IDENTITY As a longtime fan of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, this new thriller, which works from the same template, completely had me in its grip for the first hour. Eleven people, including a former cop (John Cusack), an active cop (Ray Liotta), a hooker (Amanda Peet) and a has-been actress (Rebecca DeMornay), all find themselves stranded at a desolate hotel during a massive rain storm, where they start getting murdered one by one. With this cast lending prestige and a competent director (James Mangold of Girl, Interrupted) emphasizing mounting suspense over cheap scares, Identity works like gangbusters until it reveals Major Plot Twist #1 with about 20 minutes to go (Major Plot Twist #2 concerns the killer's identity during the final minutes, but this one's easy to figure out for those familiar with the ground rules of the genre). Without giving too much away, this sudden reversal of circumstances might catch most audiences off guard and certainly takes the film into a new direction, but that's not necessarily a plus, as this shift largely negates everything that preceded it and ends up reducing its intriguing characters to nothing more than paper dolls. It's a real shame: Perhaps the Director's Cut on DVD will shuck the entire final third and add a better resolution, but let's not hold our breath.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY The Douglas clan's answer to the Fondas' On Golden Pond might easily have been called On Golden Turkey, as a wretched beginning hints that this might end up as one of the year's worst films. Fortunately for all involved (and none more so than the audience), this schizophrenic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-we're-even-considering-that melodrama rights itself enough to ascend to the level of a rampaging mediocrity. Kirk Douglas, a welcome presence who nevertheless is only onscreen to toss off one-liners, plays Mitchell Gromberg, the crusty patriarch of a New York family, with real-life family members cast as his wife (Diana Douglas, in reality his former spouse), his son (Michael Douglas), and his grandson (Cameron Douglas). Along with the other members of the Gromberg household (Bernadette Peters as Michael's wife and Rory Culkin as their youngest son), they must cope with petty squabbles, potential affairs, underachieving offspring, flatulent relatives, and other factors that prevent them from becoming as cozy a clan as the Waltons. This overreaching Family affair, numbly directed by Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation), was a labor of love for Kirk and Michael, who had never appeared together on screen before this -- it's a lovely sentiment, but hardly worth the price of admission.
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 -- and that's actually 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, 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.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM You don't need a whole hand to count the number of American movies that have centered on women's soccer -- a single cuticle will do just fine (that would be 1992's Ladybugs, a dismal Rodney Dangerfield comedy). But now, our mates on the other side of the pond have come through with this charming British film that's been rocking the rest of the world and deserves to become a sleeper hit stateside. Our heroine is teenage Jess Bhamra (newcomer Parminder Nagra), a member of an Indian family living in London. Jess loves nothing so much as the game of soccer, but her parents (Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan) don't approve, preferring that she pursue a more traditional life (i.e., learn to cook and marry a nice Indian boy). Her new friend Jules (Keira Knightley) invites her to join the local girls' team, but Jess' newfound happiness hits a brick wall in the form of her parents, who soon forbid her from playing soccer at all. "Feel-good" movies often get denigrated because they sometimes force audiences to leave their brains in the lobby in order to enjoy the merriment. This sharp culture-clash/coming-of-age tale doesn't share that problem: It's "feel-good" without being "feel-stupid."