The season of short box-office lines is almost over. On Friday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opens, and some are predicting it will break Titanic's box-office record. To avoid the round-the-block, round-the-clock lines, you might want to sneak out to your neighborhood arthouse theater, where a couple of new releases are gaining a good deal of applause. One of them even claims it might "change your life."

In fact, Ameliejust might follow Life is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to be this year's foreign-film success story. The French film, directed by the visually inventive Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) could garner a Best Actress nomination for Audrey Tautou; her performance in the lead role swings between outrageous and subtle, shy and hyperactive, hushed and hilarious.

"She'll change your life," boasts the movie poster. Amelie tells the story of an introverted, creative, impulsive young girl who discovers the joy of performing anonymous good deeds for lonely, despondent, troubled souls. (If this sounds like the premise to Pay It Forward or other emotionally manipulative tearjerkers, trust me—this is something entirely different. Amelie has more in common with fantasies, fairy tales, and fables.)

Magic seems to follow Amelie as though it's part of daily life. When Amelie's heart breaks, she literally melts into a splash and a puddle of colors. When she's asleep, the paintings of barnyard animals on her bedroom walls talk to each other. And when she falls suddenly and drastically in love, her palpitating heart shines visibly right through her jacket.

Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) raves, "Jeunet grabs viewers by the arm and reels off a wondrous catalog of simple pleasures: the cumulative effect is to reveal the wonder of each individual. Jeunet has an advantage over many people, in both his gift for seeing, and also in noticing this odd detail: the otherness we crave must ultimately, despite the risk, find expression in human relationship."

"Amelie is one of those people who exist only in the movies," says J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth). "She's completely innocent and naive, yet resourceful enough to change the lives of everyone around her." But for Parks, Amelie's good deeds grew a bit tiresome. "It's like eating cotton candy. A little bit goes a long way."

Amelie's relentless energy and optimism might be a turn off to some. But she's the latest in a long tradition of fantasy heroes. There's a bit of Alice in Wonderland in her adventuresome spirit, Mary Poppins in her persistent goodness, and Robin Hood in her charitable meddling. There is also something Christlike about the way she focuses a ferocious attention on seeking and finding each individual's specific virtues and specific sadness. Amelie encourages us to get to know our neighbors and try to meet their most secret needs. She shows us how a little act of love can sometimes penetrate the hardest of hearts.

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Some religious press critics were troubled by the fleeting glimpses of sexual activity. John Adair (Preview) believes these moments "keep Amelie from being recommendable."

There are other flaws at the heart of this fable. The USCC says the film's "gorgeous visuals … manage to gloss over any moral considerations." While she knows better than to address complicated problems with Forrest Gump-ish platitudes, Amelie's good intentions compel her to morally questionable endeavors. In her hurry to give hope and happiness to a heartbroken neighbor, she concocts a fanciful lie. Well-intentioned lies might leave others smiling, but they provide false hope and put the believers at risk of humiliation and disillusionment. Amelie also settles for solutions of a sentimental and nostalgic nature; basing one's happiness on mementos from childhood is not the path to a deep and lasting joy. Worst of all, Amelie's meddling nature leads her to set up mild accidents for neighborhood bullies rather than confronting them appropriately.

But still, I am inspired by Amelie's ability to care for the oddballs of society, even if they never discover the identity of their "guardian angel." When Amelie does the right thing, she's a beautiful picture of grace.

Jeunet's film is more satisfying and less indulgent than his previous epic The City of Lost Children, in which the style overwhelmed the substance. My wife and I found Amelie to be a romantic, laugh-out-loud date movie, and we left the theatre imagining just what kind of surprises we might be capable of giving to unsuspecting souls.

Some mainstream critics are sour on the film's persistent sweetness, but most are swooning. Brian Miller (Seattle Weekly) concludes, "If Amelie is about anything, it's about the overlooked, invisible bonds between us distracted, harried urban dwellers."

The Chicago Sun-Times's Roger Ebert explains: "It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. Amelie takes those chances, and gets away with them."

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Heist's title is straightforward about the movie's subject. Writer/director David Mamet (State and Main, Wag the Dog, Glenngarry Glen Ross) gives us an accomplished husband-wife team of thieves (Gene Hackman and Rebecca Pidgeon) determined to get away with the loot after the dastardly Danny Devito double-crosses them. The nature of evil is on full display: these wicked men and women cause increasing distrust, double-crossing, lying, cheating, and violence until the whole affair comes apart at the seams.

The USCC's critic wasn't offended, but wasn't engaged either. "Mamet's intricate plotting telegraphs its many double-crosses while the soulless greed of every character leaves the viewer unengaged by their murderous mission."

Others had similar objections. "The con itself is so convoluted and the conclusion so ambiguous that those aspects aren't terribly satisfying," says J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth). "But the movie works in spite of itself, due to the fantastic cast and Mamet's crackling dialogue. It's hard to describe how good Heist's cast is … the chance to see Hackman, Lindo, and Devito working together should not be missed."

Many critics in the religious media believe the film condones evil. Mary Draughon (Dove) is dismayed that "Viewers are expected to sympathize with Joe and his loyal team who are very willing to maim and kill. Heist's use of violence to entertain, filthy language, and glamorization of crime earn a failing grade."

Mamet's famous writing style draws acclaim from almost every critic that reviews the film. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The real star of this film is the writing of David Mamet. His uncanny ear for dialogue resulted in a naturalistic staccato rhythm that helped to define each of the characters." Elliott finds the film "both engrossing and entertaining. Heist is the film that The Score could have been."

But critic Joseph L. Kalcso (Movieguide) disagrees: "The weakest link is the poor writing and uneven direction." He writes off the film as "a long, morally bankrupt gimmick."

The characters in Heist are indeed morally bankrupt. But the movie admits these are evil men right up front. By the end, we have seen these criminals—bad, badder, and baddest—pay the price. Hearts are broken. Friends are lost or killed. Marriages are corrupted. The one who walks away with a smile reveals himself to be the most hard-hearted devil of all, a slave to the allure of gold. We admire his cleverness, but we can't share in his gloating, because we have seen the price of his selfishness. Clearly, he who works to gain his life has truly lost it.

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Heist has its virtues. As a kid, I enjoyed watching the cat-and-mouse games—or dog-and-bird games—of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. This kind of cleverness has been entertaining ever since David outwitted Saul and Gideon turned the tables on the Midianites. As long as a viewer is discerning enough not to admire the motives, the priorities, and the values of these wicked men, there is some good brain exercise in trying to unravel these complicated plots. Mamet's script is a big bag of tricks that kept me guessing right up to the end. Ebert points out, "Heist is the kind of caper movie that was made before special effects replaced wit, construction and intelligence. This movie is made out of fresh ingredients, not cake mix."

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Pixar's fun-filled family flick Monsters, Inc. again scared up the biggest numbers of the week, reigning supreme above everything else. Far behind in second place was the latest over-the-top release from the Farrelly Brothers, famous for crass and cruel comedies like There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Me, Myself, and Irene. Shallow Hal has driven some critics to outrage, including Joel Siegel of Good Morning America, who insists that fat jokes just aren't funny.

Shallow Hal tells the story of an empty-headed, hormone-driven bachelor (Jack Black) so obsessed with dating supermodelish ladies that he fails to comprehend the value of inner beauty. A chance encounter with positive-thinking guru Tony Robbins changes his life—Hal gains the ability to "see" the "inner beauty" of each woman. Of course, this inner beauty appears to him as a voluptuous beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow), so viewers might argue that he's still responding to physical stimulus. But the filmmakers insist otherwise.

Critics in the religious media were troubled by the movie's crass humor and what some perceived as a double standard. Still, several gave the Farrellys credit for at least trying to provide a good message.

Holly McClure (Orange County Register) writes, "The jokes about fat people aren't so much a slam on being fat as about the perceptions characters have about each other."

"This film wants to be a romantic comedy and make a statement on the way our culture lives in a surface world," says Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies). "It's too bad that Shallow Hal was neither entertaining or charming."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Despite their intentions, that message packs a weakened punch due to the fact that most of the humor … comes at the expense of the 'un-pretty' people. It really is a pity because the premise has promise."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) notes, "The film makes great statements about a father's impact on his daughter's self-image, as well as how the culture at large has been 'brainwashed' to embrace certain standards of beauty. The treatment of outer vs. inner beauty, however, feels insincere. It's as if the erotically preoccupied Farrellys don't buy into their own homily."

Critics at the USCC call it "a good-hearted moral tale but the one-joke situation is stretched to the limit as it walks the fine line between comedy and poor taste."

Mary Draughon (Preview and Dove) objects to sexual innuendo and foul language which "overshadow any deeper messages."

Ebert reveals, "There's something about the Farrellys that isn't widely publicized—they're both sincerely involved in work with the mentally retarded. There is a sense that they're not simply laughing at their targets, but sometimes with them, or in sympathy with them. Shallow Hal has what look like fat jokes, as when a chair collapses under Rosemary, but the punchline is tilted toward empathy."

But Jeffrey Wells ( still sees a double-standard: "It's saying to us, 'Don't laugh at fat people or treat them as anything other than the good folks they are' while also bellowing like some beered-up guy in a bar, 'Whoa … look at that fat a—!'" Still, he argues that the film "offers up a lot more heart and substance than the other [Farrelly movies] put together … and is therefore fairly likeable … you can't say Hal doesn't at least try to say the right thing."

Lisa Alspector (Chicago Reader) disagrees: "If there's hypocrisy in the Farrellys' premise—teaching us to look at a thin person and imagine a fat one when for Hal the lesson works the other way—their great achievement is forcing those of us addicted to eye candy to see we have a problem."

Wilson Phillips singer Carnie Wilson, a formerly overweight superstar, told USA Today that the jokes hurt. "If you're overweight and you see this movie, you're going to be disturbed. To be honest, I was uncomfortable throughout the whole movie. 90% of the movie was making fun of fat people. It made me feel like I was a big joke, and that crushes my heart."

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"I'm sorry she feels that way," argues producer/writer/director Peter Farrelly, "but she's dead wrong." And infomercial idol Tony Robbins remarks, "The Farrelly brothers care about people in a way that's really amazing, and Shallow Hal is a reflection of their values. I don't think anyone who finds herself overweight will be offended. If anything, they'll feel saluted."

Next week: Is the movie as good as the book? Whatever the answer, count on Harry Potter to be the year's biggest box office success so far. I'll have a wide range of critical responses, and throw in my own two cents' worth for Chris Columbus's big-screen adaptation.

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Monsters, Inc., K-Pax, 13 Ghosts, Riding in Cars With Boys, From Hell, Training Day, The One, Domestic Disturbance, and Life as a House.