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A different kind of drug movie — one that dives straight into the trenches — Maria Full of Grace isn’t about the cops, the kingpins or the clients; instead, it focuses on the mules, the (usually) impoverished folks who agree to smuggle the contraband material across borders, risking arrest or even death at any given moment. 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? With Crouching Tiger neophyte Zhang Ziyi rounding out the principal cast as Flying Snow’s aide, Hero largely succeeds because its performers are able to punch across the importance of the story’s themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice. The different color schemes employed throughout the picture are breathtaking — it’s unlikely that few other movies this year will match this one’s ravishing visuals.

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 hasn’t been home in nine years, which leads to some tense moments with his authoritarian dad (Ian Holm); in an effort to keep some distance between them, he decides to spend most of his few days in town hanging out with his old high school acquaintances. Yet 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 trying to make sense out of his muddied existence.

Open Water PPP

Shot in a grainy, you-are-there style that inevitably brings up comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, this thriller from writer-director-editor Chris Kentis still manages to be less fanciful than that no-frills blockbuster. There’s no supernatural element at work here, just a deep, dark sea that contains as many hidden horrors as one of those haunted houses that dot the city streets come Halloween. 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 (will drinking this salt water help or hurt?) and a brief bout of finger-pointing. All the while, the natural inhabitants of the sea continue to make occasional appearances, none more petrifying than those creatures with the dead eyes and very pointy teeth.

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 likely won’t be winning any awards for this one, either, but his performance is nevertheless a fine one. Sporting salt-and-pepper hair that suits him rather well, 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) who’s still marveling over his brush with greatness; a dialogue between Max and one of his passengers, a self-doubting prosecuting attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), that feels real because neither character knows exactly where it’s heading; 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. .


Harold and Maude Go to White Castle might have been a better bet, but this is nevertheless a gross-out comedy with a difference — it tosses some sharp social satire into the usual mix of horny guys, amiable dopeheads, repulsive rednecks and homosexual bit players.


I, Robot finds Will Smith shoehorned into a high-tech yarn “inspired” by Isaac Asimov’s collection of loosely related stories. Smith stars as Del Spooner, a detective in 2035 Chicago who’s convinced that a scientist has been murdered by one of his own robot creations. Only thing is, robots are programmed not to harm humans — ever — and Spooner’s suspicions are dismissed as prejudice and paranoia.


As a chauvinistic news anchor in 1970s San Diego, Will Ferrell gets to wear ugly clothes, make silly faces, and lust after the ladies, but unless you hold the opinion that the actor is a comic genius worthy of Chaplin or Keaton comparisons, then this sort of obnoxious oafishness gets stale quickly. w


Set two years after the first film, we rejoin Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in a particularly difficult time of his life. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the woman he loves, has gone on to become a model of national renown and an actress of, uh, no renown. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist with a genuine wish to serve mankind, has just made a breakthrough in the area of fusion, yet after his experiment goes awry, he transforms into Doctor Octopus, a madman who’s controlled by four metallic arms permanently grafted onto his body. Maguire seems to be playing Superman rather than Spider-Man, and the exaggerated nature of both his swinging abilities (a couple more feet and he could probably touch an orbiting satellite) and his strength (his attempts to stop a runaway train are simply absurd) all too often takes us out of the story and reminds us that, yes, we’re merely watching a movie. But somehow, the human element always pulls us back in.