New Releases:

BEE SEASON (PG-13) With a big tip of the hat to La Dolce Vita's famous opening of a Jesus statue flying over Rome, Bee Season begins with a helicopter transporting a huge letter "A" through the air. It's a perfect introduction to a movie about the power of letters and words, among other things, and about how individuals and families are transformed by the distances between words. Bee Season, which is the new film from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End), is a very curious, vaguely cerebral drama about a household in crisis when sixth grader Eliza (Flora Cross) turns out to be a total savant in the area of spelling, causing her academically minded, control freak dad (Richard Gere), a religious studies professor, to begin instructing her in the ways of Kabbalah in order to maximize her gift. Meanwhile, Gere's son (Max Minghella) is getting cozy with the Hare Krishnas on the sly, and mom (Juliette Binoche) is slipping out at night to indulge in a few deep, dark secrets of her own. The basic form here is pure soap, but with flashes of oddly shaped substance and a sprinkling of mysticism that, while it doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the material, is fascinating all on its own. Buying Gere as a Jewish scholar, on the other hand, is a stretch no one should be required to attempt. Also stars Kate Bosworth. Opens Nov. 25 at local theaters. 3 stars.

JUST FRIENDS (PG-13) Nothing says Happy Holidays like a really lip-smackingly nasty comedy about obnoxious people doing stupid, humiliating or otherwise outrageous things at Christmastime — and that's exactly what Just Friends is. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just Friends stars Ryan Reynolds as a suave L.A. player desperately trying to seduce the beautiful girl he secretly adored back when he was a fat dweeb in high school. The movie's minor characters are its strong suit — Anna Faris is brilliant as a slutty airhead pop star who owes a little too much to Britney Spears — but Just Friends is generally a lot of good, trashy fun, and maybe even a touch more clever than you're expecting. Also stars Amy Smart and Chris Klein. Opens Nov. 25 at local theaters. 3 stars.

THE ICE HARVEST (R) It's After Hours meets Double Indemnity when John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton attempt to embezzle a fortune from the mob, and spend one long, bizarre night suffering the consequences. The director here is Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day fame, but The Ice Harvest, despite a few brief and understated laughs, is a million miles from those basically sunny comedies. The film is set at night and almost exclusively in the seedy underbelly of Wichita, Kan. (and yes, Virginia, there is a seedy underbelly to Wichita), where Cusack and company spend most of the movie drinking, ogling strippers, squabbling, making scenes and avoiding their pursuers. As the movie's noir elements really begin kicking in, there are femme fatales, double and triple crosses galore and bodies to be disposed of as well, and the whole thing, while not exactly original or too terribly clever, is nicely situated somewhere between the Coens' Blood Simple revisionism and a satisfyingly familiar old school classic. Also stars Oliver Platt, Connie Nielsen and Randy Quaid. Opens Nov. 25 at local theaters. 3.5 stars.

NINE LIVES (R) Director Rodrigo Garcia, son of the great writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, specializes in feature-length films that are actually collections of smaller pieces, sketches of sorts, that at their best have a rarified literary feel not unlike that of a good short story. Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her wove together five brief tales, while Ten Tiny Love Stories was pretty much what its title advertises. Garcia's latest, Nine Lives, focuses on mostly older women from various walks of life, placing them in small groups of two or three and in situations both commonplace and extraordinary. Robin Wright Penn meets an old flame in a grocery store, Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning have a picnic in a cemetery, Sissy Spacek cares for her disabled husband in one segment and then meets her lover in a motel in another. Some of the stories aren't quite as captivating as others, but the acting is uniformly excellent, and the cumulative effect something to be remembered. Also stars Amy Brenneman, Molly Parker, Kathy Baker and Holly Hunter. Opens Nov 26 at Tampa Theatre. Call theatre to confirm. 3.5 stars.

RENT (PG-13) Good intentions aside (and certainly railing at AIDS, urban gentrification and compromising your dreams qualifies as good intentions), I didn't much care for Rent back when it was the hottest ticket on Broadway — and it's even a harder sell now, in its big-screen incarnation. Jonathan Larson's rock opera of Puccini's La Boheme (set in Manhattan's East Village of the 1980s) seemed dated from the first day it appeared — an unintentional middle-brow parody of the very artists and eccentrics it wanted to ennoble — and the years have been especially unkind. We get over two hours of a multi-cultural, polysexual crew of starving artists prancing around crooning occasionally eloquent but more often sappy, preachy and pretentious lyrics about all sorts of social issues, set to an ungodly mix of bad Tin Pan Alley tunes and overblown dino-rock. The play Rent was a half-decent idea with a very limited shelf-life and it should have been allowed to die a dignified death, but no such luck. Director Chris Columbus, not the most creative filmmaker in the world, is unflappably faithful to the original production, complete with the appearance of most of the original cast, many of whom are now way too old for their parts. To be fair, though, the movie's problems are not really all Columbus' fault. Probably the only directors who could have pulled this off are Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Stars Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Opens Nov. 25 at local theaters. 2 stars.

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