Hamlet 2 (R)
The fact that Andrew Fleming's comedy came out of this year's Sundance Film Festival with the loudest buzz speaks of how underwhelming this year's fest probably was. This quirkfest follows a never-was actor (Steve Coogan) now teaching drama in a Tucson high school as he stages his ambitious self-written opus, a genre-twisting, stage musical sequel to Shakespeare's famous work. Laughs do ensue though not as frequently as one would think given the oddball premise, as moments of demented inspiration as the ridiculously catchy ditty "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" are few and far between. The actors do keep it afloat as best they can: Coogan as the pretentious crackpot teacher; an all too sparingly used Catherine Keener as his bitterly fed-up wife; and good sport Elisabeth Shue, gamely playing herself as being washed-up.
The House Bunny (PG-13) The House Bunny has understandably been an easy target for mocking sight unseen, but one glimpse of that rather inspired bus stop and billboard campaign tells you exactly why the film works: Anna. Faris. Sure, the plot is basically Legally Blonde (not surprising, considering screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith also penned that flick) crossed with last year's Amanda Bynes vehicle Sydney White (now there's my dream comic pairing--Faris and Bynes as a more slapstick-prone Romy and Michele-esque duo), and the script covers just about every obvious gag that can be derived from the premise, but leave it to Faris, wisely given free rein to do her fearlessly hilarious thing by director Fred Wolf, spin so much gold via line readings, timing, and perfect expressions while maintaining such a likable sweetness as a former Playboy Playmate who becomes house mother for a sad sack sorority. Faris also has a good foil here in Emma Stone, looking more and more like she will assume the track Lindsay Lohan would have followed had she maintained sobriety. There's nothing groundbreaking or edgy at work here, with Faris's infectious presence invigorating the proceedings that's more than good enough, and hopefully this riotous one-woman show will free her from the prison of the Scary Movie machine once and for all.
The Longshots (PG)
Ten years ago the thought of Fred Durst directing Ice Cube in a family sports movie would've been insane, but here they are teaming to tell the true tale of the first female quarterback to play in the Pop Warner Super Bowl. And while this unusual melding of talent and concept doesn't produce results as unique or inspired (or, for that matter, downright insane) as one would hope for, the required beats are covered with competence--and, despite the horrifying appearances put forth by the truly terrible and (thankfully) misleading marketing campaign, a refreshing minimum of cutesy silliness. Nick Santora's script doesn't exactly abandon formula tropes (drama with absentee parent, check); there is some less than graceful plot mechanics (surely there could've been a less clunky device to get Cube's slacker uncle character into the coaching chair); and Jill Marie Jones and especially Tasha Smith are wasted in slim supporting roles. But Cube and Keke Palmer, impressing once again as a child phenom character as she did in Akeelah and the Bee, sell it all effectively, and Durst's surprisingly gentle and understated direction further lends the proceedings authenticity even when they cover the most pro forma ground.
The Rocker (PG-13)
I guess it's now an August tradition: the broad comedy that was so clearly earmarked for Jack Black but he was apparently unavailable or turned it down. Last year it was Balls of Fury (don't let the door hit you on the way back to oblivion, Dan Fogler), and this year it's this over-the-hill-would-be-rocker-gets-second-chance-at-glory story, which proves that just because one is a scene stealer on TV does not mean he or she is big screen material, period, much less a movie star. Rainn Wilson is thoroughly unfunny and unappealing as he so obviously tries really, really hard to achieve some mix of Black and Will Ferrell; it's painful to see so much effort obviously being expended to generate a mere giggle and failing miserably. Emma Stone, playing one of Wilson's ersatz band members, is again very likable here; ditto an underused Christina Applegate, who from her first scene schools Wilson on what it's like to be a television star who also belongs in cinema halls. If he must do film, Wilson needs to stick to harmless, fleeting one-scene cameos as the one he did in Juno.
Fly Me to the Moon (G)
The second critters-in-space-themed animated feature of the season is certainly better than Space Chimps, but it's still fairly forgettable despite being the first animated feature expressly conceived and designed for 3-D. To director Ben Stassen's credit, unlike the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth, this film keeps the "throw everything and the kitchen sink in the audience's face" gags to a minimum, instead using the 3-D more to immerse the audience into the world of the story of a trio of flies (get the title now?) who stow away onboard the historic Apollo 11 mission. The period setting, while initially clever, ends up becoming more of a hindrance, as that then gives Stassen and writer Domonic Paris an excuse to shoehorn in forced conflict in the form of some wholly unnecessary Evil Commie flies who want to sabotage the mission. Without much else beyond its 3-D design going for it, this adventure grows old very fast, except for maybe the youngest and most easily amused of children.
Henry Poole Is Here (PG-13)
Mark Pellington has been quietly carving out a nice narrative feature resume the last few years, from the coming of age picture Going All the Way in 1997, the terrorist-next-door yarn Arlington Road in 1999, the supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies in 2002, and now this pleasant surprise. Luke Wilson plays the title character, a bitter and angry loner on whose house a water stain appears that a neighbor (Adriana Barraza) insists is the miraculous manifestation of the face of Christ. The arc progresses in exactly the expected way, and the reason for Henry's attitude is even more easily foreseen. But the inspirational message is effectively sold by the actors, especially a very strong Wilson and most of all Barraza, making one wish she has worked more since her justly Oscar-nominated turn in Babel. Henry's romance with his other neighbor, Radha Mitchell, isn't completely convincing, but it achieves a certain sweetness, and Pellington drives home the themes in a natural and honest way that never comes off as preachy.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (PG)
It's weird to see a Star Wars film open with the Warner Bros. logo, complete with the "As Time Goes By" instrumental, instead of the usual 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare. But then, of course, this isn't exactly your usual Star Wars film, for this is an animated feature that takes place between Episode II--Attack of the Clones and Episode III--Revenge of the Sith--and it feels very much like the television pilot that it is (series to premiere on Cartoon Network in the coming months), just shown on the big screen for maximum revenue milking. As disposable animated action entertainments go, it's a passable watch; something about seeing those grand space chases/battles and light saber duels still delivers a rush, even if the story here, just by virtue of its "midquel" time placement and aims as a series pilot, is of minimal consequence in the grand scheme of the saga: basically, Count Dooku frames a still-good-at-this-point Anakin Skywalker, his young new padawan learner Ahsoka, and the Jedi Council of kidnapping Jabba the Hutt's infant son. There are some decent vocal impersonations turned in for Anakin, Obi-Wan, Palpatine, and Amidala (while one wonders just how much Samuel L. Jackson got paid for what is basically two lines of dialogue as Mace Windu), and the unique animation style, where the characters basically resemble hand-painted wooden figurines, gives the action even more of a kick. It's a harmless enough timepass, especially for the younger set, but if you've seen the six other films, this isn't exactly essential viewing--that is, unless you were really hankering to see the headscratcher that is Jabba's flamboyant, Truman Capote-esque uncle.
Don't believe the main point of hype behind Woody Allen's latest--the real breakout star of is the delightful Rebecca Hall, not the yet-again inexplicably (over-)praised Penelope Cruz. (Side note: when will Hollywood wake up and realize the imported Spanish actress with looks, talent, charm, and charisma is Paz Vega, not the plainly unpleasant, often unintelligible eyesore that is Cruz?) I want to know how clumsily delivering punch lines in halting English while playing a shrieking harpy is in any way Oscar-worthy. In fact, she's barely in the film; it's really about two American BFF's (Hall and Scarlett Johansson, as the titular Vicky and Cristina) whose summer in Spain is upended when they meet a loverman artist (Javier Bardem, well cast as a skeevy sleaze). It all begins well enough with those three, but with the entrance of Cruz as Bardem's unhinged ex-wife, Allen sadly gives up writing for the best and most interesting character/actress (Hall/Vicky) and lets Cruz have free range to annoy the piss out of the audience by chain smoking and screeching at top volume in Spanglish. The film then grows quickly tiresome as Hall disappears for long stretches and has nothing to do, and Johansson (also used effectively here) as Cristina has to play third wheel to Bardem and Cruz's incessant arguing. Patricia Clarkson gets a nice moment in the late going, but she and everything else is drowned out by the disgusting STD-caused rash that won't go away by the name of Cruz.
American Teen (PG-13)
My first thought after watching Nanette Burstein's documentary about a 2006 Illinois high school graduating class: damn, I really do not miss high school--and that the film serves as such a fresh, close-to-home reminder of the experience is a testament to its effectiveness. The film was understandably one of the few buzz items to emerge from this year's Sundance fest, and it's possible that success will continue and be this year's breakout non-fiction commercial success, as it plays almost like those countless docu-soaps that make the bulk of MTV programming these days--the difference being the lack of gloss and a cast that is recognizably real and not always playing to the cameras for greater notoriety. That said, there is the designated popular rich beeyotch here, a rather uncute blonde named Megan, and she's a real piece of work--though this being real for better or worse, she does not get the comeuppance we so richly wish for her to suffer. The other main characters are similarly "types": the awkward band geek; the captain of the basketball team; and the clear breakout star, quirky girl-next-door artist Hannah, who's so likable and early-Zellweger-adorable (without the preciousness), that you'd wish all the shallow people around her would stop stepping all over her and recognize her soulful awesomeness. If the film catches on with the youth (and if Paramount Vantage takes full advantage of corporate sibling MTV's promotional support, it should) it will no doubt be in large part due to her, who could be one of them teen girl icon idols--and would be a much more positive and worthy one than any Laguna Beach/The Hills bimbo brats.
Frozen River (R)
Writer-director Courtney Hunt's Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival will likely not break out beyond the arthouse circuit, but those who do discover the film will find a powerfully low-key story driven by two wonderful lead performances: Melissa Leo as a trailer-trashy, struggling single mom in the freezing cold northeast and Misty Upham as the young mother in the neighboring Mohawk reservation who introduces her to a very lucrative revenue opportunity: the smuggling of illegal immigrants from across the Canadian border. Just when it appears that Hunt is about to resort to clichéd indie tragedy machinations, she pulls back, mining truer drama from these flawed, painfully real characters. Veteran character actress Leo will likely be the top contender at the Independent Spirit Awards and win a number of year-end critics prizes, but not to be ignored is the work of Upham and Hunt, without whom the film would not be nearly the understated beauty that it is.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (PG-13)
I was hardly a fan of 1999's The Mummy and 2001's The Mummy Returns, but those two cheesy adventures are starting to look a lot better in light of Rob Cohen's slapdash cash-in. What begins as a promising period martial arts adventure with Jet Li as a maniacal Chinese emperor and Michelle Yeoh as the witch who betrays him to follow her heart quickly goes to hell once Brendan Fraser's Rick O'Connell and company enter the picture; those characters never once feel like they fit in the story being told here, and they get in the way of the more interesting movie that this could have been otherwise. Li ultimately only has slightly more screen time than The Rock had in The Mummy Returns, all the more a shame when we have two lackluster newcomers joining the returning Fraser and John Hannah (as Rick's brother-in-law Jonathan). Maria Bello tries really hard--and fails miserably--to play flighty and puts on a less-than-convincing British accent as a very ill-fitting recast for Rachel Weisz in the role of Rick's wife Evelyn; and, worst of all, the thoroughly uninteresting Luke Ford plays Fraser and Bello's now-adult son, who reminds less of Fraser (who, if not the greatest of actors, has always exuded on-screen personality) than the second coming that no one asked for of that walking piece of wooden white bread, Chris O'Donnell. Brand recognition and the added martial arts angle will mean a big opening weekend, but it's time to put this series back in the crypt.
Step Brothers (R)
The reunion of Talladega Nights stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly with director Adam McKay has not resulted in a top-to-bottom laugh riot on the level of their previous collaboration, but they still get the funny job done. Too often the film feels not so much a written story than a strung-together series of improv exercises with Ferrell and Reilly playing the sometimes bickering, sometimes bonding overgrown men-children of the title, as such occasionally resulting in initially hilarious scenes that then peter out past their comic welcome. The entire film operates kind of the same way, as the amiably loose vibe of the film does result in a bit of slackness as it jogs rather than sprints to a big finish. Ultimately, complaining about the flaws is a bit moot as there a lot laughs here, and some really big ones at that, and Ferrell and Reilly again make a lovably, hilariously goofy duo.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (PG-13)
You know those painfully forced reunion made-for-TV movies of past series that serve no discernible purpose other than to give the principal players work? That's exactly how this obviously lower-budget second big screen outing for paranormal-investigating now-former FBI agents Mulder and Scully plays. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson still have terrific chemistry six years after leaving Fox airwaves, and Anderson especially invests this material with some conviction, but it's generally for naught in this uninspired tale centering around an defrocked priest's (Billy Connolly) disturbing psychic visions. While this would-be spook mystery is a stand-alone film requiring no knowledge of the series, it's not particularly creepy much less scary, and too often it's simply dull; not helping matters are the rather conventional couple conversations Mulder and Scully now have to engage in, showing how smart co-writer/director/series creator Chris Carter was in keeping these two romantically apart for so long on television. While there is happily no sign nor mention of Mulder and Scully's TV replacements John Doggett and the insufferable Monica Reyes, Xzibit (nicely playing against type) and Amanda Peet aren't given much at all to do as the token FBI presence. I can't imagine even the die hard X-Philes getting much satisfaction out of this, which shows that Carter and company should have left well enough--nine seasons on the tube and a successful 1998 feature spinoff--alone.