Big Fat Liar. Shawn Levy. A bland, obnoxious 88-minute informercial for Universal Studios and its ancillary products, chief among them birthday boy E.T. (due for re-release this spring) and the studio tour, this is a kids film for children who won't shut up; it's loud enough to be heard over the deafening chatter of restless young'uns and strident enough to keep awake dozing parents. Frankie Muniz, TV's Malcolm in the Middle, doesn't break stride or sweat as Jason Shepherd, the fibber who cries wolf one too many times and winds up dancing with one when his school paper is stolen by conniving, heartless producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti) and about to be turned into a summer blockbuster. With would-be galpal Kaylee (Amanda Bynes) in tow, Jason heads to LA to wreak havoc on Wolf's pitiful life, from dyeing the man blue to kidnapping his stuffed monkey to destroying his car and career -- good times. Littered with TV's refuse (from Urkel to Screech to the Six Million Dollar Man, who still looks like a hundred bucks), this is less a comedy than a cautionary tale for young Muniz, who'd be wise to stay out of big-screen stinkers that render an actor's burgeoning résumé direct-to-Nickelodeon. Opens Feb. 8 at multiple locations. (RW)
Collateral Damage. Andrew Davis. Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Davis thought they were making a serious film about terrorism by depicting Arnold as an everyman firefighter named Gordie who somehow gains the abilities of James Bond, MacGyver and Mike Tyson (there's ear-chomping). But the film feels badly dated, not just since Sept. 11 but since the Reagan administration. Playing like a recycled Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris actioner on a bigger budget, Collateral Damage finds Schwarzenegger heading down to Colombia to take on Marxist drug-smuggling terrorists who inadvertently killed his wife and son as part of a bombing attack. Along the way, there are some creaky visual effects -- no excuses, because the film has had four extra months to touch them up -- and a waste of skilled character actor Cliff Curtis (Three Kings) as villain El Lobo. Schwarzenegger isn't half-bad, but his script choices of late need work. Central American politics are, unsurprisingly, brushed over, but Elias Koteas manages to convey some commendable ambiguity as a CIA operative who openly does unsavory deeds for his country. John Leguizamo and John Turturro show up for our amusement, and Hannibal's Francesca Neri, as El Lobo's wife, seems to think eyelid-batting equals acting. Opens Feb. 8 at multiple locations. (LYT)
Monster's Ball. Marc Forster. Opens Feb. 8 at multiple locations. Reviewed this issue.
Rollerball. John McTiernan. In the future, games will feature bucketfuls of blood and guts, lives will be at stake and pumped-up athletes will pay for losses with their lives. WWF? XFL? PGA? No, Rollerball, a 1976 movie rejiggered for the 21st century. Starring Chris Klein (who was brilliantly, lovably dimwitted in Election), LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. Opens Feb. 8 at multiple locations. NR
Storytelling. Todd Solondz. Opens Feb. 8 at the Tivoli. Reviewed this issue.
Turandot Project. Zhang Yimou. In May 1997, conductor Zubin Mehta recruited Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) to mount a stage presentation of Puccini's final opera, Turandot, which was based an old Chinese story. "Usually," Mehta says, "Turandot is full of Chinese clichés ... it looks like a big Chinese restaurant." So it seemed like a good idea to get an actual Chinese director for authenticity. Documentarian Allan Miller's backstage look at the project gets off to a slow start, with preparations for performances in Florence. Things get more interesting after the show is transplanted to Beijing a year later. But authenticity came at a price. It hadn't occurred to the Italian producers that performing inside the Forbidden City would mean redoing all the costumes: Zhang explains that the Florence costumes were from one dynasty, whereas the architecture in the Forbidden City is from another; "Chinese audiences will think it's a joke," he says. The most interesting clashes are the cultural ones: the Italian lighting director insisting that Puccini requires one kind of lighting, but Zhang, who has overseen the rest of visual elements, saying they will be ruined without the opposite kind of lighting. The performance itself (which aired on PBS and is available on DVD) apparently went perfectly; given the potential pitfalls that Miller documents, it's some kind of miracle. Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 8-10 at Webster University. (AK)