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'Woman on Top' is quirky but not original

THE BALTIMORE SUN

'Woman on Top'

Rated R (Sex and language)

Sun score: **

The irresistible Penelope Cruz ("All About My Mother") stars in "Woman on Top," a movie that might be best described as "Like Water for Chocolate" set to a samba beat.

Cruz plays a Brazilian chef who flees to her best friend in San Francisco after catching her husband in bed with another woman. She ends up becoming the star of her own cooking show and discovering her own autonomy.

Director Fina Torres loads the movie with quirky idiosyncrasies: Cruz' character is prone to motion sickness; her patron is a Brazilian saint of the sea; and her best friend is a transsexual extrovert named Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.).

Aside from its colorful details and Cruz's voluptuous beauty, there's not much in "Woman on Top" that we haven't seen in countless other "quirky" romantic comedies. It's lovely to look at and listen to but doesn't reward any closer study.- Ann Hornaday

'The Opportunists'

Rated R (Language)

Sun score: ***

"The Opportunists" is about a man who isn't one, a born loser who's only gotten better at it over the years.

In this engrossingly low-key debut effort from writer-director Myles Connell, Victor Kelly is a stubborn man whose biggest sin is pride - especially since there's little for him to be proud of. The only thing he's good at is safecracking, and all that got him was several years in the state pen.

This doesn't exactly make Victor (played with wary grace by Christopher Walken) the stuff of Greek tragedy, but it does make him a pitiable figure, with a streak of stubborn nobility that makes his fall from favor all the more irreversible, as he repeatedly turns down offers of help from his bar-owner girlfriend (an effectively exasperated Cyndi Lauper).

But unlike most of history's tragic heroes, Victor Kelly doesn't waste time bemoaning his fate or searching vainly for answers that aren't there. His adult life has been devoted to coping, with the tacit understanding that things will work out - or not - regardless of what he does.

Connell makes a lot of smart choices; his film eschews the predictable, and most of his characters seem engagingly genuine. And Walken, who must have been a pressure cooker in a past life, is perfectly cast. Playing a perpetual victim like Victor might be easy, but making audiences want to watch him for 97 minutes isn't.- Chris Kaltenbach

'Alice and Martin'

Rated R (Sex and language)

Sun score: **

"Alice and Martin" stars Juliette Binoche as a violinist living in Paris who becomes attracted to her best friend's brother, a tortured soul played moodily by Alexis Loret. Vexed by a mysterious past encounter with his father, Martin has come to Paris to escape but is discovered by an agent and launched on a lucrative career as a male model. After some initial sparring, Alice falls for the spikily remote Martin, gets him to reveal his psychologically damaging secret and allows him to live and love.

It's that last line that should warn viewers about "Alice and Martin," which pumps up an essentially simple principle about honesty and forgiveness and treats it like a grand discovery about the human condition.

Director Andre Techine somehow manages to make a movie that is both disconcertingly truncated - he edits so leanly that the continuity sometimes seems to be off - and interminable. It's one of those movies whose appeal depends on the viewer's tolerance for watching French people suffer, smoke and sigh prettily. If that's your idea of fun, by all means allez-vous.- Ann Hornaday

'Urban Legends: Final Cut'

Rating R (Language, sexuality, violence)

Sun score: 1/2

"Urban Legends: Final Cut" is awful, a pile of junk, a brazen piece of it-would-be-flattering-to-call-it-amateur filmmaking that has the gall to invoke Hitchcock, Truffaut, Antonioni, even "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," in service of a "horror" film about as scary as a paper towel. It's not even a real sequel, having precious little connection to the 1998 film "Urban Legends."

Here's what you need to know: "Final Cut" is set at what is billed as the World's Greatest Film School, where the apparent goal is to turn out graduates capable of directing the next 100 "Friday the 13th" sequels. It stars a bunch of young actors you've never heard of - the big name belongs to Joseph Lawrence, who as Joey Lawrence appeared on TV's "Blossom." It has a chase through an underground sewer featuring strobe lights (how chic!).

And its story - something about a bunch of film students turning up dead, and the sweet young thing determined to get to the bottom of it - would earn a D- at even the World's Worst Film School. Don't be conned by the ending, which seems to have been tacked on in one last effort to make audiences believe what they've just endured is hip, ironic and just way-cool. "Urban Legends: Final Cut" is just plain bad.- Chris Kaltenbach

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