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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


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