‘Cold Mountain’

Atwang with mountain music and actors stretching their vowels in long, loping cadences, this romantic odyssey set during the Civil War is the equivalent of comfort food. It’s old-fashioned, earthy (lots of root vegetables), satisfying. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman star as lovers separated by conflict, carnage and hundreds and hundreds of miles.

Rated: R (violence, profanity, nudity, adult themes. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

‘The LastSamurai’

Tom Cruise is a hardbitten Civil War vet who goes to Japan to teach the military a thing or two, and learns a bit himself when he is captured by the samurai wise in the ways of the warrior.

Epic battle scenes and great costumes, but a hollow movie star and stereotyping screenplay are at its core.

Rated: R (violence, adult themes). Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

‘Big Fish’

Tim Burton’s fabulist story about the colorfully fantasist father (Albert Finney) of a grimly realist son (Billy Crudup) is a lush fairytale that will appeal to the fantasists among us. With Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange.

Rated: PG-13 (brief nudity, mild violence). Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

L’AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE 3 1/2 stars. Literally translated as “the Spanish inn,” but apparently French slang for a melting pot of cultures, a free-for-all, Cedric Klapisch’s lovesong to the new Europe is set in Barcelona, where a clutch of twentysomethings, each from a different corner of the continent, share an old apartment. When a French economics student enters the picture, screwball antics ensue. R (sex, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

LAWLESS HEART 3 stars. A little like British Eric Rohmer – a lot of talk, and a lot of talk about love and relationships – this funny, poignant, intelligent ensemble piece gets at the unpredictable nature of life – and at the certainty that people will go out of their way to behave foolishly. No MPAA rating (sex, nudity, adult themes, profanity) – Steven Rea.

LE CERCLE ROUGE 4 stars. Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate flick, released in 1970, is a slo-mo gem of gangster cool, of vintage Hollywood noir reimagined by a French New Waver in love with American cars, American jazz and the kind of trench-coated tough-guys embodied by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. A beautifully restored new print; Alain Delon and Yves Montand star. No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

LE DIVORCE 3 stars. James Ivory’s deliciously droll adaptation of the Diane Johnson tragicomedy of manners about Americans in Paris. Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson are the free-spirited Californians mystified by the rigid social conventions of their host country, personified by the delightful Leslie Caron and Thierry Lhermitte. PG-13 (discreet violence, sexual candor, profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

THE LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI 3 stars. A splendid and bejeweled historical epic set in 16th-century Thailand and centered around the exploits of a queen who sacrifices everything to save her king and her kingdom. Lavish spectacle and amazing battle scenes.” R (violence, nudity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

LILYA 4-EVER 3 stars. Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson’s powerfully grim portrait of a Russian teenager tracks a downward arc from abandonment to imprisonment to prostitution. Set in a relentlessly gloomy world of rundown post-Soviet apartments and a bleak Swedish city, this is not your standard feel-good art-house flick. R (violence, sexual violence, nudity, drugs, profanity) – Steven Rea.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING 3 stars. The final installment in Peter Jackson’s daunting adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy is long, episodic, Renaissance Faire-y and, at times, mind-bogglingly brilliant. The fellowship of hobbit and man, dwarf and elf, puts down the orcs – and far greater evils – in this visually spectacular realization of Middle-earth. PG-13 (violence, monstrous beings) – Steven Rea.

LOST IN TRANSLATION 4 stars. Sofia Coppola’s dreamy film about jet-lagged Americans sleepless in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s business district. Bill Murray is ineffably moving as an actor at his midlife crisis who connects with Scarlett Johansson, a newlywed adrift while her husband is off on assignment. R (lap dancing, sexual candor) – Carrie Rickey.

LOVE ACTUALLY 3 stars. Shameless, sappy and just about impossible to dislike, “Four Wedding and a Funeral’s” Richard Curtis presents a kaleidoscopic celebration of the vicissitudes of love. Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and a gang of others play the heart-struck and heart-torn. R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

MADAME SATA 3 stars. A colorful, freewheeling character study based on the real-life story of a Rio de Janeiro legend – a thief, a druggie, a street fighter and a cross-dressing cabaret singer by the name of Joao Francisco dos Santos, also known as Madame Sata. 1 hr. 45No MPAA rating (violence, gay sex, nudity, profanity) – Steven Rea.

THE MAGDALENE SISTERS 3 stars. A film of haunting elegance and righteous fury about the 20th-century asylums where Irish girls deemed inappropriately sexual – never mind that some were rape victims and others merely flirts – were sentenced to hard labor. R (frontal nudity, violence) – Carrie Rickey.

MAMBO ITALIANO 2 stars. This year’s entry in the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” sweepstakes is set in Montreal, among an Italian clan whose parental units can’t accept the fact that their grown son wants to leave the house and is gay. The movie spills over with the jolly angst of a fractious family sitcom. R (sex, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

MAN ON THE TRAIN 3 1/2 stars. French pop idol Johnny Hallyday is absolutely brilliant as an ageing criminal come to rob a small-town bank and who meets up with a lonely old local (Jean Rochefort) who changes his life. Director Patrice Leconte has made a beautiful, witty noir, soulful and sad and, ultimately, sweet. The ending’s a bit of a mess, but so what? R (violence, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST 3 1/2 stars. Aki Kaurismaki’s deader-than-deadpan tale of an amnesiac’s efforts to build a new life in the impoverished fringes of modern-day Helsinki is sweet and comic and strange. PG-13 (violence, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

MASKED & ANONYMOUS 3 stars. Something is happening in this surprisingly funny Bob Dylan vanity project directed by “Seinfeld” alum Larry Charles, but it’s never quite clear what it is. Dylan sings great and acts poorly as gnomic folk-singer Jack Fate, surrounded by a star-studded cast including John Goodman, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges and Penelope Cruz. Before viewing, attaining a Ph. D. in Dylanology is recommended, if not required. PG-13 (Profanity, violence, willful incoherence) – Dan DeLuca.

THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS 2 stars. The Wachowski Brothers bring their epic cyber-trilogy to a close with a crash and a whimper, as the great battle of Zion is fought, the Oracle cracks wise and bakes cookies, and Keanu Reeves’ Neo is stuck in limbo trying to figure out how to deal with that sinister, sneering Agent Smith dude. 2 hrs. 09 R (sci-fi violence, sexual suggestion) – Steven Rea.

THE MISSING 3 stars. Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones play an estranged daughter and father in this compelling, and visually stunning, western with mystical overtones about the hunt for a missing girl in the Southwest’s rugged mesa country. R (violence, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

MONA LISA SMILE 1 1/2 stars. Julia Roberts as an art-history professor who brings 2003 feminist consciousness to Wellesley College, circa 1953. Strictly a paint-by-numbers affair. Excellent performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliet Stevenson and Julia Stiles. PG-13 (sexual candor, mature themes) – Carrie Rickey

MONDAYS IN THE SUN 3 stars. A poignant character study set on Spain’s north coast about unemployed shipyard workers hoping not to lose pride, wives and manhood along with their jobs. In Spanish with English subtitles. R (profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

MY LIFE WITHOUT ME 3 stars. Sarah Polley stars as a hardworking young wife and mother who finds out she’s going to die, and then doesn’t tell anybody. Refreshingly unmelodramatic, this small, smart film raises some intriguing questions about selflessness and selfishness. R (profanity, sex, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

MYSTIC RIVER 3 1/2 stars. Clint Eastwood’s exceptional murder mystery swells with the twin themes of violence and vengeance that have long haunted the filmmaker. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon costar as the South Boston ex-gangster, ne’er-do-well and cop, childhood friends who are still reeling from an act of violence 25 years earlier, when the cop is sent to investigate the murder of Penn’s daughter. With Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden. R (mature themes, violence, profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS 2 1/2 stars. Shane Meadows’ modern-day tale of domestic discord in bleak, working-class Britain follows a small-time hood trying to get his ex-wife back. Robert Carlyle stars. R (profanity, adult themes, violence) – Steven Rea.

ON-LINE 2 stars. This trendy little number about a band of solitary souls connected by a live erotic Web site wants to get at the longing gnawing at the heart of instant messagers and chat roomies. But the film never really gets beneath its own surface of PC screens. R (sex, nudity, profanity) – Steven Rea.

ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE 2 stars. Disappointing documentary that chronicles Memphis soul survivors who include Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) and Carla Thomas. It doesn’t stick with one personality long enough to tell a compelling story. Nor does this disappointingly diffuse movie link its singers in a way that conveys the larger story still waiting to be told. PG-13 (drug reference, mild profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

OUT OF TIME 3 stars. Sultry thriller starring Denzel Washington as a chief of police playing beat-the-clock in investigating a double homicide where all evidence points to him. Sanaa Lathan and Eva Mendes also star. R (sex, profanity, violence, spousal abuse) – Carrie Rickey.

PARTY MONSTER 2 stars. Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green prance and pout as infamous late-’80s New York scenesters caught up in a world of drugs, fame and homicide. It’s like watching preschoolers in a twisted game of make-believe. No MPAA rating (sex, drugs, profanity, violence) – Steven Rea.

PASSIONADA 2 1/2 stars. A sudsy romance between a Portuguese-American widow and a deceiving cardsharp who doesn’t deserve her yet desires her. PG-13 (discreet sexuality, drug candor) – Carrie Rickey.

PAYCHECK 2 1/2 stars. Ben Affleck stars as a “world-famous genius” trying to figure out what happened to three years of his life, working on a top-secret invention in the company of a beautiful scientist played by Uma Thurman. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, the concept’s kind of cool, the execution generic. PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

PETER PAN 2 1/2 stars. A live-action film of J. M Barrie’s modern fairy tale has been long overdue. And Australian director P. J. Hogan’s shimmering vision of “Peter Pan” is rewardingly sumptuous and faithful. But it’s always a gamble to build a film around adolescent actors. While 14-year-old Californian Jeremy Sumpter and 13-year-old Londoner Rachel Hurd-Wood could not look more perfect as Peter and Wendy, their acting chops are negligible. PG (mild danger, action scenes) – David Hiltbrand.

PREY FOR ROCK AND ROLL 2 1/2 stars. Gina Gershon stars as the long-strugglin’, music-lovin’ frontwoman of a female L.A. combo in this hokey but entertaining melodrama. R (sex, drugs, rock and roll, profanity, violence) – Steven Rea.

PULSE: A STOMP ODYSSEY 2 stars. The creators of the Broadway’s “Stomp” follow the beat worldwide in this look at the impact of music in various cultures. In Imax format. G – David Hiltbrand.

RADIO 2 stars. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris star in the “inspired by a true story” tale of a good-hearted, mentally challenged town character and the noble high school football coach who befriends him. PG (profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

RESPIRO 3 stars. Set on a dusty, rocky Mediterranean isle, this strange, lyrical reverie, imbued with an air of casual surrealism, is about a slightly mad woman (Valeria Golino) and the family and townsfolk who don’t know what to do with her. A gorgeous and peculiar little picture. 1 hr. 30 PG-13 (nudity, violence) – Steven Rea.

RUNAWAY JURY 2 1/2 stars. The latest John Grisham adaptation pits jury consultant Gene Hackman against juror John Cusack. At stake is a verdict against gun manufacturers that might inspire copycat suits and cripple the industry. With Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. PG-13 (violence, brief sexuality, profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

THE RUNDOWN 2 stars. With his first contemporary role (costume dramas like the sand-and-sorcery epic “The Scorpion King” don’t count) the Rock moves immediately to the top of the rock-“em-sock-“em crowd. “The Rundown” comes on like gangbusters with snappy tough-guy banter, colorful characters and abundant visual flair from director Peter Berg (“Very Bad Things”). PG-13 (graphic violence, profanity) – David Hiltbrand.

SCARY MOVIE 3 3 stars. A whiz-bang compendium of pop-cult minutiae, from the Coors Twins to “American Idol’s” Simon Cowell to Master P’s cinematic oeuvre, “Scary Movie 3” is a veritable time capsule of of-this-moment kitsch, schlock and bad taste. And it’s funny, too. PG-13 (crude humor, profanity, violence) – Steven Rea.

SCHOOL OF ROCK 3 stars. With a force that can only be described as Belushiesque (as in John), Jack Black throws his considerable heft into “School of Rock” – an engagingly screwball comic vehicle in which the actor and Tenacious D frontman goes through an inventory of heavy metal moves and makes a mockery of them at the same time. PG-13 (profanity, drug references) – Steven Rea.

THE SEA 3 stars. A roiling tragicomedy from Iceland in which a hateful, ageing fishing magnate summons his grown children home to tell them what they “won’t be inheriting. There are enough dark secrets here to keep a soap opera afloat for decades. No MPAA rating (sex, profanity, violence, family trauma) – Steven Rea.

THE SINGING DETECTIVE 2 1/2 stars. In Keith Gordon’s awkward condensation of Dennis Potter’s 1986 miniseries, Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as the hospital-bound patient, a pulp novelist whose delirium conflates personal fact with paranoid fiction. With Mel Gibson and Robin Wright Penn. R (sexual candor, medical candor, violence, profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

SO CLOSE 3 stars. Fun Hong Kong action melodrama about sister assassins and the female cop tracking them down. If stiletto-heeled heroines outfoxing dunderheaded males are what you’re looking for, seek no more. No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes, profanity) – Steven Rea.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE 3 stars Nancy Meyers’ bedroom farce teams Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton as an unlikely twosome dealing with conflicting issues of commitment, vulnerability and attraction to much younger members of the opposite sex. With Amanda Peet and Keanu Reeves. PG-13 (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

THE STATION AGENT 3 1/2 stars A quiet, beautiful little film about friendship, family, loneliness and trains, this New Jersey-made indie stars a true star, Peter Dinklage, as a rail buff who inherits a long-unused train depot. Like the best sort of short story, the quiet, oddball pic captures lives in fleeting, but telling, moments. R (profanity, adult themes) – Steven Rea.1/2 stars. When it’s not making the claim that Surfing Peace, this surfari from Dana Brown (son of “The Endless Summer” director, Bruce) is a privileged look at the most radical surfers and the most pristine beaches. No MPAA rating (colorful language, daredevil stunts) – Carrie Rickey.

STUCK ON YOU 2 stars. A movie about togetherness and separation, about partnership versus individuality, about best buddies and following one’s dream, the Farrelly Brothers’ “Stuck On You,” despite its penchant for the crude and lewd, is gooey in ways that have nothing to do with bodily fluids. PG-13 (crude humor, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

SYLVIA 2 1/2 stars. Director Christine Jeffs’ chronicle of the poet Sylvia Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow as a glowing meteor doomed to vaporize in earth’s atmosphere. With Daniel Craig as Plath’s husband Ted Hughes. R (nudity, sex, profanity, suicide) – Carrie Rickey.

THIRTEEN 3 1/2 stars. A sweet seventh-grader (Evan Rachel Wood) turns to sex, drugs and crime under the influence of an alarmingly precocious 13-year-old (Nikki Reed). Director Catherine Hardwicke’s character study features exceptionally strong performances from Wood and Reed, who cowrote the screenplay. With Holly Hunter. R (strong profanity, sex and sexual situations, drugs, self-mutilation) – Carrie Rickey.

TIMELINE 2-1/2 stars. Easily the best “Dude, Where’s My Century?” flick since “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Archaeologists get faxed to the 14th century to rescue an associate and discover that, despite their degrees, they know surprisingly little about their subject. PG-13 (medieval battle, profanity – Carrie Rickey.

THE TRIP 2 1/2 stars. A journey into the heart of gay pride that chronicles two decades of the liberation movement impeded variously by homophobia, intolerance and AIDS. No MPAA rating (Sexual candor, profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

21 GRAMS 4 stars. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro star in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s powerful tale of strangers whose lives intersect in tragedy. Structured in fractured, time-jagged arcs, the narrative flashes forward, lurches back. It’s moviemaking cubism, and it challenges and provokes, but the characters at the heart of the tale are people we recognize. And know. R (nudity, sex, profanity, violence, adult themes) – Steven Rea.

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN 3 stars. Audrey Wells’ sprightly fairy tale, a free adaptation of the Frances Mayes’ memoir, stars Diane Lane as the American in Italy who hopes that if she restores an abandoned villa, she can also restore her life. PG-13 (discreet sexual situations, mild profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

VERONICA GUERIN 2 stars. Cate Blanchett takes the title role in this slick biopic of the Irish newspaperwoman who risked her life exposing drug kingpins. The Joel Schumacher-directed pic is full of pumped-up emotion and the kind of dramatic confrontations that Hollywood lives for. R (violence, profanity, drugs) – Steven Rea.

WATTSTAX 3 stars. Digitally remastered, the documentary that captured the 1972 concert at the L.A. Coliseum is a landmark that’s as socially significant as it is musically and stylistically. To see performers such as Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers and Hayes in their prime stands in vibrant contrast to the recent Memphis soul doc “Only the Strong Survive.” R (profanity) – Carrie Rickey.

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND 3 1/2 stars. This compelling documentary about the “60s outlaws who traded flower power for firepower and bombed government installations is an excellent and intelligent look at what constitutes effective political protest. No MPAA rating (Vietnam carnage, graphic images of violence) – Carrie Rickey.

WONDERLAND 1 star. Told from three unreliable perspectives, porn prince John Holmes gets involved with bottom-feeding drug dealers whom he may have slaughtered on Wonderland Avenue in Hollywood in 1981. With Val Kilmer as Holmes and an excellent Lisa Kudrow as his estranged wife. R (extreme violence, drugs, sexual situations and references) – Carrie Rickey.



RATINGS:

4 stars: Excellent; 3 stars: Good; 2 stars: Fair; 1 star: Poor



(c) 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

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AP-NY-12-31-03 1451EST


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