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SAHARA Sahara may be based on the bestseller by Clive Cussler, but it feels like it wants to be either a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a send-up of the James Bond oeuvre, or an instant sequel to last year's National Treasure. Matthew McConaughney, a semi-movie star whose appeal still escapes me, plays the role of dashing adventurer Dirk Pitt as if he were a party-hardy frat boy who ventured out into the real world after all campus kegs were tapped dry. Steve Zahn, a supporting player whose appeal likewise eludes me, plays the role of Dirk's wisecracking sidekick Al Giordino like ham on wry: He gets the script's funniest lines, but he can't deliver them without mercilessly squinting like Popeye on the electric chair. And Penelope Cruz, a Spanish beauty whose appeal vanishes in English-language films, tags along for the ride as the dedicated Dr. Eva Rojas, although the actress seems so disinterested in what's happening around her that it's hard to believe her character would even have the medical know-how to prescribe aspirin. For a movie that Paramount Pictures hopes will kick off a new screen franchise (Cussler wrote a handful of Dirk Pitt adventure yarns), there's an air of desperation about Sahara, which tries too hard to please and in the process strips the enterprise of any natural charm. Certainly, there are individual moments to appreciate, and any flick that casts both William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo in supporting roles can't be all bad. But the storyline, a thick hodgepodge involving a Civil War battleship that went MIA in the title desert (don't ask), a mysterious disease that's wiping out scores of Africans, and a sneering French villain (Lambert Wilson) to placate Red State yahoos who fell for that "freedom fries" nonsense, never grabs viewers by the collar, making Sahara an adventure tale in which the action is more exhausting than exciting.

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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.

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