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. **
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
HAIRSPRAY A testing of the mainstream waters, maverick moviemaker John Waters' 1988 Hairspray was a critical hit that was eventually turned into a Broadway musical before now being brought back to the screen. A similar screen-to-stage-to-screen journey didn't help The Producers, but here's betting that Hairspray meets with more success. It's one of this summer's few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the themes that made Waters' film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore, stars peppy newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream to dance. The film's hot-topic issues (including racism) are presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. It's first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). All of the principals are allowed to belt out at least one number apiece, and their enthusiasm and energy is positively infectious. The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, John Travolta (in drag as Tracy's plump mom), who fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply, well, divine in Waters' original screen version. As for John Waters, he stuck around to make sure that the circle was complete. Look for him in a split-second cameo at the beginning: He's the pervert who flashes a trio of housewives on the street. ***1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus' first two entries focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. Villainy abounds in Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry's every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry's issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it's no wonder the lad can't keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he's on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. In many ways, the film echoes The Empire Strikes Back: The mood is grim, the heroes are reeling, and the villains are on the move. But with a little help from their friends, not to mention a strong belief in the "force" of good, these kids may yet save the day. ***
LICENSE TO WED The heir presumptive to last summer's You, Me and Dupree, this toxic-waste comedy, offensive in its idiocy, similarly places loathsome characters in absurd situations that are meant to give off a funky black-comedy vibe yet instead reek only of desperation as well as the limitations of comically challenged minds. Under the disinterested supervision of director Ken Kwapis, four writers (four?!) jerry-build a premise that finds newly engaged couple Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) forced to pass a marriage preparation course supervised by the Jones family's longtime minister, Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). Along the way, Reverend Frank, aided by his young apprentice (Josh Flitter, as annoying here as he was in Nancy Drew), bugs the couple's bedroom, embarrasses Ben in front of his future in-laws, and drives Sadie away from her fiancé. Sharp scripting could have given Frank the balance required to make him an apt comic foil, but here he's simply creepy, a problem expounded by the casting of Robin Williams. He's in his manic, whoring mode here, an approach well past its expiration date in terms of actually resembling anything funny or topical. (One bit finds Williams making a joke about O.J. Simpson; heck, why not cracks about the Pentagon Papers or Rosie the Riveter or even the invention of the light bulb?) Williams has made so many one-star comedies that it's impossible to keep count at this point. But rest assured that there's a multiplex in hell that screens them on a perpetual loop. *
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD Entertainment Weekly almost had it right when a recent cover story named 1988's Die Hard the best action movie ever made (but over Raiders of the Lost Ark? Come on ...). Bruce Willis returns to his signature role of John McClane for the fourth time, and the twist here is that the aging detective finds himself battling cyber-terrorists who threaten to shut down the entire United States with a few strokes of a keyboard. The movie's billing itself as the story of an "analog" cop living in a "digital" age, and we all know what that means. No mouse pads or monitors for our hero; instead, it's all flying fists, rapid-fire weaponry and explosions. Lots of explosions. Yet even director Len Wiseman and scripter Mark Bomback don't have complete faith in the cop's old-fashioned heroics since they saddle him with a sidekick (Justin Long) who's a genius when it comes to computers. An overlong running time allows matters to occasionally become stale (the blueprint calls for our protagonists to evade, fight, escape, repeat), although Willis does his part by tossing out those patented McClane quips with aplomb. And while there's no denying that the picture is packed with memorable action sequences, the film often collapses into a heap of silliness, with McClane surviving some encounters that would tax all sorts of leaps of logic. The appeal of the character has always been that he's Everyman, not Superman. Yet Live Free Or Die Hard blows that train of thought to smithereens; Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang can only wish they could do some of the things John McClane executes so effortlessly here. **1/2
RATATOUILLE Cinema has given us so many marvelous movies set around the kitchen that it's easy to lose count among the tantalizing dishes laid out on display. But onto a long list that includes Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate, I never expected to add an animated yarn about a culinary rat. Ratatouille (a pun-tastic title that also ends up playing a part in the proceedings) is the latest winner from Pixar, the animation outfit whose win-loss ratio still manages to equal that of the '72 Miami Dolphins. That is to say, John Lasseter's company has yet to produce a dud, and one can only wonder when (or if) this streak will end. The rat is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), whose skills in the kitchen are exemplary, and the primary human protagonist is Linguini (Lou Romano), a skinny lad who possesses none of his late father's superb culinary abilities. Since restaurant kitchens aren't exactly rodent-friendly, and since circumstances force the singularly untalented Linguini to pass himself off as a master chef, the pair pool their resources to return a once-great Paris eatery, now struggling following the publication of a disastrous review by food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), back to its lofty position as one of France's finest. Written and directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Ratatouille serves as a love letter to Paris, a valentine to the fine art of cooking, and a gift to summer moviegoers. ***1/2
SICKO Forget illegal immigration or the war on terror or any other faddish domestic crisis that regularly tops the polls: It's long been clear that health care ranks as the number one problem in America, and only a complete moron -- or a well-to-do Republican -- would believe that there's nothing wrong with our current system. So here comes Michael Moore to tackle the subject, in what arguably stands as his most ambitious project to date. As with past works by this controversial filmmaker, Moore proves himself to be more a professor with some fanciful ways of explaining the matter at hand than a documentarian in the strictest sense of the term: He often places himself at the center of the spotlight, and he lets niggling details fall by the wayside in his rush to accentuate the greater truth. Sicko is no different: One can quibble about the presentation or the soft-pedaling of certain points, but there's no doubt that Moore's heart is in the right place, or that, in a just world, his powerful picture would serve as an agent for change. A patriotic American who believes that no one should be left behind, Moore employs his latest film as a bludgeoning tool against insidious insurance companies and the corrupt politicians who let them get away with murder -- often literally. Not surprisingly, Moore's solution on how to wrest this nation away from the hands of the insurance companies, lobbyists and politicians is to provide universal health care for everyone. Michael Moore is hardly the person I'd pick to bring a measure of sensibility back to a great nation long ruled by venal profiteers, but I suppose he'll do in a pinch. ***1/2
TRANSFORMERS I was a fraction too old for the whole Transformers rage when it swept through the nation back in the mid-1980s, though professional dedication did force me to sit through the crappy animated feature that hit theaters in 1986. Yet even folks who wouldn't know a Transformer from a Teletubby can expect to have a good time at Transformers, which easily emerges as the biggest surprise of the summer thus far. A movie about robots that turn into cars (and trucks and tanks and airplanes) would seem to have a more limited fan base than many other blockbuster wanna-bes, and the presence of Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as director certainly puts critics on alert. Yet perhaps the secret ingredient here is in the producing credits. Instead of Bay's usual partner in crime, Jerry Bruckheimer, it's Steven Spielberg who snags an executive producer citation, so it can't be a coincidence that in its finest moments -- most contained within the first half of this 145-minute yarn -- this picture harkens back to the sort of filmic roller coaster rides that Spielberg often built during the 1980s. Bolstered by ample amounts of humor (a popular comedian makes an early appearance as a car salesman) and decidedly more character-driven than expected, Transformers for the most part does a fine job of balancing action with emotion, which makes the final half-hour -- wall to wall battles with little to individualize the raging robots on either side -- a bit of a slog. Still, it's a given that Transformers fans won't be disappointed. The shock is that the rest of us might not be, either. ***
YOU KILL ME Perhaps not since Jack Nicholson in 1985's Prizzi's Honor has any actor so solidly struck the funny bone portraying a hit man as Ben Kingsley does in You Kill Me. The film's premise initially makes it sound like a cutesy variation on the type of pseudo-hip crime flicks churned out on a monthly basis by Tarantino wannabes: Mob assassin Frank Falenczyk (Kingsley) was once at the top of his game, but in recent times he's fallen so deeply under the spell of the bottle that he now drunkenly sleeps through his assignments. His boss (Philip Baker Hall) sends him to San Francisco to sober up; there, he lands a job at a funeral home, attends AA meetings under the tutelage of a gay sponsor (Luke Wilson), and strikes up an offbeat relationship with a sharp-tongued woman (Tea Leoni) who doesn't seem particularly disturbed by his line of work. You Kill Me feels like a lightweight throwaway, but it remains in the memory longer than expected, thanks to the freewheeling direction by John Dahl (The Last Seduction), a killer-quip-packed script by the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the guys adapting the family-friendly Chronicles of Narnia franchise to the screen!), and a sterling ensemble fronted by a perfectly cast Kingsley, who in this film manages to elicit chuckles with just his terse facial expressions. ***
OPENS FRIDAY, JULY 27:
JOSHUA: Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga.
NO RESERVATIONS: Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart.
RESCUE DAWN: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE: Animated.
SUNSHINE: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne.