- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

OPENING
Clockstoppers (2002) (PG: "Action violence and mild language" according to the MPAA) A science-fiction suspense melodrama about a high-school student, Zak Gibbs, played by Jesse Bradford, who finds one of the discarded inventions of his scientist father (Robin Thomas) and discovers that it's magically operable: a wristwatch predicated on "hypertime," which allows the wearer to manuever in an accelerated dimension of time.
Death to Smoochy (2002) (R: "Language and sexual references" according to the MPAA) A would-be perverse show business farce about the crazed and vengeful measures taken by Robin Williams as the disgraced star of a popular children's television series when his replacement enjoys a galling overnight success. Edward Norton is cast as the replacement, who has created a Barney-type character called Smoochy, a fuchsia rhinoceros.
Festival in Cannes (2001) (PG-13) A month away from the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the independent writer-director Henry Jaglom uses the backdrop of the 2000 festival for this comedy of show business intrigue and deal-making. The plot revolves around a promising script written by one former movie glamor girl, Greta Scacchi, who aspires to direct it and hopes to protect the leading role for a glamor girl of an earlier generation, Anouk Aimee. The cast also includes Maximilian Schell as Miss Aimee's philandering spouse. William Shatner does yet another guest bit as himself. Faye Dunaway and Peter Bogdanovich also check in as themselves. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
No Such Thing (2002) (R: Frequent profanity; fleeting sexual candor and allusions to bestial violence) 1/2*. An awesomely uninspired update of "Beauty and the Beast" from independent filmmaker Hal Hartley, this allegorical art movie is so stagnant and naive that it probably deserves a museum of its own. Ostensibly, the last of the mythological Beasts, impersonated by Hartley regular Robert John Burke in an elaborately gothic make-up, has called attention to his fuming existence on a barren little isle by slaughtering an inquisitive TV news crew, the outriders of a Manhattan-based media boss lady played by Helen Mirren. Office flunkey and pure-hearted heroine Sarah Polley volunteers to investigate the calamity. After miraculously surviving a plane crash, she makes contact with the foul-tempered Beast, brings him back to the city and ultimately proves instrumental in arranging the mercy killing he longs for. The polemical drift is quite cockeyed, even in context: Mankind is in danger of losing primitive and elemental impulses, personified in monstrous creatures. However, the suggestion that they may be supplanted by angelic twerps such as Miss Polley's Beatrice is a little terrifying. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Panic Room (2002) (R) A suspense thriller in the "Wait Until Dark" vein, contrived to isolate Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as her young daughter in the burglar-proof chamber of their newly occupied Manhattan brownstone. Alerted to the presence of a trio of thieves, mother and daughter have time to lock themselves into the sanctuary of the "panic room." The intruders (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto) remain grimly determined to break in, because the loot they seek is concealed in the panic room.
The Rookie (2002) (G) ***. The most satisfying fable about a ballplayer's redemptive comeback since "The Natural" and a more plausible yarn into the bargain, since it derives from the authentic case of Jim Morris, a washed-up lefthander who suddenly experienced a miraculous resurrection of arm speed and pitched two seasons in the major leagues after being signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in his late 30s. Dennis Quaid, conveniently left-handed, is cast as the remarkable Morris, who was teaching chemistry and coaching baseball in a small Texas town called Big Lake when circumstances conspired to lead him back to professional ball. To help motivate his undermanned and struggling team, Coach Morris agrees to try out for a major league club if they play well enough to become district champions. They do, and he heads sheepishly to a tryout camp, toting his three youngsters, one still an infant. As Mrs. Morris, a teacher at the same school, the Australian actress Rachel Griffiths gives a persuasive imitation of a gritty and affectionate Texas housewife. The movie could use a bit of trimming, especially when director John Lee Hancock allows Mr. Quaid to hang face in self-doubting or agonized moods. Apart from this sore spot, the movie is an irresistible piece of Americana.

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.
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. Academy Awards for best movie, direction, screenplay and supporting actress (Jennifer Connelly as the hero's steadfast wife).
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. Academy Awards for film editing and sound.
Blade II (2002) (R: Systematic graphic violence emphasizing sword duels and vampire adversaries, with an abundance of gruesome illustrative details; frequent profanity and occasional sexual allusions, invariably in a morbid or loathsome context; fleeting drug allusions) . A faithfully stupefying sequel to the 1998 horror thriller, derived from a Marvel Comics prototype and starring Wesley Snipes as an avenging, leather-clad superhero of part-vampire heritage who devotes himself to total eradication of the unregenerate predators. A truce is declared to rationalize the slaughters that carpet the sequel: Blade consents to join a group of vampire warriors who need to liquidate bloodsucking mutants who are even more threatening than they. Despite his fighting prowess, Blade remains vulnerable to treachery within his own circle, a pretty narrow circle of three. Kris Kristofferson returns as mentor Whistler, unwisely rescued from suspended immersion in a huge jar.
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 of 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 officials 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.
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 and one award, to screenwriter Julian Fellowes.
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.
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 Oscar-winner 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.
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. Thirteen Oscar nominations and four awards, including cinematography and musical score.
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 winner 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.
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.
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. De Niro'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.
Sorority Boys (2002) (R: Systematic slapstick lewdness and vulgarity; occasional profanity and a profusion of sightgags predicated on sex toys and sexual masquerading; fleeting nudity and allusions to drug use) 1/2*. A bottom-feeding farce with a far from surefire pretext: three fraternity pals, banished from their party house on a trumped-up charge of financial malfeasance, disguise themselves freakishly as coeds and find temporary refuge at a sorority for social lepers. The prevailing level of facetiousness is anticipated in the Greek shorthand for the houses: K.O.K. and D.O.G.
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 Mr. 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.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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