Hellboy II: Big-budget bizarro

Guillermo del Toro's dazzling sequel

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OPENING THIS WEEK

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (PG-13) One the odder Hollywood blockbusters of this or any season, and I use the word “odder” in the most affectionate sense, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is that rarest of big-budget popcorn movies — a sequel that ups the ante of the original, taking chances so bizarre they might raise fears of putting the franchise at risk. The action sometimes even takes a backseat to the characters and to the movie’s pronounced quirk factor this time out, and though there’s a little too much rambling going on to generate a fully cohesive story, the sheer outpouring of visual imagination is almost too much of a good thing.
    Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) directs this sequel to his phantasmagorical 2004 blow-out, dazzling us with a full-to-bursting sense of the fantastic that’s gleefully tongue-in-cheek and even a little retro (think Men in Black meets the rubber-suited cantina creatures from Star Wars). At the same time, though, del Toro is never less than sincere as he conjures an eye-popping world of elves, ogres, kitty-gobbling trolls and tooth fairies for the movie’s hard-boiled, cigar-chomping demon (Ron Perlman) to contend with.
    Nobody makes the grotesque as appealing as del Toro, whose big message seems to be that we need our monsters. It’s a point eloquently demonstrated by the movie’s villain (Luke Goss), a supernatural being who resembles Edgar Winter and who rails against humankind for failing to understand the world would be a poorer place without its creatures of the night. Things tend to get a little silly from time to time — a lovesick Hellboy drinking beer in the shower is one thing, but seeing the big red guy get sloppy crooning "Can’t Smile Without You" is pushing it — but Hellboy 2 is good enough to withstand even Barry Manilow. Also stars Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Anna Walton and John Hurt.
 Opens July 11 at local theaters. 3.5 stars

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (PG-13) State-of-the-art special effects will almost certainly be the real stars of this big-screen version of Jules Verne tale of a scientist discovering marvels, terrors and a fabulous lost city deep within the bowels of the earth. The movie will play at select theaters in a 3-D version, which is probably the ideal way to see this. Stars Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson and Anita Briem. Opens July 11 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

MEET DAVE (PG) Eddie Murphy once again takes on multiple roles, this time playing a gaggle of tiny extraterrestrials living inside an anthropomorphic spaceship that looks just like, well, Eddie Murphy, and that falls in the anthropomorphic spaceship equivalent of love with a smokin' hot earthling. Let the fart jokes commence. Also stars Elizabeth Banks, Austyn Lind Myers, Gabrielle Union and Scott Caan. Opens July 11 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

RECENT RELEASES

BABY MAMA (PG-13) Tina Fey and Amy Poehler offer up a watered-down version of their old SNL chemistry in this inoffensive comedy about a successful businesswoman (Fey) who hires a clueless skank (Poehler) to be the surrogate mother for her child. Nobody plays white trash as well as Poehler (it has something to do with that crazed, Nicholson-ian glint in her eye), but the script plays things too safe to let the comedian be nearly as unhinged as she needs to be. And between Poehler's antics and some juicy cameos by the likes of Steve Martin and Sigourney Weaver, the extremely funny Fey winds up reduced to a straight woman, or worse — a virtual supporting player in her own movie. There are a handful of nice moments (a Young Republican couple bonding with their Wiccan surrogate; "Endless Love" playing over an artificial insemination scene), but what pleasures there are here are nearly forgotten in a ridiculously inept final act full of forced revelations and rushed resolutions. The strong of heart can stick around for the closing credits, which feature some of the most worthless outtakes you'll ever see. Also stars Dax Shepard, Greg Kinnear, Romany Malco, Siobhan Fallon, Maura Tierney and Holland Taylor. 1/2

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (PG-13) Roger Spottiswode's Children of Huang Shi is the blandest of epics based on the life of British journalist George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who entered China during the volatile late 1930s and found himself caught in a three-way crossfire between Chinese Nationalists, Communists and Japanese invaders. After a semi-promising start depicting Hogg shuttled from one wartime atrocity to the next, the movie quickly bogs down in an endless series of long-winded speeches about the awfulness of war and the obligation to save lives, culminating with our hero shuffling off to the hinterlands to oversee a ramshackle Chinese orphanage. The obligatory bonding takes place between the Anglo adult and the Chinese ragamuffins, most of whom have their lives happily turned around in short order, and the script grows even more exposition-heavy and cliché-ridden, alternately bombastic and sentimental and nearly always dramatically inert. The images are often striking, but the movie is badly written, sluggishly paced and unconvincingly performed, so that by the time we get to what should have been the film's dramatic centerpiece — a treacherous 500-mile trek over snowy mountains — it's hard to really care. Also stars Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh.  2 stars

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (PG) Over 1300 years have passed since the events of 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but the more things change the more they stay the same. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian finds the titular kingdom once again under the thumb of evil despots and again in need of saving by our noble, still younger-than-springtime heroes (who are this time whisked away from grimy London to magical mystery land not via wardrobe but by the conduit of a Potter-esque train station). The sequel's look and feel is a bit darker than the original, with a vaguely Medieval ambience and an endless clanking of swords and solemn line readings that become tedious well before the movie's 144 minutes have elapsed. Character development is even more cursory than in the first film, with the main draw being a tapestry of unintentionally dopey-looking centaurs, minotaurs and talking animals (including a rodent rip-off of Shrek's swashbuckling kitty) that, mystical pretensions aside, belong in a Sid and Marty Krofft production. Sergio Castellitto makes an interesting villain and Peter Dinklage manages to maintain his dignity under a false nose and gnomish make-up, but there's not much else to brighten up the plodding here. When Tilda Swinton's evil witch briefly materializes towards the end — and then just as quickly vanishes — the movie's lack of life becomes all too apparent. Also stars Ben Barnes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Warwick Davis. 2.5 stars

FLAWLESS (PG-13) It's hard to avoid calling Flawless a heist movie, but anyone who puts too much stock in that description is bound to come away disappointed. The movie has a couple of things going for it, but the big jewel theft at the center of the story is a wash-out. Demi Moore stars here as Laura Quinn, an ambitious female executive repeatedly passed over for promotion at the London Diamond Corporation, while a series of less-qualified males sail right past her. With her head bruised from banging against that glass ceiling, Laura finds herself listening closely when an aging night janitor (heist-movie icon Michael Caine) approaches her with a plan to rob the corporation blind. The planning and execution of the heist turn out to be fairly perfunctory and rather uneventful, with director Michael Radford (Il Postino) spending more time dwelling on the post-crime investigation and ramifications — neither of which proves terribly interesting. The film is pleasant enough to look at, however, with solid production values and meticulous attention paid to its 1960 time period — but most of the performances (beginning with Moore's) are modulated to the point of lifelessness, and the movie is way too methodical for its own good. It's all bookended by some laughable latex make-up on Demi at the outset, and some annoyingly simplistic moralizing at the end that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Also stars Lambert Wilson and Joss Ackland. 2.5 stars

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (PG-13) From the vintage movie posters fetishized in its opening title sequence to its dream pairing of martial arts icons Jackie Chan and Jet Li, The Forbidden Kingdom is nothing if not a kung fu fanboy's wet dream. The hero here, Jason (Michael Angarano), is very much representative of the film's target demographic (at least domestically) — a doughy white boy who worships at the altar of Bruce Lee — and the movie immediately jettisons logic and demands our total suspension of disbelief as it transports this modern misfit back to ancient China, where he's charged with returning an all-powerful staff to its rightful owner. Aiding him in this quest are a pair of kung-fu whizzes — an enigmatic monk (Li) and a wine-guzzling immortal (Chan) — and standing in the way are the minions of a particularly nasty and supernaturally endowed war lord (Collin Chou). Jet Li and Jackie Chan both do what they do best here. Chan, looking vaguely ludicrous under a wig of long dreadlocks, mugs and mixes goofy humor with impressive physical agility, while Li is all Zen-like calm and precision, even when fighting, a cool-as-ice presence who's only marginally less effective when he opens his mouth to speak. Also stars Bingbing Li and Yifei Liu. 3.5 stars

GET SMART (PG-13) True to the spirit of the 1960s TV series without parroting or postmodernizing it to death, the big-screen Get Smart gets by on goofy charm, a higher-than-average percentage of jokes that hit their target and a winning comedic performance by Steve Carell. Carell steps neatly into Don Adams' shoes (and inherits his trademark shoe phone) as Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86, a likeable but somewhat delusional bumbler who's convinced he's the greatest secret agent since that Bond guy. 2008's Get Smart humanizes Smart by having Carell's character start out as an underappreciated intelligence analyst who's frustrated at being a middle-aged "invisible man" and who only gets to realize his dream of becoming an agent when all the other spies are conveniently compromised. Once Max gets his groove on, though, the movie doesn't look back, whisking around Russia and other exotic ports of call rooting out enemy agents and foiling assassination attempts in a plot that's short on logic but long on breezy energy. Meanwhile the gags fly thick and fast, as the movie liberally spices up its action with some choice bits that allow Carell to shine, mostly slapstick-ish routines involving the comedian falling out of airplanes, imitating an idiot and repeatedly shooting himself in the face with a mini-harpoon. The rest of the cast is pretty solid as well, from Anne Hathaway (channeling a Shrimpton sister via smashing '60s fashions and foot-long lashes) to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's pitch-perfect parody of a slick super-spy to the elegantly villainous Terrence Stamp. Look close and you may even find Bill Murray in there, lurking within some innocuous clump of flotsam and jetsam. Also stars Alan Arkin. Terry Crews, David Koechner and James Caan. 3.5 stars

HANCOCK (PG-13) Will Smith stars as a surly, alcoholic superhero in Hancock, and sad to say, that concept is all there is to this glum Hollywood product. Devoid of a compelling story, Hancock relies instead on star power, gimmicky direction and the de rigueur assemblage of CGI effects typical of would-be summer blockbusters. As the titular hero, Smith has a penchant for drinking excessive amounts of whiskey and causing millions of dollars' worth of destruction during his rescues and crime-stopping endeavors. Even at its best, Hancock doesn't reinvent the superhero genre's template so much as invert it, to mild comic effect, and it never makes satisfactory use of the issues it raises, namely fate, responsibility and duty to one's fellow man. While Hancock the hero embraces his potential, Hancock the film squanders it away. Also stars Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron and Eddie Marsan. 2 stars —Anthony Salveggi

THE HAPPENING (R) No one's talking much about the new M. Night Shyamalan movie, so all we can tell you is that the story concerns a family on the run from some sort of catastrophic, humanity-threatening event and that the stars are Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Oh, and there's just the slightest possibility that some sort of twist ending might be involved. Also stars John Leguizamo. (Not Reviewed)

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (PG-13) The Hulk, for those who may be unfamiliar with Marvel Comics' green-skinned man's man, is rage personified — a towering, pea-brained inferno who bubbles up from the depths of mild-mannered Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) whenever BB gets agitated — and The Incredible Hulk's most salient feature may just be the heaps of unfiltered aggression it offers audiences like holy communion. Gone are the moody convolutions and Oedipal mumbo jumbo of Ang Lee's poorly received 2003 Hulk, and in its place we have nearly two hours of pure id, complete with CGI effects that turn the Hulk into a steroid casualty resembling nothing so much as a big, green penis. This isn't exactly one of the more sophisticated narratives you'll encounter this season, but the sound and fury can be seductive. Hulk might essentially be a combination of unchecked hormones and unlimited strength that speaks directly to adolescent boys, but by the end of the movie, he's oozing a raw power that even the Sex and the City girls might find attractive. Also stars Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, William Hurt, Ty Burrell and Christina Cabot. 3 stars

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (PG-13) A surprisingly satisfying return to form, the new Indiana Jones movie is an old-fashioned adventure so expertly crafted and consistently entertaining we barely have a moment to consider the empty calories. Set in 1957, exactly 19 years after the last installment took place, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gives us a naturally aged Indy, wrinkled and graying but still iconic under that familiar fedora, much as an aging Humphrey Bogart (circa The African Queen) might have played him. The movie barrels along, delivering one super-charged set piece after another, sequences all the more remarkable for largely avoiding CGI and relying on proudly old-school building blocks like skillful, intricately orchestrated stunts and a well-placed camera. It's a perpetual motion machine as impressive as something like Speed Racer, but infinitely closer to the natural charms of Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan than to the vacuum-packed, post-Matrix shenanigans of the Wachowski Brothers. What computerized trickery is here is generally so seamlessly integrated into the action that we barely notice it, the one notable exception being the movie's finale, a lazily conceptualized mish-mash of digital explosions, big-eyed aliens and other elements rehashed from earlier Spielberg productions. It's an unbecoming send-off for a movie that for the most part manages to remain faithful to a formula while revitalizing itself through sheer energy and imagination. Also stars Cate Blanchette, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone and John Hurt. 3.5 stars

IRON MAN (PG-13) Even if every aspiring blockbuster released over the next few months turns out to be a massive dud, the summer of '08 will be fondly remembered for Iron Man, a credit to popcorn movies everywhere. Marvel Comics' metal-suited superhero is shepherded to the big screen by director Jon Favreau (Elf, Made) and co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men), a talented team that supplies a surprisingly smart story that moves briskly while beautifully balancing humor and darker moments. There's also a super cast including Gwyneth Paltrow as pitch-perfect girl Friday Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges as a towering weapons magnate with Daddy Warbuck's cue-ball head — but this is ultimately Robert Downey Jr.'s show, who invests the role of Iron Man's alter ego, playboy wunderkind Tony Stark, with enough charm, pathos and irreverent edge to keep us glued to the screen. Although not as visually poetic as the superhero movies of Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) or as existentially engrossing as the darker-than-dark Batman Begins, Iron Man is the real deal — a first-rate comic-book flick as suitable for grown-ups as it is for kids. Also stars Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub and Hilary Swank. 3.5 stars

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (G) This first feature film inspired by the mighty American Doll franchise turns out to be a surprisingly classy and, dare I say it, literate production. Things get a little dry here and there, but this handsome, wholesome period piece compensates with just enough kid-friendly gestures to keep even the youngest viewers interested. The movie is set during The Great Depression (the last one, in case you were wondering), and stars Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin as a plucky, resourceful 10-year-old whose upper-middle-class family finds itself reduced to taking in boarders to make ends meet. At root, of course, this is just a light family entertainment (culminating in a Nancy Drew mystery, complete with dastardly crooks and buried treasure), but the movie doesn't shy away from troubling topics like kids coping with vanishing social status or fathers deserting families they can no longer support, underscoring the fragility of prosperity (now a timelier notion than ever) while fleshing out its occasionally poignant essaying of life in the 1930s. Even with its misbehaving monkey, a gaggle of wacky characters and a climactic, slapstick-heavy chase through the woods, Kit Kittredge is a movie for children who like to think, even if they won't admit it. Also stars Julia Ormond, Chris O'Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Zach Mills, Wallace Shawn, Glenne Headly and Willow Smith. 3.5 stars

KUNG FU PANDA (PG) Kung Fu Panda doesn't offer much more than a reasonably pleasant but surprisingly savvy stew of talking animals engaged in grand quests, and Joseph Campbell's theory of the Hero's Journey isn't the only mythos to be reckoned with here. George Lucas' shadow likewise looms large, with Jack Black's fuzzy, flabby hero, Po, inexplicably chosen for his world-shaking mission and trained by a wise, Yoda-like master (a pint-sized mouse voiced by Dustin Hoffman), while a promising Jedi leopard (Ian McShane) slinks over to the dark side to become the movie's monumental Darth Vader figure. Fleshing out the story's bare bones is a goodly amount of slapstick, some fairly clever one-liners, several lavishly choreographed, martial-arts-based action sequences and an eye-catching animation style that owes as much to ancient Asian scroll paintings as it does to the classic Shaw Brothers films of the '60s and '70s. There's a little something for almost everyone here, but kung fu fanboys will take particular delight in touches like the legendary schools of martial arts made literal via Po's anthropomorphic sidekicks — a snake, crane, mantis, monkey and tiger (the last two given voice by Jackie Chan and Angelina Jolie). Also features the voices of Seth Rogan and Lucy Liu. 3.5 stars

THE LOVE GURU (PG-13) Say hello to Mike Myers' first new character since his shagadelic secret agent — a goofy self-help guru who, in real life, has already drawn complaints of being a hurtful stereotype and demeaning to Indians. That said, don't count out the possibility of another Powers-like franchise on the horizon if the movie does well. Also stars Jessica Alba, Ben Kingsley and Justin Timberlake. (Not Reviewed)

MONGOL (R) Mongol, the Academy Award-nominated epic about Genghis Khan, hinges on its revisionist notion of an enlightened Temudjin, who was dubbed with the title "Genghis Khan" after his death. Throughout the film, Temudjin comes across not as a bloodthirsty superwarrior but a reasonably sensitive guy whose military success derives from the love of a good woman and belief in the rule of law. TheKazakhstani production works as a kind of trans-Asian melting pot, featuring a Russian director, a Japanese leading man and actors ranging from Chinese movie stars to Kazakh nonprofessionals. Director Sergei Bodrov displays impressive powers of crowd control and widescreen composition, offering a period piece with the visual sweep and panoramic battles they don't make any more without extensive CGI enhancement. Mongol clearly oversimplifies vast swaths of Temudjin's life story but still provides rousing entertainment that makes Hollywood's action blockbusters look meek by comparison.The film lacks the nuanced vision of history and character that you find in David Lean's similarly sprawling Lawrence of Arabia or Kurosawa's masterpieces on feudal Japan, but Mongol feels more authentic than the likes of, say, Mel Gibson's Braveheart.StarsTadanobu Asano,Odnyam Odsuren, Khulan Chuluun,Ba Sen,Amadu Mamadakov andHonglei Sun. 4 stars —Curt Holman

ROMAN DE GARE (R) On the most visible of its several levels, Roman de Gare is a thriller, a distant cousin to the films of Claude Chabrol (aka the "Gallic Hitchcock"), but Claude Lelouch's movie is also a fine romance, a witty reverie on the creative process and a dance of muddled and mistaken identities that at times almost approaches the metaphysical heights of Vertigo. The framing device is a famous writer (Fanny Ardant) being interrogated for having supposedly committed a perfect crime (a murder, although the victim isn't revealed until well into the game), but the movie mostly concerns itself with connecting the dots between an alternately charming and ominous figure played by Dominque Pinon (the grizzled little Popeye clone from Delicatessen) and various other curious characters. Just for starters, we get a teacher who has abandoned his wife and kids, a writer in search of a story, a hairdresser who might also be a hooker and a serial killer on the run, and the movie's structure is intricate and clever enough to keep us guessing until almost the last minute as to who's who. Just when we think we have the scenario sussed out, the movie throws us for an elegant loop, its narrative dipping and hiccupping until the characters' identities are revealed to be not at all what we thought. Ultimately, the velvety red herrings don't provide quite the payoff the movie deserves, but even if Lelouch's film finally reveals itself as something of a soufflé, it's one with heft, an airy batter brushed with goose fat. Also stars Audrey Dana, Zinedine Soualem and Michele Bernier. 4 stars

SEX AND THE CITY: THE MOVIE (R) Romantic relationships are fleeting but a designer handbag is forever in Sex and the City: The Movie, nearly two hours of product placement disguised as a feature film. Although basically just a criminally bloated chick flick, the big-screen Sex often feels more like a slightly revamped sitcom from decades past, with its four gal pals coming off as if Mary and Rhoda had cloned themselves, consumed a steady diet of Danielle Steele, scrounged up the cash for better wardrobes, and spent more of their time talking about, and occasionally having, sex. Writer-director Michael Patrick King dutifully trots out a stream of minor infidelities, misunderstandings, bedroom problems, commitment issues and the like, but the threadbare plot is essentially driven by the three S's — shoes, shopping and sex (or, more specifically, the idea of sex, since there's surprisingly scant shtupping in this rather tame project, save for a horny little dog who shows up to hump a pillow or a pile of laundry whenever the movie requires a laugh). Those who thrill to spotting fabulous designer items by Prada, Gucci and Chanel will be in heaven here. Those of us less enamored of montages of dresses, jewelry and stiletto heels will discover a brand of fashion porn every bit as dubious as the so-called torture porn dished out by some movies these days. Fans of the series probably won't be much dismayed by the lack of depth — think of it as Transformers transformed as a chick flick — but the rest of us will find so little of interest that it's hard not to start fixating on how the little wart on Sarah Jessica Parker's chin seems to change size from scene to scene. Stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth and Jennifer Hudson. 2 stars

SPEED RACER (PG) With little to it other than pure, frenetic energy and an ultra-groovy design sense, Speed Racer is pitched somewhere between a manga comic book and a neon Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas acid trip amplified to the point of no return. Moviegoers raised on a steady diet of videogames will likely revel in the head-spinningness of it all; other (possibly older) viewers may find themselves yearning to be submerged in the nearest sensory deprivation tank. Constantly in motion and way beyond candy-colored, The Wachowski Brothers' new movie seems positively irradiated, like one of those trendy nitrogen oxygen cocktails pumping through the digestive track of some phosphorescent deep-sea creature. Speed Racer spews out a stream of splashy visuals, careens forward at a breathless clip and provides a certain modicum of fun, but it's impossible to enter into this proudly two-dimensional story in any meaningful way. Even the action scenes — primarily a series of races in which fancy cars endlessly flip around tracks twisted as if inside a worm hole (probably situated inside The Matrix, or maybe Tron) — are so flat they fail to drum up much excitement. And with no real sense of danger and no gravity (literally), the Wachowskis' pop opus begins to look a little like Shark Boy and Lava Girl with delusions of grandeur. Stars Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Matthew Fox. 3 stars

THE STRANGERS (R) In the opening scene of writer/director Bryan Bertino's debut effort, two young boys stumble upon a crimson knife and a blood-splattered wall, the gruesome aftermath of the film's ensuing "based on true events" cautionary tale, which focuses on a young couple, Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) who are terrorized by three masked strangers while they are visiting their country home. The next 90-minutes takes the audience on a tension-filled, albeit often predictable, ride that finds the couple involved in a violent struggle with the strangers. Though the protagonists are relatable and sympathetic, the suspenseful peaks are disappointingly trite. And despite having all the plot devices and miraculous escapes associated with horror films, The Strangers lacks that final "I get it" moment. The villains' motives (and their identities) are never revealed, and when Kristen repeatedly asks why she and James are being attacked, the reply is simply "because you were home." The film seems to be commenting on the void of human compassion and connection in the modern world, but instead, it just comes across as a cheap and easy fix. 2 stars —Franki Weddington

THEN SHE FOUND ME (PG-13) Helen Hunt's directorial debut is one of those movies people like to call a "dramedy," and even the actress/director's face seems in on the game; gravity has tugged so furiously on the corners of the former Mad About You star's mouth that she now looks heartbroken even when smiling, as if the twin masks of comedy and tragedy were somehow simultaneously inhabiting the same face. Hunt's mug is just right for April Epner, a 39-year-old schoolteacher with a ticking biological clock, a failed marriage, a local talk show host (Bette Midler) claiming to be her birth mother, and the divorced father (Colin Firth) of one of her students hitting on her scant hours after the break-up of her marriage. All of this plays out in some nebulous zone midway between melodrama and sitcom, as the movie ricochets back and forth between April's developing relationships, and a series of improbable plot twists causes everything to fall apart before coming together again. The movie flirts mightily with formula and shtick but the performances (particularly Hunt's and Midler's) give the characters weight; the balance between bitter and sweet is generally effective; and even when the rapid-fire dialogue sounds so pleased with itself it resembles a dinner theater adaptation of The Gilmore Girls. Hunt can usually be counted on to temper it with something worthwhile. At one point we even get a cameo by Salman Rushdie as a frazzled obstetrician and then all is forgiven. Also stars Matthew Broderick and Ben Shenkman. 3 stars

THE VISITOR (PG-13) In some ways, writer-director Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor seems like an attempt to re-tell the story of his debut feature, The Station Agent, albeit with a more conventional narrative focus and a plainly drawn political message that plays a little too neatly into contemporary passions. As in The Station Agent, The Visitor features a painfully self-aware loner — sullen, repressed, college professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) — whose self-imposed isolation is finally eroded by the good counsel of an earthy ethnic more in tune with the vibrations of mother earth. Walter's redeemer is Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), an Arab percussionist found squatting in his apartment, and the two men are soon hanging out like best buds, sharing falafels and sitting in on the drum circles in Washington Square Park. McCarthy is too good a filmmaker to allow this to feel like a typical Hollywood odd-couple bonding scenario, but the movie does become a little too reductive, often eschewing the thornier dynamics and more nuanced approach of The Station Agent for an oversimplified infatuation with the Exotic Other. The politics are a bit black and white, and the movie isn't exactly shy about manipulating our emotions, but The Visitor is often very good when discreetly demonstrating its finer points, particularly how seemingly dissimilar peoples are sometimes more alike than not. The film's real success, however, can be attributed to Jenkins (the balding, pockmarked character actor best known as the ghost-dad from HBO's Six Feet Under), whose beautifully underplayed performance exudes an authenticity that transcends the various clichés with which the film flirts. Also stars Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Richard Kind and Marian Seldes. 3 stars

WALL-E (G) The animation whiz kids at Pixar are no strangers to wringing emotion from talking toys, endearingly anthropomorphic fish and other decidedly non-human creations. But some of the most poignant moments ever found in a Pixar film occur in the first half of WALL-E, a nearly wordless journey through a decimated future where humans are conspicuous by their absence, and by the mess they’ve left behind. Those first 45 minutes alone make WALL-E arguably the first genuinely post-apocalyptic kid flick, and also Pixar’s masterpiece, a pitch-perfect blend of epic sci-fi and comedy pantomime recalling the glory days of silent cinema. The titular hero — a rickety robot who might be Chaplin’s Little Tramp reincarnated as R2D2 — spends his solitary days cleaning up the mountains of trash left by vanished humankind, an endless routine that’s finally shattered when our hero falls for a visiting fem-bot and follows her back to the mothership, where more than a few surprises await. The smoothly digestible freneticism of WALL-E’s last act is a bit of a letdown after the near-minimalist poetry of the unconventional opening passages (scenes of WALL-E silently trying to make sense of our cultural bric-a-brac are particularly eloquent), but the amazingly human (and humane) robot-to-robot romance here is one for the ages, and the movie almost always gives us something wonderful to gawk at while serving up nods to everything from Silent Running and A.I. to Jacques Tati, 2001 and beyond. And don’t miss the short film that precedes the main attraction, another concentrated dose of Pixar’s slapstick brilliance that, with nary a word, sets the stage nicely for WALL-E, one of the best films of the year. Features the voices of Ben Burtt, Jeff Garland, John Ratzenberger, Sigourney Weaver and Fred Willard. 4.5 stars

WANTED (R) Timur Bekmambetov, director of the acclaimed Russian imports Night Watch and Day Watch, hits the Hollywood big time (or, if you prefer, sells his soul to the devil) with this action-fantasy extravaganza based on a popular graphic novel. Stars James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. (Not Reviewed)

WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? (PG-13) Solidly cast and handsomely crafted, but also more than a little monotonous, this rigorously sober British drama stars Colin Firth as a middle-aged man coming to terms with the impending death of his charismatic, scene-stealing father (Jim Broadbent). The always reliable Broadbent runs with the role of the domineering dad, expertly treading the fine line between charmer and a manipulator, but the movie doesn't do much beyond juxtaposing Firth's endless, one-note moping with flashbacks to earlier episodes with his dad. Based on the memoir by Blake Morrison, the film constantly appears to be in danger of sinking under the weight of its consistently glum tone, and comparisons to the somewhat better Big Fish are all but inevitable. Also stars Gina McKee, Matthew Beard, Sarah Lancashire and Elaine Cassidy. Opens July 4 at Regal Hollywood 20 in Sarasota. 3 stars

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN (PG-13) Adam Sandler stars as a super-tough Israeli secret agent gone undercover as a NYC hair stylist. Don't expect subtlety here — the director is the guy responsible for Benchwarmers and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. And if that weren't scary enough, the movie also features Rob Schneider. (Not Reviewed)

[email protected] (PG) A singing group composed of senior citizens (average age: 80) belting out oddball renditions of rock 'n roll classics, the Massachusetts-based chorus [email protected] are the subjects of a new documentary called, appropriately enough, [email protected]. There's nothing fancy here — filmmaker Stephen Walker basically just alternates between documenting the chorus during an eight-week rehearsal period and showing us interview snippets with individual members — but the old coots are generally colorful enough to hold our interest, and it all culminates in a big, sold-out performance that provides the requisite emotional pay-off. Among the standouts are James Brown's "I Feel Good," The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and a smoothly effective take on Bowie's "Golden Years." There's certainly some fun to be had here but not without a degree of the gawking-at-the-geezers factor attached, whether it's watching the seniors trying to relate to the atonal dissonance of a Sonic Youth "song" or observing a couple of octogenarians trying to figure out which side of a CD faces up when you put it in the player. Walker's intrusive, slightly condescending interview style doesn't help much, either, but all is forgiven when he finally shuts up and allows the old folks to speak for themselves. Stars Jim Arementi, Bob Cilman, Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Louise Canady and Eileen Hall. 3 stars

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