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DECEMBER 20, 1999: 

The Bicentennial Man

This film begins with a shot of an assembly line where robots and presumably Chris Columbus/Robin Williams collaborations are manufactured, and from there, it's two hours plus of excruciatingly banal (but, yes, true) pronouncements on the beauty of human uniqueness, the necessity of mortality, and why even your toaster oven needs a little TLC. Oh Jesus, where have you gone, Robin Williams? Here, he plays Andrew Martin, a robot that, er, who looks a lot a vewy, vewy sad Robin Williams, in an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's 1976 short story. Martin may be made of machine, but like the Tin Man, this scrap of metal has a heart, one that in turn is nurtured and rejected by the family he lives with. He also has quite a talent for making clocks -- even though the passage of time means zilch to him. As the press notes remark, "It is ironic." And so it goes and goes for some 200 years, Martin spending the first 180 behaving, if you can believe it, like a naive Forrest Gump. Finally, he wises up, some trite lessons are learned, and Martin turns into the lifeform known as Robin Williams, well-meaning, no longer very funny, and definitely, even for children, a bore.

-- Mark Bazer

The Omega Code

In this Christian-right thriller, the Bible is decoded into a three-dimensional computer matrix that contains keys to forecast the path of history. Unlocked codes foretell (à la Nostradamus) of Hitler's misdeeds and even Princess Di's tragic death. Now, with the "end of days" rapidly approaching, religious factions, scholars, and maniacal opportunists all scramble for the omnipotent final title code. Beefy "Starship Trooper" Casper Van Dien plays Dr. Gillen Lane, a Bible code scholar, talk-show ham, and motivational guru. He and global philanthropist Stone Alexander (Michael York) are using the codes to bring peace to the Middle East, disarm nuclear arsenals, and alleviate world hunger. Of course things get dicy: there's a conspiracy in the air, a pair of prophets pop up in Jerusalem, and everyone wants Lane's ass.

As a thriller, The Omega Code drones on like a turgid made-for-TV-movie. There's no suspense, the acting is wooden, and the plot twists are inane. The Devil rears his head in the final frames, but by that time, only the bejesus of bad filmmaking will seize you.

-- Tom Meek

The Cider House Rules

A week after an adaptation of a bestseller about the death penalty comes an adaptation of a bestseller about abortion. True, neither The Green Mile nor The Cider House Rules takes a tough stand on its hotwire issue, but the latter adaptation of the John Irving novel at least requires less time to tell its more engaging story.

Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, who sometimes sounds as if he were reading his lines phonetically to feign an American accent), patriarch of a pre-WW2 Maine orphanage, tries to work both sides of the unwanted-children problem by performing illegal abortions. His protégé is aging orphan Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who frustrates Larch's efforts to mold him into his successor by running off with Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron), a well-to-do young couple whose indiscretions led them to seek out the doctor's services. Homer works at Wally's apple orchard, and when his friend heads off to war after Pearl Harbor, he and Candy are tempted by more than apples. The film's title refers to the ignored rules posted at the orchard's cider house, and to the arbitrariness of rules, both moral and narrative, in general.

Directed by Lasse Hallström from a script by Irving himself, the film cuts out most of the novel's pseudo-Dickensian excrescences (but not a vaguely racist subplot involving Delroy Lindo as a quasi-villainous cider-house foreman and an excellent Erykah Badu as his daughter) while preserving its genuinely Dickensian spirit. When Larch says, "Good night, you kings of Maine, you princes of New England," the lump raised in the throat is not resented.

-- Peter Keough

Stuart Little

It's bad enough that Rob Minkoff's adaptation of the E.B. White children's classic trades Stuart the mouse's natty togs for cutesy sneakers, and that the rodent's interspecies love interest -- a sweet songbird named Margalo -- has migrated right out of the script. But most egregious of all here is the sanitizing of White's light absurdist touch: Mrs. Little (Geena Davis) doesn't give birth to her two-inch son but adopts him.

Minus the genetic puzzler, the tale hemorrhages much of the original's charm and irreverence, instead chirping along as a treacly but innocuous allegory about fitting in and finding the meaning of family (Hugh Laurie and Jerry Maguire's Jonathan Lipnicki round out the Little clan). As for the mouse himself, this Stuart -- computer-generated and voiced by Michael J. Fox -- lacks the waggish, indomitable edge of his literary counterpart. He even shrinks from his furball foe, Snowbell the cat (Nathan Lane), who mews one line too many about feline flatulence. Such details, of course, are a modern affront to White's arch world of mice and men, a clear sign that this rodent romp likes its cheese.

-- Alicia Potter

Ride With the Devil

Loyalty can be an overrated virtue, especially when it comes in conflict with decency and common sense. Take the Civil War: did those on the Confederate side fight for slavery or for their family and friends? Or was it just the cooler clothes and hairstyles? This uncertainty between style and substance is one of the problems with Ang Lee's ambitious epic.

Set in the disputed border territory of Missouri, Lee's film recounts the adventures of a band of Bushwhackers -- pro-South guerrillas. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) rides out of loyalty to his surrogate brother, John Bull (Skeet Ulrich), and despite (or because of) his anti-slavery German immigrant Pa. Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) rides out of loyalty to his former owner and surrogate brother, George Clyde (Simon Baker), even though their quick-to-lynch sidekicks wouldn't hesitate to scalp him if he weren't "Clyde's nigger." Maybe it's just that the Bushwhackers sport flowing hair and coats in contrast to the other side's bad haircuts, beer bellies, and greasy suspenders.

Either way, the film's heroes take their time in growing cold to their cause of massacring pro-Union civilians (actually the atrocities on both sides beg comparisons with Kosovo and Chechnya). Part of this process is bland Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel) as domestic temptation, and she's not up to the task. Overlong, murky, but with flashes of visual inspiration more evident in Lee's The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, this film needs less ride and more devil.

-- Peter Keough

Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo

Another Saturday Night Live alum, Rob Schneider (the "makin' copies" guy), gets to take a dance across the big screen. And as was the case with most of his predecessors, the results are relatively dismal. Adam Sandler -- the one SNL-er to strike box office gold -- tags along as the executive producer.

Schneider's Deuce is a wimpy fish-tank cleaner who ingratiates himself with a beefy Hollywood gigolo (Oded Fehr) and lands a happening gig fish-sitting for three weeks. Through an act of sheer stupidity, Deuce trashes the posh pad and must raise some hefty bucks in order to set things straight before the volatile sultan of penis prowess returns. So what does Deuce do? He becomes a "male whore" and provides escort services for a smattering of none-too-desirable fems. There's the obese foodaholic, a too-tall Tina, a Tourette's-syndrome debutante and a narcoleptic. Deuce brings them all happiness in the most un-gigolo-like fashion, and along the way he falls in love with a one-legged hair-transplant nurse. Most of the sophomoric/scatological gags tank, and the usually talented William Forsythe is wasted as the envious cop with a spaghetti-thin dick.

-- Tom Meek

Anna and the King

Based on Anna Leonowens's memoirs (which also inspired the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I), Andy Tennant's sprawling screen adaptation is long, languorous, and yet pleasantly lush. Set in Thailand during the Imperialistic era (mid 1800s), it has Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-fat as King Mongkut, the Siamese ruler looking to modernize his country without forfeiting its independence. To help seed his future plans, the King entrusts the education of his 50-plus children to the dutiful British widow of the film's title (Jodie Foster). Naturally, Anna and the monarch clash over cultural and social issues like slavery, polygamy, and justice. It's not until the political climate heats up -- the ever-imposing Imperial powers, a potential war with Burma, and a burgeoning conspiracy -- that the two set aside their ideological differences and bond.

Somber and contemplative, this King is nothing like R&H. Foster and Chow spark an appreciable chemistry, though most of it is parlayed though a series of painstakingly postured encounters. The exotic period sets are scrumptious to behold -- in fact, the whole film has a regal texture, but there's little plot to hang it all on.

-- Tom Meek

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