- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2001

Amelie (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting violence in a mostly fanciful and facetious context) ***. Not quite the enchantment Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was when new, but a reasonable runner-up. 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, 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 does get 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.
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. With David Paymer as a persecuted store owner whose Jewish identity is never in doubt. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington.
Heist (2001) (R) A crime thriller from David Mamet about a gang of thieves embarked on a dubious caper, with Gene Hackman as the apprehensive leader, Danny DeVito as an insistent fence and Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon and Ricky Jay as members of the possibly treacherous ensemble.
Shallow Hal (2001) (PG-13) A new farce from the fraternal team of Bobby and Peter Farrelly, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the somewhat veiled dreamgirl who beguiles the title character, played by Jack Black. A bar-crawling, promiscuous and obnoxious bachelor, Mr. Black is hypnotized into appreciating the finer things. Love is rendered myopic during his subsequent infatuation with Miss Paltrow, seen in her customary slimness to reflect the hero's deluded vision and in a capacious fat suit to reflect the obese, albeit sweetnatured, reality that confronts the rest of the world.
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. Opens Wednesday.
The Wide Blue Road (1957) (No MPAA Rating made years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter.) A revival of the first feature directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, a World War II Communist activist in the partisan resistance in Milan who became a professional filmmaker after the war, eventually achieving international renown with the semi-documentary rabblerouser "The Battle of Algiers" in 1966. Now 82, Mr. Pontecorvo has completed only a handful of features. However, his imprint has been pictorially and thematically dynamic. Yves Montand plays the leading role in this account of conflicts in a remote fishing community. In French and Italian with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

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.
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.
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" 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. 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.
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. 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, who lives 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.
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.
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 Sulley, voiced by John Goodman. His sidekick and roomie is a one-eyed motormouth called Mike, impeccably matched to Billy Crystal. Sulley'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 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 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.
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.
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 lookalike villain and hero in this science-fiction rattletrap. The future has supposedly 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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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. 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.

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