NEW RELEASES I Am Sam (PG-13)
Director: Jessie Nelson. With Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern. (127 min.)
Sterritt * Penn's bravura performance is the only reason to watch this wildly sentimental comedy-drama about a mentally retarded man trying to regain custody of his daughter after social workers decide she needs a more normal home. The film means well, but each scene gets clobbered by sappy screenwriting.
Director: Ray Lawrence. With Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush. (110 min.)
Sterritt *** A grieving mother, an adulterous police officer, and the hunt for a missing person are among the ingredients of this somber detective thriller, which explores the insecurities of four married couples. While the movie is well acted and creative, its story and style are too self-consciously clever to build a high degree of emotional power.
Director: Charles Shyer. With Hilary Swank, Jonathan Pryce, Adrien Brody, Christopher Walken. (120 min.)
Sterritt ** Check off the ingredients for an old-fashioned historical melodrama: an orphan with noble blood, a secretly sinful churchman, an imperious queen, and jewelry that becomes the center of an 18th-century scandal. The film has almost enough corny appeal to offset its lack of originality.
VS/N: 10 scenes, half innuendo. VV: 8 scenes. VP: 10 mostly mild expressions. VD: 12 scenes with alcohol, 1 with drugs.
Director: Michael Mann. With Will Smith, Jamie Foxx. (140 min.)
Sterritt *** Fast-talking prizefighter Muhammad Ali was a key athletic and cultural figure of the '60s and '70s. This energetic biopic covers key events of his career, including his rise to the heavyweight championship, his role in the Black Muslim movement, and his comeback. Smith lacks the champ's physical presence, but his vocal impersonation is exactly right. Its heart is mainly in the boxing scenes.
Staff *** Riveting, revealing, good history lesson, way too long.
VS/N: Three scenes. VV: 11 scenes, mostly boxing. VP: 19 expressions. VD: 13 scenes of smoking or drinking.
Director: Ron Howard. With Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly. (120 min.)
Sterritt ** Howard takes more storytelling risks than usual in this crisply made biopic about John Nash, an economist who began his career with a theoretical breakthrough, then fell prey to psychological problems that hobbled him. Crowe brilliantly portrays this complex character. But the screenplay seems cavalier in assuming mental illness is no match for will power. You won't learn much about economics, despite Nash's devotion to the field.
Staff ***1/2 Amazing acting, turbulent, triumphant, believably real.
VS/N: None. VV: 7 scenes. VP: 4 instances. VD: At least 6 scenes of drinking.
Director: Gillian Armstrong. With Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon. (120 min.)
Sterritt ** Blanchett gives an intermittently forceful performance as a British woman who becomes a spy for the French resistance during World War II, searching for a missing pilot she loves while getting involved with a French family endangered by its Jewish roots. The story has inherent emotional power, but Jeremy Brock's formula-bound screenplay rarely soars beyond cliches. Still, there's vivid cinematography and some suspense.
Director: Robert Altman. With Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates. (137 min.)
Sterritt **** Altman visits England for the first time in this peek at the British class system about 70 years ago, focusing on masters and servants at a rural estate during a shooting-party weekend roiled by a murder. This is familiar territory if you recall BBC miniseries "Upstairs Downstairs," but this great US filmmaker gives it new twists with his roaming camera and incisively satirical approach.
Director: Chris Columbus. With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith. (150 min.)
Sterritt *** This richly produced fantasy stays true to the letter and spirit of J.K. Rowling's lively novel about a boy who discovers he's a natural-born wizard and finds himself battling a sinister sorcerer. Columbus fills the screen with special effects and a superbly chosen cast. What you won't find are qualities a great movie adaptation might have offered: new layers of meaning.
Staff **1/2 Stirs childhood memories, a bit ordinary, enchanting, top-notch effects.
VS/N: None. VV: 8 scenes. VP: 1 mild expression. VD: 1 scene with alcohol.
Director: Todd Field. With Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei. (138 min.)
Sterritt *** A small-town doctor and his wife aren't quite sure how to take their college-age son's new romance with an unhappily married woman. The climax suggests that drastic measures may be needed in drastic circumstances and, more subtly, that the lines between "moral" and "immoral" people may be more slender than we'd like to believe. The acting is mostly excellent.
Staff *** Humanistic, dark, deliberate pacing, absorbing, superbly acted.
VS/N: 8 scenes, mostly innuendo. No nudity. VV: 7 scenes, 1 graphic. VP: 20 expressions. VD: 12 scenes of drinking or smoking.
Director: Richard Eyre. With Judi Dench, Kate Winslet. (90 min.)
Sterritt *** Winslet and Dench play novelist Iris Murdoch at two periods in her life. Some scenes show her early years as a writer and romantic; others paint a sad portrait of declining mental and physical powers that eventually burdened her. Dench and Winslet give strong performances; Jim Broadbent is brilliant as old Bayley.
Director: John Davis. With voices of Martin Short, Debi Derryberry, Patrick Stewart. (84 min.)
Staff **1/2 James "Isaac" Neutron is hardly a typical 10-year-old. The young genius's quirky mannerisms and inventions - such as a laser plaque remover and super bubble-gum mobile - make the pocket protector set look like jocks. But when aliens resembling lime Jell-O kidnap all the parents, it's up to Jimmy, his robot dog, and their pals to save them. So they build a fleet of spaceships and head for the stars. The animation is stunning, and kids will roar. But unlike Monsters Inc., the prosaic plot may spur the older crowd to take flight. By Stephanie Cook
Staff **1/2 Inventive, good length, family fun, bright animation, forgettable storyline.
VS/N: None.VV: 12 scenes of cartoonish violence.VP: None. VD: None.
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. With Nilofaur Pazira, Sadou Teymour. (82 min.)
Sterritt *** Clad in a full-length veil that hides her identity and intentions, an Afghan woman tries to enter her homeland from Iran on a rescue mission to her sister. During her journey she witnesses suffering but sees the strength of people who assist her, including a US medical worker. This dark drama by one of Iran's great filmmakers casts a light on fundamental human conflicts.
Director: James Mangold. With Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber. (118 min.)
Staff **1/2 When the world's first time traveler inadvertently transports Duke Leopold from the 19th century to present-day New York, an unexpected romance blooms between bewildered Leopold and a jaded advertising exec. If you buy into the outlandish premise, then there's much fun to be had with Jackman's antics and a typically sprightly performance by Ryan. By Stephen Humphries
Staff *** Romantic, playful, charmingly predictable, quick-witted.
VS/N: 1 scene of implied sex. VV: None. VD: 8 scenes with alcohol.
Director: Fred Schepisi. With Tom Courtenay, Helen Mirren, Michael Caine, David Hemmings. (109 min.)
Sterritt ** After their closest chum dies, four old friends go for a drive to dispose of his ashes, reminiscing about the past in flashbacks that reveal the complex ways in which their lives have intersected. Good performances by the cast don't quite overcome the weak screenplay, which takes predictable turns.
Director: Peter Jackson. With Elijah Wood, Richard Harris, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett. (178 min.)
Sterritt ** J.R.R. Tolkien's great trilogy tells an epic story centered on a modest character: Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who becomes custodian of a powerful ring that must be destroyed. He sets off to do this, helped by a loyal band of companions and opposed by terrifying supernatural foes. The bad characters are often more interesting than the virtuous ones. The film is a drab experience, marred by a lack of insight and few laughs.
Staff *** Outstanding special effects, action-packed, dark, enchantingly scenic, violent.
VS/N: None. VV: 28 scenes, many involving sword fights. VP: Some minor expressions. VD: 7 scenes of smoking, 3 of drinking.
Director: Frank Darabont. With Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, Bob Balaban. (153 min.)
Sterritt * Carrey gets serious in this sentimental drama about a screenwriter who high-tails it out of Hollywood when he's unjustly placed on a cold-war blacklist, loses his memory, and gets adopted by a sleepy town that mistakes him for a long-lost war hero. The film tries to revive the optimism of 1940s Frank Capra classics, but films such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" were never so simplistic.
Staff **1/2 Capra-esque, sugary, nostalgic, sentimental, wholesome.
VS/N: None. VV: 2 scenes. VP: 11, mostly mild. VD: 6 scenes of smoking or drinking.
Director: Marc Forster. With Heath Ledger, Billy Bob Thornton, Sean Combs. (111 min.)
Sterritt *** Thornton plays a Southern death-row guard whose aging father and insecure son share the same profession. His life changes when he falls in love with the widow of a criminal he helped execute. The performances are wonderful and the screenplay focuses on engrossing issues like racism and capital punishment. But its ethical and intellectual insights wane when the love story kicks in.
Director: Steven Soderbergh. With George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia. (105 min.)
Sterritt *** Flimsy but amusing remake of the 1960 comedy-thriller about a gang of thieves who decide to burgle Las Vegas casinos. Clooney and company aren't as self-consciously stylish as Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, but they have good-natured fun in this blend of heist-movie suspense and smart-alecky dialogue.
Staff *** Crowd-pleaser, slick, big-budget caper.
VS/N: None. VV: 3 scenes, plus several explosions. VP: 21 expressions, some harsh. VD: 17 scenes with drinking and smoking.
Director: Wes Anderson. With Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller. (130 min.)
Sterritt *** Hackman plays the patriarch of an eccentric family, indulging his whimsies while sparring with a romance-starved wife and three adult children who've fallen way short of the promise they showed as precocious kids. Anderson begins this story with bursts of originality, but the plot loses momentum.
Director: Lasse Hallström. With Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett. (115 min.)
Sterritt ** After the death of his wife, a painfully insecure man moves to Newfoundland with his daughter and finds a new career, a girlfriend, and a sense of purpose. Spacey is endearing, bringing his shy character to life despite glaring psychological gaps in the screenplay, based on Annie Proulx's novel.
Director: Cameron Crowe. With Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Jason Lee, Cameron Diaz. (136 min.)
Sterritt ** Cruise plays a self-centered media magnate who ditches his lover when a gorgeous new girlfriend comes his way. You might normally shed a tear, but you're too busy figuring out additional mysteries, introduced in fragmentary scenes that make little sense until a minor character explains them near the end.
Director: Joel Hershman. With Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, David Kelly. (91 min.)
Sterritt *** Good conduct gets a British felon into an experimental "open" prison, where he discovers a flair for gardening. A horticultural maven then enters him and his buddies in a national competition. The story is a little pat, but characters are charming. By M.K. Terrell
Director: Sam Weisman. Starring Martin Lawrence, Danny DeVito. (95 min.)
Sterritt ** Crooked millionaire Max Fairbanks catches Kevin Caffrey burglarizing his mansion. Max tells police that Kevin's "lucky" ring is his own. The film charts Kevin's dogged attempts to retrieve his ring and runs out of ideas well before the end. By M.K. Terrell