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HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (PG) Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle presents us with yet another fantastical world unlike anything seen before on a movie screen. Magic is afoot here, and almost everyone in the movie seems to be under the power of some sort of spell or another, beginning with Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), a young girl transformed into a 90-year-old woman at the whim of a romantically frustrated witch. Sophie wanders into the mobile household of the powerful young wizard Howl (Christain Bale), a tortured type who can't seem to stop himself from turning into a monster now and then, and a sort of love blossoms. With a storyline that's a bit more convoluted than usual and a few images that seem rehashed from earlier Miyazaki offerings, Howl isn't quite up there with the filmmaker's very best work, but it's still better than just about anything else playing in theaters at the moment. Also featuring the voices of Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall and Billy Crystal. Playing one night only, Sept. 9, as a special free screening at Eckerd College's Miller Auditorium, 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg. ****

YES (R) Sally Potter is a filmmaker whose ambitious, high-concept projects run the gamut from the brilliantly enigmatic (Orlando) to the embarrassingly insipid (The Tango Lesson), and her latest, Yes, falls squarely into the most unfortunate recesses of that later category. Among its many misguided pretensions, Yes features dialogue spoken entirely in iambic pentameter (yes, it's just as awful as you're imagining), and focuses on an Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen) and a dark-skinned Lebanese waiter (Simon Abkarian), known only as "He" and "She," whose adulterous affair becomes a clumsy encapsulation for the current state of post 9/11 geo-politics. Potter's vision here is both relentlessly heavy-handed and jaw-droppingly shallow, with a romanticized, metaphorical notion of Islam — as the emasculated, exotic Other — that borders on unintentional parody. Yes apparently had its genesis as an experimental short of about five minutes duration, which is about all Potter's material deserves. This is the sort of thing that gives art films a bad name. Also stars Sam Neill and Shirley Henderson. Opens Sept. 9 at Tampa Theatre in Tampa. Call to confirm. *

RECENT RELEASES:

THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (R) Ruder, cruder and more consistently funny than Wedding Crashers, this is 90-some minutes of comic anarchy with a 15 minute ode to middle-aged love inserted somewhere in there to show us the movie's heart is in the right place. Steve Carell (a regular on The Daily Show, and break-out performer from Anchorman) is the titular virgin, a sweetly clueless arrested adolescent who collects action figures and spends his weekends perfecting recipes for egg salad sandwiches. The movie's one big joke (variations of which are repeated endlessly, but usually hilariously) revolves around Carell's character being pressured by his male co-workers to have sex, and his bungled attempts to accomplish that mission, but The 40 Year-Old Virgin also gives us the lighter side of chest hair waxing, condom application, psycho speed dating and drunk girls puking in the faces of their potential lovers. Also stars Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Romany Malco. *** 1/2

THE ARISTOCRATS (NR) The Aristocrats tells us one of the oldest and (prior to this documentary) most obscure jokes around, a monstrously filthy monologue that describes all manner of depraved sexual atrocities. The punchline isn't much to speak of, but that's sort of the point: as the film is happy to remind us, repeatedly, it's never really about the punchline, but about how you get there. The horrifically dirty joke that The Aristocrats dissects is merely an excuse for comedians to give free reign to id and imagination, improvising in a jazz-like way that ultimately tells us more about the singer than the song. The Aristocrats wants us to think about what makes us laugh and why, digging deep into the roots of humor as both psychotherapy and sado-masochism. The joke is told, retold, inverted, subverted and dissected by dozens of famous comedians, but although much of this material is outrageously funny, even insightful, the movie eventually begins repeating itself, finally verging on overkill. Then again, would you expect less from the a film that attempts to cast itself as the last word on a killing joke? Features Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Paul Reiser, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Robin Williams and Jon Stewart. *** 1/2

THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY (R) A well-meaning but sometimes overwrought cross-cultural journey beginning in Vietnam and ending in America, featuring a multinational cast speaking a variety of languages, and directed by a Norwegian filmmaker. The Beautiful Country is the story of Binh (Damien Nguyen), a young man outcast by his fellow Vietnamese as bui dui ("less than dust") for being the mixed race offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. father. When Binh's long-presumed-dead mother turns up long enough to tell him that his father is also alive and living in America, the boy embarks on a seemingly impossible mission to track the man down, a harrowing and sometimes implausibly charted journey that takes up the bulk of the film. The Beautiful Country lives up to its name during a lyrical and exquisitely photographed first act set in mostly rural areas of Vietnam, but the movie turns increasingly shrill and melodramatic as it progresses, culminating in a particularly nightmarish take on the immigrant experience in America. Also stars Bai Ling and Tim Roth. ***

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