- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

OPENING

• Alex & Emma (2003) (PG: Occasional sexual innuendo and candor) — *1/2. Rob Reiner’s struggle to regain a confident comic form continues in this clumsily capricious romantic comedy. It matches Kate Hudson as a skeptical stenographer with Luke Wilson as a feckless, desperate novelist. Supposedly, the heroine is hired to transcribe a manuscript the hero needs to compose from scratch in 30 days. He’s in debt to mobsters who threaten to cripple him if he doesn’t cough up his princely advance. Facetiousness is never the movie’s strong point. What becomes the conception is the idea that falling in love with Miss Hudson is the best thing that could happen to Mr. Wilson. They’re quite appealing when the tone grows tender and sincere. Unfortunately, the movie is far more wrongheaded and gauche than beguiling. Mr. Reiner has a bit role as the book’s publisher.

• From Justin to Kelly: The Tale of Two American Idols (2003) (PG) — A self-explanatory show biz chronicle about the first set of finalists in the “American Idol” television series, Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson. Already subject to a handful of postponements, this pop culture spinoff was directed by Robert Iscove. Not reviewed.

• Hulk (2003) (PG-13) — Ang Lee’s movie version of the Marvel Comics prototype, who surfaced as a comic book titan in 1962 and enjoyed TV popularity as “The Incredible Hulk” from 1977-1982. Eric Bana inherits the updated identity of genetic researcher Bruce Banner, transformed during a lab accident that bombards him with gamma radiation. The ultimate side-effect is a shapeshifting transformation into the Hulk, a behemoth given to destructive rampages. The supporting cast includes Jennifer Connelly as Banner’s sweetheart, Nick Nolte as his sinister dad and Sam Elliott as the general assigned the daunting task of capturing the fugitive Hulk. With bit performances by Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee and body builder Lou Ferrigno, who impersonated the Hulk on television.

• Whale Rider (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting episodes of intense family conflict; sustained ominous elements that place a child in jeopardy; fleeting graphic violence) *1/2 A New Zealand import contrived to glorify Maori renewal through girl power for members of a seacoast tribe. The mulish elderly patriarch, Rawiri Paratene, refuses to recognize his granddaughter, Keisha Castle-Hughes, as a legitimate heir and suitable candidate for warrior training and mythology. Director Niki Caro is not a Maori herself. Subject to repeated lapses of attention and continuity, she thinks it’s fine to reawaken cultural superstition and mysticism as long as there’s a good chance that a little princess will be worshipped. The title alludes to a legend that tribal salvation will come when a new chief rides the back of a whale, a miracle that never looks persuasive as cinematic spectacle.

NOW SHOWING

• L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) (R: strong sexuality; brief nudity; profanity) — **. Like MTV’s “The Real World,” the long-running reality series from which French writer-director Cedric Klapisch basically derives his formula, “L’Auberge” intimately peeps into the lives of an emotionally charged bunch of young adults moving in tight quarters in a slovenly group house, located in uber-hip Barcelona. For Mr. Klapisch, it’s like a microcosmic version of greater Europe. Where he fails with the film is that he set out to make his little Europe look like a zesty salad, but it turned out looking more like a pudding. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Bend It Like Beckham (2001) (PG-13: Occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; fleeting profanity) — *1/2. A gauche blend of ethnic domestic farce and youthful sports melodrama, revolving around Parminder Nagra as the younger daughter in a transplanted Sikh family living in suburban London. The family episodes rival “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for complacent vulgarity. Evenhanded in her buffoonery, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha is also chummy to a fault while lampooning Juliet Stevenson as an anxious English mum of the upper middle class, alarmed at her daughter’s soccer team friendship with Jess. The game footage has scant regard for authenticity.

• Blue Car — (2003) (R: Strong language, one sexual situation and scenes of shoplifting) — ***. Relative unknown Agnes Bruckner shines in this touching film centered on a teen poet crushed by those closest to her. Miss Bruckner is Meg, a beautiful high school senior headed to Florida to compete in a poetry contest. She owes it all to her kind English teacher (the underappreciated David Strathairn) but his intentions become cloudy as the film wears on. Strong support by Margaret Colin as Meg’s self-absorbed mother lifts “Blue Car” from its occasionally mawkish moments. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Bruce Almighty (2003) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions) — **1/2. The idea of Jim Carrey as a loose cannon permitted to play God for a short period of time sounds promising, and “Bruce Almighty” realizes the promise in scattered slapstick gags and whimsies. It won’t survive much seriocomic reflection and gets mawkish to a fault in the last reel. Mr. Carrey as Bruce Nolan, a disgruntled TV personality in Buffalo, N.Y., is the squeaky wheel that God, personified by Morgan Freeman, singles out for humbling attention, perhaps in answer to the prayers of a long-suffering girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston). The best comedy sequences match Mr. Carrey and Mr. Freeman or illustrate the mischievous liberties Bruce takes when trying out his prowess as a godlike apprentice.

• Capturing the Friedmans (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with frequent profanity and sexual candor; fleeting glimpses of pornographic illustrations; recollections of a criminal case involving charges of sexual molestation) — ***1/2. An extraordinarily, painfully revealing documentary feature about the ordeal of a family in Great Neck, N.Y., that suffered public disgrace in the late 1980s. A postal sting aimed at the distribution of child pornography led to the arrest of a science teacher named Arnold Friedman, now deceased. The original search for pornographic literature led to graver accusations of child molestation, predicated on the fact that Mr. Friedman taught piano and computer lessons at home. Eventually, his teenage son Jesse was accused of being an accomplice in sexual abuse. Both pleaded guilty and were sent to prison. Director Andrew Jarecki drew on the home movies and video recordings kept by the eldest son, David Friedman. He shares a strange and haunted family chronicle, including candid video evidence of the domestic torment that accompanied the Friedmans’ efforts to defend themselves against legal jeopardy. It appears that the criminal charges may have been fabricated to a considerable extent. Nevertheless, the late Mr. Friedman is also unmasked as a confessed pedophile. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003) (PG-13) — A teenage footnote to the 1994 farce “Dumb and Dumber,” which co-starred Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels and launched the Farrelly Brothers as major movie humorists. Two young actors, Eric Christian Olsen and Derek Richardson, embody the same characters as moronic high school students, approximately 15 years before the misadventures depicted in the original film.

• The Dancer Upstairs (2003) (R: Occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details, some involving the mutilation of animals; occasional profanity and sexual candor) — **. An intriguing but far from reliable or streamlined directorial debut from John Malkovich, who recruited the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare to adapt his own 1993 novel. The book fictionalized the circumstances that led to the capture of Abimael Guzman, the founding fanatic of the “Shining Path” terrorist movement in Peru. Guzman was discovered hiding in a flat above a dance studio in Lima, and the author backtracked from that detail, using a tenacious police detective as his protagonist. The role of this admirable but melancholy lawman, Agustin Rejas, proves burdensome for the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, in part because Mr. Malkovich lingers to a fault. He holds cast members in close-up too long, and the key players are Europeans without ready fluency in English dialogue. The continuity does a lot of drifting, but there are compelling interludes and moments scattered throughout, so it’s possible to argue that patience is rewarded.

• Finding Nemo (2003) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — ****. In this first family attraction of the summer season, the estimable Pixar animators continue to blend illustrative sophistication and humorous invention with sound story construction. A widowed, overprotective clownfish called Marlin (Albert Brooks seems his perfect vocal embodiment) embarks on a desperate quest across the Great Barrier Reef to retrieve his kid Nemo, who has ended up in the aquarium of a dentist in Sydney, Australia. Marlin acquires a memory-challenged traveling companion in Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. An abundance of marine life alternately aids and obstructs their rescue mission. The voice cast also includes Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe, Barry Humphries, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, John Ratzenberger (as a precision “school” of fish) and Elizabeth Perkins.

• Hollywood Homicide (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence; fleeting profanity and sexual candor) — *1/2. The return of facetious cop-buddy escapades. Harrison Ford plays the senior maverick in a robbery-homicide team while Josh Hartnett plays the junior partner. Their ostensibly urgent case involves mass murder at a hip-hop club, but the grim elements are always overshadowed by intramural squabbles and the pressures of moonlighting jobs. The movie’s fundamental worthlessness is difficult to overlook, especially when chase sequences become interminable and the only character with a somewhat interesting profile, Isaiah Washington as a recording executive, ends up as a token villain. With Dwight Yoakam, Lena Olin, Bruce Greenwood, Lolita Davidovich, Keith David and Lou Diamond Phillips, doing a single scene as a vice cop in drag.

• The Italian Job (2003) (PG:13: Strong language, vehicular mayhem, occasional gunplay). — **1/2. Mark Wahlberg heads an eclectic cast in this stylish but forgettable remake of the 1969 original starring Michael Caine. Mr. Wahlberg’s gang of thieves swipes $35 million in gold from a Venice home, then get held up by a traitorous member of their own gang (Edward Norton). What results is a slick tale of manipulation and revenge elevated by its strong cast (Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron and Seth Green among them) and international settings. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Man on a Train (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence) — **1/2.”Man on a Train” matches a pair of guys who may not have much to live for: the venerable pop star Johnny Hallyday as a craggy-faced, tight-lipped man of mystery who arrives by train in a provincial town and finds shelter with Jean Rochefort, a retired and chatty schoolteacher who welcomes companionship. The actors generate an odd couple chemistry that seems unique and appealing. While recognizing the humor in this freakish friendship, French filmmaker Patrice Leconte neglects to give it a satisfying comic framework. The payoffs are a keen letdown. In French with English subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.

• Marooned in Iraq (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with allusions to mass murder and the plight of refugees; fleeting graphic violence and sexual candor) — **. An exotic odyssey from a Kurdish Iranian filmmaker named Bahman Ghobadi, who travels in regions rarely seen on the screen while depicting the efforts of an elderly father and his two middle-aged sons to locate a former spouse rumored to be alive and in dire straits in refugee camps. In Farsi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• The Matrix Reloaded (2003) (R: Extreme violence, a brief sexual situation, strong language) — ***. “The Matrix” revolutionized the modern action sequence, and its eagerly awaited sequel (the second sequel comes at year’s end) raises that bar several notches higher. The film, starring Keanu Reeves as the one chosen to free humans from enslavement by a machine program dubbed the Matrix, mixes even more philosophy between fisticuffs. Hard-core fans will devour these second-rate musings. The rest of us will stare agog at the film’s hyper-realistic action scenes, which come up to much of the film’s pre-release hype. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• May (2003) (R: sustained creepiness; extremely graphic violence; strong sexuality; some profanity) — **1/2. Hollywood novice Lucky McKee’s first real movie project, this horror flick has a soft spot for May Canady (Miss Betts), like Steven King’s Carrie a tormented girl with a tormenting mother. And it does something such movies rarely do: It takes itself seriously. When it’s all over, after all the cheeky violence that makes you wince and laugh at the same time, May is, surprisingly, no monster. Starring Angela Bettis and Jeremy Sisto. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• A Mighty Wind (2003) (PG-13: Occasional comic candor and vulgarity) — ****. A classic new comedy from Christopher Guest, who reunites almost everyone from “Best of Show” and adds a few more virtuosi, while demonstrating that his mock-documentary technique is as clever and satisfying as ever. On the death of a venerable show business figure who managed several folk rock acts during the 1960s, a memorial concert is planned for Town Hall in New York. Three acts are booked: singers Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), The Folksmen (Mr. Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) and the updated edition of a beamish ensemble called The New Main Street Singers, with Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey in prominent spots. Fred Willard gets the run of a few sensational interludes as their screwball manager. There’s a slightly ponderous tendency in the Mitch and Mickey subplot, but the lapses are fleeting, decisively outnumbered by the high spots. Ed Begley Jr. is wonderful as an ethnically confused broadcasting executive for public television.

• Owning Mahowny (2003) (R: Coarse language, a scene involving a prostitute) — ***. Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in the true-life tale of a bank executive who steals clients’ money to fuel his gambling habit. The versatile actor captures the sweaty delirium of a man spinning out of control as his debts mount. Standing by his side, inexplicably, is his girlfriend (Minnie Driver, hidden under an awful blond wig). The film’s portrait of addiction is nearly pitch perfect, save for the unscrupulous casino owner, whom John Hurt plays like a moustache-twisting caricature. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Rugrats Go Wild (2003) (PG: Frequent slapstick vulgarity) — *1/2. The Nickelodeon animators seem intent on exhausting both the audience and their two cartoon franchises in one fell swoop with this castaway farce. The exploring clan known as The Wild Thornberrys is investigating the fauna on a tropical island. The shipwrecked Rugrats families roll in with the tide, surviving a storm at sea meant to parody “The Perfect Storm.” Since the principal source of dry-land humor is dirty diapers, spectators are trapped in a monotonously sodden system of humor. The seascapes are clearly inferior to those of “Finding Nemo.” The staleness of the jokes and characterizations suggests that it’s time to reevaluate.

• The Sea (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; frequent profanity, vulgarity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence; thematic preoccupation with family enmity) — **. A trashy but diverting, culturally exotic domestic potboiler about a clan of volcanic and vindictive Icelandic relatives whose conflicts lead to shouting matches, bloodshed and arson during a reunion designed to welcome back a favorite son. In Icelandic with English subtitles.

m Spellbound (2003) (G) — ***. This top-flight documentary turns a spelling contest into a white-knuckle viewing experience. It tracks eight children from across the country as they converge on Washington for the National Spelling Bee. The film captures the American dream in all its abstract glory. The bright, engaging children are cast in almost uniformly appealing tones, but their dogged efforts render them all too human. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Sweet Sixteen (2002) (R: pervasive profanity; some violence; drug content) — **1/2. Innocuously titled Cannes Film Festival honoree, “Sixteen” is, in fact, a bitter, bleak little tale, set in an economically depressed shipyard town near Glasgow, Scotland. Liam (Martin Compston), a fatherless high-school dropout eking out a living selling cheap cigarettes to drunks in local taverns with best pal Pinball, is on the cusp of his 16th birthday and wants desperately to provide a decent life for his soon-to-be-released-from-prison mother. His method: drug dealing, which eventually pits him against his best friend and de facto brother. It’s a story that’s been told many times before, but “Sixteen” tells it well. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Together (2002) (PG: Episodes of family conflict and bitterness) — *1/2. A tearjerking disappointment from Chinese director Chen Kaige, who also plays a central role as a Beijing teacher of elite classical music students. The milieu promises to be interesting until the movie backslides into a sappy update on the theme of poor boys who promise to be brilliant concert musicians. In Chinese with English subtitles. Landmark Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.

• 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence; fleeting sexual vulgarity) — *1/2. The title is Hollywood shorthand for a second dose of “The Fast and the Furious,” a ludicrous but popular sleeper of summer, 2001, that glorified outlaw street racers. The forerunner thrived on stunt driving and perhaps the brawny presence of Vin Diesel. Thrill sequence continuity is invested in approximately the same stunt team, commanded by Terry Leonard of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” renown. Human interest is less securely anchored in soft-visaged holdover Paul Walker, cast as a renegade undercover cop. The sequel places him at a double disadvantage: Both Tyrese, cast as his new sidekick, and Cole Hauser, as the menace, an international crime czar based in Miami, possess more potency and charisma.

• Wattstax: The Special Edition (2003) (R: profanity) — ***. Digitally restored edition of Mel Stuart’s documentary of the Watts Summer Festival, a seven-hour concert at the L.A. Coliseum featuring some of the best black musicians of the day. Interspersed among the concert footage — featuring great performers like Isaac Hayes and Albert King — are revealing man-on-the-street interviews with all manner of black Angelenos, including a young comic named Richard Pryor. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Winged Migration (2002) (PG: Occasional graphic violence in documentary depictions of wildlife) — ***. An impressive, French-made documentary feature about migratory bird travels around the globe, assembled from hundreds of cameramen and embellished by computer graphics, which seem to account for the sequences that resemble beautifully animated paintings of wildlife more than photorealistic observation and celebration. There’s a running commentary about long-distance flights, with the eventual prize going to a species that seems impelled to sustain epic journeys between polar regions. A morbid interlude about an injured bird that appears to be devoured by crabs may require a bit of shielding for the very youngest spectators. One of the finalists as best documentary feature during the last Academy Awards.

• Wrong Turn (2003) (R) — An entrapment thriller that illustrates what can happen if you take a shortcut off the interstate while traveling to a job interview in Raleigh, N.C. When Desmond Harrington tries to save time, he encounters five other young people in jeopardy, stranded in the woods when their SUV was disabled by a boobytrap. The group is forced to venture deeper into ominous terrain, becoming prey for a trio of grisly mountain men.Not reviewed.

• X2 (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence in a science-fiction adventure format; fleeting sexual allusions) — *1/2. The second movie outing for Marvel’s “X-Men,” who threaten to grow more tedious than intriguing on renewed acquaintance. The new menace is a tyrannical human, Brian Cox as a government spymaster nursing a major grudge against the professor. Plenty of commotion but nothing that resembles clever characterization or streamlined spectacle.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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