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BEWITCHED As far as ill-advised Nicole Kidman vehicles that plunder past artifacts of pop culture are concerned, the nicest thing one can say about Bewitched is that it's an improvement over The Stepford Wives. That's primarily because of Kidman herself, who manages to harness her maddeningly inconsistent role with such success that the result is an offbeat and original characterization. Otherwise, the same elements that made Stepford such a disaster are again in full force: zero chemistry with a leading man who was a last-minute replacement (just as Matthew Broderick stepped in for John Cusack on Stepford, Will Ferrell likewise takes Jim Carrey's sloppy seconds); a script with no sense of direction once it gets past its setup; and accomplished vets eventually abandoned and presumably left to wither on the cutting room floor. Directed and co-written by Nora Ephron (with her sister Delia), Bewitched isn't a faithful adaptation of the popular 60s TV series; instead, it's the Ephrons' attempt to outsmart Charlie Kaufman by constructing a scenario in which fading actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) attempts to rejuvenate his career by playing the Dick York/Dick Sargent part of the cuckolded husband in an update of Bewitched. So his own star won't get eclipsed, he hires an unknown named Isabel (Kidman) to essay the Elizabeth Montgomery role, little realizing that he's cast a real witch to play a fictional one. Initially clever, the movie takes one wrong turn after another beginning around the halfway mark, frittering away its comic potential by focusing on an unlikely romance between Isabel and Jack. Ferrell's manic performance eventually grows tiresome, while Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are wasted in malnourished roles.

HERBIE: FULLY LOADED The notion of a supercharged Volkswagen beetle seems quaint in this age of monolithic, gas-guzzling SUVs - indeed, the first Herbie picture, The Love Bug, hit theaters back in 1969 - yet given the sort of cacophonous kiddie dreck that routinely fills auditoriums today, this blast of old-fashioned sentiment isn't half-bad. Lindsey Lohan, whose tight outfits continually threaten to put the kibosh on the film's G rating, stars as Maggie Peyton, a third-generation member of a NASCAR family whose lineage includes her deceased grandfather, her retired pop (Michael Keaton) and her clumsy brother (Breckin Meyer). Forbidden by her dad from ever taking part in races, Maggie goes against his wishes once she discovers that the rusty VW she rescues from a junkyard is magically endowed. Herbie and Maggie manage to beat obnoxious NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in a street race, but once the car and driver find themselves revving up for a NASCAR competition, the stakes are raised considerably. Let's leave the Freudian implications to those with more time on their hands (horny Herbie is constantly squirting fluids on people, attempting to mount other cars, and making passes at a female VW barely out of adolescence) and maintain that this is suitable fare for families with small children. The wavering quality of the special effects - more special in some scenes than others - will pass unnoticed by the little ones, while parents will enjoy revisiting their youth via the mix of rock oldies on the soundtrack. Still, couldn't music supervisor Howard Paar have used a smidgen of imagination by not prominently featuring Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild"? 1/2

LAND OF THE DEAD George Romero has always been as much a social commentator as a horror filmmaker, which is why his zombie flicks have remained as popular with the critics as with the cultists. The final minutes of his groundbreaking 1968 effort Night of the Living Dead contain one of the most penetrating moments of racism ever put on film, while the 1978 epic Dawn of the Dead, in which the mindless creatures shuffle through a shopping mall, is perhaps the final word on American consumerism and conformity. Even 1985's scattershot Day of the Dead, in which a captured zombie exhibits more humanity than the sadistic military grunts, makes some salient points. Two decades later, Romero has decided to add a fourth chapter to his long established trilogy; it's good, gory fun, even if its satiric jabs at societal mores come across as more heavy-handed than in the past. The first Dead movie to feature a white male as its hero - past entries all employed women and blacks, and, tellingly, the lead zombie here is black - this one details the efforts of a conscientious mercenary (Simon Baker) to head out of the zombie-infested metropolitan areas and search for a safe haven up north. Instead, he find himself trapped between various warring factions, including a ruthless CEO (Dennis Hopper) who offers safety to the wealthy while allowing the unwashed masses to fend for themselves, a fellow mercenary (John Leguizamo) who will sacrifice anyone to advance his own agenda, and hordes of zombies who are starting to take baby steps up the evolutionary ladder. Romero's wit remains intact - one scene lends new meaning to the term "finger food," while another features a headless zombie who still has some bite left in him - but the film's allusions to modern-day America (Hopper's raging capitalist even states, "We do not negotiate with terrorists!") seem more obvious this time around. Recommended, but with reservations.

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