What Planet Are You From? - * * 1/2*

Mike Nichols directs this adult comedy about an alien (Gary Shandling) sent to Earth to procreate. Unfortunately, he lacks the right “equipment”. John Goodman, Annette Bening, Camryn Manheim, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley, Linda Fiorentino, Nora Dunn and Judy Greer will also star.

Capsule Review: A one-joke comedy that manages to squeeze a surprising amount of blood from a stone. Humorous at times, simply diverting at others, the film is a piece of fluff, but a solid cast and good direction make it watchable.

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Reindeer Games - * *

John Frankenheimer directs this thriller in which an ex-con (Ben Affleck) is set up by his former cellmate (Gary Sinise) to rob a casino. Charlize Theron, Dennis Farina, James Frain, Donal Logue, Ashton Kutcher, Isaac Hayes, Danny Trejo and Clarence Williams III will also star. Ehren Kruger wrote the script.

Capsule Review: An all-too routine action yarn that has some enjoyable moments. Affleck never finds his place as the action hero, and seems overly smarmy and removed from the action. Sinise chews the scenery plenty, but his talent is wasted. Theron is the bright spot here. Reindeer Games would make a decent video rental, but isn’t really worth your time at the theater.

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Wonder Boys - * * * 1/2*

Curtis Hanson directs Michael Douglas as a college professor with writer’s block desperately trying to match the success of his first novel. Tobey Maguire stars as a brilliant, but suicidal, student whom he takes under his wing. Frances McDormand will play Douglas’ lover, the chancellor’s wife. Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr., Rip Torn and Richard Thomas will also star. Steve Kloves adapted Michael Chabon’s novel for the screenplay.

Capsule Review: Superb acting and a delightful script highlight this wonder of a film. Michael Douglas gets to sink his teeth into a great role for the first time in a decade, while Tobey Maguire reaffirms his status as one of the brightest young stars out there. Purely delightful.

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Pitch Black - * * 1/2*

Pitch Black

Pitch Black looks like any number of early-year sci-fi disasters. (Does anyone remember Screamers, or Virus?) But, on closer inspection, this Alien clone has some unique features. And, while it never expands the genre, Pitch Black provides its fair share of thrills.

In a hectic opening, a routing deep space passenger ship accidentally runs afoul of a rogue comet, sending the vessel crashing onto the surface of a mysterious planet with three suns.

Those who survived the crash band together to search for water and a way home. They are led by only surviving member of the ship’s crew, the pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell). In the group are a group of Muslims (led by Keith David) on hajj to New Mecca, a party of archaelogists (including the wry Lewis Fitz-gerald), and, most frighteningly, a ruthless killer, Riddick (Vin Diesel), and Johns (Cole Hauser), the man who captured him.

Riddick is immediately a danger, as he escapes and threatens the survivors. But, in truth, they have more to worry about. The planet is not completely devoid of life, as it first seems, but is populated by a voracious race of darkness-dwelling creatures. However, with three suns, the survivors have nothing to worry about. Or do they???

The film’s visual style is unique, but rather confusing, particularly after the initial crash, when we can barely differentiate the characters from one another. By varying the exposure, the daylight scenes seem brighter, and the darker scenes become much more ominous.

Don’t expect much from Pitch Black in terms of dialogue. Even when the film strives to be profound (more often than you might think), it fails. Nor should you pay too close attention to the plot, which is full of more holes and helpful coincidences than most sci-fi thrillers out there.

Still, thrillers aren’t made for their dialogue or their logic. In the thrills department, Pitch Black is a hands-down winner. It has a good setup, and all of the suspense sequences are perfectly paced. While the look of the creatures is none too original, the darkness angle provides a good, simple hook for all the action.

Vin Diesel gives a good impression as Riddick, a character who likely would have been a complete villain in another movie. However, here he’s given shading and texture (sometimes unconvincingly) and is the film’s most fully realized character. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of most everyone else, who are present perhaps merely as alien fodder.

If you like sci-fi thrillers, Pitch Black hits all the right notes, with plenty of excitement and intensity. However, the film is not likely to win many new fans to the genre.

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Hanging Up - * 1/2*

Diane Keaton directs this story about three sisters (Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow) and the impending death of their difficult father (Walter Matthau). Adam Arkin will also star as Ryan’s husband.

Capsule Review: A good cast wasted on a trifle of a movie. The film quickly grows tedious, and never packs the emotional punch it strives for. A disappointment all around

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Boiler Room - * *

Ben Younger writes and directs. Giovani Ribisi stars as a college dropout who takes a job as an agressive stockbroker in a “boiler room”, only to discover his employer is a crook. Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Jamie Kennedy, Scott Caan, Ron Rifkin, Bill Sage, Tom Everett Scott and Nia Long also star.

Capsule Review: Though the setting is interesting, the characters here just simply aren’t. Ribisi gives a good try, but never connects with the audience as the lead. His scenes with his father (Ron Rifkin) play as if they belong in a different movie altogether. Don’t bother spending time with this con job.

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Academy Awards Nominations and Commentary

The 72nd Academy Award Nominations were announced this morning. The nominations and my comments follow…

Best Picture
American Beauty
The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Sixth Sense
The biggest surprise here, as with the entire list is the inclusion of The Cider House Rules. A disappointing omission, though understandable, is Being John Malkovich. American Beauty is an easy favorite…but not a strong one. A good long shot possibility is The Sixth Sense, which has the potential for a surprising upset on Oscar night.
Best Actor
Russell Crowe – The Insider
Richard Farnsworth – The Straight Story
Sean Penn – Sweet and Lowdown
Kevin Spacey – American Beauty
Denzel Washington – The Hurricane
Kevin Spacey is favored in this category, though Denzel Washington is the more deserving of the two. However, Denzel has both history and the current Hollywood uproar over the veracity of his film, The Hurricane to struggle against.
Best Actress
Annette Bening – American Beauty
Janet McTeer – Tumbleweeds
Julianne Moore – The End of the Affair
Meryl Streep – Music of the Heart
Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank. She has a virtual lock on this nomination, making this the surest bet this year. Running a close second is Janet McTeer…but she doesn’t even have a chance.
Best Supporting Actor
Michael Caine – The Cider House Rules
Tom Cruise – Magnolia
Michael Clarke Duncan – The Green Mile
Jude Law – The Talented Mr. Ripley
Haley Joel Osment – The Sixth Sense
A tight race, but Tom Cruise will likely see his first Oscar out of this contest. Michael Caine is the closest nominee, and an Academy favorite, so this is no sure thing.
Best Supporting Actress
Toni Collette – The Sixth Sense
Angelina Jolie – Girl Interrupted
Catherine Keener – Being John Malkovich
Samantha Morton – Sweet and Lowdown
Chlöe Sevigny – Boys Don’t Cry
A very tough category (as are many this year). I’d personally favor Catherine Keener over Angelina Jolie in a close race…but Toni Collette could win on a wave of support for The Sixth Sense. Chlöe Sevigny will be unfortunately overshadowed by Hilary Swank, and has very little chance here.
Best Director
Lasse Hallstrom – The Cider House Rules
Spike Jonze – Being John Malkovich
Michael Mann – The Insider
Sam Mendes – American Beauty
M. Night Shyamalan – The Sixth Sense
It’s rare that a director nominated for a non-nominated film would win, so Spike Jonze is unfortunately left in the cold. Sam Mendes is the likeliest nominee, but Shyamalan or Hallstrom could quickly come out of the wings.
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Cider House Rules
Election
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Cider House Rules has its best shot at an award here, though it has tough competition. Election has the most deserving script out of the bunch, but has the weakest chance of the five.
Best Original Screenplay
American Beauty
Being John Malkovich
Magnolia
The Sixth Sense
Topsy-Turvy
Another tight, tight race. American Beauty has to be the front runner here. Being John Malkovich is the most deserving, but has been virtually ignored in the other categories.
Best Cinematography
American Beauty
The End of the Affair
The Insider
Sleepy Hollow
Snow Falling on Cedars
Snow Falling on Cedars would be my pick here, though Sleepy Hollow’s atmospherics make it a strong contender.
Best Editing
American Beauty
The Cider House Rules
The Insider
The Matrix
The Sixth Sense
The Matrix has the best editing out of these five, but will likely get overlooked. I’d give The Sixth Sense a slight edge over American Beauty here, but it is close.
Best Original Score
American Beauty
Angela’s Ashes
The Cider House Rules
The Red Violin
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Academy has been favoring “small” scores recently, which would give an edge to The Red Violin. My personal pick would go to The Talented Mr. Ripley, followed by American Beauty
Best Original Song
“Blame Canada”, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
“Music of My Heart”, Music of the Heart
“Save Me”, Magnolia
“When She Loved Me”, Toy Story 2
“You’ll Be In My Heart”, Tarzan
The nod for South Park is surprising, but (particularly considering Blame Canada is far from the film’s best song), it doesn’t have a chance. Pick “You’ll Be In My Heart” here…it’s a fairly easy win, though “Save Me” is more deserving.
Best Art Direction
Anna and the King
The Cider House Rules
Sleepy Hollow
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Topsy-Turvy
The moody sets of Sleepy Hollow would seem to have a minor edge over the exotic Anna and the King, but this is a tough category.
Best Costumes
Anna and the King
Sleepy Hollow
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Titus
Topsy-Turvy
It’s easy to pick one film that won’t win here: The Talented Mr. Ripley, whose stylish mid-20th century garb can’t compete with the more exotic fare offered by the other nominees. My pick would go to the unusual costumes of Titus, though the more conventional Academy will likely stick with Anna and the King
Best Makeup
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Bicentennial Man
Life
Topsy-Turvy
An unusual category, but Bicentennial Man will slightly edge out Life here.
Best Sound
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Matrix
The Mummy
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Star Wars is a cinch to dominate the sound and effects categories.
Best Sound Effects Editing
Fight Club
The Matrix
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Once again, Star Wars.
Best Visual Effects
The Matrix
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Stuart Little
This is actually the closest of the three Star Wars awards, with The Matrix being more deserving, if only using the effects to enhance the plot. But, since Star Wars was itself one big visual effect, it will grab the nod here.
Best Foreign Film
All About My Mother (Spain)
Caravan (Nepal)

East-West (France)
Solomon and Gaenor (UK)
Under the Sun (Sweden)

In an easy Foreign contest, All About My Mother has the strongest shot here. East-West and Under the Sun are the two other possible contenders.
Best Documentary Feature
Buena Vista Social Club
Genghis Blues
On the Ropes
One Day in September
Speaking in Strings
It’s a tight call between Buena Vista Social Club, and Speaking in Strings…though I’d give the nod to the former. Documentary fans may be wondering, Where’s Errol Morris’ Mr. Death?
Best Live Action Short
Bror, Min Bror
Killing Joe
Kleingeld
Major and Minor Miracles
My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York
As always, the shorts are the grab bag of any Oscar pool. Pick your favorite title for these final three awards.
Best Animated Short
Humdrum
My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts
The Old Man and the Sean
3 Misses
When the Day Breaks
Best Documentary Short
Eyewitness
King Gimp
The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola
Prison Rodeo
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Snow Day - * 1/2*

Everyone who ever grew up in a cold climate remembers the magic of snow days, those impromptu vacations from school that would spring up overnight. The kid flick Snow Day attempts to capture that magic, but instead turns completely to slush.

The Brandstons are your typical ordinary everyday family. Dad Tom (Chevy Chase) is a weatherman rebelling against the goofy schtick his job forces upon him. Mom Laura (Jean Smart) is a workaholic businesswoman, who neglects her family to seek success. Eldest son Hal (Mark Webber) obsesses about the most popular girl in school, Claire Bonner (Emmanuelle Chriqui). And, daughter Natalie (Zena Grey) just wants one magical day of snow.

Well, Natalie gets her wish as a surprise snowstorm hits the city, overnight covering everything with several feet of the white stuff. The Brandston kids take this as a sign to pursue their various goals. Hal sets out to win the heart of Claire, with faithful friend Lane (Schuyler Fisk) in tow.

Natalie has a more grandiose task in mind. She sets out with her friends to thwart the evil Snowplowman (Chris Elliott), and gain the thing only whispered about in legend: two snow days in a row.

Adults in the audience are given some relief with roles by the likes of Chevy Chase, Iggy Pop, and Pam Grier, but, make no mistake, Snow Day is a film for the children. Even teens would find it a stretch. While the kiddos are out at play, for everyone else Snow Day is simply a pain.

The teenage romance plot is predictable at best, and wearisome at worst. Neither Mark Webber nor Emmanuelle Chriqui inspire sparks. Schuyler Fisk’s performance stands out, but only in comparison. Younger kids will quickly get bored with thei subplot, and older kids will find it a waste of time.

The quest to defeat Snowplowman is the heart of the film, and not a strong one at that. Chris Elliott has a few amusing moments, but his over-the-top performance gets tiresome quickly. The slapstick antics never are truly inspired, but they provide the little amusement that exists in this film.

The film is as insubstantial as a snowflake, and much less detailed. Still, Snow Day is a light confection that does what it sets out to do…it just doesn’t have grandiose expectations.

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The Beach - * 1/2*

After Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio had his pick of any role in Hollywood. He displayed courage by choosing a dark, offbeat project for his next starring role, The Beach. Unfortunately, The Beach is a washout, continuing the downward slide for director Danny Boyle (who briefly peaked with Trainspotting, and last made the negligible A Life Less Ordinary).

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a moody American on extended vacation in Thailand. He is searching for something different…something perfect…and hasn’t found it yet. Yet, when a crazy neighbor (Robert Carlyle) in his fleabag hotel offers him a mysterious map to a beach “paradise”, Richard’s hopes begin anew.

He convinces two casual acquaintances, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet) to accompany him on the trek, which proves more dangerous than the three initially expect.

But, they finally reach The Beach, where they discover a colony of travellers who are all sworn to protect the secret. Led by the easygoing, but authoritarian, Sal (Tilda Swinton), the colony is suspicious of the new arrivals. Will Richard and his friends reach eternal bliss, or will they discover paradise isn’t all it’s set up to be?

The setup for The Beach is intriguing, and the film actually proves to be interesting in its first hour. But, then, things go wrong…they go horribly wrong. The film veers into parody, and then into chaos, and never returns.

DiCaprio does give the role a fair shot, but even he can’t perform when he is literally digitized into a video game (an unusual device on the part of the director, but one that simply doesn’t work). By the time his role grows juicy enough for him to act, the film has already splintered into too many pieces to be salvagable.

Supporting performances from Tilda Swinton and Robert Carlyle are noteworthy, if brief. No one else in the international cast inspires much of anything. Even Étienne and Françoise, who initially appear as if they might stand out, find their roles fading into the jungle during the second half.

The most noteworthy thing in The Beach is director Boyle’s style, which, unfortunately, is never used to as good an effect as in his previous three films. Leo should have chosen better.

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Gun Shy - * 1/2*

Gun Shy is a scattershot comedy that draws from several trendy genres. Borrowing a page from The Sopranos, or Analyze This, it deals with the psychological anxieties behind the traditional mob movie. In addition, it stirs in some romantic comedy, some lowbrow humor, and even a bit of the traditional odd-couple schtick. The end result is confusion, pure and simple.

Charlie Mayough (Liam Neeson) is an undercover DEA agent with a bad case of nerves. His partner was killed, and he barely escaped death himself, on this latest assignment, and Charlie doesn’t feel he can go on. He is the key go-between man to set up a high dollar money laundering scheme between Columbian drug lords Fidel (Jose Zuniga) and Estuvio (Michael Delorenzo) and deadly mob hitman Fulvio Nesstra (Oliver Platt). One false move will get Charlie killed…and he is paralized to take a step.

So, to help out, Charlie’s psychiatrist (Michael Mantell) suggests that he enroll in group therapy. The group, composed of white-collar men, isn’t quite sure what to make of Charlie, whose life of danger makes their own pathetic troubles seem, well, pathetic.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s nerves are wreaking havoc on his colon, so he goes to visit a gastroenterologist. In the midst of a barium enema, he falls in love with his nurse (really!), Judy Tipp (Sandra Bullock). The romantic comedy doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the film, but Bullock produced the movie, and thus here it is.

Gun Shy is like a jigsaw puzzle in which none of the pieces quite fit. The image is there, but we can never put the whole thing together. Some of the pieces want to belong to a gritty mob movie, others are part of a quirky psychotherapy farce. There are a few standard romantic comedy pieces here and there. When you add in a smattering of 90s-style bathroom humor, you’re left with…quite a mess.

But, in bits and pieces, there’s a glimmer of a good film. The interplay between Oliver Platt and Liam Neeson is well done. The film boasts enjoyable supporting turns from Richard Schiff (as a member of the therapy group), and Mary McCormack (as Fulvio’s mob-connected wife). And even a few of the gags are funny, though most quickly overstay their welcome.

Writer-director Eric Blakeney has created one heck of a schizophrenic movie, and he doesn’t quite know where to take it. As a result, halfway into the movie, we’re thoroughly confused. By the end, the whole thing is adrift and scattered among the waves. Could something have been done with this film to make it worthwhile? Perhaps…but to make sense, it would have to be almost a complete rewrite.

Gun Shy isn’t an abysmal film. It’s more like the tattered threads of several different good films haphazardly tossed together. The parts simply don’t sum up.

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