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AGENT CODY BANKS
Dir. Harold Zwart; writ. Ashley Edward Miller; feat. Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Angie Harmon (PG)
Teenaged CIA operative Cody Banks has all the concerns common to adolescence, and some that aren't so common - his mission is to woo a foxy girl so he can learn more about her scientist father, who works for the world's most color-coordinated terrorists. What follows is stupid semi-fun that follows every rule and strays from nary an entrenched convention of the genre. The film's vision of the CIA, folksy agents who will help you wash dishes and who ride around headquarters in fleets of Segways, is a candy-coated image difficult to reconcile with reality - but this is a kids' movie, neither eager nor able to look beneath the polish of adolescent fantasies. JW

ANGER MANAGEMENT
Dir. Peter Segal; writ. David Dorfman; feat. Jack Nicholson, Adam Sandler, Marisa Tomei, Luis Guzmán, John Turturro (PG-13)
The director of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, brings us this season's dumb-and-dumberered down version of Punch-Drunk Love, in which Sandler is oddly less volatile than in any of his other films. No coincidence is too outlandish for these filmmakers, no star cameo too silly to be included in the hopes that, amid the hoopla, you won't notice how flat this film really is. JD

BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
Dir. Gurinder Chadha; writ. Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges; feat. Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (PG-13)
Beckham is the endearing story of culture clash - between England and India, masculine and feminine, straight and gay, immigrants and their assimilating children. While Jess rejects the cultural role assigned her, Bend It Like Beckham follows the conventions of inspirational sports movies - montage of matches, crisis in the team we are rooting for, a modicum of suspense over who wins the big game. Relentlessly cheerful, it is Rocky served up with samosas and bitters. SGK

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
Dir. Adam Shankman; writ. Jason Filardi; feat. Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Jean Smart (PG-13)
Queen Latifah is an escaped convict who intends to disrupt tax attorney Steve Martin's life until he helps clear her name. Blacks and whites may truly live in different worlds, but the filmmakers behind House don't know much about either one; only Eugene Levy, as a repressed white man in lust with a black woman, grasps the absurdity of this, and as a result gets most of the laughs in this bland, mechanical film. JD

BULLETPROOF MONK
Dir. Paul Hunter; writ. Ethan Reiff; feat. Chow Yun-Fat, Seann William Scott, Jaime King (PG-13)
While ostensibly a tale of reluctant heroism and inner-peace gobbledygook, Monk is really just another vehicle for trotting out the horsewhipped East vs. West culture clash and all that goes with it. Since Monk is "enlightened" and polar-opposite Kar has no doubt spent a third of his life watching network television, the screenwriters are able to have an easy, paint-by-number time of things, apparently in the hopes that you will, too, and not resent it. JW

CHASING PAPI
Dir. Linda Mendoza; writ. Laura Angelica Simon; feat. Roselyn Sanchez, Sofia Vergara, Jaci Velasquez, Eduardo Verástegui, Lisa Vidal (PG)
How many screenwriters does it take

 
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Cici (Sofia Vergara), Lorena (Roselyn Sanchez), and Patricia (Jaci Velasquez) have adventures looking for Mr. Right in Chasing Papi.
to write drivel? Four, say the credits to Chasing Papi. Three must have been busy changing a light bulb, since one is enough to conjure up this fluff about a three-timing ad executive whose women get wise, then even - despite moments in which Chasing Papi promises the madcap mirth of Billy Wilder, it settles for being much tamer. SGK

COWBOY BEBOP
Dir. Shinichiro Watanabe; Writ. Keiko Nobumoto; Feat. voices of Steven Jay Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee, Mellisa Fahn, Daran Norris, Jennifer Hale (R)
Set in a futuristic Mars amalgam of Earth's major cities, the animated Bebop follows a bounty hunter team as they try to foil a bio-terrorist plot. It's delightful to look at, thanks to cool, stylized characters and imaginative camera techniques; but those not addicted to Anime will find it at least half an hour too long, full of redundant and/or goofily pretentious dialogue. JD

DADDY DAY CARE
Dir. Steve Carr; writ. Geoff Rodkey; feat. Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, Anjelica Huston (PG)
Daddy Day Care recycles tired Mr. Mom clichés, fart jokes, and bathroom humor in a story of Charlie and Phil, two men who, when they're unable to bring home the bacon, set out to conquer the world of commercial women's work. From start to finish, every gag is deadeningly familiar, another step in the public lobotomization of Murphy's once dangerous mind. JW

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS
Dir. John Malkovich; writ. Nicholas Shakespeare; feat. Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Mínguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Luis Miguel Cintra, Abel Folk (R)
Set in a hazily defined Latin American country, Dancer transforms actual events into a dreamlike fable about terrorism, conflicting loyalties, and the anxiety of living in a land perpetually one step away from martial law. Bardem is a magnetic personality in this sometimes (deliberately) confusing narrative, a debut directorial effort by Malkovich that reflects the enigmatic, often sinister intelligence that has made him such a captivating actor. JD

DIVINE INTERVENTION
Writ. & dir. Elia Suleiman; feat. Elia Suleiman, Manal Khader, Nayef Fahoum Daher, Amer Daher, Jamel Daher (NR)
Suleiman's film, which is set in his native Nazareth, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and in Jerusalem, consists of a series of enigmatic, often wordless anecdotes that smack with the force of Middle Eastern koans. Some of the film's imagery is overtly - and explosively - political. Sometimes crude and sometimes uncanny, the images are a provocation, not to violence but to passions its affectless characters cannot feel. SGK

DOWN WITH LOVE
Dir. Peyton Reed; writ. Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake; feat. Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson (PG-13)
The latest in a spate of homages to Fifties/Sixties "chick flicks," Love casts Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger as Rock Hudson and Doris Day in a tongue-in-cheek battle of the sexes. Packed with lavish eye-candy sets and costumes, winking innuendos, and winning performances, it's the most accessible and entertaining of the retro-spectacles yet. JD

GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS
Dir. and writ. James Cameron; feat. Cameron, Bill Paxton (G)
The rotting husk of the world's most famous ship comes alive here, with one of Hollywood's most gifted spectacle-makers using 3-D cameras to document the wreckage of the Titanic. James Cameron uses generous doses of computer imagery and re-created sets to show how great masses were once elegant decks and sepulchral chambers were once luxurious staterooms -- combining science, history, and gee-whiz effects in a very satisfying way. JD

HE LOVES ME, HE LOVES ME NOT
Dir. Laetitia Colombani; writ. Colombani, Caroline Thivel; feat. Audrey Tautou, Samuel Le Bihan, Isabelle Carré, Clément Sibony, Sophie Guillemin (NR)
A strike back from all the French cinephiles who resented Amélie's tremendous success, this film starts out mimicking its predecessor's sweet lunacy (employing Tautou, Amélie's gamine star), but halfway through turns that romanticism on its head, showing that Tautou's character is criminally insane. The filmmakers proclaim concern with mental illness, but the characters aren't real enough to convince on that front, and as a piece of fiction it's just too cynically manipulative to appreciate. JD

HOLES
Dir. Andrew Davis; writ. Louis Sachar; feat. Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette (PG)
An engaging, worthwhile, and clever film for both children and adults, Holes follows young Sidney Yelnats into a mysterious desert reformatory. It's good to see a kids' film with a multicultural cast, even if the filmmakers do resort to the old motif in which noble black savages help a white protagonist "build character." SM

HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES
Dir. & writ. Rob Zombie; feat. Karen Black, Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Sheri Moon, Chris Hardwick, Jennifer Jostyn, Rainn Wilson, Erin Daniels (R)
Those who have seen Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will immediately find Rob Zombie's House to be a tacky, trite imitation of the seminal 1974 horror film. AL

THE HUNTED
Dir. William Friedkin; writ. David & Peter Griffiths, Art Monterastelli; feat. Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Jenna Boyd, Leslie Stefanson (R)
In some ways, it more than resembles a Fugitive remake: Jones is the ubermanhunter, his prey escapes after the van ferrying him to his doom overturns in an accident, and the chase takes a dramatic turn involving a surprise plunge in deep water. A few viewers will empathize with Del Toro, whose years as a black ops military man may have made him a paranoid killer. Friedkin strips his manhunter story to its bones, which works perfectly for this testosterone showcase. He stumbles briefly with a couple of contrivances near the end, but more than compensates with two extraordinarily brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat, maybe the best sequences of their kind ever shot. JD

THE IN-LAWS
Dir. Andrew Fleming; writ. Andrew Bergman (original), Nat Mauldin, Ed Solomon; feat. Michael Douglas, Albert Brooks, Ryan Reynolds, Lindsay Sloane, Candice Bergen, A. Russell Andrews (PG-13)
It is hard to justify another take on The In-Laws, which seems to have been remade simply because Michael Douglas wanted to remake it. Yet the pairing of Douglas with Albert Brooks turns what might have been mere vanity into recurrent hilarity. Bringing the fathers of a wedding couple - one man straight-laced, the other a rogue spy - into combative cahoots throughout a series of madcap adventures, it's a accident report from the collision of normalcy and lunacy, a nicely paced magnum farce. SGK

IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Dir. Fred Schepisi; writ. Jesse Wigutow; feat. Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Bernadette Peters (PG-13)
A film that will no doubt enthrall Entertainment Tonight watchers, bring reverent smiles to the faces of Hollywood glitterati, and bore the hell out of everyone else, Family is an uneventful two hours of affected dysfunction. The film's crises are sleepy and inoffensive, and seem intended only as impetus for group Douglas hugs. As individuals, the Douglases are eminently watchable; this Family, however, proves that the whole isn't always greater than the sum of its parts. JW

MANIC
Dir. Jordan Melamed; writ. Michael Bacall, Blayne Weaver; feat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Cody Lightning, Elden Henson, Sara Rivas, Don Cheadle (R)
Set within the Northwood Mental Institution, Manic follows troubled teens as they endure an amplified version of adolescent angst, confronting past parental abuse while abusing each other. Shot with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, the film is simulated cinema verite. Through tight closeups, Melamed makes us see how hard and rare it is for chicks with clipped wings to fly over the cuckoo's nest. SGK

THE MATRIX RELOADED
Dir. and writ. Andy & Larry Wachowski; feat. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci, Harold Perrineau Jr. (R)
In this hyper-anticipated sequel, the Wachowski brothers appear to have taken the hype to heart, insisting on making everything bigger and bolder. The action is appropriately hyperbolic, then, but so is the endless philosophical pontificating - which misses the point of the original film, in which the heavy themes were demonstrated by the plot as much as they were explicated by dialogue. JD

A MIGHTY WIND
Dir. Christopher Guest; writ. Guest, Eugene Levy; feat. Guest, Levy, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, etc. (PG-13)
Christopher Guest's latest "mockumentary" is less mocking than usual, showering affection and only occasional barbs on three groups of old folkies who've reunited for a tribute to a dead impresario. A predictably great cast is so stuffed with talent that the sheer numbers become a liability, but spot-on songwriting and cutthroat scene-stealing keep it from turning into a big blur of talent. JD

PHONE BOOTH
Dir. Joel Schumacher; writ. Larry Cohen; feat. Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes (R)
One location, one central actor: You've gotta give Phone Booth bonus points for pulling off something few films would dare. Farrell gives an appropriately over-the-top performance as a public-relations huckster cornered by a sniper with an overgrown sense of self-righteousness, and director Joel Schumacher is smart enough not to adorn this lean, no-frills thriller with a lot of extraneous nonsense. (The screenplay heaps enough pulpy, hyperbolic complications onto the scenario that nobody need add to it.) JD

RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
Dir. and writ. Peter Sollett; feat. Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Altagracia Guzman, Silvestre Rasuk, Krystal Rodriguez, Kevin Rivera, Wilfree Vasquez (R)
Set on NYC's Lower

 
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Judy Marte stands by her man Victor Rasuk in Raising Victor Vargas.
East Side and populated by Dominican-American youths, Vargas is a love story in which romance is secondary to character. Its improvised dialogue and neophyte actors recall the legendary films of John Cassavetes, and director Sollett knows just how much humor to allow onscreen; it's a huge breath of fresh air in this season of pre-fab fantasy romances. JD

X2: X-MEN UNITED
Dir. Bryan Singer; writ. Michael Dougherty, Daniel P. Harris; feat. Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin (PG-13)
Somehow expanding on the original in opposite directions at once, this slam-bang sequel: introduces compelling new characters and enhances minor ones while still letting Ian McKellen shine as Magneto; features more and better action scenes while also enhancing the quieter social messages introduced in the first film; stuffs the frame with insider comic references while making the comic's serpentine plotlines digestible to newcomers. Excelsior! JD

Films reviewed by:
AL: Albert Lopez
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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