Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed

Upon vanquishing yet another enemy on the battlefield, Julius Caesar once famously crowed, " Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). The same can now be said for director Ridley Scott, who with Gladiator resurrects and reinvigorates the Roman epic. Moviegoers may not have been pining for such spectacles since speeding chariots last rumbled through theaters in 1959's Ben-Hur and 1960's Spartacus, but the juiced-up Gladiator proves there's still plenty of grappa left in the genre.

Gladiator tells the bloody saga of Maximus (Crowe, in a star-making turn), a fictional warrior whom the movie plops down in 180 A.D. amid real figures from Roman history. Maximus's bravery, brains and decency have earned him the respect and loyalty of his troops and the admiration of Marcus Aurelius (Harris), Rome's ailing emperor. When the emperor tells his preening, power-hungry son Corn-modus (Phoenix) that he intends to name Maximus as his successor and make Rome a republic, Junior goes wonky. Maximus barely escapes with his life and ends up-the film is murky on just how—enslaved and forced onto the provincial gladiator circuit (imagine WWF Smackdown! with swords and massive blood loss).

Despite a thoughtful script that strives to add texture and context, Gladiator in the end is too preposterous (bring on the tigers) to be mistaken for a great movie. But its pull is potent, thanks to the razzle-dazzle fight scenes (the opening battle rivals that in Saving Private Ryan) and a magnetic performance by Crowe (The Insider), who shows just the right combination of heart and brawn. As his nemesis, Phoenix is sulkily amusing, and Nielsen, cast as Phoenix's sister, signals she's an actress to be watched. (R)

Bottom Line: Thumbs-up

Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, James Frain

The teenage heroine of this well-meaning but mawkish tale hates the number 5. She believes that anything bad that happens to her involves that number, beginning when she was 5 years old and her mother abandoned her to run off with a baseball umpire. Well, here are five things that are wrong with this movie:

1. Its depiction of small-town America is so patently saccharine that the sweetness becomes oppressive.

2. It's the first film to have a Wal-Mart store play a lead role. Will a Target star in the sequel?

3. The major characters are all way too nice or way too mean, never realistically somewhere in between.

4. No one in the film is named plain old Jim or Sue, but rather Novalee, Sister Husband or Americus.

5. Sally Field shows up for only one tiny scene.

Where the Heart Is, based on a 1995 novel by Billie Letts that was an Oprah's Book Club pick, is about spunky 17-year-old Novalee (Portman), who is left barefoot and pregnant—literally—at a Wal-Mart in rural Oklahoma by her beau (Dylan Bryant) while on their way to California. She secretly sets up house in the store, has her baby there and is soon befriended by excessively colorful locals, including a randy recovering alcoholic (Channing) and a hospital worker (Judd) who names her children after desserts (Brownie, Praline, etc.). Tepidly directed by TV writer-producer Matt Williams (Roseanne), Heart dithers on and on to no great effect. The actors are all trying, but their efforts are as broad and flat as their accents. This is the sort of homespun nonsense ("Our lives can change with every breath we take," Novalee lectures) that belongs on a chocolate-sampler box rather than on a screen. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Hokey Okies

Mark Addy, Stephen Baldwin, Kristen Johnston, Jane Krakowski

Addy, the roly-poly male stripper from The Full Monty, does an uncanny vocal impersonation of Fred Flintstone, capturing every disgruntled growl and grumble. He's so dead-on, he reminded me how much I actually dislike Fred. A prehistoric Jackie Gleason—why is that funny?

Overall, this live-action adaptation of the vintage animated series is more en joy ably relaxed and more kid-oriented than its predecessor, The Flintstones (1994). (It's also cheaper-looking. Dino isn't much better than a paleorubber ducky.) A prequel, Viva recounts the courting days of Fred and his Wilma (Johnston) and Barney Rubble (Baldwin) and his Betty (Krakowski). Alan Cumming steals the movie in two small, silly roles: the Great Gazoo, an alien no bigger than a lunchbox, and Mick Jagged, a rock star with large lips. He should have played Dino too. (PG)

Bottom Line: Not great, but by no means extinct

Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli

What is it with Kevin Spacey and food? First he went gloriously ballistic with a plate of asparagus during his Oscar-winning performance in American Beauty, and now, in The Big Kahuna, he launches into a raging fit over canapés. Holding up a carrot stick, Spacey snarls, "You call this hors d'oeuvres?"

Spacey plays a salesman who, along with two colleagues (DeVito and Facinelli), is holed up in a hospitality suite in a hotel in Wichita, Kans., while waiting to sweet-talk prospective customers (big kahunas) into buying his firm's industrial lubricants. Despite showy performances by all three actors, this talky drama about the lives and lies of businessmen never transcends its static, stage-bound roots. (R)

Bottom Line: Good try, but no sale

Heather Graham, Casey Affleck, Luke Wilson

As a young woman committed to sticking to her marriage vows no matter what, Graham (Bowfinger) glows as if lit from within. It is her luminous performance that keeps the viewer hanging on through this genial though rambling romantic drama from talented writer-director Lisa Krueger {Manny & Lo). (R)

Bottom Line: Graham is great

>Bossa Nova Delectable if lightweight romantic farce about an American widow (Amy Irving) in Rio de Janeiro and her various friends and would-be lovers. Directed by Irving's Brazilian-born husband, Bruno Barreto. (R)

Frequency An affecting time-travel drama in which a long-dead father (Dennis Quaid) and his now-grown son (Jim Caviezel) communicate across three decades via a ham radio. Works better than expected. (PG-13)

Keeping the Faith Pleasant but slack romantic comedy about best buddies, a priest (Edward Norton) and a rabbi (Ben Stiller), who fall in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman).(PG-13)

28 Days Here's looking at you, Sandra Bullock. Sharp, often funny take on going through rehab. (PG-13)

U-571 See-worthy submarine drama set during World War II boasts exciting action scenes but not much in the way of characters. Stars Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel. (PG-13)

Where the Money Is Minor caper film worth seeing for Paul Newman. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto.