MONSTER HOUSE Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis may well continue to make movies deep into the 2020s or even 2030s, but for many moviegoers (myself included), they will always be first and foremost remembered for their 1980s output -- Spielberg with E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy, Zemeckis with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- so it makes complete sense that they’re attached as executive producers to the new animated adventure Monster House. At its best, this film harkens back to the fantasy flicks of that period, movies in which innocent children leading sheltered suburban existences often had to cope with the supernatural terrors that lurked around every corner and often even under the bed. Monster House’s protagonist, DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), is recognizable from just about any cinematic time period: a shy outcast who’s light on the brawn but heavy on the brains. He’s the only one in his neighborhood who realizes that something’s not right within the creepy house that’s directly across the street, a rotting mansion owned by a nasty old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). After Nebbercracker suffers a heart attack and is whisked away to the hospital, DJ, his obnoxious best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and savvy new pal Jenny (Spencer Locke) all come to the realization that the house itself is alive, perhaps inhabited by Nebbercracker’s cranky spirit. People as well as objects begin to disappear, leading the three kids to summon up the courage to put a stop to these otherworldly occurrences. As with many of the 80s titles, there’s more here than meets the eye. What initially appears to be a straightforward haunted house tale morphs into a haunting tale about love, retribution and acceptance, complete with a backstory that’s as affecting as it is unexpected.
MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND Like those superheroes who hide their costumes under unassuming street clothes in order to protect their true identities, My Super Ex-Girlfriend likewise masks its intriguing subtext under the surface charms of a romantic comedy. Luke Wilson, whose film couldn’t help but be better than his brother Owen’s current stinkbomb (You, Me and Dupree), stars as Matt Saunders, a mild-mannered guy whose new girlfriend is art gallery employee Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman). Jenny appears to be deeply insecure and hopelessly neurotic, but Matt digs her and the sex is great -- so great, in fact, that her violent gyrations end up breaking his bed. What Matt eventually discovers is that Jenny Johnson is also G-Girl, an admired superheroine who’s always on hand to capture fleeing bank robbers and reroute rogue missiles. As their relationship progresses, Matt begins to realize just how emotionally needy Jenny/G-Girl can be, and their romance isn’t helped by his friendship with sweet-natured coworker Hannah Lewis (Anna Faris, appealing in a role that doesn’t draw enough on her sharp comic skills). Thurman locates the inner angst in this character, and while she’s effective in full-on comic mode, she’s even better in the scenes in which we see the madness peeking out from behind the super-facade. It’s a performance of unexpected poignancy, and it’s a shame that scripter Don Payne (a frequent writer for The Simpsons) wasn’t allowed to further explore this dimension. Instead, the movie keeps whipping back into slapstick mode. Yet even here, it’s hardly a painful watch (occasionally shoddy effects aside), thanks to the agreeable cast and some choice set pieces (the shark in the apartment is a highlight).
CLERKS II Even as the lone wolf reviewer who considers Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back a guilty pleasure of the most shameless order, it saddens me that I can’t offer Kevin Smith’s latest Jersey hurl similar props. The sequel to the 1994 film that placed Smith on the indie map in the first place, Clerks II is pretty much what you’d expect from this often crude, often insightful filmmaker, only with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Twelve years down the road, wishy-washy Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and foul-mouthed Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still the clerks at the Quick Stop convenience store -- at least until it burns down at the start of this new film. The pair then take jobs flipping burgers for the Mooby’s fast food chain (first introduced in Dogma), and a year down the road finds Dante planning to marry his dominant girlfriend (Jennifer Schwalbach) and move to Florida to work for her dad running a carwash. Randal isn’t happy that his buddy will be abandoning him; neither is Becky (Rosario Dawson, quite delightful here), the Mooby’s manager who enjoys her easygoing relationship with Dante. That’s more than enough plot for a Kevin Smith feature, since with him, the wordplay’s the thing. There’s a lengthy argument between film geeks from the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings camps, a lengthy chat on the grossness of a particular sex act, and, most effectively, a lengthy discussion on whether Dante should be content with his present existence or whether it’s really necessary for him to leave the Jersey turf he’s always called home and rebuild his life from scratch.
YOU ME AND DUPREE There’s so much terribly wrong with the terrible You, Me and Dupree that we can afford to be charitable and look at its positive attributes -- uh, better make that attribute, singular. Roughly 60 seconds in this film rank as among the most charming and romantic ever committed to celluloid, moments so magical that one’s faith in the power of cinema is momentarily restored. Unfortunately, that minute consists of footage from the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck classic Roman Holiday, which slacker Dupree happens to be watching on TV. Shoehorning Roman Holiday into this cesspool of a movie seems almost cruel, the cinematic equivalent of throwing a newborn kitten into a pen full of rabid Rottweilers. Then again, inflicting pain - both on its characters and on hapless audience members -- seems to be the play of the day as far as this movie is concerned. Owen Wilson plays Dupree, a man-child (Hollywood’s favorite character type of late, as evidenced by The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and any Will Ferrell vehicle) who, left without a home or a job, is invited to stay for a couple of days with his lifelong best friend Carl (Matt Dillon) and Carl’s new wife Molly (Kate Hudson). It takes about 10 seconds before Dupree starts being a nuisance in the eyes of his hosts -- watching TV instead of searching for a job, sleeping naked on their beloved couch, and nearly setting the house on fire during a lovemaking session with a librarian that involves greasing her up with butter (shades of Last Tango In Paris, and probably the only time Wilson will have something in common with Marlon Brando). You, Me and Dupree will doubtless serve as the ultimate litmus test when it comes to one’s tolerance of Wilson’s patented hangdog slacker routine. Effective when used in the service of a likable character (Wedding Crashers, Meet the Parents), it’s endlessly irritating when attached to a role as obnoxious as Dupree. Individually, costars Dillon and Hudson are fine, but together they have zero chemistry -- their on-screen unfamiliarity with each other is so pronounced that one gets the idea the actors only met for the first time about two minutes before the cameras started rolling. A black-comedy specialist like Danny DeVito might have wrung some wicked laughs out of this material (his underrated Duplex shares a faintly similar plotline), but directors Anthony and Joe Russo, working from a laughless script by Mike LeSieur, rachet up the unpleasantness without leavening it with any compensating humor. And after an hour of the expected gross-out gags (backed up toilet, masturbating into a sock), the film decides to turn sentimental on us, involving Dupree in an excruciating chase sequence that ends with this reformed couch potato saving Carl and Molly’s marriage, Carl’s job, his own self-respect -- in short, saving everything except the movie itself.
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.
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.
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.
CLICKAdam 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.
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.
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.