ADAPTATION (R) One of the best and brightest films of the year, this brilliant follow-up to director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich follows the self-loathing tribulations of Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) as he struggles to adapt cerebral New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) book The Orchid Thief for the screen. An astoundingly inventive exploration of writing's emotional and psychological complexity, the film also goes far deeper than its clever meta-construction to become a tender, lovely glimpse into the search for elusive dreams and desires in all of our lives. --Felicia Feaster
JUST MARRIED (PG-13) Dude, where's my honeymoon? The slapstick teen romance depicts Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy as newlyweds who face one disaster after another once they tie the knot.
THE HOURS (PG-13) Stephen Daldry's splendidly literate film uses Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to unite three women, cutting between the day Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is writing it, a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) is reading it, and a 2002 book editor (Meryl Streep) is somehow living it. The film's increasing reliance on theatrical monologues means the pay-off doesn't equal the brilliant set-up, but its nevertheless a lush, rich film experience, with Kidman donning a prosthetic nose, which liberates her as an actress. --Curt Holman
NARC (R) Despite Tom Cruise's endorsement (he had Paramount pick it up after seeing it at Sundance), this isn't far removed from the usual cops 'n' robbers fare that passes through the multiplex. Its primary strength is the intense performance by Ray Liotta as a detective paired with an undercover officer (Jason Patric) to investigate the murder of a fellow cop. Writer-director Joe Carnahan has made a moderately involving crime flick in the gritty French Connection tradition, but it's undermined by a protracted finale and a ludicrous last-minute twist. --Matt Brunson
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (PG) Charles Dickens' nearly 1,000-page novel is distilled into a breezy, 132-minute film seemingly populated by half of the most lovable character actors in England -- and a few ringers from the New World. Writer/ director Douglas McGrath gives his actors plenty of leeway and they all have a grand old time, especially Christopher Plummer as a Scrooge-like uncle and Jim Broadbent as a bullying schoolmaster. The film embraces Dickens' florid dialogue and melodramatic plot twists for comic effect but also injects more knowing, modern humor in the mix, especially during the scenes with an acting troupe that includes Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming and Dame Edna.--CH
THE 25TH HOUR (R) Edward Norton effectively plays a convicted drug dealer spending his last day as a free man, but filmmaker Spike Lee's strongest images have virtually nothing to do with that story. Shots of the former World Trade Center site and other post-9-11 landmarks have such a haunting power that the personal crises of Norton's characters and his pals seem trivial by comparison. Do The Right Thing director Spike Lee is overdue for a comeback, but still can't seem to find a story that fits his sense of emergency. --CH
FILMS BY M.E.D.I.A. (NR) IMAGE Film & Video Center screens an evening of nine short films directed by students ages 15-19 who participated in its Media Education Initiative-Atlanta Project. Three of the young filmmakers -- Nubia Rahim, Nandi Murphy and Dymon Godbey -- have been selected to attend Sundance Film Festival's 2003 Reel Studio: Young Filmmakers Program. Presented by IMAGE Film and Video Center. Jan. 8, 7 p.m. Atlanta Fulton Public Library, One Margaret Mitchell Square. Free. 404-352-4225.
MAMA AFRICA (2002) (NR) Queen Latifah introduces three short films directed by African women. South Africa's "Raya" sees a young woman released from jail after doing time for dealing drugs. "Uno's World" from Namibia depicts a single mother raising the child of a former freedom fighter. Nigeria's "Hang Time" follows a basketball whiz trying to get a new pair of shoes before meeting an American basketball scout. African Film Showcase. Jan. 11, 8 p.m. Woodruff Arts Center, Rich Auditorium. $5. 404-733-4570. www.high.org.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) (R) The cult classic of cult classics, the musical horror spoof follows an all-American couple (Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) to the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a drag-queen/mad scientist from another galaxy. It's all fun and games until Meatloaf gets killed. Dress as your favorite character and participate in this musical on acid. Midnight Fri. at Lefont Plaza Theatre and Sat. at Marietta Star Cinema.
ABOUT SCHMIDT (R) Jack Nicholson does an about-face in his performance as a smaller-than-life midwestern insurance executive facing multiple crises --mostly funny ones -- upon retirement. Election director Alexander Payne's critique of American mediocrity can feel snide and elitist, but also has considerable comic invention, from Schmidt's inappropriate letters to an impoverished African boy to Kathy Bates and Dermot Mulroney as the prospective in-laws from hell. --Curt Holman