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Week of September 17, 2003

Secondhand Lions. Tim McCanlies. Writer-director Tim McCanlies' film is cornier than the cornfields spread out in front of the dilapidated rural Texas manse inhabited by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, playing grumpy old brothers with mismatched accents. Walter (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet teenage nebbish, is forced to spend a 1960s summer with two great-uncles he's never met -- never even heard of -- after his no-account mom, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), strikes out for court-reporting school. They'll make him a man; he'll make 'em human. Problem is, McCanlies has handled this material better already; his Iron Giant covered similar ground and without resorting to sentiment. It seems like such a rookie move to insert into the story line a worn-out circus lion, shipped to the brothers to hunt till they realize it's too old to even crawl out of its crate. It's all Duvall can do to keep from pointing to the lion, turning to the camera and saying to the audience, "This is supposed to be me -- get it?" Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Robert Wilonsky)

Underworld. Len Wiseman. Somewhere in the deepest mists of Eastern Europe lies an urban hell shrouded in shadowy azure, where darkly enchanted, black-leather-clad denizens leap about to thudding techno, blurting outrageously melodramatic proclamations in randomly accented English. Erupting anew is a centuries-old blood-feud between the Vampires (superbly solemn Kate Beckinsale, Trent Reznor-like clown boy Shane Brolly) and the wolfy, non-lichen Lycans (Michael Sheen, co-conceptualist Kevin Grevioux). It's The Crow meets The Matrix, gothcore tricked out with wire stunts, and visually it's wild fun, since fledgling feature director Len Wiseman started off in production design, and creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos's diverse credits span from Godzilla to Stuart Little. Yet with Underworld's guilty pleasures come copious clinkers, from its nuts-and-bolts narrative foundation (scientifically explaining vampirism and lycanthropy) to Wiseman's inability to direct actors beyond cartoonish interaction. It's a project made for genre fans, by genre fans, engendering more comradeship than awe. But the Budapest-built project is tight enough, with an impressively oppressive look, boasting a construction crew comprised of four Laszlos and a Zoltán. Opens Friday, September 19, at multiple locations. (Gregory Weinkauf)

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