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BROKEN FLOWERS

PPP1/2

Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, whose seemingly catatonic existence receives a much-needed jolt -- not so much from the departure of his fed-up girlfriend (Julie Delpy) as from the arrival of an anonymous letter claiming that he has a son who’s been kept hidden from him for the past two decades. Broken Flowers is a movie of wry humor and wry observations, yet it’s precisely because of Murray’s approach that the film works as well as it does: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much by doing so little. Yet Murray’s not working alone, thanks to the contributions of the women playing his former flames.



THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN PPP1/2

The summer’s most unexpected surprise mixes honest sentiment and raunchy humor in a manner that’s more satisfying than in just about any comparable modern comedy, including the current hit Wedding Crashers -- in fact, not since There’s Something About Mary has a movie combined these disparate elements so seamlessly. Displaying a spark of comic invention in small roles in Bewitched, Anchorman and Bruce Almighty, Steve Carell catches on fire here, playing a sympathetic character that he created with director Judd Apatow (both men are credited with the screenplay). Carell plays Andy, a man-child who sports an impressive collection of comic books and action figures (all in mint condition, of course), rides a bicycle to work every day, and never has even come close to knowing the joys of a relationship, let alone the attendant carnal pleasures. His three co-workers at the electronics store (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen) make it their mission in life to hook Andy up; he eventually bumps into a few prospects, the most promising being Trish (excellent Catherine Keener), a divorcee with three kids and a flailing Internet business. The 40-Year-Old Virgin runs almost a full two hours -- normally, that’s a suicidal length for a comedy of this sort, but in this case, Carell and Apatow use the time wisely, developing the Andy-Trish romance at a believable clip and also turning Andy’s three buddies into fully formed characters rather than the one-note sidekicks we’re accustomed to seeing.

VALIANT P1/2

This animated feature clocked in at 109 minutes during its recent run in England, and for once, I’m glad of the short attention spans of American tots, as the movie has been mercifully chopped down to 76 minutes for its stateside engagement. The most interesting moment in this turgid film is the revelation at the end that of the 53 Dickin Medals given to animals for bravery during World War II, 31 of them went to pigeons. That sounds like a compelling subject for a live-action documentary (March of the Pigeons?), but instead, the topic has been tossed away on a rigidly rote cartoon that features the usual mix of audience condescension, uninspired computer-animated graphics, obvious morals aimed at small children and, oh yeah, flatulence gags. Ewan McGregor, in his second 2005 tour of duty in a mediocre cartoon (following last spring’s Robots), provides the voice for the title character, an undersized pigeon who gets to prove his mettle by delivering important messages as part of the Royal Homing Pigeon Service.

THE BROTHERS GRIMM P

There’s still enough summertime left for one more financial mega-flop to clear out movie houses and studio coffers (see also The Island and Stealth), so why not , an $80 million stinkbomb that also has the dishonor of being the season’s worst release? (Well, keep in mind that I didn’t see Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.) Terry Gilliam, the former Monty Python member whose peculiar brand of genius doesn’t always translate comfortably to his motion picture endeavors, has concocted an overstuffed boondoggle that’s miles removed from the mind-bending highs of Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are cast adrift as the title characters, con artists whose ability to fool the local yokels of Germany with their fabricated yarns gets put to the test once they encounter genuine monsters. Gilliam’s dark sensibilities would have been better served if the creatures had been lovingly crafted under the auspices of innovators like Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers; instead, they’re brought to cheesy life by the same unconvincing CGI effects presently being used by everybody else in Hollywood.

RED EYE PP1/2

Red-Eye qualifies as the best movie that director Wes Craven has ever made, and if that sounds like damning him with faint praise, so be it. But unlike the junk that has come to define his inexplicably lengthy career (The Last House On the Left, The People Under the Stairs, Scream), this new film at least feels like an A-list project rather than the usual masturbatory exercises in misogyny that he usually foists upon a complacent public. Craven's delight in filming the twitch of the death nerve is second only to his fetishistic tendency to focus on women in extreme peril and undergoing unspeakable torture. Yet Red Eye marks that rare occasion in which the put-upon female protagonist never seems like a helpless victim as much as a headstrong heroine just waiting for the right moment to make her move. For that, credit writers Carl Ellsworth and Dan Foos, but reserve the biggest cheer for Rachel McAdams. McAdams delivers a strong performance as Lisa Reisert, whose flight home to Miami turns into a terror trip once she discovers that the charming guy (Cillian Murphy) sitting next to her will manipulate her into helping him assassinate the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia). Knowing that her father (Brian Cox) will be slain if she doesn't cooperate, Lisa, motivated by a tragedy in her own past that the movie only reveals gradually, will do everything in her power to save both Poppa and the politician. Like last year's equally preposterous guilty pleasure Cellular, Red Eye may not expand the parameters of the thriller genre but it certainly knows how to make its way inside its well-established conventions.

MUST LOVE DOGS PPP

Many of the elements that have made the contemporary romantic comedy such a grueling (and formulaic) experience are present in Must Love Dogs, and yet the movie nonetheless will work for those willing to surrender themselves to its dreamy passion. The film’s success begins and ends with its leading players, and yet it’s important not to under value director Gary David Goldberg’s script (adapted from Claire Cook’s novel), which adds some interesting quirks to a familiar framework. Diane Lane, so beautiful that it almost hurts to look at her, plays Sarah Nolan, a recent divorcee who takes a chance on meeting single men who contact her through an Internet dating service. John Cusack portrays Jake Anderson, one of her prospective suitors. Over the course of the film, they date and dally with other people, yet they find themselves repeatedly drawn to each other.

FOUR BROTHERS PP

A standard revenge flick that was a lot more fun when John Wayne and Dean Martin tackled the basic premise in The Sons of Katie Elder. The brothers of the title are Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund), who grew up in the care of a foster home provider (Fionnula Flanagan) who raised the boys after nobody else wanted them. The lads return to their Detroit home after they learn that their mom was killed during a holdup. But as they snoop around, they realize that she wasn’t an innocent bystander but the target of a planned hit.



THE DUKES OF HAZZARD P1/2

Inspired by the glut of so-called “hick flicks” that dominated drive-ins throughout the 1970s, the hit TV series was primarily an excuse to showcase good ol’ boy shenanigans amidst plenty of car collisions. This film version follows suit, and can be summed up in the sort of blurb found in TV Guide: “Bo (Johnny Knoxville) and Luke (Sean William Scott) try to prevent the corrupt Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) from seizing all the land in Hazzard County for his own devious purposes. Daisy: Jessica Simpson. Uncle Jesse: Willie Nelson. 97 minutes. (Repeat)” But let’s be honest: If you’re a fan of either the original series and/or Johnny Knoxville, you’ll probably get your money’s worth, so ignore the critics and zoom on over to the multiplex.

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