- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

OPENING

• Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) (R) — A remake of the 1976 entrapment thriller directed by John Carpenter, who envisioned it as a modern variation on Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo.” The location shifts from Los Angeles to Detroit, where a crumbling precinct house, due for demolition, becomes an Alamo for both officers and felons after a suspect in transit is targeted for assassination. The occupants find themselves besieged on New Year’s Eve. Opens Wednesday.

• Bad Education (2004) (NC-17) — A labyrinthine tale of boyhood friends united in the present when one, Enrique (Fele Martinez), has become a film director and the other, Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), resurfaces as an aspiring actor with a script that dredges up their troubled past. However, Ignacio may be insinuating himself under false pretenses; he reveals more than one identity, including a transvestite disguise. The cast also includes Daniel Gimenez Cacho as a sinister priest. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Coach Carter (2005) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, racial epithets and sexual candor, including a subplot about a pregnant teenager) — **. Ponderous inspirational sledding from Thomas Carter, the director of “Swing Kids” and “Save the Last Dance.” His eponymous hero is the stubbornly demanding Ken Carter, a businessman in Richmond, Calif., who agrees to take over as the high school basketball coach (he was a member of championship teams a generation earlier) and then dares to suspend the entire squad and forfeit games when players fall short of his minimum academic standards. Samuel L. Jackson stars as the estimable coach, and it’s too easy to endorse his goals without finding the role itself genuinely clever and winning.

• Elektra 2005 (PG13: Comic book-style violence). Daredevil’s love interest from the 2003 movie of the same name apparently didn’t die at the hands of Bullseye after all. Jennifer Garner returns as Elektra in this comic-book spinoff, battling evildoers with her mix of martial-arts prowess and guile. The film begins with the character’s recovery from her nearly fatal wounds and follows her training as a morally ambiguous assassin. Terence Stamp (“The Limey”) and Goran Visnjic of “ER” co-star in this potential franchise starter.

• In Good Company 2005 (PG13: Sexual situations, harsh language and alcohol use) — ***. “About a Boy” writer-director Paul Weitz thumbs his nose at corporate misdeeds with this almost great dramedy. Dennis Quaid stars as an older ad salesman who gets replaced at work by an upstart (Topher Grace) who has never sold an ad in his life. Their tense relationship sharpens when said upstart falls for Mr. Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson). The film’s bright performances and sophistication get torpedoed by a conventional epilogue that belongs in another, lesser, film. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Racing Stripes (2005) (PG: Recurrent slapstick vulgarity, including scatological jokes entrusted to talking insects) — **. The most agreeably ridiculous thing of its kind since “Hot to Trot,” the late John Candy’s 1988 talking-horse farce. Aimed largely at the juvenile and family audience, this variation recruits Frankie Muniz as the voice of an ophaned zebra named Stripes, adopted by a Kentucky widower (Bruce Greenwood) and his beaming daughter (Hayden Panettiere). Their farm, adjacent to a racetrack and thoroughbred ranch, shelters Whoopi Goldberg as a talking goat, Dustin Hoffman as a talking Shetland pony and Joe Pantoliano as a talking pelican. Circumstances conspire to match the plucky, if conspicuously undersized, Stripes in a race with the snooty thoroughbreds. David Spade and Steve Harvey get to monopolize gross-out gags as a pair of wisecracking flies.

NOW SHOWING

• The Aviator (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity, and depictions of demented behavior; fleeting nudity) — **1/2. A curiously compressed and bewildering plunge into the colorful, notorious life of Howard Hughes, impersonated by Leonardo DiCaprio from the eccentric genius’s early 20s to early 40s, or 1927-47. The romance of Hollywood and the romance of aviation during the 1930s provide director Martin Scorsese with his liveliest inducements. There is a trio of dandy sequences with Mr. DiCaprio’s Hughes in the cockpit, two spectacularly perilous and one a charming romantic interlude with Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. Screenwriter John Logan portrays the hero’s sudden, debilitating lapses into dementia but neglects to cushion or clarify their weirdness. The last hour or so bogs down in a supremely bizarre breakdown and a tedious duel with a hostile senator played by Alan Alda.

• Beyond the Sea (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and occasional sexual candor; episodes of family conflict) — ***. A tour de force from Kevin Spacey, long possessed by an irresistible impulse to impersonate the pop singer Bobby Darin, whose career flourished in the early 1960s. Always energized and frequently inventive, the movie employs a confessional format that might be better suited to the stage, where it also would be less disconcerting to hear the star simulate the song style of his subject. One rather expects to hear the original voice in a movie. Mr. Spacey, who also directed, is a bit venerable for the role. Nevertheless, his dedication would be hard to match.

• 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.

• Darkness (2004) (R: Terror, violence and harsh language) — *. When a dysfunctional family played by young Anna Paquin and Lena Olin moves into a house that holds a horrible secret, the building’s spirits appear ready to fulfill a long-dormant promise of terror. This shopworn wannabe-haunted-house thriller, made in 2002 but just released, makes little sense, and what can be sussed out has been swiped from a dozen better fright flicks. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Fat Albert (2004) (PG: Some mild slapstick violence) — **1/2. Hey, hey, hey, the ‘70s cartoon series from the mind of Bill Cosby is coming our way. Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” is Fat Albert, the oversized junkyard kid with the equally huge heart. This live-action vehicle continues the show’s strong moral tradition but can’t convince us we needed to see these characters in three dimensions. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Finding Neverland (2004) (PG: Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy and loss) — ***. A stirring and often imaginative tear-jerker 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 died recently. 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.

• Flight of the Phoenix (2004) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and fleeting profanity) — **. An updated but downsized remake of Robert Aldrich’s absorbing 1965 castaway saga about the survivors of an airplane crash in the Sahara Desert who rally to rebuild the wreckage into an airworthy escape vehicle. Director John Moore gets decent teamwork from Dennis Quaid and Tyrese Gibson, and there’s an impressive digital sandstorm at the outset.

• Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter involving some documentary footage of violent events) — **. A documentary chronicle of the 1974 abduction of Patricia Hearst, the daughter of San Francisco Examiner publisher Randolph Hearst, from a Berkeley, Calif., apartment house by members of an obscure radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. During captivity, she became a notorious temporary convert to the SLA’s propaganda line, which enjoyed lavish publicity until five members died in a flamboyant shootout with Los Angeles police. This reprise stirs the embers of homegrown radicalism at its sorriest. There are relatively few interview subjects, and Miss Hearst is not one of them. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Hotel Rwanda (2004) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and profanity; fleeting images of sexual abuse and exploitation) — **1/2. A dramatization of the harrowing dilemma experienced by Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigala, Rwanda, who sheltered hundreds of refugees during the genocidal slaughters of 1994, in which members of the Tutsi tribal population were murdered systematically by vengeful Hutu countrymen. Don Cheadle is cast as Mr. Rusesabagina, a compassionate sophisticate obliged to bribe and outwit cutthroats. Sophie Okonedo contributes a vivid and impressive performance as his wife.

• 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” but actually manages to upstage that critical darling. The film follows a clash between revolutionaries wielding “flying daggers” and the government forces out to stop them. The director’s last film, “Hero,” earned strong notices and the praise of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino earlier this year, and this epic should be no different. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) (PG: disturbing themes and scary images) — ***. A darkly amusing gothic fantasy in the pre-Disney mold, starring Jim Carrey as conniving Count Olaf, a distant relative after the fortune of the Baudelaire orphans. Based on the series of children’s books by Lemony Snicket, aka Brad Silberling. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) (R: Profanity, drug use, brief nudity) *1/2. Bill Murray, playing a spoofy, Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer-filmmaker, never lets you forget you’re watching a Bill Murray movie. Director Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) never lets you forget you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. “Aquatic” is the work of two ironists gone mad. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Meet the Fockers (2004) (PG-13: Crude humor, profanity, brief drug reference) — **1/2. A mixed bag that taps into enough of its predecessor’s comedy of mayhem to generate consistent laughs. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand join “Meet the Parents” vets Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro for this South Florida-based sequel, in which luckless Greg Focker (Mr. Stiller) introduces his future in-laws to his zany parents. Directed by Jay Roach. Also starring Teri Polo. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Million Dollar Baby (2004) (PG-13: boxing violence; mild profanity; disturbing themes) — ***. Another emotionally powerful, morally daring movie from Clint Eastwood, who directs and stars as boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, who reluctantly takes female pugilist Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) into his corner. Also starring Morgan Freeman. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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 Phantom of the Opera (2004) (PG-13: Sustained ominous elements and erotic 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. The composer and director Joel Schumacher finally have delivered with a sumptuous and frequently enthralling movie edition. There has never been a finer movie love duet than the Emmy Rossum-Patrick Wilson rendition of “All I Ask of You.” Have handkerchiefs ready.

• 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 takes on the real-life story of a former ship’s mechanic named Ramon Sampedro, who fought 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, surrounded by activists and admirers. Because 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 enlightened option. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• 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.

• 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 harpylike 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, 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 (Audrey Tatou), 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.

• White Noise (2005) (PG-13) — *1/2. This supernatural suspense thriller attempts to make the case for EVP, short for electronic voice phenomenon. Michael Keaton stars as a bereaved architect who is approached by an EVP adept, Ian McNeice, who claims to have recorded urgent postmortem transmissions from the hero’s late wife while monitoring the static in audio and video frequencies. Indeed, the late spouse arouses Mr. Keaton to become a tracer of lost persons and virtual Mr. Incredible. The filmmakers definitely overreach while insisting on a shotgun wedding between EVP and diabolical spectacle, but perhaps they have blundered into an exploitable new approach to ghost stories.

• The Woodsman (2004) (R: Mature themes, partial nudity, strong language and violence) — ***1/2. Kevin Bacon turns in a bravura performance as a convicted child molester trying to rejoin society after 12 years in prison. His re-entry faces considerable odds because he still feels the immoral desires that sent him to jail, and everyone around him treats him like a leper. Everyone, that is, except a co-worker (Kyra Sedgwick) who sees a glimmer of hope in his sad blue eyes. The film finds the humanity in its subject without glossing over the horrors tied to the subject matter. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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