"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
"Bad Education" The latest film by bad boy Spanish director Pedro Almod¢var ("Talk to Her") is a peculiar and somewhat tedious story about two gay men who were abused by a Catholic priest before growing up to be filmmakers. Mishmash film-noir references abound in scenes illuminated by the grace of Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries"), who plays a cross-dressing drama queen. Loud primary colors mark the director's style, and his latest outing also features somewhat graphic gay sex in the midst of an ode to "Double Indemnity." You'll blink, you'll wince, and you might fall asleep in this immensely overrated movie that feigns complexity rather than telling a full-blooded story. **1/2 Cole Smithey
"Coach Carter" Samuel L. Jackson returns to form behind a long string of disappointing performances as an ethically minded basketball coach at a tough inner-city high school in Richmond, Calif. Inspired by events lived by real-life basketball coach Ken Carter in 1999, the overly long movie succeeds via sound performances from its group of hearty young actors that includes pop star Ashanti and Robert Ri'chard as Coach Carter's devoted son. Coach Carter's concise attempts to teach his basketball team on and off the basketball court resonate well despite the movie's openly didactic intentions. *** C.S.
"Hide and Seek" Robert De Niro slides further down a slippery slope of mediocrity in this flimsy psychological thriller, recently the No. 1 movie at the box office. He plays a Manhattan psychologist who retreats to a large house in rural upstate New York with his daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning), troubled after her mom's bathtub suicide. Emily's unbalanced condition worsens as she takes refuge in an imaginary friend named Charlie, who may not be so imaginary after all. The film's title comes from Emily's favorite game, which serves as an inane metaphor for the concealed nature of the cheap suspense hook. The movie's inevitable conclusion and its child star are equally insufferable. Best not to seek this one. * C.S.
"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 one 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 Thomas Peyser
"The Machinist" In a tightly wound horror movie that will send cold chills down your spine, an intense Christian Bale ("American Psycho") is Trevor Reznik, an emaciated factory machinist who hasn't slept in more than a year, and whose hallucinations cost a co-worker his arm. Although some audiences will obsess on Bale's weight loss for the role, "The Machinist" is a well-crafted thriller about self-deception and tragedy that's told against an eerie landscape of terrifying dislocation and isolation. Director Brad Anderson goes too heavy on the film's trendy blue-gray color scheme, but the film is sure to inspire a cult following and withstand the test of time. Jennifer Jason Leigh is mesmerizing as Reznik's prostitute girlfriend, and Bale's work is as meticulous and supernatural as acting gets. ***1/2 C.S.
"Meet the Fockers" The Fockers, get it? This sequel to the 2000 blockbuster comedy "Meet the Parents" is bawdier and more ambitious, but ultimately an inferior movie that relies more on star power than good jokes to float its toilet humor. The plot centers on Focker Isle, the sex-friendly Florida habitat of Ben Stiller's Jewish hippie parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Stiller's Greg Focker is still trying to cope with the stern expectations of his fiancée's dad, an ex-CIA agent played by Robert De Niro, and most of the jokes turn on the ensuing culture clash when his family comes for a visit. De Niro fares the best in his role as the uptight guy at odds with bohemians, but "Meet the Fockers" is overlong and its comedy too often insulting and gratuitous. ** C.S.
"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.
"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") wrote this wry buddy movie about two guys on a weeklong bachelor party/tour through California's wine country with his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor. 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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