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CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY PPP

Tim Burton, last seen lunging for Oscar gold with the forced whimsy of Big Fish, is back on steadier ground, helming the second screen version of Roald Dahl’s 41-year-old novel. Johnny Depp headlines as Willy Wonka, the eccentric candymaker who allows five children to take a tour through his gargantuan factory. Young Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp’s Finding Neverland co-star) is a perfect angel, but the other four kids prove to be such brats that they all eventually get their comeuppance within the walls of Wonka’s candy-coated fortress. In most respects, this surpasses the previous screen incarnation, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: It’s funnier, faster and more visually stimulating. But Burton’s maudlin streak gets the best of him via a needless back story that explains Wonka’s affinity for candy, and this plot strand leads to a soggy finale that’s easily bested by the final act of the ‘71 model. Depp, whose Wonka seems to be a cross between Michael Jackson and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, delivers an engaging surface performance, though I prefer the more measured madness of Gene Wilder’s interpretation.

WEDDING CRASHERS PP1/2

Modern movie comedies are starting to resemble nothing so much as the board game Clue, with its limited number of characters rotating throughout the confines of an established milieu. Is it Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in the Christmas comedy about an eccentric family? Is it Stiller and Vince Vaughn in the summer comedy about an underdog sports team? Is it Stiller, Wilson and Will Ferrell in the fall comedy about the fashion models? Or is it Stiller, Wilson, Vaughn and Ferrell in the spring comedy about a pair of TV cops? Wedding Crashers shuffles around Wilson, Vaughn and one “surprise” cameo player in just the sort of picture we’ve come to expect from this Hollywood version of a theatrical repertory company: rude, ragged and funny more often than not. Wilson and Vaughn play John and Jeremy, longtime buddies who crash weddings in order to sleep with the emotionally vulnerable women they encounter there. But the pair’s successful operation hits a snag once they infiltrate a wedding that’s under the auspices of Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken): John falls in love with Cleary’s level-headed daughter Claire (Rachel McAdams) while Jeremy finds himself being terrorized by the politico’s seemingly psychotic daughter Gloria (Isla Fisher). While it could be construed as a tragedy if Hollywood has already starting steering McAdams (Mean Girls, The Notebook) into standard “girlfriend” roles, it should be noted that her vitality and Fisher’s zaniness match up nicely against the leading actors’ personalities. For their part, Wilson and Vaughn are in exemplary comic form, doing their best to lift a clunky screenplay that’s bogged down by the usual stock characters (overbearing fiancé, creepy gay kid, etc.).

DARK WATER PPP

Dark Water is the sort of brooding psychological film often embraced by discerning audiences in the fall off-season, but during the blockbuster period, it doesn’t stand a chance. That’s a shame, because as far as American remakes of Japanese horror flicks go, this one’s better than either The Ring or The Grudge. Jennifer Connelly stars as Dahlia Williams, an emotionally fragile woman whose recent divorce leaves her scrambling to find a place for her and her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to reside. They end up moving into a decrepit apartment on Roosevelt Island, just across the way from Manhattan, but it’s not long before matters take an eerie turn: Ceci becomes obsessed with her new imaginary friend; the building’s elevator operates according to its own schedule; and the imposing water spots on the ceiling seem to pulsate with a purpose. Connelly anchors this with a strong performance, though the film is stolen by supporting players Pete Postlethwaite (as the building’s gruff janitor), Tim Roth (as Dahlia’s adept lawyer) and especially John C. Reilly (as the sleazy landlord).



FANTASTIC FOUR PP

Assign acclaimed directors to superhero flicks and you get the likes of the Spider-Man pair, the X-Men duo and Batman Begins. Assign any Tom, Hack or Harry, and you get flaccid duds like Elektra, The Punisher and now Fantastic Four. The protagonists of this new film certainly deserved a better fate: Arriving on the scene (1961) before the X-Men, the Hulk and even Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four were the heroes who initially established the popularity of the Marvel universe. It’s shocking that 20th Century Fox didn’t treat this with the same care as their classy (and wildly successful) X-Men franchise; instead, they handed the directorial reins to Tim Story, whose brief resume (Barbershop and the Jimmy Fallon bomb Taxi) offered no hints that he was the right man for this job. So what we get is a half-assed enterprise that might play better with the general public than with fans who will be outraged at the liberties taken by Story and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. While on a scientific mission into outer space, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) run afoul of a cloud of cosmic radiation; the exposure ends up turning them into, respectively, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. When they’re not busy bickering among themselves, they spend their time matching wits with industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose own contact with the radiation transforms him into the villainous Dr. Doom. Among the heroes, Chiklis fares best as the tortured Thing, but McMahon makes a pitiable Dr. Doom, a towering comic book villain reduced to a wimpy matinee villain.

BEWITCHED PP

As far as ill-advised Nicole Kidman vehicles that plunder past artifacts of pop culture are concerned, the nicest thing one can say about Bewitched is that it’s an improvement over The Stepford Wives. Directed and co-written (with her sister Delia) by Nora Ephron, Bewitched isn’t a faithful adaptation of the popular 60s TV series; instead, it’s the Ephrons’ attempt to outsmart Charlie Kaufman by constructing a scenario in which fading actor Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) attempts to rejuvenate his career by playing the Dick York/Dick Sargent part of the cuckolded husband in an update of Bewitched. So his own star won’t get eclipsed, he hires an unknown named Isabel (Kidman) to essay the Elizabeth Montgomery role of Samantha, little realizing he’s cast a real witch to play a fictional one. Ferrell’s manic performance quickly grows tiresome, while Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are wasted in malnourished roles.

HERBIE: FULLY LOADED PP1/2

The notion of a supercharged Volkswagen beetle seems quaint in this age of monolithic, gas-guzzling SUVs -- indeed, the first Herbie picture, The Love Bug, hit theaters back in 1969 -- yet given the sort of cacophonous kiddie dreck that routinely fills the auditoriums today, this blast of old-fashioned sentiment isn’t half-bad. Lindsey Lohan, whose tight outfits continually threaten to put the kibosh on the film’s G rating, stars as Maggie Peyton, a third-generation member of a NASCAR family whose lineage includes her deceased grandfather, her retired pop (Michael Keaton) and her clumsy brother (Breckin Meyer). Forbidden by her dad from ever taking part in races, Maggie goes against his wishes once she discovers that the rusty VW she rescues from a junkyard is magically endowed.



BATMAN BEGINS PPP1/2

Director Christopher Nolan, who immediately established himself with the crackerjack crime gems Memento and Insomnia, has made another movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. Bruce Wayne (now played by Christian Bale) embarks on an international odyssey, hoping to learn all about the inner workings of the criminal mind. He has always been able to count on the services of the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), yet he also finds allies in Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who works for Wayne Enterprises, and detective Jim Gordon, seemingly the only honest cop left in Gotham (it’s nice to see perennial villain Gary Oldman cast in this sympathetic role). More ambiguous in her support is assistant d.a. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who views Bruce Wayne as a shallow billionaire and Batman as a potentially dangerous vigilante.

MR. AND MRS. SMITH PP1/2

Based on the countless scenes in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strip down to their undergarments, it’s clear that there isn’t an ounce of flab on either of those beautiful bodies -- it’s just too bad the same can’t be said about the film itself. Sorry, Ms. Aniston, but Brad and Angelina make a hot on-screen couple, and they gleefully throw themselves into this chaotic action flick in which the sharp dialogue too often gets drowned out by the incessant explosions and automatic weapon fire. The People Magazine perennials play John and Jane Smith, a suburban couple who have grown bored with each other over the six years they’ve been married. But what they don’t realize is that they’re both skilled assassins working for competing agencies; once this tidbit of information becomes known to both parties, each is suddenly forced to try to kill the other. w









THE LONGEST YARD PP

Imagine Adam Sandler in the Burt Reynolds role in Deliverance. Impossible, right? Yet it really isn’t that much easier to accept Sandler in Reynolds’ old role of football-star-turned-convict Paul “Wrecking” Crewe in the remake of The Longest Yard. Sandler is squishy-soft in that unmistakable Hollywood manner -- he looks less like an a-hole athlete who could tough it out in a Texas prison than an eager-to-please Improv regular who somehow ended up in a Universal Studios tour backlot simulation of a Texas prison. Faithfulness to director Robert Aldrich’s hard-hitting 1974 flick, in which Crewe leads a ragtag group of convicts in a football match against the sadistic guards, isn’t the problem. But when this version does deviate from its source material, the results are disastrous.





CINDERELLA MAN PPP

Ron Howard can finally breathe easy.

No filmmaker in his right mind would want his boxing picture to be released a scant few months after Million Dollar Baby cleaned up at the Oscars and at the box office. But Cinderella Man is so structurally and tonally different from Clint Eastwood’s masterwork that it might as well be about jai alai. This one never touches greatness like Clint’s Baby, but it’s a sturdy film on its own terms, relating the real-life story of pugilist James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe).



THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS PPP

Sisterhood hurtles over most its shortcomings by adding a layer of toughness not usually found in films aimed at teens. As they prepare to go their separate ways for the summer, four high school friends stumble across a pair of jeans that miraculously fits all of them. They decide that the pants will be passed among them throughout the summer, as a way of staying in touch over long distances. Brainy Carmen (America Ferrera) will be spending the summer with her neglectful dad (Bradley Whitford); shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) will pass the time with distant relatives in Greece; sexy Bridget (Blake Lively) will hunt for boys while attending a soccer camp in Mexico; and antisocial Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) will remain in town completing her documentary. w



STAR WARS: EPISODE III --

REVENGE OF THE SITH

PP1/2

George Lucas has declared that this is the darkest film in the series, and the MPAA obviously agreed by pasting the movie with a PG-13 rating instead of the usual PG. It's here that we witness the final transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) from a young idealist who's been tagged as the "Chosen One" by the Jedi Council to an agent of evil for the power-hungry lords of the Sith. Despite efforts by his wife Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to keep him from turning to the dark side of the Force, Anakin instead chooses to follow the advice of the nefarious Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a megalomaniac determined to establish his own insidious, fascistic government. (If that sounds suspiciously like America 2005 as opposed to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, be aware that Lucas includes plenty of topical parallels.) Bluntly speaking, the opening acts of Revenge of the Sith are dreadful, until something inspiring occurs: The mythology takes over. As Lucas rounds the final curves, he begins to focus on the elements of the story that directly tie into events first recorded in the original Star Wars flick back in '77. w



For the first time since, well, 1977, Lucas seems completely in control of his craft, and these sequences resonate beyond the screen.

MADAGASCAR PPP1/2

Clearly, DreamWorks’ animation division doesn’t rely on sentiment as heavily as Disney, preferring instead to come across as the hippest cel block in town. But more than just about any other recent toon flick, Madagascar strikes an appropriate balance between Disney and non-Disney, being neither too sudsy nor too smart-alecky. The animal quartet at the center of Madagascar is comprised of the narcissistic lion Alex (Ben Stiller), the affable zebra Marty (Chris Rock), the commonsensical hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer). All are living in peaceful contentment at New York’s Central Park Zoo, satisfied with their meals, living quarters and celebrity status with the zoo’s visitors. But on his 10th birthday, Marty begins to question not only his lot in life but his very being. Is he black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?

KICKING & SCREAMING PP1/2

Will Ferrell ably tackles his most complete role to date: Phil Weston, a wimpy husband and father whose entire life has been spent in the shadow of his ultra-competitive dad Buck (Robert Duvall), a bullying jock who also happens to be the coach of the vicinity’s best boys’ soccer team. After his own son gets traded by Buck to the worst team in the league, Phil takes it upon himself to become the ragtag outfit’s new coach; he enlists ex-Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (playing himself) as his assistant, learns that coffee can provide a person with unlimited amounts of energy, and eventually becomes just as dictatorial on the field as his old man. What elevates the movie is Ferrell himself: While his patented shtick can grow tiresome, here it’s in the service of an actual character, and that seems to make the difference.

KINGDOM OF HEAVENPP

Set during the Crusades, this dutiful slog through revisionist history stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a tormented blacksmith (his wife committed suicide after the death of their child) who learns that his father (Liam Neeson) is a revered knight and decides to accompany him to Jerusalem. There, he finds himself in the middle of a growing feud between the Christians and the Muslims, both of whom lay claim to the holy city. Comparisons to recent sword flicks like Troy and Scott’s Gladiator are natural, but despite the lofty ambitions of William Monahan’s literate yet arid script, such contrasts do this movie no favors. w



If nothing else, at least those other films moved; beyond that, they also featured several morally ambiguous characters (as opposed to the cut-and-dry saints and sinners showcased here), handed juicy roles to vets like Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed (Kingdom’s name actors labor mightily in colorless parts), and, in the case of Troy, made a stronger case for contemporary relevance (even today, Christians are still bullying their way into the Middle East, but Kingdom is too timid to make many lacerating observations). As the courgeous Balian, Bloom has the heroic glower down pat but brings little else to the role.

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY PP1/2

It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams’ cult phenomenon -- which had already moved from radio to print to television -- would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. The picture gets off to a great start, as drab human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns from his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an intergalactic freeway. These early passages present the film at its finest: Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, they embody a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot.

MINDHUNTERS PP1/2

A high-tech update of Agatha Christie’s classic Ten Little Indians, the story finds a band of FBI agents sent to a remote island off the coast of North Carolina, where they’re expected to complete their training by taking part in an exercise that draws upon their skills as profilers of serial killers. But they soon realize that there’s a real killer on the island, and that he or she comes from within their own ranks. A couple of clues make it relatively easy to deduce the identity of the killer. Regardless, the screenplay doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but director Renny Harlin has churned out a fairly engrossing film that doesn’t denigrate its (uncredited) source material.

MONSTER-IN-LAW P1/2

Jane Fonda, whose performances in Klute and The China Syndrome (among others) still have the power to stun, is an embarrassment in Monster-In-Law, betrayed both by director Robert Luketic’s mishandling and by her own rusty instincts. Jennifer Lopez stars as Charlie, a jill-of-all-trades who finds the perfect man in Dr. Kevin Fields (Alias’ Michael Vartan). All goes well until Charlie meets his mother Viola, who hates Charlie because… why exactly? w

HOUSE OF D PP

Maybe not a “D,” but this coming-of-age yarn from writer-director-actor David Duchovny certainly rates no better than a “C.” The former “X-Files” star here plays Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in Paris who flashes back on a pivotal time during his childhood years in Greenwich Village. Thirteen-year-old Tommy (appealing Anton Yelchin) lives with his pill-popping mom, who’s in a fog following the recent death of her husband -- the fact that Duchovny’s character’s mom is played by his real-life wife Tea Leoni brings up Freudian connotations that I’d rather avoid. Meanwhile, young Tommy’s best friend is a mentally challenged janitor who gets erect watching horror flicks and who’s prone to telling teenage girls that he’s got a big penis -- as if this isn’t frightening enough, also consider that the character is played by Robin Williams in full cuddly-creepy mode. Truly, there’s much in House of D that’s ghastly -- and clearly the work of an actor still cutting his teeth on the other side of the camera -- yet there are also plenty of small moments of sensitivity and insight that save this from being utterly unbearable. Whether it’s the kid who repeatedly yells “Sabbath!” to the DJ while standing in the middle of the dance floor or the stern yet fair priest (Frank Langella) whose lame jokes don’t cut it with his pupils, there are some choice bits to offset the amateurishness.

THE INTERPRETER PP1/2

Sydney Pollack is no stranger to the paranoia thriller. He directed one of the best: 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, in which CIA reader Robert Redford must figure out why he’s been marked for termination -- possibly by the very agency for which he punches out a living. That Pollack would now be helming something like The Interpreter points out how much cinema has changed over the ensuing decades. It takes a filmmaker of rigid moral fiber -- and a studio willing to finance such an endeavor -- to actually blanket multiplexes with a fictional tale that might ruffle feathers in high places. As one of the few movies out there that doesn’t blatantly cater to the kids or to the Tarantino fanatics, this earns high marks for remembering that movies once upon a time had meaty plots, intricate character dynamics and a relaxed storytelling style. Nicole Kidman ably portrays the title character: She’s Silvia Broome, who escaped a troubled past in her African homeland to become an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. Late one night, she just happens to overhear two voices discussing a plot to assassinate African president Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former freedom fighter who’s now a mad butcher prone to slaughtering his own people. Relaying the info to the police (veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu has a couple of nice scenes as the chief), she then finds herself being interrogated by Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, more relaxed than usual) and Dot Woods (a sharp Catherine Keener).

As a thriller, The Interpreter is efficient enough, and it contains one dazzling set piece in which various characters -- heroes and villains and suspects alike -- all jockey to get the upper hand. Moments like these help disguise the implausibilities that define the plot.

A LOT LIKE LOVE PP

A Lot Like Love is a lot like When Harry Met Sally crossed with Serendipity, as two people wonder whether they’re better off remaining friends or whether the stars have something more intimate in mind. After spotting each other at the L.A. airport and then wordlessly boffing in an airplane lavatory, Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) wants to know all about his new lady friend while Emily (Amanda Peet) becomes aloof. Over the next few years, they keep bumping into each other, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. But rather than commit to each other and get us out of the theater after a half-hour, the pair keep bumping up against labored plot developments that drive them apart and insure at least one more trip to the concession stand. While painless to sit through, the film never convinces us that these two need to be together. Part of the problem is the lack of chemistry between Kutcher and Peet, while the rest of the blame falls on scripter Colin Patrick Lynch, who creates two likable protagonists who could doubtless find happiness in the arms of countless other kids with a shared interest in junk food, Jon Bon Jovi and afternoon quickies. w







FEVER PITCH PPP

Since an alarming number of people have this pathological need to designate all movies as either “chick flicks” or “dick flicks”, I submit the new comedy Fever Pitch for their perusal. The theatrical poster - with stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon looking all cute and bubbly as they press up against each other - and the boy-meets-and-loses-and-regains-girl scenario would suggest that this skews female. But Fever Pitch’s true subject isn’t the love between a man and a woman but between a man and his favorite sports team. Fallon, the “Saturday Night Live” vet trying to salvage his burgeoning film career after Taxi crashed and burned so spectacularly last fall, plays Ben Wrightman, a mild-mannered school teacher who decides to ask the sexy and successful consultant Lindsey Meeks (Barrymore) out on a date. Lindsey isn’t used to dating guys like Ben — i.e. men without cash to burn and designers suits lining their closets — but she takes a chances and likes what she sees — really likes what she sees. Then he drops the bomb: He’s a Boston Red Sox fan. Initially, Lindsey thinks she can work around his undying devotion to the “cursed” team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 (indeed, the movie’s ending had to be rewritten during filming to incorporate the team’s miracle win last year). But her patience starts to wear thin once she realizes that he will never love her the way he loves the Sox. As the working girl who finds reality impeding on her fairy tale romance, Barrymore sparkles brightly, as she always does when faced with these sorts of rom-com predicaments. Less successful is Fallon, a vanilla comedian who doesn’t always capture his character’s overriding passion for the Sox or his burgeoning affection for Lindsey.

SAHARA PP

Sahara may be based on the bestseller by Clive Cussler, but it feels like it wants to be either a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a send-up of the James Bond oeuvre, or an instant sequel to last year’s National Treasure. Matthew McConaughney, a semi-movie star whose appeal still escapes me, plays the role of dashing adventurer Dirk Pitt as if he were a party-hardy frat boy who ventured out into the real world after all campus kegs were tapped dry. Steve Zahn, an ersatz character actor whose appeal likewise eludes me, plays the role of Dirk’s wisecracking sidekick Al Giordino. And Penelope Cruz, a Spanish beauty whose appeal vanishes in English-language films, tags along for the ride as the dedicated Dr. Eva Rojas, although the actress seems so disinterested in what’s happening around her that it’s hard to believe her character would even have the medical know-how to prescribe aspirin. The storyline, a thick hodgepodge involving a Civil War battleship that went MIA in the title desert, a mysterious disease that’s wiping out scores of Africans, and a sneering French villain (Lambert Wilson) to placate the yahoos who fell for that “freedom fries” nonsense, never grabs viewers by the collar, making Sahara an adventure tale in which the action is more exhausting than exciting.

MELINDA AND MELINDA PP1/2

The problem with Woody Allen these days isn’t that he’s run out of ideas; the problem is that he’s running out of ways in which to frame these ideas in compelling contexts. Melinda and Melinda starts with a typically inspired concept: Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) discussing whether life is inherently tragic or comic both hear an anecdote involving a young woman named Melinda. The playwright who specializes in tragedies envisions the story as a downer in which Melinda is a distraught, suicidal woman who’s perpetually on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks, while the playwright known for comedies views it as a sparkling tale in which Melinda’s an endearing free spirit involved in frothy romantic entanglements. The plastic bubble that surrounds Woody Allen movies is still as firm as ever: His stories continue to take place in a hermetically sealed New York in which money is no object and everyone talks like a philosopher. But his instincts clearly aren’t as sharp as before, since the comic half isn’t especially funny and the tragic half isn’t especially heartbreaking.



MILLIONS PPP

Seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), still coping with the death of his mother, receives regular visits from history’s honored saints (Francis, Peter, etc.), so when a bag of cash lands in his lap, he figures it came straight from God and he should dole it out to the poor. But his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) has a firmer grasp on the advantages of wealth and tries to convince his sibling that they should hunt for sensible business investments instead. What neither boy knows is that the loot is actually stolen, and that the thief (Christopher Fulford) is determined to recover it at all costs. Forget the tepid Robots: Parents who actually care about quality entertainment should take their kids to see this instead.

SIN CITY PPP

When director Robert Rodriguez first decided to bring the graphic novels by Frank Miller to the big screen, he chose to lift many of the images and accompanying dialogue exactly as they appeared on the page, with scarcely any changes in the angles or lighting that defined these individual panels. By remaining so faithful to Miller’s vision, Rodriguez has bridged the gap between cinema and comics more explicitly than any filmmaker before him, in essence leveling the playing field and not allowing fans of either medium to establish a foothold of superiority. In the manner of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the movie is a circuitous affair in which the disparate storylines — all taking place in Basin City (Sin City for short) — occasionally overlap and characters in one vignette might appear briefly in another segment. The glee with which Rodriguez films the sadism may be off-putting, but the joy with which he pays tribute to both the comic form and film noir is positively infectious.

MISS CONGENIALITY 2: ARMED AND FABULOUSP

A textbook example of formula filmmaking at its most dim-witted. When Gracie’s superior (Ernie Hudson) comments that Gracie will be the most famous celebrity in Vegas, we use the half-second pause that follows to predict that the punchline will involve Wayne Newton. Voila: “Unless Wayne Newton’s in town!” Equally witless are the characters, starting with an offensive gay stylist (Diedrich Bader).

GUESS WHO PPP

Applying role reversal to the original 1967 template, Guess Who stars Bernie Mac as Percy Jones, a bank loan officer who’s on the verge of throwing a 25th wedding anniversary party with his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott) when he learns that his lovely daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) is coming home with her new boyfriend in tow. As Percy states at one point, he’s expecting his child to bring home a Denzel Washington; instead, she drags in some punk’d white boy named Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher). For all its attention to the racial divide, Guess Who isn’t as interested in being the new Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is in taking its place as the next Meet the Parents.

Exploring issues pertaining to blacks and whites is fine, but as we all know, the color that truly matters in Hollywood is green.

THE RING TWO P1/2

The original Ring (itself a remake of the popular Japanese flick Ringu) established that the only way the demonic girl Samara could work her evil on the world was through the playing of the aforementioned videotape. In this sequel, reporter Rachel Keller (returning star Naomi Watts) destroys the object at the outset, so scripter Ehren Kruger decided that he might as well make up new rules as he scribbled along, thus rendering this sequel not only illogical but inconsequential as well. w







HOSTAGE PP1/2

Bruce Willis has woken up in time to deliver a committed performance in this adaptation of Robert Crais’ novel. Opening with a stylized, eye-popping title sequence that might lead viewers into thinking they’re catching an early sneak of the new Batman flick, Hostage then settles into familiar crime territory with the introduction of Willis as Jeff Talley, an LAPD hostage negotiator whose botching of a tense standoff leaves him with innocent blood on his hands and prods him into moving to a sleepy community where the crime rate hovers around zero. But once three ruffians attempting to steal a car end up killing a police officer and taking a family hostage, Talley finds himself back in the sort of situation he would like to avoid.



ROBOTS PP

Visually, the film is yet another triumph for computer programmers, as their blood, sweat and bytes have enabled them to create a wondrous landscape that’s a joy to behold. But whenever any of the metallic characters that populate this world open their mouths, it’s like listening to rusty bolts across a chalkboard.



BE COOL PP

Yet one more lazy sequel to a great film, Be Cool is a major disappointment that fails to capture the essence of what made Get Shorty such a memorable experience. In adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, director Barry Sonenfeld and scripter Scott Frank knew that the key to success rested in the capable hands of John Travolta, whose work as shylock-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer remains a career best. Travolta owned that picture, yet he received more than adequate support from Sonenfeld’s playful direction, Frank’s character-driven screenplay and a stellar supporting cast that included Danny DeVito. Alas, F. Gary Gray (the tepid remake of The Italian Job) is no Sonenfeld, Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) is no Frank, and a promising cast is largely left to flounder in the middle of a movie that never provides a compelling argument for its own existence. w

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN PP1/2

The gorgeous Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) gets to display her acting chops as Helen McCarter, who’s stunned when her husband of 18 years, a prominent Atlanta lawyer (Steve Harris), demands a divorce and forcibly throws her out of their mansion to make room for his gold-digging girlfriend (Lisa Marcos). A huge hit with African-American audiences, Tyler Perry’s play has been adapted (by the author himself) into a movie that’s overflowing with positive Christian ideals as well as an honest assessment of the intrinsic desire for seeking retribution versus the spiritual need for giving absolution.



CONSTANTINE PP

From the connotations of its hero’s name (Constantine was the Roman emperor who endorsed Christianity more for personal gain than for any spiritual fulfillment) to depictions of Hell that borrow heavily from the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Constantine tries hard to include heady material that will allow for post-screening discussions around the water cooler or in cinephile trades (something The Matrix accomplished masterfully with its rampant theology). But as was the case with the muddled Jacob’s Ladder, Constantine never brings its debates into focus, choosing instead to pile on its issues like so many toppings onto a baked potato.

HITCH PP1/2

A warm and witty comedy that unfortunately runs itself into the ground during its final act, the picture benefits immeasurably from the presence of Will Smith, who may or may not be a great actor but who is most assuredly a great movie star. He's at turns sly, suave and sexy as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who bills himself as the Date Doctor because of his ability to make a living by advising other men how to land the woman of their dreams. He finds his biggest challenge in the form of Albert (Kevin James), a clumsy, overweight accountant who's hopelessly under the spell of beautiful super-model Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). But Hitch unexpectedly finds his own romantic inclinations rising to the surface once he meets Sara Melas (Eva Mendes). Mendes, who's always come across as a Jennifer Lopez who can't act -- no, wait, that would still make her Jennifer Lopez -- initially has trouble keeping pace with a leading man prettier than she is, but ends up holding her own. w



MILLION DOLLAR BABY

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Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) runs The Hit Pit, a boxing gym located in downtown Los Angeles, with the help of his only friend, Scrap (Unforgiven co-star Morgan Freeman). Scrap serves as the facility's caretaker, yet in his day he was a plucky fighter with a lot of promise, a quality he instantly spots in the young girl who wanders into the gym intent on becoming a champion boxer. Her name is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and, as Scrap notes at one point during the film's effective voice-over narration, "Maggie grew up knowing one thing: She was trash." Up until this point, Million Dollar Baby contains all the familiar trappings of crowd-pleasers like Rocky and The Karate Kid. Yet what makes this portion of the film soar is the attention to character that's provided by Eastwood (as director) and scripter Paul Haggis (adapting short stories from F.X. Toole's critically acclaimed book Rope Burns).

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