- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

OPENING
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. The soldiers' vindication is likely to be confirmed anew by the overwhelming dynamism and immediacy of Ridley Scott's gripping movie version, which rivals those landmarks of the early 1990s, "Platoon" and "Hamburger Hill," for simulating an immersion in small-unit combat. The movie neglects certains aspects of the struggle while emphasizing others, but what it emphasizes 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. With Sam Shepard as the commanding officer, Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison.
Snow Dogs (2002) (PG) An exotic sports farce from the Disney studio, which casts Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a Miami dentist who inherits a championship team of Alaskan sled dogs. Although a fish out of water in frigid climes, Mr. Gooding is riled by the contempt of James Coburn as a mountain man called Thunder Jack, who covets the prize-winning huskies. The hero decides to stick around and teach his nemesis a lesson. Doing so demands a slapstick period of adjustment to his frisky pets.
State Property (2002) (R) A crime melodrama about rival urban gangs, tailored for rappers Beanie Sigel and Jay-Z. Abdul Malik Abbot was the director. A tentative engagement.

NOW SHOWING
Ali (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence) *1/2. Absorption in a dream project seems to have blinded director Michael Mann to a couple of inconvenient facts. Spike Lee made a biographical epic about Malcolm X a decade ago that covered much of the ground Mr. Mann emphasizes during the first hour of this sincere but ponderous and myopic biopic about Muhammad Ali, played by Will Smith. The continuity bobs and sprawls between the milestones of the first title fight with Sonny Liston in 1964 and the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman in 1974. It's easy to mistake Mario Van Peebles' Malcolm X as the protagonist of "Ali" until he's murdered. The last hour or so is devoted to a reenactment of the Foreman match, rather thoroughly revisited five years ago in Taylor Hackford's documentary "When We Were Kings." Moviegoers who tend to keep up with topical or non-fiction projects are likely to feel that "Ali" has failed to distinguish itself from such forerunners. Nevertheless, Mr. Smith looks good in the ring. Between fights he lacks energizing and absorbing material; his Ali is frequently an impassive sulker. The entertaining ensemble includes striking performances by Nona Gaye as Belinda, the second Mrs. Ali, and Jamie Foxx as the late factotum Drew "Bundini" Brown.
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, a skillfully contrived and touching, albeit heavily fictionalized, adaptation of the recent biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., impersonated by Russell Crowe. 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. Sanity consists of keeping them at bay, although they never completely vacate his imagination. As movie depictions of schizophrenia go, this one has some novelty value. Mr. Crowe never seems entirely comfortable with West Virginia origins, 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.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) (R: Systematic exploitation of horror motifs, with frequent episodes of graphic violence, predicated on the legend of a ravenous beast; occasional nudity and simulations of intercourse) *. A monstrous juggernaut from France, reflecting the brazenly mad-dog pop sensibility of director Christophe Gans, who seems to crave a grandiose resurrection of werewolf thrillers, crossed with borrowings from "Jaws," "The Exorcist," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Last of the Mohicans." The setting is a mountainous province of France during the reign of Louis XV. A royal beast-hunter named Fronsac, played by Samuel Le Bihan, is sent to investigate a wave of slaughters in the high country. He is accompanied by a Mohawk sidekick called Mani, played by an American martial arts specialist, Mark Dacascos. They are obliged to fight like possessed ninjas and samurai when confronted by scurvy local louts and predators, ultimately revealed to be the minions of a terrorist cell masterminded by diabolical aristocrats. The plot proves creaky, repetitive and interminable; the violent showdowns flip-flop between the overblown, the gruesome, the ludicrous and the inconclusive. The sheer bombast of it all seems to have hypnotized the French public, which may suffer from a shortage of rampaging action directors. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.
Charlotte Gray (2001) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence of intimations of torture and extermination in a wartime setting; occasional profanity and sexual allusions) *-1/2. A fresh miscalculation from the esteemed Australian director Gillian Armstrong, who strands herself and leading lady Cate Blanchett in Vichy France on dodgy, ephemeral espionage duty. An idealistic Scot with superior French-speaking skills, Miss Blanchett's Charlotte is infatuated with an RAF pilot who vanishes in France and then with Billy Crudup, a Maquis operative who specializes in blowing up Wehrmacht trains. The heroine poses as the new housekeeper hired by his irascible but ultimately courageous dad, effectively embodied by Michael Gambon. A respectable example of a dud, Miss Armstrong's movie emerges as perfectly sincere and fatally uninspired.
The Devil's Backbone (2001) (R: Sustained morbid atmosphere and episodes of graphic violence, with children as the objects of terror; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including an episode of simulated intercourse) 1/2*. A godforsaken Spanish bloodcurdler that targets the residents, mostly orphaned schoolboys, in an isolated desert retreat. Called Santa Lucia, it may have begun as a monastery. We encounter it as an orphanage for the children of Republican militia and politicians during the closing days of the Spanish Civil War. A 10-year-old newcomer named Carlos arrives just in time for an exodus and a massacre, triggered by the greed of ex-pupil Jacinto, now the handyman and resident stud. Eduardo Noriega plays this wretch; after torching the place, he gets a gruesome comeuppance from surviving kids, armed with homemade spears. The ghost of a previously slaughtered child also haunts the premises. No one is likely to accuse director Guillermo Del Toro of being a wholesome influence. In Spanish with English subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
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.
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 middleaged 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. The source material, a short story by Andre Dubus, was titled "Killings." 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 film won best acting awards for Miss Spacek and Mr. Wilkinson from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) **-1/2. An energetic and agreeably nutty animated farce of the juvenile science-fiction persuasion from Nickelodeon, celebrating the resourcefulness of a young brainiac who rallies his classmates to rescue their parents, kidnapped by invading aliens. The build-up is rather too close to Disney's "Recess" to establish a fresh grip on the funny bone, but the movie finishes strong.
Kandahar (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, with occasional depiction of impoverished and crippled refugees; allusions to war victims and casualties) *. An overrated new film from the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who deadends while depicting the would-be desperate odyssey of an Afghan woman named Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), who has emigrated to Canada but finds herself intent on returning to Kandahar under Taliban rule, in hopes of saving her sister from suicidal despair. The filmmaker discards the ostensible crisis while stranding his naive protagonist in desert regions on the border of Iran and Afghanistan. The plight of amputees encountered in border camps clearly interests the director more as a topical subject or spectacle. One of the supporting players, cast as a wandering black American discovered posing as a doctor in a border village, is believed to be an authentic fugitive from justice, wanted for a political assassination in Maryland over 20 years ago. With considerable narration in English and some subtitled scenes, although the languages or dialects of origin are not specificed in press material. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.
Kate & Leopold (2001) (PG-13) ***. James Mangold's time-traveling romantic comedy matches Meg Ryan as a modern businesswoman, successful but lovelorn, and Hugh Jackman as a restless Victorian nobleman, supernaturally transported to contemporary New York. Miss Ryan's Kate is the epitome of the fictionalized single gal, a sassy, self-motivated New Yorker obsessed with both work and Stuart (Liev Schreiber), her faulty ex-boyfriend. Stuart, a nebbish scientist, succeeds in pursuing a rip in the fabric of time. He travels back to the late 1800s, then inadvertently brings back one of its denizens, the befuddled Leopold, third Duke of Albany. Stuart hides Leopold in his too-accessible New York apartment. Kate quickly stumbles upon him, and their quirky courtship begins. Mr. Jackman's magnetic turn gives the time-travel romance its zing. Miss Ryan, for her part, takes her sugary sweetness down a notch or two. Mr. Mangold keeps the action whirring, as if aware that his comic souffle would collapse if given half the chance. The supporting cast includes Breckin Meyer, Natasha Lyonne and Bradley Whitford. Christian Toto.
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.
Ocean's Eleven (2001) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and graphic violence, in the context of a farfetched caper melodrama that identifies with professional thieves) *-1/2. The 1960 original was always a stinker the definitive complacent movie of Frank Sinatra and friends during the Rat Pack's heyday. Unfortunately, you're not even sure that enough cleverness and zest adhere to this Steven Soderbergh update to trump the enduring glamor that still surrounds the Rat Packers. George Clooney, looking burly but essentially starved for a characterization, inherits the title role from Mr. Sinatra, whose Danny Ocean, a former Army officer, organized World War II buddies into a Gang of 11 to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously, triggering a power blackout to cover the thefts. Mr. Clooney's Ocean is an ex-con who hooks up with a trusty confederate played by Brad Pitt, easily the cutest felon in the cast. Their target is a supposedly impregnable underground vault that serves three Vegas casinos. It looks like a Mission Impossible on paper, and it becomes more disillusioning as you discover how many masquerading tricks and how much esoteric electronic sabotage are required to crack the modern safe.
Orange County (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and allusions to drug abuse) **-1/2. A surprisingly buoyant and resourceful farce about a panicky high school senior, Shaun, played by Colin Hanks, the winning son of Tom Hanks, whose failure to be accepted to Stanford sends him on desperate, calamitous errands to remedy the university's mistake. Mr. Hanks makes Shaun's privileged dilemma and exaggerated behavior seem humorously coherent and tolerable. His relative stability in an agitated state is enhanced by contrasts with a slobby, dope-crazed brother (Jack Black) and a divorced mom on the brink of defeatism (Catherine O'Hara). Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek's daughter, makes an appealing impression as Shaun's girlfriend, Ashley. The director, Jake Kasdan, son of the famous Lawrence Kasdan, rebounds gamely from his first feature, the misguided 1998 mystery spoof "Zero Effect."
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity and facetious interjections of violence) 1/2*. A wastrel father named Royal Tenenbaum, played by Gene Hackman, attempts to engineer a belated reconciliation with ex-wife Anjelica Huston and offspring Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow, all former prodigies who became overprivileged neurotics. Owen Wilson is cast as a screwball family friend and Danny Glover as Miss Huston's beau, whose detachment from the family gives him an enormous advantage in simple likability. An insufferable fiasco, despite emerging as a critical pet in some crackpot quarters, "Tenenbaums" squanders an intriguing and trusting cast on leaden whimsies that director Wes Anderson and his co-conspirator, actor Owen Wilson, must have mistaken for a clever synthesis of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" with J.D. Salinger's Glass family. While aspiring to optimum drollery, almost every sequence falls flat, while affecting a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek presentation. The cumulative ineptide of it all is pathetically awesome.
The Shipping News (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence; episodes of simulated intercourse; dream sequences and flashbacks revolving around morbid or traumatic elements; fleeting nudity) *-1/2. Transposed to the screen, the E. Annie Proulx novel which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction in 1993 proves a disenchanting blend of misanthropic affectations. Kevin Spacey plays the sadsack protagonist, Quoyle, located in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. when abandoned by a slutty wife (Cate Blanchett). Left to raise their young daughter alone (the movie version sacrifices a second child of this mismatch), he is nudged into action by the sudden arrival of an aunt played by Judi Dench, who intends to return to an abandoned family homestead near a seacoast village in Newfoundland. Quoyle finds work at a local paper owned by Scott Glenn. Romance blossoms with a wan single mom played by Julianne Moore. Almost everyone has a coy, funny-sounding name. Traumatic ghosts tumble out of nightmares, but everything looks absurdly rosy after a blizzard conveniently demolishes the old fixer-upper. All neurotic, painful associations seem to be gone with the wind. And why not? They always seem bogus and expendable.
Vanilla Sky (2001) (R: Morbid thematic material, involving disfigurement and mental aberration; occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence) *-1/2. A potential bummer for unsuspecting moviegoers who may not be familiar with the source material or all that thrilled by the spectacle of Tom Cruise making another elaborately masochistic bid for an Oscar nomination. The film reunites the star with Cameron Crowe, the writer-director of "Jerry Maguire." Vanity appears to lay a grotesque trap for Mr. Cruise, who enters as a young man who has everything, a publishing tycoon called David Aames. His consort is a model played by Cameron Diaz, and the early sequencs emphasize luxury and smiling duels. Mr. Cruise can hold his smile indefinitely, but Miss Diaz is peerless when it comes to immediate radiance and impact. So ends the most entertaining aspect of the show. The unwary hero, attracted to Penelope Cruz, who played the same role in "Open Your Eyes," ignores Miss Diaz, who takes a catastrophic revenge, leaving her victim injured and imprisoned. Already fond of dream sequences, the plot ventures into science fiction, creating fertile ground for confusion. The pivotal weakness is that Mr. Cruise remains poorly prepared to make the suffering Aames a persuasive or sympathetic figure. The masochism grows insufferable and too easy to mock.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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