- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

OPENING
Blood Work (2002) (R) A crime thriller revolving around Clint Eastwood as an FBI specialist in serial killer cases who comes out of retirement following a heart transplant operation in order to solve the murder of his very own heart donor. With Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston and Wanda De Jesus. Directed by Mr. Eastwood from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, who gave you "Conspiracy Theory" and "A Knight's Tale."
Happy Times (2001) (PG) A new movie from the esteemed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. He observes the snares that await a frustrated, aging bachelor who embarks on a flurry of mercenary schemes to finance a wedding well beyond his means. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Exclusively at Loew's 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 a series of 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.
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.

NOW SHOWING
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 abominable thug introduced in the first sequel, Fat Bastard, is also back for a marginally amusing encore as a sumo wrestler. The leading lady is now pop singer Beyonce Knowles, a sunny presence cast as a blaxsploitation homage, Foxxy Cleopatra.
The Country Bears (2002) (G) **1/2. Disney brings its popular theme park attraction, The Country Bear Jamboree, to the big screen with enough humor and slapstick to please the undemanding kiddie set. This ramshackle road picture gets by on its gentle charms. The live-action feature's saving grace is a tight musical soundtrack supplied by the likes of John Hiatt, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt. Beary Barrington, given voice by Haley Joel Osment, feels like an outcast in his human family and runs off to reunite his favorite band, The Country Bears. The film's many cameos include glimpses of Elton John, Queen Latifah and Willie Nelson. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
Les Destinees (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, with occasional graphic violence and sexual candor) *1/2. An initially evocative and promising domestic chronicle, derived from a French novel titled "Les destinees sentimentales." By the time it expires three hours later, you're likely to feel slaphappy. Director Olivier Assayas begins with appealing intimations of period atmosphere (circa 1900-1929) and romantic storytelling; they seem to belong to another lifetime by the fadeout. The poorly sustained dynastic plot revolves around the marital and professional struggles of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), reluctant heir to a prestigious family porcelain business in Limoges. A Protestant minister, Barnery divorces a wife he believes to be unfaithful (Isabelle Huppert as the inexplicable, masochistic Nathalie) and finds consolation with Emmanuelle Beart as a heartthrob named Pauline, the niece of a local vintner. Ultimately, Jean weakens to family appeals that only he can operate the porcelain factory profitably. The tedious undertow spoils generous footage of Miss Beart, the most beautiful film actress in captivity. In this context even gazing at her begins to pall. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
Full Frontal (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; a morbid episode involving a suicide) No stars. An amateurish shambles, billed as "a movie about movies," from Steven Soderbergh. It demonstrates the pitfalls of Hollywood success. Julia Roberts plays along in a negligible dual role, cast opposite Blair Underwood as a film actress and a celebrity reporter with a crush on her subject. In a movie within the movie, Catherine Keener and David Hyde-Pierce are an estranged couple: corporate shrew and sadsack magazine writer. Mary McCormack is Miss Keener's sister, a massage therapist propositioned by a producer, David Duchovny, whose birthday party is meant to be a pivotal event. The trifling and/or wretched comings and goings of these and other characters look shabbier because of the director's reliance on an unsightly pictorial format: Mr. Soderbergh shot much of the movie in a bleached-out video format. This mess may have some use as a snare for people who believe they'd do anything to get close to the movie business.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity; episodes illustrating severe danger and physical injury in a nuclear submarine) ***. An inauspicious start that echoes the introductory fakeout of "The Sum of All Fears" is one of several shakedown obstacles that need to be endured and forgiven to reach the good parts of this submarine thriller. The movie becomes exceptionally compelling once it concentrates on the material that matters, an account of sacrifice and tenacity in uniquely desperate circumstances. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her cast begin to hit their stride in mid-passage, after a Soviet nuclear submarine of 41 years ago, hurried into service in order to complete a test firing mission in the Arctic, is imperiled by malfunctions in the reactor room. As the commander, Harrison Ford faces the situation of Gregory Peck in the admirable "Twelve O'Clock High": brought in to browbeat a troubled crew, still attached to a kindhearted captain (in this case played by Liam Neeson), the strict disciplinarian finds himself overwhelmed by the heroism of sailors prepared to sacrifice themselves to avert a meltdown. The subject of a National Geographic documentary of a decade ago, the film was inspired by an authentic voyage that the Soviets obscured for decades.
Lilo & Stitch (2002) (PG: Some ominous episodes; fleeting comic vulgarity) ****. A superlative Disney fable about the friendship formed between an orphaned Hawaiian moppet called Lilo and an exiled extraterrestrial she nicknames Stitch, while mistaking it for an abandoned pooch. The invention of a mad scientist who got carried away while engineering a genetic ultimate weapon, Stitch is an aggressive and potentially calamitous handful. He's also the wittiest variation on E.T. in 20 years. His pudgy, four-eyed maker, Jumba, is ordered to hurry to Earth on a retrieval mission, accompanied by a one-eyed egghead called Pleakley, who regards the planet as a wildlife preserve for a beloved species, the mosquito. Lilo has a struggling older sister named Nani, voiced by Tia Carrere. Their difficulties have attracted the attention of a hulking but not unsympathetic social worker called Cobra Bubbles, voiced by Ving Rhames. The mixture of Polynesian and science-fiction motifs gives the movie a distinctive and beguiling look. The musical score is an invigorating, unexpectedly wacky blend of vintage Elvis Presley with Hawaiian chants and lullabies. The writing-directing team proves exceptionally deft with farcical plotting and throwaway humor. "Lilo" is the season's happiest and smartest entertainment.
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, tagging on outtakes from discarded episodes in order to pad a shortish running time.
Men in Black II (2002) (PG-13: Systematic depictions of extraterrestrial monsters; occasional comic vulgarity and graphic violence in a facetious, science-fiction context) *1/2. A keenly disappointing sequel to the exuberant 1997 adventure farce about the exploits of a secret government agency charged with the control of aliens in our midst. Will Smith returns as Agent Jay, who is obliged to supervise the unretirement of Tommy Lee Jones as Agent Kay, suddenly needed to help prevent apocalypse at the whim of a hydra-headed despot played by Lara Flynn Boyle. The crisis is complicated in a humorously promising way by the fact that Kay's memory, erased when he left the service, needs to be restored within a matter of hours. Pretending to be out of it gives Mr. Jones a big advantage over his colleagues, who just look as if they're going through the motions and haven't been able to think of any way to conceal that Stale Feeling. Tim Blaney supplies the voice of MIB's wiseguy canine, Frank the Pug, who seems to be the only cast member with confident material.
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.
Reign of Fire (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and terrror revolving around attacks by fire-breathing dragons; episodes in which young children are endangered by the beasts; fleeting profanity) ***. An incisive, rousing and inventive monster spectacle. It asks us to share the plight of a valiant group of survivors, exiled to a castle in Northumberland after a generation of destruction from a resurrected species of flying, incendiary dragon. Allegedly, the beasts have laid waste to major cities around the globe. Christian Bale, brave and tenacious but less than fearsome and commanding, leads the Northumberland remnant. The arrival of an unexpected American "task force" changes the outlook from hunkering down to all-or-nothing counterattack. The newcomers are led by an ostentatious and scary commander, Matthew McConaughey in a wonderfully swaggering portrayal. He engineers one spectacular kill of a dragon during an ill-advised march on London, nesting place of a gigantic bull dragon who evidently calls the shots. The finale evokes "Jaws" with a flying beastie as the prey; Mr. Bale, Mr. McConaughey and chopper pilot Izabella Scorupco are isolated in the ruins of London as they stalk the Big Daddy. The obvious shortcomings will be easy to tease in retrospect, but director Rob Bowman and his collaborators generate considerable suspense and excitement.
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 hardcore 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 whoa. 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 kids. 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 Cortez 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.
Stuart Little 2 (2002) (PG: Occasional ominous episodes and fleeing comic vulgarity) ***. A cheerful and sometimes pictorially sumptuous encore for the E.B. White mouse adopted by a Fifth Avenue family named Little. The system of computer graphic animation that makes Stuart's miniaturized world feasible on the screen is getting better and better, although an improved program still awaits the canary Margolo, who becomes a principal character in this installment but looks too ceramic. Mouse and bird have numerous scenes together, including a somewhat delirious "drive-in date" when they watch Hitchcock's "Vertigo" on TV while sitting in Stuart's little red convertible. Margolo (voiced by Melanie Griffith) must make amends for being the larcenous protegee of a predatory falcon, spoken by James Woods. Nathan Lane remains in good form as the voice of the sarcastic housecat Snowbell. Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie enhance the absurdly doting aspects of Mr. and Mrs. Little. In the most elaborate stunt Stuart flies a toy World War I plane to Margolo's rescue after being stranded on a garbage barge headed toward the Verrazano Bridge. The movie's pictorial infatuation with New York City may also have a magnified charm in the wake of September 11.
Who Is Cletis Tout? (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence) * A tedious convoluted caper farce about a prison alliance between a forger played by Christian Slater and a jewel thief played by Richard Dreyfuss. They have engineered an escape in order to retrieve loot hidden away by the latter years earlier. The plot succumbs to flashback episodes, as Mr. Slater attempts to explain away a case of mistaken identity to a mob hitman played by Tim Allen. Mr. Dreyfuss' character is foolishly knocked off before the movie is half over. This misjudgment seems to hasten other shortcomings. Mr. Allen's character loves movies, and this commonplace weakness is used for bits of luster by association. When your own movie is lackluster, however, the gesture becomes as disreputable as encouraging guilt by association.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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