If the end of the world - or, at any rate, the end of Manhattan - eventually comes via a pissed-off, skyscraper-sized reptile, and the destruction is captured on video by an empty-headed twentysomething slacker goofus, the results will probably look and sound a lot like Cloverfield.

I can't remember the last movie I saw that was such a bizarre, infuriating blend of the miraculously good and the ungodly awful, but director Matt Reeves' low-rent blockbuster may be the new standard-bearer; it's as if the filmmakers, having devised a sensational concept, turned to one another and said, "Okay, so how can we really screw this thing up?" As it turns out, quite easily, simply by hiring a ridiculously inept cast, giving them ludicrous things to say, and even more ludicrous things to do.

Cloverfield's conceit finds a traditional, Godzilla-esque action flick - in which a marauding, blessedly unexplained monster takes on the Big Apple - viewed through the parameters of a camcorder, and the movie's best moments are when we seem to be catching some haunting or disturbing image on the fly: a rider-less horse-drawn carriage slowly ambling down the street; a sewer full of rats fleeing unseen predators; one high-rise apartment complex precariously leaning against another. (The film's imagery also works when it's less subtle; a quick, head-on shot of the shrieking beast provides a satisfying jolt, as does the sight of the Statue of Liberty's head rolling down Broadway.) It's easy to see how the shaky, hand-held photography could cause nausea or a migraine - the intentionally amateurish cinéma vérité is almost too vérité for comfort - but considering Cloverfield's inventive editing, effects, and auditorium-shaking sound, it's certainly an impressive visual and aural achievement.

Was it too much to ask for even one likable character? (The havoc-wreaking lizard is the closest we get.) The generically attractive, soulless lunkheads on-screen could almost be a parody of the reality-TV generation - they commingle and grieve with all the depth of the ousted contestants on Big Brother - and by the time these dolts embark on a rescue mission to save our lead's secret crush (awww ... !), their witlessness has been matched by an almost pathological stupidity; you feel like whipping Raisinettes at every last one of them. On a purely technical level, Cloverfield succeeds at being "believable," only to quash your admiration by being populated with figures too asinine to be believed.


Queen Latifah, Diane Keaton, and Katie Holmes in Mad MoneyMAD MONEY

After her torturously affected mugging in last year's Because I Said So, it's such a relief to see Diane Keaton playing a recognizable human being again that it doesn't take more than a few scenes to warm to Mad Money. The surprise of the movie, especially considering its unappealing trailers, is that it doesn't eventually trash your goodwill; excluding some bumpy patches and an unfortunately rote climax, director Callie Khouri's empowerment heist comedy is smartly executed and constantly genial. As privileged homemaker Keaton, struggling single mom Queen Latifah, and scatterbrained flake Katie Holmes systematically rip off a Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, surreptitiously swiping old bills meant for the shredder, Khouri stages the trio's larceny with giggly, nearly conspiratorial assuredness - the women rob their workplace with joy, and with a refreshing lack of guilt - and the film is cleverly structured; frequent flashes to five of the (eventual) six thieves sequestered in an interrogation room keep you happily curious as to how the "foolproof" plan inevitably goes sour.

Mad Money is a bit too slapdash; the lighting is ugly, and there are some obvious looping glitches and distractingly cartoonish sound effects. Yet the movie boasts a bubbly spirit, and Keaton - physicalizing her thought processes with enjoyable twitchiness - is the ideal ringleader for a terrifically agreeable cast that includes Ted Danson, Stephen Root, Roger Cross, and Adam Rothberg. Only Holmes, popping her eyes, seems a tad forced, but at least she's in there trying; her game attempts at farce suggest a young woman who, by this point, has earned the right to let loose and enjoy some lighthearted fun with the girls. Hmm.


Katherine Heigl and James Marsden in 27 Dresses27 DRESSES

I saw 27 Dresses this past weekend. Sometimes it feels as though I see 27 Dresses every weekend. So instead of filling in the blanks on the latest disposable romantic comedy to feature a gorgeous, funny performer doing her best to act lovelorn while the plotting refuses to provide even one narrative surprise between the opening credits and the climactic taxicab that delivers our heroine to her intended (while throngs of onlookers applaud their perfect kiss), let me instead offer some thanks: For Katherine Heigl's sardonic deadpan when admitting her martyrdom ("I'm Jesus"). For James Marsden's raised-eyebrow appraisal of Heigl's skills with sealant ("Likes caulk"). For gal pal du jour Judy Greer rightfully slapping her best friend across the face. For romantic rival du jour Malin Akerman's apoplectic fit against the "Commitments" section of the Sunday paper. And for a fed-up Heigl excusing herself, walking outside, and screaming "Motherf---er!" at the top of her lungs, making my doing it superfluous.

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