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Aimed squarely at the open-mouth-breathers who turned Dumb and Dumber and Big Daddy into hits, Anchorman is the movie as litmus test — specifically, how much Will Ferrell is too much Will Ferrell? The Saturday Night Live vet, who had a banner ‘03 with Elf and Old School, now seems headed down the path that Adam Sandler often travels, making movies that solely target his fan base while excluding everyone else. As a chauvinistic news anchor in 1970s San Diego, Ferrell gets to wear ugly clothes, make silly faces, and lust after the ladies, but unless you hold the opinion that the actor is a comic genius worthy of Chaplin or Keaton comparisons, then this sort of obnoxious oafishness gets stale quickly. With the exception of one recently anointed Oscar winner, the cameos merely include the usual suspects (Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn), while capable comedienne Christina Applegate is forced to play straight man — uh, woman — to Ferrell and his posse.


Richard Linklater’s 1995 indie fave Before Sunrise was a pleasant enough yarn about two college-age kids — one American (Ethan Hawke), the other French (Julie Delpy) — who meet in Vienna, spend the night talking (and loving), and agree to meet again in six months. Before Sunset continues their story: Unfolding in real minutes (about 80 of them), this follow-up finds Jesse, now a published author, and Celine, an environmental activist, again crossing paths, this time in Paris. Their planned rendezvous never took place, and now, nine years later, they find themselves forced to breathlessly bring each other up to speed before Jesse has to catch a plane back to the States. As they chat, their initial apprehension wears off, leaving them emotionally exposed as they discuss failed relationships and what would have happened if they had managed to remain together all those years ago. Superior to its predecessor in every way, this lovely film does an exemplary job of conveying the manner in which the freedom and naivety of youth inevitably fall by the wayside, leaving only cherished memories, present regrets, and the rigor mortis of a future that can only be avoided by those willing to take risks.


No superheroes, no car crashes, no sword-swinging knights, no animated critters — for older viewers not interested in the glamour and glitz of the summer season, The Clearing would appear to be the winning ticket. Unfortunately, there’s also no urgency in the execution and no point to the resolution — all in all, a major disappointment for those seeking cinematic salvation. Marking the directorial debut of producer Pieter Jan Brugge (The Insider), the film is fortunate to be blessed with a powerhouse cast: Robert Redford as a self-made millionaire who finds himself abducted, Helen Mirren as his wife, and Willem Dafoe as the kidnapper. Their strong performances remain riveting throughout, yet the story that contains them is flimsy.


While many scholars now believe there’s a historical basis for the age-old legend, I doubt many of its components worked their way into this piece of Hollywood hokum. Yet as fictional filmmaking goes, King Arthur offers top-flight entertainment for about half its length before slipping into pure formula. Even with producer Jerry Bruckheimer breathing down his neck, director Antoine Fuqua avoids fetishistic vanity shots and macho preening and the script by David Franzoni does a good job of not only setting up the principal players but also exploring the religious and political conflicts between knights in Britain and their corrupt rulers back in Rome. But after a terrific battle sequence set on a frozen (but rapidly cracking) lake, the movie’s vitality quickly drains away, and all that remains are some overblown speeches about freedom and valor. As Arthur, Clive Owen (Croupier) continues to radiate genuine star power, but Pirates of the Caribbean’s Keira Knightley gets shortchanged by her limited screen time as a warrior Guinevere.


A sucker who never gets an even break, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a case study in high school geekiness: A beanpole with an unruly nest of curly red hair, this societal misfit stumbles around with eyes half-shut and mouth half-open, the apparent bastard child of Carrot Top and Shelley Duvall. And when he isn’t getting slammed into his locker by the jocks at his Idaho high school, he’s having to contend with a brother (Aaron Ruell) and an uncle (Jon Gries) who are both complete morons. Luckily, he has two friends to call his own: Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a soft-spoken, slow-witted Mexican immigrant who decides to run for Student Body President against a popular blonde cheerleader (Haylie Duff, Hilary’s older sister), and the sweet, shy Deb (Tina Majorino). Napoleon Dynamite is an odd little movie that often seems as unsure of itself as its protagonist. And if the goal was to render an accurate portrait of the inner circles of high school hell, the movie ends up diluting its potency with some unbelievable plot developments.


Set two years after the first film, we rejoin Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in a particularly difficult time of his life. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the woman he loves, has gone on to become a model of national renown and an actress of, uh, no renown (the theater showing her play looks pretty dingy). Peter’s growing desire to give up the whole web-swinging shtick arrives at an inopportune moment. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist with a genuine wish to serve mankind, has just made a breakthrough in the area of fusion, yet after his experiment goes awry (as it inevitably must), he transforms into Doctor Octopus, a madman who’s controlled by the four imposing metallic arms that are now permanently grafted onto his body. All too often, Maguire seems to be playing Superman rather than Spider-Man, and the exaggerated nature of both his swinging abilities (a couple more feet and he could probably touch an orbiting satellite) and his strength (his attempts to stop a runaway train are simply absurd) all too often takes us out of the story and reminds us that, yes, we’re merely watching a movie. But somehow, the human element always pulls us back in.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 ***1/2

As agitprop, this film has few equals, and as a humanist drama, it conveys the convictions of its creator, a man who clearly loves his country and hates to see it so thoroughly destroyed from within. Starting with the 2000 presidential election, Fahrenheit 9/11 then proceeds to document the dismantling of a government. As is often the case with Moore, the movie works best when he removes himself from the equation and lets his subjects hang themselves through existing news footage.


The marble-mouthed anti-hero (Vin Diesel) finds himself waging a personal war against a race of conquerors known as Necromongers. Deadly dull at the outset, the picture improves as it progresses, though not enough to warrant two hours of invested time.


The second screen version of Ira Levin’s popular novel stars Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick as harried big-city dwellers who elect to move to a quiet Connecticut suburb where everyone appears to lead happy, stress-free lives. But while he immediately takes to their new surroundings, she and two other newcomers, a blowsy author (Bette Midler) and a gay pal (Roger Bart), immediately become suspicious of the fact that the town is almost exclusively comprised of nerds married to beautiful women who will do anything they request. Director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick, the pair behind the amiable In & Out, are satisfied to turn this chilling cautionary tale into a swishy camp outing.


Hard to believe, but it’s possible to have too much plot. Steven Spielberg’s latest picture is loosely based on the true story of a man who, because of twisting ribbons of red tape, had to live for an unimaginable length of time in an airport after being denied access back to his homeland as well as entry into the country he was visiting. Here, Tom Hanks plays the accidental tourist Viktor Navorski, and as we watch him settle into his new “home” by establishing daily routines around JFK, we’re delighted by the rich vein of humor and moved by Hanks’ compassionate performance. But sensing (wrongly, I’m sure) that audiences might get bored with this lack of dramatic conflict, Spielberg and his three writers shamelessly gum up the works by adding extraneous characters and schmaltzy situations.