- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

OPENING

• America’s Heart & Soul (2004) (PG) — A documentary filmmaker and archivist named Louis Schwartzberg hits the road to observe “ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories.” Mr. Schwartzberg incorporates about two dozen vignettes while crisscrossing the United States.

• Before Sunset (2004) (R: Adult language and situations) — ***. Slight but satisfying sequel to the 1995 film “Before Sunrise,” which explored the perils and delights of instant chemistry. We revisit that film’s characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nearly a decade after they met, and fell for each other, on a train. Those feelings haven’t dissipated over time, but their subsequent life choices threaten any chance at reconciliation. Director Richard Linklater fashions a marvelously told tale chiefly out of natural dialogue and honest emoting. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Clearing (2004) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) — A suspense melodrama with Robert Redford as a wealthy executive abducted at gunpoint in the driveway of his suburban Pittsburgh home by Willem Dafoe. Mr. Redford’s wife, Helen Mirren, and children, Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller, share a vigil with FBI agent Matt Craven.

• De-Lovely (2004) (PG-13: Occasional sexual candor and innuendo, dominated by allusions to the homosexuality of Cole Porter; fleeting profanity and depictions of grave injury or illness) — *1/2. A would-be poignant but hopelessly blundering attempt to recall the career of Cole Porter while acknowledging the clandestine homosexual activity that needed to be concealed when Hollywood paid its first tribute almost 60 years ago, with Cary Grant in “Night and Day.” “De-Lovely” co-stars Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as his loyal socialite wife Linda Lee. Sappiness abounds, and the filmmakers are vastly less proficient at devising attractive showcases for famous Porter songs.

• I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2004) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and morbid sexual candor, notably a depiction of homosexual molestation) — . The partnership that made “Croupier” memorable five years ago — director Mike Hodges and leading man Clive Owen — is left stranded by this reunion project, wedded to a revenge scenario that lacks suspense or characterization. Mr. Owen is cast as a former mob hit man who returns from seclusion after his wastrel kid brother is brutalized. Mr. Hodges attempts to mask the staleness of it all, but doesn’t succeed.

• King Arthur (2004) (PG-13) — A historical-romantic saga about the legendary medieval monarch, now portrayed by Clive Owen as a restless warrior obliged to organize a last-ditch defense against Saxon invaders. With Keira Knightley as Guinevere and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot. Opens Wednesday.

• Spider-Man 2 (2004) PG-13: stylized action sequences — **1/2. Tobey Maguire returns as the neurotic wall-crawler who battles his feelings for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) as well as a new supervillain. Alfred Molina gives the wicked Dr. Octavious a bruised soul, but the battles between him and Spider-Man seem more video game than movie magic. Returning director Sam Raimi gives far more attention to the film’s romantic core, a rarity in big-budget sequels. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Strayed (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with images of wartime violence, occasional profanity, fleeting nudity and one explicit sequence of simulated intercourse) **1/2. An absorbing but ultimately messed-up movie from Andre Techine. A young widow (Emmanuelle Beart) flees Paris with her two children in the wake of the German invasion in 1940. They end up sharing a kind of imperiled pastoral idyll at an abandoned country estate while relying on the resourcefulness of a feral delinquent called Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel). The problem is devising a way out of ominous seclusion. Mr. Techine opts for a dream-like sex scene between heroine and teenager. It’s all downhill from there. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

NOW SHOWING

• Around the World in 80 Days (2004) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) —*1/2. A ramshackle remake of the durably entertaining Jules Verne classic, revamped for stunts by Jackie Chan. Cast as a resourceful Chinese agent, he hires on as the valet of Steve Coogan’s Phileas Fogg, now a goofy and insecure inventor, in order to return a precious jade statuette to China. The travelers take a slow detour over the Himalayas to reach Mr. Chan’s home village. Ignorance of both the book and Mike Todd’s sumptuously overblown 1956 movie version will come in handy.

• Baadasssss! (2004) (R: pervasive profanity; sexuality; nudity; drug references) — ***. Mario Van Peebles pays a tribute both comic and poignant to his filmmaker father Melvin Van Peebles, the man who pioneered the blaxploitation era with the funk-rock hymn to black defiance, 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Chronicles of Riddick(2004) ? (PG-13: Intense action and strong language).**1/2 Vin Diesel reprises his role from the modest sci-fi hit “Pitch Black” in this imaginative but dense sequel. “Riddick” finds our antihero caught between bounty hunters and a race of ghost-like humans bent on universal domination. Mr. Diesel’s monosyllabic style hasn’t worn out its welcome, but the film’s cluttered plotting detracts from the adventure. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Control Room (2004) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter). A documentary feature from Jehane Noujaim, who observes the newsrooms of the Al Jazeera television network in Qatar at the time of the American invasion of Iraq. Some dialogue in Arabic with English subtitles. Not reviewed.

• 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.

• Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) (PG-13: Rude and sexual humor; profanity) — ***. Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn team again for this inspired, gag-aplenty addition to the grand tradition of lowbrow sports comedies. Mr. Vaughn’s “average joes” battle Mr. Stiller’s steroidal ringers in a Las Vegas dodgeball competition. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and images of wartime carnage) — *1/2.Somehow, a frankly prejudicial outlook fails to prevent Michael Moore from being a butterfingered specialist in hatchet jobs. He can’t keep a firm grip on a very blunt polemical instrument. The intended victim of this pseudo-documentary roast is President George W. Bush, assailed and ridiculed from election night in 2000 through the prosecution of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Golden Palm winner at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

• Garfield(2004) (PG) ? A belated feature outing for the comic-strip cat, dubbed by Bill Murray and illustrated through computer graphics, blended with live-action scenes directed by Peter Hewitt. The cast also includes Jennifer Love Hewitt and Breckin Meyer. Not reviewed.

• 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 Hunting of the President (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — **. Harry Thomason, the filmmaking friend of former president Bill Clinton, assembles a sprawling but essentially superfluous video dossier intended to discredit the unscrupulous members of the press or adherents of “right-wing cabals” who collaborated to bedevil the president during his White House tenure. The presentation is often trivialized by an excess of fill-in illustration from stock footage archives. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• The Mother (2003) (R: Frank sexuality, nudity, profanity, brief drug use) — **. A British bedroom drama, with a sexagenarian woman (Anne Reid) as its titillating focus. Miss Reid’s widowed May fancies the carpenter boyfriend of her single-mom daughter. Directed by Roger Michell. Written by Hanif Kureishi. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• My Sister Maria (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, including elements of family intimacy and depictions of infirmities associated with old age) — … Maximilian Schell intrudes on his older sister Maria, a prominent film actress of the 1950s and early 1960s revealed in seclusion at a family lodge in Switzerland. Despite the thickening ravages of age, her distinctive smile remains intact and touching. Miss Schell seems to have gone perilously into debt while becoming a recluse surrounded by bedroom television sets. Her career is never adequately summarized. Many scenes in German with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Napoleon Dynamite (2004) PG: Mild vulgarity, slapstick violence) — **1/2. Husband-wife creative team Jared and Jerusha Hess think they’ve created a nebbish antihero for the ages, but their Napoleon is simply a collection of nerdy tics pretending to be a character. The couple’s Sundance hit supplies the requisite laughs as we watch Napoleon (Jon Heder) navigate his way through a bland Idaho high school. What’s missing is a reason to care for Napoleon or his equally dysfunctional pals. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Notebook (2004) (PG-13: Some moments of sensuality) — **1/2. Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, “The Notebook” follows an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) as she learns about a pair of lovestruck teens from stories left behind in an old notebook. The film flashes back to that 1940s-era romance, then returns to the present day, where the senile old woman is cared for by a kindly senior citizen (James Garner). Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• 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.

• Spider-Man 2 (2004) PG-13: Stylized action sequences — **1/2. Tobey Maguire returns as the neurotic wall-crawler who battles his feelings for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) as well as a new supervillain. Alfred Molina gives the wicked Dr. Octavious a bruised soul, but the battles between him and Spider-Man seem more video game than movie magic. Returning director Sam Raimi gives far more attention to the film’s romantic core, a rarity in big-budget sequels. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• The Stepford Wives (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional sexual vulgarity and innuendo) — *1/2. A remake of the zestless 1975 movie version of Ira Levin’s best-seller, which envisioned suburban husbands conspiring to turn their wives into happy-homemaker zombies. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz opt for a facetious approach, but the jocularity proves gauche and inane rather than clever and satisfying. Nicole Kidman is poorly showcased as the Stepford newcomer. Matthew Broderick plays her blah hubby. Wasted resources include Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Bette Midler and Jon Lovitz.

• The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) (PG: Essentially suitable for all ages; elements of natural candor, including a sequence about camels giving birth) — ****. The loveliest movie of the year so far. Filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa, a Mongolian, and Luigi Falorni, an Italian, observe the spring calving season and its aftermath with a family that herds sheep and Bactrian camels. The family itself, ranging from great grandparents to a toddler, is exceptionally attractive. They face a crisis: how to reconcile a mother camel to the pleading calf she repeatedly rejects. The scenes are largely authentic and unrehearsed, but they incorporate a tribal fable of reconciliation through music that proves sublimely gratifying. In a Mongolian dialect with English subtitles.

• 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.

• The Terminal (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) — *1/2. Steven Spielberg seems to be flirting with dotage in this rabble-rouser. Tom Hanks pretends to no-speak-the-English as a displaced East European confined to an impressive replica of John F. Kennedy Airport on Long Island when his country is engulfed in civil war. He is stranded at JFK for months, allowing Mr. Spielberg to lionize him as a paragon whose decency and resourcefulness shame us all. The scenario goes “populist” in the worst ways. With Catherine Zeta-Jones as a very sorry sweetheart, the dumbest flight attendant in the history of cinematic aviation.

• Two Brothers (2004) (PG: Depictions of harm to animals) — **1/2. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud makes a touching fable by anthropomorphizing two tiger cubs separated in the jungles of French Indochina. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• White Chicks (2004) (PG-13: Crude language, sexual situations and drug references) — **. Keenen Ivory Wayans directs two of his siblings in a drag comedy mocking snooty heiresses, high society and good taste. Marlon and Shawn Wayans play disgraced FBI agents who go undercover as “white chicks” to prevent a kidnapping. The gags range in quality from insufferably juvenile to amusing, but a smart supporting cast keeps the story humming. Reviewed by Christian Toto.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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