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NEW RELEASES

AMERICAN WEDDING Comparing this third picture in the American Pie series to the Marx Brothers canon is probably grounds for dismissal, but it has to be noted that the Marx's frequent modus operandi of building a comedy sequence frame by frame so that it reaches an actual crescendo (best exemplified by the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera) is ably carried on at key moments here. It's an unnecessary sequel that nevertheless squeezes by on the strength of some very big laughs. Even the most elitist of critics should occasionally let their hair down and allow the inner party animal to emerge -- while many scribes have taken to the Austin Powers trilogy to fill that need, I've actually obtained more chuckles from this half-raunchy, half-sentimental series. Neither sequel manages the balancing act between sincerity and seediness as well as the 1999 original -- the follow-ups clearly tip the scale toward the bawdy end -- but both offer a fair amount of pleasure to anyone who's grown fond of these characters. In this outing, Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are set to tie the knot, but complications arise before the ceremony, not the least being the mere presence of the foul-minded Stiffler (Seann William Scott). Eugene Levy returns as Jim's dad, and in a nice bit of casting synergy, his frequent co-star in Christopher Guest's comedies, Fred Willard, appears as Michelle's dad. Director Jesse Dylan (Bob's son) and screenwriter Adam Herz may not score any points for subtlety, but they make the most of their disreputable material. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

BAD BOYS II Bad Boys II is the sort of movie that would lead a reactionary critic to condemn it as a work that marks The End Of Western Civilization As We Know It. I won't go that far, but I will say that I've probably never before seen a picture that held so much contempt for everyone and everything -- for its audience, for its characters, even for the film medium itself. A sequel to a 1995 mediocrity, this re-teams Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami cops Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, hot on the trail of a Cuban thug (terrible Jordi Molla) angling to become the city's number one supplier of Ecstasy. Among the first words uttered in the movie are "Stupid bitches," and the tone never gets any less mean-spirited after that -- besides women, the script also slams Latinos, gays, the poor, even the dead (while scoping out a morgue, Mike and Marcus ogle and comment on the ample breasts on a young woman's corpse; hey, what's a mainstream summer movie without a hint of necrophilia?). You also get tired jokes about anal intercourse, a loving close-up of two rats (yes, rats) copulating, and a body count that equals those in Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day and Schindler's List combined. Smith and Lawrence aren't the problem onscreen -- their incessant bickering gets tiresome, yet both have charisma to burn -- but they are the problem offscreen: If they had been conscientious enough to turn down their hefty paychecks, then we wouldn't be burdened with this debacle of wretched excess.

JOHNNY ENGLISH Johnny English is a movie of anticipation. Much of the time, we know exactly what predicaments this bungling British Secret Service agent will find himself in, and yet we still want to see it, if only to count the ways star Rowan Atkinson will contort his rubber band of a face. Deadpan one second, bug-eyed the next, then pseudo-suave, then fretful, then pained -- it's like watching an entire comedy film festival rolled into one mug. Like many comedians, Atkinson is an acquired taste, but one which goes down easy for me -- and so does his latest vehicle, which turns out to be one of the summer's brightest surprises. After the vulgarity of the Austin Powers franchise, the PG-rated Johnny English seems almost like a quaint throwback, and it probably doesn't hurt that two of the screenwriters were responsible for Die Another Day, the best James Bond outing in ages; clearly, these men know their way around this genre and how to best tweak it. A car chase scene proves to be about as wickedly clever as the much-ballyhooed ones in The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but even with inspired sequences like this one, director Peter Howitt can't keep the picture from losing momentum once it reaches a disappointingly undernourished climax. Still, in a season of heavily hyped titles, it's nice to find a small-scale picture that delivers what it promises without making a big deal about it.

LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE Action movies simply were not meant to be as boring as the first two pictures in the Tomb Raider franchise. Where's the quickening of the pulse, the pounding of the heart, the holding of the breath? With this pair, the most a viewer can expect is the numbing of the brain and the closing of the eyelids. My review of the first film said it "ambles along at the speed of a slug through spilt salt"; here, the pace is more like crawling through quicksand with two broken legs and a refrigerator strapped to your back. Clearly, this series is meant to evoke the spirit of the Indiana Jones films, but when the exposition is so arid, the stunts so standard, and the effects so ordinary, it's hard to even work up to the excitement level of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The series' main attribute is Angelina Jolie, but this time, director Jan De Bont and the movie's three scripters have inexplicably tempered her character's more saucy qualities -- having her spend mucho screen time romantically entangled with a rakish sidekick (bland Gerard Butler) was simply a bad call. Then again, it's not as if the action sequences use her well, either. The first movie at least contained a couple of fairly inspired set pieces, but there's nothing in this one that seems remotely fresh. Even the monsters that appear late in the game look familiar -- perhaps disgruntled extras from the set of Fraggle Rock. 1/2

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