ANGER MANAGEMENT After delivering subtle, shaded performances in The Pledge and About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson reverts back to his familiar "wild and crazy guy" persona in Anger Management -- yet that's not a bad thing. Nicholson gamely gets into the swing of the satire as Buddy Rydell, an unorthodox therapist whose methods threaten to completely unnerve his latest patient, a meek businessman (Adam Sandler) railroaded into subjecting himself to the good doctor's anger management program. It's doubtful we'll ever see Sandler tackling Hamlet or Willy Loman (and would we want to?), but both last fall's Punch-Drunk Love and now Anger Management demonstrate that he can be an engaging presence when he drags himself away from projects aimed at mentally deficient frat boys. Even if some of the situations seem overly familiar (the Yankee Stadium climax) or needlessly protracted (ditto), the movie zips by on the strength of some big laughs, sharply cast supporting roles (notably John Turturro and an unbilled Heather Graham) and the two well-matched stars at its core.
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* 8 WOMEN There may be eight women, but there are also three movies on view here -- and only one of them is an unqualified success. As a showcase for some of France's greatest actresses (including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart), this Gallic import is a naughty delight, as we watch these consummate pros inhabit their wicked roles with obvious zeal. Yet as a movie musical in which the characters spontaneously burst into song and dance, it's rather clumsy (certainly no Moulin Rouge), and as a murder-mystery, it's wretched -- even a random episode of Scooby-Doo makes more sense than what's presented here. How much viewers enjoy this, then, depends on to what extent they're able to focus on the shining stars at the center while ignoring the narrative debris surrounding them. 1/2
* Also: A major disappointment considering all the talent involved, HEAVEN () is a listless drama about a widow (Cate Blanchett) whose attempt to kill the drug dealer responsible for her husband's death backfires spectacularly. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) directed from a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (the Three Colors trilogy); winner of the Palme D'Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND (1/2), set in Yugoslavia over the course of several decades, tries for the same strain of wartime absurdity as The Tin Drum and Europa Europa but doesn't completely pull it off.
A MAN APART A Traffic for the action crowd, A Man Apart takes an unblinking view of drug cartels before eventually revealing its true colors as a generic shoot-'em-up yarn. Vin Diesel, whose magnetism apparently only blossoms when he's playing flippant anti-heroes (Pitch Black, XXX), is all chiseled nobility in this film, and the result is a dull performance that points out the actor's limitations (when his character gets weepy during one sequence, it's like watching a single raindrop making its way down a craggy mountainside). He's cast as Sean Vetter, a DEA agent whose wife (Jacqueline Obradors) is killed by a drug lord known only as Diablo. Close to cracking (at least that's what the script suggests; given Diesel's monotonous performance, it's hard to tell), Vetter is forced to turn to the drug kingpin (Geno Silva) he put behind bars to obtain information that will lead him to his quarry. Director F. Gary Gray has proven himself to be an effective director of action flicks (The Negotiator, Set It Off), but here his talents have deserted him. Like View from the Top, this one's been sitting on a studio shelf for quite some time, suggesting that Hollywood must presently be engaging in its own version of a yard sale. 1/2
ALL THE REAL GIRLS Writer-director David Gordon Green, an NC School of the Arts grad, follows 2000's George Washington with another movie shot entirely in rural North Carolina (in this case, Marshall). This sophomore effort is so laid back -- so in tune with the naturally sleepy rhythms of everyday existence -- that it feels unlike any love story I've seen in quite some time, with a simplicity and directness that truly touch the heart. Twenty-two-year-old Paul (Paul Schneider) has spent his entire life wooing women and then dumping them, but with virginal 18-year-old Noel (Zooey Deschanel), he feels a special connection, one that makes him want to do right by her. Yet ultimately it isn't Paul who takes a misstep, and soon the pair are working hard to salvage their tainted romance. Green has a strong love for -- and deep understanding of -- his small-town characters: When they say something that shows they're not exactly the brightest bulbs in the box, it's a way of acknowledging their limitations, not a way of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of ignorant Southern yahoos. I won't reveal how it all turns out, but I will say that Paul's statement after he's been damaged -- "If anybody smiles at me ever again, I'm gonna freak out" -- will bring a rueful smile to the lips of anyone who has ever loved and lost, even if only temporarily. 1/2