Summer Rain 

*Songcatcher (PG-13)
Lions Gate Films

*The Others (PG-13)
Dimension Films

American Pie 2 (R)
Universal Pictures

Like the afternoon rain showers that have finally begun to fall over the region, August's movie offerings are refreshing the local moviegoing scene following a serious drought.

Brightening this summer's ponderous lineup of disappointing would-be blockbusters is Silver Cinemas, this week offering writer/director Maggie Greenwald's sweet and rugged Songcatcher, first screened in the Springs at last year's Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival.

Janet McTeer (Academy Award-nominated for Tumbleweeds) stars as Dr. Lily Penleric, a haughty and overbearing music scholar who leaves her university community after she is repeatedly denied a promotion. Lily sets off for the wilds of Appalachia where her sister Elna (Jane Adams) runs a settlement school for the widely flung, deeply impoverished local children.

Upon arrival, Lily is entranced to hear a mountain child, Deladis (Emmy Rossum), sing the ancient ballad "Barbara Allen," with unique, country inflection. She immediately realizes that this community is rich with musical heritage, harboring a treasury of Scot-Irish ballads handed down from generation to generation, preserved in their purest form. Intent on pursuing the academic adventure of a lifetime, Lily sets off to remote enclaves on the mountain, asking locals if she can collect their songs.

A rich cast of characters unfolds, including Viney (Pat Carroll), a folk healer, and her grandson Tom (Aidan Quinn), a hardened veteran of the world beyond the forest's edge who initially mistrusts Lily's motives, but eventually falls in love with her.

Competing subplots don't muddy the waters of Songcatcher thanks to Greenwald's impeccably clean, spare script. McTeer's character is tiresome at first but grows on you, and Jane Adams' supporting performance is as fresh as a mountain stream. The music and the scenery drive the movie -- simple, elemental and forceful. Songcatcher is about the wildness in the human soul, its strength and vulnerability.

Atmospheric storytelling, rich lighting, a superb set and a strong ensemble cast combine to make Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar's The Others a successful, though not particularly terrifying, psychological thriller. Nicole Kidman in a Grace Kelly pageboy hair-do is all nerves and raw edges as Grace, a woman left with her two young children on the foggy Isle of Jersey when her husband goes off to war. The children suffer from a rare, severe allergy to light, which means the curtains must be drawn whenever they are in the room. Amenabar sets up the flickering candlelight motif skillfully. There's nothing better than a darkened movie set viewed on the big screen in a darkened theater on a Saturday afternoon, especially if it's raining outside.

When phantoms begin to make their presence known, most notably to Grace's daughter, played by the amazing British child actor Alakina Mann, Grace's perfect household comes unglued at the seams. Several scenes set the audience screaming and jumping in their seats, accomplished with little other than carefully choreographed motion and sound. The quiet tension of The Others is a relief now that most directors feel they need to blow the audience out of their seats with special effects overkill.

Ultimately, The Others sets the living against the dead, though we're not sure who's living and who's not. The sad, touching ending feels a little contrived but settles in once the credits begin to roll. The Others won't give you nightmares, but it'll give you a nice little scare until the lights go up.

The first American Pie was one of the funniest, most original teen flicks of last year. At every turn, this reviewer was captured by the fresh delivery of the actors, the accomplished comedy, the smart dialogue and the off-kilter but fascinating character development. Jason Biggs' Jim and his geeky dad, played by Eugene Levy, were contemporary cinema's most memorable father-and-son team.

American Pie 2 picks up at the end of the gang of horny boys' first year in college. Back home for the summer, they decide to rent a house on the lake where they'll party hearty and learn, along the way, the finer points of being a stud.

Unfortunately, this sequel plays to the lowest common denominator, even among the original film's biggest fans. We are dealt one scene after another of gross-out sex jokes, skits that are as predictable in their assured outcome as the first film was unpredictable. All the smart girls, with the exception of flute-playing Michelle, are assigned peripheral roles, and we don't get any of the wise girl-guy interchange that characterized American Pie 2's predecessor.

Biggs shows terrific comic flair, and his scenes with Levy soar, but the film sullies his best physical scene by having him imitate a "mentally challenged" kid named Petey. They might as well have just called him a retard -- most of the film is specifically designed to offend anyway. The vehicles the filmmakers choose grow tiresome and we're weary of wincing by the time the movie's finally over. Alyson Hanningan manages to salvage every scene she's in as band geek Michelle with her subtle, wide-eyed delivery. Overall impression: The second American Pie should definitely be the last.


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