- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

OPENING
Blade II (2002) (R) A sequel to the 1998 horror thriller, derived from a Marvel Comics prototype and starring Wesley Snipes as an avenging superhero of part-vampire heritage who devotes himself to total eradication of the unregenerate predators. With Kris Kristofferson and Ron Perlman in supporting roles.
E.T. The Extraterrestrial: The 20th Anniversary (1982) (PG: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity; ominous episodes) ****. A self-explanatory title, heralding the augmented reissue of Steven Spielberg's endearing science-fiction comedy-fantasy-suspense thriller. Mr. Spielberg has restored a handful of episodes trimmed from the original release in June 1982. The soundtrack has been refurbished with a digital transfer, and special effects that seemed wanting in some fashion have been touched up with digital optics supervised by Bill George of Industrial Light & Magic. Some details have been deliberately cut, notably shots of firearms in the hands of police involved in the climactic, always debatable pursuits of E.T. and his juvenile pals. Presumably, the inspirational charm and fervor remain intact. The film won four Oscars, including best score by John Williams and best visual effects by Carlo Rambaldi, Dennis Muren and Kenneth Smith.
Scotland, Pa (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) **. A mock-Shakespearean jest on the part of novice writer-director Billy Morrissette, who transposes the plot of "Macbeth" to a small town in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. James LeGros and Maura Tierney (the director's wife) are cast as corruptible employees of James Rebhorn as diner owner Norm Duncan. The malcontents, called Joe and Pat McBeth, conspire to murder their boss, fairly confident that his sons Malcolm and Donald are uninterested in running the business. A boiling vat of cooking oil becomes the scene of the crime, splattering Pat by accident and leaving burning sensations that she can never remedy. Miss Tierney proves a phenomenal, morbid-comic update of Lady Macbeth, but the other elements remain hit-and-miss, including the potentially savory notion of Christopher Walken as a small-town sleuth named Ernie McDuff (who also has an indispensable deputy in the tradition of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts). The idea of three hippie phantoms as the witches isn't bad; the pretense that the McBeths invented the fast food franchise is too anachronistic to seem witty.
Sorority Boys (2002) (R: "Crude sexual content, nudity, strong language and some drug use" according to the MPAA) A farce about the sexual masquerade of a trio of cronies who believe they may be able to reconcile cheap housing with proximity to young women by answering an ad for tenants at a college sorority. The level of humor is probably reflected in its clever name: Delta Omicron Gamma.

NOW SHOWING
All About the Benjamins (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and comic vulgarity; occasional graphic violence, with mingled sadistic and facetious touches; occasional racial epithets and fleeting simulations of intercourse) *-1/2. A comic crime thriller with Ice Cube as a bounty hunter for a Miami bail bond agency and Mike Epps as one of his targets, a petty thief. They become pals in the aftermath of a jewel robbery that places them in jeopardy from an assortment of Eurotrash menaces, bossed by Robert Williamson as an Irish scarface. The mockery of heavies from the British Isles is one of the fresher jokes in the script, evidently intended to launch Mr. Epps and Ice Cube as an irresistible team but perhaps better calculated to link the ranting, complaining and insulting Mr. Epps with Eva Mendes as a snappy girlfriend. No one will confuse them with Nick and Nora Charles, but they might become endearing in rowdier respects. The title refers to engravings of Benjamin Franklin on U.S. currency.
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. Five Oscar nominations, including best foreign language film. 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. Nash 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. Eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, direction, actor and supporting actress.
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. Three Oscar nominations, including best direction.
40 Days and 40 Nights (2002) (R: Systematic sexual vulgarity; occasional profanity, nudity, facetious simulations of intercourse and masturbation; fleeting blasphemous gags; graphic allusions to porn Web sites) *-1/2 . Contemporary sex comedy at its most coy and moronic, with Josh Hartnett oozing sincerity as a romantically perplexed young man named Matt, who works for a Web design company in San Francisco. Demoralized after breaking up with a cutthroat girlfriend, Nicole, played by Vinessa Shaw, he vows to swear off any and all forms of sexual stimulation for 40 days during Lent. This feat of self-denial supposedly hits a snag when Matt is attracted to a young woman who frequents the same Laundromat. Called Erica, she is impersonated by Shannyn Sossamon, the curiously exotic prop from "A Knight's Tale." While more relaxed in front of the camera, Miss Sossamon still doesn't sound as if she has an acting career precisely in mind. Matt's penance becomes the favorite topic of office mockery, not to mention a pool that tempts cheaters to prey on his good nature. Recurrent countdowns to the 40-day deadline remind you of how expendable the whole pretext is.
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. Seven Oscar nominations, including best picture and direction and a pair for supporting actress, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith.
Harrison's Flowers (2002) (R: Sustained graphic violence in a wartime setting; occasional profanity and sexual candor) *-1/2. A grotesquely miscalculated attempt at a heroic fable of marital devotion during the early phase of the Bosnian war. Andie MacDowell plays a wife who defies extreme jeopardy (and leaves two very small children back home) in order to hunt for husband David Strathairn, a Newsweek photojournalist who disappears during the Serbian assaults on Croatian cities. The movie makes her look like the most maddening of hapless intruders in a killing zone. The title alludes to the husband's hobby, botany. Absolutely the wrong pretext for Miss MacDowell, whom you think of as an instant victim and goner.
Ice Age (2002) (PG: Occasional ominous episodes and fleeting comic vulgarity, but it could have been rated G with a clear conscience) ***-1/2. Pixar may have a worthy new rival in the East Coast animation studio Blue Sky, which makes a clever and winning debut with this survival saga about a trio of critters who protect an orphaned toddler while keeping slightly in advance of glaciation in North America about 20,000 years ago. A brilliant trailer, a digest of the movie's prologue, has been in circulation for several months, creating optimistic curiosity about the finished product, which lives up to the expectations, despite the unfortunate lull or two. The godfathers are a pensive woolly mammoth dubbed by Ray Romano, a fearful sloth entrusted to John Leguizamo and a possibly treacherous saber-toothed tiger voiced by Denis Leary. The orphaned child has lost his mother but can be reunited eventually with a stalwart dad and other members of the tribe. The movie achieves a distinctive look while also excelling at the blend of slapstick ingenuity and solid characterization that have distinguished the Pixar features.
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. It has won five Oscar nominations, including best picture, actress and actor.
Iris (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including interludes of nudity) **-1/2 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 Winslet 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 dramatic emphasis is far steadier in the later years, which accentuate 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. Academy Award nominations for Miss Dench, Mr. Broadbent and Miss Winslet. As the odd man out, Mr. Bonneville may win even more esteem, since his impersonation of the shy young Bayley is very distinctive.
Italian For Beginners (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including brief simulations of intercourse; fleeting violence) **. An underbudgeted and amateurish but agreeably wistful Danish romantic comedy. Writer-director Lone Scherfig presumes to bring comfort to six lovelorn souls encountered within walking distance of each other in Copenhagen. The central location is a hotel whose amenities or neighboring stopovers include a restaurant, a pool, meeting rooms, a bakery, a hair salon and a parsonage. Eventually, all six characters become fondly attached to an Italian language class whose instructor is suddenly stricken, creating an emergency for the class members. Miss Scherfig's matchmaking bent is curiously interwoven with a morbidly expedient tendency to snuff certain characters. Her pictorial style accentuates the stuffy rather than the sensuous, and the movie conveys scant sense of Copenhagen as a locale. However, she does find the resources for a scenic finale, an excursion to Venice in the winter. In Danish and Italian with English subtitles.
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002) (R: Systematic sexual candor in a farcical context; occasional profanity; plot revolving around a lesbian love affair) **. A fitfully amusing but shamelessly opportunistic and negligible sex farce that aspires to compete with the promiscuous absurdities of such popular sitcoms as "Sex and the City" and "Will & Grace." The co-authors, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, are also the co-stars, expanding on a theater workshop piece that was titled "Lipshtick." Miss Westfeldt is the ingenuous and somewhat pretentious Jessica, employed as an editor at a Manhattan weekly. Miss Juergensen plays the vastly more experienced, avowedly bisexual Helen Cooper, a confirmed bohemian who works at an art gallery. Supposedly frustrated to desperation, they meet through a women-seeking-women personals column in Jessica's publication and gradually consummate an affair. With a strong supporting performance by Tovah Feldshuh as Jessica's lovably intrusive mother. Exclusively at the General Cinema Mazza Gallerie.
Last Orders (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence) **. A loaded cast provides an extra margin of tolerance for this seriocomic impression of friendship among a quartet of London cronies portrayed by Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay. The group has been reduced to a trio at the outset by the death of Mr. Caine's Jack, a butcher who first met Mr. Hoskins' Ray when they soldiered together in North Africa in 1942. The survivors and Jack's son Vince, played by Ray Winstone, have consented to fulfill a deathbed wish and scatter Jack's ashes to sea at Margate. The movie interweaves flashbacks, heavily concentrated on Jack and Ray, with the long day's drive to the seashore, punctuated by frequent pub stops. Helen Mirren has a separate pilgrimage to make and cross to bear as Jack's widow, Amy. Director Fred Schepisi never gets a confident sentimental or humorous grip on the diffuse material. Ultimately, the revelations seem trite, but the acting company prevents a premature onset of disillusion. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.
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.
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. Played by Vasundhara Das and Parvin Dabas, respectively, the young people have never met, and the plot obliges the groom in particular to rise above a potentially deal-breaking episode. The cumulative effect is exhilarating and irresistible; it's as if Miss Nair had been selected to remind the human race to be fruitful and multiply. She certainly welcomes the privilege. Some dialogue in Punjabi and Hindi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
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 Oscar nominee 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.
Resident Evil (2002) (R) A science-fiction horror thriller derived from a video game and shot in Berlin under the auspices of a German production company. Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez are cast as dishy commandos who must evade countless deathtraps lurking in an underground genetic research lab that belongs to a bio-engineering company. The company's experiments have gone amiss, exposing numerous employees to a viral agent that turns them into zombies. Not reviewed.
Showtime (2002) (PG-13: "Action violence, language and some drug content" according to the MPAA) ***. Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro are definitely ready for showtime while cast as odd-couple sidekicks with the Los Angeles Police Department, thrown together implausibly but irresistibly while representing the force in a "reality" TV series about crime-busting that shares the movie's title. "Showtime" proves a big improvement on the 1991 flop "The Hard Way," in which Michael J. Fox played an actor who hung around with cop James Woods while preparing for a movie role. Now Mr. Murphy is a restless cop called Trey Sellars who would prefer to advance an acting career. Mr. DeNiro's Mitch Preston, a grumpy old pro, becomes his reluctant mentor.The new movie cleverly pretends to mock all the cliches of conventional police melodrama while reinvigorating them when the circumstances demand, especially when showcasing camaraderie or thrill sequences.
The Son's Room (2001) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; thematic material dealing with family tragedy and emotional conflict) ***. An absorbing, deliberately low-key tearjerker about the impact of a sudden death on an upper-middle-class family in Ancona, Italy. Written and directed by Nanni Moretti, who also plays the protagonist, a psychiatrist named Giovanni, the movie won the ultimate prize, the Golden Palm, at last year's Cannes Film Festival. A seemingly placid Sunday is disrupted when Giovanni cancels an outing with his family spouse Paola (Laura Morante), a book editor, and teen-agers Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) on short notice in order to appease a patient whose panicky summons prompts a house call. Upon his return, Giovanni discovers that a fatal accident has cost the life of one of his children. Mr. Moretti's story attempts to reflect commonplace domestic contentment and then grief with a minimum of emotional excess or special pleading. In Italian with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
The Time Machine (2002) (PG-13: Ominous episodes and occasional graphic violence) *-1/2. A watchable but repeatedly disillusioning remake of the H.G. Wells time-travel classic, directed in part by a great-grandson, Simon Wells. This version involves a lavish amount of state-of-the-art digital enhancement for the fantastic aspects. The best scenic touches are a deluxe time machine itself and the vertiginous, cliffside habitat envisioned for the Eloi, now a kind of pre-Columbian tribe discovered by time traveler Guy Pearce in A.D. 802701, on approximately the same ground once occupied by New York City, circa 1899. The exposition proves doubly burdensome, since it attempts to motivate the hero with the duplicate deaths of his fiancee, played by Sienna Guillory. You keep waiting for the third fatal shoe to drop. Mr. Pearce bonds with Eloi siblings played by Samantha Mumba and Omero Mumba, who are sister and brother. He must wrestle a frightfully silly-looking Jeremy Irons for control of his future patch of paradise.
We Were Soldiers (2002) (R: Systematic graphic depiction of combat during the Vietnam War; occasional profanity) ***-1/2. An estimable war saga of dedicated fighting men. "Soldiers'' is based on a memoir by two of the combatants who participated in the struggle condensed by director-screenwriter Randall Wallace, who recalls the first pitched battle between American and North Vietnamese troops, during three days in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam in November 1965. An Air Cavalry battalion, introduced with training and homefront episodes set at Fort Benning, Ga., finds itself surrounded by the NVA, eager to inflict a heavy toll on the intruders. The battle simulations are consistently impressive and sobering. As the much decorated commander, Lt. Col. (now a retired Lt. General) Harold G. Moore, Mel Gibson inherits a second exceptional role from both history and director-screenwriter Randall Wallace, who also wrote "Braveheart.'' This fabulous combination of grit, guile, sentiment and intellect couldn't be better for a middleaged star who likes to portray remarkable patriots, protectors and family men. Sam Elliott also thrives on a tower-of-strength supporting role as Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, a name that seems to defy his taciturn, hardbitten personality. Barry Pepper needs an earlier entrance as UPI photojournalist Joseph L. Galloway, who collaborated with Lt. Col. Moore on the source material., titled "We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.'' Madeleine Stowe enjoys a resurrection as Mrs. Moore.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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