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06/04/08 12:00am

Zohan, who bears a remarkable audio resemblance to Borat, is a major departure from Adam Sandler’s palette of self-deprecating losers (The Water Boy, The Wedding Singer, Happy Gilmore). Instead, we find a self-assured, and very buff, Sandler whose ego and confidence are as big as his codpiece.

A Rambo-like Israeli army special-ops soldier with superhuman powers, Zohan leaves hero status behind to follow his dream of becoming a hair stylist in New York. Faking his death and defeat to The Phantom (a silly John Turturro), the film playfully transitions from discord in the Middle East to Zohan’s ability to “make sticky” with a parade of delirious elderly women (see the Sandler-produced Grandma’s Boy for another example of these perverse pairings) at a beauty parlor run by Dalia (Entourage‘s Emmanuelle Chriqui), who’s Palestinian.

Written by Sandler, Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel, Zohan has plenty of raunchy gags to spare — such as a game of cat hacky sack — but the movie ultimately bogs down as Zohan pursues Dalia, and The Phantom arrives for a showdown with his comic-book rival. Cameos by Mariah Carey, Henry Winkler, Kevin Nealon and George Takai add little to the story, though Chris Rock’s patois-chatting cab driver is a momentary hoot.

While diehard Sandler fans will trace Zohan’s desire to change the world by making hair "silky smooth" to Billy Madison, they’ll have to settle for a lukewarm, feel-good resolution that’s a metaphor for ending the conflict in the Middle East.

Opens June 6

03/26/08 12:00am

From Rock and Roll Circus to Gimme Shelter to Sympathy for the Devil to Cocksucker Blues to Ladies and Gentleman: The Rolling Stones to Let’s Spend the Night Together, filmmakers have faithfullly fixed their cameras on the Rolling Stones. Now comes Shine a Light, shot in 2006 at the Beacon Theater during the Stones’ A Bigger Bang tour.

The doc begins with Martin Scorsese frantically trying to find out what the show’s set list is going to be. After a full-throttle “Jumping Jack Flash” opener, three special guests are introduced at various points: while Jack White nervously duets with Mick Jagger on “Loving Cup,” Buddy Guy injects genuine blues ferocity to Muddy Waters’s “Champagne & Reefer” and Christina Aquilera climbs octaves on “Live With Me.”

Quick cuts and extreme close-ups capture Jagger awkwardly shimmying about the stage and catwalk, and Keith Richards joyfully leading the 13-piece band (including backup singers and horns). In addition, Scorsese intersperses archival interview footage between songs. Towards the end of the 18-song set, the Stones’ signature centerpiece “Sympathy for the Devil” falls flat as the audience chants “ooh ooh.” But “Brown Sugar” – again, with the crowd loudly wooing along – is a rousing finale.

Shine a Light
provides a backstage pass to rock and roll nostalgia of the highest order. It’s the nature of the game.

April 4

03/19/08 12:00am

This is Revenge of the Nerds, Bully style. Except they don’t kill the bullies in Drillbit Taylor, they just kick the crap out of them.

With Judd Apatow co-producing and Seth Rogen co-writing, the jokes come fast and furious, but still can’t help the formulaic plot. Owen Wilson’s Drillbit is a homeless vet hired by high-school frosh (Danny McBride, Josh Peck and David Dorfman) to be their bodyguard. His stint as a substitute teacher is straight out of School of Rock, just less hilarious. Rather than spending so much time with him coaching the kids, the film could have focused more on Drillbit’s budding relationship with Lisa (Leslie Mann of Knocked Up, Apatow’s wife) — the goldielocked duo generate sparks — and subdued the traditional revenge message. But that would have been a different and, more likely, better movie.

For Wilson, it’s time for him to leave the Drillbit Taylors of the world behind. His next role as journalistic/dog lover John Grogan in Marley and Me (with Jennifer Aniston and a Golden Retriever) looks promising.

Opens March 21

01/30/08 12:00am

What if they held a comedy concert and nobody laughed? That’s pretty much the case with this disappointing doc, which stars Hollywood frat-packer Vince Vaughn and four comedians who barnstormed the country for a month in 2005.

Sans the star of Swingers and Wedding Crashers, few people would have ponied up cash for Vaughn’s faux-variety show. The lanky actor emcees and performs occasional skits. One with special guests John Favreau and Justin Long doing shtick from Swingers is the highlight, and it comes within the first 10 minutes. Another during a stop in Bakersfield features a tone-deaf Vaughn crooning alongside country singer Dwight Yoakam.

Unlike the talented Comedians of Comedy cast, the stand-ups here are mediocre at best. While Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed has the edginess of someone who’s endured the worst of racial profiling since 9/11, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Maniscalco are fairly indistinguishable, with Caparulo’s crude cursing setting him apart as the least entertaining of the minor-league bunch.

Another questionable element to this whole undertaking is the tour’s timing. The first show takes place in Los Angeles on September 12, 2005, less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. A visit to a trailer camp in Alabama shows their concern, but perhaps the tour should have been postponed (or, better yet, canceled). Intended for a 2006 release, Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show is dated, vain and, worst of all, not funny.

Opens February 8

01/30/08 12:00am

Named for a hair-waxing technique popular in Lebanon, Caramel is a bittersweet first feature by Nadine Labaki, who also stars in the film.

Layale (Labaki) owns a beauty parlor; she’s single, lives at home and is having an affair with a married man. Her workers and friends include Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a vain, fading beauty; Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), who is about to have a Muslim wedding, but there’s a catch: she’s not a virgin; and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the butch of the bunch.

A slice-of-life movie, Caramel captures Beirut’s slow pace and Paris-style sophistication. The parlor’s broken sign and the choppy sidewalk outside symbolizes the city’s inertia.

More progressive than most Arab countries, but still holding on to its Islamic traditions, Lebanon remains a difficult place for women. Caramel’s convincing characters are caught between their desire to move ahead and the need to respect the country’s customs.

Not a lot is resolved in Caramel, though plenty of hair does magically disappear.

Opens February 1

10/10/07 12:00am

Ryan Gosling is all about damaged characters. From his Jew-hating Jew in The Believer to his loner carpenter in The Notebook to his cracked-out teacher in Half Nelson, he’s full of surprises. But his latest turn, as a delusional office drone that has a relationship with a blown-up sex doll, is a stretch even for him.

Emotionally scarred by his father, Lars Lindstorm can barely speak; he’s a basket case of halted comments and exaggerated facial tics. One day, a huge package arrives at his house: It’s Bianca, a plastic princess with whom he immediately falls in love. Following the advice of Lars’ doctor (played comfortingly by Patricia Clarkson), the town bands together in support of Lars and treats Bianca as an actual member of the community.

Humor is mined from the ridiculous plot, with Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ concerned sister-in-law, delivering the best of the subtle one-liners. Somewhere in this trifle of a movie there’s a message about kindness and compassion, as opposed to the kind of meanness that could have snuffed out Lars’ girlfriend with a simple pinprick.

Even funnier are Lars’ fellow office geeks, one of whom, Margo (Kelli Garner), he’s actually attracted to. Rather than cheat on Bianca, Lars conceives a solution that finally sets him on the path to human interaction and resolves the sticky little matter of an inanimate love affair.

Opens October 12

08/01/07 12:00am

Hector Lavoe is no Ray Charles and El Cantante is no Ray, though it tries to be. Their stories are similar: both were musical pioneers, drug addicts and adulterers. But Charles, as a songwriter, performer and bandleader, created an incredible body of work.Lavoe, however, whose stage name was changed from the more common Perez, is presented as just a voice, a vessel for the incessant salsa music that dominated Latin-American communities in New York and Miami in the permissive 1970s.

Marc Anthony plays Lavoe as the tortured artist. His mother died in Puerto Rico, where he was born, and his father disowned him because of his drug use. Unfortunately, there’s not much Hector here in Anthony’s superficial portrayal. He’s neither sympathetic nor despicable, just a lost soul in a sea of coke, alcohol and sycophants.

The problem with El Cantante is that it’s not really about Hector Lavoe. The real star of the movie is his loudmouth, gum-snapping Bronx-born wife, Puchi, as depicted by Jennifer Lopez. She displays a full range of emotions, but her shrillness ultimately turns Hector (and perhaps moviegoers) off to the point that he stops coming home.

Periodically seen in black and white discussing her life with Hector in an interview after his death, a la Factory Girl, she’s forlorn. But, in blazing technicolor, Puchi spends the bulk of the movie dancing, partying and having sex — the classic ’70s cocktail. Thankfully, Lopez never sings.

Musicially, El Cantante achieves its goal of mimicking Ray with kinetic stage productions. Willie Colon’s great salsa band backs Lavoe, whose fluid voice (Anthony does a terrific job singing throughout) sets up the long instrumental jams that will have you wiggling in your seat.

El Cantante is a typical biopic with a predictable story arc from good times to bad times and finally to the subject’s death. Due to J-Lo’s involvement – she’s a producer as well – it also has the distinct stink of a vanity project. Director Leon Ichaso (Pinero) may have had the best of intentions, but after watching this nearly two-hour tribute, you won’t know much more about Hector Lavoe than when you entered the theater.

Opens August 3

07/18/07 12:00am

Simpsons fans might be disappointed by the silver screen version of their favorite TV show. Then again, probably not. After 18 years, America’s beloved animated family arrives in theaters. The 87-minute movie plays like an extended episode. Blink a couple of times and it’s over.

Like Evan Almighty, The Simpsons Movie serves as a parable about our deteriorating environment. Springfield Lake is polluted and, thanks to Homer, gets overwhelmed with pig shit. The EPA decides to close Springfield in a dome, trapping the citizens. Locals rightly blame Homer, but the Simpsons escape the ugly mob and dome by diving into a sinkhole and coming out the other side. Next stop: Alaska.

Once in America’s final frontier, Marge wants to return to help save Springfield, while Homer likes his new snow-capped neighborhood. She leaves with Bart, Lisa and Maggie in tow. Later, Homer heads home on his own, and with Bart’s help saves the day. What more do you expect from a cartoon?

Watching The Simpsons Movie is like playing a game of catch-the-pop-culture references. There’s a movie called The Irritating Truth, President Schwarzenegger (“I was elected to lead, not read!”), Dome Depot, a Tom Hanks cameo, Red Rash Inn, Eski-Moe’s (a bar), Grand Theft Walrus (a video game) and the goofy theme song, “Spider Pig.”

The Simpsons Movie is funny, as expected, but not uproarious. Sometimes it pounds you over the head. And Homer and Marge’s split up and reunion are downright corny.

“What a great little accident you turned out to be,” Homer tells Bart. The same could be said about The Simpsons TV series, but not this movie.

Opens July 27

06/20/07 12:00am

Not since John Denver played disciple to George Burns’ God in the Oh, God! series dating back to 1977 has Hollywood gone so non-secular. In the sequel to Bruce Almighty, which starred Jim Carrey (as Bruce Nolan) and introduced Morgan Freeman as the holy phantom dressed in white, Bruce’s rival, Evan Baxter, played by Steve Carell, has now become rookie Congressman Baxter ,who’s tapped by God to build an ark. He quickly morphs in Noah, with long white hair and beard and robes that embarrass his wife (Lauren Graham), staff (Wanda Sykes, Jonah Hill) and senior Congressman Long (John Goodman). Like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters, Evan is inexplicably compelled, and like Teri Garr, Graham portrays the perplexed wife who hasn’t a clue as to why her husband appears to be losing his mind.
 
Noah, of course, was a Biblical zookeeper, so pairs of computer-generated animals of all shapes and stripes (yes, zebras too) flock to the ark, which indeed has a purpose. God has warned Evan that a flood will occur on a particular date. Though Evan expects a massive downpour that will set the ark on its course, the water ultimately arrives from a different source. In the movie’s best scene, the ark barrels its way from Northern Virginia to the Capitol just in time to stop Long from passing a bill that would endanger the environment. Or something convoluted like that.
 
Carell generally can’t miss in any of his roles, but Evan is an almighty stretch that should send him right back to The Office where he belongs.

Opens June 22

06/20/07 12:00am

If you ever wanted to see John Cusack cooped up in a room like the one in Poltergeist with things flying all over the place, 1408 is precisely the movie for you. Based on a Stephen King short story about a haunted New York hotel room, 1408 starts with Mike Enslin (Cusack), who writes travel books about haunted houses, at a signing attended by four people. When he hears about a hotel that refuses to reserve one particular room, Enslin flies to New York, where he encounters hotel manager Gerald Oldin (Samuel L. Jackson), who does everything in his power — such as showing Enslin a scrapbook of the gory goings-on in the room over the years, which includes multiple suicides, and warning him that “it’s an evil fucking room” — to stop him. But Enslin demands the key, and soon the fun begins.

The next hour is like watching somebody else’s bad trip. Enslin’s unresolved issues over the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage get played out before his eyes as the walls start to crumble and bleed. When water fills the room, he flashes back to a recent blackout while surfing. You think the nightmare is over, but that’s just part of the hallucination.

Swedish director Halstrom’s deft hand provides just the right jolts and shivers. And you’ll probably never think of rom-com stalwart Cusack the same way again after watching his bravado performance in Room 1408.

Opens June 22