"Angry, witty essay on American mania"
Writ. & dir. Michael Moore; feat. Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Dick Clark, John Nichols, Matt Stone (R)
What's unique about the United States? Gun violence. Moore, a working-class Socrates who poses unsettling questions, ponders that problem in this cinematic essay, with a zany style that's anything but ponderous, veering from California to Canada, from Marilyn Manson to Charlton Heston. This infuriating, grievous, and hilarious film doesn't arrive at any solid answers, but is an exceptional look at U.S. exceptionalism. SGK
EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO
"Startling news that priests are weak"
Dir. Carlos Carrera; writ. Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz (novel), Vicente Leñero; feat. Gael García Bernal, Sancho Gracia, Ana Claudía Talancón, Angélica Aragón, Luisa Huertas, Damián Alcazár (R)
A story of innocence lost, El Crimen will shock any viewer innocent enough to believe, even after recent scandals in the Catholic Church, that priests are immune to pride, envy, gluttony, and lust. With a lurid mix of drug lords, abortionists, and opportunists, it's a clunky melodrama about how serving God is perverted into serving self. SGK
DIE ANOTHER DAY
"One of the better ones"
Dir. Lee Tamahori; writ. Neal Purvis & Robert Wade; feat. Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese, Judi Dench, Michael Madsen (PG-13)
From the credits sequence, which mixes fear with the expected T&A, onward, this is a Bond flick willing to tweak our expectations just enough to make it better than most recent installments. Among the joys: one of the craziest go-for-broke swordfights ever, a palace made of ice, and a beautifully disfigured baddie. Too bad the filmmakers didn't trim the boringly bombastic final action sequence in half. JD
"Motor mouth escapes from Motor City"
Dir. Curtis Hanson; writ. Scott Silver; feat. Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Eugene Byrd, Omar Benson Miller (R)
While parts of 8 Mile are funny, most of it is a sad demonstration of how needy young men mistake conflict for connection. Despite its own hunger for success, 8 Mile fails to make the novice actor Eminem seem more than a clever, self-absorbed rhymester. Like its abrasive characters, this heavily hyped film confuses greatness with aggression. SGK
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB
"Perfect teacher meets perfectly obnoxious student"
Dir. Michael Hoffman; writ. Neil Tolkin, based on a story by Ethan Canin; feat. Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Hermann, Harris Yulin (PG-13)
An extended flashback to 1976, Club chronicles the conflict between a beloved teacher and a disdainful, privileged student. Viewers expecting a fable about how integrity triumphs over expediency will encounter a few jolts along the way, as Kevin Kline's character compromises his own principles, and his student proves more cunning and unscrupulous than anyone could expect. SGK
FAR FROM HEAVEN
"Astounding feat of time travel"
Dir. and writ. Todd Haynes; feat. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn (PG-13)
Writer/director Todd Haynes has lovingly resurrected the '50s melodrama of Douglas Sirk for this film, in which Julianne Moore plays a perfect housewife coping with a secretly-gay husband and a newfound attraction to her black gardener. Formally, Heaven is an astonishing recreation of the films it echoes; but the real accomplishment is the way Haynes involves us emotionally, avoiding camp entirely in order to wrap us up in a world of manners and mores almost as removed from ours as Jane Austen's. JD
"Conventional look at an unconventional life"
Dir. Julie Taymor; writ. Hayden Herrera (book), Clancy Sigal, et al; feat. Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Edward Norton, Ashley Judd, Mía Maestro, Roger Rees (R)
Though director Julie Taymor has a gift for surprising imagery - paintings come to life here and vice-versa - 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. As her husband Diego Rivera, the charismatic Alfred Molina overshadows the actress, which is just as well - despite the movie's name, the filmmakers don't seem very interested in Frida's life except as it relates to Diego. JD
FRIDAY AFTER NEXT
"The P word ain't pretty"
Dir. Marcus Raboy; writ. Ice Cube & DJ Pooh; feat. Ice Cube, Mike Epps, John Witherspoon, Don "DC" Curry, Anna Maria Horsford, Katt Micah Williams (R)
The third installment of the Friday franchise features Craig and Day-Day getting into some roughhouse slapstick that is funny in a Wayans Brothers kind of way. There is the obligatory rent party that showcases pimps, hoes, a lot of bump-and-grind action, and the inevitable Jeri Curl joke. It's quick-paced and has some sharp dialogue, but you'd hardly notice it among the unabashed obscenity. WK
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
"A joyless bore"
Dir. Chris Columbus; writ. J.K. Rowling (novel), Steven Kloves; feat. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs (PG)
For a film set at an academy of witchcraft, the latest entry in the Harry Potter fanbase-milking campaign is remarkably devoid of magic. Even the charm of its adult cast is squandered here, a mistake the first film didn't make. Chamber of Secrets is a big, bloated bore, full of tedious exposition and lifeless computer graphics. JD
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING
"Sweet Greek comedy, not Aristophanes"
Dir. Joel Zwick; writ. Nia Vardalos; feat. Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Joey Fatone (PG)
My Big Fat Greek 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
"Knockout in one round"
Dir. and writ. Paul Thomas Anderson; feat. Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub (R)
An ideal collaboration between a much-maligned actor and a filmmaker known for rescuing neglected talent, this is a romantic comedy for an angst-filled age, in which oppressive fear and anger are a constrictive shell around a perfectly sweet core. Anderson's camera - starry-eyed and always moving - is perfectly matched to its subjects, and the thoroughly unpredictable story is one to savor. JD
Dir. Gore Verbinski; writ. Koji Suzuki; feat. Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Brian Cox (PG-13)
Though the plot's relatively faithful, this remake of Japanese horror hit Ringu doesn't do the original justice. On its own, The Ring - in which a mysterious videotape is somehow killing those who view it - does deliver some suspenseful moments and gory gross-outs, but the final plot twist lacks the checkmate move that made Sixth Sense a winner. AO
THE SANTA CLAUSE 2
"Más merry magic"
Dir. Michael Lembeck; writ. Leo Benvenuti, et al.; feat. Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Spencer Breslin (G)
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, this truly is a holiday movie for the whole family. Mixing slapstick and verbal humor to tweak funnybones of all ages, the screenplay manages a rare balance between real-life concerns and make-believe fun. LM
"More 2001 than Alien"
Dir. Steven Soderbergh; writ. Stanislaw Lem (novel), Soderbergh; feat. George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur (PG-13)
Steven Soderbergh enters Stanley Kubrick territory here, with a sci-fi film for people with no interest in the genre. This dreamlike, eerily beautiful movie is obviously about love, but in a much deeper way than you might think; and there are even weightier subjects - God, for instance - lying around for viewers who care to pick up on them. JD
SWEET HOME ALABAMA
"Romantic comedy goes South"
Dir. Andy Tennant; writ. Douglas J. Eboch, C. Jay Cox; feat. Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Fred Ward, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Candace Bergen (PG-13)
Home revels in stereotypes about Northern materialism and Southern comforts; there's never much doubt which side will win. It's a women's movie with the insidious, ludicrous message that ambition is as unnatural an appendage to a woman as a penis. SGK
Dir. Ron Clements, John Musker; writ. Robert Louis Stevenson (novel), Clements, Rob Edwards, et al; feat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Martin Short, Emma Thompson (PG)
This one might make you shout "aaarrrgh" - and not in a cool, pirate-exclamation way. The reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's beloved novel as a galaxy-hopping cartoon is one of the most confoundingly stupid ideas to hit the movies this year, with space-sailors climbing around on decks sans spacesuits and gravity that only works when the plot wants it to. More unforgivably, this is some of the lousiest animation work Disney has ever done. Parents would be better off leaving a copy of the book around the house and pretending this movie never existed. JD