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Alpha Dog, Borat, Casino Royale

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Stranger Than Fiction, a fanciful confection about a nebbish who finds out he's a character in a novelist's unhappy ending, may not add up to much more than the standard studio-made exhortation to live your life, not your fears or fantasies. But the movie, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) from a screenplay by Zach Helm, teems with ideas both literary and existential, which might make it unbearably precious, were it not redeemed by woozy charm and some serious acting from Will Ferrell. (ET) (Picture Show at Main Place, Santa Ana; Woodbridge Dollar Movies, Irvine)

VOLVER

The title of this latest and highly enjoyable comic melodrama from beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodòvar translates as Coming Back—as in "back from the dead," referring to the amusingly matter-of-fact resurrection of Irene (Carmen Maura), an old grandmother who refuses to let mortality get in the way of unfinished familial business. For the filmmaker, Volver represents a return of other sorts as well: to his childhood home of La Mancha, to lighter material after Bad Education, and to All About My Mother's Penèlope Cruz, who, cast here as Irene's catering daughter Raimunda, delivers her most loose-limbed and endearing performance. (RN) (AMC 30 at the Block, Orange; Edwards Brea Stadium East; Edwards Westpark, Irvine)

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SERAPHIM FALLS

Really, you have to love the casting of Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson—two Irishmen—as Civil War vets sprinting across the Western plains, with Neeson the pursuer and Brosnan the pursued. The whole project, filled with familiar faces in teensy roles, reeks of old-fashioned Big Studio entertainment—this could have been made sometime between, oh, 1953 and 1978. Seraphim Falls has decent pep in its step till the final 30 minutes, when it's finally revealed why Neeson's bounty hunter is after Brosnan's surly mountain man. The flashback finale and all that comes after (and keeps on comin') drags on so long the leads even look exhausted. (RW) (Edwards University, Irvine)

SMOKIN' ACES

Writer-director Joe Carnahan's third feature might have been pitched as the world series of assassins. It's a busy-busy-busy movie with no particular narrative—just a bunch of rival killers fighting their way up to a mob informer's Tahoe suite. Posturing is universal and for all its bloody mayhem, this degenerate Ocean's 11 has a light touch; the laugh count is low but Carnahan compensates with a well developed, if mumbling, sense of the absurd. (JH) (Countywide)

VENUS

Maurice Russell, the protagonist of Roger Michell's slight but pleasing film, is a suit lovingly tailored to Peter O'Toole's ravaged but commanding frame. O'Toole plays a septuagenarian actor facing the end of his career and life who gets a burst of late-blooming lust from a sassy, sullen teenage girl (Jodie Whittaker). What keeps Venus from sinking ass-deep in Golden Pond is its sexual reverie—and a star that couldn't play a cutely neutered grumpy old man if commanded by God. (JR) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine; Mann Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel)

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