DUPLEX Had Danny DeVito been born British and a quarter-century earlier, he would have fit right in at Ealing Studios, the English outfit known for such biting black comedies as The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Most of the movies directed by De Vito (including Death to Smoochy and The War of the Roses) have exhibited a similar strain of acerbic humor as those Ealing classics, and Duplex is no exception, allowing audiences to derive pleasure from watching the characters' pain. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play Alex and Nancy, a writer and graphic designer (respectively) who believe they've found their dream house when they purchase a duplex in Brooklyn. They figure they can deal with the fact that they'll be sharing their abode with a longtime rent-controlled tenant, a 90something-year-old Irish woman (Eileen Essel), but once this seemingly harmless lady turns their lives into a living hell, they come to the conclusion that murdering her is the only viable option left. Writers Larry Doyle (The Simpsons) and John Hamburg (Meet the Parents) should be commended for milking this premise for all it's worth -- there are no dry spells in this often uproarious comedy, and the resolution is especially clever.
THE RUNDOWN Toward the beginning of The Rundown, there's a cameo by an A-list action star, who nods at The Rock as they pass each other in a bar. The gag falls flat, but we get the drift: With most of our matinee heroes getting older, the baton must be passed, and why shouldn't The Rock be included on the short list of newcomers primed for action flick supremacy? The wrestling superstar is certainly no more immobile than, say, Schwarzenegger or Stallone, and he has enough innate charm to carry an undemanding picture on his wide shoulders. And The Rundown is certainly undemanding, with The Rock cast as an amiable debt collector who would rather talk through a situation rather than engage in fisticuffs. He's sent to Brazil to bring his employer's brash son (Seann William Scott) back to the US, but his mission is hindered by a ruthless American expatriate (Christopher Walken) and a Brazilian freedom fighter (Rosario Dawson), both of whom want the kid kept in the Amazon for their own purposes. Peter Berg, as lousy a director as he was an actor (his previous foray behind the camera was the insufferable Very Bad Things), makes a jumble of the action scenes, meaning this is one of those failed adventure yarns in which the character interaction is forced to make up for other shortcomings. The Rock and Walken do their part, but for an actor of such limited range, Scott (best known as American Pie's Stifler) is landing far too many roles to remain interesting.
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK It'd be easy to state that the guiding lights behind The School of Rock have sold out. After all, director Richard Linklater's previous credits include Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, while scripter Mike White's resume contains The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck. These indie favorites won't ever be mistaken for multiplex blockbusters, yet here the pair have teamed up for this accessible comedy about a failed rock star (Jack Black) who, under false pretenses, lands a job as a substitute teacher at a posh private school, whereupon he immediately begins teaching his buttoned-down fifth grade charges about the glories of rock & roll. It sounds like the sort of sanitized product that might star Eddie Murphy (Dokken Day Care?), yet what gives the movie any semblance of an edge is Jack Black, whose relentless manic energy gets us to believe that here's a slovenly yet soulful character who practices what he preaches. And the kids are alright, too -- not overly precocious or sentimentalized, these young performers help Black sell the message that our learning institutions would benefit from teaching classic rock right alongside classic lit.
UNDERWORLD It's an irresistible premise, one that horror fans can sink their teeth into: What if a centuries-spanning battle continues to be waged between vampires and werewolves, with the suave bloodsuckers living comfortably as aristocrats and the brutish lycanthropes relegated to dwelling beneath the city streets? It might have made for a good movie had cowriter-director Len Wiseman not insisted on shooting his picture as a direct rip-off of The Matrix, further embellishing it with swipes from the shadowy likes of The Crow and Dark City. As it stands, Underworld is a joyless exercise in "Gothic grunge," with poor pacing, lackluster performances and a tendency to include as many gun battles as possible in a bloated 120-minute running time (and why supernaturally endowed creatures of the night would even have to resort to using guns at every opportunity is one of the movie's nerdier concepts). As Selene, the comely vampire who falls for a sensitive werewolf (Scott Speedman), Kate Beckinsale elevates the fine art of pouting to a new level. 1/2