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2003: The Year in Movies - A Mega-Recap (Part 2)

Cabin Fever, directed by Eli Roth
by Scott Weinberg

I broke this piece into two sections only because it's so freakin' long. Thanks for reading!

July

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (1.5) Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld / Release Date: July 2nd / MGM – Again, this is the thanks we get for making one silly little confection a huge box-office hit. And again I ask the same old question: Although it’s inevitable that we get entirely unnecessary sequels, is there some law that they simply HAVE to suck lizard eggs? Because this one sure as hell does.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2.5) Dir: Patrick Gilmore & Tim Johnson / Release Date: July 2nd / Dreamworks – There are certainly worse animated features to hit the screens this year, but this overlooked and mildly entertaining adventure wasn’t one of the bottom feeders. Boasting some truly amazing animation work and a plot that went precisely nowhere, this one should please the kids (and it’s worthy of their attention) but don’t expect this one to hit heavy rotation like Shrek or The Lion King were…or still are.

Swimming Pool (3.5) Dir: Francois Ozon / Release Date: July 2nd / Focus – Starts out amazingly slow and dry and gradually becomes a rather crafty little combo of mystery thriller and female odd-couple character study. Sorta. Plus Charlotte Rampling’s performance is excellence defined.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (3.5) Dir: Jonathan Mostow / Release Date: July 2nd / Warner – This is a fine, and periodically sensation, action extravaganza. That’s the good news. The bad news is that T3 follows two supremely awesome films, movies that were both explosions of intense action AND mind-warpingly cool science-fiction concepts. Save for a slick finale, this one avoids the sci-fi and leans heavily on the machine guns. It’s a fun ride to be sure, but one can help but feel that something’s missing. Something important.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (5) Dir: Gore Verbinski / Release Date: July 9th / Disney – Like I said in my rambly-ass review, this movie proved me wrong in a big, huge way and I for one am thrilled to admit it. Release 20 movies a year that are this entertaining, and I’ll admit I’m an idiot every single time. Despite ALL indications to the contrary, this movie turned out to be almost sinfully entertaining in every regard. I know it’s a lofty comparison, but there’s some real ‘genre-love’ in this movie that harkens back to the original Raiders. There, I said it. You know my email address. Plus there’s that Depp performance. That’s classic stuff; manna for movie freaks.

I Capture the Castle (3.5) Dir: Tim Fywell / Release Date: July 11th / Samuel Goldwyn – The fantastic Bill Nighy anchors this period piece romantic drama…that isn’t half bad! It’s all about young girls living with their loopy Dad in a decrepit old castle and their rocky attempts to climb the social ladder. Dry and a bit slow here and there, but overall a nice surprise.

Km. 0 - Kilometer Zero (3) Dir: Yolanda Garcia Serrano & Juan Luis Iborra / Release Date: July 11th / TLA – A Spanish rom-com that sees a dozen disparate lovers bouncing off of one another thanks to some extensive confusion about who’s to meet who and where and why. It’s all quite charming and even a little funny…until the movie overstays its welcome and actively searches around for an editor with a harder heart.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2) Dir: Stephen Norrington / Release Date: July 11th / 20th Century Fox – Six months before release, I was intrigued. Three months before release, I was psyched. One month before release, it was plain to see that the flick was gonna be a big sloppy mess. After seeing the thing, I’d label it an unintentionally campy dud, yet one that offers some bad-movie charm in healthy portions.

Northfork (2.5) Dir: Michael Polish / Release Date: July 11th / Paramount Classics – Part of me wants to praise it because I didn’t understand a lick of it; but then the real me speaks up and says “Hey asshole. This movie made you angry, remember?” On the whole, it rates highly for its scorched-earth appearance and a few kooky performances, but it’s just way too obtuse (like in a Depeche Mode rock video sort of way) to really enjoy.

The Anarchist Cookbook (3) Dir: Jordan Susman / Release Date: July 18th / Innovation – A preachifying and pretty darn shallow affair that strives to be a junior version of Fight Club and serves mainly to make that film look a whole lot better by comparison. Expect lots of anti-establishment lip service encased in a rather predictable redemption story; not a bad flick, but one that talks a good game without really following through.

Bad Boys 2 (1) Dir: Michael Bay / Release Date: July 18th / Columbia - First off, nobody likes those "quick-cut action movie trailers" more than I do. Those crazy loud ones where explosion after explosion is set to a pounding techno beat and everything flies in slo-mo before the Magical CGI Money Shot. I love those trailers. And get this! I really like several of Michael Bay's movies! Honestly! Having explained both of those opinions, I offer one more: this is one of the ugliest, stupidest and most annoyingly excessive movies I've ever seen. It's like having your brain scraped with a frozen cheese grater. Audience-contempt of the highest conceivable measure.

Dirty Pretty Things (4.5) Dir: Stephen Frears / Release Date: July 18th / Miramax - Well-rounded storyteller Stephen Frears delivers a movie that's romance, thriller, drama and mystery all at once. It's a tough tale of immigrants desperately trying to stay in a country that promises "freedom" while uncovering a decidedly nasty plot involving extracted organs, forged passports and big bags of money. A great movie, and one I look forward to forcing my friends to watch.

How to Deal (1.5) Dir: Clare Kilner / Release Date: July 18th / New Line – Mandy Moore tortures us in this “After-School Special Greatest Hits” sort of thing, chock-full of pop tunes, unconvincing “drama” and a whole lot of random plot points we’ve seen a million times before. And rarely is the result this mind-numbing.

Johnny English (3) Dir: Peter Howitt / Release Date: July 18th / Universal – While the Austin Powers movies are half-spoof and half-slapstick, this one’s content to just be ‘mildly sitcommy’ and the result is a few solid laughs mired in 90 minutes of pretty much nothing spectacular. As a leading lady, Natalie Imbruglia sure is…cute.

Balseros (4.5) Dir: Carlos Bosch & David Trueba / Release Date: July 23rd / Seventh Art - Yes we've all "heard of" those Cuban folks who try to reach American shores by way of dangerously unsafe watercraft, but here's a doco that sheds some harsh and painful light onto some folks who've actually lived through it. The early sections involving life in Cuba are intriguing enough, but when the movie takes you through the actual journey and brings you up-to-date six years down the road, you actually begin to LEARN a little something. And it's a wholly fascinating collection of stories, too. Absolutely worthy of your attention.

Buffalo Soldiers (4) Dir: Gregor Jordan / Release Date: July 25th / Miramax - If the goal was to create a wholly acerbic and joyously dark re-imagining of Altman's MASH for modern times, well I guess the filmmakers succeeded all to well, as the flick was shelved and virtually jettisoned to home video with little fanfare. Too bad, because it's a great little comedy that has laughs and balls in equal measure.

Camp (2.5) Dir: Todd Graff / Release Date: July 25th / IFC - Obnoxious theater-obsessed show-kids spend a summer at a camp suited to their own attention-starved needs. Imagine Meatballs meets Fame and up the discomfort quotient by a dozen and you get the picture.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1.5) Dir: Jan de Bont / Release Date: July 25th / Paramount – Sigh. Nobody does Generic Movie Product like our friends over at Paramount. After the first movie made large coin despite universal disdain, the producers had a shot at fixing what was wrong with the first installment. Instead they went and hired Jan De Bont. Package this one as a straight screwball comedy and I might have liked it more.

Seabiscuit (3) Dir: Gary Ross / Release Date: July 25th / Universal – I guess I’m the only one who hasn’t seen this movie 11 times over the past 20 years. Very handsome and full of actors tough to dislike, this one’s simply a well-constructed trellis on which to hang all those Sports Movie/Redemption Tale touchstones we all love so much. It’s Rocky. It’s Hoosiers. It’s The Rookie. Only with a horse.

Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2) Dir: Robert Rodriguez / Release Date: July 25th / Dimension – As a fan of the first two, this one really disappointed me big-time. It’s as if Rodriguez were so intent to monkey around the with 3-D gizmos that he didn’t stop to wonder if he SHOULD. I mean, has there ever been a Part 3 that was IMPROVED through the use of 3-D trickery? Surely Jaws 3, Amityville 3 and Friday the 13th Part 3 have taught us something. Actually, that’s a silly thing to assume, isn’t it?

August

American Wedding (4) Dir: Jesse Dylan / Release Date: Aug. 1st / Universal - The third chapter in a series that actually DOES manage to deliver the goods each time out, if the law of diminishing returns certainly does apply. Hopefully they'll just keep it as a trilogy, but does anyone doubt that Biggs and Hannigan are currently negotiating for an American Baby sequel? Anyway, this one is Stifler's show all the way. Which is good if, like me, you think that Seann W. Scott is hilarious. If you do not, stay away from this one in droves and go rent something he's not in.

Gigli (1) Dir: Martin Brest / Release Date: Aug. 1st / Columbia - Once again, the critics' annual whipping boy is not nearly the worst movie of the year. Yes, it's quite bad and periodically atrocious, but maybe we should all try reviewing the actual movie and not the tabloid headlines. Plus it's got Walken so you know there'll be at least a few good scenes.

The Magdalene Sisters (4) Dir: Peter Mullan / Release Date: Aug. 1st / Miramax – A prison drama that takes place in an Irish home for wayward girls, circa 1964. Once you get past the whole “How did this even HAPPEN?” issue, you’re left with a rather captivating and periodically horrifying drama about the way things “used to be done, back when people had morals”.

Freaky Friday (3.5) Dir: Mark S. Waters / Release Date: Aug. 6th / Disney - Wow. Who'da thunk that THIS one would end up being so surprisingly entertaining? Clearly not me. Credit a witty script, an astute director and two winning lead performances and voila: you have a remake that doesn't suck. Good job.

S.W.A.T. (2) Dir: Clark Johnson / Release Date: Aug. 8th / Columbia – I was all set to enjoy this late-summer non-sequel action flick…until it started unspooling and my boredom level raised tenfold. I’m hard-pressed to remember one plot point that wasn’t exposed in the trailers, although I do remember that the sparse action sequences weren’t anything to write home about.

American Splendor (3.5) Dir: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini / Release Date: Aug. 15th / Fine Line Features - Here's one I guess I missed the boat on. I certainly did enjoy it, and the freaky breaks in the narrative were cool and all, but at the end of the day I was watching a somewhat clever sitcom dramedy. To be fair, this is one I look forward to giving another shot on DVD, so take that for what it's worth. Plus anything with Paul Giamatti (particularly in a lead role) is instantly worth seeing, so check it out.

Freddy vs. Jason (3) Dir: Ronny Yu / Release Date: Aug. 15th / New Line - The only way I could have been more excited for this movie was if they were handing out free money before the show. And the flick's a relative disappointment...mainly because much of it is just so damn boring. Y'know, old-school slasher flicks weren't profitable because they were over-laden with character babble and myriad scenes of moronic exposition. When the action DOES kick in, there's some real fun to be had here.

Grind (1) Dir: Casey La Scala / Release Date: Aug. 15th / Warner - Take four teens, each with precisely one personality trait. Make that one personality trait very annoying in some way. Have the teens obsessed with some current fad like soccer or skateboarding or cow-tipping. Fill the movie with about 32 pop tunes to cover up for the lack of story or humor. Watch your movie fail miserably. Yay!

Open Range (4) Dir: Kevin Costner / Release Date: Aug. 15th / Touchstone – Sure, Costner has earned the right to be a critical whipping boy on a few of his projects (koffkoffPOSTMANkoff) but I’ll be the first to sing his praises when he gets something right, and his bittersweet western adventure is pretty damn right. Credit is also due for not only hiring Robert Duvall as his co-star, but also for letting the classy old guy steal a half-dozen scenes for his very own. A phenomenal shootout finale is only mildly marred by the pregnant denouement, but that’s a minor gripe.

Uptown Girls (2) Dir: Boaz Yakin / Release Date: August 15th / Rated PG-13 / MGM – An irresponsible young woman learns how to grow up through her relationship with an annoyingly anal-retentive little moppet. The comedy is limp, the characterizations are distressingly broad and unpleasant, the ‘life lessons’ are pre-packaged and unconvincing from the word Go, and the whole affair feels like it was conceived by computer program.

Thirteen (2.5) Dir: Catherine Hardwicke / Release Date: Aug. 20th / Fox – Yeah yeah, I know. Female adolescence sucks. It’s like The Spanish Inquisition meets The Holocaust and it takes place in the feminine hygiene aisle of Rite-Aid. My deepest sympathies. But precisely how many of these ‘little girl lost’ after-school specials are going to be released each year before the pool of angst begins to dry up? There are two stellar performances in this movie; other than that what I saw was a simplistic social-conditioning morality tale mixed in with a Teenage Fatal Attraction vibe. And I ain’t buying.

The Battle of Shaker Heights (2) Dir: Efram Potelle & Kyle Rankin / Release Date: Aug. 22nd / Miramax - Once again the making of the film proves infinitely more fascinating than the end product. Project Greenlight proved a great "reality series" about producers who don't seem to know a whole lot about movies than don't have the words "American" or "Pie" in the title. OK, that's a cheap shot. It IS really tough to make a saleable flick on such a teensy budget, especially when the whole world gets to see and judge your creative process. But this flick's a meandering dud, full of unamusing gags, unconvincing drama, and a main character who's pretty much unlikable from Frame 1. Greenlight fans should absolutely decide for themselves; me, I was bored.

Marci X (1.5) Dir: Richard Benjamin / Release Date: Aug. 22nd / Paramount – Dear sweet lord it just makes you wonder what kind of psychotropic drugs they’re doing out West. This flick feels like the end result of a “Most Obnoxious Concept” competition…and it probably won unanimously. Jewish people and black people are finally humiliated at the same time in the same movie. Talk about progress.

The Medallion (2) Dir: Gordon Chan / Release Date: Aug. 22nd / Screen Gems – As I sit here and try to recall something noteworthy about The Medallion, all my mind could spit out was “Jamie King was in Bulletproof Monk. Claire Forlani was in The Medallion”. So at least we know that the casting directors are doing their jobs. Horribly miscast hotties aside, this one’s precisely what you’d expect from the modern-day Jackie Chan: a silly and throwaway adventure flick that should dazzle 12-year-old boys who are slowly on their way to appreciating GOOD action movies. In that capacity, it’s a fine rental.

My Boss's Daughter (1.5) Dir: David Zucker / Release Date: Aug. 22nd / Dimension – “My Boss’s Daughter” I’ve no idea if that’s proper English or not, but I can tell you this: those three words tell you ALL you need to know (and indeed, need ever know) about the “plot” of this turgid farce. Ashton Kutcher once again fails to maintain the goofball charm he delivers on the small screen, while the blank-faced blond creation that is Tara Reid continues to buck for the Century’s Worst Actress award. The comedy is an “anything that sticks” pastiche of low-minded scatology and mindless gross-outs. Kids should love it.

Civil Brand (2) Dir: Neema Barnette / Release Date: August 29th / Lion's Gate - Take all those outdated and overused Prison Movie clichés about abusive guards and exploited inmates, and mix it with an all-black, all-female cast as the only new wrinkle. Not nearly as effective as it could have been with a few new perspectives, but overall it's a fairly familiar affair.

Jeepers Creepers 2 (2) Dir: Victor Salva / Release Date: Aug. 29th / MGM – Entirely typical horror sequel that looks to do nothing more than deliver the same old fare with very little deviation. A school-bus-bound “Ten Little Indians” concept could certainly make for a fun time, but this flick is interested in not much more than horrific dialogue and lots of studly teenage boys with their shirts off. The kill-bits raise the pulse a bit, though they’re too few and far between to make all that much of an impression.

September

Zero Day (3.5) Dir: Ben Coccio / Release Date: Sept. 3rd / Avatar – Harrowing and cleverly-conceived “first-person” account of two teenage malcontents who videotape their extensive and ever-changing plans to, well, to open fire in their high school and slaughter people. Insightful and challenging instead of exploitative, the movie uses it’s ‘videotape confession’ gimmick to impressive result.

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (1.5) Dir: Sam Weisman / Release Date: Sept. 5th / Paramount - In certain cases, David Spade is a damn funny guy. Seriously funny. As a lead actor in a movie in which he features prominently in every single scene? Sorry, no.

Home Room (3) Dir: Paul F. Ryan / Release Date: Sept. 5th / Innovation – Overlong and overdramatic movie about the emotional repercussions of teen-on-teen violence. Trimming some of the fat off the thing would only help to make the effective moments more poignant. As it stands, the flick is 2/3 insight and 1/3 blather.

The Order (1.5) Dir: Brian Helgeland / Release Date: Sept. 5th / 20th Century Fox – Is there any surer recipe for Boredom Defined than these ambling and oblique ‘occult thrillers’? I guess a few archaic runes and growling voices are enough to green-light a religious thriller these days, but this one’s more of a hilarious turkey than anything remotely spooky or engaging.

To Be and To Have (4.5) Dir: Nicolas Philibert / Release Date: Sept. 5th / New Yorker – Wow! What a sweet and warm and sincerely touching little movie this is! Trust me, it’s a whole lot better than “a documentary about French school kids and their teacher” sounds on paper. Wonderful stuff here, folks.

Party Monster (2) Dir: Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato / Release Date: Sept. 5th / Contentfilm – Garish, ugly, indulgent and stunningly obnoxious, this one tells the fictionalized tale of a true-life murder that had a whole lot to do with horrifically-dressed drag queens and an endless supply of hard drugs. Culkin is a mincing irritant; Seth Green dives in with both feet and does his best with the redundant screeches.

Cabin Fever (5) Dir: Eli Roth / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Lion's Gate - Lotsa first-time horror directors can display their love for the genre, but few could pull it off as confidently, as humorously, as gorily or as entertainingly as Eli Roth has with his debut effort. It's just a damn good time and a cult-flick favorite just waiting to happen.

Dummy (4.5) Dir: Greg Pritikin / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Artisan - The festival circuit presents an endearingly kooky and altogether charming little romantic comedy. A great ensemble cast (including Adrien Brody, Milla Jovovich, Illeana Douglas and Ron Leibman) keeps things crisp and colorful, and the copious amounts of 'Jewish humor' are as amusing as they are insightful. It's a bit off-kilter, but surely that's not a bad thing.

Lost in Translation (5) Dir: Sofia Coppola / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Focus – If you’re anywhere close to my ancient old age of 32, then you simply MUST have a lot of love in your heart for Mr. Bill Murray, and here’s one of his finest hours yet. As a lonely has-been actor wandering through the Japanese bars, Murray is simply a joy to behold. Toss in a great performance from the wholly adorable Scarlet Johansson and allow the duo to populate such a warm and touching love story…and you got yourself a winner. Easily one of the finest movies about friendship I’ve ever seen.

Matchstick Men (3.5) Dir: Ridley Scott / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Warner – So kooky and off-kilter than I find myself disappointed for not liking it more. Ridley Scott scores with a change of pace and Nick Cage delivers a truly funny performance, but the familial aspects of the plot seem a bit tacked-on, plus Sam Rockwell is criminally underused.

Millennium Actress (4) Dir: Satoshi Kon / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Dreamworks – The SKG boys try to match Miramax by bringing some well-admired Japanese Anime over for American consumption. Hey, at least there’s no freakin’ dubbed version! While this one might not match the magical weirdness of Spirited Away, the fact that it’s a bit more reality-based allows one to appreciate Anime as something more than fodder for the sci-fi geeks. (Don’t get mad; I’m a sci-fi geek too.)

No Good Deed (2.5) Dir: Bob Rafelson / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Seven Arts – Modern noir wannabe wavers between ‘atmospheric and tense’ and ‘unintentionally hilarious’, with the second one winning out in most cases. Sam Jackson delivers an enjoyably mellow performance, and the painfully gorgeous Milla J. offers some surprises too. But the flick’s both overlong and overwrought, but probably worthy of a Wednesday night HBO visit.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (3) Robert Rodriguez / Release Date: Sept. 12th / Columbia & Dimension – A rather bizarrely bloated narrative, considering how sparse and effective both El Mariachi and Desperado were, but there’s some a few solid handfuls of fun to be had here: Johnny Depp steals scenes whole as a rogue FBI guy who is basically one brutal bastard, and a few of the action scenes are dizzyingly cool. But what’s with the needlessly confusing and horrendously edited “plot stuff”? After ten minutes I couldn’t tell who was who, and after twenty I just didn’t care.

Anything Else (1.5) Dir: Woody Allen / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Dreamworks - Dear sweet lord what has happened to our beloved Woody Allen? I thought what happened to Rob Reiner was depressing, this is just...heartbreaking. His last few scripts (Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending were the worst sort of bottom-shelf first-draft sitcom-style pabulum, and this most recent one is just...amazingly bad. Stultifying, if that's even a word. Woody's self-love and obsession with the youthful sexuality has never been more self-evident (or more nauseating) than in this aimless and charmless farce. I honestly cannot believe that this is the same man who wrote Annie Hall and Manhattan.

Bubba Ho-tep (4.5) Dir: Don Coscarelli / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Vitagraph - What a weird and wonderful and goofball movie this is. It's as if it were made solely for the hardcore movie geeks, and that's just fine by me. Bruce Campbell delivers the (so far) crowning achievement of his acting career as Elvis Presley in senior citizen form, and writer/director Don Coscarelli somehow wrings some sincere heart out of such an outlandish concept. You may have to wait for the DVD, but it'll be worth it.

Cold Creek Manor (1.5) Dir: Mike Figgis / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Touchstone - Hoo boy, nothing scares the amazingly wealthy Hollywood execs as much as Good Ol' White Trash do! Sharon Stone and poor Dennis Quaid are mired within one of the most overbaked and uninvolving 'social thrillers' you're ever likely to see. Imagine Cape Fear minus everything that made that a great film and you're left with this mega-flop junkpile.

Demonlover (2.5) Dir: Olivier Assayas / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Palm - Astonishingly slow-moving and deliberate French drama about the inner workings of a high-end porno merger between cultures. There's a nucleus of a fascinating story in here wedged with the 2+ hours of arid chitchat. Connie Nielsen's performance alone makes it watchable.

The Fighting Temptations (1) Dir: Jonathan Lynn / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Paramount - I can see the pitch now: "It's a URBAN comedy. For black people, right? OK, this selfish jerk's aunt dies and leaves him a healthy inheritance...but ONLY if he can coach the small-town church choir into winning the state competition. Eh?? Ehhh???" What a shitpile.

Secondhand Lions (3) Dir: Tim McCanlies / Release Date: Sept. 19th / New Line – Meh. I was hoping a pairing between Robert Duvall and Michael Caine would yield something a bit more memorable than this friendly-but-familiar tale of uncles and an estranged nephew. The performances are charming, but that’s essentially all there is here.

Underworld (3) Dir: Len Wiseman / Release Date: Sept. 19th / Screen Gems – Wa happa? The trailer promised a movie that someone like me would absolutely L-O-V-E, yet the finished product is a whole lotta drippy Goth set-design, slick leather outfits, and pouty pale fashion models. Two great action scenes (that open and close the flick) can’t salvage a sadly inert pacing, plus there’s just way too much self-important blather between the characters. Simply put, there’s no freakin’ way a “Vampires vs. Werewolves” movie should in any way feel DULL…and this one does. The upcoming sequel should ROCK tho… ;)

Duplex (1.5) Dir: Danny DeVito / Release Date: Sept. 26th / Miramax - As an actor, Danny DeVito is always likeable. As a director, he's proven himself unafraid of tackling dark material. (His The War of the Roses is one of the best modern black comedies out there.) But THIS one...yeccch. It makes Death to Smoochy look like Dr. Strangelove. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore sleepwalk their way through a whole lotta tired schtick involving a sweet apartment and a devious old lady. Flick tries to be both acidic and sweet at the same time, and the result is as distasteful as it sounds.

Mambo Italiano (3.5) Dir: Emile Gaudreault / Release Date: Sept. 26th / Samuel Goldwyn – Simplistic, light and airy, this one clearly aims to be labeled “My Adorable Gay Italian Son”. But it’s also quite likeable in a sunny and predictable way, and Paul Sorvino pops up to deliver a few worthwhile moments. It sure ain’t deep, but who says Hollywood owns exclusive rights to the Innocuous Romantic Comedy?

My Life Without Me (2.5) Dir: Isabel Coixet / Release Date: Sept. 26th / Sony Pictures Classics – A woman finds out that she’s about to die. She opts not to tell anyone. And that fills 90 minutes. The only thing that saves this maudlin junk from its own self-seriousness is the commanding performance from Sarah Polley. And she deserves better material.

Under the Tuscan Sun (3) Dir: Audrey Wells / Release Date: Sept. 26th / Touchstone – I know! I know! First Mona Lisa Smile, now this! No, I’m not receiving estrogen shots, people. Just something about this formulaic little Empowered Woman movie got to me and held my interest quite easily. Chalk a lot of the credit up to the adorable and talented Diane Lane, as I shudder to think of what this movie could have been with a less magnetic gal in the lead role. It’s all very trite and safe and fuzzy, but who says that guys are immune to this sort of stuff? I’d LIKE to be, but oh well…

The Rundown (4) Dir: Peter Berg / Release Date: Sept. 26th / Universal – This one feels like it should be labeled a ‘guilty pleasure’ but I refuse to allow that. Berg knew exactly what he was doing here and crafted a cocksure and totally enjoyable example of the Mindless Action Movie. We got that Rock fella coming into his own as an action star, we got good ol’ Stifler being obnoxious and funny, we got the awesomely oily Chris Walken shooting people and pontificating on the existence of the Tooth Fairy, we got high-end karate chops, whip-cracks and neck-punches and chases and shootouts…and Rosario Dawson’s lips! What more does a Guy Movie need? If movies are meals, this one’s a Big Mac, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy Big Macs.

October

Out of Time (4) Dir: Carl Franklin / Release Date: Oct. 3rd / MGM – Better-than-it-oughtta-be all-in-one-day beat-the-clock potboiler in which Denzel is allowed to play an endearingly conflicted good guy and the plot machinations are forced forward with an impressive tenacity. Even the silly ones involving fax machines.

School of Rock (4) Dir: Richard Linklater / Release Date: Oct. 3rd / Paramount – What do you do when you’re a well-admired indie director and you’d like to deliver something, y’know, profitable? You team up with another well-admired indie filmmaker (screenwriter Mike White) and snag an alterna-star with a small-yet-vocal fanbase (that’d be Jack Black) and give the studios and easily consumable family-friendly comedy that wasn’t exactly a tough movie to make. But the wrinkle here is that the movie freakin’ works! It really does. Jack deserves a lot of the credit, but there’s some real heart and a little sincerity here, two commodities generally missing from comedies of this ilk.

Prey for Rock & Roll (3.5) Dir: Alex Steyermark / Release Date: Oct. 3rd / MAC – Gina Gershon and Drea de Matteo as two grass-roots rocker gals. Already you know if this is a movie you wanna see. Struggles with gigs and managers and fans and boyfriends and real-life pressures: all present and accounted for. The clichés come fast and furious yet feel adequately convincing this time out.

The Station Agent (4.5) Dir: Thomas McCarthy / Release Date: Oct. 3rd / Miramax – A joyously low-key and touchingly personal tale of plain old simple friendship. Period. This is a great little movie that many people have yet to see for themselves. I recommend you do so as soon as possible.

Wonderland (3) Dir: James Cox / Release Date: Oct. 3rd / Lion's Gate – Sort of a darker take on Boogie Nights, only based on actual events and presented through a Rashomon-style of alternating timelines and storytellers, this one’s worth seeing for the performance of Val Kilmer as John Holmes. An impressive array of character actors bounce in and out of this rather seedy tale of porn, drugs and murder; the simple spectacle of the flick allows one to (sort of) overlook the fact that the fractured narrative only serves to confuse the story. And that the ending’s a copout. As a whole, it’s trashy, lurid fun.

Mystic River (3.5) Dir: Clint Eastwood / Release Date: Oct. 8th / Warner – Overpraised and underwritten “Ack-tors Film” about how to cope with loss in a dangerously close-knit community. Eastwood directs with crisp confidence, the performers are all spot-on, and the morality lessons are all suitably vague. But what’s up with the out-of-left field plot turns and head-slapping contrivances? Some truly challenging concepts done in by a screenwriter taking a few too many shortcuts.

Dopamine (4) Dir: Mark Decena / Release Date: Oct. 10th / Sundance - A romantic comedy that actually seems to be about the very nature of romance and not just a bunch of push-button machinations geared to have Guy A smooch Girl B just before the end credits roll. Certainly not the sort of flick to win any box-office awards, which means you'll have to queue it up at Netflix if you wanna get a look.

Good Boy! (2.5) Dir: John Hoffman / Release Date: Oct. 10th / MGM - Banal cutesy-poo kid's flick about dogs from outer space. A few good laughs and a quick pace help to keep things moving along, but your kids probably deserve just a little bit better than this. Both Babe movies are on DVD you know.

The House of the Dead (1.5) Dir: Uwe Boll / Release Date: Oct. 10th / Artisan – I don’t know how anyone could expect something good from a flick like this, but we hardcore horror freaks hold out hope for even the dingiest of low-rent horror titles. This one’s an amazingly stupid Zombie Island schpiel that’s worth seeing only if you’re a fan of truly atrocious filmmaking.

Intolerable Cruelty (4) Dir: Joel Coen / Release Date: Oct. 10th / Universal – Coen Bros. Movies are like pizza; even the so-so ones are pretty tasty. Such is the case here, as Clooney and Zeta make a scintillating pair, the homages to 1940’s screwball-ism are quick and effective, and everything wraps up with a clever little twist. One can help but wonder if the Coens’ contributions from outside screenwriters is what knocked this one back from being something truly special.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (4.5) Dir: Quentin Tarantino / Release Date: Oct. 10th / Miramax – My only real gripe is that QT let the bloated moneymen snip his flick in two while being forced to plaster a grin on his face and say “Hey, 2 volumes is a great idea!” Puh-leeze. What artist wants to see their finished product sliced in half by a greedy patron? I digress. There’s more insanely kinetic action and passionate movie-love in one HALF of Kill Bill than there are in just about any genre homage you’re ever likely to come across. And, yes, that includes Night of the Creeps.

Pieces of April (4) Dir: Peter Hedges / Release Date: Oct. 17th / MGM – One of those “boy is my family crazy” stories that never feels fake or forced, this affable little indie showcases a handful of great performances and a few sweet moments into its scant running time. Patricia Clarkson has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention for her role here, but keep an eye on Oliver Platt in this one. Some of the guy’s best work in years.

Runaway Jury (3.5) Dir: Gary Fleder / Release Date: Oct. 17th / 20th Century Fox – I call it the Poseidon Adventure Theory: some movies that might stink out loud end up as entertaining through the sheer force of its large and varied cast. This one fits that category to a tee. The plot threads involving jury tampering and several double-double crosses may fall by the wayside, but it’s not too often you get to see John Cusack, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman jawing away at each other in one scene. (And for you advanced students, we also get solid work from the likes of Bruce Davison, Jeremy Piven and Bruce McGill!) As a movie fan, that’s surely worth a look.

Sylvia (2) Dir: Christine Jeffs / Release Date: Oct. 17th / Focus – I refuse to believe that a movie must be worthwhile just because it’s some pedigreed ‘art feelm’. I don’t care what Blockbuster shelf you’ll find this movie on; it’s a dreary and lifeless and deadly dull bio-pic of poet Sylvia Plath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as, seemingly, herself.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (4.5) Dir: Marcus Nispel / Release Date: Oct. 17th / New Line – Well skin mah hide and hang me on a hook! Wow! I trudged into this remake expecting ultra-crap defined…and I was wrong! Sweet! Now don’t get me wrong here; there’s no way this one can hold a candle to the nightmarishly effective original Massacre. Got that, gorehounds? The original is still clearly king! But hey, the revisit ends up a lot more stylish, unsettling, goopy and just plain nasty than anyone would have predicted. About halfway through the movie I had to mentally pinch myself; horror remakes, frankly, are never this good!

Veronica Guerin (3) Dir: Joel Schumacher / Release Date: Oct. 17th / Touchstone – Feels a whole lot like a made-for-TV bio-pic, but still a fairly decent (and certainly watchable) one. The fact that our lead character is just about entirely unlikable doesn’t help the movie all that much, but hey, maybe she was like that in real life. Cate Blanchett furthers the theory that she cannot give a bad performance…like, ever.

Beyond Borders (1.5) Dir: Martin Campbell / Release Date: Oct. 24th / Paramount - Dear lord could this woman love herself any more passionately? Nice to see that a story about the suffering of humanity on a global scale can somehow be reduced to a 98-minute Revlon commercial. How this one avoided a debut on The Lifetime Channel is anyone's guess, but I sense this one's the third of a now happily extinguished three-pic deal between Paramount and Lara the Lips. Jolie needs to get back to the Character Actor bit, because she's got the chops. And this shit ain't flyin'.

Elephant (4) Dir: Gus Van Sant / Release Date: Oct. 24th / Fine Line - No-frills and intense take on the Columbine tragedy, courtesy of the unpredictable Mr. Van Sant. Harsh, horrifying and entirely fascinating.

Scary Movie 3 (2) Dir: David Zucker / Release Date: Oct. 24th / Dimension – I guess it’s kind of stupid to knock these movies for having poor narrative structure and nothing resembling character development or, like, plot. Since these spoofs are nothing more than barely-connected series of sketches, I opt to judge this one as such: most of the gags suck. A few do not. There, that was easy.

Radio (1) Dir: Michael Tollin / Release Date: Oct. 24th / Columbia – Hoo boy. Am I the only one who sees each year’s annual “retarded person” movie as a bright green neon sign flashing SUCK SUCK SUCK?? I can’t be. Let me put it this way: if you consider The Other Sister, I am Sam and Radio “really great and well-made movies,” then I’m simply the wrong person to be coming to for movie advice. Sorry.

The Human Stain (2.5) Dir: Robert Benton / Release Date: Oct. 31st / Miramax – If a movie can be overrated and underappreciated at the same time, here’s the one. It’s an oh-so-serious drama about the social class mores and the hidden face of racism. Kinda dry, intermittently intriguing, well-acted overall.

In the Cut (3) Dir: Jane Campion / Release Date: Oct. 31st / Screen Gems – Not awful and certainly not great, this gritty Meg Ryan flick is half a dark thriller and half a gloomy romance. Both halves work well enough to hold one’s interest, but the movie runs out of steam right about when Act III kicks in.

November

Brother Bear (2) Dir: Aaron Blaise & Robert Walker / Release Date: Nov. 1st / Disney - If the folks at Disney Animation put 1/5th of their visual efforts into a challenging screenplay, well then we'd have TWO Pixars to coo over. As it stands, this one's a carbon-copy rehash of all the most painfully familiar Disney touchstones, right down to the simplistic morality tales, bellowing Phil Collins croonings, and the overworked comic-relief characters. Visually, we have some lovely Disney splendor. Talk to me about plot or characterization and I'll get some glazed look in me eye.

The Matrix Revolutions (4) Dir: Andy & Larry Wachowksi / Release Date: Nov. 5th / Warner – While many out there were happy to label this one an out-and-out disaster, I think that’s knee-jerk reactionism of a rather cynical kind. But that’s just me. Still, even I had a few gripes about what’s overall quite a flashy good time. Lacks the overwhelming newness of the original, and it short-changes several of the more fascinating conceits from Part 2, but still an invigorating, challenging and very exciting finale to the series.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (4) Dir: Kim Bartley & Donnacha O'Brian / Release Date: Nov. 5th / Vitagraph – Some documentaries are impressive just for the plain old ACCESS that the filmmakers have to historical events. Such is true here, as the untold stories of Venezuelan politics are cracked open for the world to see.

Elf (4) Dir: Jon Favreau / Release Date: Nov. 7th / New Line - Favreau and Will Ferrell took the road less-traveled by youthful filmmakers and actually delivered a movie that manages "sweetly funny" without resorting to "manipulative pap" and the result is a lovable little Xmas flick indeed.

Gloomy Sunday (4) Dir: Rolf Schubel / Release Date: Nov. 7th / Arrow - It may feel like a sleeping pill at the outset, but give this one a while to warm up and you'll probably find something to like. Since it's about a sad old German tune that seemingly has the power to cause mass suicides, you needn't expect any sort of laugh riot. Still, a moody and effective period drama.

Love Actually (3) Dir: Richard Curtis / Release Date: Nov. 7th / Universal – If ever there were a movie that offered equal parts quality and crap, this would be the one. Several charming and very funny performances are scattered throughout this overlong and overly-familiar “greatest hits” compilation of rom-com clichés, stereotypes and plot touchstones. Nothing new here at all, except for perhaps the sheer VOLUME of characters and the fact that the film feels like a romantic British episode of Saturday Night Live and not really any sort of a ‘complete whole’.

Martin & Orloff (3.5) Dir: Lawrence Blume / Release Date: Nov. 7th / Harlem – That’s the great thing about comedy: if it’s GOOD, you don’t need a big budget or special effects or any of those other things that producers wedge into their movies when they know they’re crap. A few of the chaps from that Upright Citizens sketch show make their way into feature films with this low-budget and blissfully silly affair. It leaps from skit to skit with next to no cohesion, but most of the bits still incite chuckles.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (4) Dir: Joe Dante / Release Date: Nov. 14th / Warner Bros. – While YOU were off buying six tickets to see The Cat in the Hat, Mr. Joe Dante (the movie geek’s best friend) was checking the box-office returns for Back in Action and probably weeping uncontrollably. Here’s something I’ll never understand: Space Jam made $90m+ domestically; this one didn’t crack 20. Is Michael Jordan some huge box-office draw or something? It just boggles my mind, but I know one thing: I’ll be purchasing this one on DVD…while I wouldn’t use the Space Jam DVD to dig something out of my ass.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (4) Dir: Peter Weir / Release Date: Nov. 14th / Fox – On a purely visual scale, movies don’t get much more impressive than this. On the whole we got two truly spectacular sea battles bookending a variety of intermittently waterlogged subplots. Some work quite well, others perhaps needed a meeting with the cutting room floor. Crowe keeps things moving along capably with a commanding performance.

Melvin Goes to Dinner (4.5) Dir: Bob Odenkirk / Release Date: Nov. 14th / Showtime – If I told you it was not much more than four people chatting over dinner for 90-some minutes, you’d probably tune me out and start wondering when Shrek 2 is coming out. But then you’d be missing out on something truly witty and more than a little insightful. Go into it with an attitude and the folks may come off as pretentious and self-important. Sit back and enjoy the ‘everyday people’ banality of the topics at hand and you may find something oddly familiar.

Shattered Glass (4.5) Dir: Billy Ray / Release Date: Nov. 14th / Lion's Gate – Short, sweet and altogether engrossing tale of journalistic integrity and in one case a decided lack thereof. Well-acted across the board, the Peter Sarsgaard stands out as someone worth watching, plus it’s great to see Hayden Christensen deliver a performance that’s actually pretty good.

Tupac: Resurrection (3) Dir: Lauren Lazin / Release Date: Nov. 14th / Paramount – I went in expecting a 80-some minute posthumous handjob, but there’s a bit more depth and insight here than one might normally expect. Though previously rather ambivalent about Mr. Shakur and his music, I now know that the guy was indeed an intelligent and very talented guy. This newfound knowledge makes his untimely (not to mention unnecessary) demise all the more tragic.

21 Grams (4.5) Dir: Alejandro Inarritu / Release Date: Nov. 21st / Focus - Like the best sorts of stories, this one takes a little time before it sucks you in, but it sure does get the job done. Three disparate tales of personal tragedy are jigsawed together via a rather fascinating fractured frame. Not a fun time in any way, but it's a flick that could easily hypnotize you for 2 hours.

The Barbarian Invasions (4) Dir: Denys Arcand / Release Date: Nov. 21st / Miramax - Snip out all the middle-class navel-gazing about ancient politics and oh-so-lofty literary references and you'd have a tearjerker near and dear to my heart. What I got was a great little movie about a dying Dad and his coming to terms with the end, punctuated by several scenes of windbags pontificating on things both obscure and self-important. But that's perhaps a bit harsh. The movie did make me cry more than once after all.

The Cat in the Hat (1) Dir: Bo Welch / Release Date: Nov. 21st / Universal - You gotta be kidding me, right? A 72-page children's book turned into to an 80-minute wet fart full of crass commercialism and atrociously unchildlike (not to mention unfunny) attempts at potty humor. Mike Myers, often so funny and affable elsewhere, overacts loudly and desperately - as if he knows full well how bereft of life the project truly is. Bottom line: your kids deserve better, even if they're rotten little brats.

Gothika (2) Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz / Release Date: Nov. 21st / Warner - Ugh. It's not bad enough to have the universe's two most irritating actresses in the same movie, but then to have the film this chatty and meandering and dull is just unacceptable. The Dark Castle guys should stick with their haunted houses and haunted boats; effective psychological horror requires a lot more creativity than this.

Bad Santa (4) Dir: Terry Zwigoff / Release Date: Nov. 26th / Miramax - Bravely nasty yuletime farce with Billy Bob in brilliant comic form and collection of fantastic supporting players, including the well-adored John Ritter and the commandingly funny Bernie Mac. Taken as a kind of anti-Xmas treatment it works surprisingly well and makes a great double feature with Elf or A Christmas Story.

The Cooler (4) Dir: Wayne Kramer / Release Date: Nov. 26th / Lion's Gate - If you got William H. Macy in a lead role, you've already done half your job. People just love the guy, and for good reason. Toss in a surprisingly excellent Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin doing some of his best work in years, and that's a movie worth seeing. It's a seamy and periodically funny story of one sad sack with the anti-Midas touch and the various Vegas schlubs he deals with every day. The ending's perhaps just a bit too tidy, but it's a minor gripe on an overall solid flick.

The Haunted Mansion (2) Dir: Rob Minkoff / Release Date: Nov. 26th / Disney – Not as amazingly wretched as it could have been (I’m looking at you, Cat in the Hat) but too lifeless and inert to garner much goodwill. Eddie Murphy continues his string of mindless kiddie pabulum while lots of CGI artists earn a paycheck. Skip it.

In America (5) Dir: Jim Sheridan / Release Date: November 26th / Fox Searchlight – When the sentiment in a ‘people story’ feels sincere, it’s like anti-schmaltz, and that’s a wonderful feeling indeed. Sheridan’s latest is a warm and nostalgic and altogether lovable tale about a young Irish family who struggle to remain happy in the relatively unfriendly confines of 1980’s New York. One of my favorite movies of 2003.

The Missing (3.5) Dir: Ron Howard / Release Date: Nov. 26th / Sony – Ron Howard’s long-overdue attempt at grown-up filmmaking is an only moderately successful experiment. Cate Blanchett is great as a frontier Mama who must trek across the plains to reclaim her kidnapped daughter, but having Tommy Lee Jones as her prickly papa (who also happens to be a tracker extraordinaire) just reeks of familiarity. I’m sorry but I simply don’t need to EVER see another movie in which Tommy Lee Jones hunts, tracks, chases or pursues another person. Do you?

Timeline (2) Dir: Richard Donner / Release Date: Nov. 26th / Paramount – A perfectly serviceable little work of sci-fi adventure (from the pen of Michael Crichton, premise-creator extraordinaire) is somehow morphed and bloated into one of the year’s biggest howlers. Here’s some free advice to the casting directors out there: Lose Paul Walker’s phone number! The only people who can admire Walker’s work (Tom Servo, Crow, etc.) aren’t on the air anymore, so who are you selling this vacuous surf-robot TO anyway? Anyway, this flick mishandles not one but TWO potentially cool movie ideas (those being Time Travel and Medieval Warfare) so atrociously that I’m starting to wonder who brainwashed the formerly phenomenal Richard Donner.

Valley of Tears (3.5) Dir: Hart Perry / Release Date: Nov. 28th / Seven Arts – The plight of Mexican-Americans living in Texas might sound like the recipe for a depressing documentary subject, but something enlightening pops up every few minutes here. Focusing mainly on the well-documented Onion Strike of 1979, Perry exposes several unpleasant truths about the way Mexican immigrants have long been treated in the Deep South.

December

Honey (1) Dir: Bille Woodruff / Release Date: Dec. 5th / Universal – Ugh. Time for our annual “TV star/pop singer overcomes predictable obstacles on the way to fame” bullshit. As least this one’s better than Glitter. But if the best thing you can say about a movie is that it’s better than a Mariah Carey vehicle, well something’s just wrong.

The Last Samurai (4.5) Dir: Edward Zwick / Release Date: Dec. 5th / Warner – I expected blather and boredom, but got something a whole lot better than that. With this flick, I’m officially a lifelong member of the Ed Zwick fan club and must also now reconsider my opinion of Tom Cruise as an actor. The guy’s never really been judged as an “actor” since he’s so pretty and popular and all that, but Cruise really has become a damn solid performer over the past several years. Plus this one’s got lots of stunning action bits, the “talky spots” are not at all boring, and (best of all) the movie offers some historical context to a character I’d only known previously as “John Belushi in a deli”.

Big Fish (5) Dir: Tim Burton / Release Date: Dec. 10th / Columbia - I was the first to scream foul when Burton delivered his awful Apes remake. It just felt to me like he'd briefly become a studio puppet...when his previous roster of blissfully cool flicks dictated that that was the last thing he should become. Anyway, this one's a crisp and warm and altogether lovely return to form for Mr. Burton. It's a collection of alluring fables wrapped up in a quirky and endearing character study. It's full of brilliant sights and fantastic performances; it's frequently funny and more than a little sad. I loved it and I hope the Timmy B. we all love is back for good.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (3) Dir: Peter Webber / Release Date: Dec. 12th / Lion's Gate - Museum-style period drama that engages via production design and acting performances while presenting a rather languid and airy tale. Gorgeous to look at throughout, but frequently quite dull too.

Love Don't Cost a Thing (1.5) Dir: Troy Beyer / Release Date: Dec. 12th / Warner – Love might not cost a thing, but acquiring the rights to an old Patrick Dempsey comedy must be even less expensive than that. Hoping to update the oh-so-insightful “I bought popularity!” schpiel for a modern, urban audience isn’t necessarily a bad concept in theory, but when you somehow manage to mishandle the simplistic morality tale of “Can’t Buy Me Love”…you know you’re not even trying.


Something's Gotta Give (3) Dir: Nancy Meyers / Release Date: Dec. 12th / Columbia – Two great performances from two great actors can’t hide the fact that this script is deadly dull and more than a little derivative. No amount of false endings can cover up that the filmmakers wanted to cover every conceivable base, and the “unreality factor” tries repeatedly to trip the performers up. Thankfully for all viewers, Nicholson and Keaton win most of the battles.

Stuck on You (2.5) Dir: Bobby & Peter Farrelly / Release Date: Dec. 12th / Fox – Here’s how to take one joke, and one that’s not really all that hilarious to begin with, and run it straight into the ground for 100+ plus minutes. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear try their hardest and put on some winning nice-guy charm, but the gags are telegraphed and the rather flimsy swipes taken at Hollywood seem tacked on and listless.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (5) Dir: Peter Jackson / Release Date: Dec. 17th / New Line – Pure cinematic bliss. And if I have to be labeled a “geek”, the so freakin’ be it. When Jackson’s trilogy was announced I thought “Hey cool. A fantasy adventure trilogy. Sounds cool.” Three years later I’m thinking “Gunnnhhhhh…. Howdja do THAT, Pete?? Holy CRAP!” And I’m absolutely NOT just talking about the action scenes…

Calendar Girls (3) Dir: Nigel Cole / Release Date: Dec. 19th / Touchstone - Sweety nice-nice sugars and spice old-lady arthouse Brit flick that offers a dash of geriatric Full Montyism with an affable-yet-entirely-forgettable comedy of manners. Well-acted and charming and all that stuff, but try remembering it three weeks after you saw it.

The Hebrew Hammer (4) Dir: Jonathan Kesselman / Release Date: Dec. 19th / Strand – It may have taken a long time for the first Jewish Superhero flick, but the wait was worth it. The widely-adored-by-movie-freaks character actor known as Adam Goldberg gets a chance to anchor a farce comedy and he does so with flying colors. Fans of “Jew humor” should have a ball, but anyone with a taste for arcane giggles should have a good time too.

House of Sand and Fog (5) Dir: Vadim Perelman / Release Date: Dec. 19th / Dreamworks – Know what’s great? When a movie doesn’t feed you all the answers and lets you decide for yourself how you feel about the characters and their actions. Plus we get Ben Kingsley at the top of his game, the ethereal Jenny Connelly delivering a heart-breaking turn, some stellar supporting performances, a screenplay that never once takes the simple way out, and a bang-up directorial debut from Vadim Perelman. This one may LOOK like a yawnfest; it’s not.

Mona Lisa Smile (3) Dir: Mike Newell / Release Date: Dec. 19th / Columbia – Perhaps another one of those movies I liked a little only because I kinda expected to hate it a lot. Sure it’s treacle and well-orchestrated treacle at that, but it seems the director Mike Newell knew he was working on a full-bore chick-flick and tried the keep the estrogen implosions to a minimum. As it stands, he should have excised the love interest schtick entirely and he definitely should have given the magnetic Maggie Gyllenhaal a bit more to do. The other lasses acquit themselves amicably and the ending only gives us one TRULY pap-laden sequences. As push-button chick-flicks go, this one’s actually not too manipulative. Or maybe I was just dazzled by all the young hotness.

Monster (3.5) Dir: Patty Jenkins / Release Date: Dec. 24th / Newmarket – Save for one truly heart-breaking scene near the finale, this one feels like nothing more than a Lifetime Channel bio-pic of a brutal murder…who was really just confused and unloved after all. Awww. What elevates this one (and elevates it a lot) is the mind-bending lead performance from kewpie-doll Charlize Theron, who makes a ballsy leap for credibility and sticks the landing.

Cheaper by the Dozen (3) Dir: Shawn Levy / Release Date: Dec. 25th / Fox - I gritted my teeth through the trailers and went in expecting the worse. Perhaps that explains why I had a fairly OK time with this one. Of course it doesn't hurt that Steve Martin is my #1 favorite funnyman and that Bonnie Hunt has more charm in her little finger than most actors do in their entire repertoire. The big-gag physical-schtick set pieces directed so atrociously that it boggles the mind, but there are a few sly bits strewn throughout as well. Those looking for a family flick could do worse...though they could also do a whole lot better.

Cold Mountain (3.5) Dir: Anthony Minghella / Release Date: Dec. 25th / Miramax - One half an oh-so-serious romantic-drama tearjerker set during the civil war; one half all-star chuckle-fest a la Rat Race. A stunning war sequence opens the flick, but then we're privy to Giovanni Ribisi as a backwoods harem-keeper? Then we switch to a Homer-esque Odyssey across a war-torn America...interrupted by moments of Renee Zellweger in full-on Kathy Bates mode of wild overacting. Maybe it's an earnest drama; maybe it's unintentionally hilarious now and again...but it sure ain't boring. And any 2.5-hour movie that ain't boring is doing something right.

Paycheck (3.5) Dir: John Woo / Release Date: Dec. 25th / Paramount – Guess this one goes down as Guilty Pleasure #2. See, I’m one of the very few movie critics who will plainly claim that Ben Affleck is a pretty good actor…when he’s given worthwhile material, of course. And for my 6.50, Affleck anchors this occasionally silly and generally fascinating sci-fi/action combo platter. Much of it is sillier than its meant to be, but the ‘misplaced memories’ conceit worked well enough to my Twilight Zone-obsessed brain-pan and there are a few slick action scenes to keep your toes tapping. As far as Philip K. Dick adaptations are concerned, this one sure isn’t a Blade Runner…but is sure as HELL isn’t an Impostor either!

Peter Pan (3) Dir: P.J. Hogan / Release Date: Dec. 25th / Universal – About halfway through the movie it struck me, and I was briefly impressed with my cleverness (very briefly): this flick is Home Alone meets Moulin Rouge! Use that categorization as you see fit, but I stand by it. It sure as heck isn’t near the misfire that Benigni’s Pinocchio was, but there are times when it feels like it’s gonna come close. A ravishing production design, stellar effects, a memorable turn (two, actually) from Jason Isaacs, and one very cool giant crocodile can’t veil the simple truth that there’s no meat to this story.

Japanese Story (2) Dir: Sue Brooks / Release Date: Dec. 31st / Samuel Goldwyn – Toni Collette is a damn good actress. I sincerely and firmly believe that. How else could such a humorless and self-serious tale manage to be watchable? Sort of a flipside variation on Lost in Translation, this one sees an Aussie geologist and a Japanese businessman “finding themselves” as they wander the outback together. Toss in an entirely ridiculous twist that aims for gravitas and falls well short, and you’re left with an indie that will leave you scratching your head in bewilderment.

And because these 243 weren’t enough, here are the ones I’m still itchin’ to see:

Anything But Love, The Big Empty, Carnage, Casa de los Babys, The Company, Die Mommie Die!, Dorm Daze, The Fog of War, Garage Days, Ghosts of the Abyss, High Times Potluck, Hotel, Jet Lag, Le Divorce, Luther, Manic, Masked and Anonymous, P.S. Your Cat is Dead!, People I Know, Pride & Prejudice, The Princess Blade, Returner, Rugrats Go Wild!, The Secret Lives of Dentists, The Statement, Step Into Liquid, Stone Reader, The Singing Detective, Suspended Animation, The Triplets of Belleville, Young Black Stallion, The Young Unknowns


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=914
originally posted: 01/12/04 14:08:40
last updated: 01/31/04 13:04:21
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