A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Steven Spielberg proves too accomplished at mimicking the famously clinical, detached Stanley Kubrick style; this sci-fi adventure is stunningly well-designed, technically miraculous, and so emotionally neutral that it rates little more than a shrug. You can enjoy individual sequences tremendously and still find it shallow, just as you can love watching Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law and still feel that the movie's Pinocchio-meets-Orwell storyline isn't shaped, or performed, properly. Still, it's a movie that deserves to be seen, though few did; like many a Kubrick enterprise, it might be more interesting in 10 years than it is now.
A Hollywood satire without a trace of meanness, and what's the point of that? The script by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan features the occasionally funny one-liner, but director Joe Roth doesn't seem to know what to do with the talented cast: Julia Roberts is forced to tone down her usual radiance, Catherine Zeta-Jones is a vague cipher, and Crystal himself is all but unbearable, making you wince with his static, stand-up-comic line readings. Despite the amusing cameos by Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken, and John Cusack's welcome dryness, the film is a plodding, tiresome experience, juicy on the outside but almost unthinkably bland underneath.
In this torpid romance, any half-awake viewer will have figured out where events are leading a good 40 minutes before the movie's characters do, but I doubt that many viewers will remain even half awake. Jennifer Lopez is the cop who falls for Jim Caviezel's mysterious stranger, and director Luis Mandoki drains the life out of both of them; Lopez is overly restrained, and Caviezel, by now, is a glassy-eyed cliché: Joe Stud as crybaby. It's like an unintentional sequel to Mandoki's and writer Gerald Dipego's dreary Message in a Bottle - incredibly earnest but incredibly tiresome.
Shockingly, it's a rather buoyant little comedy that showcases Rob Schneider better than any of his previous film roles have. Schneider gives his animal-trapped-in-a-man's-body role more than enough physical gusto, and first-time director Luke Greenfield shows a good deal of physical invention in his staging; he even gets laughs from the hoary car-falling-off-a-cliff sequence and Schneider's romantic come-ons to a goat. It's all pretty moronic, to be sure, but it's one of the few movies this summer that will have you laughing out loud, even if you should know better.
ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE
For a time, it's an agreeably benign and amusing Disney product, with a lot of familiar voices doing entertaining comic turns. (The biggest laughs come courtesy of Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello and gravelly voiced Florence Stanley.) The story, though, soon becomes totally bewildering - something about the theft of Atlantis's "life force" - and leads to too many predictable denouements and several goofy metaphysical metamorphoses, which is two "meta"s too many. What started out light and funny becomes draggy and apocalyptic, an enjoyable cartoon trounced by blockbuster aspirations.
Writer-director John Singleton's first work to make good on the promise of 1991's Boyz N the Hood, this superb movie is enormous in scope but maintains an intimate feel; it's the rare summertime treat with the guts to say something important and, in a happy case of alignment, say it magically well. A warts-and-all look at the infantilization of young African-American males, the film is beautifully performed (particularly by the dynamic Ving Rhames), stands as Singleton's most visually accomplished release, and, at times, is devastatingly funny to boot. Despite lackluster box office, it's a terrifically fine feature, one that deserves a second life on video and DVD.
CATS & DOGS
With four-plus months to go, I can't imagine sitting through a worse 2001 release, and I saw Freddy Got Fingered. It's bad enough that the feature is totally charmless and laugh-free, but the filmmaking - director Lawrence Guterman combines live animals, puppets, and CGI creations in a series of unfunny scenarios - seems intentionally awful, as does his direction of Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, and the young Alexander Pollock, who re-defines the term "insipid." Utterly repellant from beginning to end and, as if to prove that we are indeed getting stupider, a big box-office hit.
Kirsten Dunst is so smashingly good as a troubled teen that she puts the rest of this star-crossed romance to shame, but for 45 minutes or so, it sure tries to keep up with her. The film's many music-video-esque montages make it resemble an MTV greeting card, and there's not a plot development you can't see coming, but Dunst fills out her sketchy character with humor, heartbreak, and what can only be called hunger; she transcends the pulpy material she's been assigned. It's hard to recommend the movie, but Jay Hernandez and Taryn Madding add vivid performances, and Dunst's work is almost too good to miss.
DR. DOLITTLE 2
An 80-minute movie that feels about an hour too long. Filled to overflowing with the requisite digestive and reproductive humor that seems de facto for "family" movies these days, this sequel to the Eddie Murphy smash is not only supposedly for children, it appears to have been made by children. Murphy gets as much mileage out of his limited material as anyone could, but the film is a dawdling, listless experience, with some grotesquely over-the-top performances that make you want to hide under your theatre seat. Kids deserve better summertime babysitters than this.
Ivan Reitman's sci-fi goof is moderately pleasant, cheesy, overscaled, and haltingly paced; it's Ghostbusters without that film's cast of crazies, and you truly feel the loss. It's also Alien as a scatological comedy, and whenever the movie deals with the ever-changing forms of its outer-space beasties, it's entertaining, even witty. But the film's moments of cleverness don't extend to its performers; in a cast that includes David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, and Dan Aykroyd, only Orlando Jones gets a comic rhythm going. A big box-office bust, audiences probably assumed they'd seen it all before, and indeed they had.
THE FAST & THE FURIOUS
Crap, but surprisingly potent crap. Director Rob Cohen's action scenes have a visceral excitement you don't get from the current rash of CGI-heavy works, and the numerous dragster races and chases are loud and briskly edited; it's turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy summertime entertainment. While the dialogue is from the macho-blowhard school of screenwriting and Paul Walker is a pretty-boy washout as an undercover cop, Vin Diesel, Jordanna Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez are fun to watch, and the movie is endearingly up-front about its limited goals: It just wants to send you out into the cool summer night with an insatiable urge to drag race.
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN
The movie that Lara Croft: Tomb Raider should have been. I can't imagine who could make sense of the film's gobbledygook plotting, but director Hironobu Sakaguchi's computer-generated feature might be the most visually extraordinary, intellectually banal sci-fi work since 2001: A Space Odyssey. There isn't a moment that isn't amazing to watch; even the less-realistic effects can be seen as stepping stones to where computer visuals will someday lead. A video-game movie in the best possible sense, the action scenes are powerfully exciting; theatres should provide a joystick along with your ticket.
JURASSIC PARK 3
Joe Johnston's sequel features ideas, gags, and individual set pieces that are as good as anything Spielberg came up with in the first two installments, and it's terrific when poking fun at Sam Neill's solemnity. Yet it's an unsatisfying work because it eventually thwarts its every opportunity for subversive humor - William H. Macy and Tea Leoni are so firmly established as deserved dino-food that their survival is an unwelcome surprise - and, sad to say, the novelty value of the marauding beasts has evaporated. The film runs a brisk 90 minutes, but it winds up embracing every witless cliché it was initially satirizing; the film is both enjoyable and really disappointing.
KISS OF THE DRAGON
There's a really good 20-minute short trapped in this mostly worthless 100 minutes, but that's not reason enough to sit through it. Despite its many violent interludes, this action thriller is Hollywood's attempt at giving us a huggier, more emotionally accessible Jet Li, and thank God the plan backfires. His superior ass-kicking moments save him from embarrassment, and when he's performing his human-whirligig martial-arts moves, he's enormously fun to watch. Far less fun are any scenes that are remotely connected to the plot, or any scene with Bridget Fonda, who provides some truly atrocious acting.
A KNIGHT'S TALE
Not bad, but it could have been so much better. Brian Helgeland's deliberately anachronistic jousting saga opens with spectacular confidence - muddy Bourgeoisie chanting Queen's rock anthem "We Will Rock You" - and features scenes of great promise. The passion evaporates, though, as if Helgeland was afraid of alienating the audience with ultra-radical gestures, and the movie is saddled with Heath Ledger in the lead, blandness incarnate. In the end, we're left with a passable but mild hybrid of Gladiator and any number of Rocky sequels. It doesn't quite rock you.
LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER
A video game fleshed out with human actors for that quasi-realistic feel, and one of the most overscaled, least thrilling movies of the summer. Angelina Jolie embodies comic-book-style sex appeal, but she's the only involving performer on display, and the rococo set design and computerized effects just make the movie feel grandly moronic. Simon West doesn't direct, exactly; he edits, and the cuts are so haphazard that you can't tell what the hell's going on at any given time. The godawful finished film plays like the idea for a blockbuster; naturally, it turned into one.
Reese Witherspoon is such a clever, controlled actress that she's worth watching in just about anything, even this piddling, paint-by-numbers comedy. The movie is routine and retrograde, filled with your typical Harvard snobs and oafs (why must movies continually make Ivy-league students humorless and stuffy?), and the script gets lazier and lazier as it limps to its conclusion. And then, amidst the dreck, there's Witherspoon, who gives a true star performance (and this movie desperately needs one). She lends the movie some brazen gusto and comedic flair, and earns her laughs whenever given a not-bad line. The movie doesn't work, but Witherspoon works overtime.
For my money, 2001's best movie so far, a work so visually arresting and outlandishly, romantically perfect that you might find yourself wishing it would never end. Baz Luhrmann's musical, starring the magnificent duo of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, is all about the intense feelings we have toward pop music, and there are more knockout individual set pieces here than we've had in more a year of films. (Personal favorites: McGregor's rendition of Elton John's "Your Song," sung as if his life depended on it, and his giddy love-ballad duet with Kidman.) The film is a stunning, transcendent experience, two hours of sheer cinematic bliss.
THE MUMMY RETURNS
Playing like a pleasant, innocuous dream, director Stephen Sommers' work is the perfect film to catch when you're a little sleepy and want to stay that way. This Indiana Jones-lite adventure sequel is nonsense, of course, but completely agreeable nonsense; it's silly and cheesy and blessedly inconsequential. (Even the mostly shabby visuals add to the fun.) Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are the adorably lightweight heroes and look like they're having a ball; with $200 million-plus at the box office so far, many audience members (myself included) did, too.
A ridiculously labored sex thriller; the actors all but leap off the screen, nudge you in the ribs, and ask, "Isn't this hot?" Angelina Jolie plays the femme fatale, and by this point in her career she's played variants on this character so many times that there's no surprise left; she's all bee-stung lips and attitude, without a trace of the fine performer she once was (and will, hopefully, be again). There are no sparks between her and tired co-star Antonio Banderas, but there's no reason to dwell on it; the movie should be gone from area screens within minutes.
Sadly, sweetly terrible. Schlockmeister Michael Bay's action epic is like Titanic as a whupass fantasy; we might have been mercilessly attacked in 1941, but by God, we got payback. (It's like watching the survivors of the Titanic paddle back and kick the crap out of that pesky iceberg.) Despite its lofty ambitions, making fun of the movie is all too easy, with its ridiculous overstaging, contemptible dialogue, incongruous computerized visuals, and poor, earnest, embarrassing Ben Affleck in the lead. Nearly $200 million worth of suckers fell for it anyway, and what does it say about Hollywood when that amount is considered disappointing?
PLANET OF THE APES
Summer's most misunderstood, least appreciated blockbuster. Tim Burton's deeply imagined re-imagining of the classic sci-fi story is tremendously enjoyable, showcases Rick Baker's miraculous make-up effects, and in Helena Bonham-Carter and the astonishing Tim Roth, features two of the finest performances you're likely to see all year. The action scenes are thrilling yet remain startlingly coherent, and the movie is smart enough to display a beautiful sense of humor about the Apes legacy, complete with some hilarious riffs on the original's most memorable dialogue. It's Burton's best work in years, no matter what the other critics say.
THE PRINCESS DIARIES
Not being a pre-teen girl, I have no idea what audiences are going to make of this Disney fantasy, but I hope at least a few of them will be offended. It's meant to be an Ugly Duckling fantasy, but with the radiant Anne Hathaway in the lead, it's actually the story of a swan who turns into an even lovelier swan, and I can't imagine what teenage girl can relate to that. Though the movie is in desperate need of some invention, Garry Marshall directs with his usual obviousness, and the storyline is so protracted that you'll have to fight to stay alert. With Julie Andrews, courageously cast as Julie Andrews.
RUSH HOUR 2
No matter how excited you might be about the prospect of seeing John Lone, Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi, and Alan King in supporting roles, not to mention Jackie Chan is all his English-mangling glory, none of that really matters in Brett Ratner's sequel. It's all Chris Tucker, all the time, and if you find him as one-note and unfunny as I do, the movie is a pain. Tucker's continuous tirades against everyone who's not Chris Tucker have stopped being even remotely amusing, and even Chan's intricate fight choreography seems especially uninspired this time around. The movie travels from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Vegas, but I just wanted to go home.
SCARY MOVIE 2
There's the occasional amusing moment provided by James Woods and David Cross, but the filmmaking is so inarguably bad that even when the jokes border on the inspired, they're depressing. "Director" Keenan Ivory Wayans and his "screenwriters" have concocted the cinematic equivalent of Truly Tasteless Jokes, in which elements such as pacing, staging, plotting, and performance are inconsequential so long as the gross gags keep coming at a steady clip. A truly critic-proof experience; no one involved is even trying to make a good movie, so what's the point in lambasting it for not being one?
Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and Marlon Brando are in such fine form in this crime flick that it's no surprise that the movie has turned into a mini-sensation this summer; in this season of computer-generated marvels (and not-so-marvelous marvels), the film provides an insanely welcome dose of human interaction. The actors alone - De Niro with his cagey alertness, Norton with his unpredictable edginess, Brando with his best work in at least a decade - would be reason to check it out, but director Frank Oz details the story skillfully, and there are nifty plot twists galore; it's a model of sheer craftsmanship and economy, the epitome of the well-made movie.
The summer's biggest smash, and a huge hit with the critics, too. But if you left the theatre feeling underwhelmed by Dreamworks' animated opus, you're not alone; I found it a queasy mixture of the Farrelly brothers' grossness and Disney's simplistic moralizing, and I laughed out loud exactly once (during The Gingerbread Man's interrogation). As the titular ogre, Mike Myers foists his faux-Scottish brogue on us for what must be the millionth time, and Eddie Murphy had far funnier lines in Mulan. The movie is depressing because it's both smart-alecky and emotionally manipulative, an icky combination if there ever was one.
Despite the explosions and shattering glass, it's your standard techo-geek affair, with hackers moving their fingers quickly across a keyboard while the screen words "Access Denied" become "Access Granted" in record time. The film is practically a case study in the vast difference between not being bored and being entertained; director Dominic Sena keeps the action moving so hurriedly that you barely have time to realize that the plotting makes no sense, that John Travolta's "dangerous" villain is a joke, and that it's all silly to the point of being laughable. Hugh Jackman, bless his scruffy heart, manages to bring some real emotion to the proceedings.
WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?
Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito do nothing you haven't seen them do a thousand times before in Sam Weisman's tame, mostly unfunny farce; they're like pale imitations of themselves. But at least the movie is packed with a tremendous supporting cast: William Fichtner, Bernie Mac, Richard Schiff, Nora Dunn, Glenne Headly, Carmen Ejogo, Ana Gasteyer, Siobhan Fallon, and John Leguizamo all pique your interest and give the movie some comic texture. It's all mostly worthless, but this ensemble keeps it from being grueling.