BASIC The satisfaction derived from such "gotcha!" titles as Seven and The Usual Suspects is that these movies successfully take us for a perplexing ride before zapping us with a surprise ending that feels absolutely right. Conversely, many similar brain twisters have fallen flat from the start, by offering supposed plot turns that are obvious 10 minutes into the picture. Basic, the new thriller from director John McTiernan (career high: Die Hard; career low: last year's Rollerball remake), doesn't reside in either camp. Not even Nostradamus could have predicted every twist in this convoluted thriller, yet in the end, we don't feel fulfilled as much as happy to get out of the auditorium alive. (The woman seated next to me succinctly summed up the experience as the movie headed into its 48th change of narrative direction by wearily groaning, "Not again...") Initially, the intrigue is entertaining, as an ex-Army Ranger (John Travolta) in Panama is tapped to find out what went wrong on a military exercise that led to the death of a reviled sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson). Two witnesses -- one tight-lipped (Brian Van Holt), the other flamboyant (Giovanni Ribisi, adding to his string of rancid performances) -- offer differing versions of what went down, but any hope of a modern-day Rashomon is soon dashed as the movie gets bogged down in a haphazard series of twists, turns, backslides and pirouettes -- very few of which make sense after the whole story is revealed.
PHONE BOOTH It's only April, yet Colin Farrell has already appeared in as many movies this year as Daniel Day-Lewis has headlined over the course of the past decade. Following a co-starring role in The Recruit and a supporting turn in Daredevil, Farrell finds himself top-billed in this efficient drama that was delayed because of the real-life sniper shootings. The Irish actor plays Stu Shepard, an obnoxious New York publicist who gets pinned in a phone booth by a sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) who has already offed a pedophile and a ruthless CEO and now wants to take Stu to task for his boorish behavior toward others. OK, let's get the idiocy out of the way: In a city the size of New York, determining that a publicist whose primary flaw is his rudeness should be third in line to die would be like learning there's a special room in Hell reserved for Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and...Pete Rose. Get past this dubious logic, however, and what's left is a taut psychological thriller that's directed for maximum impact by Joel Schumacher and vigorously performed by Farrell. And while most films that run under 90 minutes are generally long-on-the-shelf duds that sacrificed all coherency to the cutting room floor -- the 85-minute View from the Top, which Gwyneth Paltrow made before 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, is the latest example -- this one's a happy exception: With a crisp running time of 80 minutes, Phone Booth knows exactly when it's time to clear the line.
ALL THE REAL GIRLS Writer-director David Gordon Green, an NC School of the Arts grad, follows 2000's George Washington with another movie shot entirely in rural North Carolina. This sophomore effort is so laid back -- so in tune with the naturally sleepy rhythms of everyday existence -- that it feels unlike any love story I've seen in quite some time, with a simplicity and directness that truly touch the heart. Twenty-two-year-old Paul (Paul Schneider) has spent his entire life wooing women and then dumping them, but with virginal 18-year-old Noel (Zooey Deschanel), he feels a special connection, one that makes him want to do right by her. Yet ultimately it isn't Paul who takes a misstep, and soon the pair are working hard to salvage their tainted romance. Green has a strong love for -- and deep understanding of -- his small-town characters: When they say something that shows they're not exactly the brightest bulbs in the box, it's a way of acknowledging their limitations, not a way of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of ignorant Southern yahoos. I won't reveal how it all turns out, but I will say that Paul's statement after he's been damaged -- "If anybody smiles at me ever again, I'm gonna freak out" -- will bring a rueful smile to the lips of anyone who has ever loved and lost, even if only temporarily. 1/2
CITY OF GOD A South American GoodFellas, City of God is a dazzling achievement that marks Fernando Meirelles as a masterful filmmaker with world-class aspirations. If the traditional gangster flick has appeared to be hobbling on its last legs over the past few years, this lightning bolt of a movie proves that there are still fresh ways to tackle familiar material. Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio de Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with blood flowing as swiftly and steadily as water over Niagara Falls. Our clean-cut protagonist in this urban epic is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose desire to become a professional photographer might be just the thing to lift him out of the surrounding squalor. On the opposite end, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a rabid gang leader prone to killing anybody at any time -- perhaps not since Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in Schindler's List has there been such a frightening portrait of unadulterated evil onscreen. Admittedly, it's tough to withstand 130 minutes of continuous nihilism, but Meirelles and his contributors are so completely in command of this material (the storytelling moves like mercury) that it's impossible not to get caught up in their descent into Hell on Earth. 1/2