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THE ICE HARVEST: It’s Christmas Eve in bleak and snowy Wichita, Kansas. A true shyster of a mob attorney (John Cusack) and his pornography dealer pal Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) make a decision that will definitely affect their lives. They embezzle more than two million dollars from a Kansas mob boss (Randy Quaid). They are soon on the run, or at least they should be on the run, but life has its ups and downs. Here’s a movie that refuses to take itself seriously and it’s deliciously wicked in a gloriously jaundiced way. Harold Ramis directs with a keen awareness that a caper comedy should be rooted in character, and screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton (drawing from Scott Phillips’ book) have generated sardonic dialogue that slaps you awake with every word. Also along for the ride are Oliver Platt as a drinking pal of Cusack’s and Connie Nielsen as a strip club owner who gives new meaning to the words: strip club owner. The movie is bent in a good way, and the acting by all is sublime.

WALK THE LINE: Joaquin Phoenix does good by Johnny Cash in this very entertaining, but hardly groundbreaking, biopic of the singer’s life. My question is this: Can you be a middle-class child, get good grades in school, treat your spouse fairly, have talent, and still be a country music icon? Or do you have to abuse pills and women and your body and be a demanding, grizzly boor? Just wondering. Cliches? You get ‘em in this one. I only want to know if the cliches are true. Can’t be country without an early hardscrabble existence? That said, the movie does well by all those cliches and never really sags. At times, Cash seems like an emotionally constricted oaf. Will true blue fans of Cash will be annoyed? As for Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash? Well, the test when somebody is playing a real person on-screen is to close your eyes and listen. Nope, she’s not June at all. The hallmark? Philip Seymour Hoffman IS Truman Capote. Phoenix is a tad light to be Cash and his voice really doesn’t have the right timbre. But he and Witherspoon sing all the movie’s songs themselves.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: This is the tenth movie or television version of Jane Austen’s superb novel, and I didn’t see any reason to remake it unless the cast and crew were going to do a spectacular job. And they didn’t. Granted, Brenda Blythen is good as the mother of the five Bennet girls, but Donald Sutherland mumbles his way through the entire movie as the father. The actresses playing the daughters are average, including star Kiera Knightly (as Elizabeth), who looks and acts absolutely nothing like a head-strong daughter in Georgian England. Also, Joe Wright’s amateurish and aimless direction has pointless transition shots, such as fluttering tablecloths and cows walking. “Pride And Prejudice” is a book about stiff-upper-class people – like Lady Catherine - controlling their little regions by making the average farmers and middle-class folks pay heed to their every wish and demand. Dame Judi Dench, as Catherine, has two good scenes and shakes up the tedium, but then she’s gone. Poof. Matthew MacFadyen, the chap playing Lord Fitzwilliam Darcy, is dreadful; an expressionless bore. Whoever decided to make Darcy a dark, brooding force made a mistake. He has no depth. The character is wrongly interpreted. Gimme Colin Firth any day. He was Darcy in the great, 300-minute, true-to-the-book, BBC television mini-series. As for this new very long version’s ending? It’s pathetic. After Darcy and Elizabeth decide to get married, they ask Papa Bennet's permission. He gives his okay. We soon cut to what must be their wedding night, and Kiera and Matthew are kneeling by Lady Catherine’s massive concrete enclosed pond, and they utter some of the dumbest goo-goo chit-chat ever heard. Not British at all. Not Jane Austen at all. Just dumb lovey-dovey junk aimed at teenage America.

JARHEAD: This gritty adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his days as a U.S. Marine during the Gulf War – the first time we took on Saddam – falters as it progresses because there’s no war to energize the movie. Cakewalk doesn’t begin to describe the defeat of the Iraqi military forces in Kuwait. The boot camp material, with its shouts of “yes sir, sir,” is tediously familiar. The soldiers bide their time with idle banter and goofy games. Is war really this boring? Director Sam Mendes seems to think so. What keeps you alert is the expert cinematography – all that sand and grit – and the acting from Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard as Marines caught up in the situation but never really involved in the chaos.

KISS KISS, BANG BANG: There’s a murder, a gay private eye, and an actor; and no, that’s not the set-up to a joke. Robert Downey, Jr. is the wise-cracking straight actor and Val Kilmer is the serious “Gay Perry” (go ahead, say his character’s name real fast) in this nimble lightweight jaunt that both actors could have done in their sleep. It’s to their credit that they relish their roles and play up the offbeat camaraderie . The movie is written and directed by Shane Black (the man who wrote Lethal Weapon, for starters) and it’s filled with references to private eyes and private eye movies, gangsters and gangster films. Lots of references. All-in-all, it’s imperfect because after a while the gags peter out and the camaraderie needs some juice, but it’s a lot better than much of this year’s caper comedy offerings.

DERAILED: Jennifer Aniston as a femme fatale? I think not. She plays a mysterious woman in her typical dramatic style – clenched mouth, clenched eyes, clenched fists; a style that’s obvious and uninteresting. She hooks up on a Chicago commuter train with Clive Owen’s advertising executive. After some gentle flirting they head into a seedy hotel on a rainy night. Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward, Joan Crawford where are you when we need you? All hell breaks lose when Vincent Cassel’s thug breaks in and robs Clive and rapes Jennifer. The movie then progresses into act two as Clive is blackmailed. His breathtakingly beautiful wife is clueless. His daughter has the most dangerous form of diabetes. $100,000 from her medical fund as blackmail cash? No problem. Hmmm, guess Clive doesn’t care about the sick kid as much as we think. Mikael Hafstrong has directed a crime thriller with a twist or two, but you see all the twists coming light years before the characters do. Additionally, the movie demeans its lower echelon black characters: a mailroom boy, a female train conductor, a murderous hotel bellhop into “yo” stereotypes. Can’t forget the cop that comes in on little cat feet. He’s black, so he’s a shadow. Get it? Owen’s acting talent keeps the movie from being really awful.

PARADISE NOW: Here’s a very rare opportunity to look at the Palestine-Israel situation through the eyes of a Palestinian filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad. This powerful movie – part thriller, part romance, completely political – follows two young Palestinian men who work dead-end jobs and their attempt to infiltrate Israel as suicide bombers. Shot in real locations, there are astonishing looks at the Israeli military barriers in Palestine villages and at the bank towers in the modern metropolis that is Tel Aviv. The movie delves deep into the suicide bomber underground, training, and mind-set. There are moments of humor and slices of life. Gritty and harsh; sometimes frightening, sometimes light-hearted, but always brilliantly cinematic.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE: The filmmaking Gods have decreed that whatever J. K. Rowling wrote in each Harry Potter volume, will pretty much make it onto the screen. Long books. Long movies. This latest is a darker, more treacherous tale of teenage wizardry and the first slight pangs of kiddie love. Each film, this is the fourth, advances the lives of Harry and his pals. But each film also has to make interesting all those professors of magic and snarly villains, so the screenwriters and director have to raise the ante. More mood swings. More violence or threats of violence. Will the eventual final Harry Potter just hit the Doomsday button? Don’t know. But I do know that this movie is entertaining up to a point, and that’s when it seems repetitive, which is a lot in the final third.

BEE SEASON: I think this is a beautifully acted film that doesn’t strike the right balance of action and dialogue. Is it a mystery playing out as intellectual treatise or is it a family melodrama of love and encouragement? A very smart 11-year old girl is a whiz at spelling. So her father decides to coach her through spelling-bee competitions. That’s fine, but dad is a Kabbalah scholar who might be able to spell the word NO, but doesn’t understand what it means. Too aggressive in his pursuit of his daughter’s word mastery, he annoys and antagonizes both his wife and teenage son. Tension rocks the Jewish family in myriad ways. The boy soon joins a strange cult at the sexy encouragement of a lovely blonde. Mom continues to stew. Will the daughter crack under pressure? Is dad violating Jewish tradition or law? Not every bestselling book needs to be made into a movie, and this film proves it. Based on Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel, the movie falters when it should soar. The family clearly has secrets, but how these secrets are brought into play hamper the essential dramatic conflict. Things seem too obvious. The screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Maggie and Jake) doesn’t seem well thought-out and the direction by the tandem of Scott McGehee and David Siegel lacks focus. Maybe there’s just too much going on. This isn’t a bad movie, and it’s not really all that incoherent. It’s just unfulfilling on some levels. However, Richard Gere as the father, Juliette Binoche as the mother, Flora Cross as the daughter, Max Minghella (son of director Anthony) as the son, and Kate Bosworth as the cult vixen are all sensationally good. If you go, go for the acting. By Michael Calleri

ALT Movie Editor

The holiday movie stampede is coming. Are you ready? Are you ready for King Kong, the third version? I’m looking forward to Syriana, a CIA-oil politics conundrum of a movie starring George Clooney. Meanwhile, back at the multiplex, here’s what’s available at the moment.

RENT: The acclaimed Broadway musical about some young adult denizens of Manhattan’s seedier confines is now an outstanding movie. Only folks with hearts of stone won’t be touched by this vibrant homage to artistic determination and the pall cast by A.I.D.S. The movie is bright and breezy at times, operatic and soaring at others. But of course it should be operatic, it’s based on Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Director Chris Columbus has selected many of the original Broadway cast to repeat on-screen, including the brilliant Anthony Rapp, who is the light at the center of the show, and Buffalo’s Jesse L. Martin, who is exceptional. The original music is by the late Jonathan Larson and it still has incredible power and emotion, no matter how many times some of these show tunes have been heard. And, they are show tunes, infused with that unique Broadway tempo and delivered by a group of actors and actresses that are clearly in love with each other as friends and with Larson as a memory. Director Columbus has created a film that demands that audiences suspend disbelief. Struggling actors, eager students, romantic partners gay and straight all break into song as they dash to the subway or stroll near a diner. It’s a musical with an understanding of musical history. This is no put-down, but if Mickey and Judy could sing anywhere, why can’t the characters in Rent? Well, they do. And we’re thrilled.