- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

OPENING

Mostly Martha (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) **. A promising idea for a culinary romantic comedy that falls short of sustained charm and invention, but not disgracefully short. The title character is the somewhat defensive head chef at a fashionable restaurant in Hamburg, Germany; she is inclined to upbraid customers who fail to appreciate her superior taste and skill. The sudden death of a sister leaves her with the care of an 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), a handful who likes hanging around the restaurant until the wee hours, not exactly conducive to a stable domestic life or regular school hours. The proprietor hires an easygoing and seductive Italian chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), to ease the burden on Martha, who is immediately suspicious and resentful of potential job competition. The resolutions to plot and subplot prove strangely inept, but it's difficult to resist the idea that surrogate motherhood and a humorous boyfriend are beneficial influences on this uptight heroine. Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. In German and Italian with English subtitles.

Serving Sara (2002) (PG-13) A romantic comedy with Matthew Perry as a process server who falls for Elizabeth Hurley while serving the divorce papers filed by her rich, no-account husband, Bruce Campbell. Directed by Reginald Hudlin from a screenplay by Jay Scherick and David Ronn.

• Simone (2002) (PG-13) Occasional profanity and sexual candor) **. A fitfully clever and insinuating satire about the movie business from Andrew Niccol, the transplanted New Zealander who wrote "The Truman Show" and wrote and directed "Gattaca." The premise bears a conspicuous resemblance to Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" earlier this summer. Al Pacino is cast as a struggling maverick director, Viktor Taransky, whose new movie is sabotaged by a temperamental leading lady, Winona Ryder. Approached by a dying computer graphics genius, the filmmaker becomes the custodian of a digital animation system supposedly so refined that it can simulate humans with uncanny verisimilitude. A desirable, always cooperative leading lady nicknamed Simone, short for Simulation One, emerges and becomes an absurdly elusive, reclusive sensation as Taransky's new discovery. The Simone hoax is prolonged well beyond any plausible time limit. Neither her appearance (Nordic cosmetics model) nor the vehicles her mentor directs looks foolproof for a mass market. Nevertheless, Mr. Niccol protects his plot to some extent with the rationale that people everywhere prefer to be credulous and idolatrous.

Undisputed (2002) (R) Walter Hill revisits the themes of his 1975 bare-knuckles saga "Hard Times" in this updated fisticuffs yarn, which casts Wesley Snipes as a former ring contender who is serving a prison sentence. When the inmate population is enhanced by the arrival of the reigning heavyweight champion, Ving Rhames, a redemptive opportunity knocks. The cast also includes Peter Falk.


NOW SHOWING

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) (PG-13: "Violence, sexual humor and language" according to the MPAA) A science-fiction adventure farce starring Eddie Murphy as the title character, a nightclub owner on the moon, circa 2087. The social climate is meant to resemble the Wild West or the Roaring '20s. Pluto's interests are threatened by a gangster played by Joe Pantoliano. Not reviewed.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) (PG-13: Frequent sexual innuendo and coarse slapstick humor, including a number of gags predicated on urination; farcical but sometimes persistent simulations of violence) *1/2 The audience may refuse to tire of Mike Myers' preposterous swinger-spy, but the originator himself seems to be lobbying hard for a getaway in this busy but exceptionally spotty reprise. The new sequel recruits Michael Caine as Austin's dad Nigel, supposedly a master spy in his own right. The senior Powers is kidnapped, and Dr. Evil joins forces with the perpetrator, a vintage counterpart called Goldmember. This redundant and grotesque criminal mastermind becomes the fourth of Mr. Myers' impersonations. It's far from a triumph. The leading lady is now pop singer Beyonce Knowles, a sunny presence cast as a blaxsploitation homage, Foxxy Cleopatra.

Blood Work (2002) (R: Sustained morbid elements; occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) *1/2. An aura of vulnerability helps the 72-year-old Clint Eastwood as he establishes his ID as Terry McCaleb, an FBI specialist in serial killer cases who suffers a heart attack while gamely chasing a suspicious character outside a crime scene. Two years pass and McCaleb has recovered from a heart transplant operation. Approached by the sister of his donor, he feels a profound sense of obligation when told she was a murder victim and left an orphaned little boy. McCaleb also gets amorous with the sister, played by Wanda DeJesus. The set-up unravels as it becomes apparent that some kind of psycho killer is going to preposterous lengths to get McCaleb back in harness. With Jeff Daniels in a disarming role as a layabout neighbor.

• Blue Crush (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and revolting illustrative details; allusions to promiscuity and prostitution) *1/2. An inane but picturesque and diverting attempt to glorify the aspiring girl surfers of Hawaii. Kate Bosworth, who resembles the young Mariel Hemingway and doesn't look nearly athletic or mature enough to be competing against genuine female surf jocks, is the demure but determined heroine, Anne Marie. She must conquer fear and a three-year layoff from competition while entered in the annual Pipe Masters event on Oahu. Michelle Rodriguez and Sanoe Lake are cast as her exotic, ethnic sidekicks. Mika Boreem appears as a troublesome kid sister, who may or may not be surf culture jailbait. To make ends meet, the three musketeers work as maids at a luxury hotel, where a visit by the Pro Bowl squads becomes a distraction at least for Anne Marie, who falls for a friendly Minnesota quarterback played by Matthew Davis. Directed by John Stockwell, whose technique has improved since the prurient "crazy/beautiful." Everyone owes a great debt of gratitude to the photogenic appeal of big waves and agile surfers.

• The Good Girl (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence; sustained morbid and despondent undercurrents) *1/2. Jennifer Aniston brings admirable sincerity but dubious professional judgment to the impersonation of a young, ultra-melancholy Texas housewife who drifts into a love affair with an erratic youngster (Jake Gyllenhaal), also employed as a clerk at a discount store. Screenwriter Mike White, well cast as a store security guard, and director Miguel Arteta do a lot of condescending to sad hearts at the supermarket while observing this hapless liaison. Married to a house painter played by John C. Reilly, the heroine becomes vulnerable to sexual blackmail from his sidekick (Tim Blake Nelson), who happens to see her stealing a motel date. The filmmakers aren't exactly masters of deadpan pathos and lower middle class social satire, but the cast frequently saves the material from kneejerk rejection.

• Happy Times (2001) (PG: Fleeting sexual allusions and comic vulgarity; a fleeting scene of violence) *1/2. An off-performance from the esteemed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, whose last feature was a poetic masterpiece, "The Road Home." He fails to modulate effectively in the general direction of sentimental farce. The title alludes to an abandoned bus, briefly decorated as a trysting place and nicknamed the Happy Times Hotel when the protagonist, a desperate middle-aged bachelor named Zhao (Zhao Benshan), is considering far-fetched money-raising suggestions in order to finance a wedding. The love bus gambit is scuttled and the plot shifts to a fairy godfather-Cinderella pretext, with Zhao becoming fond of the blind and angelic stepdaughter of his shrewish intended. Called Wu Ying and exquisitely embodied by Dong Jie, the waif is adopted and shielded by Zhao's cronies. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and occasional sexual allusions) ***. A serendipitous new documentary genre, the Audio Book biopic, courtesy of the tenacious and colorful actor-producer Robert Evans. He is most famous for supervising film production at Paramount from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, in a comeback cycle that began with "Rosemary's Baby" and culminated with the "Godfather" epics and "Chinatown." Jealous of his own venerable mystique as a comeback kid, Mr. Evans cooperated in this entertaining selection from episodes in his autobiography, published in 1994 and then transposed to an audio-book edition three years later. Since then Mr. Evans has also survived severe strokes. The illustrative material assembled by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein is often patchy, but the Evans voice gives the soundtrack remarkable zing and momentum. It proves so insinuating, especially when recalling the high and low points of his association with Mia Farrow, Ali MacGraw and Francis Ford Coppola, that the movie remains a fabulous "listen" from start to finish. Do not bail out early, because the kicker is an astonishing impression of Mr. Evans by Dustin Hoffman, evidently improvised at the end of shooting for "Marathon Man." It's the greatest single comic achievement of his acting career.

• Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat (2002) (R: Nonstop profanity, sexual material) *1/2. Rubber-faced comic Martin Lawrence returns for a second round of big-screen stand-up aimed at clearing the record on his turbulent personal history. "Runteldat" isn't as quick to offend as "You So Crazy," his 1994 concert film, which shocked and rang up box office numbers in equal measures. It also fails to explain away his wacky, and often illegal, public behavior. Instead, viewers are treated to superficial observations and a victim posture that demeans the otherwise gifted comic. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Master of Disguise (2002) (PG: "Mild language and some crude humor" according to the MPAA) **1/2. Dana Carvey's happily fertile imagination has spawned a potentially fabulous premise for a mimic. As a naive, sweetnatured Italian waiter named Pistachio Disguisey, Mr. Carvey learns of a prodigious family aptitude for masquerading. He needs to use this magical heritage to rescue his kidnapped papa and mama (James Brolin and Edie McClurg, a wacky mismatch on paper who never get any scenes together) from a criminal fiend played by Brent Spiner. A cranky grandpa, forcefully embodied by Harold Gould, instructs Pistachio in the arts of disguise. Director Perry Andelin Blake and his associates need work in showcasing a distinctive comedian to consistent advantage. The haphazard results include some hilarious interludes, but many sequences are also botched, and the movie ends on a note of bizarre collapse.

My Wife Is an Actress (2001) (R) A French comedy about domestic and professional conflicts, with Yvan Attal as a sportswriter who succumbs to fits of jealousy when his wife, a popular film actress played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is cast opposite Terence Stamp, evidently perceived as a dire threat. In French with English subtitles. Cinema Arts, Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle & Shirlington and Landmark Bethesda Row. Not reviewed.

• Possession (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity, sexual candor and morbid plot elements) ***1/2. A surprisingly faithful and satisfying distillation of A.S. Byatt's formidable romantic-scholarly novel of 1990. The novel unites a set of modern academic sleuths as they discover a hidden love affair between Victorian poets. Gwyneth Paltrow resumes her English accent as the modern scholar, Maud Bailey, a decendant of one of the Victorian subjects (a lyric poet named Christabel LaMotte, embodied with smoldering distinction by Jennifer Ehle). As the research assistant whose curiosity begins the investigation, Aaron Eckhart transforms Roland Michell into a ruggedly humorous and likeable American. He has some eloquently tentative love scenes with Miss Paltrow. Arguably overshadowed in the book by the Victorian affair, the modern romance is astutely protected by the filmmakers. As Randolph Henry Ash, Jeremy Northam completes the co-starring quartet on a desirable note.

Read My Lips (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter and presentation, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details) **1/2. A French import that puts some coherence into the Hollywood screenwriting cliche, "character-driven." A distinctive mixture of lovelorn, mercenary and devious drives distinguish a partnership that evolves between Emmanuelle Devos as a partially deaf secretary named Carla and Vincent Cassel as a paroled con named Paul. They meet when she hires him as an office assistant. They use each other to undermine petty tyrants an office salesman who belittles Carla and then a mob creditor who intimidates Paul. The title alludes to Carla's lip-reading skills, which are not as foolproof as Paul imagines but do manage to save his life during a pivotal episode. The director, Jacques Audiard, seems to have a flair for character studies about distinctive, resourceful scroungers and outcasts. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.

• Road to Perdition (2002) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence and profanity) *1/2. Family solidarity takes another drubbing from Sam Mendes, who won an Academy Award three years ago for directing the stylishly hateful suburban satire "American Beauty." Confirming his bent toward exquisite depravity, Mr. Mendes belabors the fate of a mob enforcer during the Depression. Tom Hanks is cast as this doomed gunman, Michael Sullivan, whose loyal service to Irish-American mobster Paul Newman is undermined by the boss' bloodthirsty son Connor (Daniel Craig). Sullivan's wife and youngest son become murder victims, compelling the father to flee with a surviving boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). Sullivan engineers a string of bank robberies that signal his revenge and exhaust his credit with rival mob czars, notably Stanley Tucci as Chicago eminence Frank Nitti. Jude Law has an intermittent, flashy role as an assassin who doubles as a morbid photographer, specializing in Speed Graphic death portraits. The movie couldn't look more accomplished, but even its pictorial sophistication begins to backfire. Seven or eight set piece killings advertise their affectations, and the staleness of the vengeance theme seeps into your eye sockets.

• Sex and Lucia (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter and presentation, consistent with the R category; frequent nudity and simulated interludes of dalliance or intercourse; fleeting inserts of images from hard-core porn films; the distributor urges no admission to anyone under 18) *1/2. An inimitable return engagement for the flamboyant Spanish stupefier Julio Medem, my favorite exhibitionist of the European persuasion. He casts a variable heat wave named Paz Vega as a bereaved or perhaps merely headstrong waitress who abandons Madrid after the apparent death of her boyfriend (Tristan Ulloa as a writer named Lorenzo). In retreat on a desert island, Lucia gets naked a lot while the director pretends to account for her affair with Lorenzo in flashbacks. But Lorenzo seems to have been involved with at least two other women, Elena Anaya as a sultry lunatic and Najwa Nimri as a kind of housemother to castaway swingers. But wait. They may be characters in a Lorenzo book in progress rather than flesh-and-blood rivals. Should Lucia feel genuine jealousy? Is Lorenzo still among the living? How could anybody seem credible in a Julio Medem sex fantasy? In Spanish with English subtitles. Exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row and Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle and Shirlington.

Signs (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; flashback episodes dealing with a traumatic family loss; subplot about a pastor's loss of faith; episodes in which young children are imperiled by extraterrestrial monsters ) *1/2. The latest supernatural fraud from the absurdly overrated M. Night Shyamalan. He sites this dud spookshow in a farm community in Bucks County, Pa. The idea is to orchestrate dread around the appearance of mysterious shapes and omens carved into the cornfields, presumably by extraterrestrial intruders. The director hunkers down with one little family group, ultimately taking refuge in the basement while a solitary, elusive alien rattles around behind walls and doors. The monotony is enhanced by an absence of grown-up and talkative womenfolk. Mel Gibson plays a widowed farmer and lapsed minister named Graham Hess, with Joaquin Phoenix as his brother and Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as his children. They're all brooding about the accidental death of Mrs. Hess months earlier, a grotesque calamity recalled in flashback. While the Hesses fret about a prowler in a rented monster costume, scattered TV reportage alludes to decisive battles between humans and invaders in other parts of the country and planet. Are people so mesmerized by the portentous Shyamalan drone that they'll overlook his outrageous refusal to depict the Big Picture beyond the Hess farmhouse? They ought to jeer him off the screen for stooping to a cheapskate variation on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002) (PG: "Action sequences and brief rude humor" according to the MPAA) *1/2. A busily stupefying replica of Robert Rodriguez's popular caprice about the resourceful offspring of master spies. The parents, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, are played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino. An obvious sag in glamor and credibility must be overlooked to believe that their kids, Alexa Vega as Carmen and Daryl Sabara as Juni, are precocious phenoms. A rival set of youngsters, Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment (sister of Haley Joel), is added to challenge the Cortez siblings. The newcomers belong to Mike Judge as the director of the spy agency called OSS. Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor also come aboard as grandparents. A castaway mad scientist, played by Steve Buscemi, is a harmless sort who let genetic mutant creatures get a bit out of control; they were meant to be be toys but took an unintentional jump into monsterhood. Nothing ever seems especially alarming, apart from the probably unintentional glorification of brats as world-beaters.

24-Hour Party People (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and allusions to drug use; occasional nudity and sexual candor, with fleeting simulations of intercourse; a tone of nostalgic bemusement about vice in a show business setting) *1/2. Being a Manchester chauvinist may be a key to humoring this satirical British chronicle about the label Factory Records and the rock club Hacienda, Manchester pop meccas during the 1980s. Under the deliberately anarchic, slapdash management of Tony Wilson, a moonlighting TV personality from the Granada TV network, the label and club thrived for a time. The emphasis remained on bands with a local identity and a showcase known to be rowdy and drug-saturated. Steve Coogan, an amusing and distinctive saturnine type in the Alan Rickman mold, is the film's ongoing asset in the role of Wilson. Entrusted with a mocking narration of the prototype's trials and tribulations, Mr. Coogan excels at a Cambridge-educated hauteur and sense of entitlement. Bliss it was to have been Tony Wilson when Factory and Hacienda were humming, the movie suggests. You probably had to be there and stoned most of the time to believe this myth, but it has some hilarious episodes. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

XXX (2002) (PG-13: Systematic gratuitous violence in the context of a farfetched adventure spectacle; sustained vulgar tone and occasional sexual allusions) * The stupefying follow-up collaboration of roughneck Vin Diesel and ultra-mercenary director Rob Cohen, who were involved in last summer's car-chase hoot "The Fast and the Furious." They envision Mr. Diesel as an indispensable addition to the super-spy roster, an "extreme" sports headliner called Xander Cage, recruited to inflict his fearless attitude and stuntwork aptitude on Eurotrash plotting biochemical calamity from a castle near Prague. Xander's antics are much funnier than Austin Powers' if approached in the properly sarcastic frame of mind. Samuel L. Jackson, defaced by a ludicrous toupee and a grotesquely scarred makeup job on the left side of his face, plays Xander's boss at the National Security Agency.


MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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