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HEAD TURNER Audrey Tautou hopes that Mathieu Kassovitz will notice her in Amelie
  • HEAD TURNER Audrey Tautou hopes that Mathieu Kassovitz will notice her in Amelie
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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 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. **

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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. ***

HEIST David Mamet's latest work has the dubious distinction of competing with last summer's DeNiro-Brando debacle The Score as the most disappointing caper yarn of the year. Mamet wrote and directed the film, which means the dialogue includes such attention-grabbing mouthfuls as "I'll be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton" and "[He's] so cool, when he goes to sleep, sheep count him." And the cast is headed by the Get Shorty trio of Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo and Danny DeVito, which means good performances won't be in short order. But for a movie that's obsessed with double-crosses, triple-crosses and even a couple of right-crosses, this is ultimately about as easy to patch together as a six-piece puzzle. The actual heists depicted in the film consume far too much screen time (watching guys smash open jewel cases gets dull reeeal quick), and even without having read the script, we know as much as the actors do about how this yarn about a seasoned thief (Hackman) pulling off One Last Job will unfold -- right down to the fate of the gang member with the lowest billing (Mamet regular Ricky Jay), the loyalty of Hackman's significant other (Mamet's miscast wife Rebecca Pidgeon), and even the climactic switcheroo. With Heist's all-too-familiar rhythms, Mamet may have thought he was pulling a fast one, but the only person he ended up outsmarting was himself. **

K-PAX Watching two great actors on the order of Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges squander their talents on something as ghastly as K-PAX is akin to spending your savings on the purchase of a fondue restaurant and using its facilities to create nothing more than grilled cheese sandwiches. Offensively sanctimonious, flagrantly derivative and just plain dull (don't see K-PAX without NO-DOZ), this insufferable picture casts Spacey as Prot, who's sent to a hospital's mental ward after he turns up in a New York train station claiming to be from another planet (in the real-world New York, this sort of ranting can be heard on a daily basis and wouldn't even raise an eyebrow, so why the fuss here?). Prot's case comes under the supervision of Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), who initially dismisses the patient as yet another flake but soon starts to suspect there might be some veracity to the otherworldly claims. The first half of the film plays like Patch Adams minus the bedpans on the feet, as Prot engages in a lot of "cute" behavior (like eating bananas with the peels left on) and offers guidance to his twinkly fellow patients. The second part shifts gears but doesn't get any better: It's like a nightmare version of an actor's theater workshop, as Powell uses hypnosis to learn about Prot's past. 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 Bridges' cardboard role is far beneath this fine actor's capabilities. *

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE Myopic moviegoers who refuse to see black-and-white films should be required to check out this latest Coen Brothers effort, since one look should shatter all preconceived notions about the unattractiveness of color-deprived motion pictures. Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins has managed to transform his basic palette into a shimmering, glistening splash of vibrancy, resulting in one of the year's most visually dazzling achievements. It's just a shame that every aspect of this puzzler can't match its ocular splendor. Joel and Ethan Coen, no stranger to genre sendups, have now turned to the smoke-choked world of film noir, and the result is an infuriating misfire, a mixed bag of a movie that contains a number of wonderful moments that never quite coalesce. In a perfectly pitched deadpan performance, Billy Bob Thornton plays a taciturn barber who discovers that his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini); he resorts to blackmail, a scheme that ends up leading to murder instead. The "winter of our discontent" feeling that marks most noirs is nicely captured by the Coens, but what they botch are the fundamentals of the twisty plot: This contains about as many plotholes as such generic junk as Domestic Disturbance, and the employment of non sequiturs that worked so well in their other films isn't nearly as accomplished this time around. Still, there's plenty to admire here, including some startling set pieces and uniformly fine performances. **1/2

MONSTERS, INC. Ever since it was announced that next year's Oscar ceremony would be the first to include the newly formed Best Animated Feature category, it's been agreed that the battle will come down to DreamWorks' summer smash Shrek and this latest offering from Disney. With apologies to the not-so-jolly green giant, I gotta say my vote squarely goes toward Disney's creatures of the night. Teaming up once again with Pixar Animation (the Toy Story twofer), the studio has fashioned a vastly entertaining romper room of a movie that should satisfy all ages. The sharp screenplay posits that the burg of Monstropolis is powered by the screams of small children, and the only way to harness that energy is for a company called Monsters, Inc. to send its employees through kids' closets in an attempt to generate worthy shrieks of terror. Of course, such an assignment is no picnic for the monsters, who believe that human children are toxic and that physical contact with them would be disastrous. So imagine the pandemonium that ensues when a bubbly tyke nicknamed Boo (voiced by 5-year-old Mary Gibbs) accidentally invades the monsters' world, forcing two of the critters -- gentle giant Sulley (John Goodman) and wise-cracking cyclops Mike (Billy Crystal) -- to try to return her to her bedroom before matters really get out of hand. That this film is a visual marvel should surprise no one; what's really unique about it is how deeply it makes us care about the relationship between Sulley and little Boo. ***1/2

NOVOCAINE A neo-film-noir-cum-black-comedy that has the ability to fool some of the people some of the time, this oddball effort from director-cowriter David Atkins benefits primarily from the casting of Steve Martin as the hapless hero, a dentist whose thriving practice and picture-perfect romance with his perky, brainy assistant (Laura Dern) are both jeopardized by his instant infatuation with a new patient, a disheveled dope addict (Helena Bonham Carter) whose mere presence gets him tangled up in the usual blackmail-and-murder scheme. Martin brings his offhanded comedic manner to a well-worn character type, and in doing so gives the film a fresh coat that suits it nicely. Still, did his character have to be so thick? Noir and neo-noir protagonists usually aren't the brightest guys around, but Atkins seems to go out of his way to make this dentist a particularly IQ-deprived clod. And while there's one ninth-inning twist that managed to catch me off guard, most of this follows familiar patterns that become both more obvious and more contrived as the piece unfolds. Atkins may have thought he was making a steel mousetrap of a movie, but the end result is more like a rickety house of cards. **1/2

SHACKLETON'S ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE Taking a break from functioning as one of the world's largest science classes (thanks to titles like Blue Planet and Dolphins), Discovery Place's OMNIMAX Theatre instead becomes one of the world's largest history classes with its presentation of a real-life event that has also been the subject of approximately a dozen recent books, a newly discovered documentary from 1919, a recently produced documentary that will come to town in January (courtesy of the Charlotte Film Society), and an upcoming feature film starring Kenneth Branagh. With a standard IMAX running time of 40 minutes, this invariably feels like the Reader's Digest version of this incredible true story, but between Kevin Spacey's sturdy narration and some choice archival footage, it provides a solid introduction to the saga. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton attempted to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent. Instead, his ship the Endurance became trapped in -- and eventually crushed by -- the packed ice in the Weddell Sea. Yet even faced with bleak circumstances that continued to darken, Shackleton took extraordinary measures in an effort to lead his crew of 27 out of their frozen prison and back to civilization. The setting allows the filmmakers ample opportunities to dazzle viewers with breathtaking shots of this gorgeous region, but the real drawing card is the vintage footage shot by Frank Hurley, a photographer who was part of Shackleton's expedition back in the day. ***

SHALLOW HAL The unfortunate preview for this winning romantic comedy, which makes the enterprise look like two hours of fat jokes, couldn't be more misleading; actually, most of the fat jokes have been crammed into that trailer, allowing the rest of the movie to make its case as a sympathetic tale about getting past surface appearances. Of course, I don't mean to give the impression that viewers should amble in expecting the all-inclusive humanity of a Frank Capra feature, as this Farrelly Brothers picture has its PG-13 share of raunchy gags and morally dubious asides. But as was the case with the siblings' There's Something About Mary, there's actually a tender love story at the center of all the sophomoric shenanigans. Jack Black plays the title role, a nerd who's spent his life trying to date gorgeous women clearly out of his league. Hal's only interested in physical beauty, but a chance encounter with self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself) changes all that. "De-hypnotized" by Robbins, Hal can now 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. Hal sees a svelte beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow au naturel), while everyone else sees the 300-pound reality (Paltrow in a convincing fat suit); this works just fine until Hal's equally shallow friend (Jason Alexander) contemplates breaking the spell. Black's performance is a delight, retaining his character's goofball persona while also showing us the blossoming adult underneath, but Paltrow's empathic contribution is also key. Incidentally, this was filmed here in Charlotte, and under the eye of Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the city has never before looked so appealing on screen. ***

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FROM HELL The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) tackle the legend of Jack the Ripper, with satisfactory results. This may not possess the macabre sense of showmanship that made Sleepy Hollow such a kinky kick (both films, incidentally, star Johnny Depp as the detective on the case), but on its own terms, it's an effective thriller that's densely plotted and well-paced. ***

LIFE AS A HOUSE With its conflicted characters and sense of irony, this drama about a divorced architect (Kevin Kline) trying to settle his affairs before cancer takes him initially feels like a yard sale version of American Beauty. But as the story progresses, its empathic nature and some choice performances eventually wear down all resistance to its rollicking charms. ***

MULHOLLAND DRIVE Audacious, infuriating, and the sort of divisive movie we've come to expect from one of America's most idiosyncratic filmmakers, David Lynch's latest piece of delirium works both as an exercise in bravura moviemaking and as a commentary on the very nature of cinema itself. As the perky blonde heroine, Naomi Watts delivers an unexpectedly complex performance that ranks with the year's best. ***

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