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 thats frequently chilling.
WICKER PARK P
Well have to take the word of the Europeans that 1996s LAppartement is a solid thriller, since the movie never reached US shores. Instead, were 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 shes 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. 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-Doos Shaggy) provides some much-needed levity as the hapless best friend.
VANITY FAIR PP1/2
A condensation and softening of William Makepeace Thackerays 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 werent in the source material, a visual scheme thats 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 dont 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. Although the episodic nature of the screenplay sometimes gets in the way of narrative propulsion (the final half-hour especially dawdles), the lively characters and the hypocrisies they inadvertently champion always remain watchable. Witherspoon makes a perky protagonist, though her character needs a nastier edge to be truly believable.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE PPP1/2
A different kind of drug movie one that dives straight into the trenches Maria Full of Grace isnt 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 shes 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 whos 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 couldnt get enough of the visual splendors exhibited in Ang Lees 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 its only proper to return to his New Jersey hometown to attend the funeral of his mother. Larges most significant relationship turns out to be with someone new to his circle: Sam (Natalie Portman), a vibrant life force whos 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 couples 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. 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.
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 Manns Collateral demonstrates, its 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. Vincents 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, whos 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), that feels real because neither character knows exactly where its heading; and the reflective headlight glare captured in the eyes of a wayward coyote thats silently padding its way through an urban and decidedly untamed jungle. w
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE PPP
This isnt a masterpiece like the 62 edition, which still reigns as one of the finest thrillers ever made. Meryl Streep, while quite good, cant touch Angela Lansburys bone-chilling portrayal of evil disguised as matronly concern; likewise, solid Liev Schreiber doesnt quite match Lawrence Harveys 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 PP
The Village isnt really much worse than Unbreakable or the silly Signs, but M. Night Shyamalans carny act already feels like its decades old -- its 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 (Rons daughter) are among those playing the residents of a 19th century burg thats surrounded by woods containing fearsome monsters.
That Kate McKinnon still manages to draw all eyes to her is a testament to her skills – that’s particularly true in Office Christmas Party, since she’s cast as the humorless human resources manager who learns to loosen up before the end credits roll.
Again combining a fairly standard morality tale with eye-popping visuals, Disney has another hit in Moana, a rollicking yarn centered on a young lass (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) coming of age on a South Pacific island.