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Let the "Sunshine' in

Sunshine State (PG-13)

Maverick director John Sayles considers Florida's neglected past, hectic present and collapsing future with wit and carefully absorbed insight. Two communities along the east coast _ one predominantly white, the other African-American _ are invaded by land developers looking for the next boom town investment. Sayles' terrific cast includes Angela Bassett as an actor reuniting with her strict mother (Mary Alice). Edie Falco is superb as Marly Temple, a motel operator ready to sell out and fall in love with a landscaper (Timothy Hutton). Fine performances are also delivered by Mary Steenburgen, Alan King and Bill Cobbs.

First impressions: "Listing the core characters and their setups doesn't begin to reveal the emotional, satirical depth of Sunshine State. Sayles has one of the best ears for dialogue in the business, dropping lines so trenchant that you want to memorize them for future use. There is no more concise description of New Florida than "nature on a leash." Yet, Sayles is also patient enough to permit Cobbs' and (Ralph) Waite's soliloquies on Florida-style race relations, and Marly's tequila confessions to a friendly land developer (Timothy Hutton).

Second thoughts: This film is guaranteed a spot on my list of 2002's best films.

Rental audience: Anyone who ever felt sand between their toes.

Rent it if you enjoy: Any of Sayles' previous films, or ensemble satires such as Robert Altman's Nashville.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (R)

The topic everyone discusses in Jill Sprecher's film is happiness: where it springs from, how it grows or wilts and how either can happen in a split second of fate. Matthew McConaughey plays a brash lawyer whose career is jeopardized by a panicked mistake. Meanwhile, a grumpy businessman (Alan Arkin) plots revenge on a colleague he considers too cheerful, a young woman (Clea DuVall) anticipates a miracle and a middle-aged husband (John Turturro) plans drastic changes in his life.

First impressions: "The screenplay is a marvel of entwined coincidences, tinkering with the time frame to show how many of these lives intersect, then move on. Lines of dialogue link the characters without them knowing, as if their preoccupations with luck, destiny and defeat are part of some collective unconscious they all share.

"The performances are top-notch. Even McConaughey erases the bad memories of his recent work with an effectively stunned portrayal. But this movie should be a reminder to everyone about Arkin's acting gifts. This is another terrific performance from one of the most underrated talents of the past 40 years, in one of the best films of this one."

Second thoughts: Sadly overlooked in theaters but deserves to find its niche in home video.

Rental audience: Art film buffs.

Rent it if you enjoy: Sparkling performances, intelligent writing and story construction and a meaningful theme. No wonder it flopped.

Reign of Fire (PG-13)

Fire-breathing dragons emerge from an archaeological dig, torching the world into Mad Max-style oblivion. A primitive fire marshal (Christian Bale) and a wild-eyed Texan (Matthew McConaughey) discover a way to kill the beasts, but not soon enough for this moviegoer.

First impressions: "This is a monstrous movie, tinted with apocalyptic blues and artificial grime resembling rejected design ideas from Waterworld and The Postman. Director Rob Bowman (The X-Files) never recognizes the silliness of this material, choosing to build a somber myth from an opium pipe dream. The dragons are cool but repetitive. The pacing is waltzian _ one, two, three, flame, one, two, three, burn _ in a numbing example of expertly produced nothingness."

Second thoughts: Never gave it one.

Rental audience: Renaissance festival refugees.

Rent it if you enjoy: Dragonslayer, Dragonheart or dragging movies.

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