CABIN FEVER If Rob Zombie's recent House of 1000 Corpses and the upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake are supposed to be throwbacks to the gritty horror yarns of the late 60s and early 70s, then writer-director Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (largely filmed in North Carolina) seeks to revive the tradition of gore-soaked 80s extravaganzas like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead flicks. But Roth isn't a gonzo-genius like Raimi; consequently, Cabin Fever is no Evil Dead, though on its own terms it somewhat gets the job done. You know the routine: Five idiotic kids with sex and drugs on the brain hole up in a shack in the middle of nowhere; after spending some time making fun of the inbred locals (Charlotte actor Tim Parati appears as one of these shotgun-toting rednecks) and telling scary stories around the campfire, they're suddenly confronted with a terror that ends up picking them off one by one. In this case, it's not evil spirits summoned by a Book of the Dead or even some lug in a hockey mask; instead, it's a disease (spread through water) that causes the victim's flesh to peel off, eventually leaving only bones, blood and very toothy grimaces. Like the recent zombie flick 28 Days Later, the film's power derives not from its scare angle (which, let's face it, isn't too fantastical in this era of SARS and AIDS) but from its depiction of the manner in which humans will turn on each other when their own survival is at stake. 1/2
THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS Cuba Gooding Jr., so animated a performer that he even appears to be overacting on this movie's poster, plays a city slicker who must travel to a remote area to collect an inheritance left by a deceased relative. Yes, the basic outline is the same as in Gooding's insufferable family film Snow Dogs, but that clunker had no soul -- this movie, by contrast, has soul in the form of gospel, r&b and even a dash of religious rap. Gooding stars as Darren Hill, a crafty New York ad executive who returns to his hometown of Montecarlo, GA, to attend the funeral of his beloved aunt. Before he can collect his inheritance, though, he must fulfill his aunt's wish of steering the church choir to success in the prestigious Gospel Explosion; the local pickings appear slim, but Darren eventually brings together enough top talent to have a crack at winning the contest. Comedians Mike Epps (as the town's self-proclaimed player) and Steve Harvey (as the radio station's tipsy DJ) are on hand to provide the occasional nyuk, but for the most part, the movie's non-musical segments are painfully formulaic bits centering around Gooding's wholly uninspired character. Yet when the gospel tunes take center stage (which thankfully is often), the movie transcends its trite surroundings and emerges as a theater-shaking crowd-pleaser. Among those lending their formidable pipes to the cause are Beyonce Knowles, Reverend Shirley Caesar, Melba Moore and The O'Jays. 1/2
SECONDHAND LIONS After a performance in the recent Open Range that reminds us of his standing as one of the world's greatest contemporary actors, Robert Duvall returns for this slight but affectionate yarn that pairs him with another acting legend. Duvall and Michael Caine (struggling with his accent, but never mind) co-star as brothers Hub and Garth, two old coots who spend most of their time chasing away salesmen and relatives who turn up at their rickety Texas home looking for the small fortune they have hidden somewhere on the property. One such opportunist is their nitwit niece (Kyra Sedgwick), who dumps her sensitive young son Walter (Haley Joel Osment) into their care with instructions to charm the old men into willing him their entire estate. But lonely Walter seeks company, not cash, and after some initial resistance, the siblings warm up to their young charge, eventually regaling him with tales about their swashbuckling exploits from bygone years. A curious concoction that throws together Grumpy Old Men, Unstrung Heroes and The Man Who Would Be King (to name but three), this film may be all over the map, but at least it takes viewers to some interesting places. For that, credit writer-director Tim McCanlies, who knows which situations will allow his stars to shine the brightest. Reserve the highest praise, however, for Duvall and Caine, who effectively sell this iffy material.
THIRTEEN Just as Secondhand Lions turns to two elderly veterans to make the material look better than it really is, Thirteen goes in the opposite direction by tapping the immense talents of a teenage vet to punch across what veers perilously close to shrill overkill. Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood, with over a dozen film and TV credits to her name, delivers a standout performance as Tracy, a smart, studious girl whose only desire is to hang out with the popular kids. She gets her wish once she hooks up with Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the script with director Catherine Hardwicke), but it's not long before her new friend is introducing her to booze, drugs, shoplifting, tongue-piercing and sex. More competently made than Larry Clark's similar Kids, this explores the seamiest side of teenage life in grim, frightful detail, though Hardwicke doesn't seem able to apply the brakes on any narrative situation: The manner in which Tracy goes from loving to despising her struggling single mom (Holly Hunter) occurs in the blink of an eye, and the movie piles on the tragedies so relentlessly that you half-expect the movie to climax with either a tornado or an earthquake (or both). Still, Wood's performance is revelatory, and she's matched by the always-terrific Hunter as her suffering mom.