WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE Not a movie for the young or the restless, this adaptation of two stories by Andre Dubus (whose scribblings also inspired In the Bedroom) is a bracingly mature look at the messiness of matrimony -- one of the most scabrous such depictions to hit the screen since Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. This new drama isn't nearly as accomplished a picture -- it often paints its players in broad strokes whereas Scenes had no problem with the detail work -- yet its ability to examine the frailties of its imperfect players without condemnation is admirable, and its awareness of the gray area surrounding issues of unfaithfulness is almost revolutionary. 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. Krause fills the sketchiest part with ease; Watts builds on her string of gut-wrenching performances; Ruffalo continues to get better with each picture (he borders on phenomenal in this one); and Dern occupies the meatiest role of her career with a ferocity that's frequently chilling.
WICKER PARK 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. Two years later, he thinks he spots her in a restaurant, but his subsequent sleuthing instead puts him into contact with another woman who calls herself Lisa (Rose Byrne), a clingy individual who may know more about the situation than she's revealing. Wicker Park turns out to be one of those movies that whips back and forth between flashbacks and present-day sequences with no discernible rhyme or reason. That's fine when dealing with a slippery murder-mystery or a complex sci-fi outing, but here it can scarcely disguise the fact that this is nothing more than a dull melodrama marked by plot coincidences of staggering stupidity. Kruger, the weak link in Troy, is even worse here, and whenever she and Hartnett share the same frame, you can almost hear the whooshing sound created by the two human vacuums filling the screen. Byrne, another Troy alumna, fares better as the mystery woman, while the usually annoying Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo's Shaggy) provides some much-needed levity as the hapless best friend.
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY Taken together, both Bourne films feel like consecutive episodes of a mildly entertaining television drama that can't touch Alias in its attempts at trickery and, more importantly, character development. Here, Matt Damon's ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne is even more tight-lipped than before; without girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente, former co-star reduced to cameo player) to bounce off, he's a rather one-dimensional figure, going through the motions as he tries to find out who's framing him for murder. The good stuff mostly comes during the first half; as the film progresses, the mystery slackens rather than deepens, and the movie culminates with a sloppily edited car chase that goes on for so long that I had to be reminded: Was Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne or Sheriff Buford T. Justice? 1/2
COLLATERAL The notion of matinee idol Tom Cruise playing a hardened assassin may sound like a gimmick, but his performance in director Michael Mann's drama is a fine one, nicely seasoned with just the right touch of piquantness. Sporting salt-and-pepper hair that suits him 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 hits. 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 decision which gives the film added resonance.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY For devotees of dum-dum cinema, here's Dodgeball to placate the lowest common denominator while also allowing discerning filmgoers to slum in style. Oh, sure, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn't have to look further than his weather-beaten VHS copy of Animal House for inspiration, and some of the jokes not only thud to the ground but then spend a few uncomfortable seconds writhing in agony. But when it has its game face on, this offers a satisfying number of laughs, characters that we care to follow, and cameo appearances that are positively inspired. At a time when many ambitious studio films are aiming high and falling short, here's one that delivers on its low-pressure promise.
GARDEN STATE With his first endeavor as writer-director-star, actor Zach Braff (TV's Scrubs) does more than knock it out of the park -- this one reaches all the way to the county line. Braff plays Andrew "Large" Largeman, a struggling LA actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown to attend his mother's funeral. While in town, Large hooks up with his old high school acquaintances, yet his 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 some sense out of his muddied existence. Braff drastically switches gears from providing laughs to imparting poignant life lessons; it's a gamble that pays off, resulting in a film that gives our emotions a vigorous workout. The performances are uniformly fine, with Portman nothing short of sensational. 1/2
HERO A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this Chinese epic should satisfy anyone who couldn't get enough of the visual splendors exhibited in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) has assembled an all-star cast for this opulent tale centering on a warrior (Jet Li) who claims to have 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? The performers punch across the importance of the story's themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice, and the different color schemes employed throughout are breathtaking -- it's unlikely that many other movies this year will match this one's ravishing visuals.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE A different kind of drug movie -- one that dives straight into the trenches -- this one 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 along the way. Newcomer Catalina Sandeno Moreno delivers a memorable performance as the 17-year-old Colombian girl who agrees to swallow dozens of heroin pellets and deliver them to a pair of pushers in New York City. 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. 1/2
OPEN WATER Forget all those vague, attention-grabbing warnings from the White House about Al-Qaeda operatives in our midst: For a true Terror Alert, look no further than the auditorium housing Open Water. Shot in a grainy, you-are-there style reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, this compact thriller centers on two vacationers (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) who find themselves stranded in the ocean after a scuba-diving excursion goes awry. The lack of inevitability -- will they be rescued in time, or end up as shark entrees? -- makes the picture such an uneasy watch, with writer-director-editor Chris Kentis effectively stripping away all the protections of the modern world until nothing is left except two individuals stranded in the middle of a beautiful yet deadly expanse that neither seeks nor provides favors.
VANITY FAIR A condensation -- and softening -- of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, this finds Mira Nair (director of the wonderful Monsoon Wedding) filtering the tale through her own sensibilities. 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. Although the script's episodic nature sometimes gets in the way of narrative propulsion, the lively characters -- and the hypocrisies they inadvertently champion -- always remain watchable. As the poor but plucky Becky Sharp, the 19th century social climber determined to carve out a better life for herself, Reese Witherspoon makes a perky protagonist, though her character needs a nastier edge to be truly believable. 1/2
THE VILLAGE There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock didn't write the vast majority of his movies: He knew his forte was directing, and he left the scribbling to others. M. Night Shyamalan would do well to learn from The Master. As a director, he has a distinct visual style, and this thriller about a town whose surrounding woods are filled with monsters includes scenes that shimmer with an eerie beauty. But as a writer, he's becoming a parody of himself: Eager to top the climactic twist of The Sixth Sense, he has masterminded three subsequent movies in which the "gotcha!" endings seem to be the only reason for their existence. This one isn't really worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but Shyamalan's carny act already feels like it's decades old -- it's a shame, because some good ideas are squandered in a muddled piece that ends up duping itself.
ZATOICHI Debuting theatrically the same year as James Bond, Japan's Zatoichi has enjoyed a healthy shelf life comparable to that of Agent 007: The blind masseur-cum-master-swordsman has been the star of two dozen feature films and over 100 TV episodes. Writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano elected to bring the character back to the big screen, and the result is a marvelous showstopper of a samurai flick, a genuine crowd-pleaser that earned audience awards at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. Plot-heavy and bursting at the seams with what can only be described as visual non sequiturs, Zatoichi is at heart a musical disguised as an action film, with meticulous attention to choreography and sound synchronization (plus room left over for homages to Kurosawa and slapstick comedy). More than just a treat for the martial arts crowd, this is a boon for movie lovers of all stripes. 1/2