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Director Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Christmas release Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner turned out to be a gargantuan moneymaker and earned Oscars for lead actress Katharine Hepburn and screenwriter William Rose. Time has been anything but kind to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which seems more hollow and condescending with every passing year. Striving to be an important “message” movie about the absurdity of racism, the film cast Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a liberal couple whose values are put to the test when their daughter (Katherine Houghton) announces that she intends to marry a black doctor (Sidney Poitier). The new Guess Who is actually an improvement over its faux-classic predecessor: It’s funnier, more relaxed and better paced. Applying role reversal to the original 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). Guess Who is more interested in doling out laughs than harping on any heavy themes, but there does exist one sequence that points out the perpetual difficulty in applying humor to racially sensitive issues. Egged on by Percy, Simon shares a handful of black jokes with the members of the Jones household as they’re all seated around the dinner table. Simon’s initial barrage unexpectedly meets the approval of his black hosts — when he answers his own gag about why Adam and Eve can’t be black (“Have you ever tried to take a rib from a black man?”), even Percy’s white-wary dad (Hal Williams) can’t control his laughter — but as he presses on, we tense up, afraid that one of his jokes will cross the line between benign joshing and hurtful slander. But where exactly is that line, and how can it possibly be the same for every person? Ultimately, though, 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. In fact, the makers of Parents might be more apt to sue for plagiarism than the creators of Dinner, given the extent that many situations and gags are recycled from that Ben Stiller blockbuster (fortunately, these bits retain their bite). Exploring issues pertaining to blacks and whites is fine, but as we all know, the color that truly matters in Hollywood is green.


In this age of rapid technological advances, you would think that the videocassette at the center of the 2002 sleeper hit The Ring — the one that guaranteed high mortality rates for those foolish enough to watch it — would have been replaced in this sequel by a DVD of death. Instead, in the same manner that the video is ejected from the player toward the start of The Ring Two, so too is this premise jettisoned completely from this sorry follow-up’s storyline, leaving the film nowhere to go but down. 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. Rachel and her young son Aidan (David Dorfman, the worst child actor this side of Spencer Breslin) have moved from Seattle to a quiet Oregon town, but Samara’s spirit won’t leave them alone, as she seems intent on taking over Aidan’s body. Dorfman is such a monotonous performer that the addition of some Exorcist-inspired pea-green vomit might have helped us determine exactly when he’s being possessed; then again, such a gesture of goodwill would be little more than a Band-Aid applied to a hemorrhaging film whose greatest sin is that it’s unremittingly dull.


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 subsequently taking a family hostage, Talley finds himself back in the sort of situation he would like to avoid. For a good while, director Florent Siri and scripter Doug Richardson do their pulpy material proud, with a real attention to both exposition and execution. But as the storyline gets more crowded, the attention shifts from individual character detail and psychological chess matches to outlandish developments and ludicrous resolutions to the various plot strands.


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. Robots’ rote storyline centers on young Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), who journeys from his tiny hometown to the sprawling metropolis of Robot City to fulfill his dream of becoming an important inventor. Yet his arrival in the big burg coincides with the power play of the ruthless company executive Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who plots to destroy all the destitute robots by catering only to the rich ones.


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.


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.


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.


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



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).