"The Aviator" Biographers of the late moviemaker and aviation mogul Howard Hughes summarized the typical Hughes film as high in entertainment, low on philosophy and message, and packed with sex and action. The same could be said of Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic, "The Aviator," though it could have used a bit more sex. The film follows Hughes' intense public career as Hollywood icon and airline baron and his gradual decline into paranoia and an obsessive disorder. It tries to keep up with his many loves, but leaves out his control and near ruin of RKO pictures, the half of his life spent holed up in Las Vegas and Acapulco, and his equally bizarre long-distance marriage to actress Jean Peters. Otherwise it is an exciting and competent portrayal of a fascinating life, and one that goes past the tabloid material of later years to find the man when he was flying high. ***1/2 Wayne Melton
"Because of Winn-Dixie" Based on an award-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo and set in the very small town of Naomi, Fla., this story is about a 10-year-old (AnnaSophia Robb) who adopts a winsome, but sometimes skittish, pup that helps her connect with a handful of depressives and misfits. In less thoughtful hands, this story could have been an oppressively heartwarming mishmash of mindless uplift and computer-generated doggie smiles. But under director Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club"), it is something better and more novel: a film that includes the nuance and moral messiness currently out of fashion in Hollywood entertainment for children. Unlike other children's films one is likely to see, it has something to do with human life. ***1/2 Thomas Peyser
"Constantine" It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a chain-smoking, postmodern Keanu Reeves. He's playing superhero exorcist John Constantine, of the DC Comics "Hellblazer" graphic novels, in an overlong movie that falls somewhere between "Van Helsing" and "Hellboy." Constantine's youthful attempt at suicide leaves him wandering a noir Los Angeles world between heaven and hell, where he tries to earn salvation into heaven by exorcising demons. Another suspicious suicide involving at least two women played by Rachel Weisz forces Constantine to do some serious butt-kicking and soul-saving. Impressive special effects don't compensate for the film's muddled plot and inarticulate dialogue, but the source material's dark tone is consistent, and Peter Stormare relishes his turn as a tar-footed Satan with infectious glee. ** Cole Smithey
"Hitch" Will Smith plays a consultant for hapless dudes who can't get the girl or, in the contemporary parlance of urban myth, a "date doctor." When not coaxing feebler males into relationship heaven, he's busy with Sara (Eva Mendes), a crabby, distrustful drama queen he's just crazy about. Perplexing, given he can win a more hospitable woman with a snap of his fingers. But then another pan of Sara's cleavage reminds us of, well, boobs exactly the sort of people who put these kinds of projects together. There are plenty of funny pratfalls and lively jokes, probably written by writers who should be engaged in loftier pursuits. The always high-spirited Smith is also undeniably watchable. But this overly polished farce is the stitched-together work of movie doctors, and no one else. It is a fitting accompaniment to a box of assorted chocolates. You like a few bits here and there, but the whole has no appeal. ** W.M.
"Hotel Rwanda" Don Cheadle gives a beautifully restrained performance as a singular voice of reason at the epicenter of writer/director Terry George's depiction of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when Hutu militias slaughtered 1 million Tutsis with machetes as the world looked away. Cheadle plays real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of Rwanda's only four-star hotel, as he gives precious shelter to over 1,200 Tutsis while attempting to gain assistance from apathetic politicians and diplomats around the world, including the United Nations and the United States. Director George ("Some Mother's Son") handles the potentially suffocating subject matter with a grace and subtlety that breathe precious life into a terrible story. **** C.S.
"In Good Company" With his "American Pie" franchise, writer and director Paul Weitz made his bones by celebrating adolescent boorishness and mocking befuddled, inept adults. His latest work may be a form of penance. Set in the high-stakes world of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the movie's hero is an aging, supremely competent advertising executive (Dennis Quaid) pitted against a jumpy young hotshot (Topher Grace) who, against all reason, has been put in charge of the operation. Quaid's authority is challenged at home, too, when his daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) falls for daddy's adorable new boss. The result is a slick, funny, smoothly functioning entertainment, served up with a small side of potted commentary on corporate ethics and intergenerational conflict. ***1/2 T.P.
"Million Dollar Baby" Clint Eastwood's follow-up to 2003's "Mystic River" is about a boxing trainer (Eastwood) who reluctantly readies a female fighter (Hilary Swank) for the ring. Swank, with knotty arms and a gorilla-sized neck, is thoroughly believable in the role of a white-trash boxing aspirant. Eastwood, now almost 75, manages to add a few memorable grace notes to his "Unforgiven" routine. Though he directs a fairly conventional story, he complements it with realism, humor and telling glimpses of the peripheries of his characters' lives. *** W.M.
"The Pacifier" Toilet humor erupts as action star Vin Diesel takes a hesitant step into the genre of children's comedy in this family-friendly flick from Walt Disney Pictures. Diesel plays a Navy S.E.A.L. assigned to baby-sit a pack of rug rats while their mother searches for her deceased husband's scientific legacy. Even if you liked Steve Martin's "Cheaper by the Dozen," stood in line for Eddie Murphy's "Daddy Day Care" and don't mind the strained plot on display here, you may find that Diesel's "Pacifier" sucks. The towering muscle man who made "Pitch Black" and "The Chronicles of Riddick" so cool is simply not built to act with children. * C.S.
"Sideways" "Why are you so into pinot?" The line demands a new Oscar this year for best quote in a feature film. Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt") and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor wrote this wry buddy movie about two guys on a weeklong bachelor party/tour through California's wine country. It's another fine satire in the vein of "Election" and "Citizen Ruth," pairing a lonely, miserable failed writer (Paul Giamatti) with a handsome, cheerful failed actor (Thomas Hayden Church). The nature of success and happiness preoccupies the insightful, sometimes hilarious action, with no easy answers or resolutions diluting its vintage character study. ****1/2 W.M.
"The Wedding Date" At a time when the boundaries between television and film are more porous than ever, it was perhaps inevitable that Debra Messing would enjoy a big Hollywood outing. It's only a shame that she was not allowed to cut her teeth on a more modest, more adventurous role. Blending modified elements from both "Pretty Woman" (1990) and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994), this retread proves yet again that successful movies can serve as dreadful examples for moviemakers to follow. In need of a date for her sister's wedding, Messing hires a top-of-the-line gigolo (Dermot Mulroney) who you'll never guess she falls for. Naturally it's all nonsense. But every now and then, you are struck by the feeling that something awfully amusing and touching is going on. ** T.P.
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