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A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL Jennifer Connelly seeks shelter from her fears in Dark Water
  • A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL Jennifer Connelly seeks shelter from her fears in Dark Water
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DARK WATER What were the heads at Disney's Touchstone Pictures thinking when they elected to release this downbeat drama in the middle of summer? Dark Water is the sort of brooding psychological film often embraced by discerning audiences in the fall off-season - during the blockbuster period, it doesn't stand a chance. That's a shame, because as far as American remakes of Japanese horror flicks go, this one's better than either The Ring or The Grudge. It trades in those films' stabs at cheap thrills for an understated intelligence that admittedly risks boring those looking for quick shocks and easy scares; ultimately, its relative failure as a fright flick seems irrelevant in the wake of its success in most other areas. Jennifer Connelly stars as Dahlia Williams, an emotionally fragile woman whose recent divorce leaves her scrambling to find a place for her and her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to live. They end up moving into a decrepit apartment on Roosevelt Island, just across the way from Manhattan, but it's not long before matters take an eerie turn: Ceci becomes obsessed with her new imaginary friend; the building's elevator operates according to its own schedule; and the imposing water spots on the ceiling seem to pulsate with a purpose. The horror angle isn't nearly as compelling as the other topics explored by director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and scripter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless), among them parental anxiety, urban decay (kudos to production designer Therese DePrez for constructing the film's dilapidated building, an unsettling character in its own right) and the indifference of strangers. Connelly anchors this with a strong performance, though the film is stolen by supporting players Pete Postlethwaite (as the building's gruff janitor), Tim Roth (as Dahlia's adept lawyer) and especially John C. Reilly (as the sleazy landlord). ***

FANTASTIC FOUR Assign acclaimed directors to superhero flicks and you get the likes of the Spider-Man pair, the X-Men duo and Batman Begins. Assign any Tom, Hack or Harry, and you get flaccid duds like Elektra, The Punisher and now Fantastic Four. The protagonists of this new film certainly deserved a better fate: Arriving on the scene in 1961, before the X-Men, the Hulk or even Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four were the heroes who initially established the popularity of the Marvel Comics universe. It's shocking that 20th Century Fox didn't treat this with the same care as their classy (and wildly successful) X-Men franchise; instead, they handed the directorial reins to Tim Story, whose brief resume (Barbershop and the Jimmy Fallon bomb Taxi) offered no hints that he was the right man for the job. So what we get is a half-assed enterprise that might play better with the general public than with fans who will be outraged at the liberties taken by Story and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. While on a scientific mission into outer space, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed's best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) run afoul of a cloud of cosmic radiation; the exposure ends up turning them into, respectively, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. When they're not busy bickering among themselves, they spend their time matching wits with industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose own contact with the radiation transforms him into the villainous Dr. Doom. Among the heroes, Chiklis fares best as the tortured Thing, but McMahon makes a pitiable Dr. Doom, a towering comic book villain (think of him as the forerunner to Darth Vader) reduced to a wimpy matinee crook. *1/2

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BATMAN BEGINS One of the finest superhero films ever made, Batman Begins marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship - between the creative forces who have resurrected a popular franchise and the fans who felt betrayed when that same franchise went belly-up in the late 90s. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has created a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous works as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader. To dismiss this as escapist fare would be to ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear. Christian Bale leads a sterling cast that also includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson; their committed performances help make this that rare summer movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. ***1/2

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, this initially clever comedy, in which a real witch (Kidman) is cast as a fictional one on an update of the Bewitched TV series, takes one wrong turn after another beginning around the halfway mark. As Kidman's unlikely love interest, a miscast Will Ferrell delivers a manic performance that quickly grows tiresome, while old pros 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, plays a speed racer who finds herself competing on the NASCAR circuit after she discovers that the rusty VW she rescues from a junkyard is magically endowed. The wavering quality of the special effects - more special in some scenes than others - will pass unnoticed by the little ones. **1/2

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE American animated features, even the best of them, are invariably bound by tradition and convention, but the movies of Japan's Hayao Miyazaki remain free from the shackles of conformity. His films are a sight for soaring eyes, ocular treats for moviegoers on the prowl for new experiences and new sensations. His latest release is nowhere in the same league as his masterpiece, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, but the visuals more than carry the film. This tale of a teenage girl who turns to a handsome wizard to help her break a spell incorporates Miyazaki's recurring themes of courage, sacrifice and environmental awareness, yet the results are too scattershot to make any lasting impression. Still, glitches in storytelling and stunt casting can't overshadow the wondrous sights that Miyazaki doles out for our approval. ***

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 always remained as popular with critics as with cultists. Two decades after his last foray into the genre, Romero has decided to add a fourth chapter onto his established trilogy; it's good, gory fun, even if its satiric jabs are more heavy-handed than in the past. This entry centers on a conscientious mercenary (Simon Baker) who has to contend with a ruthless CEO (Dennis Hopper) who caters to the wealthy while ignoring the unwashed masses, a hired gun (John Leguizamo) with his own agenda, and hordes of zombies who are starting to take baby steps up the evolutionary ladder. Romero's wit remains intact, but his allusions to modern-day America seem more obvious this time around. ***

MR. AND MRS. SMITH Based on the countless scenes in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strip down to their undergarments, it's clear there isn't an ounce of flab on either of those bodies - it's just too bad the same can't be said about the film itself. Playing a suburban couple who are actually both skilled assassins, Brad and Angelina gleefully throw themselves into this chaotic action flick in which the sharp dialogue too often gets drowned out by the incessant explosions. The film begins promisingly, with Simon Kinberg contributing a script that's full of wry observations about the level of secrecy that's inherent in most marriages, and how the stakes might be raised exponentially when the spousal subterfuge occurs between people who kill for a living. But once the emphasis shifts from the characters to the hardware they employ, it becomes just another noisy spectacle. **1/2

THE PERFECT MAN Hilary Duff, the personable but one-note Disney Channel star, plays Holly Hamilton, a teen who fabricates a Mr. Right to cheer up her lonely single mom (Heather Locklear). But it never occurs to Holly that, duh, her mom might eventually want to meet this seemingly perfect man in the flesh, and that's when her scheme begins to unravel. Even allowing that this is supposed to be a frothy comedy aimed at younger viewers, the film is so casually cruel in its treatment of its characters (particular Locklear's, who craves a man like a junkie craves a fix), a bad taste lingers even after everybody instantly learns their valuable life lessons during the final 10 minutes. *1/2

RIZE Born from the ashes of civil unrest in the wake of the Rodney King beat-down, "clowning" was a new form of artistic expression in which LA's inner-city blacks found release by emulating the very violence that was perpetually raging around them. "Clowning" eventually gave way to the harsher "krumping" (less makeup, more thrashing), and Rize masterfully shows how these two musical manifestations have since provided young African-Americans - most stranded in the war zones of South Central - a path away from the guns'n'poses of the area's self-styled gangstas. Beyond its reverence for the creative impulse and its ability to fashion triumph out of tragedy, the movie also earns its keep simply by focusing on the sorts of ordinary Americans who don't usually find their way onto the nation's movie screens. ***1/2

WAR OF THE WORLDS Steven Spielberg, who's helmed several of the greatest popcorn entertainments of the past 30 years, has now given us a popcorn picture with a difference - this one's been generously sprinkled with salt, causing a stinging sensation as it rubs against the open wound of our national psyche. Spielberg has crafted War of the Worlds as a fantasy film for a post-9/11 age, a work that, in the same manner as his excellent 2002 Minority Report, views science fiction not as a source of endless wonder and delight but as a realm fraught with cautionary tales about the erosion of our personal freedoms and our sense of despair in an increasingly hostile world. Americanizing and updating H.G. Wells' novel, this follows a working-class dad (Tom Cruise) and his kids as they attempt to escape the aliens wiping out mankind. Boasting excellent effects, this is a harrowing thrill ride that's merciless in its methods, though it's hampered by a warm and fuzzy conclusion that's simply shameless. ***

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