- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

OPENING
Ali (2001) (PG-13) A biographical drama about Muhammad Ali, confined for the most part to the years between his defeat of Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship in 1964 and the match in Zaire against George Foreman in 1976. Will Smith stars as Ali, with Jamie Foxx as crony Drew "Bundini" Brown, Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, Albert Hall as Elijah Muhammad, Jeffrey Wright as Howard Bingham, Ron Silver as Angelo Dundee, Mykelti Williamson as Don King, Barry "Shabaka" Henley as Herbert Muhammad and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Nona Gaye and Michael Michele as a trio of consorts. Opens Tuesday.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) (PG-13: Thematic material dealing with mental derangement; occasional profanity, sexual allusions and graphic violence) ***. Ron Howard's latest movie, a skillfully contrived and touching, albeit heavily fictionalized, adaptation of the recent biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., impersonated by Russell Crowe. A mental breakdown in 1959, while Mr. Forbes was on the faculty of MIT, led to confinement and a series of insulin shock treatments. A gradual but remarkable recovery culminated in his resumption of teaching and study at Princeton. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994. Taking generous liberties with the facts, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman finds it expedient to date the breakdown from 1953, associating it with paranoid delusions directly influenced by that period of the Cold War. The filmmakers also conjure up a trio of delusionary figures to clarify the hero's sense of unreality. Sanity consists of keeping them at bay, although they never completely vacate his imagination. As movie depictions of schizophrenia go, this one has some novelty value. Mr. Crowe never seems entirely comfortable with West Virginia origins, and as an absent-minded professor he may have more in common with Mike Myers than the subject. Nevertheless, the ordeal and recovery experienced by his character are absorbing.
How High (2001) (R: Systematic farcical vulgarity and depictions of drug use; frequent sexual vulgarity and racial epithets; fleeting nudity) 1/2*. The second coming of Cheech & Chong, and far from welcome if you were holding out for clever updates. This relentlessly coarse and slapdash farce is designed to showcase rap comedians Redman and Method Man, who play a set of potheads from the 'hood, Jamal and Silas. While under the influence of their favorite blend, they ace the entrance requirements at Harvard; taking up residence, they run cheerfully amok, puffing on monster joints and transforming the campus into a playpen.
In the Bedroom (2001) (R) An ominous domestic drama about the repercussions of sudden tragedy and loss on a middleaged professional couple, played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. He's a doctor and she's a high school music teacher. They reside in Maine and have been stifling a certain apprehension about the romantic involvement of their son, college graduate student Nick Stahl, with an older woman, Marisa Tomei, estranged from a husband, William Mapother, who proves dangerously vindictive. The kicker in the conception is that he isn't the only potential vigilante in town. The movie is emerging as one of the critical favorites of the holidays, with awards from the New York and Los Angeles film critics. Opens Tuesday.
Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) **1/2. An energetic and agreeably nutty animated farce of the juvenile science-fiction persuasion from Nickelodeon, celebrating the resourcefulness of a kid brainiac who rallies his classmates to rescue their parents, kidnapped by invading aliens. The computer animation programs for Jimmy and his species could use some tinkering, especially with hairstyles, which tend to resemble Dairy Queen confections transformed into wigs. The aliens help rescue the plot by looking a harmless fright; they suggest Easter egg monstrosities and behave like B-Movie cannibals anticipating a cookout. Jimmy's pet pooch, a robot called Goddard, is also an admirable and versatile invention. The build-up is rather too close to Disney's "Recess" to establish a fresh grip on the funny bone, but the movie finishes strong.
Joe Somebody (2001) (PG-13) A domestic comedy predicated on Tim Allen as a defeatist family man who bounces back when driven too far by office bully Patrick Warburton. Among other self-improvement measures, Mr. Allen as hero Joe Scheffer enrolls with a martial arts instructor played by Jim Belushi. The cast also includes Kelly Lynch as the hero's ex-wife, Hayden Panettiere as his affectionate daughter and Julie Bowen as a potential new romance.
Kate & Leopold (2001) (PG-13) A time-traveling romantic comedy that matches Meg Ryan as a modern businesswoman, successful but lovelorn, and Hugh Jackman as a restless Victorian nobleman, supernaturally transported to contemporary New York. The supporting cast includes Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Natasha Lyonne and Bradley Whitford. Opens Tuesday
The Majestic (2001) (PG: language, mild violence) **1/2. Jim Carrey returns to dramatic work with director Frank Darabont's well-intentioned attempt at Frank Capra-esque movie magic. Mr. Carrey stars Peter Appleton, a rising screenwriter suddenly blacklisted in the communist hunt of the 1950s. After one too many drinks, Peter crashes his car into the side of a bridge, hurling himself and his vehicle into the churning waters below. His character emerges, without his memory, in a small town where he is mistaken for a long-lost war hero. While Mr. Carrey adjusts to his newly imagined life and the affections of a beautiful lawyer, the government forces continue their pursuit. Warm and winsome, "The Majestic" strives mightily to evoke the splendor of classic cinema with only partial success. Mr. Carrey, however, proves a nimble, gifted lead while fully submerging his comic persona. Christian Toto.
No Man's Land (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, in a wartime setting) *1/2. An overcalculated polemical satire about the wages of sectarian enmity and opportunistic journalism in the Balkans, revolving around the impasse created in a trench located between Serbian and Bosnian lines in 1993. A Bosnian soldier, Ciki (Branko Djuric), and a Serbian counterpart, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), find themselves in a morbid stalemate that attracts the attention of a well-meaning French officer, Marchand (Georges Siatidis), assigned to UN "peacekeepers," and a sensation-seeking TV reporter from England, Jane Livingstone (Kate Cartlidge). The officer's attempts to pacify the situation encounter stubborn resistance from the two antagonists and the press troublemaker. The static artificiality and preachiness of the crisis become boobytraps of their own as the plot thickens. As a consequence, the intended ironies remain hostage to stale and predictable "lessons." Considerable dialogue in Bosnian and/or Serbian with English subtitles.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and facetious interjections of violence) 1/2*. A wastrel father named Royal Tenenbaum, played by Gene Hackman, attempts to engineer a belated reconciliation with ex-wife Anjelica Huston and offspring Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow, all former prodigies who became overprivileged neurotics. Owen Wilson is cast as a screwball family friend and Danny Glover as Miss Huston's beau, whose detachment from the family gives him an enormous advantage in simple likability. An insufferable fiasco, despite emerging as a critical pet in some crackpot quarters, "Tenenbaums" squanders an intriguing and trusting cast on leaden whimsies that director Wes Anderson and his co-conspirator, actor Owen Wilson, must have mistaken for a clever synthesis of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" with J.D. Salinger's Glass family. While aspiring to optimum drollery, almost every sequence falls flat, while affecting a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek presentation. The cumulative ineptide of it all is pathetically awesome.
The Shipping News (2001) (R) A movie version of the E. Annie Proulx novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for fiction in 1993. Kevin Spacey stars as the sadsack protagonist, Quoyle, now located in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when abandoned by a slutty wife (Cate Blanchett), who leaves him to raise their young daughter alone. (The movie version sacrifices a second child of this mismatch.) The sudden arrival of an aunt, played by Judi Dench, motivates Quoyle to accompany her to an abandoned family homestead near a seacoast village in Newfoundland. Quoyle finds work at a local paper owned by Scott Glenn. Romance blossoms with a single mom played by Julianne Moore. Several family ghosts and guilts cry out to be exorcised. Opens Tuesday.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 surprise 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.
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. 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. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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