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"The Gift' is a quiet thriller

The Gift

(R) A small-town fortune teller (Cate Blanchett) starts getting bad vibes about people, including a wife-beater (Keanu Reeves), his victim (Hilary Swank) and a mentally challenged mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi). The Gift was written by Billy Bob Thornton with the same creeping dread that made Sling Blade an Oscar nominee a few years ago.

First impressions: "Southern Gothic murder mysteries seldom come as absorbing as The Gift, a deliciously creepy little picture that has director Sam Raimi effectively incorporating supernatural shocks and making terrific use of a cast led by Cate Blanchett. . . .

"(The Gift is) an unsettling occult thriller, a rarity in the age of cheap thrills, buckets of gore and overblown special effects. Those disappointed by What Lies Beneath and last year's batch of devil-movie duds ought to find far more spooky satisfaction here." (Phillip Booth, Times correspondent)

Second thoughts: Not many people saw it in theaters, but those who did were impressed.

Rental audience: People who prefer subtle shocks and slowly cultivated terror.

Rent it if you enjoy: The Sixth Sense, Sling Blade.

The Family Man

(PG-13) Wall Street executive (Nicolas Cage) awakes on Christmas morning in a different life, married to his high school sweetheart (Tea Leoni) and surrounded by suburban bliss. The workaholic can't handle it, of course, urging his hip guardian angel (Don Cheadle) to send him back.

First impressions: "Spiritual rebirth is at the center of The Family Man, and director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) gives that theme the Hollywood treatment, ably delivering an entertaining romantic comedy that delights despite _ or maybe because of _ its high quotient of mush. It's a sentimental, saccharine piece of work sure to appeal to audiences disinclined to indulge in . . . more serious fare.

"Cage handily navigates these comic situations, and Leoni, last seen on the big screen two years ago in Deep Impact, brings dramatic agility to a straight-woman role." (Phillip Booth, Times correspondent)

Second thoughts: Can Frank Capra's estate sue for feel-good plagiarism?

Rental audience: Anyone who wished they could live in Bedford Falls.

Rent it if you enjoy: It's a Wonderful Life.

Saving Silverman

(R) Passive lunkhead (Jason Biggs) plans to marry his viperous lawyer girlfriend (Amanda Peet), but two annoying pals (Steve Zahn, Jack Black) scheme to keep him from the altar. The plans include such nasty gags as making a cute nun forsake her vows and poking tasteless fun at homosexuality.

First impressions: "Saving Silverman plods through these minifarces with a mean spirit and no credible motivation to justify it. Much of the movie seems made up on the spot. To describe the effect as "improvisation' would suggest dexterity that isn't there. . . Then there are Zahn and Black, and bless them for being here. Saving Silverman would be a total loss without their frantic attempts to salvage a toxic screenplay."

Second thoughts: It's no fun watching Zahn and Black steal a movie that's simply handed to them.

Rental audience: Connoisseurs of crude, cruel humor; gluttons for punishment.

Rent it if you enjoy: Tomcats, Say It Isn't So or any other comedy worth forgetting.

So-so films get the "ultimate' treatment

New and noteworthy for digital players

Patch Adams (Ultimate Edition)

Notting Hill (Ultimate Edition)

Ask someone to name his or her favorite Robin Williams and Julia Roberts movies. Patch Adams and Notting Hill aren't likely to be anyone's first choices. They're decent showcases for the traits that made Williams and Roberts popular but hardly worth Universal Home Video's trumped-up "Ultimate Edition" DVD tributes.

Patch Adams offered Williams a tailor-made role based on the true story of a jester-savior, a doctor who believes laughter is the best medicine. Plenty of reasons to spin wild improvisations while mocking decorum, plus touchy-feely patient relations to make Williams scrunch up his face with compassion. The perfect fit keeps Patch Adams entertaining until the screenplay loses faith in the audience, spelling out everything like celluloid phonetics.

The two-disc ultimate edition includes letterboxed and full-screen versions, audio commentary by director Tom Shadyac, production notes, preview trailers, storyboards and outtakes showing Williams cracking up the crew. DVD protocol continues with deleted scenes and a making-of documentary. The only unique bonus offers words of inspiration from Adams himself, titled "Take 10" and "Call Me in the Morning."

Like Patch Adams, Roberts' Notting Hill surpassed the $100-million mark at the box office, a goal with decreasing significance as ticket prices increase. Roberts, like Williams, essentially played herself: a beautiful movie star not as carefree as her roles suggest. She sneaks away from the set long enough to attract a bookstore owner (Hugh Grant), learning what a drag celebrity can be. Yeah, right.

There's nothing modest about the two-disc version. Letterboxed and full-screen versions are included among the usual bonuses, plus commentary by director Roger Michell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and screenwriter Richard Curtis. Much is made of the film's locations at London's fashionable Portobello Road with a featurette, a travelog and a montage of photographs. Grant provides sly suggestions on how to be a movie star, while Shania Twain and Elvis Costello add music videos.

These are two movies that succeeded solely on the appeal of their stars, and neither of them contribute anything new for the so-called "ultimate edition." That should tell you something about where these movies rank on Roberts' and Williams' lists.

Natalie Wood grew up before our eyes

Videos worth another look

Natalie Wood was 4 when she got her first movie role, playing a teary child who drops her ice cream cone in an otherwise forgettable film called Happy Land. Ironic title, considering the ups and downs of her ensuing career.

Wood was born Natasha Nikolaevna Gurdin on July 20, 1938, the child of Russian immigrants who barely spoke English. They knew how to say Hollywood, though, moving there to promote Natasha as the next adorable child star. Aside from her role in the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, that goal was never reached.

Unlike many child actors, Wood got better as she got older. Not that the public always noticed. Her beauty made her a popular date for stars such as Elvis Presley, James Dean and Warren Beatty, and those dates made her gossip column material. So did her death in 1981, a drowning accident during an evening cruise with husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken that some tabloid minds still consider suspicious.

On the eve of what would be Wood's 63rd birthday, here are some home video highlights:

Miracle on 34th Street _ Moviegoers fell in love with a cute 9-year-old who believed in Santa Claus and wanted a daddy. Wood became an overnight star but still waited 10 years, until 1957, before the Golden Globes anointed her one of the year's most promising newcomers.

The Searchers _ John Wayne was never nastier than as Ethan Edwards, obsessed with finding his niece (Wood) who was captured by, then collaborated with, Native Americans.

Rebel Without a Cause _ James Dean's brooding demeanor riled parents and wooed Wood as they played teenage troublemakers who did, indeed, have good cause for rebellion. Wood was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress.

Splendor in the Grass _ Warren Beatty was almost prettier than his co-star in this bittersweet drama of young love in 1928 Kansas. Another Oscar nomination, Wood's first in a leading role.

Love With the Proper Stranger _ Wood earned her third and final Academy Award nomination playing a woman impregnated during a one-night stand with a jazz musician (Steve McQueen).

This Property Is Condemned _ A railroad executive (Robert Redford) plans to shut down a small town's station, until the town flirt (Wood) gets him on the right track. Another Golden Globe nomination for Wood.

Inside Daisy Clover _ A plucky tomboy (Wood) becomes a Hollywood star, then succumbs to the pressures of celebrity. Not that far removed from Wood's own Tinseltown history. Wood was nominated for a Golden Globe as best dramatic actress.

West Side Story _ The world kissed a girl named Maria and suddenly that name was never the same again. Wood was pretty, witty and gay (i.e. happy) in Robert Wise's landmark movie musical.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice _ The sexual revolution of the 1960s gets a workover in Paul Mazursky's comedy about fidelity and raising consciousness. Dated, but still interesting.