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Catching Up

Spielberg effort dominates remaining holiday films


Whither Benigni? Not on these pages, as Roberto Benigni's live-action take on Pinocchio -- one of the last of the big Christmas releases -- wasn't screened for critics in advance. But three other examples of featherweight fare have just arrived in theaters, though only one of them is worth its weight in coal.

Steven Spielberg had already fulfilled his quota of quality entertainment for the year when he released Minority Report last summer, but as an added treat -- think of it, I suppose, as a Christmas bonus -- he's now offering Catch Me If You Can, a pleasing little picture that finds the director in a downright playful mood. From its snazzy opening credits -- the type normally found in frothy romantic comedies of the early 60s -- to John Williams' bouncy, infectious score, Catch Me feels like nothing so much as pure old-fashioned escapism -- it's the retro-movie that the fall flop The Truth About Charlie desperately wanted to be. Inspired by a true story, this stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in a smooth, charismatic performance) as Frank Abagnale, who, while still a teenager, manages to successfully impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher, all the while cashing false checks to the tune of more than $2 million. Frank stays ahead of the law for years, but never too far ahead, as his every move is dogged by a persistent FBI agent (Tom Hanks, very good) determined to put the cuffs on this enterprising kid. Because this is a Spielberg project, you can bet that some poignant subtext involving splintered family units will come into play (Christopher Walken does a nice job as Frank's perpetually weary dad), but for the most part, this is engaging, stress-free entertainment -- just kick back and enjoy.With such ambitious animated works as Monsters, Inc. and Chicken Run being created specifically for the big screen, it's becoming harder to justify plunking down hard-earned cash to sit through yet another big-screen adaptation of a currently popular cartoon television series. This time, it's The Wild Thornberrys Movie, a takeoff on the show about a 12-year-old girl who, like Dr. Dolittle, has the ability to talk to the animals. Young Eliza Thornberry travels across the plains of Africa with her family and her monkey sidekick Darwin, and in this installment, we find her squaring off against poachers. The theatrical release (and PG rating) allows the filmmakers to indulge their infantilism by including scenes focusing on baboon butts and equine flatulence, but otherwise, this is just a glorified TV episode -- not painful, but awfully hard to get excited about. Eliza's cynical older sister Debbie, a shallow city girl at odds with her majestic surroundings, offers some chuckles, and the voice talents include the likes of Tim Curry, Lynn Redgrave, Marisa Tomei and Alfre Woodard. But watching manic wild child Donnie prance and dance around the screen gets tiresome, though it does lead to a sobering thought: Is it possible this toon kid is Roberto Benigni's role model?About the best thing that can be said about Two Weeks Notice is that at least it isn't Maid In Manhattan. Still, during a holiday season that could have benefited from a choice romantic comedy, it's depressing to note that Hollywood has gone 0-for-2 this Christmas -- even a soggy Nora Ephron-Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan confection would have been preferable to this dismal duo. Sandra Bullock, a former breath of fresh air who seems to have transformed into the screen equivalent of halitosis over time, again plays a rumpled, neurotic lonelyheart, while Hugh Grant serves up his umpteenth variation on his patented role as a superficial, self-centered bachelor. Between them, they manage to wring out a couple of nice moments, but not nearly enough to prevent this from (hopefully) serving its own two-week notice in theaters. Bullock plays an environmental attorney who boasts that she's like a "bobcat" and a "pretzel" in the sack (this is in direct opposition to the movie itself, which is more like a defanged kitten and a soggy cracker); Grant co-stars as the cad millionaire for whom she works, and with whom she eventually becomes infatuated (in a none-too-convincing manner). This is the third time writer-director Marc Lawrence has teamed with Bullock, having also written her previous mediocrities Miss Congeniality and Forces of Nature. For God's sake, someone stop them before they shoot again.

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