No one uglies it up when going for an Oscar like Hilary Swank. When Academy voters see the beautiful actress slum it as, say, a gawky, gruff cross-dresser in Boys Don’t Cry or as a bloodied, bruised pugilist in Million Dollar Baby, they toss Oscars at her feet. So regardless of her performance as doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart in the biopic Amelia, her cactus-combed hair and aging makeup-slathered appearance will at least earn her a nomination.

That’s only if awards voters manage to stay awake through the long, bumpy flight. The usually peppy director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) makes Earhart’s life seem so tedious, slow and corny, you start feeling around for the mini-pillow and blanket, hoping the pilot won’t wake you up with the ping that says you’re now free to move about the cabin.

One problem is that you never get a real sense of the danger Earhart faced. The aerial photography is stiff and matter-of-fact, worlds apart from the armrest-clenching terror Martin Scorsese created in The Aviator. But it’s when Earhart is grounded that she’s least engaging. She juggles love affairs with her rudder-whipped P.R. guy George Putnam (Richard Gere) and suave business associate Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), spending most time with each man moping about how neither gives her the freedom of piloting.

The way the film tells it, Earhart’s idea of “freedom” was indulging in an obsessive need to push her limited talents and technology past their breaking points. Nair and her writers could have done more with her apparent death wish, but instead turn her ill-fated ‘round the world finale into the “one last big job” motif from a crime flick.
Earhart must have been more interesting than the film makes her out to be, and more magnetic than the airhead as Swank interprets her. Maybe Scorsese will get together with Cate Blanchett one day to give the female flight pioneer the send-off she deserves.

Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. Written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. Directed by Mira Nair. 111 minutes. Rated PG.

Also opening this week:

Astro Boy: This Japanese import is an animated family film about a young, evil fighting robot. Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell and Freddie Highmore do voicework.

    •Odds Cage will find a way to overact, even by only using his voice: 2-1.
    •Odds Astro Boy survives for a sequel: 1-1,000.
    •Odds anime and manga geeks will say the film lives up to the source material: 100-1.

Saw VI: A sadistic killer (Tobin Bell) who dies in every movie somehow arranged for even more demented dungeon traps that maim D-list actors.

    •Odds the Saw series will ever go a year without a sequel: 100-1.
    •Odds this will be watchable: 6-1.
    •Odds the movie’s audience will wise up to the fact that the studio is exploiting their obsession with a mediocre franchise and putting as little effort as possible into each entry: 1 million to 1.

The Vampire’s Assistant: A teen discovers he belongs in the secret underground world of vampires. Twilight sleeps with Harry Potter while John C. Reilly watches.

    •Odds this is the next big thing all the kids’ll get into: 1,800-1.
    •Odds a pale-faced vamp will stare off the screen for several seconds: 1-1.
    •Odds society will be more and more bombarded with vampire stuff until it’s impossible for the average person to separate the awful (everything) from the awesome (True Blood): 3-1.

Phil Villarreal’s humorous money-saving book, Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel, is available at bookstores and on Amazon.

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