If anything, this end-of-the-world extravaganza could stand to be stupider. When it comes to making a big, loud, occasionally laughable but undeniably fun disaster flick, Roland Emmerich could have taken an extra page or two from the genre pictures that dominated the 70s. Global warming is the culprit here, with mans disregard for his surroundings leading to abrupt climate changes that within a matter of days leads to a new ice age that conveniently only covers half the globe. The films science is, to put it mildly, suspect; still, this sort of goofiness is in line with 70s disaster flicks, as is the high caliber of the special effects. But the dialogue? Granted, its pretty awful in spots (Emmerichs direction is better than his script), but its noticeably lacking in howlers worthy of Hall of Shame inclusion. And the cast (Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm) is too respectable where are the has-been movie stars, the marginal celebrities, the wooden athletes? The Airport series at least had the decency to showcase the likes of Charo, Jimmie Dy-No-Mite! Walker and Helen Reddy as a singing nun, so clearly, this could have benefited from the presence of, say, Ralph Macchio, Kobe Bryant, Clay Aiken or Michael Jackson as a singing priest.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN **1/2
Nobody could ever accuse director Chris Columbus of making art; most of the time, nobody could even accuse him of making good movies. But Columbus kept up his end when helping to bring the first two movies in the Harry Potter series to the screen. The switch to Alfonso Cuaron as director signaled even better things to come. Yet the truth of the matter is that Cuarons Potter at-bat is the weakest of the films to date. This entry, in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) must square off against escaped criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), isnt the darkest as promised; instead, with predictable plot twists and an emphasis on effects over characters, its often the one most geared toward children. Still, despite its pitfalls, the movie can be recommended on the basis of a pair of considerable strengths: the interplay between its three youthful leads (Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) and a second half that, with its rapidly escalating dangers and labyrinthine leaps in plot, picks up some much-needed steam and ends the picture on an upward trajectory.
SOUL PLANE *
This urban comedy might have been successful had it taken off in one of two distinct directions. It could either have been a gently rollicking comedy filled with endearing characters a la Barbershop or it could have been a balls-to-the-wall satire that came up with clever new ways to gross out an audience like the original Scary Movie. Instead, it waffles between the two camps, resulting in an imbecilic film thats about as punishing as a four-hour flight delay. Bland Kevin Hart stars as a young man who, after winning millions in a lawsuit against a major airline, decides to use the settlement to create his own Afro-centric company, NWA Airlines. The maiden voyage is packed with formulaic figures: a dope-smoking pilot (Snoop Dogg), a randy homosexual flight attendant (Gary Anthony Williams), a dope-smoking lavatory assistant (D.L. Hughley), a randy security guard (Monique), and a white nerd (Tom Arnold) whos actually named Elvis Hunkee (pronounced honky, of course). And while I generally applaud a movies right to offend, a gag involving the harassment of a Middle Eastern passenger simply because he looks like he could be a terrorist seems in especially poor taste.
RAISING HELEN **1/2
Director Garry Marshall makes shiny, happy movies for shiny, happy people even Exit to Eden, a film about S&M, turned out to be about as threatening as a butterfly with a broken wing. Therefore, the plot of Raising Helen alone is enough to break even the most hardened of criminals and leave him blubbering in the corner: Its about a bubbly modeling agency executive whos forced to change her fast-lane lifestyle after her sister dies and leaves her in charge of her three children. Kate Hudson is ideally cast in the lead role, graciously sharing her scenes with her co-stars and aptly conveying her characters uncertainty and insecurity (its probably her least diva-like performance to date). More importantly, the other surviving sister is played by Joan Cusack, in a strongly delineated turn that provides most of the movies surprises.
SHREK 2 ***
While most sequels slide down that slippery slope of diminishing quality, the eagerly awaited Shrek 2 is on a par with its predecessor. In this outing, newlywed ogres Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), with the self-professed annoying talking animal Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow, travel to the Kingdom of Far, Far Away to receive the blessing of Fionas human parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews). The meeting goes badly an ogre isnt what the King had in mind for a son-in-law and the fallout leaves everyone vulnerable to the machinations of the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), whos secretly plotting for her vapid son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) to end up with Fiona. Little kids will enjoy the colorful characters, while older audiences will dig the sly references to The Seven-Year Itch, Pretty Woman and Ghostbusters (to name but three), as well as the inspired sight gags (e.g. a store called Tower of London Records). But the movies real ace is Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots, a debonair swashbuckler or at least when hes not busy coughing up hairballs. In a movie filled with imaginative bits, he emerges as the cats meow.
Troy is a big, brawny movie that scores as a rousing epic that puts its budget where its mouth is; as a thoughtful tale in which men struggle with issues involving honor, loyalty and bravery; and as a topical treatise on what happens when soldiers blindly follow their leaders into war. Director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) never allows the epic to overwhelm the intimate: The battle sequences are staggering to behold, but the talky sequences are equally memorable. As Trojan hero Hector, Eric Bana delivers the best performance, followed by Peter OToole as his wise father, King Priam. By comparison, Brad Pitt is never wholly convincing in this ancient setting, but he exhibits enough charisma and resolve to make a passable Achilles. Diane Kruger fails to hold up her end her Helen is a boring beauty, hardly indicative of the face that launched a thousand ships.
VAN HELSING *
If Dr. Seuss was rolling in his grave upon the release of The Cat In the Hat, then everyone who ever had anything to do with Universal Pictures classic monster movies must be doing likewise. Here, the text of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley is treated as nothing more than toilet paper in the outhouse of writer-director Stephen Sommers imagination, soiled and shredded beyond all recognition.
LAWS OF ATTRACTION**
The 1950 comedy Adams Rib cast Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as husband-and-wife lawyers who end up on opposite sides of a major case; Laws of Attraction clearly hopes to be its modern-day equivalent, but its so inconsequential that it wouldnt even cut it as Adams Hangnail. Thats a shame, because the star pairing of Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore promises much more than this movie actually delivers. Moore stars as a hotshot New York divorce lawyer who meets her match in a fellow attorney (Brosnan) who has recently relocated from the West Coast. w
MAN ON FIRE *1/2
A remake of a forgotten 1987 flick starring Scott Glenn; that version barely ran 90 minutes, and its a sign of director Tony Scotts arrogance that this interminable revamping clocks in at 140 minutes. The movie starts off OK, with Denzel Washington effectively cast as a former government assassin whose constant boozing is interrupted once he agrees to serve as the bodyguard for an American girl (Dakota Fanning) living with her parents in Mexico City. Scotts meaningless stylistics grate on the nerves, but the strong work by Washington and Fanning cuts through all the hipster b.s. and draws us into the picture.
THE PUNISHER **
Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher) stars as Frank Castle, an FBI agent finally able to spend some quality time with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son. But his happiness is short-lived, as high-class criminal Howard Saint (John Travolta), who holds Castle responsible for his own sons death, orders the execution of Castle and his brood. This is tolerable junk if viewed in the right frame of mind, if one is willing to overlook the poor dialogue, Travoltas colorless villain, and the ludicrously overplayed death scenes.
13 GOING ON 30 ***
This buoyant comedy just might prove to be the launching pad for Jennifer Garners higher ambitions. Starting off in 1987, the high-concept premise centers around 13-year-old Jenna Rink, an awkward girl whose only desire is to be thirty, flirty and thriving. She magically gets her wish granted, waking up in 2004 at the age of 30 and not remembering anything that has transpired over the course of the last 17 years. For emotional support, she tracks down her best friend from childhood, now a freelance photographer (Mark Ruffalo), but as she begins to piece together her teenage and adult years, she realizes she doesnt like the person shes become.
ELLA ENCHANTED **1/2
Freely adapted from the book by Gail Carson Levine but completely owing its body and soul to Shrek, this is yet another fractured fairy tale designed for kids living in a postmodern age. Anne Hathaway, the wide-eyed star of The Princess Diaries, plays Ella, a young woman who, thanks to a spell placed on her by an inept fairy godmother (Vivica A. Fox), is forced to obey every command directly aimed at her. Tired of being a human puppet, she sets out to locate the fairy to reverse the spell; the resultant journey lands her a handsome young prince (Hugh Dancy) as a suitor, but it also places her in the middle of a murderous scheme hatched by the princes deceitful uncle (Cary Elwes). Plot points are brought up and abandoned, and characters appear for no reason other than the story requires their presence at that moment but the movies still entertaining, thanks to its able cast as well as its own infectious commitment to Happily Ever After principles.