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.
CITY OF GOD A South American GoodFellas, City of God is a dazzling achievement that marks Fernando Meirelles as a masterful filmmaker with world-class aspirations. If the traditional gangster flick has appeared to be hobbling on its last legs over the past few years, this lightning bolt of a movie proves that there are still fresh ways to tackle familiar material. Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio de Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with blood flowing as swiftly and steadily as water over Niagara Falls. Our clean-cut protagonist in this urban epic is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose desire to become a professional photographer might be just the thing to lift him out of the surrounding squalor. On the opposite end, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a rabid gang leader prone to killing anybody at any time -- perhaps not since Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in Schindler's List has there been such a frightening portrait of unadulterated evil onscreen. It's tough to withstand 130 minutes of continuous nihilism, but Meirelles and his contributors are so completely in command of this material (the storytelling moves like mercury) that it's impossible not to get caught up in their descent into Hell on Earth. 1/2
THE HUNTED It's depressing enough when lousy movies manage to snag the services of one talented Oscar winner, but finding two stranded in the same drivel seems like an especially monumental waste of resources. Following last year's Snow Dogs, which buried past winners Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Coburn alive, this dreary hybrid of The Fugitive and First Blood finds Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro set adrift in a pallid action yarn that further soils the once-distinguished career of director William Friedkin (who went from The Exorcist in the 70s to Jade in the 90s). Monotonous in the extreme, this casts Jones as a retired fighting instructor who's forced back into action after it appears that one of his former pupils (Del Toro), a born warrior who snapped after serving his country in bloody Kosovo, has been going around murdering heavily armed hunters before they can blow away innocent wildlife critters (wait, shouldn't that make him a hero?). This whiff of a plot is just an excuse for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to shoot reams of lovely exterior footage (filming largely took place in the Pacific Northwest), for the trio of scripters to resort to sloppiness at every turn (for someone skilled at being "invisible," Del Toro's character sure leaves a lot of muddy footprints for Jones' tracker to conveniently follow), and for Friedkin to stage an repetitive series of showdowns between his stars. 1/2
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE An anti-death penalty screed disguised as a thriller, this one's a complete mess, a movie so ineptly realized that it will doubtless anger viewers on both sides of the debate. It's the sort of sanctimonious, holier-than-thou claptrap that gives liberalism (especially Hollywood liberalism) a bad name, yet what's astounding is that the movie shoots itself not only in the foot but in the bleeding heart as well, offering a series of plot twists that undermine every point that director Alan Parker and debuting screenwriter Charles Randolph were trying to make. Kevin Spacey stars as the title character, a former college professor and capital punishment opponent in Texas who's now on Death Row, set to be executed for the rape and murder of a fellow advocate (Laura Linney). Gale summons a news magazine reporter (Kate Winslet) to hear his story, maintaining his innocence and hoping that she'll be able to unearth the real culprit. The incessant proselytizing (complete with obvious "symbolism") is wearying enough, but, as stated above, what's especially dumbfounding about this film is the manner in which Parker and Randolph weaken their own arguments by painting their heroes as irrational zealots who just might have deserved what was coming to them. With friends like these, who needs George W. Bush?
TEARS OF THE SUN On the heels of Hart's War, Bruce Willis returns to combat duty in this plodding drama that's about as battle-fatigued as they come. A simplistic story about a heroic Navy SEAL (Willis) who disobeys orders by attempting to save the lives of Nigerian villagers marked for death by rebel extremists, the movie never strives to engage our senses in any pertinent manner -- it's as if the blueprint for the basic outline never left the development table, resulting in a picture that's painted in wide swaths of soldier-boy posturing and pontificating. If anything, Tears of the Sun (a meaningless title, by the way) bears a resemblance to 1999's Three Kings; it's a comparison that does the new film no favors, seeing as how it studiously avoids the complex characterizations and morally muddled politics that drove that earlier film (which looks better with each passing year). Willis, a good actor on those rare occasions when he stirs himself out of his cinematic siestas, delivers a one-note performance that consists of grunts and squints. Like the dreary screen version of Black Hawk Down, this movie may serve as a slick piece of propaganda ("Two Thumbs Up!" -- Dubya & Powell), but it won't satisfy anyone who prefers to be challenged by contemporary military movies.
WILLARD For all its ickiness, Willard is that most exotic of movie creatures: a remake that handily bests the original. The 1971 version, itself based on Stephen Gilbert's novel Ratman's Notebook, may have been a box office hit, but it's also an inert motion picture, taking itself far too seriously as it relates the supposedly poignant tale of a lonely young man (Bruce Davison) whose only friends are the rats that live in his basement. This stylish remake, written and directed by Rob Bowman (a major force on TV's The X-Files), tosses out all pretensions and tackles the material as a pitch-black comedy, which, in retrospect, was clearly the only way to go. As before, Willard Stiles (a perfectly cast Crispin Glover) is a mild-mannered introvert whose relationship with his rodents offers him a brief respite from the unpleasantries that otherwise inundate his existence, from the machinations of a hateful boss (R. Lee Ermey) to the demands of an overbearing mother (Jackie Burroughs, whose ghastly appearance elicited more moviegoer gasps than any of the rats' antics). Nobody can accuse Willard of pandering to audience demands -- the picture looks grungy, Morgan takes his time with the pacing, and the fate of a cute kitty cat will have PETA puking -- but darn if this thing doesn't deliver the goods for folks not averse to an unsettling satire that offers as many nyuks as yuks.
All the Real Girls
: Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider.
Basic: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson.
The Core: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank.
Head of State: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac.