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Life is full of choices, and Halle Berry has made another bad one with Perfect Stranger. This is a perfectly off-putting thriller that was directed by James Foley, and co-stars Bruce Willis. Willis doesn't have to worry so much about choices -- he's able to swing between big-bucks stinkers like this one and small but interesting roles that balance the schlock. Halle Berry, on the other hand, has undermined her once promising career with a consistency that's come to resemble perverse purpose.

Her latest role is Rowena, an unprincipled investigative journalist for a disreputable rag called the New York Courier. The plot was plucked from Hollywood's recycle bin by Todd Komarnicki and Jon Bokenkamp, and it's prodded into sluggish action when one of Rowena's childhood friends turns up dead -- not just no longer among the living, but murdered in a way that provides a grisly sequence in the morgue. Her name is Grace, we get the dubious privilege of meeting her shortly before she meets her fate, and she is one deeply dislikable dame.

To the degree that our involvement in the film depends on our distress at Grace's demise, all is lost in the first few minutes. (It's lost again in the last few minutes of a surprise ending, or an ending that's supposed to be a surprise.) Yet Grace is no more dislikable than anyone else on screen. Bruce Willis's advertising mogul, Harrison Hill, is smirkily insufferable, and not only because there's reason to think he had Grace killed. Rowena's research assistant, Miles -- he's played by Giovanni Ribisi -- has all the earmarks of a psycho killer, and in case you didn't get that his character flaws are punched up even further by creepy lighting.

What a team Rowena and Miles turn out to be -- it's as if Woodward and Bernstein worked for the National Enquirer. To get the goods on Hill, she acquires a new name, a new identity and, above all, new clothes, then gets herself hired as a temp at his ad agency. (She also types seductive nothings to her boss during interminable chats on the Internet, which the screenwriters seem to have taken for a brand new invention.) Meanwhile, back at the newspaper's city room, Miles works away as a happy hacker, breaking into every computer system he can find to mine telltale data. Maybe this is how people think reporters operate these days. Still, it isn't clear that Ro knows how unprincipled she is, or that the Courier knows how disreputable it is, for the movie itself has a smarmy tabloid soul.

The most disturbious part of Disturbia is how engaging this teenage thriller manages to be, even though it's a shameless rip-off of Rear Window. Instead of Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair we have Shia LaBeouf as Kale, a troubled suburban teen under house arrest. The suspense plot resembles Hitchcock's classic -- Kale's idle voyeurism suddenly leads him to believe a next-door neighbor may be a serial killer. The specific differences, though, are both silly and likable. The silly part, which will sell the picture, involves Kale's emergence as the Inspector Gadget of junior detectives. The kid starts doing surveillance with every gizmo known to kiddom -- computer, digital camera, camcorder, cell phone, iPod. The likable part starts with the star himself -- Shia LaBeouf's widely touted appeal justifies the touts -- and also involves his co-star, Sarah Roemer -- she plays Ashley, the girl next door. No gadgetry is needed when the two kids are together at quiet moments, coming of age with timeless tenderness.


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Spike Jonze

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