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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

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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.


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