MR. 3000 / WIMBLEDON These comedies may be set in the worlds of, respectively, baseball and tennis, yet they both bring to mind the sport of auto racing in that they're strictly Formula One. Yet besides showcasing lots of balls (come to think of it, so does A Dirty Shame), these movies are also similar in that they both manage to transcend their utterly generic storylines thanks to some deft casting. Mr. 3000 is especially tired, reminiscent of all those soggy comedies that Disney's Touchstone arm (which also released this film) used to churn out during the 90s -- the ones that typically starred Jim Belushi. Yet through sheer force of personality, Bernie Mac manages to elevate it to the middle of the standings -- he's clearly enjoying himself in this film, playing a vain baseball player who, nine years after his retirement, discovers that three of his 3,000 hits have been rendered void, thus forcing him to again don the uniform in an attempt to make up the difference. Naturally, the egotist softens in time for the finale, but Mac holds onto the character's prickly qualities longer than expected, thereby adding some spice to this otherwise bland porridge. Likewise, Wimbledon is all been-there-done-that, a romantic comedy in which a struggling British player falls for an American tennis star and finds his game improving as their relationship deepens. Coming from the same outfit that brought us Notting Hill, we expect to see Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts huffing on the court and off; instead, it's Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and this unlikely match (not to mention the actors' natural charm) provides the necessary bounce to this undemanding trifle. Both movies: 1/2
CELLULAR After being kidnapped for reasons unknown, a 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 an aimless kid (Chris Evans) who believes her pleas for help; after a failed attempt to notify the authorities, he 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. This nifty thriller employs a full-speed-ahead approach that suits the material at hand, even if it never quite conceals the sheer improbability of the piece.
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 that 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.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE Granted, this isn't a masterpiece like the '62 edition, which still reigns as one of the finest thrillers ever made. Yet in most other respects, this is that rare remake that paves its own way without exploiting or cheapening its predecessor. No longer a Cold War product, this finds the action updated, with Denzel Washington as an army officer who realizes that a former comrade (Liev Schreiber), now a politician running for his party's Vice Presidential slot, might be the unwitting pawn of a major corporation (Manchurian Global) that's trying to seize control of the country. The film's topicality can't hurt -- this could easily have been called The Halliburton Candidate -- yet director Jonathan Demme's principal goal is to produce a taut, efficient thriller. On that score, he succeeds.