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As in Magnolia, Cruise has overthrown the good guy youth thing in Collateral, which is one of the best adult crime dramas to pop up this summer movie season. Director Michael Mann delivers a totally believable study in villainy as Cruise, playing a hit-man, stalks the gritty, noirish nighttime streets of Los Angeles, a cityscape that was made for this kind of film. He’s on assignment to kill a group of people connected to a federal investigation. Cruise hires a cab for the evening, at $600, and takes the driver, a very good Jamie Foxx, on the ride of his life. The movie focuses on the interplay between Cruise and Foxx and it works on both a thriller level and on an ethical level. It’s Cruise’s best acting performance and proves that it’s time for him to grow up. Does he really need to be TOM CRUISE, when he can be a better actor in character parts that are well written and superbly directed? I don’t think so. Collateral should be seen for a number of reasons.

Another should-see is Garden State, an intelligent and wonderfully unconventional movie about coming to terms with who you are and why you’re that way. Screenwriter-director Zach Braff also plays the primary male lead in this little independent film that delighted the folks at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The joke in Hollywood is that most actors really want to direct. Braff wanted to direct, fell into acting (he’s one of the ensemble players on the television series Scrubs), and now proves he really can direct.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman (a.k.a. Large) who’s been knocking around Los Angeles doing bit parts in movies. He suffers from multiple neuroses. He’s got the prescription drugs to prove it, and angst should be his middle name. After his emotionally distant father lets him know that his mother has died, Andrew returns to his New Jersey hometown for the funeral and ends up in a series of amusing odysseys and get-togethers with friends and rediscovers his reason for being. Occasionally, the movie meanders and some story threads go nowhere, but the film has terrific performances from Braff, Peter Sarsgaard as his stoner friend, and Natalie Portman as the ethereal (albeit available) girl of Andrew’s dreams. Garden State is sweet and honest and quirky.

Less successful is Valentin, an Argentinean movie about a precocious little boy who roams around 1960s Buenos Aires as if he owns the place. The kid’s name is Valentin and his family is fractured. His grandmother (Carmen Maura from Pedro Almodovar’s films) is raising him, but the child’s goal is to help the adults in his life, one of whom is his absent father, find romance. As a matchmaker, Valentin is both solemn and spunky, and he learns an important lesson, adulthood is a tough world. This is a movie about human nature that never quite understands that sometimes it’s good when children are seen and not heard. Valentin even narrates the film, but the narration isn’t very interesting and the dialogue never quite propels the story. This is more a character study than anything else. Screenwriter-director Alejandro Agresti seems to be retelling tales from his own life (he even plays Valentin’s father), but it’s not a very interesting life.

Markedly unsuccessful is Little Black Book, yet another Hollywood bubblehead comedy about a young woman who wants to work in television and does. There’s a very flat attempt at satire, as in Network, and when she goofs around with a guy’s PDA filled with data about his sexual conquests, the movie tumbles into a romantic comedy manhole, from which no one can climb out. The film’s only asset is its acting. The cast, which includes Kathy Bates, Holly Hunter, Ron Livingston, and Stephen Tobolowsky, is good, but the movie’s real joy comes from the panache of Brittany Murphy as the dreaming TV wannabe. Murphy has comedic star power. She’s comparable to those feisty screwball dames from the 1930s: Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur. I hope Murphy finds better scripts because audiences deserve to see her in better comedies. She’s a treasure. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

I’ve always thought Tom Cruise was a better actor when he was younger. Of course, he was mostly playing smirking, wise guy types who always looked as if they were the cat that swallowed the canary. All The Right Moves and Risky Business are his two best movies. Cruise delivered a wounded Everyman quality in the former and there was that frisky gleam in his eye in the latter. More often than not, in his early features, there was a smug energy about him that offered some kinetic appeal. Then Cruise went into his manic mode and because of that indefinable thing called “it” or “star quality,” he became TOM CRUISE. He overacted in film after film, and with each movie he became more stereotyped and more boring until you just wanted to wipe the smirk off of his face. He kept playing young, even as he entered his 40s. He flirted with genuine adulthood in Magnolia, but dropped back to earth with the overwrought Mission: Impossible features and the out-of-his league Minority Report, in which Colin Farrell showed him what getting under the skin and into the heart, mind, and soul of a character requires.