Continuing Films

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE -- (Grade: B) Steve Coogan has the matter-of-fact charm and acting ability to pull off Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, the watershed music company that produced th

Oct 3, 2002 at 2:06 pm

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE — (Grade: B) Steve Coogan has the matter-of-fact charm and acting ability to pull off Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, the watershed music company that produced the New Wave genre out of Manchester, England. Late in the film 24 Hour Party People, Wilson shares his business philosophy. "Factory Records is not actually a company. We are an experiment in human nature." So too is the film. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People takes pop music history - and retells as documentary meets uber-cheap indie and Christopher Guest comedy. — RP (Rated R.)

THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH — (Grade: D) Director Ron Underwood's outer space comedy sucks all the spunk out of the once raunchy Eddie Murphy's comic persona. I don't mind Murphy playing warm and fuzzy, as long as he delivers some laughs. It's the year 2087 and Pluto Nash (Murphy) owns a nightclub on the moon.

The mob wants Nash's club, but he's not selling. Slapstick hijinks ensue. Rosario Dawson plays an aspiring nightclub singer. John Cleese is Nash's chauffeur. Blaxploitation star Pam Grier is Nash's mother. The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a film that's been sitting on the shelf for some time, can't muster one worthwhile gag. Granted, Pluto Nash looks slick, complete with futuristic sets and costumes, but all that means is more money was wasted on a brain-dead story. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER — (Grade: D) The loudest laughs come in the first few minutes of Austin Powers in Goldmember, the third and least creative film starring Mike Myers' time-warped British secret agent Austin Powers. Goldmember's opening joke revolves around a movie-within-a-movie gag involving a Hollywood version of Powers' life story. Goldmember's downward slide begins after its gag-heavy plot involving Powers' larger-than-life dad, Nigel Powers, played by larger-than-life veteran actor Michael Caine, and a disco-obsessed villain named Goldmember (also Myers), kicks into gear. This time, Powers' comic missteps outnumber his slapstick hits. Like Bond himself, Powers is looking worn and uncreative in Goldmember. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

BAD COMPANY — (Grade: D) Veteran director Joel Schumacher returns to the screen with the type of formulaic action movie that's derivative at best. Bad Company stars Anthony Hopkins as a seasoned CIA agent paired with Chris Rock, playing a CIA agent and his punk twin brother. In Bad Company, high-concept storytelling means guessing every plot surprise before it happens. Its overly slick photography turns bland and familiar. Supporting player Peter Stormare provides Bad Company with some brief thrills as the creepy Russian villain, but his on-screen time is too short to salvage the movie. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER — (Grade: F) Filling the cheesecake role in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Lucy Liu has little to say as the mysterious assassin Sever, a kung-fu woman in a black cat suit, which is a good thing since most of the film's dialogue is inane. Antonio Banderas fares no better as the film's beefcake, Jeremiah Ecks, a former agent who's pulled out of his drunken retirement to battle Sever. A director named "Kaos" is the kind of guy you'd expect to fill an action film with explosions, but without one clever action gimmick, there's no reason to see the film. — SR (Rated R.)

THE BANGER SISTERS — (Grade: D) First-time director Bob Dolman wants to remind audiences that Goldie Hawn is the queen of the blonde comic ditz. Susan Sarandon also knows her way around sexy laughs. But these two form the tag-team duo known as The Banger Sisters, the result is ittle more than a pandering trip down memory lane. An aging, broke free spirit named Suzette (Hawn) tracks down her best friend Vinnie (Sarandon), now a soccer mom who has hidden her groupie past from her family. Without anything to test them, Hawn and Sarandon pass on personality alone, but that shouldn't make anybody feel good. — ttc (Rated R.)

BARBERSHOP — (Grade: B) Who would have guessed that rapper Ice Cube would have gone on to a successful movie career. Barbershop finds Cube mixing up laughs and life lessons with Cedric, Eve and Sean Patrick Thomas as just a few of the neighborhood barbers who trade custom cuts and wicked barbs until this little community is threatened by a local loan shark (Keith David) who buys the place and plans to convert it into a sleazy gentlemen's club. There's not a single surprise in the whole movie, but the relaxed story settles into a enjoyable groove. — ttc (Rated PG-13.)

BEARS — (Grade: B) In Bears, a likable OMNIMAX film from the production team at the National Wildlife Federation, the popular myth of the bear meets Mother Nature. The three species of bears found in North America (Black, Brown and Polar) are given the spotlight. The educational focus clarifies some common misconceptions, but the moving images of playful cubs, protective mother bears and the hungry predators fishing for salmon provide a more complete understanding of a bear's complex life. Bears tells an engaging lesson, complimented with low-key humor and the music of Lyle Lovett. — ttc (Unrated.)

BLOOD WORK — (Grade: B) One of the most efficient, matter-of-fact suspense dramas you're likely to see, Blood Work is further proof of Clint Eastwood's status as one of American film's great directors. Eastwood plays Terrell McCaleb, a retired FBI agent who returns to work in order to catch a serial killer who has eluded him for years. With a transplanted heart beating inside him, McCaleb struggles to find the strength to resume his work and catch the killer. Eastwood's gravely voice and gruff demeanor matches perfectly with McCaleb. Unfortunately, Wanda De Jesus, who plays McCaleb's love interest, fails to match Eastwood's screen presence. — SR (Rated R.)

BLUE CRUSH — (Grade: B) The one positive surprise in an otherwise predictable summer belongs to director John Stockwell's likable surfing drama Blue Crush. Kate Bosworth is both pretty and believable as surfer girl Anne Marie. More importantly, Anne Marie's relationships with her younger sister Penny (Mika Boorem), and fellow surfers Eden (Michelle Rodriguez) and Lena (Sanoe Lake), are emotionally honest and engaging. The film's core drama revolves around Anne Marie's decision to compete in the Pipe Masters surf competition, a macho contest that's unfriendly toward female surfers. Actually, Blue Crush's drama focuses on Matt (Matthew Davis), a visiting football player who complicates Anne Marie's life with unexpected romance. Blue Crush loses some steps whenever it shifts its melodramatic story in an Officer-and-a-Gentleman-like direction. Bosworth and her surfer costars are too tough for Cinderella labels. Luckily, Stockwell keeps Blue Crush moving with acrobatic camerawork, honest dialogue and plenty of action. Despite an ending filled with clumsy clichés, Blue Crush creates a trio of female heroes who are strong-willed, courageous and exciting to watch. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

THE BOURNE IDENTITY — (Grade: B) Here are a few key plot points in director Doug Liman's (Go) smart adaptation of Robert Ludlum's spy novel. There is a body floating in the Mediterranean with two bullets in the back. A top secret safety deposit box contains international currency, fake passports and a gun. At the center of this mystery is a man reborn with no memory. But he has a killer instinct that will aid him on his run across Europe with a beautiful girl (Franka Potente) and her vintage Mini Cooper. What a life. But the question is: Who is Jason Bourne? In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne is none other than Matt Damon. The Bourne Identity never gets lost in overly plotted techno-thrills thanks to stellar support from Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and Clive Owen, an actor who should be at the top of every budding spy franchise wish list. Damon's blank, all-American face and intelligent eyes make his Bourne a man audiences will be content to see finally come in from the cold. If this outing is successful, maybe Bourne will get the chance to warm up a bit more in a movie sequel. — ttc (Rated PG-13.)

CITY BY THE SEA — (Grade: B) We've accepted Robert De Niro as a comedic force in his recent hits, but it's refreshing to see him chew scenery as a heavyweight thespian again. He plays everything pretty close to the vest as NYPD cop Vincent LaMarca, who's investigating a murder for which his estranged son Joey (James Franco) is the prime suspect. De Niro focuses on his character's quieter side. Director Michael Caton-Jones tells an intriguing story based on actual events. De Niro is infinitely watchable and his supporting cast — notably Frances McDormand as LaMarca's girlfriend and Franco as the troublesome son — is also good. — RP (Rated R.)

THE COUNTRY BEARS — (Grade: D) Actors in radio-controlled bear suits are the stars of director Peter Hasting's family comedy. While I admire The Country Bears for skipping digital effects for a more low-budget presentation, there is little to recommend about its story. Beary Barrington (voice of Haley Joel Osment) is a teen-age bear who leaves home after figuring out that he's adopted by his human family. He travels to Tennessee to meet up with his musical heroes, The Country Bears, a Country Western band that broke up years ago. Beary believes reuniting the County Bears for a special concert will bring purpose to his life. It will also stop a villainous banker (Christopher Walken) from tearing down the bears' concert hall.

A pint-sized version of The Blues Brothers movies, The County Bears comes briefly alive during its musical numbers. Unfortunately, there aren't enough jokes to sustain its flimsy story. Walken is only worth a few laughs. Before long, the bear suits also begin to wear thin. — SR (Rated G.)

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS — (Grade: D) Director Ellory Elkayem's clumsy homage to B-horror movies is filled with giant spiders yet fails to pack one credible scare or loud laugh. David Arquette twitches admirably as an Arizona mine owner battling mutated spiders. He mumbles his dialogue and stumbles his way through scenes yet his slackerish persona fails to hold the movie afloat. Two scenes hint at the film's pulpy potential. Early on, a group of boys escape from jumping spiders on their motocross bikes. Later, the spiders attack the townspeople in an abandoned shopping mall. Like many would-be blockbusters, Freaks has more visual effects engineers than

screenwriters. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

FEAR DOT COM — (Grade: D) The film is the hackneyed mess it sets out to be. A growing trend of online surfers are logging onto a killer Web site and then checking out a few days later. Stephen Dorff stars as a detective who must download the evil to solve it. Director William Malone makes a thriller that's disturbing in all the right ways with a slight mid-budget sheen that most slasher films can't boast. But it's a little too sick for its own good and not very fun to watch. — RP (Rated R.)

THE FOUR FEATHERS — (Grade: D) Director Shekhar Kapur's adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers provides spectacle but little emotional drama. Actor Heath Ledger looks plenty rugged as British soldier Harry Feversham, a man who's branded a coward for refusing to take part in a war he doesn't support. Still, Ledger never makes his beliefs matter. Kate Hudson offers little more than a winsome smile as Harry's fiancée Ethne. Only Wes Bentley shines as Durrance, Harry's friend who refuses to send him a white feather denoting cowardice. There's a human story in The Four Feathers that Kapur fails to tell, despite his earnest intentions. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

THE GOOD GIRL — (Grade: A) After a season of predictable summer blockbusters, director Miguel Arteta's small-town comedy, The Good Girl offers its share of surprises. In the film, Jennifer Aniston plays a frustrated housewife who tries to boost her life through an affair with a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal). In fact, the film's best surprise lies with Aniston's easygoing comic performance. She brings to Arteta's low-budget film a jolt of real-life drama and heartache. But Arteta, reuniting with his Chuck & Buck screenwriter Mike White, makes Good Girl into a human drama with its share of emotional challenges and lifelike storytelling. — SR (Rated R.)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION — (Grade: F) Director Rick Rosenthal manages only one good scare in this uncreative follow-up to 1998's Halloween: H2O. Part of the problem is that screenwriters Larry Brand and Sean Hood offer nothing original to the long-running horror series. In Halloween: Resurrection, the latest batch of slasher mayhem, bogeyman Michael Myers returns to terrorize a group of teen-agers who win the chance to spend the night in Myers' childhood home and be part of a live Internet broadcast. The film's use of shaky video footage comes from The Blair Witch Project. Its plot about surviving a night in a cursed house borrows heavily from Thir13en Ghosts. Yet, Halloween: Resurrection pales in comparison to either film. Halloween veteran Jamie Lee Curtis makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film, which means she fares better than the remaining cast members. — SR (Rated R.)

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE — (Grade: B) Until Harrison Ford reprises his role as globe-trotting archeologist Indiana Jones — something that's beginning to look more and more likely — director Steven Spielberg's likable 1989 adventure will serve as the latest Indiana Jones tale. Written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade pairs Ford with Sean Connery as Jones' archeologist father, Professor Henry Jones. The father-and-son adventurers are after the Holy Grail. That is, if they can beat the Nazis to the punch. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

INSOMNIA — (Grade: A) A riveting break from teen-friendly blockbusters arrives courtesy of director Christopher Nolan's remake of the 1998 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, a riveting suspense movie that's as tense as they come. Al Pacino is LAPD detective Will Dormer, who's on the hunt for a killer in a remote Alaskan town. Robin Williams plays Dormer's prime suspect. Pacino and Williams shine in the film's large, action sequences. Still, the film thrives on Nolan's storytelling skills. After only three features, I already consider him one of the significant filmmakers working today. — SR (Rated R.)

INTO THE DEEP — (Grade: A) A screen that's six stories high by eight stories wide plunges audiences into an undersea forest of kelp that sways and teems with far more life than could be imagined in still photos or in other televised media. Two huge projectors achieve the 3D effect. And thanks to Newport IMAX Theaters' stadium seating, the images stream along above the heads of those in front of you. Curiously, as the beautifully exotic ecosystem expands before your eyes, the sensation is similar to being suspended in a deep-sea diving tank with your face pressed close to the glass. It may take supreme exertion of will power to not reach out to touch the fish or plant life that passes before you. Submit to the visual pleasures first. The commentary can be informative, but Into The Deep is, foremost, a feast for the eyes. — ttc (Unrated.)

K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER — (Grade: B) Director Kathryn Bigelow gives her compelling Cold War story, K-19: The Widowmaker, a boost by allowing Ford to step away from his All-American persona. The soul of Bigelow's military thriller revolves around Vostrikov's tendency to put the glory of Mother Russia above the safety of his own crew. Liam Neeson gives ample support as Vostrikov's kindhearted executive officer. K-19 comes to dramatic life after Vostrikov's submarine faces the possibility of a nuclear meltdown while on patrol. An accident could jump-start a nuclear war. Bigelow emphasizes human drama over action pyrotechnics, and K-19 is a better film for it. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE — (Grade: A) The colorful life of veteran Hollywood producer Robert Evans is the subject of co-directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein's lively documentary. While most documentaries aim to tell all sides of a story, this one playfully bends longstanding cinema verité rules. Based on Evans' autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture tells Evans' story in an intentionally lopsided fashion, complete with Evans' own narration. Early on, as the film glides through the plush rooms of his beloved Beverly Hills mansion, Woodland, it's clear the documentary focuses on the producer's rise more than his fall. But it is Evans' story, after all. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

LIKE MIKE — (Grade: D) A pint-sized teen orphan Calvin Cambridge (Lil Bow Wow) is given a mysterious pair of old Jordans with the initials M.J. written on the tongue, gets struck by lightning and becomes an NBA sensation for the Los Angeles Knights. This isn't some twisted post-draft story, just every kid's dream since No. 23 laced up his first signature pair of sneakers. Director John Schultz makes routine use of supporting performances from Morris Chestnut, Jonathan Lipnicki, Crispin Glover and Robert Forster, and a who's who of NBA talent, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitski, Steve Nash and Allen Iverson. A couple of lazy bricks in the story and special-effects departments prevents Like Mike from being a nice basketball fantasy. There's enough solid talent to tell a simple, entertaining tale. That is, if Schultz would only skip the fancy storytelling dunks and just put the ball in the hole. — ttc (Rated PG.)

LILO & STITCH — (Grade: B) Bright watercolor backgrounds of Hawaiian life and expressive 2-D images qualify Disney's latest animated feature as one of the more beautiful cartoon features in recent memory. Lilo (voice of Zoe Caldwell) is a 6-year-old Hawaiian girl who adopts what she thinks is a small dog. What she's actually brought home is a six-legged creature from outer space. Lilo is experiencing a hard time adjusting to life without her parents. Meanwhile, her older sister (voice of Tia Carrere) struggles to assume the role of the mother. Stitch, Lilo's pet, adds to the chaos. Director Chris Sanders' Lilo & Stitch is more painterly than recent CG animations Ice Age and Monsters, Inc. Still, its best attribute is a heartfelt story that balances screwball laughs with likable characters and an engaging lesson about the importance of family. Lilo is also an Elvis fan and the six Elvis tunes scattered throughout the film match perfectly with Lilo & Stitch's playful spirit. — SR (Rated G.)

LOVE AND A BULLET — (Grade: D) Malik Bishop (Treach) lives the gangsta life. He's a hard thug who steps up to the challenge of joining a crew of professional killers. The money, clothes and action he enjoys are straight-up hardcore. When Bishop develops feelings for a female contract killer and his boss' girlfriend who just might be his next target, it's time for him to give up the gangsta life before he loses his. Love And A Bullet could easily be mistaken for a hardcore Hip Hop track where the best raps are nothing more than the voiceovers of B-movies that play on late night TV. First-time writer/directors Michael McCants and Ben Ramsey try to poke fun at gritty "hood" dramas by flashing plenty of Matrix-style wire-fu effects and showing hired killers going through whole gun clips without hitting a damned thing. The problem is McCants and Ramsey never go completely over the top with the humor or surreal touches. If they had, Love And A Bullet could have been a thug fantasy with a chance to ascend into ghetto heaven. — ttc (Rated R.)

MARTIN LAWRENCE LIVE: RUNTELDAT — (Grade: D) Runteldat is not the most compelling argument in Martin Lawrence's case for his inclusion in the Black Stand-Up Comedy Hall of Fame. The miss-and-hit Runteldat won't secure a spot for Lawrence alongside the likes of Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and his Life co-star Eddie Murphy, or the reigning clown prince Chris Rock, who has achieved a level of crossover appeal. Black audiences remember Lawrence fondly from his days on the Def Comedy Jam circuit, his television series Martin, and the hit films Bad Boys and Big Momma's House. Unfortunately his current reputation with the mainstream is based on his celebrity mishaps and his recent lackluster efforts (Black Knight and What's The Worst That Could Happen?). The first half of Runteldat, which includes bits about Sept. 11 and the anthrax mail scare, has no bite. But when Lawrence cuts loose with his own E! True Hollywood Story, he is able to mine hard lessons and laughs with his broad brand of humor. If Lawrence had taken this tough self-love approach from the beginning, Runteldat might have helped him leapfrog past the Original Kings of Comedy, who have overtaken him on the comic radar. — ttc (Rated R.)

MASTER OF DISGUISE — (Grade: F) Audiences leaving ex-Saturday Night Live comic Dana Carvey's juvenile, unfunny comedy will have a new appreciation for veteran slapstick comic Jerry Lewis. In "Nutty Professor" fashion, Carvey unloads goofy accents, Mission:Impossible-inspired masks and outlandish costumes in a tireless attempt to generate some laughs. In director Perry Andelin Blake's Master of Disguise, Carvey plays Pistachio Disguisey, an Italian waiter whose quiet life turns upside-down after he discovers he comes from a family of disguise experts. Pistachio leaps into action after his parents (James Brolin and Edie McClurg) are kidnapped by an oily villain (Brent Spiner) who's intent on stealing the world's most treasured artifacts for an Internet auction. Brolin matches Carvey's bad Italian accent. The normally funny McClurg is completely wasted as Pistachio's mother. Jennifer Esposito, who plays Pistachio's pretty sidekick, stands around and shrugs her shoulders at the mess. As the film's star, Carvey earns the lion's share of the blame for the awful Master of Disguise. He dresses like a "Turtle Man," bounces around in a fat suit and wears a schoolgirl uniform to laughless effect. Toddlers will probably howl at Spiner's villain, a man with flatulence problems. Everyone else will squirm with boredom. — SR (Rated PG.)

MEN IN BLACK II — (Grade: B) Director Barry Sonnenfeld's eagerly anticipated sequel shines with the same comic book-style flair and visual fandango that made MIB so successful. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones star as intergalactic crime fighters entrusted with keeping the peace on Earth. Sparks fly as agent Jay (Smith) coaxes agent Kay (Jones) out of retirement and the duo nails the straight man-funny man routine that made the original so funny. Newcomers Johnny Knoxville, Lara Flynn Boyle, and the understated Patrick Warburton also add spice to the soup. The film really belongs to Smith as he makes MIB2 well worth your entertainment dollar. — RP (Rated PG-13.)

MINORITY REPORT — (Grade: B) The science-fiction thriller, Minority Report, has all the trappings of a blockbuster film, yet its dark, deliberate nature make it anything but a typical summer adventure. Steven Spielberg directs Tom Cruise as John Anderton, the head of a futuristic Washington, D.C., police unit. A clairvoyant trio, the Pre-Cogs, help them eliminate murders within the city. Anderton's loyalties are tested when the Pre-Cogs show him murdering someone he insists he doesn't know. Only a minority report — questioning the Pre-Cog's validity — can prove his innocence. Spielberg perfectly executes the details of his latest fast-paced action flick while still not straying from the classic film noir structure guiding Minority Report. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

MOSTLY MARTHA — (Grade: B) In director Sandra Nettelback's engaging drama, Martha is a popular chef (Martina Gedeck) in Hamburg who takes custody of her 8-year-old niece Lina (Maxime Foerste) after a family tragedy. Depression begins to weigh heavily until a new sous-chef (Sergio Castellitto) begins to challenge Martha's authority in the kitchen. Nettelback makes Mostly Martha the type of family drama we've seen countless times before. While there are few surprises, its believable lead performances make its story about the transforming power of family worthwhile. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

MR. DEEDS — (Grade: D) Adam Sandler's most recent attempt at being not funny is an uncreative remake of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). The story of Longfellow Deeds (Sandler), a small town guy who inherits $40 billion, is too sentimental for Sandler's teen-age fans and too mindless for everyone else. Screenwriter Tim Herlihy fails to capture the physical humor and childish charm that served Sandler well in his earlier films. A few good gags saves Mr. Deeds from complete disaster. Winona Ryder generates her own laughs as Babe Bennett, a street-savvy TV producer who wants to get some dirt on Deeds. The film's biggest laughs belong to John Turturro's screwball performance as Deeds' eager-to-please butler, Emilio. If Turturro had played Longfellow Deeds instead of Sandler, Mr. Deeds would have been a much funnier movie. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING — (Grade: A) Forget the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back premise. How about girl meets boy, they fall in love, and boy meets girl's family. That director Joe Zwick ends My Big Fat Greek Wedding with a wedding is no surprise. The surprise will come if Hollywood can avoid prostituting this well-made, boisterous indie film about the marriage of two cultures. When unassuming Greek girl Toula (Nia Vardalos) meets the very non-Greek Ian (John Corbett), you know it's love. The laughs ensue as he will do whatever it takes to make not just Toula, but her large, boisterous family, happy. — ttc (Rated PG.)

MY WIFE IS AN ACTRESS — (Grade: B) Actor/director Yvan Attal turns the camerea on himself and his real-life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg for a light-hearted and likable comedy about a French sportswriter (Attal) and his jealousies over his actress wife (Gainsbourg) and her on-screen love affairs. Except for some stumbling, second-half melodrama, My Wife is an Actress tells a brisk tale. Attal and Gainsbourg are comfortable playing dramtatic extensions of themselves. Terence Stamp, appearing as himself, brings the film an added boost of levity. His scenes with Gainsbourg are engaging. While Attal breaks no new ground with My Wife is an Actress, he compensates with a warmhearted comedy. — SR (Rated R.)

ONE HOUR PHOTO — (Grade: B) In writer/director Mark Romanek's riveting thriller One Hour Photo, Robin Williams sheds his comic sass to play Seymour Parrish, a middle-aged bachelor who runs the photo-processing section at a discount store. Parrish is obsessed with one particular family, the Yorkins, Nina (Connie Nielsen), her absentee husband, Will (Michael Vartan), and their little boy, Jakob (Dylan Smith). I don't know if audiences are ready to watch Williams in such an unsentimental role. I do know he delivers one of the year's best performances. Still, moviegoers willing to accept Williams acting against type will stumble across one of the year's best thrillers. — SR (Rated R.)

THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN — Director Mitch Davis adapts the memoirs of John H. Groberg, a missionary in the Tongan islands during the 1950s, into a family-friendly drama. Christopher Gorham plays Grosberg but the film's biggest asset looks to be its Polynesian landscape. — SR (Rated PG.)

POSSESSION — (Grade: A) Possession is an intelligent and zesty romance that flits from present-day London to 19th-century England. Director Neil LaBute's Possession is more straighfoward, but no less satisfying. American scholar Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) and English professor Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) uncover a secret love affair between Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known fairy poetess. Along the way, they will uncover their own long-repressed feelings about love, life and relationships. As a result, a classic novel becomes the source material for one of the most heartfelt screen romances in a very long time. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

REIGN OF FIRE — (Grade: D) Let sleeping dragons lie. Reign of Fire takes place in the not-so-distant future (2020) in the English countryside, an ideal setting for this medieval/post-apocalyptic fusion. The sci-fi/fantasy premise promises a low-rent summer escape along the lines of Dungeons & Dragons meets Mad Max, but it lacks the necessary B-movie energy and humor for a truly campy ride. Christian Bale and Gerard Butler are the dour British local heroes protecting a ragtag group of survivors from rampaging dragons. Their lone, spirited act is a re-enactment of the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader lightsaber battle that shows the power of pop mythology. The best and brightest of the American cheese comes from Matthew McConaughey, a military leader and self-styled dragonslayer. Think Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now or Patton with abs and tattoos to die for. McConaughey chews up the film's comic book storytelling, but you never get the sense that he's hungry for action. Neither are the dragons. There's no real fire in their bellies. Thanks to Bowman's (The X-Files) lack of action ingenuity, Reign of Fire claims few suspenseful sparks. — ttc (Rated PG-13.)

ROAD TO PERDITION — (Grade: A) Every piece of director Sam Mendes' glossy 1930s gangster epic comes together perfectly. As a result, Road to Perdition, Mendes' second feature film after his 1999 Oscar hit American Beauty, is a film that audiences will remember for years. Tom Hanks is appropriately solemn as hit man Michael Sullivan, who aims to avenge the murder of his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Paul Newman crackles with menacing charm as Irish mob boss John Rooney, a man who's acted like a father to Sullivan. Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, is believable as Sullivan's oldest son, Michael Jr., who comes to understand his father better. Intelligent, powerful and engaging, Road to Perdition is the one Hollywood film worthy of its epic tag. Inevitably, there will be other notable films released before year's end. Still, I can't imagine them being anymore entertaining than Road to Perdition. — SR (Rated R.)

S1MØNE — (Grade: A) Writer/director Andrew Niccol makes the most of his star "synthespian," a long-legged blonde who seems too beautiful to be real. The guessing games over the starlet's true identity are part of the fun. Al Pacino is Victor Taransky, a flailing Hollywood director, desperate for a new lead actress after his star walks off the set of his last-ditch movie. S1MONE, short for Simulation One, is the artificial actress who fills the role. As is always the case with Faustian bargains, Taransky gets more than he can handle when the dazzling S1MONE becomes a worldwide star. S1MONE may get all the stares, but Pacino earns all the laughter. Together, they're responsible for one of the summer's best films. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

SCOOBY-DOO — (Grade: F) The idea of someone dumbing down the animated Scooby-Doo for a live-action film sounds redundant. However, director Raja Gosnell does just that. The mystery-solving antics of Scooby-Doo and his human friends aren't meant to be Shakespeare. Still, the TV adventures were never as moronic and unfunny as Gosnell's big-screen adaptation. The cast, including Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar, cannot save the laughless jumble of a movie. Scooby-Doo has been on television for 33 years, and its reruns remain as funny as ever, yet the live action film drowns in a sea of unnecessary special effects and inappropriate violence. — SR (Rated PG.)

SIGNS — (Grade: C) Director M. Night Shyamalan fails to provide the sufficient jolts and surprises one expects from a successful supernatural thriller. But that doesn't mean Signs is without redeeming qualities. Shyamalan's story of an ex-reverend (Mel Gibson) who tries to figure out the origins of the mysterious crop formations on his rural Pennsylvania farm combines alien invaders paranoia with Alfred Hitchcock-inspired suspense. To the film's benefit, Shyamalan substitutes elaborate alien spaceship battles with a claustrophobic story set around an isolated farmhouse. The effect is creepy and effective. Gibson is appropriately solemn as the widowed father trying to protect his two children from whatever might be hiding in the cornstalks. Joaquin Phoenix adds some zip as Gibson's younger brother. Still, Signs revolves around Shyamalan's filmmaking. Working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Shyamalan creates one stunning scene after another. Signs never ceases to dazzle. With the exception of its final moments, Signs never manages to scare us as often we'd like. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS — (Grade: D) Less rousing than the first Spy Kids movie, adolescent spies Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) and his big sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are the highlights of writer/director Robert Rodriguez's haphazard sequel. Sabara and Vega are likable as junior James Bonds intent on regaining their spy parents' (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) good reputations with an undercover mission to a secret island. Steve Buscemi offers few laughs as a nerdy scientist responsible for the island's strange monsters. Alan Cumming, the first film's villain, makes a meaningless cameo as crazed kids TV host Fegan Floop. Veteran actors Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor are underused as Juni and Carmen's grandparents, who, of course, are also spies. Spy Kids 2's best scene occurs early in the film, when Juni and Carmen race to save the president's teen-age daughter on an out-of-control amusement park ride. Their array of spy gadgets and underwater submarines are as clever as ever. The letdown occurs when Spy Kids 2 begins its chaotic plot about double agents and a plot against the president. By the time Juni and Carmen figure out their island mystery, Spy Kids 2 loses much of its sense of adventure. Filled with fast-paced stunts and flashy special effects, Spy Kids 2 is more polished than its predecessor, but it's half as much fun. — SR (Rated PG.)

STAR WARS: EPISODE II —ATTACK OF THE CLONES — (Grade: B) Attack of the Clones stays close to the pulpy spirit of 1930s space hero serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and is better off for it. Free of the extended setup that bogged down the recent blockbuster Spider-Man, Attack of the Clones dives straight into its boy's life adventure, set 10 years after the most recent Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace. Two stories divide Attack of the Clones equally. One is the growing romance between Jedi-knight-in-training Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Queen-turned-Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). The other is a more straightforward adventure where Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) discovers a plot by enemy forces to attack the Republic with a clone army. To say anything more would give the impression that Attack of the Clones is more Robert Louis Stevenson adventure than a collection of lavish cliffhangers. Like most Star Wars movies, in-depth storytelling is not Attack of the Clones' greatest asset. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

STEALING HARVARD — (Grade: D) Kids in the Hall alum and director Bruce McCulloch (Superstar) has a ringer in Jason Lee. The guy has believably portrayed the best friend of Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy) and Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky). As the lead in Stealing Harvard, he is unfortunately saddled with Tom Green as his best friend, but he doesn't let that or the film's silly plot about a guy trying to scrape together enough money to send his niece to college overwhelm him. The film's hijinks quickly turn idiotic. Lee barely steals a passing grade for a movie that without him wouldn't deserve much consideration. — ttc (Rated PG-13.)

STUART LITTLE 2 — (Grade: C) The meeting of humans and a mischievous mouse named Stuart Little (voice of Michael J. Fox) is as eye-popping as ever in director Rob Minkoff's sequel to his 1999 family adventure. What's missing is a solid enough story to connect the action sequences and special effects. In-between, the plucky house mouse befriends an injured bird named Margalo (voice of Melanie Griffith) and battles a vicious falcon (voice of James Woods). Some tweaks are expected when a children's story is adapted to film, but Stuart Little 2 possesses even less heart than his first screen adventure. — SR (Rated PG.)

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS — (Grade: B) Few films are as closely aligned with world affairs as director Phil Alden Robinson's fast-paced adaptation of Tom Clancy's 1991 military suspense novel. Disbelief is no longer a factor for a film about terrorists smuggling a nuclear device into the United States, because anything is possible in today's chaotic world climate. Ben Affleck's engaging performance as CIA hero Jack Ryan turns out to be The Sum of All Fears' best surprise. Morgan Freeman keeps the storytelling intelligent and credible as Ryan's politically connected mentor, Bill Cabot. Still, the film's newfound realism, because of the Sept. 11 attacks, makes Clancy's story even more tense, exciting and suspenseful. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

SWEET HOME ALABAMA — (Grade: C) In Sweet Home Alabama Reese Witherspoon's Melanie Carmichael drives around her hometown as she tries to convince her estranged husband (Josh Lucas) to divorce her. Carmichael wants the divorce so she can marry Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the Cuomo/Kennedy clone who happens to be the son of New York City's mayor (Candice Bergen). Director Andy Tennant makes Alabama play like My Big Fat Southern Wedding with a set of complications straight out of the romantic comedy handbook. The broad jokes target both Northern liberals and Southern hicks, but the spirit somehow falls short of being either sweetly affectionate or truly wicked. — ttc (Rated PG-13.)

SWIMFAN — (Grade: D) Swimfan is, unapologetically, Fatal Attraction set in high school. So why make the character of Madison Belle (Erika Christiansen) weird and smarmy right from the start? Go back to the source. Glenn Close as Alex Forrest was fairly charismatic from the outset. In Swimfan, we have no idea what Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) sees in Madison. All thrillers will walk the line of believability too. Fatal Attraction certainly did at the end. But Swimfan asks us to suspend disbelief a little too much, a little too early on. Doing so just zaps viewers right out of the moment. — RP (Rated PG-13.)

TRAPPED — (Grade: D) In director Luis Mandoki chaotic thriller, Kevin Bacon flashes tinted sunglasses and a constant smirk as a kidnapper who preys on wealthy families. Bacon's bad-boy performance is one-note at best. Pruitt Taylor Vince, so believable as the conflicted member of the kidnapping team, is the one true victim in this thrill-less thriller. Bland blonde Charlize Theron and forgettable Stuart Townsend play the couple who try to get their kidnapped daughter back. In Trapped's freeway climax, Mandoki lets loose countless explosions and an airplane crash in an attempt to regain the audience's attention. Unfortunately, he lost us midway into the picture. — SR (Rated R.)

THE TUXEDO — (Grade: D) In director Kevin Donovan's lulling action comedy The Tuxedo, redundant special effects deaden martial arts star Jackie Chan's playful spirit and expert clumsiness. The film's story, about a shy chauffer who dons the title suit of clothes after his secret agent boss (Jason Isaacs) is sidelined in the hospital, is a slight variation on Chan's Hong Kong movie The Accidental Spy. Jennifer Love Hewitt offers little support as the U.S. government agent who teams up with Chan. The film's only good action gag is a fight atop a large tower where Chan is tied up with a thick rope. — SR (Rated PG-13.)

XXX — (Grade: C) An uncreative plot spoils Vin Diesel's action-hero debut in writer/director Rob Cohen's spy thriller XXX. Diesel, as brash and he is muscular, plays Xander "XXX" Cage (Vin Diesel), an extreme sports athlete recruited by the U.S. government to join their team of covert spies. Diesel puts his gruff voice, multiracial complexion, tattooed arms and neck, wide chest and shaven head to good use. He's the bulkiest spy boy around. But a stale plot involving a Russian crime ring based in Prague offers few surprises. Basically, Rich Wilkes' uncreative screenplay, a reheated Bond adventure, is a punch in Diesel's wisecracking mouth. — SR (Rated PG-13.)