Picks and Pans Main: Screen

updated 01/21/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/2002 01:00AM

Charlotte Gray

Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon

After her lover's plane is shot down over France during World War II, Scottish-born Charlotte Gray (Blanchett) joins the British secret service and parachutes into France to aid the French Resistance. She also tries to track down her missing boyfriend—a British combat pilot—in between saving Jewish orphans, exchanging soulful looks with a dashing French comrade (Crudup) and dynamiting German troop trains. Busy, busy, busy.

Charlotte Gray, a romantic drama based on a more nuanced 1998 novel by Sebastian Faulks, doesn't lack for plot, but it doesn't always make sense either. Director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women) has made a handsome film that showcases a talented Blanchett (Bandits) to advantage, but its scenes are often disjointed. Another annoyance: The French characters all speak English, but some (Crudup) with a French accent while others (Gambon) sound as if they'd just come from tea at Buckingham Palace. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: C'estmediocre

I Am Sam
Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern, Dakota Fanning
Featured attraction

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Sean Penn is always saying in interviews how much he prefers directing to acting, but here's hoping he doesn't abandon the craft anytime soon. His flawless performance in I Am Sam grounds this otherwise manipulative, lachrymose tale of an adult retarded man trying to regain custody of his 7-year-old daughter.

Penn portrays Sam Dawson, who, despite having the intellectual capacities of a second grader and toiling at a menial Starbucks job in Los Angeles, is conscientiously raising Lucy, the product of Sam's brief fling with a homeless woman. When Lucy is removed from his custody by child-welfare workers who claim Sam is incapable of being a proper parent, he hires a high-powered attorney (Pfeiffer) via the Yellow Pages to help him win his daughter back. "You had the biggest ad," he tells her.

Though director-cowriter Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina) has made a movie that is sincere and heartfelt, the often too cutesy Sam glosses over such nagging questions as how its hero can possibly afford the rent for his comfortable apartment on coffeehouse wages. Pfeiffer, stuck playing a harried yuppie with a Porsche who reevaluates her life only after spending time with Sam, does what little she can with this stock character. Penn is the reason to see Sam; he avoids obvious tics and tricks, instead showing viewers a simple man trying his hardest to do his limited best. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Penn rises to the challenge

Orange County
Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O'Hara, Schuyler Fisk, John Lithgow

There are three kinds of teen movies: dumb ones, semiclever ones and ones so smart or perfectly pitched that they transcend the category. Orange County fits into the middle group. Just when an adult starts to feel kindly toward it, director Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) will remember his primary audience and throw in a gross-out joke about someone accidentally swallowing urine.

Aspiring writer Shaun Brumder (Hanks, whose dad is Tom Hanks) is a high school senior living in Southern California who goes to extremes to get into Stanford. He reckons college is his best shot at escaping his dysfunctional family, including a drunken mom (O'Hara), business-obsessed pop (Lithgow) and druggie older brother (Black, who is funny in what's essentially a John Candy-Chris Farley party-animal role).

Young Hanks, 24, grows on you. Sharper-featured than his father but with that same Everyman quality, he capably handles both comic and dramatic scenes. Fisk, whose mom is Sissy Spacek, is winning as Shaun's levelheaded girlfriend. When she and Hanks share scenes, you can imagine the film their parents never made together. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Here comes the son

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