Dir. Alexander Payne; writ. Louis Begley (novel), Payne; feat. Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates (R)
Schmidt is a road movie set on the other end of life's cycle from Nicholson's Easy Rider, as full of metaphoric ambition and as devoid of solid meaning. The actor is utterly convincing as a generic citizen forced to confront the pointlessness of his life, and the film wrings some startlingly funny moments out of this situation - but Payne wants to make something more than a comedy, and his attempt to weave pathos into farce leaves both aspects of the tale feeling slightly insincere. JD

Dir. Spike Jonze; writ. Susan Orlean (novel), Charlie Kaufman; feat. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox, Cara Seymour, Maggie Gyllenhaal (R)
Yes, it's a meta-meta-movie in-joke, drooled over by film-buff brainiacs. It's also a frigging funny movie, with Cage the most entertaining he's been since he started showing us his biceps, and Streep in the funniest scene she's shot since, um, ever. Go in expecting a big shift in tone around 30 minutes from the end. If you wanna figure that out, good; if you don't, the first hour should be enough fun to make up for it. JD

Dir. Denzel Washington; writ. Antwone Fisher; feat. Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Denzel Washington, Salli Richardson, Earl Billings, Kevin Connolly, Viola Davis (PG-13)
The real-life Fisher wrote this screenplay, which tells the story of his own progress from sullen misanthropy to reconciliation. That voyage is aided by a Dr. Davenport, played by Washington - who also directs this film, with all the earnestness he's known for in front of the camera. Fisher is a winsome Freudian fairy tale suggesting that all it takes to become a loving, alert adult is acknowledgment of childhood traumas. SGK

Writ. & dir. Reggie Rock Bythewood; feat. Derek Luke, Lawrence Fishburne, Orlando Jones, Kid Rock (PG-13)
This supposed "action-packed contemporary Western on wheels"has little in common with Westerns other than the memory of a dead father and a final showdown between the leads. Alas, it takes too many ill-conceived plot twists to get to that big race - and why introduce independent female characters if you're not going to let them race? WK

Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Jeff Nathanson; feat. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen (PG-13)
It's not as light and breezy as the ads would have it, but Catch Me is a tale so fun you might not believe it's true. It helps that Spielberg isn't shooting for too much gravitas, and that his cast relishes playing against type - except for DiCaprio, who's finally returning to a type that suits him beautifully. JD

Dir. Rob Marshall; writ. Bill Condon; feat. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Christine Baranski (PG-13)
Never mind that the story's moral is stale and the musical's Bob Fosse roots are dyed beyond recognition. Chicago has the kind of infectious flash and flair that could make people take musicals seriously again. Marshall could have let some of his song-and-dances play out with fewer edits, but other sequences are perfect. And who'd have guessed? - Zeta-Jones was born for this stuff, and proves it in every scene. JD

Dir. George Clooney; writ. Chuck Barris (book), Charlie Kaufman; feat. Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer, Maggie Gyllenhaal (R)
Hot on the heels of Adaptation, this Charlie Kaufman screenplay actually does make a book into a film, though it's a book none of us are likely to believe. As a director, Clooney isn't quite sure how much of the "Game show philistine by day, CIA hitman by night" plot he'd like his audience to buy, and he's slightly too influenced by his buddy Steven Soderbergh's visual tics, but he clearly knows what he's doing, and his debut film is a mostly fun ride. JD

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Left to right, Emma Caulfield, Lee Cormie, and Chaney Kley in Darkness Falls.

Dir. Jonathan Liebesman; writ. Joseph Harris; feat. Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield, Lee Cormie (PG-13)
In the right filmmaking hands, the folklore-based plot might have served as a metaphor for the often frightening transition from prepubesence to adolescence. As it is, though, numbing CGI effects, car chases, and exploding lighthouses leave little room for anything that doesn't quickly and effectively pander to a teenage attention span - making this impotent horror flick about fear of the dark nothing but an advertisement for good electrical wiring. JW

Dir. Gary Hardwick, writ. James Iver Mattson, B.E. Brauner; feat. LL Cool J, Gabrielle Union, Essence Atkins, Mel Jackson (R)
Audiences who enjoy seeing LL Cool J raising his eyebrow and wearing tight sweaters will be pleased with this Taming of the Shrew update, but the rest of us should donate the admission price to the newly established Institute for Rap Stars Who Wish to Become Leading Men. LMF

Dir. Charles Stone III; writ. Shawn Schepps, Tina Gordon Chism; feat. Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones. (PG-13)
Though its characters are stereotypes and its story predictable, the film - which focuses on the marching musicians who are routinely ignored by football fans - is a work of lively ethnography, immersing us in a subculture of portable tubas and volatile passions. SGK

Dir. David Ellis; writ. J. Mackye Gruber, Eric Bress; feat. Ali Larter, A.J. Cook, Michael Landes, Terrence Carson, Keegan Connor Tracy (R)
Only an acid-dropping Rube Goldberg could conceive of more perverse uses for plate glass, airbags, PVC pipes, leaky fuel tanks, nitrous oxide, errant pigeons (!), or some combination thereof. While Destination offers less than nothing in the way of acting, dialogue, or logic, its existence simply a means to the depiction of many vicious ends, its over-the-top glee in doing so exhilarates for the same reason the Grand Guignol did nearly a century ago: We love death and gore - spectacular and visceral, on-stage or on-screen - because it reminds us so bracingly that we're still alive. JW

Dir. Julie Taymor; writ. Hayden Herrera (book), Clancy Sigal, et al; feat. Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush (R)
Frida's screenplay is too conventional to bring its unorthodox characters to life. Depicting a woman whose physical pain was legendary, Salma Hayek is as lithe as a dancer, with only occasional gestures thrown in to remind us she is supposed to be crippled. And despite the movie's name, the filmmakers don't seem very interested in Frida's life except as it relates to Diego. JD

Dir. Martin Scorsese; writ. Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan; feat. Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson (R)
Scorsese at his worst is still an event, and although this compromised film hardly shows the director at his best, it is at least enormously personal: Catholic immigrants, viciousness, and the Big Apple make for a heady Scorsese stew. There are wonders here, such as two extended street fights and an over-the-top Daniel Day-Lewis, but the characters will mean little to most viewers, and the story seems to have been lost somewhere in the gritty grandeur. JD

Dir. Chris Koch; writ. Greg Glienna; feat. Jason Lee, Julia Stiles, Selma Blair (PG-13)
A Guy Thing, like Stealing Harvard, is all about gags, although this time the gags work (for the most part), and don't involve Tom Green. You'll probably leave smiling, but, as after the proverbial Chinese dinner, an hour later you'll want something more substantial. JM

Dir: Stephen Daldry; writ. David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham; feat. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly (PG-13)
An extraordinary act of homage (nay, femage) to the woman who wrote Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, The Hours is a lushly layered fulfillment of Woolf's aspiration "to look life in the face and to know it." The film does not attempt to explain despair, merely to confront it in all its intricacies, through a single day in the lives of three women living in different cities and eras - women portrayed by an ensemble that provides a workshop in the intricacies of the acting art. SGK

Dir. Donald Petrie; writ. Kristen Buckley, Brian Regan, Burr Steers; feat. Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey, Adam Goldberg, Michael Michele (PG-13)
The screenwriters based their script on the dating guide The Rules, which is apt considering this movie's slavish reiteration of chick-flick conventions. If a romantic comedy with a bet is funny, hilarity is bound to ensue with two cross-purpose bets! Aside from Hudson's winning combination of beauty and goofiness, there's not much new in this cheeseball. LMF

Dir. Shawn Levy; writ. Sam Harper; feat. Ashton Kutcher, Brittany Murphy, Christian Kane, David Moscow. (PG-13)
Touted as the first comedy of the new year, Just Married joins an already crowded field of similar movies pairing together opposites from the social spectrum. Unlike the honeymooning couple trying to build on the bonds they shared, there's no reason to hope things will get better in this flick. AP

Dir. David McNally; writ. Scott Rosenberg, Steve Bing, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel; feat. Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson, Estella Warren, Christopher Walken (PG)
Don't make the mistake of believing that this film will actually feature its title character. Instead, Kangaroo Jack centers on two guys running from mobsters - a plot with little appeal for most youngsters. The computer-generated 'roo has no personality - although he does breakdance and speaks briefly during a copout dream sequence. WK

Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Fran Walsh; feat. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom (PG-13)
The second installment in what is shaping up to be the greatest fantasy film of our age jumps right in, skipping the exposition that bothered some in the first film, and emphasizing the slow-motion icons it has created. JD

Dir. Wayne Wang; writ. Kevin Wade; feat. Jennifer Lopez, Falph Fiennes, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Bob Hoskins (PG-13)
A contemporary fairy tale devoid of surprise or substance, Maid would have us admire a heroine who aspires to better herself through a career but instead sleeps her way out of the Bronx. The characters surrounding Lopez' Cinderella are entirely too cute, with the exception of Hoskins, whose dignified approach to serving pampered guests is far superior to the pandering attitudes of these filmmakers. SGK

Dir. Joel Zwick; writ. Nia Vardalos; feat. Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Joey Fatone (PG)
Wedding is the story of how a 30-year-old spinster both defied and confirmed her tribal expectations. But it is not this ordinary story as much as the details that keep a viewer chuckling. SGK

Dir. and writ. Joe Carnahan; feat. Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Krista Bridges, Anne Openshaw (R)
A grimy, gruelling, and morally grey throwback to the raw crime cinema of the '70s, Narc gives Patric and Liotta two of the best roles they've had. Director Carnahan's story may not be the freshest, but his skill with the cast and his engrossing visual style makes for one of the most captivating cop movies in a long time. JD

Dir. Dennis Dugan; writ. Jay Scherick; feat. Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn (PG-13)
A bland buddy-cop plot allows for excessive car chases and explosions, while unlikely developments give Lawrence every sort of opportunity for ill-advised and ill-tempered racial humor. Lawrence could use some help deciding what jokes will play to a multi-ethnic audience, but his comic timing, at least, is right on. WK

Dir: Douglas McGrath; writ. McGrath, based on the novel by Charles Dickens; feat. Charlie Hunnam, Romola Garai, Tom Courtenay, Christopher Plummer, Anne Hathaway, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane (PG)
A package of exuberant performances, this production is a gift. "People who wish to be thought of as good are always weak," claims Ralph, and Dickens' saints tend to be wimps, his villains creatures of awesome energy. His characters divide between those who embrace life in all its messy complexity and those who would constrain it - "Subdue your appetites, and you've conquered human nature," says Squeers. This generous production is lavish with emotion, but it sheds no tears for Squeers. SGK

Dir. Roman Polanski; writ. Wladyslaw Szpilman (book), Ronald Harwood; feat. Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard (R)
A beautiful and delicately calibrated film that moves gracefully from small indignities to epic devastation, this true chronicle of a Jewish pianist trying to survive Nazi-occupied Warsaw is not a Holocaust film you've seen before. Centering on one man - hauntingly portrayed by Adrien Brody - it makes genocide personal, and survival less a matter of will than of simple animal instinct. SGK

Dir: Roger Donaldson; writ. Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, Mitch Glazer; feat. Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan, Gabriel Macht, Kenneth Mitchell, Brian Rhodes (PG-13)
For its first 40 minutes, The Recruit provides convincing immersion into boot camp for spooks. But the plot begins to unfold, and unravel, when the hero finds that a colleague is a mole, and ambiguity yields to mere confusion. Exasperated by inconsistent details in a convoluted plot, a viewer might come away with renewed appreciation for simplicity of design. SGK

Dir. David Dobkin; writ. Alfred Gough & Miles Millar; feat. Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, Donnie Yen, Aaron Johnson, Aidan Gillen, Tom Fisher (PG-13)
This Shanghai Gump misses no opportunity for anachronism, having Chan and Wilson cross paths with English celebrities whether they were alive n 1887 or not. The film's full of references and homages that feel more forced than fun - but Chan delivers a few fight scenes that, while shorter than you'd like, are as inspired as any he has made. JD

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Scenes from Talk To Her

Dir. and writ. Pedro Almodóvar; feat. Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Geraldine Chaplin, Mariola Fuentes, Roberto Álvarez (R)
Spanish director Almodóvar, known for his affinity for actresses, takes two comatose characters and makes the world revolve around them. It may be his most beautiful film, visually elegant, full of longing and melancholy, and featuring two wonderful performances by actors who are willing to be upstaged by inert women. And though it isn't one of his early comedies, it doesn't miss any opportunities for humor either. JD

Dir. Spike Lee; writ. David Benioff; feat. Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox (R)
It was inevitable (desirable, even) that 9-11 grief would figure into the very NYC films of Spike Lee. But tying a city's grief to the general bummed-outedness of a drug dealer facing his last day as a free man is laughable. This film is still remarkably dull - visually unexciting, even, which is not a common complaint against Lee's movies. JD

Dir. & writ. Marc Lawrence; feat. Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Mark Feuerstein, Dorian Missick, Robert Klein, Dana Ivey (PG-13)
It's a good thing that Grant and Bullock are such well-established screen personalities; we have been programmed to want to see them hook up in the end, despite the fact that the script gives them no reason to be together. The film provides plenty of nit-picking opportunity, but more or less succeeds thanks to the personal magnetism of its stars. JD

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
JM: Jonathan Marcus
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
LMF: Laura Fries
JW: Joe Weiss
AP: Alejandro Pérez



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