The Notorious Bettie Page

dir. Harron

Opens Fri April 28

Cinema 21

Was Bettie Page a pioneering feminist, a woman who owned her sexuality and used her smokin' body to become a soft-core porn sensation? Or was she a naive gal from Nashville, Tennessee, who was lured into the lurid world of bondage pinups by greedy photographers?

Shot almost entirely in black and white, this biopic—starring Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page—lets you tag along with the infamous pinup queen as she ventures from Nashville to New York City. There, she accidentally begins her modeling career in the 1950s after a photographer spots the glamorous brunette on the beach.

The Page mythology portrays Bettie as a savvy woman ahead of her time when it comes to sex. But in this film, Page is played in a more complicated way, as an innocent girl who didn't quite understand what her racy bondage poses really meant—she thought she was just having fun in silly costumes, the film argues—and perhaps isn't as notorious as the history books will have you believe (as the film closes, Page chucks it all to be a devoutly Christian recluse, and she's stayed out of the spotlight since). Regardless of where the truth lies, it's an engaging—if incomplete—peek into the life of a pop culture icon. AMY JENNIGES

Akeelah and the Bee

dir. Atchison

Opens Fri April 28

Various Theaters

Akeelah and the Bee is the first Hollywood film (surely there are more coming) to get a huge push from a new entertainment arm of Starbucks, so it should come as no surprise that the multinational corporation that produces creamy, inspirational, supposedly virtuous drinks has chosen to back this creamy, inspirational, supposedly virtuous movie. It is so crammed with sticky-sweet virtue that the stuff is practically coming out through the straw hole and sliding down the side.

Akeelah, although she is young and black and living in a bad part of Los Angeles, is (can you believe this?) quite intelligent and sweet natured and something of a word prodigy (although sometimes she talks "ghetto"). After she wins the school spelling bee (even though her mom is too busy to care!), Akeelah starts seeing a coach (a man whose daughter would be Akeelah's age... if she hadn't died), and advances all the way to nationals, in spite of the protestations of her exhausted mom (who doesn't understand her daughter's dreams!). I don't want to give away the ending, but triumph over adversity is involved.

Keke Palmer, who is 11 years old and plays Akeelah, is a charming, promising actress who is constantly made to do sappy things you pretty much only find in after-school TV specials. Laurence Fishburne, as Akeelah's coach, looks well fed and utterly bored. Angela Bassett tries her damnedest to make Akeelah's mother resemble a real human being grappling with real problems, but the characters that writer/director Doug Atchison has dreamed up are pure foam. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Stick It

dir. Bendinger

Opens Fri April 28

Various Theaters

There are three reasons you might see this movie about an EXTREME bad girl (no, really! She rides a BMX!) who is court ordered to attend a gymnastics camp full of perky girls in unitards. Either (a) you're a teenage gymnast, (b) you love teen movies so much that you'll see any film that has Neutrogena product placement, or (c) you're a pervert.

Let me disabuse all of you of any inclination you might have to see Stick It right now. (a) If you're a teen gymnast wannabe, you need to think about a career change pronto, before that scary Russian coach traumatizes you so much that in adulthood you're only performing on the dreaded single, vertical pole. (b) If you simply love movies like Bring It On and Mean Girls, you, too, should sit this one out, because Stick It is truly, deeply awful. This brings us to the final category, (c) the pervs. I hate to say it, fellas, but these chicks exercise their upper bodies so much that they have little girl heads on Rambo bodies. Plus, all that swinging and twisting from the uneven bars can only mean one thing: man hands! CHAS BOWIE