- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000


The Cup (1999) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) ***. A beguiling import about the uproar created within a Buddhist religious community by World Cup soccer fever in 1998. It comes from a remote outpost of civilization: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. The filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu, is an eminent lama attracted to filmmaking as an avocation. The episodes that culminate in a successful TV and satellite installation on the monastery grounds are humorously irresistible. If you guard against inflated expectations, the movie can be charming. In Tibetan and Indian dialects with English subtitles.

The Emperor and the Assassin (1998-1999) (R: Heavy battle-scene violence, brief but vivid scenes involving torture) *** and 1/2. Set in China in the third century B.C., "The Emperor and the Assassin" is a spectacular new film from one of China's most talented young filmmakers, Chen Kaige ("My Favorite Concubine"). It tells of the country's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang-di the man who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China, an early forerunner of the Mao-Hitler-Stalin style. The stunning photography and dramatic performances of this nearly three-hour epic place Mr. Chen in the league of directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa for masterly command of the medium. Cynthia Grenier

Judy Berlin (1999) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter; fleeting profanity and sexual candor) * and 1/2. A fitfully promising first feature from Eric Mendelsohn, who aspires to a wistful-poetic form of romantic and domestic comedy, using locations in his own hometown of Old Bethpage on Long Island. A suburban enclave called Babylon entraps and enfolds a small group of characters during a September day that coincides with an eclipse, sustained for a seeming eternity by Mr. Mendelsohn while he tries to resolve tentative subplots. The title character, played by Edie Falco of "The Sopranos," is the principal hopeful figure: an aspiring actress who is finally ready to make a career pilgrimage to California. The skimpy ingredients need far more nourishment. There's not enough vitality or variety in Mr. Mendelsohn's presentation to energize affectionate or affirmative impulses. The audience must subsist on starvation rations of hope. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry.

Miss Julie (1999) (R) A new movie version of August Strindberg's famously malicious, polemical one-acter about a count's daughter instantly undone by a tryst with the family valet. Saffron Burrowes and Peter Mulland have the leads as haughty and opportunistic Jean. Maria Doyle Kennedy is cast as the cook Kristin. The setting is a Swedish country manor in the 1880s. Directed by Mike Figgis from an adaptation by Helen Cooper. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.

Reindeer Games (2000) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) ***. John Frankenheimer's suddenly rejuvenated flair for thrillers, evident last year in "Ronin," also animates this cat-and-mouse melodrama about an ill-conceived Christmas caper. Protagonist and narrator Ben Affleck is cast as a newly paroled convict named Rudy Duncan. His earnest intentions are thrown for a loop by a sudden, understandable infatuation with Charlize Theron. Their fling puts Rudy at the mercy of a gang of trucker cutthroats bossed by Gary Sinise, who regards the hero as the key to an armed robbery scheme: a Christmas Eve assault on an Indian reservation casino in northern Michigan. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger keeps Rudy in a fine state of apprehension, scrambling and dissembling to save his skin from bad company. Mr. Frankenheimer delivers the surprises, reversals and explosive payoffs with consistent gusto and sinister humor.

Simpatico (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, including interludes with nudity and simulated intercourse; a subplot predicated on injury to an animal) * and 1/2. A caper melodrama without satisfying or redemptive payoffs. Lexington, Ky., horseman Jeff Bridges must hasten to Southern California to appease an old pal, Nick Nolte, whose pangs of conscience about a crime in the past could threaten Mr. Bridges' prosperity. The characters more or less change places as Mr. Nolte steals an identity to pursue his remorseful mission while Mr. Bridges settles into a California torpor after recruiting Catherine Keener to intercept the rash impersonator, her erstwhile boyfriend. Eventually, Albert Finney and Sharon Stone turn up in unrewarding cameos. By the time all the grotesque secrets have been exposed, one feels far more disenchanted than simpatico.

Three Strikes (2000) (R) Another parolee finds himself in hot water in this urban chase farce. Brian Hooks, just out of the L.A. County Jail on a second offense, faces a possible third conviction before the day is out. Expecting a ride from a friend, he accepts one from a stranger driving a stolen car. David Alan Grier plays a police detective, Faizon Love an absentminded pal and N'Bushe Wright a miffed girlfriend. Opens Wednesday.

Wonder Boys (2000) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting graphic violence, including simulated injury to an animal; simulated drug use) **. A fond but slippery movie version of the humorous campus novel by Michael Chabon, reworking some of the comic veins once associated with the late Kingsley Amis. The setting is wintry Pittsburgh. Michael Douglas plays English professor Grady Tripp, who needs to escape professional and domestic ruts. He has an adulterous love affair with administrator Frances McDormand but can't complete a second novel. A mischievous literary agent, Robert Downey Jr., complicates Grady's life as a nosy houseguest. Grady takes a precocious student, Tobey Maguire's James Leer, under his wing. Evidently a labor of love for everyone involved. Unfortunately, their skill and affection fail to secure a literate charmer. The winning elements remain more fitful than tangible. With Richard Thomas, Rip Torn, Philip Bosco, Katie Holmes and Jane Adams in minor roles.


All About My Mother (1999) (R: presentation of transsexuals, profanity) ****. Internationally renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar celebrates motherhood in a quirky, funny, moving film. A mother, wonderfully performed by Cecilia Roth, loses her son in a car accident on the eve of his 17th birthday and goes off to Barcelona in quest of the boy's father now known as Lola to tell him of the death. Her quest brings her in contact with a wide and strange collection of women, all of whom will be transformed in some degree by the meeting. Despite some of the denizens of Mr. Almodovar's world, "All About My Mother" is a worthy film. Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. Cynthia Grenier.

American Beauty (1999) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence and allusions to drug use; occasional nudity and simulated intercourse; systematic morbid, carnal and misanthropic emphases) * and 1/2. An Oscar-season revival for DreamWorks' principal contender, a deluxe serving of hatefulness aimed at suburban sitting ducks. Screenwriter Alan Ball perhaps overcompensating for years of TV sitcom work, notably "Cybill" and the acclaimed British stage director Sam Mendes accentuate the perverse and heartless. Facades of respectability are peeled off neighboring households. Not that the inhabitants need much peeling: They're already primed for downfalls, betrayals and executions. The narrator, a cynical wretch of a family man played by Kevin Spacey, even informs us from the outset that he'll be a goner. The only suspense element is guessing which of four or five characters might be better positioned for the coup de grace. Annette Bening co-stars as his frustrated, acquisitive wife, and Thora Birch is their sullen teen-age daughter. The new neighbors Chris Cooper, Allison Janney and Wes Bentley are even creepier. All the smugly hideous domestic caricature is meant to be elevated by an ironic, "life-affirming" kicker, confirming the filmmakers as poetic misanthropes. Eight Academy Award nominations, including best movie, actor and actress (Mr. Spacey and Miss Bening).

Being John Malkovich (1999) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) *** and 1/2. A witty and clever mind-bender about modern discontent, contrived by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and realized by director Spike Jonze, both Oscar nominees. Essentially a satire of artistic vanity and folly, the movie satirizes the hubris of John Cusack, a skilled but unsuccessful puppeteer who seizes a bizarre, supernatural opportunity to control the mind and career of John Malkovich, unjustly denied an Oscar nomination while playing an outrageous self-caricature. Cameron Diaz was also robbed in the role of Mr. Cusack's frustrated spouse. Catherine Keener did make the finals as supporting actress, playing the cutthroat who seduces everyone.

Boiler Room (2000) (R: Frequent profanity; blunt sexual and ethnic humor; fleeting graphic violence and allusions to drug use) ***. The quality of cutthroat salesmanship exploited in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Wall Street" gets a zesty update in this caustic topical fable from Ben Younger, a novice writer-director whose ear appears much sharper than his eye. Giovanni Ribisi, the prodigal son of a Long Island judge, abandons the thriving little casino business conducted in his apartment to apprentice with a dubious brokerage firm. Called J.T. Marlin, this aggressive outfit specializes in high-pressure tactics to hustle supposedly fast-growth stocks. It promises every devoted recruit that he'll be a millionaire within three years. Things go sour for the protagonist within a matter of months, but while he learns the ropes from such mentors as Vin Diesel, Nicky Katt and Tom Everett Scott, the movie is a maliciously entertaining tour de force. At its best, it even isolates some of the fundamental allure in the art of selling and being sold. The Marlin guys enjoy talking along with the dialogue from "Wall Street" as they booze and watch the video, among more sedate pastimes. The weak spot is a mawkishly tormented subplot about Mr. Ribisi's craving to make amends with his righteous dad, played by Ron Rifkin. It bottoms out with manly weeping and hugging scherzos.

Boys Don't Cry (1999) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and graphic sexual interludes; fleeting nudity; sexual inversion integral to the plot and themes) ** and 1/2. A bleakly absorbing and dubiously romanticized dramatization of an authentic murder case: the 1994 Nebraska killing of a young woman named Tina Brandon, who placed herself in jeopardy by posing as an amorous, puckish lad called Brandon Teena. Hilary Swank's dedicated impersonation has made her the offbeat favorite for the Oscar as best actress of 1999. Chloe Sevigny, cast as the oblivious young woman who falls for Brandon, is a nominee as supporting actress.

The Cider House Rules (1999) (R: partial nudity, violence) *** and 1/2. A movie version of the John Irving novel, adapted by the author and directed by Lasse Hallstrom. An orphanage spawns the unique Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), whose mentor, the good Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), unwittingly sends him out to take on a world of abortion, addiction, incest, infidelity and injustice. Seven Oscar nominations, including best movie, director, screenplay and supporting actor (Mr. Caine). Patrick Butters. Cynthia Grenier.

Hanging Up (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity) * and 1/2. Any urge to dote on the Ephron sisters should be blown to smithereens by this inhospitable and presumably autobiographical tearjerker. Derived from a book by kid sister Delia and a screenplay in which older sister and movie pro Nora was a collaborator, the movie is a messy one in the eye for show business family feeling. The trailers are misleading. They suggest a three-handed farcical romp for Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow. Miss Keaton doubles as the busily oblivious director, but "Hanging Up" proves a wistfully maddening one-woman show for Miss Ryan, cast as the self-sacrificing middle sister, Eve, in a family whose patriarch (a former screenwriter played by Walter Matthau) has entered the final stage of his life. He frequently succumbs to demented and forlorn spells, and only Eve is there to soothe him. The editor of a magazine named after herself, Miss Keaton's Georgia ducks her obligations. A ditzy soap opera actress, Miss Kudrow's Maddy also tends to be a shirker. The lion's share of the burden falls on Eve, an affectionate and overcompensating daddy's girl since her mother (Cloris Leachman in a brief, chilling cameo) abandoned the nest years earlier. This devotion is admirable, but the movie contrives to make it unbearable as well. One appears to be witnessing some form of family self-therapy and self-congratulation that it's never tempting to share.

The Hurricane (1999) (R: Occasional graphic violence, including simulated prizefighting scenes; frequent profanity; occasional sexual candor and racial animosity) A polemical biopic about the struggle of former middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, nicknamed "Hurricane" in his prime, to clear his name after being convicted of multiple murder in New Jersey in 1966. Directed by Norman Jewison, the movie stars Denzel Washington as Mr. Carter; it ascribes his eventual exoneration, 30 years later, to the efforts of a hero-worshipping teen-ager played by Vicellous Shannon, abetted by a trio of Canadian guardians played by Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber and John Hannah. Academy Award nomination for Mr. Washington as best actor. Not reviewed.

Magnolia (1999) (R: Frequent profanity, sexual vulgarity and allusions to drug use; occasional sinister elements and fleeting graphic violence; a subplot involving a bullied child; subplots involving terminal illness; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) 1/2 star. An ambitious, interminable fiasco from the fitfully promising young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Oblivious to the pitfalls of narrative drift and bloat, Mr. Anderson permits himself this miserably affected tear-jerker about lost souls in the San Fernando Valley on a day of reckoning that turns out to be insufferable. Several characters weave in and out, sharing family or emotional links that escape immediate detection: Jason Robards as a dying tycoon, Julianne Moore as his panicky wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a male nurse, Tom Cruise as an obnoxious guru of male aggression, Philip Baker Hall as a dying game-show host, Jeremy Blackman as a quiz kid, William H. Macy as a former quiz kid, John C. Reilly as a softhearted cop and Melora Walters as a jumpy addict. Oscar nominations for original screenplay and for supporting actor (Mr. Cruise).

Pitch Black (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a science-fiction setting) 1/2 star. Even more of a futuristic klunker than the recent "Supernova," this outer-space monster thriller is rendered in sepia and murk. The low-rent imagery reinforces a ramshackle entrapment yarn. The pithier title might be "Bats in Space." The sepia wash is meant to simulate rusty daylight on a desert planet discovered by surviving crashlanders, notably Radha Mitchell as a pilot, Cole Hauser as a gendarme and Vin Diesel as his prisoner, a hulk obviously destined to emerge as the hero. The uninviting daylight gives way to a prolonged eclipse of a night in which ravenous monsters emerge to fly around and menace the characters. When finally seen with much definition, the critters resemble swarms of bats and attack with vicious Alienesque jaws. Strictly for the doltish, undemanding sci-fi crowd.

The Sixth Sense (1999) (R: episodes of supernatural dread and graphic violence, revolving around an imperiled, psychic little boy) *. A compelling juvenile actor, Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment, supplied the only sympathetic element in this creaky supernatural thriller. However, the kid was a gold mine. A traumatized psychologist, Bruce Willis, hopes to justify himself by helping a boy who can see ghosts. From time to time the shameless, incredibly lucky writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, suggests that the spooks have been torturing the child. The sincerity of Haley's performance protected the movie's red herrings and other storytelling deceits. Soon after "The Blair Witch Project" became a phenomenal cult hit, "The Sixth Sense" emerged as a mass audience blockbuster. Obvious lesson: surround a child with ghouls. Six Oscar nominations, including best movie and direction.

Topsy-Turvy (1999) (R: some brief simulated intercourse, one scene of drug addiction) ****. Director Mike Leigh devotes close to three remarkably enjoyable hours to re-creating one of the 19th century's most enduring popular musical works: "The Mikado" by that celebrated pair, Gilbert and Sullivan. Almost the entire second half of the film is devoted to the production of the comic opera, from Japanese women showing English actresses how to move, right through rehearsals and up to the triumphal first night. It's a superb view of backstage life. The acting is first-rate, as are the photography, sets and costumes. Four Oscar nominations, including best screenplay. Cynthia Grenier

The Whole Nine Yards (2000) (R: Systematic facetious amorality; occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) * and 1/2. A farce about double-crosses and homicides entrusted to Jonathan Lynn, the director of "Clue," "My Cousin Vinny" and "Greedy." This worthless trifle suggests he has gone to the well once too often with craven caricatures. Bruce Willis, a Chicago mobster in the witness protection program, arrives in a Montreal suburb as the next-door neighbor to timid dentist Matthew Perry. Both turn out to be earmarked for murder, Mr. Willis by mob rival Kevin Pollak, Mr. Perry by predatory spouse Rosanna Arquette. The upshot is that Mr. Willis has every one at a disadvantage. The material, ascribed to Mitchell Kapner, undermines every performer except Mr. Pollak, who keeps lighthearted command of an absurd ethnic role. The crass plot wastes Natasha Henstridge, betrays Michael Clarke Duncan and tarts up Amanda Peet.


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