all competing to collect a sizeable bounty on Las-Vegas-entertainer-turned-Mafia-snitch Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven). Piven's character holes up in a penthouse suite with a seemingly endless supply of coke and hos, while the killers — a self-consciously "colorful" assortment of tough black chicks, cold-blooded masters of disguise and raving bully boys straight out of a Mad Max movie — knock off various FBI agents and each other as they advance upon their objective. The dialogue is largely lifeless and awkwardly delivered, the action strictly cartoonish, and the last-minute Usual Suspects-esque attempt to make sense of the proceedings is, unintentionally, perhaps the most ludicrous sequence in the whole movie. Also stars Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds. 1.5 stars

VOLVER (NR) Pedro Almodovar's abiding obsession with female mystique reaches a whole new level in Volver, a film that seems to take place in a world entirely depopulated of males. The setting is modern day Madrid, actually, where we quickly discover that the women outlive the men by miles — a truism demonstrated when the movie's first (and practically only) male character appears at the 14-minute mark, only to get knocked off (by one of the resident females) barely five minutes later. That murder provides one of the central plot points around which Volver's various and sundry females scurry, although all of the undeniably amusing or odd twists and turns don't really add up to much. The director achieves a seemingly effortless blend of his standard elements here — comedy, farce, melodrama, a touch of kitsch, even a bit of Hitchcockian noir — all delivered with his customary wit and style. But Volver doesn't approach the levels of depth and focus that we've come to expect from latter-day Almodovar and winds up a watchable but distinctly lighter-than-air concoction. Stars Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo. 3.5 stars

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