Fortunately, independent films have filled the gap. It really is time for the major studios to take a step backward and take stock of themselves. As for the upcoming summer blockbuster movies, of all the releases promised, I’m only looking forward to one of them, War Of The Worlds. The H. G. Wells novel was one of my favorites as a kid, and I like the 1950s movie version with its sleek killer machines from outer space. I’m hoping the new version avoids the now exceedingly tired disaster cliche of a wave of energy rolling down a highway and flipping cars into the air.

This week we’ve got Melinda And Melinda, The Upside Of Anger, Dear Frankie, Millions, Gunner Palace, Downfall, The Amityville Horror, and Fever Pitch to discuss.

I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen and have had the pleasure of interviewing him face-to-face on two occasions. But I was hard-pressed to remember anything about his previous movie, Anything Else, expect that Jason Biggs was in it and it was some kind of comedy with Allen tutoring a younger fellow about romance. Call it treading water. Well, Allen has now delivered Melinda And Melinda and it’s a much better and infinitely more memorable work. At Elaine’s restaurant in Manhattan, two playwrights tell a comic and tragic version of the same story. In the movie their tales of a colorful woman named Melinda play out. There are some sharply funny moments and the acting is pretty much on-target, especially by the incomparable Amanda Peet, as well as by Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny. As for Radha Mitchell, she’s good, but not great, as the dual Melindas. There were moments when it was tough to tell if she was the comedic Melinda or the tragic Melinda. If you want to see how this trick can be done, watch actor David Canary on the soap opera All My Children. I still don’t know how he does it, but Canary plays twin brothers Adam (the rich smart guy) and Stuart (the mentally slow one), and the instant you see either of the characters you know exactly which brother is on-screen. It’s an amazing acting feat. As for Melinda And Melinda, Allen has delivered another of his insular odes to Manhattan, but this one’s a pleasure, even if Will Ferrell is badly miscast as the surrogate Woody.

The Upside Of Anger is a solid dramatic comedy about a miserable woman (the always-brilliant Joan Allen) who needs to make sense of the fact that her marriage has fallen apart. For salvation, she zeroes in on a terrific Kevin Costner’s schlumpy retired major league baseball player who is a neighbor in their well-to-do suburban wonderland. The two dance a glorious romantic rondeau that proves that when pressed, screenwriters can create living and breathing adults who are wracked with emotions and passions, anger and relief.

Dear Frankie is an off-beat treat from Great Britain that deserves to be called a hidden gem. Simply put, a battered wife keeps moving with her deaf son to avoid the awful nature of her husband’s behavior. She has been sending the child letters from his father that she has signed, telling the boy he’s a sailor on a ship she has given a name to. When an actual ship with the same name is due to dock, the boy eagerly awaits the return of his father. The mother must then pay a stranger to pretend to be the lad’s dad. This is a powerful and affecting movie that draws a lot of its strength from the performances of Emily Mortimer as the mom, Jack McElhone as the deaf Frankie, and Gerard Butler as the stranger. Directed by Shona Auerbach and written by Andrea Gibb with subtlety, charm, and believability.

Millions is a high-spirited family adventure, also from Great Britain. A bag of money (worth about $400,000 in U.S. dollars) gets tossed from a passing train onto the roof a playhouse in Liverpool, England and is discovered by two young brothers, the saintly Damian and the practical Anthony. Damian wants to spread the wealth and give it to the poor and Anthony basically wants to use the money as tax relief and a hedge against inflation. The movie is about how money changes everything. Enter a villain who wants the cash back and you’ve got a series of comic surprises and clever encounters. As Damian dreams about Saint Francis and Anthony calculates the value of the money in 20, 30, and 40 year increments, the sweet and wonderfully entertaining movie rolls on to a successful and satisfying conclusion.

Gunner Palace is a free-form documentary about American troops in Iraq who are bivouacked at one of Saddam Hussein’s pleasure palaces. The movie follows the day-to-day operations of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a group known as the “gunners.” But the movie by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein is more than just a look at the “road warrior” qualities of George W. Bush’s desert adventure. Using a hand-held camera, interviews, voice-over commentary, and radio and TV reports, the production team manages to contrast the home-front propaganda with a frightening “you are there” quality. Soldiers are pelted with rocks, shot at, and, in some cases, wounded or killed. You also get a sense of the comradery of the soldiers and the bonds they are creating amongst each other. You recognize how important mail from the U.S. is. And you definitely realize that the confusing chaos of contemporary Baghdad doesn’t bode well for a serene future. This is one tough documentary, perhaps as honest a picture of the current miasma that you are going to get.

Downfall feels like a documentary, but it’s a fictionalized account of the last days of Adolf Hitler and those with whom he shared his life and living quarters near the end. This is the first full-length movie about Hitler ever made in post-war Germany, and it stars a brilliant Bruno Ganz as the dictator. The long film (149 minutes) never gets tedious. In fact, it’s a fascinating account of madness at the end of the road.

The Amityville Horror is a pointless remake of the 1979 effort, which itself wasn’t all that terrific. Haunted house movies follow a format and this new one is all format. The only thing different here is that where you might have the mother/sister/girlfriend naked in the bathtub, this time around you’ve got the slowly-going-nuts dad in the tub. Ryan Reynolds has been a cover boy for one of those men’s health and fitness magazines, so he’s got great pecs and abs, but no acting chops. Mom’s clueless, as are the filmmakers.

Fever Pitch takes Nick Hornsby’s great novel about soccer obsession, wherein fans follow a loser of a team, and takes the plot to modern-day Boston where the soporific and just plain lazy Jimmy Fallon plays a character who obsesses about the Boston Red Sox, perennial losers in the World Series race. He meets a go-getter of a corporate advisor in the guise of the eternally perky and delightful Drew Barrymore. Can he throw out his Red Sox underwear and sheets and fall in love? Can she calm down for a second to understand the mania that means being a follower of the Sox? Can you believe this slapdash movie is a Farrelly Brothers effort, with very little of their usual edge? Reality tossed the filmmakers a curve ball when the Red Sox actually won the 2004 World Series and the Farrellys had to change the ending of their film. Didn’t matter. This is a flat romantic comedy without sparks between the two leads. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Eight, count ‘em, eight movies to discuss and a true mixed bag it is. You may have noticed that there haven’t been too many studio releases so far this year, and the ones that have seen the light of the silver screen haven’t done any great shakes at the box office. So far in 2005, ticket sales have been flat. Why? Maybe people are just tired of watching commercials before a movie, which is one of the dumbest developments ever instituted at movie theaters. Most folks don’t watch commercials on their televisions at home. Additionally, the price of tickets and refreshments are through the roof. And the quality of the few studio releases has been poor.