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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

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