Big Fish

dir. Burton

Opens Thurs Dec 25

Various Theaters

Like most of us, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) can't figure out why his father Ed (Albert Finney) is such a distant freak. Instead of sharing honest stories of his life growing up in Alabama, Ed regales his son (and everyone around him) with farcically tall tales of magical fish, a rescued giant, conjoined commie twins, a werewolf circus manager, a witch whose glass eye reveals the future, and hopeless attempts at true love, which are finally obtained. Unfortunately, this isn't good enough for sonny-boy, who refuses to speak to his father--until the old man is stricken with cancer. Now Will has one final shot at getting the truth--the real truth--out of his old man.

While director Tim Burton may have been pooh-poohed in the past for placing cinematic glitz over story-telling ability, with Big Fish he finally brings them together in glorious harmony. Switching back and forth between reality and the tall tales (which feature Ewan McGregor as the young Ed), Burton weaves a truly poignant story about the complicated ties between fathers and sons, and how severing those ties can eventually strengthen them. The cast is uniformly terrific, with an absolutely amazing performance by Albert Finney. This is the type of film that could easily slip under the strident pop culture radar; don't let it slip under yours. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

Peter Pan

dir. Hogan

Opens Thurs Dec 25

Various Theaters

The Peter Pan legend has much in common with the cheesy '80s Brooke Shields flick, The Blue Lagoon; a boy and girl on the cusp of puberty thrust together in a foreign land with no adult supervision, struggling against and finally accepting the dare to "grow up." Similarly, director P.J. Hogan's newest incarnation of Peter Pan is a lot like Lagoon--but without the sex and menstruation. It definitely hints at it, though.

After being chastised by her parents to be more "adult," Wendy and her brothers are whisked away to Never Never Land by a tow-headed boy and his pet fairy. As young love/lust begins to bloom, the fairy gets pissed and narcs out the pair to the evil Capn Hook, whose almost pedophilic obsession with Peter (and more pointedly, "youthfulness") drives him to murderous intentions.

Like their Blue Lagoon counterparts, Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) are gorgeous, and their confusing, adult-like feelings ring true. Jason Isaacs is cast in two roles, as both the nebbishy father and psychotic Cap'n Hook, adding another psychological level to the mixed-up world of pubescent emotion. But, while the special effects are spot-on, this Peter Pan is a slooooooow starter. Though it takes a good 45 minutes to get going, Pan is still visually pleasing enough to maintain interest. Besides, the slow sections give you plenty of time to fill in the psychological/sexual subtext. WSH

Monster

dir. Jenkins

Opens Fri Dec 26

Various Theaters

Despite my love of serial-killer stories, I wasn't psyched to see Monster because it stars my arch-nemesis, the cloyingly beautiful Charlize Theron. Always high on good looks, but low on talent, I was pissed that she'd be starring in the based-on-a-true-story about highway prostitute and drifter Aileen Wuornos. Aileen was a crass and weathered drunk, as you may know if you've ever seen Nick Broomfield's documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and I didn't want to see some pretty bitch do a complete hack job of representing her. But sometimes, when you have extremely low expectations, something wonderful happens.

In an amazing feat, Charlize Theron not only manages to look like complete crap, she does a spectacular job of playing Aileen. Mimicking her telltale mannerisms perfectly, Theron plays the part with total believability. Her performance--and the smart direction of the film--evoke sympathy, anger, disgust, and an overwhelming emptiness. Granted, seeing a movie about a woman whose life went from child abuse to prostitution to rape to murder to betrayal by her lover to execution isn't a fun time; but it effectively makes you ponder the immense good and evil in humanity, and quite possibly, it will make you cry. KATIE SHIMER

Cold Mountain

dir. Minghella

Opens Thurs Dec 25

Various Theaters

The emotional impact of this civil war epic relies hugely on a single moment between two lovers, Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). Just as Inman is joining his fellow Confederates to march off to civil war (literally as he is pulling his uniform on over his long johns), he and Ada share a quick, passionate kiss. This kiss, along with a few prior lustful looks and subtext-laden conversations, is the alleged basis for an enormous, burning love that will survive the next four years, as Inman fights the war, heals from injury, deserts his troops, and struggles to return home through backwater, 19th-Century America.

Kidman and Law are both freakishly beautiful people, with chilling blue eyes that slice through the tragedies surrounding them. Despite gritty, tough performances from both (Law, especially, endures a great deal of physical abuse, some of which looks disturbingly real), they are ultimately miscast, as their beauty objectifies them, and as a result, distances them. They look like glorious statues, not real people who have real feelings for each other. Minghella's filmmaking is as lush and lovely as ever, with scenes of magnificent violence and power. But it's all supported by nothing; an epic journey inspired by a single moment that never rang true to begin with. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS

Les Triplettes de Belleville

dir. Sylvain Chomet

Opens Fri Dec 26

Cinema 21

An animated French film that speaks nary an intelligible word throughout its entire 80-minute running time, Les Triplettes de Belleville's jaw-dropping artwork alone could have kept me riveted for hours. Physically exaggerated characterizations and dark, dank urban landscapes give the film a particularly strong noir sensibility, and in the void of spoken word, layered sound effects add to the feeling of ambience. A dog snuffles and yips his way up creaking stairs to bark loudly at a clackety train; a man's spoon makes a gentle splooshing noise as it digs into a bowl of something unrecognizable.

Such attention to detail extends into Belleville's oddball characters. A young cyclist has an enormous nose and hideously developed calf muscles. His mother is a tiny gnome-looking creature with a clubfoot, and the pet dog is overweight, with beady red eyes. But the gentle, quiet dynamic between boy, mother, and dog, in their little house, is wondrous to behold, and it's awful when a gang of trenchcoats kidnap the boy to stick him in an underground gambling event where he must bicycle himself to death in front of a crowd of bettors (yup, this is French, all right). Not to worry, though, as Belleville, for all its moody atmosphere, has a glowing core--the power and persistence of a mother's love. JWS

House of Sand and Fog

dir. Perelman

Opens Thurs Dec 25

Various Theaters

Much like his late father's In the Bedroom, Oprah-approved novelist Andre Dubus III has a knack for blurring the edges, trapping his mournful characters inside self-wrought ethical mazes without any clean exits. Unfortunately, the Oscar-baiting adaptation of his House of Sand and Fog can't break out of the black and white, resulting in an exquisite looking yet ultimately maddening melodrama.

The structure remains unchanged: when a recovering addict-slacker (Jennifer Connolly) temporarily loses her family's house on a technicality, a disgraced Iranian officer (Ben Kingsley) dives through the loophole and refuses to budge, resulting in mounting levels of righteous obsession for all concerned. However, while debuting screenwriter/director Vadim Perelman aces the surface details, he's unable to adequately illustrate the tragically flawed interior motives that gave the novel its power. Instead, his visual symbolism is thud-heavy, while his many gazes inward reek of self-loathing.

Such literal-mindedness proves lethal, despite the best of intentions. Instead of empathizing with the walking, wounded protagonists, we're left fuming that the entire crisis could have been averted if the main character had just bothered to open her damned mail. A complete downer, to be sure, but probably not in the way intended. ANDREW WRIGHT

Paycheck

dir. John Woo

Opens Thurs Dec 25

Various Theaters

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The structure remains unchanged: when a recovering-addict slacker (Jennifer Connolly) temporarily loses her family's house on a technicality, a disgraced Iranian officer (Ben Kingsley) dives through the loophole and refuses to budge, resulting in mounting levels of righteous obsession for all concerned. However, while debuting screenwriter/director Vadim Perelman aces the surface details, he's unable to adequately illustrate the tragically flawed interior motives that gave the novel its

Such literal-mindedness proves lethal, despite the best of intentions. Instead of empathizing with the walking, wounded protagonists, we're left fuming that.