Hilary Swank and Richard Gere in AmeliaAMELIA

As barrier-breaking aviatrix Amelia Earhart in director Mira Nair's Amelia, Hilary Swank is stylized yet approachable - exactly the kind of down-to-earth, pre-feminist spitfire that a squarely reverential bio-pic calls for. Her Katharine Hepburn cadences take some getting used to, but Swank charges through her scenes with natural authority and winning gumption, and when she smiles, the whole of Earhart's glorious aerial experiences seems to shine through her toothy grin. It's a lovely, sincere Earhart impression, and might've really been something if the actress wasn't being continually undermined by the direction, the script, the score, and most of her co-stars.

Stodgy, rhythm-less, and worshipful to a fault, Amelia gives you a Greatest Hits account of the famed pilot's life and mysterious disappearance, but none of the personality or excitement that would explain why a movie was being made about her; Nair's film is like a long, protracted episode of A&E's Biography without the drive, the sense of discovery, or the honesty. (It's the sort of movie in which every nuance, such as Earhart's refusal to utter the word "obey" in her wedding vows, feels phony, even if it's true.) While Gabriel Yared's soundtrack works - and works, and works - at building emotion where none exists on-screen, the actors are forced into a series of stiffly directed period tableaux, and talents such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Anderson are left dangling. (Poor, pokey Richard Gere, as Earhart's husband/manager George Putnam, fares even worse, with his unidentifiable accent - when he remembers to use one - falling somewhere between upper-class British and a Pepperidge Farm commercial.)

Cherry Jones, thankfully, delivers a burst of spontaneity as Eleanor Roosevelt, and the film at least offers hints of a darker, more complex side, with nods to George's threats against a young rival pilot and Earhart's affair with McGregor's Gene Vidal. (In a moment to make everyone's grandmother gasp, he and Swank share a passionate, adulterous kiss in an elevator.) But Amelia remains dishearteningly formulaic and desperately under-imagined, and the only actual fun I had came from chuckling at its frequently stultifying dialogue. "Flying," opines Swank's Earhart in voice-over, "lets me move in three dimensions." Uh ... don't we always do that?


Peter Outerbridge in Saw VISAW VI

In what will come as a surprise to absolutely none of you, Saw VI opens pretty much the same way that all of Saw's follow-ups have opened. A woman awakens in a dark, dank cell, not knowing where she is, or who her similarly perplexed cellmate is, or why they're shackled to contraptions that are clearly booby-trapped. She screams, the camera spins, and a nearby television set is turned on, revealing a puppet who speaks in ominous, electronically enhanced tones, and explains that the devices on the prisoners' heads are symbolic of their selfishness and spite and yadda yadda yadda. Yet before I could doze off during this latest uninspired prelude to this ceaselessly dull horror franchise, I caught a detail that perked me up, as both of the suffering, shrieking captives turn out to be ... health-insurance agents! Finally!, I thought. Saw slayings that we can all get behind!

Sadly yet predictably, nothing that happens in director Kevin Greutert's series-extender is as satisfying as its choice of victims. I've seen worse Saw flicks, but none that were quite so confusing - as the sequels multiply, so does the number of incoherent flashbacks to previous installments - or quite so senseless. (How is Tobin Bell's Jigsaw, who perished in Saw III, getting more screen time now than he did when he was alive?) With its gory viscera and ticking red clocks, Saw VI is typically grim and hackneyed, and the killer's initially intriguing methodology becomes more arbitrary as the film progresses. From what I could gather, one character is tortured and executed here for the crime of being a smoker, which just seems pointlessly cruel. It's not like we're not dying already.


Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx in Law-Abiding CitizenLAW-ABIDING CITIZEN

In the first of many assassinations perpetrated by Gerard Butler in Law-Abiding Citizen, a vicious killer is found strapped to a gurney, rendered immobile by a poison that Butler tells him was "isolated from the liver of a Bolivian puffer fish." The way I see it, audiences can respond to this in one of two ways. We can either mutter, "Oh, it's one of those movies," roll our eyes, and bemoan the reels of mind-numbing ridiculousness to come, or we can mutter, "Oh, it's one of those movies," snap to attention, and giggle with eager anticipation at the reels of mind-numbing ridiculousness to come.

For those of you in the latter camp, director F. Gary Gray's revenge thriller might well be bliss, as Butler's good-man-gone-psycho and Jamie Foxx's ethically challenged lawyer square off in a series of cat-and-mouse games that find Butler committing increasingly illogical murders from the confines of his prison cell. (In one scene, executions are carried out with the aid of a weaponized bomb-disposal robot. Seriously.) But for those of us in the former camp, Law-Abiding Citizen might prove just too silly, and too derivative, to be tolerated. Somehow, Butler's ludicrous slayings are even less believable after we're privy to how they're accomplished, and in between the unpleasant blasts of über-violence, we're stuck with scene upon scene of laughable tough-guy talk, witless nods to better films - Butler is frequently imprisoned in one of those maximum-security birdcages familiar from The Silence of the Lambs - and the criminal waste of a powerful supporting cast. (Gray's film features the great Bruce McGill, Colm Meany, Gregory Itzin, Regina Hall, Leslie Bibb, Annie Corley, and Viola Davis, several of whom wind up as shrapnel.) With Foxx slumming and Butler doing that tiresomely self-aware Gerard Butler thing, I found Law-Abiding Citizen to be a terrible slog, and a bizarrely saccharine one to boot, as its central mystery proves to be just slightly less important than the question of whether Foxx's attorney will ever make it to one of his daughter's cello recitals. Yeah, it's one of those movies, too.


Chris Rock in Good HairGOOD HAIR

Whatever else it is or isn't, director Jeff Stilson's Good Hair has to be the happiest investigative documentary ever made. With narration and interviews conducted by Chris Rock, the film takes a roots-and-all look at the African-American hair-care industry, and if this seems like a slight premise for a 90-minute feature, it is. In its intensely specific way, though, the movie is probing, illuminating, and joyous, with fascinating insight on the economic exploitation behind African-American hair culture, and a cadre of celebrities giddily dishing on the upkeep of their 'dos. (Among the participants are Eve, Raven-Symone, Maya Angelou, Ice-T, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Salt-N-Pepa's Vanessa Bell Calloway and Sandra Denton, the latter of whom reveal they've spent upwards of $150,000 on hair weaves.) There are a few weak comic detours and an unnecessary framing device involving the Bonner Brothers Hair Competition, but Good Hair is still fresh, funny, and thoughtful, and offers an especially detailed exploration of hair relaxer, known in some circles as "creamy crack." This smooth, engaging movie is like creamy crack, too; less than an hour after seeing it, I was jonesing to see it again.

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