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A Blue Season

Let's face it once and for all: Hollywood has no concept of winter holiday fare (what do you expect from a town where it never snows?). Every year it happens, as routine as clockwork: all that people in the industry think about is the prospects for their stinking Oscars. "We've got to save the serious stuff for the year-end," they tell themselves, convinced that no motion-picture Academy member has a functioning memory. (You'll get no argument here.) So let's check out what the movie biz deems Quality this season. Are they right? We rate Hollywood's hopefuls on a scale of one to five stars.

Any Given Sunday Warner Bros. (4 stars)

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. 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.

D'Amato and Beamen are men of two opposing generations. For D'Amato, his devotion to the sport is the one pure thing in his life. Beamen belongs to a generation that puts self above teamwork. But even worse, in D'Amato-Stone's eyes, is the team's owner, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), for whom nothing matters but the bottom line.

If you pare "Any Given Sunday" down to its bones, it's the world's oldest sports story--the one about the guy who has to learn to play for the good of the team. But Stone gets the details right: the macho locker-room swagger, 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.

Girl, Interrupted Columbia (3 stars)

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. Director James Mangold and writers Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan manage to avoid the usual asylum-movie cliches

"Girl, Interrupted" is being sold as if it were a '60s movie, pitting free-spirited crazies against uptight doctors. But it refuses to play those tired games. The sulking Susanna (executive producer Winona Ryder) turns to the rebellious Lisa (Angelina Jolie) as a role model. But Susanna's instincts are often wrong, and Ryder shows the admirable and the brattish sides of her character.

Snow Falling on Cedars Universal (1 star)

Somewhere inside this misty, moody movie, 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. The movie's darkly poetic images are suitable for framing. But the actors rarely get to interact. Only Max von Sydow cracks the surface with a rousing courtroom speech. The movie is all shots and no scenes, nice for a picture book but deadly for drama.

Angela's Ashes Paramount (3 stars)

The movie that alan Parker has made from Frank McCourt's astonishingly popular memoir of his 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're not afraid of its pile-up of Irish woes-dead children, a drunken father (Robert Carlyle), a mother (Emily Watson) forced to beg for leftovers from the priests' dinner table, 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, but they can only be a pale reflection of McCourt's sardonic prose. 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. As sensitive as it is, the movie remains one step removed from inspiration.

Magnolia New Line (4 stars)

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 whose 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. 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, and finally about forgiveness. Anderson ("Boogie Nights") doesn't have any cinematic small talk in him. 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), and a 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 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. Anderson takes huge chances here, producing a startling finale that could be 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. Still, why complain in the face of so much bounty? At its best, "Magnolia" towers over most Hollywood films this year.

The Talented Mr. Ripley Paramount (3 stars)

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 Ripley falls in love with Dickie's lifestyle--and with Dickie himself. Minghella puts us inside Ripley's head, inviting us to share his envy and giddy excitement even as we recognize his warped 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 conventional than its 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 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.

Bicentennial Man Touchstone (1 star)

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 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. Kids will be bored, the rest of us baffled.

Man on the Moon Universal (4 stars)

Jim Carrey may be a better Andy Kaufman than Andy Kaufman. In director Milos Forman's quirky, very entertaining "Man on the Moon," Carrey 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 of having a personality of his own. For most people, this meant the benignly out-of-it Latka on "Taxi." Most alarming of all was Kaufman's boorish alter ego Tony Clifton, a talentless Vegas lounge singer. In Carrey's elastic hands, they seem 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. What's most striking about Forman's movie is that it makes no attempt to psychoanalyze or explain its subject.

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. 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.

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