- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

OPENING:

• Drumline (2002) (PG-13: strong language and sexual innuendo) Hip-hop drummer Devon, played by Nickelodeon cable personality Nick Cannon, enters the competitive world of college marching bands. But will Devon's raw talent and attitude rub officials at Atlanta A&T University the wrong way, or will he learn to harness his considerable skills? Comic actor Orlando Jones ("Evolution") fleshes out the young, mostly unknown cast.

• The Hot Chick (2002) (PG-13) A new Rob Schneider farce, which asks the audience to suspend disbelief and accept the star as a high-school cheerleader who awakes in the body of Rob Schneider and spends a frenzied day at home and school attempting to finesse the calamity.

• The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (PG-13: Graphic violence in episodes depicting combat in medieval settings; sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional gruesome illustrative details) The second installment in Peter Jackson's three-part movie epic derived from the J.R.R. Tolkien "Ring" trilogy, which began auspiciously a year ago with "The Fellowship of the Ring." Now scattered, the members of the valiant fellowship endeavor to survive and reach far-flung destinations while menaced by Orc armies under the control of despotic wizards. Opens Wednesday.

• Maid in Manhattan (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting sexual candor and comic vulgarity) **. A Cinderella romance that casts Jennifer Lopez as a single mother and hard-working chambermaid at a Manhattan hotel. Miss Lopez blunders into a case of mistaken identity that attracts a Prince Charming, a role entrusted, not all that securely, to Ralph Fiennes, supposedly a political candidate and dashing bachelor. The movie seldom transcends good-natured mediocrity, but the star projects a sometimes careworn sincerity and ardor that prove distinctive and appealing.

• Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional violence in a science-fiction adventure context; a fleeting interlude of sexual menace) **. The fourth installment with cast members of the "Next Generation" series, whose return probably rides on the popularity of this episode. It definitely improves on the last, "Star Trek: Insurrection," remaining effectively concentrated on the need to outfox a young despot, Shinzon, encountered during a diplomatic mission to the Romulan zone. As Capt. Picard, Patrick Stewart is compelled to acknowledge a certain family resemblance in Shinzon, an upstart who is also seething with resentments. The character of this warlord may prove a slow-burning triumph for British recruit Tom Hardy. Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden are also on board for what could prove a valedictory voyage.


NOW SHOWING

• Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights (2002) (PG-13: Systematic comic vulgarity, verbal and pictorial; occasional scatological sight gags; facetious and coarse sexual allusions) 1/2*. Hanukkah movies are rare and may become even rarer as a result of this facetious disgrace from Adam Sandler, who does all the principal voices for an animated fable that is essentially a plug for his popular "Hanukkah Song." It's heard over the end credits. Complacently crass and fitfully obscene, the preliminary scenes encourage Mr. Sandler to enlarge on a split personality; he doubles the voice of a young wastrel named Davey and a lovable old codger named Whitey, thrown together during the holiday season in a town called Dukesberry. The self-promotional emphasis is anticipated by a plot that relies on the name recognition of several businesses represented at a local mall.

• Analyze That (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity; violence with a facetious approach to organized crime) *1/2. A return engagement for the odd-couple brainstorm of 1999, "Analyze This," matching Robert De Niro as a mobster suffering from anxiety attacks with Billy Crystal as his reluctant shrink. Far from inspired, this sequel has trouble justifying its copycat existence, apart from the moments in which Mr. De Niro as Paul Vitti is delivering his trademark compliment to Mr. Crystal as Ben Sobel: "You, you're good, you." The lackluster script suffers from concentration and humor lapses while groping for an exploitable situation. Vitti first hangs around the Sobel house after being released from prison in the custody of his analyst. Failing to capitalize on that fish-out-of-water notion, the screenwriters shift to a lame spoof of the gangster-show biz alliance, encouraging Vitti and his crew to appropriate a TV series about wiseguys.

• Ararat (2002) (R: Graphic violence in episodes depicting wartime combat and atrocities, including torture and rape; occasional profanity and sexual candor; nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse; allusions to drug use) *1/2. An ambitious but unwieldy attempt to reconcile far-flung aspects of an Armenian heritage by Canada's favorite esoteric filmmaker, Atom Egoyan. Mr. Egoyan leaves a number of subplots in bewildering form while shifting between past and present. The historical reenactments deal with the painter Arshile Gorky and a Turkish massacre of Armenian refugees in 1915. In the present, several characters are involved in a film about the massacre, directed and written by characters played by Charles Aznavour and Eric Bogosian. With Christopher Plummer as a Canadian customs inspector who devotes his final day on the job to one transparently suspicious countryman: David Alpay as a young man who has been used as a dupe in a smuggling operation. Some dialogue in Armenian with English subtitles. Landmark Bethesda Row and Loew's Georgetown.

• Die Another Day (2002) (PG-13: Frequent violence in an adventure fantasy context; recurrent sexual allusions and innuendo; some gruesome illustrative details) *1/2. An off-performance of gargantuan magnitude and an anniversary letdown: "Die" is No. 20 in the remarkably durable series that began in 1962 with "Dr. No." The movie lurches from one strenuous, self-defeating episode to the next. Pierce Brosnan as Bond is captured and tortured by the North Koreans and then obliged to redeem himself as a free-lancer after being scorned by Her Majesty's Secret Service. The character seems to take a bashing at the hands of director Lee Tamahori and his frenzied collaborators. Halle Berry fares better as a hired gun called Jinx Johnson who echoes the Ursula Andress entrance in "Dr. No." Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike bring youthful confidence and glamour to the roles of the principal villain and Bond's more reluctant conquest, respectively. A major strategic blunder has been to condemn a huge batch of footage to Iceland locations that begin to look pretty absurd as simulated on studio sets and backlots.

• 8 Mile (2002) (R: Frequent profanity; systematic depictions of urban squalor; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse) *1/2. The instantly triumphant movie debut of the rapper known as Eminem, harking back to a Detroit youth, circa 1995. His fictional alter-ego, plain Jimmy Smith, nicknamed Bunny Rabbit, is struggling to break through in the city's hip-hop clubs, where he initially plays hard to get despite being considered a genius by all his cronies. Eventually, scowling Jimmy demolishes the competition in "battle," 45-second spiels of face-to-face invective. One doubts if Eminem could embody a character that wasn't identical to himself, but director Curtis Hanson showcases him astutely, revealing a striking camera subject in a newfangled Byronic vein: narrow-faced and boyish, with a narrow emotional range and set of susceptibilities.

• El Crimen del Padre Amaro (2002) (R: mature sexual themes, nudity, profanity) .**. The title means "The Crime of Father Amaro" in Spanish, and, no, it's not what you think. This reptilian priest's victim is a nubile 16-year-old girl who's fervidly faithful and carnally charged up. Director Carlos Carrera brilliantly explores the internal conflict of celibacy and a poisonous relationship between the Church and a benighted Mexican village. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Emperor's Club (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions, including brief inserts of nude magazine illustrations) **1/2. A modestly appealing and commendable rarity: a parable about the regrets and consolations of pedagogy. Kevin Kline improves on the rather fatuous protagonist in Ethan Canin's short story: a classics teacher at an elite prep school in Virginia who kids himself about the potential for improvement in a devious student played by Emile Hirsch. The movie is at its most eloquent when it relies on the star to express the disillusion that decent men may feel when they're played for fools. With Jesse Eisenberg of "Roger Dodger" as one of the precocious students.

• Empire (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence; fleeting nudity and sexual candor; allusions to drug trafficking) *1/2. John Leguizamo inaugurates his own production company with a vanity crime melodrama that would make more sense if revamped for farce. As a South Bronx homeboy and drug dealer called Victor Rosa, Mr. Leguizamo has need of both psychological and career counseling in the wake of deceitful investment counseling from a Wall Street swindler played by Peter Sarsgaard. Victor's clueless girlfriend Carmen (the ineffable Delilah Cotto) is an unwitting facilitator; her college campus friendship with troublemaker Denise Richards, the shameless girlfriend of Mr. Sarsgaard, leads to a corrupting whiff of downtown luxury and privilege. The star has amusing rapport with the members of Victor's crew. It seems a pity they aren't presented as a comedy troupe or rap ensemble instead of bogus boy mobsters of the Hispanic persuasion. With Isabella Rossellini as a hilarious boss moll with big, big hair.

• Equilibrium (2002) (R) A dystopian thriller starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson as a love match on the run in a futuristic or "parallel reality" civilization that has banished human emotions, leveled out with required daily doses of a tranquilizer, cleverly called Prozium. Mr. Bale plays a gendarme entrusted with the arrest of non-conformers. After skipping a dose, he experiences a sensory jolt that leaves him vulnerable to the appeal of Miss Watson as one of the troublemakers, called "sense offenders." Not reviewed.

• Far From Heaven (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and graphic violence; occasional sexual candor, including a subplot about furtive homosexual behavior) **1/2. Julianne Moore and writer-director Todd Haynes proved a haunting team seven years ago with "Safe." They're reunited for a more quixotic project in this homage to a vintage Hollywood tearjerker, "All That Heaven Allows," circa 1955. Mr. Haynes casts Miss Moore as a Hartford, Conn., housewife who discovers that spouse Dennis Quaid is not only a lush but also an adulterer with homosexual inclinations. The heroine finds some comfort in the friendship of her widowed black gardener, an easygoing tower of strength as embodied by Dennis Haysbert. However, it remains to be seen if the friendship can ripen into a romance secure enough to defy the color line. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, Shirlington and White Flint.

• Frida (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor, including simulated interludes of intercourse; fleeting nudity and graphic violence, connected with the depiction of a gruesome traffic accident and subsequent medical procedures) **1/2. A vividly visualized and always watchable biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, portrayed by the irrepressibly robust and confident sexpot Selma Hayek. A profusion of color saturation distinguishes "Frida," directed by Julie Taymor and lit by Rodrigo Prieto. But the scenario never comes close to breaking with superficial and trite Hollywood conventions. It plods along while doting on the amours and struggles of artists including a lifetime tug-of-war with philandering spouse Diego Rivera, impersonated by Alfred Molina. There are generous reproductions of the Rivera and Kahlo inventory, along with some striking, if literal-minded, attempts to link certain paintings with specific real-life poses and observations. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) (PG: Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence in an adventure fantasy context; fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) ****. Director Chris Columbus and his colleagues shake off the stilted aspects of last year's introductory feature, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," operating with confidence and cleverness for 160 spellbinding minutes. "Chamber of Secrets" improves on "Sorcerer's Stone" in every respect except the ongoing charm of the principal juvenile characters, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione. Kenneth Branagh is a happily absurd addition to the faculty as a celebrity wizard with bogus skills. The servile little gnome Dobbie, voiced by Warwick Davis, perks up the story immediately, and there's also an entertaining school phantom, Moaning Myrtle, a succession of awesome and sometimes alarming critters and all kinds of optical marvels. Richard Harris' recent death gives a valedictory pathos to his impersonation of Dumbledore, the headmaster. One of the most satisfying storybook entertainments ever made.

• Personal Velocity (2002) (R: profanity, domestic violence, brief nudity, blunt sexual themes) **1/2. A bravely ugly movie by Rebecca Miller, this is a rough and spunky look at three New York women: a childless, well-to-do Manhattan cookbook editor; a pregnant working-class Brooklynite; and an upstate mother of three fleeing an abusive husband. It ain't pretty, but it sure is captivating. A pseudo-literary narrator distracts from these otherwise absorbing tales. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Real Women Have Curves (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; implied intercourse between teenage characters; episodes of family contact, especially between mother and daughter) 1/2*. A movie version of a gauchely ethnic theater piece by Josefina Lopez, who dotes on a full-figured alter-ego named Ana, a graduating high school senior in Los Angeles. Portrayed by America Ferrera, she is supposedly so dominated by a jealous, insulting, hypochondriac mother (Lupe Ontiveros) that she can't entertain hopes of a college education, despite commuting from East L.A. to Beverly Hills, where she has become a prep honor student. A kindly English teacher applies on Ana's behalf and comes up with quite a last-minute plum: a scholarship to Columbia! That tends to provoke the question anew: what prevents Ana from applying in a timely fashion to any number of colleges in Southern California? But then everything about "Real Women" looks hapless. Exclusively at Cinema Arts, Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington, Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Roger Dodger (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including interludes of intercourse and a sinister episode in a brothel; fleeting nudity) ***1/2. The most impressive debut feature of the year, an intriguing character study written and directed by 33-year-old Dylan Kidd. He gives us a protagonist and supporting characters who demonstrate that conversation can be stimulating and revealing. Campbell Scott as Roger Swanson, a self-loathing advertising executive, has made himself wittily insufferable to colleagues, including a boss played by Isabella Rossellini, who has decided to terminate their love affair. Roger's skid is complicated by the arrival of a runaway nephew named Nick (Jesse Eisenberg). Roger threatens to expose him to a few vicious shocks while bar-hopping, crashing Miss Rossellini's party and then venturing into a Village brothel, but uncle and nephew serve to cushion each other's falls after all. Mr. Scott vaults into awards contention with a tour de force performance. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• The Santa Clause 2 (2002) (PG: mild violence) **1/2. Tim Allen dons the big guy's red suit again in this sequel to the 1994 charmer. This time, Mr. Allen's Ol' Saint Nick must find a bride or give up his Santa Claus duties. Mr. Allen's low-key charisma suits the project well, even if the effects-laden toyland he lords over leans too heavily upon manufactured delights. This won't go down as a holiday classic, but family audiences could endure far worse. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Solaris (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere in a science-fiction setting; fleeting graphic violence; fleeting nudity in two amorous episodes) *1/2. A new and highly problematic collaboration from director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney, derived from the Stanislaw Lem novel that was filmed by the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. Mr. Clooney plays a psychologist sent to investigate the mysterious circumstances at a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris, where mental breakdowns and visions seem to be proliferating. Soon the doctor himself is experiencing visions of a beloved wife (Natascha McElhone) who committed suicide years earlier. Mr. Clooney does seem to be the wrong man to relieve this particular outpost. The movie rationalizes eternal life and love in terms that never transcend haziness. The expressive power needed to elevate either the Clooney-McElhone union or Solaris as a miracle-working planet has quite eluded the filmmakers. Nevertheless, the production is handsomely mounted and may have a hypnotic appeal for space mystics.

• Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) (PG: mild profanity) ***. The story of the Funk Brothers, the unsung stable of journeyman musicians who backed such celebrated singers as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Part documentary, part live performance, the movie sees the surviving Funk Brothers revive several Motown classics at the Royal Oak Theater in suburban Detroit, where they're joined by contemporary artists like Ben Harper and Joan Osborne. It's a moving tribute to the Brothers, who truly were responsible for the durable, timeless magic that was Motown. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Treasure Planet (2002) (PG: Ominous interludes and fleeting comic vulgarity) ***. Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure classic "Treasure Island" seems a dubious subject for science-fiction tinkering. But this Disney animated remake steadily wins you over with its gusto, pictorial invention and character humor. The vintage seafaring yarn is reconciled with imaginative science-fiction decor and spectacle. The rogue pirate Long John Silver is entrusted to the esteemed animator Glen Keane and the voice of Brian Murray, who deliver an amusing blend of Wallace Beery and cyborg roughneck. The updated hero Jim Hawkins, aimed at the extreme sports set, is a little harder to swallow. Martin Short gives the last third of the movie a wonderful comic lift as a robot version of castaway Ben Gunn.

• The Way Home (2001) (PG: Some episodes of domestic conflict emphasizing a bratty child; fleeting comic vulgarity) * An acclaimed letdown of a Korean feature about the relationship between a patient and affectionate rural grandmother and her 7-year-old grandson, a spoiled city kid entrusted to the older woman while his mother is absorbed in a job hunt back in Seoul. Writer-director Jeong-Hyang Lee has few imaginative or scenic resources at her disposal. The juvenile lead remains an insufferable whiner. In Korean with English subtitles.

• Wes Craven Presents: They (2002) (PG-13: horror violence, language) * A group of twenty-somethings finds the night terrors they experienced as children have returned, with monstrous consequences. Mr. Craven's name is nowhere to be found on the finished product, a listless horror film that feels recycled from a host of other, better movies. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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