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NEW RELEASES

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 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

BLACK KNIGHT Looking over the holiday film schedule, I had earlier predicted that, based on its premise and the appeal of Martin Lawrence, his new comedy would cross the $100 million mark in grosses. Having now seen the picture, I can state that it goes for the predictable gag at every single turn -- which of course makes my forecast look even more like a no-brainer. The sort of automatic-pilot entry that's frequently foisted upon the public during this lucrative film season, this variation on A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court is the perfect picture for select audiences in the market for something that won't require them to employ even one single brain cell (one woman at the advance screening was so caught up in the movie's mindless merriment, she roared with laughter whenever Lawrence did nothing more than utter another character's name). Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with this sort of predigested programmer, but did this one have to be so stridently bare-bones? Wielding none of the whimsy or heart of another recent medieval flick, A Knight's Tale, this one casts 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). Lawrence's easy-going charm results in plenty of smiles during the first half-hour, but even those fade over the course of this exercise in sameness. Black Knight isn't particularly good or bad; it's just... there.

CURRENT RELEASES

DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE Outside of family films, the general rule regarding a movie that runs less than 90 minutes is that the studio initially deemed it such a lost cause, they butchered it in the editing room in order to make some sense out of it and dumped it into the marketplace to fend for itself. Given that this one clocks in at 88 minutes and arrives missing at least one scene featured in the trailer, it's safe to say this John Travolta vehicle (filmed in Wilmington) fell into that camp, although I imagine director Harold Becker would insist he was just trying to make a trim and efficient thriller. Certainly, there's no excess fat on this puppy, but there's also nothing we haven't seen before, from the ordinary joe who must stand alone to the villainous outsider threatening to rip a family apart to the ineffectual cops who show up only after all the heavy stuff has gone down. In fact, this is schematically so similar to movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The River Wild that the only thing missing is the moment when the family's golden retriever attacks the bad guy just as he's getting ready to shoot the hero. Travolta is appealing as the divorced dad who believes his son (Matt O'Leary) when the latter tells him he witnessed his new stepdad (Vince Vaughn) murder another man, and Steve Buscemi steals the film in his brief scenes as the victim. But Vaughn's character is clearly up to no good, Teri Polo's mom is too slow on the uptake to earn much sympathy, and the climax is simply ludicrous. 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.

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