- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

OPENING

feardotcom (2002) (R: "Violence, including grisly images of torture; nudity and language" according to the MPAA) A murder thriller contrived to team a homicide detective played by Stephen Dorff with a public health researcher played by Natascha McElhone in the investigation of four killings linked by an ominous Web site called Feardotcom.com. The cast also includes Stephen Rea, Udo Kier, Amelia Curtis, Jeffrey Combs and Michael Sarazin. Directed by Willima Malone from a screenplay by Josephine Coyle.

The Last Kiss (2001) (R) An acclaimed Italian social comedy about the belated temptations and maturation wake-up calls that vex a group of friends and relatives on the occasion of a wedding. The principal character, Carlo (Stefano Accorsi), is still resisting an overdue marital commitment to his pregnant fiancee Giulia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). He contemplates a fling with a seductive 18-year-old wedding guest named Francesca (Martina Stella). Carlo has three friends who cover a range of dissatisfaction from lovelorn solitude to promiscuous self-contempt. Giulia's mother Anna (Stefania Sandrelli) is also tempted to jeopardize a 30-year marriage. Written and directed by Gabriele Muccino. In Italian with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.

Notorious C.H.O. (2002) (No MPAA Rating; adult subject matter, with frequent profanity and systematic sexual vulgarity) .1/2. A distillation of a set of Margaret Cho comedy concerts in Seattle. The timing allows her to ring in with a relatively early obscene joke about visiting the ruins of the World Trade Center. Loyalists should be consistently amused by her lewd impudence. Outsiders will confront a more dubious spectacle of facetiousness, but to her credit, Miss Cho is not averse to mocking herself and the predominantly homosexual public that dotes on her.

One Hour Photo (2002) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional sexual candor, nudity and violence) ..1/2. Robin Williams' year of being sinister continues with this carefully wrought impression of a pathetic and potentially threatening loner, Sy Parrish, a fixture in the photo department of a vast and eerily impeccable suburban department store called SavMart. Over the years, Sy has cultivated a crush on a particular family, the Yorkins Connie Nielsen as wife Nina, Michael Vartan as husband Will and Dylan Smith as son Jake. Sy's job also puts him in a position to discover that the Yorkin marriage is not as idyllic as he imagined. This disillusionment corresponds with job problems and persuades him to take desperate measures in reprisal. Writer-director Mark Romanek acknowledges the influence of such 1970s prototypes as "The Conversation," "The Tenant" and "Taxi Driver." His stylistic control is sometimes impressive to a fault, since it often looks as if Sy's disintegration is being orchestrated rather heartlessly as a design exercise. Nevertheless, the central performance justifies a modest investment of pity and regret. Audiences should be grateful that the filmmaker invents a clever way of stopping short of bloodbaths. Eriq La Salle of "E.R." has a small role as a police detective.


NOW SHOWING

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) (PG-13: Occasional violence in a facetious, science-fiction context; occasional comic vulgarity)*1/2. The most conspicuous summer dud since "The Avengers." In both cases Warner Bros. threw in the towel in advance. There were no press screenings, so even the sorriest reviewers in the country had permission to be scathing. In happier days "Pluto Nash" must have been envisioned as a rollocking good time, a science-fiction adventure farce with Eddie Murphy as the headliner, supposedly a nightclub owner in a lunar outpost of 2087 called Little America. The frame of reference accounts for some of the staleness: every setting begins to echo Las Vegas. The star looks suspicious from the outset, and Ron Underwood's direction is so clumsy that the suspicion proves justified. Mr. Murphy acquires some zest in later episodes, but it appears that a dual-role gag should have been activated much earlier to keep his interest.

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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• My Wife Is an Actress (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, nudity and sexual candor; fleeting and facetious interjections of violence) *1/2. An alternately promising and maddening introduction to the comic mentality of Yvan Attal, a French actor-writer-director who bears a physical resemblance to compatriot Daniel Auteuil but seems to have borrowed Kenneth Branagh's smile. He works overtime to appear insufferable by playing a sports journalist who surrenders to ridiculous attacks of jealousy while wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, a popular film actress, is in London playing a flight attendant who supposedly falls in love with aging pilot Terrence Stamp. The grounds for jealousy couldn't be more far-fetched, in part because the feared rival is the most boring of actors. It's also difficult to believe that Mr. Attal is gainfully employed or should be moonlighting as an acting student. Nevertheless, there are funny episodes and the tempo remains zestful. In French with English subtitles.

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.

• Serving Sara (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity; systematic comic and sexual vulgarity; facetiously violent interludes) 1/2*. A frenzied and inept romantic farce that inflicts the dumpy, unsightly Matthew Perry on an evidently desperate Elizabeth Hurley. Cast as a New York City process server, Mr. Perry is persuaded to switch sides after he serves Miss Hurley with divorce papers from a wretched Texas spouse, Bruce Campbell. The co-stars pursue their mutual prey from Dallas to Durango, while director Reginald Hudlin stages one defective slapstick sequence after another. There are two genuinely horrifying moments, when Miss Hurley is obliged to kiss her leading man. No actress has sacrificed more for the greater degradation of romantic comedy in our time.

• 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. 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.

• 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.

• 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 grand-parents.

• 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. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Undisputed (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence, with a backdrop of prizefighting among convicts; allusions to rape and murder cases) *1/2. Walter Hill revisits the themes of his first feature, the 1975 bare-knuckles saga "Hard Times," in this updated but curiously handcuffed 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, belligerent and overconfident Ving Rhames, a redemptive opportunity knocks. The resident fixer is an aging mobster con played by Peter Falk, who gets an F-word rant as part of his shtik. Mr. Snipes' strong, silent identity seems to keep him out of the plot while Mr. Rhames is kicking up a rumpus. The eventual bout never looks too plausible, and it's poorly staged, a cliched festival of bogus haymakers and thunderous sound effects. Mr. Hill and writing partner David Giler are veteran filmmakers struggling to get back in the game, but this effort looks like a tune-up rather than a main event.

• 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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