Considering its rather predictable plot, the special aspect of "Possession" is its director Neil LaBute. Known for his darkly edgy and pointedly misogynistic sense of humor, LaBute here attempts to make nice with the hearts and flowers. The result is a kind of "French Lieutenants Woman For Dummies," where the cinematography frequently outshines the actors and the action. ***
"Swimfan" Promoted as a "Fatal Attraction" for teenagers, this PG-13 thriller flounders early and often, drowning in sloppy plotting, a major insult of an ending and a villainess who's too single-mindedly crazy to be interesting. Though definitely a step above your average teen thriller, "Swimfan" still takes place in a morally harsh universe, except here, it's infidelity, not sexual activity, that marks one for a gruesome death. The psycho fun begins when new girl Madison Bell (Erika Christensen, the drugged-out teen in "Traffic" ) falls in love with Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford), a serious swimmer with a Stanford scholarship and Olympic-sized dreams. But when Ben, who's going out with Amy (Shiri Appleby), does not return Madison's affections, her crush turns into destructive obsession. The traditional male fear that an "easy" girl might be crazy fuels "Swimfan's" initial effectiveness, but it's not enough to keep the movie from sinking. **
"City by the Sea" Well-made but mood-alteringly bleak, this cop melodrama has plenty of single efforts to praise; it's just when taken as a whole that the movie suffers. Based on a true story, "City by the Sea" follows New York police Detective Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro), a divorced, emotionally dysfunctional loner whose woman friend (Frances McDormand) knows nothing about him even after a year together. But we all soon learn what haunts Vincent when his estranged, druggie son Joey (James Franco) is suspected of killing someone. Attempting to help his son, Vincent ends up helping himself as he struggles with a generational pattern of parental failure and perhaps genetically based violent behavior. De Niro and supporting cast give humanely drawn and moving performances that keep you watching despite director Michael Caton-Jones's dour and humorless tendencies. ***
"feardotcom" Although the premise is rather nifty, this cyber-based crime caper about a poltergeist-esque Internet game that drives insane anyone foolish enough to log on quickly disintegrates. The plotting makes no sense, the dialogue barely attains the level of laughably vapid and the action rarely rises above voyeuristic and vile. Victims bleed from their eyes, hallucinate about cockroaches and jump from windows or in front of trains. Also up to no good is the movie's human killer, a doctor (Stephen Rea) who operates on his patients/victims while they're awake. Charged with solving the rash of mysterious murders are Stephen Dorff and Nathascha McElhone, as a police detective and a health department investigator. Director William Malone tries to upgrade the plot's lurid pandering by setting it in a dim, dank film-noir world. He doesn't succeed. *
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