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NEW RELEASES

FREAKY FRIDAY A pleasant out-of-left-field surprise, this remake of Disney's 1977 hit (with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster) is a treat for both kids and adults, updating the basic premise (first seen in Mary Rodgers' book of the same name) while avoiding the common pitfall of tailoring the material to only appeal to the youngest (or, in the case of the grownups, dimmest) members of the audience. Here's a family film with genuine emotional pull, as workaholic psychiatrist Tess Coleman (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her alienated 15-year-old daughter Anna (The Parent Trap's Lindsay Lohan) are constantly at odds, bickering incessantly and repeatedly failing to see the other's point of view. But a pinch of Asian mysticism places them in each other's body, thereby forcing Anna to contend with her mom's impending wedding and a TV appearance to plug her new book and Tess to cope with her daughter's burgeoning relationship with a cute schoolmate (Chad Michael Murray) and an important audition for her garage band. Curtis is in top form here, yet she's matched all the way by Lohan -- their scenes together are especially potent, full of sharp comic give-and-take and capped by the sparkling dialogue by scripters Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon ("I'm old!" wails Anna in her mom's body. "I look like the Crypt Keeper!"). A buoyant soundtrack only adds to the enjoyment.

CURRENT RELEASES

AMERICAN WEDDING Comparing this third picture in the American Pie series to the Marx Brothers canon is probably grounds for immediate dismissal, but it has to be noted that the Marx's frequent modus operandi of building a comedy sequence frame by frame so that it reaches an actual crescendo (best exemplified by the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera) is ably carried on at key moments in this unnecessary sequel that nevertheless squeezes by on the strength of some very big laughs. Even the most elitist of critics should occasionally let their hair down and allow the inner party animal to emerge -- while many scribes have taken to the Austin Powers trilogy to fill that need, I've actually obtained more chuckles from this half-raunchy, half-sentimental series. Neither sequel manages the balancing act between sincerity and seediness as well as the 1999 original -- the follow-ups clearly tip the scale toward the bawdy end -- but both offer a fair amount of pleasure to anyone who's grown fond of these characters. In this outing, Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are set to tie the knot, but complications arise before the ceremony, not the least being the mere presence of the foul-minded Stiffler (Seann William Scott). Eugene Levy returns as Jim's dad, and in a nice bit of casting synergy, his frequent co-star in Christopher Guest's comedies, Fred Willard, appears as Michelle's dad. Director Jesse Dylan (Bob's son) and screenwriter Adam Herz may not score any points for subtlety, but they make the most of their disreputable material. 1/2

BAD BOYS II Bad Boys II is the sort of movie that would lead a reactionary critic to condemn it as a work that marks The End Of Western Civilization As We Know It. I won't go that far, but I will state that it's quite possible I have never before seen a picture that held so much contempt for everyone and everything -- for its audience, for its characters, even for the film medium itself. A sequel to a 1995 mediocrity, this re-teams Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami cops Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, hot on the trail of a Cuban thug (terrible Jordi Molla) angling to become the city's number one supplier of Ecstasy. Among the first words uttered in the movie are "Stupid bitches," and the tone never gets any less mean-spirited after that -- besides women, the script also slams Latinos, gays, the poor, even the dead (while scoping out a morgue, Mike and Marcus ogle and comment on the ample breasts on a young woman's corpse; hey, what's a mainstream summer movie without a hint of necrophilia?). You also get tired jokes about anal intercourse, a loving close-up of two rats (yes, rats) copulating, and a body count that equals those in Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day and Schindler's List combined. Smith and Lawrence aren't the problem onscreen -- their incessant bickering gets tiresome, yet both have charisma to burn -- but they are the problem offscreen: If they had been conscientious enough to turn down their hefty paychecks, then we wouldn't be burdened with this debacle of wretched excess.

GIGLI The majority of reviews for Gigli have been so scathing -- not since Battlefield Earth have critics so gleefully trashed a single motion picture -- that it almost seems necessary to come to its defense. Gigli is not the worst movie of all time, nor of this decade, nor of this year. Heck, it's not even the worst movie of the summer, not with Bad Boys II and Hollywood Homicide on the marquees. So much for the defense. Actually, there's something else: There are a couple of moments during which one-note automaton Jennifer Lopez softens up and seems recognizably human, an actual person beneath that hardened shellac of spoiled celebrity. Beyond that, there's really nothing else even remotely nice to say about this fiasco, which is as tough to endure as director Martin Brest's last two films, the repulsive Scent of a Woman and the endless-and-a-day Meet Joe Black. Ben Affleck and Lopez play Gigli and Ricki, two mob enforcers assigned to kidnap a prosecutor's mentally challenged brother (Justin Bartha); Gigli starts to fall for Ricki, even though he knows she's a lesbian. The romantic angle falls dismally flat because Affleck and Lopez have absolutely no chemistry together -- they exude about as much sexual heat as Ma and Pa Kettle. Had Brest stopped with the decision to make his own bargain-basement version of the vastly superior Chasing Amy, this would be bad enough, but the additional plotline involving the pair's mentally challenged charge renders the movie insufferable and near-unwatchable.

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 numerous 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, Rowan 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.

LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE Action movies simply were not meant to be as boring as the first two pictures in the Tomb Raider franchise. Where's the quickening of the pulse, the pounding of the heart, the holding of the breath? With this pair, the most a viewer can expect is the numbing of the brain and the closing of the eyelids. In my review of the first film, I wrote that it "ambles along at the speed of a slug through spilt salt"; here, the pace can best be described as the equivalent of crawling through quicksand with two broken legs and a refrigerator strapped to one's back. Clearly, this series is meant to evoke the spirit of the Indiana Jones films, but when the exposition is so arid, the stunts so standard, and the effects so ordinary, it's hard to even work up to the excitement level of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The series' main attribute is Angelina Jolie, but this time, director Jan De Bont and the movie's three scripters have inexplicably tempered her character's more saucy qualities -- having her spend mucho screen time romantically entangled with a rakish sidekick (bland Gerard Butler) was simply a bad call. Then again, it's not as if the action sequences use her well, either. The first movie at least contained a couple of fairly inspired set pieces, but there's nothing in this one that seems remotely fresh. Even the monsters that appear late in the game look familiar -- perhaps disgruntled extras from the set of Fraggle Rock. 1/2

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN A fascinating fiasco, this adaptation of the graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is clearly a failure on just about every level that comes to mind, yet like the best "bad" movies, it holds our interest if only because we're dying to see what it will do wrong next. The concept is certainly fiendishly clever (and oh-so-calculated): At the turn of the previous century, a ragtag band comprised of famous literary characters must unite in an effort to stop a masked megalomaniac known as The Fantom from instigating a world war. Thus, we get adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), late of King Solomon's Mines, leading a motley crew that also includes Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous alter ego Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), Dracula vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Oscar Wilde's immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), and Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who has grown up to become a secret agent for the US government (I kid you not). It's a promising premise that's immediately undermined by the casting of several of the most boring actors imaginable (even Connery's asleep at the wheel) in roles that never break past the "gimmick" stage. Add to this dilemma a script that lurches from one schizophrenic set piece to the next, unappealing art direction that screams "Clutter Chic," and plotholes big enough to steer Nemo's sub Nautilus through them, and what's left is a blockbuster bust. 1/2

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.

SEABISCUIT Adapted from Laura Hillebrand's bestseller, this tells the story of the underdog racehorse whose remarkable success during the 1930s inspired an entire nation. But just as importantly, it also relates the very human story of three individuals -- Seabiscuit's owner (Jeff Bridges), trainer (Chris Cooper) and jockey (Tobey Maguire) -- with the inner fortitude to overcome extreme handicaps, and on top of that further provides a glimpse of a country reeling from the Depression and its attempts to right itself. That's a tall order for one movie to fill, and if the picture occasionally seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, it's a forgivable sin, since writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) does a decent job of getting us involved in the plights of its characters, regardless of what's happening in the world around them. "My horse is too small, my jockey's too big, my trainer's too old, and I'm too stupid to know the difference!" cracks Bridges' millionaire to the press, and indeed, it's a peculiar grouping -- the odd couple squared. But it's in the very eccentricities of the characters where the movie derives most of its power. The filmmaking in itself is rather conventional -- lots of burnished shots by cinematographer John Schwartzman, a score (by Randy Newman) that's swathed in uplifting Americana strains, plenty of scripted homilies about can-do Yankee perseverance -- yet the players themselves have a hungry determination that transcends their foibles and makes their exploits all the more inspiring.

SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER The law of diminishing returns clearly applies to this third entry in writer-director Robert Rodriguez's family-oriented franchise. The 2001 original was deservedly a critical and commercial smash, while last year's follow-up wasn't half-bad as far as first sequels go. But Rodriguez's well has run dry for this latest adventure, as he places all his faith in the 3-D effects that are meant to complement the film but instead overwhelm it. Truth be told, watching this overwrought picture's frenzied special effects through the 3-D goggles eventually leads to a punishing migraine; on top of that, the left eyepiece was so darkly tinted that I felt like someone had squirted motor oil into my eye. Beyond the 3-D aspect, this is simply a poorly scripted adventure yarn, with young Juni (Daryl Sabara) forced to enter a "virtual reality" game in order to save his sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) and vanquish the game's mad inventor (hammy Sylvester Stallone). Despite some occasionally interesting graphics, the game itself doesn't seem very exciting (or comprehensible, for that matter), and the action frequently breaks for characters to deliver strained monologues about the importance of family. Speaking of family, Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, so appealing as the Spy Parents in the first film, have been reduced to nothing more than late-inning cameos. And what's the point of casting Salma Hayek in a 3-D flick and not using the technology to showcase her attributes? I mean her lips, of course; what were you thinking? 1/2


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