The American Astronaut. Cory McAbee. A thematically inventive but woefully crude science-fiction jaunt that's less engaging entertainment for us than perverse psychotherapy for writer/director/star McAbee, this is basically a degraded Flash Gordon. Rendered in grainy black-and-white and often oppressively creepy, the jumbled story starts off on the asteroid of Ceres, where an interplanetary smuggler named Samuel Curtis (McAbee) accepts a gig to transfer a morale-boosting youngster known as the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast (Greg Russell Cook) from the all-male mining colonies of Jupiter to the all-female planet of Venus, where Southern belles can reproduce without men but require a single stud for new blood, lest they become "high-bred, too snippy even for their own good." Unfortunately, such dry wit is sparse, so McAbee loads on the lo-fi sci-fi as the plot boils down to pining for paternal role models and sturdy male friends out in the vast void. Be warned that this is also something of a musical, featuring things sort of like songs provided by McAbee's alleged band, the Billy Nayer Show, whose discordant slop makes one wish the guitar had never been invented. Plays at 7 p.m. Dec. 19-21 at Webster University. (GW)
A Beautiful Mind. Ron Howard. John Forbes Nash Jr. constructed theories that have influenced global trade negotiations, labor relations and evolutionary biology. As he was making these breakthroughs, however, he was gradually descending into schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind, based on the acclaimed biography of the same name, tells his story. Opens Dec. 25 at multiple locations; reviewed in the Dec. 26 issue. NR
The Devil's Backbone. Guillermo del Toro. Opens Dec. 21 at the Tivoli. Reviewed this issue.
Dinner Rush. Bob Giraldi. Giraldi, director of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and co-director (with Henry Jaglom) of 1981's National Lampoon Goes to the Movies, launches into a promising second phase of his career with this ensemble piece set in a restaurant over the course of one busy night. A restaurateur himself, Giraldi is in his element telling the story of Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello), a bookmaker and former chef trying to go straight while feuding with prima donna son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) and two thugs named Black (Alex Corrado) and Blue (Mike McGlone) trying to muscle in on the business and rub out the sous-chef (Kirk Acevedo) with a gambling compulsion. Other storylines converge and diverge during the course of the evening, with fine supporting performances from Vivian Wu, Sandra Bernhard, John Corbett, Jamie Harris and Mike Margolis. They're all so natural you'd think the film might have been improvised, but no, it's more coherent than that. Like the best cooks, Giraldi manages to make a film that appears deceptively simple even as it contains many different ingredients to savor. Opens Dec. 19 at the Plaza Frontenac. (LYT)
How High. Jesse Dylan. Apparently not high enough. Just when it looked as if Not Another Teen Movie might claim the crap crown comes this stoner's tale in which Method Man and Redman smoke their way into Harvard and loosen up the uptight whites (Hector Elizondo, who'll do anything) with spliff and splatter (so noted for the rappers' digging up of John Quincy Adams to smoke his bones, literally). The duo insist they were stoned throughout, and no shit; the entirety of this project, directed by Bob Dylan's son Jesse as though he's trying to get written out of the will, comes blanketed in a toked-up haze through which no one seems able to read their cue cards. Most notable for Spalding Gray's whored-out appearance as the guilt-ridden black-history prof ("Lynch me for what I've done to your people," he bellows, and it's not clear whether he's talking to the bruthas or the audience), this Up in Smoke wannabe goes down the shitter faster than Cypress Hill can reduce a blunt to a roach. Written by Dustin Abraham (now there's a hip-hop moniker, eh, Rabbi?) and Brad Kaaya, who penned this year's O, as in, "Oh God, no." Opens Dec. 21 at multiple locations. (RW)
In the Bedroom. Todd Field. Based on the Andre Dubus short story "Killings," In the Bedroom features Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei. Opens Dec. 25 at the Plaza Frontenac; reviewed in the Dec. 26 issue. NR
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. John A. Davis. If you can get past the fact that the central characters of this Nickelodeon computer-animated feature -- the precocious, Chris Isaak-coiffed hero of the title (voiced by Debi Derryberry), his square suburban parents (Mark DeCarlo and Megan Cavanagh) and token demographic-spanning friends -- look like the kind of generic Mexican-made bootleg action figures you can buy at the 99-cent store and feature the same degree of facial expressiveness and range of movement, there's a lot left to like about the film. Fortunately, most of the set pieces feature substantially better animation; the insides of one carnivorous beast's mouth look almost photo-real. The film's mostly a series of fast-paced rocket chases as Jimmy and friends journey to an alien world on converted amusement-park rides to save their parents from the alien King Goobot (Patrick Stewart, out-Shatnering his Star Trek predecessor) and sidekick Ooblar (Martin Short), who look like bronzed vending-machine plastic eggs filled with slime. Though conceived as part of a cynical merchandising juggernaut, Jimmy Neutron is a zippy, pleasing diversion for kids. Just grip that wallet tightly when all the spin-offs start to hit. Opens Dec. 19 at multiple locations. (LYT)
Joe Somebody. John Pasquin. As the titular Joe, Tim Allen, badly miscast as a sensitive AV-club nerd gone corporate, makes commercials and intraoffice films for a pharmaceutical company. He's still recovering from a messy divorce from wife Callie (Kelly Lynch), and his only friend is his 12-year-old daughter (Hayden Panettiere). On Take Your Daughter to Work Day, his parking space is snagged by the office bully, Mark McKinney (not the Kids in the Hall cast member but Seinfeld's Puddy, Patrick Warburton). Confronting Mark, Joe gets smacked in the face a couple of times, humiliating him in front of his daughter and co-workers. One three-day drunken binge later, he decides to take revenge and challenges Mark to a rematch. Too bad the battle between dueling Buzz Lightyear voice actors doesn't actually take up much screen time. Warburton's put on the back burner as Allen sings karaoke, sets his hair on fire and hits on a pretty co-worker, energized by his newfound confidence. Screenwriter John Scott Shepherd seems to have cribbed his premise from the likes of American Beauty and Fight Club, which were much funnier. Opens Dec. 19 at multiple locations. (LYT)
Kate and Leopold. James Mangold. Opens Dec. 25 at multiple locations. Reviewed this issue.
The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson. Opens Dec. 21 at multiple locations. Reviewed this issue.
The Majestic. Frank Darabont. An up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriter (Jim Carrey), circa 1951, under pressure to testify before HUAC, unintentionally disappears: He loses his memory in a car accident, then wanders into a small town where he just happens to resemble a local boy who has been reported missing in action during World War II. He doesn't think he's the war hero, but, not having any other identity to cling to, he allows himself to take on the role -- particularly because the job includes a loving father (Martin Landau), a gorgeous fiancée (Laurie Holden), a Medal of Honor and the admiration of the whole town. Director Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is admittedly trying for a Frank Capra effect. Indeed, the best that can be said about this overly leisurely, sledgehammer-subtle film is that it may boost Capra's reputation by virtue of comparison. Apparently it's not so easy to weave that kind of magic. Carrey has long since proved himself a versatile actor, not just a rubber-faced clown, but he doesn't fill the shoes of either James Stewart or Gary Cooper here. And the entire cast is forced to deliver some howlers that would have seemed clichéd 50 years ago. Opens Dec. 19 at multiple locations. (AK)
The Shipping News. Lasse Halström. Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett star in this adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Opens Dec. 25 at the Plaza Frontenac. NR
Titanica. Stephen Low. Another tribute to filmmakers' apparent willingness to shlep the massive Imax camera to the ends of the earth, Titanica goes 12,500 feet down to the ocean floor and the crusty remains of the Titanic. Before we begin our journey, we get close-ups of the sweaty face of a Russian research-ship captain and his massive, squat, ugly vessel. He and his droogies from Russia and the U.S. squeeze into tiny submersibles and dive to the strains of some lovely Tchaikovsky music. This 1992 film then proceeds to alternate between preserved photos of the nightmarishly huge Titanic being built and being enjoyed by passengers, and film footage of the sediment-coated, rust-colored, ghostly wreckage. The contrast is chilling -- the audience is led to imagine the unimaginable horrors that happened in the interim. A Titanic survivor who as a little girl was placed in one of the lifeboats recalls her experience as well. Now playing at the Omnimax. (BK)