KICKING & SCREAMING The "underdog sports comedy," which hasn't been run into the ground as much as it's been pureed in a top-model blender, travels as far as it probably can go these days in Kicking & Screaming, an immensely likable if somewhat toothless family film in which even the notorious Mike Ditka comes across as a stuffed panda bear. Will Ferrell ably tackles his most complete role to date: He plays Phil Weston, a wimpy husband and father whose entire life has been spent in the shadow of his ultra-competitive dad Buck (Robert Duvall), a bullying jock who also happens to be the coach of the vicinity's best boys' soccer team. After his own son gets traded by Buck to the worst team in the league, Phil takes it upon himself to become the ragtag outfit's new coach; he enlists ex-Chicago Bears coach Ditka (playing himself) as his assistant, learns that coffee can provide a person with unlimited amounts of energy (as well as turn him a little nutty), and eventually becomes just as dictatorial on the field as his old man. Duvall, channeling huge chunks of his Bull Meechum characterization from The Great Santini, seems to have wandered in from a much more serious movie, and the usual sports flick cliches (right down the Climactic Big Game) are pretty much repeated verbatim. What elevates the movie is Ferrell himself: While his patented shtick can quickly grow tiresome when it's attached to nothing of substance, here it's in the service of an actual character, and that seems to make all the difference. Rather than random acts of lunacy, the insecure Phil's outbursts are hardwired into his psyche, which allows us the luxury of feeling sorry for the guy even as we're laughing at him. 1/2
LADIES IN LAVENDER The setting is 1930s Cornwall, as two elderly sisters (Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) discover that a young man has washed up on the beach next to their quaint little cottage. As they nurse him back to health, one of the sisters (Dench's Ursula) slowly begins to fall for this lad who's approximately a half-century her junior; meanwhile, it emerges that this guest (who speaks no English) is a Polish violinist, and that a beautiful artist vacationing in the area (Natascha McElhone) might have both a personal and a professional interest in him. Although it looks like a product straight off the Masterpiece Theatre assembly line, Ladies In Lavender is a movie marked by major surprises: It's surprising that the first half is so perceptive, and equally surprising that the second part is so preposterous. Ursula's infatuation with this younger man isn't played for cheap laughs, and Dench makes the character's confusion, despair and desire all equally tangible. Yet as the film progresses, it backs away from examining this rarely discussed issue to focus squarely on the musical prodigy (an erratic character at best), whose exploits are conveyed through misunderstandings and missed connections as nonsensical as any found in such Hollywood claptrap as A Lot Like Love or any random Kate Hudson vehicle. 1/2
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Jay Anson's 1977 novel The Amityville Horror was such a worthless piece of literature that the only way it could have moved any copies was for its author and its limelight-soaking subjects to declare it was all based on a true story. That did the trick: The book, about a couple who insisted their house was haunted, became a best-selling phenomenon, though it was soon discredited as pure hokum. A clunky 1979 movie version followed, and now we get the remake, which manages to be even worse than its screen antecedent. Leads Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George try their best, but as a creep show, this slicked-up version is painfully inadequate, preferring to traffic in quick shots of blood-dripping ghouls than establishing any real sense of dread. I've seen episodes of Sesame Street that were more frightening than this generic junk.
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams' cult phenomenon - which had already moved from radio to print to television - would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, the movie embodies a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot. Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel (as the only two humans to escape earth's destruction) and Mos Def (as a friendly alien) are appealing, but Sam Rockwell's grating turn as an intergalactic maniac is a detriment. 1/2