- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

OPENING

• Flight of the Phoenix (2004) (PG-13) — A remake of Robert Aldrich’s absorbing 1965 castaway saga about the survivors of an airplane crash in the Sahara who rally to rebuild the wreckage into an airworthy escape vehicle. This update shifts the location to the Gobi, where bandits also threaten the desperate efforts of Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto and others stranded after a C-119 ferrying personnel employed by an oil company crashed.

• House of Flying Daggers (2004) (PG-13: Stylized martial arts violence and some sexual themes) — Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “Daggers” aims to be this year’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The film follows a clash between revolutionaries wielding “flying daggers” and the governmental forces out to stop them. The director’s last film, “Hero,” earned strong notices and the praise of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino earlier this year. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ (2004) (PG) — An extravagant comic fantasy derived from the first three books in the best-selling children’s series written by Daniel Handler and attributed to a narrator called Lemony Snicket, dubbed by Jude Law. Jim Carrey stars as an outrageous villain, Count Olaf, who tries to promote himself as the guardian of three orphans who have inherited a fortune. With Meryl Streep as a protective auntie and Liam Aiken and Emily Browning as the eldest and most resourceful of the siblings.

• Lightning in a Bottle (2004) (PG-13) — A music documentary that preserves highlights from a “Salute to the Blues” concert at Radio City Music Hall in February 2003. The performers include John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Mos Def and India Arie.

• Meet the Fockers (2004) (PG-13) — A sequel to the domestic farce of 2000 in which aspiring bridegroom Ben Stiller encountered a rugged reception when meeting his prospective in-laws, Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner. Teri Polo also returns as Mr. Stiller’s fiancee. Now the original quartet travels to Florida to meet the other set of in-laws, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, who supposedly spawned Mr. Stiller. Opens Wednesday.

• The Phantom of the Opera (2004) (PG-13: Sustained ominous elements and sexual undercurrents; occasional violence and morbidity) — ****. Gaston Leroux’s horror fable about a mad genius haunting a Parisian opera house has proved the finest melodic inspiration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s checkered career. It’s been 16 years since the theatrical debut, and Joel Schumacher, entrusted with the project years ago, has finally delivered with a sumptuous, romantically supercharged and frequently enthralling movie edition. Opens Wednesday.

• The Sea Inside (2004) (PG-13: Adult thematic content, involving severe injury and suicide; occasional profanity, domestic conflict and sexual allusions) — **1/2. The talented young Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, who directed “Open Your Eyes” and “The Others,” takes on the real-life story of a former ship’s mechanic named Ramon Sampedro, who sustained a 30-year campaign to end his life and became the figurehead of an organization called “Death With Dignity.” Paralyzed from the neck down, Ramon (Javier Bardem) resides with a tight-knit family in Galicia, augmented by a harem of activists and admirers. Since he remains intellectually acute, the “quality of life” issue is never cut-and-dried. The movie tends to be at its weakest when taking it for granted that euthanasia is the preferable and enlightened option. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Spanglish (2004) (PG-13: Sexual situations, mature themes and coarse language) — **1/2. James L. Brooks’ latest features a cross-cultural clash between a Mexican maid and her dysfunctional bosses. The dynamic Paz Vega plays the far from helpless help and Adam Sandler shines as her boss and potential love interest. Tea Leoni’s harpy-like turn as the third member of this trio, Mr. Sandler’s type-A wife, stymies the film’s wry humor. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• A Very Long Engagement (2004) (R: Occasional graphic violence, typically depictions of World War I trench warfare; occasional profanity and sexual candor) — **. A formidable but wearisome bit of virtuosity from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, following through on the international success of “Amelie” with an extravagant romantic fable that reunites him with Audrey Tatou. Derived from a best-seller by the late mystery specialist Sebastien Japrisot, the movie evokes World War I in lavish detail. The heroine, an orphan called Mathilde, refuses to believe that her childhood sweetheart Maneche has perished on the Sommes front. Mathilde hires a private detective and begins a search that leads in perplexing directions. Jodie Foster turns up in an unbilled role and gets a brief erotic workout. In French with English subtitles.

NOW SHOWING

• Alexander (2004) (R: Occasional graphic violence, sexual candor and nudity within a framework of ancient history) — **1/2. Oliver Stone’s historical spectacle about the precocious Macedonian conqueror (365-323 B.C.), portrayed by a blond-tressed and frequently laughable Colin Farrell, has its bemusing attractions and blunders. The pivotal miscasting of Mr. Farrell leaves the production short a commanding figure in the title character, but Angelina Jolie is a snake-charming, mind-poisoning spellbinder as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Domineering mother issues cloud the hero’s brain from boyhood to premature demise. Mr. Stone discovers his inner Cecil B. DeMille and inner Hellene as never before, especially a homoerotic Hellene. The set piece battle sequences are disappointing, but the carousing picks up some of the slack.

• Being Julia (2004) (R: Sexuality; brief nudity) — **1/2. Annette Bening plays a vain and sulky but gradually sympathetic queen of West End theater in this whimsical high-fashion farce set in prewar London. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Also starring Jeremy Irons. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Blade: Trinity (2004) (R: Violence, sexual content and coarse language) — **. Wesley Snipes returns as the Marvel Comics’ vampire hunter for the third and presumably last time. Mr. Snipes’ Blade is set up by the Vampire Nation for a series of vicious killings, forcing him to team with human vampire hunters to avenge his name. The film also stars Jessica Biel, Ryan Reynolds and series regular Kris Kristofferson. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Callas Forever (2002) (No MPAA Rating: Adult subject matter; fleeting profanity and sexual candor, including episodes about a homosexual affair) — **. An English-language production, set in Paris, this fondly fanciful memoir of opera star Maria Callas from a former friend and collaborator, Franco Zeffirelli, purports to recall Miss Callas in 1977, near the close of her life. Jeremy Irons is cast as a music producer-promoter who urges the singer (portrayed by the statuesque but ponderous Fanny Ardant) to come out of seclusion for an opera film of “Carmen” that would use vintage recordings on the soundtrack. The “Carmen” footage outclasses the encompassing movie, but Mr. Zeffirelli is wedded to a wishful-thinking pretext that dissolves in ruefulness. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Christmas with the Kranks (2004) (PG: Brief coarse language and suggestive content) — **. Tim Allen revisits the Yuletide season in this conflicted reworking of John Grisham’s novel “Skipping Christmas.” Mr. Allen co-stars with Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple who decide to skip the holiday since their daughter will be out of the country. The news doesn’t sit well with their Santa-obsessed neighbors, who turn the couple into pariahs for their choice. The film’s darker observations too quickly give way to gooey sentiment and stale slapstick. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Closer (2004) (R: Systematic sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity, fleeting nudity and violence) — *1/2. Mike Nichols’ movie version of Patrick Marber’s play about four shabby consorts in London — photographer Julia Roberts, aspiring author Jude Law, physician Clive Owen and stripper Rachel Portman — remains disenchanting. The needy-to-repulsive characters shift between twosomes while trifling with liaisons and rivalries that never transcend dubious introductions. Mr. Owen is forceful when spreading ill will and uttering obscene threats. The other roles are wasted tawdry effort.

• Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (2004) (No MPAA Rating but suitable for general audiences) — ***. A new IMAX featurette, directed by Stephen Low, that observes the conclusive exercise in an international combat training program for jet pilots, conducted at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. The aerial and target-practice sequences should meet all expectations for pictorial dynamism and coolness. Exclusively at the National and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly.

• Finding Neverland (2004) (PG: Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy and loss) — ***. A stirring and often imaginative tearjerker predicated on the original production of James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” a century ago. The unhappily married author (Johnny Depp), adopts a grieving family after a chance meeting with four boys whose father has recently died. Barrie grows fond of the boys and their mother, Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet), then creates his wistful fantasy of Neverland as an act of rejuvenating devotion. Several facts are altered: the doomed father, never seen in the film, died three years after the premiere of “Peter Pan.” The role of Barrie is blandly benign, but the story remains a sentimental powerhouse. With Julie Christie as Miss Winslet’s suspicious mother and Freddie Highmore as the most prominent of the boys.

• The Green Butchers (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; frequent profanity and systematically gruesome content, revolving around cannibalism) — *. A macabre little monstrosity from Denmark. It pretends that a pair of start-up, psycho butchers make a blood-chilling success of their new shop by turning humans into fillets. The practice starts when an electrician is accidentally trapped overnight in the meat locker. Additional frozen carcasses are supplied by hapless or nosy acquaintances. In Danish with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• The Incredibles (2004) (PG: Occasional perilous situations and melodramatic intensity; stylized cartoon violence in a clear-cut adventure spectacle tradition) — ****. The Pixar winning streak continues, with a family-glorifying adventure spectacle that excels at many aspects of popular entertainment, from character delineation to cliffhanging set pieces, sight gags and genre homage. Brad Bird of “The Iron Giant” joins the Pixar team and prompts a fresh surge of gusto and invention with the Incredibles, a union of former superheroes whose everyday, domesticated identities as Bob and Helen Parr (dubbed by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) will not suffice when a despotic villain called Syndrome plots to entrap them. The Parrs have three children whose budding potential proves indispensable: the vanishing Violet, fleet-footed Dash and gurgling baby Jack-Jack. Despite the shift to familiar sources — adventure comics and movies — this animated sensation is so clever and expert that it makes a virtue of familiarity.

• Kinsey (2004) (R: Pervasive sexual content; explicit images) — ***. Writer-director Bill Condon’s controversial look at the life and legacy of mid-century sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey (Liam Neeson). While it takes its subject’s side, the movie doesn’t flinch from Kinsey’s seamy personal life and boasts a masterful supporting cast, including Laura Linney, Peter Saarsgard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• National Treasure (2004) (PG: Action violence, disturbing images) — **. Nicholas Cage plays a nerdy historian chasing after a hidden treasure with roots in ancient Egypt and ties to the Founding Fathers. Despite the typical overkill production value of Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie has surprising charms as a safe-for-kids history lesson. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Also starring Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger and Sean Bean. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Notre Musique (2004) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with some archival footage depicting war carnage and ) — *1/2. A discursive feature from Jean-Luc Godard, meditating on the sorrows of the world to scant eloquent effect. The movie begins with a miscellany of war spectacle imagery, then hangs out in Sarajevo while Mr. Godard supposedly participates in a low-watt cultural conference. Essentially forlorn but perhaps indispensable for those who feel a lifelong connection with Mr. Godard’s artistic and political vicissitudes. In French, Spanish, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Ocean’s Twelve (PG-13: profanity) — ***. The gang of Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 stylish heist remake “Ocean’s Eleven” is back with newcomer Catherine Zeta-Jones for a continent-hopping romp of wealth, glamour and grand larceny. It won’t win awards, but it will make you lust for new threads, more credit card debt and new ink on your passport. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and many others. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Polar Express (2004) (G: Ominous episodes and perilous situations) — **1/2. Undeniably ambitious, elaborate and distinctive, this computer-animated movie version of the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg seems likely to crash the gallery of Christmas movie perennials. The drawback is that director Robert Zemeckis and his collaborators — co-writer William Broyles, Jr. star Tom Hanks (who provides the voice and model for several roles) and visual effects designers Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen — make such an overblown case that their labor of love also becomes a Frankenstein’s monster of seasonal whimsy. Pictorially faithful to Mr. Van Allsburg’s illustrative style, the movie pads the plot mercilessly, inserting numerous thrill sequences as a Christmas Eve train steams to the North Pole in order to persuade skeptical kids that Santa Claus is a going concern.

• Ray (2004) (PG-13: Depiction of drug addiction; sexuality; tragic death scene) — ***1/2. Jamie Foxx gives a memorable performance as the late Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s moving biography of an American musical icon. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Santa vs. the Snowman 3D (2004) (G) — An Imax featurette, directed in a computer-animated 3D process by John A. Davis from a screenplay by Steve Oedekerk, who envisions a brash snowman trying to horn in on Santa Claus’ established delivery service. Exclusively at the Johnson Imax Theater at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. The voice cast includes Jonathan Winters, Ben Stein and Victoria Jackson. Not reviewed.

• Sideways (2004) (R: Coarse language, simulated sexual situations, violence and crude humor) — ***1/2. A wine tasting trip turns into a chance for some serious soul searching for two mismatched pals (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church). Writer-director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”) jumps into the Oscar fray with this richly imagined comic drama brimming with deft performances. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (PG: Mildly crude humor) — **1/2. The popular kiddie series with the adult sense of humor gets the big-screen treatment with uneven results. Our strangely shaped hero finds himself knee deep in a new undersea adventure in Nickelodeon’s attempt to prove 2-D animation can still draw a crowd. Suffice to say the goofy SpongeBob character is better suited to tidy, 10-minute servings. Reviewed by Christian Toto.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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