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LADDER 49 P1/2

It was probably inevitable — perhaps even desirable — for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If there’s an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. Basically, only three types of scenes exist in the film: domestic interludes between good-hearted fireman Jack Morrison (a beefy Joaquin Phoenix) and his family, macho antics down at the firehouse between the avuncular station captain (a beefier John Travolta) and his men, and action scenes between the firefighters and their incendiary adversary. In an effort to elevate all these men to the level of heroes, Colick has stripped them of most traits, in effect leaving us with a roomful of cardboard characters (only Robert Patrick, as the outspoken senior member of the team, is allowed any complex shadings). The firefighting scenes are competently presented but tend to blur into each other — for all its faults, the mediocre Backdraft at least made similar set pieces exciting — and the movie’s 115 minutes are stretched out long enough to accommodate not only a karaoke sequence but at least two music-backed interludes designed more to fill out a CD soundtrack than advance the plot in any interesting fashion.

MR. 3000 / WIMBLEDON PP1/2

These comedies may be set in the worlds of, respectively, baseball and tennis, yet they both bring to mind the sport of auto racing in that they’re strictly Formula One. Yet besides showcasing lots of balls (come to think of it, so does John Waters’ A Dirty Shame), these movies are also similar in that they both manage to transcend their utterly generic storylines thanks to some deft casting. Mr. 3000 is especially tired, reminiscent of all those soggy comedies that Disney’s Touchstone arm (which also released this film) used to churn out during the 90s — the ones that typically starred Jim Belushi. Yet through sheer force of personality, Bernie Mac manages to elevate it to the middle of the standings — he’s clearly enjoying himself in this film, playing a vain baseball player who, nine years after his retirement, discovers that three of his 3,000 hits have been rendered void, thus forcing him to again don the uniform in an attempt to make up the difference. Naturally, the egotist softens in time for the finale, but Mac holds onto the character’s prickly qualities longer than expected, thereby adding some spice to this otherwise bland porridge. Likewise, Wimbledon is all been-there-done-that, a romantic comedy in which a struggling British player falls for an American tennis star and finds his game improving as their relationship deepens. Coming from the same outfit that brought us Notting Hill, we expect to see Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts huffing on the court and off; instead, it’s Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and this unlikely match (not to mention the actors’ natural charm) provides the necessary bounce to this undemanding trifle.


After being kidnapped for reasons unbeknownst to her, a biology teacher (Kim Basinger) is able to jerry-rig a busted telephone so that it’s able to make one random call. She ends up dialing the cell phone number of buff beachgoer Ryan (Chris Evans), an aimless kid who, after an initial bout of skepticism, believes her pleas for help. After a failed attempt to notify the authorities, Ryan decides he’s the woman’s only hope, though a conscientious police officer (William H. Macy) soon realizes something’s up and begins his own investigation. Replace that newfangled contraption the cell phone with an old rotary telephone, and this basic plotline would have been perfect for a vintage episode of, say, McCloud or T.J. Hooker; indeed, a 60-minute prime-time slot would have been more beneficial than this movie’s 95 minutes. Yet even if it overstays its welcome, Cellular turns out to be a fairly nifty thriller buoyed by solid performances and catchy riffs of humor.


Basically a four-character chamber piece (with an occasional rugrat scampering across the screen when required), the movie centers on tortured couples Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts). With both couples feeling that their marriages are eroding, duplicity and despair become the orders of the day. Morally superior moviegoers will tsk-tsk at the suggestion that an affair can be part of the healing process rather than the death knell to a happy home, but the movie treats its subject matter with a hard-earned honesty.


A condensation — and softening — of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, this adaptation finds director Mira Nair (helmer of the wonderful Monsoon Wedding) filtering the tale through her own sensibilities. That translates into plot nods toward her native India that weren’t in the source material, a visual scheme that’s far more colorful than what one usually encounters in British period pieces of this nature, and an approach that sentimentalizes many of the characters. Reese Witherspoon stars as the poor but plucky Becky Sharp, the 19th century social climber determined to carve out a better life for herself. Using her quick wit and feminine wiles, she inspires lust in men and scorn in women; eventually, she marries a dashing gambler (James Purefoy), but her real troubles are only just beginning.


In this assured first feature from writer-director Joshua Marston, newcomer Catalina Sandeno Moreno delivers a memorable performance as Maria, a 17-year-old Columbian girl contending with a nagging family, a deadbeat boyfriend, and an unenviable job in a flower factory (her main duty is to pick the thorns off the roses). Fed up with the way her life is going — and discovering that she’s pregnant, to boot — Maria eventually finds herself agreeing to work as a mule for a local crime boss. Her assignment is to swallow dozens of heroin pellets and deliver them to a pair of pushers in New York City; to do this, she has to clear US customs and pray that none of the capsules open up while in her stomach, since that would lead to a painful death.


Zhang Yimou, the world-renowned director of Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, has assembled an all-star cast for this opulent tale centering on a warrior known as Nameless (Jet Li), who explains to a power-hungry king (Daoming Chen) how he single-handedly vanquished the legendary assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). Yet is the hero telling the truth, or are there some Rashomon dynamics at play here?

Garden State PPP1/2

Zach Braff, known to TV viewers for his role on the sitcom Scrubs and to movie watchers for absolutely nothing, used his minimal clout to secure financing for his first endeavor as a writer-director-star. He does more than knock it out of the park — this one reaches all the way to the county line. Braff cast himself in the starring role of Andrew “Large” Largeman, a struggling LA actor who spends more time waiting on tables than emoting in front of the cameras. Heavily medicated ever since a troubled childhood, Large is too numb to feel much of anything; nevertheless, he knows it’s only proper to return to his New Jersey hometown to attend the funeral of his mother. Large’s most significant relationship turns out to be with someone new to his circle: Sam (Natalie Portman), a vibrant life force who’s the perfect remedy for an emotionally bottled-up guy.

Open Water PPP

Yuppie couple Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) on dry land as schedules a quickie beach vacation in between the demands of their high-stress jobs. The R&R itinerary includes a scuba-diving excursion, but this activity takes a devastating turn when the pair resurface after 30 minutes below the surface to discover that, due to crew incompetence, their guide boat (packed with many other tourists) has already headed back to shore. As the minutes turn into hours and day turns into night, the couple’s mood switches from deep concern to outright panic.

Collateral PPP

Tom Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer who forces a cab driver named Max (solid Jamie Foxx) to ferry him around nocturnal Los Angeles so he can carry out his assignment. Vincent’s been paid to bump off five individuals who can help the law clamp down on an international drug cartel, but along the way he has to contend with his hostage-driver, who’s none too happy with his latest fare and repeatedly tries to escape. Scripter Stuart Beattie creates some interesting give-and-take dynamics between Vincent and Max, yet he and Mann (Heat) seem to be equally interested in the peripheral elements: a relaxed soliloquy by a jazz musician (Barry Shabaka Henley); a dialogue between Max and one of his passengers, a self-doubting prosecuting attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), ; and the reflective headlight glare captured in the eyes of a wayward coyote that’s silently padding its way through an urban — and decidedly untamed — jungle.


This isn’t a masterpiece like the ‘62 edition, which still reigns as one of the finest thrillers ever made. Meryl Streep, while quite good, can’t touch Angela Lansbury’s bone-chilling portrayal of evil disguised as matronly concern; likewise, solid Liev Schreiber doesn’t quite match Lawrence Harvey’s multilayered performance as her tortured son. And a newly added plot twist will have audience members choking on their popcorn. But in most other respects, this new Candidate is that rare remake that paves its own way without cheapening its predecessor.


The Village isn’t really much worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but M. Night Shyamalan’s carny act already feels like it’s decades old -- it’s a shame, because some good ideas are squandered in a muddled thriller that ends up duping itself. William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and promising newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter) are among those playing the residents of a 19th century burg that’s surrounded by woods containing fearsome monsters.