BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF Movies that adopt an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach are often maddening messes, but this French import is reminiscent of countless other films and yet still manages to retain its own swagger of originality. With a first half that plays like Sleepy Hollow, a second half that begs comparison to From Hell, and elements of Jaws, The Last of the Mohicans, The Company of Wolves and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scattered throughout, this delirious experience covers most bases and makes at least a cursory stab at the few it misses. In 18th century France, a naturist/philosopher (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Iroquois companion (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the royal court to investigate a series of slayings in the French countryside. The creature responsible is reportedly a monstrous wolf, but as the pair investigate, they discover that several of the locals may know more about the affair than they're admitting. This one's got it all: martial arts, political intrigue, tender romance (between Le Bihan and Rosetta's Emilie Dequenne), steamy sex scenes (between Le Bihan and Malena's Monica Bellucci), and a snapping, snarling, bloodthirsty beast.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO Disney's live-action films frequently have all the flavor of a Styrofoam cup (see Snow Dogs below), but occasionally the studio manages to deliver a robust retelling of a cherished classic. In the tradition of their winning 1994 take on The Jungle Book, this latest version of Alexandre Dumas' novel is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that makes the most of its compelling storyline. Jim Caviezel, generally that most somnambular of actors, turns out to be a good choice to play Edmond Dantes, the good-hearted seaman who's wrongly incarcerated for 13 years, escapes from prison, reinvents himself as a nobleman, and coldly seeks revenge on those who betrayed him. Memento's Guy Pearce is all snaky insouciance as Dantes' former friend, while Traffic's Luiz Guzman is up to his usual scene-stealing ways as Dantes' no-nonsense sidekick (though this modern man seems as out of place in this period setting as would an SUV). In this pumped-up era, it's refreshing to come across an adventure tale that's free of rapid-cut edits, a blaring modern score and Matrix-style action scenes. Savor it while you can.
SNOW DOGS Stars often follow up their Oscar-winning performances with an embarrassment or two -- take the case of Shirley MacLaine, whose first film after winning for Terms of Endearment was Cannonball Run II -- but Jerry Maguire victor Cuba Gooding Jr. can't seem to put the brakes on his career skid: This bow-wow is just the latest in a steady stream of turkeys that also includes What Dreams May Come, Rat Race and Pearl Harbor. Gooding's a charismatic actor but also an unrepentant ham: I haven't seen the art of shameless mugging endorsed this wholeheartedly since the heyday of Jerry Lewis (or possibly even Joe E. Brown). Here, he lets out screech after screech and takes pratfall after pratfall in a dorky Disney comedy about a Miami dentist who inherits an Alaskan snow dog team. With the notable exception of Babe, Hollywood's FX wizards still haven't mastered the technique of anthropomorphizing animals: As in last summer's Cats & Dogs, seeing canines wink and talk is more creepy than cute, and the gnawing feeling is that these creatures would be more at home in an Omen sequel than a typically bland family film from Disney. 1/2
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