High Fidelity - * * *

Stephen Frears directs this romantic comedy about a slacker (John Cusack) who owns a record store who sets his sights on winning back his ex-girlfriend (Iben Hjejle). Joan Cusack, Sara Gilbert, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Lisa Bonet, Jack Black, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Todd Louiso star. Catherine Zeta-Jones has a cameo. Based on Nick Hornby’s novel.

Capsule Review: A witty script and some good performances enhance this romantic comedy. The flaw: there’s no real romance here. But Cusack alone makes this one worth watching, and the great supporting performances from Jack Black and Todd Louiso are pure enjoyment.

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Return to Me - * * 1/2*

Bonnie Hunt directs this romance about a man (David Duchovny) who falls in love with a woman (Minnie Driver)…the recipient of his dead wife’s heart. Hunt, James Belushi, David Alan Grier, and Robert Loggia also star. Scripted by Bonnie Hunt and Donald Lake. Previously titled Distance Calls.

Capsule Review: Enjoyable, but by-the-numbers romance. There is some deft handling of some rather melodramatic background material (the death of Duchovny’s wife, and Driver’s heart disease), something which doesn’t seem to be prime romantic material. But Duchovny and Driver find an easy chemistry, and they raise the movie up a notch.

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Here On Earth - *

Mark Piznarski directs this romantic drama about two teens in love (including Leelee Sobieski), one of whom has a terminal disease. Annette O’Toole will play Sobieski’s mother. Josh Hartnett, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Klein and Michael Rooker also star. Scripted by Michael Seitzman.

Capsule Review: Pure schmaltz. The love triangle between Sobieski, Josh Hartnett and Chris Klein is completely excitement-free, and the melodrama is more yawn-provoking than heart-stirring. There’s some talent here (Klein shows he has some stronger acting chops than merely mimicking Keanu Reeves, as he seemed to be doing in his previous films), but nothing for them to work with. This one’s a waste of time.

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Romeo Must Die - * 1/2*

Jet Li stars in this very loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, involving the Chinese and African-American mobs in LA. Jet Li comes to American to avenge his slain brother, and teams with the daughter (Aaliyah) of his family’s rival to solve the murder. Russell Wong, Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington also star. Andrzej Bartkowiak directs.

Capsule Review: Don’t be misled by the title. This film has very little in common with Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the only similarity is the presence of two rival families. Despite a potential romantic set-up between Jet Li and Aaliyah, there is no romance in the movie…at all. There is some action, which starts out good, but ends up ridiculous. Jet Li provides some good moves, as usual, but the film is never worthy of them. Isaiah Washington and Delroy Lindo do give some good performances, almost making you believe they’re in a better movie than the reest of the cast.

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Final Destination - * *

James Wong directs this thriller in which a group of students, following one student’s (Devon Sawa) premonition, avoid an air crash. But then they mysteriously begin to die, one by one. Ali Larter will play Sawa’s girlfriend, who teams with him to solve the mystery. Kerr Smith, Brendan Fahr, Chad Donella, Kristen Clarke, and Sean William Scott also star. Previously titled Flight 180.

Capsule Review: Although the film occassionally gets mired in the ridiculous, Flight 180 proves more imaginative than most of its “dead teenager” kin. It’s pretty easy to predict who will be the next to die, but the Rube Goldberg deathtraps are certainly inventive (if a bit far-fetched). Still, the film beats run-of-the-mill horror sequels any day.

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Erin Brockovich - * * * 1/2*

Ten years after Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts is still going strong. Erin Brockovich, her latest film, happens to be one of her best, providing her with a powerful role, and pleasing the audience with a deeply moving film.

The title character (Roberts) is an unemployed single mother. She has little education, and no experience, and thus seems to be at a big disadvantage in the job market. However, through a remarkable twist of circumstance, she gets hired to be a legal secretary by her exasperated lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney).

However, Erin is not satisfied being a simple legal secretary, and she soon begins investigating a case on her own. The file which attracts her attention is what appears on the surface to be a simple real estate claim. However, Brockovich quickly uncovers evidence that indicates Pacific Gas & Electric (aka PG&E) may have poisoned an entire community.

As Brockovich gets drawn more and more into the case, using her gut instincts and sex appeal as a substitute for actual legal education, she has less and less time to spend with her family. Luckily, her rough-and-rowdy biker neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart), happens to be an excellent babysitter. But will the case distract Erin from what is truly important…her family?

The film Erin Brockovich rises or falls based on one crucial factor: Julia Roberts. And here she succeeds, masterfully. It’s a role of depth and magnetism that Roberts hasn’t encountered since Pretty Woman. As Erin, she is able to blend her instincts, smarts, and raw sexuality to create a vivid portrayal of an individualistic woman striving for justice.

But Roberts is not the only one who shines here. The film provides a wonderful part for Albert Finney, as Erin’s bewildered employer. He gets his fair share of the film’s plethora of great lines, and a majority of the best reaction shots in the movie.

The dialogue in the movie simply leaps off the screen. Erin is probably a little foul-mouthed for some tastes, but she is full of snappy comebacks and witty repartee.

The biggest flaw in Erin Brockovich is the lack of a tangible villain. Sure, there’s PG&E as an institution, but that presence is never personified.

If you pause to think about the story, it tends to be slightly mundane. Luckily the great performances and dialogue never give you a moment to pause, and the end result is one wonderful film.

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The Ninth Gate - * 1/2*

Roman Polanski writes and directs this thriller set in the world of rare books. An expert in the field (Johnny Depp) gets entwined in a supernatural conspiracy while tracking down the two remaining copies of a demonic text. Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, The Club Dumas. Lena Olin, Frank Langella, James Russo and Emmanuelle Seigner also star.

Capsule Review: Despite a heroic effort from Depp to save the film, The Ninth Gate collapses at the end into a camp-riddled joke. Never sure if it wants to be a horrorshow or a comedy, the film ends up as neither, leaving the audience to suffer through the dessicated remains.

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Mission to Mars - *

An action adventure about the first two missions to Mars. The first ends in disaster, and the second (led by Tim Robbins) is sent to rescue any possible survivors. Gary Sinise, Jerry O’Connell, Connie Nielsen and Don Cheadle will play other astronauts. Elise Neal and Kim Delaney will also star. Brian DePalma directs from Ted Tally’s revision of the script. Not to be confused with the similarly themed Red Planet.

Capsule Review: An interesting first half quickly devolves into the hokiest science fiction film this side of Lost in Space. Anyone who stayed awake during a single high school science class will be able to poke holes in the film’s paper thin science. Brian DePalma and his good cast never display their talents, and play second-fiddle to the film’s rushed (and obviously so) special effects. Mission to Mars is a complete crash landing.

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The Next Best Thing - * 1/2*

Madonna plays a single woman who has a baby with her gay best friend (Rupert Everett). Five years later, when she moves on to other romances, a nasty custody battle ensues. Suzanne Krull, Benjamin Bratt, Illeana Douglas, Stacy Edwards, Josef Summer, Kimberley Davies, Michael Vartan and Neil Patrick Harris also star. John Schlesinger will direct from Tom Ropelewski and Rupert Everett’s screenplay..

Capsule Review: There are some good ethical issues raised in this film, but The Next Best Thing doesn’t have the strength to face them. The characters move from situation to situation unconvincingly, and by the time the contrived ending rolls around, all interest has been lost.

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Drowning Mona - 1/2*

Nick Gomez directs this darkly comic mystery about the murder of a small town matriarch. Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Neve Campbell, Casey Affleck, Peter Dobson, William Fichtner, Marcus Thomas and Jamie Lee Curtis star.

Capsule Review: What was the cast thinking? There is wasted talent to spare in Drowning Mona, a lackluster comedy in the vein of Throw Momma From the Train. There’s plenty of dysfunction here, but very few laughs. Even the “mystery” is no trouble to figure out.

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