Monsters, Inc.

Animated, featuring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi

Fear is in the eye of the beholder—and in this case we're talking a single eye. A mono-orbed green monster named Mike trains his huge, lone peeper on a small girl and announces grimly, "That thing is a killing machine." Cut to the pigtailed toddler, Boo, who is joyfully spinning in fast circles until she makes herself so dizzy she falls down with a giggle. Pretty scary, huh?

Monsters, Inc.—the latest computer-animated family film from Pixar (the innovative folks who brought you Toy Story and A Bug's Life)—is about overcoming one's fears. The movie is funny, entertaining and visually inventive, but it's no Shrek or, for that matter, Toy Story. After a nimble, laugh-filled start, its simple story loses steam, particularly during an elongated final chase scene.

The hero of Monsters, Inc. is James P. "Sulley" Sullivan, a hulking, blue, purple-spotted, furry behemoth who earns his paycheck by jumping out of closets at night and scaring children. Their screams and shrieks are collected and used as a power source in Monstropolis, the town where Sulley (voiced by Goodman) and Mike (Crystal) reside. One day tiny Boo slips through a closet door into Monstropolis, and Sulley finds himself becoming her reluctant protector. Initially he and Mike are scared of Boo, thinking she—along with other human children—is toxic and dangerous. Soon, though, this particularly adorable representative of the small-fry species wins over the pair, and they take it upon themselves to shelter her from the evil machinations of Randall (Buscemi), a truly evil monster.

"With each film, Pixar's animators make gargantuan leaps in what they can do. Witness here the luxuriant splendor that is Sulley's furry pelt. (It includes nearly 3 million individual, computer-drawn hairs.) Monsters' story is cute, and its message commendable, but it is the look of the film, particularly the nifty, tentacled, slithery, corpuscular monsters that parade past onscreen, each more amusingly ingenious than the last, that scares up real delight. (G)

Bottom Line: Fiendish fun

The Man Who Wasn't There

Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, James Gandolfini

Featured attraction

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Though it is shot entirely in severe black and white, there's nothing simple or austere about The Man Who Wasn't There. The latest thriller from the cunning Coen brothers (Ethan produces, Joel directs, and both write the scripts), this is a clever tale of blackmail and betrayal, with humor sprinkled throughout, like frosting on an already delectable pastry. Unlike some other Coen films (The Hudsucker Proxy; O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the movie's initially sardonic view of its characters gives way to a generous one by the end. Man is a Coen film—slick and full of tricks—but with feelings too.

As with any great film noir (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), the lives and occupations of Man's characters are prosaic. Thornton, as restrained here as he was showy in last month's Bandits, plays Ed, a dour barber in a 1949 California town. Desperate to raise $10,000 to invest in a dry-cleaning business, Ed anonymously blackmails Dave (Gandolfini, deftly departing from his Tony Soprano role), a backslapping department-store exec who is bedding Ed's wife (McDormand, magnificent as ever). Events spiral downward from there.

Man could do with some snipping near the end, but to complain about a movie that is far better than nearly everything else out there in the megaplexes would be caviling. (R)

Bottom Line: A cut above the rest

Domestic Disturbance

John Travolta, Vince Vaughn

A boatmaker and his former wife seem to have divorced amicably enough, although their 12-year-old son, now in the mother's custody, hasn't adjusted as well. Or maybe he's just channeling Edward Furlong. He commits petty acts of vandalism, storms off at the slightest upbraiding and chronically lies. So both his mother and the police are skeptical when he claims to have seen his new stepfather, a Gatsby-like figure with oodles of money and mysterious origins, commit a murder. His father's hunch is that the boy, for once, is telling the truth.

Travolta, as the father, is effortlessly good at playing the salt-of-the-earth type, just as Vaughn, with the hooded eyes and too-soft chin of a baby-faced gangster, is proving to be consistently subtle and sharp in villain roles. But because Disturbance doesn't root them in a believable world—the police apparently haven't learned any new investigative techniques since the Lindbergh kidnapping—their face-off essentially amounts to two kids in a schoolyard scuffle. Both actors are eclipsed by wily Steve Buscemi as a lowlife from Vaughn's past. He has the scummy pride of a cigarette stub that chooses the gutter over an ashtray. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Dads entertainment

Tape

Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman

Two former high school classmates meet in a dreary hotel room in Lansing, Mich. Scruffy Vince (Hawke) is a small-time drug dealer who is downing beers as fast as he can and smoking reefer. Smooth Johnny (Leonard) is a fledgling filmmaker who's back in his hometown for a local film festival. The two start hashing over old times, and it's soon clear that their memories differ radically, especially when it comes to what happened with Amy, the girlfriend Vince claims Johnny stole from him during senior year. Enter Amy (Thurman), now an assistant district attorney.

Tape never ventures outside its hotel room, but the superior acting, the acid-etched dialogue and the adroit direction of Richard Linklater (Slacker) keep a viewer perfectly content staying put. (R)

Bottom Line: Unrolls smoothly

The One

Jet Li, Delroy Lindo

You can miss this One. Li, the Asian martial-arts star who high-kicked his way to the attention of western audiences in Lethal Weapon 4, challenges his limited acting skills in a sci-fi action thriller by playing dual roles: a bad guy and a good guy. Evil Gabriel has traveled across time and space—pursued by intergalactic lawmen (Lindo and Jason Statham)—to murder 123 versions of himself in parallel universes. Now he has set his sights on his last remaining doppelganger, virtuous Gabe, a cop in L.A.

One is woefully short on humor and narrative bang but does include many interchangeable fight scenes, gun battles and car chases, leading up to a climactic chop-socky clash between Gabriel and Gabe. The winner? It's certainly not the viewer. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: A big zero

Bandits In a lightweight comedy, bank robbers Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton both fall for housewife Cate Blanchett, who's fun to watch. (PG-13)

From Hell A cop (Johnny Depp) in 1888 London tries to catch Jack the Ripper. Smarter than it has to be. (R)

K-Pax Kevin Spacey insists he's a visitor from another planet and psychiatrist Jeff Bridges tries to prove he's not. Starts off well, then stumbles. (PG-13)

Mulholland Drive More weirdness from director-writer David Lynch, as a beautiful amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) tries to figure out who she is. (R)

Thirteen Ghosts The house is haunted and the ghosts aren't friendly. Dead on arrival. Stars Tony Shalhoub. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto.