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ADAPTATION
Dir. Spike Jonze; writ. Susan Orlean (novel), Charlie Kaufman; feat. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, 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
 
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Colin Farrell gets the crap beat out of him in Phone Booth.
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 is enough fun to make up for it. JD

AGENT CODY BANKS
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

BASIC
Dir. John McTiernan; writ. James Vanderbilt; feat. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen (R)
A convoluted mess of a mystery that defies logic and explanation, Basic offers a few good characterizations, a lot of screaming by Travolta and Jackson (though the two only appear together in one scene), and Giovanni Ribisi puking blood from a hospital bed. In this time of war, Basic offers little in the way of social commentary; sadly, it even fails as a conscience-free action film. SM

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
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

CHICAGO
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

THE CORE
Dir. Jon Amiel; writ. Cooper Layne; feat. Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Tcheky Karyo (PG-13)
Compared to the protagonists of Armageddon, these guys and one gal are fairly likeable. But it's always a bad sign when the only truly interesting character is played by binary code. The interior of the planet, full of sweeping magma plumes, amethyst canyons, and Brobdignagian diamonds the size of ocean liners is a CGI masterwork worth watching when nothing else is, but by no means is enough to justify The Core's two-hour-and-15-minute running time. JW

DAREDEVIL
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

DREAMCATCHER
Dir. Lawrence Kasdan; writ. William Goldman; feat. Morgan Freeman, Damian Lewis, Tom Sizemore (R)
This mostly faithful, generally effective adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller is stocked with alien beings who incubate inside human stomachs and exit, as revoltingly as you'd think, through the anus. It's an obvious amalgam of King's past ideas, but with source material as good as It and Stand by Me, business as usual makes for enjoyably squirm-inducing viewing that revels in the human form's grotesqueries and our society's obsession with them. JW

DYSFUNKTIONAL FAMILY
Dir. George Gallo; writ. & feat. Eddie Griffin (R)
Outrageously offensive in all the expected ways, Eddie Griffin's stand-up routine won't disappoint those who need to have oral sex or the differences between white and black folks explained to them. He's a funny guy, though, and gets his share of laughs when this performance film isn't busy cutting away to footage of the family members who inspired much of the comedian's material. JD

FRIDA
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

GANGS OF NEW YORK
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

HEAD OF STATE
Dir. Chris Rock; writ. Rock, Ali LeRoi; feat. Rock, Bernie Mac, Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker, Robin Givens (PG-13)
Chris Rock plays an ordinary Joe who gets to run for President in this, his debut film as a director. Behind the camera, Rock has the grace and skill of a middle-schooler, but every now and then his awkwardness works to the advantage of gags that come out of nowhere and wouldn't make sense in a better-made film. With Bernie Mac to strongarm some laughs out of the crowd and a decent joke here and there, it's no big thrill - but at least it's more engaging than the other racial comedy out there, Bringing Down the House. JD

THE HOURS
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

HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS
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

THE HUNTED
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

 
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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

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
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

OLD SCHOOL
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

OPEN HEARTS (ELSKER DIG FOR EVIGT)
Dir: Susanne Bier; writ. Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen; feat. Sonja Richter, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen, Paprika Steen, Stine Bjerregaard (R)
This Danish film seems like cinema verite, a veritable piece of open-heart surgery that bares irreconcilable feelings between and within people who have to contend with a world of accident and pretend they are responsible agents. Caught in a romantic maelstrom, its characters - a rececntly paralyzed grad student and those who cope with the events surrounding his misfortune - are all utterly credible and compelling. Hearts is a film without villains or heroes, merely human beings struggling to do their best with limited powers. SGK

PHONE BOOTH
Dir. Joel Schumacher; writ. Larry Cohen; feat. Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes (R)
One location, one central actor: You've gotta give Phone Booth bonus points for pulling off something few films would dare. Farrell gives an appropriately over-the-top performance as a public-relations huckster cornered by a sniper with an overgrown sense of self-righteousness, and director Joel Schumacher is smart enough not to adorn this lean, no-frills thriller with a lot of extraneous nonsense. (The screenplay heaps enough pulpy, hyperbolic complications onto the scenario that nobody need add to it.) JD

THE PIANIST
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

TEARS OF THE SUN
Dir. Antoine Fuqua; writ. Patrick Cirillo, Robert Orr; feat. Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser (R)
What could have been 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

VIEW FROM THE TOP
Dir. Bruno Barreto; writ. Eric Wald; feat. Gwyneth Paltrow, Christina Applegate, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Preston, Mike Myers, Candice Bergen (PG-13)
In this soulless "girl follows her dream" fable, Gwyneth Paltrow plays a rural gal whose plans to become a flight attendant threaten to get between her and true love. The filmmakers don't know whether they're making slapstick, a parable about empowerment, or a romantic comedy, and wind up delivering none of the above. JD

Films reviewed by:
AL: Albert Lopez
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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