- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

OPENING

• Crazy Like a Fox (2001) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) The belated theatrical release of one of the more creditable and diverting first features to emerge from a Washington-based filmmaker. Writer-director Richard Squires shot this comic valentine to a stubborn, improvident Virginia landowner called Nat Banks (Roger Rees) near Middleburg in 2001. It took years to secure a distributor. Mortgaged to the hilt but proudly averse to selling his patrimony, Nat relents when a wealthy young couple offers a substantial price. But they turn into absentee landlords harboring a development scheme that alienates the clannish community, so Nat seizes a quixotic chance to recoup, becoming a furtive squatter and persistent nuisance. —The material is stronger in the first half, when Mr. Squires recognizes the incorrigible side of Nat, cleverly played by Roger Rees, and the need for him to face facts, if only to retain his sensible and patient spouse Amy (Mary McDonnell). The last half prefers to embrace Nat without reservation, but the partiality doesn’t wreck much of the humorous characterization or the consistently lovely response to the countryside. ….Three stars.

m Free Zone (2005) (No MPAA rating) — A topical melodrama directed by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, in which an American visitor played by Natalie Portman and a Jerusalem cabbie played by Hanna Laslo become traveling companions on an expedition to a free trading area in Jordan. Exclusively at the Landmak E Street Cinema.

• Hoot (2006) (PG) — A movie version of the award-winning juvenile novel by Carl Hiaasen, who championed a group of middle-school students in Florida who conspire to obstruct a shady development deal that threatens the habitat of a colony of owls.

• Mission: Impossible III (2006) (PG-13: Action violence, some sensuality and disturbing imagery). Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, the superspy spawned from the popular hit series from the 1960s. This time, Mr. Cruise’s mission is made harder by a supervillain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from his Oscar-winning turn in “Capote.” J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame directs the third installment.

• La Mujer de mi Hermano (2005) (R) — A Spanish erotic melodrama about a restless wife who begins an affair with her brother-in-law. The trio consists of Barbara Mori, Christian Meier and Manolo Cardona, directed by Ricardo de Montreuil. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• The Promise (2006) (PG-13: Stylized violence and martial arts action and some sexual content). Writer-director Chen Kaige has created the most expensive film ever made in China, a story of a cursed woman and quicksilver-fast man who meet and fall in love in the most unusual of circumstances. Expect martial arts wizardry a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” but with even more brilliant colors and stylistic flourishes.

• Water (2005) (PG-13: Occasional violence and sexual candor). The Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta concludes a trilogy of social and romantic dramas about India in the decades before political independence with this absorbing account of a widowed child bride banished in 1938 to a shadow region — an ashram for widows in Varanasi, a holy city on the Ganges. In Hindi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the AMC Loews Dupont Circle and the Landmark Bethesda Row. **.Two and one-half stars.½

NOW SHOWING

• Akeelah and the Bee (2006) (PG: Some mild language) — ***. A young South Central girl (Keke Palmer) catches the National Spelling Bee championships on ESPN and is hooked. She studies hard and sets her sights on winning the next year’s competition. Angela Bassett plays the girl’s mother and Laurence Fishburne is a helpful professor. “Akeelah” is predictable, mushy in spots and hardly cutting-edge. None of that matters when Mr. Fishburne is counseling young Akeelah. Their tender scenes, and the film’s oversized heart, make it a warm and winning film for young and old. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• American Dreamz (2006) (PG-13: Disturbing themes, sexual situations and adult language) — **1/2. Hugh Grant is the Simon Cowell-esque host of the country’s most popular television show. President Staton (Dennis Quaid) hopes to boost his poll numbers by appearing on the program, while a terrorist group sees the singing show as a platform for its next murderous act. Writer-director Paul Weitz of “About a Boy” fame wrings some laughs out of touchy material but too much of the satire only skims the surface. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Brick (2006) (R) — *** — An homage to film noir that won a special jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Rian Johnson attempts to interweave the conventions of vintage private eye movies with a suburban high school setting in Southern California. The film has the raw feel of a first effort but is suffused with love of both filmmaking and the incredible variety of American personality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cast as the teenage sleuth, who encounters various sinister types while searching for a missing girlfriend. Reviewed by Kelly Jane Torrance.

• The Devil and Daniel Johnstone (2006) (PG-13) — A documentary feature about the struggle of a songwriter to function despite severe manic-depressive tendencies. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Not reviewed.

• Don’t Come Knocking (2006) (R) — ***. The latest in a series of small, understated movies about the late-life crises of disconnected men. Directed by Wim Wenders from a script by playwright Sam Shepard (who also stars), it’s an ornery sibling to most male-angst movies, in which supposedly successful men must come to grips with the disappointments of their lives. But where those films pondered life’s uncertainties and found little in the way of hope, “Don’t Come Knocking” offers a vision of home and family as truly satisfying alternatives to the empty fantasies of mainstream success. Reviewed by Peter Suderman.

• L’Enfant (2005) (R) — ***. The year-after arrival of the Golden Palm winner at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. An intimate but oppressive study of anomie among the Belgian dispossessed by the fraternal team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the movie revolves around Jeremie Renier as the young boss of a gang of petty thieves in the industrial city of Seraing. He experiences a sudden change of heart after shocking his teenage girlfriend by arranging to sell their new baby on the black market. The simplicity of the film belies its emotional impact. In French with English subtitles. Reviewed by Adam Mazmanian.

• Friends With Money (2006) (R: Adult language, sexual situations and brief drug use) — ***. Jennifer Aniston joins an ensemble cast to explore the cultural divide separating the haves from the have nots. The “Friends” star plays a broke single woman supported by three close friends and their spouses. The serio-comedy showcases writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s knack for crafting beautifully real characters. It’s a lovely script with wonderful subtleties and clever wordplay made even better by outstanding performances. Reviewed by Jenny Mayo.

• Hard Candy (2006) (R) — A psychological suspense melodrama about a teenage girl, Ellen Page, who begins to suspect the worst of an attractive man, Patrick Wilson, who appears intent on seduction. Directed by David Slade from a screenplay by Brian Nelson. Not reviewed.

• Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) (PG) — **1/2 Manfred the mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) return and hit the road again in this follow-up to 2002’s computer-animated hit “Ice Age.” Now they (and Scrat the squirrel) head for a boat to escape the rising waters as the polar ice caps melt. Queen Latifah joins the troupe as the voice of a somewhat confused she-mammoth named Ellie. The film delivers a solid, entertaining story for all ages, but has too many characters, all running amok — and vying for our attention. Reviewed by Jenny Mayo.

• The Inside Man (2006) (R: Violent sequences, sexual situations and adult language) — ***. Spike Lee rebounds from his recent clunkers with a thriller that compares favorably to “Dog Day Afternoon.” Denzel Washington plays a hostage negotiator trying to deal with a savvy bank robber (Clive Owen) who appears to have pulled off the perfect crime. The strong cast is matched by a smart screenplay and more than a few satisfying twists. “Inside Man” also stars Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Lucky Number Slevin (2006) (R: Sexual situations, graphic violence, adult language and mature themes) — **1/2. Josh Hartnett is Slevin, a young man with a mistaken identity problem. Dueling mob lords think he’s someone else, someone who owes them both a great deal of cash. Sir Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman play the mobsters, and Bruce Willis appears as a hit man whose loyalties are as complex as the rest of this comic thriller. The crackling supporting cast can’t camouflage the story’s insincerity or Mr. Hartnett’s bland presence. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (2006) (PG-13: Adult subject matter) — A romantic melodrama about a widower (Robert Carlyle) who is inspired by the dying confidences of an accident victim to visit a dance academy, where he meets and falls in love with an instructor played by Marisa Tomei. The cast also includes John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin, Donnie Wahlberg and Danny DeVito. Directed by Randall Miller from a screenplay by himself and spouse Jody Savin, expanding on a dramatic short made several years ago. Not reviewed.

• Mountain Patrol (2005) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter) — A Chinese adventure melodrama about game wardens imperiled by antelope poachers in the mountains of Tibet. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Not reviewed.

• Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2006) (PG) — A sentimental comedy about the friendship that evolves between an elderly Scottish woman, Joan Plowright, and a young writer, Rupert Friend, who meet in London. Directed by Dan Ireland from a screenplay by Ruth Sacks. Not reviewed.

• The Notorious Bettie Page (2006) (R) — A biographical drama about the legendary checkered career of a popular pin-up model and stag film performer of the 1950s. Gretchen Mol gets the title role; the supporting cast includes Lili Taylor, David Strathairn, Cara Seymour and Tara Subkoff. Directed by Mary Harron from a screenplay by herself and Guinevere Turner. Not reviewed.

• RV (2006) (PG) — A road comedy starring Robin Williams as a dad who conceals troubles at work by promoting a vacation trip in a rented recreational vehicle. His itinerary puzzles wife Cheryl Hines and their two teens. While on the road they meet a seasoned RV family headed by Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from a screenplay by Geoff Rodkey, also responsible for “Daddy Day Care” and the recent remake of “The Shaggy Dog.” Not reviewed.

• Scary Movie 4 (2006) (PG-13: Crude sexual humor, violence and mature language) — . The “Scary Movie” franchise celebrates its fourth film by poking fun at “War of the Worlds,” “The Village” and “The Grudge,” as well as non-horror movies like “Brokeback Mountain.” Anna Faris returns as Cindy, the addled heroine trying to find love again after her boyfriend’s death. But that storyline exists merely to connect the various parodies. A few of “Scary’s” jokes connect, but too many fall embarrassingly flat for this parody to nail its targets. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Sentinel (2006) (PG-13: Violent action sequences and a scene of sensuality) — **. Kiefer Sutherland of “24” fame plays a Secret Service agent out to stop a plot against the president. The prime suspect is a former agent (Michael Douglas) who taught Mr. Sutherland’s character everything he knows about law enforcement. The thriller, whichco-stars Kim Basinger and Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives” fame, paints a descriptive picture of the Secret Service but its conspiracy plot is nowhere near as intriguing. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Stick It (2006) (PG-13) — The feature directing debut of Jessica Bendinger, a former model who broke through belatedly as a screenwriter with the exuberant “Bring It On.” This variant, also written by Miss Bendinger, revolves around Missy Peregrym as a high school rebel who suddenly emerges as a gymnastics prodigy. With Jeff Bridges as her coach, Jon Gries as her dad and Vanessa Lengies, Nikki Soohoo and Maddy Curley as teammates who have to deal with her attitude. Not reviewed.

• Thank You for Smoking (2006) (R: Adult language, sexual situations and partial nudity) — ***1/2. Christopher Buckley’s scathing satire on political spin cycles is brought to the screen with all of its wit and intelligence intact by writer-director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman). Aaron Eckhart plays a sleazy tobacco lobbyist who dreams of a new way to get cigarettes in the mouths of men and women everywhere. The movie’s nod toward personal responsibility is refreshing, but so, too, are its hilarious supporting characters. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Tsotsi (2006) (R: Violence, a disturbing kidnapping and adult language) — ***1/2. The 2005 Oscar winner for best foreign language film follows a young South African gang leader who finds redemption when he accidentally kidnaps a small child. Writer-director Gavin Hood brilliantly captures the energy and danger in the Johannesburg environs where the movie is set. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• United 93 (2006) (R: Mature themes, adult language and bloody violence) — ****.The fateful flight that missed its target on September 11 is the subject of this harrowing thriller. A cast of unknowns play the passengers of United 93, who find themselves on the front lines of the war on terror when their plane is hijacked by terrorists. Writer-director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) never exploits or panders in this unwavering tribute to the passengers who helped prevent a fourth plane from striking a critical U.S. target. Reviewed by Christian Toto.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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