- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

OPENING
America's Sweethearts (2001) (PG-13) A romantic comedy set against the debatably glamorous backdrop of a movie press junket. Staged at a new hotel-casino in Henderson, Nev., this press bash is meant to conceal the permanent estrangement of married co-stars Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas (Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack). Their string of nine hits as America's cinematic sweethearts hit a snag when Gwen fell in love with Latin leading man Hector (Hank Azaria). The studio, represented by Stanley Tucci, would prefer to postpone confirmation of the split until after the new movie has played. Billy Crystal is the veteran publicist entrusted with the cover-up. Eddie's wounded ego, a salvage project for guru Alan Arkin, gets a boost when romance blossoms: Eddie and Gwen's sister Kiki (Julia Roberts), the girl Friday to her famous and demanding sibling for years, find themselves falling in love while the deception unravels. Directed by Joe Roth from a screenplay by Mr. Crystal and Peter Tolan, who also collaborated on "Analyze This."

The King Is Alive (2000) (R) A brainstorm from the so-called Dogme 95 collective, directed by Kristian Levring with a cast that includes Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Janet McTeer and Brion James. The pretext: Bus passengers stranded in a scorching African desert decide to pass the time with a reading of Shakespeare's "King Lear." The reading grows more ominous as their chance of rescue dwindles. A limited engagement, exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

Lost and Delirious (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, involving candid depiction of a lesbian affair between college students) The first English-language feature of an obscure French filmmaker, Lea Pool, working out of Montreal and adapting a novel about a small-town college freshman, Mischa Barton as Mary "Mouse" Bradford. Mary gets caught up in the deceptions surrounding a clandestine lesbian affair between two senior classmates, Piper Perabo as Paulie and Jessica Pare as Tory. The supporting cast includes Jackie Burroughs, Graham Greene, Luke Kirby and Mimi Kuzyk. Screenplay by Judith Thompson, based on the novel by Susan Swan.

Made (2001) (R) A comic reunion vehicle for Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, who enjoyed a mutual breakthrough five years in "Swingers," which was written by Mr. Favreau. He makes a directing debut with his own script in this project while playing an aspiring boxer, Bobby, who holds down day jobs as a construction worker and bouncer. Against his will, Bobby is drawn into a mob courier job by a hapless buddy, Mr. Vaughn's Ricky, an aspiring wise guy. The other principal players are Famke Janssen as Mr. Favreau's girlfriend, Peter Falk as a venerable gangster and Sean Combs (formerly known as "Puff Daddy") as a New Age gangster. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

The Man Who Cried (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) 1/2 *. This is a stilted and ridiculous tearjerker from the English filmmaker Sally Potter. The prologue, which evokes a little girl's love for her papa in a Russian Jewish village, circa 1927, is deceptively touching, thanks to a beguiling juvenile, Claudia Lander-Duke. Alas, she is replaced by the rapidly declining Christina Ricci within about 15 minutes. By that time, little Fegele has become exiled and disenchanted Suzie, an orphan of the storm raised in an uptight English household and then transported to Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation, an inconvenience that seems to come as a total surprise to oblivious Suzie. Befriended by a fortune-hunting Russian, Lola, a ludicrous role for Cate Blanchett, the heroine has joined the chorus of an opera company. John Turturro brings down the house pretending to hit tenor high notes as the star, Dante, an Italian of fascist leanings. The impresario, Harry Dean Stanton, likes to have a mounted gypsy in the background, so enter Johnny Depp and white steed. While Miss Blanchett vamps Mr. Turturro, Mr. Depp stares deep into Miss Ricci's peepers. Delightfully, the horse often makes it a threesome when they date. "Cried" uncorks some of the best titters since Melanie Griffith blundered upon World War II in "Shining Through." A smattering of dialogue in Yiddish with English subtitles.

Under the Sand (2000) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and interludes of exceptional sexual candor, including simulations of intercourse; an episode with strong morbid overtones, set in a morgue) *** 1/2. The best thing of its gravely stirring and intimate kind since Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue." Charlotte Rampling isn't the awesome expressive instrument that Juliette Binoche was in the earlier movie, but she's never had a more substantial and sympathetic role. An account of profound personal loss and its aftermath, the movie is directed with exceptional transparency and assurance by Francois Ozon, 34. He begins with a seaside excursion, introducing Miss Rampling as Marie Drillon, a transplanted Englishwoman who teaches literature at a Paris university, and Bruno Cremer as her husband, Jean, who is ponderous and weary in a way that suggests a lurking coronary. After an afternoon on a nearly deserted beach, Marie awakes from a nap to find that Jean has disappeared without a trace. The remainder of the movie observes the emotional repercussions of this loss, which remains unexplained for quite a while. The ambiguous aspects give Marie some justification for false hope. To the worry of friends, she continues to speak of Jean as if he were still alive and present. Friends attempt to promote a romance with someone else, which makes some headway but still can't replace the heroine's powerful sense of her mate's familiarity and spectral presence. Marie's sorrow is worked out in rational and realistic terms, although the atmosphere is eerie and expectant in ways that could evoke a psychological horror thriller. In French with English subtitles. Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.


NOW SHOWING

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) (PG-13: Sustained sinister emphasis and misanthropic undercurrents in a futuristic setting; fleeting graphic violence; allusions to prostitution and child abuse) **. A cinematic "event," though not necessarily a life-affirming example of posthumous collaboration. Steven Spielberg appears to achieve a faithful realization of an unfinished Stanley Kubrick project, a dystopian fable that anticipates a terminally blighted future on Earth. We observe the strangely ramifying odyssey of a robot lad played by Haley Joel Osment. Called David, this lost and lovelorn domestic appliance is destined to suffer heartache and peril before achieving a belated apotheosis, some 2,000 years down the line and after an ice age seems to eliminate all vestiges of a human population. The whole conception is misanthropically crackpot, but Mr. Spielberg makes an arguably haunting pictorial spectacle of David's torturous trek, simulating spooky, visionary, ultimately submerged environments that may prove memorably nightmarish. Deriving "hopeful" notes from David's long, long journey will require a heap of wishful thinking.

The Anniversary Party (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional nudity and episodes depicting drug use) ***. A surprisingly fresh and diverting ensemble comedy about denizens of contemporary Hollywood from the curious team of Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who collaborate as writers, directors and co-stars. The setting is a Richard Neutra house in the Hollywood Hills. It's the residence of Mr. Cumming as "bad boy British novelist" and aspiring movie director Joe Therrian, and Miss Leigh as his American actress wife, Sally. Recently reconciled after an estrangement, they are hosting a somewhat rashly optimistic sxith wedding anniversary party, attended mostly by show business friends, played by friends of the co-stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates (also Mrs. Kline), Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly, Jane Adams, Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey. The outsiders on the guest list are Mina Badie and Denis O'Hare as neighbors, who may forget a lawsuit if permitted to rub elbows with celebrities. Miss Badie and Miss Cates prove the secret weapons in the cast. The material hits a snag in the last half hour, when Mr. Cumming and Miss Leigh start sparring in the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" idiom. They're admirably confident and deft with the preliminaries and group dynamics, the wittiest episodes of their kind since Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin updated Hollywood insecurities in "The Player." Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.

Baby Boy (2001) (R: "Strong sexuality, language, violence and some drug use" according to the MPAA; incessant profanity and sexual vulgarity, with occasional and hyperbolic simulations of intercourse; occasional graphic violence, including interludes of domestic violence) *. A tedious homecoming polemic from John Singleton, conspicuously overrated for his debut feature, "Boyz N the Hood," in 1991. This 10th anniversary update on the state of ominous inertia threatening delinquent young black men in seemingly bleak and crime-infested suburbs of Los Angeles stagnates around the domesticity of Tyrese Gibson as a young wastrel named Jody. The filmmaker seems to resist getting on with things, since the scenario grows maddeningly repetitive, alternating cycles of rants, lectures and sex scenes, augmented by the occasional punchout or shootout.

Cats & Dogs (2001) (PG: "for animal action and humor" by the MPAA reckoning; occasional slapstick violence and vulgarity) *. A strident and ragged trick-shot farce about a rivalry between neighborhood pets, triggered by a power-crazed Persian cat named Mr. Tinkles, dubbed by Sean Hayes. A counter-espionage pooch network, operating near the home of an absentminded allergy researcher (Jeff Goldblum) is prepared to fight fire with fire. The easygoing approach to talking-animal gags in "Dr. Dolittle 2" proves far more satisfying. A good deal of "Cats & Dogs" is pitched at such a shriek that turning it off would seem merciful.

The Closet (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and systematic sexual candor in a farcical context; frequent allusions to homosexuality; fleeting nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse) ***. The French humorist Francis Veber remains in chipper form with this office-place farce about topical misapprehensions as a follow-up to his ingenious "The Dinner Game." A mild-mannered accountant named Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), who faces unemployment and demoralization, starts a rumor that he is a closet homosexual. The ruse saves his job, much to the chagrin of a personnel manager, Felix Santini (Gerard Depardieu). In French with English subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

Divided We Fall (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence in a realistic context of World War II enmity and suspense) *** 1/2. This Czech gem is the fourth collaboration from the young team of director Jan Hrebejk, 34, and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky, 35. A fable of wartime survival and courage among frightened and compromised civilians, the movie concerns a mature but childless couple, Josef and Marie Cizek (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova). The movie thrives on domesticated gallows humor in a sinister historical context. It's a perilous balancing act, but the filmmakers demonstrate more or less flawless balance until the denouement, when things go woozy, in part because Mr. Hrebejk overworks a slow-motion affectation that turns the images jittery to a fault. In Czech and German with English subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

Everybody's Famous (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor in a satirical context; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) *** 1/2. An exceptionally clever Belgian satire about the wrongheaded triumphs of a working-class family man who covets pop renown for himself and a beloved, chunky, surly teen-age daughter. Loss of employment aggravates the opportunistic side of this essentially harmless chucklehead, Jean Vereecken (Josse De Pauw). He seizes a sudden opportunity to kidnap pop recording star Debbie (Thekla Reuten) and make demands on her manager, Michael (Victor Low), who agrees to listen to a Jean tune and audition Jean's daughter Marva (Eva Van der Gucht). The unsavory aspects of the plot are manipulated with a skill that really does recall Preston Sturges at his most inventive and slippery. Jean's sneakiness is eventually dwarfed by Michael's; Debbie's plight turns out to be a blessing, since she meets a swell guy in Jean's apologetic buddy Willy (Werner De Smedt); and Marva gets a break that confirms all the fondest delusions of the starstruck. The appreciation for human folly is effectively balanced between mockery and affection. In Flemish with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) (PG-13: "science-fiction action violence" according to the MPAA; systematic ominous depiction of futuristic settings and alien monsters; occasional graphic violence) *. Another spinoff of a popular video game series, this time directed by the Japanese designer himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi. This tribute to his clout cannot conceal his absence of feature-length experience and staying power. The movie expires on an inconclusive note after 104 tedious minutes of science-fiction scare-mongering, myth-trifling and franchise-tending. Viewers will be left wondering, "Whose final fantasy?" and "What spirits are those?" Supposedly, they can be captured by the fragile heroine, Aki Ross, dubbed by Ming-Na of the "ER" series, and put to prodigious healing uses. Aki and her crackpot mentor, Dr. Sid (voice of Donald Sutherland, weirdly attached to a digital humanoid who resembles Harold Prince), believe that a ravaged Earth, circa 2065, can somehow reach a peaceful accommodation with the Phantoms, loathsomely tendrilly and ravenous aliens who have been spreading devastation and gulping the population for a couple of generations. Nothing decisive gets settled before pokey "Fantasy" runs out of combative and philosophical gas.

Jurassic Park III (2001) (PG-13: "sensuality and some language" according to the MPAA) A second sequel to the Michael Crichton best-seller about a boobytrapped habitat for cloned dinosaurs, initially filmed with an entertaining fidelity by Steven Spielberg in 1993. Sam Neill returns to the cast as paleontologist Alan Grant, whose studies have fallen on hard times in the interim. He agrees to a lucrative offer from a couple played by Tea Leoni and William H. Macy, joining their reckless flight over seriously infested Isla Sorna, which neighbors the original dinosaur haunt of Isla Nublar. The struggle to get out alive also preoccupies Alessandro Nivola as Dr. Grant's associate and Trevor Morgan as a teen-age boy. Laura Dern makes a brief appearance in her original role as Mr. Neill's colleague.

Legally Blonde (2001) (PG-13: "Language and sexual references," according to the MPAA; fleeting profanity and persistent comic vulgarity, usually pertaining to sex) 1/2 *. This chuckleheaded romantic farce sort of "Clueless" for the genuinely clueless champions Reese Witherspoon as a Beverly Hills coed, rich girl and redeemable airhead, Elle Woods, who resolves to enter Harvard Law School when ditched by a snobbish boyfriend headed toward that institution of learning. The filmmakers flail around trying to rationalize one idiotic episode after another. For starters, there's no compelling reason to follow the wretched boyfriend (Matthew Davis) around the corner, let alone across the country. At first Elle is a Harvard laughing stock, but the movie then overcompensates and turns her into Harvard's pride and joy. Ultimately, everyone is expected to grovel at Elle's feet. With Luke Wilson, shortchanged as a new beau, and Jennifer Coolidge, pathetically wasted as a sadsack Cambridge manicurist.

Memento (2001) (R: Occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) *** 1/2. Potentially the movie of the season and perhaps the year. This exceptionally intriguing and skillful psychological thriller centers on an act of murder. Guy Pearce plays a lost soul named Leonard Shelby. Traumatized by a crime that left him with a head injury and cost the life of his wife, Shelby claims to be searching for her elusive killer. However, he also suffers from severe short-term memory loss. Everything that happens after the crime becomes hazy within a matter of hours. Shelby tries to compensate with such mementos as Polaroid photos and tattoed messages on his body. Written and directed by a young British filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, "Memento" takes an ominous, heartsick approach that works brilliantly much of the time, reinforced by Mr. Pearce's distinctive oddness and eloquence. Joe Pantolino and Carrie-Anne Moss play the other principal characters, acquaintances who may or may not be trustworthy. Some dubious, pulpy fakeouts weaken the final episodes, but Mr. Nolan has achieved a genuine tour de force while operating kind of under Hollywood's nose. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.

The Princess and the Warrior (2000) (R: Systematic morbid content; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional sexual candor; several episodes involving the inmates of a mental asylum; fleeting nudity) 1/2 *. This is the crackpot new feature from Tom Tykwer, the German director who enjoyed an art-house vogue with the chase thriller "Run, Lola, Run." The same leading lady, Franka Potente, is cast as the heroine in this near-epic fable of coincidental redemption. The nurse in a mental asylum, attending a group that bears curious resemblances to the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" psychotics, Miss Potente's Sissi is nearly killed by a speeding truck. A haunted stranger on the run, Bodo (Benno Furmann), miraculously saves her life by improvising a breathing tube at the scene of the calamity. He vanishes in the emergency room, but Sissi finds him again, holed up with his brother in a hilltop shack. Bodo spurns her grateful overtures. By an amazing coincidence she turns up at a bank being robbed by Bodo and brother. A shooting ensues. Sissi gets to return the life-saving favor by hiding the injured Bodo in her workplace to the jealous rage of an inmate who regards her as a kind of sex toy. Eventually, the star-crossed lovers engineer a Great Escape, executing a "Thelma & Louise" leap of faith from rooftop to mud puddle during a torrential downpour. In German with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

The Road Home (2000) (G: No objectionable dialogue or depiction) ****. An exquisite new sentimental masterpiece from the esteemed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the director of "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Story of Qui Ju." A flashback elegy celebrating a tenacious love match, the movie begins with a sorrowful homecoming: a businessman named Luo Yusheng returns to the village in north China where he was born to attend the funeral of his father. He discovers that his grief-stricken mother, Zhao Di, is determined to observe age-old but impractical rites. Zhang Ziyi, who played the dangerous ingenue in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," assumes the role of Zhao Di in her impassioned youth, as flashbacks depict the events that caused her enduring devotion to her late husband. The courtship is soul-stirring and life-affirming in freshly satisfying ways. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

Scary Movie 2 (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and systematic comic vulgarity, emphasizing obscene sightgags; occasional simulations of outrageous sexual acts; fleeting allusions to drug use) No stars. The sequel to the obnoxious farcical hit of a year ago. The flukey nature of the initial appeal should be demonstrated by the encore's quick fade. Keenen Ivory Wayans and his fellow pranksters continue to make like parodistic mad dogs while flogging highlights and cliches wrenched from horror thrillers.

The Score (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence; episodes involving the impersonation of a mentally retarded character) ***. The first cerebral crime melodrama of the summer season, predicated on a cat-and-mouse rivalry between a veteran safecracker played by Robert DeNiro and a brash, devious interloper played by Edward Norton. The principal setting is Montreal, where Mr. DeNiro's Nick Wells runs a jazz club and has promised to settle down with consort Angela Bassett, avoiding future criminal capers. Mr. Norton's Jackie Teller believes he has an irresistible inside deal that could lead to the theft of a rare treasure from the Montreal Customs House. Director Frank Oz gives the production a very attractive pictorial finish while encouraging us to root for the wily old campaigner and distrust the overconfident punk. Marlon Brando, looking as big as a customs house, proves a richly entertaining kibitzer as Nick's friend and fence. There are no car chases or shootouts, a form of self-denial that is probably going to elevate "The Score" to decisive popularity in the minds of many spectators. Now that so many summer thrillers have reminded us that more can be less, "The Score" cleverly demonstrates how less can be more.


MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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