Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in Inside ManINSIDE MAN

Spike Lee's Inside Man, with its script by Russell Gewirtz, might look like a conventional blockbuster, but it has been structured with incredible finesse. Ostensibly, the movie is a standard heist thriller: Clive Owen and a trio of accomplices take over a Manhattan bank, hold the tellers and customers hostage, and - after news of the robbery breaks - make demands to Denzel Washington's negotiator.

But throughout the film, Lee and Gewirtz flash-forward to scenes of Washington and his partner (the terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor) speaking to the released hostages in the police department's questioning room. And while some of these sequences ooze edgy menace - the detectives are determining if any of the hostages were accomplices to the crime - most of them are relaxed, and the cops smile effortlessly and often; it's clear that whatever happened with the heist, it didn't end in a burst of senseless violence. Gewirtz's framing device lightens the film's tone considerably, and allows you to enjoy the cat-and-mouse thrills without guilt. Because you know in advance that the hostages will, by and large, emerge from the experience unscathed, you're free to root for both Washington and Owen to prevail, and with actors this charismatic, you don't want to choose between them. (Jodie Foster, too, is sensational, playing a mysterious, amoral corporate fix-it woman.) Lee's most conventional work yet also happens to be one of his most sheerly pleasurable; like the screenwriter, Lee attacks the contrivances of the movie's genre with vigor, acuity, and surprise, and provides sharp, biting humor in nearly every scene. Inside Man is being sold as a heavy-handed action-thriller, but it's a surprisingly light-hearted entertainment.


Elizabeth Banks in SlitherSLITHER

In James Gunn's horror comedy Slither, a squirming alien virus infects Michael Rooker, and within a matter of days, turns him into what looks like a meandering compost heap. Soon - and with Rooker's aid - an entire town is besieged by intergalactic leeches, who have a nasty habit of sliding down people's throats and turning them into zombies. Our heroes are a goofball sheriff (Nathan Fillion) and Rooker's sweet young wife (Elizabeth Banks), who still loves her lumbering, meat-eating pile of pus. And yes, the movie is every bit as fun as you hope it'll be. Slither's splatter effects are so satisfyingly gross that you laugh at their sheer audacity, but the great surprise of Gunn's movie is that it's so witty - the fate of the film's oft-referenced hand grenade is a brilliant gag pulled off with flawless comic precision. And Nathan Fillion, with his dazed comic weariness - he's like Harrison Ford's exasperated kid brother - is about the best thing to ever happen to a giddily cheesy monster movie such as Slither; he's less the guy you'd call to save the day than the guy you call after your first 18 choices have backed out.


Ice Age: The MeltdownICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN

Like its predecessor, Ice Age: The Meltdown has a great deal of charm, and it's so likable that you feel almost guilty for wishing there was more to like. As this sequel to 2002's computer-animated hit opens, our heroic herd wanders the prehistoric tundra in search of a new home, and the whole movie feels like it's wandering; it's pleasant, but aimless and repetitive. Instead of conflict, we have a series of skits - woolly mammoths Ray Romano and Queen Latifah bicker playfully, Denis Leary's saber-toothed tiger and John Leguizamo's sloth banter in Abbott & Costello fashion - and while these skits are often amusing, they don't emit much comic energy. The film's individual sequences feel like amusing time-killers, and it takes a while before you realize that Ice Age: The Meltdown is nothing but amusing time-killers. It's missing a reason to exist beyond the clever fringe touches. I'm thankful, though, for those touches, and for the continuing, arduous adventures of Scrat, that less malevolent Wile E. Coyote with the acorn Road Runner. The film's animation, in general, is impressive, but the subtlety and detail the filmmakers lend to this peripheral, voiceless, and continually hilarious character pay off beautifully; Scrat's exquisite comic anguish - just let him get the damned acorn, already! - allows an audience member to laugh out loud at Ice Age: The Meltdown without feeling like an ass.


Sophia Bush, Frankie Muniz, Jon Foster, and Samaire Armstrong in Stay AliveSTAY ALIVE

Stay Alive is a horror movie involving people who test video games for a living, and as professional gamers, the film's characters are already so pale and sallow that it really doesn't matter which of them get killed; a lack of sleep and natural light would do them in quickly enough. The film concerns a game that kills its victims much the way the videotape in The Ring did - it's one of those "if you die in the game, you die in real life" plots - and as a scare flick it's about as colorless as the characters in it. Instead of suspense, we're given "Boo!" shocks that land on the expected beats, and the movie features too many tedious shots of characters staring at their computer screens - as a title, Stay Alive could almost be a polite request to the audience. But despite having nothing interesting to say or do, the young actors who populate the film - Jon Foster, Jimmi Simpson, and Sophia Bush in particular - are committed to their roles, at least. They give a movie a gravity it doesn't quite earn. And while director William Brent Bell's staging may be slack, he certainly has an eye for video-game mayhem. The opening sequence - which effectively puts us inside the murderous game - is a clever, nervy one, and certainly creepier than anything else in Stay Alive. Bell knows how to provide good techno scares; now he just has to learn to pull them off with people.


Larry the Cable Guy: Health InspectorLARRY THE CABLE GUY: HEALTH INSPECTOR

I saw Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector as the second half of an afternoon's double-feature, and ended up walking into the screening slightly late, just after the opening credits began. As I entered the auditorium, I was greeted by the on-screen sight of Larry pissing in the shower (an image mostly left to our imaginations, thank heavens). That didn't scare me. What scared me was the raucous laughter of the audience. There was a pretty large crowd there, and as I watched the movie - stunned by its almost hateful disregard for comedic staples such as "jokes" and "timing" - the laughter not only failed to dissipate but substantially grew, as if Larry's repugnant "character" were not only hysterical but endearing. Even these folks would probably be hard-pressed to call Larry the Cable Guy a good movie. I'm not sure it's even pretending to be a movie; it's Larry's stand-up act with excrement-laden window dressing. Yet it seems to be giving the faithful exactly what they want from it. And that's what frightens me most. The thought of having to endure sequels starring this human whoopie-cushion is almost too much to bear.

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