Irma P. Hall and Tom Hanks in The LadykillersTHE LADYKILLERS

Just about every Coen brothers comedy is more enjoyable on a second or third (or fourth or fifth) viewing than it is on a first; once you adjust to Joel's and Ethan's Byzantine plotting, affected wordplay, and in-your-face staging - culminating in a style that can make their works seem, initially, show-offy and too quirky by half - the brothers' filmmaking exuberance eventually wears down your resistance, and their scripts feature some of the funniest non sequiturs you'll ever hear. (Nearly every movie fan I know can recite reams of dialogue from Raising Arizona and Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.) The Ladykillers, the Coens' adaptation of a 1955 Alec Guinness comedy, is mostly on the hit side of hit-or-miss, and I'm guessing that it, too, will eventually become a beloved treasure trove of quotable quotes, mostly because, on a first go-around, it takes diligence to decipher exactly what Tom Hanks is saying in it.

He plays Professor G.H. Dorr, a gentrified southern dandy planning a casino robbery with the world's dimmest associates, and Hanks, elongating his vowels around a mouthful of false teeth, gives a hysterically inventive performance; with his drawling, Forrest-Gump-on-L-dopa verbiage and nervous staccato of a laugh, you might not perceive just how hilarious Hanks' readings are until five seconds after he's spoken, by which point he's gleefully moved on to some new example of inspired dementia. Despite a first-rate comic performance by Irma P. Hall as Dorr's devout landlady, a stunning gospel soundtrack, and typically exquisite cinematography by Roger Deakins, Tom Hanks is still the best thing about The Ladykillers; Dorr's bumbling partners-in-crime (Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Ryan Hurst, and Tzi Ma) are pretty much one-joke creations, and the storyline takes too many detours that don't amount to much. But those maddeningly clever Coens pull off a doozy of a final reel - it's the first comedy in ages that gets funnier and funnier as it nears its conclusion - and are even able turn a severed finger and the pain of irritable-bowel syndrome into enjoyable comic motifs; I liked The Ladykillers just fine, but ask me about it again in a couple of years. I'll probably be in love with it.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

Is it possible that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wasn't actually born, but rather materialized, fully formed, out of the deepest wishes of film lovers? This genius behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation now gives us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it's beginning to look like Kaufman is on a roll that might never end; he brings audiences into bracingly weird areas of his psyche that seem like the most logical, the most normal, places in the world to be. Those of us who crave originality in film - who are quite literally exhausted by pro forma Hollywood output - await a new Charlie Kaufman movie with nearly religious fervor, and he has yet to disappoint. As always, the less said about a Kaufman work, the better: In Eternal Sunshine, a sort of sci-fi Lost in Translation, Jim Carrey discovers that ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet has had all memory of him erased in a new surgical procedure; Carrey retaliates by undergoing the same process, and we watch as their relationship, seen in reverse, gradually becomes even less than a memory. Can true love conquer all in Charlie Kaufman's take on a traditional romantic comedy? Michel Gondry directs Kaufman's script with visual brio and deep imagination, Carrey and Winslet present the most soulful performances of their careers, and Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood offer wonderful support, even though their subplots are occasionally unconvincing. But make no mistake: This is Kaufman's baby. For nearly two hours, the gutsiest screenwriter in America makes you believe that the impossible is more than possible - it's inevitable; Eternal Sunshine is a movie to chew on for days - even weeks - after you see it, and it makes you want to return to the inner workings of Kaufman's brain over and over again.


Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames in Dawn of the DeadDAWN OF THE DEAD

Much as I like zombie movies - and, in general, I'm a major fan - they have a built-in limitation: Once the films' human characters discover how to destroy the creatures, their disposal becomes repetitious, like assembly-line work - a bullet through the head here, a shot through the noggin there - and the films themselves grow slightly monotonous. The re-make of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, by feature-film novice Zack Snyder, is a lean, nasty piece of work, technically impressive and filled with marvelous touches, yet about halfway through I still fought the urge to yawn; it's surprising how inured you can get to the sight of exploding brain matter. But the movie, for what it is, is terrifically well done, and viewed solely as a piece of filmmaking, it often improves on the 1978 original. Once again, a motley crew of humans (including Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Mekhi Phifer) finds themselves trapped in a shopping mall after being pursued by hundreds of flesh-eating creatures; unlike in the Romero version, however, these zombies are fast. (I know several people who consider the concept of running zombies a cheat - "They're suposed to stumble and lurch, damn it!" - but I think their speed and sheer determination here, as in 28 Days Later, shakes up the genre in a really satisfying way.) Mixing scares and laughs in equal measure - I loved the rooftop sharpshooters performing target practice on celebrity look-alikes, and the film's pre-opening-credits sequence is a 10-minute masterpiece of yuks and "yuck"s - Dawn of the Dead is a sharp, often witty horror film; it eventually wears out its welcome, but Snyder and his cast and crew instill plenty of life in this tale of the undead.


Ethan Hawke and Angelina Jolie in Taking LivesTAKING LIVES

Until its last 20 minutes, when the plot finally shifts from credibility-straining to just-plain-ludicrous, Taking Lives is a gloomy and engrossing little thriller, an Ashley Judd potboiler without that annoying Ashley Judd to spoil the fun. (Angelina Jolie takes on Judd's victim-with-a-gun role here.) True, the movie is the umpteenth bastard child of Silence of the Lambs and Seven - chockablock with rotting corpses and clueless cops and an almost ridiculous methodology for its serial killer - but you stick with it for quite a while, because it has an effective, unnerving prologue, Gena Rowlands (with her great, gravelly voice) brings a raw intelligence to her scenes, and Ethan Hawke, with his artfully practiced nonchalance, is just right in the potential-victim-or-killer? role. Director D.J. Caruso gives the familiar proceedings as much snap as he can, yet Taking Lives is finally undone by undermining the actions of all of its characters and stretching all plausibility past the breaking point; can anyone remember the last time "the big twist" in a Hollywood thriller came as a genuine shock that didn't make you giggle?

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