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The Fan

Only the acting prevents "The Fan" from striking out
While Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") continues to get the pick of the litter, younger brother Tony ("Days of Thunder," "The Last Boy Scout") is sometimes relegated to the leftovers, and "The Fan" is no exception. Unemployed knife salesman and San Francisco Giants fan Gil Renard (Robert DeNiro) is obsessed with his favorite player, $40 million acquisition Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). When Rayburn suffers through the worst slump of his career, Renard is more than willing to do anything to help him break out of it. It plays just as hokey as it sounds and is saved by good acting from a strong cast. Snipes has little to do in the thankless jock role but makes the most of it, and John Leguizamo is memorable as Rayburn's sleazy agent, but DeNiro, way over the top here but through no fault of his own, is more Max Patkin than Max Cady in a film that contains moderate bang for the buck yet ultimately fails to generate any actual thrills. "The Fan" tries to include a commentary on the relationship between high-priced ballplayers and the fans who pay their salary (one memorable line: "We're the ones who get you your $40 [expletive] million"), but it's drowned out by the tepid script, frenzied cinematography, and director Scott's peculiar fixation with the Nine Inch Nails catalog. The telltale sign that "The Fan" doesn't deliver as a thriller is when the most memorable scene consists of DeNiro swallowing his pride and shaving his legs with a hunting knife during in-store demonstrations. 7/10


Shiftless filmmaking spoils worthy storyline in "Empire"
There's probably no point in discussing the plot of "Empire," since the whole movie is all but divulged in the trailers, but it's not in my best interest to leave people in the dark. Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo, also providing voice-over narration) is a South Bronx drug dealer who wants to get out of the business and lead a normal life with his pregnant girlfriend (Delilah Cotto), who is expecting their first child. Victor believes Wall Street investment banker Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard) is his lifeline to quick – and legal – financial freedom. It's not long before his alliance with Wimmer begins to alienate relationships with his friends and partners, which in turn yields serious consequences. This solid storyline is lost in the abyss of director Franc. Reyes' world of near-pitch black sets, endless gunplay, flat dialogue that's composed mainly of colorful metaphors, and rappers playing trigger-happy drug dealers (in this case, Treach and Fat Joe; at least they're a major improvement over stiffs like Ja Rule and DMX). The third act collapses under the weight of its predictability; a field guide and binoculars won't be needed to spot twists that can be seen from a country mile away. Denise Richards pops up in the egregious role of Wimmer's sexpot girlfriend, but don't let that deter you from seeing an otherwise fairly entertaining movie. It's difficult to argue, though, that Leguizamo's talents were better put to use in "Ice Age." 7/10

Sleepy Hollow High

"Sleepy Hollow High": Generic slasher flick better than expected
Sleepy Hollow High (2000): A group of high school students performing community service on Sleepy Hollow park grounds are knocked off one by one by someone wearing a pumpkin mask and carrying a big sword. Released straight to home video, this movie has the depth of a thimble (as well as an asinine ending) and was clearly made in an attempt to capitalize on Tim Burton's 1999 masterpiece, but there are far worse ways in the world to spend $16,000. The acting is decent, and directors Kevin Summerfield (who also appears in the film as a student counselor named Mr. E) and Chris Arth make the most of their limited resources. The DVD has quite a few extras for a low-budget hole-in-the-wall flick, including directors' commentary, cast and crew interviews, and a "deleted scenes" reel – actually a stale collection of outtakes – plus hidden footage of the film's April 2000 "world premiere" at Towson State University (the movie was shot in Maryland). "Sleepy Hollow High" is the cinematic equivalent of a Snickers bar; satisfying but quickly forgotten, and yet more fulfilling than many $100-million summer blockbusters. 7.5/10

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi

"Spirited Away": Finally, a film title that speaks the truth
While I personally have doubts over whether "Spirited Away" deserved the animated picture Oscar nod over "Ice Age," there's definitely no doubt that it's a mesmerizing work in its own right and easily puts the overblown "Princess Mononoke" to shame. This flawlessly dubbed (courtesy of Pixar, no less) version of Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece will draw you in and leave you breathless by the time the closing credits roll. From the foreboding environment of a haunted bathhouse and the imagery of twisted characters such as No-Face, Yubaba, and her Andre the Giant-sized offspring, to the heroine Chihiro (voiced brilliantly by "The Ring's" Daveigh Chase) and her courageous struggle to rescue her captive parents, it's near impossible to find anything here to criticize, but at just over two hours, it runs a tad too long and sometimes suffers from slow pacing. "Spirited Away" is more captivating than entertaining (which is not necessarily a bad thing), and is one of those rare movies that will stick to the subconscious for a long time. If this is the last anime film I ever see in my lifetime, I'll be more than satisfied. Disney continues to excel with animated films that aren't theirs. 8/10

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

Sin-bland: DreamWorks' latest 2-D effort is the Pitts
It wasn't too long ago when DreamWorks was heralded as the worthy successor to the animation throne long held by Disney, following the huge success of "Shrek," which, as you know, was the inaugural winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. But being number one inevitably results in complacency, and DreamWorks now seems content in taking a giant step backward and emulating its rival in churning out a cadre of 2-D stinkers. Last year, it was "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," and this time it's "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," a yo-ho-hum retelling of the tale from the Arabian Nights.

After reuniting with childhood friend Proteus, notorious pirate Sinbad is accused of stealing a valuable artifact laughingly titled the Book of Peace, and is immediately sentenced to death. The actual culprit is Eris, the Goddess of Discord, who snatched the book herself while disguised as the eponymous hero. Of course, this story falls on deaf ears, because then there'd be no movie. Proteus surprisingly volunteers to take Sinbad's place on the chopping block so Sinbad and his crew can sail to Tartarus in order to return the Book of Peace to the city of Syracuse, from where it was stolen. Accompanying Sinbad and gang on the quest is Proteus' feisty fiance, Marina. Given this flimsy plot, "Sinbad," like last year's Disney disaster "Treasure Planet," attempts to increase its coolness factor in order to appeal to adolescent boys and staunch an onslaught of boredom in adults; thus, we're treated to anachronistic X-Games-style snowboarding, cheesy one-liners, and bodily function jokes, not to mention a healthy bit of innuendo. (The latter two earned the film its PG rating.)

But the best story ever conceived wouldn't have rescued "Sinbad" from the doldrums anyway, and the substandard, miscast voice acting is to blame. Only Pfeiffer seems to be having any fun hamming it up in the role of the conniving Eris. She easily gives the film's best performance, but that's damning her with faint praise. The worst of the bunch is easily Pitt, whose perfunctory effort as Sinbad had me wondering if he recorded his lines from a Barcalounger. He gives us no reason whatsoever to care about his self-centered character, but perhaps he could barely contain his excitement at reciting dreck like "Okay, I'm officially creeped out." Meanwhile, Fiennes is bland and forgettable; Proteus appears indifferent to the fact that his very life rests in Sinbad's hands. Zeta-Jones recycles her "Chicago" surliness as Marina, who expends her energy by constantly trying to prove that a woman can sail the Seven Seas with the big boys. She discovers the heart of gold in the roguish Sinbad whenever they're not sniping at each other like a pair of fishwives.

For all the comparisons to animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad series that this movie has drawn, I was reminded instead of Harryhausen's final work, the underrated "Clash of the Titans," which dipped into Norse legend with the multilimbed Kraken but is a milquetoast compared to DreamWorks' ethnically-stripped mythical mushpot that plays like an overlong episode of "Hercules" without betraying the slightest hint of originality; it's nothing more than an out-of-sync compilation album of Greek Mythology's Greatest Hits. The only thing Arabian about this generic "Sinbad" is the name of the title character, because, you see, a Middle Eastern hero just isn't hip anymore in our post-9/11 world.

Perhaps screenwriter John Logan also confused Sinbad with Odysseus, because the Sirens make a brief appearance. Along with some wonderfully rendered CGI sea monsters, they lend themselves to the film's rare appealing moments. The ethereal Sirens captivate and seduce Sinbad with their haunting beauty. This Sin-bland movie will be hard-pressed to achieve the same effect on its audience. 5/10

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

This "Cradle" doesn't rock: Impassive sequel simply goes through the motions
The success of the unjustifiably maligned 2001 hit "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" – a record-breaking $48-million opening weekend and over $250 million worldwide in the coffers – apparently wasn't enough to placate the Paramount brass, hence the filmmakers' desperation in attempting to lure disenchanted viewers back to the multiplexes for the inevitable sequel. With this film, carrying the clunky subtitle "The Cradle of Life," and directed by Jan De Bont of "Speed" fame, we're promised a better story, less reliance on action scenes, and deeper characterization.

Lara (Angelina Jolie) discovers a glowing mythical orb hidden in a submerged, long-lost temple dedicated to Alexander the Great. It can lead its possessor to the legendary Pandora's Box, which is located deep in an African mountain known as The Cradle of Life. Pandora's Box wiped out Alexander's army and is still capable of unleashing mass destruction to this day. However, the orb is promptly stolen by Chen Lo (Simon Yam), a Chinese crime lord who in turn plans to sell it to Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), a former Nobel Prize-winning scientist turned bioterrorist. Lara learns of this dastardly deed from a pair of stiff-upper-lipped MI6 agents, who inform her that The Queen has requested Lara's services in stopping the bad guys. Lara's sarcastic response provides Jolie's best line: "Well, now I have Her Majesty's permission." One little problem, though – the only person who can ably assist Lara in her mission is Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), an ex-soldier turned ruthless mercenary who happens to be her former lover. Needless to say, she doesn't trust him any further than she can throw him.

It's unfortunate that "Cradle" doesn't practice what it preaches. One thing to remember about making a sequel is that the plot shouldn't be a halfhearted carbon copy of its predecessor. Besides Lara's usual jumping around the globe in her attempt to stop a villain bent on world domination, one artifact again leads to another in the script penned by Dean Georgaris. Perhaps Jolie wanted Lara's love life to mirror her own, because the jilted-lover-turned-mercenary subplot is also rehashed. This angle worked out brilliantly in the original due to Daniel Craig's terrific performance, but Butler just falls flat here, and it's not just because his thick Scottish brogue impairs a majority of his lines. Considering how distrusting Lara is of Sheridan, there's a lack of suspense in their reluctant relationship, and little chemistry between Jolie and Butler. This translates into a passionless, unnecessary love scene that appears to have been thrown in solely to satisfy 14-year-old boys.

De Bont's overwrought and underwhelming action scenes are fractured conglomerations of John Woo-style gunplay and Universal Studios stunt shows, thanks to cramped cinematography mixed with Kirk Petruccelli's cheap-looking sets, such as a market square in Shanghai and a petrified forest that bears a strong resemblance to the Forbidden Forest from the "Harry Potter" movies. Watching Lara ride a slow-moving neon sign across the tiny square while dodging enemy bullets hardly gets the heart pumping. She also pole-vaults onto a helicopter, parachutes into the backseat of a Jeep, and blindly crashes through glass doors with guns blazing, all while leaving the audience unmoved.

Some scenes in "Cradle" are just plain absurd. While escaping from Chen Lo, who dresses as if he just stepped off the set of "Boogie Nights," Lara and Sheridan rappel headfirst down a pair of ropes hanging off the edge of a cliff and proceed to pick off members of his gang with deadly accuracy, while the baddies, of course, couldn't hit air in an empty room. (If you can't hit a target that moves with all the speed of a funeral procession, then you probably deserve to get shot.) Our heroes land with nary a rope burn on any part of their bodies.

De Bont's familiar overreliance on the bombastic, however, fails to do its job of covering up the bland characters. Jolie takes this poorly developed version of Lara too seriously this time around; while Lara remains bulletproof, gone are her humorous quirks and snappy dialogue. As a result, Jolie's performance lacks any sense of originality and spontaneity, as do those of companion Butler and adversary Hinds; the only memorable aspect of cliched megalomaniac Reiss is his collection of impeccable suits.

It's worth noting that one of the writers who worked on the story is Steven E. de Souza, who tainted the "Street Fighter" video game series with the 1994 bomb of the same name. Five years later, he submitted a script for the first "Tomb Raider," but it was rejected. While de Souza may have benefited from a second chance, this middle-of-the-pack movie won't be as fortunate. I didn't hate "Cradle of Life," because I believe the filmmakers honestly tried to craft a quality sequel. But if there's any remaining hope for this wilting franchise, Pandora's Box will have to be unearthed again in order to find it. 7/10

Knockaround Guys

Fugeddaboudit: Too many Badfellas spoil the broth in "Knockaround Guys"
"Knockaround Guys" plays like a combination of "The Sopranos" and "Extreme Ops." And that's not intended as a compliment. This movie, focusing on four young would-be mobsters (Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Barry "Thank God for '25th Hour' " Pepper, and Andrew Davoli) trying to retrieve half a million dollars from a corrupt Montana sheriff, should be used as merely one public example to show how far American filmmaking has swirled down the toilet. With a lethal combination of unlikable characters, putrid dialogue, leaden acting, and a plot that plays out as if directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien religiously consulted "Mob Movies for Dummies," there's nothing to salvage from the experience, because it's all about as enjoyable as trying to remove a hangnail. Diesel, sporting a Star of David tattoo and matching pendant, comes off looking about as Jewish as Jabba the Hutt. Perhaps Green was desperate to temporarily escape his Scott Evil persona by playing a tough guy, but he only succeeds in fitting in like Scott Evil would in a gangster flick. Meanwhile, I can only surmise that the esteemed John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper both appeared in this dreck solely to pay the bills. "Knockaround Guys" sat on the shelf for two years after it was completed. Needless to say, it doesn't take Einstein to understand why it was finally released. But Diesel alone can't shoulder the blame for producing one of the worst movies of 2002. This is undoubtedly a team effort. Had it never seen the light of day at all, it would have been considered a mercy killing. 2/10

Treasure Planet

Nothing worth treasuring in Disney's lifeless "Planet"
Disney's futuristic version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel makes several changes to the plot, including updating hero Jim Hawkins (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to an extreme sport-loving rebellious teenager who's one step away from juvenile hall. That's right, juvenile hall. Already, I'm sure you can tell where this is going. Not only that, he even has an earring to complement his hip little ponytail. It's a wonder that Disney didn't just fit him with a FUBU wardrobe and sagging jeans and be done with it. Anyway, his motivation for seeking out Treasure Planet stems from the destruction of the Benbow Inn, where his mother was employed. Oh, and Jim is also fatherless. (Hey, lest you forget, this is Disney.) John Silver, voiced by Brian Murray, is now a cyborg cook who joins Jim on his journey. The treasure map is something that projects clunky holographic imagery similar to that of "The Mummy Returns." Okay, now that the threadbare plot is out of the way, there's no point in beating around the bush any longer: Simply put, "Treasure Planet" is just awful. Besides being saddled with a terrible script (penned by four screenwriters), it boasts some of the worst sidekick characters seen in quite some time: an allegedly cute floating pink blob named Morph, and a nerve-grating chatterbox robot, B.E.N., who's voiced by Martin Short. Besides being riddled with mistakes perplexing to anyone who's ever studied astronomy (such as a ship being sucked into a black hole and then being shot out of it moments later by a fireball), the action scenes are flat due to lengthy exchanges of dialogue that make the McLaughlin Group look subtle by comparison. Clear evidence that Disney is unable to craft a quality animated film on its own anymore, "Treasure Planet" is nothing more than fool's gold. 2/10

Analyze That

The analysis is dire for flat, uninspired sequel
Analyze That (2002): Incarcerated mobster Paul Vitti (Robert DeNiro, who is first seen dancing around on a tabletop like a lunatic and singing songs from "West Side Story") is released into the custody of his hapless psychiatrist, Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), and predictable, allegedly humorous hijinks ensue. Somehow it was considered a smart move to include a heist-caper subplot that honestly expects viewers to believe that Sobel, Vitti and his mob friends (all equipped with thousand-dollar suits and standard New Yawker accents) are going to form a cohesive unit and attempt to rip off an armored truck containing millions of dollars in gold bullion. It's unfortunate that neither Dr. Sobel nor director Harold Ramis can solve the identity crisis that outright cripples this movie, because it can't decide if it wants to be a hysterical knee-slapper or a straightfaced crime drama. It succeeds at neither. In fact, this same nonsense was pulled in "Showtime" (which also starred DeNiro), and look how that wreck turned out. Another strained subplot puts Vitti in the public eye as he serves as a consultant on a "Sopranos"-style TV show despite his complaining to Sobel that someone is out to kill him and that he was almost offed in prison. Do make sure to sit through the closing credits, where compensation for the squandering of Crystal's and DeNiro's talents comes in the form of the long-overdue laughs that should have been reserved for the actual movie instead. 5/10

City by the Sea

"City" is a gritty soul-searcher featuring a questionable hero
"City By The Sea," based on a 1997 Esquire magazine article, is a gritty piece of work that doesn't aspire to be upbeat or have everything wrapped up in a neat, tidy package. The soul of this film is hidden beneath the surface of the familiar cops-and-crooks premise.

Vincent LaMarca (Robert DeNiro) is a well-respected veteran NYPD homicide detective who is sent to investigate a murder in Long Beach – a once prosperous, and now badly dilapidated, Long Island community known as the City by the Sea. The victim is a seedy drug dealer. The official suspect is Vincent's long-lost son. This unexpected and unnerving situation swiftly brings back very unpleasant ghosts from the officer's past that he has fought to suppress for years.

Joey LaMarca (James Franco, bearing resemblance to Ben Stiller) is an emaciated drug addict living on the streets of Long Beach, in relentless pursuit of his next high. He and Vincent have been estranged for over a decade, following an ugly divorce that resulted in the detective seeking refuge miles away in the comfort of Manhattan and his police work. Faced with the task of bringing the killer to justice, the detective concurrently embarks on a mission to try and save his son. As his investigation progresses, Vincent forces himself to finally face the music about his shortcomings as a father figure and the role it has played in Joey's destructive lifestyle.

Director Michael Caton-Jones makes up for lack of suspense with sharp cinematography (a tense argument between Vincent and his ex-wife is shot with a handheld) and the crafting of a morbidly captivating world inhabited by a myriad of characters, such as Reg Duffy (George Dzundza), Vincent's closest friend on the force, plus Vincent's caring but stern girlfriend (Frances McDormand), a revenge-bent drug dealer (William Forsythe), and a struggling single mother (Eliza Dushku) whose child Joey fathered. Ken Hixon's script paints Vincent in a perplexing light: Do we share his pain resulting from his son's situation, or revile him instead for leaving Joey in the lurch years ago?

However, the gradual reparation of this distraught relationship comes at the expense of the aforementioned supporting cast, whose importance to the plot dwindles as the abrupt, hackneyed climax nears. But these flaws are forgivable due to DeNiro's performance in an emotionally hard-hitting role that, ironically, parallels Al Pacino's similar portrayal of a mentally-tortured cop facing up to the consequences of his actions in the 2002 summer hit "Insomnia." The miserable deterioration of Long Beach serves as a unique metaphor for Vincent's downward spiral, though it's much more difficult to repair a damaged psyche than the repudiated remains of a casino. 8/10

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Artistic, haunting, awe-inspiring, and yet so ludicrously criticized
This rich adaptation of the first of J.K. Rowling's bestselling novels, about Harry Potter's adventures during his first year at Hogwarts, gets the budding franchise off to one hell of a start and myself finally into the thick of Pottermania after I watched the DVD and raced through all four books last summer. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) become so immersed in their roles, we have to remind ourselves that we're watching actors. The same goes for all the supporting characters, who are too numerous to mention here, because it's impossible to single out only a select few. There's not one bad performance to be seen. Complementing the players are solid direction by Chris Columbus, incredible sets by Stuart Craig and a powerful soundtrack by John Williams. When you think about it, has the man ever really composed a bad score? HP's only flaws are a long introduction and slow second-half pacing. Were it not for the awesome "Tomb Raider," the boy wizard would have conjured up the best movie of 2001. Yes, you read that right.

The last thing I want to do here is get on my soapbox, but there is one issue regarding this movie that I need to get off my chest. While "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" may not have won any Oscars, it unfortunately does deserve the Complaining About the Color of the Couch Award. (Note the initials.) Never mind that HP earned nearly $1 billion worldwide and is the second-highest grossing film of all time (unfortunately playing second fiddle to the downright horrible "Titanic"). I don't think I've ever heard so much anally-retentive griping before over one single movie. For instance, considering the universal disdain for tie-in merchandising, Columbus caught holy hell for staunchly rejecting any Harry Potter fast-food tie-ins - at Rowling's request, no less! - while Burger King got away unscathed with their "Lord of the Rings" promotion. Go figure.

And to those who just can't enjoy this great work for what it is, and who instead choose to incessantly take apart every little detail, ranging from the acting and direction to the script's excessive - or dearth of - fidelity to the story and other pointless minutiae, try removing your head from your posterior and maybe you'll get a better view of things. These are the same clods who are so full of themselves that some feel the need to list book mistakes on their two-bit websites, as if they believe that doing so will elevate them to a special plateau. While we're on the subject of fidelity, what the hell does "overfaithfulness" to the story mean, anyway? 9/10

Austin Powers in Goldmember

"Goldmember" is decent comic fare bogged down with pyrite plot
The world's favorite British spy not named James Bond is back for round three in "Austin Powers in Goldmember." This time around, Austin (Mike Myers) and his new female sidekick, walking stereotype Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles), try to stop Dr. Evil (Myers) from, as usual, taking over the world. Some new faces are thrown into the zoo: Austin's father, Nigel Powers (Michael Caine) and eponymous baddie Goldmember (Myers, again), who is perhaps the first villain to be a skin-eating Dutch contortionist. Powers has a new car in this latest installment, called the "Pimpmobile," complete with a pink plush interior, purple paint, and lowrider-style hydraulics, and it's used to travel back to 1975 in order to complete his mission. (He goes back to '75 in a 1972 Cadillac. Go figure.) "Goldmember" hits zero to 60 in seconds courtesy of a strong first act, including a hilarious set of cameos in the opening sequence and several scenes where Austin interacts with an agent known as "The Mole" (Fred Savage), who indeed - you guessed it - has a huge mole on his lip. Subsequently, Austin desperately tries to refrain from commenting on it.

However, "Goldmember" quickly runs out of gas and loses sense of direction, as any original ideas are already spent before the film is half over. The remainder of the picture is then stuffed with the same tiresome phallic humor (not to mention another unnecessary appearance by Fat Bastard) in order to produce cheap laughs and to divert viewers' attention from the weak plot, which was why the first sequel, "The Spy Who Shagged Me," was just downright awful. The characters have not gotten better with age, either; they've become like a once-hysterical joke told too many times. By the time the conclusion rolls around, the movie gets stuck in neutral altogether. The twist ending is as anticlimactic as the revelation of Cartman's father on "South Park." (There is one interesting part of "Goldmember" worth noting: In a flashback sequence showing what appears to be Austin's college graduation ceremony, the students' school uniforms look suspiciously like the ones in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.")

To make a long story short, "Goldmember" isn't as good as the first film (9/10), but it is superior to the second (2/10). Perhaps, though, it's time that this exhausted franchise, which has become increasingly more drag than shag, is finally put to rest. 7/10

Men in Black II

Rushed and uninvolving plot disrupts Smith and Jones' chemistry in "MIB" sequel
This sequel that was five years in the making again stars Will Smith as Agent J, who, after losing his new partner, Agent T (Patrick Warburton), looks up Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), now working at a post office with no remembrance of his alien-fighting past. On the lam is a pizza deliveryman-eating seductress disguised as a Victoria's Secret model (Lara Flynn Boyle), plus her two-headed cohort (Johnny Knoxville). It's believed that the cosmic beauty possibly has a checkered past involving K and J's new crush, Laura (Rosario Dawson). Due to its short running time (a lean 88 minutes), "MIB II" is uninvolving and badly rushed. There's no time for essentials such as character development because it was apparently more important to have Frank the Pug (voiced by Tim Blaney) upstage nearly the entire cast, though he does provide some of the film's few laughs courtesy of a humorous rendition of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." But aside from that, there is none of the spontaneous humor from the first film, such as Smith's hilarious entry-exam scene. Director Barry Sonnenfeld once again makes a cameo appearance, as does Michael Jackson (yes, the Michael Jackson) in a pointless bit part. Smith hams up his role by bouncing around the screen like a kid in need of Ritalin. He and Jones, as usual, have great chemistry on screen and complement each other well, which is quite possibly the only saving grace of an otherwise average flick. "MIB II" warrants watching just for the humorous sight of Jones in a U.S. Postal Service uniform. 7/10

Reign of Fire

"Fire" has its moments but ultimately goes up in smoke
In this latest entry into the "Independence Day"-style post-apocalyptic genre, nearly the entire world has been destroyed by an army of fire-breathing dragons. It all started twenty years earlier, when one was accidentally disturbed from a long sleep by underground construction workers. Now, almost all of mankind is extinct, save for a small makeshift community somewhere in England, led by Quinn (Christian Bale), who has the unenviable task of protecting this small village from the flying beasts. Help eventually arrives in the form of an American army led by a tattooed, militaristic, redneck dragon-hunter, Van Zant (Matthew McConaughey, complete with bulging muscles and a shaved pate), who claims to have an efficient way to kill off the dragons once and for all. Just forget about the flat storyline, McConaughey's unintentionally hilarious scenery-chewing (which complements his smeared black tattoos), and the plot holes that could fill a Dunkin' Donuts box, and you have a marginally entertaining picture that barely avoids becoming a complete joke thanks to Bale's reluctant-hero performance. In the same vein, Izabella Scorupco, as Alex, Van Zant's computer-nerd assistant, is thankfully spared the damsel-in-distress routine as she helps our male heroes fight off the dragons. Don't go to this picture expecting anything extraordinary, for this "Reign" can definitely be stopped. 5/10


Middle-of-the-pack "Spider-Man" doesn't live up to expectations
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a nerdy high school photojournalist, is regularly harassed by his classmates, and has a crush on beautiful Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). He is bitten by a genetically altered spider during a science field trip, and soon develops spider-powers such as climbing walls and shooting webs from his wrist. He evolves into Spider-Man in an interesting yet ridiculous way: he poses as "The Human Spider" – complete with a cheap prototype of his familiar costume – for a wrestling match. (A sad sight is watching the washed-up Randy "Macho Man" Savage play his in-ring opponent.) This leads to the evolution of the crime-fighting Spider-Man we've grown to love, and it's the baffled Parker's discoveries of his newfound abilities that provide the film's funniest moments. The acting is decent – Cliff Robertson plays Peter's Uncle Ben, and Willem Dafoe hams it up as Norman Osborn (better known as The Green Goblin, Spidey's nemesis), but J.K. Simmons nearly steals the show as blowhard newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. They're enough to momentarily make us forget about Dunst's bland damsel-in-distress performance, which consists mainly of screaming her head off quite often. The script, unfortunately, gets stuck in the hell of movie limbo: the content is too violent for younger viewers and too juvenile for older ones (the kissing-in-the-rain sequence seems little more than an excuse to have Dunst in a wet T-shirt). Though a serviceable film, "Spider-Man" falls far short of its blockbuster hype. Even before setting foot in the theater, I knew it wouldn't knock me out. It's also somewhat deflating to watch the early obligatory montage of various crooks being caught in Spidey's web; it's fun to watch, yet upon leaving the theater it becomes a depressing reminder of all the nonsense going on in the world that a web-slinging superhero wearing a blue and red mask and tights would be hard-pressed to resolve. 7/10

The Bourne Identity

Great plot and action distance "Bourne" far from the pack
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has a nasty case of amnesia after being plucked unconscious out of the Mediterranean Sea, but it's not long until he discovers that he was a trained assassin for the CIA. One problem, though: he's now marked for death from the very organization he used to work for. With the unexpected assistance of a Swiss woman (Franka Potente, in a surprisingly strong performance), whom he pays $20,000 for a ride to Paris, Bourne struggles to regain memory of his past while trying to stay alive. The solid screenplay – based on the late Robert Ludlum's bestselling 1980 novel – by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron is well crafted and finely paced, complete with solid dialogue and some great action sequences, such as what turns out to be one of the film's best scenes: a thrilling car chase with a Cooper Mini (!) through the streets of Paris, which is accented with great cinematography and music by Paul Oakenfold. "Bourne" is a most refreshing alternative that distances itself from the nonsense that's been clogging theaters all year. If Damon surgically removed himself from Ben Affleck, he'd be a worldwide phenomenon after movies like this. 8.5/10

The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course

Irwin's antics amusing, but this "Crocodile" lacks bite
It's obvious that Steve Irwin, the Aussie who's best known as The Crocodile Hunter, loves his occupation and the thrills that accompany it. In return, it's hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for such delights as wrangling crocodiles and dangling dangerous critters only inches from his face while marveling at their deadliness. (For example, he proudly shows off a huge snake whose bite contains enough venom to kill himself "and a hundred other blokes.") It is his vivacity that keeps afloat his motion picture debut, "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," which is essentially a mock Discovery Channel special couched in an insignificant espionage plot. A U.S. satellite breaks apart after exploding in space, and its black box comes hurtling back into the atmosphere. It lands smack somewhere in Australia, where it's promptly swallowed by – you guessed it – a crocodile. This croc lives in a river near land owned by a portly, ill-tempered farmer (Magda Szubanski, best known as Mrs. Hoggatt from "Babe"), who steadfastly has the creature in the crosshairs of her double-barreled shotgun. Meanwhile, after recently popping up in the excellent "The Bourne Identity," the CIA rears its head to once again chase the film's centerpiece, in this case by dispatching two bumbling agents Down Under to retrieve the missing component. As if viewers will have a hard time discerning between the two, Irwin's antics are shot on video (resulting in a smaller screen ratio), and the plot in standard 35mm. They're two totally different entities that are awkwardly grafted together for a lethargic climax. Aside from Irwin and Szubanski, the acting is a sinker. The CIA characters mail in their thankless performances, and while Irwin makes up for his lack of acting experience with spontaneous charisma, the same unfortunately can't be said for his wife/partner, Terri, whose poor delivery of scripted dialogue is flat and emotionless. However, these many flaws are forgivable, after taking into account some of the junk that's composed one of the most forgettable summer movie seasons of recent memory. "Crocodile Hunter" is enjoyable and at times very informative, but the flat plot and acting simply take the wind out of its sails and it's our eponymous protagonist who prevents it from sinking into the muck altogether. 7/10

Minority Report

Repellent imagery hurts solid plot in overlong "Report"
John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the chief of the Department of Precrime, a police force that apprehends suspects before crimes are committed. When he himself is suddenly accused of being a future killer, he is forced to go on the run as he strives to prove his innocence. In the vein of last year's futile "A.I.", Steven Spielberg presents yet another claustrophobic and depressing glance into the future with disappointing results. The promising mystery yarn suffers from a hodgepodge of perplexing subplots involving crooked cops, Anderton's deceased son, and a psychic (Samantha Morton) with a checkered past, plus plenty of gruesome imagery (this film is an optometrist's worst nightmare). "Report" runs an excruciating 144 minutes and is saved only by its intricate climax. It's not a horrible film but just simply an unpleasant viewing experience, due to its infatuation with repulsive scenes of Ziploc-bagged eyeballs, futuristic whorehouses and blatant product placement, all brought to us by the man who once thought of Haley Joel Osment as the ideal Harry Potter. 3/10

Mr. Deeds

Good "Deeds" include avoiding horrible Sandler vehicle
Adam Sandler stars as Longfellow Deeds, a tenderhearted hick who unexpectedly inherits his late uncle's $40 billion media empire, while Winona Ryder is a reporter for a tabloid TV show bent on destroying his name. No point in beating around the bush: this joins "Resident Evil" and "Death to Smoochy" as one of the worst movies of the millennium; never mind the year. "Deeds" is a plotless wonder that is merely an excuse for Sandler to go whole-hog with his usual slapstick nonsense along with his usual pitiful – well, it doesn't even deserve to be called acting. The apathetic script makes light of stalking and assault while attempting to legitimize worthless supporting characters who don't advance whatever minuscule story that exists. While not busy knocking people around (which is okay as long as it's for a good cause), Deeds wants to write Hallmark cards. How precious. Meanwhile, your hope sinks as your brain shrinks, because "Mr. Deeds" truly stinks. Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, where are you when we really need you? 1/10

Like Mike

Stereotypical, dubious "Like Mike" tosses up an airball
The plot of a young Los Angeles orphan becoming an overnight basketball sensation after lacing up a magical pair of Michael Jordan's old Nikes is not the most impractical element of "Like Mike." That would be nearly everything else in this predictable, and borderline repugnant, family comedy whose apparent purpose is to just be one big commercial for every product under the sun, ranging from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to a handful of NBA superstars who really have no reason to appear on the film's posters (or in the film, for that matter). 14-year-old Calvin Cambridge (rapper Li'l Bow Wow, who has since dropped the "Li'l") is randomly chosen during a halftime promotion to go one-on-one with star player Tracey Reynolds (a visibly bored Morris Chestnut) of the L.A. Knights, a team that plays "Rock & Roll Pt. 2" during blowout losses. Calvin discovers he can slam dunk from the foul line and easily drop three-pointers like free throws while wearing his prized shoes, for which he braves a lightning storm to pull off a telephone wire (just one of many questionable scenes in this movie that will draw the consternation of parents everywhere). He's promptly hired as a full-time player to boost sagging attendance and is reluctantly mentored by Reynolds about the joys of room service. When not preoccupied with basketball hijinks, "Like Mike" contains standard subplots regarding Calvin's longing for adoption, his friends' (including an annoying Jonathan Lipnicki) jealousy of his success, and Reynolds battling personal problems; all are concluded with unrealistic and cheap sentimentality. Bow Wow shows surprising charisma as an actor while looking handsome in three-piece suits, but he ends up shouldering the burden of an anemic script and is what keeps the movie from capsizing altogether. "Like Mike" indeed resembles Jordan's early NBA days: it's a one-man show. 4/10


Scooby Don't: Hollow cartoon adaptation goes to the dogs
Since the uninteresting Hanna-Barbera cartoon series "Scooby-Doo" managed to hang around television screens for over 30 years, it was apparently decided

at some point that it was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon and thus perfect summer-movie material. As a result, this inevitable feature-length incarnation of the eponymous Great Dane and his Mystery Inc. supporting cast has finally hit the big screen. Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini), and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) have suddenly split up after solving a case in a factory that manufactures Pamela Anderson dolls – insert your own joke – simply because Fred takes all the accolades for their accomplishments. However, they're instantly reunited after being summoned individually to the same destination: a haunted house-themed amusement park called Spooky Island. Requesting their services is park owner Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson), who has cause for alarm after discovering that someone, or something, is turning his college-age clientele into zombies. Disneyland, it's not.

"Scooby-Doo," directed by Raja Gosnell, is an uninspired mongrel that proves Hollywood still hasn't learned from its past mistakes in converting half-hour cartoons to megaplex fodder, the recent flops "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Josie and the Pussycats" notwithstanding. (Nor has it gotten the hint that Prinze and Lillard should not work together again following the debacle that was "Wing Commander.") The inferiority of screenwriter James Gunn's lifeless mystery plot is clearly evident, it has to be camouflaged with a combination of inane dialogue, overuse of CGI, and a truly atrocious ending.

The task at hand is so crucial that Scooby and Shaggy find time on the side for an abundance of pot jokes and a lengthy farting contest. Yes, a farting contest. If Mystery Inc. can regularly afford to partake in such nonsense in between solving crimes, then, by God, I want their jobs. There is also a fair amount of cleavage on display courtesy of nearly every female in the picture from the extras to our heroines. Oh boy, flatulence competitions, drug humor, and big breasts. Always the reliable staples of quality family entertainment. Things sure have changed in the course of three decades, haven't they?

If there's anything positive that surfaces from this dreck, it's the fact that Lillard is dead-on with Shaggy's voice and goofy mannerisms. On the other hand, Prinze has the looks and charisma of a Ken doll as the egotistic Fred. Gellar and Cardellini portray whiny, two-dimensional personalities: Daphne continuously complains about being the damsel in distress while knocking out hulking bodybuilders, and Velma continuously acts jealous of Fred. It's a shame that Atkinson, who can easily act circles around this cast, receives less screen time than an insignificant voodoo master (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., who's currently starring in another stinker, "Juwanna Mann"). The filmmakers' only concern seemed to regard how good the cast looked on screen. There's no reason at all to care about any of these characters.

However, the treatment of the human cast is a milquetoast in contrast to Scooby's role. Something is definitely amiss when the famous namesake of a summer blockbuster movie does little more than act as Shaggy's computer-animated armpiece while failing to believably blend in with any of his surroundings. The best example of a film combining cartoon characters with real-life environments remains "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" And that was 14 years ago.

While immortalizing pop culture phenomena worked for "Spider-Man," it doesn't even come close here. Just labeling "Scooby-Doo" a pop culture phenomenon is absurd. It doesn't take Mystery Inc. to decipher why this picture is such a disaster. But to those titillated by lousy storytelling coupled with unfunny pot and potty humor, this dud's for you. 3/10

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Thanks to "Clones," "Star Wars" series back with a vengeance
Over a decade (or, in our time, three years) has passed since the events seen in "Phantom Menace." A militant separatist movement, composed of thousands of star systems, threatens to secede from the Republic. Led by the enigmatic former Jedi, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), the separatist military forces vastly outnumber the declined ranks of Jedi Knights, most of which are spread throughout the galaxy. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), formerly the queen of Naboo, returns to the galactic capital of Coruscant in order to cast her vote on whether or not to assist the overwhelmed Jedi by creating an Army of the Republic, which she believes will only serve as a catalyst for war. After narrowly escaping an assassination attempt, Padme is reunited with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) who are assigned to protect her.

A second attempt on her life forces the senator to flee to Naboo with Anakin while Obi-Wan seeks to unravel the mystery behind Padme's assassin. As Anakin and Padme develop romantic feelings for each other, Obi-Wan makes several startling discoveries, which may change the fate of the Republic forever.

To say that "Attack of the Clones" is better than "The Phantom Menace" is too easy. It's also too obvious. It's clear that Lucas wised up after the jumble of three summers ago, and it pays off in spades. The second installment of the new "Star Wars" trilogy is better than its predecessor in nearly every aspect, especially the plot. It's no less convoluted than in "Menace," but it's somewhat easier to follow and more enticing. (I admit, I attribute most of my understanding of the plot to my ever-patient brother, because I played "20 Questions" with him virtually all throughout the picture.)

The characters are intertwined together nicely, and there are plenty of awesome action sequences that advance the plot rather than just serve as fancy CGI exhibitions. A spectacular chase sequence in which Obi-Wan and Anakin pursue an assassin through Coruscant, a neon-lit city complete with flying cars (think "The Fifth Element" done ten times better), leads into an investigation by Obi-Wan on who may have been responsible for the attempt on his life. It's a great subplot that plays like something out of "The X-Files." McGuinness - oops! - McGregor gives arguably the best performance of the picture, and he looks more at ease in the role this time around.

The sets and backgrounds are simply awesome, particularly the "Blade Runner"-like futuristic city of Coruscant. Obi-Wan battles Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) on the rooftop of a unique apartment building somewhere on the planet Kamino, and in the pouring rain no less. Best of all is a spectacular dark red desert-type backdrop that Anakin zips through on a flying bike in his attempt to reunite with his long-lost mother, whom, as you may remember, he had been separated from in the previous film.

Much like the film itself, its centerpiece has improved with age as well. His hot-and-cold performance notwithstanding, Christensen is a major improvement over his pint-sized predecessor, who dragged the first film to occasional, mildly unwatchable levels. Anakin's spoiled-brat personality here is forgivable since we all know it's going to come into fruition in the third installment. A genuinely chilling and crucial turning point involving his character occurs late in the picture, and it definitely strikes a chord.

The witty sense of humor that went on hiatus in "Menace" is back in the form of C-3PO. Though his role is still somewhat insignificant to the storyline, he serves as the comic relief that surprisingly doesn't interfere with the intensity of the conclusion while adding a bit of levity. Best of all, Jar Jar Binks' role is mercifully shaved down. Meanwhile, it's slightly difficult to get excited over Christopher Lee's role as Count Dooku, because his screen time is considerably small, but it all pays off near the conclusion in a priceless showdown with none other than Yoda. Describing any of it here won't do it justice, nor would it be right.

Yes, fellow moviegoers, we can all breathe easier now. Everything is all right again in the Star Wars universe. One can only assume that the impending success of the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of The Rings" series lit a fire under Lucas' proverbial rear. Let's hope that this upswing is not coincidental, and that the third film will be even better. Heck, what's another three-year wait? 8/10


Inconsistent, overboard story diminishes fine performances in boisterous "Pumpkin"
The eccentric pseudo-romantic comedy "Pumpkin" is a wild, twisting ride for the wrong reasons. Carolyn McDuffy (a blond Christina Ricci) is part of an overprivileged Southern California State University sorority that, simply for the shallow purpose of being named "Sorority of the Year," sucks up to a Special Olympics-style charity they otherwise could care less about. As the two factions congregate for the first time, Carolyn encounters an enigmatic wheelchair-bound teenager (Hank Harris) known simply as "Pumpkin." At first repulsed by his presence, she finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to his soul, his physical form notwithstanding, but their budding affinity alienates their trite friends and families. The energetic setup of the plot results in smart comedy, especially when Carolyn and Pumpkin first meet, but in screenwriter/co-director Adam Larson Broder's hectic script, the momentum comes to a halt in the second act, in which the film becomes a hodgepodge of forgettable dialogue, abrupt satire, and impertinent subplotting (a meaningless poetry class), all cast under a darker air. Though the acting is sensational – deadpan-stare mistress Ricci winds up carrying the picture on the strength of her best role since the notorious Wednesday of the "Addams Family" movies, as she mugs her way through a heartfelt performance that at times results in awesome laughs while Harris portrays the eponymous handicapped youth with aplomb – the strong supporting cast loses steam quickly (most notably the great Brenda Blethyn, who has little to do here as Pumpkin's overbearing alcoholic mother). In short, "Pumpkin's" most conspicuous flaw is that it suffers from an identity crisis. It's a continuous toss-up of whether it wants to be an earnest comedy regarding the evils of political correctness, or a violent live cartoon replete with exorbitant car crashes and silly fistfights, thus rendering any message of morality down for the count. 7/10


There's nothing sleepy whatsoever about thrilling "Insomnia"
"Insomnia" is a unique movie for one particular reason: Rarely have I come across a picture that is strikingly compelling due to its stereotypes. This is another excellent entry in the murder-mystery genre to come down the pike in the past several months, proceeding last year's "From Hell" and, more recently, the grossly underrated "Murder By Numbers."

Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a Los Angeles detective sent to the minuscule town of Nightmute, Alaska to assist in the investigation of the murder of a 17-year-old girl. From the moment he sets foot in the police station, he immediately begins barking orders to his coworkers like Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive." A cliche Mutt-and-Jeff interrogation session with the first suspect, the victim's sleazy, abusive boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson), in an empty classroom soon follows.

As he attempts to apprehend a suspect holed up in a wooden shack, Dormer, almost completely blinded by the fog-enshrouded surroundings, inadvertently shoots and kills his partner, Eckhart (Martin Donovan). He immediately compounds his fatal mistake by hiding his guilt and not telling anyone about it, even going as far as resorting to evidence tampering when he replaces the bullet from his gun with a slug from the suspect's discarded .38 revolver.

The evidence regarding the girl's murder suddenly takes a turn and points to Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a mystery writer idolized by the victim, as she owned many of his books. Dormer, his world already a living hell that's gradually increasing due to his partner's death and the Alaskan atmosphere (the sun is still shining in full force even after hours), finds himself playing impromptu phone tag with Finch. The film then becomes a game of human chess of sorts as both men meet in different locations, ranging from ferryboats to desolate roadsides in order to exchange words. Dormer goes as far to plant evidence in Finch's apartment (which is just as poorly lit as nearly every other indoor location in the film despite the sun shining round the clock). Meanwhile, local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) begins to conduct an investigation of her own: Eckhart's death. These two subplots graft together to form a mildly exciting yet somewhat predictable climax.

To make a long story short, the acting is superb. As the emotionally tormented officer, this is easily Pacino's best role since the superb 1997 thriller "Donnie Brasco." On the other side of the coin, after the utterly horrible "Death to Smoochy" (which, if not for "Resident Evil," would undisputedly be the worst film of the year), Williams is terrific as Finch, though the character is a bit of a mild Hannibal Lecter ripoff with the "killer-playing-mind-games" schtick; still, it's a refreshing change from his usual, comically overblown screen personas. Swank, despite being given time to shine on her own as she tries to solve the case of Eckhart's death, is not as convincing as Burr, but it's somewhat understandable considering she's all but overshadowed by her Academy Award-winning brethren.

Unlike the unconventional "Murder by Numbers," "Insomnia" pretty much plays by the familiar crime-thriller book: a body is found, clues gathered (in which the one crucial piece of evidence pops up near the end), primarily in dingy, dirty locations, capped off with the big showdown of good against evil. It's a timeworn pattern that's been repeated time and again, and yet I still feel that rush of excitement whenever these scenes occur. Such otherwise been-there-done-that scenes are instead suspenseful and played out beautifully, making them worth keeping your eyes on, and this is no exception. It's just something I never get tired of. It's what separates the great films from the rest of the pack.

"Insomnia" is not a film that will bowl you over or bombast you with jolting imagery like "Murder By Numbers" or "Seven," but it is a solid film nevertheless. While the script does suffer from occasional slowdowns due to any real lack of energy, it is the essential thinking person's movie that allows us to interact with its involving plot and characters while keeping us guessing, which is what really counts. After all, isn't that the best thing about mysteries in the first place? 8.5/10


Excessive special effects and incomprehensible plot combine for a flawed time-stopper
"Clockstoppers," brought to us by Nickelodeon Movies and helmed by "Star Trek" alumnus Jonathan Frakes, is a prime example of an auspicious premise that goes flat faster than a set of Firestone tires. It's like a wad of bubble gum; the longer you stretch it out, the thinner and weaker it becomes. The much-recycled storyline about the accidental discovery of a special gadget and the heroes who have to keep it out of the hands of the villains who want it for their evil purposes can only be stretched so far.

Somewhere, amidst the jumble of special effects, cliches, blatant absurdities and ethnic stereotypes, a comprehensible, logical plot got lost in the process. Despite the fact that this film is aimed at the young crowd, the plot of "Clockstoppers" will fly over kids' heads while leaving the older audience in the dark. Without the visual effects, this would probably wind up in the same ignominious 2002 class of awful films alongside "Resident Evil" and "Death to Smoochy."

"Clockstoppers" insults its audience, both young and old, with a cliche-loaded script. Zak Gibbs (a miscast Jesse Bradford, who, at age 23, is too old to be portraying a high school student) is your average suburbanite who can't get enough of performing bike tricks, strumming a flying-V guitar and butting heads with his scientist father/college professor, George (played by Robin Thomas, while Julia Sweeney portrays Zak's mother). As he takes out the trash one day, he stumbles across a magical watch that George had been working on after it was accidentally knocked into a garbage can, and soon discovers that it can send its wearer into "hypertime," meaning time and space around him suddenly freeze. It turns out that Zak is actually moving super-fast through time while his surroundings appear to be moving ver-r-r-y slowly, in the vein of Einstein's theory of relativity. Or something like that. (Never mind that Zak would be rapidly burned to a crisp like cheap bacon due to the resulting friction, but since it's a kiddie flick, we can't be bothered with such minute technicalities.)

Once Zak gets hold of the watch, there are the obligatory scenes of he and his buddies testing it out in mischievous ways, including getting revenge on a crotchety meter maid in a most unpleasant way.

Soon enough, we're introduced to the bad guy, Gates (Michael Biehn), who wants the watch for his own evil deeds, which are never really made clear. Now it's up to Zak and his friends, Francesca (Paula Garces) and Meeker (Garikayi Mutambirwa), to keep the watch out of his hands. Add to this already languid plot a kidnapping scene, the ridiculous usage of paintball guns to fire liquid nitrogen, and a confusing subplot regarding another scientist, Dr. Doppler (French Stewart), and it all adds up to a big headache.

Once again, here we have another annoying case of the kid clashing with the well-meaning parents. It's about time someone realized this schtick is about as appealing as a pile of used Pampers. This time it's simply because Zak keeps hedging George to buy him a new car, but George keeps sitting on it due to a project he's working on. Zak complains that he's always too busy with his work. Hey, bucko, he's working in order to put food on the table and to satisfy your selfish desires.

One of the worst parts of the film occurs at a DJ contest, where Meeker is an unadulterated embarrassment. (The record scratching is pretty lousy as well. Watch much better DJ-contest scenes in the 1992 Tupac Shakur movie "Juice." Now, back to our review already in progress.) Zak and Francesca use the watch to, naturally, help Meeker win the contest. Big surprise. Zak and Francesca move Meeker around in hypertime, including having him do a handstand on the turntable with one hand, which he uses to spin his records. Nobody in the audience is fazed whatsoever by such an outright violation of the laws of physics.

It's hard to fathom ethnic stereotypes playing a formidable part in a children's movie (amidst shameless product placements for Pepsi and Nikon cameras), yet it certainly does here. Francesca is very cold towards Zak right up until she discovers the powers of his watch. She's essentially nothing more than a gold-digger, always a positive image of Latino women. Meeker is the customary jive-talking, loud color-wearing Black kid, because all Black kids talk that way nowadays and still dress like TLC circa 1991. Two Caucasian boys, who serve as our heroes' temporary enemies until the main baddie comes along, are given the white trash treatment with dreadlocks, grunge outfits and facial piercings. (One of these guys has his nose ring affixed to the spokes of his bike as Zak experiments with the watch.) And, when Zak comes across two of Gates' agents who have broken into his house, one of them is an Asian woman who proceeds to madly karate chop and kick the air before attacking our heroes. It's somewhat disturbing, considering that kids are a very impressionable bunch.

Yes, the term became cliche eons ago, but "Clockstoppers" winds up falling way short of its potential and proves to be a disappointment. I genuinely wanted it to be a slam dunk, but it instead throws up an airball. Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it in the least, but at the same time this serves as a sobering reminder that special effects alone cannot carry a movie, no matter how dazzling they are. If you're in desperate need of a time-travel fix, stick with the original "Back to The Future" while dodging its inferior sequels. 6/10

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