AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR - I probably would have enjoyed it just fine if the damned humans didn't keep showing up to ruin the fun. For fans of the genre, there's certainly entertainment to be had here - the Aliens are allowed some tense, shivery moments, and writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson has hold of a strong story idea - but it comes after almost 75 minutes of protracted build-up, with wretched dialogue and mostly abysmal acting that makes you want to bash your skull in. The worst of the Alien flicks; the second-best of the Predators.
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY - Crass, empty-headed, and kinda funny. When the film is really rolling - when dissecting '70s-era sexual harassment, for example - it's great fun; when it fumbles, it's still easy enough to shrug off, like a lame Saturday Night Live sketch. Will Ferrell, with his comically repellant cluelessness, is often amusing, and the invaluable Steve Carell earns laughs every single time he opens his mouth.
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY - Paul Greenglass' spy-flick continuation doesn't have the lightness or humor of The Bourne Identity, but what it lacks in variety is easily made up for in professionalism, speed, and sheer efficiency; it actually stands as one of 2004's finer offerings. The movie is like a high-tech variant on The Fugitive, made with superlative skill and a you-are-there immediacy that's exhilarating, and the cast - Matt Damon and Joan Allen especially - help make this a blessedly human action-thriller.
CATWOMAN - A dog, actually.
THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK - Like Aliens without the aliens. This Pitch Black follow-up has none of the original's suggestive paranoia or gloomily expressive cinematography, but it does have that glum, joyless bruiser Vin Diesel as its hero; viewing Diesel in stoic Action Stud mode is akin to watching the school bully get rewarded for stealing kids' lunch money. The effects are fine, but the movie is about nothing but Diesel's raging narcissism. With Thandie Newton, Linus Roache, and Judi Dench. Um ... Judi Dench?!?
A CINDERELLA STORY - Judged even by the standards of current teenybopper fare, a hopelessly lazy piece of work. Hilary Duff is back to empower 12-year-old girls everywhere, but it's becoming more and more clear that she has charm but absolutely no personality, which might very well make her perfect for achingly familiar, pre-packaged product like this.
COLLATERAL - Leave it to director Michael Mann to not only pull off this High Concept Action Thriller, but to pull it off spectacularly well; from first shot to last, and with minimal help from the script, his work is quite extraordinary. He creates a palpably creepy sense of L.A.-after-hours danger, and his action scenes are undeniably exciting; Collateral is the rare summertime entertainment to bear the stamp of a genuinely visionary helmer. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx make memorable sparring partners, and Mark Ruffalo, Irma P. Hall, and Javier Bardem deliver expert cameos.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - We expect disaster movies of this ilk to be laughable, but laughable mixed with Deadly Serious is a sickly combination. Director Roland Emmerich treats his movie's asinine subplots with an earnestness that makes him appear quite loopy, and the relentlessly dour presentation kills all traces of comic irony inherent in the script. (It also results in the audience often giggling derisively.) A moronic mess that made almost $200 million; the dumbing down of America continues.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY - If not for Ben Stiller, this umpteenth variant on The Bad News Bears would be tough to sit through; it's terribly made, and unless you're Homer Simpson, the sight of someone getting hit in the nuts with a dodgeball loses its edge when repeated a 50th time. Thankfully, Stiller hasn't been this wildly inspired since Zoolander, and Vince Vaughn, Rip Torn, and Jason Bateman supply some laughs. Put this on a double-bill with Anchorman, and you'd have exactly one good comedy.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 - As its staggering box-office indicates, Michael Moore's anti-Bush tirade has tapped into the (liberal) American zeitgeist in a way that even he couldn't have imagined. With an astounding variety of film footage at his disposal, Moore's work is typically messy, anarchistic, and pulsating with righteous indignation, yet tempered by scenes of heartbreaking eloquence. As Moore delves into the tragic inevitability of our war in Iraq, Fahrenheit 9/11 achieves a primal power that's truly inspirational. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard, it's also funny as hell.
GARFIELD: THE MOVIE - Well, at least the dog is cute. The script, though, consists of third-rate puns that would be deemed unfunny for the Sunday comics, the plot flagrantly rips off both Toy Story movies, and Bill Murray's uninspired line readings as the titular, CGI feline make the bad jokes he's been given fall even flatter than they would have without his help. Somehow, this became a sizeable hit anyway. Can Family Circus: The Motion Picture be far behind?
HARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN - Director Alfonso Cuaron isn't quite able to overcome the film series' built-in limitations - the familiarity of the storytelling arc, the "surprise" character reversals that aren't really very surprising - but in all other ways his work is exemplary; Azkaban is a visually audacious work with scenes of true magic, and Cuaron improves on Chris Columbus' vision tenfold. He fills the screen with images of almost ethereal wonder, and the film is beautifully paced; it's the rare summer blockbuster that's as good as it is popular.
I, ROBOT - Perfectly titled, because it's about as mechanical and impersonal as Hollywood entertainment gets. There are some nifty set pieces and effects, and the film is harmless enough, but it progresses with so little inventiveness that you'll have more luck tallying the movie's numerous influences than finding an original idea. Alex Proyas' work is lacking the luxurious gloom of his Dark City or The Crow; like its mechanized antagonists, the movie, despite the presence of ever-likable Will Smith, winds up efficient, soulless, and hollow.
KING ARTHUR - As big-budget Hollywood behemoths go, it's pretty good - tough-minded and serious, with a solid cast and impressive production values. Yet I couldn't quite figure out its point: Once you strip away the majesty and supernatural elements from Arthurian legend, all you're left with (at least in director Antoine Fuqua's work) is a PG-13 Braveheart. Studded with sensational battle sequences, the movie is almost good enough to make you ignore the fact that it has absolutely no reason to exist.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - A gloomy, dull remake of a lean and exhilarating movie. Jonathan Demme's attempts to update a nastily brilliant Cold War analogy to the Gulf War era have little bite and even less meaning, and the correlations between our current political climate and Manchurian's murderous one are tinny and obvious; the movie is trying so hard to appear cerebral that it comes off as a bit foolish. The actors - Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Live Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright - do what they can, but they're stuck in an overscaled, wrongheaded production.
THE NOTEBOOK - Loathsome. There's a lot to hate here - the truncated subplots, the clichéd plotting, the beyond-creaky contrivances, the humiliating waste of a brilliant cast - but it's the film's nauseating use of Alzheimer's as a way to wring tears from the audience that made the experience beyond odious; using an incurable, degenerative ailment as a gimmick is about as grossly manipulative as writing gets. I wanted to hurl things at the screen, but mine was, to say the least, a minority opinion; the movie became a huge sleeper hit.
THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT - One of those completely unsurprising, having-it-all-and-more fantasties that its target audience eats up, so why bother complaining that it's mindless to the point of catatonia? Bless Anne Hathaway and Heather Matarazzo for their natural charm and charisma; at their young ages, they already deserve far better than this.
SHREK 2 - Currently the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. How the hell did that happen? Granted, there's fun to be had, especially among the peripheral characters: Pinocchio and the Gingerbread Man are amusing, and Antonio Banderas' Puss-in-Boots is the most riotous animated character since Ellen DeGeneres' Dory. But Shrek 2, like its predecessor, is still blatantly hypocritical; the film winds up embracing all the sticky-sweet Disney clichés it was supposedly meant to satirize. Fun for Shrek fans; irksome for the rest of us.
SPIDER-MAN 2 - Sam Raimi might be the greatest director the comic-book genre has ever had; his artful combination of the insouciant and the respectful gives this topnotch sequel a gravitas that, in its cheekier way, resembles Peter Jackson's work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The script isn't nearly on a par with the direction, but Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are marvelous, Alfred Molina makes a superb über-villain, and the CGI effects have improved exponentially since the 2002 original. Faults and all, the movie is almost ridiculously enjoyable.
THE STEPFORD WIVES - As crummy movies go, it's pretty darned terrific. From scene to scene, the film is an unholy mess; it's bizarrely assembled and terribly edited, and characters' motivations change willy-nilly from scene to scene. But there are so many great one-liners (provided by screenwriter Paul Rudnick), and so many performers having a good time within the mess (Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, and Roger Bart especially), that the movie stands as the summer's definitive guilty pleasure.
THE TERMINAL - For the first reel or so, Steven Spielberg's craftsmanship is enough to put you at ease; the next six reels are enough to put you to sleep. At 130 minutes, the movie certainly doesn't need padding, yet nearly every scene feels stretched out to prolong the Capra-esque human comedy; it's not a film so much as a dull, competent pilot for an airport-bound take-off on Northern Exposure. Despite Spielberg's skill, the movie is dawdling and listless, further proof that charm alone can't compensate for a total lack of purpose.
TROY - Less Greek tragedy than Greek bedtime story, Wolfgang Petersen's very loose adaptation of Homer's The Iliad is a soulless middlebrow epic that thinks it's Art. While no embarrassment - the film is impeccably produced and features a few thrilling battle sequences - Troy is lumbering and heavy-spirited, too-obviously cast and even-more-obviously written. With a sullen Eric Bana, a haunted Peter O'Toole, and, of course, Brad Pitt, looking so impossibly buff that it barely matters how inadequate his performance is.
VAN HELSING - Loud, frenetic, and almost no fun at all. For all the movement and dazzling-looking detail in Stephen Sommers' monster mash, the movie remains sadly uninspired and almost ridiculously solemn; how do you make a movie wherein the hero battles vampires and befriends Frankenstein's monster and forget to include the jokes? Hugh Jackman alone manages to maintain his dignity; Van Helsing is proof that a movie doesn't have to be inert to bore the hell out of you.
THE VILLAGE - The disappointment of the summer (unless, of course, you saw Open Water). M. Night Shyamalan's near-pathological insistence on treating this somber, moderately effective chamber drama as a horror flick makes the film feel like something much worse than a cheat: a fraud. As usual, Shyamalan has assembled a first-rate production team, and the cast can barely be faulted, but the man's "Gotcha!" act is starting to get really tired; I know a lot of people who've seen The Village and not one who liked it.
WHITE CHICKS - Lacquered, immobile, and desperately unfunny. Just like its make-up.