- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2000

OPENING

Black and White (2000) (R: Considerable sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity and racial epithets; fleeting simulations of intercourse and drug use) A polemical hodgepodge from writer-director James Toback, whose ostensible subject is interracial infatuation and misapprehension. A topic in search of coherence, it is trifled with in vignettes that cover several angles inadequately. Opens Wednesday.
High Fidelity (2000) (R) A romantic comedy, derived from a novel by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, in which John Cusack stars as the proprietor of a hip, albeit struggling, Chicago record store. The management insists on selling only vinyl recordings in the CD era. Mr. Cusack's girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) walks out, precipitating a crisis and the solicitude of sister Joan Cusack and wacky employees Todd Louiso and Jack Black, who share an encyclopedic knowledge of recording lore.
Price of Glory (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, mostly during simulations of prizefights; interludes of domestic conflict) * and 1/2. A family boxing saga so replete with cliches and hokum that it may induce an entertaining, nostalgic sort of incredulity if you're in a tolerant mood. Waxing ultra-ethnic, Jimmy Smits portrays a once prominent boxer named Arturo Ortega who aspires to groom three sons to the ring in his hometown of Mariposa, Ariz., which straddles the Mexican border. A paternal taskmaster, he leans too hard on elder sons Jon Seda and Clifton Collins Jr. while retaining a ferocious ace in the hole in their kid brother Ernesto Hernandez, precocious and indomitable in the ring. Maria Del Mar registers some fretful but futile warnings as warmhearted but utterly submissive Mrs. Ortega.
The Road to El Dorado (2000) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo; allusions to barbarism and human sacrifice) * and 1/2. A lackluster new animated feature from the DreamWorks studio, which struggles to rationalize the misadventures of two Spanish rascals, Tulio and Miguel, who end up as stowaways as Cortez ominously sails across the Atlantic. The hapless heroes become castaways at a location that suggests maybe the Azores with a Mayan makeover. A treasure map supposedly leads them to an authentic city of gold, where a despotic high priest must be outwitted and an easygoing chief befriended. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh do the voices of the interlopers. Armand Assante dubs the priest, Edward James Olmos the chief and Rosie Perez a foxy number in a funny sarong. With an indifferent, short-winded song score from Elton John and Tim Rice.
The Skulls (2000) (PG-13) A suspense thriller about the menace of a college secret society, which attempts to recruit poor but diligent Joshua Jackson during his senior year. The hero is a New Haven, Conn., townie named Luke McNamara, attending a college that might be easily mistaken for Yale, the alma mater of screenwriter John Pogue. Even more suspiciously, director Rob Cohen is a Harvard grad. The supporting cast includes Leslie Bibb, Paul Walker, Will Beckford, Craig T. Nelson, Christopher McDonald and William Petersen.

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 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. 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. Five Academy Awards: best movie, direction, screenplay, cinematography and actor (Kevin Spacey).
Beyond the Mat (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and graphic violence, within the context of professional wrestling matches; allusions to drug addiction and sexual depravity) ** and 1/2. A rambling but appealing documentary feature about professional wrestling, compiled by Barry W. Blaustein, an ex-writer for "Saturday Night Live" whose movie credits include Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor" farces. Over the course of three years he kept tabs on principal subjects Terry Funk, Mick Foley and Jake "the Snake" Roberts, chosen to illustrate contrasting personalities and professional status within the wrestling game. Each could justify a feature, and Mr. Blaustein has trouble organizing an abundance of material. His chronicle tends to unravel in anticlimactic updates. Nevertheless, the basic human interest aspects are compelling.
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. Oscars for best supporting actor (Mr. Caine) and best adapted screenplay. 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. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle and the Cinema Arts (Fairfax).
Deterrence (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence) ***. A resourceful and provocative "What If?" doomsday thriller from the former movie critic (and West Point alum) Rod Lurie. He imagines an incumbent president of the United States, Walter Emerson (played with engaging feisty authority by Kevin Pollak) stranded in a snowbound Colorado diner during a primary season two national elections into the future. A military crisis suddenly looms: a freshly belligerent Iraq, commanded by a son of the late Saddam Hussein, threatens another massive invasion of Kuwait and rattles nuclear sabers at Western capitals to enhance the threat. Mr. Lurie severely reduces the time available for hand-wringing or diplomatic procrastination. The Iraqi ultimatum is countered by one from the president, who vows to nuke Baghdad unless Iraqi war plans are immediately canceled. The pretext is calculated to separate moviegoing hawks and doves with a mischievous vengeance. While resembling a theater piece and armed with a strong ensemble, "Deterrence" sustains a remarkably crisp and fluid sense of camera presence. With Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Sean Astin. 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
Erin Brockovich (2000) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; fleeting interludes of simulated intercourse; allusions to terminal illness) * and 1/2. Julia Roberts bids to be crowned queen of the rabble-rousers. She plays a supposedly real-life crusader, a Southern California paralegal who was instrumental in formulating a damages case against the public utility Pacific Gas & Electric on behalf of small-town residents who suffered from contaminated water supplies. The presentation here is shamelessly crass and self-righteous. Deserted by a consort and obliged to support three kids, the heroine gets work with a law firm run by Albert Finney, who must ultimately admit that his troublesome newcomer deserves as much glory and success as she covets. Erin may be a headache to all employers if this movie catches on. Every vain, foul-mouthed, tarty, marginally employable job seeker in the country may demand to be mistaken for Julia Roberts on her high horse.
Ghost Dog (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence; fleeting sexual interludes) * and 1/2. A deadpan crime satire, subtitled "The Way of the Samurai," in which the monotonous style of director Jim Jarmusch acquires fitful humorous grace notes. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a pensive hulk employed every so often as a hit man by a Mafia sub-boss who once saved his life. They exchange messages by carrier pigeon between Manhattan and New Jersey, since Ghost Dog lives in rooftop, bird-tending seclusion in a Jersey neighborhood. One successful contract backfires and angers Big Boss Cliff Gorman, who orders the assassination of Ghost Dog in retaliation. Not an easy assignment, as several Mafia thugs discover to their grief. Fundamentally ludicrous and plodding.
Gun Shy (2000) (R) A furtive, unadvertised booking for a comedy that once looked fairly promising on paper. The co-stars are Liam Neeson, Sandra Bullock and Oliver Platt. The pretext draws on the same "tough guys in therapy" situation that was exploited by "The Sopranos" and "Analyze This." Mr. Neeson is cast as a stressed-out DEA agent who seeks the assistance of Miss Bullock, a "holistic healer" who swears by enemas, while trying to sustain an undercover assignment. Mr. Platt is one of the anxious hero's targets, a hot-tempered mobster.
Here on Earth (2000) (PG-13) A slight change of pace in the youth-pandering market: a tearjerker rather than a sex farce. Chris Klein, the delightful discovery of "Election" and "American Pie," plays a spoiled preppie who ends up destroying a small-town diner and gas station while feuding with a similarly volatile townie, Josh Hartnett. Ordered to help rebuild the places they destroyed, the young men have a change of heart, also influenced by fondness for Leelee Sobieski, a winsome townie suffering from a fatal illness.
Mission to Mars (2000) (PG: Occasional menace and graphic violence against a backdrop of space exploration) * and 1/2. An enfeebled appeal for a revitalized space program that pretends to solve all the mysteries of the universe. Gary Sinise plays a heartbroken astronaut who joins a rescue mission with Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O'Connell organized to investigate the travail of Don Cheadle (mission commander of the first manned expedition to the Red Planet) and his crew, suddenly confronted with a monster twister. Directed by Brian De Palma, who gets some impressive illusions from a Mars-bound spaceship, a prop worth contemplating, but seems to have settled for lethal inanities from a team of screenwriters.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999) (No MPAA Rating: Adult subject matter, dealing in part with the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust; some footage shot at the sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp) ****. A typically unorthodox and astutely edifying documentary feature from Errol Morris of "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control." Mr. Morris discovers the strange case of self-taught electrical engineer Fred Leuchter of Malden, Mass. A technician specializing in the repair and improvement of execution devices for states with capital punishment, Mr. Leuchter attracted the attention of lawyers defending a German-Canadian publisher whose specialty was neo-Nazi propaganda. Mr. Leuchter agreed to chip samples of masonry from the ruins of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps; he returned to testify that the absence of cyanide traces in his samples proved that the Nazi Holocaust was a myth. This colossal blunder eventually made Fred Leuchter a pariah. Mr. Morris appreciates the larger historical implications while giving his subject a generous opportunity to rationalize. The sobering result: a reminder of how treacherous vanity and ignorance can be. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
My Dog Skip (2000) (PG: Fleeting profanity and violence) **. An often trite but somewhat endearing movie version of Willie Morris' memoir of an idyllic boyhood in Yazoo, Miss., during World War II. 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. Rear Window (1954) (PG rated when reissued about 30 years after its initial release; interludes of suspense and allusions to macabre murder details) ****. Always a sight for sore eyes, Alfred Hitchcock's expert suspense thriller returns in a restored print. One of the director's most popular and accomplished films, it stars James Stewart as a restless photojournalist, in the final week of recuperation from a broken leg. Immobilized in his back terrace apartment in Greenwich Village during a sweltering summer, he watches the neighbors and begins to suspect foul play in an apartment across the way. A dazzling fiancee, Grace Kelly, and an admirable nurse, Thelma Ritter, are drawn into his suspicions, which eventually bring a killer, Raymond Burr, to the door. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.
Romeo Must Die (2000) (R) A crime thriller that updates the "Romeo & Juliet" and "West Side Story" plots to the West Side of Oakland, Calif., where Asian and black gangs provide the bitter rivalry that imperils another star-crossed romance. The lovers are Hong Kong action star Jet Li as a former cop named Han, paroled from a Hong Kong jail and fuming about the murder of kid brother Po, an Oakland racketeer. Han finds it harder to choose sides when he falls for pop recording star Aaliyah as Trish O'Day, daughter of the black criminal boss Isaak O'Day, played by Delroy Lindo. Opens Wednesday.
Such a Long Journey (1999) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) ****. Without warning, a great new movie appears. Set in 1971, on the eve of the India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh, the movie observes a lower-middle-class Parsi family weather several domestic crises, intrigues and losses against the backdrop of larger, ominous political events. Director Sturla Gunnarsson, working from a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, achieves qualities of immediacy, intimacy and insight that are remarkable and profoundly stirring. It's as if the noblest attributes of Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray had been rediscovered. An exceptional heartbreaker, the movie captures the extraordinary potential in ordinary life with a candor and tenderness that keep knocking you flat. "Journey" reflects a rare, exemplary synthesis of the warmhearted and tough-minded. The principal characters, all beautifully embodied, are the family man and bank clerk Gustad, played by Roshan Seth; Sona Razdan as his wife Dilnavaz; Sam Pastor as Gustad's goofy co-worker Dinshawji; and the fabulous Kurush Deboo as a frenetic, mentally retarded neighbor called Tehmul. Fleeting dialogue in Hindi and Gujarati with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Waking the Dead (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence) * and 1/2. Not one to make it easy on himself, Keith Gordon of "A Midnight Clear" and "Mother Night" tackles a Scott Spencer novel about undying love and gamely struggles to overcome the odds against persuasive depiction. Billy Crudup, a Coast Guard officer with aspirations of high political office, and Jennifer Connelly, a left-wing activist associated with a Catholic relief agency, meet in the early 1970s and fall in love. Death appears to intervene: Miss Connelly is reported killed in a car bombing in 1974. Almost a decade later Mr. Crudup is a Democratic Party candidate for Congress. Though engaged to Molly Parker, he can't get over his original sweetheart, who keeps appearing mysteriously in one setting after another.
Whatever It Takes (2000) (PG-13: Frequent comic and sexual vulgarity) * and 1/2. More of the usual in the way of teen provocation: a high-school sex farce with a one-track mind. Stale prurient jokes litter the plot, which imposes dating delusions on senior friends and next-door neighbors, Ryan and Maggie (Shane West and Maria Sokoloff). They get a flukey chance to consort with popular, albeit moronic, classmates, Chris and Ashley (James Franco and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe). Why? Glad you asked. Chris gets a yen to seduce virginal Maggie and persuades Ryan, who should know better, to take slutty Ashley off his hands for the duration. Since Chris is functionally illiterate, a liability somehow overlooked by Maggie, Ryan must act as a Cyrano during the abbreviated courtship.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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