Eduardo Verastegui and Tammy Blanchard in BellaBella (PG-13) - Alejandro Monteverde's drama, which concerns the friendship between a chef and a newly pregnant, newly unemployed waitress, received the People's Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Um... who are these "people," exactly? Space people? Because I can see how Bella might be confused with a great movie if you didn't understand a word of human conversation. Even then, of course, you might still be put off by the film's bizarre editing (with flash-forwards routinely, meaninglessly interrupting scenes-in-progress) and lackluster photography; Montevrede shows more interest in food than in his stars. And then there's that baffling ending, which seems to set the film up for a sequel - one that fills in that massive "Huh?!?" of a climactic plot hole. But it's still the mawkish, maudlin screenplay that does it in; Eduardo Verástegui (looking uncannily like Jim Caviezel as Christ) and Tammy Blanchard (as ever, looking uncannily like Judy Garland) are stuck with unplayable dialogue and baldly written characters, and the movie shamelessly plies on the merely-functional supporting stereotypes. The movie is pro-life and pro-family with a vengeance, which might account for its (limited) popular success. I just wish it were also a little pro-brain, and a lot anti-cliché.

Lynn Collins, Ashley Judd, and Michael Shannon in BugBug (R) - Not the horror movie suggested in the ads, but then again, I'm not sure what kind of ad could do justice to director William Friedkin's paranoid freak-out. Sad sack Ashley Judd holes up in a dilapidated motel with twitchy Michael Shannon, and, for 95 minutes, the two slowly and surely go mad. Tracy Letts, an ensemble member from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, adapted the work from his play, and Bug's stage roots are fairly obvious; with its cast of five characters, all of whom more frequently orate than converse, the movie is a little static. It's also hypnotic, and nerve-racking, and, in the end, rather extraordinary. Judd gives an almost staggeringly emotional performance (her best in years) as a woman all-too-desperate to believe in something, and Shannon's evolution from mildly scary to deeply terrifying is something of an acting miracle. Working from Letts' fascinatingly unresolved script, which poses more questions than it ever answers, Friedkin fixes his camera close in on the actors, burrowing into their shaky mental states like one of Shannon's invisible insects; by the end, you may not be sure what you've seen, but you might find yourself waking to see it again as soon as possible.

Ryan Kwanten in Dead SilenceDead Silence (R) - Ventriloquist dummies tend to freak me out in the best possible way - I still get a rush thinking about Anthony Hopkins' and Fats' diabolical pas de deux in 1978's Magic - so I was more than happy to give this low-rent horror flick the benefit of the doubt. And during the film's first 20 minutes, Saw auteur James Wan does provide some deeply unsettling, hugely enjoyable scares; it's amazing how well those killer-puppet tropes (the silence, the stillness, the slo-o-ow movement of the dummy's eyeball as he focuses on his unsuspecting prey) still hold up. Unfortunately, though, your amused giggles quickly turn into laughter at the movie, as the supernatural silliness reaches epic proportions, the plotting and dialogue seem to worsen by the minute, and Dead Silence's effects - so suggestive at the start - get CGI'd to hell and back. There will no doubt be stupider fright films released this year, but perhaps none that will so thoroughly squander an audience's initial goodwill.

Dinosaurs Alive! 3-DDinosaurs Alive! 3-D (not rated) - I checked recently, and over the last two years, this 50-minute look at prehistoric creatures and those that dig for them stands as the 13th IMAX release I've seen. I didn't really care for it. An unlucky coincidence? Dino-philes between the ages of six and twelve will probably learn a lot from David Clark's and Bayley Silleck's documentary; there's some terrific archival footage of famed explorer Ray Chapman Andrews, and intriguing factoids about several of the enormous reptiles discussed. Yet even these young viewers may wind up disappointed that the 3-D effects don't add much - the most enjoyable rush came when one of the film's junior archaeologists threw a bucket of sand in our faces - while the rest of us might also be underwhelmed by the sub-Ray Harryhausen recreations, the wooden "naturalism" of the experts providing commentary, and the general blandness of the presentation. (You know a movie is in trouble when the narration by Michael Douglas is the liveliest thing about it.) IMAX endeavors of this sort are at their best when they effectively balance knowledge with a really good time, and while Dinosaurs Alive! 3-D handily puts the "edu" in "edu-tainment," that "tainment" part proves a little elusive.

Dragon Wars: D-WarDragon Wars: D-War (PG-13) - If you see only one Korean monster movie this year in which an over-sized beast wreaks havoc on a major metropolis... see The Host, Bong Joon-Ho's fantastic (and fantastically funny) comedy-thriller recently released on DVD. If, however, you permit yourself two, there's no reason not to watch this flying-lizards-and-a-really-big-King-Cobra goof by Korean director Hyung-rae Shim. Beginning with its title, which can't decide whether to be singular or plural, nothing about Dragon Wars: D-War makes sense, and you'll definitely laugh at the movie more than you'll shudder at it. Unless, that is, your shuddering is the result of the abysmal acting, writing (my favorite howler finds FBI agent Chris Mulkey saying, with an absolute straight face, "The bureau has a very sophisticated paranormal unit."), and ridiculously incoherent backstory; the movie opens in the present and then, within the next ten minutes, travels back 15 years, then back another 500, and then forward 20. But the film's extended centerpiece, in which the gigantic beasties lay waste to L.A., is about as hilarious and thrilling a sequence as you could ever hope for; our first view of that city-block-sized snake finds it downing an elephant (who looks almost as surprised as we are), and the creature has the ability to squeeze skyscrapers until they burst. The movie is so remedial that it's practically Baby's First Monster Movie - little kids should have a blast at it - yet if you get on the film's profoundly cheesy/crappy wavelength, Dragon Wars is an almost embarrassing amount of fun.

Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear in Feast of LoveFeast of Love (R) - There are about ten different movies going on in Robert Benton's serio-comic adaptation of Charles Baxter's best-seller, and not one of them, it seems, has a plot. Yet while I'll readily concede that storylines, in general, are overrated, this pastiche of Portland-based romantic woes could really have used some narrative momentum; we're continually flung headfirst into new characters and sub-plots before we've even gotten a grasp of the old characters and sub-plots, and none of what we see carries any dramatic weight. In a movie that casts Morgan Freeman in his umpteenth earthly-sage role (and, you guessed correctly, he does narrate the film) and Greg Kinnear in his umpteenth grinning-eunuch role, at least Radha Mitchell is outstanding, playing a real-estate agent who uses sex to distract from what appears to be an approaching breakdown, and whose character and motivations you're endlessly curious about. Of all the movies going on within Feast of Love, I wish the filmmakers had devoted 105 minutes to that one.

The Final SeasonThe Final Season (PG) - Director David M. Evans and screenwriters Art D'Alessandro & James Grayford built it, and nobody came. This sincere but almost frighteningly amateurish Iowa baseball movie narrowly eked out a 20th-place box-office finish in its opening weekend (despite playing on more than 1,000 screens), and as it's all but left a theatre near you by now, there's little point in telling you to avoid it. Besides, picking on The Final Season is a little like picking on your nephew's third-grade pageant - it's easy to do, but you're gonna look like a jerk doing it. Instead, allow me to describe some highlights. Um... well, Lucinda Jenney's in it. I always like her. And I enjoyed Michael Angarano a lot... in Almost Famous. Oh, and that little girl who sings that excruciatingly off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in its entirety? She's really cute.

Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan in Georgia RuleGeorgia Rule (R) - Garry Marshall - the director who previously made prostitution romantic (Pretty Woman), terminal illness adorable (Nothing in Common), and mental handicaps cute as all-get-out (The Other Sister) - now lends his sitcom-honed talents to the subject of pre-teen sexual abuse; I can hardly wait for Marshall's happy-go-lucky exploration of the Rwanda genocide, or perhaps a musical-comedy version of the Anne Frank story. Yet say what you like about this female-bonding dramedy (and considering its schizophrenic tonal shifts and occasionally jaw-dropping tastelessness, I could say plenty), but at least the results are never dull. Lindsay Lohan is stuck in an unplayable role - a trampy, willfully self-destructive 17-year-old well-versed in the works of Exra Pound and Bach - yet gives her lines impressive snap, and Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman hit some astonishing notes of anger and betrayal; their mother-daughter resentments dig at the hurtful truths beneath Mark Andrus' overly flippant script. Georgia Rule is a joke, but the actresses keep you from laughing at it. Mostly.

Happily N'Ever AfterHappily N'Ever After (PG) - It's now 2007, so let us all take a deep breath and plunge into the first of the year's computer-animated offerings. Let us also pray that none of the others will be as ungodly awful as Happily N'Ever After. You know you're in trouble when the film's incessant, smart-alecky narration is delivered by Freddie Prinze Jr., and when you notice that his character - a fairy-tale dish washer named Rick (!) - is even more blandly designed than Prinze himself. But you still might not be prepared for the movie's onslaught of lame-ass gags, the embarrassingly lethargic visuals (the characters move as if underwater), the remedial editing rhythms that consistently hold shots for two beats too long, and the obscene waste of usually sharp comics such as Wallace Shawn, Andy Dick, George Carlin, and Sigourney Weaver. And here's something you certainly won't be prepared for: Patrick Warburton, who has lent his comic baritone to what seems like thousands of cartoon characters over the past decade, plays a vain prince and doesn't generate even one laugh. That's not just a waste of talent - that's animated-film heresy.

Kerry Washington and Chris Rock in I Think I Love My WifeI Think I Love My Wife (R) - Director/co-writer Chris Rock's remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon is a bit of a train wreck, yet it may have made for an enjoyable train wreck if the filmmaker had simply assigned his starring role to someone else. (That, or invested in some serious acting lessons.) Even though its tone keeps leapfrogging all over the place - legitimate marital crises sit uncomfortably beside low comedy involving an overly Viagra-ed Rock unable to control his erection - the movie displays a fair degree of comic invention, and the supporting cast, which includes Gina Torres, Steve Buscemi, Edward Herrmann, and the slyly sultry Kerry Washington, helps considerably. Rock, though, performs every scene with meaningless, stand-up-comic flippancy; nothing that happens to him has the slightest bit of weight. (Rock the Director lets the soundtrack do all the work Rock the Actor should be doing.) You have no idea what's going on in his character's head, and understanding Rock's role is essential for keeping up with the film's wildly shifting moods; after nearly two hours, I left I Think I Love My Wife's auditorium vaguely amused and really annoyed.

Bobby Coleman and John Cusack in Martian ChildMartian Child (PG) - Director Menno Meyjes' tale of a widowed science-fiction writer (John Cusack) and his potential adoptee (Bobby Coleman) - a skittish tyke who thinks he's from Mars - is one of those shamelessly trite and manipulative movies that you somehow just know is going to end with the munchkin running away from home (probably to the local planetarium) and a heart-tugging "I'll always love you, son" speech while the soundtrack's violins crescendo during the climactic hug. Your assumption will prove correct. (And damn but that violin crescendo is loud; it could almost be a parody of lump-in-the-throat musical cues.) Martian Child's fuzzy sentimentality, though, is incongruous with its broad jokiness - we're given the misleading implication that this kid actually is from Mars - and the movie's inability to really deal with the issues it raises; apparently, the kid's very real psychological traumas can be overcome through ketchup fights and a trip to the bowling alley. Even terrific performers such as Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Sophie Okonedo, and Anjelica Huston add little - the normally marvelous Joan Cusack is pitched way too high - and the experience would be unimaginable if it wasn't for its leading man, with his gift for scraping the schmaltz off of any line, no matter how saccharin. Cusack reacts to Coleman's strangled whisper and unforced oddness with great throwaway wit and not a trace of melodrama; after one of the mini-martian's nuttier pronouncements, Cusack's sci-fi author stares at him for a beat and sardonically, hilariously deadpans, "I deserve you. I really do." I wish I knew what Martian Child did to deserve Cusack.

Angelina Jolie in A Mighty HeartA Mighty Heart (R) - Michael Winterbottom's dramatic procedural on the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl is a minor miracle: A speedy, complex, deeply angry political thriller with a devastating, tragic romance tucked inside. As Pearl's wife, Mariana (Angelina Jolie), and a team of American and Pakistani intelligence officers and journalists attempt to locate the kidnapped Wall Street Journal writer, this brilliantly edited work moves with dizzying swiftness yet never leaves you in the dark, and its faux documentary realism is extraordinarily polished; you truly feel as if you're catching moments on the fly. In her subtlest, most satisfying performance in years, Jodie fades into the background of shots - she feels less like the star than the sixth actor billed below the title - and makes up for years of tabloid exposure with this smart, heartfelt turn; it's sadly ironic that the audiences that would enjoy A Mighty Heart the most will likely use Jolie's participation as an excuse not to go.

Mummies: Secrets of the PharaohsMummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs (not rated) - IMAX docs always seem to work better when they keep their point of focus very narrow, and when this movie is delving into the mummification process and the history behind it, it's fascinating stuff. (It's also comforting stuff: The film displays a clear-eyed view of what happens to our bodies after death, and does it in a way that shouldn't frighten little kids.) Like most IMAX docs, this one, too, tries to do too much in too little a time - the running length is 45 minutes - and engages in too much chronological leap-frogging. But Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs is never less than interesting, and those mega-screen vistas of Egypt are truly stunning; for what it's meant to do - entertain and educate the kids, and perhaps inspire them to pursue a career in archaeology - the movie does it very, very well.

Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones in No ReservationsNo Reservations (PG-13) - I walked in expecting a typical, formulaic romantic/comedy; I walked out wishing I had seen a typical, formulaic romantic/comedy. Proof positive that a movie doesn't have to be badly done to be anesthetizing, Scott Hicks' love-among-the-doggie-bags saga is treated with such morbidity that the filmmaking feels oppressive even when Catherine Zeta-Jones and a shaggy Aaron Eckhart are acting like they're on Cloud 9. (No Reservations' composer is Philip Glass. Need I say more?) Granted, the film's plot is put in motion by the death of Abigail Breslin's on-screen mom. But it's impossible to have much stake in the characters' suffering when the movie goes out of its way to offer the most predictable situations, the most expository dialogue, and the most contrived plot "complications" imaginable; excepting Zeta-Jones' inconsistent American accent, everything about the performers - including Patricia Clarkson, Bob Balaban, and Brian F. O'Byrne - feels real, and everything about their movie feels phony. The film's official running time is 105 minutes, but to me, it seemed to last several lifetimes.

Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut in The Perfect HolidayThe Perfect Holiday (PG) - It's the type of family-friendly, feel-good seasonal comedy that's routinely described as "a movie that only a Grinch could resist." Of course, I'm a bit of a Grinch, especially when confronted with a Christmas cookie as half-baked and flavorless as this one. Even ignoring the labored and contrived plotting - which jumps through hoops trying to keep Morris Chestnut and Gabrielle Union from reaching their Happily Ever After 10 minutes into the picture - Lance Rivera's offering is a woefully under-imagined piece of work, and the considerable comic talents of Charlie Murphy, Faizon Love, and Katt Williams bubble up all too infrequently. (Poor Murphy; you can practically feel the straight-jacket of the film's PG rating squeezing the life out of him.) Flatly staged and indifferently executed, the only moments of interest in The Perfect Holiday - a film as bland as its title - come from wondering what the hell is going on with Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard, who are stuck performing some bizarre "good cop/bad cop" routine as a feisty angel and her devilish sidekick. The Queen, bless her heart, beams that radiant smile even during her more insufferably sugary moments; Howard, understandably, has never looked more embarrassed.

Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols in P2P2 (R) - Before going off the rails in its final reel or so, Franck Khalfoun's minimally-populated thriller is a punchy and feverishly intense piece of work. Young lawyer Rachel Nichols finds herself terrorized by psycho-stalker Wes Bentley in her office's underground parking garage, and... . Well, there's really no "and" there. But this rudimentary set-up yields a surprising amount of tension and excitement without, I'm happy to report, the unpleasant after-taste that accompanies most "torture porn" offerings. Khalfoun stages the entrapment and near-escapes with extraordinary control, and the script provides a refreshing amount of realism; P2 is the rare scare flick in which you don't spend time bemoaning the characters' stupidity. (Well, not until Bentley's lip-syncing and hip-swiveling to Elvis' "Blue Christmas," you don't.) Though she's occasionally upstaged by her cleavage, Nichols is a terrifically empathetic lead, while Bentley provides an enormous amount of fun, offering a Satanic variation on his romantic voyeur from American Beauty. (His Thomas here is like Ricky Fitts' blue-collar evil twin.) Except for its underwhelming climax, the movie is a nasty good time, and not since Cujo will you be so aching to see a dog get what's coming to him; when Nichols finally enacted revenge on the snarling pooch who'd been making her life hell, it took all my will not to stand and cheer. PETA's dismay is a horror audience's delight.

Dominic Purcell in PrimevalPrimeval (R) - A serial-killing crocodile (!) is on the loose in this cheesy horror movie, and I wasn't much surprised by the film's crummy CGI effects, or by the half-hearted performances, or even by the bizarre attempts to humanize the creature; who needs a rape whistle when there's an enormous reptile around to ward off sexual predators and chomp them in two? But for a movie that pays so much lip service to the plight of abused Afrikaners, the unbelievable racism of Orlando Jones' character is a major shock. Jones screams, "I hate fuckin' Africa!" and makes snide jokes about O.J. Simpson and Queen Latifah and soliloquizes about slavery actually being a good thing, and you can't believe that even the most witless scare flick could be this insensitive - it's Primeval's screenwriters who should be fed to the crocs.

RatatouilleRatatouille (G) - By this point in their history, the wizards at Pixar have set up almost ridiculously high expectations for the studio's computer-animated ventures, so it's understandable that viewers (adult viewers, at any rate) might leave their latest amused but mildly disappointed. To be sure, this staggeringly well-animated movie - concerning the French rat Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who yearns to be a gourmet chef - has its share of miraculous moments; Bird and his team have found a wondrous animated shorthand for the taste of food, and the scene of a bitter, stuffy food critic (Peter O'Toole) being whisked back to childhood is as funny/touching/inspired as anything in the Pixar canon. Ratatouille's spectacular flourishes, though, just make its underwhelming ones all the more dispiriting. Remy's voice-over narration feels lazy, as does Brad Garrett's spiritual chef, who floats around offering wisdom and comfort; he's just a step above The Flintstones' Great Gazoo. And the film sure could've used more vocal personality, as the actors' readings - even those of Janeane Garofalo and Ian Holm - feel unusually lethargic. In the end, it's a beautiful, completely watchable piece of Pixar machinery, but it winds up nearly as soulless as Cars.

Hilary Swank and AnnaSophia Robb in The ReapingThe Reaping (R) - As ludicrous, pseudo-religious, Louisiana-based horror flicks go, this plague-infested creeper isn't bad. Director Stephen Hopkins shows a talent for unsettling imagery - the film's river of blood is especially disturbing - and the movie, graced with fine performances by Hilary Swank and Idris Elba, is almost never dull. Yet with Swank's doubting-Thomas miracle investigator popping in and out of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and screenwriters Carey W. and Chad Hayes working overtime to explain all of the metaphysical malarkey, the fun slowly and irrevocably leaks out of The Reaping - by the time you finally reach the film's dangerously over-stuffed climax, you're less entertained than simply relieved. It's all kind of like The X-Files without Mulder, and fittingly, about half as entertaining as a typical X-Files episode.

Sea Monsters 3-D: A Prehistoric AdventureSea Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure (not rated) - Well, this is strange. A brand-new IMAX documentary opened nationally on October 5, yet instead of opening at the Putnam Museum & IMAX Theatre (which hosted its own debut that day, with Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs), it opened at Davenport's Showcase 53. Counter-programming, or just the chance for kids to get two good field trips in this fall? Sea Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure runs about 40 minutes, is half devoted to informative but typically, blandly executed re-enactments, and half to cool shots of the oceanic dwellers of the title - albeit computer-animated ones - getting really close to the camera. (A scene of one tylosaurus snapping the neck of another provided an unexpected jolt.) It's kind of entertaining, probably great fun for kids, and a perfectly harmless alternative if you're instinctively scared of mummies.

Michael Pena and Mark Wahlberg in ShooterShooter (R) - About halfway through Antoine Fuqua's brutal action-thriller-cum-revenge-flick, our heroic sharpshooter - played, humorlessly, by Mark Wahlberg - tries to glean information from Levon Helm's gun expert, and for a brief moment, the movie roars to life. Yet, ironically, it does so by not roaring; with the self-amused Helm revealing how the buried the bodies of the actual JFK assassins ("I still have the shovel!") and grinning at Wahlberg's dour naíveté, the veteran actor/musician, with sublime wit, tucks the movie in his pocket and walks off with it. Granted, that probably wasn't the hardest job in the world, considering that the needlessly complex yet oddly repetitive narrative fails to engross, and the action scenes - though often dynamically filmed - don't have a lot of surprise; in the course of the film, Wahlberg doesn't miss a target (by which I mean someone's head) even once. Shooter is a grimly efficient yet primitive movie, and politically, a very strange one - it feels like Rambo as made by a really pissed-off Democrat.

Claire Danes and Charlie Cox in StardustStardust (PG-13) - Matthew Vaughn's fantastical fairy tale, adapted from Neil Gaiman's series of graphic novels, is a little shapeless, and over-stuffed, and the effects aren't as magical as you might hope they'd be. That being said, Stardust is fantastic - perhaps the weirdest and funniest work of its type since The Princess Bride. With its ceaseless parade of comic inspirations and willingness to try just about anything, the movie reveals a spirit that's almost vaudevillian (there isn't a dull scene in its 125 minutes), and the initially hodgepodge plotting develops surprising momentum; by the end, you might be embarrassed at just how moved you are by this unashamedly freewheeling trifle. And with the exception of a too-petulant Claire Danes - resembling Gwyneth so uncannily that you can't help wishing Paltrow had played the role instead - the cast is a dream. In the lead, a thoroughly charming Charlie Cox provides relaxed good humor; there are winning bits by Peter O'Toole (marvelously decadent) and Ricky Gervais (hysterical, and blessedly allowed to reprise his "Is he havin' a laugh?!" shtick from Extras); Michelle Pfeiffer, radiant even in withering-crone drag, is hilarious and sexy, often at the same time; and in what might be the single strangest movie cameo of the millennium, Robert De Niro... well, let's just say that he's obviously having a gay old time. At Stardust, I can't imagine who couldn't be.

SunshineSunshine (R) - Sunshine is one of those movies where, when you finally see it on DVD, you'll be wishing you had seen it on the big screen first; Danny Boyle's sci-fi think-fest has already left a theatre near you, but deserves to be seen in any format you can find it. The film borrows liberally from other works in its genre - notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien - but has the good sense to ironically comment on them simultaneously, and it's filled with thrillingly creepy moments. ("There are four life forms left on this ship," says the spacecraft's current leader to the ship's HAL-like computer. "No, sir," it responds. "There are five.") Filled with scarily beautiful imagery and effects, numerous surprises, and a top-tier cast led by the ever crazy/beautiful Cillian Murphy, Boyle's latest genre tinkering is a bit on the pokey side, but infinitely rewarding if you can stay alert for it, and you likely will.

TMNTTMNT (PG) - Zippy and amusing and, at 85 minutes, just the right length for the material. Though it takes quite some time for TMNT to get going - the opening narration, especially, is needlessly protracted - and it's filled with too many squishy Life Lessons, the impressive CGI action and goofy throwaway gags enable an adult to sit through a Ninja Turtle movie without feeling like an ass. (My favorite bit: A captured criminal dangling from a street light, with an onlooker below asking, "Is it performance art?") With the voices of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kevin Smith, and Patrick Stewart, whose character looks less like Captain Picard than Gaston from Beauty & the Beast.

Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson in VacancyVacancy (R) - All things considered, the only element of this horror trifle that's really crummy is the script. Granted, that's not exactly a minor issue. But in nearly every other way, this scare flick by director Nimrod Antal is a sharp, nasty good time. As the squabbling marrieds who find themselves trapped in a motel-slash-snuff-film-studio, Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale give terrifically empathetic performances - what a refreshing change of pace to see adults running from deranged killers! - and Antal paces Vacancy's jolts supremely well, escalates the tension with grungy stylishness, and, God bless him, gets the whole thing to clock in at 80 minutes. Although Mark L. Smith's screenplay finds his characters behaving with almost criminal stupidity, it's a strong, nervy work, and plays like a gruesome episode of The Twilight Zone.

Kerri Russell and Nathan Fillion in WaitressWaitress (PG-13) - Adrienne Shelly's bright, perky Americana comedy - starring Keri Russell as Jenna, a dedicated server and pastry chef in a small-town diner - oftentimes feels like it would make for a perfectly pleasant sit-com. Oh, wait. It already was one, when the Linda Lavin vehicle Alice premiered in 1976. (Jenna even associates with flaky doppelgangers of Flo and Vera, played by Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself.) But while Waitress' characters, and many of its plot strands, would fit all-too neatly in a 22-minutes-plus-commercials format, the movie displays a happily loopy eccentricity, and it has charm to spare. Russell develops a touching rapport with Nathan Fillion, as the flummoxed OB-GYN with whom Jenna begins an affair, and the lead's ongoing "conversation" with the unwanted baby she's carrying is poignant - and funny - without pressing its winsomeness. (A bonus perk: The pies we routinely see Jenna creating look obscenely delicious.) Jeremy Sisto, who plays Jenna's abusive, control-freak husband, is almost too good at his role, as his presence brings no pleasure to either his wife or the audience, but nearly everything else about the writer/director's feature (Shelly's last before her untimely death last November) is a sweet treat indeed.

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