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Summer's sizzling start

Movies

Issue: "The Marriage Amendment," June 8, 2002

This past Memorial Day capped the biggest movie weekend of all time, with the box-office take totaling more than $200 million. As it happens, these early days of the summer movie season have fared well critically too. But how good are these films, really?

Insomnia (rated R for language, some violence, and brief nudity), starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, is a new thriller from Christopher Nolan, the director of last year's popular and very clever independent hit Memento.

Insomnia is based on a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The plot revolves around a detective sent on assignment to a region where, for part of the year, the sun never sets. (In the remake, Nightmute, Alaska, replaces the remote Norwegian village.) Several things about the remake are particularly American. The very European original was driven less by plot than by the internal struggle of the film's protagonist, who, accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, shoots his partner.

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The plot is brought to the fore for American audiences, but more significant is the new ending. The Norwegian film never allows its tortured, flawed detective the rest he seeks. Mr. Nolan chooses to offer Mr. Pacino, in the lead role, a form of redemption-and rest for his weary soul. It's too easy a salvation. Insomnia is a solid thriller, but little more.

About a Boy (rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some thematic elements) suffers from a similar deficiency. It's smartly directed, cleverly written, extremely well acted (by both Hugh Grant, expanding his floppy-haired repertoire, and Nicholas Hoult, admirably underplaying his role as "the kid"), but sadly empty. It's based on the novel by Nick Hornby, which chronicles the semi-spiritual (or at least social) awakening of a self-centered London bachelor (Mr. Grant).

The film is occasionally crude, but often very funny and, overall, pleasantly entertaining. It offers some nice pro-family sentiments, and its main character eventually understands the emptiness of a life that replaces emotional connections and responsibility with materialism and personal fulfillment. But Mr. Grant's "awakening" is ultimately just as meaningless as his previous life-even family and friends can't fill an empty heart.

The animated Dreamworks feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is beautifully animated. That's about the only good thing about it, although it has received shockingly positive reviews. Spirit is as politically correct as any film in recent memory, creating a blatantly revisionist story of a stallion in the American West of the 19th century.

Lacking even a hint of subtlety, the plot portrays all white men, the U.S. Cavalry, and the railroad as evil invaders of a pure land. Conversely, wild horses and friendly Native Americans live in perfect harmony with nature and each other. Sadly, Dreamworks will sell this tale to thousands of families who will watch it as a "true story." There may not be much suitable for families in theaters now, but my advice is to skip this one.

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