"Crash" Screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby") makes an impressive directorial debut with a telescoping deliberation on American race prejudices as viewed through a lens of day-to-day life in the melting pot of Los Angeles. Haggis rivals Robert Altman's nimble ability to balance numerous characters across a broad narrative canvas in this tale of multiple story threads involving a racist cop (Matt Dillon), his honest partner (Ryan Phillippe), a duo of car thieves (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), a Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser), his thin-skinned wife (Sandra Bullock) and a sexist police detective (Don Cheadle). Most outstanding is up-and-comer Terrence Howard as a successful television director whose dignity is challenged by his high-maintenance wife (Thandie Newton) and the demands of his social milieu. "Crash" is a provocative drama that stands with the socially conscious American theatrical dramaturgy of the '30s and '40s. (R) **** Cole Smithey
"Fever Pitch" The Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary") set aside their usual inclination toward gross-out humor with a tender and earnest adaptation of a novel by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"). Avid sports fans will appreciate the all-engrossing passion that Ben (Jimmy Fallon) has for his local Boston Red Sox as he comes to realize that he must redirect some of that hardened loyalty to his newfound love Lindsay (Drew Barrymore). A schoolteacher by day, Ben lives for the annual baseball season when he can sit among his extended family at Fenway Park and cheer for the team that's given his life meaning since he was 11. As much as Lindsay admires Ben's youthful dedication to baseball, she wants to be more than an extra inning. Fallon and Barrymore are well matched in a crowd-pleasing romance comedy rooted in the love of the game. (PG-13) ***1/2 C.S.
"Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Fans of the vastly popular Douglas Adams books should have no problem taking off with the long-awaited feature-length film version of the original. Most characteristics of the novels are painstakingly represented, especially the dry British humor, awash in irreverence and satire. Individual moments are amusing. As a whole, however, the project seems dull, less necessary than inevitable. It's as if those behind it were most intent on wringing a few more dollars out of a franchise (after the radio and television series), an irony right out of the Douglas Adams universe. (PG) ** Wayne Melton
"The Interpreter" Perhaps more than any other genre, the thriller is ruled by the clock, whose every unrelenting tick brings us nearer potential disaster. Sad to say, director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa") and a team of no fewer than five writers have thrown this simple rule out the window. The premise of "The Interpreter," a new would-be thriller, is simple enough. A United Nations linguist (Nicole Kidman) overhears a plot to knock off an African dictator and spends the balance of the movie dodging the assassins who fear she might be able to identify them by their voices. The movie exhausts us with excursions backward and to the side, intent on unloading a dump truck's worth of insight into the history and present political posture of the fictional African land of Matobo. The result is a cross between Hitchcock at low ebb and a State Department white paper. Thrilling it's not. (PG-13) *** Thomas Peyser
"Kingdom of Heaven" Director Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner, "Gladiator") leads us into strangely unconvincing territory with an unsatisfying epic about the 11th- and 12th-century Crusades. Orlando Bloom fails to fill his leading-man boots as Balian, a blacksmith who ventures to Jerusalem to absolve his sins following his wife's suicide after the death of their son, and ends up leading the military defense of Jerusalem. Grandly staged battle sequences pad the oddly bland movie, while performances by Brendan Gleeson and Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud (as Muslim warrior Saladin) enliven the narrative. Edward Norton does a terrific vocal characterization as the leprosy-suffering Christian king Baldwin IV who is hidden behind a sliver mask. Otherwise "Kingdom" is lost in the desert. (R) **1/2 C.S.
"Kung Fu Hustle" The ever-shifting genre of martial arts films takes on yet another variation with writer/director/actor Stephen Chow's latest comic CGI spectacle. Set in an impoverished area of prerevolutionary China known as Pig Sty Alley, the movie follows an upstart extortionist (Chow) attempting to pass himself off as a member of a notorious mob group called the Axe Gang in order to steal money from the area's destitute residents. When the wannabe baddie bites off more than he can chew and his intended victims fight back, the real Axe Gang arrives in a zenith of cartoonish spectacle that includes a bullfrog-morphing Kung Fu master known as The Beast. This and Chow's considerable "Shaolin Soccer" show the actor-turned-director has a finely honed and highly individual idea of martial arts movies. (R)***1/2 C.S.
"A Lot Like Love" Young Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) meets Emily (Amanda Peet) during a trip to New York, and both play hard to get, as if they don't even like each other. The precocious prelude is likeable but only intended to keep us guessing as the unloving couple connect and part over and over again. Next it is three years later, then two, then one, then six months, then three. Pretty soon you are wondering just how many more months of near-miss romance you can stand. Seeing two people gradually hook up in spite of missed opportunities over two hours can be at times funny, charming, poignant and even insightful. But none of that makes it a story. (PG-13) ** W.M.
"Mindhunters" Director Renny Harlin ("Exorcist: The Beginning") ratchets up the gore factor in yet another twist on the traditional Hollywood slasher flick this time set in an abandoned Navy SEALs training complex on a remote island where a group of eight FBI serial-killer profilers prove their investigative skills to sadistic training supervisor Val Kilmer. The group featuring Christian Slater and LL Cool J, among others progressively dwindles at the unseen hand of a psychopath, unfolding a who-done-it murder mystery lavished with meticulous texture and attention to detail. The film offers a claustrophobic thrill to audiences willing to go along with knowing visual winks and a convoluted storyline. (R) *** C.S.
"Monster-in-Law" Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan ("Never Been Kissed") show up like a cardboard cutout couple when their marriage plans are challenged by Vartan's jealous high-maintenance mother (Jane Fonda, in her first role since 1990's "Stanley & Iris"). Lopez does a slight twist on her "Maid in Manhattan" role as a cater-waiter debutante who wins the heart of a wealthy doctor (Vartan). The catfight battle between Fonda and Lopez barely reaches a simmer before all is forgiven and the audience is dismissed from their seats. Wanda Sykes ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") steals the movie as Fonda's longtime assistant, who sees through the whole conflict from the beginning to its predictable end. (PG-13) ** C.S.
"Palindromes" Disorienting, uncomfortably ugly and delightfully insulting on more than one occasion, Todd Solondz's latest indie project is above all daring, a rare, un-test-marketed work of imagination and an unrestrained inspection of society. Its story concerns Aviva, an adolescent girl played by eight actresses, just one of whom is Jennifer Jason Leigh. Another Aviva incarnation is a skinny 15-year-old (one of the few "normal" Avivas) and another is a 300-pound woman of around 30. Aviva is on the run after being forced into an abortion by her overbearing mother (Ellen Barkin, superbly cast against type). By the time she finds solace among a creepy group of born-again evangelicals, Solondz's fans and detractors alike will be wondering what was so disturbing about "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse." "Palindromes" is a brilliant sequel to the latter just as coolly funny and thought-provoking, not a message film but a film full of messages, whether we appreciate them or not. (R) ***** W.M.
"Sin City" High-contrast tour-de-force cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller's wickedly grotesque graphic novel pays homage to the hard-boiled shadowy style of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. Robert Rodriguez teams up with co-directors Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino to deliver a TKO of a movie. Constructed with state-of-the-art special effects, "Sin City" is a stylized, dark and gritty (and it must be said, quite risqué) film that weaves together three Frank Miller stories with eye-popping results that threaten to addict audiences to the movie for repeated viewing. (R) ***** C.S.
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