"Crass, crude, and witless"
Dir. Seth Kearsley; writ. Brooks Arthur, Allen Covert, Brad Isaacs, Adam Sandler; feat. Sandler, Jackie Titone, Austin Stout, Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, Norm Crosby (PG-13)
The animated 8 Crazy Nights casts Sandler as (among other characters) a Jewish Scrooge whose idea of fun is to ensure unhappy holidays for Christians and Jews alike. Saccharine sentiments in the last two minutes do not redeem the previous 74. Nights abounds with mean-spirited gags about dwarves, Chinese, and diabetics, and assumes inherent hilarity in barfing, farting, belching, and excreting. It's supposed to be a musical comedy, but the music is dreadful and the comedy moronic. SGK
"Dull sequel to a so-so movie"
Dir. Harold Ramis; writ. Ramis, Peter Steinfeld, Peter Tolan; feat. Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Joe Viterelli, Joe D'Onofrio (R)
A blah sequel to a so-so movie, That goes further into flaky psychoanalysis than This did. But it's too much to ask us to care about the emotional lives of characters as lightweight as these, especially when the first film's gags have been recycled in such a crude way. Even worthwhile new ideas (like an extended spoof of TV-ified mafiosi) don't amount to much here — but some may find it worth their time to see De Niro make fun of the mob characters he has played so many times. JD
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
"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
"A riveting study in group dynamics"
Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel; writ. Don Bohlinger; feat. Moritz Bleibtreu, Maren Eggert, Christian Berkel, Justus von Dohnányi, Timo Dierkes (R)
Inspired by actual scientific studies, Experiment chronicles a project designed to study how 20 healthy men respond to stress. For 14 days, they're under surveillance in a simulated penitentiary. Eight are cast as prisoners, 12 as guards. Like deranged Method actors, the volunteers take on exaggerated traits of prisoners and guards. The lab becomes a violent arena for humiliation and brutalization. Except for its experimental frame, Hirschbiegel's debut 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
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
|A scene from Empire|
"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)
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
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
THE HOT CHICK
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 — The Hot Chick is only remarkable for its utter lack of effort in retelling a trite tale, and for the number of pot shots it takes at ethnic stereotypes. WK
MAID IN MANHATTAN
"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)
A contemporary fairy tale devoid of surprise or substance, Maid in Manhattan would have us admire a heroine who aspires to better herself through a career but instead sleeps her way out of the Bronx. The characters surrounding Lopez' Puerto Rican Cinderella are entirely too cute and charming, with the exception of Bob Hoskins, whose dignified approach to serving pampered hotel guests is far superior to the pandering attitudes of these filmmakers. SGK
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
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
STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN
"Must-see for music fans"
Dir. Paul Justman; writ. Alan Slutsky (book), Walter Dallas, Ntozake Shange; feat. Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis (PG)
The Funk Brothers, a group of nearly anonymous session musicians who supported Motown's star singers, made more number one records than the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley combined. Through interviews and newly-shot performances with contemporary stars, this extremely entertaining doc aims to convince casual music fans of what the record geeks already know: These unknown guys are as integral to our culture as the stars — Marvin, Smokey, Stevie, etc. — they backed up. JD
STAR TREK: NEMESIS
"Can Patrick Stewart move on now?"
Dir. Stuart Baird; writ. John Logan; feat. Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Tom Hardy (PG-13)
In this dull installment of the series, Romulans have cloned Picard and set him on the path of galactic evil; who knew you needed to spend millions on CGI to continue the "nature vs. nurture" debate? 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...somewhere out there, Gene Roddenberry is snoring in his grave. JD
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
WES CRAVEN PRESENTS: THEY
"You won't be afraid of the dark"
Dir. Robert Harmon; writ. Brendan Hood; feat. Laura Regan, Marc Blucas, Ethan Embry, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jonathan Cherry (PG-13)
Don't let the name fool you: Craven didn't write, direct, produce, or act in this film. He wasn't even a gaffer — he just let the filmmakers slap his name on it. More damning, They is a boring pseudo-psychological horror film that turns fear of the dark into a one-dimensional plot device. It's hard for audience members to root for characters who are trying so hard to seek out such contrived trouble. AL