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Hairspray, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, others

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EVAN ALMIGHTY My parents may have been the ones to plunk down the dough to purchase the classic comedy album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow... Right!, but as a child, I think I was the one most responsible for wearing out the vinyl via repeat listens to the famous "Noah" skits included on the record. If there's anything in Evan Almighty, the sort-of sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey hit Bruce Almighty, that's even half as hilarious as Cosby's routine, I must have had my eyes closed in prayer and missed it. Playing the same part he essayed in Bruce Almighty, that of self-centered TV news anchor Evan Baxter, Steve Carell immediately finds himself neutered by director Tom Shadyac and his passel of writers, as his character has morphed into a typical movie dad who places his own career above the needs of his wife (Lauren Graham) and children. Having been elected to Congress on the platform that he'll "change the world," Evan now finds his hands full delivering on that promise when God (returning Morgan Freeman) appears and instructs him to build an ark. As his hair grows long and his clothing takes a decidedly Old Testament turn, he's deemed a loony by his neighbors and fellow Congressmen, even though all sorts of animals (rendered through hit-and-miss CGI effects) have paired off and wait patiently next to the big boat as it's being built. Asked mainly to pluck nose hairs and evade birds dropping "bombs," Carell is hampered by a script that instantly changes him from preening narcissist to a one-note saint. If I want to see a movie about a warm and cuddly guy with a white beard, I'll just pop Miracle on 34th Street into the DVD player.  **

1408 The haunted house flick gets downsized for 1408, a fairly effective creepshow in which our protagonist only has to worry about a haunted room. But what a room! Hack writer Mike Enslin (an excellent John Cusack) has built a career penning guide books on supposedly haunted locales across America, even though he doesn't believe for a minute in the supernatural. So when he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York telling him not to enter the establishment's room 1408, he scoffs at the warning but elects to check it out anyway. At first, the spooky proceedings are kept on a low-key simmer, and as long as the movie plays it close to the vest, it works beautifully: The initial meeting between Enslin and hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) is suitably tart (indeed, the movie could have used a lot more of Mr. Jackson), and director Mikael Hafstrom, rebounding from the godawful Jennifer Aniston thriller Derailed, milks a lot of tension out of Enslin's slow-burn realization that this might indeed be, as Olin put it, "an evil fucking room." But scripters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don't just adapt Stephen King's short story; they stick a helium tank needle into it and expand it to grotesque proportions. The small-scale shudders eventually give way to special effects blowouts, while the movie ends up with so many plot tentacles that some are either underdeveloped (Enslin's relationship with his dad) or forgotten completely (who exactly sent the postcard?). Still, let's not complain too much: As far as recent King adaptations go, 1408 runs the numbers better than most.  **1/2

HAIRSPRAY A testing of the mainstream waters, maverick moviemaker John Waters' 1988 Hairspray was a critical hit that was eventually turned into a Broadway musical before now being brought back to the screen. A similar screen-to-stage-to-screen journey didn't help The Producers, but here's betting that Hairspray meets with more success. It's one of this summer's few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the themes that made Waters' film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore, stars peppy newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream to dance. The film's hot-topic issues (including racism) are presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. It's first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). All of the principals are allowed to belt out at least one number apiece, and their enthusiasm and energy is positively infectious. The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, John Travolta (in drag as Tracy's plump mom), who fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply, well, divine in Waters' original screen version. As for John Waters, he stuck around to make sure that the circle was complete. Look for him in a split-second cameo at the beginning: He's the pervert who flashes a trio of housewives on the street.  ***1/2

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