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Ho-Ho in Hollywood 

Flick Chick

Opening in time for the Fourth of July, the thematically titled Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde stars Reese Witherspoon in a reprise of her role as a seemingly air-headed sorority girl who goes to the head of the class... at Harvard Law.

After that improbable success story in the 2001 original, the sequel sends this vividly garbed gal into the political fray of the nation's capital. In a recent publicity blitz, the actress described her new movie as a girl-power version of the 1939 Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Turns out the Blonde 2 director, Charles Herman-Wurmfield, is working on a campaign documentary that could be called, optimistically, Mr. Dean Goes to Washington. His plane was grounded on June 23 en route to Burlington, where he planned to shoot footage of the ex-governor's official announcement of his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Instead, he recruited faculty and students from the Burlington College Film Department to handle the project in his absence.

Herman-Wurmfield, who apparently hopes to visit the Queen City this week, is part of a Hollywood for Howard team. Jeff Kaufman, a former Middlebury radio and television journalist now living in Calif-ornia, is reportedly involved with that effort.

The good doctor has "the buzz," as one CNN commentator recently suggested. Buzz may not be quite the same as charisma, but it's surely a close second in this celebrity-obsessed society. And the fiery speechifying that has replaced Gov. Dean's former bureaucratic monotone? Well, that's entertainment. Vermont's favorite son once admitted in an interview that he had written poetry as a youth and was most inspired by Allen Ginsberg. Nowadays, the man who would be president certainly has learned to howl for the cameras.

Sometimes, even a shamelessly sentimental, uplifting and predictable film can worm its way into the cinematic treasure trove of our collective consciousness. Whale Rider -- opening this week at the Roxy in Burlington -- may be flawed, but the New Zealand drama has the kind of honestly heart-wrenching appeal that keeps the tear ducts moist. And it's hard to resist any picture offering a glimpse of an exotic world apart.

Screenwriter-director Niki Caro adapted Witi Ihimaera's novel about Pai, a pre-pubescent Maori girl who knows she's a natural-born leader. If only her grandfather Koro could put aside his rigidly traditional notions of male supremacy and allow the waif to flourish. As the tribe's reigning chief, he seems to ignore all the omens that everyone else sees plain as day: The kid is destined to follow in his footsteps.

Newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes underplays 11-year-old Pai with just the right mixture of bravado and vulnerability. The camera loves her radiant face, which outshines the pampered beauty of most teen Hollywood glamour-pusses. This adolescent has no time for fads or flirtations; she's too busy trying to save her endangered culture.

Pai's people, the Whangara, live in a drab coastal village with a magnificent ocean view. The community is in decline. Ancient customs are barely observed anymore -- except by Koro (Rawiri Pare-tene), a patriarch who rarely smiles. Broken families abound, including his own. Older women while away the hours gossiping and chain-smoking over card games. For the younger generation, jobs are scarce but alcohol is plentiful.

In a prologue, the source of Koro's greatest torment is revealed: His son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) flees the country because Pai's birth claims the lives of her mother and twin brother. Porou-rangi's departure leaves Koro with no first-born male heir-apparent, as required by tribal custom.

But before he splits for Europe, Pai's dad names her after Paikea, the creation-myth ancestor carried to shore on the back of a whale when his canoe capsized. According to legend, that's how the Whangara arrived on New Zealand's North Island a thousand years ago.

The child is more adept at a stick-fighting martial art called taiaha than any of the disinterested local boys Koro tries to train in this ritual. He and Pai adore each other, but her struggle to be taken seriously offends him. Only Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) appreciates the special talents and courage of her bright little granddaughter.

With much magic realism, the film presents Pai as a reincarnated savior in the body of a feisty nascent feminist. This premise occasionally overwhelms the tender coming-of-age drama with too much weighty symbolism and politically correct baggage. In rising above the script's sappier tendencies, however, the fine cast manages to create a whale of a tale.

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Susan Green


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