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• Big Momma's House 2 - In Martin Lawrence's desperate minstrel show, the comedian reprises his role as undercover FBI agent Malcolm Turner, again donning a fat suit to become the sassy, black Southern matron Big Momma. He has to stop a potentially destructive computer hacker, and the movie is broad, shameless and pandering in most every respect. Lawrence appears to assume that we automatically like him and Big Momma, and does little to endear them to us any further. Incessant mugging, weak slapstick and Teflon catchphrases fill in the many cracks of its already shaky foundation, leaving a hammy house of horrors that should have been condemned when it was still a half-baked pitch.
• Grandma's Boy - Adam Sandler's longtime second-banana, Allen Covert, gets his shot at a lead in this stoner comedy, but despite his appealing, aw-shucks demeanor, the movie, about a 36-year-old video game tester who moves in with his grandmother and her two roommates, is just irredeemably stupid. It is sad to see three lovely ladies like Doris Roberts, Shirley Jones and Shirley Knight stooping for laughs like this, though based on the fact that practically no one saw it in theaters (or will go out of their way to rent the DVD), it is a very minor tragedy. • Munich - Here is something you do not see very often lately -- an even-handed Steven Spielberg film. After recent scattershots like The Terminal and War Of The Worlds, it is so very nice that a potentially troublesome project like this one can still prompt us to celebrate so heartily Spielberg's vision. It is this too-often absentee vision that earned the cinematic touchstone brand name status after Jaws and Close Encounters and Oscars for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Here, he has it back in so natural a cadence that his signature style melts into the background.
Spielberg applies his learned mastery to tell the story of The Munich Massacre, the 1972 murder of eleven Israeli athletes, and "Operation Wrath Of God", the state-sponsored revenge killing of the Palestinian planners of extremist group Black September that followed. Spielberg shows great maturity to be able to shift perspectives so quickly and convincingly, making the massacre into something that mere eye-for-an-eye retaliation cannot cure. He puts former Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) through a varied gauntlet of these shifts, giving both an in-the-moment view and one with perspective. Draw all the way-obvious post-9/11 parallels you wish, but this is nonetheless solid, universal storytelling.
Avner's team of assassins is also another tool with which Spielberg further molds this shades-of-grey masterpiece, giving each one a point of view as disparate as his particular skill and the actor playing him. Bana, fully recovered from the twin turkeys Hulk and Troy, plays this human rubberband man with a keen eagerness, to and beyond Avner's snapping point. Ciarán Hinds is fantastic as the cool-headed logistics guy, with Bond-to-be Daniel Craig on fire as his irrational counterweight. The script, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth and based on George Jonas's book, Vengeance, is very lean, despite its nearly three-hour length. Not only does this all add up to us being able to make sense of the carefully layered history, but also the raw humanity that propelled it.
• Nanny McPhee - Any kid who has never seen Mary Poppins will find this family fantasy incredibly original. Everyone else will note the liberal lifting that late author Christianna Brand did from said Disney classic, but enjoy it, nonetheless. The stunning Emma Thompson, distractingly grotesque as the mysterious, no-nonsense nanny who gets seven motherless miscreants to behave, wrote the screenplay, so there is a certain level of quality to be found in it. Visually, it is fun, with its Wonka'd-out color palette and ever-changing costume scheme, and it maintains a level of whimsy throughout. In this age of Potter and Narnia, Brand's brand of magic as commonplace is sure to bring a smile, even if it does not inspire its own cult of personality.
• The New World - I must have been absent the day they taught "Why Terrence Malick Is An Irreproachable Genius" in Very Important Film Critics School (which I think was also the day they taught how to impress people with the snob word "zeitgeist"). Since debuting in 1973 with the edgy Badlands, Malick has made just three other films -- Days Of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and now, this moody historical rumination. Call me unsophisticated, but an average wait of a decade between films should net more than but pretty but overly methodical History Channel special on the sad plight of the American Indian at the cruel hands of Christian colonists.
The whole affair seems a bit of a rambling, ill-fitting pastiche. The stilted voiceovers by Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith and Q'Orianka Kilcher as Powhatan princess Pocahontas seem improvised, and would lend themselves better to the page, with Malick's considerable talents far better applied in making those words more real on-screen ("show, don't tell" is the old writer's axiom). The actual Virginia locales are stunning, as is the 15-year-old Kilcher (cousin of singer Jewel). Malick also makes this new world a character of its own, with the tragedy being that the four centuries since 1607, we have corrupted its innocence like John Smith sullied the pure Pocahontas (who Malick neglects to tell us was only about 12 at the time).
• Rumor Has It - Even someone who has not seen the 1967 staple The Graduate at least knows it by reputation (or by the Simon & Garfunkel song), and that is all one really needs as a basis to moderately enjoy Rob Reiner's latest comedy. It stars super-Friend Jennifer Aniston as Sarah, a gal-in-crisis over her engagement to a kind-hearted lawyer (Mark Ruffalo), a crisis that results in a weekend fling with a wealthy trendsetter (Kevin Costner) who once had an affair with both her late mother and take-no-crap grandmother (Shirley MacLaine). Things get wacky when Sarah realizes that her family was the basis for Charles Webb's novel and Mike Nichols's film. The veteran Reiner balances her internal conflicts with the madness of those around her and paints an intimate portrait of the L.A. suburb of Pasadena, too. MacLaine, here as the proto-Mrs. Robinson, does not quite match her demure turn in Curtis Hanson's lovely In Her Shoes, but she does have all the best lines, even if Aniston does have more of them.
• Scrabylon - Preceding the present wave of spelling bee pictures is Scott M. Petersen's super-efficient documentary about the competitive Scrabble circuit. With charm and wit, Petersen gets into the heads of his players, with champion "G.I." Joel Sherman (so named for his chronic gastric issues) the most memorable. Not to be confused with Eric Chaikin's wordier Word Wars.
• Tales From The Crypt: Ritual - From the very first scene, when the rotting Cryptkeeper (John Kassir) does his pun-filled intro of the dark tale we are about to see, cheapness is the order of the day. From the pathetic puppetry to the lazy voodoo storyline to the lame digital effects, it is a very clumsy effort, cheapening the seven seasons that HBO finally just started releasing to DVD. Despite a recognizable cast that includes Tim Curry, Craig Sheffer, Kristen Wilson and Jennifer Grey, this third movie, which has been sitting around since it was Revelation in 2001, is hardly the movie that will resurrect interest in the franchise. An unfortunate remake of the 1943 classic, I Walked With A Zombie.
• Tamara - Part Carrie, part I Know What You Did Last Summer, this supernatural tale is loaded with creative gross-out moments, but not quite the kind that make movies like Final Destination such a guilty pleasure to watch. Watching Take The Lead cutie (and ringer for Meredith Salenger) Jenna Dewan go from frumpy to hot is fun, even if the movie is standard revenge fare.