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ORANGE COUNTY Numerous stars -- among them Kevin Kline, John Lithgow and an unbilled Ben Stiller -- turn up in Orange County, and their participation makes one wonder if they signed on to curry favor with Lawrence Kasdan (whose son Jake directs the film) or to get in the good graces of Tom Hanks (whose son Colin stars in the film). Surely they weren't attracted to the material itself, a largely tepid tale that wavers uncomfortably between being a crude teen flick and a sharp-edged comedy of errors. Hanks plays Shaun Brumder, a bright kid who's considered a shoo-in at Stanford until his guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) mails off the wrong transcripts, thereby resulting in his rejection. Determined to clear matters up, Shaun decides to visit the campus in person, accompanied by his supportive girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) and his perpetually stoned brother (Jack Black). Considering this is one of the first releases of the new year (generally indicating bottom-of-the-barrel fare), it's amazing that this thing is not only tolerable but occasionally displays flashes of innovation -- unfortunately, not nearly enough of them to counter either the trivial pursuit of a plot (with a cringe-inducing wrap-up) or the smattering of been-there-done-that bodily function gags.


ALI When casting actors as instantly recognizable icons, it's always best to either pick unknowns who can transform themselves into their subjects without having to contend with viewer baggage or choose widely respected performers known for their ability to get at the hearts of their characters. In the case of Michael Mann's look at boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Will Smith's work in the role is about as convincing as that of a sixth-grader who dons a long coat and fake beard to play Abe Lincoln in the school play. Never once sinking into the role of Ali to the point where we forget it is Will Smith, the young actor faces a perpetual losing battle; still, let's cut him some slack and go after the real criminal mastermind: Director-cowriter Mann, who had the daunting task of condensing Ali's life into a 158-minute running time. The movie that unfolds on-screen is imbalanced in what's accorded screen time, slipshod in its development of supporting characters, and inefficient in penetrating the Ali mystique.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND Director Ron Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema -- even his best pictures have a stuffed-shirt quality about them -- but in tackling the story of John Nash Jr., the math genius who suffered from schizophrenia but still won the Nobel Prize, Howard has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's neverending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe 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 strong-willed wife. (Another plus: A superb score by James Horner that never travels quite where we expect.) The film may play fast and loose with the facts -- so what else is new in Hollywood? -- but even sticklers for historical accuracy may have to grudgingly admire its efficiency. 1/2

GOSFORD PARK Ever since the magnificent one-two punch of 1992's The Player and 1993's Short Cuts, Robert Altman has been struggling as a filmmaker, so even though this ambitious effort doesn't rank with his greatest hits, it's still potent enough to qualify as his best work in years. A stronger opening might have elevated it even more: After all, when a movie attempts to juggle 30 characters, it's imperative that the filmmakers establish each and every one of them from the get-go. As it stands, some initially fuzzy relationships and obscure identities lead to some early stumbling blocks, and it's only after a half-hour that everything falls into place. From there, the film is largely a delight, weaving comedy, drama and even a dash of intrigue (in the form of a second-act murder) into its look at the members of a shooting party gathered at an English estate in 1932. Altman is renowned for his all-star casts, and here he has assembled one of the best: Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and Croupier's Clive Owen are just a few of the crack thespians flourishing under the director's steady command.

IN THE BEDROOM Fans of such relentless downers as Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter are likely to embrace this unflinching study of ordinary people coping with an unspeakable tragedy. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek headline as a Maine couple whose college-bound son (Nick Stahl) gets involved with a loving single mom (Marisa Tomei) -- with tragic results. Actor Todd Field makes a sure-handed debut behind the camera, serving as director and adapting (with Rob Festinger) a short story by the late Andre Dubus. The result is about as raw -- and as real -- as anything recently seen in theaters, a searing drama that never shies away from examining the wildly divergent reactions mustered by people in impossible situations. The climax feels a little pat, but overall, this is a remarkably clear-eyed exploration of suffering and sacrifice, and the performances by Spacek, Tomei and especially Wilkinson are above reproach. 1/2

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