The folks at Warner Bros. will surely be embarrassed if Hearts in Atlantis isn't a hit, because it's hard to remember a movie with more built-in selling points.
Based on a book by bestselling author Stephen King, it was written by Hollywood veteran William Goldman and directed by Scott Hicks, who won an Oscar nomination for his first picture, "Shine."
As if this weren't enough, the producers snagged Anthony Hopkins for one of the leading roles. His name isn't enough to guarantee success on its own, but in the right sort of project - does the name "Hannibal" ring a bell? - he can draw millions of moviegoers.
It isn't certain that "Atlantis" will prove to be one of Sir Anthony's winners, since its low-key mood and loosely plotted story differ from the nerve-jangling thrillers that made him a superstar. But the picture has enough offbeat angles to build plenty of suspense, and Hopkins does a splendid job of making a potentially unnerving character into a flesh-and-blood human being. It should generate sizable ripples at the box office, even if it doesn't make a major splash.
Hopkins plays a middle-aged man, Ted, whose life doesn't seem to have amounted to much. Drifting into a Connecticut town in the early 1960s, he rents a room in a ramshackle building and settles into a daily routine of doing little in particular. His closest neighbors live directly below him: an 11-year-old named Bobby and the boy's attractive mother, a self-absorbed woman who thinks more about pretty dresses for work than the needs of her bright but lonely child.
Ted befriends Bobby, helping him save for a new bike by paying him to read the newspaper aloud so he won't have to strain his eyes. Then he asks Bobby for another service - to give him warnings if his enemies come into town. Who are the adversaries Ted fears? He won't reveal much about them, but they're as deadly as they are mysterious, and he's a goner if they use their cryptic powers to track him down and capture him.
This is an effectively eerie premise, bolstered by a string of enigmatic details. The villains are detectable by their dark suits and fancy cars, for instance, and they use missing-pet posters on telephone poles to pass messages among themselves. Ted has powers of his own, as well, complete with clairvoyant trances that alert him to dangers headed his way.
Lending further interest are the circumstances of Bobby's life - his mother's distracted attitude, the threat he faces from local bullies, and the affection he's starting to feel for a pretty girl he knows.
The film's story lines come together when Ted helps Bobby cope with the bullies and court the pretty girl. But things get more complicated than ever when Bobby's mom decides Ted might be more menacing than he seems, perhaps even a child abuser.
This is a lot of material for one movie to handle, and director Hicks doesn't always keep the story clear and powerful. The acting is always effective, though: Hopkins is in top form, Anton Yelchin is perfect as the preteen hero, and Hope Davis does wonders with the difficult mother role.
Best of all, Goldman's screenplay doesn't strain to solve the story's mysteries, leaving us to ponder its clues and draw our own conclusions. Let the audience do a bit of thinking? That's a radical idea for a Hollywood movie, and I applaud "Atlantis" for giving it a try.
Don't Say a Word has a tantalizing title, a great deal of action, and a major star - assuming that Michael Douglas didn't lose your respect with the silly haircut he sported in "One Night at McCool's" last summer.
It also has a complicated premise - no problem in itself, but less than ideal when the filmmakers choose its least interesting aspects to focus on.
Douglas plays a New York psychiatrist who agrees to treat a severely troubled teenager. The plot thickens when he realizes she's been faking most of her afflictions for years.
So far, so good - kindly physician, mysterious patient, unpredictable story about the murkiness of the human mind. But the plot still isn't thick enough for director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Tony Peckham, so they muddy it up more.
A crucial six-digit number is buried in the teenager's memory, and a twisted criminal kidnaps the doctor's daughter, threatening to kill her if the shrink doesn't ferret the number out. Then there's the doctor's wife, bedridden by an accident, and a feisty policewoman assigned to the case....
For the first 30 minutes or so, I thought "Don't Say a Word" would be an involving tale of psychological suspense. I should have been tipped off by the opening scene, though, which starts the story on a note of egregious violence.
It takes a while before the twisted criminal starts dominating things, but then the picture turns into a routine cat-and-mouse thriller, more interested in chases and shoot-outs than characters and ideas. Douglas walks through it with his usual professionalism, Brittany Murphy is believable as his teen patient, and Oliver Platt is amusing as a less-talented doctor with a secret up his sleeve. In the end, though, it's hard not to paraphrase the title: Don't see this movie.
'Hearts in Atlantis' is rated PG-13; it contains violence, sexual themes, and scenes of drinking and gambling. 'Don't Say a Word' is rated R; it contains violence, four-letter language, and strong sexual innuendo.