MELINDA AND MELINDA The problem with Woody Allen these days isn't that he's run out of ideas; the problem is that he's running out of ways in which to frame these ideas in compelling contexts. Melinda and Melinda starts with a typically inspired concept: Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) discussing whether life is inherently tragic or comic both hear an anecdote involving a young woman named Melinda. The playwright who specializes in tragedies envisions the story as a downer in which Melinda is a distraught, suicidal woman who's perpetually on the receiving end of life's hard knocks, while the playwright known for comedies views it as a sparkling tale in which Melinda's an endearing free spirit involved in frothy romantic entanglements. The plastic bubble that surrounds Woody Allen movies is still as firm as ever: His stories continue to take place in a hermetically sealed New York in which money is no object and everyone talks like a philosopher, and that's part of their continuing appeal. But his instincts clearly aren't as sharp as before, since the comic half isn't especially funny and the tragic half isn't especially heartbreaking. Overall, the movie's a pleasant piffle, but it's the dual performance by Radha Mitchell (as both Melindas) rather than Allen's script that distinguishes it. As the Allen surrogate, Will Ferrell isn't bad, benefiting from the screenplay's few zingers. 1/2
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
DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN Watching this adaptation of Tyler Perry's 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. A huge hit with Afro-American audiences, Perry's play, about a pampered wife (Kimberly Elise) who starts over after being dumped by her odious husband (Steve Harris), 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 sitcom roles of a profane, gun-wielding grandmother and her brother, a flatulent elder constantly leering at women when he's not busy smoking dope. 1/2
GUESS WHO The maxim that Less Is More gets taken for a test drive in this lightweight multiplex seat-filler that's a loose remake of a motion picture routinely tagged with the label of "Hollywood classic." But the sad truth is that 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner grows more hollow and condescending with each passing year, and when all is said and done, this new picture is funnier, more relaxed and better paced. Applying role reversal to the original template, this stars Bernie Mac as the stern dad who's not thrilled that his lovely daughter's (Zoe Saldana) new boyfriend is some punk'd white boy (Ashton Kutcher). Ultimately, this borrows more heavily from Meet the Parents than the Tracy-Hepburn chestnut, but Mac's slow-burn reactions make the whole concoction go down rather easily.