AMERICAN WEDDING - I know a lot of people get a kick out of these guys, but if, like me, you're tired of viewing nebbishy Jason Biggs' outré sexual humiliations and Seann William Scott's compulsive need to swallow things that should be coming out of a human body, this'll be a very tiresome follow-up indeed. Boasting insanely contrived gross-outs and phony "sincerity," this second sequel reeks of contract obligation; even Scott's facial-muscle contortions feel phoned-in. With the wasted talents of Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, and Jennifer Coolidge ... where the hell is Christopher Guest when we need him?
BAD BOYS II - Proving there's no success like excess, director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have fashioned an excruciating assault on the human senses, resulting in an overlong and underplotted venture that feels like a relic from the mid-'80s. You don't have to be all that sensitive to be offended by the film's rampant misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia; though not quite as embarrassing as Bay's and Bruckheimer's Armageddon or Pearl Harbor, it's still a painful experience, unfunny and migraine-inducing in equal measure. Will Smith offers a few moments of levity; Martin Lawrence mugs grotesquely.
BRUCE ALMIGHTY - Not bad - for the first hour. Yet even while you're enjoying the amusing gags and the sight of Jim Carrey in all his megalomaniacal splendor, you just know you're going to pay for the fun you're having with a series of Life Lessons; Carrey, predictably, must become A Better Person as a result of his brush with godliness. (Bruce's director is Tom Shadyac of Patch Adams. 'Nuff said.) Carrey, Jennifer Aniston, and the perfectly cast Morgan Freeman as God - Hallelujah! - do what they can, but you leave the theatre feeling more bummed than elated.
CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE - A sequel that is absolutely fearless about its rampant stupidity, resulting in a joyously ridiculous spectacle. The "Are we pulling this off?" hesitancy of 2000's original is replaced by a burst of pure confidence; no one, from the actors to director McG, appears to be faking a good time anymore. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu are buoyant, inventive comediennes here, and although the movie has more than its share of headache-inducing qualities, it's brisk and lively throughout. Nothing you'll remember an hour after seeing it, but profoundly inane fun nonetheless.
DADDY DAY CARE - Rather than being about them, this movie appears to have been made by juvenile delinquents. And unlike Mr. Mom or Kindergarten Cop, in which we laughed at the leads' reactions to children's aberrant behavior, Daddy Day Care seems to find the behavior itself funny, so the yuks all stem from kids trashing living rooms and kicking adults in the groin. I'd call this the low point in Eddie Murphy's career, but there have already been so many ... .
FINDING NEMO - Pure magic. It would be enough for Pixar's latest to be brilliantly animated. It would be enough for the plotting to continually surprise and subvert expectation. It would be enough for the script and vocal talents (Ellen DeGeneres especially) to be tears-rolling-down-your-cheeks funny. But to get it all in one glorious package is beyond one's wildest hopes; Finding Nemo might be more sheer fun than any other movie of 2003. The biggest box-office hit of the summer, and now the highest-grossing animated movie of all time - sometimes the popular hits are justified.
FREAKY FRIDAY - After a shaky opening reel, in which it threatens to be another of Disney's obnoxiously obvious family flicks, this remake of the beloved 1976 comedy finds exactly the right tone, achieving true wit and charm and almost shocking poignancy. Mark Waters directs with a canny understanding of the trickiness of mother-daughter relationships, and the portrayals of Lindsay Lohan and, particularly, Jamie Lee Curtis could hardly be bettered. (Curtis' marvelous, physically inventive performance actually bests Tom Hanks' Oscar-nominated turn in Big.) Terrifically likable entertainment with stunningly good leads.
FREDDY VS. JASON - A reminder of why I stopped watching the titular duo's fright flicks in the first place. One would have hoped that the filmmakers would have re-invented the two series for a post-'80s universe, but this horror hybrid provides just what the originals' numerous sequels did: awful writing, amateurish acting, cheap effects, and, if I counted correctly, exactly zero good scares. The Freddy Vs. Jason creators get points for striving for originality in the opening 10 minutes; after that, it's a mighty long wait for the inevitable bloodbath.
HULK - Ang Lee's sublime directorial craftsmanship might have made this the best-directed comic-book adaptation ever if the majority of the film wasn't such an unholy drag. Despite a couple of thrilling sequences, the movie is so torturously slow and, at 138 minutes, so bloody long that you have far too much time to realize that Hulk doesn't have much of a plot, and you don't give a damn about anyone in it. Unremittingly humorless, it's one of those artsy blockbusters that causes cineastes to discuss its "misunderstood genius" while you're just thinking, "But it's so boring."
THE ITALIAN JOB - Sharply edited, technically impressive, rarely dull, and so connect-the-dots generic as to border on the inhuman. The movie's normally fine actors - Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland - rattle off their confectionary dialogue with a blitheness that would require depth to be considered lightweight; without even a trace of humanity in their performances, the movie winds up a brisk but hopelessly "who cares?" affair. F. Gary Gray's staging is ultra-smooth, but someone should introduce him to the concept of people.
LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE - A little easier to sit through than 2001's original, mostly because this follow-up isn't completely incoherent, but still so ridiculous that audience members actually groan during numerous action sequences. Beyond its inanity is its complete lack of humor; Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft might be the most stoic action heroine ever created, and an action adventure without comedy is a grisly prospect. Despite several formidable challengers, the most thoroughly dull of 2003's many, many sequels.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN - Depressingly bland and rote. Based on the near-legendary graphic novels of Alan Moore, Stephen Norrington's work turns a fascinating conceit into hollow action spectacle with implacable Sean Connery at its center. You feel the missed opportunities piling up in scene after scene, because the material keeps hinting at a darker side that is never allowed to emerge in this PG-13 affair. All traces of originality are lost in the filmmakers', and Warner Bros.', quest to jump-start another action franchise; once again, adventurous source material has been ruined for everybody.
LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED, WHITE, & BLONDE - Reese Witherspoon practically glistens with confidence and comic authority and can wring laughs from the world's lamest punchlines. A good thing, too, because this script gives her nothing but the world's lamest punchlines. Void of a single scene with any wit or surprise, it's one of those achingly predictable political comedies that you just know will end with the whole of Congress applauding the heroine's big speech; it goes without saying that they're the only ones who'll feel even remotely like applauding.
THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE - Designed to make anyone who's gone through puberty feel about a million years old, this screen treatment of Hilary Duff's TV series is colorful, hyper, and empowering for 12-year-old girls everywhere. (Yeah, that's just what our 12-year-olds need: empowerment.) As someone who is in no way the ideal audience for this sort of thing, I barely feel qualified to comment on it, but Ms. Duff is genuinely appealing, and her pratfalls and goofy grins are certainly more enjoyable than the shtick Sandra Bullock's been foisting on us in recent years.
THE MATRIX RELOADED - Even those of us with a low tolerance for videogame mayhem, gravity-defying martial arts, sci-fi imperiousness, quasi-religious portentousness, and Keanu Reeves might find ourselves occasionally wowed in Andy and Larry Wachowski's sequel to 1999's smash. Though details of the plot left my brain on the trip from the auditorium to my car, there's no denying the miraculous visuals on display; with such astounding effects, and some beautifully subtle ones, the loginess and incoherence of it all is nearly immaterial.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL - The most heartening hit of the summer: A comedic action adventure that became a blockbuster for a very simple reason - people really liked it. Just about everything in Gore Verbinski's Pirates, from the performers to the production design to the tart, inventive script, crackles with wit and finesse, and the CGI effects - scary and funny in equal measure - might be the most imaginative since the invention of Gollum. And, of course, major kudos to Johnny Depp, whose every mush-mouthed utterance and crooked leer comes as a gift to the audience.
OPEN RANGE - With so much going for this old-fashioned western - beautiful camerawork, impressive editing, a strong, simple storyline, marvelous work by Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, and others - it breaks your heart that you're stuck with dear, sweet, painfully inadequate Kevin Costner at the center. With his Zen blankness indistinguishable from a coma, he's a big wet blanket as an actor, but thankfully, he's infinitely more alert as a director. Some of his scenes have the primal power of Sergio Leone, and the western clichés feel, if not new, at least welcome after a long absence. The film is a less-pandering Seabiscuit with a weaker leading man.
RUGRATS GO WILD - Somehow, I missed this one. I can't say I'm feeling the loss.
SEABISCUIT - Director Gary Ross has gone to such lengths to make something earnest and well-meaning that everything in it comes out rather bland. His thuddingly obvious direction gives this racehorse drama almost no texture, and cast members Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper have played too many variants on these characters; there are no surprises in their performances. Yet the movie has been a big hit, probably because of its almost unbelievable sincerity. God knows it has heart, but it's so relentlessly noble that barely a scene passes without the movie reminding you of its good intentions.
SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER - We can only hope.
S.W.A.T. - Such a compendium of shoot-outs and car chases and tough-guy clichés that I spent the whole movie fighting the urge to nap. Yet some critics have been happy to give this big-screen re-make of the '70s TV series the benefit of a doubt because of the inordinate amount of time it spends on character development; that'd be all well and good if there were any characters to develop. However, Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, and company play nothing but stock action-figure roles, and the routine, homogenized set pieces are dull, dull, dull. It wants to be The Fast & The Furious, but it's The Loud & The Logy.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES - Though not as accomplished as James Cameron's first two entries in the series, Jonathan Mostow's take on the Terminator saga is speedy and exciting, bristling with nifty visuals. (And it has a killer finale.) No one expecting anything but dumb, loud summertime fun should leave disappointed; the onscreen destruction is so massive that it's a bit breathtaking, and Mostow's staging is clever and alert. The movie's jokes, though, are what really make this sequel work, proving that a sense of humor is always greatly appreciated in a ball-busting action flick.
28 DAYS LATER - Easily the surprise hit of the summer, Danny Boyle's low-budget scare flick is surprisingly coherent and intelligent post-apocalyptic fare, creepy as hell, and as viscerally pungent and exciting as anything George Romero or Tobe Hooper ever delivered. The attacks of the film's "nearly dead" are terrifyingly quick and brutal, made more unnerving by our inability to see them clearly, and, astonishingly for a modern horror movie, we actually care about the fates of our heroes. Frightening, smart, and a blessed relief from the traditional menu of Hollywood overkill.
2 FAST 2 FURIOUS - This sequel to 2001's The Fast & The Furious, directed by John Singleton - What the hell happened, John?! - grossed nearly $130 million at U.S. box offices, yet I don't know anyone who saw it. (Or rather, I don't know anyone who admitted to seeing it.) Stupid, uninvolving, and hopelessly boring, this instantly forgettable work is enjoyable only for the unintentional gay subtext between Paul Walker's and Tyrese's characters, who pout and banter like a D-grade Sam and Diane on Cheers.
X2: X-MEN UNITED - Sleek, confident, and enjoyable, Bryan Singer's sequel is also something the original was not - soulless. The gravitas and emotional complexity of 2000's X-Men has been sacrificed in favor of Pure, Ass-Kicking Summer-Blockbuster Spectacle, and though Singer directs with gusto and wit, X2's forays into character drama - the heart of the original - feel like a drain on the fun. Still, the effects are often magical, and we're again treated to the most ridiculously talented cast - Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anne Paquin, et al. - a comic-book flick will probably ever land.