- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

OPENING
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002) (R: Systematic concentration on depraved behavior by parochial school students; occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence) No stars. This low-budget pestilence has nothing to do with the current scandals confronting the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. However, it does seem a scandal in other respects, since it dotes on the pranks and outrages engineered by a set of parochial school boys in North Carolina during the 1970s. Ultimately, the most harebrained caper, stealing a cougar from a municipal zoo, leads to calamity for one unwary youth. It's difficult not to root for the cougar under the circumstances. The "American Pie" farces qualify as wholesome by comparison. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington, Landmark Bethesda Row.
The Fast Runner (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A semi-documentary epic about Eskimo life and legends shot on locations near Baffin Island in 1999 by a Canadian group that specializes in programming for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The story concerns conflicts in a nomadic Inuit tribe, leading to a murder plot that costs the life of an older brother and forces a younger brother into naked flight across the spring tundra and ice floes. The running time approaches three hours. In Inuit with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Shirlington, Landmark Bethesda Row and Visions Cinema.
Juwanna Mann (2002) (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity in the context of a farce about a sexual masquerade) * 1/2. The first of two summer farces set against a backdrop of professional basketball. Miguel A. Nunez Jr. plays a hot dog named Jamal Jeffries who makes himself persona non grata with a franchise in Charlotte, N.C., then gets the bright idea of masquerading as a backwoods ringer, called Juwanna Mann, to catch on with the city's other team, a member of the women's league.
Lilo & Stitch (2002) (PG: Some ominous episodes; fleeting comic vulgarity) ****. A superlative Disney fable about the friendship formed between an orphaned Hawaiian moppet called Lilo and an exiled extraterrestrial she nicknames Stitch, while mistaking it for an abandoned pooch. The invention of a mad scientist who got carried away while engineering a genetic ultimate weapon, Stitch is an aggressive and potentially calamitous handful. He's also the wittiest variation on E.T. in 20 years. His pudgy, four-eyed maker, Jumba, is ordered to hurry to Earth on a retrieval mission, accompanied by a one-eyed egghead called Pleakley, who regards the planet as a wildlife preserve for a beloved species, the mosquito. Lilo has a struggling older sister named Nani, voiced by Tia Carrere. Their difficulties have attracted the attention of a hulking but not unsympathetic social worker called Cobra Bubbles, voiced by Ving Rhames. The mixture of Polynesian and science-fiction motifs gives the movie a distinctive and beguiling look. The musical score is an invigorating, unexpectedly wacky blend of vintage Elvis Presley with Hawaiian chants and lullabies. The writing-directing team of Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois proves exceptionally deft with farcical plotting and throwaway humor. "Lilo" is the season's happiest and smartest entertainment.
Minority Report (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere in a science-fiction context; occasional profanity, sexual allusions and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details) **. Steven Spielberg remains in the grip of solemn and unsatisfying science-fiction preoccupations in this belated movie version of a Philip Dick story that dates back almost 50 years. The fictional place is Washington, the time frame is 50 years in the future, with a streamlined transit system that is subordinated eventually to an implausible chase sequence. Tom Cruise is cast as the chief detective for a division entrusted with preventing future murders. Supposedly, they can be foreseen by a trio of psychic young people, "Pre-Cogs," kept floating and sedated with dopamine in an esoteric private pool. The system never looks foolproof for a second, and it promptly backfires on Mr. Cruise, who is fingered as a potential killer and obliged to run, outmanuevering surveillance methods that allegedly make escape a practical impossibility. The title alludes to a suppressed study that questioned the reliability of the entire system. It would appear well-founded.

NOW SHOWING
About a Boy (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; episodes about the attempted suicide of a single mother) *** 1/2. The source material, a novel by the English humorist Nick Hornby, offered a near-perfect role for Hugh Grant, and the realization itself pretty much defies improvement. Mr. Grant plays a well-to-do wastrel named Will. Nearing 40 and unattached, he has pretended to be a single dad in order to date single moms, on the assumption that they'll be easier to brush off in the long run than unmarried women unencumbered by children. The caddish scheme brings a needy but endearing youngster into Will's life: Nicholas Hoult as 12-year-old Marcus, desperate for advice and guidance in the wake of his mother's attempted suicide. The movie unfolds with admirable wit and fluidity until the denouement, which overcompensates while diverting from the book's plot. With a wonderful performance by Toni Collette as Marcus' sorrowful but affectionate mom.
Bad Company (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions; a very lenient rating) * 1/2. Hollywood continues to trifle with the theme of doomsday apprehension in this scatterbrained espionage thriller. It centers on the odd-couple partnership of Anthony Hopkins, a veteran CIA agent, and Chris Rock, a chess hustler and ticket scalper persuaded to pose as his late, long-lost identical twin, an agent indispensable to an unfinished mission, the purchase of a laptop nuclear device. The pretext would appear to give Mr. Rock a dual-role challenge. In practice it merely requires him to greet every situation with a sarcastic quip. The pretense that something serious is at stake is always bogus at best. Mr. Hopkins ends up chewing a lot of gum and dangling a lot of toothpicks on his lower lip to contradict the cultivated impression created by his accent, not to mention a sublimely posh name, Gaylord Oakes.
The Bourne Identity (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional profanity and graphic violence) * 1/2. A low-risk theatrical remake of the Robert Ludlum spy thriller. Published in 1980, it became a plodding TV movie with Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith in 1988. The mindset of the material belongs to the period in which thinking the worst of American espionage agents or even American self-interest was considered knowing and virtuous. Matt Damon is cast as the amnesiac floater whose identity remains a mystery for about half the story. Discovered in the Mediterranean and lucky to be alive, he possesses language skills, martial arts skills and a Swiss bank account that discloses a safe deposit box full of goodies, including lots of passports and currency. The name Jason Bourne enters at that point, but it doesn't ring a bell with the hero. The German actress Franka Potente is the movie's only human interest asset, cast as a footloose girl who becomes Mr. Damon's getaway driver and then girlfriend. Her combination of opportunism and tenderness is very fetching. Chris Cooper has a terrible role as a seething CIA bureaucrat. A seamless blend of the watchable and negligible.
Cherish (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual vulgarity; fleeting nudity) * The San Francisco-based independent, Finn Taylor, remains a whimsically slack juggler of romantic farce and stalker melodrama in this second feature. The heroine, entrusted to the non-stellar Robin Tunney, is a sadsack archkook named Zoe who ends up confined to a loft while awaiting trial on a hit-and-run charge. She was abducted but is too drunk to remember when a police officer was run down. Her abductor is still lurking in the city. She finds some decisive time for sleuthing between encounters with neighbors and updates with Tim Blake Nelson as the county deputy responsible for keeping her fitted with electronic ankle monitors. Mr. Taylor remains a fringe manipulator merely attracted to mainstream entertainment. The aptitude for it eludes him.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) (PG-13) ****. A domestic comedy straddling two generations, derived from a pair of novels by Rebecca Wells., including the title work. Adapted and directed by Callie Khouri of "Thelma & Louise" fame, the movie deals with the prolonged misunderstanding between a young playwright, played by Sandra Bullock, and her egotistic mother, played in the present by Ellen Burstyn. In flashbacks the mother's role is assumed by Ashley Judd. The estrangement prompts a reconciliation attempt by Maggie Smith and Fionnula Flanagan, cronies of Miss Burstyn since their youth. James Garner appears as the heroine's father. Reviewed by Susan Beving.
Enigma (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief nudity and similated intercourse; occasional graphic violence, including allusions to wartime atrocities) **. A faithful movie version of a 1995 espionage novel by Robert Harris, a British author who contrived an intriguing plot around the codebreakers and analysts at Bletchley Park, the country estate that became the British government's headquarters for breaking German codes during World War II. Unfortunately, the movie is stuck with a lackluster protagonist (Dougray Scott), looking like the codebreaker the cat dragged in. A crisis looms in March of 1943, when a change in the enemy's naval codes threatens to leave a trio of convoys from New York at the mercy of U-boats. Mr. Scott discovers that Claire Romilly, a heartbreaker played by Saffron Burrowes, has disappeared from the Bletchley Park work force. Could she be a traitor? Mr. Scott joins with Kate Winslet, the missing beauty's frumpy roommate, in an attempt to account for the disappearance. Jeremy Northam as a debonair, sarcastic sleuth could be more fun as a leading man.
Insomnia (2002) (R: Systematic ominous atmosphere and morbid preoccupations; occasional profanity and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details involving a homicide investigation; fleeting nudity and allusions to sex crimes) ****. Demonstrating that "Memento" was no fluke, the young director Christopher Nolan confirms his flair for thrillers that get under your skin. Al Pacino, who makes this a valedictory classic among his portrayals of haunted and obsessive cops, plays an LAPD legend called Will Dormer. He arrives in Alaska under a cloud, dispatched to assist a former colleague (Paul Dooley) who has a grisly murder on his hands as police chief in a little fishing and logging community called Nightmute. Dormer is accompanied by sidekick Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), who admits to feeling the heat from an Internal Affairs probe back home that has targeted both of them. While attempting to entrap the Nightmute killer, an accidental death costs the pursuing police team. Subsequently, Dormer is exposed to blackmail threats from the killer he's out to capture. Mr. Nolan and screenwriter Hilary Seitz revamp the intriguing source material in ways that permit a more satisfying and redemptive outcome for the compromised protagonist.
Monsoon Wedding (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; occasional episodes about family conflict and disillusion, including a case of child molestation) *** 1/2. Director Mira Nair and another Indian-born transplant to the United States, screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan, join the ongoing parade of romantic comedies about weddings with this infectiously entertaining and ultimately jubilant impression of a large Punjabi family in New Delhi as it assembles and reunites to celebrate an arranged union between a bride who resides in Delhi and a groom from Houston. Some dialogue in Punjabi and Hindi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
Murderous Maids (2002) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, involving graphic violence) A French import that re-enacts the circumstances behind a notorious murder case of the 1930s, when a pair of young housemaids collaborated on a homicidal spree. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge. Not reviewed.
The Mystic Masseur (2002) (PG: Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions) ***. The most appealing movie yet directed by the prestige producer Ismail Merchant, who finds entertaining embodiments of many characters in V.S. Naipaul's first novel. Published in 1954, "Masseur" is a fond and savory rags-to-riches fable about an ambitious young teacher, Ganesh, who promotes simultaneous careers as an author and healer. In the process he becomes the pride of well-wishers in a rural community of his native Trinidad. Emboldened, Ganesh eventually discovers his limits as a big fish in a small pond. Aasif Mandvi, currently in the cast of the Broadway revival of "Oklahoma," makes a happily charismatic impression as the foxy and energetic Ganesh. The scenario goes flat on Mr. Merchant in the final reel, but there are abundant human interest and atmospheric rewards while the movie is bouncing merrily along.
The Piano Teacher (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, emphasizing extreme sexual candor and abnormality while depicting a sadosmasochistic character; occasional graphic violence in tandem with the candor; frequent profanity; occasional nudity; inserts of scenes from hardcore pornographic films) ***. A talented and, up to a point, morbidly absorbing erotic shocker from the German filmmaker Michael Haneke. The scenario exposes the grisly, sadomasochistic kinks in a reclusive classical piano teacher, Erika Kohut, fearlessly embodied by Isabelle Huppert. Despite her exquisite taste and demanding standards, Erika is a private emotional calamity, living with a possessive and foul-tempered mother (Annie Girardot), who begins to give the movie strange undercurrents from "Psycho." Erika is given to sexually creepy, self-abusive pastimes that appear to be drawing her closer to public scandal and disgrace. An amusing young virtuoso (Benoit Magimel) takes a romantic interest in this seething Older Woman while insinuating himself as an advanced student. Teacher is susceptible, but what she fancies as a sex partner eventually discourages even this brashly virile suitor, too healthy for Erika's terminal games. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.
Rain (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A New Zealand import about the erotic turmoil encountered in a family vacationing at a summer beach house, circa 1972. The plot revolves around an adolescent girl with hard-drinking and estranged parents. While mom seeks consolation with a drifter, the girl is left pretty much to her own immature devices. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge. Not reviewed.
Scooby-Doo (2002) (PG: Occasional comic vulgarity and episodes predicated on a ghostly hoax) * 1/2. A lavishly knockabout big-screen incarnation for the 34-year-old cartoon pooch, a Great Dane who is easily spooked while investigating mysteries as the pet of a quartet of young sleuths, now played by Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini, who makes the most agreeable impression as brainiac Velma. Rowan Atkinson is also on board, fitfully, as the designated sneak, the proprietor of an island amusement park.
Spider-Man (2002) (PG-13: Ominous episodes and occasional graphic violence in a comic-book adventure context; fleeting sexual allusions) * 1/2. The first major spectacle of the summer movie season, Sam Raimi's homage to the Marvel Comics hero, portrayed by Tobey Maguire. Created 40 years ago, Spider-Man was an update of Superman. A mild-mannered college student named Peter Parker acquires miraculous spidery attributes after being bitten by an arachnid. Ultimately, he must use his powers to foil a despotic nemesis, the Green Goblin. The opening credit sequence is a dazzler, thanks in great measure to a surging Danny Elfman theme. The first half-hour is promising, as Mr. Maguire ingratiates himself while struggling to master his new identity. Then the continuity becomes progressively slack and stagnant. Judging from the record-breaking first weekend, salesmanship has trumped all the shortcomings.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) (G: Fleeting depictions of violent and catastrophic situations, including a train wreck and forest fire caused by the equine hero) * 1/2. A pictorially handsome but allegorically crackpot fable about a wild stallion in a geographically compressed and absurdly ahistoric American West. The exploits of Spirit, a palomino, are so politically correct that he emerges as the ideal poster horse for an aging and unrepentant counterculture. The filmmakers seem to have no idea how horse populations proliferated in North America. Spaniards? What Spaniards? They leave the impression that the U.S. Cavalry was enslaving noble horse flesh long before Indians arrived to let the critters run wild and free. There's even a working railroad in the Southwest that seems to have gotten the jump on that transcontinental project farther north an industrial evil that the captive Spirit sabotages. This destructive feat makes makes him something of an ideological embarrassment to Hollywood at the moment a Taliban poster horse.
Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002) (PG: Ominous episodes, including occasional depiction of monstrous, menacing creatures and pitched battles in a science-fiction context) **. George Lucas spins his wheels while slogging away at the series' would-be dynastic plot, updated to the point where young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), apprentice Jedi with pouty and perhaps bossy tendencies, becomes a budding sweetheart to aristocratic Amadala (Natalie Portman), girl queen turned galactic legislator. The richly illustrated backgrounds teem with settings and props that suggest a bustling, technologically gleaming vision of the future, with stories perhaps more interesting than the fatalistic love match Mr. Lucas keeps belaboring. Christopher Lee as a principal villain twirls a light saber with admirable panache and gets to fight a concluding duel with a suddenly aggressive Yoda. Mr. Lucas almost gets some ominous momentum in gear during a middle section that intercuts scenes of potential romantic intimacy between the juvenile leads with Ewan McGregor's discovery of a mystery planet where cloned warriors are being mass-produced.
The Sum of All Fears (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual interludes and graphic violence, including simulations of the devastation caused by a nuclear device that explodes in Baltimore) **. Hollywood plays belated, bumbling catch-up with a Tom Clancy apocalyptic thriller of 1991. The character of Jack Ryan, previously embodied by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, is given a Fountain of Youth revamp in order to justify Ben Affleck as Ryan, now reintroduced as a young CIA analyst who attracts the encouragement of director Morgan Freeman. The updating remains woefully obsolete in the wake of September 11.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2002) (R) A vignette character study designed to disclose affinities between five people who don't know each other but face turning points in their lives. The cast includes Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Amy Irving and Clea Du Vall. Not reviewed.
Undercover Brother (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; occasional graphic violence in a farcical context; allusions to drug use) **. A cheerfully crass and irrepressibly playful farce about a black superhero who borrows stylistic features from vintage espionage and action movies. Portrayed by Eddie Griffin, sporting a massive Afro and driving a Cadillac convertible, Brother is a lone wolf recruited to assist an organization entrusted with the protection of black social gains. The group has reason to suspect the agenda of a nefarious multinational corporation run by a shadowy Mr. Big called The Man. Chris Kattan is the villain's chief flunkey, Mr. Feather, whose split personality is always erupting.
Windtalkers (2002) (R: Frequent depictions of graphic violence in a setting of World War II combat; occasional profanity and interludes about racial bigotry) * 1/2. A beautiful title, alluding to the Navajo code talkers recruited by the Marine Corps to protect strategic battlefield communications throughout World War II. By the time of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there were upwards of 400 code talkers attached to Marine divisions. The ostensible battlefield in this movie is Saipan, none of whose fascinating elements filter through the stupefying fictional tendencies of this misbegotten combat spectacle, directed on Oahu locations by John Woo. You wouldn't want to let him near a historical subject again: "Windtalkers" may trump the absurdities of "Pearl Harbor."
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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