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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, A Mighty Heart, Ocean's Thirteen

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FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER It remains a mystery how the 2005 superhero yarn Fantastic Four grossed $154 million stateside, considering that most of its special effects were on the level of a 6-year-old floating his plastic boat in the bathtub. But somebody filled theater seats, and as a result, we now get this sequel. The good news is that the effects are a vast improvement over those in the previous installment, particularly the CGI-created Silver Surfer -- while his conceptualization isn't quite as impressive as those of his distant "cousins," the T-1000 in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the aliens in Cameron's The Abyss, he's still a cool creation to behold, and certainly faithful to his comic book counterpart. Would that the rest of this picture inspired similar admiration. Instead, FF2 suffers from the same ailments that made the original such a drag: ham-fisted direction, stilted dialogue, the fumbling of a classic villain, and Jessica Alba attempting to emote. Returning helmer Tim Story does manage a bit more visual pizzazz this time around, and the script by Don Payne and Mark Frost sets up some mildly interesting conflicts as the FF -- Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), Invisible Woman (Alba), The Thing (Michael Chiklis) and the Human Torch (Chris Evans) -- take on the conflicted Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) and their old nemesis Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). McMahon's dull work -- he's about as menacing as the parking valet at a ritzy restaurant -- is just one of several wince-inducing factors in this dud; if ever a film franchise needed to come equipped with a Reboot button, it's this one. **

KNOCKED UP Director Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin was unique in that it managed to successfully mix raunch with romance. Knocked Up, which reunites Apatow with Virgin supporting player Seth Rogen, attempts a similar balancing act, only it falls a tad short of attaining the same success as its predecessor. There's a sweet love story on view here as well, only because it's more rushed and not allowed to unfold at a natural clip, it ultimately plays second string to the picture's comedy quota. Fortunately, on that front, the movie's an unqualified hit: It's doubtful another film will be released this summer -- maybe even this year -- that offers as many theater-rumbling belly laughs as this one. Rogen plays Ben Stone, a slacker who meets and has a drunken one-night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl), who's out celebrating the fact that she has just been promoted to an on-air position at E! Entertainment Television. Alison learns a few weeks later that she's pregnant, and she decides that she and Ben (with whom she discovers she has nothing in common) should attempt to make their relationship work for the sake of the baby. Apatow fails to sufficiently flesh out their courting period between that initial tryst and the birth of the child; still, thanks to the sweet performances by Heigl and especially Rogen, there's plenty of warmth to be drawn from the resultant drama. Yet in this picture, it's comedy that's king, with a nonstop barrage of great lines as well as deft contributions from a capable cast. ***

A MIGHTY HEART The sort of drama that generally gets released in the fall, A Mighty Heart proves to be a fine summertime distraction for discerning older audiences, even if it doesn't quite pack the punch of similar titles like Missing and Under Fire. Yet films about idealistic Americans (usually journalists) abroad work more often than not, and this one's no exception. Based on Mariane Pearl's book A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl, the film finds Angelina Jolie delivering a restrained performance as Mariane, whose husband (played by Dan Futterman), a Wall Street Journal reporter, is kidnapped while the pair are living in Pakistan in 2002. Six months pregnant, Mariane tries to stay optimistic in the face of this grim situation, using her own sources to track him down while also relying heavily on the aid of the Pakistani anti-terrorism unit (Indian actor Irrfan Khan is particularly memorable as its leader), American diplomats and the FBI. Given Hollywood's propensity for promoting American know-how as well as its can-do attitude, it's perhaps the movie's most surprising development that the efforts of the Pakistanis, not the U.S. officials, go the furthest toward cracking the case and bringing the terrorists to justice. As the local lawmen and their stoolies scour the streets looking for any clues that will help them find Danny, we realize this isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack -- it's like looking for a needle in the Atlantic Ocean. So when their tireless efforts lead to real success (muted by the final outcome, of course), it's a testament to their determination and resourcefulness. ***

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