25TH HOUR (PG-13) Spike Lee's melancholy mess of a movie stars Edward Norton as a big-time Manhattan drug dealer brooding away his last day of freedom before going away for a seven-year prison stretch. There's no real story arc to the film (no real story, period, come to think of it), just Monty wandering around in a state of emotional near-paralysis, glaring at everyone and everything, including himself. David Benioff's lethargic screenplay simply places Norton's character in one farewell scene after another, a spiraling crescendo of regret and self-importance. What's clearly intended as epic and elegiac comes off as trivial and, often, downright lugubrious. Also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.
8 MILE (R) This much-anticipated portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-dawg stars white-boy rapper/pop sensation Eminem as a barely disguised version of himself in younger days. Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), the movie is set in Detroit's mid-'90s hip-hop scene, where aspiring rapper Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith (Eminem) lives in a trailer with his trashy mom (Kim Basinger), works a dead-end factory job by day, and hangs with his pals and performs by night. It's all extremely engaging, and the climactic battle between dueling rappers is half-Rocky, half-spaghetti western and an instant classic. Also stars Mekhi Phifer.
ABOUT SCHMIDT (R) Jack Nicholson is resplendently bland in this skewed character study of an ordinary, retired insurance salesman with penchant for crankiness and a bad comb-over (is there such a thing as a good comb-over?). After his wife suddenly dies, Nicholson's Schmidt hops in his 30-foot Winnebago and embarks on a mini-road trip revisiting his past — only to find he doesn't really seem to have a past, or a future. Schmidt's confusion and limbo status is played mostly for laughs, though, and communicated largely through the letters he writes to his Tanzanian foster child. Also stars Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman. 1/2
ADAPTATION (PG) Like their earlier Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's latest is a nearly indescribable meta-adventure that grabs real life by the short-and-curlies and uses it as a jumping-off point for some of the most fiercely imaginative filmmaking around. Kaufman makes himself the movie's central character and gets Nicolas Cage to play him, turning the bulk of the film into Cage/Kaufman obsessing about himself, about his constantly morphing new script (also called Adaptation), and about the creative process in general. Jonze's film is admittedly a snake eating its own tail, but most of it is also thoroughly intoxicating and, in its own way, a lot of fun. Also stars Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox.
ANTWONE FISHER (PG-13) Denzel Washington's directorial debut is a sort of African-American Equus, starring Washington himself as a navy psychiatrist doing his best to help a troubled young seaman. Washington's quietly confident film is a moving but fairly predictable tale about dysfunctional kids and their mentors, very much in the tradition of Good Will Hunting, Ordinary People and way too many others to mention. For a first effort, Washington's film is an effective, but not a particularly remarkable one, a little like one of those Oprah book club selections with lots of exhaustively rendered pain and tears, a series of revelations that aren't really revelatory, all culminating in an uplifting but unsurprising pay-off. Also stars Derek Luke and Joy Bryant.
AUSTRALIA: LAND BEYOND TIME (PG) The film takes us Down Under to the flattest, driest continent on earth, immerses us in parched, otherworldly landscapes and introduces us to tons of incredibly odd and supremely adaptable animals. 1/2
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (PG) Steven Spielberg's movie about the world's most successful con man is glossy Fun with a Capital F, a snappy old-school caper that never takes itself too seriously. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale, a high school dropout who in the 1960s successfully impersonated a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot, and who passed some four million dollars worth of forged checks, all before his 21st birthday. Tom Hanks is the dedicated but humorless FBI agent who pursues Abagnale and eventually forms a strange bond with him. Also stars Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Nathalie Baye. 1/2
CHICAGO (PG-13) Rob Marshall pulls out all the stops in this lavish, big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about a 1920s chorus girl who shoots her lover, goes to jail and becomes a big celebrity. Taking place simultaneously in gritty reality and in the projected fantasies of its characters, the movie cleverly folds its story into a series of show-stopping musical numbers. All of the stars do their own singing, as well as dancing, and some of them, like Renee Zellweger, are surprisingly good (only Richard Gere's warbling is a chore to sit through). Also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly and Taye Diggs.