Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Notes on a ScandalNOTES ON A SCANDAL

In Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench appears to be having an amazingly fine time playing an evil harridan. Why does the movie itself have to be such a dud? In the film, Dench portrays prickly history teacher Barbara Covett, who becomes pathologically obsessed with Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a younger colleague in the art department. (As Barbara's last name suggests, Eyre's film, based on the novel by Zoë Heller, won't be much concerned with subtlety.) When Barbara discovers that the married Sheba has been carrying on with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), she uses the knowledge to surreptitiously gain Sheba's trust, in the hopes of turning their friendship into something more, shall we say, Sapphic. Subsequently, threats are made, careers are jeopardized, relationships are destroyed ... and why oh why isn't the movie more fun?

Letters from Iwo JimaFor devoted movie hounds, and those who enjoy getting caught up with potential Academy Award nominees, this past weekend was an embarrassment of riches, as Davenport's Showcase 53 presented the local debuts of Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Of course, the wide(r) release of these three films makes good business sense - what better time for such specialized works to attract audiences if not the weekend after the Golden Globes and before the announcement of 2006 Oscar nominees? (Showcase 53 and Moline's Great Escape Theatre also, wisely, brought The Queen back to area screens - seriously, folks, it's so much fun! - and Great Escape re-opened Babel.)

Columbus Short in Stomp the YardSTOMP THE YARD

Before seeing Stomp the Yard, in which a young hip-hop dancer from Los Angeles adjusts to fraternity life at Atlanta's Truth University, I didn't know much about step dancing. But after watching director Sylvain White's inspirational drama, I discovered that there are apparently two distinct types - there's great step dancing and then there's really great step dancing. Though the movie is ostensibly a coming-of-age story wherein our hero, DJ (Columbus Short), finds respect and love during his first year of school, it's really just 8 Mile or Bring It On for the dance world, as warring frats compete to see whose moves out-step whose. (Step dancing - frequently practiced at African-American universities - is a combination of marching and precise choreography, generally accompanied by chants and, in this movie's case, taunts.) Yet it's pretty easy to guess which groups of dancers will be considered the greatest in Stomp the Yard - it's whichever dancers go next.

Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in The InterpreterTHE INTERPRETER

Why do Sydney Pollack's movies so rarely have the snap and directness of his acting? Pollack doesn't appear onscreen nearly enough, and when he does, it's usually only for a scene or two. (His intellectual lout in Husbands & Wives was a rare, marvelous exception.) But these extended cameos - in Tootsie (which he also directed), Death Becomes Her, and Changing Lanes, especially - show Pollack the Actor to be a quick-witted utility player with focus and drive; without the slightest apparent effort, he can steal scenes from Dustin Hoffman or Tom Cruise, and any movie he's in gains in intensity and sharpness when he's around. Pollack the Director is another matter entirely. In the years since 1982's Tootsie, he has churned out one logy, shapeless, middlebrow time-waster after another: Havana, The Firm, Sabrina, Random Hearts ... they all wear their "prestige" on their sleeves, mistake inertia for depth, and are painfully overlong. (It's the Out of Africa Syndrome.)

Penelope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey in SaharaSAHARA

I was probably predisposed to dislike Saraha because of my natural aversion to Sand Movies - seeing that much beige and ochre onscreen generally puts me to sleep within five minutes - but the problems with this action-adventure don't stop with its lack of a distinctive color palette; nearly everything about the movie is beige.

Gaspard Ulliel in A Very Long EngagementA VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT

Its love scenes are like Titanic meets The English Patient, its battle scenes suggest what might happen if the Coen brothers remade Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and yet A Very Long Engagement is enormously enjoyable; this mad amalgam of genres and styles seems almost tailor-made for the talents of its director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Will Smith and Kevin James in HitchHITCH

As Hollywood romantic comedies go, the Will Smith vehicle Hitch isn't bad, which, unfortunately, isn't the same as actually being good. But judging by the film's sensational box-office intake - not to mention the enthusiastic audience response at the screening I attended (people actually applauded throughout) - no one seems much bothered by the movie's mediocrity; many viewers prefer a romantic comedy that doesn't challenge or excite them in the least to films such as Before Sunset and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sideways, works that understand and explore the nature of romance in ways that feel revelatory.

House of Flying DaggersHOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

Like many of us, one of my favorite movie memories will forever remain the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white world to reveal the dazzling hues of Munchkinland; the impression that left on me as a child - the colors seemed more vibrant than any you'd encounter in real life - was so profound that, seeing the movie again as an adult, the scene still gets me a little misty-eyed.

Jet Li in HeroHERO

Does any moviegoer really care what Zhang Yimou's Chinese martial-arts epic Hero is actually about? You get to see adversaries battling one another while running on water! You get to see a woman warding off a bow-and-arrow onslaught using only her dressing gown! You get to see a guy splitting raindrops in half with a sword, for Pete's sake!

Chulpan Khamatova and Daniel Bruhl in Good-bye, Lenin!GOOD BYE, LENIN!

Around this time last year, while local audiences were flocking to Pirates of the Caribbean and Bad Boys II, the Brew & View presented the area debut of 2003's finest film to that point - the extraordinary Capturing the Friedmans - and, amazingly, the Rock Island venue has done it again this summer.

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