OUT OF TIME Denzel Washington is the marquee attraction, and Eva Mendes (2 Fast 2 Furious) and Sanaa Lathan (Brown Sugar) are the heavily promoted up-and-comers, but it's the performance by unknown John Billingsley that will have everyone talking as they exit this otherwise negligible piece of pulp fiction. The film itself is a sloppily assembled variation on the sweat-inducing Kevin Costner hit No Way Out, with Washington cast as a small-town Florida police chief who comes to realize that all the evidence in a double homicide paints him as the murderer. Mendes plays his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who of course also happens to be the detective heading up the investigation, while Lathan co-stars as his mistress, a former high school sweetheart now married to an abusive hothead (Dean Cain). It's always a treat to watch Washington ply his trade, but after a while, the predictability of the mystery -- more obvious than the cons in Matchstick Men and on a par with the one in the upcoming Mystic River -- coupled with the credibility-stretching circumstances regarding Washington's situation render it dopey rather than deft. The sole fresh ingredient is Billingsley's noteworthy turn as Washington's wisecracking sidekick, a slovenly medical examiner whose faith in his chief never falters.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR Like Adaptation, this misfit movie about a misfit man draws its strength from its ability to play around with the very structure of the motion picture form. In relating the true-life tale of underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar (aptly played by Paul Giamatti), this piece cleverly whiplashes between using movie actors and using the real-life personalities; the inventiveness even extends to the visuals, as parts are animated and framed like comic strips. For all its audacity around the edges, though, the movie rarely offers anything more than Teflon pleasures; unlike the magnificent documentary Crumb, it's content to stay on the surface, never digging deep in an attempt to examine the demons that drove Pekar's life.
ANYTHING ELSE Given the dearth of working-order humor in most of Woody Allen's recent pictures, it might be easy to oversell this new piece. But this is clearly Minor League Allen, perhaps even Little League Allen. Yet it's also the closest the 67-year-old auteur has come in years to producing a consistently pleasing film. Part of the appeal is that the creep-out factor has been excised -- namely, Allen's tendency to cast himself as elderly nebbishes who prove to be sexually irresistible to young women. Allen is clearly in hands-off mode, relegating himself to a supporting role as a teacher who offers advice to an aspiring comedian (Jason Biggs) with an aloof girlfriend (Christina Ricci). Creaky in spots, but the cast is appealing and the one-liners work.
CABIN FEVER You know the routine: Five idiotic kids with sex and drugs on the brain hole up in a shack in the middle of nowhere (filming largely took place in North Carolina); after spending some time making fun of the inbred locals, they're suddenly confronted with a terror that ends up picking them off one by one. In this case, it's a disease (spread through water) that causes the victim's flesh to peel off, eventually leaving only blood, bones and very toothy grimaces. Like the recent 28 Days Later, the film's power derives not from its scare angle (which isn't too fantastical in this era of SARS and AIDS) but from its depiction of the manner in which humans will turn on each other when their own survival is at stake. 1/2
COLD CREEK MANOR This weak thriller is like a dead-end street in a swanky neighborhood, offering some interesting glimpses along the way but ultimately leading nowhere. Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone play an NYC couple who, tired of the big-city bustle, purchase a mansion out in the sticks. Once the previous owner (Stephen Dorff), a rube just released from prison, shows up, bad things start happening, and the family soon suspects that their new home may have once been host to tragic events. What Richard Jefferies' script lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in gaping plotholes -- hardly a fair trade-off. Director Mike Figgis also composed the score, which during the tense scenes sounds like a two-year-old incessantly banging on random piano keys.
DUPLEX In this often uproarious comedy, Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play a couple 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 decide that murdering her is the only viable option left. Director Danny DeVito and writers Larry Doyle (The Simpsons) and John Hamburg (Meet the Parents) ably milk this premise for all it's worth -- there are no dry spells in this comedy that's in the style of such Ealing Studios classics as The Ladykillers.