Maria Full Of Grace (15)<br/>Valiant (U)<br/>Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous (12A)<br/>The Passion Recut (15)

The things they do to keep their powder dry
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Maria Full Of Grace (15) is the story of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 17-year-old who shares a small house in rural Columbia with her mother, grandmother, sister and baby nephew. She works in a factory, dethorning roses for the export market - prepare to be put off shop-bought flowers for life - so her interest is piqued when a handsome stranger offers her a job as a "mule". If she agrees to swallow 60 capsules of cocaine and fly with them to New York, she'll be paid well, and she can do some sightseeing while she's at it.

Maria Full Of Grace (15) is the story of Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 17-year-old who shares a small house in rural Columbia with her mother, grandmother, sister and baby nephew. She works in a factory, dethorning roses for the export market - prepare to be put off shop-bought flowers for life - so her interest is piqued when a handsome stranger offers her a job as a "mule". If she agrees to swallow 60 capsules of cocaine and fly with them to New York, she'll be paid well, and she can do some sightseeing while she's at it.

With its drug-carrying illegal immigrants, the film features two of the right-wing press's nightmares for the price of one, but Joshua Marston, the American writer-director, presents them soberly, with no contrived drama or editorialising, just an anthropological eye for the minutiae. Maria uses grapes, for instance, to train herself to swallow the cocaine chipolatas without gagging. Marston is careful not to portray Maria as a hapless victim, either. Played by Moreno with a spirited mix of youthful naïvety and wary defiance, she accepts the job not because she has no choice, but because, in her circumstances, it would seem like a logical choice to make.

The film has a sensible attitude that's almost unheard of in American movies about the drugs trade - and, as if to prove that point, it collapses in a melodramatic heap once Maria touches down in New York.

Valiant (U) is a painfully appropriate title for a British film that could just as well have been called "A Gallant Failure" or "A Plucky Effort". It's a computer-animated cartoon, a form which, above all others, requires vast amounts of cash and years of painstaking toil - and since when was the British film industry known for either of those? Compared to what we're used to from Pixar and Dreamworks, Valiant feels as if the script was written during one afternoon in the pub, and then animated the next morning.

It's a war movie set in 1944. Its heroes are the birds of the Royal Homing Pigeon Service who parachute into occupied France and bring back messages from the resistance mice. Fledgling talent is needed, though, because Nazi falcons have been picking them off with a vengeance. "If we don't find some more birds soon," says one of the top brass, "our goose is going to be cooked." That's about the standard of the jokes.

The film's shortcomings are particularly apparent because the hero's voice is provided by Ewan McGregor, who has the same role in Robots, the other, superior computer animation currently at a cinema near you. But the voice actor who works hardest is Ricky Gervais. Adult viewers will be eternally grateful for his flashes of David Brent-ish comedy, while very young children won't find much to laugh at except a flatulence gag.

Sandra Bullock starred in Miss Congeniality as a tomboy FBI agent who had to enter a beauty contest to foil some villainous plot or other. It was a one-movie idea if ever there was one, but, as Analyze That and The Whole Ten Yards demonstrated, even a one-movie idea can be stretched to two movies if the stars sign on the dotted line. And so we have Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous (12A). It's a fabulously dull film. You'd have thought someone would at least have come up with another big concept - disguising Bullock as a model or a pop star, say - but all it does is stick her character in Las Vegas, and then pad out the running time with scenes of her scrapping with her sidekick. Her co-stars from Miss Congeniality, Benjamin Bratt and Michael Caine, are nowhere to be seen.

For a lighter and more cheerful trip to the cinema this Easter, see The Passion Recut (15), which is Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ with some of the more stomach-churning torture edited out. For my money, the new version is more potent, although it's still a blood-and-gore-fest, and it's still a bizarre film, in that it has almost nothing to say about Jesus (Jim Caviezel) except that he died in a very horrid manner indeed. We see in a flashback that he was the inventor of the dining table - "This will never catch on," tuts Mary - but there are no scenes which examine why some people think he's holy and others just want to put holes in him. Weirdly, Gibson seems more interested in the character of Pontius Pilate. While Jesus accepts his fate with a shrug, it's Pilate who struggles to stop his conscience being crushed by the political pressures he's under. Maybe Gibson just wanted to make a film about a Roman governor, and he put Jesus in it to boost the box office.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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