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KUNG FU HUSTLE Operating with the same degree of logic as a Marx Brothers feature or a Looney Tunes short - which is to say, operating with no logic at all - Kung Fu Hustle stands alone as the year's most whacked out bit of entertainment. Writer-director-actor Stephen Chow has in essence built the filmic equivalent of an insane asylum and then handed the keys over to the inmates - from first frame to last, there are precious few moments of introspection or tranquility in what proves to be a nonstop orgy of madcap martial arts mayhem. Chow himself plays the nominal lead, an ineffectual con man of the streets who inadvertently sets off a feud between the ruthless members of the ruling Axe Gang and the resilient residents of a slum area known as Pig Sty Alley. Used to always getting their way, the gang members are surprised to discover that Pig Sty Alley serves as home to several retired kung fu masters with the moxie to fight back, so they're forced to hire the city's most notorious killers to eliminate the opposition. For his part, Chow's character longs to join the Axe Gang, but his bumbling nature and deep-seated decency transpire against him. The most violent movie in theaters next to Sin City (with which it shares some similarities), this isn't one for the kids, despite the frequent presence of slapstick sequences and goofy special effects that transform the picture into a live-action cartoon. Kung Fu Hustle contains a handful of brilliant moments, but it also spreads its concept thin: With nothing of real substance propelling the shenanigans, the movie grows redundant during the second half before regaining its footing for the climax.

Current Releases

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 ( 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.

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