CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE Your enjoyment of Charlie's Angels will likely determine your tolerance of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This follow-up to that 2000 hit isn't so much a sequel as an extension -- if movies weren't so time- and cost-consuming, it'd be easy to picture a new Angels flick hitting the multiplexes on a weekly basis (in that respect, it emulates the 70s TV series on which it's based). Like its big-screen predecessor, this new T&Angels adventure features countless scenes that serve as nothing more than mini-vanity projects for its three lovely leads (Cameron Diaz as giggly party girl Natalie, Drew Barrymore as street-smart riot grrl Dylan, and Lucy Liu as sophisticated smart girl Alex), reams of smarmy double entendres that are sure to elicit as many groans as giggles, and several stunt-heavy, death-defying feats that are simply absurd beyond reason. But so what? Indefensible as it may be on a hoity-toity level, this works more often than not because of the infectious atmosphere generated by its leading ladies as well as returning director McG. I've never been a fan of Demi Moore, so her much ballyhooed "comeback" in this picture (as a former Angel gone bad) means nothing to me, and the smutty humor brings it perilously close to Austin Powers territory. But let's face it: When our heroines are disguised as welders at one point, who doesn't want to hear Irene Cara's Flashdance... What A Feeling playing in the background? 1/2
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 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. They just don't grasp that humor and excitement 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.
JOHNNY ENGLISH Johnny English is a movie of anticipation. Much of the time, we know exactly what predicaments this bungling British Secret Service agent will find himself in, and yet we still want to see him placed in these situations, if only to count the ways in which star Rowan Atkinson will contort his rubber band of a face. Deadpan one second, bug-eyed the next, then pseudo-suave, then fretful, then pained -- it's like watching an entire comedy film festival rolled into one mug. Like many comedians, Atkinson is an acquired taste, but one which goes down easy for me -- and so does his latest vehicle, which turns out to be one of the summer's brightest surprises. After the vulgarity of the Austin Powers franchise, the PG-rated Johnny English seems almost like a quaint throwback, and it probably doesn't hurt that two of the screenwriters were responsible for Die Another Day, the best James Bond outing in ages; clearly, these men know their way around this genre and how to best tweak it. A car chase scene proves to be about as wickedly clever as the much-ballyhooed ones in The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but even with inspired sequences like this one, director Peter Howitt can't keep the picture from losing momentum once it reaches a disappointingly undernourished climax. Still, in a season of heavily hyped titles, it's nice to find a small-scale picture that delivers what it promises without making a big deal about it.
L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE Xenophobes and the old at heart need not apply, but most discerning moviegoers will get a hedonistic kick out of L'Auberge Espagnole (translated as the Spanish Inn), a French import that was a deserving critical and commercial hit in its homeland. Invoking the spirit of such youth-themed fare as The Graduate and National Lampoon's Animal House, this light-hearted romp with serious undercurrents follows the odyssey of Xavier (Romain Duris), a 25-year-old French exchange student who leaves behind his fussy girlfriend (Amelie's Audrey Tautou) to attend college in Barcelona. After briefly staying with an obnoxious doctor and his sexually repressed wife, Xavier ends up sharing an apartment with several other students who, combined, represent a United Nations of sorts (one's British, one's German, one's Italian, and so on). With so many characters and so many subplots crowding the screen, it's almost inevitable that not every story strand will flow smoothly (one embarrassing interlude would have been right at home on Three's Company). But rarely has a modern movie done such a sound job of capturing the messy, giddy, self-centered realizations that accompany the flush of youthful vigor, or convincingly pushed the soulful benefits of global fraternization (as someone who partied in Europe during his youth, I can attest to the movie getting these vibes right). In fact, with its scenes of members of different nations co-existing peacefully, this film should be required viewing for the current administration and its lockstep supporters, who have all effectively built an impenetrable wall of fear and bigotry around this nation's borders.