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The End Is Near! 

The last movies of the century

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THIS WEEK'S HOLIDAY-MOVIE BLOWOUT MAY NOT LIVE UP TO THE PROMISE of what has turned out to be an unexpectedly good year for American film, but even when these movies don't soar, they often engage, provoke, even infuriate, which, after all, has to be better than parking your brain with Bicentennial Man for two hours. Even if we can't persuade you to sample this week's offerings, it's worth remembering that some of the strongest movies of the year, from Being John Malkovich to The Insider, from Rosetta to All About My Mother, are still beckoning you to the theater. And if that doesn't get your merry ass out of the house, stay in -- Election just came out on video. --MANOHLA DARGIS

ANGELA'S ASHES

Ah, but 'tis picturesque to be dirt poor. 'Tisn't, actually, at least not according to Frank McCourt's tough, lively, best-selling memoir of his grim Irish childhood in the 1930s and '40s. Alan Parker's adaptation hardly stints on the squalor, but Angela's Ashes, gorgeously shot by Michael Seresin, bathes the McCourt family's poverty in a blue-green glow, bestowing a spurious poetic realism on the decrepit hovels of prewar Limerick, Ireland: their outside privies steaming with typhoid-friendly filth, the inadequate food, the stench of despair that threatens to engulf the efforts of young Frank and his family to survive, and the crippling passivity produced by Catholic obedience. More egregious yet, Parker and his co-screenwriter, Laura Jones, have gone to great pains to evacuate the acid wit and feel for the ridiculous that makes the book such an engaging read. The real-life McCourt's homely mug is surely a crucial element in his wry world view: Parker has spiffed Frank up with three bonny-faced young actors, none of whom looks as though he's ever lacked for a crust. Together with the able but dramatically stymied Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle as Frank's parents, the lads soldier stoically through 140 minutes of flat vignette, as dreary and uninvolving as the driving rain that never lets up on the benighted streets of Limerick.

--Ella Taylor

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY

Crashingly loud, hilariously vulgar, hugely, crudely enjoyable -- Any Given Sunday is an Oliver Stone movie with a vengeance. This ostensible story of a pro-football team in a downward spiral is a movie-business metaphor gone amok, with Al Pacino as a boozing pussy-hound coach being reamed by the bottom-line Young Turk in the front office. That the Young Turk is played by Cameron Diaz, riffing on her wet-dream role as the jock goddess from There's Something About Mary, is just the first clue to the film's conflicted -- to put it mildly -- attitude toward women. That Diaz is again given the opportunity to prove herself a fine actress, and one hell of a good sport, is another. It's tough, after all, to think of another American starlet who could, without so much as blinking a lash, walk into a room of naked men and shake hands with a guy flourishing a cock the size of her forearm.

But the actor isn't just playing macho; she's turning in a performance, as is everyone else in the film, including Lawrence Taylor and (together at last!) scene-stealer Ann-Margret. Diaz registers so strongly despite the shrapnel-like edits, booming music and frenzied camerawork because Stone, too often known for conspiracies rather than craft, remains very much of the old Hollywood school. But that's the point, stupid -- and it's made over and over with self-consciously excessive style and no small amount of wit. The final irony -- and it's a toss-up whether it's intentional -- is that even as Stone and co-writer John Logan yearn for the purity of the game (Vince Lombardi is invoked repeatedly as a gridiron Christ), the director has created a slick, newer-than-new, faster-than-fast entertainment to end all entertainments. It's fundamental that pro football is the bread and circuses of the modern age; it's nice to think Stone understands that so, too, is the industry he works in.

--M. D.

GALAXY QUEST

At a mercifully swift 102 minutes, this affable sci-fi comedy's mission, so to speak, involves pretensions to nothing beyond blithe pop entertainment and a healthy dose of geek love. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are the stars of Galaxy Quest, a Star Trek­like series long since canceled. Along with supporting cast members Daryl Mitchell and Tony Shalhoub, the demi-celebrities have been reduced to assuming their derelict roles on the convention circuit, grudgingly donning their costumes and signing autographs for their obsessive-nerd fans. They've become a bitter and fractious group, but when a clan of authentic, adoring aliens -- who, under the impression that transmissions of the series are "historical documents," have re-created the show's spaceship down to the last detail -- persuade the faux crew to join in their battle against a genocidal warlord, a sort of real-life Galaxy Quest episode ensues. Dean Parisot's direction of the funny, affectionately satirical script by David Howard and Robert Gordon is crisp and assured; but their combined efforts would be for nothing without the expertly modulated talents of the film's players, particularly Shalhoub and Rickman, who are weird and wildly comical as, respectively, the deadpan-schmo tech officer and a degraded thespian forced to play a swirly-headed alien sage named Dr. Lazarus.

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