ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 A favorite of critics and cultists alike, John Carpenter's 1976 Assault On Precinct 13 was a nifty little "B" flick about an LA street gang that descends upon a police station with the sole purpose of wiping out everyone inside. This flashy update is a competent but entirely generic action opus in which it's a group of rogue cops who attack the precinct in order to kill a captured crime lord whose testimony would put them behind bars. Laurence Fishburne plays the cool-under-fire kingpin, who reluctantly teams up with an honest officer (Ethan Hawke) to ensure his own survival. Expect few surprises from yet another needless remake.
THE AVIATOR This sprawling biopic about Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the notorious billionaire-industrialist-producer-flyboy, employs all the cinematic razzle-dazzle we've come to expect from Martin Scorsese, yet there's an added layer of excitement as the eternal cineaste finally gets to step back in time via his meticulous recreations of the sights and sounds of Old Hollywood (look for Cate Blanchett in a show-stealing turn as Katharine Hepburn). Still, the behind-the-scenes movie material takes a back seat to other aspects of Hughes' life - namely, his adventures in the field of aviation and his lifelong battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At its best, the film is a stirring tale about a man whose inner drive allowed him to climb ever higher and higher, grazing the heavens before his inner demons seized the controls and forced the inevitable, dreary descent. 1/2
COACH CARTER This works the usual underdog cliches fairly well as it tells the true story of Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a high school basketball coach in California who manages to turn a team that won only four games during its previous season into a statewide powerhouse. But at the height of their success, Carter elects to bench the entire team once he discovers that most of his players are performing poorly in their classes. Carter's selfless actions against a failed education system register even when the movie surrounding him turns on itself: All pertinent points are made after a full two hours, but the picture drags on for another 20 minutes simply so viewers can be treated to a climactic Big Game. Ultimately, Coach Carter's sincerity gets trumped by its savvy at milking the sports formula for all it's worth.
ELEKTRA Talk about a house of flying daggers: The multiplex is filled with them once Marvel's blade-wielding superheroine springs into action in this spin-off of 2003's Daredevil (in which she appeared as the sightless superhero's romantic interest). But while this lady in red often kicks it into high gear, the movie itself rarely moves beyond a stroll. The story finds the assassin-for-hire (Jennifer Garner) balking when her latest assignment requires her to kill a single dad (Goran Visnjic) and his teenage daughter (Kirsten Prout, whose annoying performance does the film no favors). Elektra elects to protect them instead, which in turn pits her against an evil organization known as The Hand. Inexplicably, no one ever deadpans, "Talk to The Hand," but then again, a sense of humor is noticeably missing throughout.
FINDING NEVERLAND After numerous film versions of Peter Pan, we now get a fanciful tale that seeks to explain how playwright J.M. Barrie initially came up with the idea for this children's classic. What ends up on the screen is as much fiction as fact (probably more so), but it's the sort of moving saga that will make audiences wish this was the way it really happened. A gentle Johnny Depp is just right as Barrie, whose inspiration comes from a widow (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, particularly the moody Peter (Freddie Highmore). Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and scripter David Magee have made a film full of warmth and wit.
HIDE AND SEEK Robert De Niro, in full paycheck-gorging mode, is miscast as David Callaway, a New York psychologist who, after his wife (Amy Irving) commits suicide, moves upstate with their traumatized 9-year-old daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning). Still struggling to cope with the tragedy, Emily invents an imaginary friend named Charlie, and a subsequent string of disasters leads David to wonder whether Emily suffers from a split personality, whether another person is manipulating his daughter, or whether there's a supernatural presence in their new home. It's becoming increasingly rote to review junky, generic thrillers like this one: Critics would do well to simply cut-and-paste their slams of last year's Secret Window (this film's doppelganger) and leave it at that.
HOTEL RWANDA Set in 1994 Rwanda, this powerful film takes place during the 100-day period when nearly one million of that country's Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutu extremists. Clearly, Hotel Rwanda is about international indifference and liberal ineffectualness, and the movie reverberates with such topical force (Sudan, anyone?) that the ink is still drying on its condemnation of a planet that operates with blinders firmly attached. Yet for all its indignant ire, the movie is more than anything a humanist saga, and it's in this area where it draws its greatest power. Don Cheadle exudes quiet authority as Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu hotel manager who risked everything to save over a thousand Tutsi civilians from falling under the machete.