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By Michael Calleri

Amazingly, I've never seen a complete episode of television's "The Simpsons." I've occasionally zapped upon it and watched a few minutes, but I never really started from the beginning of a show and watched it all the way through.

This wasn't avoidance. It's more that I never saw the first couple of seasons and didn't get into the "Simpsons" habit. Hey, I know people who adore the show. In fact, I know a local family -- journalist dad, teacher mom and four teenage children -- that never misses a new episode, and they watch it together.

That said, I'm not surprised that "The Simpsons Movie" is hilarious. In fact, I'll wager that because of its being retrofitted for the big screen, the zany characters get away with a lot more crude, rude and lewd material than they might be allowed to deliver on broadcast television. Remember, FOX is a "broadcast" channel, not cable, and thus subject to tighter FCC controls regarding content.

The story is delicious. Homer Simpson brings home a wandering pig. The pig's poop really annoys his wife, Marge, and she orders her blundering husband to get rid of it -- the poop, not the pig. Homer dumps it all into the city's lake, thus killing the body of water and creating an environmental catastrophe. The town savages the Simpson clan, causing them to flee to Alaska. President Arnold Schwarzenegger gets involved, as does the nefarious head of the EPA. How it all plays out is why you definitely want to see this film.

There are myriad sight gags, dialogue that roars at you fast and funny, and a crisp, animated look that seems born for the movies. I'll only give away one of the jokes that made me laugh, and there are a lot of biting comic bits. Homer's daughter, Lisa, becomes environmentally conscious and stages a slide show entitled "An Irritating Truth." For those who have been dreaming of son Bart's comeuppance, there's this: Homer figures out a way to have the tyke skateboard nude, much to the shock of the townspeople and to Bart's mortification.

"The Simpsons Movie" is one of the best American comedies in decades. And you don't have to be a regular follower to enjoy it.

Danny Boyle gave us "Trainspotting," which for some is the ultimate drug movie. And perhaps for some, his new feature, "Sunshine," may be the ultimate science fiction film. Not me.

In 2057, the sun's power is weakening. A space probe named Icarus has been sent aloft to hurl a bomb at the orb in order to regenerate its solar energy. Icarus has disappeared somewhere in the back of the beyond. Enter Icarus II. On board are eight astronauts, a talking, thinking computer (ahem) and another bomb for humankind.

Can you figure out what's going to happen? Come on, if you know your sci-fi, then you certainly know how the movie plays out. Yes, the computer gets a little too big for her britches (yes, "her"). Yes, the astronauts will argue among themselves, including the plant lady, who's created a mighty garden on the massive ship.

And yes, there will be a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and ghostly visitors. I think. Everything that happens might be a figment of everyone's imagination, because it sure seemed as if some sort of space-time warp occurred.

The screenplay by Alex Garland gets bogged down in minutiae of the mind. What "Sunshine" does have going for it are breathtaking visuals. The movie looks magnificent. There's even some whimsy, as when two of the astronauts wrap themselves in foil and resemble nothing less than Poppin' Fresh.

In spite of a personable and exceptionally talented cast -- including Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh and Troy Garrity (Jane Fonda's son) -- and some of the most stunning images I've ever seen in a sci-fi film, "Sunshine" fades a little around the edges. It's good, not great. I think its familiarity worked against it. I was never bored but I was never moved.

"No Reservations" is a romantic comedy with cooking as the third wheel. Catherine Zeta-Jones is Kate, an icy, workaholic master chef at a Greenwich Village restaurant that has as its central culinary theme American food, which covers steaks and chops and mashed potatoes. She's soon forced to work with a new sous chef, but she hates him. He cooks Italian food. Yes, you have every right to ask why the guy was hired and why she, as the kitchen boss, approved him. Huge hole in the plot. Huge.

Anyway, the guy, Nick, played by Aaron Eckhart, is talented but nettlesome. OK, he's annoying. Gee, do you think the twain will meet? In the mix we have Kate's niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin), whom Kate is raising due to a family tragedy. Will Zoe like Nick? This isn't hard, folks. The goal is for Nick and Zoe to melt Kate's heart. Or at least thaw it out.

"No Reservations" is based on "Mostly Martha," a German film in which the antagonist was really an Italian chef -- as in from Italy -- trying to cook in Germany. This American version has its predictable moments, but there's also a little bit of pleasure in watching Eckhart and Breslin interact. Zeta-Jones has a thankless part, but she understands tongue-in-cheek humor. There are numerous scenes of cooking, but I don't think you'll learn any new dishes to prepare. And yes, alas, most of these cooking scenes resemble food porn.

In "Rescue Dawn," Germany's iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog fictionalizes the true story of Dieter Dengler, a German national who piloted jets for the U.S. Navy during the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam. Dengler was shot down, tortured and sent to a prison camp from which his escape exploits are the stuff of legend.

Christian Bale is extraordinary as Dengler. His prison cohort is exceptionally well acted by Steve Zahn. The movie, in English, is a playbook of the human desire to survive. There are moments in the lush Vietnamese jungle that shock and create discomfort. But this is the real world as Dengler saw it.

"Rescue Dawn" is a must-see. Its cinematography is superb, and its energy and excitement are palpable. Tense and tough-minded, it's one of the best movies of the year.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimovies@excite.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 31 2007