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Brains, beauty & brawn

All Covered This MonthPlus a glimpse of an appealing Charlotte in Shallow Hal


Perhaps wary of the controversy that surrounded the liberal handling of factual material in films like The Hurricane and JFK, the makers of A Beautiful Mind (***1/2 out of four) went out of their way to make it known upfront that their movie was "a semi-fictional story" and "a distinctive departure from the source material." Even with that disclaimer, the film still didn't manage to avoid naysaying from sticklers for historical accuracy; but with four Oscars and a $170 million box office haul, it's safe to say it didn't suffer any dire consequences. Director Ron Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema -- even his best pictures (like Apollo 13) have a stuffed-shirt quality about them -- but in tackling the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life but still went on to win the Nobel Prize, Howard has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that paradoxically allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's never-ending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe, even better here than in his Oscar-winning Gladiator turn, builds enormous sympathy for his disheveled character, but almost as impressive is Jennifer Connelly, the raven-haired beauty who, after being dismissed over the past decade-plus as pin-up fodder, built on the previous year's Requiem for a Dream breakout with a touching performance as Nash's saintly wife, who weathered her husband's fluctuating fortunes through the decades. The four Oscars went to Howard, Connelly, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and the picture itself; a fifth should have gone to composer James Horner, whose superb score travels places we don't quite expect. The two-disc DVD includes plenty of interesting material, including audio commentaries by Howard and Goldsman, deleted scenes, features on the special effects, makeup designs and soundtrack, Academy Award acceptance speeches, footage of the real John Nash picking up his Nobel Prize in Economics, and much more.An enormous international hit and the surefire winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar until eventual champ No Man's Land came along to snatch it away, Amelie (***1/2) is the sort of overseas import that could charm even diehard xenophobes -- provided they could ever get over their absurd aversion to subtitles. After making his mark with the delightfully deranged films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the ill-fated mistake of going Hollywood by overseeing the hapless Alien: Resurrection. But Amelie placed Jeunet back in his element: as the creator of enchanting, quirky comedies that, like their central characters, march to their own (off)beat. This one's his best work yet, an absolutely disarming piece about an eccentric young woman (irresistible Audrey Tautou) who takes it upon herself to improve the lives of those around her. Her methods are unorthodox but effective, yet in the midst of her busybody schedule, she slowly realizes her own life could use some assistance when it comes to romance. On paper, Amelie doesn't sound much different than Emma, Hello, Dolly! or Chocolat (three other works about matchmakers unlocking their own passions), but Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant never run with the conventional, preferring instead to pack their movie with unexpected literalizations (when Amelie spots her intended, she actually dissolves in a puddle of water), wildly original comic set pieces (keep your eye on that garden gnome), and the sort of touching asides that will bring sighs of recognition from appreciative video viewers. Also a two-disc DVD, this one includes cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes features, cast auditions, and a couple of quirky extras.The latest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, Collateral Damage (**), arrived on the scene last February wielding enough heavy baggage to drag an ocean liner to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Slated for an October 5 release but yanked following 9/11, this action yarn about a firefighter who seeks revenge on the terrorist who killed his family became the poster child for the ongoing debate on how Hollywood should start treating scripts featuring terrorism. Are such movies cathartic escapism that elevates national pride or insensitive, exploitative junk that plays right into the image of Hollywood (and, by extension, America) as a soulless land that worships the bottom line above all else? It's often a tricky business, finding this line between moral decency and moral debauchery, but overall, films of this nature are probably no more heinous than the scores of WWII films produced after the fact. And in the middle of this raging discourse, it seemed almost incidental whether or not this box office underachiever was a good movie. For the record, it's not: Rather, it's a working-class model of the standard action flick, with very little to distinguish it from the other run-of-the-mill "red meat" endeavors that periodically test the effectiveness of our home theaters' digital sound systems. DVD extras include audio commentary by Schwarzenegger and director Andrew Davis, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, and theatrical trailer.The original preview for the winning romantic comedy Shallow Hal (***), which made the enterprise look like two hours of fat jokes, couldn't have been more misleading; actually, most of the fat jokes have been crammed into that trailer, allowing the rest of the movie to make its case as a sympathetic tale about getting past surface appearances. Of course, I don't mean to give the impression that viewers should rent this expecting the all-inclusive humanity of a Frank Capra feature, as this Farrelly Brothers picture has its PG-13 share of raunchy gags and morally dubious asides. But as was the case with the siblings' There's Something About Mary, there's actually a tender love story at the center of all the sophomoric shenanigans. Jack Black plays the title role, a nerd who's spent his life trying to date gorgeous women clearly out of his league. Hal's only interested in physical beauty, but a chance encounter with self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself) changes all that. "De-hypnotized" by Robbins, Hal can now only see people as they truly are on the inside; this in turn allows him to fall for a large woman with a large heart. Hal sees a svelte beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow au naturel), while everyone else sees the 300-pound reality (Paltrow in a convincing fat suit); this works just fine until Hal's equally shallow friend (Jason Alexander) contemplates breaking the spell. Black's performance is a delight, retaining his character's goofball persona while also showing us the blossoming adult underneath, but Paltrow's empathic contribution is also key. Incidentally, this was filmed here in Charlotte, and under the eye of Oscar- winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the city has never before looked so appealing on screen. DVD extras include audio commentary by the Farrelly Brothers, deleted scenes and several making-of features.

Here we go again: Resident Evil (*) is yet another screen adaptation of a popular video game, and one that makes last summer's doltish Lara Croft: Tomb Raider seem almost Kubrickian by comparison. Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, doubtless hoping that financiers will confuse him with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights fame), has made a career out of helming noisy sci-fi spectacles like Soldier and Mortal Kombat. Here he returned to the same dry well, concocting a shoddy product that tries to beef up its pinball-simple narrative by borrowing liberally from The Andromeda Strain, Aliens and George Romero's Dead trilogy. After an opening half-hour that ranks as the most excruciatingly dull 30 minutes I've sat through in at least two years (basically, expository scenes of a military task force trying to find out what went wrong at an underground genetic research facility), things get moving once our heroes get attacked by hordes of shuffling zombies, a pack of fleshless Dobermans, and a laughable, computer-generated mutant billed as "The Licker" (boy, there's a terrifying moniker). Except for one imaginative (albeit gruesome) sequence involving slice-and-dice laser beams, this isn't even fun on a trash level; had Rollerball not opened a month earlier, this would have been an automatic frontrunner for Worst Film of the Year honors. DVD extras include audio commentary by Anderson, various short features and theatrical trailer.

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