THE CORE Burrowing beneath the earth rather than taking off into space, The Core is an inverted Armageddon, and the fact that it isn't even one third as doltish as that inexplicable blockbuster means the battle's already half-won. To be sure, the movie's science wouldn't hold up under the scrutiny of an eight-year-old, but viewers fond of similar (and similarly far-fetched) fantasies like At the Earth's Core and Journey to the Center of the Earth should have a reasonably good time. Instead of "A" list stars like Armageddon's Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, this one features "B+" caliber actors like Aaron Eckhart and Delroy Lindo, solid performers who make up in professionalism what they lack in box office appeal. They lend conviction to this drama in which Earth faces imminent destruction after its inner core stops rotating, thereby causing an increasing number of global catastrophes. Realizing that the only way to save the world is to get the core spinning again, a team of "terranauts," including a science professor (Eckhart), an inventor (Lindo) and a NASA pilot (Hilary Swank), climb aboard a specially designed subterranean vehicle and head due south, straight to the center of the planet. Even if the pedestrian script isn't as compelling as the special effects (which detail, among other sights, the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge and a pigeon assault on Trafalgar Square), Jon Amiel's competent direction and an able cast provide this with a certain measure of respectability. 1/2
DREAMCATCHER Long past his glory days as a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman has spent the last two decades as a hack-for-hire, mainly churning out witless scripts (The General's Daughter) while bitterly criticizing Hollywood luminaries in the pages of Premiere and Variety (where his recent bile-filled diatribe against Martin Scorsese earned instant notoriety). Bad karma continues to dog this man, since his latest project, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel, fails in spite of its initial promise and impeccable production values. At first, this movie from reliable director Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote the script with Goldman) looks like it's going to be an effective supernatural thriller, centering on four lifelong friends (Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Jason Lee and Timothy Olyphant) whose childhood acquaintance, a simpleminded boy, imbued them with unusual powers. Despite the obvious cribbing of other King material (Carrie, The Stand, "The Body"), the first section of the film maintains an eerie grip, taking its time with character development and laying out the groundwork for a compelling mystery. But like Signs, the picture suddenly shifts gears to turn into a choppy, noisy FX blowout, with alien invaders primed to take over the planet and a team of military men (led by a wasted Morgan Freeman) dispatched to annihilate them.
VIEW FROM THE TOP Gwyneth Paltrow's participation in such brainy entertainment as Shakespeare In Love and Emma makes it easy to forget that this talented actress has starred in her share of imbecilic features, most notably the tepid thriller Hush, the karaoke debacle Duets, and now this clunker about a small-town girl who dreams of making it as a flight attendant. Starting out as a stewardess for a dinky airline that specializes in flying drunks to Las Vegas, Donna Jensen (Paltrow), along with her sister-in-flight (Christina Applegate), soon lands a position with the classy Royalty Airlines. With a famous former stewardess (Candice Bergen) as her mentor and a dedicated dweeb (Mike Myers) as her instructor, Donna seems poised for great success, but conflict rears its head once she falls for a law student (Mark Ruffalo) whose own career would keep her grounded in his hometown of Cleveland rather than flying the New York-to-Paris route. There's much to cherish in this so-bad-it's-good movie, the sort that would have been right at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The leaden dialogue is chuckle-worthy, while the sentimental moments are hilarious in their earnestness -- in fact, the only parts of this film that aren't funny are, appropriately enough, the comedic bits. This is also the sort of mishmash that finds room for an offensive gay caricature (Joshua Malina), plenty of back-catalog tunes on the soundtrack, and a cameo by that esteemed thespian Rob Lowe. 1/2
BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE For more years than I can count, Disney's Touchstone arm has specialized in bland, toothless comedies (usually starring the likes of Jim Belushi or Martin Short) that are about as threatening as a dead Chihuahua. Love it or hate it, their latest work doesn't allow for similar fence-sitting, not when the movies it brings to mind are Blazing Saddles, Stir Crazy and the collected oeuvre of the Farrelly Brothers. Racially charged in a manner that some will find offensive while others might consider envelope-pushing, this relates what happens when black ex-convict Charlene (Queen Latifah), insisting she was framed, forces whiter-than-white attorney Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) to look over the case and try to clear her name. As they work together, sharp-witted Charlene must cope with a parade of wealthy bigots (Betty White, Joan Plowright, Missi Pyle) while stuffy Peter learns lessons in "cool" that allow him to bond with his kids and win back his ex-wife (Jean Smart). The story is utter nonsense, but what makes the film work are the terrific comic performances driving it: Martin hasn't been this engaging in years; Queen Latifah is sexy, sassy, spirited and smart; and Eugene Levy, as a nerd who discovers his inner funk after falling for Charlene, continues to make the case (after Best In Show and American Pie) that he's one of the best second bananas in modern movie comedy.