AMELIE After making his mark with the delightfully deranged films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the ill-fated mistake of going Hollywood by overseeing the hapless Alien: Resurrection. Amelie finds Jeunet back in his element: as the creator of enchanting, quirky comedies that, like their central characters, march to their own beat (make that offbeat). Amelie, already a raging success in Europe, is his best work yet, an absolutely disarming piece about an eccentric young woman (irresistible Audrey Tautou) who takes it upon herself to improve the lives of those around her. Her methods are unorthodox but effective, yet in the midst of her busybody schedule, she slowly realizes that her own life could use some assistance when it comes to romance. On paper, Amelie doesn't sound much different than Emma, Hello, Dolly! or Chocolat (three other works about matchmakers unlocking their own passions), but Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant never run with the conventional, preferring instead to pack their movie with unexpected literalizations (when Amelie spots her intended, she actually dissolves in a puddle of water), wildly original comic set pieces (keep your eye on that garden gnome), and the sort of touching asides that will bring sighs of recognition from appreciative audience members. Amelie feels slightly longish as it winds down its heroine's quest for her own self-fulfillment, but this nevertheless emerges as one of the year's best films.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES Borrowing the theme of those . . .For Dummies books, this is nothing more than "Patriotism for Dummies," a nonsensical piece of jingoism whose release date was moved up from 2002 in an obvious attempt to cash in on the pro-American fervor generated by the 9/11 tragedy. The rush for profits would be offensive save for the fact that this film's so inconsequential, it's hard to take any part of it seriously. One-note ubiquity Owen Wilson, a head-scratching choice for Hollywood's latest flavor of the month, plays Chris Burnett, a pilot who's mopey because he feels there are no real wars in which he can bloody his hands. The ravaged, corpse-strewn terrain of Bosnia serves as a Holy Grail to Burnett, a Never Never Land fairy tale setting that blessedly turns into a reality after his plane gets shot down by Serbs. Following radio orders from his commanding officer (Gene Hackman, cashing another easy paycheck), Burnett evades murderous enemy troops, not a problem given these soldiers' unspecified relationship to the Star Wars stormtroopers (i.e., no matter how much they fire at our hero, they never come close to hitting the target). Director John Moore makes his movie debut after helming zippy commercials, so expect lots of choppy splicing of scenes filmed in the grainy style popularized by Saving Private Ryan -- but made dull by the number of hacks who have shamelessly copied it. For a movie that treats this conflict as more than just a video game, hold out for the powerful Bosnian import No Man's Land, due in 2002 after an Oscar-qualifying LA run this month. 1/2
BLACK KNIGHT When previewing the holiday film schedule, I had predicted that, based on its premise and the appeal of Martin Lawrence, his new comedy would cross the $100 million mark in grosses. Having now seen the picture, I can state that it goes for the predictable gag at every single turn -- which of course makes my forecast look even more like a no-brainer. The sort of automatic-pilot entry that's frequently foisted upon the public during this lucrative film season, this variation on A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court is the perfect picture for select audiences in the market for something that won't require them to employ even one single brain cell (one woman at the advance screening was so caught up in the movie's mindless merriment, she roared with laughter whenever Lawrence did nothing more than utter another character's name). There's nothing inherently wrong with this sort of predigested programmer, but did this one have to be so stridently bare-bones? Wielding none of the whimsy or heart of another recent medieval flick, A Knight's Tale, this one casts Lawrence as a theme park employee who discovers a necklace that magically transports him back to the Middle Ages; there, he helps a fallen knight (Tom Wilkinson) defeat a corrupt king (Kevin Conway). Lawrence's easy-going charm results in plenty of smiles during the first half-hour, but even those fade over the course of this exercise in sameness. Black Knight isn't particularly good or bad; it's just. . .there.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE Considering that the first four books in J.K. Rowling's series about a budding boy wizard have sold over 100 million copies, it's no surprise that Hollywood decided to get into the act; what is surprising is the degree of reverence with which this property has been treated. This lavish film version ends up working on both levels: as a stand- alone motion picture and as a worthy adaptation of a novel that, while hardly a literary landmark, is nevertheless funny, inventive and full of spirit and spunk. Director Chris Columbus has a deserved reputation for making cloying films (Home Alone, Bicentennial Man), but here he has deftly allowed the movie to walk the precipitous line between being too syrupy for adults and too grave for children. This balancing act begins with the kids cast in the principal roles: Daniel Radcliffe as 11-year-old Harry Potter and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his loyal classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All three actors are endearing rather than annoying, and the natural ease with which they work together goes a long way toward drawing audience members directly into their world (they're supported by a top-flight cast that includes Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith). If there's a flaw to be found, it's that the picture may be a little too breathless for its own good, occasionally relying on its technical achievements at the expense of its emotional content. For the most part, though, this is an enchanting magical mystery tour -- and a sure moviegoing bet for the holiday season.