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The beginning of Hellboy looks like the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s a good thing. But the rest of the movie brings to mind last year’s adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and that’s not a comparison anyone would clamor to receive. That’s a shame, because I had high hopes for this adaptation of the popular Dark Horse Comics series. Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro appeared to be the right man for the job: He previously brought us vampires in Cronos and Blade II, ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone and oversized cockroaches in Mimic, demonstrating that he clearly has an affinity for creature features. And cult actor Ron Perlman, still best known for TV’s Beauty and the Beast, isn’t often handed leading roles, so it’s nice to hear that del Toro fought hard to have him cast as the title character. But despite their combined efforts, this movie isn’t original enough, exciting enough, or humorous enough to sustain interest, let alone spawn the expected sequel or two. Del Toro’s grungy shooting style, appropriate for his other pictures, merely seems oppressive here, much in the same way that the look and feel of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen contributed to that movie’s downfall. There are other unfortunate similarities between the films, including a cluttered set design, repetitive battle scenes that rarely vary in tone, and supporting heroes who prove to be annoying rather than endearing. Perlman is aptly cast as Hellboy, but his awful wisecracks become harder to endure as the picture progresses.


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 prince’s deceitful uncle (Cary Elwes). Flatulence gags, modern songs incorporated into the medieval action, ironic twists on venerable fairy tale ingredients — after a while, it seems that just about the only thing distinguishing this from Shrek is the absence of a chatty donkey, though this one does offer a talking book as compensation. Plot points are brought up and then abandoned, and characters appear randomly for no pressing reason other than the story requires their presence at that exact moment — but the movie’s still reasonably entertaining, thanks to its able cast (including Minnie Driver and Eric Idle) as well as its own infectious commitment to Happily Ever After principles.


Home theater enthusiasts who’ve been waiting patiently for a Risky Business Special Edition DVD (any century now, Warner Bros.) may find themselves drawn to this thematically similar picture, but they’ll hardly be satisfied: Even with an R rating, this proves to be more frisky than risky. Rising actor Emile Hirsch (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) stars as Matthew Kidman, a studious 18-year-old set to graduate from high school without any memorable experiences to call his own. But that’s before he meets his beautiful new neighbor Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert of TV’s 24), a former porn star trying to begin a new life. With its two aptly cast leads and some nicely realized moments in which the pair tentatively get to know each other, this clearly had the potential to succeed as a love story; instead, the focus is inexplicably drawn away from Danielle and placed on the slapstick antics of Matthew and his buddies, forcing the movie to eventually deteriorate into just another chaotic teen comedy more interested in elaborate pranks than emotional bonding.


Without question, the worst child actor on the current cinema scene is Spencer Breslin (Disney’s The Kid, The Cat In the Hat), but if this movie is any indication, he may want to keep an eye on the rearview mirror to make sure Bow Wow doesn’t catch up to him. I didn’t see the 17-year-old rapper’s previous two films (most notably Like Mike), but his performance here is perfectly dreadful, the sort of overly exaggerated emoting that might play well on Nickelodeon sit-coms but is insufferable on the big screen.


1973’s sleeper hit Walking Tall appeared during a period in which vigilante pictures were all the rage (Billy Jack, Death Wish, etc.). This new version is merely a watered-down version of the story (PG-13, whereas the ‘73 version was rated R). As he already demonstrated in The Rundown, The Rock has natural screen charisma (if limited acting abilities), but his hulking presence doesn’t exactly make him a natural fit for the role of a regular guy tackling formidable odds — his arms alone are as thick around as the piece of wood he carries everywhere, rendering this weapon extraneous.


The Coen Brothers’ remake of a beloved 1955 British comedy may not quite match its predecessor, but it works in its own eccentric way. The action has moved from England to the Deep South, where a churchgoing widow (Irma P. Hall) agrees to lease a room to Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), little suspecting that he’s a criminal mastermind who plans to use her cellar as his base of operations for a planned casino heist. Passing themselves off as musicians, Dorr and his cut-rate crew work quickly to carry out their plot, but once the senior citizen gets wind of their scheme, they decide that bumping her off might be the best course of action. The oddest aspect of this coolly detached comedy is that it never feels especially funny — at least not in the gut-busting, knee-slapping sense. But that’s not necessarily because the movie fumbles its gags; on the contrary, they’re executed so well that paradoxically we end up admiring the intricacies behind the set pieces rather than the set pieces themselves.


While not entirely lacking in charm, Scooby-Doo 2 isn’t as sure-footed as its predecessor, even though the same director (Raja Gosnell) and writer (James Gunn) are involved. Instead, the worst elements of the first film – the characters’ tedious soul-searching, their obsession with the media spotlight, all those flatulence gags – have been placed front and center, resulting in an exhausting effort that feels twice as long as its 90-minute running time. In this outing, those meddling kids – Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) — and their CGI mutt find their reputation tarnished by a busybody reporter (Alicia Silverstone) even as they’re preoccupied with fighting a whole army of misshapen creatures. The big surprise of the first film was Lillard’s dead-on Shaggy imitation; here, it’s a subplot in which Velma gets a beauty makeover.


Scripter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has come up with another mindbender of a movie. When we first meet them, anally retentive Joel (Jim Carrey) and free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) are drawn to each other on a beach, not realizing that they were once lovers. It turns out that Clementine, bored with their relationship, opted to take part in a breakthrough procedure that allowed all traces of their romance to be permanently zapped from her memory. Angry and hurt, Joel elected to receive the same treatment; only once it began, he had second thoughts and then did everything he could — solely within the parameters of his own mind — to save the more precious of his many moments with Clementine.


Having now appeared together in several films, it might be time to regard Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Hollywood’s latest certified comedy team, a tradition that has included such twofers as Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, and Lemmon and Matthau. Like their predecessors, these guys are able to bring out the best in each other, a vital ingredient in making Starsky & Hutch more tolerable than most movies based on past TV shows.


It's not that I was offended or put off by the film's excessive violence; on the contrary, an honest depiction of this tale probably needs to showcase such degrees of brutality up close and personal. But what's sorely missing from the movie is any meaningful context. Martin Scorsese's superb 1988 offering The Last Temptation of Christ -- still the best and most affecting religious flick ever made -- worked because it presented us with a Christ who was both fully God and fully man, not an untouchable icon but rather an immediate figure working through the pleasures and perils of life itself. By contrast, Gibson's focus is so narrow that his film never gives us a sense of Jesus the Man -- all we get is Jesus the Martyr, who's forced to spend a tedious two hours incessantly beaten by spittle-spraying Roman soldiers. w


Viggo Mortensen is adequate as a sensitive soul who, shaken up by the mass genocide of Native Americans, turns to the bottle and performs in a Wild West show before accepting an offer to journey to a foreign land (yes, this movie kicks off exactly like The Last Samurai). In this case, the character and his trusty horse Hidalgo are invited to take part in a grueling 3,000 mile race across the Arabian Desert, a contest in which most participants perish under the merciless sun and the few survivors must contend with duplicity and double-crosses at every turn. What follows is a rousing adventure yarn that includes breathtaking vistas, worthy comic relief, occasionally terrible CGI effects, a supporting role for Omar Sharif (as the Sheik overseeing the race), and plenty of exciting derring-do in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones.


Twisted stars Ashley Judd as a detective who becomes a leading suspect in her own investigation when the victims all turn out to be her former lovers. But given all these disposable titles and plotlines, how can I be sure? Because this one stands out through the sheer fact that it’s the worst one yet, a preposterous yarn in which not only is it easy to deduce the identity of the killer (with at least an hour to go) but also to figure out how the climactic scene will go down.


Pulling off a successful threepeat, director Peter Jackson wraps up J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga with a dazzling chapter guaranteed to please true believers.

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