"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
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
"The band plays on, predictably"
Dir. Charles Stone III; writ. Shawn Schepps, Tina Gordon Chism; feat.
Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones. (PG-13) Though its characters are stereotypes and its story predictable (down to the final, triumphal freeze frame), the film — which focuses on the hard-working marching musicians who are routinely ignored by football fans — is a work of lively ethnography, immersing us in an odd subculture of portable tubas and volatile passions.SGK
"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
"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
GANGS OF NEW YORK
"Bloody and bruised, but not broken"
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
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
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
"Thrilling as fantasy and as a film"
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Fran Walsh; feat. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Christopher Lee, 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. The battle of Helms Deep is stunning, the CGI Gollum is (at moments, anyway) the absolute state of the art, and Jackson has made the most expensive, most effective movie trailer (advertising the trilogy's conclusion, due next year) of all time. JD
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
TWO WEEKS NOTICE
"Charming in spite of itself"
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 Marc Lawrence's 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