- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

OPENING

• Alfie (2004) (R) — A remake of the 1966 British movie about a Cockney womanizer that confirmed Michael Caine’s stellar potential. The American writer-director Charles Shyer retains the Cockney characteristics while casting Jude Law as an Alfie transposed to New York City in the present. The protagonist still takes the audience directly into his confidence. The consorts include Jane Krakowski, Nia Long, Sienna Miller and Susan Sarandon. The source material is a play by Bill Naughton. Elaine Pope collaborated on the new screenplay.

• Enduring Love (2004) (R: Occasional graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity; sexual candor mixed with morbidity) — *1/2. An initially arresting and ultimately revolting movie adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel about the aftermath of a freak accident. Daniel Craig plays a psychology professor who sees a hot-air balloon gusting perilously across an Oxford meadow. He and three other strangers rush to help and one perishes from a fall when the machine becomes airborne again. The bravery of the impulses is canceled out when one of the bystanders, played by Rhys Ifans, begins stalking Mr. Craig, whom he seems to regard as a savior and then a love object. Few stories can boast of going this bughouse after a compelling start.

• Fade to Black (2004) (R) — A pop music concert documentary about a Madison Square Garden appearance by the hip-hop headliner Jay-Z in November 2003. Guest performers include Beyonce Knowles, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, R. Kelly and Foxy Brown.

• 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.

• The Polar Express (2004) (G) — A computer-animated movie version of the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, adapted by director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles, Jr. Tom Hanks provides the voice and model for a principal character, the conductor of a train bound for the North Pole. Some engagements will use the Imax projection system. Opens Wednesday.

• P.S. (2004) (R: Sexual situations, mature themes and strong language) — … Laura Linney and Topher Grace sparkle in this otherwise muddled mess about love, divorce and lost dreams. Miss Linney stars as a disillusioned single woman who falls for a young man (Mr. Grace) who may be an old flame reincarnated. The strong cast, including Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Rudd, nearly pull the film’s disparate themes together. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

NOW SHOWING

• 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.

• Birth (2004) (R: Sustained morbid content; fleeting nudity and sexual candor, including an interlude of simulated intercourse; intimations of pedophilia) — . Nicole Kidman as a pixie-visaged and coifed widow named Anna is persuaded that a persistent, poker-faced 10-year-old boy is the second coming of her late husband. Given this starting point, could “Birth” fail to be a dilly? While wedding the prurient to the portentous and the insufferable, director Jonathan Glazer remains madly infatuated with his own stylistic bombast.

• DIG! (2004) (No MPAA Rating: Adult subject matter) — ***.A rock music chronicle that recalls seven years of camaraderie and conflict between the leaders of two bands: Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. Directed by Ondi Timoner and narrated by Mr. Taylor. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Friday Night Lights (2004) (PG-13: Coarse language, teen drinking and violent sports action) — ***. Texans take their high school football very seriously, as viewers of the new “Friday Night Lights” soon find out. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a straight arrow couch trying to bring another championship to a small Texas town known for its gridiron heroes. “Lights” never glosses over the punishment the players face both on the field and from their neighbors and loved ones when the ball doesn’t bounce their way. The often exhilarating film is based on H.G. Bissinger’s book. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Garden State (2004) (R) — **1/2. A whimsical homecoming comedy about a neurotic young actor, played by writer-director Zach Braff, a regular on the “Scrubs” sitcom, who returns to his hometown in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. While hanging out, he visits old pals, notably Peter Sarsgaard, a gravedigger; consults a neurologist, Ron Leibman; reunites with his estranged dad, Ian Holm; and falls for an epileptic kook, Natalie Portman.

• The Grudge (2004) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; recurrent scenes of death or supernatural assault, with gruesome illustrative details; a demon child as a menace) — *. A remake of the Japanese horror thriller “Ju-On,” currently at the E Street Cinema. The same filmmaker, Takashi Shimizu, guided a predominantly American cast through the same plot while shooting in Japan with his regular crew. The results are predictably superfluous and monotonous. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an exchange student who agrees to substitute for a nurse and finds herself in a severely haunted house. The unfortunate visitors include Bill Pullman, William Mapother, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall and Grace Zabriskie. Any building that makes noises or has a landing, stairwell, closet, attic, mirror, bathtub and wall space hospitable to shadow patterns is bound to be treacherous in Mr. Shimizu’s clammy grip.

• I Heart Huckabees (2004) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional comic and sexual vulgarity, including brief simulations of intercourse; facetious depictions of violence) — *. A woefully freakish, pseudo-philosophical farce that wallows in crackpot disaster. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are clumsily teamed as a conjugal set of “existential detectives,” closer to shrinks than traditional gumshoes. Their clients include two young men in professional conflict: Jason Schwartzman as a surly environmental activist and Jude Law as an ingratiating executive with an expanding retail chain called Huckabees. Despite the personality contrast, their vulnerabilities seem to overlap.

• Ladder 49 (2004) (PG-13: Coarse language and gags, fire-related violence and mature themes) — **1/2. “Ladder 49” serves as a belated salute to firefighters following September 11, but director Jay Russell idealizes the men and women who risk their lives for us. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a veteran firefighter who gets seriously injured fighting a Baltimore warehouse blaze. We flash back to his early days and watch as he grows into a respected firefighter and father to two young children. John Travolta adds little support as Mr. Phoenix’s superior but the fire sequences grab us by the neck. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Machinist (2004) (R: Sustained ominous and morbid elements; occasional graphic violence, nudity and sexual candor) — **1/2. A psychological suspense melodrama showcasing a severely emaciated Christian Bale as Trevor, a tormented lathe operator discovered in an advanced stage of chronic insomnia and despair. There is a traumatic cause, concealed until the denouement, but it turns out to be the weakest link in the system of illusion. A beefy, smirking figure called Ivan (John Sharian, recalling Telly Savalas) reappears to taunt and mislead the suffering Trevor. As fables of mental breakdown go, this one plays relatively fair with its clues and evasions.

• The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor and vulgarity) — **. Nostalgic balm for aging radicals. The Brazilian director Walter Salles retrieves episodes from a diary of Ernesto Che Guevara and recalls a prodigious odyssey through South America Mr. Guevara shared with a friend, Alberto Granado, in 1951-52, on an unreliable old motorcycle. The early episodes surge with exuberance, but lulls and breakdowns start to accumulate. Rodrigo de la Serna is the more vigorous presence as Granado. The Mexican matinee idol Gael Garcia Bernal seems a more ethereal seeker in the Guevara role, but at this stage Che’s idolators may prefer him as an angelic dreamboat. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• 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.

• Saw (2004) (R: Graphic violence, adult themes and torture) — *1/2. First-time director James Wan bungles some novel thrills in this sadist, would-be psychological thriller. Cary Elwes plays a doctor imprisoned by a serial killer who likes to make his victims kill or maim themselves through his macabre mind games. Horrific acting provides the biggest scares here, beyond the fact that Danny Glover ever agreed to co-star in this mess. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Shall We Dance (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions; fleeting profanity) — **1/2. The 1997 Japanese hit celebrated the spiritual regeneration of an accountant who falls in love with ballroom dancing. This American revamp gives us Richard Gere as John Clark, an estate lawyer in Chicago, where oblivious spouse Susan Sarandon has a posh job at Saks. Something has been missing from their stable marriage: a sense of passion reawakened when Clark is attracted by the sight of a beautiful young woman (Jennifer Lopez) in the window of a dance studio. He decides to have a closer look and enrolls in a beginner’s ballroom course, which leads to a lovely platonic highlight, a private tango lesson between muse and admirer.

• Shark Tale (2004) (PG: Mild slapstick violence) —**1/2. Will Smith’s hip-hop persona drives the latest computer-animated film that wants to be this fall’s answer to “Finding Nemo.” It’s more like a second-tier “Shrek,” but packs enough laughs for the kids or the kid within us. Mr. Smith stars as Oscar, a dreaming, scheming fish who manipulates the media into thinking he killed a shark all on his own. Co-starring the voices of Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro, having a grand time spoofing his past Mafia roles. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Shaun of the Dead (2004) (R: Zombie violence/gore; profanity) — ***. A smart zombie spoof from British director Edgar Wright. North London is overrun by the living dead, but working-stiff Shaun (Simon Pegg) and fat-friend Ed (Nick Frost) are too busy drinking beer and playing video games to notice. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Stage Beauty (2004) (R) — **. An attempt to create a Restoration period counterpart to “Shakespeare in Love.” Derived from a play by Jeffrey Hatcher, who also did the screenplay, this account of theater people embroiled with royalty casts Billy Crudup as a suddenly obsolete actor, Ned Kynaston, the most popular female impersonator of the classical stage. When the newly crowned Charles II (Rupert Everett) decides to reform the theater licensing laws and permit women to act in public, Kynaston’s dresser Maria (Claire Danes) becomes the first aspiring actress to capitalize on the policy. In the event, Ned and Maria become lovers and a promising new acting alliance. Directed by Richard Eyre.

• Surviving Christmas (2004) (PG-13: Recurrent comic and sexual vulgarity) — *1/2. A painfully facetious domestic comedy that revolves around Ben Affleck as a lonely yuppie chucklehead from Chicago who bribes a suburban family to host and humor him for the holidays. The basic price, $250,000, gets jacked up a bit, though never to the credit of anyone involved. With James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara as the susceptible parents and Christina Applegate and Josh Zuckerman as their peeved youngsters. Only a desperate public could keep this wreck afloat beyond Thanksgiving weekend.

• Taxi (2004) (PG-13: Strong language sexuality and comic violence) —*1/2. Jimmy Fallon tries to follow Aykroyd, Belushi and Chase in making the jump from “Saturday Night Live” to big screen fame. Too bad his first film stalls at the starting line. He stars as an inept NYPD cop who teams up with a testy taxi driver (Queen Latifah) to bag a gang of gorgeous bank robbers. This loud, dumb vehicle showcases Queen Latifah’s appeal but little else. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Team America: World Police (2004) (R: Coarse language, simulated sexual situations, violence and crude humor) — ***. Those “South Park” bad boys are at it again, mocking the war on terror, dopey action films and liberal Hollywood via marionette puppetry. The film’s heroes set out to stop North Korea’s dictator from handing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. “Team America” may be crude and offensive at nearly every turn, but it’s also occasionally brilliant in its even-keeled satire. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Undertow (2004) (R: Graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity and sexual candor; thematic concentration on imperiled or fugitive children) — *. A lamentable shift in an awkwardly commercial direction from the young regional filmmaker David Gordon Green, who appeared to be evolving a lyrically intuitive style in his second feature, “All the Real Girls.” As before, he uses small-town and rural settings in North Carolina, but the circumstances grow intolerably sordid and weird as he struggles to do something distinctive with a murder melodrama about fraternal enmity that leaves two boys running for their lives. The plot recalls “The Night of the Hunter” while failing to recapture any of its apprehensive or sentimental finesse. With Dermot Mulroney and an impressively menacing Josh Lucas as older brothers; Jamie Bell and Devon Alan play the young runaways.

• Vera Drake (2004) (R: Thematic concentration on abortion practices in England circa 1950; occasional profanity; considerable sexual and clinical candor) — ***1/2. English filmmaker Mike Leigh applies his flair for domestic humor and pathos to the early 1950s and a haunting renewal of slice-of-life, tight-little-parlor melodrama. The evocation of time, place, idiom and human nature seems impeccable, but the subject matter is shocking: a nice, middle-aged working-class mum, the title character (Imelda Staunton) conceals a double life as an amateur abortionist. Far from mercenary, Vera regards her technique, a carbolic soap solution, as safe; she has the gentlest of bedside manners and justifies her avocation sincerely as “helping girls out.” Also aware that she’s been breaking the law, Vera is profoundly shamed when exposed and arrested. Mr. Leigh creates the illusion of a case history, but the scenario is completely fictionalized. The naturalistic acting and stylization achieve exceptional credibility.

• Voices of Iraq (2004) (No MPAA Rating: adult subject matter) — A mosaic of impressions from Iraqis, united by largely optimistic outlooks in the wake of American intervention and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Compiled from digital camera records in several parts of the country, where about 150 participants kept video diaries for co-producers Eric Manes, Martin Kunert and Archie Drury. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Not reviewed.

• Woman, Thou Art Loosed (2004) (R: violence, sexual content and drug use) — *. — Bishop T.D. Jakes first published “Woman Thou Art Loosed!” — a self-help tome filled with accounts of women who’ve overcome abuse, addiction and other life wounds — in 1994. Since then, the book has spun off several successive titles, a CD and a string of conferences. The movie casts Bishop Jakes as himself, a spiritual catalyst for redemption in two bedeviled women: Kimberly Elise as a lost soul and Loretta Devine as her ineffectual mother. The story is told through disjointed flashbacks. The uneven pacing is tedious and the film also manages to trot out a plethora of stereotypes from the so-called gospel musicals. A murder is committed at the movie’s start, and eventually the mystery is solved. Yet you needn’t waste your money at the theater for the answer. Reviewed by Robyn-Denise Yourse.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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