BROWN SUGAR As far as I'm concerned, Brown Sugar is nothing if not aptly titled, seeing as how my review for director Rick Famuyiwa's previous film, 1999's The Wood, dismissed it as "a movie so light and sugary that it could easily be mistaken for an artificial sweetener." His follow-up feature is equally as saccharine, a predictable romantic comedy about two lifelong best friends, music business executive Dre (Taye Diggs) and music magazine editor Sidney (Sanaa Lathan), who spend the entire movie fighting the fact that they're meant for each other. Or at least that's what Famuyiwa would have us believe, but Lathan (so terrific in Love & Basketball) and Diggs (so bland in just about everything) are never able to convince us that their characters are truly meant to be together. What's more, the movie's whole point is that these two are forever linked through their love of hip-hop, but aside from the obligatory music biz cameos and lots of lip service from the leading characters, hip-hop rarely comes alive as its own fire-breathing entity in this picture, meaning that Dre and Sidney might as well be joined together by a mutual love of pro wrestling, Alan Rudolph flicks or Pokemon trading cards. Rapper Mos Def, memorable in a small role in Monster's Ball, effortlessly steals this film in the key supporting role of a wisecracking hip-hop musician whose integrity won't allow him to sell out as an artist.
TUCK EVERLASTING A movie that the less charitable might describe as a castrated cross between Highlander and Lolita, this is actually based on the beloved 1975 children's book by Natalie Babbitt. In the hands of the Disney studio and director Jay Russell (who helmed the sweet family flick My Dog Skip), this sounds like it couldn't miss -- and yet it does, thanks largely to an overly reverential tone that, ironically, ends up sucking the life out of a movie that's about living forever. Set in 1914, the story centers on the encounter between 15-year-old Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), daughter of the richest man in town, and the Tucks, a poor family living deep in the woods on her father's property. Winnie eventually discovers that all the members of the clan -- dad Angus (William Hurt, whose peculiar accent sounds more Swedish than Scottish), mom Mae (Sissy Spacek) and sons Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) and Miles (Scott Bairstow) -- once drank from a mountain spring whose water has given them immortality. Winnie falls for Jesse, a 104-year-old man stuck in a 17-year-old body, but their May-December romance gets interrupted by the aptly credited Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley), whose banana of an outfit makes him seem less a malevolent figure and more like an adornment on one of Carmen Miranda's old outfits. A movie as tightly drawn as the corset that Winnie must endure, Tuck Everlasting is simply too plodding and ponderous to evoke the sense of magic and wonder that this story demands.
BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER Here's a question to ponder: Why did Warner Bros. elect to hide The Adventures of Pluto Nash from critics yet willfully preview Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever in advance? Yet another motion picture that owes its allegiance to the video game market, the stridently simplistic Ballistic is an absolute failure on even its most basic level as an action movie. Ineptly directed by a Thai filmmaker who bills himself as Kaos (short for Wych Kaosayananda), this 90-minute equivalent of having one's head trapped between two clanging cymbals Chuck Jones-style might contain more explosions, gun battles and car chases per square foot of film footage than any other movie around, yet every boring moment of it is highly derivative, clumsily executed and stridently illogical (one of the heroes keeps setting off explosions away from the villains rather than next to them; what's the point of that?). When a filmmaker goes on record citing director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as a major influence without even tossing an honorable mention to the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks (who knew a thing or two about action), it's enough to send a cold chill through the entire industry. As a villainous lackey, Ray Park reveals himself to be an incredibly dull actor when he's not buried under makeup as The Phantom Menace's Darth Maul or X-Men's Toad. And as Ecks and Sever, two former government agents who square off against each other until they learn they have a common foe, Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu mumble their lines to the point of unintelligibility (not that the dialogue is even needed to follow this dum-dum plot). Both stars have made crisp action heroes in the past -- he in Desperado, she in Charlie's Angels -- but here they wearily trudge through a bog of ennui, dragging the rest of us right behind them.