COMEDY

Kimberly Elise, Steve Harris, Tyler Perry, Shemar Moore, Cicely Tyson

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When a philandering, filthy-rich lawyer (Harris) in Atlanta coldly dumps his wife of 18 years (Elise), she asks piteously, "What am I supposed to do?" She slowly figures out the answer, building a new life for herself based on churchgoing and the love of a good man (Moore) in this moralizing dramedy, which careens frantically between soap opera, broad yuks, Bible-thumping and gauzy romance. Holding it all together, though, is an accomplished, from-the-heart performance by Elise as the fired-up heroine. In a sea of stick figures, she is an island of sincerity.

Diary has been adapted for the screen by playwright Tyler Perry, who also pops up in three supporting roles, including one in buxom drag. Perry's plays have been wildly successful in recent years, primarily with black audiences. It's easy to see how his mix of humor, amour and old-time religion might have broad appeal, but next time he attempts a stage-to-film transfer, judicious pruning is in order. (PG-13)

DRAMA/COMEDY

Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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You've seen them in movies, miniseries and ad nauseam on the History Channel, but never before have Adolf Hitler's final days seemed so real or chilling as in this German film. Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment) with an eye for the small, telling detail, shows the dictator coming unglued while confined to a bunker beneath the Chancellery in Berlin in 1945.

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, Downfall is based on two books—by a historian and by Hitler's secretary—that meticulously chronicled the end of the Third Reich. As Russian troops encircle Berlin, a delusional, tantrum-throwing Hitler (Ganz, who's scarily perfect) forbids surrender. His top aides, in between drinking binges, plot against him or plan their own suicides. Meanwhile, secretaries and Hitler's mistress Eva Braun sneak outside for smoking breaks. Though long (2 hours, 28 minutes), Downfall keeps you riveted. (Not rated)

HISTORICALFernanda Montenegro

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Montenegro, the mesmerizing Brazilian actress nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for 1998's Central Station, is back and radiant as ever in this charming Portuguese-language film. She plays an embittered older divorcée in Rio de Janeiro who—shades of Rear Window—thinks she spots from her window a murder in an apartment across the street. The twist is that Montenegro, conducting her own investigation, cozies up to the supposed killer, a respected judge (Raul Cortez), only to fall for him. This is a movie that respects age and its wisdom, but also knows love makes fools of us all. (Not rated)

Bigger than the Sky

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After being dumped by his girlfriend, a bland fellow (Marcus Thomas, boring as a TV test pattern) in Portland, Ore., lands a role in a community theater production of Cyrano de Bergerac and finds himself cavorting with theater types (John Corbett and Amy Smart) in a slight, stage-struck comedy. (PG-13)

Son of the Mask

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A cartoonist (Jamie Kennedy) discovers that his infant son (Liam and Ryan Falconer) has strange powers in this weak attempt to retool 1994's The Mask as a franchise for kids. Lacking both Jim Carrey and laughs, Mask Jr. can boast only excessive volume and special effects.

Constantine

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Keanu Reeves monotones his way through a cool-looking but brainless supernatural thriller that plays like Matrix Lite. Rachel Weisz costars. (R)

SOPHIE OKONEDO British-born Okonedo, 36, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her tough, tender turn as Tatiana Rusesabagina, whose husband, Paul, sheltered more than 1,200 Rwandans from genocide in 1994.

ON MEETING THE REAL TATIANA I sensed she didn't want to talk about the genocide, so I didn't ask. But I saw that she is both shy and strong. I wanted to get a sense of her, what she likes to eat, for example. Well, she is very particular about her tea!

ON KEEPING PRESPECTIVE DURING FILMING I was surrounded by real refugees, from Rwanda and Congo, who lived these things. Emotionally, at times, it was overwhelming and dark and painful. But you have to ask, "What's so difficult about doing some film compared to what they've done?" And I had my daughter [Aoife, 7] with me, so I had to go back to being Mommy at the end of the day.

ON THE DAY NOMINATIONS CAME OUT I was in England, and it was lunchtime. At 1:29 everything was normal. By 1:34: my life was unrecognizable. There were tons of phone calls from people I hadn't talked to in 20 years, people wanting to give me shoes, people wanting to dress me. It was unbelievable.

ON HER PLANS FOR THE OSCARS Making decisions sends me into a panic. But obviously I'll take my mother.

—DIETLIND LERNER
  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Dietlind Lerner.