- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

OPENING
The Business of Strangers (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; allusions to sexual abuse and blackmail) 1/2*. Stockard Channing, cast as a businesswoman on the brink of reaching the top, flirts with calamity while humoring a lewd, cutthroat assistant played by Julia Stiles, who shows up late for a sales pitch and then manuevers the older woman into compromising positions at an airport hotel. The movie could only justify its unsavory pretext by turning into a hardcore porn caprice about blithely mercenary lesbians. Lacking the courage of such tendencies, it remains a sadsack art-house tease, recalling legions of polemical feminist plays that have met a deserving oblivion. With Frederick Weller as the business acquaintance summoned by Miss Channing when she fears that she may be overlooked for promotion; he gets manhandled during a lost night of vice after being sedated by the shameless Miss Stiles, who certainly gives the younger generation a bad name. Written and directed by Patrick Stettner.
Not Another Teen Movie (R: "Strong crude sexual content and humor, language and some drug content" according to the MPAA) A parodistic farce designed to mock almost a generation's worth of movie comedies about high school and college students, dating roughly from "The Breakfast Club" through "Bring It On." The setting is called John Hughes High. The leads are Chyler Leigh as aspiring artist Janey Briggs, who attracts the attention of Chris Evans as football star Jake Wyler. With Jaime Pressly, Mia Kirshner, Samm Levine and Randy Quaid.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere in a fanciful medieval setting; several intense chases and battle sequences involving monstrous menaces, punctuated by gruesome illustrative details) ****. This faithfully rousing digest of the first installment in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Ring" trilogy a quest saga set in a Celtic domain of little folk, big folk, magic folk and demonic forces called Middle Earth offers three breathtaking hours of peril and combat and anticipates additional humdingers on subsequent Christmas holidays. The cycle begun by director Peter Jackson is destined to be a landmark in cinematic fantasy and adventure. A wonderful cast illustrates the desperate mission of the youthful hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), who inherits a magical, but potentially corrupting, doomsday ring from his elder cousin Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and struggles to elude capture and death by marauders and monsters who crave the object for terminally despotic purposes. Ian McKellen not only does justice to the sagacious Gandalf, Frodo's wisest companion; he looks magnificent in battle as well. "Fellowship" gives this holiday season a cinematic stunner to match "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" a year ago; it reawakens the sort of excitement that only an accomplished and stirring adventure movie can generate. The astute musical score remains unobtrusive yet ardent and ever-present. It's enhanced by occasional choral numbers and a pair of Enya songs, including a finale that will almost certainly enchant the Oscars. Take the precaution of locating the theater whose sound system and projection you trust more than any other. Opens Wednesday.
Vanilla Sky (2001) (R: Morbid thematic material, involving disfigurement and mental aberration; occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence) *1/2. A potential bummer for unsuspecting moviegoers who may not be familiar with the source material or all that thrilled by the spectacle of Tom Cruise making another elaborately masochistic bid for an Oscar nomination. A remake of the 1997 Spanish import "Open Your Eyes," the movie shifts the principal setting from Madrid to New York City while following the prototype so closely that it has little suprise for people who saw the original. Even compositions and shot sequences are duplicated. The film reunites the star with Cameron Crowe, the writer-director of "Jerry Maguire." Vanity appears to lay a grotesque trap for Mr. Cruise, who enters as a young man who has everything, a publishing tycoon called David Aames. His consort is a model played by Cameron Diaz, and the early sequencs emphasize luxury and smiling duels. Mr. Cruise can hold his smile indefinitely, but Miss Diaz is peerless when it comes to immediate radiance and impact. So ends the most entertaining aspect of the show. The unwary hero, attracted to Penelope Cruz, who played the same role in "Open Your Eyes," ignores Miss Diaz, who takes a catastrophic revenge, leaving her victim injured and imprisoned. Already fond of dream sequences, the plot ventures into science fiction, creating fertile ground for confusion. The pivotal weakness is that Mr. Cruise remains poorly prepared to make the suffering Aames a persuasive or sympathetic figure. The masochism grows insufferable and too easy to mock.

NOW SHOWING
Amelie (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting violence in a mostly fanciful and facetious context) ***. The French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes up with a valentine to Paris, his adopted home. More specifically to Montmartre, where he locates winsome Audrey Tatou as the title character. She's a shy barmaid who discovers an aptitude for busybody happiness when she rescues a box of childhood treasures from a hiding place in her apartment by chance and then mounts a project to restore them, anonymously, to the owner. The results are as gratifying as she could wish: Now a grown man, her charity case could use a morale boost, and the gesture overwhelms him. Some of Amelie's follow-up projects are more defensible than others, and it seems to take Mr. Jeunet forever to make progress with the heroine's love life: an eccentric tease of a match with Mathieu Kassovitz as a collector of torn and discarded photo-booth portraits. The whimsy gets thick and excessive, but the cast is fairly diverting, and Mr. Jeunet's playfulness with the medium is sometimes as felicitous as Amelie's impulses. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Behind Enemy Lines (2001) (PG-13: Frequent graphic violence in a wartime setting; fleeting profanity) *1/2. Ripping yarns from war zones might enjoy a fresh surge of popularity, but something more authentic and less preposterous than this whopper would be desirable. Obviously a fictionalized version of the Scott O'Grady rescue mission in Yugoslavia a few years ago, the movie casts Owen Wilson, a droll, anti-heroic type, as F-18 navigator Chris Burnett, who becomes a hunted man after ejecting over Bosnia, where his pilot has been killed. Back on the USS Vinson, Admiral Gene Hackman vows to rescue his lost navigator, despite expedient delays provoked by Spanish actor Joaquin de Almeida. The special effects crews pretend to keep Mr. Wilson on the run, as bullets, shells and picturesque explosions nip ostentatiously but harmlessly at his heels. The spectacle itself depends desperately on digital bombast and remains totally out of control. The eventual rescue looks absurd.
Black Knight (2001) (PG-13: Frequent comic vulgarity; occasional sexual innuendo and vulgarity; fleeting violence in a farcical medieval context) **. The "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" pretext updated for comedian Martin Lawrence, transported to England in a far-from-rigorous 1328 while working at a motley theme park in Los Angeles. The portal between past and present is the park's moat, which appears to swallow Mr. Lawrence's Jamal Walker when he attempts to retrieve a necklace espied gleaming in the muck. The film is often slapdash and inane, but it's not without some incidental fun. The resourceful time traveler Jamal is mistaken for a Moorish messenger from Normandy and awards himself the nickname Skywalker. With Tom Wilkinson as a once-peerless knight who needs a comeback. Marsha Thomason proves a very attractive leading lady.
The Endurance (2000) (No MPAA Rating; documentary feature about a historic expedition; occasional candor about the sufferings of authentic explorers) ***. An absorbing and stirring documentary feature about the 1914-16 Antarctic mission of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who failed to cross the icy continent as planned but did succeed in saving the lives of his party after they were forced to abandon an icebound ship, the Endurance. This extraordinary survival chronicle is enhanced immeasurably by a small but uniquely evocative set of images: the still and silent film footage taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley, who managed to preserve 100 negatives and three rolls of exposed motion picture film. Producer-director George Butler sustains an admirably coherent narrative by blending contemporary comment with the voices of actors who read from the memoirs of the original explorers. The pictorial mix is somewhat less harmonious, since Hurley's images and freshly photographed vistas of the principal settings are not too well served by computer graphic inserts that simulate frozen regions from time to time. This is a potential holiday novelty of distinction, playing exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) (PG: Frequent ominous atmosphere; menacing episodes and fleeting graphic violence, with some gruesome illustrative details) **. The first movie derived from J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular juvenile fantasy novels about the exploits of an orphan who discovers his birthright as a good wizard and begins formal study of a sort at the exclusive Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If you have never found boarding school fiction appealing, Hogwarts is unlikely to cure the prejudice. Old-timey with a vengeance, it overrates potions, quill penmanship and broomstick riding at the expense of arts, sciences and driver education. Fortunately for director Chris Columbus, his anxious and ponderous fidelity to the source material and the pickiness of loyal readers is balanced by a trio of appealing youngsters in the leads. Unassuming and open-faced, Daniel Radcliffe makes it easy to grow fond of Harry, if not wild about Harry's surroundings; Rupert Grint (a great name) as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione also promise to protect the investment unless puberty plays them dirty tricks. Miss Rowling seems more of a pedant than a natural while fabricating an elaborate, allegorical realm of storybook whimsy, and the filmmakers tend to exaggerate decor and atmosphere in tedious respects. At 153 minutes, the show could use some streamlining. A new special-effects shop might improve such blunders as the bilious ghosts, the chintzy scenic backdrops and the lackluster quidditch game, where perspectives get blurred and chopped.
Life as a House (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; interludes of domestic rancor; fleeting nudity and comic vulgarity; allusions to drug use and trafficking among teen-agers) 1/2*. The sappiest, groggiest tear-jerker of the lovelorn domesticated variety since "Message in a Bottle." Kevin Kline makes a sincere but futile effort to appear pathetic yet angelic as failed architect and family man George Monroe, who lives in a seaside shack in an otherwise posh community along the Palos Verdes Peninsula of Southern California. George is diagnosed with incurable cancer, which prompts him to devote his last months on earth to turning the shack into his dream house, aided by his mixed-up son (Hayden Christensen) and his estranged wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and eventually multitudes who flock to share a little of George's epiphanous redemption. The screenplay sets up a privileged suburban family for humiliation and contempt, then contorts itself into an orgy of bad-faith forgiveness.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) (R: Fleeting graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; allusions to adultery and to a coarse sexual encounter with a teen-age character) **. Another highly accomplished exercise in heartless, deadpan pastiche from the Coen brothers, shooting in black and white to help evoke a vintage illusion in a small-town Northern California setting. Billy Bob Thornton, sustaining a curious facial resemblance to an agonized Humphrey Bogart, narrates the smugly tricky plot. A taciturn barber, Mr. Thornton blackmails his adulterous wife, bookkeeper Frances McDormand, and her lover, James Gandolfini, the proprietor of the department store where she works. The caper looks perversely foolproof for quite a while, especially when the police neglect to dust the scene of a killing for fingerprints, which should point straight at the narrator. The Coens help camouflage their calculations with subplots about the UFO scare, Tony Shalhoub as a celebrity defense attorney and Scarlett Johansson as a piano prodigy who appeals to Mr. Thornton's finer side. In the last analysis, we're expected to admire the Coens for being so clever about outsmarting all their twisted and chiseling characters.
Monsters, Inc. (2001) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) ****. The Pixar fabulists confirm their expertise at story construction and imaginative illustration in this freshly endearing and sometimes dazzling entertainment. The plot envisions a parallel universe of computer-graphic cartoon characters whose civilization is powered by the energy released when youngsters scream at monsters in the night. A factory in a town called Monstropolis preserves this scream power while arranging for its roster of monsters to invade human bedrooms through portals that duplicate the closet doors of the human subjects. The best scarer at the plant is bearlike Sulley, voiced by John Goodman. His sidekick and roomie is a one-eyed motormouth named Mike, impeccably matched to Billy Crystal. Sulley's status is targeted jealously by a lizardy rival, Randall, assigned to Steve Buscemi. A crisis is precipitated when Randall's sneakiness results in a human child, a babbling toddler called Boo, crossing the portal from closet to plant. She must be protected by Sulley and Mike from the villainous Randall and from decontamination crews trained to irradiate anything from a human environment. The Pixar flair for incidental humor and bedrock sentimental gratification are as sound as ever. In addition, little Boo proves the first top-flight human characterization for the animators, who also deliver awesome thrill sequences, one set in a blizzard and another in the factory's vast storeroom of closet doors, transformed into a brilliantly stylized combination of assembly line and roller coaster.
Ocean's Eleven (2001) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and graphic violence, in the context of a farfetched caper melodrama that identifies with professional thieves) *1/2. The 1960 original was always a stinker the definitive complacent movie of Frank Sinatra and friends during the Rat Pack's heyday. Unfortunately, you're not even sure that enough cleverness and zest adhere to this Steven Soderbergh update to trump the enduring glamor that still surrounds the Rat Packers. George Clooney, looking burly but essentially starved for a characterization, inherits the title role from Mr. Sinatra, whose Danny Ocean, a former Army officer, organized World War II buddies into a Gang of 11 to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously, triggering a power blackout to cover the thefts. Mr. Clooney's Ocean is an ex-con who hooks up with a trusty confederate played by Brad Pitt, easily the cutest felon in the cast. Their target is a supposedly impregnable underground vault that serves three Vegas casinos. It looks like a Mission Impossible on paper, and it becomes more disillusioning as you discover how many masquerading tricks and how much esoteric electronic sabotage are required to crack the modern safe. With Andy Garcia as a casino owner alleged to be a ruthless type, and Julia Roberts in a stiffly decorative, lackluster role as his consort. She used to be Ocean's spouse. She used to be Ocean's girl. He still carries a torch, but this motive contributes nothing credible in romantic or sentimental terms. With Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle.
Shallow Hal (2001) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; some images of physical deformities) **. A fitfully appealing shift toward tenderhearted romantic farce from the fraternal team of Bobby and Peter Farrelly, established mockers who redefined moronic farce in "Dumb and Dumber" and lewdly outrageous farce in "There's Something About Mary." Gwyneth Paltrow plays the trick leading lady, an obese young woman named Rosemary whom the title character, a skirt-chasing schnook played by Jack Black, mistakes for a dream girl after being semihypnotized by motivational guru Tony Robbins. Encouraged to appreciate "inner beauty," Hal discovers it promptly in Rosemary. Belatedly, he realizes there is a massive Rosemary who was always perceptible to everyone else. The Farrellys contrast the endearing rapport between Rosemary and Hal with the bemusement or astonishment expressed by characters who can see an outsized Rosemary. Miss Paltrow's formidable charm while merely pretending to be a fat girl may protect the movie from backlash at its obviously condescending outlook.
Sidewalks of New York (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) 1/2*. An unfortunate title, given the connotations that have emerged in the wake of September 11. Originally scheduled to open the weekend after the terrorist calamity, this dreary sex comedy from Edward Burns revolves around the fickle marriages and love affairs of a half-dozen Manhattan residents, portrayed by Mr. Burns, Heather Graham, Stanley Tucci, Rosario Dawson, David Krumholtz and Brittany Murphy. From time to time, you get a sinking impression that Mr. Burns hopes to emulate the Woody Allen of a generation ago. The homage does not sparkle.
Spy Game (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) *1/2. A certain gamesmanship distinguishes this overcomplicated, backtracking espionage melodrama that requires four major shifts of scene over the course of 16 years. The ostensible "present" is 1991. A retiring CIA officer named Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) spends his last day at Langley arranging the covert rescue of a former protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), imprisoned in China and threatened with death in a matter of hours. Extended flashbacks depict the recruitment of Bishop in Vietnam, a period of apprenticeship in Berlin and then an estrangement from his mentor in Beirut. While Muir seems to have washed his hands of Bishop, who becomes romantically entangled during the last stopover (with a radical do-gooder played by Catherine McCormack), he is moved to engineer a quixotic, eleventh-hour rescue, which entails abusing the trust of all his Langley colleagues and superiors. According to the movie's value system, being Robert Redford makes any betrayal OK.
Training Day (2001) (R: "Strong brutal content, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity," according to the MPAA; systematic unsavory depiction, with frequent profanity and graphic violence; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity) **. An overblown, show-off crime melodrama in which Denzel Washington embraces the most reprehensible role of his career: a flamboyantly corrupt Los Angeles police detective named Alonzo Harris, encountered on the day when he plans a big killing to protect his corrupt fiefdom. It's never quite plausible that Harris needs to implicate a new partner, Ethan Hawke as straight-arrow Jake Hoyt, in his manipulations. Mr. Washington hams it up as a terminal combination of Faustian and Mephistophelean vanities. Mr. Hawke is more or less at the monster's mercy and endures a lot of abuse in the name of tenacious honesty. The introductory scenes are arguably intriguing and compelling, but a pivotal blunder when Alonzo precipitates a gunfight in a black neighborhood for no discernible reason exposes the plot's lunatic tendencies a little prematurely. Of course, a comeuppance awaits Alonzo, but the trek begins to feel interminable and brutally ridiculous by the time he roars his final note of pitiful despotism.
Waking Life (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence, expressed in a somewhat abstract style of animation and within a ruminative, episodic framework) ****. A wonderfully disarming new movie from Richard Linklater, the Austin, Texas, independent who first made a distinctive impression with "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." He may have contrived a breakthrough here, making philosophical speculation an attractive form of popular entertainment. The core footage, shot on video in 1999, consists of ruminative episodes in which a wandering young protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins encounters various people with things on their minds, ranging from the most benign and metaphysical to the most hateful and suicidal. The cumulative effect is a cross section of brief encounters with contrasting philosophies. Computer animator Bob Sabiston supervises an elaborate pictorial camouflage that illustrates the conversations in a kind of watercolor format. As a result, the conversations acquire a fluid illustrative dimension, almost always representative but also often playful about stylizing faces, bodies and backgrounds. Because the protagonist may be in a dream state much of the time, the sense of free-floating illustration is not inappropriate to the content. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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