"Road trip through pointlessness"
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
"Hilarious, even if you left your Irony Decoder Ring at home"
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 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
"Assuaging black rage through psychotherapy"
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 success story that succeeds in celebrating good will and lucidity, a winsome Freudian fairy tale suggesting that all it takes to become a loving, alert adult is acknowledgment of childhood traumas. SGK
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
"Nothing fake about it"
Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Frank Abagnale Jr. (book), Jeff Nathanson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen; feat. (PG-13) 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
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
"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
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
"Bland and embarrassing"
Dir. Spike Lee; writ. David Benioff; feat. Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox (R)
It was inevitable (desirable, even) that 9/11 grief would figure into the very NYC films of Spike Lee. But tying a city's grief to the general bummed-outedness of a drug dealer facing his last day as a free man is laughable. Norton's amoral, selfish character is no more deep for it, and a potent collective memory is cheapened. Aside from that, this film is still remarkably dull - visually unexciting, even, which is not a common complaint against Lee's movies. 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