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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. Scripter Larry Cohen (who also penned Phone Booth) and director David R. Ellis both employ a full-speed-ahead approach that suits the material at hand, even if it never quite conceals the sheer improbability of the piece.


Arguably Spike Lee’s worst film to date, this is a melting pot of ideas that have obviously been swimming around inside the filmmaker’s noggin. But rather than logically split them up into separate movies, Lee and co-scripter Michael Genet simply ejaculate them all over the screen, leaving a mess that few will want to wade through. After an opening shot of a three-dollar bill graced by George W. Bush’s mug and emblazoned with the Enron logo, the movie centers on Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), an executive at a shady biotech company who’s fired after turning whistleblower. Fortunately for the cash-strapped Jack, his former girlfriend (Kerry Washington), now a lesbian, shows up and offers him $20,000 to impregnate both her and her lover (Dania Ramirez); before long, he’s knocking up close to two dozen lesbians at $10,000 a pop. Lee also includes bits involving Watergate, AIDS, Michael Jordan’s semen and Grace Kelly’s ovaries (don’t ask), the Mob (repped by John Turturro), Senate hearings, and plenty of soft-core humping that indicates Spike’s been watching too much late-night HBO.


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: Jack and Edith carry on a torrid affair, Hank continues to eye the young ladies as well as make passes at Terry, and Terry finds herself in the grip of a complete meltdown. Morally superior moviegoers will tsk-tsk at the suggestion that an affair can occasionally 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.


We’ll have to take the word of the Europeans that 1996’s L’Appartement is a solid thriller, since the movie never reached US shores. Instead, we’re stuck with this lousy remake, a film so daft that either the original was vastly overpraised or Hollywood did an even worse job than usual of reimagining a foreign flick for xenophobic Yankee audiences. Josh Hartnett, offering further proof that anybody can make it in Hollywood without a shred of talent, charisma or even a pulse, plays Matthew, who meets the love of his life in Lisa (Diane Kruger) and is heartbroken when she unexpectedly drops out of sight.


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. Yet her liberties don’t cripple the piece — more often, they provide a welcome sheen to a movie that often threatens to buckle under the weight of so many characters and plot strands. 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. Produced by HBO (which should be commended for taking a chance on a Spanish-language film) and headed for cable until the network decided to test its theatrical prospects, Maria Full of Grace is an eye-opening experience that sidesteps any political or moral rhetoric in an effort to paint a grim portrait of an independent woman who’s neither saint nor sinner, but merely a working stiff whose ill-advised decisions never subjugate her humanity.


A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this Chinese epic, finally earning a stateside release, should satisfy anyone who couldn’t get enough of the visual splendors exhibited in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 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 leading role on the sitcom Scrubs and known 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

Even with a compact 80-minute running time, Open Water takes its time actually getting to the water, spending a while with yuppie couple Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) on dry land as they schedule a quickie beach vacation in between the demands of their high-stress jobs. The R&R itinerary includes a scuba-diving excursion, but this popular maritime activity takes a decidedly devastating turn when the pair resurface after 30 minutes below the surface to discover that, due to crew incompetence, their guide boat (packed with 18 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, with the time in between reserved for mutual comforting, medical musings and a brief bout of finger-pointing.

Collateral PPP

The notion of matinee idol Tom Cruise playing a hardened killer may sound like a gimmick — yet another bald attempt to score that Oscar that has long eluded him — yet as Michael Mann’s Collateral demonstrates, it’s a gamble that pays off. 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. w


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.