- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

OPENING
CQ (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, observed in scenes from a movie in production; fleeting nudity and sexual candor) *-1/2. A potentially chipper premise sabotaged by wrongheaded casting. Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola, makes his feature directing debut by hearkening back to Paris in the late 1960s. An aspiring young filmmaker, Paul, played by the deadbeat Jeremy Davies, is editing a science-fiction adventure thriller titled "Dragonfly," which evokes the style of such period pieces as "Barbarella" and "Modesty Blaise." He gets a chance to finish the picture when producer Giancarlo Giannini fires director Gerard Depardieu. If the movie were about a young man having the time of his life, the picture might have emerged as a delight. Mr. Davies is such a droop that you wish it could be rewritten on the spot.
The Lady and the Duke (2002) (PG-13) The venerable Eric Rohmer returns to costume drama in this adaptation of a journal by Grace Elliott, an Englishwoman residing in France during the Revolution. Lucy Russell is cast as the heroine, kept abreast of tubulent developments by Jean-Claude Dreyfus as the Duke of Orleans, a cousin of Louis XVI allied with reformers. In French with English subtitles. .
m 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.
m Undercover Brother (2002) (PG-13) An espionage farce from Malcolm D. Lee, the writer-director of "The Best Man." The plot revolves around Eddie Griffin as a private eye who remains attached to an Afro and other style features of the 1970s. Hired to infiltrate a conspiratorial organization at a multinational conglomerate, he masquerades as a preppy nerd.
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 to justify Ben Affleck as Ryan, reintroduced as a young CIA analyst who attracts the encouragement of director Morgan Freeman. The update remains woefully obsolete after September 11. The climactic calamity, a nuclear explosion at the football stadium in Baltimore, is precipitated by a sinister group of European neo-Nazis operating with the methodology of Ian Fleming's SMERSH. That is, the Americans and Russians are lured into mutual mistrust and military reprisals, starting with the highly improbable notion that the United States is prepared to rush to the defense of Chechnya. The plot is also contrived in such a way that Israel and the United States can be blamed for the source of the nuclear material used in the attack. Oblivious to threats from the Islamic world, the filmmakers pretend that everything will be ducky once the United States and Russia agree to ban nukes. Mr. Affleck proves exceedingly callow.

NOW SHOWING
m 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 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 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 kid into Will's life: Nicholas Hoult as 12-year-old Marcus, desperate for advice and guidance after 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.
Baran (2000) (PG: Fleeting violence) ***. A haunting fable of unrequited, sacrificial love from the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, drawing even closer to the mood of classic Vittorio De Sica titles of the 1940s. A teenager of Turkish immigrant extraction, Lateef (Hossein Abedini), is employed as an errand boy and canteen custodian at a building site in Tehran. When he loses this soft and privileged spot to a frail newcomer, he fumes and takes petty reprisals. Then he makes a startling discovery, anticipated by the audience well before: the usurper is actually a girl. In the aftermath he falls in love with the impostor and is willing to do everything to assist her. Ultimately, Lateef is even willing to pauperize and jeopardize himself. In Farsi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
The Cat's Meow (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence; allusions to drug use and prostitution) **-1/2. Peter Bogdanovich recalls an abiding scandal of the early 1920s in this biographical crime melodrama. The subject is a fatal yachting excursion to Santa Catalina Island in November 1924, hosted by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and his mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), a popular film actress and comedienne. There was an ill-fated guest: producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes). The plot hinges on a weak prop, an unfinished and conveniently discarded love letter. Mr. Bogdanovich's execution is also hit-or-miss. Nevertheless, there are some vivid and amusing episodes, including a pingpong game that involves Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilley). Miss Dunst does an admirable job of simulating the playful and adorable Marion. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts, Cineplex Odeon Janus and Landmark Bethesda Row.
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 code-breakers and analysts at Bletchley Park, the country estate that became the British government's headquarters for breaking German codes during World War II. Director Michael Apted and screenwriter Tom Stoppard are adept at conjuring up the Bletchley Park backdrop and the legendary props: replicas of the Enigma machines and the computers built to sift through Enigma's millions of settings. Unfortunately, the movie is also stuck with a lackluster protagonist (Dougray Scott), looking like the code-breaker 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 sleuthcould be as compelling as Cary Grant's hardbitten, lovesick Devlin in Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious." He'd certainly be more fun as a leading man.
Enough (2002) (PG-13: An arguably lenient rating, given the prevalence of episodes depicting domestic violence, sometimes with a small child in the line of fire; systematic ominous and vengeful elements; occasional profanity and sexual candor) *-1/2. A ridiculous thriller with Jennifer Lopez, this is a ruthless dud about a waitress who discovers that her rich hubby, Billy Campbell, is a sadistic psycho, intent on abusing her bad judgment. She hides out, with her little girl, subsidized by a previously indifferent long-lost dad, tycoon Fred Ward. Loath to deny themselves a spouse-thrashing scene in which the leading lady can dish out the punishment, the filmmakers celebrate Miss Lopez as she prepares for a final martial arts showdown with Mr. Campbell. Laughs galore for most segments of the audience.
Hollywood Ending (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional sexual candor and innuendo) ***-1/2. Woody Allen's best brainstorm since "Deconstructing Harry" in 1997. A more likable comedy by far, "Ending" mocks Hollywood filmmakers with surprising consistency for almost two hours. Mr. Allen casts himself as a has-been director named Val, who secures a potential comeback opportunity through the good offices of his ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni), now the mistress and trusted troubleshooter of a studio boss named Hal (Treat Williams). Chronically fretful and difficult, Val suffers a panic attack that leaves him psychosomatically blind on the eve of production. With the assistance of a devoted agent, Al Hack (Mark Rydell in a wonderful performance, suggesting the reincarnation of Broadway Danny Rose), the stricken director tries to fake it. This hoax demands a wider circle of collusion as the shoot continues. With Debra Messing as Val's bimbo girlfriend, a cheerful opportunist, and George Hamilton as a courtly studio yes-man. The ensemble proves exceptionally harmonious and enjoyable, and the movie is laugh-out-loud funny with a frequency Mr. Allen hasn't achieved in quite some time.
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) (PG: Fleeting allusions to Victorian vice and corruption within a mostly farcical context) **. A wrongheaded remake of the greatest Oscar Wilde theatrical farce from director Oliver Parker, who guided the delightful movie version of Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" a few years ago. Rupert Everett, a diffident tower of strenghth in "Husband," also returns, in disappointing form, as playboy Algernon Moncrieff, matched with Reese Witherspoon as the ingenuous Cecily. Perhaps overcompensating in order to avoid comparisons with the expert movie version of 1952, Mr. Parker "opens up" the peerlessly witty text in unfortunate ways. For example, we observe Algernon constantly on the run from London creditors; we accompany both Algy and Colin Firth as Jack Worthing to music halls and posh brothels. The effect is to force a Wildean "subtext" to the surface; the play does not profit from such explicit hindsight. All the exquisite artifices and hypocrisies of the original courtships are undermined when the dialogue shifts from drawing room or patio. Even Judi Dench looks uncertain about how to project Lady Bracknell.
m 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 investigation 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.With an appealing new role for Hilary Swank as a Nightmute cop who idolizes Dormer and a sinister one for Robin Williams, who gets his strongest devious showcase since "The Secret Agent." Confirmed movie freaks are likely to recall "Insomnia" as the picture that haunted the summer season of 2002.
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.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) (PG: Occasional sexual allusions and comic vulgarity) *. A domestic farce so dependent on big fat cliches of one kind or another that it might as well be the dud pilot for a TV sitcom. Derived from a theater piece by Nia Vardalos, the movie revolves around the belated blossoming of her ugly duckling character, Toula Portokalos, a 30-year-old spinster in a close-knit, indeed suffocating, Greek-American family in Chicago. The movie seems about as authentic as a chain of Dancing Zorbas.
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, 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 sadomasochistic 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. There's a minor disorientation you'll have to finesse: The principal setting is Vienna, but the cast is French-speaking. 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. Mr. Haneke cheats on his own disreputable game plan, which is clearly pointing Erika in the direction of something irrevocable. Nevertheless, this art-house sensation-seeker does command attention. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.
The Rookie (2002) (G) ***. The most satisfying fable about a ballplayer's redemptive comeback since "The Natural" and a more plausible yarn in the bargain, because 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 thirties. 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. 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. Apart from this sore spot, it is an irresistible piece of Americana.
The Salton Sea (2002) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere and depraved social context; frequent profanity, graphic violence and simulations of drug use, with methadrine as the preferred narcotic; occasional sexual candor and intimations of physical torture) ***. A stylishly convoluted and sinister revenge melodrama, almost certain to achieve cult-classic status. Connoisseurs of hardboiled and outrageous thrillers may feel simpatico with screenwriter Tony Gayton and director D.J. Caruso within a matter of minutes, as Val Kilmer's confessional narrator sets the stage for slumming with a short history of methedrine addiction. He is also a lower-depths man of mystery, known by the alias Danny Parker while precariously employed as a police informant. Clever and sardonic as they are, the filmmakers can't conceal threadbare elements once the immediate strangeness of the criminal milieu wears off and the sarcastic, feverish idiom loses a bit of its wacky impact. Nevertheless, "Salton Sea" is definitely a lurid attention-getter and probably style-setter. With a loathsome new specialty role for Vincent D'Onofrio as a drug merchant nicknamed Pooh Bear.
m 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. 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.
m 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.
m 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 belabors. 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.
Time Out (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and elements of family conflict) ****. An absorbing and accomplished new movie from the French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, who made a striking debut with "Human Resources" and exceeds its promise in this second feature. Mr. Cantet concentrates on the working lives and anxieties of characters, plus the ways in which the obligations of family life and wage-earning clash. The pretext the desperation of a fugitive family man becomes gravely revealing in Mr. Cantet's hands. Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), the protagonist, spends the work week pretending that he has begun a new job in Geneva with a United Nations agency. In fact, he was fired from a consulting job weeks earlier and hasn't told the truth to his wife Muriel (Karin Viard) or other intimates, including a father who stakes him to 200,000 francs for an apartment in Geneva. Vincent tries to maintain a facade of normality during weekends at home while spending Monday-Friday in charades of job-hunting and tentative, shameful hustling as a shady investor. A turning point comes when he attracts the solicitude of a thriving shady businessman. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.
Triumph of Love (2002) (PG-13: Occasional sexual candor in the setting of an 18th-century romantic comedy) **. Bernardo Bertolucci, as producer, and his wife Clare Peploe, as director and adaptor, stage this romantic farce of the 1730s by Pierre Marivaux on attractive locations in Tuscany. Mira Sorvino is rather teeth-gnashing as the heroine, a princess smitten with the rightful heir to her kingdom. Jay Rodin plays this exiled youth, Agis, shielded from the world by two devoted mentors, the philosopher Hemocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leontine (Fiona Lewis), an inventor. While pretending to be a high-minded young man who barges into their lives, the princess feels obliged to seduce all three to ingratiate herself with Agis. If there's a way of making the deceptions intended for the lovelorn older characters appear defensible rather than contemptible, Miss Peploe hasn't found the trick. However, the movie is worth tolerating because of the prowess of Mr. Kingsley and Miss Lewis; their foolishly smitten brainiacs win the affection that never seems a remote possibility for the heroine. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.
Unfaithful (2002) (R: Frequent sexual candor and prurience; occasional profanity, nudity and simulations of intercourse; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details) *-1/2. Another wallow in the wages of adultery. A prosperous suburban housewife, Diane Lane, blunders into passionate folly during a windy day of shopping in New York City. A brief encounter soon leads to sex slavery in the clutches of a seductive French bibliophile played by Olivier Martinez. Miss Lane feeds the addiction as often as possible while deceiving hubby Richard Gere.Pretty much the quintessence of glossy, softcore trashiness. The vintage source is the Claude Chabrol movie "La femme infidele," circa 1969.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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