"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
"Downfall" Were the Oscars an international affair, it would have been a crime to deny Bruno Ganz a Best Actor statue for his portrayal of Hitler in this first-rate historical reconstruction. Though not a particularly artistic work, "Downfall" has an exacting attention to detail and accuracy balanced by Hollywood-quality realism and a superb cast. The military action, like that in most recent war pictures, owes a great debt to "Saving Private Ryan," but the many behind-closed-doors discussions are kept taut by the inevitably macabre subject matter. Whether it's Hitler talking over tea how best to shoot oneself or Goebbels' wife gently murdering her own children, "Downfall" is gripping cinema. (R) ***** Wayne Melton
"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
"The Longest Yard" Peter Segal ("Anger Management," "50 First Dates") successfully helms his third Adam Sandler project in this funny modernized retooling of Robert Aldrich's 1974 original. Sandler steps into Burt Reynolds' shoes as former pro football quarterback Paul Crewe, the latest addition to a prison community where he's called on by the warden (James Cromwell) to lead a team of inmates to play a climactic football game against the guards. The maturity that Sandler has recently acquired in his comic approach pays off as the story balances drama and comedy with hip touches of nuance and physical burlesque. (PG-13) ***1/2 C.S.
"Madagascar" A foursome of digitally animated zoo animals escape the inner-city confines of Manhattan's Central Park Zoo in search of freedom that's not all it's cracked up to be in this well-defined children's comedy. Ben Stiller voices Alex the egotistical lion to Chris Rock's confident but anxious Marty the Zebra, while Jada Pinkett Smith does gentle vocal honors as Gloria the Hippo. Along with Melman the Giraffe, the crew takes a wrong turn at Grand Central Station and ends up shipwrecked in Madagascar, where Marty's primal feline instincts threaten every living thing around him, including his best friends. Sacha Baron Cohen ("Da Ali G Show") is exceptional as the voice of self-proclaimed Lemur King Julien. (PG) ***1/2 C.S.
"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.
"Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" -- Until the last quarter of this, the last movie, it's pretty hard to make sense of these prequels, and it doesn't get much easier. Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is secretly living with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in some kind of swanky penthouse in the stratosphere (wouldn't somebody miss her?) as her hubby battles the Sith with his mentor/sidekick Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) like double Rambos, and Yoda takes to the streets with his Wookiee friends. Meanwhile, Anakin is faced with a severe career decision: Remain spindly Jedi Chosen One or become seven-foot-tall throat-crushing Darth Vader? Here on Earth, one trip to the grocery store, stacked floor to ceiling with Obi-Wan-approved Frosted Flakes and C-3PO Cokes, tells you all you need to know: This phenomenon can only be explained as the dark side of popular entertainment. (PG-13) *1/2 -- Wayne Melton
"Unleashed" -- Jet Li ("Romeo Must Die") plays a martial arts attack dog used by his loan shark warden (Bob Hoskins) in collecting debts from deadbeat clients. Set in Glasgow, the story follows Li's escape from his cruel keeper when he meets a benevolent blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his musically gifted stepdaughter (Kerry Condon), who accept the traumatized man into their humble family. Li's fighting sequences are unique for their street-fighting style of realism and brutality in this film produced by Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita") and directed by his apprentice Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter"). "Unleashed" is a pleasantly puzzling action movie full of gentle charisma and flashy ultraviolence. The narrative connections are comically rough, but the performances are heartfelt. (R) ** -- C.S.
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