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JUST LIKE HEAVEN PP1/2

A pastiche of Ghost, Ghostbusters, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and seemingly every other ghost story this side of Bill Cosby’s disastrous Ghost Dad, Just Like Heaven is the latest Reese Witherspoon vehicle that makes ample use of her winsome movie star appeal while largely ignoring the deeper acting chops employed in earlier pics like Election and Freeway. Yet as far as these things go, audiences can do worse, as a clever concept and ideally cast roles make this more bearable than it has any right to be. Not especially funny but nevertheless breaking down audience barriers through sheer likability, this romantic comedy casts the plucky actress as Elizabeth, a workaholic who seemingly gets killed while driving home from her job at a San Francisco hospital. She continues to haunt her apartment, which proves to be a problem since the place is now occupied by David (Mark Ruffalo), a new tenant who for personal reasons has shut himself off from the rest of the world. Hostile at first, the pair eventually try to bring each other back to life -- physically in her case, emotionally in his. Ruffalo’s shaggy dog demeanor offers an unexpected counterpoint to Witherspoon’s polished spunk -- they make a good on-screen match -- while Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder summons some laughs as a laid-back bookstore employee with the ability to sense the presence of spirits.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE P1/2

There’s a reason that some communities back in 1973 sought to prevent teens from seeing The Exorcist even though the R rating meant that theoretically they could check it out with a parent by their side. The idea of Satan or one of his minions taking complete control of someone’s body is a terrifying concept, certainly not suitable for impressionable young minds. But this is 2005, not 1973, and more often than not, the rule at the multiplex is to make sure every picture is sanitized to the point that it earns no harsher than a family-friendly PG-13. And so we get The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a rigidly literal-minded horror yarn that’s no more frightening than a Chihuahua with a bad disposition. Newcomer Jennifer Carpenter is the title character, the product of a deeply religious farm family who heads off to college and promptly becomes possessed by demonic forces. The family priest (Tom Wilkinson) is summoned to perform an exorcism, but after the girl dies in his care, he finds himself being defended against involuntary manslaughter charges by an agnostic lawyer (Laura Linney). Tedious rather than tense and sabotaged by its full range of one-dimensional characterizations, the movie alternates between Dolby-enhanced possession scenes that could benefit from some projectile vomiting (or at least a spinning head) and droning courtroom sequences that wouldn’t pass muster on the weakest episode of “Matlock.”

THE CONSTANT GARDENER PPP1/2

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles seemingly came out of nowhere to make his mark on international cinema with the powerful City of God, and it’s nice to see that he hasn’t cut himself any slack with his follow-up feature. Strong enough that it should have been held for year-end release rather than tossed away during the waning days of summer, The Constant Gardener is a gripping film that somehow manages to make its central romance even more compelling than all the attendant global intrigue. Based on the novel by John Le Carre, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat living in Kenya with his outspoken activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). They don’t seem like the most compatible match, and after Tessa is murdered, further details emerge that cast a dark spell on her fidelity and paint their marriage as a troubled one. Unfazed, Justin is nevertheless determined to solve the mystery of her death, and what he uncovers is a scandalous affair involving pharmaceutical conglomerates, low-life assassins and high-ranking British officials. With its unblinking (and accurate) examinations of the soulnessness of corporations and the grotesque manner in which the western world continues to ignore the plight of impoverished African nations (an angle it shares with Hotel Rwanda and The Interpreter), The Constant Gardener reverberates with a torn-from-the-headlines urgency. Yet what’s most startling about the movie is the gale force of its love story, featuring characters so vividly brought to life (both Fiennes and Weisz are terrific) that you leave the theater with a lump in the throat to accompany the fire in the belly.

A SOUND OF THUNDER P1/2

Half the pleasure in time-travel flicks is the opportunity to engage in post-screening discussions in an attempt to straighten out the pretzel plot, but this only works when the movie’s internal logic makes sense (see: Back to the Future, The Terminator, Twelve Monkeys). In the case of A Sound of Thunder, it’s apparent that even the film’s creators have no idea what sort of drivel they’re spewing, thereby making a hasty retreat to the parking lot the best post-viewing option. A loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s decades-old story, this casts Ben Kingsley (atypically hamming it up in a desperate attempt to make his presence known) as a billionaire who, in the movie’s setting of 2055, runs an outfit that for an exorbitant price enables its clients to journey back to prehistoric times to shoot their very own dinosaur. The leader (Edward Burns) of the expedition presses the rule that nothing in the past can be changed lest it sets into motion events that could alter the course of history. Of course, something goes wrong, and soon the future world of 2005 is overrun with all manner of deadly creatures, including ones that look like baboons dipped in shellac. From the manner in which the evolutionary changes come about to the hasty (and illogical) denouement, there’s very little in this Jurassic dork of a movie that works -- least of all the laughable CGI critters.

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.





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