WILL CHURCHGOERS FLOOD THEATERS THIS WEEK?

This may officially be the first weekend of the summer, but the summer is half over so far as Hollywood is concerned -- and it's uncertain how much longer younger moviegoers will be willing to tap their summer paychecks to see the latest blockbusters. This weekend will put the $200-million epic Evan Almighty, starring Steve Carell, to the test. The movie is the most expensive comedy ever made. Universal has conservatively estimated that the film will do about $40 million, well below the $67.9 million that its predecessor, Bruce Almighty, took in in 2003. Universal, however, has been marketing the film heavily to churchgoers across the country, and they could prove to be a wild card at the box office. Analysts have been loath to challenge the studio's estimate, particularly inasmuch as their track record hasn't been particularly strong this summer. Last weekend, for example, they predicted that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer would likely take in about $30 million; it wound up taking in nearly twice that amount. Also opening this weekend is The Weinstein Co.'s 1408, based on a Stephen King story and starring John Cusack. Paramount Vantage will also be opening Å Mighty Heart, which many critics are predicting will earn its star, Angelina Jolie, an Oscar for her performance as Mariane Pearl, wife of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

MOVIE REVIEWS: EVAN ALMIGHTY

Critics by and large have concluded that Evan Almighty is no The Ten Commandments, that Steve Carell is no Charlton Heston, and that director Tom Shadyac is no Cecil B. DeMille. "Here's the funniest thing: In trying desperately to reconnect with religious Americans, Hollywood assumes religious Americans are so dumb they'll laugh at anything," Michael Booth observes in the Denver Post. Actually, Lou Lumenick in the New York Post suggests that the movie may be a hit despite its meager offerings. "The Red State folk may be more receptive to this bland, family-friendly entertainment than we cynics living in the Blue States," he says. But Chris Vognar, writing in the Red State of Texas calls Evan Almighty "an unholy mess" and "a movie desperately in search of a soul." The film takes an almost universal pounding in both Red and Blue states. "There's no movie here -- just a concept that holds little promise and can't even deliver on those low expectations," comments Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times. Despite its huge budget, Liam Lacey writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail, the film winds up as "a lesson in the importance of tameness." He concludes: "It's as if the script were based on a typo in Genesis - you know, the version where the Lord says, 'Let there be slight.'" Indeed, Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times remarks that the film feels "like it had been written over a weekend with a book of bad Bible puns in hand." Or as Rafer Gusmán of Newsday puts it similarly in Newsday: "Mostly it feels like a store-bought mix of jokes and sentiments." Claudia Puig in USA Today dismisses it more trenchantly: "It's an almighty, humorless bore," she writes.

MOVIE REVIEWS: A MIGHTY HEART

A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl -- who was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 -- is receiving near-reverent reviews by most critics. In particular, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern praises director Michael Winterbottom for "an agile style ... that integrates drama and documentary footage, mixes professional with non-professional actors and yields a sense of place that's as vivid as anything seen on TV news." Jan Stuart in Newsday writes that director Winterbottom has fashioned "a compassionate thriller that reminds us of the human issues underscoring the terrorist quagmire Pearl was attempting to sort out." But it is Jolie's performance that receives particular acclaim: "Jolie's measured approach to portraying Mariane is worthy of Best Actress consideration come awards time. Even in the film's most dramatic moment, when news of Danny's murder hit home, Jolie's explosion of grief never registers as false or forced," Peter Howell writes in the Toronto Star. But, most importantly, Manohla Dargis suggests in the New York Times, "In its modest, at times awkward, way, this little movie with the big movie star tries to bring us into a conversation that, at least in this country, is often relegated to the bummer front pages of your daily paper or glimpsed on television in between diet tips and, yes, news about Brangelina." And Roger Ebert concludes in the Chicago Sun-Times: "What is best about A Mighty Heart is that it doesn't reduce the Daniel Pearl story to a plot, but elevates it to a tragedy. A tragedy that illuminates and grieves for the hatred that runs loose in our world, hatred as a mad dog that attacks everyone. Attacks them for what seems, to the dog, the best of reasons."

MOVIE REVIEWS: 1408

Critics, who are used to roundly cursing just about every newly released horror film, aren't doing so in the case of 1408, a film based on a story by Stephen King about a cursed hotel room. Desson Thomson begins his review in the Washington Post by writing, "Listen up, all you Hostels, Saws and other purveyors of bloody terror. Think you're lords of the fright market? Lay down your whips, chainsaws and paring knives to watch a truly scary movie. You might just learn something." John Cusack is also receiving kudos for his performance as a ghost debunker: "Cusack, in a veritable one-man-show, gets to play mournful, funny, reckless, cocky, contrite and scared out of his wits. The effects are well-orchestrated, and the sly humor oozes out like toothpaste from a tube," writes Stephen Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News remarks that the movie "is essentially a one-man show, and Cusack makes the most of the opportunity." Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune comments that "the actor deploys his deadpan cool very artfully." But Elizabeth Weitzman concludes in the New York Daily News, "In this mix of recycled scares and half-hearted twists, the only real fright is the sight of an interesting actor wasting his talents in yet another mediocre movie."

Brian B. at Movieweb
Brian B.