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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 Fiona’s human parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews). The meeting goes badly — an ogre isn’t 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), who’s 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 movie’s real ace is Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots, a debonair swashbuckler — or at least when he’s not busy coughing up hairballs. In a movie filled with imaginative bits, he emerges as the cat’s meow.

TROY ***1/2

Troy may be all about Achilles and Hector and Helen and that infernal heel, yet there’s a reason a screen credit states that the movie was “inspired by” Homer’s The Iliad rather than the more common “based on” tag. Yet only the anal-retentives among us should object to this celluloid treatment of a story that should be familiar to anyone who ever regularly attended their high school English classes. Troy is a big, brawny movie that scores on a handful of levels: 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 O’Toole 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. Most of the other key roles (played by Orlando Bloom, Brian Cox and Sean Bean, among others) are well cast, with only German model Diane Kruger failing to hold up her end — her Helen is a boring beauty, hardly indicative of the face that launched a thousand ships.


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. Of course, you don’t have to be a fan of such cinematic staples as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man to take offense at this abomination: Admirers of skillful direction, intelligent writing and impeccable performances will also be feeling the pain. But never mind comparisons to the cinematic classics: Watching this film, you begin to wonder if anybody involved has ever actually held a book in their hands, let alone read one. 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. Van Helsing, a movie whose contempt for its predecessors is only matched by its condescension toward its audience, almost exclusively draws from modern touchstones of pop culture: It’s Indiana Jones and James Bond and Star Wars and Alien and X-Men and so on, all presented as an endless video game with no human dimension but plenty of cheesy CGI effects. As Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman has been stripped of all charisma, while Richard Roxburgh arguably delivers the worst performance as Dracula in film history.


Simply put, Envy is a steaming pile of celluloid crap. The excrement reference is appropriate, since the plot concerns itself with a loudmouth named Nick (Jack Black) who invents the Vapoorizer, a spray that magically makes dog doo disappear into thin air. His creation turns him into a millionaire, a development that vexes his best friend Tim (Ben Stiller) since the latter had passed on the opportunity to invest in this venture when it was still in the planning stages. It really says something when a movie manages to snag the services of both Ben Stiller and Jack Black and then squanders their considerable talents by forcing them to play unlikable characters who come across as irritating rather than amusing.


Like Heathers and Clueless, Mean Girls turns out to be that rare teen comedy that refuses to be pigeonholed as merely a teen comedy. Even more remarkably, it also turns out to be that rare Saturday Night Live-sanctioned comedy that’s actually funny. SNL guru Lorne Michaels is prominently plugged as the film’s producer, yet clearly the guiding light behind this project is Tina Fey. The TV show’s “Weekend Update” co-host elected to bring Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence to the screen, along the way turning a nonfiction book into a fictional screenplay spiced up with her own pithy, piercing observations. Lindsay Lohan stars as a naive teen who makes her public school debut after a lifetime of home-schooling. A cultural and social blank slate, she finds herself being befriended by both the outcasts and the bitch goddesses.


Almost every citizen in the titular town, a Rocky Mountain community during the Great Depression, can between them cover the gamut of the Boy Scout decree: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and so forth. But when they come together as a mob – when their actions are ruled by conformity rather than individual thought – they reveal themselves as petty, contemptuous creatures. Into this village marches Grace (Nicole Kidman, in a strong performance that goes with the flow), a mysterious woman on the run. Viewing this stranger as an opportunity to put his theories about morality into action, the town’s philosopher, a struggling writer named Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), talks his neighbors into allowing Grace to remain. Dogville is irrevocably a movie of our times, a period during which substantial groups gather to burn Dixie Chicks CDs, overwhelming numbers make political decisions based on soundbites of misinformation, and suspicions of “outsiders” have rendered many Americans as fearful as a 5-year-old terrified of the Boogeyman under his bed.


The 1950 comedy Adam’s 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 it’s so inconsequential that it wouldn’t even cut it as Adam’s Hangnail. That’s 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.


A remake of a forgotten 1987 flick starring Scott Glenn; that version barely ran 90 minutes, and it’s a sign of director Tony Scott’s 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. Scott’s 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.


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 son’s 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, Travolta’s 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 Garner’s 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 doesn’t like the person she’s become.


John Wayne’s 1960 take on the historic battle of 1836, the one detailing the valiant if futile efforts of 200 Texans to defend their fort against thousands of Mexican soldiers, was fairly useless as history and barely involving as entertainment, but it at least had the benefit of a sterling cast (Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey) and a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score. This new version can’t even match those modest achievements. Even with his charisma largely kept in check by director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), Billy Bob Thornton still fares best as Davy Crockett, the frontiersman-cum-politician trying to maintain the proper balance between Crockett the man and Crockett the legend.


Although it cribs shamelessly from both Victor/Victoria and Some Like It Hot, this new comedy at least finds Nia Vardalos breaking away from her bread-and-butter — on the heels of Wedding and the short-lived TV series My Big Fat Greek Life, I was dreading My Big Fat Greek Divorce, My Big Fat Greek Funeral, etc. Instead, this finds Vardalos working opposite Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), with the pair cast as struggling airport lounge singers who take it on the lam after they witness a murder. Hoofing it to LA, they hide out by pretending to be drag performers at a local bar — girls pretending to be guys pretending to be girls. The crime escapades wouldn’t even have been approved for an episode of Hawaii Five-O, but Vardalos has great affection for all her characters, and the on-stage routines of Connie and Carla are fun to watch.


I had high hopes for this adaptation of the popular Dark Horse Comics series. This movie isn’t original enough, exciting enough, or humorous enough to sustain interest, let alone spawn the expected sequel or two. Ron 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). 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 movie’s still entertaining, thanks to its able cast as well as its own infectious commitment to Happily Ever After principles.