Though only a few of the characters in Sweet Home Alabama don military uniforms and participate in battlefield reenactments, the entire movie is still engaged in Civil War hostilities. Melanie Carmichael (Witherspoon) is a Dixie chick who conquers New York with needles rather than swords, by becoming a fabulously successful fashion designer. She has the glamorous son of the city's mayor so enthralled that, in a kind of late-night Breakfast at Tiffany's, he arranges a surprise private visit to that opulent trinket shop and invites his beloved to select any ring. But before they can be married at the Plaza Hotel, Melanie has unfinished business to attend to back in Alabama; she must get Jake (Lucas), the redneck husband she has not seen in seven years, to sign their divorce papers.

It takes some chutzpah, this soon after 9/11, to bash New York, but Sweet Home Alabama revels in Rebel stereotypes about Northern materialism and Southern comforts. "You've turned into some hoity-toity Yankee bitch," complains Jake about Melanie, whom he first kissed as lightning struck when both were 10. As her stay in Pigeon Creek (a town so small it lacks an ATM) lengthens, Melanie regains her drawl and her wholesome down-home perspective. When North clashes with South, city with country, and blue blood with red blood, there is never any doubt that the good guy - disguised as good old boy - will win. Candace Bergen's Gotham mayor is a haughty harridan horror, the kind of snooty New Yorker true Americans love to hate. And if her coddled son, Andrew, played by Patrick Dempsey as a princely blend of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Andrew Cuomo, is sensitive enough to know when he is outclassed by a peasant, he is still a loser. Sweet Home Alabama is a women's movie with the insidious message that ambition is as unnatural an appendage to a woman as a penis. The idea that making babies with a beer-swilling yahoo is Melanie's noblest purpose is so ludicrous that it keeps this live-action cartoon within the category of romantic comedy.

The Tuxedo
"Worst-ever Jackie Chan film?"

Dir. Kevin Donovan; writ. Michael Wilson, Michael Leeson, et al; feat. Jackie Chan, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Isaacs, Debi Mazar, Ritchie Coster, Peter Stormare (PG-13)
Jackie Chan's fans (and I am among them) have endured all manner of cinematic torture over the years: bad dubbing and godawful acting, pointless plots and screenplays written by third-graders, what have you. We come back for more, not because we don't know good movies from bad, but because Chan is one of the most gifted physical comedians ever; he's Buster Keaton by way of Bruce Lee, and the set piece fight scenes he constructs - violently hilarious sequences as ingenious as anything by Rube Goldberg - are worth any mind-numbing plot wrapped around them.

Are you ready for this, Chan fans? There are none of those scenes in this movie. It's an hour and five minutes before Chan does anything remotely resembling the Sino-slapstick for which we revere him, and even then it's a scene in which most of the action is wire- or digi-fu, with Chan's effects-enhanced movements drained of their organic Jackie-ness. There is nothing in any of the sequences that require or utilize the actor's talents; you might as well hire Pavarotti to play a mime.

click to enlarge screens_tuxedojpg
Jackie Chan kicks his pants off in The Tuxedo.

Which wouldn't be a travesty if the plot itself were amusing - but this one makes clunkers like Rumble In The Bronx look like Shakespeare. From Jennifer Love Hewitt, whose lack of comedic talent makes her a continual irritant, to a plot that makes no sense (if Chan's high-tech tux has an anti-gravity function, why is he falling from that huge tank?), it's a cavalcade of stupidity. And an unreasonably vulgar one: From the opening scene, which features a urinating deer, to the running "joke" that requires cast members to comment on Hewitt's "nice rack" (the actress' dresses, this viewer thinks, disprove that compliment), it stinks of execs who thought their PG film needed to get a PG-13 so the teens would go see it.

And, as if frittering away Chan's talent weren't enough, the filmmakers hire James Brown for a cameo, only to knock him unconscious before he can sing or dance. Instead of giving him a musical showcase, they make Brown sink to the T&A humor surrounding him. To cop one of the Godfather's trademark exclamations, "Good God!"

Austin Powers in Goldmember
"On its own terms, it's poo-poo"

Dir. Jay Roach; writ. Mike Myers et al; feat. Myers, Beyoncé Knowles, Seth Green (PG-13)
There are a few jokes in the film that don't involve excretion. You could chop 'em all out, add them to the hilarious opening scene, and have a 10-minute movie that is infinitely more entertaining as the seemingly endless river of excrement that is Goldmember. As it is, the gleeful charm of the series' first installment seems gone for good.

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
"I must have missed that fight"

Dir. Wych "Kaos" Kaosayananda; writ. Alan McElroy, Peter M. Lenkov; feat. Antonio Banderas, Lucy Liu, Ray Park (R)
Why Lucy Liu, who has largely avoided stereotypical Asian roles, co-starred in this waste of celluloid is beyond my own precise Asian reasoning - the characterization is so hackneyed, it even has her engaging in the delicate art of origami. I've seen pre-school programming with more substantial plots than the one driving Ballistic. Even the single salvaging grace of the formulaic action film - the fast-paced chases and dramatized deliveries of the otherwise standard punch - sucks.

The Banger Sisters
"The Turning Point for groupies"

Writ. & dir. Bob Dolman; feat. Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn, Geoffrey Rush, Erika Christensen, Robin Thomas, Eva Amurri (R)
While skirting the boundaries of good taste, this tale of one-time groupies never lifts its skirts into genuinely hairy regions. What salvages The Banger Sisters from tired piety disguised as ribaldry is the pleasure of watching Hawn and Sarandon do battle against both each other and the script.

"Raises expectations for black comedies"

Dir. Tim Story; writ. Mark Brown; feat. Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity (PG-13)
Unlike most black comedies, such as the recent blaxploitation homage Undercover Brother, this tale presents nuanced characters instead of stereotypes to be dissected, making the film - which depicts a day in the life of an inner-city Chicago barbershop - more like black dramas such as Soul Food or The Wood than the pot farce Friday or the slew of direct-to-video gangsta flicks.

Blue Crush
"Bad teen angst on surfboards"

Dir. John Stockwell; writ. Lizzy Weiss; feat. Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez (PG-13)
The target market for Blue Crush may well like the movie; everyone else will find it a crushing bore.

City by the Sea
"The cop who cried"

Dir. Michael Caton-Jones; writ. Ken Hixon, based on an article by Mike McAlary; feat. Robert DeNiro, Frances McDormand, James Franco, Eliza Dushku, William Forsythe (PG-13)
The most compelling choice director Caton-Jones makes is playing up his film's location. He repeatedly describes the idyllic family resort Long Beach used to be, and frames the pit it has become today. The contrast weights the film with a persistent loneliness. It is actually a relief to break to scenes set in New York City, while we wait for a resolution to a story centering on the choices and regrets of a few intriguing characters.

The Four Feathers
"Spectacular imperial epic"

Dir. Shekhar Kapur; writ. Michael Schiffer, Hassein Amini, based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason; feat. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou (PG-13)
By glorifying the exploits of a man who repudiates his own refusal to take up arms in patriotic service, The Four Feathers is an anti-anti-war film, refusing to draw a distinction between betraying one's country and betraying one's friends. But the screenplay celebrates as well the triumph of a sensitive new breed of man - one who admits his fears and overcomes them. Yet fears are not always failings, particularly when they put a brake on hasty acts of violence. Though the film suggests otherwise, aversion to war is not always a pathology.

The Good Girl
"Emma Bovary in West Texas"

Dir. Miguel Arteta; writ. Mike White; feat. Jennifer Aniston, Deborah Rush, Mike White, John Carroll Lynch, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zooey Deschanel, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson (R)
While Emma Bovary is driven by impossible dreams, Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston) is sleepless in West Texas. She is so benumbed by everything in her life - the daily absurdities at Retail Rodeo, a pothead husband who is oblivious to her needs - that it is hard to imagine her imagining anything else. It is not passion but exasperation that propels her into the arms of a psychotic young stranger.

Igby Goes Down
"Smart and satisfying "

Dir. & writ. Burr Steers; feat. Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, Amanda Peet (R)
Few Texans have the set of cultural reference points needed to "get" Igby Goes Down, which draws much of its humor from the peculiar angst of the East Coast's WASP-y upper class. Still, the film doesn't have so many of these preppie in-jokes that it will alienate an intelligent audience. Igby, about a lonely child of successful but empty Connecticut parents, treads down road made familiar by coming-of-age literature, but freshens the genre with self-awareness and jokes that are smartly contemporary.

Mostly Martha (Bella Martha)
"Cinematic comfort food"

Writ. & dir. Sandra Nettelbeck; feat. Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellito (PG)
Beyond the repetitious shots of chopping, slicing, and dicing, this is the story of a woman who learns to step out of the kitchen, loosen up, and love. Mostly Martha adds nothing to our knowledge of the culinary life not already examined in the larder of current foodie books and in such other cuisine art films as Big Night, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate. It offers comfort food, with little left to chew on.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
"Sweet Greek comedy, not Aristophanes"

Dir. Joel Zwick; writ. Nia Vardalos; feat. Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Joey Fatone (PG)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of how a 30-year-old spinster (Toula) both defied and confirmed her tribal expectations. But it is not this ordinary story as much as the details that keep a viewer chuckling.

One Hour Photo
"Snapshot of obsession"

Writ. & dir. Mark Romanek; feat. Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle (R)
Romanek's first feature, with its controlled sets, sights, and sounds, calls to mind Francis Ford Coppolla's The Conversation: The world Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) inhabits is made up of sharp-edged, humanless interiors, the cold aisles of Sav-Mart, and the tasteful-void of another family's modern home. It is precisely when these edges blur that the film draws the audience to the edge of their seats, squirming in anticipation of what will develop.

"Translated to film, novel loses poetry"

Dir. Neil LaBute; writ. David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, LaBute, based on a novel by A.S. Byatt; feat. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhard, Jeremy Northam (PG-13)
Possession is an odd instance of commercial cinema in which literary scholarship is portrayed as a thrilling adventure, or at worst a Hardy Boys caper. It is enough to make a viewer swear off movies and spend the day poring over holographs in Austin's Harry Ransom Center.

Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi)
"Enigmatic parable about participatory democracy"

Writ. & dir. Babak Payami; feat. Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi, Youssef Habashi(G)
In depicting the relationship between a dedicated election agent who insists that: "Every citizen has rights," and a skeptical soldier, Secret Ballot is more pointedly political than other Iranian films dare to be. But its point is kept oblique. This sly parable teases the audience into drawing its own conclusions about civil society and participatory democracy.

"Billy Graham meets E.T."

Dir. and writ. M. Night Shyamalan; feat. Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin (PG-13)
The film makes drama out of xenophobia; it is a cinematic equivalent of the national trauma induced by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All signs induce mistrust of anyone outside the tribe, and we are expected to cheer when Hess' son Merrill, once a minor league slugger, takes on the alien enemy with the most American of weapons: a baseball bat. The film signs on to Bush's foreign policy - that unilateralism is the most appropriate response to any external challenge.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
"A likeable, if not enitrely satisfactory, reunion with the super spy Cortez family"

Dir. and writ.Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Steve Buscemi (PG)
Spy Kids 2 reunites us with la familia Cortez: big sister Carmen (Vega), little brother Juni (Sabara), and their parents Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino). This time around we meet their grandparents (Holland Taylor and a woefully underutilized Ricardo Montalban), as well as a gaggle of über-cool gadgets, including the world's coolest treehouse, a flying wheelchair for Grandpa, and - in a nod to the power of imaginative thinking and rasquache gumption - a multi-purpose elastic band, courtesy of Tío Machete (Trejo).

"Not as racy as the title, but action-packed"

Dir. Rob Cohen; writ. Rich Wilkes; feat. Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas (PG-13)
It's a take-no-prisoners action yarn, with a plot that offers just enough turns to keep the viewer on his toes, and employs all the classic 007 story characteristics, including the solo agent undercover and the wizard with a bag of technological tricks.

Films reviewed by:
John DeFore
JM: Jonathan Marcus
RO: Retha Oliver
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
SM: Shaka McGlotten
WK: Wendi Kimura



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