- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 29, 2001

OPENING

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.
The Texas Rangers (2000) (PG-13) Liberated from the inventory shelf at Miramax after a prolonged confinement, this Western saga stars Dylan McDermott as a founding Ranger named Leander McNelly, who recruits an adventure-seeking band of young men to combat banditry on the Texas frontier. His charges include James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond, Randy Travis, Ashton Kutcher and Robert Patrick. The cast also includes Alfred Molina, Tom Skerritt and Rachael Leigh Cook. The film is opening without press screenings.

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 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.
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 episode of exceptional brutality, depicting both murder and sexual assault) No stars. A repulsive new provocation from the French porno-brutalist 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 a 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.
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.
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 setup 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.
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 Alaskan 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 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. Fleeting glimpses of Miss Paltrow in a fat suit are augmented eventually 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 before 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. 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: 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. The film is essentially an exercise in idolatry, and it reflects numerous Hollywood cliches that are also overdue for retirement. September 11 hasn't been kind to the following Redford reflection: "Do you remember when we could tell the good guys from the bad guys?" Funny he should ask.
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 represe ative 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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