CELLULAR 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 Harry-O; 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 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.
SHE HATE ME While in theory it would appear impossible to confuse an ambitious Spike Lee production with an inferior Look Who's Talking sequel, the inclusion of several scenes in which animated sperm all bearing the visage of the leading character race toward their final destination indicate that all bets are off as far as She Hate Me is concerned. Arguably Lee's worst film to date, it's 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 bonk. The notion that all these women -- without exception -- are physically and emotionally satisfied by their heterosexual trysts with Jack would have played well at the recent Republican National Convention, but we're not through yet: Lee also includes half-assed bits involving Watergate, AIDS, Michael Jordan's semen and Grace Kelly's ovaries (don't ask), the Mob (repped by John Turturro), cartoonish Senate hearings, and plenty of softcore humping that indicates Spike's been watching too much late-night HBO. 1/2
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW A large-scale achievement that manages to simultaneously seem retro and futuristic, Sky Captain features cutting-edge technology in the service of a storyline that harkens back to the days of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. While the actors are flesh-and-blood -- or, in the case of Angelina Jolie, fleshy-and-bloody-hot -- practically everything around them was created on computers by debuting writer-director Kerry Conran and his team. Beyond smacking of gimmickry, this will provide ample fodder for those decrying the continuing dehumanization of Hollywood movies; still, there's no getting around the fact that the end result is a visual marvel, the obvious work of someone deeply immersed in both cinematic and sci-fi lore (indeed, a repeat viewing seems like a requisite). I wish that Conran's script (and his attendant direction) exhibited a bit more pizzazz, but it's serviceable enough, with heroic aviator Sky Captain (Jude Law) and spunky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) trying to unravel a mystery whose ingredients include the disappearance of prominent scientists, the destruction of New York City by gigantic robots, and the emergence of a mysterious figure known as Dr. Totenkopf (the long-gone Sir Laurence Olivier, resurrected through altered footage from his early movies). From German Expressionism to screwball comedy, from The Wizard of Oz to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conran's influences often make Sky Captain seem like the fever dream of a hopeless film buff -- it may be derivative, but it's never dull. Jolie's character, feisty fighter Franky Cook, holds promise, but unfortunately she's only in the movie for 15 minutes, tops.
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.
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
WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE Not a movie for the young or the restless, this adaptation of two stories by Andre Dubus 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 suggestion that an affair can occasionally be a part of the healing process rather than the death knell to a happy home is treated with a hard-earned honesty. Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts and Peter Krause are uniformly excellent as the angst-ridden adulterers.
WICKER PARK 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 only puts him into contact with a clingy individual (Rose Byrne) who may know more than she's revealing. A remake of a French thriller (L'Appartement) that never reached the US, Wicker Park 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.