- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

OPENING

Bossa Nova (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor) * 1/2. A scenically lush, good-natured, excessively trifling romantic farce from Bruno Barreto. The setting, Rio de Janeiro, may provide adequate intoxication or bemusement. Mrs. Barreto, Amy Irving, is the demure leading lady of this homecoming whimsy: a widow who lives in Rio and teaches English. A private pupil, an avaricious soccer star, becomes a minor complication as her love life blossoms. She attracts a more respectable admirer in Alexandre Borges, an attorney who diverged from a family of tailors and still has garment-making skills of his own, sweetly revived at one point to fashion a blouse for Miss Irving. A multiple marital loser, he is harassed by a sultry ex who wants to reconcile. Miss Irving expects to meet an Internet romance flying in from the United States. He turns up in the dumpy person of Stephen Tobolowsky. Meanwhile, Mr. Borges has a younger brother smitten with an intern who crosses paths with the other characters. The lighthearted, enchanting intentions are obvious; the consistency is haphazard at best. With some dialogue in Portuguese with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Avalon and Shirlington.

8 1/2 Women (2000) (R) An allegorical erotic digression from the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose specialty is elaborately stylized degeneracy. He casts John Standing and Matthew Delamere as aspiring libertines, father and son. Inspired by a screening of Federico Fellini's autobiographical fantasy "8 1/2," the admirers decide to bankroll a bordello of their own at an estate in Geneva. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) (No MPAA Rating a sports documentary with fleeting profanity in some interview and archival footage; by and large quite suitable for general audiences) ****. The sublime and irresistible labor of love of Washington documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who began to compile a movie biopic about the great Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg in 1986, soon after his death. The effort took about 10 years longer than she anticipated, but the results are enormously satisfying, an astute and entertaining career chronicle that also broadens into invaluable social and cultural history. Greenberg's importance to Jewish-American sports fans of the 1930s and 1940s is amply demonstrated, in part by the testimony of celebrities from Walter Matthau to Alan Dershowitz but also by the eloquent recollections of unknown fans, whose devotion provides an extraordinary sentimental bonus. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts in Fairfax and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle in the District.

Passion of Mind (2000) (PG-13) Another variation on the alternative lives theme that has persisted from "The Double Life of Veronique" through "Sliding Doors." Demi Moore enacts the dual roles in this mirror-image romantic and domestic melodrama. The intertwined heroines are called Marie and Marty. The former is an American widow residing in the south of France with two daughters, the latter a glamorous career woman who resides in Manhattan but longs for a retreat in Provence. Perhaps they possess complementary dream lives; perhaps one is a figment of the other's imagination. The scenario is calculated to maximize ambiguity about which woman is more real and which more illusory. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington and the Regal Ballston Common.

Shanghai Noon (2000) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and occasional comic vulgarity, including humorous sexual allusions) *** 1/2. One of the best punning titles ever coined and a wonderful, giddy entertainment. Jackie Chan takes his acrobatic and slapstick skills to the American West of 1880, cast as an obedient Imperial Guard ordered to find and ransom a kidnapped princess, Lucy Liu. The Calgary region substitutes admirably for locales that purport to be near Carson City, Nev. Forced to jump from a moving train in the aftermath of a bungled robbery attempt, the stranded hero ingratiates himself with an Indian tribe, then teams up with the easygoing leader of the bandits Owen Wilson in what should prove the defining, crowd-pleasing role of his career.

NOW SHOWING

Battlefield Earth (2000) (PG-13: Sustained sinister atmosphere and occasional graphic violence within a science-fiction format) 1/2 *. A slovenly fiasco, the sorry result of a prolonged labor of love on the part of star John Travolta, who aspired to film the source material for about two decades. Derived from a science-fiction adventure spectacle by L. Ron Hubbard, the movie deploys Mr. Travolta as a would-be Goliath: Terl, the contemptuous 10-foot chief of security for a race of alien invaders called Psychlos, which have subjugated Earth in time for the year 3000. A human slave remnant remains, laboring in mines that the conquerors intend to exploit to the last nugget before looking for another planet to ravage. The movie topples from sheer pictorial ineptitude and klutziness before Mr. Travolta makes his entrance, in costuming so ponderous and absurd that no one can possibly sustain a performance inside it.

The Big Kahuna (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, comic and sexual vulgarity; calculated ridicule of a character who professes to be a devout Baptist) **. A very modest theater piece by Roger Rueff, titled "Hospitality Suite," transposed to the screen. Two veteran salesmen for a lubricant manufacturer in Wichita, Kan., must swallow their failure to make contact with a pivotal client. To their chagrin, he has made the acquaintance of their untutored assistant, a young man more concerned with witnessing for Christ than transacting business. The situation is humorously promising, and all the performers have their moments: Mr. Spacey and Danny DeVito as the respectively cynical and weary old hands, Peter Facinelli as the troublesome believer. Unfortunately, Mr. Rueff can't seem to put a cap on it. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.

Center Stage (2000) (PG-13) A backstage romantic melodrama about young aspirants auditioning for a ballet company in New York City. The most authentic cast members are Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky of the American Ballet Theatre. Not reviewed.

Croupier (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, nudity and graphic violence) *** 1/2. This cleverly abstracted and misleading crime fable blends hard-boiled and literary pretensions with exceptional wit. The plot springs conspicuous leaks, but enough novelty and entertainment value accumulate to make a persuasive case for indulgence. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry.

Dinosaur (2000) (PG: Sustained suspense about prehistoric animals threatened with catastrophe; fleeting graphic violence but a stronger sense of mortality than one anticipates in animated features) *** 1/2. The scenically impressive "Dinosaur," the debut production of Disney's computer-animation division, shows a flair for epic depiction that keeps elevating the conception even after the prehistoric characters begin to speak and acquire ingenuous Disney attributes. The exodus narrative keeps an array of Cretaceous Period critters in serious, demanding peril, trekking from devastated habitats to a remote haven after the heavens rain down meteor showers. "Dinosaur" should become a landmark in animated spectacle while juggling odd and sometimes contradictory ingredients.

East Is East (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, comic vulgarity and interludes of graphic domestic violence) **. A lively but also crass and vulgar domestic comedy-drama about the turmoil aroused in an English-Pakistani family when the patriarch, Om Puri as George Khan, proprietor of a fish-and-chips shop in Manchester circa 1971, presumes to play matchmaker for the eldest of six sons. His boys have no intention of consenting to arranged marriages within the Muslim community. The conflict drives George to extremes that culminate in abuse of his loyal, English-born spouse, Ella, played by Linda Bassett. Writer Ayub Khan-Din seems to lack the time or resources to invent an adequate reconciliation. It's as if everyone suspected that the plot had derailed but felt helpless to remedy the calamity. Director Damien O'Donnell doesn't seem to regard comic nuance as a useful instrument in this debut feature, but he shouldn't lack for offers to supervise knockabout farce.

East-West (1999) (PG-13) The French director of "Indochine," Regis Wargnier, collaborates again with Catherine Deneuve while turning his attention to Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Oleg Menchikov is cast as a Russian exile in France who succumbs to the euphoria of victory and patriotism and accepts a Soviet offer of repatriation. Soon after returning with his French-born wife and son, he begins to regret the homecoming. With Sandrine Bonnaire and Sergei Bodrov Jr. In French and Russian with English subtitles. Not reviewed.

Gladiator (2000) (R: Frequent graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details, against a backdrop of second-century imperial Rome) **. Flurries of scenic grandeur and visceral spectacle fail to sustain this Ridley Scott solemnity, set in the second century. The pivotal competitive question: Does it measure up to "Spartacus"? The answer: a resounding no. The saga begins in 180, when a dying Marcus Aurelius, impressively played by Richard Harris, fails in a last-ditch effort to deprive his sniveling spawn, the hilariously inadequate Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, of the empire by inducing an esteemed general, Russell Crowe as the virtuous Maximus, to accept adoption and the throne. This historically fanciful gambit comes too late. A jealous Commodus perhaps suffocates his papa and then endeavors to kill his reluctant rival. The imperiled hero escapes death but discovers his family in Spain slaughtered. Captured and enslaved, he supposedly engineers a swift comeback while bound to a gladiatorial entrepreneur from the North African provinces a good farewell role for the late Oliver Reed. The always-defective screenplay pretends that Maximus can openly defy the wicked and seething emperor when he returns as the superlethal star of Mr. Reed's troupe.

Hamlet (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) ***. A surprisingly inventive and effective update of the Shakespearean classic. Liberated from any need to make it "complete" after Kenneth Branagh's version, director Michael Almereyda skims resourcefully while exploiting spooky and icy New York City locations as his Elsinore. Several cast members who look inadequate at the outset, notably Ethan Hawke as a movie- and video-fixated Hamlet, rise to the occasion sooner or later. Liev Schreiber and Sam Shepard are strong all the way through as Laertes and the Ghost, respectively. Mr. Almereyda probably has contrived the most entertaining modern-dress "Hamlet" in film history, wedding clever illustrative details to highlights that do justice to many famous scenes and speeches. While not as authoritative, the Almereyda version proves more fun than the Branagh production.

I Dreamed of Africa (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; episodes involving family tragedy, including a death by snakebite) * 1/2. A solemn and fatuous vanity production for Kim Basinger, cast as a bwana lady of Italian extraction. One assumes director Hugh Hudson and his colleagues have trivialized the source material, a best-selling memoir about homesteading in Kenya by Kuki Gallmann, evidently an update of the Karen Blixen of "Out of Africa." Often inert and inexpressive, Miss Basinger is not quite the acting instrument Meryl Streep was as Blixen. The characters seem to have blundered into a kind of Cold Comfort Ranch, but all the best laughs are unintentional.[ Love and Basketball (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; interludes of marital discord) * 1/2. A savory pretext spoiled by imprudent elaboration and fanatic romanticism on the part of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. She proves her own worst enemy while stringing out this love story about basketball jocks, Omar Epps as Quincy McCall and Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright. Next-door neighbors in the Baldwin Hills suburb of Los Angeles, they star simultaneously for Crenshaw High, then go to the University of Southern California as sweethearts. Quincy gets off to a fast start as a Trojan while Monica struggles. Eventually, their athletic fortunes flip-flop, and this development appears to dampen Quincy's ardor decisively. Miss Prince-Bythewood can't seem to stand the idea that these two might not be meant eternally for each other, so she manipulates the last act to defy all the probabilities. She insists on a preposterous happy ending.

M:I-2 (2000) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence with fantastic trappings; occasional profanity, sexual candor and calculated sexual amorality) * 1/2. The official shorthand for "Mission: Impossible, Part II," which remains the title in the opening credits. Tom Cruise, digitally enhanced with a vengeance, is introduced climbing sheer cliffs in an impossible fashion during the prologue. His character, Ethan Hunt, should be frankly acknowledged as a comic-book or science-fiction pixie to rationalize stunts that depend on absurd feats of levitation or elasticity. This tedious, mechanistic sequel also minimizes the "team" concept while glorifying Mr. Cruise as an incredible hotshot. Hunt is assigned by Anthony Hopkins to foil an IMF renegade, Dougray Scott, hiding in Australia while planning to blackmail the world with a killer virus. Mr. Cruise must seduce Thandie Newton, a glamorous burglar, and then persuade her to betray the villain, a former boyfriend. Ving Rhames is mostly stuck at his laptop as Mr. Cruise's holdover sidekick. The obligatory chases and fight scenes couldn't be more stale.

Road Trip (2000) (R: Occasional profanity; frequent comic and sexual vulgarity; frequent and approving allusions to marijuana use; fleeting nudity and farcical depictions of intercourse; an extended sequence about sperm extraction) **. A proficient but rather muffled picaresque-collegiate farce predicated on the idea that a quartet of classmates from mythical Ithaca University must drive to equally mythical Austin University to retrieve a homemade sex video that could prove incriminating. A few farcical highlights, both deadpan and aggressively lewd, may suffice for box-office success, but quite a few films from "Animal House" through "American Pie" demonstrated more prowess of an outrageous sort.

Small Time Crooks (2000) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) * 1/2. A freshly negligible Woody Allen farce, which begins on a promising Runyonesque note. Mr. Allen and Tracey Ullman co-star as a felonious New York couple, Ray and Frenchy Winkler. Ray presumes to mastermind a ridiculous bank robbery soon after his parole. He recruits Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport as bumbling, amusing confederates. The robbery fizzles but fate smiles on the Winklers, anyway: Frenchy has been running a cookie shop as a front, and her cookies prove the rage of Manhattan. At this juncture Mr. Allen shifts to drawing room farce, with the nouveau riche pretensions of Frenchy as the pivotal element. While she warms to a classy young opportunist played by Hugh Grant, Mr. Allen becomes rather superfluous like his discarded robbery accomplices. The resolution is trite and suspect: a reaffirmation of the Simple Things after the Winklers go broke. Elaine May has been coaxed into a supporting role as a Gracie Allen type and Miss Ullman's sister. "Crooks" simply deflates and evaporates.

Time Code (2000) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor, including interludes of simulated intercourse; graphic violence during the finale) *. Mike Figgis' uninspired attempt to revamp conventional film narrative. The plot unfolds, clumsily, in quadrants, the result of tracking various characters with four digital cameras for a fixed period of time. The action is supposed to be continuous in real time. The threadbare characters are supposed to be Hollywood types who cross paths in and around a production office on the Sunset Strip. Four amusing earthquakes oblige camera operators and cast members to feign getting all shook up simultaneously. A clever, upbeat mystery plot might have allowed Mr. Figgis to demonstrate something pictorially tricky yet enjoyable. A slack writing job has left him with a stale plot, a prolonged buildup to murder. The system of illusion doesn't improve because you have multiple vantage points that fail to sustain curiosity. U-571 (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, in a setting of World War II naval combat) **. A diverting and sometimes explosively effective submarine thriller especially when depth charges are going off on the soundtrack. The underwater setup suggests an amalgam of "Das Boot" and "The Hunt for Red October," although director and co-writer Jonathan Mostow doesn't have quite as much luck or staying power with his system of make-believe. Assigned a mission that would have been monopolized by the Royal Navy during the ostensible time frame, the spring of 1942, an American sub under the command of Bill Paxton sails to the North Atlantic disguised as a German counterpart, U-571, which carries the prototype of a new coding machine. The Americans are supposed to rendezvous with the target while disguised as another U-Boat, then seize crew and precious cargo. The exchange goes awry, obliging the surviving Americans to make their escape in the captured but crippled U-571, a target for both German and Allied warships. Claustrophobic and submerged perils predominate over patriotic posturing, but the characters fall short of heroic variety and distinction. With Matthew McConaughey as a valiant young executive officer, Harvey Keitel as a crusty chief, Jake Weber and David Keith as naval intelligence spooks and Jack Noseworthy, Thomas Guiry, Will Estes and T.C. Carson as tenacious crewmen.

Up at the Villa (1999) (PG-13: Fleeting graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) ***. An entertaining follow-up to last year's evocation of Florence in the late 1930s, "Tea With Mussolini." Derived from a novella by Somerset Maugham, this confident blend of romantic and political intrigue matches Kristin Scott Thomas as a widowed, penniless Englishwoman with Sean Penn as a droll American playboy. She is being urged to marry diplomat James Fox to escape debt and solitude. While brooding about it, she unwisely takes erotic pity on a refugee played by Jeremy Davies. Correctly surmising that Mr. Penn is a resourceful wastrel, she pleads with him to help her out of a jam. He does and gets in trouble with police chief Massimo Ghini, a conspicuous member of the "Tea With Mussolini" cast. The heroine must reciprocate the hero's favor, by which time she has a pretty good idea whose company might suit her best. This project reunites Miss Scott Thomas with Philip Haas, the director of "Angels & Insects." He knows how to showcase her refinement and vulnerability, even in oddly compromising circumstances. The comic bonus is giving Mr. Penn a fresh identity as a gallant rascal. He's fun to watch in the sort of role that used to be associated with Cary Grant or William Powell. With Anne Bancroft as the queen of the Anglo-American expatriate community in Florence circa 1938.

The Virgin Suicides (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence; facetious allusions to teen-age suicide, promiscuity and drug use) 1/2 *. The debut feature of Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. She squanders the privilege by doting on a morbidly comic and allegorical novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, who simulates coldblooded detachment while debunking the "golden girl" allure that may or may not surround a sheltered quintet of sisters: Kirsten Dunst, Hanna Hall, Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook and Leslie Hayman. They are kept in relative seclusion by parents Kathleen Turner and James Woods in a suburban enclave of Detroit in the 1970s. While targeted for ridicule, the parents don't seem especially affluent: Dad is a high-school math teacher. Something or other leads to mass tragedy, recalled in the present by young men who supposedly desired the ill-fated Lisbon sisters. Steeped in arbitrary malice, this fable seems to scorn or liquidate characters without any expectation of being held to strict standards of credibility.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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