"Collateral Damage" This latest actioner from the Big Guy Arnold Schwarzenegger is leaden and predictable. Schwarzenegger plays an L.A. firefighter whose wife and son are killed in a terrorist bombing. As fate and the script would have it, the feds won't help the grieving father, so Arnold must seek revenge and wreak havoc on the terrorists of the world, as he seeks the one who killed his family. Of course he succeeds, but not before the writers try to show us both points of view the avenging father as well as the terrorists. Shelved in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Warner Bros. should have kept it shelved.
"Crossroads" To quote a buddy of mine, Fox News at 10 anchor Curt Autry, Britney Spears is "not a girl and not yet an actress." But she does show potential, and unlike Mariah Carey's dismal star vehicle "Glitter," "Crossroads" doesn't ask much more of Spears than she can deliver. She plays Lucy, a smart, small-town girl raised by overprotective single-dad Dan Aykroyd. Although she and two childhood friends have grown apart during high school, all three live up to a vow to dig up a sort of wish-fulfillment time capsule they buried as little girls. The moment works its magic, and Lucy and glam-gal Kit (Zoe Saldana) join preggers Mimi (Taryn Manning) on a road trip to L.A. Their driver just happens to be a scruffy, musician-type hunk (Anson Mount); think second-string Ben Affleck. Traveling a well-worn, predictable path, "Crossroads" offers few surprises, except for a sweet vulnerability from Spears.
"Gosford Park" This latest ensemble piece from filmmaker Robert Altman resists definition, but it's definitely his best since "The Player." In true "Upstairs/Downstairs" fashion, Altman and his notable British cast transport us to a country estate where the likes of Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Northam lord it over the equally status-conscious house staff, which includes Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson and Clive Owen. Gossip and passions run rampant, while money troubles, marriage woes and family rivalries are dissected. Seamlessly melding stories, characters, actors and action, "Gosford Park" doesn't entertain, it beguiles.
"Hart's War" An old-fashioned World War II drama, this Bruce Willis-starrer also offers a contemporary twist: a social conscience. Shot handsomely in bleak, wintry tones, the movie overflows with ominous, complex motives. Colin Farrell plays Lt. Hart, who's taken prisoner in late 1944 and sent to a POW camp where Willis is the ranking American captive. As Col. McNamara, Willis is a tough West Pointer. He assigns Hart to an enlisted men's barracks. When two African-American Tuskegee airmen end up in Hart's barracks, he tries to diffuse the racial tension. But then a bigoted sergeant is murdered, and a Tuskegee pilot (Terence Howard) stands accused. Hart defends him in court-martial sanctioned by McNamara, but the good colonel has more in mind than a trial. Until it lays on the sappy melodrama at the end, "Hart's War" is a winner.
"I Am Sam" Sean Penn plays a retarded father named Sam Dawson, whose daughter (Dakota Fanning) has mentally surpassed him by the time she turns 7. When social workers take his daughter away for her own good, of course Sam's only recourse is to challenge the move in court. Based on her ad in the Yellow Pages, Sam chooses hotshot, cold-fish lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer). At the movie's heart is this simple, compelling question: Does a mentally disabled father have the right to raise a child his child? Sadly, it deserves a better movie than this sappy, manipulative melodrama. Penn delivers an Oscar-nominated turn as Sam, but more impressive is Fanning, who plays sweet and innocent without a trace of affectation. She's the real marvel.