- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002


Crossroads (2002) (PG-13: "For sexual content and brief teenage drinking" according to the MPAA) The feature debut of pop recording star Britney Spears, who finds budding romance with a musician played by Anson Mount and sorts things out with an estranged mom played by Kim Cattrall while cast as a Louisiana coed who shares a car trip to the West Coast with a pair of girlhood pals, Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning. The heroine's doting dad is played by Dan Aykroyd.
Hart's War (2002) (R: "Strong war violence and language" according to the MPAA) A suspense melodrama about the escape and sabotage plans hatched by American prisoners of war held captive by the Germans at a camp in the winter of 1944-45. The title character, Lt. Tommy Hart, is a young lieutenant played by Colin Farrell. Upon arrival, he comes under the command of Bruce Willis as Col. William McNamara, the highest ranking officer, who has been awaiting an opportunity to undermine his captors.
Iris (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including interludes of nudity) **. An intriguing but structurally awkward biographical drama about the courtship and marriage of the late English novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, a scholar and professor of English at Oxford University. The screenplay contrived by director Richard Eyre and Charles Wood derives from a pair of memoirs by Mr. Bayley; it attempts to alternate somewhat feverish but hopeful courtship episodes in the 1950s, with Kate Winslett and Hugh Bonneville as the characters, and impressions of the elderly couple in the last half of the 1990s, with Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent in the roles. The emphasis in the later years shifts to marital devotion and Miss Murdoch's decline when stricken with Alzheimer's disease. The problem with this young-and-old framework is that the switches are frequently ill-timed; they're as likely to shatter your concentration on the actors in one time frame as they are to yield effective contrasts between an emerging match of literary eccentrics and a poignantly enduring relationship. The movie elects to obscure the promiscuity of the younger and evidently bisexual Iris Murdoch.
John Q (2002) (PG-13: "Violence, language and intense thematic elements" according to the MPAA) A topical suspense melodrama starring Denzel Washington as a financially strapped and eventually desperate family man named John Q. Archibald, who works as a machinist. He takes the emergency room of a hospital hostage after being informed that he lacks the insurance to cover a heart operation for his son. The promising cast includes Robert Duvall as a hostage negotiator, Ray Liotta as a fuming police detective, James Woods as a heart surgeon, Anne Heche as a hospital administrator and Kimberly Elise as Mrs. Archibald. With 10-year-old Daniel E. Smith as the stricken boy.
Return to Never Land (2002) (G) A belated sequel to the 1953 Disney animated version of "Peter Pan." According to this 50th anniversary reprise, the ageless sprite Peter must return to rescue Jane, the skeptical 12-year-old daughter of his erstwhile companion Wendy Darling, after Capt. Hook resumes his nefarious shenanigans.
Super Troopers (2002) (R: Sustained slapstick vulgarity and occasional profanity; occasional nudity, allusions to drugs and facetious simulations of sexual dalliance) *. Anything but super, this lackluster farce celebrates a quintet of Vermont state troopers caught up in running rivalries with municipal cops who hold them in low esteem. The movie doesn't make much of a case for wacky camaraderie. The principal cut-ups began performing together as undergraduates at Colgate University and formed a comedy troupe now called Broken Lizard: Jay Chardrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske. They share the rap for the screenplay and Mr. Chardrasekhar doubles as director.

m Amelie (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting violence in a mostly fanciful and facetious context) ***. The French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes up with a valentine to Paris, his adopted home. More specifically to Montmartre, where he locates winsome Audrey Tatou as the title character. She's a shy barmaid who discovers an aptitude for busybody happiness when she rescues a box of childhood treasures from a hiding place in her apartment by chance and then mounts a project to restore them, anonymously, to the owner. The whimsy gets thick and excessive, but the cast is fairly diverting, and Mr. Jeunet's playfulness with the medium is sometimes as felicitous as Amelie's impulses. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) (PG-13: Thematic material dealing with mental derangement; occasional profanity, sexual allusions and graphic violence) ***. Ron Howard's latest movie is skillful and touching, albeit heavily fictionalized. An adaptation of the recent biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., it puts Russell Crowe in the lead role. A mental breakdown in 1959, while Mr. Forbes was on the faculty of MIT, led to confinement and a series of insulin shock treatments. A gradual but remarkable recovery culminated in his resumption of teaching and study at Princeton. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994. Taking generous liberties with the facts, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman dates the breakdown from 1953, associating it with paranoid delusions directly influenced by that period of the Cold War. The filmmakers also conjure up a trio of delusionary figures to clarify the hero's sense of unreality. Mr. Crowe never seems entirely comfortable with the West Virginia origins of his character, and as an absent-minded professor he may have more in common with Mike Myers than the subject. Nevertheless, the ordeal and recovery experienced by his character are absorbing.
Beijing Bicycle (2001) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence) **. An initially fascinating and even stirring Chinese feature that becomes its own worst enemy in the last 40 minutes or so while complicating and muddling a pretext with an admirable pedigree: Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief." The sturdy part of the movie deals with the plight of a tenacious country boy called Guei who has secured a bike delivery job in Beijing and nears the point when he will own the bike, opening the door to dramatically improved wages. Then, of course, his precious bike is stolen. You assume the rest of the movie will involve a futile, needle-in-a-haystack search for the machine in a vast city teeming with bicycles. Instead, director Wang Xiaoshuai shifts attention unwisely to a spiteful young man of the struggling lower middle class, Jian (Li Bin), presumably the thief, embittered because his father has been unable to purchase a promised bike. You begin to suspect that the whole thing might impress the Chinese as a runaway social comedy, since they'd recognize jokes and cliches about country bumpkins and city brats that may be lost on American audiences. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Big Fat Liar (2002) (PG) An underdog farce with Frankie Muniz of the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" as an indignant teen-ager who believes that a Hollywood producer, Paul Giamatti, has purloined one of his class papers and made it the basis for a hit movie. With Amanda Bynes as a pal who accompanies the hero to the movie capital to demand satisfaction. Not reviewed.
Black Hawk Down (2001) (R: Systematic depiction of military combat, with frequent episodes of graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity) ****. A stunning distillation of Mark Bowden's 1999 best-seller about the October 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, that engulfed U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos involved in a deteriorating United Nations "peacekeeping" mission. Mr. Bowden's book clarified how gallantly the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers fought when tested to the utmost, after two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in the city and became the focus of rescue operations. Ridley Scott presents a gripping movie version that rivals those landmarks of the middle 1980s, "Platoon" and "Hamburger Hill," for simulating an immersion in small-unit combat. The movie neglects certain aspects of the struggle while emphasizing others, but what it stresses reflects exceptional pictorial sophistication and emotional clarity. The admirable ensemble includes about a dozen British actors, including Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs (the villain of "The Patriot") and Orlando Bloom (Legolas in "The Lord of the Rings"). Josh Hartnett acquires a flattering heroic stature and restraint. William Fichtner and the Australian actor Eric Bana emerge as the standout Deltas. Sam Shepard is the commanding officer, Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison.
Collateral Damage (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, with sadistic and gruesome illustrative details) *. Definitely damaged goods despite bragging rights as the No. 1 attraction in its opening weekend, a time frame that was rich in berserk new attractions. This vengeance thriller struggles to rationalize and glorify Arnold Schwarzenegger as a grief-stricken but relentless Los Angeles fireman, Gordy Brewer, who tracks down the Colombian terrorists responsible for a timebomb that kills his wife and little boy, bystanders in the path of flying glass and debris. Always maladroit, the movie starts miscalculating its effects during a prologue intended to establish Gordy's heroism on the job. Instead, it establishes Mr. Schwarzenegger's grandstanding vanity. The underrated science-fiction thriller, "The 6th Day," demonstrated that there were still amusing ways for Mr. Schwarzenegger to remain a hard-charging asset. "Collateral Damage," a laughable rattletrap, is what happens when judgment deserts him.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) (PG-13: Occasional fight scenes with elements of graphic violence; fleeting depictions of torture; an interlude of sexual candor) **. A diverting but essentially second-rate remake of the Alexandre Dumas classic, directed on sometimes striking locations in Ireland by a rather desperate Kevin Reynolds. The production remains at the mercy of miscasting. The somnambulistic Jim Caviezel shows signs of snapping out of it in the role of the avenger Edmond Dantes, who escapes an unjust and prolonged but also educational imprisonment to retrieve a fabulous hidden treasure and plot the downfall of his betrayers. Guy Pearce is a petulant hoot as the most conspicuous betrayer, Fernand Mendego, a playboy wretch with the funniest hairpiece since Bruce Willis last wore a rug. Richard Harris is a cagey relief as Abbe Faria, Dantes' mentor in the forbidding Chateau D'If prison. Luis Guzman is also a likable addition as Jacopo, the pirate who becomes Dantes' sidekick and valet. But not even balloon descents and a regal wardrobe do much to compensate for Mr. Caviezel's lack of swashbuckling presence.
Dark Blue World (2001) (R) A new feature from the Czech team of director Jan Sverak and screenwriter Zdenek Sverak, his father, who collaborated on the Oscar-winning "Kolya" five years earlier. The plot concerns two Czech pilots who defect to England in 1939 and join the Royal Air Force. While in training, they fall in love with the same woman. Ondrej Vetchy and Krystof Hadek portray the airmen; Tara Fitzgerald breaks their hearts. With Charles Dance as an RAF wing commander. Some dialogue in Czech with English subtitles. Not reviewed.
The Debut (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor) **. A low-budget independent feature intended to introduce moviegoers to a neglected ethnic group: Filipino Americans. A debut feature, directed by Gene Cajayon from a screenplay by himelf and John Manal Castro, the movie stakes out a modest but appealing claim on human interest while observing an elaborate and often delightful birthday party that serves as a crucible of hopes and conflicts between three generations of a family in Los Angeles. The more director Gene Cajayon hangs out at the gym and warms to the festivities, the better his picture. Striking and enjoyable dance numbers accumulate, starting with a sensational routine by a Philippine troupe. Exclusively at AMC Hoffman Center 22 theaters in Alexandria.
Gosford Park (2001) (R: Fleeting profanity and graphic violence; occasional sexual candor and fleeting simulations of intercourse) ….. Robert Altman brings a masterful sense of ensemble orchestration to this mordant social comedy about the waning years of "Upstairs, Downstairs" class distinctions. The title alludes to the country home, circa 1932, of an ill-humored nobleman played by Michael Gambon. A weekend party of pheasant hunting with assorted friends and relatives is designed to climax with a murder, revealed to be a crime that has been brewing for decades. The witty screenplay was elaborated by Julian Fellowes from a pretext cooked up by Mr. Altman and Bob Balaban, cast as one of the comic stooges, a Hollywood producer soaking up background for "Charlie Chan in London," an actual release of 1934. The most enjoyable or affecting cast members include Jeremy Northam as the authentic musical comedy star and film actor Ivor Novello; Kelly Macdonald as a gentle Scottish maid who emerges as the best sleuth on the premises; Maggie Smith as her outrageously selfish employer; Emily Watson, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins as the most knowing members of the household staff; Richard E. Grant as a sarcastic servant; Stephen Fry as a clueless inspector; and Ryan Phillippe as a young American actor-gigolo trying out more than one method of advancing his career.
I Am Sam (2001) (PG: Fleeting profanity and rampaging sentimentality) .. Sean Penn pretends to be a mentally retarded darling in this fondly condescending and mawkish film. The title character, Sam Dawson, is left to care for an infant daughter named Lucy when the mother ducks out, seconds after vacating the hospital. Sam bravely shoulders the paternal burden, helped by a gruff but kindly neighbor (Dianne Wiest) and a quartet of comical pals, two of them cast from the membership of L.A. Goal, the charitable organization for mentally disabled adults that inspired director Jessie Nelson and screenwriting partner Kristine Johnson to contrive their inspirational groaner. Threatened with losing custody of Lucy (Dakota Fanning, a delightful juvenile) when she turns 7, Sam pesters a fashionable attorney played by Michelle Pfeiffer, inevitably humbled by her association with a big-hearted simpleton. It's a mismatch. Richard Schiff offers a welcome, no-nonsense performance as the rival attorney in a custody hearing.
In the Bedroom (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence; thematical material emphasizing family conflict and tragedy; gruesome depiction of a murder scene) **-1/2. An ominous domestic drama about the repercussions of sudden tragedy and loss on a middle-aged professional couple played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. He's a doctor and she's a high school music teacher. They live in Maine and have been stifling a certain apprehension about the romantic involvement of their son, a graduate student (Nick Stahl), with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) who is estranged from a husband (William Mapother) who proves dangerously vindictive. The kicker in the conception is that the seething spouse isn't the only potential vigilante in town. Director-screenwriter Todd Field and his cast make a persuasive case for empathy until the plot is transformed from an account of banal suffering into a devious fable of vengeance, suggesting "Death Wish" revamped to nice people.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere in a fanciful medieval setting; several intense chases and battle sequences involving monstrous menaces, punctuated by gruesome illustrative details) ****. This faithfully rousing digest of the first installment in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Ring" trilogy a quest saga set in a Celtic domain called Middle Earth offers three breathtaking hours of peril and combat. The cycle begun by director Peter Jackson is destined to be a landmark in cinematic fantasy and adventure. A wonderful cast illustrates the desperate mission of the youthful hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), who inherits a magical, but potentially corrupting, doomsday ring from his elder cousin Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and struggles to elude capture and death by marauders and monsters who crave the object for terminally despotic purposes. "Fellowship" reawakens the sort of excitement that only an accomplished and stirring adventure movie can generate. The astute musical score remains unobtrusive yet ardent and ever-present. It's enhanced by occasional choral numbers and a pair of Enya songs, including a finale that will almost certainly enchant the Oscars. Take the precaution of locating the theater whose sound system and projection you trust more than any other.
The Monster's Ball (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, including an episode of simulated intercourse; occasional nudity and racial epithets) *-1/2. A preposterous fable of interracial redemption that may become a cult hit through the power of prurience: There's an unusually explicit and prolonged sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, cast as potentially lost souls from the same small town in Louisiana. Mr. Thornton is the grim middle link in a family heritage of security work at a nearby prison, doubled by the actual facility at Angola. His senile, racist dad Peter Boyle worked there. His son Heath Ledger works there and disgraces himself by breaking down during the preparations for an execution. The condemned man, played by Sean Combs, is the conjugal despair of Miss Berry, left as sole support of an obese son played by Coronji Calhoun. It's possible that director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos talked themselves into the delusion that they were inspirational healers, brokering an affair between a hero and heroine who will save each other by falling passionately in love. What their love story actually demonstrates is that eliminating dead wood in the family will make it easier for a frustrated man and woman to start over. Mr. Combs' execution sets off a chain reaction of expedient mercy killings that testify to a laughably ruthless streak in the filmmakers. But they do have their hot-ticket spectacle, with Miss Berry as naked and yearning as you're ever likely to see her.
Rollerball (2002) (PG-13: A lenient call, given the prevalence of graphic violence in depictions of the title sport; occasional profanity and sexual allusions) *. A rabidly unsatisfying remake of the futuristic sports melodrama directed in 1975 by Norman Jewison. Chris Klein inherits James Caan's role as the star of an international sports league that has attracted legions of fans with a streamlined, motorized and brutalized version of roller derby. The switch here is that the league is located in Central Asia and financed by industrial parvenus and cutthroats from that part of the world, notably Jean Reno as a former KGB agent who has struck it rich by strip-mining a bleak country called Kasachstan. The only suspense element: which of the teammates dearest to Mr. Klein, mother-hen buddy LL Cool J or sultry consort Rebecaa Romijn-Stamos, will have to be sacrificed first on the altar of melodramatic cliche?
Shiri (2001) (R: Intermittent graphic violence, typified by extended gunfights and accentuated by gruesome illustrative details) 1/2*. Allegedly the rage of moviegoing Asia, this delirious and debilitating Korean import trifles with doomsday apprehension by exaggerating the lethal prowess of a team of North Korean saboteurs who infiltrate Seoul in order to provoke a decisive War of Unification. They seem to outmatch the ostensible heroes, South Korean counterespionage agents called Ryu and Lee. Among other oversights, the chaps neglect to notice that their super-nemesis, the notorious Hee, a North Korean sniper who happens to be a she, is hiding in plain sight. After all, there is only one major female character in the plot, reducing the chance that Hee's masquerade can evade notice. In Korean with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Slackers (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; facetious allusions to sadomasochism and drug use) **. Another sex farce about college students, not exactly a novel pretext. But there's some screwball appeal in this odd duck. A deadpan slapstick flair, presumably traceable to director Dewey Nicks, keeps surfacing and distracting attention from the ramshackle structure. Jason Schwartzman of the severely overrated "Rushmore" also emerges as a sneakily amusing monster in this vehicle. Cast as a sex-starved and lunatic grind named Ethan, he tries to blackmail a complacent set of operators, particularly Devon Sawa, into abetting his lust for a campus dreamgirl (James King). Along the way he shares a mind-boggling interlude with Mamie Van Doren, nearing 71 but still cast as a shameless hussy, encountered in a hospital ward. The hero's sidekicks, played by Jason Segel and Michael C. Maronna, acquire eccentricities as weirdly self-absorbed and entertaining as those permitted Mr. Schwartzman. Despite the unreliability of the show, you feel as if you've drifted into genuinely nutty and funny company.
Snow Dogs (2002) (PG: Fleeting slapstick vulgarity and sexual allusions) *. A painfully spasmodic fish-out-of-water farce from the Disney company that somehow required two recent Oscar winners: Cuba Gooding Jr., cast as a thriving Miami dentist who inherits an Alaskan estate distinguished by a team of sled dogs, and James Coburn as the gnarly, contemptuous mountain man who covets the lead dog. The movie begins in the spirit of Disney's salute to the Jamaican bobsled team, "Cool Runnings," and then veers off into a reprise of "Carbon Copy," the 20-year-old comedy in which George Segal learned that he had fathered Denzel Washington. That's a funnier brainstorm now than it seemed in 1981. Mr. Gooding, forced to act perilously infantile, had a better farcical pretext as the fugitive football ref in "Rat Race." Mr. Coburn gets the better end of a sappy deal, protected to some extent by a gruff exterior.
Storytelling (2002) (R: Sustained thematic emphasis on perverse and morbid humor; occasional profanity, sexual candor, nudity and racial epithets; allusions to sadomasochistic sex and teen-age homosexuality) *. An unmatched set of smugly malicious vignettes from Todd Solondz, the wayward suburban humorist of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." The first segment, titled "Fiction," is incisively nasty. It sets up coed Selma Blair for humiliation when she invites sexual exploitation by a writing instructor, Robert Wisdom as a contemptuous black author who specializes in withering criticism in the classroom and fuming sadism in the bedroom. The companion piece, "Non-Fiction," subjects a suburban family to ridicule and then slaughter. Foolishly, they consent to be documentary subjects for a desperate amateur filmmaker played by Paul Giamatti, playing the facetious alter-ego of Todd Solondz. The movie affords Mr. Solondz the opportunity to anticipate and mock the critics who find his work repugnant, which it clearly is. John Goodman and Julie Hagerty are dubious choices as the Jewish suburban parents of "Non-Fiction," but a young actor named Jonathan Osser is pretty phenomenal as their hideously precocious offspring. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.
A Walk to Remember (2002) (PG: Fleeting profanity, vulgarity and violence) **-1/2. This surprisingly restrained and appealing weeper may have a loyal audience waiting for it. Viewers will appreciate the freshness and rapport of Shane West and Mandy Moore as the romantic leads, high school students from Beaufort, N.C. (simulated by Wilmington). Mr. West, already an impressive underplayer, goes from budding delinquent to budding paragon as a result of falling for Miss Moore, the strait-laced but captivating daughter of a widowed Baptist preacher. Director Adam Shankman achieves a blissful level of romantic comedy during a date sequence that culminates in two inspired touches, one straddling the state line between Virginia and North Carolina and the other savoring the application of a butterfly tattoo on Miss Moore's shoulder. Mr. Shankman and his associates don't totally capture wholesome enchantment in a bottle, but they come closer than you would think possible in the current filmmaking culture.

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