ALONG CAME POLLY 2 1/2 stars. Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller star as a flaky free-spirit and a buttoned-down business guy in this scatological slapstick romantic comedy from the writer of “Meet the Parents.” The best reason to see it: the hambone supporting performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin and Hank Azaria. PG-13 (sex, nudity, toilet humor, language) – Steven Rea.

BAD SANTA 2 stars. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who did such great work with the teen misfits of 2000’s “Ghost World,” this black comedy has moments of inspired impertinence, but the unpleasantness of its title character (Billy Bob Thornton) spills over to the film as a whole. R (pervasive language, strong sexual content, some violence) – Steven Rea.

BIG FISH 3 stars. 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. PG-13 (brief nudity, mild violence) – Carrie Rickey

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 1 1/2 stars. Ashton Kutcher, the Chaos Theory, time-traveling supernatural gothic horror – it’s all here, in this overwrought and underwritten scarefest, intertwined with a love story, and a dark and seamy one it is. R (violence, sex, drugs, profanity) – Steven Rea.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN 2 stars. A family slapstick that young kids will love for the food fights, older kids will like for TV stars Hilary Duff and Ashton Kutcher, and adults will endure for Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, “Cheaper by the Dozen” purports to be based on the memoir by the children of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. The new movie and the wryly funny memoir are alike in name only. PG (flatulence and poop humor) – Carrie Rickey.

CITY OF GOD 3 1/2 stars. Set in a housing project at the fringe of Rio de Janeiro, this extraordinary gangster drama boasts pyrotechnic filmmaking and the conviction of documentary. R (violence, sexual candor, drugs, profanity, child-on-child brutality) – Carrie Rickey.

COLD MOUNTAIN 3 stars. 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: 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. R (violence, profanity, nudity, adult themes) – Steven Rea

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING 2 1/2 stars. Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular sitter for Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting, while Colin Firth, bewigged and bearded, plays the 17th-century artist captivated by his serving wench. Very slow, very lovely. PG-13 (torrid stares, 17th-century Euro mores) – Steven Rea.

IN AMERICA 3 1/2 stars. Lyrical, life-affirming, lovely. Jim Sheridan’s film about Irish illegals in the United States is proof that tortured people can go through hell and come out the other side to find heaven in Hell’s Kitchen. With Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou. PG-13 (discreet sex, discreet violence, drugs, 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.

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.

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.

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.

MONSTER 3 stars. Charlize Theron is scary as Aileen Wuornos, the Death Row inmate who worked as a prostitute, and then killed several of her johns. Christina Ricci plays the young lesbian who hooks up with Wuornos in this sad, impossible love story. R (violence, sexual violence, nudity, profanity, 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.

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.

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.

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.

TO BE AND TO HAVE 3 1/2 stars. An unfancy, fascinating documentary that takes the viewer inside a single classroom schoolhouse in rural France, where a dedicated teacher works with a dozen kids, ages 3-11, imparting lessons in penmanship and poetry, grammar and games. It’s a movie every teacher should see, and every parent, too. No MPAA rating – Steven Rea.

TORQUE 1 1/2 stars. Good and bad bikers zoom around the California desert in this flimsy, wheely-popping carbon copy of “The Fast and the Furious.” Your heart will not race. PG-13 (profanity and violence) – David Hiltbrand.

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.

WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON! 2 1/2 stars. A romantic comedy about celebrity worship and true love that could have been made in the 1950s if not for the fleeting shot of a tongue-pierced party girl and the tattoos adorning a sympathetic barmaid’s shoulders, “Win a Date” is easy to like, and easy to forget. PG-13 (mild sex, mild profanity) – Steven Rea.



RATINGS:

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



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-29-04 1302EST



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