THE HOURS Like The English Patient and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Hours is one of those reputedly "unfilmable" novels that has bucked the odds to emerge as an exquisite motion picture in its own right. Adapting Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winner, director Stephen Daldry and scripter David Hare have crafted a richly textured film that spans decades to concentrate on three troubled women who are all connected in one way or another to British author Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. First, there's Woolf herself (played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman), battling the mental illness that is starting to overtake her as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s. Then there's Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a suburban housewife in 1950s Los Angeles who, while reading the book, begins to focus on her own misery and how she might best change her lot in life. And finally, there's Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a New York literary agent -- and modern-day Clarissa Dalloway -- who's busy preparing a party for a former lover (Ed Harris) now dying of AIDS. It's deeply rewarding to witness how the movie jumps between time periods, using an event in one storyline to beautifully segue into one of the others -- the result is a film of great cumulative power, sparked in no small part by a superlative cast. Added bonus: A rich score by Philip Glass that might be the year's best. 1/2
ABOUT SCHMIDT It's not exactly a product placement, but this unique, seriocomic film offers perhaps the most ingenious example of company promotion ever put on screen. Writer-director Alexander Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor, adapting Louis Begley's novel, have tackled the sad-sack saga of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a just-retired insurance actuary whose remaining days look like nothing more than one long slumber, endless hours of doing nothing, seeing nothing, feeling nothing. Bored with his lot in life, Schmidt perks up when he sees an infomercial for Childreach. Perhaps responding because he's deeply touched, or, more likely, because it gives him something to do, Schmidt ends up sponsoring a 6-year-old African boy named Ndugu. The movie's use of Schmidt's sponsorship is brilliant, allowing the character's voice-over narration to be deployed both as a floating, ethereal entity on the soundtrack and as the content of the letters that he writes to Ndugu. And it's all wrapped around a deeply felt story about one man's overwhelming desire to find meaning in his life and to ultimately make a difference. Nicholson's astute performance is one of his finest in recent times, and the film culminates in a scene of quiet devastation, centered on a picture that isn't just worth a thousand words but also a hundred emotions, all of them finely etched on Warren Schmidt's wrinkled, weary and wiser visage. 1/2
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN Steven Spielberg had already fulfilled his quota of quality entertainment for 2002 when he released Minority Report last summer, but as an added treat he's now offering this pleasing little picture that finds the director in a playful mood. From its snazzy opening credits -- the type normally found in frothy romantic comedies of the early 60s -- to John Williams' bouncy, infectious score, Catch Me feels like nothing so much as pure old-fashioned escapism -- it's the retro-movie that the fall flop The Truth About Charlie desperately wanted to be. Inspired by a true story, this stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, who, while still a teenager, manages to successfully impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher, all the while cashing false checks to the tune of more than $2 million. Frank stays ahead of the law for years, but never too far ahead, as his every move is dogged by a persistent FBI agent (Tom Hanks, very good). Because this is a Spielberg project, you can bet some poignant subtext involving splintered family units will come into play (Christopher Walken does a nice job as Frank's perpetually weary dad), but for the most part, this is engaging, stress-free entertainment -- just kick back and enjoy.
CHICAGO Not only for theater aficionados, this adaptation of the stage hit is a musical for people who don't even like musicals, weaving its deliriously dark tale with enough cyanide-laced cynicism to win over moviegoers who wouldn't know Oklahoma! from Oh! Calcutta! Director-choreographer Rob Marshall and Oscar-winning scripter Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters) keep the proceedings both lively and lacerating, and if, after years of overexposure, the story's themes relating to the cult of celebrity have all the bite of a toothless gerbil, at least they're presented in an engaging fashion. Among other things, this knockout of a musical finds Catherine Zeta-Jones in her best screen work to date, Richard Gere putting forth his finest effort since An Officer and a Gentleman, and Renee Zellweger adding to her string of unassailable performances. Zellweger, that most Kewpie Doll of actresses, turns into Lethal Barbie as she handles the role of Roxie Hart, a starlet wanna-be in Prohibition-era Chicago who, like fellow singer-dancer Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), is behind bars for murder. Both women's public images are carefully handled by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere), and all three work the angles to ensure they each land on top. The actors' exuberance and Marshall's imaginative staging just might be enough to raise this once-revered genre from the dead. 1/2