- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2001

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.
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 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.
Fat Girl (2001) (No MPAA Rating: adult subject matter, probably meriting an NC-17 if the film had been submitted for rating; frequent profanity and sexual candor, with episodes simulating intercourse with a 15-year-old girl; occasional nudity; a concluding episodic of exceptional brutality, depicting both murder and sexual assault) No stars. A repulsive new provocation from the French pornobrutalist Catherine Breillat, who evidently relishes an infamous reputation. Her last feature, ironically titled "Romance," lingered over the degradation pursued by a nympho schoolteacher who ended up in bondage outfits and postures much of the time. Stooping lower yet in "Fat Girl," Miss Breillat deploys Anais Reboux and Roane Mesquida as contrasting teen-age sisters a pudgy 13-year-old named Anais and sleek 15-year-old named Elena during an unsavory summer vacation, contrived to end in gratuitous shock and slaughter. Unfortunately, there are critics who find Miss Breillat's prurience and sadism hot stuff. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Focus (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) *1/2. A faithfully earnest but less than plausible and effectively realized adaptation of a vintage Arthur Miller novel (his only one, published while he was still a struggling playwright in the middle 1940s). William H. Macy is cast as a mild-mannered Brooklyn bachelor and personnel manager who begins to be mistaken for a Jew soon after acquiring a pair of glasses. The idea is that slight changes of appearance, or "focus," can alter the perceptions of prejudiced people in unexpected ways. In this case, the protagonist finds himself harrassed within a neighborhood that shelters a virulent cell of anti-Semites. Laura Dern becomes the hero's wife and eventually joins him in a stand against the haters. The fable seems seriously defective when your leads appear concretely gentile. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.
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.
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've 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 openfaced, 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 also 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.
Heist (2001) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor) 1/2*. Acute staleness permeates this crime thriller from David Mamet. Robbery ace Gene Hackman would prefer to take his ill-gotten gains and retire, but a semi-successful caper at a jewelry exchange supposedly makes him vulnerable to a follow-up theft at an airport, staged in such a heavyfooted fashion that one expects the gang to be collared by "America's Most Wanted" before it can transfer a shipment of gold bars from a plane to a getaway van. Danny DeVito is the bossy fence who plays double-crossing games with Mr. Hackman. Mr. Mament's hostile idiom is on the fritz: the would-be sarcastic formulations sound cranky but toothless.
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 probably would 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" 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. 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 plays a wandering delusional who claims to be a bemused observer from a distant planet, K-Pax. Calling himself Prot, presumably short for Protean, this smug but suffering redeemer seems to appear out of nowhere in a beam of light at Grand Central Station. Because 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.
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. A middle-aged burnt-out case, he lost a wife, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, now unhappily remarried to Jamey Sheridan. A teen-age son, played by Hayden Christensen, is a goth whiner, given to facial piercings and about to dabble in drug trafficking and male prostitution. George is diagnosed with incurable cancer, which prompts him to devote his last months on earth to turning the shack into the dream house it always was 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 teen-age boys, including the former boyfriend of her daughter, a supposedly adorable teen slut played by Jena Malone.
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.
Novocaine (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) *1/2. The tradition of James M. Cain is mocked again, although the pun in the title proves the wittiest aspect of the jest. Steve Martin plays a dentist whose practice becomes doomed when he falls for a new patient, Helena Bonham Carter, whose principal object is drug abuse. The tawdry comic logic of the set-up is that the amorously corruptible doc is being victimized by a ruthless band of conspirators. The whole movie collapses in absurdities and miscalculations well before the denouement falls flat. The only reason to humor the show is Laura Dern, a powerhouse as Mr. Martin's girlfriend and hygienist.
The One (2001) (PG-13: Frequent graphic violence in a science-fiction and martial-arts context) *1/2. Still not the one likely to confirm Jet Li as the inevitable successor to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Jet Li is cast as look-alike villain and hero in this science-fiction rattletrap. The future supposedly has disclosed the existence of 123 parallel universes. However, travel is strictly controlled by a Multiverse constabulary. The bad Jet Li has been killing off counterparts with such impunity that all creation is threatened by his despotic ruthlessness. He records victim 121 in the prologue and gives no thought to collateral damage. The last target is good Jet Li, a straight-arrow deputy with the Los Angeles sheriff's department. Given the mercenary tackiness of the production, the stage is set for a strenuous but meaningless showdown.
Out Cold (2001) (PG-13: "For language, crude and sexual humor, and substance abuse" according to the MPAA) An ostensibly wacky romantic and sporting farce about the exploits of snowboarding buddies Jason London and Zach Galifianakis, determined to protect their beloved Bull Mountain in Alaska from a Colorado resort tycoon played by Lee Majors. For some reason, I think I'll prefer the interloper. Evidently, Mr. Majors will be sabotaged by a pair of dishy daughters, Victoria Silvstedt and Caroline Dhavernas, who get thick with the Alaska dudes. Not reviewed.
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 dreamgirl after being semi-hypnotized by motivational guru Tony Robbins. Encouraged to appreciate "inner beauty," Hal discovers it promptly in Rosemary. Belatedly, he realizes that 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. Fleeting glimpses of Miss Paltrow in a fat suit are eventually augmented by a sustained exposure during the final episodes. In a sense she makes the suit superfluous by perfecting a waddle that seems incongruous on a slim girl and by expressing notes of weariness and suspicion when flattered by the smitten Hal. Her 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 prior to the terrorist calamity, this dreary sex comedy from Edward Burns revolves around the fickle marriages and love affairs of half a 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. The most self-incriminating line: "Why do you have to reduce everything to talk about sex?" With Dennis Farina as a womanizing kibitzer.
Spy Game (2001) (R: "Language, some violence and brief sexuality" according to the MPAA) Robert Redford, who directed Brad Pitt effectively in "A River Runs Through It," now co-stars with his logical heir apparent in this espionage thriller. The plot envisions Mr. Redford as Mr. Pitt's mentor in the CIA. Upon retiring in 1991, the mentor discovers that his protege has been jailed in China and faces a death sentence within 24 hours. Mr. Redford must race the clock in order to engineer an improbable rescue. Not reviewed.
Tape (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, consistent with an R rating; occasional profanity, sexual candor, fleeting violence and depictions of drug use) 1/2*. The other new movie from Richard Linklater, represented impressively this season by "Waking Life." Unfortunately, "Tape" reveals him pursuing a dead-end pretext. Shot on digital video, this theater piece observes the shabby reunion of three former high school friends in a motel in Lansing, Mich., a decade or so after graduation. Ethan Hawke is the troublemaker, a junkie and dealer who plans to coerce Robert Sean Leonard, an aspiring filmmaker, into a confession. The gist of it all: he acted dishonorably at the age of 18. Uma Thurman shows up belatedly as the erstwhile girlfriend the estranged pals craved and disappointed. An unproduced play by Stephen Belber is the source material. It still needs a ton of work.
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.
The Wash (2001) (R) A generation after "Car Wash," a farcical update revolving around labor, management and customers at a car wash, essentially a hangout for black comedians. The cast includes Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and George Wallace. Not reviewed.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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