- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

OPENING

• Bright Leaves (2004) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with occasional frank conversation and episodes that involve cancer patients) — *1/2. An initially promising, eventually exasperating documentary chronicle from the inimitable Ross McElwee, who emerged from obscurity in 1986 with “Sherman’s March.” Some of the material in this wayward family memoir dates from the late 1990s. Considerable thematic potential withers on the vine as Mr. McElwee indulges his whimsicality and self-absorption.

• 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 coach trying to bring another championship to a small Texas town known for its gridiron heroes. The film is based on H.G. Bissinger’s book.

I Heart Huckabees (2004) (R) — A new and presumably idiosyncratic farce from David O. Russell of “Flirting With Disaster.” He teams Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as a set of “existential detectives,” closer to shrinks than traditional gumshoes. Their client list includes two young men in professional conflict: Jason Schartzman as an environmental activist and Jude Law as an executive with an expanding retail chain called Huckabees. The cast also includes Naomi Watts and Mark Wahlberg.

• Incantato (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — The title means “enchanted” in Italian and director Pupi Avanti evokes Rome and Bologna in the 1920s. Giancarlo Giannini stars as a prominent Roman tailor concerned with the future of his sweet-natured but inexperienced son, Neri Marcore, who takes a teaching job in Bologna and becomes infatuated with a sightless beauty, Vanessa Incontrada. In Italian with English subtitles. A limited engagement, exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

• Raise Your Voice (2004) (PG) — The latest outing for Hilary Duff, cast as a young woman who vows to honor the memory of her recently deceased brother by singing up a storm at a performing arts academy in Los Angeles. The supporting cast includes Jason Ritter, John Corbett, Rita Wilson and Oliver James. Directed by Sean McNamara from a screenplay by Sam Schreiber.

• Red Lights (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. A sinister movie version of a Georges Simenon thriller, with Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Carole Bouquet as a bickering couple who become prey to a psychopath during a car trip to the South of France. Directed by Cedric Kahn. In French with English subtitles.

• Taxi (2004) (PG-13: Strong language sexuality and comic violence). Jimmy Fallon tries to follow Aykroyd, Belushi and Chase in making the jump from “Saturday Night Live” to big screen fame. He stars as a NYPD cop who teams up with a testy taxi driver (Queen Latifah) to bag a gang of gorgeous bank robbers..

NOW SHOWING

• Bright Young Things (2004) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and depictions of drug use; depiction of suicide; fleeting nudity; allusions to homosexuality) — **. A gamely literary feature debut from Stephen Fry, directing his own adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel “Vile Bodies.” The novel satirized fashionable party animals of Roaring ‘20s London. Although faithful to many episodes and the author’s comic idiom, Mr. Fry lacks the deadpan, double-take mastery of his model. The ironies and regrets grow self-conscious as he imprudently stretches the time frame another decade to incorporate World War II. With Peter O’Toole, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Bill Paterson, Michael Sheen and David Tennant.

• Cellular (2004) (PG-13: Violence, sexual situations and harsh language) — **1/2. Kim Basinger stars as a woman in peril who dials a random number on her cell phone looking for help. The call is answered by a young man (Chris Evans) who decides to rush to her side, but he doesn’t know what awaits him when he gets there. “Cellular” jams its own signal with too many illogical turns but rights itself in time for a nifty final reel. The solid supporting cast includes William H. Macy, Noah Emmerich and Jason Statham. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• A Dirty Shame (2004) (NC-17: Graphic sexuality; nudity; profanity) — **. Kinky fetishes are surveyed in this lively sex farce from John Waters that may actually incite a backlash rather than extend the boundaries of tolerance. Starring Tracey Ullman and Chris Isaak. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2004) (NR: Contains profanity) — **. A documentary that is just what it says. While the Ramones, the pioneering New York punk band, was long overdue for a documentary, this amateurish production doesn’t do them justice. Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia. Reviewed by Scott Galupo and Daniel Wattenberg.

• First Daughter (2004) (PG: Fleeting sexual allusions and comic vulgarity) — **. A sweet-tempered but often blundering romantic comedy about a college freshman (Katie Holmes) who is the daughter of the president of the United States (Michael Keaton). Marc Blucas is a potential sweetheart, the resident adviser in the heroine’s dorm. The filmmakers take such an awestruck and sympathetic view of the heroine and her parents that the movie emerges as a blithely eccentric rebuke to the stack of anti-Bush polemics out of Hollywood this election year.

• The Forgotten (2004) (PG-13: Some strong language and intense subject matter) — ***. Julianne Moore plays a mother, grieving over the death of her 8-year-old boy, who is told by her psychiatrist the boy never existed. She thinks she may be going insane but soon finds a man who also is told a huge part of his life never happened even though he’s sure it did. The film, which co-stars Anthony Edwards (of “ER”) and Dominic West, treats its heroes like rational adults, unlike some thrillers these days. That maturity, combined with uniformly taut acting, lets it dance over some obvious story flaws. 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.

• Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting documentary images of combat in Vietnam) — *1/2. An admiring campaign biography of the Democratic Party nominee, an illustrated digest compiled by documentary filmmaker George Butler, a friend and crony for the past 40 years. The Douglas Brinkley book “Tour of Duty” is acknowledged as a source. The last 33 years of Sen. Kerry’s public life are summarized in photos during the end credits. The case for admiration rests entirely on the subject’s abbreviated service as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam in 1969 and his emergence as an organizer and spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. Hints of skepticism or contradiction barely surface, and those are attributed to a malicious Nixon administration.

• Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) (R: Frightening images) —**1/2. “Ringu” director Takashi Shimizu returns with a new horror yarn, which features a haunted house whose terrors seep into the neighborhood. “Ju-On’s” creepy camerawork and unsettling sounds do get under our skin, but the narrative’s repetitiveness deadens the goose bumps. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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 Last Shot (2004) (R: Strong language, violent situations and sexual matters) —

***. This sweet-natured Hollywood satire follows the true tale of the FBI’s attempt to nab mobster John Gotti through a bogus film crew. Alec Baldwin plays the FBI agent/producer who woos fledgling filmmaker Matthew Broderick into making a movie that will never see a cinema house. The film’s sharp laughs and inside lingo distract from a rare subpar turn from Mr. Baldwin. Don’t miss Joan Cusack’s hilarious turn as a Hollywood player gone very sour. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Maria Full of Grace (2004) (R: Profanity, violence, scenes of drug production) — ***. A simple, swift blow to the thorax from director Joshua Marston, using first-time actors to capture the harrowingly personal trafficking of drugs from Bogota to the United States. The title character (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an impoverished, flinty Colombian teen, conceals scores of pellets full of narcotics in her stomach in a high-stakes game of airline smuggling. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Mr. 3000 (2004) (PG-13: Sexual content and strong language). Bernie Mac stars as a retired slugger who returns to the major leagues when his 3,000th hit is stricken from the record books. Angela Bassett co-stars as the ballplayer’s love interest. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) (R: Science-fiction violence, nudity and strong language) — **. Milla Jovovich returns in the sequel to the 2002 hit about an evil corporation letting loose a potion turning people into zombies. Add another brain-dead zombie film to the genre, though this one packs so much action into every scene that it’s rarely boring. The film, based on the popular video game, co-stars Sienna Guillory and Oded Fehr. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) (PG: Stylized sci-fi violence; brief profanity; sensuality) — ***. A fun, computer-generated ride with Jude Law (as fighter pilot Joe Sullivan) and Gwyneth Paltrow (as danger-seeking Gotham reporter Polly Perkins) in a retro-futuristic story world wherein the fate of the Earth is threatened by a mad German scientist. Written and directed by Kerry Conran. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Vanity Fair (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity in a period setting; images of battlefield casualties; fleeting nudity) —**1/2. A vivid and absorbing new movie adaptation of Thackeray’s formidable social-historical-satirical novel of 1848. The opportunistic heroine, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) attempts to transcend a bohemian childhood and galling dependence as a governess by seducing a wealthy or aristocratic mate. She ends up with a gambling man of a soldier, Rawdon Crawley, admirably impersonated by James Purefoy. The scenario lacks staying power, and director Mira Nair begins to falter during the Waterloo episodes. Nevertheless, it’s fun to watch Miss Witherspoon venture into Victorian literature. The cast includes Bob Hoskins, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent and Gabriel Byrne.

• Wimbledon (2204) (PG-13: Adult language, partial nudity and sexuality)* Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”) stars as a fading tennis star given new confidence by his romance with a fellow player (Kirsten Dunst). She may be the bad girl on the tennis circuit, but the combination of her grit and his affection for her revives his game. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• The Yes Men (2004) (R) — *1/2. A deadly dull attempt at poli-satire sees a band of anti-globalization pranksters trying to embarrass the WTO the world over. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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