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A Blue Christmas

Let's face it once and for all: Hollywood has no concept of Christmas fare (what do you expect from a town where it never snows?). Every year it happens: all they think about are their stinking Oscars. "We've got to save the serious stuff for year's end," they tell themselves, persuaded that no Academy member has a functioning memory. (No argument here.) So let's check out what the movie biz deems Quality. Are they right? We rate them on a scale of one to five Xmas trees.

Any Given Sunday Warner Bros., opens Dec. 22

The matchup of Oliver Stone and pro football makes a not-so-surprisingly good fit: after all, Vince Lombardi often compared football to war, and war is Stone's favorite cinematic turf. Using all the weapons in his overflowing technical arsenal, Stone hurls the audience onto the field, surrounding us with the most bone-crunching, earth-shaking game of football ever put on film. The Miami Sharks--coached by veteran Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino)--lose two quarterbacks to injury, opening the way for third stringer Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to take his shot at glory. But first, he pukes all over the field live on network TV.

D'Amato and Beamen are men of two opposing generations. D'Amato has sacrificed his family, even his self-esteem, in his devotion to the sport: it's the one pure thing in his life. Guys like Beamen, quick to cash in on their instant fame belong to a generation that puts self above teamwork--which makes him a liability as a QB, for all his talent. But even worse, in D'Amato/Stone's eyes (for the director clearly sees himself in this flawed but unbroken warrior), is the team's cutthroat owner, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), for whom nothing matters but the bottom line.

If you pare "Any Given Sunday" down to its raw bones, it's the oldest sports story in the world--the one about the guy who has to learn to play for the good of the team. But Stone creates such a sizzling, raunchy, vital world that the cliches almost seem new. He gets the details right: the macho locker-room swagger, the parasitical media, the bartering of celebrity for sex, the spoken and unspoken issues of race. In pro football, Stone has found a metaphor for all he loves and hates in contemporary America, and it results in his most entertaining movie in years. As usual, he often turns up the gas too high and his view of women (bitches, whores) is as enlightened as ever. Well, as any football player can tell you, victory doesn't come clean.(four trees)

Girl, Interrupted Columbia, opens Dec. 21

In her acclaimed memoir, Susanna Kaysen wrote about her confinement in a mental institution when she was 17. The '60s were in full flower, and the line between what was crazy and what was sane was getting blurry for a lot of people, especially a confused teenager who had just attempted to take her own life. Director James Mangold and writers Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan have fleshed out and fictionalized Kaysen's episodic story. Barring one dreadfully trumped-up climactic scene, they've managed to avoid the usual asylum-movie cliches.

Curiously, "Girl, Interrupted" is being sold as if it were a '60s movie, pitting free-spirited crazies against uptight doctors. But what's good about it is precisely that it refuses to play those tired games. Here therapists (like Vanessa Redgrave's Dr. Wick) can actually help. The sulking Susanna (executive producer Winona Ryder) resists the hospital's efforts mightily, turning instead to the rebellious, ice-cold sociopath Lisa (Angelina Jolie) as a role model. But Susanna's instincts are often wrong, and it's to Ryder's credit that she shows us both the admirable and the brattish sides of Susanna's character. With a minimum of "Snake Pit" hysterics, Mangold's movie traces Susanna's long journey home.(three trees)

Anna and the King 20th Century Fox, opens Dec. 17

It's no mean feat to play the King of Siam and effortlessly erase all memory of Yul Brynner. But that's just what Chow Yun-Fat quietly, wittily and charmingly accomplishes in this sumptuous, nonmusical version of the story of tutor Anna Leonowens and her encounter with the wily 19th-century monarch. Political intrigue, deadly ambushes and the threat of war provide a welcome element of surprise for those who think they've heard this tale too often, though the additions reek of Hollywood artifice.

Jodie Foster takes on the role of Anna, but it's not a comfortable fit. She seems drawn and oddly inexpressive. It's not her fault that the character, revamped to conform to current political wisdom, seems more than a little schizoid--one minute acting like a confirmed colonialist, the next spouting stirring multiculturalist speeches. Director Andy Tennant doesn't have much magic up his sleeve, but he moves things along at a pleasantly dawdling pace, giving the audience its money's worth of eye-popping sets, costumes and landscapes. Hollywood rarely mounts these lavish period epics anymore. It's nice to see them try, even if the result is somewhat less than heart-stopping. (two trees)

Angela's Ashes Paramount, opens Dec. 25

The movie that Alan Parker has made from Frank McCourt's astonishingly popular memoir of his miserable, poverty-stricken Limerick childhood will not offend any of the book's legions of fans. Neither will it replace the original in anyone's affections. Parker and fellow screenwriter Laura Jones obviously have deep respect for their source. They understand its mordant wit; they're not afraid of its pile-up of Irish woes--dead children; a drunken, irresponsible father (Robert Carlyle); a mother (Emily Watson) forced to beg for leftovers from the priests' dinner table; flooded floors and cruel teachers and a hunger so piercing it makes one eat an old newspaper that was used to wrap food in.

Parker's rainy, gray-blue images are artful and authentic looking, but still they can only be a pale reflection of McCourt's lilting, sardonic prose. Significantly, when we are moved--as in the moment when the adolescent Frank watches his defeated Da leave the family for America--it's the narration that generates the emotion, not the scene itself. Three young actors play Frank as he grows up, all of them fine. As well-crafted and sensitive as it is, the movie remains one step removed from inspiration. (three trees)

Magnolia New Line, opens Dec. 25

Normal movies take time to rev up their engines. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" achieves instant liftoff, with a dazzling prologue chronicling three bizarre tales of chance. Next comes an exhilarating passage that introduces nine characters in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley whose oddly interlinked stories we'll follow. Even before the movie proper has begun you know several things. That you are in the hands of an extravagantly talented filmmaker. That you are about to see a wildly ambitious, boldly unconventional film. And that a three-hour movie that starts on such a high note could turn out to be a masterpiece or a folly.

"Magnolia" is about fathers and children, about the horrible deeds of the past that return to haunt us, about trying to do the right thing and finally about forgiveness. Anderson ("Boogie Nights") doesn't have any cinematic small talk in him--he pitches us straight into the writhing hearts of his lost, haunted characters. Two of the fathers are dying of cancer. One is a TV producer (a gaunt, brilliant Jason Robards) who's trying to locate his long-lost son. The other is the beloved host of a TV quiz show (Philip Baker Hall) who has dark skeletons in his closet and a daughter (Melora Walters) strung out on coke. The current star of his quiz show (Jeremy Blackman) is a child genius whose father treats him like a performing seal. There's also a former quiz kid (William H. Macy) whose life has fallen to pieces; a heavily medicated trophy wife (Julianne Moore); a sad-sack guardian angel of a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who hovers over Robards's deathbed, and a bumbling, good-hearted cop (John C. Reilly) who is the tale's surprising moral center. And in the boldest performance of his career, Tom Cruise plays Frank T.J. Mackey, the preening macho guru of "Seduce and Destroy," a self-help program for men who want to score with women.

One has to be in awe of how much the 29-year-old writer-director knows about the human heart. Unlike other movie-savvy young directors with flashy techniques, Anderson doesn't hide behind irony and cool--he's an old-fashioned humanist. He takes huge chances here, producing a startling apocalyptic finale that could be something out of a Garcia Marquez novel--or the Book of Exodus.

"Magnolia's" flaws are sins of excess. It's all too much--too much emotion, too much intensity, too many climaxes. It's never boring, but it can be exhausting. Still, why complain in the face of so much bounty? At its best, "Magnolia" towers over most Hollywood films this year. (four trees)

The Talented Mr. Ripley Paramount, opens Dec. 25

The indolent, sensual glamour of Italy in the late 1950s--a playground for young, rich American WASP expatriates--is beautifully captured in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," writer-director Anthony Minghella's first film since "The English Patient." It is there that Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) first lays eyes on Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), a charming, jazz-loving playboy with a beautiful girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow), thoughtless self-confidence and money to burn. Dickie's father in New York has paid Ripley--whom he's mistaken as a friend of his son's from Princeton--to go to Italy to persuade the golden boy to come home. But the impoverished, covetous Ripley, a gifted mimic and quick study, falls in love with Dickie's lifestyle--and with Dickie himself. Minghella puts us inside Ripley's bedazzled head, inviting us to share his envy and giddy excitement even as we recognize his warped, sycophantic need to be someone he's not.

The depth of Ripley's sickness is revealed midway through the film, when he kills Dickie and assumes his identity. In that moment his life becomes a desperate, criminal improvisation. But it is here--when the thriller plot kicks in--that the movie constricts into something more clinical and conventional than its wonderfully seductive first half promised.

Damon's Ripley is considerably different from the charming sociopath in Patricia Highsmith's novel or the smooth lothario played by Alain Delon in the 1960 French thriller "Purple Noon." Both his homosexuality and his conscience have been outed, turning him into a tortured, self-hating young man. What was a cool, premeditated murder in the book becomes a spontaneous crime of passion--making Ripley's subsequent evil harder to buy. In taking a more moral approach to Highsmith's famously amoral story, Minghella ends up diminishing Ripley. He's been turned into a case study--a gripping one, to be sure, but the giddy thrill is gone. (three trees)

Bicentennial Man Touchstone, opens Dec. 17

One could describe this movie as the story of a woman (Embeth Davidtz) who falls in love with a household appliance (Robin Williams). But that would make it sound funny. While there are a few good jokes scattered about, this is, alas, yet another of Williams's earnest attempts to make us all Better, More Sensitive People. Cast as an android with unusually human proclivities (he listens wistfully to opera), the actor has made the first touchy-feely robot movie. The tone of director Chris Columbus's moist, disjointed film is hushed and reverent, as we follow Andrew the android's 200-year quest to achieve full humanity. Many homilies follow. Eventually our hero sheds his metallic mug, starts looking a lot like Robin Williams with a good tan, and has sex with the great-granddaughter of the woman who first owned him. Kids will be bored, the rest of us baffled. (one tree)

Man on the Moon Universal, opens Dec. 22

Jim Carrey may be a better Andy Kaufman than Andy Kaufman. In director Milos Forman's quirky, very entertaining "Man on the Moon," Carrey pulls off a neat trick--he gets deeply inside a man who, by his own admission, had no inside to get into. What Carrey plays are the many characters Kaufman portrayed in lieu having a personality of his own. For most people, this meant the benignly out-of-it Latka on "Taxi." Others knew him as the belligerent guy who tossed women around in the wrestling ring. Most alarming of all was Kaufman's boorish alter ego Tony Clifton, a talentless Vegas lounge singer. Carrey resurrects them all and they seem, in his elastic hands, a little funnier than we'd remembered.

Carrey's totally committed performance captures both Kaufman's mania and his strange detachment. Kaufman was more interested in making people uncomfortable than in making them laugh. He took an often hostile delight in blurring the line between performance and reality. Was his coffee-throwing fight with wrestler Jerry Lawler on the "Letterman" show for real or a setup? Ambiguity was his weapon and his disguise. What's most striking about Forman's movie is that it makes no attempt to psychoanalyze or explain its subject. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood"), specialists in oddball biopics, are content to take Kaufman at face value--as a man of many masks, none more authentic than the next.

Forman hasn't made a movie this light on its feet in years. But what's missing is much of the danger that was a crucial part of Kaufman's act. Because he's dead, and because it's the movie star Jim Carrey playing him, the audience has a safety net. We can laugh at the concert where he read the entire "The Great Gatsby" in a phony British accent: we're spared that live audience's pain. But Forman's decision to stick to the surface is probably, in the end, a wise one. Kaufman always wanted to keep us guessing, and this movie respects his wishes. (four trees)

Snow Falling on Cedars Universal, opens Dec. 22

Somewhere inside this misty, moody movie, buried under snowbanks of gratuitous style, there's a potboiler screaming to get out. David Guterson's best-selling novel has a strong melodramatic story that shouldn't be hard to tell. There's a murder trial in the Pacific Northwest: a Japanese fisherman (Rick Yune) is accused of killing his white friend. There's a forbidden interracial love story (Ethan Hawke and Youki Kudoh) made even more dangerous when war erupts. There's the searing injustice of Japanese-American internment camps. But the way director Scott ("Shine") Hicks and co-writer Ron Bass tell it, none of it gets the heart racing.

If ever there was an example of a director's getting in the way of a story, this is it. Hicks splinters his story into little shards as he jumps artily backward and forward in time. The movie is beautiful: the darkly poetic images are suitable for framing. But the actors, posed like models, rarely get to interact. Only Max von Sydow cracks the surface with a rousing courtroom speech. The movie is all shots and no scenes, which is nice for a picture book but deadly for drama. (one tree)

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