SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON While DreamWorks' irreverent animated features (Antz, Chicken Run, Shrek) have been more entertaining than their traditional attempts (The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado), here's an old-school feature that's at least worth a glance. The title character is indeed a horse, but the movie automatically wins points for not anthropomorphizing it (the most we hear are its inner thoughts, provided by Matt Damon). Indeed, the cuteness quotient is remarkably low in this engaging if not particularly distinguished tale about a magnificent stallion that befriends a Lakota lad (voiced by Daniel Studi) in the days of the Old West. Owing more to Dances With Wolves than to the Disney animated canon, Spirit gets by on the extreme care that went into giving its central hoofer a vibrant personality -- even if the other characters pale in comparison. The songs by Bryan Adams are the musical equivalent of live leeches being driven into the ear drums, though I reckon we should expect to see one of them competing against equally dismal ballads from other movies at next year's Oscar shindig. **1/2
HOLLYWOOD ENDING It used to be that the annual arrival of the latest Woody Allen movie was like receiving an additional Christmas present; these days, it feels more like being asked to stay after school for detention. At its core, Hollywood Ending features an ingenious comic hook, the best one Allen's come up with in years: Relate the adventures of a has-been director who's suddenly struck blind just as he begins shooting his comeback picture. It's a marvelous premise, and imagine the possibilities had Allen been blessed with this idea back in the mid-70s. Instead, this farcical mother lode gets largely wasted here, with Allen recycling gags so moldy you half-expect one of those giant hooks so popular in vaudeville halls to enter the frame and yank him right off the screen. The actors can't be faulted -- Tea Leoni, Treat Williams and Debra Messing all perform to the best of their limiting roles -- and Allen does manage to zip off an occasional zinger that proves some of those nyuk-nyuk instincts are still operational. But even with a final denouement that's deliciously apt, too much of Hollywood Ending feels like the work of a man who still loves the job but may no longer possess all the skills necessary to turn out top product.
LIFE OR SOMETHING LIKE IT It's tough to completely dislike any movie that paints the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" as one of the great social equalizers of our time, and although this schizophrenic romantic comedy seemingly goes out its way on occasion to test viewer tolerance, it features enough piquant elements to remain a half-length ahead of most of its competition. The film's success begins and ends with Angelina Jolie, cast as an ambitious TV reporter who comes to reassess her values after a street prophet (Tony Shalhoub) informs her that she has less than a week to live. Wearing a cake-frosting-colored hairdo that works surprisingly well against her dark-toned looks and displaying a genuine aptitude for lightweight comic banter, Jolie is off-center enough to make an impression -- whether she has any real range in this field remains to be seen, but for now, she's a welcome presence. So, too, is Edward Burns, displaying his usual hangdog charm as the cameraman who loosens her up. Director Stephen Herek (the live-action 101 Dalmatians) and writers John Scott Shepherd (Joe Somebody) and Dana Stevens (City of Angels) are all too much the consummate hacks to provide the more serious sections with the import they require, but as long as the picture is siphoning its strength from the natural appeal of its protagonists, it represents a serviceable feature -- or something like it. 1/2
MURDER BY NUMBERS Drawing its inspiration from the infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case (the historically challenged should take care not to confuse this pair with Lerner & Loewe or even Kate & Leopold), this fitfully entertaining thriller casts Michael Pitt (the object of affection in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Ryan Gosling (The Believer) as two privileged high school seniors who elect to pull off the perfect murder. At first, everything goes according to plan, including pinning the crime on their school's janitor (Chris Penn), but the scheme threatens to unravel under the persistent sleuthing of a troubled detective (Sandra Bullock) lugging around her own set of secrets. Bullock, who's spent the bulk of her career in comedies, initially seems miscast as the hard-bitten cop but eventually grows into the role. Regardless, her portion of the film isn't nearly as interesting as the scenes centered around the teen killers: Pitt and Gosling are superb as completely different members of the high school set (one shy and studious, the other smarmy and outgoing) who nevertheless find common ground in their interest in exploring the criminal urge firsthand, and as long as the picture places them front and center, it avoids the standard "cop flick" trappings. 1/2