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Capsule reviews of films by CL critics

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FRIDA (R) Tony Award winning director Julie Taymor brings a slightly off-kilter sensibility to this strong bio-picture of the tempestuous life and times of Mexican painter and feminist icon Frida Kahlo. Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina as the love of her life, Diego Rivera, are convincing and human as the terminally at-odds husband and wife whose fascinating involvement with the art and radical politics of the '30s and '40s makes them long overdue for such a film treatment. . At United Artists Tara Cinemas. --FF

FRIDAY AFTER NEXT (R) The Ice Cube series of comedies becomes a trilogy, with Mike Epps and John Witherspoon returning for this Christmas-themed installment.

HALF PAST DEAD (PG-13) It's a steel cage rasslin' match when a high-tech band of thieves break into a maximum security prison and butt heads with death row inmates lead by Steven Seagall.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (PG) Schoolboy sorcerer Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals try to solve a series of mysterious attacks at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The first film found narrative momentum in Harry discovering his place in the newfound magical realm, but the sequel plays like an overlong Hardy Boys story set in Disneyworld's Haunted Mansion. Exciting scenes involve monstrous spiders and snakes, and Kenneth Branagh conjures huge laughs as a fatuous professor, but they can't make up for the slack storyline and surplus characters. Call it Harry Potter and the Chamber of Exposition. --CH

THE HOT CHICK (PG-13) A high school hottie (Anna Faris) wakes up to find herself trapped in the body of a 30 year-old man (Rob Schneider). If you've always wanted to see Schneider prancing like a schoolgirl, this is the film for you.

I SPY (PG-13) Mindless entertainment, with the emphasis on mindless -- unless you happen to find particularly entertaining the idea of yet another buddy/action comedy in which mismatched partners must overcome cultural differences (and death- defying stunt sequences) to save the world. This in-name-only "remake" of the '60s secret-agent series features a disarmingly agreeable turn by Owen Wilson as the flustered straight man, but Eddie Murphy really ought give his obnoxious smart-ass routine a rest. --Bert Osborne

IMAX Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (NR) Jeff Bridges narrates this sweeping documentary that traces the famed explorers' 8,000-mile trek across America. Through March 14. Australia: Land Beyond Time (NR) Check out the kangaroos, koalas and other denizens of Down Under in this travelogue of the world's biggest island. Through Dec. 13. Fernbank Museum of Natural History IMAX Theater, 767 Clifton Road. www.fernbank.edu.

JONAH: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE (G) Who says Hollywood has no new ideas? Here we have an animated, musical interpretation of the Bible story, with Jonah portrayed by a talking asparagus -- no doubt to be swallowed by a vegetarian whale. It's the first feature film from a popular Christian video series for kids.

MAID IN MANHATTAN (PG-13) A maid (Jennifer Lopez) at a swank hotel pretends to be a wealthy guest to win the heart of a bachelor politician (Ralph Fiennes). Indie filmmaker Wayne Wang directs this romantic comedy, which looks like Pretty Woman without the whoring.

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (PG) While not as accomplished as Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, this is nevertheless a gratifying romantic comedy that gently tweaks stereotypes even as its characters wallow in them. Adapted by Nia Vardalos from her own one-woman show, the film centers on the plight of a 30-year-old lonelyheart (Vardalos) who risks the wrath of her family when she falls for a non-Greek (John Corbett). --MB

MY FIRST MISTER (R). One of those heartfelt efforts that means well but plays lamely, Christine Lahti's directorial debut feature stars Leelee Sobieski as a sullen teen who takes a job at a mall clothing store under a friendless 49-year-old man (Albert Brooks). The film comes alive when it explores their tense, tender and platonic relationship, but cops out with a revelation worthy of a soap opera. --MB

PERSONAL VELOCITY (R) Though writer/ director (and daughter of Arthur) Rebecca Miller's film about three different women's lives -- in a nutshell, an abused wife, a preppy and a punk rocker -- can bear traces of the overly precious, purposeful ambiguity of the modern short story, it also benefits from the craftsmanship and subtleties more often seen in contemporary prose than in most movies. It is hard to think of a recent film with such challenging female characters engaged in such psychologically murky situations. At Lefont Garden Hills Cinema. --FF

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