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Picks and Pans Main: Screen

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Murder by Numbers

Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt

Following fleet on the heels of Panic Room and High Crimes, Murder by Numbers is the last in the trilogy of female-driven thrillers to arrive at megaplexes in recent weeks. It is easily the most ambitious and best of the trio, which isn’t to say it is a great movie. But Numbers has plenty on its mind and works overtime to give its characters texture and heft. Bullock, as a flinty police detective, turns in a nicely nuanced performance, and Gosling (Remember the Titans and Showtime’s The Believer) shows impressive star potential as a slick teenage murderer she’s trying to nail.

Unlike the other two films, Numbers lays its cards on the table at the start. Within a few scenes, director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) and screenwriter Tony Gay-ton establish that two privileged high school seniors (Gosling and Pitt), motivated by nothing more than a belief in their own superior intelligence and a desire for sick kicks, have murdered a stranger in a coastal California town. The lead detective on the case, Cassie Mayweather (Bullock), was herself years ago the victim of a brutal crime, which both inspires her on the job and inhibits her socially. What’s unknown is how Cassie will crack the case and finally come to terms with her own sad past.

Bullock and Gosling’s scenes together as sparring cop and suspect are what give Numbers its spark. Less fearful than some other major stars of showing the flawed sides of a character, Bullock creates a memorably conflicted heroine. And Gosling is a revelation. Not since Sean Penn was commanding attention as criminally inclined antiheroes in the early ’80s has there been a young actor with this kind of threatening, charismatic intensity.

Left bobbing in their wake are Chaplin and Pitt. Chaplin fades into the background in the underwritten role of Cassie’s new partner, who’s unsure whether to trust her hunches. Baby-faced Pitt, portraying the second teen killer, is impressive, but when he and Gosling are onscreen together, there’s no contest. (R)

Bottom Line: Intriguing slay ride

The Scorpion King
The Rock, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Bernard Hill

The Rock (known to his mother as Dwayne Johnson) has a doozy of an opening line. Materializing out of the night to take on scores of armed rivals, the pro wrestler turned actor, employing his signature expression, cocks one of his eyebrows—the careful shaping and maintenance of which must rival that of Elizabeth Taylor’s—and says simply, “Boo!”

Then he leaps into action and doesn’t stop fighting for the rest of The Scorpion King, which makes the movie as exhausting to watch as it must have been to film. King‘s characters are as subtly drawn as the drop-kicking heroes and villains of the World Wrestling Federation, and the plot—The Rock’s warrior battles an evil king (Brand) 5,000 years ago—has all the finesse of a smackdown. Though impressive physically, The Rock utters his lines with the expressiveness of dried paste. King—itself spun off from 200l’s The Mummy Returns, in which The Rock’s Scorpion King had a minor role—ends with the strong hint of a sequel to come. Boo hoo. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: A Rock pile

Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows

It’s 1943 and in Bletchley Park, England, hundreds of people are feverishly working on breaking German WWII codes. The best among them is Tom Jericho (Scott), a brilliant mathematician better at relating to figures than to people. When his ex-girlfriend (Burrows) goes missing and is suspected of having been a spy, Jericho investigates with help from a plucky coworker (Winslet). A smart spy thriller coproduced by Mick Jagger, Enigma is chock-full of twists, some of them confusing. The acting is tops throughout, but director Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), working from Tom Stoppard’s silky adaptation of Robert Harris’s 1995 novel, lets the pace go slack in places. (R)

Bottom Line: Spy tame

Chelsea Walls
Uma Thurman, Kris Kristofferson

Ever since 1905, New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel has been home to writers (Dylan Thomas), artists (Willem de Kooning) and musicians (Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious, who fatally stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen there in 1978). Drawn by its bohemian history, actor Ethan Hawke stayed there when he was new to Manhattan and now, as a director, has set his first feature in its rooms and hallways.

Chelsea Walls visits with various residents of the hotel, concentrating on two poets (Thurman and Rosario Dawson), a novelist (Kristofferson) and a couple of musicians (Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn), none of whom seem headed for happiness. Hawke, along with screenwriter Nicole Burdette, avoids straight narrative, instead attempting to capture his characters through overlapping, fragmentary scenes full of talk and little action. It’s slow going. (R)

Bottom Line: We have reservations