ELLA ENCHANTED Freely adapted from the book by Gail Carson Levine but completely owing its body and soul to Shrek, this is yet another fractured fairy tale designed for kids living in a postmodern age. Anne Hathaway, the wide-eyed star of The Princess Diaries, plays Ella, a young woman who, thanks to a spell placed on her by an inept fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox), is forced to obey every command directly aimed at her. Tired of being a human puppet, she sets out to locate the fairy to reverse the spell; the resultant journey lands her a handsome young prince (Hugh Dancy) as a suitor, but it also places her in the middle of a murderous scheme hatched by the prince's deceitful uncle (Cary Elwes). Flatulence gags, modern songs incorporated into the medieval action, ironic twists on venerable fairy tale ingredients -- after awhile it seems that just about the only thing distinguishing this from Shrek is the absence of a chatty donkey, although this one does offer a talking book as compensation. Ella Enchanted is largely missing any semblance of a through line -- plot points are brought up and then abandoned, and characters appear randomly for no pressing reason other than the story requires their presence at that exact moment -- but the movie is still reasonably entertaining, thanks to its able cast (including Minnie Driver and Eric Idle) as well as its own infectious commitment to Happily Ever After principles. 1/2
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR Home theater enthusiasts who've been waiting patiently for a Risky Business Special Edition DVD (any century now, Warner Bros.) may find themselves drawn to this thematically similar picture, but they'll hardly be satisfied: Even with an R rating, this proves to be more frisky than risky. Rising actor Emile Hirsch (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) stars as Matthew Kidman, a studious 18-year-old set to graduate from high school without any memorable experiences to call his own. But that's before he meets his beautiful new neighbor Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert of TV's 24), a former porn star trying to begin a new life. With its two aptly cast leads and some nicely realized moments in which the pair tentatively get to know each other, this clearly had the potential to succeed as a love story; instead, the focus is inexplicably drawn away from Danielle and placed on the slapstick antics of Matthew and his buddies, forcing the movie to eventually deteriorate into just another chaotic teen comedy more interested in elaborate pranks than emotional bonding. Timothy Olyphant delivers a standout performance as Danielle's charismatic pimp-promoter -- a man who can change from cool to cruel in milliseconds -- but even his character eventually turns out to be more of a narrative problem than solution.
JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION Without question, the worst child actor on the current cinema scene is Spencer Breslin (Disney's The Kid, The Cat In the Hat), but if this movie is any indication, he may want to keep an eye on the rearview mirror to make sure Bow Wow doesn't catch up to him. I didn't see the teenage rapper's previous two films (most notably Like Mike), but his performance here is perfectly dreadful, the sort of overly exaggerated emoting that might play well on Nickelodeon sit-coms but is nothing short of insufferable on the big screen. The good news is that Bow Wow's screen time takes a dramatic plunge after the first half-hour; the bad news is that we still have to contend with the rest of this sloppily scripted picture. A game Cedric the Entertainer headlines as Nate Johnson, who packs up his family -- estranged wife (Vanessa Williams), smart-aleck teenage son (Bow Wow), impatient teenage daughter (Solange Knowles), and Cosby-kid-cute little daughter (Gabby Soleil) -- and embarks on a cross-country trip to attend a family reunion lorded over by his glad-handing older brother (Steve Harvey, delivering a performance almost as embarrassing as Bow Wow's). The script is mostly comprised of isolated on-the-road vignettes, each one exhibiting a small measure of comic potential before collapsing with nary an adequate punchline in sight. Cedric pops up in a second role, as lecherous Uncle Earl, and a little of this character goes a long way -- say, roughly the distance from Anaheim to Albany. 1/2
DAWN OF THE DEAD George Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead has long been hailed by both critics and cultists as one of the few great "splatter" flicks ever made, so expecting anything but harsh words for a rehash would be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of its creators. But hold on. This new version is that rare bird: a remake that actually succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn clearly knew that simply offering a lumbering retread of the original would be a fatal mistake; instead, it wisely presses forward in its own direction, retaining the mall location but offering different characters, different situations and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture that's exciting, icky and often quite funny.