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THE COOLER It's not necessarily the sign of a good movie, but it is an indication of an effective one. It's that moment when you realize that you've grown so attached to the central protagonists that you'd almost rather see the movie take some less-than-credible swerves than allow any harm to come to them. That's certainly the case with The Cooler, which takes an overexposed screen setting : a Las Vegas casino : yet populates it with enough unique characters that we're perpetually on edge waiting to see what sort of fate awaits each of them. Sporting a plotline curiously reminiscent of the intriguing but little-seen Intacto, this stars William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz, a sad sack whose very presence causes everyone around him to experience bad luck. Bernie is employed by casino manager Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to "cool" off customers enjoying a hot streak, yet once Bernie falls in love with a sympathetic cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello), his luck : as well as that of everyone around him : begins to change, a situation that calls for drastic measures on Shelly's part. Director-cowriter Wayne Kramer and co-scripter Frank Hannah make the romance between Bernie and Natalie both believable and extremely touching, and Macy and Bello deserve kudos for their uninhibited (in all senses of the word) performances. Yet it's Baldwin who delivers the most memorable turn: As an "old-school" Vegas bigwig whose brutality mingles uneasily with his unusual code of honor, he hasn't been this good since his pitbull act in 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross.

ELEPHANT Gus Van Sant's latest picture earned the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, which says less about the movie's merits than it does about the festival's tiresome tendency to reward controversial films regardless of their quality (countless past winners have been simultaneously cheered and jeered by the attendant crowds). Filming in his hometown of Portland, OR, Van Sant has made a minimalist movie about a typical American high school and what happens when a pair of students go on a shooting spree. Obviously drawing upon Columbine, Elephant is neither exploitive nor informative, although it's certainly a crock. Van Sant's desire to go for a documentary feel is completely undermined by Harris Savides' camerawork, which looks as studied and bleakly beautiful as any art magazine spread. And despite Van Sant's claims that the movie provides no facile answers as to why these kids do what they do, he includes enough background material -- these boys play violent video games, watch documentaries about Nazis and engage in homosexual trysts in the shower -- to make it clear the director is tipping the scales as blatantly as any more commercially minded filmmaker. Detached to a fault, Elephant seeks to encapsulate the high school experience but instead ends up grabbing at straws.

MONSTER Anyone who's paid attention the past few years knows that Charlize Theron is more than just a pretty face, yet her mesmerizing turn in this fact-based drama will finally allow the rest of the world to catch up. It isn't simply that Theron gained weight and thoroughly deglamorized herself to play the part of Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute who killed several men in Florida before finally being caught and executed. It's that she so completely buries herself in this woman's impetuousness, rage and vulnerability that she simply ceases to exist; it's a galvanizing performance in a difficult yet important film that, unlike Elephant, at least provides enough tangible material to allow viewers to form some kind of opinion. Writer-director Patty Jenkins never forces us to sympathize with her protagonist but doesn't exactly throw her to the wolves, either -- rather, she's honest enough to present Wuornos as both monster and victim, a woman who commits some truly heinous crimes yet who probably never had a chance in life from the minute she was conceived (there's a superb scene between Wuornos and a male lawyer that sharply sums up each character's cluelessness about the other's way of life). Christina Ricci and Bruce Dern have some nice moments as the only two people who can tolerate Wuornos for any extended period of time, yet it's Theron's ferocious performance that should have everyone talking right up to Oscartime. 1/2


BIG FISH Tim Burton goes for the (Oscar) gold with this colorful fable that attempts to tackle hefty issues using the same mixture of melodrama and mirth that worked so well for Forrest Gump. But forced whimsy isn't really whimsy at all, and for all its surface eccentricities, this turns out to be one of Burton's most conventional works, relating the story of a journalist (Billy Crudup) who'd like to get to know his dying dad (Albert Finney) before it's too late. But that's easier said than done, since Pop is incapable of relating anything but outlandish tall tales involving his exploits as a young man (played in flashback by Ewan McGregor). A stellar cast does what it can with this meandering picture that accumulates any emotional steam only during its closing quarter-hour. 1/2

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