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What were the heads at Disney’s Buena Vista Pictures branch thinking when they elected to release this downbeat drama in the middle of summer? Dark Water is the sort of brooding psychological film often embraced by discerning audiences in the fall off-season, but during the blockbuster period, it doesn’t stand a chance. That’s a shame, because as far as American remakes of Japanese horror flicks go, this one’s better than either The Ring or The Grudge. Jennifer Connelly stars as Dahlia Williams, an emotionally fragile woman whose recent divorce leaves her scrambling to find a place for her and her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to reside. They end up moving into a decrepit apartment on Roosevelt Island, just across the way from Manhattan, but it’s not long before matters take an eerie turn: Ceci becomes obsessed with her new imaginary friend; the building’s elevator operates according to its own schedule; and the imposing water spots on the ceiling seem to pulsate with a purpose. The horror angle isn’t nearly as compelling as the other topics explored by director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and scripter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless), among them parental anxiety, urban decay and the indifference of strangers. Connelly anchors this with a strong performance, though the film is stolen by supporting players Pete Postlethwaite (as the building’s gruff janitor), Tim Roth (as Dahlia’s adept lawyer) and especially John C. Reilly (as the sleazy landlord).


Assign acclaimed directors to superhero flicks and you get the likes of the Spider-Man pair, the X-Men duo and Batman Begins. Assign any Tom, Hack or Harry, and you get flaccid duds like Elektra, The Punisher and now Fantastic Four. The protagonists of this new film certainly deserved a better fate: Arriving on the scene (1961) before the X-Men, the Hulk and even Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four were the heroes who initially established the popularity of the Marvel universe. It’s shocking that 20th Century Fox didn’t treat this with the same care as their classy (and wildly successful) X-Men franchise; instead, they handed the directorial reins to Tim Story, whose brief resume (Barbershop and the Jimmy Fallon bomb Taxi) offered no hints that he was the right man for this job. So what we get is a half-assed enterprise that might play better with the general public than with fans who will be outraged at the liberties taken by Story and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. While on a scientific mission into outer space, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) run afoul of a cloud of cosmic radiation; the exposure ends up turning them into, respectively, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. When they’re not busy bickering among themselves, they spend their time matching wits with industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose own contact with the radiation transforms him into the villainous Dr. Doom. Among the heroes, Chiklis fares best as the tortured Thing, but McMahon makes a pitiable Dr. Doom, a towering comic book villain reduced to a wimpy matinee villain.


As far as ill-advised Nicole Kidman vehicles that plunder past artifacts of pop culture are concerned, the nicest thing one can say about Bewitched is that it’s an improvement over The Stepford Wives. That’s primarily because of Kidman herself, who manages to harness her maddeningly inconsistent role with such success that the result is an offbeat and original characterization. Directed and co-written (with her sister Delia) by Nora Ephron, Bewitched isn’t a faithful adaptation of the popular 60s TV series; instead, it’s the Ephrons’ attempt to outsmart Charlie Kaufman by constructing a scenario in which fading actor Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) attempts to rejuvenate his career by playing the Dick York/Dick Sargent part of the cuckolded husband in an update of Bewitched. So his own star won’t get eclipsed, he hires an unknown named Isabel (Kidman) to essay the Elizabeth Montgomery role of Samantha, little realizing that he’s cast a real witch to play a fictional one. Ferrell’s manic performance quickly grows tiresome, while Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are wasted in malnourished roles.


The notion of a supercharged Volkswagen beetle seems quaint in this age of monolithic, gas-guzzling SUVs -- indeed, 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. Herbie and Maggie manage to beat obnoxious NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in a street race, but once the car and driver find themselves revving up for a NASCAR competition, the stakes are raised considerably. Let’s leave the Freudian implications to those with more time on their hands (horny Herbie is constantly squirting fluids on people, attempting to mount other cars, and making passes at a female VW barely out of adolescence) and maintain that this is suitable fare for families with small children.


Hilary Duff, who seems to be playing Lizzie McGuire even when her characters are named something else, tackles the role of Holly Hamilton, a teenager who doesn’t like the fact that her single mom (Heather Locklear) uproots the family every time she gets dumped. Holly decides to cheer up her mother by fabricating a Mr. Right: Taking suggestions from her friend’s unwitting uncle (Chris Noth), Holly anonymously sends her mother flowers, writes her poems and shoots her cheery Instant Messages. But it never occurs to Holly that, duh, her mom might eventually want to meet this seemingly perfect man in the flesh, and that’s when her scheme begins to unravel. Even allowing that this is aimed at younger viewers, the film is so casually cruel in its treatment of its characters that a bad taste lingers even after everybody learns their life lesson during the final 10 minutes.


Director Christopher Nolan, who immediately established himself with the crackerjack crime gems Memento and Insomnia, has made another movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. Fear is the motivating factor for almost every character, starting with young Bruce Wayne. As he grows older and notes how his hometown of Gotham City continues to degenerate into a cesspool of crime and corruption (something his father fought hard to change), Bruce (now played by Christian Bale) embarks on an international odyssey, hoping to learn all about the inner workings of the criminal mind.

He has always been able to count on the services of the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), yet he also finds allies in Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who works for Wayne Enterprises, and detective Jim Gordon, seemingly the only honest cop left in Gotham (it’s nice to see perennial villain Gary Oldman cast in this sympathetic role). More ambiguous in her support is assistant d.a. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who views Bruce Wayne as a shallow billionaire and Batman as a potentially dangerous vigilante. Yet even she would concede that the Caped Crusader’s preferable to Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the city’s leading crime boss, or Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a twisted psychiatrist who also operates under the guise of The Scarecrow. The Scarecrow? Ra’s al Ghul? By kicking off his series with these lower profile baddies, Nolan has immediately made it clear that he won’t kowtow to anyone or anything, least of all commercial expectations.


Based on the countless scenes in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strip down to their undergarments, it’s clear that there isn’t an ounce of flab on either of those beautiful bodies -- it’s just too bad the same can’t be said about the film itself. Sorry, Ms. Aniston, but Brad and Angelina make a hot on-screen couple, and they gleefully throw themselves into this chaotic action flick in which the sharp dialogue too often gets drowned out by the incessant explosions and automatic weapon fire. The People Magazine perennials play John and Jane Smith, a suburban couple who have grown bored with each other over the six years they’ve been married. But what they don’t realize is that they’re both skilled assassins working for competing agencies; once this tidbit of information becomes known to both parties, each is suddenly forced to try to kill the other. The movie’s pacing is damaged by Doug Liman’s occasionally lackadaisical direction (a problem it shares with his The Bourne Identity), and once the emphasis shifts from the characters to the hardware they employ, it becomes just another noisy spectacle that cops out with a crowd-friendly ending.