- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

OPENING

• The Animation Show (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter and treatment). An anthology of animated shorts selected by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt, also represented by examples of their own work. The selections derive from eight countries and include half a dozen nominees for the Academy Award as best animated short. A limited engagement, exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

• Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, frequent comic vulgarity and occasional sexual and drug allusions) — .1/2. The new David Spade farce, a highly uneven blend of thundering ineptitude and sly wit. The basic tradeoff question is whether you’re prepared to excuse the fact that about two-thirds of the movie is stinko; the clever bits are heavily outnumbered but their sheer scarcity tends to magnify their enjoyability. Mr. Spade plays the hapless title character, once the popular brat on a TV sitcom and now a struggling actor employed as a parking attendant. Desperate for a role in a new Rob Reiner film, he takes it to heart when the director suggests that he lacks firsthand experience of a normal family environment. Dickie arranges to board with a suburban family, where he becomes a big brother to likable youngsters Scott Terra and Jenna Boyd. Far less plausibly, he’s positioned to replace their dad, Craig Bierko, who is in the process of alienating spouse Mary McCormack. Since Mr. Bierko is essentially a loaded and potent comic weapon, he needs to be kept out of sight most of the time in order to protect the notion of pixieish David Spade as a serious rival. The movie recruits numerous actors who used to be prominent as juvenile performers to fill out the has-been world of Dickie Roberts. Several participate in a strange but dynamic epilogue, a sarcastic choral number that accompanies the end credits.

• Masked and Anonymous (2003) (PG-13) — The feature writing-directing debut of humorist Larry Charles, a veteran of countless “Seinfeld” episodes. He has attracted a large and promising cast to this satirical farce about the staging of a benefit concert in a wartorn country. John Goodman stars as the ruthless promoter, with Jessica Lange as a television producer and Jeff Bridges as a suspicious reporter. The supporting cast includes Luke Wilson, Bob Dylan, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Giovanni Ribisi and Mickey Rourke.

• The Order (2003) (R). A reunion for the “Knight’s Tale” bunch. Writer-director Brian Helgeland casts Heath Ledger and Mark Addy as priests investigating a death that may be connected with a sinister religious order. Mr. Ledger is once again attracted to Shannyn Sossamon, who comes to him in need of an exorcism.

• Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with frequent profanity, occasional sexual candor and episodes of gruesome clinical candor about a murder case) — 1/2.. An unwelcome and marginally professional video documentary about the sorry case of Mark “Gator” Rogowski, a teenage skateboarding celebrity of the late 1980s who reacted so badly to a career skid (at the age of 21) that he sexually assaulted and then murdered a young woman, evidently targeted because she was the best friend of his estranged girlfriend. It’s difficult to glean anything edifying from this chronicle of calamity, which revels in nostalgia about Gator as the designated “bad boy” of skateboarding when it was being marketed aggressively to the MTV generation and then goes shamelessly lurid when the homicide occurs. The subject is heard in self-therapeutic reflections from Soledad prison in California. The visible participants include some genuine oblivious pips, notably the ex-girlfriend, Brandi. Tony Hawk is among the reputable skaters who contribute their reflections on the Gator saga.

NOW SHOWING

• American Splendor(2003) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor) — *1/2. Splendor means oddball celebrity in the context of this fitfully amusing but seldom foolproof or persuasive biographical love letter to the prickly individuality of Harvey Pekar. The shambling role seems more of a burden than an opportunity for the stubby character actor Paul Giamatti. The real Harvey is a retired file clerk from Cleveland who emerged from obscurity to blow hot and cold as a counterculture curmudgeon. He provided the text for a cycle of autobiographical comic books initially illustrated by Robert Crumb, and he gained a measure of notoriety as a guest on David Letterman’s show until a blowup earned his banishment. Mr. Pekar himself sometimes appears in the movie and narrates several episodes; occasionally, he and Mr. Giamatti are in the same scenes. Further duplication is imposed on Hope Davis, a witty double for Joyce Brabner, who became the compatibly saturnine Mrs. Pekar; and Judah Friedlander, an engaging double for Pekar crony Toby Radloff. The movie was shot in Pekar stomping grounds in Cleveland by an obviously doting team, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who are married and specialize in documentary features. An ambitious attempt at semi-documentary comic portraiture, the movie is easier to admire as a notion than a finished product.

• The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual allusions) — *1/2. The second underwhelming installment in the Project Greenlight endeavor. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon sponsor low-budget first features bankrolled by Miramax and then teased in a behind-the-scenes “reality” series telecast by Home Box Office, which seems to get all the melodrama available on the cheap, leaving the small-scale finished features at an anticlimactic disadvantage. “Stolen Summer,” a sweet-natured memoir of boyhood, launched the project a year ago and failed to arouse a murmur of box-office curiosity. An identical fate may await the far more inconsistent “Shaker Heights,” which reverts to coming-of-age cliches despite initially promising signs of talent in the cast and the tyro filmmakers, writer Erica Beeny and co-directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin. The protagonist, Kelly, played by Shia LaBeouf, evidently urged to be the new incarnation of John Cusack, is a teenage smarty-pants from a sad sack hippie family in Cleveland. He is befriended by an easygoing rich scion, Elden Henson as Bart, who shares a colorful hobby: playing soldier in World War II battle re-enactments. Kelly abuses his welcome while nursing a crush on Bart’s older sister (Amy Smart), who is about to be married. Ultimately, Kelly combines the worst derivative traits of Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” and Frankie Adams in “The Member of the Wedding.”

• Buffalo Soldiers (2003) (R) — Emerging from the inventory shelf at Miramax, this sardonic crime melodrama is set at an American military base in West Germany in the late 1980s, shortly before the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down. Joaquin Phoenix plays a clerk whose black market activities are threatened by the arrival of a new top kick, Scott Glenn, with an attractive daughter, Anna Paquin. The cast also includes Ed Harris, Dean Stockwell and Elizabeth McGovern.

• Camp (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including allusions to homosexuality and promiscuity among a set of teenage characters) — **. A mixed assortment of musical comedy novelty and ineptitude from Todd Graff, a former actor making his directing debut with an homage to an alma mater, Stagemanor, a summer camp for aspiring juvenile actors, singers and dancers located in upstate New York.

• Dirty Pretty Things (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; morbid plot elements involving a black market in organ transplants) — ***. Stephen Frears rediscovers the promise and pathos of ethnic London. This romantic suspense melodrama concerns illegal aliens trying to make a living and normalize their status while eluding immigration agents. The young Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the story a solid emotional foundation as a refugee doctor, Okwe, who works two jobs while trying to remain in the shadows: cabbie and hotel night clerk. He has made arrangements with Senay, a Turkish hotel maid (Audrey Tatou of “Amelie”), to use her flat as sleeping quarters while she works a morning shift. The attachment intensifies when they are threatened with exposure and intimidation, some of it engineered by Sneaky (Sergi Lopez in excellent loathsome form), their boss at the hotel, whose rackets include a gruesome traffic in hot kidneys for the transplant black market. Steven Knight’s screenplay falters in the closing episodes, but the movie gives us a tangible stake in the struggles of Okwe and Senay.

• Le Divorce (2003) (PG-13) — **. James Ivory’s unenhanced movie version of the Diane Johnson best-seller is a culturally knowing but dramatically evasive comedy-drama. It deals with the crises that confront two California sisters when the elder, Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), is abandoned by her adulterous French husband while pregnant with their second child. Younger sister Isabel (Kate Hudson) is on hand to help but finds herself susceptible to an older man, a married diplomat who happens to be the uncle of her philandering brother-in-law. He seems nondescript as impersonated by Thierry Lhermitte.

• Freaky Friday (2003) (PG: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) — **. A haphazard update of the Mary Rodgers comic novel about a turnabout situation: Mother and teenage daughter exchange bodies for a hectic but enlightening day. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, the delightful discovery of the 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap,” are the new switchers. The younger actresses get to act mature for their ages, but acting immature does nothing for Miss Curtis in this revamp. Miss Lohan is the reassuring element.

• Freddy vs. Jason (2003) (R: Slasher-film violence and gore, nudity, sexuality, drug use and strong language) — **. Two of Hollywood’s most resilient monsters face off in a film seeking to reinvent two dying franchises. “Freddy vs. Jason” finds the “Nightmare on Elm Street” villain (Robert Englund) invading the dreams of Jason of “Friday the 13th” infamy. The youthful cast (John Ritter’s son, Jason and Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child) are overshadowed by the WWE-like grudge match between the monsters. The rest of the film is an unimaginative rehash of slasher film conventions. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) (R) — *1/2. Victor Salva, who miscalculated in 1995 by trying to sell audiences on an angelic albino creepy protoganist in “Powder,” seems to have learned his lesson. He had an exploitation hit two years ago with the prototype of this horror thriller by depicting stranded teenagers at the mercy of a cannibalistic backroads fiend, driven to appease grisly hungers every so often. A caravan of high school basketball players, cheerleaders, coaches and fans is victimized in this sequel, written and directed by Mr. Salva. The big name in the cast is “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Magdalene Sisters — (2003) (R: Nudity, harsh language and violent sequences) — ***. The titular “sisters” are a group of young women in the mid-1960s sentenced to hard labor in Catholic laundries in Ireland for the sins of professing randy thoughts or being sexually assaulted. Based on the real-life Magdalene asylums, the women’s stories prove harrowing under the stern hand of director Peter Mullan. The film stacks the deck against the nuns — surely a few possessed a flicker of kindness — but otherwise it realistically recounts the actual horrors thousands of women faced. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Medallion (2003) (PG-13) — *1/2. The latest Jackie Chan action farce. He plays a Hong Kong policeman who seems to be blessed with supernatural powers after a brush with death. A mysterious medallion figures in his survival and leads to the discovery of a secret brotherhood called Highbinders, riven between good and evil factions. Claire Forlani is the leading lady. Directed by Gordon Chan. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Mondays in the Sun (2002) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor) — *.1/2. Javier Bardem, bulking up for an entire characterization, gives a commanding performance as a growling, bearish former welder who has become the unrepentant cynic and bellyacher in a group of six comrades once employed at an abandoned shipyard in Galicia. These middle-aged men continue to haunt the site of their old workplace, hanging out in the bar now owned by a member of the fraternity. Since much of the argumentation takes place within the tavern, the movie often suggests a theater piece. It’s a bit like “The Iceman Cometh” with an updated Spanish context and Mr. Bardem as the resident, permanently disillusioned Hickey. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• My Boss’s Daughter (2003) (PG:13: Strong language, excretory humor, slapstick violence)*1/2.. Ashton Kutcher’s career takes a hit with this nonsensical comedy from the director of 1980’s “Airplane.” The film sat on the shelf for nearly two years with good reason. Its slapstick falls flat and its jokes are so stale the film should have come with an expiration date. “Daughter” wastes a solid cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Molly Shannon and Terence Stamp. Reviewed by Christian Toto

• Open Range (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a frontier Western setting)*** One of the most distinctive and satisfying Westerns of the past generation, “Open Range” is intelligently contrived by screenwriter Craig Storper and vigorously realized by Kevin Costner. The setting is Montana in 1882, about a decade before the frontier was officially closed as a haven for homesteaders and free-grazers, small-scale cattlemen who drive their herds across open rangeland. Robert Duvall is such a free-grazer, Boss Spearman, and Mr. Costner is his wary but dependable right hand, Charley Waite. They run afoul of a tyrannical rancher played by Michael Gambon and refuse to be intimidated. The conflict sets up a sensational finale of gunfights along the main street of a town called Harmonville. Boss and Charley find allies in the town, notably the late Michael Jeter as the proprietor of the livery stable and Annette Bening as a nurse named Sue Barlow.

• The Other Side of the Bed (2003) (R) — ***. A Spanish sex farce about a pair of bickering, cheating, swapping young couples, whose amorous outrages are punctuated by musical interludes. The principal cast members are Ernesto Alterio, Paz Vega, Natalia Verbeke and Guillermo Toledo. Directed by Emilio Martinez-Lazaro from a screenplay by David Serrano. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details in an adventure spectacle format; elements of supernatural horror) — **1/2. Despite the interminable fourth act, “Pirates” is an astute blend of comic characterization and rejuvenated adventure cliches at its most diverting. Johnny Depp does an extroverted masquerade as a roguish pirate captain called Jack Sparrow, intent on retrieving his ship, the Black Pearl, from a mutinous mate, Barbossa, an imposing corrupt presence as played by Geoffrey Rush. Keira Knightley of “Bend It Like Beckham” looks very attractive in period costume, and she gets two valiant suitors in Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport.

• Seabiscuit (2003) (PG-13: Fleeting graphic violence and profanity; one episode set in a Tijuana brothel) — **. Almost a textbook example of the well-meaning letdown. While admirably sincere, this nostalgic sports saga remains a plodding, uninspired movie distillation of Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring, richly informative best-seller about the great race horse. A late bloomer of the 1930s, Seabiscuit became a charismatic winner as a 4-year-old. His surge led to a famous match race at Pimlico with Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The principal cast members are Jeff Bridges as owner Charles Howard, Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith and Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard. Writer-director Gary Ross fails to approximate the source material’s impact as intimate drama, sports chronicle or social history. Attractive in a conventional and picturesque way, the movie never rises to the potential heights of its subject matter — or the kinetic excitement of the racetrack.

• The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor, including brief depictions of intercourse; episodes of marital and family conflict) *** This seriocomic gem may have the best claim on art-house prestige. Derived from the Jane Smiley novella “The Age of Grief,” which relied on interior monologue, the movie establishes a compelling domestic and emotional intimacy with Campbell Scott as dentist David Hurst, who shares a conjugal practice in Westchester, County, New York with his wife Dana, played by Hope Davis. A community opera production of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” in which Dana is an ecstatic member of the chorus, seems to have created a threat to the Hursts’ 10-year marriage. While taking the oldest of his three daughters to the production, David briefly ventures backstage and sees his wife in some kind of romantic trance with another man, whose identity remains obscure for the duration. However, infidelity proves more than a suspicion, and the story concentrates on David’s method of responding. A sarcastic alter-ego, prompted by a surly patient named Slater (Dennis Leary), is inserted to taunt David in argumentative dialogues. Exceptionally introspective and affecting.

• Step into Liquid (No MPAA Rating — Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity, consistent with the PG category) ****. The most beautiful surfing feature ever seen. This surprisingly comprehensive and stirring update on the sport’s lore, evolution and international popularity was compiled by Dana Brown, the son of surfing movie pioneer Bruce Brown of “Endless Summer” renown. Pictorially, “Liquid” is an awesome scenic spectacle, reflecting quantum improvements in camera platforms, lenses and all-around versatility since Bruce Brown was an enterprising amateur filmmaker four decades ago. The comic interludes range from a salute to the hardy surfers of Sheboygan, Wis. to a sojourn with Galveston Bay loyalists who can surf for miles in the wake of supertankers in Texas. Unexpected emotional gratification awaits in the segments dealing with disabled surfer Jesse Billauer and his pals. Exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• S.W.A.T. (2003) (PG:13: Violent sequences, strong language and sexual references) — *1/2. Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell star in this limp update of the ‘70s television series. Mr. Farrell is an LAPD cop who rejoins the elite cop force (Special Weapons and Tactics unit) after disobeying orders. The group’s new assignment involves a captured drug lord offering $100 million to anyone who can free him from police custody. Stale cop cliches and logic-free action sequences handcuff a good cast. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Thirteen (2003) (R: Sexual situations, drug use, harsh language, violence) — ***. Adolescence never seemed as cruel as in this sobering drama co-written by then 13-year-old co-star Nikki Reed. “Thirteen” follows a former good girl gone bad (Evan Rachel Wood) after she strikes up a dangerous friendship with her school’s most popular girl (Miss Reed). Holly Hunter plays the mom in way over her head. The film is too unflinching at times in its assessment of today’s youth, but its power and poignancy are undeniable. Reviewed by Christian Toto

• 28 Days Later (2003) (R: Frontal nudity, gratuitous violence and blood shed, sexual situations and harsh language) — *. “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle brings style and intelligence to what essentially is a B-movie zombie yarn. The awkwardly titled film follows Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier who is one of the few survivors of a virus that kills nearly everyone living in London and beyond. Jim and a scattered group of healthy humans must do battle with the bloodthirsty “infected” who rule the nights and crave human flesh. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Uptown Girls (2003) (PG-13: Mild sexual content and language) — *1/2. Little more than throwaway entertainment for beating the August heat. It’s fuzzy, touchy-feely and so gaseous it could float away before your eyes. Princess of pout Brittany Murphy plays Molly Gunn, the undermotivated daughter of a rock star who died, along with Molly’s mother, in a plane crash. After an accountant steals her trust-fund booty, Molly ends up as an au pair for Ray, (Dakota Fanning), the neurotic woman-child daughter of an icy, inattentive record company exec (Heather Locklear). Directed by Boaz Yakin. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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