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. 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

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

You haven't seen Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in Spike Jonze's Adaptation yet? You're missing out.
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

Dir. Costa-Gavras; writ. Costa Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg, from a play by Rolf Hochhuth; feat. Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Mühe, Michel Duchaussoy, Ion Caramitru (PG)
Based loosely on a once-controversial play accusing the Vatican of indifference and even complicity with the Holocaust, Amen recounts the true story of an SS officer horrified to discover innocent Jews are being gassed. When he alerts his Protestant pastor and the Swedish Embassy, he is rebuffed. He meets a young priest named Riccardo Fontana (Kassovitz), who calls himself a "spy for God," and the two approach the pope himself with the atrocities. A combination of apathy, fear, cunning, and animosity prevents Pius XII from taking action to avert genocide. Costa-Gavras' decision to depict mass murder obliquely, through empty cattle cars and Gerstein's eyes staring through a peephole into a gas chamber, intensifies the horror. But the saintly priest is a contrivance, not a credible character. With retrospective moral clarity, Costa-Gavras constructs his tale so that all a viewer is left to do is say amen. SGK

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

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. Fernando Meirelles; writ. Paulo Lins (novel), Bráulio Mantovani; feat. Alexandre Rodrigues, Firmino da Hora, Phelipe Haagensen, Johnathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge (R)
A Brazilian Gangs of New York, City is less spectacularly produced but better at integrating revenge and

A scene from City of God.
romance into a turf war that devours two or three generations of ghetto youth. The town's slide into chaos is mirrored by the legions of kids who start off plaing at being bandits and end up at war. The youths have names like Li'l Dice, Shaggy, and Carrot, and the viewer watches them as the decades shoot by; new actors come in to play them as adults while another brood kids more feral than the first, emerges to mip at their heels. The rise and fall of bloodthirsty drug dealer Li'l Zé is chronicled by the story's one pure heart, an aspiring photographer called Rocket - and director Fernando Meirelles makes Rocket's tale as exciting to watch as it was to live. 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

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

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

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

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. 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. 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

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. 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

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. 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

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. 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

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

Dir. Antoine Fuqua; writ. Patrick Cirillo, Robert Orr; feat. Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser (R)
What could have been
Tears of the Sun: Another banal Bruce Willis flick?
a powerful glimpse into the plight of war-pocked Africa is denigrated by clunking Hollywood convention: good and evil are unequivocally demarcated, characters are either angelic or beastly. Willis plays a Navy S.E.A.L. who decides to go beyond his mission to rescue an American doctor - an act of macho, messianic selflessness that sets in motion two hours of the most blithely pro-American-intervention propagandizing this side of "Fox News." JW

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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