LITTLE MAN The visual effects in Little Man won’t put the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic out of business, but it’s only fair to note that they’re surprisingly effective. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re in the service of a feeble comedy that’s nowhere near as outrageous as one might reasonably expect from the makers of Scary Movie and White Chicks. Marlon Wayans stars as Calvin Sims, a dwarf whose first action upon being released from prison is to steal a valuable diamond. The heist goes off as planned, but subsequent developments lead to the priceless bauble ending up in the home of unsuspecting couple Darryl and Vanessa Edwards (Shawn Wayans and Kerry Washington). In order to gain access to the house and take back the diamond, Calvin disguises himself as a baby who’s been left in a basket on the Edwards’ front porch. A robustly performed sequence involving a rectal thermometer is mildly amusing (or maybe I just felt compelled to laugh at something), but the rest is rather slapdash and bare, despite Marlon’s Herculean efforts to turn Calvin into a notable comic creation.
A SCANNER DARKLY Once again employing the rotoscoping process that he used in 2001’s Waking Life (basically, filming in live-action and then tracing over the images), writer-director Richard Linklater this time unleashes the technique on Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel -- a match made in hallucinatory heaven. Seven years from now, 20 percent of the population will be comprised of junkies, and the US government, with the aid of an organization whose motives might not be squeaky-clean, is trying its best to break the nation of its habit. It sends an agent known only as Fred (Keanu Reeves) into the field to track down the suppliers of a deadly drug called Substance D. Posing as a slacker named Bob Arctor, he forges relationships with several dopers (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane), but as his own use of Substance D continues to fry his brain, he finds it increasingly difficult to ascertain what’s real and what’s imagined. Even with its animated overlay, A Scanner Darkly is far more restrained in its storytelling methods than other notable “drug flicks” (Requiem for a Dream, Naked Lunch), though the uniqueness of its visual style (that “scramble suit” is a wow!) nevertheless insures that there’s always something eye-catching on view.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST The fan frenzy surrounding Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has reached such a fever pitch that had producer Jerry Bruckheimer merely shot two hours of Johnny Depp filling out his tax returns and released it under the Pirates moniker, it still would have scored a $75 million opening weekend without breaking a sweat. Yet at 145 minutes, Dead Man’s Chest ends up providing too much bang for the buck. The effects-driven action scenes are clearly the picture’s highlights, and they alone make Dead Man’s Chest worth the price of admission. The central thrust finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) tangling with the ghostly Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in an effort to save his own soul from eternal damnation beneath the sea’s surface; it’s possible that his scheme will require sacrificing his friends Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), but that’s a compromise the self-serving Jack can accept. Depp’s still a lot of fun as the scurrilous Sparrow, but a headline-grabbing performance that seemed blazingly original the first time around no longer has the power to surprise. Bloom’s Will and Knightley’s Elizabeth are even less developed, and except for a couple of quips (him) and tirades (her), it’s hard to remember anything of substance that they do during the course of the film.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA As Miranda Priestley, the ice-cold and rock-hard editor of the fashion magazine Runway, Meryl Streep speaks volumes with a quick glare here or a terse quip there. It’s a terrific comic performance, as rich as the ones she delivered in Postcards from the Edge and the otherwise unwatchable She-Devil. But let’s not undervalue Anne Hathaway’s contribution to the film. Hathaway (last seen in Brokeback Mountain) has the largest role as Andy Sachs, a college grad whose cluelessness about the fashion industry proves to be a drawback in her stint as Miranda’s worked-to-the-bone assistant. Hathaway is to Streep what Tom Cruise was to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man -- a young talent carrying the load while allowing a more established star to shine in smaller doses -- and she works around her character’s predictable arc to allow Andy to come alive on screen as her own person.
SUPERMAN RETURNS Today, the 1978 film version of Superman (directed by Richard Donner) may look primitive to young eyes weaned on PlayStation 2 and new-and-improved Tolkien tales, but it still holds up beautifully, with dazzling special effects, plenty of heart and spunk, and career performances by Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Director Bryan Singer, the X-Men and X2 helmer who jumped ship to steer this franchise, chose to take the road less traveled. His movie is neither a remake of the 1978 staple nor a direct repudiation of it; instead, he imagined Superman Returns as a continuation of the original saga. Learning that scientists had discovered the remains of his home planet of Krypton, Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) went to check it out for himself, only coming back to our planet after a five-year hiatus. Once again donning his human disguise as bumbling news reporter Clark Kent, he’s able to get his old job back at the Daily Planet, but other chapters of his life have been radically affected. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (for an essay titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”), has tried to suppress her love for Superman: Having moved forward, she now has a young son (Tristan Leabu) and a fiance (James Marsden). Meanwhile, Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back in play and has ideas on how to assert his authority through unusual real estate ventures while also acquiring a chunk of kryptonite to put the Man of Steel out of business. Singer has some problems with rhythm and pacing while Bosworth appears too young and delicate to be playing a tough, award-winning journalist. Yet in the central role, Routh manages to command our attention.
CLICK Adam Sandler earns his hefty paychecks for comedies like The Wedding Singer and the execrable Big Daddy, but he satisfies his thespian aspirations with films like Punch-Drunk Love and the underrated Spanglish. With Click, he attempts to have it both ways. Spending more time sucking up to his unctuous boss (David Hasselhoff) than bonding with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids, Michael Newman (Sandler in familiar man-child mode) is so distracted that he can’t even keep track of the household remotes. Venturing into the “Beyond” section of Bed, Bath & Beyond, he stumbles upon eccentric employee Morty (Christopher Walken), who gives him a universal remote that allows him to program his life as well as his TV set. For the first half of the film, this clever concept yields some genuine laughs but more often gets buried under the sort of adolescent humor that long ago became the actor’s calling card (how many times do we have to watch the family dog hump a stuffed animal?). Then the movie shifts its course dramatically: Morphing into an update of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it chronicles how the remainder of Michael’s life becomes a human tragedy, as he’s unable to stop the remote from fast-forwarding through the years, ultimately leaving him with bitter memories and numerous regrets.
NACHO LIBRE For a movie that many people (including me) tagged as this summer’s off-the-beaten-path sleeper hit, Nacho Libre turns out to be a surprisingly mild affair, one of those films where the creative juices dried up at some point between conception and execution. The premise held promise: Nacho (Jack Black), the lowly cook at a Mexican monastery that doubles as a home for orphaned boys, realizes that becoming a Lucha Libre wrestler would not only earn him enough money to better take care of the lads under his watch, but it might also instill enough self-confidence so that he won’t remain tongue-tied around the lovely new nun (Penelope Cruz look-alike Ana de la Reguera). But because the monks frown upon wrestling, Nacho is forced to disguise himself by donning a mask. After a while, this disappointing film just lays there, like a wrestler body-slammed one time too many.
THE LAKE HOUSE Sandra Bullock’s performance in 1994’s Speed rushed through auditoriums like a welcome breeze on a summer day. But with the exception of those imbecilic Miss Congeniality comedies, it’s hard to recall a recent picture in which Bullock has been allowed to draw upon her natural charisma. On the other hand, Reeves in ‘94 was just emerging from a period in which his repeated miscasting left critics and fellow actors scratching their heads as to his ability to repeatedly land such high-profile roles. Since then, he’s excelled in a handful of diverse roles: iconic in The Matrix, funny in Thumbsucker and, in his best work, disarmingly romantic in Something’s Gotta Give. The Lake House, which brings the stars together for the first time since Speed, serves as an exclamation point to the evolution of their respective careers. Bullock plays Dr. Kate Forester, whose new position at a Chicago hospital convinces her to move into the city and leave behind the lake house she’s been renting. Before departing, she whips off a welcome note for the next tenant, who turns out to be an architect named Alex Wyler (Reeves). But Kate’s comments in the letter, concerning the condition of the house, don’t jibe with what Alex sees, so he writes her back to clarify. As the missives keep flying back and forth, both parties come to the startling realization that they’re actually corresponding over the years -- she’s writing and receiving his letters in 2006, he’s doing likewise in 2004 -- and that the lake house mailbox serves as the magic portal through which they’re able to communicate. The Lake House’s central idea could conceivably work under the right set of circumstances. But The Lake House doesn’t even begin to inspire that level of swoony romance on our parts.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION Robert Altman’s best film since the one-two punch of Short Cuts and The Player back in the early 1990s might at first glance seem like a minor work. For all its levity, the central theme focuses on the specter of Death -- how it hovers around us, how it haunts us, and how it can inform our every move. The movie chronicles the events that take place during the last broadcast of a popular radio show. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a corporate suit with no respect for history or tradition, has dropped by to make sure the closing goes according to plan. G.K. (Garrison Keillor), the program’s guiding light, takes it all in stride (“Every show is your last show; that’s my philosophy”), more concerned that all the talent is in place. And what talent! First, there are the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin). Then there are the cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), adept at crooning cowpoke tunes. Backstage, the characters are no less colorful. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) handles security, though his bumbling manner recalls Inspector Clouseau more than it does Sam Spade. Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) mopes around in the dressing room while Mom performs. When the radio performers are front and center, the movie is nothing less than a joyous celebration of both Americana and the arts. Streep and Tomlin make a formidable duet, while Harrelson and Reilly break through any lingering melancholy with their steady stream of quips.
CARS For all its NASCAR trappings, Cars is ultimately a paean to Route 66. The cars are the characters -- no humans exist in this world -- and the most prominent vehicle is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie sensation on the NASCAR circuit (the name is doubtless an homage to Steve McQueen, a real-life racing enthusiast). Lightning is cocky, conceited and convinced that he needs nobody’s help to make it to the top. Clearly, Lightning is due for a comeuppance even more than he’s due for an oil and filter change.
THE BREAK-UP There’s a fine movie trapped inside The Break-Up, and it’s a shame that it couldn’t break free. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play Gary and Brooke, whose initial meeting and courtship are dealt with during the opening credits. From there, an argument over a dinner party proves to be the catalyst for the pair deciding to call it quits. He’s a prick; she’s a saint. Why exactly would we have an interest in whether these two remain together? Simple answer: We don’t.
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND It’s a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. A “cure” has been found for mutancy, leading to divergent viewpoints among those afflicted with extraordinary powers.
DA VINCI CODE No instant classic and it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards. Conversely, also not a turkey for the ages. Steered by his Apollo 13 direct or Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator. What Langdon doesn’t initially know is that the detective on the case, the gruff Bezu Fache (French national treasure Jean Reno), is convinced that he’s the killer. With a police cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) as his only ally, Langdon evades capture and begins a jaunt across France and, later, England in an attempt to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Seeking guidance, Langdon and Sophie turn to British scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, easily earning MVP honors) to fill in the missing pieces.