Watching this adaptation of Tyler Perrys popular stage play is akin to channel surfing between showings of Soul Food and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps with an occasional flip over to The Jeffersons for good measure. The gorgeous Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) gets to display her acting chops as Helen McCarter, whos 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). Dejected, depressed and distraught, Helen moves back to the hood, where shes taken in by her grandmother Medea. A huge hit with African-American audiences, Perrys play has been adapted (by the author himself) into a movie thats 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. In this respect, the movies emotionally satisfying (if a bit simplistic), yet Perry dilutes its potency by casting himself in the roles of Medea, the gun-wielding, easily excitable grandmother, and her brother Joe, a flatulent senior citizen constantly leering at women when hes not busy smoking dope.
Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo series Hellblazer, the picture casts Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, whos always had the ability to recognize the angels and demons that walk the earth in human form. It seems that God and Satan had long ago reached an agreement that they would not directly impact whatever events occur on our planet, but that they could use these half-breeds to subtly influence us mere mortals. From the connotations of its heros 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 Jacobs Ladder, Constantine never brings its debates into focus, choosing instead to pile on its issues like so many toppings onto a baked potato.
For traditionalists, old-fashioned love stories can still be found in period pieces (Cold Mountain) or movies set in distant lands (Beyond Borders). But as titles like How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Deliver Us From Eva and Little Black Book demonstrate, when it comes to love connections in present-day U.S., mind games must be played and/or dollars must be doled out before anyone can even think about living happily ever after. At least Hitch locates the romantic spark behind all those account-emptying checks being passed back and forth. 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. An honorable man in a dubious profession -- he refuses clients who are simply out to get laid -- 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 never mind -- initially has trouble keeping pace with a leading man prettier than she is, but she ends up holding her own and even sneaking off with a couple of scenes.
THE WEDDING DATE P
To say that the script for The Wedding Date is bottom-of-the-barrel would be too kind; this one was already decomposing under a mountain of mulch before Will & Grace's Debra Messing unwisely fished it out. Messing stars as Kat Ellis, a 30-something woman whose neurotic impulses are obviously meant to be endearing but who instead comes off as something of a pill. Required to fly to England to attend the wedding of her loathsome sister (Amy Adams), Kat can't stand the thought of arriving without a boyfriend -- especially since her ex-lover (Jeremy Sheffield) will be there as the best man. So Kat does what any normal woman would do: She drains her savings account of $6,000 in order to hire a male prostitute to pretend to be her boyfriend.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 PP
A favorite of critics and cultists alike, 1976s Assault On Precinct 13 was a nifty little B flick that John Carpenter helmed before hitting the big time with Halloween. In this flashy update, theres no little girl, no bloodthirsty street gang, and certainly no kick-ass Carpenter score. Instead, we get a competent but entirely generic action opus in which its a group of rogue cops who attack the precinct in order to kill a captured crime lord whose testimony would put them behind bars. Laurence Fishburne plays the cool-under-fire kingpin, who reluctantly teams up with an honest officer (Ethan Hawke) to ensure his own survival.
COACH CARTER PP1/2
First, The Incredibles comes along and pushes the message that its OK even advantageous to be exceptional in America instead of conforming by dumbing down. And now heres Coach Carter to nudge a similar theme about the importance of a solid education over all else, even (gasp!) sports. Coach Carter works the usual underdog cliches fairly well as it tells the true story of Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a high school basketball coach in California who manages to turn a team that won only four games during its previous season into a statewide powerhouse.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Certainly, the first hour of the movie covers well-worn territory. 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). Swank's work here is even more impressive than her Oscar-winning turn in Boys Don't Cry, and while Freeman has been consistently dependable over the past two decades, this marks a career-best performance for Eastwood, capping a remarkable career that has seen him mature as a filmmaker on both sides of the camera.
The key scene in Sideways arrives when Miles (Paul Giamatti), a lovable loser who collects unhappy memories the way some people collect stamps, cuts through his own haze of despair long enough to open up to Maya (Virginia Madsen), who like Miles is a divorced individual with a great passion for wine. As Miles explains the reasons why he's so drawn to Pinot ("It's thin-skinned, temperamental Pinot needs constant care and attention "), it's obvious that he's also talking about himself. Moved by Miles' sincerity, she launches into a lovely monologue in which she links all wine to all people by pointing out its complexities, its ability to evolve and its tendency to go downhill after it reaches its peak. And then she seductively adds the exclamation point -- "And it tastes so fucking good!" -- rolling out each word as if she were tasting every individual syllable. That term of profane enthusiasm might also be an apt way to describe Sideways, an offbeat road movie that averages more memorable moments per mile than just about any other picture released this year. Movies in which characters hit the road in search of adventure and end up discovering themselves are nothing new to American film -- in fact, they're an integral part of our cinematic heritage -- yet this one is idiosyncratic enough to stand apart from the pack. Uncork it, give it time to breathe, and then luxuriate in its rich, heady flavor.
THE AVIATOR PPP1/2
Rather than trying to cram an overstuffed life into one motion picture, Director Martin Scorsese and writer John Logan instead have chosen to focus on Howard Hughes anecdote-rich period from the late 20s through the late 40s. This time frame allows Scorsese ample opportunity to bask in the glow of his movie memories, as this was the period when the billionaire industrialist (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose emotional intensity makes up for his less-than-commanding physical presence) decided to try his hand at making movies.
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBERS THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA PP1/2
This adaptation of the Broadway smash draws its strength from the performances of the three principal actresses: the classically trained Emmy Rossum is affecting as Christine, the Phantoms obsession; Minnie Driver hams it up beautifully as obnoxious opera star La Carlotta; and Miranda Richardson adds authority as Madame Giry, the only person who knows the Phantoms secrets.