- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

OPENING

• Carandiru (2003) (R) — A prison melodrama from the Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco, who attempts to recreate the explosive conditions in a house of detention in Sao Paulo before a “fateful massacre” in 1992. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts and Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street Cinemas.

• Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) (PG: Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence) — **1/2. A dank and misleading third feature derived from J.K. Rowling’s saga of the orphaned boy wizard Harry Potter. Back for his third year at Hogwarts, revamped for a bleaker look, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is supposedly threatened by a fugitive wizard, Sirius Black, who eventually surfaces in the person of Gary Oldman. David Thewlis is an impressive addition to the faculty, and a flying creature called a Hippogriff provides one lyrical sequence. Maybe it’s the “Star Trek” pattern all over again: the better movies will be the even-numbered ones.

• The Twilight Samurai (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with fleeting graphic violence in simulated sword duels; allusions to mass starvation) — ***1/2. An Academy Award nominee last year as best foreign language film, and a genuinely fresh and disarming variation on the lore of the samurai. Nobly conceived and often brilliantly executed, it celebrates an honorable but downtrodden soul, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada). An impoverished widower with two young daughters and a senile mother, he has a day job as a clerk in a clan storehouse. More of a peasant than a warrior, he reluctantly dusts off fighting skills to aid a friend and then fulfill a deadly clan mission. He must also contemplate the possibility of a second chance at conjugal happiness with an exquisite childhood sweetheart played by Rie Miyazawa. Director Yoji Yamada generates an irresistible desire to see Iguchi survive and prosper. In Japanese with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

NOW SHOWING

• Breakin’ All the Rules (2004) (PG-13: Sexual situations, crude humor and alcohol use) — **1/2. Jamie Foxx is front and center in this by-the-book romantic comedy that lets the rising comic show his softer side. He plays a magazine writer who pens the ultimate break-up manual after his fiancee leaves him abruptly. He finds romance again in the arms of Nicky (Gabrielle Union), who as movie luck would have it is his pal’s girlfriend. Gross subplots aside, “Rules” offers a few hearty laughs and genuine sparks between Mr. Foxx and Miss Union. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Clay Bird (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with themes of family conflict and Islamic piety; fleeting depiction of wartime peril and destruction) — *1/2. A fitfully evocative but diffuse and frustrating memoir of a Muslim family in East Pakistan as the Bangladesh war with India threatens. A boy, Anu, is enrolled in a strict religious school some distance from home by his devoutly overcompensating father, whose rigidity alienates his lovely wife and his younger brother, an easygoing Hindu. The title alludes to a gift given to Anu’s little sister Asma. In Bengali with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) (R: profanity) — ***. An anthology of rich black-and-white vignettes from king-of-quirk director Jim Jarmusch, filmed over 18 years, is peopled with celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and rock stars Tom Waits and Iggy Pop playing themselves at a half-step remove from their public personae. Some of the sketches are more compelling than others, but most prove the inherent sociality of nicotine and caffeine. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Day After Tomorrow (2004) (PG-13: Intense situations of peril) — * A blend of the disaster film with Al Gore’s worst-case scenario on global warming. Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal co-star as two survivors of a series of cataclysmic storms that threaten to destroy the Earth and everyone living on it. The film’s preposterous science pales in comparison to its tin-eared dialogue and silly rescue sequences. Even progressives will be left cold by this maladroit attempt to spark the environmental movement. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) — *1/2. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, estranged lovers, have had their memories effaced by a dubious Long Island company, where overnight erasure is inexpertly monitored by a staff that includes Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst, all more amusing than the principals. The second collaboration of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, this trickily muddled heartbreaker proves a solemn letdown compared to their nutty, unjustly neglected “Human Nature” of 2002.

• Good Bye, Lenin! (2004) (R: Brief full frontal nudity, coarse language) — ***. This delightful German import describes the ultimate love between mother and child. It’s East Berlin, circa 1989, and Alex watches in horror as his mother collapses and falls into a coma during a government protest. Alex’s pro-socialism mother sleeps through the Berlin Wall’s collapse, and when she wakes her doctor warns Alex not to expose her to anything that could shock or upset her. So he takes her home and creates a world within their apartment that recreates the government she once held close to her heart. The film’s frothy mix of humor, drama and political commentary almost always hits the mark. In German with English subtitles. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) (R: Bloody violence, sexual content and harsh language) — ***. Quentin Tarantino’s violence-packed ode to his genre influences concludes on a high note as Uma Thurman’s Bride finishes her vengeful journey. This time, the Bride is after her former partners in mayhem, played by Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen and, of course, David Carradine as Bill. “Vol. 2” slows down the pace with occasionally brilliant results, letting the geeky auteur showcase his love of storytelling, not just stylized violence. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Love Me If You Dare (2003) (R: Thematic glorification of aberrant behavior; occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence) — *1/2. Lunatic Dionysian romanticism from French filmmaker Yann Samuel, whose flashy skills are placed at the service of sociopathic rubbish. A boy and a girl become soulmates in grammar school, where they contrive games of “dare” that accentuate the offensive or disruptive. The attachment endures despite later separations, provoking mutual challenges of an increasingly contemptible and ultimately suicidal nature. In French with English subtitles.”

• Man on Fire (2004) (R: Frequent graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity and vulgarity; fleeting sexual candor) — **. Retribution redeems Denzel Washington, a burnt-out government agent, in this newly minted monstrosity, derived from an obscure 1987 melodrama with Scott Glenn. Feverishly pumped up by director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, it could be the most hypertrophic revenge and/or vigilante thriller ever hallucinated across the screen. Hired to protect the endearing Dakota Fanning, living with well-to-do parents in Mexico City, Mr. Washington fails to prevent her kidnapping but exacts generous reprisals in the aftermath. One emerges with the punch-drunk impression that Hollywood has declared war on Mexico.

• Mean Girls (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual allusions and comic vulgarity in a high school setting) — **. A hit-and-miss update on high school tribal rites from the Lorne Michaels apparatus. Tina Fey of “Saturday Night Live” has a principal role as a math teacher and wrote the screenplay, derived from a sociological treatise. Tim Meadows and Amy Poehler of “SNL” are conspicuous supporting players. The plot is meant to revolve around Lindsay Lohan as a newcomer to an affluent campus in Evanston, Ill., where she is torn between rival factions. The mockery of adolescent snobberies and insecurities is scattershot at best, but the movie has some farcical highlights.

• Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) (R: Systematic blasphemous farce and slapstick vulgarity). A 25th anniversary revival of the most impious of the Monty Python features, which purports to be a remarkably coincidental account of the ministry and martyrdom of an obscure Judean visionary called Brian. With Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones (who gets the directing credit) and Michael Palin. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• New York Minute (2004) (PG: Mild sensuality) — *1/2. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen try to transplant their television and video fame to the big screen with tepid results. The sisters star as polar opposites who join forces while visiting the Big Apple to duck a truant officer (Eugene Levy) and romance a couple of cute boys (Riley Smith, Jared Padalecki). Young fans might enjoy the high jinks but everyone else will snooze through the forced mayhem and inappropriate costume changes. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Passion of the Christ (2004) (R: Prolonged and graphic violence in a Biblical setting) — **. Mel Gibson places more stock in mortifying the flesh than many of us. Evident as far back as “Mad Max,” this propensity blossomed into a last-act ordeal in his Oscar-winning “Braveheart” in 1995. Now it’s the overwhelming preoccupation and prevailing source of brutal spectacle in “Passion,” Mr. Gibson’s re-enactment of the arrest, abuse and crucifixion of Jesus. There’s not a great deal of Gospel authority for dwelling on depictions of physical torture and suffering on the road to Calvary, but the Gibson emphasis may strike a responsive chord in some believers. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography and the use of ancient languages give the movie its most haunting evocative aspects. In Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles.

• Raising Helen (2004) (PG-13: themes of teen turmoil) — * Another crinkly-cute comedy from Kate Hudson, who this time plays a New York socialite whose life is transformed when she’s given custody of her orphaned nieces and nephew. A skittery, soggy, painfully unfunny tragicomedy. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Return (2003) (No MPAA Rating: adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, graphic violence and episodes of family conflict) — **. A misanthropic but potentially haunting Russian feature, the grand prize winner at the last Venice Film Festival. Two brothers are suddenly reunited with their father after an unexplained absence. Sinister and enigmatic, he escorts them on a kind of holiday from hell. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is portentous rather than lucid. He seems to be implying that the younger generation in Russia must somehow survive a cruel, inexplicable heritage. In Russian with English subtitles.

• Saved! (2004) (PG:13: Strong language and mature themes) — **1/2. “Saved!” doesn’t have a prayer of dodging criticism from some Christian groups, but its satire of Christian high schools could have been far meaner than portrayed here. Jena Malone plays Mary, a confused senior who gets pregnant trying to “convert” her homosexual boyfriend. Making her life harder is Hilary (Mandy Moore), the high school princess who embodies the strict, uncaring side of spirituality. The film’s humor works whenever the gags don’t try so hard. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Shrek 2 (2004) (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity and facetious sexual allusions) — ***. This first sequel to a major hit pretends that success hasn’t spoiled anything. A disingenuous amnesia sets in. The original love story about an ogre, Shrek, and a captive princess, Fiona, illustrated the truism that beauty is more than skin-deep. The new movie attempts to prove it all over again as the newlyweds visit Fiona’s parents in a fairytale version of Beverly Hills and evade a treacherous scheme to alienate bride and groom. The ensemble gets a delightful boost from a vintage character, Puss in Boots, exuberantly dubbed by Antonio Banderas.

• A Slipping-Down Life (1999) (R: profanity; sexual references) — **. A fly-by-night singer-songwriter (Guy Pearce) and a too-young-to-look-frumpy introvert (Lili Taylor) try to escape small-town North Carolina on a wing and a rock song. Full of indie-auteur weird-coolness, but more ordinary than it looks. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Soul Plane (2004) (R: strong sexual content; profanity; drug use) — **. An all-star cast of black comedians hits as often as it misses in this raunchy, gross sendup of the Zucker brothers’ send-up, “Airplane!” Starring Kevin Hart, Snoop Dogg and Mo’Nique. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) (R) — ***1/2. A Korean feature about a Buddhist monk, who enters a temple constructed on a kind of floating island during his boyhood and returns after misadventures as a lawless young man. A simple, beautiful and profound meditation on sin, moral growth, penance, the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life, “Spring” embodies the whole of Buddhism by exuding it through every pore. In Korean with English subtitles. Reviewed by Victor Morton.

• Stateside (2004) (R: Nudity, mild violence, harsh language and sexual matters) — 1/2*. Rachael Leigh Cook of “She’s All That” stars as a schizophrenic actress/rock star who finds love with a forgiving Marine (Jonathan Tucker). It may be based on a true story, but not a hint of humanity grounds this painful romance. The starstruck leads quote bad poetry and try not to act embarrassed, to little avail. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Super Size Me (2004) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and deliberate pictorial vulgarity in a documentary framework) — ***. An aspiring polemical humorist named Morgan Spurlock spent a month consuming only meals sold at McDonald’s. The results exceed fatty expectations and doctors advise him to knock it off within three weeks. He declines, and the movie suffers when humoring this pointless martyrdom. “Super Size” proves briskly informative when consulting other people who illuminate the subject, from nutritionists to lobbyists, bureaucrats and schoolkids. Mr. Spurlock can cover the waterfront when he resists being grotesquely self-serving.

• Troy (2004) (R: Occasional graphic violence set against the Trojan War; fleeting nudity and sexual candor) — **. The command decisions that guide this reenactment of the Trojan War, supposedly inspired by the Iliad and contrived to glorify Brad Pitt as Achilles, are wobbly at best. Peter O’Toole’s Priam strangely lacks a Hecuba, or an alarmist daughter named Cassandra. Mr. Pitt’s battlefield prowess looks dubiously overwhelming and Eric Bana lacks a heroic profile as Hector. Much of the casting smacks of kings and queens of the senior prom. Nevertheless, the novelty of it all may prove entertaining, and there’s plenty to snicker at.

• Valentin (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and vulgarity; elements of family conflict) — **1/2. An engaging but also presumptuous memoir of a precocious boyhood. The Argentinian writer-director Alejandro Agresti recalls himself as a wistful 9-year-old named Valentin, living in Buenos Aires, circa 1969, with his paternal grandmother and struggling to comprehend the estrangement of his parents. The father, an elusive wretch, turns up in the person of Mr. Agresti himself. The mother is never seen, but a surrogate emerges belatedly with an inadequate message of devotion. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Van Helsing (2004) (PG-13: Frightening imagery, sensuality and violence) — **. Hugh Jackman plays the legendary vampire slayer Van Helsing, who this time around has more than Dracula to worry about. He’s up against Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. “The Mummy’s” Stephen Sommers tries to resurrect the old-school monster triumvirate with the help of modern effects but ends up bludgeoning viewers with computerized overkill and deafening action sequences. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Young Adam (2004) (NC-17: Frequent frontal nudity, sexual situations, coarse language and violence) — **1/2. Alexander Trocchi’s beat novel comes to life with Ewan McGregor starring as the amoral lead. Mr. McGregor’s Joe is a barge worker who seduces his boss’s wife (Tilda Swinton) but is more concerned about the dead body which he discovered floating near the docks. The grim character portrait is uncompromising in both its sexual frankness and its bleak setting, but we never know enough about our antihero. Reviewed by Christian Toto.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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