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No Reservations, The Simpsons Movie, Sunshine

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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

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus' first two entries focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. Villainy abounds in Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry's every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry's issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it's no wonder the lad can't keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he's on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. In many ways, the film echoes The Empire Strikes Back: The mood is grim, the heroes are reeling, and the villains are on the move. But with a little help from their friends, not to mention a strong belief in the "force" of good, these kids may yet save the day. ***

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY Adam Sandler comedies frequently offer sequences that qualify as case studies in homophobia, so here comes this film to serve as the comedian's mea culpa, his belated realization that, hey, gays are people, too. That's a worthy sentiment, and the screenplay by Barry Fanaro (TV's The Golden Girls) and the Oscar-winning team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Sideways) often examines that notion rather than just paying lip service to a PC attitude. In short, there's a good movie to be found in the premise of two firemen (Sandler and Kevin James) pretending to be life partners for financial purposes, but it's repeatedly sabotaged by the desire to placate typical Sandler fans who wouldn't want their boy to get too, you know, fruity on them. Thus, the movie opens with the promise of an open-mouth kiss between buxom twin sisters, peaks with the sight of Jessica Biel in a Catwoman outfit, and ends with the protagonists happily paired off in hetero unions. In addition to this confirmation of the movie's straight-man cred, there are also the usual frat-boy gags involving flatulence, obesity and racial stereotypes, as well as the added treat of Dan Aykroyd (as the fire chief) discussing his sole remaining testicle. That's probably too much crassness for one seemingly noble-minded comedy to survive, and this one goes down swinging. But in its best moments, it reveals that the 40-year-old Sandler might finally be growing up. Give him another four decades, and who knows what mature piece he might produce on his way to the cemetery. **

LICENSE TO WED The heir presumptive to last summer's You, Me and Dupree, this toxic-waste comedy, offensive in its idiocy, similarly places loathsome characters in absurd situations that are meant to give off a funky black-comedy vibe yet instead reek only of desperation as well as the limitations of comically challenged minds. Under the disinterested supervision of director Ken Kwapis, four writers (four?!) jerry-build a premise that finds newly engaged couple Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) forced to pass a marriage preparation course supervised by the Jones family's longtime minister, Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). Along the way, Reverend Frank, aided by his young apprentice (Josh Flitter, as annoying here as he was in Nancy Drew), bugs the couple's bedroom, embarrasses Ben in front of his future in-laws, and drives Sadie away from her fiancé. Sharp scripting could have given Frank the balance required to make him an apt comic foil, but here he's simply creepy, a problem expounded by the casting of Robin Williams. He's in his manic, whoring mode here, an approach well past its expiration date in terms of actually resembling anything funny or topical. (One bit finds Williams making a joke about O.J. Simpson; heck, why not cracks about the Pentagon Papers or Rosie the Riveter or even the invention of the light bulb?) Williams has made so many one-star comedies that it's impossible to keep count at this point. But rest assured that there's a multiplex in hell that screens them on a perpetual loop. *

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