- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

OPENING

Domestic Disturbance (2001) (R: "Violence, brief sexuality & language" according to the MPAA; occasional profanity and graphic violence; allusions to prostitution) No stars. Arguably, the year's worst major studio crime thriller. A divorced shipbuilder in the apocryphal Eastern Shore town of Southport, Md., John Travolta hopes for the best when ex-wife Teri Pollo marries the town's new rich guy and benefactor, Vince Vaughn. However, his mistrust is thoroughly justified: The case is clinched for the audience when Mr. Travolta's slightly delinquent son, 14-year-old Matt O'Leary, witnesses his devious stepdad murdering Steve Buscemi, a former crony turned blackmailer. The local police, typing the boy as a troublemaker, brush aside the charges, setting up a prolonged period of danger for son, mom and estranged dad. Ultimately, hero and villain struggle it out in an exceptionally laughable showdown.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) (R: "A scene of violence" according to the MPAA; 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 while wearing a toupee that suggests Otto Kreuger, narrates the smugly tricky plot. A taciturn barber, Mr. Thornton stoops to blackmailing 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 a subplots about the UFO scare, Tony Shalhoub as a celebrity defense attorney and Scarlett Johansson as a piano prodigy who appeals to the finer side of Mr. Thornton. In the last analysis we're expected to admire the Coens for being so clever about outsmarting all their twisted and chiseling characters. With Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins and Jon Polito.
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, which duplicate the closet doors of the human subjects. The best scarer at the plant is bearlike Sully, voiced by John Goodman. His sidekick and roomie is a one-eyed motormouth called Mike, impeccably matched to Billy Crystal. Sully's status is jealously targeted 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 Sully 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 topflight 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 rollercoaster.
The One (2001) (PG-13: "Intense action violence and language," according to the MPAA) A science-fiction chase thriller that contrives a dual role for the Hong Kong martial arts star Jet Li. Indeed, he gets to chase himself in a civilization of the future where the existence of parallel universes have been confirmed. A law enforcement agency called the Multiverse Bureau of Investigation has been created to patrol and supervise the frontiers. A former agent called Gabriel Yulaw has gone off the reservation, murdering his counterparts because the fewer one's parallel identities, the greater the power possessed by the survivors. Yulaw the Outlaw has whittled down his opposite numbers to a respected Los Angeles policeman, who must defend himself against not only the renegade but a law that mandates liquidation for anyone who becomes the last of his kind.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (G: Depictions of prehistoric savagery during the prologue) **1/2. A chronologically logical revival for Stanley Kubrick's allegorical science-fiction saga of 1968, which ended up anticipating greater leaps in space exploration than history has been able to match. The movie drew on advice from numerous forward-looking engineers, designers and illustrators, so its pictorial innovations have remained undeniably influential in terms of space hardware, machinery, electronics and decor. The simian costuming and pantomime in the prologue also proved more influential than one could have anticipated. Much of the plot machinery remains arbitrary and creaky, beginning with the overrated leap from a prehistoric prologue to the 2001 timeframe and climaxing with the murder conspiracy blamed on the whiney computer HAL, belatedly but generously exonerated in the sequel "2010." Mr. Kubrick's sense of the grandiose also began to erode his sense of timing in this production, which does a lot of lingering over certain settings and hallucinations. To its credit, Warner Bros., now distributing a movie originally made at MGM, seems to have struck fresh prints, giving theatrical customers a decent chance to see a copy as good as the ones available on cable television or DVD. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Uptown.

NOW SHOWING

The Adventures of Felix (2000) (No MPAA Rating Adult subject matter, involving the amorous escapades of a homosexual character; occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; fleeting graphic violence) *1/2. An entry in a picaresque genre that may not be everyone's fondest discovery: the gay French travel/date flick. The itinerary in "Felix" starts in Dieppe and concludes in Marseilles, with a major stopover in Rouen. Felix is a young Frenchman of North African extraction on his father's side. He has never met this progenitor but believes he is still a sailor residing in Marseilles. Felix decides to look up old dad, by hitchhiking to the destination. The upshot is that so many people pick up or befriend Felix on the way that he acquires a fleeting "family" and scarcely requires an actual rendezvous with a missing biological father. Anyway, his boyfriend is also waiting in Marseilles. Two of the encounters are amorous in nature, one with a smitten teenage boy and a second with a brawny truck driver. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Donnie Darko (2001) (R) A metaphysical fantasy about the exploits of a young man who appears to survive calamity miraculously on a particular night in 1988. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze and Noah Wyle. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle. Not reviewed.
From Hell (2001) (R: "Strong violence/gore, sensuality, language and drug content" according to the MPAA; sustained sinister atmosphere with occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details; frequent allusions to prostitution, circa 1888; fleeting nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse; depictions of opium use) *1/2. An avidly faithful adaptation of an elaborate "graphic novel" about the Jack the Ripper murder spree, which terrorized the East End of London for a few months in 1888 and galvanized the tabloid press of the period into sensational coverage. "From Hell" is in the nature of a Gothic Victorian art movie about loathsome crimes. Decor-proud and atmosphere-proud, it consistently overrates portentous, shadowy settings at the expense of compelling or compassionate human interest. The scenario begins and ends in an opium den, the favorite haunt of Johnny Depp as overmatched Scotland Yard sleuth Fred Abberline, so it becomes easy to doubt the authenticity of anything depicted. The whole movie might be his narcotic hallucinations.
Iron Monkey (1993) (PG-13: "Martial arts action and brief sexuality" according to the MPAA; brief scene in which the villain tortures a child) **. Not a new movie, although Miramax would probably be content to have it mistaken for one. A freshly subtitled revamp of a Hong Kong martial arts comedy-adventure spectacle made in the early 1990s, "Iron Monkey" is one of the features directed by Yuen Wo-Ping, the veteran filmmaker who achieved international renown for supervising the gravity-defying stunts in "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." A lively and ingratiating entertainment, "Iron Monkey" would probably be a happy starting place to familiarize yourself with the conventions of the genre, supremely exalted in "Crouching Tiger." Mr. Yuen's film is still wedded to stock characters, genial hokum and acrobatic, frequently slapstick set pieces. The title alludes to a masked marvel of the middle 19th century. He bears striking resemblances to Robin Hood and Zorro. By day a respectable physician, the supervisor of a clinic in a provincial capital of Eastern China, by night he becomes an elusive defender of the weak and scourge of corrupt imperial officials. With Yu Ruan-Guang as the title character, Jean Wang as his lovely and intrepid sidekick, Miss Orchid, and Donnie Yen as a visiting folk hero who joins their crusade after an initial period of misunderstanding. In Chinese with English subtitles.
K-Pax (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a sometimes supernatural context) *1/2. An inspirational groaner in which Kevin Spacey is meant to tickle the fancy and perhaps the tear ducts as a wandering delusional who claims to be a bemused observer from a distant planet, K-Pax. Calling himself Prot, presumably short for Protean, this alternately smug and suffering redeemer seems to appear out of nowhere in a beam of light at Grand Central Station. Since he resembles a lost soul, police pick him up and entrust him to a psychiatric hospital. In that environment Prot inevitably recalls McMurphy of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He fences with shrink Jeff Bridges in metaphysical conversations and arouses hope in the other patients, who come to regard K-Pax as a spiritual home. Meanwhile, director Iain Softley pretends to reserve judgment on the ho-hum "Is Prot a guy or an alien?" question, despite drenching his mystery man in Christ symbolism at every opportunity. The coyness of it all may seem maddening if you aren't in a receptive mood.
The Last Castle (2001) (R: "Language and violence," according to the MPAA; frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence in the setting of a military prison) *1/2. Possibly the last gasp for a certain school of convulsive, rabblerousing lunacy among Hollywood polemicists who would prefer to see the American military torn by internal conflict. The movie is vividly directed from moment to moment and boasts an impressive prop, the former Tennessee State penitentiary, built in 1898 and closed in 1992. A prison uprising melodrama with delusions of grandeur, the film deifies a three-star general played by Robert Redford, wrongly court-martialed and sentenced to a military maximum-security prison. He is supposedly provoked to lead a revolt against the initially deferential, overcompensating warden, James Gandolfini, a colonel who behaves more like a curator than a jailer until obliged to act the Big Meanie. The warden seems a more commanding and perversely sympathetic figure than Mr. Redford, whose objectives are never coherent or defensible. Ultimately, the filmmakers are shameless enough to wrap their threadbare hero in the flag, although his behavior suggests a suicidal pattern of defiance and sheer vanity.
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 teenagers) *1/2. What a title, but worthy of the sappiest, groggiest tearjerker of the lovelorn domesticated variety since "Message in a Bottle." Kevin Kline, makes a sincerely futile effort to appear pathetic yet angelic as failed architect and family man George Monroe, discovered living in a seaside shack in an otherwise posh community along the Palos Verdes Peninsula of Southern California. A middleaged burnt-out case, he lost a wife played by Kristin Scott Thomas, now unhappily remarried to Jamey Sheridan. A teenage son, played by Hayden Christensen, is a goth whiner, given to facial piercings and about to dabble in drug trafficking and male prostitution. Did I mention that George has an incurable cancer? This prognosis prompts him to devote his last months on earth to turning the shack into the dream house it was always meant to be, aided by the mixed-up kid and the estranged wife 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. With Mary Steenburgen as a next-door neighbor who preys on teenage boys, including the former boyfriend of her daughter, a supposedly adorable teen slut played by Jena Malone.
Mulholland Drive (2001) (R: Sustained ominous and morbid elements; occasional profanity, violence and sexual candor, including a subplot about a lesbian infatuation; fleeting nudity) **. Far from satisfying, not to mention coherent, but undeniably inimitable, this overextended mystery fable about amnesia in Hollywood was intended as the pilot for a new television series by writer-director David Lynch. The first two hours or so portray the meeting and evolving intimacy of an accident survivor played by Laura Harring and a wide-eyed, aspiring, adventure-prone actress played by Naomi Watts. This perhaps represents Hollywood romantic fantasy. The last half-hour, in which the actresses suddenly assume different roles, exposes the disillusioning, sinister underside of movie romance and glamor. The problem from the entertainment angle is that the movie grows more diverting as you grow fonder of the ingenuous Miss Watts; when she and Miss Harring, playing lost-in-Hollywood Nancy Drews, get impulsively amorous, many moviegoers might prefer to see David Lynch go right ahead and explore his lesbian side as generously as possible. The consummation also permits him to spring a fabulous bedroom punch line, predicated on Miss Harring's loss of memory. Few sexual teases in movie history have boasted a funnier one-line payoff. The last-reel self-sabotage robs us of Miss Watts' breathless spunkiness and lovability. Going morbid with his fairy tale may satisfy a perverse streak in Mr. Lynch, but it wouldn't be unreasonable for members of the audience to resent it as a nasty trick with scant justification. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
On the Line (2001) (PG) A commuter romantic comedy set in Chicago and designed to showcase 'N Sync sidekicks Lance Bass and Joey Fatone. Mr. Bass plays the smitten hero, Kevin, who falls for a young woman named Abby (Emmanuelle Chriqui) while riding the city's elevated train. However, he forgets to ask her name or phone number during the initial encounter. At the suggestion of best pal Rod (Mr. Fatone), a massive search campaign is launched to find the dreamgirl. The cast also includes Dave Foley, Jerry Stiller and the Reverend Al Green. Not reviewed.
Riding in Cars With Boys (2001) (PG-13: "Thematic elements, drug and sexual content" according to the MPAA; systematic depiction of domestic instability and irresponsibility, especially the behavior of a premature and neglectful mother; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity; episodes about drug addiction and trafficking) **. A rambling and sometimes diverting but ultimately broken-down autobiographical tearjerker based on a memoir by Beverly Donofrio, who chroniciled the bittersweet consequences of her teenage pregnancy. Drew Barrymore stars as Beverly, with Steve Zahn as the chucklehead she unwisely selects as a boyfriend and spouse. The star does a lot of groping for versatility and impact. She seems far less of a natural than Mr. Zahn, cast to perfection as an amiable no-account, and the juvenile actor Cody Arens, wonderful as their son at the age of 5 or 6. The ambiguous balance needed to prevent her from decisively alienating an audience seems to have eluded director Penny Marshall Marshall and her colleagues.
Serendipity (2001) (PG-13: "A scene of sexuality and some language" according to the MPAA; fleeting profanity and sexual candor) *1/2. Another feckless romantic comedy about would-be enchanting characters who trash their engagements on the eve of wedding dates. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are the disgraceful triflers in this premature Christmas confection. Seven years after they first meet at Bloomingdale's and lose track of each other at the Waldorf Astoria, they cross paths again. But they're about to marry other consorts, Mr. Cusack in New York and Miss Beckinsale in San Francisco. Meanwhile, a fiancee played by Bridget Moynahan and a fiance played by John Corbett are ditched ignobly somewhere off-screen. The lovelorn central characters aren't remotely swell enough to compensate for their heartless stupidities.
13 Ghosts (2001) (R: "Horror violence/gore, sensuality and language" according to the MPAA) A remake of the gimmicky, facetious William Castle horror thriller of 1960. Tony Shalhoub and his two children, Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts, recently stricken by a fire that cost their home and the mother of the family, inherit an awesome residence, a glass-and-steel colossus built by an eccentric relative. They move in and discover the joint is haunted. It doesn't especially help to consult clairvoyants Matthew Lillard and Embeth Davidtz, who have more affinities with the ghosts than the humans. Not reviewed.
Together (2000) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; an episode involving a young woman with perverse designs on an adolescent boy) ***. A witty and engaging Swedish social comedy about the inhabitants of a Stockholm commune in the middle 1970s, their personal problems and how they adjust to one another. Writer-director Lukas Moodysson's appreciation for the absurdities of domesticated radicalism also encompasses a large streak of benevolence. He may be generous to a fault, since the eventual reconciliations look a bit hasty and trite. In Swedish with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.
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 Mephistophelian 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.
Under the Sun (2000) (No MPAA Rating:adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor; an interlude of simulated intercourse with fleeting nudity; an oblique documentary glimpse of equine intercourse) ***. Another quality import, directed by Colin Nutley, an Englishman who has become a successful exile to the Swedish film industry. The leading lady, Helena Bergstrom, is also his wife. In this evocative and appealing pastoral romance, she embodies the romantic salvation of a lonely, hulking, illiterate and sexually inexperienced farmer who places a desperate ad for a housekeeper. Rolf Lassgard emerges as a formidable acting instrument and sentimental presence as the hero. There's no one on the English-speaking screen who combines a comparable bulk with such nuanced command of yearning and frustration. In Swedish with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.
Va savoir (2000) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity) *1/2. A perilously overextended evening of drawing room comedy under the supervision of the venerable New Wave filmmaker survivor Jacques Rivette, who examines the romantic obsessions that roil a troupe of Italian actors. The movie looks crisp and attractive. Mr. Rivette is comfortable with a tone of easygoing naturalism that might flatter a more purposeful or incisive trifle. It's a bit unreasonable to wait 150 minutes for this trifle to get a handle on charm and insouciance. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.
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. The timely source of gratification: Mr. Linklater's survey echoes the spiritual needs of many fellow Americans in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It actually speaks to the moment more than any other film in release. Computer animator Bob Sabiston supervises an elaborate pictorial camouflage that illustrates the conversations in a kind of water-color format. As a result, the conversations acquire a fluid illustrative dimension, almost always representative but often playful about stylizing faces, bodies and backgrounds. Since the protagonist may be in a dream state much of the time, the sense of free-floating illustration is not inappropriate to the content. The participants include Mr. Linklater, fellow movie director Steven Soderbergh, numerous non-pros and actors Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Nicky Katt and Adam Goldberg. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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