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THE ISLAND PP

I wasn’t a fan of Michael Bay’s first two films, Bad Boys and The Rock, though I can at least understand their appeal to action-film wonks. But Armageddon and Pearl Harbor were simply stupid and noisy and sloppy, while Bad Boys II was unwatchable. Lately, Bay’s been plundering Hollywood’s past as a producer, offering execrable remakes of horror films both classic (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and clunky (The Amityville Horror). But The Island has enough going for it to assuage a substantial number of critics who may view the film as the director’s first baby steps toward respectibility. Because the movie deals with the hot-button issue of cloning, expect to see critical blurbs pushing the film as “Bold!,” “Smart Entertainment!” and “Complex And Challenging!” Set in the not-so-distant future world of 2019, The Island casts Ewan McGregor as Lincoln Six Echo and Scarlett Johansson as Jordan Two Delta, two survivors of a global catastrophe that has destroyed most of the world’s population. Like everyone else still left alive, they exist in a carefully controlled environment, an enormous facility in which all their activities are carefully monitored by Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean) and his vast army of security guards. Merrick constantly assures the populace that the police state has been established for their own protection; to give the people hope, he periodically holds a lottery in which the lucky winner will be allowed to take up residence on The Island, a shimmering paradise that’s reportedly the only place left on Earth that’s inhabitable. Conservative opponents of stem cell research may view the film as a cautionary tale, while leftists can appease themselves with the appearance of a beady-eyed U.S. President who’s dismissed by one citizen with the line, “He’s an idiot.” Yet a summer film from Michael Bay isn’t about to weigh itself down with heady themes, so all thought goes out the window whenever Bay deems it time to amp up the volume by staging a massive action scene. The whole enterprise feels like a clone of a dozen earlier films: When the movie isn’t busy emulating Coma or Gattaca or Blade Runner, it’s frantically borrowing from Minority Report or Logan’s Run or THX-1138. And as if to further accentuate its status as nothing more than a commercial commodity, The Island features an astounding amount of shameless product placements. Brand names like MSN, Aquafina and Xbox don’t just appear hazily in the background: They’re each accorded their own close-up, hogging so much screen time that they -- not McGregor and Johansson -- should have received the above-the-title star billing.

STEALTH PP1/2

Stealth is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect from Rob Cohen, the director of XXX and The Fast and the Furious: lots of hot young bods, lots of shimmering hardware and lots of improbable stunts that even Batman would have trouble executing. Three charismatic actors, Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx, play Navy pilots who, having been designated the best of the best, are chosen to fly the U.S.’s mostsophisticated stealth fighter jets. The trio work exceptionally well as a team, which is why tensions arise when a fourth plane, an unmanned vehicle run by its own computer system, is added to the mix. The pilots’ trepidation proves to be well-founded once the RoboJet (nicknamed EDI) develops a mind of its own and begins carrying out bombing runs by its own authority. The attempt to mesh the movie’s outlandish escapades with real world horrors (Middle Eastern terrorists plotting a strike on American soil and hostile relations with North Korea both figure into the plot) doesn’t quite come off, and the movie’s dialogue runs hot-and-cold (poor Sam Shepard, as the outfit’s commanding officer, gets saddled with most of the clunkers). Yet Cohen knows how to keep his action fresh -- the aerial sequences are especially dazzling -- and the Jekyll-and-Hyde persona of EDI, a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL and “Knight Rider’s” K.I.T.T., allows the plane to emerge as a memorable, uh, character.

BAD NEWS BEARS PP

Hollywood’s penchant for recycling continues with Bad News Bears, an update whose most surprising feature is that it’s directed by Richard Linklater. Linklater, coming off an Oscar nomination for co-writing Before Sunset and a box office hit with School of Rock, has basically fashioned an offshoot of Bad Santa that’s set in the world of baseball -- no surprise, given that Bad Santa star Billy Bob Thornton and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are also involved. For those who missed it, the ‘76 Bears is a charming film about a beer-guzzling guy (Walter Matthau) who agrees to coach a Little League team even though he has no fondness for kids. The players initially prove to be hopeless, but under the reluctant guidance of their curmudgeonly coach, they eventually rise to the level of contenders. Like the ‘70s version of The Longest Yard, the original Bears was notable for milking the underdog formula for all it was worth -- and sweetening the pot with its decidedly non-PC aspects (such as small kids swearing). Yet although the remake is similar enough to the ‘76 version that original screenwriter Bill Lancaster receives a screen credit (though he’s been dead for several years), the underdog formula has since suffered from overexposure (this summer alone has given birth to Kicking & Screaming, Rebound and now Bears), and in today’s anything-goes society, the sight of 12-year-olds cussing like sailors on the screen no longer carries any novelty. Thornton is funny as the uncouth coach, though his character -- harsher than Matthau’s -- seems out of place in a movie that’s being positioned as a family film.

WEDDING CRASHERS PP1/2

Modern movie comedies are starting to resemble nothing so much as the board game Clue, with its limited number of characters rotating throughout the confines of an established milieu. Is it Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in the Christmas comedy about an eccentric family? Is it Stiller and Vince Vaughn in the summer comedy about an underdog sports team? Is it Stiller, Wilson and Will Ferrell in the fall comedy about the fashion models? Or is it Stiller, Wilson, Vaughn and Ferrell in the spring comedy about a pair of TV cops? Wedding Crashers shuffles around Wilson, Vaughn and one “surprise” cameo player in just the sort of picture we’ve come to expect from this Hollywood version of a theatrical repertory company: rude, ragged and funny more often than not. Wilson and Vaughn play John and Jeremy, longtime buddies who crash weddings in order to sleep with the emotionally vulnerable women they encounter there. But the pair’s successful operation hits a snag once they infiltrate a wedding that’s under the auspices of Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken): John falls in love with Cleary’s level-headed daughter Claire (Rachel McAdams) while Jeremy finds himself being terrorized by the politico’s seemingly psychotic daughter Gloria (Isla Fisher). While it could be construed as a tragedy if Hollywood has already starting steering McAdams (Mean Girls, The Notebook) into standard “girlfriend” roles, it should be noted that her vitality and Fisher’s zaniness match up nicely against the leading actors’ personalities. For their part, Wilson and Vaughn are in exemplary comic form, doing their best to lift a clunky screenplay that’s bogged down by the usual stock characters (overbearing fiancé, creepy gay kid, etc.).

DARK WATER PPP

Dark Water is the sort of brooding psychological film often embraced by discerning audiences in the fall off-season, but during the blockbuster period, it doesn’t stand a chance. That’s a shame, because as far as American remakes of Japanese horror flicks go, this one’s better than either The Ring or The Grudge. Jennifer Connelly stars as Dahlia Williams, an emotionally fragile woman whose recent divorce leaves her scrambling to find a place for her and her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to reside. They end up moving into a decrepit apartment on Roosevelt Island, just across the way from Manhattan, but it’s not long before matters take an eerie turn: Ceci becomes obsessed with her new imaginary friend; the building’s elevator operates according to its own schedule; and the imposing water spots on the ceiling seem to pulsate with a purpose. Connelly anchors this with a strong performance, though the film is stolen by supporting players Pete Postlethwaite (as the building’s gruff janitor), Tim Roth (as Dahlia’s adept lawyer) and especially John C. Reilly (as the sleazy landlord).



FANTASTIC FOUR PP

Assign acclaimed directors to superhero flicks and you get the likes of the Spider-Man pair, the X-Men duo and Batman Begins. Assign any Tom, Hack or Harry, and you get flaccid duds like Elektra, The Punisher and now Fantastic Four. The protagonists of this new film certainly deserved a better fate: Arriving on the scene (1961) before the X-Men, the Hulk and even Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four were the heroes who initially established the popularity of the Marvel universe. It’s shocking that 20th Century Fox didn’t treat this with the same care as their classy (and wildly successful) X-Men franchise; instead, they handed the directorial reins to Tim Story, whose brief resume (Barbershop and the Jimmy Fallon bomb Taxi) offered no hints that he was the right man for this job. So what we get is a half-assed enterprise that might play better with the general public than with fans who will be outraged at the liberties taken by Story and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. While on a scientific mission into outer space, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) run afoul of a cloud of cosmic radiation; the exposure ends up turning them into, respectively, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. When they’re not busy bickering among themselves, they spend their time matching wits with industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose own contact with the radiation transforms him into the villainous Dr. Doom. Among the heroes, Chiklis fares best as the tortured Thing, but McMahon makes a pitiable Dr. Doom, a towering comic book villain reduced to a wimpy matinee villain.



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