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'HONEYDRIPPER' STIRS SWEETNESS, NOSTALGIA

Honeydripper (PG-13) (123 min.) - John Sayles invents a rural legend with Honeydripper, based on facts of living black in 1950 Alabama, gingerly exaggerated so we wish this yarn were true. Like the roadhouse blues Sayles celebrates, the movie has a repetitive, chugging pace that grows more infectious by the minute.

The Honeydripper is a shanty nightclub deep in cotton country, owned by piano man "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover in top form), but perhaps not for long. Business is bad because Pinetop sticks to roots blues that can't compete with a jukebox joint down the road. Creditors want their money, the liquor supplier refuses to advance its hooch and a bigoted sheriff (Stacy Keach) pops in at all the wrong times.

Pinetop plans one big weekend score, bowing to new tastes by hiring Guitar Sam and his newfangled electric sound from New Orleans. When Sam doesn't arrive by train, Pinetop and his bouncer, Maceo (Charles S. Dutton), devise a scheme that involves shoddy electrical wiring, some lying and a drifter named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), who claims to pick a guitar pretty well himself.

The era and plot allow Sayles to do what his best films always do: dig so deeply into the fabric of a culture that it feels as if he always lived there. There isn't a more trenchant movie about the modern Florida experience than Sunshine State, or Texas tradition than Lone Star, or South American morality than Casa de los Babys and Men With Guns. This time Sayles seems like a crawfishing good ol' boy, not a kid from Schenectady, N.Y.

Sayles adores this peeled-paint atmosphere, the itinerant gentility of its citizens and the revival vibe of gospel tents and juke joints. Honeydripper never preaches, but gently teaches about African-American perseverance before the protests.

As usual, Sayles devotes plenty of time to peripheral characters that embellish the film's spirit, including Pinetop's ambitious daughter China Doll (Yaya DeCosta), and his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who is finding religion. The rivalry between a slickster (Sean Patrick Thomas) and a hulking cotton picker (Daryl Edwards) becomes key to the climax. And I love bluesman Keb' Mo' as a blind street musician with an ethereal vibe.

Honeydripper gets distracted by a few needless elements - Mary Steenburgen's privileged wife, for example - but Sayles pulls everything else together for a wonderful finale. This is a small movie you can dance to, and the Beach Theatre, where it is playing, probably wouldn't mind. B+

Steve Persall, Times film critic

This trip to Mars is a bit short on thrust

Roving Mars (G) (40 min.) Everything is massive except the message in Disney's IMAX chronicle of NASA's 2003 robotic exploration of Mars. Using far too many computer-generated facsimiles of the planet's surface, Roving Mars is an interesting space trip that needs more oomph.

After a perfunctory celebrity introduction by Paul Newman, Roving Mars hands over narration duties to scientists much smarter than the gee-whiz analogies they deliver. There is nothing wrong with "dumbing down" the tech-speak for broad audiences. But even the mission's most striking discovery - proof that water existed on Mars, and, therefore, possibly life - is scaled to footnote importance.

Nearly a quarter of the film's 40-minute running time occurs in laboratories where the rovers, cutely named Spirit and Opportunity, are prepped for a 300-million-mile voyage that failed numerous times before. Talking heads and lab tests aren't the best subjects for IMAX's massive sight and sound capabilities.

Halfway through the show, Roving Mars takes off with Spirit's launch, shifting from real footage to vividly animated images of the rocket's separation stages. Entering Mars' atmosphere, the rover trades its protective shields for interplanetary "bubble wrap," allowing it to bounce to a safe landing. The first photographs beamed to Earth are more exciting to anxious scientists than they appear onscreen, and explanations of their importance are minimal.

Opportunity's landing is broached, equally celebrated and the photographic results are slightly more impressive. Yet it still isn't compelling, causing director George Butler (Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure) to resort to vast CGI representations of the Red Planet and the robots working.

Roving Mars opens Friday at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, shown in rotation with other IMAX films. Visit the museum's Web site (www.mosi.org) for show times. B

S.P.

Even a comic can't always be funny

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights - Hollywood to the Heartland ( R) (100 min.) - It takes a party animal like Vince Vaughn or Van Wilder to arrange a monthlong party bus road trip and make money with it. This documentary isn't as much fun as Vaughn and his buddies obviously had. The movie does, however, have occasional value as a peek inside the standup comedian psyche.

Vaughn rounded up four regulars at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles for the odyssey, with only John Caparulo particularly memorable, since he could be Larry the Cable Guy's little brother. Caparulo offers the best example of comic insecurity, misinterpreting a drunken shout from an audience and pouting about it.

The other three are stereotypes pushing too hard: Ahmed Ahmed jokes about being Muslim in a post-9/11 world; Sebastian Maniscalco is the self-described "Guido," picking up women; Bret Ernst is the good-looking guy riffing on date maneuvers.

Vaughn isn't a standup comedian, and it shows. He coaxes co-stars Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Justin Long (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) into a lame skit on opening night in L.A. When the bus ventures into middle America, the only celebrity performer to be found is DwightYoakam, who allows Vaughn to prove he can't sing, either.

The jokes occasionally click, but Ari Sandel's movie is better in semi-serious moments, as in a visit to a campground for Hurricane Katrina refugees. The tired comedians don't want to waste sleep time delivering free tickets, but the resilience they witness leaves a strong impression. C+

S.P.

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