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HULK With a fan base that rivals those of other Green Party members (Kermit, Gumby, Shrek), it's only fitting that Marvel's not-so-jolly green giant gets his own movie. Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the recent batch, as the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon team of director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus have created a film that unwittingly condescends toward the comic book medium even as it's trying to elevate it to another plateau. The effortless affinity that exists between hero and reader has been lost on the pair; wanting to create something more "meaningful" than a mere popcorn flick, they've decided to add import to their assignment by making a movie that's as much about family dysfunction and harnessing one's untapped potential as it is about a guy who turns into a monster. That's all well and good, but in trying to come up with something of substance, they've largely left out the sharp sense of humor and gee-whiz level of excitement that have ignited the best of superhero cinema, not grasping that these aren't hindrances on the road to respectability but the very things that drive the journey. The CGI-created Hulk looks fine in close-up but fake in the distant shots, while dull Eric Bana, as his alter ego, is a human flatline. Lee's visual scheme, which often provides the cinematic equivalent of a comic's splashy color panels, is fun, but these are about the only moments that make us feel like we're actually flipping through a comic book rather than lumbering through an arid college textbook.

LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED, WHITE AND BLONDE As the father of a 12-year-old girl who's a big fan of Legally Blonde, I've seen all or parts of Reese Witherspoon's commercial breakthrough more times than I care to admit. Yet repeat viewings haven't tired me of Witherspoon's vivacious Elle Woods; instead, I've become fond (within stringent critical reason, of course) of both the film and the character at its pink center. Yet it's doubtful that excessive viewings of this sequel will render the same verdict; on the contrary, once is certainly enough. Lazily copying the first film's template to a staggering degree, this excursion finds Elle, now a full-fledged lawyer, hoofing it to Washington, DC, to introduce a bill that would prevent animals from being used as cosmetic test subjects. There, she's taken under the wing of prominent Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), befriended by a hotel doorman (Bob Newhart) who might be the most politically savvy man in town, and forced to lock horns with Rudd's cynical chief of staff (the great Regina King, sadly wasted here). Part of the appeal of the original film was in watching Elle Woods grow from a shallow sorority girl into a self-aware woman genuinely surprised at the breadth of her own potential; here, the character has grown stagnant, and the herky-jerky script relies on recycled gags and pompous speeches to cover up this lamentable fact. There are a few bright spots along the way, but not enough to prevent this from being declared legally bland.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL It's long been established that movies based on video games are a dismal lot, so the odds are automatically against a film that engages in the even more desperate ploy of being based on a theme park attraction. Yet this take-off of Disney's popular park feature proves to be one of the brightest of the summer blockbusters, with appealing characters, a sturdy screenplay, and plenty of derring-do. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, known as the Antichrist in cineaste circles (Armageddon, Con Air, and on and on and on), bypassed his usual stable of hacks and tapped versatile Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt, The Mexican) to man the ship; aided by the scripters of Shrek and The Mask of Zorro, he provides notable visual panache to this rollicking yarn about an eccentric pirate (Johnny Depp) and a stalwart blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who attempt to rescue a governor's daughter (Keira Knightley) from the clutches of a band of supernaturally affected pirates. More heavily plotted than one might expect, this 135-minute epic might test the patience of younger audience members but wears its length well for older viewers. Bloom and Knightley are suitably striking, while Geoffrey Rush adds the proper degree of hammy menace as the captain of the cursed pirate crew. Still, this movie wouldn't be half as memorable were it not for the patently bizarre turn by Depp, who transforms a conventional anti-hero into a fey, garrulous scoundrel whose antics constantly keep the other characters (and us) wondering what he'll do next.


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