- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

OPENING

Agnes Browne (1999) (R: routine profanity) 1/2 star. Set in 1967 Dublin, Anjelica Huston's latest foray into directing tells a strictly modern fairy tale of the pretty innocent travails of a newly widowed woman played by the director herself and her brood of six children, 2 to 14 in age. We get a very bad man, the local money shark (played by Ray Winstone); a very decent fellow, a French baker who is a would-be suitor (Arno Chevrier), and the heroine's best buddy (Marion O'Dwyer). It's all on the heartwarming side (a happy take, as it were, on "Angela's Ashes") and heavily in the sentimental mode. Old pop singer Tom Jones comes in as the deus ex machina, as the confirming touch of the unreality of the whole enterprise. Cynthia Grenier.

Drowning Mona (2000) (PG-13) A small-town crime farce that reunites "Ruthless People" co-stars Bette Midler and Danny DeVito. She plays Mona Dearly, the most hated woman in a Hudson River Valley hamlet called Verplanck, where most of the residents drive Yugos, and Mr. DeVito is the police chief, Wyatt Rash. When Mona turns up in a watery grave, Wyatt must investigate the possibility of foul play. The cast also includes Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Affleck, William Fichtner, Marcus Thomas, Will Ferrell, Peter Dobson and Kathleen Wilhoite. Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld has described his script as "a white-trash 'Murder on the Orient Express.' "

My Dog Skip (2000) (PG: Fleeting profanity and violence) **. An often trite but fitfully endearing movie version of Willie Morris' memoir of an idyllic boyhood in Yazoo, Miss., during World War II. The principal location is Canton, about 20 miles from the late author's hometown. (Mr. Morris, who died last August, was able to watch the film in production.) The loneliness of shy and bookish Willie, 9, is remedied by the birthday gift of a terrier pup, Skip, impersonated for the most part by Enzo, another crackerjack Jack Russell terrier. The finale, which quotes liberally from the book while paying a final tribute to Skip, is a misty-eyed wipeout. It seems a pity that more of the movie couldn't have approximated this level of sentimental evocation. With Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane as Willie's parents and Luke Wilson as the idolized next-door neighbor, Dink, who returns from Army service under a cloud of disillusion.

The Next Best Thing (2000) (PG-13) A romantic comedy-tearjerker matching Madonna and Rupert Everett as inadvertent but devoted parents. She is a yoga instructor named Abbie. He is a landscape architect named Robert. Platonic Los Angeles friends whose love lives have been in a slump, they blunder into physical intimacy in the aftermath of a funeral service. Abbie becomes pregnant and Robert, though an avowed homosexual, decides to move in as a steadfast dad, though not necessarily a full-time consort. The makeshift arrangement seems to work until the heroine is attracted to a straight suitor, played by Benjamin Bratt of the "Law & Order" series. The supporting cast also includes Lynn Redgrave and Josef Sommer as Mr. Everett's parents and Neil Patrick Harris as a skeptical friend of the new mom and dad.

What Planet Are You From? (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity, including slapstick simulations of intercourse) **. The title suggests more in the way of science-fiction and courtship jolliness than the movie delivers, but it has its inspired moments while observing middle-aged and interplanetary romance blossom between Garry Shandling, an alien from three galaxies away, and Annette Bening, a frazzled Phoenix real estate broker. Despite an ostensible drinking problem and lots of insecurities, Miss Bening's real estate agent here is far more appealing than her suburban calamity in "American Beauty." Her energy also prevents the movie from needing to depend on Mr. Shandling's deadpan diffidence. Mike Nichols directed, from a screenplay attributed to Mr. Shandling and a trio of co-writers. In many respects it's a nostalgic throwback to the mood of vintage Mike Nichols-Elaine May comedy routines about awkward dates. Despite the inconsistent and rambling aspects, the film can boast some preposterous highlights: the sound used to simulate Mr. Shandling's artificial sex organ; the marriage-night transports of alien and bride; and a couch-potato interlude when a TV remote becomes a bone of contention between husband and wife.

NOW SHOWING

All About My Mother (1999) (R: presentation of transsexuals, profanity) ****. Internationally renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar celebrates motherhood in a quirky, funny, moving film. A mother, wonderfully performed by Cecilia Roth, loses her son in a car accident on the eve of his 17th birthday and goes off to Barcelona in quest of the boy's father now known as Lola to tell him of the death. Her quest brings her in contact with a wide and strange collection of women, all of whom will be transformed in some degree by the meeting. Despite some of the denizens of Mr. Almodovar's world, "All About My Mother" is a worthy film. Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. Cynthia Grenier.

American Beauty (1999) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence and allusions to drug use; occasional nudity and simulated intercourse; systematic morbid, carnal and misanthropic emphases) * and 1/2. An Oscar-season revival for DreamWorks' principal contender, a deluxe serving of hatefulness aimed at suburban sitting ducks. Screenwriter Alan Ball perhaps overcompensating for years of TV sitcom work, notably "Cybill" and the acclaimed British stage director Sam Mendes accentuate the perverse and heartless. Facades of respectability are peeled off neighboring households. Not that the inhabitants need much peeling: They're already primed for downfalls, betrayals and executions. Eight Academy Award nominations, including best movie, actor and actress (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening).

Being John Malkovich (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) *** and 1/2. A witty and clever mind-bender about modern discontent, contrived by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and realized by director Spike Jonze, both Oscar nominees. Essentially a satire of artistic vanity and folly, the movie satirizes the hubris of John Cusack, a skilled but unsuccessful puppeteer who seizes a bizarre, supernatural opportunity to control the mind and career of John Malkovich, unjustly denied an Oscar nomination while playing an outrageous self-caricature. Cameron Diaz was also robbed in the role of Mr. Cusack's frustrated spouse. Catherine Keener did make the finals as supporting actress, playing the cutthroat who seduces everyone.

Boiler Room (2000) (R: Frequent profanity; blunt sexual and ethnic humor; fleeting graphic violence and allusions to drug use) ***. The quality of cutthroat salesmanship exploited in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Wall Street" gets a zesty update in this caustic topical fable from Ben Younger, a novice writer-director whose ear appears much sharper than his eye. Giovanni Ribisi, the prodigal son of a Long Island judge, abandons the thriving little casino business conducted in his apartment to apprentice with a dubious brokerage firm. Called J.T. Marlin, this aggressive outfit specializes in high-pressure tactics to hustle supposedly fast-growth stocks. It promises every devoted recruit that he'll be a millionaire within three years. Things go sour for the protagonist within a matter of months, but while he learns the ropes from such mentors as Vin Diesel, Nicky Katt and Tom Everett Scott, the movie is a maliciously entertaining tour de force.

Boys Don't Cry (1999) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and graphic sexual interludes; fleeting nudity; sexual inversion integral to the plot and themes) ** and 1/2. A bleakly absorbing and dubiously romanticized dramatization of an authentic murder case: the 1994 Nebraska killing of a young woman named Tina Brandon, who placed herself in jeopardy by posing as an amorous, puckish lad called Brandon Teena. Hilary Swank's dedicated impersonation has made her the offbeat favorite for the Oscar as best actress of 1999. Chloe Sevigny, cast as the oblivious young woman who falls for Brandon, is a nominee as supporting actress.

The Cider House Rules (1999) (R: partial nudity, violence) *** and 1/2. A movie version of the John Irving novel, adapted by the author and directed by Lasse Hallstrom. An orphanage spawns the unique Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), whose mentor, the good Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), unwittingly sends him out to take on a world of abortion, addiction, incest, infidelity and injustice. Seven Oscar nominations, including best movie, director, screenplay and supporting actor (Mr. Caine). Patrick Butters.

The Cup (1999) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) ***. A beguiling import about the uproar created within a Buddhist religious community by World Cup soccer fever in 1998. It comes from a remote outpost of civilization: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. The filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu, is an eminent lama attracted to filmmaking as an avocation. The episodes that culminate in a successful TV and satellite installation on the monastery grounds are humorously irresistible. If you guard against inflated expectations, the movie can be charming. In Tibetan and Indian dialects with English subtitles.

The Emperor and the Assassin (1998-1999) (R: Heavy battle-scene violence, brief but vivid scenes involving torture) *** and 1/2. Set in China in the third century B.C., "The Emperor and the Assassin" is a spectacular new film from one of China's most talented young filmmakers, Chen Kaige ("My Favorite Concubine"). It tells of the country's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang-di, the man who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China, an early forerunner of the Mao-Hitler-Stalin style. The stunning photography and dramatic performances of this nearly three-hour epic place Mr. Chen in the league of directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa for masterly command of the medium. Cynthia Grenier

Hanging Up (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity) * and 1/2. Any urge to dote on the Ephron sisters should be blown to smithereens by this inhospitable and presumably autobiographical tearjerker. Derived from a book by kid sister Delia and a screenplay in which older sister and movie pro Nora was a collaborator, the movie is a messy one in the eye for show business family feeling. The trailers are misleading. They suggest a three-handed farcical romp for Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow. Miss Keaton doubles as the busily oblivious director, but "Hanging Up" proves a wistfully maddening one-woman show for Miss Ryan, cast as the self-sacrificing middle sister, Eve, in a family whose patriarch (a former screenwriter played by Walter Matthau) has entered the final stage of his life.

The Hurricane (1999) (R: Occasional graphic violence, including simulated prizefighting scenes; frequent profanity; occasional sexual candor and racial animosity) A polemical biopic about the struggle of former middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, nicknamed "Hurricane" in his prime, to clear his name after being convicted of multiple murder in New Jersey in 1966. Directed by Norman Jewison, the movie stars Denzel Washington as Mr. Carter; it ascribes his eventual exoneration, 30 years later, to the efforts of a hero-worshipping teen-ager played by Vicellous Shannon, abetted by a trio of Canadian guardians played by Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber and John Hannah. Academy Award nomination for Mr. Washington as best actor. Not reviewed.

Judy Berlin (1999) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter; fleeting profanity and sexual candor) * and 1/2. A fitfully promising first feature from Eric Mendelsohn, who aspires to a wistful-poetic form of romantic and domestic comedy, using locations in his own hometown of Old Bethpage on Long Island. A suburban enclave called Babylon entraps and enfolds a small group of characters during a September day that coincides with an eclipse, sustained for a seeming eternity by Mr. Mendelsohn while he tries to resolve tentative subplots. The title character, played by Edie Falco of "The Sopranos," is the principal hopeful figure: an aspiring actress who is finally ready to make a career pilgrimage to California. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry.

Magnolia (1999) (R: Frequent profanity, sexual vulgarity and allusions to drug use; occasional sinister elements and fleeting graphic violence; a subplot involving a bullied child; subplots involving terminal illness; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) 1/2 star. An ambitious, interminable fiasco from the fitfully promising young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Oblivious to the pitfalls of narrative drift and bloat, Mr. Anderson permits himself this miserably affected tear-jerker about lost souls in the San Fernando Valley on a day of reckoning that turns out to be insufferable. Oscar nominations for original screenplay and for supporting actor (Tom Cruise).

Reindeer Games (2000) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) ***. John Frankenheimer's suddenly rejuvenated flair for thrillers, evident last year in "Ronin," also animates this cat-and-mouse melodrama about an ill-conceived Christmas caper. Protagonist and narrator Ben Affleck is cast as a newly paroled convict named Rudy Duncan. His earnest intentions are thrown for a loop by a sudden, understandable infatuation with Charlize Theron. Their fling puts Rudy at the mercy of a gang of trucker cutthroats bossed by Gary Sinise, who regards the hero as the key to an armed robbery scheme: a Christmas Eve assault on an Indian reservation casino in northern Michigan. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger keeps Rudy in a fine state of apprehension, scrambling and dissembling to save his skin from bad company. Mr. Frankenheimer delivers the surprises, reversals and explosive payoffs with consistent gusto and sinister humor.

Simpatico (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, including interludes with nudity and simulated intercourse; a subplot predicated on injury to an animal) * and 1/2. A caper melodrama without satisfying or redemptive payoffs. Lexington, Ky., horseman Jeff Bridges must hasten to Southern California to appease an old pal, Nick Nolte, whose pangs of conscience about a crime in the past could threaten Mr. Bridges' prosperity. The characters more or less change places as Mr. Nolte steals an identity to pursue his remorseful mission while Mr. Bridges settles into a California torpor after recruiting Catherine Keener to intercept the rash impersonator, her erstwhile boyfriend. Eventually, Albert Finney and Sharon Stone turn up in unrewarding cameos. By the time all the grotesque secrets have been exposed, one feels far more disenchanted than simpatico.

The Sixth Sense (1999) (R: episodes of supernatural dread and graphic violence, revolving around an imperiled, psychic little boy) *. A compelling juvenile actor, Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment, supplied the only sympathetic element in this creaky supernatural thriller. However, the kid was a gold mine. A traumatized psychologist, Bruce Willis, hopes to justify himself by helping a boy who can see ghosts. From time to time the shameless, incredibly lucky writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, suggests that the spooks have been torturing the child. The sincerity of Mr. Osment's performance protected the movie's red herrings and other storytelling deceits. Soon after "The Blair Witch Project" became a phenomenal cult hit, "The Sixth Sense" emerged as a mass audience blockbuster. Obvious lesson: Surround a child with ghouls. Six Oscar nominations, including best movie and direction.

Topsy-Turvy (1999) (R: some brief simulated intercourse, one scene of drug addiction) ****. Director Mike Leigh devotes close to three remarkably enjoyable hours to re-creating one of the 19th century's most enduring popular musical works: "The Mikado" by that celebrated pair, Gilbert and Sullivan. Almost the entire second half of the film is devoted to the production of the comic opera, from Japanese women showing English actresses how to move, right through rehearsals and up to the triumphal first night. It's a superb view of backstage life. The acting is first-rate, as are the photography, sets and costumes. Four Oscar nominations, including best screenplay. Cynthia Grenier

The Whole Nine Yards (2000) (R: Systematic facetious amorality; occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) * and 1/2 star. A farce about double-crosses and homicides entrusted to Jonathan Lynn, the director of "Clue," "My Cousin Vinny" and "Greedy." This worthless trifle suggests he has gone to the well once too often with craven caricatures. Bruce Willis, a Chicago mobster in the witness protection program, arrives in a Montreal suburb as the next-door neighbor to timid dentist Matthew Perry. Both turn out to be earmarked for murder.

Wonder Boys (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting graphic violence, including simulated injury to an animal; simulated drug use) **. A fond but slippery movie version of the humorous campus novel by Michael Chabon, reworking some of the comic veins once associated with the late Kingsley Amis. The setting is wintry Pittsburgh. Michael Douglas plays English professor Grady Tripp, who needs to escape professional and domestic ruts. He has an adulterous love affair with administrator Frances McDormand but can't complete a second novel. A mischievous literary agent, Robert Downey Jr., complicates Grady's life as a nosy house guest. Grady takes a precocious student, Tobey Maguire's James Leer, under his wing. Evidently a labor of love for everyone involved. Unfortunately, their skill and affection fail to secure a literate charmer. The winning elements remain more fitful than tangible. With Richard Thomas, Rip Torn, Philip Bosco, Katie Holmes and Jane Adams in minor roles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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