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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?!