- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

All About the Benjamins (2002) (R: "Strong violence, pervasive language and brief sexuality'' according to the MPAA) 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're obliged to become sidekicks in the aftermath of a jewel robbery. The title refers to engravings of Benjamin Franklin on U.S. currency. A first feature directed by music video recruit Kevin Bray. .
Mean Machine (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; occasional violence in the context of a sports farce in a prison setting) . A blustering, blundering remake of the vintage Burt Reynolds movie "The Longest Yard,'' revamped for the erstwhile English soccer star Vinnie Jones. Mr. Reynolds played an NFL quarterback who ended up in prison and seized a chance to redeem himself in a bitterly contested intramural game between guards and inmates at a Southern prison misgoverned by warden Eddie Albert. Mr. Jones is a soccer midfielder who similarly thwarts a corrupt warden played by David Hemmings. The spindly Irish actor David Kelly is cast as an encouraging kibitzer for the inmates. Football appears to offer vastly more opportunity for trick plays and pictorial variety than soccer, although it's never certain that director Barry Skolnick could lurch confidently from one scene to the next on any pretext.
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 Time Machine (2002) (PG-13: "Intense sequences of action violence'' according to the MPAA) A remake of the H.G. Wells time-travel classic, directed by a great-grandson, Simon Wells, making his debut with a live-action feature after years of experience as an animator, from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" to "The Prince of Egypt." This version involves a lavish amount of state-of-the-art digital enhancement for the fantastic aspects. Guy Pearce stars as the restless inventor who projects himself from Victorian London 800 millennia into the future, where he discovers a sinister Eden. Carnivorous, subterranean monsters called Morlocks prey on arboreal naifs called Eloi. With newcomer Samantha Mumba as a nature girl named Mara, Orlando Jones as a know-it-all hologram called Vox and Jeremy Irons as the dread Uber-Morlock.

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.
Crossroads (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity, sexual allusions and violence) . The feature debut of pop recording star Britney Spears, who coyly solicits a film career in a vapid, negligible starter-upper about a trio of high school graduates from Georgia who share an impulsive auto trip to California. Chronically uninspired, "Crossroads" leaves its intended beneficiary looking clueless. The big screen and the movie camera can be pretty cruel to aspirants who have been encouraged to overrate their luck or success in other fields. Miss Spears is seriously untutored as actress, vocalist and camera subject. She's the least fetching presence in this unflattering vehicle, because Taryn Manning has the photogenic face and Zoe Saldana the stronger sentimental vibes. As a screen image, Miss Spears justifies a million naps and walkouts.
Dragonfly (2002) (PG-13: Systematic morbid elements; some frenzied interludes in hospital wards and emergency rooms; fleeting profanity and sexual allusions) *-1/2. Kevin Costner insists on belaboring self-pity anew as a widowed Chicago E.R. resident, Joe Darrow, who has lost his beloved, pregnant spouse Emily (Susanna Thompson). A doctor based at the same hospital, Emily met with calamity (depicted up to a point in flashback) while volunteering for a Red Cross mission in Venezuela. Spooky manifestations of the dear departed start to accumulate, particularly in the pediatric oncology ward where Emily used to practice. Eventually, Joe must follow the supernatural hints to Venezuela himself. The down-in-the-dumps vanity of Kevin Costner needs to be mocked rather than humored.
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.
Hart's War (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence in a wartime setting; fleeting racial epithets) *. A courtroom polemic on the deplorable heritage of racism in the United States, incongruously and anachronistically tucked into a suspense melodrama about the plight of American prisoners of war held captive by the Germans in the winter of 1944-45. The title character, Lt. Tommy Hart, is a young lieutenant played by Colin Farrell. The movie appears potentially formidable while his punishing odyssey from a headquarters post in Belgium to Stalag VI in Augsburg is being depicted by director Gregory Hoblit, with an emphasis on bleak and ominous prospects. Upon arrival at the camp, Lt. Hart comes under the command of Bruce Willis as Col. William McNamara, who suspects him of being a weak link and exploits him as part of a court-martial sideshow that devours the movie. The pretext for argumentation as an escape and sabotage plot is conducted off-screen: two black airmen (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Shannon), also fresh arrivals to the camp, clash with a barracks bigot (Cole Hauser, who also happens to be the most entertaining actor in the cast and, to the movie's cost, far from expendable). Vintage POW sagas subscribed to the old-fashioned storytelling precept that the audience should be taken into the confidence of the conspiratorial good guys. "Hart's War" reflects the crackpot contemporary approach. Nothing is more important than deceiving the audience and earning P.C. merit badges for the filmmakers.
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; they're as likely to shatter your concentration on the actors in one time frame as they are to yield effective contrasts between an emerging match of literary eccentrics and a poignantly enduring relationship. In addition, it's obvious that a thoroughly absorbing movie could be constructed around the elderly couple and their ordeal. At least three of the performers seem extraordinarily well-matched to the personalities they portray. Miss Winslet is the somewhat dubious member of the quartet; while not lacking enthusiasm and sincerity, she often appears to be a naked selling point more than anything elese. 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.
John Q (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions; glorification of vigilante behavior in a hostage situation; dubious exploitation of a medical crisis concerning a child's health) *-1/2. If you're rooting for Denzel Washington to win a second Academy Award for the recent "Training Day," this untimely rattletrap is bound to seem a menace, because the star adds literal and histrionic flab while playing it pathetic as John Q. Archibald, a financially strapped and desperate family man. Frustrated in efforts to cover the costs of a heart transplant operation for his 10-year-old son, John Q. takes over the emergency room of a Chicago hospital at gunpoint and demands satisfaction. The movie keeps flailing away even after the authorities seem to have acquiesced.
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 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.
Queen of the Damned (2002) (R: Systematic horror elements with the emphasis on graphic, bloodthirsty vampire attacks; occasional profanity; frequent intimations of sexual depravity) *-1/2. Another godforsaken installment in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles,'' treated as a shoot-the-works opportunity for overblown sensationalism by Australian director Michael Rymer. The screen abounds with unsavory spectacle of one kind or another, from vampire entrapments in murky castles to slumming excursions in predatory sex bars. The late pop singer Aaliyah, who died last year in a plane crash at the age of 22, is cast as the title character, Akasha, an ancient Egyptian vampire who rises from the dead in order to pursue Miss Rice's running gag, the vampire Lestat, played by boyishly sinister Stuart Townsend.
Return to Neverland (2002) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity; intimations of wartime violence and peril) *-1/2. Persuasive evidence that the Disney animation studio, admirably resurgent in the decade between "The Little Mermaid'' and "Tarzan,'' may have hit a creative lull. It's easy to mistake this generation-after sequel to the studio's 1953 "Peter Pan'' as a promotional trifle, since the DVD edition of the original has just been released and makes a splashier impression. Peter supposedly returns to London to enchant a girl named Jane, the daughter of his beloved Wendy, grown and married and the mother of two children during the blitz of World War II. This surprisingly grave backdrop becomes irrelevant once the juvenile and pixie characters are transported to Neverland, where the writers struggle to sustain merely playful narrative threads about Captain Hook's kidnapping activities and the countermeasures demanded of Peter and the Lost pipsqueaks.
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.
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. 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, who has her own daunting command responsibilities back at Fort Benning. Mr. Wallace needs to be forgiven a conspicuous time distortion when he depicts death notices arriving back home before the battle itself has ended. There's a metaphoric justification, but it risks a certain whiplash. Fort Hunter Liggett in Central California doubles for the Ia Drang Valley.

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