MILLIONS Movies that traffic in whimsy often step over the line into pure treacle, and there are occasional moments when Millions appears to be on the brink of doing just that. Perhaps Danny Boyle, the director of such hard-R fare as Trainspotting and the zombie flick 28 Days Later, wanted to prove that he's as adept as anyone else at making a film the whole family can enjoy, and so he took it upon himself to crank up the volume on the picture's more fanciful aspects. Yet to his credit - as well as that of screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People) - Millions is always careful to maintain its balance between reality and fantasy, resulting in a charming film about locating the miracles in a material world. 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. Rather than devolve into Home Alone shenanigans, the film remains true to its characters and their various plights, and in the process reveals what it means to be truly spiritual in a world in which religion is too often used as a smokescreen for bigotry and intolerance. Forget the tepid Robots: Parents who actually care about quality entertainment should take their kids to see this instead.
BE COOL 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 terrific film experience. The movie never provides a compelling argument for its own existence: Because it spends far more time salivating over musical numbers featuring pop star Christina Milian than on watching shylock-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) test the shark-infested waters of the music business, it's clear that priorities are out of whack. The degree to which characters, plot developments and even snatches of dialogue mimic those from the first film is irritating, and while there are some big laughs, they're isolated moments of mirth cast adrift in an ocean of indifference.
BORN INTO BROTHELS Given the topic - children who are the offspring of hookers living in Calcutta's red light district - it'd be reasonable to expect a film that takes audience depression to a whole new level. Yet this powerful work from co-directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman - this year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature - isn't merely a rapid downward spiral of a film; instead, it details Briski's remarkable attempts to help these kids (especially the girls, who will inevitably follow their mothers and grandmothers into prostitution) out of their dire surroundings by teaching them photography and attempting to place them in boarding schools. It's a given that not all these children will be able to escape their lot in life, yet there are numerous scenes of inspiration and uplift, and the efforts of Briski and her non-profit outfit Kids With Cameras (www.kids-with-cameras.org) continue to this day. 1/2
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
CONSTANTINE Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo series Hellblazer, this disappointment casts Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, a man with the ability to recognize the angels and demons that walk the earth in human form. Yet as he goes about his business of wiping out as many of the demonic "half-breeds" as possible (in an attempt to "buy" his way into Heaven), he realizes that there's a seismic shift occurring in the underworld, and the only way he can get to the bottom of the mystery is to join forces with a police detective (Rachel Weisz) investigating the apparent suicide of her psychic twin sister. Because it's an exhaustive exercise to keep abreast of the story's seemingly haphazard developments, Constantine ends up resembling nothing so much as a punctured tire with a slow leak, letting all the air seep out until what's finally left is flat and fairly ineffectual.