ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY Aimed squarely at the open-mouth-breathers who turned Dumb and Dumber and Big Daddy into hits, Anchorman is the movie as litmus test -- specifically, how much Will Ferrell is too much Will Ferrell? As a chauvinistic news anchor in 1970s San Diego, Ferrell gets to wear ugly clothes, make silly faces, and lust after the ladies, but unless you hold the opinion that the actor is a comic genius worthy of Chaplin or Tati comparisons, then this sort of obnoxious oafishness gets stale quickly. There are a handful of inspired moments, but these clever bits seem almost accidental in the midst of so much kitsch. 1/2
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS Less an adaptation of Jules Verne's novel than a quasi-installment in the Shanghai Noon/Knights franchise, this expensively priced but cheaply realized action yarn finds Jackie Chan playing a martial arts expert who takes on all villains in an effort to return a jade Buddha statue back to his remote Chinese village. Stranded in London, he passes himself off as a French valet named Passepartout and hitches an intercontinental ride with inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan), who has bet that he can travel around... well, you know this part. Everything about this production seems tired, from Chan's fight routines to the soggy humor to the cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking rather ghastly as a lecherous Turkish prince sporting skimpy duds, a hideous wig and a jaundiced complexion. 1/2
BAADASSSSS! With Mario Van Peebles playing his own father, this tells the fascinating back story of how, back in 1971, Melvin Van Peebles turned down an offer to be the major studios' token black filmmaker in order to realize his goal of producing a raw, edgy work that spoke directly to Afro-American audiences. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song turned out to be a monster moneymaker, the first of the "blaxploitation" flicks, and an important stepping stone in the development of independent cinema, and this picture chronicles how the process of bringing it to the screen took a major toll on Melvin's health, family and finances. The movie is ultimately a son's affectionate tribute to his dad, an often difficult man who may have floundered as a regular father but established himself as a "founding father" of a different sort.
THE CLEARING No superheroes, no car crashes, no sword-swinging knights, no animated critters -- for older viewers not interested in the glamour and glitz of the summer season, The Clearing would appear to be the winning ticket. Unfortunately, there's also no urgency in the execution and no point to the resolution -- all in all, a major disappointment for those seeking cinematic sanctuary. At least this is fortunate to be blessed with a powerhouse cast: Robert Redford as a self-made millionaire who gets abducted, Helen Mirren as his wife, and Willem Dafoe as the kidnapper. Their performances remain riveting throughout, yet the story that contains them is flimsy, with hints of psychological complexity being scuttled as this meandering movie heads for a conclusion that's meant to be devastating but instead proves desultory.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY For devotees of dum-dum cinema, here's Dodgeball to placate the lowest common denominator while also allowing discerning filmgoers to slum in style. Oh, sure, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn't have to look further than his weather-beaten VHS copy of Animal House for inspiration, and some of the jokes not only thud to the ground but then spend a few uncomfortable seconds writhing in agony. But when it has its game face on, this offers a satisfying number of laughs, characters that we care to follow, and cameo appearances that (in contrast to those in Around the World In 80 Days) are positively inspired. At a time when many ambitious studio films are aiming high and falling short, here's one that delivers on its low-pressure promise.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 Let's be honest: For better or worse, this will be viewed as a propaganda tool first and a motion picture second, and those with strongly held political views won't be swayed one way or the other by Michael Moore's filmic diatribe against the Bush family (it's Moore's hope that the "undecideds" who brave the film will theoretically end up handing the election to Kerry). But is it worth seeing? Certainly -- and not even so much because of its politics, but because of its compassion. As is often the case with Moore, the movie works best when he removes himself from the equation and lets his subjects hang themselves through existing news footage. Still, for all its political pelting, this is at its most gripping when it simply focuses on the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed either by the heinous terrorists or by the abhorrent policies of this administration. 1/2
GARFIELD: THE MOVIE A film about the fat cat star of one of the least inspired comic strips ever to line birdcages coast to coast? We're talking about an uphill battle, and this doesn't even make it past the footstool. As envisioned by creator Jim Davis, Garfield is an ugly, unseemly beast, and that pretty much describes this film as well. Small children will at least get their parents' money's worth -- they'll squeal with delight at the mayhem perpetrated by the computer-generated cat -- but this will feel like a slow crawl through broken glass for anyone old enough to have mastered the fine art of shoelace-tying. So is there anything positive to say about it? Sure: At least it's not Family Circus: The Motion Picture. Trying to live through a film version of that atrocious comic would exhaust all nine lives -- and then some.
KING ARTHUR This is being pushed as the true story behind the myth, but while many scholars now believe there may have been a historical basis for the age-old legend, I doubt many of its components worked their way into this piece of pure Hollywood hokum. Yet as fictional filmmaking goes, this offers top-flight entertainment for about half its length before slipping into pure formula. Even with Armageddon/Bad Boys producer Jerry Bruckheimer breathing down his neck, director Antoine Fuqua avoids fetishistic vanity shots and macho preening (these characters are manly enough without requiring artificial enhancement), but the movie's vitality eventually drains away, leaving nothing but cumbersome speeches and a dull climactic battle. As Arthur, Clive Owen continues to radiate genuine star power, but Keira Knightley gets shortchanged by her limited screen time as a warrior Guinevere. 1/2
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE A case study in high school geekiness, Napoleon Dynamite spends his days stumbling from one miserable encounter to the next, occupying a movie that often seems as unsure of itself as its protagonist. Napoleon himself isn't exactly ingratiating, and it's impossible to tell whether Jared Hess and his co-writer (and wife) Jerusha Hess mean for us to laugh with him or at him. And if the goal was to render an accurate portrait of the inner circles of high school hell, the film ends up diluting its potency with some unbelievable plot developments. Still, cruel or not, there's no denying that the picture is frequently funny, and newcomer Jon Heder delivers a fearless performance that's almost breathtaking in its wormy detail. 1/2
THE NOTEBOOK Every summer seriously needs at least one picture to fill that Bridges of Madison County/Ya-Ya Sisterhood slot (otherwise, we'd completely choke on the sweat and testosterone), and this adaptation of Carolina writer Nicholas Sparks' popular weepie arrives as this year's bit of alternative programming. The story is fairly standard stuff that we've seen before in some variation or another: She's young, beautiful and rich, he's young, handsome and poor, and they're forced to contend with obstacles both personal (her disapproving mom) and public (WWII) in order to keep their love alive. The reason to consider catching this is to watch the terrific performance by Rachel McAdams, whose luminescent work, coupled with her turn as the meanest of the Mean Girls, marks her as a compelling newcomer. 1/2
SPIDER-MAN 2 It was a given that the long-awaited Spider-Man movie, released in 2002 after a 39-year gestation period on the comic book page, would make millions even if its hero had been played by John Travolta sporting his Battlefield Earth dreadlocks. But director Sam Raimi's surefooted adaptation turned out to be a phenomenal success with both audiences and critics, thereby raising the bar for its sequel to a stratospheric level; luckily, they don't screw it up. S-M 2 isn't as accomplished -- or even as enjoyable -- a movie as its predecessor, but it's a more ambitious one, with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) coping with personal problems while the villainous Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) tears up the town. Despite a few flaws, this offers enough thrills and humor to qualify as sparkling summer entertainment.
THE STEPFORD WIVES The second version of Ira Levin's novel stars Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick as harried New Yorkers who move to a quiet Connecticut suburb where everyone appears to lead happy, stress-free lives. But while he immediately takes to their new surroundings, she becomes suspicious of the fact that the town is comprised of nerds married to beautiful women who will do anything they request. This may well end up being the summer's most ill-conceived movie, a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary further undone by last-minute reshoots that end up contradicting plot points established earlier in the film. Director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick are satisfied to turn this chilling cautionary tale into a swishy camp outing, with more emphasis on snap-finger witticisms and immaculate decor than on anything of substance. 1/2
THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL It sounds a bit calculating, even more so for a foreign import -- a movie about a camel that gives birth to a colt and then immediately rejects her baby, forcing the Mongolian family that owns the animals to devise a way to bond the pair. Yet writer-directors Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa pull it off, draping a loose narrative around the real-life experiences of a nomadic family living in the Gobi Desert. The film is as much about this clan as about the camels, focusing on the people as they spin established folk tales, tend to their livestock, and rub shoulders with the modern world only when absolutely necessary. But the movie always circles back to the animals, and the touching finale might insure that the camel won't be the only one doing the weeping.
SUPER SIZE ME Morgan Spurlock decided to eat only McDonald's for a whole month, heading to the Golden Arches for his three squares a day. By the end, he had (among other things) gained 25 pounds and watched his cholesterol skyrocket. Despite the obviousness of its conclusions, this is still an outrageously entertaining documentary that presents its material in such a compelling manner, we often feel like we're hearing its nuggets (McNuggets?) of information for the first time. Spurlock documents all aspects of his experiment, yet he also talks with health advocates and explores the reasons why the fast food industry has become such an integral ingredient in the American lifestyle. This is a movie filled with big laughs, yet even the guffaws don't diminish the periodic bouts of anger, depression and horror we personally experience as we watch a nation eating itself into oblivion. 1/2
THE TERMINAL Steven Spielberg's latest is loosely based on the true story of a man who, because of twisting ribbons of red tape, had to live in an airport after being denied access into any country (including his own). Tom Hanks plays the accidental tourist Viktor Navorski, and as we watch him settle into his new "home," we're delighted by the rich vein of humor and moved by Hanks' compassionate performance. But after a wonderful first half, the movie turns shameless and never lets up. Stanley Tucci plays the paper villain of the piece, a rabid airport official who tracks and torments Viktor as if he were Inspector Javert on the hunt for Jean Valjean; meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones gets unconvincingly shoehorned into the plot as Viktor's nitwit love interest. Arguably Spielberg's least subtle movie, it's still worth a quick glance. 1/2
TWO BROTHERS In casting the lead roles for Two Brothers, director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear) came up with a revolutionary idea: He used real tigers to play the parts of tigers! So forget about all those fake CGI critters that have become the norm as of late -- Annaud's approach is so retro that it's practically progressive. His movie's all the better for it: This is a tremendously touching story about two tiger cubs who get separated shortly after birth and are reunited under dire circumstances one year later. There's a complexity involved in some of the characterizations that usually isn't found in this sort of family film -- the man vs. nature theme isn't always painted in simplistic good vs. evil brushstrokes -- and some of Annaud's animal footage is simply remarkable.