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On the Screen

****: Inspired brilliance

***: Solid filmmaking

**: Mild entertainment

*: Embarrassing dreck

*** American Dreamz

This is one of the few comedies in recent years that doesn’t give away its funniest moments in the previews. What makes this film so enjoyable is the amazing cast, which includes Dennis Quaid, Hugh Grant, Willem Dafoe, and Mandy Moore. It would be incomplete, though, without the plethora of minor characters and impressive unknowns, like Sam Golzari and Tony Yalda. “American Dreamz” is delightfully satirical; the writers didn’t hold back. Pretty much everyone and everything is a target: Bush and his administration, Britney Spears, Ryan Seacrest, the entertainment industry, the army, immigrants, terrorists, and gay stereotypes. (Alice Macdonald)

** Ice Age: The Meltdown

This sequel begins where “Ice Age,” the first film, left off; the animals have found a warmer paradise and discovered that the ice age is coming to an end. More appealing to a younger audience, “Meltdown” has a straightforward plot — and unlike recent animated features that dabble in pop culture — doesn’t require viewers to be hip to get a good laugh. Despite the second-class graphics and predictable story, the movie is filled with creative humor, and it accomplishes one goal with ease: entertainment. (Hendrata Dharmawan)

***Inside Man

Think of “Inside Man” as a Da Vinci Code-esque film, with a huge mystery hidden behind small clues revealed every so often. The film draws us in right from the get-go, and it doesn’t release us until the final secret is unveiled. Clive Owen excels as a calm and collected bank robber; he gives the impression that his character is conducting a well-rehearsed orchestra instead of pulling off a heist. Jodie Foster’s character, on the other hand, is superfluous, and Denzel Washington is also disappointing. The plot and the idea behind the movie, though, are addictive — this may be not only the perfect robbery, but the perfect thriller as well. (Yong-yi Zhu)

MKeeping Up with the Steins

“Mazel tov” would not be an appropriate way to toast this bar mitzvah film; “oy vey” would be much more appropriate. This is a comedy with only a few funny jokes and many unnatural scenes. Jeremy Piven and Jami Gertz may be the only two positives, but even Gertz appear unrealistic at times. This movie may be good for only one thing: reminding studios that they are capable of creating a completely awful film. (Yong-yi Zhu)

*** Lucky Number Slevin

A boss, a rabbi, a man in a purple-flowered towel, a cop, a perky neighbor, an assassin, and a missing friend: sounds like a recipe for total disaster. Somehow, though, this group of misfits comes together in one of the most brilliant films of the year. Director Paul McGuigan pieces together the stories of all these characters to make a disorienting dark comedy about a man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — all the time. In a strong male cast, Lucy Liu steals the show, and the superb acting is crucial; it makes this film come out just right. (Yong-yi Zhu)

** The Notorious Bettie Page

Gretchen Mol plays Bettie Page, one of the most famous pinup models of the 1950s, who transformed from an innocent Tennessee girl into the queen of bondage. In addition to presenting her blossoming career, the movie shows the trials and tribulations Bettie endured as a woman with so much sex appeal. The acting is relatively weak, and some of the scenes come out of nowhere without adding anything to the movie, but the makeup and cinematography do a convincing and authentic job of identifying the decade. (Yong-yi Zhu)

*** Thank You for Smoking

This film is absolutely brilliant in making everything wrong seem right, everything disturbing seem funny, and everything pointless seem meaningful. Not until the end of the film did I realize that there was no plot — just one laugh-out-loud scene after another in the life of evil tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). The list of talented performances is endless; from the amazingly creative opening credits to the last words, every part is selected with such care that the resulting creation is a contemporary work of art. (Yong-yi Zhu)

*** Water

“Water” is the latest installment in Deepa Mehta’s critically acclaimed elements series, and it is no ordinary film. It explores the politics and morality of religion, and tells the story of three widows and how the Indian Independence movement affects their lives irrevocably — making them question the set of beliefs on which their existence rests. The movie was breathtaking; though films themselves can’t change the world, Mehta hopes to begin the dialogue that will lead to that change. (Parama Pal)

Compiled by Nivair H. Gabriel