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*American Beauty (R)

American Beauty proves, once again, that you don't have to have a new plot to make a fresh story. Instead, a strong visual style, fabulous acting, and quirky writing can all conspire to create an erotic, humorous, captivating film. Kevin Spacey is given a funny, dry script by screenwriter Alan Ball and uses it confidently, moving between bumbling idiot, threatening asshole, and tender father with ease; Annette Benning perfectly captures the manic acquisitiveness and just-below-the-surface despair of professional-class America with a physical, comedic presence that most actresses would never dare attempt; Wes Bentley portrays the disturbed boy next door with a quiet gravity that intensifies every scene he graces. An equally compelling pleasure is the set design and cinematography of the film. First-time film director Sam Mendes has done a remarkable job of learning the vocabulary of filmmaking and using it to create a multilayered visual and psychological delight. -- AL

Tinseltown; Chapel Hills; Carmike 10

*American Pie (R)

American Pie succeeds where most teenage sex films fail, offering some of the best-developed characters in memory. TV soap star Jason Biggs is Jim, the quintessential smart guy in high school who is perpetually horny and can't get laid. Jim and his buddies vow to lose their virginity before high school's over, and the film chronicles their sexual misadventures toward that end. The girls in American Pie are too womanly, too wry, too mature and wise. Luckily, they are a secondary focus, and the filmmakers insight into the miseries of oversexed teenage males are so right-on, so tender and funny, that the girl problem can be overlooked. -- KCE

Silver Cinemas

*The Basket (G)

Award-winning film The Basket features Peter Coyote and Karen Allen and tells the tale of a small Northwestern town trying to make sense of World War I. An unconventional schoolteacher (Coyote) comes to town, teaching a strange new game called basketball. Some of the film's intriguing aspects are a rare, on-screen look at the early, awkward days of the game; and the operatic soundtrack, providing a dramatic backdrop and featuring more than 70 minutes of stirring music recorded by composer and musician Don Caron with the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. While the independent film will ultimately make its way to video, director Rich Cowan says the glowing landscapes of The Basket are made for the theater. "[Cinematographer] Danny [Heigh] shot a movie too big for the small screen. On the big screen, it's just looks and feels right." -- David Kilmer

Cinema 70; Tiffany Square

Bringing Out the Dead (R)

For all its visual genius, Martin Scorsese's latest collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ) fails to move, in spite of the emotional material. Nicolas Cage plays Frank -- a burned out paramedic, haunted by the lives he has lost -- with his usual smouldering despair and rage. He's very good, but how many times now have we seen him do the furrowed brow thing? It's distracting to watch him in this role, because we know exactly how he'll play each scene, even before we've seen it in its entirety. Frank's sidekicks, fellow ambulance drivers played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore fare better. Each actor adds flavor to the film, especially Rhames who transcends Scorsese and Schrader's bleakness with his giddy and utterly cynical performance. Patricia Arquette is flimsy and dull as Mary, the daughter of a woman Frank barely keeps alive following a heart attack. The film succeeds best when Scorsese cuts loose with the camera, and we are allowed to escape the repetition of the inside-the-ambulance scenes. Ultimately, it just feels like Martin Scorsese is using his trademark tricks, many of which are truly beautiful to behold, to tell a story that fails to rouse the viewer. -- KCE

Carmike 10; Chapel Hills; Tinseltown

Bowfinger (PG-13)

Steve Martin plays the ever hopeful but perennially unsuccessful director Bobby Bowfinger, looking for his big break. His only hope for success is to draw a big-name star to his film that otherwise features a handful of eccentric wannabes. Eddie Murphy is terrific as a neurotic, grandiose superstar, and in a double-turn as his own geeky brother, Jiff. But Heather Graham, as an ambitious starlet, comes across as a stale stereotype. Crowded with too many Hollywood clichs, Bowfinger is simultaneously good-natured and cynical -- a fun romp but not fully successful as a spoof. -- KCE

Silver Cinemas

*Crazy in Alabama (PG-13)

Crazy in Alabama is a decent debut film for actor-turned-director Antonio Banderas. Peejoe (Lucas Black) is a young orphan living with his grandmother when his aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith) arrives with a car full of children, begging her mother to take her kids and allow her a month to become a movie star. Soon after, Peejoe witnesses the murder of a young black boy by the local sheriff (Meatloaf) for the crime of swimming in the public pool. Melanie Griffith always plays the girly girl, so her casting and acting was no surprise here, but I derived more pleasure from the supporting characters, most notably the town's two undertakers, Peejoe's uncle Dove (David Morse), the white undertaker, and Nehemiah (John Beasley), the black undertaker and father of the murdered boy. Both of these men lend the film a quiet gravity, underscoring the danger of living in Industry, Alabama, circa 1963. -- AL

Chapel Hills; Cinema 70

Deep Blue Sea (R)

Silver Cinemas

Double Jeopardy (R)

Despite an excellent cast and clever premise, Double Jeopardy is plagued with problems. In the first place, a thriller requires suspense, and in this case, all mystery was erased by an ambitious pre-release advertising campaign that gave away the basic plot of the film. All you really need to know is that seeing the film is not nearly as intriguing as watching the trailer. Ashley Judd is tough, fierce and intelligent as the wronged mother and wife, but her grit and good looks are wasted in an otherwise predictable, formulaic script. Tommy Lee Jones as her parole officer merely tags along. Gorgeous location shots of Vancouver and New Orleans provide momentary visual distractions but add little to the drama, and sloppy sound editing detracts throughout. -- KCE

Chapel Hills; Carmike 10; Citadel Terrace; Tinseltown; Gold Hill Theaters

Drive Me Crazy (PG-13)

Melissa Joan Hart and blue-eyed heartthrob Adrian Grenier star in this teenage trifle. Minus the big laughs of American Pie or the sophistication of last year's Rushmore, still features some incisive writing, and the familiar girl-falls-for-oddball-boy-next-door plot contains some smart commentary on popularity and individual choices. Britney Spears sings the title song and makes a brief appearance at the end.

Chapel Hills

*Fight Club (R)

Director David Fincher explores the currently hot psychological territory of the disaffected American male at the end of the 20th century. Edward Norton is the main character of Fight Club, turning in a performance that will likely draw comparisons to Robert DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman, placing him firmly at the top of his generation of Hollywood actors. Fincher is the perfect director for Brad Pitt -- who plays Norton's charismatic alter ego, Tyler Durden -- tapping into the smug arrogance that Pitt does best. However, the inclusion of Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, a nihilistic junkie and eventually a love interest, feels forced and incomplete. Too long by about a half-hour, the film would not have missed about half the fight scenes. But overall, Fight Club succeeds with a tight, often funny script, and compelling editing, design and cinematography throughout. This recommendation contains a strong warning, however: Fight Club is intensely, graphically violent in parts. Youthful viewers should be advised that Fight Club is an allegory, not an advertisement for random violence or dangerous behavior. -- KCE

Carmike 10; Kimball's Twin Peak; Tinseltown; Tiffany Square

*For Love of the Game (PG-13)

For Love of the Game is as good a sports movie as you could hope to see, and it's a good romantic comedy as well. Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel, aging pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Just prior to a game that may be his last, the love of Billy's life (aside from baseball), Jane (Kelly Preston), announces it's over between the two of them. The most charming aspect of For Love of the Game is the film's depiction of the pitcher's inner monologue while on the mound. We believe that Costner can play ball, and Billy Chapel's final game is an absolute blowout. -- KCE

Chapel Hills

The Haunting (PG-13)

Director Jan De Bont's The Haunting has little of the subtle scariness and mystery of the 1960 film version, and even less of the essence of Shirley Jackson's book, The Haunting of Hill House. What it does have, however, is one kickass haunted mansion, complete with gargoyles, a fireplace that looks like the jaws of hell, a fountain that spews blood and various other orgasmic architectural delights. Ridiculous in its brazen excess, just think of The Haunting as a two-hour gothic-mansion tour gone awry, and enjoy the view. -- KCE

Silver Cinemas

Mickey Blue Eyes (R)

Silver Cinemas

*Mystery, Alaska (R)

Mystery, Alaska is a worthy addition to the sports genre. The town in question is a tiny frozen village where there's nothing to do in winter but play hockey or make love. And in Mystery, hockey isn't a sport, it is a religion. The real mystery, however, is why the R-rated Mystery, Alaska chose to include so much sex that doesn't further the story. With the fine characterization of Sheriff John Biebe's family trials and tribulations especially well acted by Russell Crowe, Mystery, Alaska could be a great PG flick. Filled with gorgeous scenery (filmed in Alberta, Canada) and even better sports photography that captures the speed and finesse of fine hockey. -- AL

Tinseltown; Chapel Hills

The Omega Code (PG-13)

With Springs actor, Ziggy Wagrowski.

Tiffany Square

*Outside Providence (R)

Outside Providence is less a teen comedy than a '70s coming-of-age memoir. Touching, briskly paced and frequently hilarious, the film relies on precise characterization rather than gags for its humor. Outside Providence maintains a gritty indie feel that helps enormously in capturing the run-down character of Pawtucket and the rough-shod nature of high-school stoner Timothy Dunphy's (Shawn Hatosy) family and friends. As Dunph's widowed father, Alec Baldwin captures this milieu with remarkable acuity. Hatosy is perfectly cast as Dunph, and a terrific ensemble cast round out the film. Add this one to the top of the growing list of good teen films out there . -- KCE

Silver Cinemas

Random Hearts (R)

Harrison Ford looks weary and worn out in this leaden-paced romantic thriller -- and the poor guy looks like he's going to throw up when he's required to smile. Director Sydney Pollack obviously wants to say something significant about infidelity and deception, but gets lost along the way, throwing in a bad cop sub-plot and too many touchy-feely scenes between Ford and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Thomas is good as an ice princess who doesn't know how to mourn, but her pairing with Ford feels unlikely. -- KCE

Citadel Terrace; Tinseltown

*Romance (not rated)

See full review, page 45

Kimball's Twin Peak

Runaway Bride (PG-13)

Citadel Terrace

*Sixth Sense (PG-13)

Sixth Sense is a fluid, compelling and genuinely scary ghost story starring Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist. Willis' character leads a charmed life with his wife (Olivia Williams) and his fulfilling, successful career until the night he gets plugged by a dissatisfied former patient. We next see Crowe, shaken and changed, outside the house of Cole Sear, a little boy with anxious tendencies and, apparently, deep psychological problems. Turns out Cole can see the dead, and those with unfinished business often show up in his bedroom at night. The most startling moments of the film all revolve around the appearance of those ghosts. Haley Joel Osment, the child actor who plays Cole, is tortured, convincing and winning. Willis doesn't make a false move. The film delivers a wonderful punch at the end with an unexpected plot twist. A sure audience pleaser, Sixth Sense is solid, smart, subtle, atmospheric moviemaking. -- KCE

Chapel Hills; Carmike 10; Tinseltown

Stigmata (R)

Silver Cinemas

Story of Us (R)

See full review, page 45

Tinseltown; Academy Station 6; Tiffany Square

*Tea With Mussolini (PG-13)

Drawn from a chapter in famed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli's memoirs, the film tells the story of a group of eccentric British expatriates (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright), an American archeologist (Lily Tomlin) and a former Ziegfield girl (Cher) who inhabit Florence in the 1930s with arrogant flourish and abiding charm. The group encircles Luca Innocenti, a motherless Florentian boy (presumably Zeffirelli) who has been abandoned by his father. Together, they teach him their version of the finer things in life - tea in the afternoon, art by the masters, Shakespeare. Tea With Mussolini, though frothy at moments, is ultimately as refreshing as a cool gelato on the streets of Florence. -- KCE

Broadmoor

*Three Kings (R)

Bold, adventurous and in-your-face. Director-writer David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey) has penned a tight, provocative script that combines some of the best elements of a good war film with heavy doses of contemporary social commentary. George Clooney plays Special Forces Captain Archie Gates, cynical, worn-out and two weeks from retirement. Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube play reservists with dead-end jobs back home, called up for the Gulf War. Spike Jonze is Private Conrad Vig, an overgrown juvenile delinquent from Texas who alternates between a sort of lovable stupidity and delirious combat lust. Dwelling on the crass, commerciality of the Gulf War and the narrow perception at home of the damage wrought to Iraqi citizens by our carpet bombing and premature pullout there, Three Kings disturbed me all over again, and comforted me in an odd way. I couldn't help hope George Bush gets a chance to see it. -- KCE

Chapel Hills; Cinema 70; Academy Station 6; Tinseltown

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