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Evan Almighty; Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer; 1408; others

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EVAN ALMIGHTY My parents may have been the ones to plunk down the dough to purchase the classic comedy album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow... Right!, but as a child, I think I was the one most responsible for wearing out the vinyl via repeat listens to the famous "Noah" skits included on the record. If there's anything in Evan Almighty, the sort-of sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey hit Bruce Almighty, that's even half as hilarious as Cosby's routine, I must have had my eyes closed in prayer and missed it. Playing the same part he essayed in Bruce Almighty, that of self-centered TV news anchor Evan Baxter, Steve Carell immediately finds himself neutered by director Tom Shadyac and his passel of writers, as his character has morphed into a typical movie dad who places his own career above the needs of his wife (Lauren Graham) and children. Having been elected to Congress on the platform that he'll "change the world," Evan now finds his hands full delivering on that promise when God (returning Morgan Freeman) appears and instructs him to build an ark. As his hair grows long and his clothing takes a decidedly Old Testament turn, he's deemed a loony by his neighbors and fellow Congressmen, even though all sorts of animals (rendered through hit-and-miss CGI effects) have paired off and wait patiently next to the big boat as it's being built. Asked mainly to pluck nose hairs and evade birds dropping "bombs," Carell is hampered by a script that instantly changes him from preening narcissist to a one-note saint. If I want to see a movie about a warm and cuddly guy with a white beard, I'll just pop Miracle on 34th Street into the DVD player.  **

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER It remains a mystery how the 2005 superhero yarn Fantastic Four grossed $154 million stateside, considering that most of its special effects were on the level of a 6-year-old floating his plastic boat in the bathtub. But somebody filled theater seats, and as a result, we now get this sequel. The good news is that the effects are a vast improvement over those in the previous installment, particularly the CGI-created Silver Surfer -- while his conceptualization isn't quite as impressive as those of his distant "cousins," the T-1000 in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the aliens in Cameron's The Abyss, he's still a cool creation to behold, and certainly faithful to his comic book counterpart. Would that the rest of this picture inspired similar admiration. Instead, FF2 suffers from the same ailments that made the original such a drag: ham-fisted direction, stilted dialogue, the fumbling of a classic villain, and Jessica Alba attempting to emote. Returning helmer Tim Story does manage a bit more visual pizzazz this time around, and the script by Don Payne and Mark Frost sets up some mildly interesting conflicts as the FF -- Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), Invisible Woman (Alba), The Thing (Michael Chiklis) and the Human Torch (Chris Evans) -- take on the conflicted Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) and their old nemesis Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). McMahon's dull work -- he's about as menacing as the parking valet at a ritzy restaurant -- is just one of several wince-inducing factors in this dud; if ever a film franchise needed to come equipped with a Reboot button, it's this one.  **

1408 The haunted house flick gets downsized for 1408, a fairly effective creepshow in which our protagonist only has to worry about a haunted room. But what a room! Hack writer Mike Enslin (an excellent John Cusack) has built a career penning guide books on supposedly haunted locales across America, even though he doesn't believe for a minute in the supernatural. So when he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York telling him not to enter the establishment's room 1408, he scoffs at the warning but elects to check it out anyway. At first, the spooky proceedings are kept on a low-key simmer, and as long as the movie plays it close to the vest, it works beautifully: The initial meeting between Enslin and hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) is suitably tart (indeed, the movie could have used a lot more of Mr. Jackson), and director Mikael Hafstrom, rebounding from the godawful Jennifer Aniston thriller Derailed, milks a lot of tension out of Enslin's slow-burn realization that this might indeed be, as Olin put it, "an evil fucking room." But scripters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don't just adapt Stephen King's short story; they stick a helium tank needle into it and expand it to grotesque proportions. The small-scale shudders eventually give way to special effects blowouts, while the movie ends up with so many plot tentacles that some are either underdeveloped (Enslin's relationship with his dad) or forgotten completely (who exactly sent the postcard?). Still, let's not complain too much: As far as recent King adaptations go, 1408 runs the numbers better than most.  **1/2

KNOCKED UP Director Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin was unique in that it managed to successfully mix raunch with romance. Knocked Up, which reunites Apatow with Virgin supporting player Seth Rogen, attempts a similar balancing act, only it falls a tad short of attaining the same success as its predecessor. There's a sweet love story on view here as well, only because it's more rushed and not allowed to unfold at a natural clip, it ultimately plays second string to the picture's comedy quota. Fortunately, on that front, the movie's an unqualified hit: It's doubtful another film will be released this summer -- maybe even this year -- that offers as many theater-rumbling belly laughs as this one. Rogen plays Ben Stone, a slacker who meets and has a drunken one-night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl), who's out celebrating the fact that she has just been promoted to an on-air position at E! Entertainment Television. Alison learns a few weeks later that she's pregnant, and she decides that she and Ben (with whom she discovers she has nothing in common) should attempt to make their relationship work for the sake of the baby. Apatow fails to sufficiently flesh out their courting period between that initial tryst and the birth of the child; still, thanks to the sweet performances by Heigl and especially Rogen, there's plenty of warmth to be drawn from the resultant drama. Yet in this picture, it's comedy that's king, with a nonstop barrage of great lines as well as deft contributions from a capable cast.  ***

LA VIE EN ROSE Say what one must about La Vie En Rose, but there's no arguing the excellence of the performance at the center of this ambitious and erratic biopic about French singing sensation Edith Piaf. Piaf's life contained enough drama to fill 10 HBO miniseries, and here director and co-writer Oliver Dahan attempts to cram it all into one 140-minute motion picture. Faithful in some instances, negligent in others, he has nevertheless fashioned a screen biography that employs some tricks of the trade (hopscotching between different decades, moments of stark surrealism) to allow this to break away from the generally staid biopic form. His film isn't always successful, but it always remains watchable, thanks primarily to the fervent turn by Marion Cotillard. In the same manner as Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles and Reese Witherspoon with June Carter Cash, Cotillard doesn't play the role as much as become possessed by it. From a feisty waif singing for her supper on the mean Parisian streets, to the regal songbird known internationally as La Mome Piaf ("The Little Sparrow"), to the emotionally and physically battered woman who still managed to successfully headline concerts (in this respect, she and Judy Garland had much in common), Cotillard is an indomitable force as she eats, breathes and sleeps every moment up until Piaf's early death at the age of 47. As a movie, La Vie En Rose est bon. But as a performer, Marion Cotillard est magnifique.  ***

A MIGHTY HEART The sort of drama that generally gets released in the fall, A Mighty Heart proves to be a fine summertime distraction for discerning older audiences, even if it doesn't quite pack the punch of similar titles like Missing and Under Fire. Yet films about idealistic Americans (usually journalists) abroad work more often than not, and this one's no exception. Based on Mariane Pearl's book A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl, the film finds Angelina Jolie delivering a restrained performance as Mariane, whose husband (played by Dan Futterman), a Wall Street Journal reporter, is kidnapped while the pair are living in Pakistan in 2002. Six months pregnant, Mariane tries to stay optimistic in the face of this grim situation, using her own sources to track him down while also relying heavily on the aid of the Pakistani anti-terrorism unit (Indian actor Irrfan Khan is particularly memorable as its leader), American diplomats and the FBI. Given Hollywood's propensity for promoting American know-how as well as its can-do attitude, it's perhaps the movie's most surprising development that the efforts of the Pakistanis, not the U.S. officials, go the furthest toward cracking the case and bringing the terrorists to justice. As the local lawmen and their stoolies scour the streets looking for any clues that will help them find Danny, we realize this isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack -- it's like looking for a needle in the Atlantic Ocean. So when their tireless efforts lead to real success (muted by the final outcome, of course), it's a testament to their determination and resourcefulness.  ***

NANCY DREW Unless I miss my call, Nancy Drew is the sort of kids' movie that will be treated with kid gloves by most critics, who will at worst dismiss it as a mere mediocrity. Don't you believe it. Nancy Drew is a glorious achievement of the so-bad-it's-brilliantly-bad variety -- I won't go so far as to state it's Battlefield Earth for the Clearasil crowd, but it's clearly a turkey no matter how it's sliced up. Author Carolyn Keene's teen heroine has endured in print as an old-school sleuth, but the makers of this featherbrained film, assuming (perhaps correctly) that setting this any earlier than, oh, 2004 would spell disaster at the box office, have updated it to function as a here-and-now preppy piece, as clueless about its deficiencies as Clueless (its obvious role model) was savvy about its milieu. Emma Roberts, portraying Nancy as something of a pill, quickly grates as her precocious character moves (along with dad Tate Donovan) from her comfy little hometown of River Heights to a spooky Los Angeles mansion, whereupon she immediately begins investigating the death of a famous actress who passed away decades earlier. Between its portrayal of a faded Hollywood as awash in corruption and decay and its casting of Laura Harring as the murdered starlet, this often feels like a demented attempt to make a kid-friendly version of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. -- if only this one had also included a freaky white-haired cowboy to bump off the multitude of insufferable characters. And speaking of insufferable, the top honor in that category goes to Spencer Breslin wannabe Josh Flitter, a mini-Lou Costello who contributes more ham than the deli section in any given supermarket.  *

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN The Return of the King aside, isn't it accepted -- in fact, isn't it pretty much gospel -- that the third picture in any given trilogy is when the series has totally lost it, when the filmmakers have been completely replaced by pimps and profiteers? So how is it possible that Ocean's Thirteen has emerged as the best of this star-studded franchise? True, all three films have basically been an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh and his high-voltage friends to take paid vacations in trendy, plush locales under the pretense of making motion pictures -- if life was fair, then resort timeshares would have been handed out with movie tickets so that audiences could also join in the festivities. But Ocean's Thirteen is the first of the trio to truly feel like there's something at stake in its convoluted, house-of-cards plotline. Male-on-male love (platonically speaking, of course) has always been the driving force in this series, and this one milks that sense of camaraderie for all it's worth. When one of their own (Elliott Gould) gets swindled by a venal casino owner named Willy Bank (Al Pacino), it's up to the gang fronted by dapper Danny Ocean (George Clooney) to set matters straight. Because there are so many characters competing for attention, there will always be casualties when it comes to screen time. Yet because this is the most briskly paced of the three, and because the revenge angle provides its protagonists with a strong rooting interest, it's hard to get bogged down in the flaws. I wasn't a fan of the previous two pictures in this series, but Ocean's Thirteen qualifies as the first to even approach a winning hand.  ***

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END This 168-minute chapter is overblown, overstuffed and over-the-top. It's also entertaining and sometimes even exciting, which right there marks it as an improvement over last summer's hot-and-cold Dead Man's Chest. In most respects, it's the sort of summer movie which forces critics to denounce summer movies, relying too heavily on bombast and bullying tactics (both copyrighted trademarks of producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And yet there's no denying that the picture contains a good measure of whimsy (usually MIA in pre-sold blockbusters) and a great deal of plot (ditto), indicating that director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are at least making an effort to earn their paychecks. To attempt to relay all the plot details would probably only lead to reader confusion, so suffice it to say that Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still fears the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) still hopes to free his tortured father (Stellan Skarsgard) from Davy Jones' grip, and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) turns into a kick-ass riot grrrl in much the same manner as Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. All of the series' regulars are sent off in satisfying (and even surprising) ways, and at its best, the movie exhibits a real affection for the sort of fantasy-tinged material that kept Ray Harryhausen employed back in the day. It's an adequate summertime distraction, though nothing about it begs for a repeat viewing.  ***

SURF'S UP The world needs another penguin movie about as much as it needs another Rambo flick. Turns out we're getting both, but while it's too early to comment on the upcoming Stallone sequel (though be sure to check out that incredibly violent trailer on YouTube), the animated film about the flightless fowl isn't bad, with a narrative slant that overcomes its typically blasé story about an underdog who triumphs against the odds while learning important life lessons regarding friendship, sacrifice and self-awareness. Employing a mock-documentary format rarely seen in animated films -- only Aardman's Oscar-winning Creature Comforts (screened this Sunday in the NoDa Film Festival; see the lead Flicks story) comes to mind -- this pleasant time filler plays like Dogtown and Z-Boys or The Endless Summer for the small fry, with its tale of a slacker penguin named Cody (Shia LaBeouf) who's only happy when he's surfing. He enters into a major international competition, where his rivals include new pal Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and the bullying (and nine-time defending champion) Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). An underachiever from the start, Cody eventually finds romance with a cute lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel, sexy even when voicing a penguin) and a mentor in The Geek (Jeff Bridges, slyly channeling The Dude from The Big Lebowski), a beach bum harboring a big secret. The abundance of schmaltz that plagued Happy Feet is thankfully missing here, though the movie does make sure to shoehorn in the obligatory flatulence gags.  **1/2

OPENS FRIDAY, JULY 6:

GOLDEN DOOR: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato.

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