BROTHER BEAR Oh, brother, what a bore... Brother Bear has been plugged as the last gasp of the traditional animated film, but I'd hate to think the future of anything depended on something this mediocre. This soggy tale finds Disney raiding its own tombs for material, cobbling together pieces of The Lion King, Pocahontas and other hits to create a yawn-inducing yarn about a warrior who's transformed into a bear. The human characters are dull, the requisite bear cub is cloying, the comic relief (doltish moose voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) is annoying, and the songs by Phil Collins -- how do I delicately put this? -- suck. 1/2
ELF While it could stand being a little more naughty and a little less nice, Elf isn't a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like The Santa Clause or Gov. Schwarzenegger's disastrous Jingle All the Way. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum manage to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, thereby elevating this fable about a human (Will Ferrell) who, after being raised as an elf at the North Pole, heads to New York. Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell's broad turn become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and a game cast helping matters along. 1/2
THE HUMAN STAIN This adaptation of Philip Roth's novel is an affecting picture in its own right, almost subdued in the way it tackles its myriad issues of race, loss, identity, and the lengths to which one man will reinvent himself to succeed in America. It traces the downward spiral of a college professor (Anthony Hopkins) after an innocent classroom comment is misinterpreted as a racial slur. Suddenly without a career or a family, he passes the days alternating between dwelling on secrets buried in his past and engaging in a tentative relationship with a complex woman (Nicole Kidman) who paints herself as the ultimate in trailer park trash. Hopkins hasn't been this interesting in years, while Kidman's amazing portrayal is merely the latest in her current winning streak.
IN THE CUT Meg Ryan delivers an appropriately dour turn in this psychosexual drama about a lonely New Yorker who falls for a roughneck detective (Mark Ruffalo) cryptic enough to make her suspect he might also be the serial killer who's been hacking up women. On the most commercial level of a murder-mystery, this is a complete washout, jammed with gaping plotholes and a laughably obvious culprit. As a stylized study of the uneasy symmetry between the ache of sexual longing and the risk of violent retribution, the film occasionally threatens to spring to life, yet all potential is repeatedly forced to take a backseat not only to those tired thriller elements but also to director Jane Campion's misplaced sense of artful abstraction.
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION The term "specialized cinema" refers to art-house features, but this live-action/animation hybrid, a quantum leap over the wretched Space Jam, qualifies as much as any other movie that comes to mind. With its pleasures aimed at three specific segments of the moviegoing population, this might prove to be a tough nut to crack for anyone not keyed into its frenetic frequency. Yet children will enjoy the cartoon antics, diehard Looney Tunes junkies will embrace Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as they fill the big screen, and film buffs will delight in the endless array of in-jokes. Slapstick shenanigans, inspired non sequiturs and guest appearances by a dozen other LT regulars prevent the merriment from ever slowing down.
LOVE ACTUALLY Many movie romances make us willingly suspend our disbelief, but this colossal disappointment asks viewers to go to such extremes to disengage from reality that we're actually open to seeing just about anything unimaginable take place in this film, even the sight of a T-rex attacking Gastonia, Darth Vader cutting loose at a disco, or Jennifer Lopez delivering an interesting performance. A great cast (Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, etc.) has been assembled for this multi-story piece in which various folks find love in London in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but there are absolutely no surprises (aside from the escalating preposterousness) in any of the choppy vignettes, almost all of which fizzle out with unlikely wrap-ups.
MAMBO ITALIANO Or, My Big Fat Gay Italian Wedding. Broad in the extreme, the story focuses on an Italian-Canadian family and what happens when Mom (Ginette Reno) and Dad (hammy Paul Sorvino, doing enough acting for 10 people) discover that their son (Luke Kirby) is gay and has settled down with a former schoolmate (Peter Miller). The script is timid when dealing with the young men's relationship yet charges like a bull when it's time for those wacky Italianos to start-a with the "meat-a-balls" and "whack-a you upside the head" routines. After watching the expected shtick play out repeatedly over 90 minutes, only one thought takes hold: Where are the GoodFellas when we really need them? 1/2