“”Serendipity,”” which stars John Cusack and “”Pearl Harbor””‘s Kate Beckinsale as star-crossed lovers chained to the whims of fate, exists solely in the saccharine-sweet fabrication of Manhattan reserved for romantic films like “”An Affair to Remember,”” “”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,”” or even “”When Harry Met Sally.””

As expected, the ideal date picture enchants, but in unconventional ways, as various “”new age”” detours addressing destiny and soulmates, as well as a jazzy soundtrack of original tunes by Alan Silvestri, make the familiar material seem lively and original.In a crowded Manhattan department store, Jonathan (Cusack) and Sara (Beckinsale) meet over a pair of gloves they both intend to buy for their significant others. The mixup leads to coffee and conversation, but since they’re both involved, they reluctantly part ways. To be safe, though, the superstitious Sara conducts two tests, writing her name and phone number on the inside cover of a book while having Jonathan do the same to a five dollar bill. She then explains that if either of them should find the book or bill, they’ll know they’re relationship is meant to be.Fast forward what we’re told is a “”few years”” later. We assume the book and the bill have gone undiscovered, as Jonathan and Sara are both set to marry different people, though neither of them seems to have forgotten the magical evening they spent together. In a last ditch effort to find his true love, Jonathan recruits best friend Dean (Jeremy Piven) to help him find Sara, just as she hops a plane with her friend Eve (Molly Shannon) bound for the Big Apple and what she hopes will be her soulmate’s arms.With a tender blend of self-effacing sarcasm and sentiment, as well as a “”lovers on opposite coasts”” subplot, “”Serendipity”” draws comparisons to Nora Ephron’s “”Sleepless in Seattle.”” But Peter Chelsom’s wistful romance embarks down a different path, actively pursuing the requisite coincidences that typically drive such fare instead of merely relying on them. Sara would refer to them as “”twists of fate,”” though we call them plot devices, and they move Cusack’s fruitless search for Sara along all-too-smoothly. The last one, involving a jacket left on a park bench, is a doozy, but completey acceptable in the context of the film. While Cusack continues to prove he can regurgitate fluff like this in his sleep, it’s Beckinsale who confirms she’s capable of carrying a picture that’s not bogged down with B-52 bombers and Ben Affleck. In all, “”Serendipity”” spins some magical moments from its leads’ natural charms, though they’re all-to-often left holding the bag as the delightful supporting cast of Shannon, Piven and an acerbic Eugene Levy run away with the show.Grade: B-By Sean O’ConnellOct. 5, 2001

Training Day

Once, in an effort to clarify the complexities of the narcotics beat for his rookie recruit, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) blares, “”It’s not checkers, it’s chess.”” His statement could also refer to “”Training Day,”” a tantalizing chess match waged between morale adversaries claiming to be from the same team.

The pieces on this chessboard, though, are never simply black or white, good or evil, as that would be far too easy. Instead, each piece resembles a shade of gray, and you’re never sure which side of the board they’re trying to conquer. The only point of certainty is that Washington’s Harris is the queen, the dominant piece with the power to change the game with a simple move, or end it with several short, precise strokes.The recruit is LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a 20-month rookie given the opportunity to audition for Harris’ elite team of plainclothes narcotics officers. Eager to please, Hoyt takes Harris’s words to be gospel, no matter how often they contradict the academy’s training manual. Harris adopts a “”big picture”” approach to crime, choosing not to waste time on petty thugs and relying on rule-bending street justice. He’s aggressive, opinionated, experienced and informed: a bully with a badge that’s so drunk with power he’s hung-over and miserable about it. Only Hoyt, operating on the opposite end of the morality scale, can piece together the fact that Harris might actually be a corrupt cop, though David Ayer’s dubious screenplay leaves the door open to the idea that Harris’ underhanded behavior could all be a test for the green officer. For the first time in his nearly 25-year career, Washington plays the villain, and he approaches the role as he does any, with an unmatched passion and intelligence. Not only does the actor know how his character needs to be perceived, he knows how the entire script needs to be played to maintain the picture’s ambiguity until the last possible second. It’s a credit to Hawke that he not only holds his own but also helps us to sympathize with this rookie by nailing the uncomfortable feeling one gets watching a pigeon being victimized by a tyrant.More surprising than Hawke’s admirable performance is Antoine Fuqua’s inspired direction. Gone is the choppy, over-stylized hack techniques Fuqua relied on in “”The Replacement Killers”” and “”Bait,”” replaced instead with steady camera sweeps and lingering pans that seize the complicated material and hold it still, allowing us a minute to contemplate and digest what we’re being fed. It’s not all kosher, and some scenes reach simplistic conclusions for the good of the plot. But several pieces must be sacrificed over the course of a chess match if checkmate is to be achieved, and the film rights itself after each sporadic misstep.Grade: A-By Sean O’ConnellOct. 5, 2001

Hearts in Atlantis

At least eight of Stephen King’s works have been optioned for film and television productions by 2002. In fact, since Brian De Palma directed “”Carrie”” back in 1976, Hollywood has plundered King’s words, ideas and characters for approximately sixty-four different projects, sometimes with great success (“”The Shawshank Redemption,”” “”Stand By Me””, “”The Shining””), but oftentimes not (“”Cujo,”” “”Maximum Overdrive””).

“”Hearts in Atlantis,”” the scribe’s latest story to receive the big screen treatment, actually bears a strong resemblance to “”Stand By Me,”” another film adaptation of a King short story. Directed by proficient directors (Scott Hicks and Rob Reiner, respectively), both tackle the loss of innocence through distictive rights of passage. But whereas “”Stand By Me”” lucked upon four gifted actors who happened to by children – Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and the late River hoenix – “”Atlantis”” relies on real children who are not yet actors, and the weighty material slips in their tiny hands. Screenwriter William Goldwin adapts “”Atlantis”” from the King novel of the same name, though he works primarily from the book’s first story, “”Low Men in Yellow Coats.”” The low men in question are shadow-dwelling scoundrels who pilot gaudy automobiles and are currently pursuing Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), an old man who incidentally just moved into the apartment above young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his overprotective widowed mother, Elizabeth (Hope Davis). Ted’s bizarre mannerisms and too-polite demeanor immediately rouse Elizabeth’s suspicions, but Bobby likes him well enough, and soon the old man recruites him for a series of tasks. Most importantly, he wants Bobby to keep an eye open for Ted’s low men. Bobby eagerly agrees, but even he is starting to doubt Ted, who’s prone to repeatedmental lapses. In fact, Ted’s prone to much more than that. He possesses the power to “”see things”” others can’t see, and he can pass that ability on to another through human contact. Once, he inadvertently passes it on to Bobby, who uses to it clean up during a rigged game of “”Find The Queen.”” It’s this power that has the low men salivating, and has Ted on the lamb. Bobby desperately wants to help his new friend, but it is the summertime, and he’s easily distracted, shaging flies with his best friend Sully (Will Rothhaar) or locking lips with his pretty little girlfriend, Carol (Mika Boorem). When signs of the low men begin to appear, Bobby ignores them, half convinced Ted is mistaken but also confident his friend will leave if he knows danger is near. Ted eventually realizes that the low men have arrived, but by then it’s practically too late for him to do anything about it.The material is strong, but this production feels rushed, perhaps in an effort to include all the elements of King’s enchanting tale. A sleepy-eyed Hopkins trips and murmurs his way through, occassionally coming off as a pedophile who leers at Bobby and his friends with his mouth ajar. Instead of a peer, as he was in the book, Hopkins’ Ted is a wise old sage who has plenty of anecdotes, but no legitimate reason to hang out with children. And the kids themselves, who obviously know they’re very cute, recite thematerial with forced enthusiasm. Yelchin is particulary guilty of piling it on, and as a result, almost none of Bobby’s lines ring true. As he did with David Guterson’s “”Snow Falling on Cedars,”” Hicks filters a best-selling author’s beautful prose through his camera’s lens with lifeless results. He does a very good job maintaing the mystery surrounding the low men, though the screenplay goes too far, suggesting a motivation never addressed in the novel (and rightfully so).Hicks’ strongest contribution still lies in his ability to capture locations through his lens. “”Atlantis'”” dreary Connecticut suburbs are appropriately sullen and gray and they frame the story as well as the wintry landscapes did in “”Cedars.”” Hicks joins the ranks of directors unsuccessful in carrying King’s mystic prose to the screen, but he’s in the good company of Bryan Singer (“”Apt Pupil””), Taylor Hackford (“”Dolores Claiborne””), David Cronenberg (“”The Dead Zone””) and John Carpenter (“”Christine””), all of whom have gone on to better things.Grade: CBy Sean O’ConnellSept. 28, 2001

Along Came A Spider – By Peter J. Hannah

James Patterson, why have you forsaken us? After crafting one of the finest “”paperback”” heroes of our time in Dr. Alex Cross – an urban soldier who personifies Washington D.C.’s gritty streets, its beating heart – and penning a series of gripping police detective novels surrounding him, you allow Hollywood to bastardize your words, to twist your ideas into pulp?

For various reason, casting being one of them, “”Kiss the Girls”” was bad. But “”AlongCame a Spider”” is downright insulting to the assumed intelligence of a Patterson reader,though not of a paying theater-goer, it seems.In his second go-around as the character, the miscast Morgan Freeman (Cross is not this old, people!!) plays D.C. detective Alex Cross, on the psychological mend after losing a partner in a blown sting operation, (quite possibly the worst special effects sequence of this or any other year, and yes, I did sit though “”The Mummy Returns””). Cross isn’t out of work long before a criminal mastermind, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), draws into his self-made web of deceit. Soneji pulls off what he considers to be the crime of the century, the abduction of a Senator’s daughter named Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), and he invites Cross to match wits with him in what promises to be an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the girl’s life on the line.But the game never kick starts. Cross, in an act of pity, teams with lovely Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the girl, and the two begin the methodical – yet dull – procedure of cracking the case. Cross finds clues others can’t, implying he’s a genius, but he overlooks obvious errors that would derail this production until the end, when all can be revealed. By then, the screenplay has thrown a fair amountof (pardon the pun double-crosses at us, each one more illogical then the next.Save for the character names and the most basic plot elements, “”Spider”” fails to follow Patterson’s exquisite novel, instead relying on tired formulas and played-out twists. Freeman brings his usual professionalism to the role, and I’ve even grown to accept his age as part of the cinematic Cross (though the character in the book will always remain younger, leaner and meaner). Next to him, Potter can’t even carry Cross’ shoulder holster. And Wincott brings a sedated evil and inflated confidence that makes Soneji an exceptional villain. When Cross, at one point, reverts to standard procedures for a hostage situation, Soneji appears hurt, insulted at the thought that Cross would attempt such a pedestrian approach. Audience members should feel the same way about this film.Grade: DTHE EXTRAS“”Spider”” presented in glorious widescreen, does convert well to the digital format. The sound isn’t ear-blowing, but the levels are clean and clear. You’ll appreciate the ability to watch the intro sequence over and over again, to marvel at the laughably poor quality of the effect.Aside from the feature, Paramount has included a “”Behind The Scenes”” featurette that’s padded with clips from the film and brief interviews with the cast and Patterson himself. Lord, how I wish this puppy were interactive. I have one or two questions for Patterson I’d like to ask, before the studios butcher another one of his tremendous Alex Cross books.Final Grade: D+

Who is Corky Romano? Contest Announcement

THIS CONTEST IS CLOSED!!!!!Be the first to see Touchstone Pictures, “”Who is Corky Romano?”” starring, Chris Kattan (“”Saturday Night Live””). The screening will be held in Washington, DC Thursday October 11, 2001. To qualify to win simply read the synopsis below and follow the instructions. We will notify the winners at random, Monday, October 8, 2001. The film is rated R and no one under 17 will be admitted without a guardian. “”Who is Corky Romano?”” opens on Friday, October 12, 2001.

Good-natured veterinarian Corky Romano is stunned when he receives a surprising call from his long-lost father “”Pops,”” an underworld crimelord who has been indicted by a grand jury. With his trial just two weeks away, it looks as if the Mafia kingpin is finally going down. However, he still has an ace up his sleeve. Pops realizes that the one person who can turn the tables and infiltrate the FBI undetected – and abscond with the evidence against him – is Corky, who was banished from the family at a young age for not fitting in. Corky is only too happy to help his newly rediscovered relations, and his brothers intimidate a computer hacker into creating a fake resume to get Corky into the FBI. But the hacker panics and goes overboard, making Corky appear to be a super agent, a repuation that he must live up to.Starring: Chris Kattan Vinessa Shaw Peter Falk Richard Roundtree Chris Penn Fred Ward Matthew Glave Roger Fan Dave Sheridan Jennifer Gimenez Director: Rob Pritts Producer: Tracey Trench Robert Simonds Screenwriter: David Garrett Dave Garrett, Jason Ward Cinematographer: Steven Bernstein Composer: Randy EdelmanCONTEST RULESStep 1 – Non members must create a user account. Once your account is created you will automatically be entered into the contest and will be registered to receive our weekly newsletter. All current members are automatically registered in the contest and do not have to re-register.Step 2 – On Monday October 7, 2001, look for our weekly newsletter it will contain further instructions on how to win. Ok, with all of that said, to register THIS CONTEST IS CLOSED CLICK HERE

Spy Kids

Such a fun movie. So pure, so adolescent, so intelligent and never condescending. Such a meager DVD. So barren, thin and pedestrian. How could Dimension let this happen? As bizarre as it seems, it makes sense, with a little explaining.

In March, “”Spy Kids”” burst into theaters, roared to the top of the box office charts, and stayed there. The film’s whimsical blend of intrigue and pubescent excitement attracted audiences of all ages, introducing them to two pint-sized child stars on the rise, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. The children play Carmen and Juni Cortez, feuding siblings who must work together when they learn that their parents, who lead double lives as secret agents, have been kidnapped. Informed by their Uncle Felix (Cheech Marin) of their parents predicament, Carmen and Juni take matters into their own technologically-equipped hands and set out to rescue their mom and dad from the hands of Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), the wicked host of a children’s television show who plans to take over the world using an army of robot children, dubbed “”spy kids.”” Considering his filmography, which ranges from the gory (“”From Dusk Til Dawn””) to the gritty (“”Desperado””), Robert Rodriguez appears an odd choice for a children’s adventure, but the material couldn’t be in better hands. The usually bare-bones director brushes up on his technical skills, matching the staggering amount of heart found in all of his films with eye-popping special effects and inventive devices. Rodriguez also never forgets his material. Part of the film’s charm is Vega and Sabara’s remarkable ability to behave like actual children when another flick might have mistakenly force-fed them adult lines. Their innocence establishes the film’s pervasive mood, and Rodriguez just punches up the requisite filler. Grade: B+ THE EXTRAS Here’s the catch: anticipating a future “”Special Edition”” DVD, the current “”Spy Kids”” disc offers very little besides the film. Not that the film isn’t worth it. It is, and the digital transfer ranks high (though the sound is a little flat). Still, save for the trailer and a few kid-friendly promotional plugs for Miramax features, there’s nothing here. Grade: D- OVERALL EXPERIENCE Just because Buena Vista plans a “”Special Edition”” DVD doesn’t excuse the studio for trying to profit from their successful film. “”Spy Kids”” surely has an immense fan base, but I’m sure they could have waited for the better-quality disc to come out. Now that Blockbuster and the like are stocking up on current DVD titles, “”Spy Kids”” suddenly ranks as the best rental available, but don’t buy it until the more comprehensive DVD comes out next year. Final Grade: C- Reviewed by Sean O’Connell

The Luzhin Defence – By Sean O’Connell

Vladimir Nabokov’s vision of a chess genius and his lover, mapped out against a luscious European backdrop by director Marleen Gorris, becomes a flawed, flat film.

While vacationing with her haughty mother at a luxurious Italian resort, Natalia (Emily Watson) meets and falls for eccentric, virtuoso chess player Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), who’s competing in the world tournament. Despite their obvious differences, she works hard to make Luzhin the marrying type. But Luzhin’s mental demons eventually surface, threatening to shatter their relationship and his own fragile mind.Strong performances by Watson, Turturro and Alexander Hunting – a dead ringer for Turturro who plays the young Luzhin in flashback sequences – are diluted by numerous clich

Exit Wounds – By Sean O’Connell

“”Exit Wounds,”” the resurrection vehicle for one-time action hero Steven Seagal proves once again that star producer Joel Silver (“”The Matrix””) really can morph crap into gold. In all honesty, the hard-hitting “”Wounds”” could be Seagal’s finest film ever – for what that’s worth.

After single-handedly preventing an assassination in the film’s explosive opening, renegade cop Orin Boyd (Steven Seagal) receives a demotion to Detroit’s seediest precinct. Instead of fitting in, Boyd uncovers a web of corruption involving confiscated heroin that goes right up his chain of command. And at the center of the crime ring is Latrell Walker (rap superstar DMX), an Internet mogul and the only man Boyd can trust. Eager to please, Seagal does everything shy of rising from the dead in the ultra-violent “”Wounds.”” More superhero than man, the newly slim (well, slimmer) actor destroys helicopters, evades hand-held power saws and dodges bullets. But he also takes anger management classes, effectively ushering the “”tough guy”” role into the new millennium. What we’re left with is an aging action star with more charisma then Sly, but less magnetism then Arnold. Seagal’s resurrection might not last longer then this film, but “”Wounds”” manages to be a superior successor to the testosterone flicks of the 1980s. Grade: BTHE EXTRASConsidering the stylish direction behind “”Wounds,”” I was surprised to see director Andrzej Bartkowiak skipped out on providing a commentary. Still, you can learn more about the film’s production via a “”Behind The Scenes”” doc. The “”Wounds”” disc also gives props to co-star DMX’s alternate career by presenting the artist’s “”No Sunshine”” music video.The DVD’s third feature, entitled “”A Day On the Set With Anthony Anderson,”” may be a bit tougher to sit through. Anderson’s raunchy humor, delivered at the highest decibels, is an acquired taste. He serves up some punchy jokes over the film’s credits (with co-star Tom Arnold), but here he’s best taken in small doses.The rest of the disc is packed with promotional material, including the film’s theatrical trailer.Grade: C+OVERALL EXPERIENCEIf you enjoyed the movie, “”Wounds”” is a good buy. The extras don’t make it a necessity, but the film is entertaining enough. In the long line of Seagal “”thrillers,”” this one ranks high on the list, and could even win over non-fans who gave up on the kicker after “”Under Siege.””Final Grade: B

The Glass House – By Peter J. Hannah

Glass House starts with a fairly routine premise, sports the stylish, almost clinical look of the typical “”Danger Right Under Your Nose”” thriller, yet never crosses the threshold into the realm of predictability. While far from original, it does side-step plot holes that I thought would inevitably swallow up the entire production. Instead it arrives, somewhat jostled – but intact to its inevitable conclusion.

And it’s delivered safely by young Leelee Sobieski, a bona fide star on the rise. Earlier roles in “”Here On Earth,”” “”Never Been Kissed”” and Stanley Kubrick’s “”Eyes Wide Shut”” have had the angelic beauty braving cancer, geekdom and a libidinous Tom Cruise, in that order. “”House”” allows her to let her board-straight hair down and act like a teenager, quite possibly for the first time in her professional career. Ruby Baker (Sobieski) could be the model teenager. Her life revolves around her girlfriends, she sneaks cigarettes while cruising the Strip, she loathes her meddlesome younger brother, Rhett (Trevor Morgan), and she has the type of parents (Rita Wilson, Michael O’Keefe) that are too casual and understanding to be true. Her world is put on hold, though, when Ruby returns home one evening to learn that her parents were killed in a car accident after celebrating their 10th anniversary.The Bakers’ will stipulates that Ruby and Rhett are to live with Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgard, Diane Lane), the family’s longtime neighbors who have since moved to a plush Pacific hideaway in Malibu. Not parents themselves, the Glasses successfully attempt to buy Rhett’s love with Nintendo and flashy gizmos throughout the house. Ruby, however, is slow to warm to her new guardians, and with good reason. The suspicious couple barely disguise the fact the they’re withholding secrets. Erin sports a heroine chic glaze to her eyes that she credits to Diabetes, and Terry’s rarely without a short glass filled with vodka on ice. Ruby digs a little below the couple’s surface, and uncovers enough clues to assume the Glasses may have been responsible for her parents’ deaths and are now after the children’s $4 million inheritance.Like any decent thriller, “”House”” keeps its cards close to its vest as long as it can. Terry and Erin’s abnormal behavior is explained with flimsy, but feasible, reasoning, and Ruby’s various attempts to solicit help from outside parties are foiled, though not through any clever devices. However, a running subplot and countless references to Shakespeare’s “”Hamlet”” continuously remind us that something, indeed, is rotten in the state of the Glass house before the film drops its veil and gives way to being a straight-shooting revenge drama.TV director Daniel Sackheim relies heavily on old-fashioned tricks to conjure up a commotion and establish mood. It rains more in this film than it has in southern California this entire year. When not doctoring the picture’s pitch, Sackheim slings strangely perverse material at us. We’re treated to PG-13-testing shots of Leelee in her bra and bikini as she swims at 3 a.m., all so lecherous Terry can ogle her as only a foster father can. It’s strange, not because the film tries to get its attractive lead into skimpy outfits, but because Sobieski allows it. Having already established herself as a talented, classy actress, this just seems like a minor step backwards. Most of “”House”” feels silly. When the long-lost uncle (Chris Noth) introduces himself at the parents’ funeral, you know he’ll turn up later, but when Ruby finally calls him for help, he’s out of the country. And the gifted Lane, who’s itching for that breakout role, does very little with the chemically-dependent money whore Erin, a character that could have been a carnival ride of emotions for the right actress. Still, “”House”” holds your interest, thanks to Wesley Strick’s surprising screenplay, which earns points for avoiding what I originally thought to be obvious foreshadowings and unavoidable cliches. One thing I couldn’t get over, though, was the blatant corporate product placements. Perhaps doubting Sobieski’s ability to open her own film, “”House”” obviously took on some sponsors to guarantee a little up-front cash. So when Terry drives his silver Jaguar while under the influence of Kettle One vodka (his drink of choice), you can be sure Ruby is going to e-mail somebody about it from her IBM laptop. Shameless. Grade: C-

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