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. 1/2
A BEAUTIFUL MIND Perhaps wary of the controversy that surrounded the liberal handling of factual material in such films as The Hurricane and JFK, the makers of A Beautiful Mind have gone out of their way to make it known up front that their movie is "a semi-fictional story" and "a distinctive departure from the source material." So with that out of the way, maybe even sticklers for historical accuracy will be able to grudgingly admit that Ron Howard's latest work emerges as one of the best films of the year. Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema even his best pictures (like Apollo 13) have a stuffed-shirt quality about them but in tackling the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life but still went on to win the Nobel Prize, Howard has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that paradoxically allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's neverending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe, in his first appearance since winning the Oscar for Gladiator, is excellent as Nash, but almost as impressive is Jennifer Connelly, the raven-haired beauty who, after being dismissed over the past decade-plus as pin-up fodder, builds on last year's Requiem for a Dream breakout with a touching performance as Nash's saintly wife, who weathered her husband's fluctuating fortunes down through the decades. Another plus: A superb score by James Horner (Titanic) that never travels quite where we'd expect. 1/2
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
FOCUS Focus is the first big-screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's first novel, which faded from view as his plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible (among others) took their rightful place among the great American literary works of the 20th century. It's a safe bet this movie won't be around for the long haul, either: Heavy-handed beyond all acceptable boundaries, it's primarily redeemed by solid performances from William H. Macy and David Paymer. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a gentile in 1940s Brooklyn whose new eyeglasses suddenly have everyone around him believing he's a Jew. Quitting his job after a demotion, he finds it next to impossible to secure new employment, though he does eventually find a soulmate in Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), another gentile who's constantly being mistaken for a Jew. The pair get married, only to immediately take opposing views on how to deal with the constant harassment they face on a daily basis. The notion that people would look at the Waspish Dern and instantly peg her as a Jew is absurd (in other words, she's badly miscast), although no more so than believing that Lawrence wouldn't remove his glasses before applying for a job (yeah, it's symbolic, but it flat-out doesn't work). Much more affecting is the subplot involving Paymer's character, a Jewish store owner whose testy relationship with Lawrence provides the movie with its true backbone. 1/2
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.
KATE & LEOPOLD We're all familiar with Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma & Louise, but as far as screen couples go, look for Kate & Leopold to have a shelf life more in common with those of O.C. & Stiggs and Homer and Eddie. (Who, you ask? My point exactly.) Meg Ryan, whose ceaseless attempts to remain the pixie queen of frothy romantic comedies are becoming embarrassing, plays Kate, an ambitious sales executive whose career strength, according to her unctuous boss (Bradley Whitford), is that she knows what women want but thinks like a man while preparing successful ad campaigns. Naturally, it's going to take one special individual to thaw her out, and that would be Leopold (Hugh Jackman), a 19th century Duke who, via a scientific experiment conducted by Kate's ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), ends up being transported to present-day New York. Bland romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but it's rare to come across a time travel tale as listless as this one. After an insufferable first half in which we watch Leopold predictably become perplexed by modern-day gadgets like toasters and telephones, the second half marginally picks up thanks to the pleasing presence of Breckin Meyer as Kate's good-natured brother. Still, this is awfully anemic material, and yet another misstep for Jackman, the X-Men star who needed this about as much as he needed Swordfish. 1/2
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING The second part of this season's highly anticipated wizard show, The Fellowship of the Ring has its roots in a literary legacy even more feverishly admired than the one for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Filming all three parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy in one fell swoop (the second and third films will be released over the next two Christmases), director Peter Jackson gets things off to a promising start with this first installment, a three-hour epic that, while rarely scaling new heights in the fantasy genre, should nonetheless please both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are probably familiar with the saga's basic thrust noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story (compare this to the opening crawl in David Lynch's Dune, which left viewers instantly confused). From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the pace rarely flags. Still, despite the fantastical setting, the sense of wonder that Jackson brought to such earlier credits as Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures isn't quite as apparent (a determination not to offend the faithful may have something to do with it), and, as in Harry Potter, the computer-generated effects aren't always up to par. Admittedly, though, these are mere quibbles that diehard fans will brush aside like gnats, boding well for the remaining chapters in this ambitious undertaking.
MONSTERS, INC. Ever since it was announced that next year's Oscar ceremony would be the first to include the newly formed Best Animated Feature category, it's been agreed that the battle will come down to DreamWorks' summer smash Shrek and this latest offering from Disney. With apologies to the not-so-jolly green giant, I gotta say that my vote squarely goes toward Disney's creatures of the night. Teaming up once again with Pixar Animation (the Toy Story twofer), the studio has fashioned a vastly entertaining romper room of a movie that should satisfy all ages. The sharp screenplay posits that the burg of Monstropolis is powered by the screams of small children, and the only way to harness that energy is for a company called Monsters, Inc. to send its employees through kids' closets in an attempt to generate worthy shrieks of terror. Of course, such an assignment is no picnic for the monsters, who believe that human children are toxic and that physical contact with them would be disastrous. So imagine the pandemonium that ensues when a bubbly tyke nicknamed Boo (voiced by 5-year-old Mary Gibbs) accidentally invades the monsters' world, forcing two of the critters gentle giant Sulley (John Goodman) and wise-cracking cyclops Mike (Billy Crystal) to try to return her to her bedroom before matters really get out of hand. That this film is a visual marvel should surprise no one; what's really unique about it is how deeply it makes us care about the relationship between Sulley and little Boo. 1/2
OCEAN'S ELEVEN A remake of Casablanca? What's the point? A new version of Citizen Kane? Sounds suicidal. A reimagining of Psycho? Completely imbecilic (oh wait, they did try that one... the fools). But a remake of Ocean's Eleven, the 1960 caper yarn that starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack? Now that has potential. After all, the dirty secret surrounding the original is that it's a remarkably mediocre caper yarn that served mainly as an opportunity for Frank and friends to party at Warner Bros.'s expense. The Rat Pack members were cast as former WWII paratroopers plotting to knock off five Las Vegas casinos, but except for a clever twist ending, there's absolutely nothing memorable in what has long been regarded as one of the most expensive "home movies" ever made. So the good news is that Steven Soderbergh's remake is indeed better than the original; the bad news is that it achieves its superiority by just the thinnest of margins, resulting in one of the year's top disappointments. Despite scripter Ted Griffin's complete overhaul of the '60 model, this remains a shambles, with more characters than it can sustain as well as the sort of obvious double-dealings that failed to fool us when we saw them in The Score and Heist. As team leader Danny Ocean, George Clooney is simply dull, while Julia Roberts and Matt Damon are saddled with the film's worst roles. Coming out on top is Brad Pitt: His part doesn't look like much on paper, but through sheer will and personality, as well as the sound application of some offbeat character tics, he's the one who constantly commands our attention.
SPY GAME Tony Scott has spent so much of his career directing mindless junk (Days of Thunder, Last Boy Scout, The Fan) that it's something of a shock to the system whenever he tackles anything with even half a brain. If you enjoyed the helmer's sleek but smart efforts Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, then this one's a good bet as well, mixing hard-hitting thrills with a decidedly less than benevolent look at US government agencies (given the post-September 11 climate, it's a wonder this wasn't delayed until 2002). Robert Redford, who could barely keep himself or audiences awake with The Last Castle, here makes the most of his best role in years; he's cast as veteran CIA operative Nathan Muir, who, on the day of his retirement, learns that his former protegee Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China on a charge of espionage and will be executed in 24 hours. Muir's status has long been downsized as "old-school" by younger CIA hotshots more interested in cutting profitable deals than maintaining law and order, but once he learns that the agency has no intention of helping Bishop, he uses every crusty trick in the book to thwart his employers and save Bishop's neck. Spy Game spends much of its time jetsetting around the world in flashback sequences that establish the Muir-Bishop relationship; these are essential to the story's arc, yet they don't compare to the less frantic (yet even more compelling) scenes in which Muir mentally outmaneuvers his shady CIA cohorts at every turn.
VANILLA SKY Before breaking through stateside with The Others, writer-director Alejandro Amenabar made a handful of films in Spain, including the 1997 sleight of hand shocker Open Your Eyes. An intriguing drama about a self-centered hunk who suffers from strange visions after getting disfigured in a car accident, the movie was unpredictable in a manner that begs comparison with something as unique as Being John Malkovich: Thinking far outside the box, Amenabar provided a whiplash viewing experience akin to sitting down to watch The Big Chill and then having the film switched to Saving Private Ryan halfway through. Vanilla Sky is Cameron Crowe's risky remake, and what's most shocking about this controversial conversation starter is how faithful it remains to the original. In short, this isn't a typically dumbed-down rehash, a designation that will cost it millions at the box office (think Eyes Wide Shut all over again) but which will earn it the appreciation of adventurous filmgoers. Tom Cruise, a narcissist who nevertheless won't back away from perilous parts, shrewdly mixes both facets of his career as the pretty boy whose perfect life turns into a living hell after his face gets mangled, while Cameron Diaz, as his fatal attraction, slinks through the proceedings like a feral feline (Penelope Cruz, also in the original, reprises her role as the protagonist's dream girl, but she's mediocre at best). Unsettling, perplexing and playing like the visualization of a caffeine buzz, Vanilla Sky is a Christmas present with a kick. 1/2
BLACK KNIGHT Wielding none of the whimsy or heart of another recent medieval flick, A Knight's Tale, this programmer casts Martin 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). Black Knight isn't particularly good or bad; it's just... there.
HEIST For a movie that's obsessed with double-crosses, triple-crosses and even a couple of right-crosses, this caper yarn about a seasoned thief (Gene Hackman) pulling off One Last Job is about as easy to patch together as a 6-piece puzzle. Writer-director David Mamet may have thought he was pulling a fast one, but given the picture's all-too-familiar rhythms, the only person he ended up outsmarting was himself.
K-PAX Offensively sanctimonious, flagrantly derivative and just plain dull, this insufferable picture casts Kevin Spacey as Prot, a mental patient who claims to be from another planet. Spacey's performance is built on nothing but putrid platitudes and affected mannerisms frankly, I didn't think it was possible for him to ever be this bad while Jeff Bridges' cardboard role (as the doctor on the case) is far beneath his capabilities.
SHALLOW HAL After a chance encounter with a self-help guru, a nerd (Jack Black) obsessed with physical beauty is "de-hypnotized" to only see people as they truly are on the inside; this in turn allows him to fall for a large woman with a large heart. Black is a delight in the lead role, but it's Gwyneth Paltrow's empathic performance that anchors this winning romantic comedy.