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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, so adorable that even heterosexual guys might feel inclined to give him a big bear hug, 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. Elizabeth Perkins (as Sarah’s sarcastic sister), Christopher Plummer (as their suave dad) and especially Stockard Channing (as the dad’s girlfriend) excel in key roles, yet the movie firmly belongs to its stars: Lane as a warm and empathic woman who’s generous to a fault and Cusack as a sensitive artist-type (he builds wooden boats by hand) who watches Dr. Zhivago incessantly. You either buy into this fantasy or you don’t -- me, I happily wallowed in it.

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD P1/2

Airing from 1979 to 1985, the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard was basically created for people who had trouble following the plotlines featured on Three’s Company. Inspired by the glut of so-called “hick flicks” that dominated drive-ins throughout the 1970s, the hit show was primarily an excuse to showcase good ol’ boy shenanigans amidst plenty of car collisions. This film version follows suit, and the entire enterprise, appropriately enough, 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)” An extended sequence in which Bo and Luke drive through downtown Atlanta suggests that the movie could have worked as a clever reimagining in which the coarseness of the Old South repeatedly bumps up against the sensibilities of the New South, but this promise quickly dissipates to allow more room for the usual mix of lame slapstick humor and smash’n’crash auto theatrics. 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 just ignore the critics and zoom on over to the nearest multiplex.

MURDERBALL PPP1/2

An award-winning audience favorite at Sundance, Murderball is a movie that’s easier to admire than adore, and its makers wouldn’t have it any other way. Though its focus is quadriplegic men who play wheelchair rugby, this documentary refuses to traffic in easy pathos and cheap sentiment: Its emotional moments are earned the hard way -- that is to say, honestly -- and its most startling declaration is that many of its subjects didn’t turn into crude, caustic men angry at the world once they received their life-altering injury. On the contrary, some of these guys were jerks since Day One, long before they found themselves leading their lives sitting down. The movie’s poster boy (literally; he’s in all the ads) is Mark Zupan, an intense wheelchair warrior who earned his injury in a car accident; the other major character is Joe Soares, a team coach who somehow manages to be even less appealing than Zupan. Clearly, Murderball doesn’t want us to feel uplifted by the everyday struggles of these men; instead, it neatly averts the audience condescension that’s invariably generated by documentaries of this ilk by forcing us to view its characters as equals, as guys -- sometimes likable, often not -- who are macho jocks first and physically impaired men second (as Zupan declares, he’d rather have someone punch him during an argument than back down because of his condition; he’ll punch them right back). The movie loses steam whenever its attention turns to the on-the-court rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian teams; far more compelling are the personal glimpses of people whose broken bodies are no match for their brawny spirits.

SKY HIGH PP1/2

Better than Fantastic Four but nowhere near the league of The Incredibles, Sky High is yet another feature film that centers on a family of superheroes. Cribbing as much from X-Men and the Harry Potter series as from the aforementioned pair, this live-action Disney romp stars appealing Michael Angarano as Will Stronghold, the son of superhero legends The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). As a freshman at Sky High, a high school populated exclusively by kids with special powers, Will is expected to emerge as a hero ahead of his time; instead, his lack of powers finds him relegated to the “Hero Support” classes, where he and other underachievers learn the basics to becoming a sidekick. As long as Sky High tweaks the superhero genre, it remains on solid ground, thanks to knowing dialogue and smart casting (Russell and Bruce Campbell certainly have the square jaws required of superheroes, and former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter appears as the school principal). But whenever the movie gets distracted by the conventions of the typical teen flick (the Heroes are the popular kids and the Sidekicks are the nerds -- get it?), it becomes a pale imitation of Mean Girls, Clueless and half the John Hughes oeuvre.

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 should have received star billing.

HERBIE FULLY LOADED PP1/2

The first Herbie picture, The Love Bug, hit theaters back in 1969 -- yet given the sort of cacophonous kiddie dreck that routinely fills the auditoriums today, this blast of old-fashioned sentiment isn’t half-bad. Lindsey Lohan, whose tight outfits continually threaten to put the kibosh on the film’s G rating, stars as Maggie Peyton, a third-generation member of a NASCAR family whose lineage includes her deceased grandfather, her retired pop (Michael Keaton) and her clumsy brother (Breckin Meyer). Forbidden by her dad from ever taking part in races, Maggie goes against his wishes once she discovers that the rusty VW she rescues from a junkyard is magically endowed.

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