DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN Watching this adaptation of Tyler Perry's 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. 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). Dejected, depressed and distraught, Helen moves back to her childhood home in the hood, where she's taken in by her grandmother Medea. It takes the support of her family and her new boyfriend (Shemar Moore) to help her get back on track, but ultimately she must come to terms with her own conflicted emotions before she can truly move forward. A huge hit with Afro-American audiences, 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. In this respect, the movie's 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 he's not busy smoking dope. Perry plays these sitcom roles in the broadest terms possible, and while some of the resultant moments are modestly amusing, they severely disrupt the heartfelt story that exists at the movie's center. 1/2
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 A favorite of critics and cultists alike, John Carpenter's 1976 Assault On Precinct 13 was a nifty little "B" flick about an LA street gang that descends upon a police station with the sole purpose of wiping out everyone inside. This flashy update is a competent but entirely generic action opus in which it's 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. Expect few surprises from yet another needless remake.
THE AVIATOR This sprawling biopic about Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the notorious billionaire-industrialist-producer-flyboy, employs all the cinematic razzle-dazzle we've come to expect from Martin Scorsese, yet there's an added layer of excitement as the eternal cineaste finally gets to step back in time via his meticulous recreations of the sights and sounds of Old Hollywood (look for Cate Blanchett in a show-stealing turn as Katharine Hepburn). Still, the behind-the-scenes movie material takes a back seat to other aspects of Hughes' life - namely, his adventures in the field of aviation and his lifelong battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At its best, the film is a stirring tale about a man whose inner drive allowed him to climb ever higher and higher, grazing the heavens before his inner demons seized the controls and forced the inevitable, dreary descent. 1/2
BEING JULIA It's not entirely accurate to state that Annette Bening is the show, the whole show, and nothing but the show, but let's just say that without her presence, the curtain would fall a lot faster on this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's book Theatre. She's awfully fun to watch as she whirlwinds her way through this backstage yarn (set in 1938 London) about an aging actress whose young lover (Shaun Evans) might be using her. The film's greatest strength rests in its intricate character dynamics (aided by such luminaries as Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon); its biggest flaw comes from the miscasting of the bland Evans, whose flat performance makes it impossible to believe that the dynamic Julia would fall so strongly for such a drip.
COACH CARTER This 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. But at the height of their success, Carter elects to bench the entire team once he discovers that most of his players are performing poorly in their classes. Carter's selfless actions against a failed education system register even when the movie surrounding him turns on itself: All pertinent points are made after a full two hours, but the picture drags on for another 20 minutes simply so viewers can be treated to a climactic Big Game. Ultimately, Coach Carter's sincerity gets trumped by its savvy at milking the sports formula for all it's worth. 1/2