Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis, Maria Bello, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher

After proving in Emma and Shakespeare in Love that she can act with the best of 'em, Paltrow demonstrates in Duets that she can sing too. Her voice is pleasant and her phrasing distinctive, but it's not as if hers is such a golden instrument that Nina Simone or k.d. lang need consider retiring.

And that, dear readers, is the end of the complimentary portion of this review. Duets, directed by Bruce Paltrow, the actress's father, is an exceedingly slight ensemble drama about characters who are competing in singing contests at local karaoke bars, hoping to go on to a national warble-off in Omaha that features a $5,000 prize. Along the way the contestants' paths cross and each discovers truths about what's missing in his or her life. Karaoke, of course, is a metaphor for being brave enough to stand up and let loose, but just how much courage does it really take to get up in front of a bunch of drunks and sing schmaltzy pop songs?

What makes it all even more pointless is that four of the six major characters have pipes to be proud of, which takes all the fun away. Those who can sing include Ricky (Lewis), a professional crooner who makes his living hustling bets at karaoke bars; Liv (Paltrow), the daughter he abandoned as a child; Suzi (Bello), a showbiz hopeful who grants sexual favors to get what she needs; and Reggie (Braugher), an escaped convict. There's also Todd (Giamatti), a traveling salesman in the throes of a meltdown, who sings poorly; and Billy (Scott Speedman), a cabdriver ferrying Suzi cross-country, who doesn't sing at all.

Though adequately acted, most of the characters are written so sketchily that their emotional epiphanies barely register. Conversely, Giamatti's unhinged businessman has way too many scenes in which he tiresomely moans about escaping the American Dream. If Giamatti had a few more musical numbers, Duets might be mistaken for a musical version of Death of a Salesman. Sing, Willy, sing. (R)

Bottom Line: Goes flat

Jamie Foxx, David Morse

As a comedian, Foxx, who has his own WB sitcom, likes to doodle, embroidering a line of dialogue with small jokes. Limber and light, he's all but crushed by this heavy-handed thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) in a style darkly glossy and pointlessly fussy. Foxx keeps tossing off jokes and Fuqua keeps throwing them away.

Foxx, a small-time crook, spends cell time with a big-time crook who cheated a partner in a gold-brick heist. The feds, headed by the ever-more-Clintonian Morse, think Foxx may have learned where the gold is hidden (he hasn't) and set him loose with a tracking device in his jaw. The thief's partner, a high-tech killer acting on the same assumption as the feds, also comes calling. It's all very confusing and somehow ends up with crazed horses and a baby in a booby-trapped car.

As the partner, Doug Hutchison (The Green Mile) seems to be trying to match John Malkovich's silken hit man in In the Line of Fire. He comes across instead as monumentally peevish, like a man sentenced to life with a pea under his mattress. (R)

Bottom Line: Don't take it

Documentary

Mothers and fathers had only a few days in which to fill a single suitcase with clothing and family keepsakes for the long journeys that their children would be making alone. There seemed even less time to pack into a child's head and heart the lessons they had assumed there would be a lifetime to teach.

Yet in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and '39, that was the agonizing task facing Jewish parents who signed their children up for the kindertransports, a massive humanitarian effort over-seen by the British (and consented to by the Nazis, who were still letting Jews leave) that allowed 10,000 kids to flee their homelands (and the coming Holocaust) by boarding trains bound for England and waiting foster families. This moving documentary features old footage and interviews with now elderly transport participants. Some adapted readily to their new families and country, but all remember feelings of dislocation and loss. As escapee Bertha Leverton says here, "Every parent promised their child, 'We will soon come and follow.' " It was a promise few would be able to keep. (PG)

Bottom Line: Haunting memories

James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei

Cat lovers may be conflicted over their feelings toward the serial killer (Reeves) in The Watcher after he adopts one of his victim's pet felines. But anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that this lackluster suspense thriller is more than cinematic Kitty Litter with only one inspired gimmick: the killer's habit of sending photos of his intended victims to an FBI agent (Spader), giving the law 24 hours to prevent another murder.

Spader brings a weary doggedness to his role, while Reeves—who has distanced himself from the film—looks puffy and bored. Tomei, playing the G-man's shrink, spends the longest of her few scenes tied to a chair with her mouth taped shut, which is no way to kick-start a stalled career. (R)

Bottom Line: Faulty vision

>The Toronto Film Festival

Like planes lined up on a runway, many of the movies Hollywood hopes will take off this fall and holiday season paraded by during the 25th annual Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 7-16). Although studios don't bother to debut a Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford blockbuster in Toronto, the festival has become the buzz-building site of choice for quality films with lesser box office stars (last year's American Beauty) or tricky subject matter (the porno industry-themed Boogie Nights in 1997).

High-profile films from Toronto scheduled to unspool in multiplexes by year's end include:

State and Main, David Mamet's snappy showbiz satire about what happens to a Vermont village when a movie crew arrives. Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker are hilarious as misbehaving stars.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of the year's best films, chronicles romance and derring-do by male and female warriors in ancient China. Directed by Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), it stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh.

Dr. T and the Women, a rambling comedy by director Robert Altman, features Richard Gere as a Dallas gynecologist beset by female troubles.

Shadow of the Vampire rewrites film history with a comic edge by speculating that German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) as his leading man when making 1922's Nosferatu, one of the first vampire films.

The Contender is an engrossing, lurid political thriller about a female senator (Joan Allen) named in a sex scandal. Jeff Bridges is a hoot as the President.

>Almost Famous Almost perfect. Compassionate coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old rock journalist who learns about life and love while on the road covering a band. Great performances by Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, newcomer Patrick Fugit and especially Kate Hudson. (R)

Bring It On A cheerful comedy about cheerleaders, starring a spirited Kirsten Dunst. (PG-13)

Highlander: Endgame Make it stop. The fourth Highlander again stars dour Christopher Lambert as a sword-swinging Scot cursed with immortality. He's joined by Highlander TV star Adrian Paul, who's cute in a kilt. (R)

Nurse Betty Wild and wacky and unlike any other movie out there, which is a compliment. Renée Zellweger is superb as a waitress who is convinced that she's a character on a soap opera. Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock play hit men on her trail. (R)

Space Cowboys A blast. Geezer astronauts Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner prove that age has nothing to do with gravity. (PG-13)

The Tao of Steve A smooth-talking fat guy (Donal Logue) doesn't let his bulk interfere with picking up women in a swell romantic comedy. (R)

The Way of the Gun Hard-boiled, twisting tale of thugs (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) who kidnap a pregnant woman. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto.