So in addition to the Cruise vehicle, directed by Steven Spielberg, we’ve also got Ladies In Lavender, Brothers, Mad Hot Ballroom, and Mr. And Mrs. Smith vying for your attention.

George Pal’s The War of The Worlds from 1953 is a favorite movie of mine. I love the cool sleek machines the Martians use to decimate Earth. I love the sound the machines make when their zapping killer rays find their target. The H. G. Wells novel on which it is based must have terrified folks back in 1898. I find the novel a tad stodgy, but still fascinating. Now we have Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and he’s done an interesting thing with it. Instead of a global bout of mayhem and destruction, Spielberg keeps it local – as in: All Politics Is Local. The main character, a New Jersey dad who only rarely sees his kids, has to keep son and daughter safe during the alien invasion so that he can take them back to Boston where mom is. The aliens are not called Martians because with all the localized destruction, electricity out, etc. nobody would know anything because televisions and computers and life isn’t working out as planned. But it’s absurd not to have anyone ask “are they from Mars?” So why, then, does the Martian “red weed” – a plant-like veiny spidery thing - spread out all over the east coast if they aren’t from Mars? Okay, I’ll grant Spielberg the right to make it all seem mysterious and confusing. The unknown usually is.

What I can’t excuse is the genuine lack of energy, suspense, and depth. I liked that Spielberg maintained Wells’ idea of invaders on deadly tripods. I didn’t think the fog horn-esque sound they made. The creatures touch humans with tentacles and eventually suck human blood, which must be their fuel. There are no smarties to offer explanations. Just plain folks fleeing in the dark. A lot of plain folks fleeing. The movie’s action is a microcosm of what must be happening on Earth, but we never know. An interesting plot choice, but not suspenseful or informative. In Pal’s version, a creature searches a house and actually touches the shoulder of the female lead. A jolt moment. In Spielberg’s version, that moment isn’t present. There’s no alien fascination with earthlings. The movie falters a lot when a weird coot played by Tim Robbins shows up and invites Cruise and his pre-teen daughter to live in his basement. The teenage son has fled to fight the invading force. Robbins’ character babbles on about this and that and Cruise realizes the guy is nuts and he and the kid need to flee him. A tentacle with a camera eye searches the house and Cruise whacks it with an ax, but doesn’t separate the eye and take it to scientists. Can’t do it. Spielberg doesn’t want any scientists in his movie. He wants to stress the Average Joe we are alone aspects of the film The ending sticks to the book and 1953 movie. Cruise is good; he avoids most of his fabled acting mannerisms. Dakota Fanning as the little girl is suitably frightened, but her performance never really broke through for me. Justin Chatwin as the son is an acting cipher. Robbins is fun to watch, but the sequence damages the forward thrust of the film. All in all, this is a classic B movie. If it cost three bucks and you were at the drive-in, it’d be a good summer night out. As it is, it’s much ado about nothing.

Ladies In Lavender is a delightful little fable that makes one understand anew why movies can be magical, and, when done right, can take audiences on a sweet ride with characters that live and breathe and acting that soars. The story is simple and pure: two elderly women, devoted sisters, live on the Cornwall coast of England before World War II. It’s the late 1930s and the bad memories of the First World War and the brutal Depression that struck the globe’s economy have faded. The ladies spend their time painting or tending to their flowers. They have a housekeeper who helps out with the chores. One sunny day, a mysterious young man washes ashore. His identity is unknown. Where he came from is unknown. As the ladies tend to his injuries and nurse him back to health, they discover that he’s of Polish descent and plays the violin like an angel.

It helps to have majestic actresses like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, two great Dames playing the two sisters. As the young man recovers, Dench’s character develops a wistful fondness for him. She thinks of unrequited love. Soon a mysterious younger woman arrives in the village. Events become complicated. But the lovely music of the violin is heard in everyone’s hearts and minds. Telling you more would be criminal. For the record, celebrated American violinist Joshua Bell provides the music. As directed by actor Charles Dance, this is a movie filled with tender telling moments and magnificent performances from Smith and Dench. Others in the cast, Miriam Margolyes, Natascha McElhone, and Daniel Bruhl, are quite good as well. Ladies In Lavender is about lives lived and dreams fulfilled. It’s superb.

Brothers arrives from Denmark and is directed by Susanne Bier. This is a beautiful film that dares to get political when it comes to war and its attendant tragedies. In Denmark, there are two brothers. One, Jannik, is an ex-con and an alcoholic; a miserable soul with a life that’s been wasted. The other, Michael, is a good family man who is compelled to serve for a time in Afghanistan. He has a loving wife and two adoring daughters. The men’s father clearly prefers Michael to Jannik. When Michael goes to Central Asia, the extended family pulls together. When his helicopter crashes and he is presumed killed, the family structure starts to change. Jannik is suddenly forced to come to terms with his role as brother-in-law and uncle. The movie offers tough choices and no easy answers. This is a sincere, sensible film that grips you from the start. Connie Nielsen, a Danish-born actress who has starred in such international hits as Gladiator, is terrific as Michael’s wife. Surprisingly, this is Nielsen’s first Danish movie. Overall, Brothers is both delicate and troubling. War not only puts soldiers in peril, but it disrupts the home front as well.

Mad Hot Ballroom is a pleasurable little documentary about fifth graders in three New York City-area schools who prepare themselves for a ballroom dancing competition. In case you’ve chucked your television out the window, ballroom dancing is the new hot thing on summer TV. The show, Dancing With The Stars, in which so-called celebrities learn to ballroom dance and vie in contests, is extremely popular. The film is directed by Marilyn Agrelo who goes for charming, but avoids sentimentality. There aren’t as many heartwarming moments a movie like this needs or deserves, but the kids are fun to watch and their eagerness and anticipation carry you through to the end.

Mr. And Mrs. Smith has been playing for a bit and has proven to be popular with audiences looking for clues to the relationship between its stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The two play a hit-man and hit-woman (hit-people?) who are called upon to kill each other. The movie gets ludicrous as the two go about the task, attempts that take up much of the action. I guess nobody connected with the movie saw Psycho. After a while, you want to scream: Just stab him/her while he/she is taking a shower. The film does prove that there are people on the planet who are astonishing looking. Both Pitt and Jolie are pumped and primed within an inch of their gorgeous lives. The biggest problem here is that all the killing and attempted killing is played for laughs. Vince Vaughn runs a murder service and he really kicks the jokes up a notch. At the beginning of Mr. And Mrs. Smith, thinking folks with moral backbone will wonder about these unknown victims who are callously murdered by Jolie and Pitt. Ultimately, you really don’t care about any of the characters including the characters played by the stars who, by film’s end, have long since worn out their welcome. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

This season’s summer movies haven’t been as hot as the weather. Audiences are avoiding recent offerings, resulting in a desultory box office that, as yet, doesn’t have the major movie studios too worried. Hope in Hollywood is not only a comedian named Bob. Each week, the newest opening feature promises to salvage the summer, but so far it hasn’t happened. Batman Begins is doing well, but it isn’t on a track to hit the stratosphere. It may top $200-million. Star Wars III is going to earn $300-million + domestically, but it isn’t going to shatter records for George Lucas, and certainly won’t reach the heights of the first Star Wars prequel ($431-million) or touch the first Spider-Man ($403-million) or Shrek 2 ($436-million).

The latest summer action blockbuster is War Of The Worlds, but the movie itself has been lost in the fog over the antics of its star, Tom Cruise. His relationship with Katie Holmes is considered suspect in some quarters. He gets squirted by water by a prankster in London. But, the icing on the very weird sideshow cake was his combative interview with Today Show host Matt Lauer. During it, Cruise called psychiatry a “pseudoscience,” continued to condemn model/actress Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs to combat post-partum depression, excoriated any use of Ritalin to calm down children, and damned Lauer for not knowing the “history of psychology,” which Cruise claims he has studied. I wonder if Tom really has read any Freud. A little Totem And Taboo superstar? Anyway, the bottom line is this: How can any movie compete with that?