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Capsule reviews of films by CL critics

Opening Friday
THE AMATI GIRLS (PG) ** 1/2 Mercedes Ruehl, Sean Young, Dinah Manoff and Lily Knight play the daughters of recently widowed Cloris Leachman in Anne DeSalvo's dripping-with-sincerity drama that portrays Italian-American family life without reference to the Mafia. Ruehl's marriage is much like her mother's; Young is ready to divorce a workaholic; and Manoff's afraid of commitment. When developmentally challenged Knight decides she wants "a real boyfriend," most of the family is opposed. Cinematically proficient but not innovative, The Amati Girls probably helped DeSalvo get major family issues off her chest. -- SW

THE GIFT (R) ** Where do I go to return The Gift? Cate Blanchett plays a small town medium who gets embroiled in violence and sleazy behavior in a script, co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, that plays like "Peyton Place" with ESP. Director Sam Raimi injects a few shocks, but the film proves too over-the-top to be taken seriously, and with too many classy performers (including Keanu Reeves and Hilary Swank) for camp value. -- CH

THE PLEDGE (R) Director Sean Penn's 1950s thriller follows a police chief (Jack Nicholson) on the verge of retirement who makes a pledge to a young mother (Robin Wright Penn) to track down the killer of her child. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio del Toro and Sam Shepard.

SNATCH (R) *** As in his debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie doesn't construct plots so much as geometry exercises, setting groups of heavily-armed cockney hoodlums and hitmen in motion and seeing how often they collide. Nominally concerned with fixed boxing matches and the scramble for a stolen diamond, Snatch offers more of the same, with better jokes, a broader canvas and Brad Pitt stealing the show as a gypsy boxer whose accent is hilariously impenetrable. -- CH

Duly Noted
EXECUTION IN JUSTICE Witness to a shooting, Felix Spät, an attorney, helps convict Professor Kohler of the crime, which carries a 20-year sentence. Following the trial, Spät falls in love with Kohler's daughter, and against his better judgment, she convinces him to retry the case. Things go wrong, and Kohler gets off, leaving Spät to seek his revenge. The 1993 film is in German with English subtitles. German Criminal Films, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., Goethe Institut Atlanta.

THE FIVE SENSES (R) *** Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa makes a noble, if not completely satisfying, effort to convey the desires and frustrations in the lives of a group of disparate Toronto residents occupying the same office building in his second feature. The quirky, pensive, thoughtful influence of a director like Atom Egoyan is much in evidence here. And while Podeswa doesn't have Egoyan's licks and can often meander into preciousness, his story seems a genuine, exploratory expression of a common desire for connection many will relate to. Peachtree International Film Society, Jan. 21 at 6 p.m., Cinevision Screening Room. -- FF

GRANDE ILLUSION Set during WWI, director Jean Renoir's 1937 classic focuses on two French soldiers who are imprisoned in a German camp. With the help of fellow inmates, they hatch a clever plan to dig a tunnel to freedom. Their great escape, however, doesn't go quite as they expected. Films at the High, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium.

GRANDMA AND HER GHOSTS While staying at his grandmother's house, a young boy has to deal with the trouble-making ghost he accidentally sets free. Through this adventure, the boy discovers that his grandmother is actually a powerful Taoist shaman. The animated film is in Chinese with subtitles. Films at the High, Jan. 20 at 4 p.m. and Jan. 21 at 3 p.m., Rich Auditorium.

IMAX AT FERNBANK: LEGEND OF THE LOCH Based on the famous Scottish song, "Loch Lomond," the movie tells of a young singer who uses song to bring an 18th-century couple separated by war back together in the modern era. The film interweaves historical and modern Scotland in this haunting, romantic tale. Special Screenings Series, Jan. 19, 20 and 21 at 6 p.m., Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

M The police in a German city mount an exhaustive investigation to catch a killer who is targeting children. A group of criminals decide to find the madman themselves after the increased police presence becomes bad for business. Director Fritz Lang's 1931 film is in German with English subtitles. German Criminal Films, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m., Goethe Institut Atlanta.

MADADAYO Writer/director Akira Kurosawa's last film, the movie features Tatsuo Matsumura as Hyakken Uchida, a beloved professor who leaves his job to become a writer after his house is destroyed in air raids on Japan in 1943. His old students plot to move him from the hut he and his wife now inhabit to a bigger home. Jan. 19-25 at 12, 4:15 and 8:30 p.m., GSU's cinéfest.

METROPOLIS Director Fritz Lang's 1927 silent sci-fi film is about a futuristic society where people are separated into a working or thinking class. The thinkers are the elite, dominating power who under estimate the workers until the under-appreciated class stage a rebellion. Silent Film Society of Atlanta, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m., GSU's cinéfest

OUR MAN IN HAVANA Alec Guinness stars as a vacuum cleaner salesman who gets recruited into British Intelligence. Not a very good spy, he makes up stories and reports of secret "weapons." His false information causes the situation to get out of hand in this 1960 comedy. Films at the High, The Alec Guinness Quartet, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m., Rich Auditorium.

RASHOMON In this 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie, a woman is raped and her husband is murdered. Fortunately, four witnesses come forward to tell what they saw. Unfortunately, the witnesses give four different accounts of the events. What really happened? You decide. Jan. 19-25 at 2:30 and 6:45 p.m., GSU's cinéfest.

REBELS WITH A CAUSE A documentary about the Students for a Democratic Society, Helen Garvy's film chronicles the stories of SDS members, a national group of college activists who struggled to initiate social change in the '60s. From the Civil Rights Movement to Vietnam anti-war protests, the movie relates the passion and repression of the '60s through the eyes of the members who lived it. Jan. 12-18 at 2, 6 and 10 p.m., GSU's cinéfest.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (R) The cult classic of cult classics, the 1975 horror spoof follows an all-American couple (Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) to the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a drag-queen/mad scientist from another galaxy. It's all fun and games until Meatloaf gets killed. Dress as your favorite character and participate in this musical on acid. Fridays at midnight, Lefont Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave.

STEAL THIS MOVIE (R) With a title inspired by Abbie Hoffman's popular book, Steal This Book, the biopic centers on the life and activism of Hoffman (Vincent D'Onofrio), a counterculture hero in the '60s and early '70s. In a pseudo-documentary style, the Vietnam War-era film explores his relationship with his wife (Janeane Garofalo), the chaos of 1968 Democratic Convention riots, the Chicago Seven trial and his escape into the underground. Jan. 12-18 at 12, 4 and 8p.m., GSU's cinéfest.Continuing
ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (PG-13) Two young Texans (Matt Damon and Henry Thomas) get more adventure in Mexico than they bargained for in Billy Bob Thornton's ambitious but meandering adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. Ted Tally's script approximates the book's laconic cowboy poetry, but the film lacks the moral and geographic scope of a John Ford or Sam Peckinpah Western, despite harrowing moments of violence and smoldering scenes between Damon and Penelope Cruz. -- CH

ANTITRUST (PG-13) 1/2 Though not as memorable as Arlington Road, the last paranoid thriller in which Tim Robbins played a villain, Antitrust is a good popcorn movie that's aimed at a younger audience and should do the job for them. Robbins is a Bill Gates-like computer mogul, Ryan Phillippe the hotshot garage geek who goes to work for him but discovers his dark secrets and has to bring down his empire. It's like a chess game, only more visual. The geek-speak dialogue sounds credible without being intimidating. -- SW

CAST AWAY (PG-13) Director Robert Zemeckis and his Forrest Gump star Tom Hanks have created another crowd-pleaser in what begins as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe story but comes out looking like a "Survivor" spin-off. Dumped in the Pacific, Chuck Noland (Hanks) spends four-plus years on an otherwise uninhabited island, developing survival skills gradually and realistically. The plot eventually gets Hollywood-ized, but it's amazing how long Zemeckis resists commercial impulses, aside from the whole movie being such a commercial for Chuck's employer, FedEx, that failing an Oscar, it has a chance to win a Clio. -- SW

CHARLIE'S ANGELS (PG-13) On the theory that velocity is a substitute for quality, music video director McG zips through a series of sketches that were apparently more fun to shoot than they are to watch. Angels Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu find time between costume changes and dance numbers to solve the case of kidnapped techno-mogul Sam Rockwell. As their giggling constitutes a laugh track, I was reminded more of "The Carol Burnett Show" than the original "Charlie's Angels." Bill Murray is good as Bosley, the eunuch in their harem. -- SW

CHOCOLAT (PG-13) 1/2 Free-spirited Juliette Binoche opens a chocolate shop in a repressed village, setting up a didactic conflict of indulgence versus denial. The French locales, food and faces are lovingly photographed (the disarming ensemble includes Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Alfred Molina), but it cannot equal the comparably themed but richer Babette's Feast. Chocolat melts in your hands, not in your heart. -- CH

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (PG-13) An enchanting tale set in early 19th-century China, Ang Lee's (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) atmospheric Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon rekindles the Hong Kong flame of gravity-defying martial arts action and tender sentiment. Lee invests the usual astounding acrobatics with his characters' pangs of regret, love and loss as two martial arts masters, (Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) teach a spoiled young aristocrat (Zhang Ziyi) about the moral responsibilities of the Giang Hu martial arts way in this subversive, beautifully realized coming-of-age story. -- FF

DOUBLE TAKE (PG-13) 1/2 This action comedy wants to keep you guessing who the good guys and bad guys are, but you're more likely to wonder why you wasted your money on this crap. Orlando Jones, a fine comic, is supposed to play straight man to the even wackier Eddie Griffin, but the script is so inconsistent it's as if different scenes had different writers and directors who didn't confer with each other. Double Take won't leave you doubled over with laughter--or even singled over. -- SW

DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? (PG-13) 1/2 Underachievers need role models too. Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott), the latest incarnation of Bill & Ted, are stoner/slackers who save the universe while trying to remember what they did the night before. The plot-heavy comedy is as witless as it is brainless, the guys cute but not funny or believable, individually or together. Their odyssey--with the emphasis on the "od"--surrounds our heroes with zany stereotypes, from a transsexual stripper to donut-loving cops. What Kutcher and Scott should really be asking is, "Dude, where's my agent?" -- SW

THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE (G) Besides being one of the year's funniest comedies, Disney's latest animated feature is a perfect mating of voice actors with characters: David Spade as the spoiled emperor who's turned into a llama; John Goodman as the kindly peasant who turns the other cheek to help him; Eartha Kitt as a classic Disney villain who lacks only a song; and Patrick Warburton as her dim thug. The drawing style is simpler than in most of Disney's classics, but the picture's packed with fun, action and comedy that appeals to all ages. -- SW

FINDING FORRESTER (PG-13) Gus Van Sant revisits Good Will Hunting territory in a tale of a brilliant but unrecognized student and athlete (newcomer Robert Brown) who bonds with a reclusive, Salingeresque novelist (Sean Connery). The pair has enjoyable moments together, but van Sant is clearly more interested in the basketball games and the Bronx setting than the film's contrived prep-school conflicts and its lip service to great literature. As yet another story of a reluctant young genius, it could be called Good Will Finding. -- CH

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (NR) 1/2 Richard Lester's bouncy, whimsy-infused chronicle of a day in the life of those superstar mop tops, the Beatles, has been re-released just in time for the 'olidays. Filled with the kind of nit-wit clowning that has since come to define a certain kind of fun-loving MTV video, this attempt to market the Beatles in film form exceeds its promotional value with cheerful renditions of classic Beatles tunes, Lester's new-wave style and the band's unbeatable energy and sporting sense of fun. -- FF

IMAX AT FERNBANK: ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA (NR) It's "California Dreamin'" for the new millennium as IMAX and Everest director Greg MacGillivray pack a lot of extreme sports and environmentalism into 40 unhurried minutes, including sky- and sea-surfing sequences that put Hollywood movie stunts and special effects to shame. You'll see baby otters and bald eagles being prepared by humans for life in the wild and trees that have lived for 3000 years. You'll ride a roller coaster at Disneyland, walk down the red carpet at the Academy Awards and descend 125 feet into a hollow space in an ancient sequoia. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m., 1, 3 and 5 p.m., Sun. 1, 3 and 5 p.m. and Fri. 8 and 10 p.m. BEAVERS (NR) 1/2 Two furry rodents build a dam and a family in an IMAX nature film that strains to fill 40 minutes. There's glorious photography of the wilderness of Alberta, Canada, blessedly little narration, and fascination in watching these natural-born engineers at work. Fans of Animal Planet should enjoy this giant-screen study of another of nature's wonders. Mon.-Sat. at 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m., Sun. at noon, 2 and 4 p.m., and Fri. at 7 and 9 p.m.. Films run through March 4 at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, 767 Clifton Road. -- SW

MEN OF HONOR (R) 1/2 Despite an overly melodramatic approach, director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) makes an honorable attempt to tell the story of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who became the U.S. Navy's first black Master Diver despite the efforts of several white men, especially head instructor Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro, sometimes bordering on caricature), to hold him back. Even after Brashear reaches his goal, there are new challenges to confront, leading to spontaneous audience applause at the designated moment. -- SW

MISS CONGENIALITY (PG-13) 1/2 Despite plot holes you could sail the Titanic through, so-so comedy and borderline-pathetic action scenes, this is a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock and she carries it off triumphantly as an FBI agent whose feminine side emerges when she goes undercover as a contestant to save a beauty pageant from a mad bomber. Benjamin Bratt makes a good foil as the fellow agent she'll wind up with once they resolve their character flaws. While the script could have used a lot more polishing, director Donald Petrie salvages it by focusing on the characters and letting his actors save the day. -- SW

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (PG-13) 1/2 George Clooney plays a escaped convict dragging his buddies across the Depression-era Deep South in search of hidden treasure and trying to stop his wife's remarriage in this uneven but brilliantly bizarre screwball send-up of '30s folk history and Homer's ancient epic, Odyssey. The film features a number of Coen Brothers alums, including John Goodman (standing in for the Cyclops) and John Turturro (who almost gets turned into a frog). The title comes from Sullivan's Travels, which you should also see, dammit. -- EM

PROOF OF LIFE (R) 1/2 Knowing about Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe's off-screen romance adds fuel to the tepid fire onscreen in Taylor Hackford's Casablanca-style action-romance that doesn't have enough of either. Instead of Bogie's mystique, Crowe might as well wear a neon "Hero" sign as the hostage negotiator who falls in love with Ryan while trying to free her husband (David Morse, taking acting honors) from banana-republic rebels. The script is needlessly complex in some areas while totally neglecting others, but the movie looks good and moves fast so you may not notice. -- SW

QUILLS (R) Philip Kaufman, director of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, brings his literary acumen to playwright Doug Wright's Gothic treatment of the Marquis de Sade, who proves an unlikely martyr to the cause of artistic freedom. Geoffrey Rush's Mephistopholean performance as the Marquis, the lunatic asylum setting and the debates over censorship can all be heavy-handed, but it's refreshing to have a film with too much to say rather than too little. -- CH

SAVE THE LAST DANCE (PG-13) 1/2 A teen film with a little more on its mind than most, this MTV production manages to address some hot-button topics, like interracial dating, while offering an appealing cast of actors as high school students who get down nightly at an after-hours hip-hop club. Julia Stiles is a tragedy-paralyzed ballerina whose mother's death sends her to live with her slacker dad in inner-city Chicago. The tragedy puts her dreams of Juilliard on hold until she hooks up with Sean Patrick Thomas, a Georgetown-bound boy from the hood who helps her put the bounce back in her step with after school hip-hop lessons in this harmless, at times even thoughtful, teen romance. -- FF

STATE AND MAIN (R) 1/2 Such enjoyable actors as Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker put what bite they can into David Mamet's limp showbiz satire. In depicting the havoc wreaked by a film crew on a Vermont village, Mamet means to pay tribute to small-town Americana, but his town comes across as phony as a theme park attraction, and wife Rebecca Pidgeon is over her head as the story's romantic lead. -- CH

TRAFFIC (R) 1/2 A well-crafted, engrossing story of the drug war as it touches characters from Tijuana to Washington, D.C., from cops and politicians to teenagers and suburban wives, Steven Soderbergh's drama moves along at a ferocious clip. Even with its large cast of newcomers and Hollywood old-guarders, this psychological action film affirms Soderbergh's talent for making good, populist dramas that exceed the usual Hollywood standards. -- FF

THIRTEEN DAYS (PG-13) Kevin Costner plays a fly-on-the-wall presidential assistant and confidante in a richly-detailed docu-drama about the Cuban missile crisis. There's no shortage of Kennedy nostalgia, but Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp superbly render JFK and RFK (respectively) as flesh-and-blood men under enormous pressure. Though we know the ending, there are exciting U-2 spy missions and confrontations during the naval blockade, as if the United States and the Soviets are playing "Battleship" with real battleships. -- CH

UNBREAKABLE (PG-13) When a stadium security guard (Bruce Willis) emerges unscathed from a train wreck, an enigmatic dealer in comic book art (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects him of having extranormal abilities. With the same star, style and Philadelphia setting as The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up provides comparable suspense and craftsmanship, even as the idiosyncratic plot teeters at the brink of comic book camp. -- CH

VERTICAL LIMIT (PG-13) 1/2 Spectacular scenery and sensational stunts are overwhelmed by crap-tacular everything else as a nature photographer (Chris O'Donnell) tries to rescue his little sister from certain death on the slopes of K-2, a 28,000-footer and the meanest mountain in the world. Who knew you could pile shit so high? -- EM

WES CRAVEN PRESENTS: DRACULA 2000 (R) Patrick Lussier's direction is ho-hum but Joel Soisson's D2K screenplay has some new twists that justify dragging us through the story again. It links the old Count with the New Testament as original vampire slayer Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer), preserved by injections of Dracula's blood, tries to protect his daughter (Justine Waddell), from Dracula (Gerard Butler) in present-day New Orleans. Some sets are really tacky but there's fun in the Matrix-inspired fights, especially one involving the vampire version of Charlie's Angels. -- SW

WHAT WOMEN WANT (PG-13) Don't expect much more than a light social comedy on the level of Richard Brooks' The Muse and you won't be disappointed by the throwaway charms of this Hollywood lark about a chauvinistic ladies man (Mel Gibson) who is electrocuted in the bathtub and wakes up able to hear women's innermost thoughts. Director Nancy Meyers knows how to pander to a mainstream audience, and her predictable but often funny film has enough insight into the communication barriers between men and women to sustain interest in a rather thin plot. -- FF

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