"A riveting study in group dynamics"
Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel; writ. Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstädt, Don Bohlinger, based on novel by Giordano; feat. Moritz Bleibtreu, Maren Eggert, Christian Berkel, Justus von Dohnányi, Timo Dierkes (R)

When Tarek Fahd (Bleibtreu), a freelance writer who makes ends meet by driving a cab in Cologne, reads an ad soliciting volunteers, he sees a way to earn 4,000 marks for serving in an experiment - and another 10,000 for writing about it. Carrying a concealed video camera and without revealing journalistic intentions, he reports to a project designed to study how 20 healthy men respond to stress. For 14 days, they will be under surveillance in a simulated penitentiary. Eight will be prisoners, 12 guards. Claustrophobic Tarek is cast as a prisoner.

Before day one passes, the pressures of incarceration and the disparities of power create a dangerous dynamic. Like deranged Method actors, the volunteers take on exaggerated traits of prisoners and guards. The laboratory becomes a violent arena for humiliation and brutalization.

A history in which millions of good citizens complied with atrocities might make the German setting for this German film particularly appropriate. However, Das Experiment is loosely based on Philip G. Zimbado's 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be aborted after only six days. Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiments at Yale revealed how obedient Americans could be when ordered to inflict pain. "Reality" programs Big Brother and Survivor demonstrate the universal laws of treachery and bullying. They also prove that audiences delight in atavism. Like lupines lost in a multiplex, we revel in the thought that man is wolf to man.

Man's (including the experimenter's) inhumanity to man is exacerbated here by confining competitive young vessels of testosterone together. Tarek heightens animosities by mocking a guard's manhood. Dora (Eggert), whom Tarek encountered in a one-night fling, offers a feminine alternative to macho mayhem, though her deific intervention seems strained. Except for its experimental frame, Oliver Hirschbiegel's debut feature might be just another jailhouse melodrama. But for its efficiency at sustaining tension until the final shot and its philosophical provocations, Das Experiment is an unreplicable success. SGK


"Declined, then fell"
Writ. & dir. Franc Reyes; feat. John Leguizamo, Sonia Braga, Delilah Cotto, Fat Joe, Vincent Laresca, Denise Richards, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Sarsgaard, Treach (R)

Vic (Leguizamo) is a successful South Bronx heroin distributor who is lured across the bridge into a different kind of easy money, offered by a smooth white-collar hustler (Sarsgaard). By the time Vic figures out how sunk he is, he has already crossed the wrong people.

Vic introduces himself to us by taking the time to introduce his entire world: his product (branded "Empire"), his friends, his distributors, and his girlfriend. Oddly, most of these faces - each presented in that slow-mo, shadowy, strobe-then-fade style that's so popular with the kids today - are ones we never see again. In fact, Vic does a lot of things that don't make sense. Too quickly, we have to question his claim to being smart, and wonder why we should care about a hero who never wins a battle.

This kind of story, in which the protagonist consistently fails to do or say things we know he should, only works if the surrounding acts and words provide some contrast by bearing the mark of cleverness, if not of genius. Empire never hits that mark. JM


"Gunplay gives Orwell a positive spin"
Writ. & dir. Kurt Wimmer; feat. Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs, Angus MacFadyen, Sean Bean, William Fichtner (R)

After World War III, fascists took over. They decreed that, since humanity nearly met extinction because of the destructive nature of emotion, all feeling will be eradicated with the help of good drugs and a well-trained police force. John Preston (Bale) is an elite member of that corps. He can take out a room of 50 men with two guns. And when he starts to get teary-eyed, watch out, Big Brother, he's comin' for you.

It is too bad that Equilibrium is only on one S.A. screen, because - besides superb design and fine performances - it features some breathtaking action sequences, including gunplay of a fashion even John Woo hasn't attempted. And strangely, it's the violence of which our hero is capable that gives the story an optimism Orwell could never have countenanced. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. Equilibrium says, if we keep our swords sharp, nothing will keep us down. I don't know what to take from that, but I had fun thinking about it. JM


"Offensively unfunny"
Dir. Tom Brady; writ. Rob Schneider, Brady; feat. Schneider, Rachel Adams, Anna Faris (PG-13)

You've seen one body-swapping movie, you've seen them all (with the exception of the brilliant Being John Malkovich). The Hot Chick is only remarkable for its utter lack of effort in retelling a trite tale.

Schneider plays his standard, self-deprecating character. Always the underdog, the former SNL cast member revels in mocking his signature unattractiveness - this time through the repulsed reactions of a bitchy, "perfect" prima donna of a teenage girl who wakes to find herself trapped within his 30-year-old body. We see Schneider shaving tufts of hair from his sweaty body; Schneider scantily clad in panties and a baby-T; Schneider's midriff; Schneider trying to turn on teenage boys.

Despite the unpleasantness of seeing this actor in so many modes of undress, what is singularly offensive about this film is the unabashed exploitation of cheap shots at stereotypes. Ling-ling, a black and Asian girl, tries to fit in with the black girls at school, but is constantly humiliated by her doting, broken English-speaking, Korean mother - in class , at the mall (mom works at the nail salon), and especially at the prom, where Ling-ling's mother, struggling to identify with her daughter, shows up in full-on Run DMC garb, gold chains, and a gangsta strut to deliver the lame-ass line: "Ling-ling, you forgot your bling bling."

More stupid stereotypes: When Schneider is mistaken for the family gardener, he immediately assumes a snide Mexican accent and calls himself "Taquito." And Schneider as a teenage girl trapped in men's club gear (at a nightclub far too posh for the high-school set) is flamboyantly, garishly gay, an act that is received with constant scoffs, dirty looks, and a few punches. Then there are the obligatory fat jokes, sexist comments, and portrayal of despicable white families in upper-middle-class neighborhoods (one housewife spends her days sucking down liquor and pills, dusting bookshelves in pantsuits protected by aprons).

Those who need the unambitious laughs a Schneider fix provides shouldn't waste their time and money on this weakly executed plot - there's always Deuce Bigalow, which is full of cheap shots that make sense without slurring. WK


"Cinderella in a grand hotel"
Dir. Wayne Wang; writ. Kevin Wade; feat. Jennifer Lopez, Falph Fiennes, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Bob Hoskins (PG-13)

Like almost every other movie set in New York, even those shot in Toronto (parts of this one were made in Chicago), Maid in Manhattan begins with a traveling aerial shot of the Gotham skyline. After obligatory images of glamorous skyscrapers, though, Maid descends to a drab brick house in the Bronx. Marisa Ventura (Lopez) and her 10-year-old son, Ty (Posey), are beginning their day - he bound for school and she for the Beresford Hotel, a posh place very like the Waldorf Astoria, where she holds a job cleaning rooms. "Strive to be invisible," advises a sign addressed to the army of menials hired to coddle the hotel's wealthy visitors. But it is hard for Jennifer Lopez to remain invisible, even in a chambermaid's uniform.

Marisa removes the uniform when, awestruck by the expensive outfits hanging in an absent guest's room, she decides to try one on. At just that moment, Christopher Marshall (Fiennes), a dapper, patrician legislator, happens by. Christopher has no idea that Marisa is merely a maid, and, against the advice of his obsessive campaign manager Jerry (Tucci), is smitten. Marisa is a Puerto Rican Cinderella whose mother insists that her lot in life is cleaning houses. Maid in Manhattan is a contemporary fairy tale devoid of surprise or substance. Ty, a cherubic child who is in need of a father and whose hobby is the Nixon presidency, is entirely too cute, and Christopher, an honest and princely politician, is entirely too charming. Marisa aspires to bettering herself via a career in hotel management, but we are supposed to admire the way she instead sleeps her way out of the Bronx.

Bob Hoskins, as a butler named Lionel, provides the movie's solitary moment of grace. Exuding natural dignity, Lionel assesses the hotel's pampered guests. "They're only people with money," he says. "Although we serve them, we are not their servants." With the same attitude toward audiences, filmmakers might produce fewer frivolous crowdpleasers like this one. SGK


"Can Patrick Stewart move on now?"
Dir. Stuart Baird; writ. John Logan; feat. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Tom Hardy, Ron Perlman (PG-13)

This may be the final voyage for the now-very-inappropriately-named "next generation," but fans can rest assured that one thing will not change: In accordance with an unwritten sub-paragraph of the Prime Directive, no important member of Star Fleet will ever be allowed, simply and definitively, to die.

This installment of the series could have used more Star Trek and less Star Wars: The first few minutes - with their CGI horizons, meetings of random Imperial Senates, and really lousy acting - feel like a test reel for Attack of the Clones that wasn't (ahem) quite lively enough for that film. We soon cut to our old friends, however, who are busy proving that even in the future, wedding receptions will be boring and tasteless.

Eventually, the gang gets back into space, where Romulans have cloned Captain Picard and set him on the path of galactic evil; who knew you needed to spend millions of dollars on special effects to continue the age-old "nature vs. nurture" debate? If one doppelganger isn't enough, the crew also discovers an inexplicably dismembered prototype for the android Data. Let's see: If we transfer all of Data's memory and programming to the older mechanism, does the hunk of metal become the same "person"... ?

Only rarely has the Trek franchise turned so much philosophy into so little entertainment. This script suffers from a serious lack of drama, and doesn't fill that void with comic relief (as in, for instance, "The Voyage Home"). The cast really seems to be itching to move on - not to new Starship commands, as William Riker has before him, but to uneventful retirements and a long, steady stream of residuals. Somewhere out there, Gene Roddenberry is snoring in his grave. JD

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
JM: Jonathan Marcus
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura