- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

OPENING
About Schmidt (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity with a comedic emphasis) *1/2. A departure from the source material, a novel by Louis Begley about an elegant, recently widowed New York sophisticate. This New York Schmidt almost vanishes inside a stolid Omaha resident named Warren Schmidt, embodied by Jack Nicholson with an emphasis on the physically squat and emotionally stunted. Still the sudden widower, he dreads the approaching nuptials of his only daughter, Hope Davis, whose intended is a good-natured chucklehead, Dermot Mulroney. The novel's entire social setting is uprooted and comically vulgarized. The most defensible result of the upheaval is Kathy Bates' presence as the bridegroom's mom, a middle-aged hippie with amorous designs on Schmidt. Director Alexander Payne gets Miss Bates and Mr. Nicholson into a hot tub together, an admirable comic inspiration, but they still lack a scene worth playing.
Adaptation (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and interludes of graphic violence) ***. This encore project for the "Being John Malkovich" team of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is exceptionally clever and entertaining until it takes a turn for the ruinous in the final half hour. The turning point is easy to identify. Nicolas Cage, cast in the fictionalized dual roles of Mr. Kaufman and his exasperating twin brother Donald, makes contact with Meryl Streep, cast as a fictionalized version of the authentic New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. In the aftermath of this meeting the movie rapidly deteriorates into a brutal, self-destructive muddle that exemplifies all the worst tendencies of Hollywood crime thrillers. The intention is probably satiric, because Charlie has been railing against Hollywood cliches while struggling to adapt Miss Orleans' non-fiction book 'The Orchid Thief,' a discursive work about the history and lore of orchid horticulture in Florida. The movie is a kick while it remains playfully discursive and faithful to the source material, deploying Miss Streep as Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper as her eccentric principal subject, the scroungy orchid poacher-breeder-expert John Larouche. Mr. Cage's schizoid personality contrasts are also fun to watch. While it's always dodgy to predicate a movie on a screenwriter's hangups, "Adaptation" sustains the joke with considerable zest and virtuosity until losing its grip in the last reel.
Antwone Fisher (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, racial epithets and depictions of domestic violence and child abuse; intimations of sexual depravity, including child molestation) *1/2. A well-meaning but often dubious exercise in heavily fictionalized biographical uplift, supposedly based on the memoirs of an authentic Antwone Fisher. Denzel Washington makes his directing debut while playing a Navy psychiatrist who tries to rescue the title character, a young sailor played by Derek Luke who is subject to belligerent flare-ups. The hostility is traced in flashbacks to an abusive childhood in Cleveland; Antwone must endure systematic tyranny and sometimes sexual molestation in the home of a despotic foster mother, formidably embodied by Novella Nelson. This domestic menace has a daughter (Yolonda Ross) who likes to mess with young boys. The maladjusted Antwone also lucks into a lovely Navy girlfriend in the person of Joy Bryant. Eventually, he locates a huge and welcoming Cleveland family. Meanwhile, Mr. Washington and his wife (Salli Richardson) are haunted by some kind of shadowy estrangement. The filmmakers don't seem to realize that this loose end makes the good doctor's extra-special interest in Antwone a bit peculiar.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) (PG-13: "Some sexual content and brief language" according to the MPAA) Steven Spielberg is reunited with Tom Hanks for a caper comedy-drama derived from the ghost-written memoirs of Frank Abagnale, who at the age of 16 began a career as a forger and impostor. Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as the young deceiver, whose masquerades include co-pilot, doctor, lawyer and summer school sociology professor. Mr. Hanks plays a fictionalized FBI agent who stalks the impostor for several years and then influences his decision to turn over a new leaf. Opens Wednesday.
Evelyn (2002) (PG: "Thematic material and language" according to the MPAA) A biographical project for Pierce Brosnan, cast as a Dublin father of the early 1950s, Desmond Doyle, whose struggles to raise three youngsters on his own are complicated by the prejudice of the Catholic diocese, which accuses him of being an unfit dad and sues for custody. Doyle accepts the challenge and eventually wins an unprecedented victory in the Irish Supreme Court. The title alludes to his little girl, played by Sophie Vavasseur. The supporting cast includes Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Bates, John Lynch and Julianna Margulies, as the admirable new woman in Doyle's life.
Gangs of New York (2002) (R: Persistent profanity and graphic violence, typically depicting brutality and gang warfare in a mid-19th century setting; frequent gruesome illustrative details; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity, with nudity and fleeting interludes of simulated intercourse; fleeting depictions of opium use) *1/2. The very essence of wretched excess in a sordid historical setting. This unwieldy and elaborately brutal epic from Martin Scorsese is derived from the chapters in Herbert Asbury's 1932 social history that recalled gang rivalries in the heyday of Irish immigration to New York. The movie begins with a rumble matching an Irish clan called the Dead Rabbits against nativist thugs under a witty despot named William Cutting, familiarly Bill the Butcher. He affords Daniel Day-Lewis the opportunity to give a classic villain's performance, the only reason for tolerating the movie's ineptitudes. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the son of a martryed rival of Bill's, infiltrates himself into the Cutting gang, intending to avenge the father he saw killed. The screenwriters fail to get the Big Picture and Little Picture coherently aligned: When the time frame shifts to the Civil War, the filmmakers try to incorporate the infamous New York draft riots, intercutting its depradations with a final rumble between Bill's gang and the revived Rabbits. The two clashes refuse to harmonize in any respect.
The Lion King (1994) (G) ***1/2. A revival of the popular Disney animated feature about the adventures of a runaway lion cub in the African veldt, transposed to an Imax projection system. Exclusively at the Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. in Baltimore. Opens Wednesday.
Pinocchio (2002) (G) Roberto Benigni's live-action remake of the sinister fairy tale classic by Carlo Collodi. Mr. Benigni directs himself in the title role, of course. Spouse Nicoletta Braschi also has a principal role. In Italian with English subtitles. Opens Wednesday.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) (PG: Fleeting profanity and episodes dealing with child abuse; thematic concentration on themes of racial and social prejudice against aboriginal children in Australia during the 1930s) A polemical chase thriller set in Australia, circa 1931, and inspired by the case history of three aboriginal children who escaped from a state orphanage in hopes of reaching their home in the outback. Kenneth Branagh plays the well-meaning but deluded and stiff-necked bureaucrat who supervises the removal of aboriginal youth to orphanages, where it is considered imperative to efface native customs and train the young people as domestic servants. Opens Wednesday.
Talk To Her (2002) (R) An acclaimed new feature from Pedro Almodovar, who observes the emerging friendship of two men, a male nurse and a writer, who meet at a theater performance. Later they cross paths at the hospital where the nurse is employed. Two severely injured women, a bullfighter and a ballet student, give them something else in common. In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens Wednesday.
Two Weeks Notice (2002) (PG-13: Sexual humor, strong language) **1/2Romantic comedy staple Sandra Bullock stars as a frazzled chief counsel to her billionaire boss, a Donald Trump type played by Hugh Grant. Miss Bullock's character up and quits over his demanding ways, but the duo soon realize their working relationship may have sired some genuine affection. Mr. Grant's impeccable timing consistently elevates the middling material, and Miss Bullock proves a capable comic foil. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
The Wild Thornberrys (2002) (PG: Occasional ominous episodes and fleeting comic vulgarity) **. A mind-boggling crossover feature for the Nickelodeon cartoon characters, a family of explorers who specialize in photographing wildlife. They are obliged to foil poachers in lion and elephant country. The incongruous sources of slapstick include a hale-fellow British dad, dubbed by Tim Curry; a sarcastic teenage daughter who keeps longing for mall culture while traveling in Africa; and an adopted, wild-child son whose specialty is a "wedgie dance." The heroine is a completely sincere kid sister called Eliza, endowed by a shaman with the ability to talk to the animals. The mixture of gratuitous slapstick and P.C. gospel is pretty merciless.

NOW SHOWING
Analyze That (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity; violence with a humorous 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.
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.
Drumline (2002) (PG-13: strong language and sexual innuendo) **1/2.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? Mr. Cannon displays a cool charisma and proficient drum skills as Devon, but the film's narrative can't stay in sync with its energized musical sequences. Comic actor Orlando Jones ("Evolution") sets aside his comic mannerisms to play the revered band director in charge of the mostly unknown cast. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
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.
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 bombshell 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.
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. Not reviewed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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