DADDY DAY CARE There's been a lot of grousing lately about how any time Eddie Murphy appears in a family film, he's wasting the hard-edged skills that initially made him a star in R-rated hits like 48HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. I'd be more sympathetic to that argument had Murphy only made good R-rated flicks, but the truth is that he's far easier to take in pictures like Mulan and now Daddy Day Care than in foul-mouthed turkeys like Beverly Hills Cop II, Harlem Nights and Vampire In Brooklyn. In fact, Murphy's charming performance proves to be one of the stronger aspects of this PG-rated piffle about two marketing executives (Murphy and Jeff Garlin) who, after losing their jobs, decide to open their own day care center. The usual unimaginative touches are on view -- several flatulence bits, over-the-top comic foils (played by Anjelica Huston and Kevin Nealon), etc. -- but an acceptable number of decent gags, a sweet turn by Steve Zahn as a Daddy Day Care employee with a Star Trek obsession, and Murphy's strong rapport with his young co-stars (especially Khamani Griffin as his son) make this more enjoyable than any level-headed adult could have reasonably expected. 1/2
CONFIDENCE If The Good Thief represents the Old School brand of heist flicks, then Confidence serves as its New School equivalent, a picture carrying the torch for Mamet and Tarantino in its love of rapid-fire dialogue, roving camerawork and multiple plot twists. As such, it's one of the better recent examples (it easily overshadows Gene Hackman's Heist and Robert De Niro's The Score), even if it does run out of steam (and originality) before the end. The prime-cut cast is its strongest asset, with Ed Burns oozing charisma as a wily con artist, Paul Giamatti a welcome presence as a straight-talking member of his team, and, in a startling bit of casting, Dustin Hoffman as a venal smalltime kingpin with a quick temper and a fondness for both the ladies and the gents. You also get Rachel Weisz as the requisite femme fatale and reliable Luis Guzman as a corrupt cop, but by the time Andy Garcia gets thrown into the mix late in the game as a shady government agent, it's clear that director James Foley (who orchestrated similar rat-tat-tat patter in Glengarry Glen Ross) and scripter Doug Jung have overstuffed their plates -- in this case, less probably would have been more. 1/2
THE GREY ZONE Roman Polanski's The Pianist may have been showered with Oscar glory a couple of months ago, but the best Holocaust film of 2002 was actually this overlooked drama starring David Arquette, Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi. Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's film goes one step further than The Pianist, which itself went one step further than the traditional Holocaust epic: Whereas Polanski's protagonist was painted not so much as a hero but a valiant survivalist, many of the characters here are painted as morally compromised survivalists who will do almost anything to stave off death for just a while longer. The picture centers on a remarkable tidbit of history: the only successful uprising that ever occurred at the Nazi death camps during World War II. Its primary players are members of the Sonderkommando, a special squad of Jewish prisoners who helped the Germans usher the rest of the Jews into the crematoria in exchange for a few extra months of life. Some of them maintain a stiff upper lip while plotting a revolt, while others are more outwardly emotional, nagged by a crushing sense of guilt. It can be argued that most Holocaust pictures are ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit; befitting its title, this one is more cloudy than that, exploring murky mindsets amid murky circumstances. 1/2
HOLES Louis Sachar's award-winning children's book might be a "must-read" among students and teachers, but the widely circulated trailer made the new screen version look like a "must-avoid." Luckily, the finished product is far more engaging than the clumsy preview would lead anyone to believe -- in fact, it's good enough to be enjoyed equally by kids and their parents. Sachar himself wrote the script, which focuses on the plight of hapless teen Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf of the Disney Channel's Even Stevens), who's wrongly convicted of robbery and sent to Camp Green Lake, a boys' correctional facility located in the middle of a desert. There, he and the other guys are subjected to the demands of the warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her two sidekicks (Tim Blake Nelson and a hilariously over-the-top Jon Voight), who order the boys to spend every day digging holes. Sachar and director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) crafted a fresh comedy-drama that nicely weaves the present-day story together with related flashbacks set in the Old West (Patricia Arquette stars in this section of the film); while the ending may tie everything up a bit too tidily, there's no denying that there's real imagination at work here.
IDENTITY As a longtime fan of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, this new thriller, which works from the same template, 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 fierce rainstorm, whereupon they begin to be 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 the shift largely negates everything that preceded it and reduces its initially intriguing characters to nothing more than paper dolls. It's a 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 initially 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 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 clearly a labor of love for Kirk and Michael, who had never appeared together on screen before this -- a lovely sentiment, but hardly worth the price of admission.
THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE The appeal of the Disney Channel's top-rated kids' show Lizzie McGuire can doubtless be traced to its star, 15-year-old Hilary Duff. Duff plays Lizzie as part Lucille Ball, part Britney Spears (minus the sleaze factor) and part Julie Andrews, serving up a squeaky clean teen whose only flaw seems to be her excessive makeup. Perhaps inevitably, we now get the big-screen spin-off, yet while the movie should prove to be manna from sit-com heaven for the show's fan base of kids ages 6-14, there's not much here to excite accompanying parents. Like one of those two-part Brady Bunch or Happy Days episodes that were invariably shown during sweeps weeks, this rounds up the cast of TV regulars and transports them to a foreign setting -- in this case, Italy, which is where a class trip takes Lizzie, best friend Gordo (Adam Lamberg) and her other schoolmates. This sets the stage for a lame mistaken identity romp (Duff plays both Lizzie and an Italian pop star), yet Duff's appeal renders it harmless to the senses. Rating for its target audience: four stars. Rating for the rest of us:
30 YEARS TO LIFE Don't let the title fool you into dismissing this as another Steven Seagal action snooze; this debut feature from writer-director Vanessa Middleton follows in the tradition of the lovely Soul Food as a winning look at well-to-do African-Americans struggling with careers and relationships. Here, the unifying theme among its central characters is that they're all 29 and will be celebrating their 30th birthdays over the course of the film. For most of them, this milestone brings up feelings of anxiety: Natalie (Melissa De Sousa) is a beautiful, brainy career woman who can't understand why she's unlucky in love; Troy (Tracy Morgan) is a stand-up comedian wondering if his breakthrough will ever arrive; Joy (Erika Alexander) and Leland (T.E. Russell) have been together for four years, with visions of matrimony in her eyes but not his; Stephanie (Paula Jai Parker) is an overweight woman who decides to remake herself; and Malik (Allen Payne) is an incurable womanizer who tries his hand at a modeling career. Besides ably tapping into that well of insecurity that invariably accompanies the aging process (and providing several big laughs along the way), Middleton exhibits her skills as a storyteller by making sure each interconnected episode is as engaging as the one that preceded it and also by resisting the urge to neatly tie up every story strand -- in fact, I can already see the sequel: What? 40 Already?!
X2 Almost on a par with the Y2K hit X-Men, this exciting sequel kicks off the summer movie season in style. While not quite matching the sense of wonder that accompanied the first picture, this one boasts a more polished script, vastly improved special effects, and a longer running time (135 minutes, a full half-hour over its predecessor) that gives more players more time to strut their stuff. This time, kindly Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his band of do-gooder mutants find themselves teaming up with arch-villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) in an effort to bring down a ruthless military man (Brian Cox) hell-bent on eradicating every mutant on the planet. Practically every character from the first film returns, and there's the welcome addition of Alan Cumming as the sweet-natured Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned German with the ability to teleport out of tight jams. As with most sci-fi sequels, this will seem incomprehensible to folks who skipped the first film, but even they will be able to glean the subtext often found in superhero adventures: A just and civilized society has no room for prejudice against those who are born different. X2 hammers that point home, with thinly veiled outbursts against warmongering rightwing administrations and homophobia. Hugh Jackman again excels as Wolverine, with noteworthy support by McKellen and especially Famke Janssen as soulful telepath Jean Grey.
THE MATRIX RELOADED: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne.
DOWN WITH LOVE: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor.
POKEMON HEROES: Animated.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS: Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz