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'Raise Your Voice' preaches to the choir of star-struck teenage girls.

Raise Your Voice
Dir. Sean McNamara; writ. Mitch Rotter, Sam Schreiber; feat. Hilary Duff, Oliver James, James Avery, John Arbett, Dana Davis, Rebecca DeMornay, Kat Dennys, David Keith (PG)

Raise Your Voice, the latest film vehicle for teen queen Hilary Duff, is set in the present, but don't feel stupid if you mistakenly assume you've stepped back into the Gerald Ford era. It's not just the Gremlin driven by Paul (Jason Ritter), brother to Duff's Terri Fletcher, the dorky Eight is Enough wardrobes on display, or the way the movie opens with Terri's high school choir giddily singing the Three Dog Night relic "Joy To The World." It's the artificial, goody-goody quality of the whole enterprise, which would have seemed oddly tame in the context of a '70s after-school special.

An ostensibly talented young singer, Terri gains admittance to the summer program of a prestigious LA music conservatory, but feels overwhelmed by grief over the death of her brother in a car accident. Encouraged by her mother (Rita Wilson) and pseudo-bohemian aunt (Rebecca DeMornay), she attends the school without the consent of her crusty, overprotective father (David Keith). After initially being shunned by her fellow students, she connects with a spiky-haired British kid (Oliver James) who looks remotely punky but writes hideously sappy piano ballads. Finally, she brings down the house at the talent contest with a song dedicated to her brother. Even self-loathing old dad can't hold back the waterworks.

The whole thing amounts to Fame-lite with a rousing Purple Rain finish (granted, no guitars squirt purple fluid in the final performance scene). Duff gamely tries to be sweet and adorable, but playing a walking cultural anachronism (even her "street wise" roommate calls her a Brady Bunch kid) must be getting tiresome by now. If Lindsay Lohan is Elvis, Duff is Frankie Avalon. If she's not careful, that could mean a future filled with Sonic commercials. Gilbert Garcia


Shall We Dance?
Dir. Peter Chelsom; writ. Audrey Wells, based on the screenplay by Masayuki Suo; feat. Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci (PG-13)

Richard Gere has become a specialist in expunging subtitles. He starred in remakes of two iconic French films: Breathless and The Return of Martin Guerre (relocated to the American Civil War and renamed Sommersby), as well as the more obscure feature Les Choses de la vie (called Intersection in the adaptation). Gere's King David was a translation - and traducement - of the Hebrew Bible. Now comes Shall We Dance?, the Americanization of a delicate Japanese concoction released in 1996.

The protagonist in the Japanese original is an accountant, but perhaps because accountants get less respect in our culture, Gere's John Clark has been transformed into a successful estate attorney in Chicago. After 19 years of a marriage that has produced two healthy adolescent children, John is content enough that he can think of nothing he wants his loving wife (Sarandon) to give him for his birthday. Yet an image that he glimpses from the train while commuting home at night haunts him with intimations of unknown happiness: It is a beautiful woman looking out the window of a fifth-floor studio. On an impulse, John gets off the train, climbs up to Miss Mizzi's Dance School, and registers for weekly lessons in ballroom dancing.

The woman in the window, Jennifer Lopez, is not especially convincing as Pauline, a midwestern Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, ethereal enough to lure John with the promise of transcendence. Yet, beset by middle-age angst, John neglects his family for rhumba, tango, and Paulina, as well as the camaraderie of other needy men who haunt Miss Mizzi's. He also discovers the secret life of Link Peterson (Tucci), a lackluster lawyer by day but a flamboyant performer of erotic Latin dance by night. Though a flatfooted novice at first, John is, incredibly, soon preparing for major competition and, with its montage of rehearsals, Shall We Dance? becomes as reminiscent of Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing as of the Japanese feature on which it is based. Though it aims for the soul, this is a sweet but sappy fantasy that is most alive when it looks at the feet. — Steven G. Kellman


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