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Movies, Inc. 

New releases to hold viewers spellbound

Place your bets: Monsters, Inc. (***1/2 out of four) or Shrek? Both were box office blockbusters (at $267 million, Shrek ended up grossing only a mere $12 million more than Monsters, Inc.), yet when it came time for year-end accolades, Shrek popped up on more 10 Best lists and went on to win the newly created Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yet while I don't quite agree with the critic who denounced Shrek as nothing more than a series of flatulence gags, I'm willing to bet it's the Disney competitor that will age more gracefully throughout the years. Teaming up once again with Pixar Animation (the Toy Story twofer), the studio managed to fashion a vastly entertaining romper room of a movie able to 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 (which did earn an Oscar for Randy Newman's song "If I Didn't Have You") is a visual marvel should surprise no one, yet what's really special is how deeply it makes us care about the relationship between Sulley and little Boo. Not surprisingly, Disney has opted to pack the two-disc DVD with all sorts of supplemental material, including audio commentary by the filmmakers, outtakes, the Oscar-winning short For the Birds, a peek at next summer's Disney/Pixar collaboration Finding Nemo, features on Monstropolis, and much, much more.As Monsters, Inc. again demonstrates, the Disney studio's batting average when it comes to animated efforts is unmatched; alas, their live-action films are another story, frequently possessing all the flavor of a Styrofoam cup. Yet occasionally, the studio manages to deliver a robust retelling of a cherished classic, and in the tradition of their winning 1994 take on The Jungle Book, The Count of Monte Cristo (***), the 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, turned out to be a sound 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, so rent the tape or DVD and savor its "old school" pleasures. Beyond the stylish menus, the DVD also includes audio commentary by director Kevin Reynolds, deleted scenes, a short feature on Alexandre Dumas and more.It's a battle of the bloodsuckers as both Blade II (**1/2) and Queen of the Damned (*1/2) make their home debuts within a week of each other. Of the pair, Blade II is a helluva lot more fun, and it also manages to top its 1998 predecessor, thanks in no small part to the decision to hire a real director (Guillermo Del Toro of Mimic and The Devil's Backbone) as opposed to the usual MTV-weaned hack. In this outing, the taciturn Blade (Wesley Snipes), a half-human, half-vampire renegade who's made it his mission to wipe out all bloodsuckers, finds himself reluctantly teaming up with his sworn enemies in an effort to take down an army of creatures (known as Reapers) who enjoy snacking on both humans and vampires. Snipes' Blade continues to rank as a rather dull superhero, but the action sequences have some (ahem) bite, Kris Kristofferson adds some welcome sass as Blade's cantankerous mentor, and the Reapers make formidable foes. Indeed, it's difficult to make a truly boring vampire picture, but the folks behind Damned, a draggy adaptation of Anne Rice's bestseller, did just that. Neil Jordan, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and the rest of those responsible for the arresting screen version of Rice's Interview With the Vampire are sorely missed this time around; instead, given the tedious exploits of the notorious bloodsucker Lestat (blandly played by Stuart Townsend) in this outing, the movie's sole claim to fame would seem to be as the final film project of the late singing star Aaliyah. She's cast as Akasha, the Mother of All Vampires, but it's impossible to gauge her thespian abilities based on this performance: She arrives only during the final half-hour, buried under reams of makeup and jewelry and boasting an electronically altered voice that sounds like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Twiki the robot from that 70s Buck Rogers series. Both DVDs include audio commentaries, deleted scenes and music videos, among other extras.

Turning a cold shoulder toward the sensationalist mindset that creates such dum-dum works as the Ashley Judd flick High Crimes (also just out on video), the dark, dank Frailty (**1/2) is a smartly woven chiller that takes its ideas and its characters very seriously. But all the good intentions in the world can't help a mystery that lays too many of its cards on the table too early. Shot in constant darkness and steeped in religious allegory and philosophical overtones, this stars Bill Paxton (also making an assured directorial debut) as a widower who claims he's been visited by one of God's angels and instructed to rid the earth of demons that have taken human form. This part of the film is presented in flashback, and it's good stuff, emerging as a nasty slice of American Gothic; the modern-day material, which finds one of the widower's grown-up boys (played by Matthew McConaughey) relating the events to a skeptical FBI agent (Powers Boothe), dilutes the overall impact of the piece by providing too many clues that make it relatively easy to figure out where this is headed. DVD extras include audio commentary, a making-of documentary, and an Independent Film Channel special.

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