Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Chloë Sevigny

BY LEAH ROZEN

CRITIC'S CHOICE

CRIME

Just as real life is messy and sometimes leaves us without answers, so Zodiac goes off in multiple directions and ends without a neat, tied-with-a-bow resolution. How could it? This intriguing but occasionally frustrating film is based on the real-life, still unsolved case of the Zodiac killer, a serial murderer who terrorized Northern California for years, beginning in 1968. Police attribute five murders to him, though he claimed 13 victims (later even more) in taunting letters, some written in code, that he signed as "Zodiac" and sent to San Francisco newspapers beginning in 1969.

Displaying a far less feverish style than in his earlier films such as Se7en and Fight Club, director David Fincher in Zodiac focuses on obsession and how it can rule and ruin lives. The movie's main characters, based on actual people, are Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), a young newspaper cartoonist whose penchant for puzzle-solving draws him to the case (the film is adapted from a book he wrote); Paul Avery (Downey Jr.), a veteran crime reporter; and Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), a San Francisco homicide cop. As the years drag on and leads fail to pan out or evidence proves insufficient to nail a suspect, all three men pay a high price for their continuing preoccupation with identifying the killer. While one may question the need to include every twist and turn in the case (the film runs more than 2½ hours), Zodiac mostly keeps you as caught up as these men were. (R)
[STARS 3]

James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve

CRITIC'S CHOICE

COMEDY

Scottish-born James McAvoy, who played the young M.D. in The Last King of Scotland and the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is one of England's fastest-rising young stars. His charming performance here shows exactly why. In Starter For 10, McAvoy brings verve, sensitivity and a gracefully loping way with a comic line to his portrayal of Brian Jackson, a working-class youth beset by romantic and academic conflicts when he enrolls at a university in the mid-1980s (the movie's vintage soundtrack is amusingly evocative).

Deftly directed by Tom Vaughan, Starter is a gentle coming-of-age comedy enlivened by believable characters and much humor. (David Nicholls adapted the screenplay from his own novel.) Besides McAvoy, there are adroit turns by Hall and Eve, who play two smart but very different female classmates being courted by our hero. (PG-13)
[STARS 3]

Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake

DRAMA

Black Snake Moan will indeed have you moaning, "Please, make it stop!" Written and directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), this has to be the silliest pseudo-serious movie in years. Ricci, sashaying about like Daisy Duke in micro cutoff jeans and tube tops, is the town trollop in a hick burg in Tennessee. After her beau (Timberlake) departs for the Army, she starts drinking and drugging prodigiously and jumping anything in pants. But deep down, don't ya know, she's hurting something powerful. Jackson, an ex-blues man turned farmer who has recently been dumped by his own wife, decides he's going to reform Ricci. How? He chains her half-naked to a radiator in his house, reads to her from the Bible and lectures her on her evil ways. The idea seems to be that these two damaged people can eventually help each other to heal. This is hooey of the highest order and it doesn't help that Ricci overacts ludicrously, doing a fair approximation of Betty Boop in heat. Moan's blues-heavy soundtrack is terrific, but music alone does not a movie make. (R)
[STARS 1]

Sally Field, Ben Chaplin, Julianne Nicholson, Tom Cavanagh

DRAMA

After a friend's father died when she was still in her early 20s, she told me she found herself dividing pals into two groups: those who'd had a parent expire and those who hadn't. "If you haven't, you can't begin to understand," she said. The same may hold true for relating to Two Weeks, a slight but obviously heartfelt film that lurches fitfully between comedy and drama as it follows the emotional journey of four adult siblings whose mother is dying.

The Bergman offspring (Chaplin, Nicholson, Cavanagh and Glenn Howerton) return home to tend to their ailing mother (Field, doing top-notch work), who is fast losing her battle with ovarian cancer. The quartet bicker, reviving old fights and picking new ones, even as Mom, in between doses of morphine, urges them to get along. Enough in Two rings true, particularly if you've lost a parent (I have), that the film has its affecting moments despite characters being too sketchily developed. Best scene: Field—unable to digest—is encouraged by her kids to "chew and spit" barbequed spareribs, a favorite dish. (R)
[STARS 2]

>When a Killer Had Californians Quaking

The Zodiac Killer murdered at least five times and sent 20-plus goading letters (some of which included ciphers and bloodstained evidence) to Bay Area papers and cops. Nearly 40 years later, his identity remains a mystery. San Francisco police closed their investigation in 2003 after DNA from lead suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (who died in '92) failed to match samples on Zodiac's letters. The case remains open in Vallejo, where authorities hope to develop a complete DNA profile of the killer.

>Virginia Madsen, 45, plays Billy Bob Thornton's wife in The Astronaut Farmer. They smooch.

SO, WHAT'S IT LIKE TO PECK BILLY BOB? Very nice! We didn't get to have any big kisses, though. But I was campaigning for that. I'm single and I haven't been kissed in a really long time. We snuck a few little ones in there—it was very sweet.

YOU ALSO KISS JIM CARREY IN THE NUMBER 23. And it wasn't so bad kissing him either! He totally kisses in character. When he was Fingerling, it was angry and violent. When he was Walter, it was loving. Jenny [McCarthy, Carrey's girlfriend], I apologize.

SO, WHO'S A BETTER KISSER? I never kiss and tell. Suffice it to say it was really cool to kiss both of 'em.

>Casino Royale ($28.96) Forget Tom Cruise. Daniel Craig pulled off 2006's real mission impossible in his freshman outing as 007 (due out March 13). His burly, gritty Bond reinvigorated the stale franchise while making us forget all about Pierce and Sean what's-their-names. Extras: Breezy, insightful featurettes on Craig (who admits the initial uproar over his casting "did spur me on") and the film's exhilarating stuntwork are standouts. (PG-13) Movie: [STARS 3.5] Extras: [STARS 3]