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ABOUT SCHMIDT
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

ADAPTATION
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

 
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Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in Adaptation
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

ANTWONE FISHER
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

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
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

CHICAGO
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

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
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

CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE
Dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak; writ. Channing Gibson, John O'Brien, Reggie Rock Bythewood; feat. Jet Li, DMX, Mark Dacascos, Anthony Anderson, Tom Arnold, Kelly Hu, Gabrielle Union (R)
This is the sweetest exploitation movie since Starship Troopers. The combination of whirlwind plot disintegration, needless gory violence, excessive gadgetry and arbitrary booty makes this two-and-a-half hour chop-fest. A voiceover by a newscaster at one point of the film provides a concise explication of the plot: "This is the most Xtreme chase we've ever seen!" Jet Li is woefully underused, and in his few fighting scenes, grace and finesse are replaced with crunch as he breaks forearm after forearm. But in the category of "so bad, it's fantastic," Cradle 2 the Grave truly is, (as its tagline indicates): "Bad 2 the bone." LMF

DAREDEVIL
Dir. Mark Steven Johnson; writ. Johnson, Bill Everett; feat. Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano (PG-13)
Look at it this way, true believers: There's no chance that the comic book gods were going to allow all three of the year's big Marvel adaptations tobe any good. At least we're getting this one out of the way. Full of lousy dialogue, moronic music, and narrative holes a blind man could walk through, Daredevil dares to be mediocre. JD

DARK BLUE
Dir. Ron Shelton; Writ. James Ellroy (story), David Ayer; Feat. Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele (R)
Russell chomps at the bit here, playing a racist, cynical, vigilante cop with all the delicate nuance he brought to Escape From New York's Snake Plisskin. As a throwback to another age of screen acting, when men were hard-bitten and haunted instead of imported straight from the WB, it's sorta entertaining. As anything else, it's trash. But it fits this film, a cliche-stuffed drag that would be a lot of fun if only the filmmakers knew they were making a parody.JD

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

DELIVER US FROM EVA
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

FINAL DESTINATION 2
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

FRIDA
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

GANGS OF NEW YORK
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

GODS AND GENERALS
Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell; writ. Maxwell, based on book by Jeff Shaara; feat. Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Mira Sorvino, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell (PG-13)
Three hours and 45 minutes of slaughter, speechifying, and sentimental interludes with innocent children and virtuous womenfolk, Ronald Maxwell's prequel to his deft and dramatic Gettysburg is a sprawlingly unsubtle glorification of war. SGK

THE HOURS
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

HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS
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

JUST MARRIED
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

KANGAROO JACK
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

THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE
Dir. Alan Parker; writ. Charles Randolph; feat. Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann (R)
You needn't be a longtime Texan to spot the pervasive falseness of The Life of David Gale, a ham-fisted and lead-legged Texas-set drama that sets out to convince the world to abolish the death penalty but comes closer to showing us that death penalty

 
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Kate Winslet in The Life of David Gale
opponents are kooks and criminals. Alan Parker manages to turn fine actors into buffoons, legitimate concepts into jokes, and hackneyed stylistic transitions into, well, something even more annoying. No matter how much you agree with the motive behind it, Gale is stupidly conceived and ineptly executed. JD

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
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

OLD SCHOOL
Dir. Todd Phillips; writ. Scot Armstrong; feat. Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Elisha Cuthbert (R)
Old School is what you make of it. If you've checked your brain at the door, abandoned any notion of propriety, and are comfortable with the film's utterly derivative nature, you ought to enjoy yourself. The tale of middle-agers who return to campus to start a frat is not without its charm, especially when Ferrell is onscreen- his love for what he does is infectious enough to elicit the laughter the story and remaining cast members fail to produce, all despite giving the old college try. JW

THE PIANIST
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

THE QUIET AMERICAN
Dir. Philip Noyce; writ. Graham Greene (novel), Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan; feat. Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Sherbedgia, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Quang Hai, Ferdinand Hoang (R)
A moving, beautifully rendered apaptation of Graham Greene's '50s novel, it frames the tensions of the Vietnam War within a complicated love triangle between a jaded British newspaper man (Caine) enjoying a life of decadence in Saigon, his Vietnamese mistress, and a corn-fed American idealist (Fraser) who has arrived on a humanitarian mission. Caine, in particular, sinks his teeth into a part any actor would fight to get. JD

SHANGHAI KNIGHTS
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

TWO WEEKS NOTICE
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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