- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002


Birthday Girl (2000) (R: Persistent sexual vulgarity, occasional profanity and graphic violence, fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse) *. Another Miramax bad investment, perhaps plucked from the inventory vault because leading lady Nicole Kidman looms as an Academy Award contender. This tiresomely amoral caprice from England is directed by Jez Butterworth from a script contrived with brother Tom. Miss Kidman plays a Russian trollop, Nadia, who moves in with a sex-starved bank teller (Ben Chaplin) in order to set him up for extortion and humiliation at the hands of Yuri (Matthieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel), who are unexpected arrivals from Moscow. The hero, seriously overmatched in every respect, discovers redemption in the form of an unsuspected felonious streak of his own.
Happenstance (2001) (No MPAA rating adult subject matter) A French comedy directed by Laurent Firode. The cast include Audrey Tatou of "Amelie." In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge. Not reviewed.
Slackers (2002) (R) A college farce about a complacent set of cheaters, masterminded by Devon Sawa, threatened with exposure by a sex-starved grind (Jason Schwartzman) unless a date is arranged with his campus dream girl (actress James King). Directed by Dewey Nicks from a screenplay by David H. Steinberg.
What Time Is It There? (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A Taiwanese romantic comedy about a street watch salesman who entrusts his late father's dual-time wristwatch to a girlfriend bound for Paris, abetting a separation that causes mutual regrets. Meanwhile, the hero's mother anticipates a speedy reincarnation of her late husband. Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang. In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles. A limited engagement, exclusively at the American Film Institute Theater. Not reviewed.


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 ponderous and myopic biopic about the fighter 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 re-enactment of the Foreman match, rather thoroughly revisited five years ago in Taylor Hackford's documentary "When We Were Kings." Mr. Smith looks good in the ring, but he lacks energizing and absorbing material between fights. Striking performances are given 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Christian Toto.
Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002) (PG-13) A slapstick parody in the tradition of Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" Writer-director Steve Oedekerk, who helped launch Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura, borrows sequences from a Hong Kong martial arts favorite of the 1970s known as both "Savage Killers" and "Tiger and Crane Fists." Casting himself as the Chosen One, Mr. Oedekerk intrudes on the vintage footage in composite shots. He also presumes to add new sequences when expedient. The enhancements, as the trailers make abundantly clear, include a computer-generated, karate-wise cow prepared to avenge its kind for all the recent abuse dished out by movie humorists. With Jennifer Tung, Tad Horino and Philip Tan. Not reviewed.
Lantana (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional nudity and graphic violence; fleeting allusions to teen-age drug use) *1/2. An acclaimed but crackpot Australian melodrama that trifles with a mystery motif a disappearance that could involve foul play while wallowing in the marital miseries of various characters, all of whom cross paths with amazing and incestuous frequency. The principal domestic sufferer is Anthony LaPaglia as an adulterous police detective named Leon Zat. The best aspects of the movie are the women in his life: Kerry Armstrong as suspicious spouse Sonja and Rachael Blake as troublemaking mistress Jane. The Zats and Jane are members of the same ballroom dancing club. A therapist (Barbara Hershey) with marital troubles of her own and who has been listening to Sonja vanishes on a lonely back road. The title alludes to an exotic plant that conceals its thorns. Unfortunately, the emphasis on dysfunctional marriages takes a heavy toll of both suspense and prurient appeal. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
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.
Metropolis (2001) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence in the context of an animatd science-fiction spectacle) *1/2. A Japanese animated adventure fantasy that borrows the title and a few plot elements from Fritz Lang's famous science-fiction allegory of 1926. Duke Red, a captain of industry in some advanced technological society of the future, has commissioned a goddess cyborg called Tima to adorn his most ostentatious skyscraper, the Ziggurat. Tima, vaguely reminiscent of Rima the Bird Girl in "Green Mansions," becomes lost and frail and is discovered on a subterranean junk heap by the chirpy juvenile hero, Kenichi. She also is the ultimate target of Duke Red's homicidally jealous adopted son, Rock. There are also urban guerrillas itching to revolt. Rock's killing sprees are probably the indispensable draw for devotees of "anime," the reverential shorthand for Japanese animation. As always, backgrounds and pyrotechnics seem to animate the animators, but they remain clumsy with movement and simple-minded with characterization. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; systematic illusions of supernatural terror) *1/2. An ill-chosen reunion vehicle for Richard Gere and Laura Linney, the co-stars of "Primal Fear." Cast as a star political reporter for The Washington Post, Mr. Gere loses spouse Debra Messing to a brain tumor. Two years later, driving in a kind of trance to West Virginia, he discovers premonitory fears plaguing a number of residents of Point Pleasant, a small town on the Ohio River. Miss Linney enters as a kindly and perhaps romantically susceptible state trooper. The diabolical portents hovering around town resemble nightmares that afflicted Miss Messing. Director Mark Pellington subjects both the protagonist and the audience to supernatural spookiness. Ultimately, it turns Mr. Gere into such a frenzied and ineffectual paranoid that he's mostly immobilized when an authentic civic disaster strikes, supposedly confirming all the dreadful signs. To be fair, Mr. Gere is credited with an impossible rescue of Miss Linney, but given the condition of their roles and the vehicle itself, the gesture is futile.
Pinero (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor) *. A biographical hodgepodge inspired by the late Puerto Rican poet, playwright and ex-con Miguel Pinero, who enjoyed a topical celebrity in the late 1970s as the author of the prison play "Short Eyes" and became a minor fixture on the television crime series "Miami Vice." The tribute contrived by writer-director Leon Ichaso makes it impossible to sustain much evocative impact, since the continuity jumps around in a self-defeating rather than cleverly impressionistic way. Rita Moreno turns up as Mr. Pinero's adored mother and Jaime Sanchez, erstwhile comrade of "The Wild Bunch," as his despised father. Mandy Patinkin is recruited to play Joseph Papp, who championed Mr. Pinero's work at his Public Theatre in New York. Ostensibly, the movie is a tour de force for Benjamin Bratt, invited to run a gamut from the impish and seductive to the dissipated and doomed while portraying Mr. Pinero, who died in 1988 at the age of 40. He tries valiantly to rationalize a memorial sketchbook that outsiders will find difficult to decipher. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
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.
Trembling Before G-d (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, emphasizing homosexual characters; occasional sexual candor) *1/2. A documentary feature, previewed at the most recent Washington Jewish Film Festival, about the plight of devout but homosexual Jews who long to be accepted by Orthodox or even Hasidic congregations but find their sexual orientation a formidable stumbling block. A trio of men and a lesbian couple emerge as the principal figures. The director, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, himself a homosexual Jew, makes some headway with their line of argument when he cn avoid stylistic affectations or mawkish special pleading. For example, a renegade Hasidic woman volunteers home video of her wedding ceremony in which the faces of her ex-spouse and numerous guests are blurred electronically. These subterfuges also blur the appeals, which are discussed sympathetically by several rabbis and psychiatrists. Nevertheless, none is prepared to reinterpret Scripture or tradition in ways that will guarantee a prompt reconciliation for the complainants. A limited engagement, 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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