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Thursday, April 27, 2006 05:51 am

Can you spell i-l-l-o-g-i-c-a-l?

Akeelah and the Bee
If the title Akeelah and the Bee conjures up images of a fairy tale or fable, you aren’t far off mark, but this bee doesn’t fly. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an intelligent 11-year-old who struggles through life in South Los Angeles. Her world is idealized, and her greatest peril is a cliché-ridden screenplay. Akeelah’s one claim to fame is her uncanny ability to spell. Encouraged by her teacher and principal, she enters the school spelling bee and wins an easy victory. She is challenged on the spot by Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a stern English professor, but this dramatic moment is undercut by a badly staged humiliation. Larabee agrees to become her coach to prepare her for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, in Washington, D.C. Akeelah’s journey is fraught with contrived conflicts, some of which defy the laws of logic. Her terminally cranky mother (Angela Bassett) doesn’t want Akeelah to participate in the spelling bee for fear that it will interfere with her schoolwork. Isn’t English a part of the school curriculum, and wouldn’t excelling in its study be a boost to her education? Lest we forget, we are occasionally reminded of Akeelah’s crime-ridden environment by the sound of helicopters in the night sky. Akeelah’s troubled brother is supposedly heading down the wrong path, but his worst crime is dressing very badly. When one of his gangsta thug buddies shows up, the conversation turns to poetry. Are they serious? The mentoring begins with the obligatory shaky start, but soon Akeelah and the professor are perfectly in tune. The training features not one, not two, but three separate musical interludes. Just one would have qualified as a cliché; three may be something of an innovation. Larabee also harbors some deep, dark family secret that leads to a split. Its eventual revelation proves predictable and unessential. Akeelah sails through every local and regional competition leading up to the main event. Director/writer Doug Atchison reserves his grandest misfire for the climax by substituting inspirational histrionics for logic and reality. He even changes factual details by expanding the broadcast by ESPN to cover the entire event rather than just the final showdown beginning with Round 5. Atchison squanders the potential drama of the contestants striving to hold out long enough to appear on TV. He would rather resort to more cheerleading scenes of the folks back home. Watch the suspenseful, and far superior, documentary Spellbound for contrast. The one saving grace is Palmer, who carries the weight of the entire movie on her young relatively inexperienced shoulders. What she lacks in raw skills, she more than makes up for it in charm and charisma. Even a bad movie can feature a starmaking performance. Bassett and Fishburne turn in their usual good performances, but it is Palmer’s show all the way. I honestly appreciate any attempt to champion intellect over brawn, and for this reason I would give Akeelah a mild recommendation for families. The great irony is movies about intelligence are rarely written with intelligence. This reviewer was aided by spell-check.

Also in theaters this week. . .

American Dreamz [PG-13] A feisty Midwestern girl and a show-tune-singing Orange County guy face each other in a talent show championship. When the president of the United States wants in on the action, things get ugly. ShowPlace East
Friends with Money [R] A slice of life film about four friends. One is poor and single, the other three try and come to her rescue. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. ShowPlace West
Ice Age: The Meltdown [PG] The Ice Age is officially over and Diego, Manny and Sid must alert the others before the ice melts and the valley is destroyed. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East, Route 66 Drive-In
Inside Man [R] Hostage negotiator Keith Frazier finds himself in a match of wits with a bank robber, but quickly realizes the heist isn’t exactly what it seems to be. Directed by Spike Lee. ShowPlace West
Lucky Number Slevin [R] Slevin gets caught in Mafia crossfire when two dangerous crime bosses, the Boss and the Rabbi, mistake his identity. Lucky he is not. White Oaks
R.V. [PG] The Munro family try their luck at an old-fashioned family camping trip to the Rockies, but a group of cracked campers beat them to the punch. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
The Sentinel [PG-13] Special Agent Pete Garrison is determined to nail a traitor before the president of the United States gets hit. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Silent Hill [R] On a road trip to help save her ailing daughter, Rose Da Silva stops in Silent Hill, a desolate town with an evil presence. Rose’s daughter goes missing, but in Silent Hill things aren’t always as they seem. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Stick It [PG-13] Rebellious Haley leaves her life of trouble after a clash with the police to return to a prim and polished existence as a top gymnast with the celebrated coach, Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges). ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Take the Lead [PG-13] Ballroom dancer Pierre Dulane takes on a bunch of New York City school kids, and when the footwork of ballroom and hip-hop collide, a new style is born. ShowPlace West
United 93 [R] The story of the men and women on the fourth hijacked plane, United 93, that didn’t reach its target on 9/11. ShowPlace West
The Wild [G] A young lion departs from New York Zoo for the vast lands of Africa leaving behind a few friends who are determined to get him back. ShowPlace West
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