- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

OPENING:

• Brown Sugar (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and frequent sexual allusions; scant regard for the sanctity of marriage vows) **. The title is a euphemism for the Ideal Woman of Color, ostensibly embodied by Sanaa Lathan as a hip-hop critic named Sid. It might as well allude to the hip-hop idiom, which is also associated with all things desirable in pop while linking Sid to Dre, a childhood sweetheart in New York who grows up to be a record executive, played by Taye Diggs. Though newly married to a trophy spouse (Nicole Ari Parker), Mr. Diggs continues to spend most of his time confiding in Miss Lathan, who rejects Boris Kodjoe as a tall, handsome and painfully kind suitor who starts for the New York Nets. The drawling comic rapper Mos Def emerges in a minor role that makes it easy to forget the principal characters.

• Knockaround Guys (2002) (R) A comedy-melodrama about a quartet of mob scions Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green and Andrew Davoli who must counter the criminal tendencies of a crooked lawman (Tommy Noonan) in a Montana town. The trouble begins when Mr. Green's character, Johnny Marbles, lets half a million in cash slip out of his hands while passing through the West on a courier job. He makes an emergency call to his Brooklyn cronies, who fly to the rescue. With Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich as senior mobsters.

• Pokemon 4Ever (2001) (G: Occasional ominous episodes, with fleeting cartoon depictions of monsters and cataclysms) *1/2. An encore for the magical cartoon critters from Japan. Chapter Four begins with a belated summary of how Pokemon and their human "trainers" interact. The team of Ash Ketchum, trainer, and Pikachu, Pokemon extraordinaire, plays a subsidiary role to the time-traveling Sam and a shy but powerful little Pokemon called Celebi, also known as The Voice of the Forest. Sensing danger, Celebi projects them 40 years into the future, where they cross paths with Ash and his friends, who seem to be on a Tyrolean cruise and nature walk. Captured by the villain who still pursues him, Celebi is morphed into a destructive hulk that suggests the Wicker Man crossed with the Magnetic Monster.

• Quitting (2002) (R) A Chinese biopic about the tribulations of an actor named Jian Hongsheng, who became popular in crime melodramas of the late 1980s and then plunged into drug addiction and mental derangement after starring in a theatrical production of "The Kiss of the Spider Woman." To lend the account unrivaled authority, Jian Hongsheng re-enacts his own star-crossed story, under the direction of Zhang Yang, who helped launch his film career. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

• The Rules of Attraction (2002) (R: Systematic depictions of sexual depravity among college students; frequent profanity; occasional depictions of alcohol and drug abuse; interludes of graphic violence; occasional nudity and simulations of intercourse) 1/2*. A smugly depraved and frolicsome adaptation of the second novel by the prolific but worthless Bret Easton Ellis, reveling in vice-prone college undergraduates at an apocryphal campus in New England. James Van Der Beek plays the oldest freshman ever seen, an aspiring drug dealer called Sean Bateman, allegedly the kid brother of Mr. Ellis' titular monster in "American Psycho." Mr. Van Der Beek strikes one repulsive pose after another. A diabolical bust, he also seems to be inept at recruiting clients for a vicious, bughouse dealer played by Clifton Collins Jr. Director Roger Avary amuses himself with reverse motion and spatial tricks to relieve the low-minded montony of the content, but he's clearly deluded about the dramatic interest that can be generated from these updates of privileged corruption.

• Secretary (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and systematic, semi-facetious depictions of a sadomasochistic sexual liaison; fleeting profanity and nudity; simulations of intercourse) .*A lawyer who needs a sex slave meets a novice secretary who thrives on sadomasochistic attention. As the boss, James Spader has nothing fresh to bring to a caricature of repressed kinkiness. As the heroine, the ugly duckling in a family of prosperous suburban nonentities, Maggie Gyllenhaal does have a flair for simulating both frumps and vixens, a useful capability in this preposterous, prurient context. The movie aspires to juggle satiric and naively therapeutic tendencies, kidding the bondage rituals that excite this particular love match while also suggesting that they're a preamble to enduring domestic bliss.

• Swept Away (2002) (R: "Language and some sexuality" according to the MPAA) A remake of Lina Wertmuller's overrated, hypocritical sex comedy of 1975, in which a shipwreck obliges a snobbish society woman to change her tune. In the interest of survival she must acknowledge her dependence on the resourcefulness of a fellow castaway, a seething deckhand she had scorned when safe and bossy. She also becomes his adoring consort. The castaways are now played by Madonna and Adriano Giannini, the son of the original leading man, Giancarlo Giannini.

• The Transporter (2002) (PG-13) A chase thriller starring Jason Statham as a former Special Forces ace turned soldier of fortune and threatened on all sides while abducting the daughter of a Chinese crime boss suspected of human smuggling in the South of France.

• Tuck Everlasting (2002) (PG: Occasional ominous episodes; fleeting graphic violence) **. A Disney throwback to inspirational Americana, derived from the Natalie Babbitt novel that has become a fixture of elementary school reading lists. There have already been television dramatizations. Alexis Bledel and Jonathan Jackson make a very photogenic match as a 15-year-old named Winnie Foster, the overprotected daughter of wealthy parents in upstate New York, circa 1914, and Jesse Tuck, the youngest son of a mysterious backwoods family that turns out to be blessed and cursed with immortality, the result of a magical spring near their homestead. The reclusive Tucks are being stalked by a sinister type played by Ben Kingsley. The movie would have more authority if its affectionate and scenic virtues were reinforced by a securely suspenseful structure and an aptitude for miraculous highlights. The cast includes William Hurt as Pa Tuck, Sissy Spacek as Ma Tuck and Amy Irving and Victor Garber as the heroine's parents.

• White Oleander (2002) (PG-13: Thematic preoccupation with family separation and conflict; occasional profanity and graphic violence; allusions to a murder case; occasional sexual candor) **1/2. A faithful and absorbing adaptation of the Janet Fitch best-seller about the ordeal of an adolescent girl placed in a succession of misfit foster homes after her mother is jailed for murder. Alison Lohman is exceptionally appealing as the heroine, Astrid. The grotesque weaknesses in the basic material can stir sarcastic resistance as Astrid's bad-luck placements begin to look calamitous to a fault: She's shot by crazy-jealous foster mom Robin Penn Wright; then watches in horror as Renee Zellwegger is driven to despair after being tormented from afar by Michelle Pfeiffer, cast as Astrid's diabolical mom, determined to remain a domineering influence even behind bars. Patrick Fugit represents optimism as the orphan who befriends Astrid while they're residents of a juvenile dorm in Los Angeles. With Cole Hauser in an impressively smoldering performance as the first of the foster dads.


NOW SHOWING

• Barbershop (2002) (PG-13: occasional violence, crude language) **. Rapper Ice Cube's latest star vehicle involves a day in the life of an inner-city Chicago barber shop. He isn't the only rapper in the engaging cast. Chart-topper Eve portrays the only woman in a testosterone-charged shop where hot-button issues like reparations are kicked around as the snipped hair flies. The conversations are as lively as the cast, but the film's banal subplots and occasional preaching spoil the fun. Also starring Cedric the Entertainer as Eddie, the barber shop sage. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• City By the Sea (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; depictions of drug use and allusions to addiction) **1/2. An absorbing but overextended melodrama about a father-son estrangement that resurfaces when the son, Joey LaMarca, a young felon and drug addict (James Franco), becomes wanted for murder. His father, a New York City police detective named Vincent LaMarca (Robert De Niro), attempts to talk him into surrender. The title refers to the Long Island town of Long Beach, a once popular beach resort that declined into a slum in the 1970s. Based to some extent on the experiences of a real Vincent LaMarca, since retired from the police force, the movie is bolstered by several distinctive performers, including Patti LuPone as the hero's embittered ex-wife, Frances McDormand as his mystified girlfriend, George Dzundza as his affable partner and Eliza Dushku as Mr. Franco's apprehensive girlfriend, also an addict.

• Das Experiment (2002) (R) A German movie about a dubious group dynamics experiment in which 20 subjects are encouraged to role-play as prisoners and guards. The participants tend to get carried away. In German with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema. Not reviewed.

• 8 Women (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; frequent allusions to homicide and depravity) **1/2. This semi-musical murder farce isolates four generations of French actresses at a snowbound country estate at Christmas. The unfortunate man of the house is discovered "dead in his bed with a knife in his back." The sometimes grieving suspects consist of daughters Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier, wife Catherine Deneuve, sister Fanny Ardant, sister-in-law Isabelle Huppert, mother-in-law Danielle Darrieux and domestics Emmanuelle Beart and Firmine Richard. All have something to hide, and share rancorous confessions and evasions in the aftermath. Each suspect also gets a song interlude, sometimes with her fellow suspects as a back-up group. The movie threatens to drift into a state of droll stagnation until saved by a hilarious encounter between Miss Darrieux and Miss Deneuve. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cinema Arts, Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Igby Goes Down (2002) (R: Crude language, sexual situations and drug use) ***1/2. First time writer/director Burr Steers tells the darkly comic tale of rich, disallusioned Igby, a teen-ager in a messy search for his identity. Along the way he meets a coterie of dysfunctional, upper class archetypes, played by Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet and Claire Danes. Susan Sarandon co-stars as his pill-popping mother. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Just a Kiss (2002) (R: Preoccupation with sexual promiscuity and depravity in a facetious framework; occasional profanity, fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse) 1/2*. The New York romantic comedy continues to deteriorate in this ensemble monstrosity about a ludicrous yet potentially fatal outbreak of infidelity and opportunism among a septet consisting of Ron Eldard, Kyra Sedgwick, Patrick Breen (who also wrote the godforsaken thing), Marley Shelton, Taye Diggs, Marisa Tomei and Sarita Choudhury. Zoe Caldwell also drops in out of left field as a foul-mouthed dowager for two unflattering scenes. The mixture of insincerity, prurience, morbidity and facetiousness is consistently unbeguiling.

• Moonlight Mile (2002) (PG-13: Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy; fleeting profantiy and sexual candor; elements of morbid humor; graphic allusions to a murder case) *1/2. A misbegotten domestic tearjerker that fictionalizes the experiences of writer-director Brad Silberling, who for a time became inseparable from the parents of his fiancee, the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer, a murder victim. Mr. Silberling fails to re-enact that chronicle faithfully on screen. The movie's reflections on sorrow and renewal are reduced to agonizing triteness. Jake Gyllenhaal is insufferable as the young man who lingers with Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon, the parents of his recently slain fiancee. The senior co-stars are in no position to reverse the dismal drift, since their characters are stuck in lackluster ruts, Mr. Hoffman as a fussbudget, Miss Sarandon as a sarcastic scold.

• Mostly Martha (2001) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) **. A promising idea for a culinary romantic comedy that falls short of sustained charm and invention, but not disgracefully short. The title character played by Martina Gedeck is the somewhat defensive head chef at a fashionable restaurant in Hamburg, Germany; she is inclined to upbraid customers who fail to appreciate her superior taste and skill. The sudden death of a sister leaves her with the care of an 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), a handful who likes hanging around the restaurant until the wee hours, not exactly conducive to a stable domestic life or regular school hours. The proprietor hires an easygoing and seductive Italian chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), to ease the burden on Martha, who is immediately suspicious and resentful of potential job competition. In German and Italian with English subtitles.

• One Hour Photo (2002) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional sexual candor, nudity and violence) **1/2. Robin Williams' year of being sinister continues with this carefully wrought impression of a pathetic and potentially threatening loner, Sy Parrish, a fixture in the photo department of a vast and eerily impeccable suburban department store called SavMart. Over the years, Sy has cultivated a crush on a particular family, the Yorkins Connie Nielsen as wife Nina, Michael Vartan as husband Will and Dylan Smith as son Jake. Sy's job also puts him in a position to discover that the Yorkin marriage is not as idyllic as he imagined. This disillusionment corresponds with job problems and persuades him to take desperate measures in reprisal. Writer-director Mark Romanek's stylistic control is sometimes impressive to a fault, since it often looks as if Sy's disintegration is being orchestrated rather heartlessly as a design exercise. Nevertheless, the central performance justifies a modest investment of pity and regret. Audiences should be grateful that the filmmaker invents a clever way of stopping short of bloodbaths.

• Red Dragon (2002) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity) ***. A gripping movie and an irresistible business proposition for producer Dino De Laurentiis. This remake of Thomas Harris' crime novel, the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter, is expertly contrived to close a fictional loop with Jonathan Demme's movie version of "The Silence of the Lambs," which showcased Lecter in a big way. Anthony Hopkins reprises his Oscar-winning role and there is once again a sympathetic protagonist: Edward Norton as the FBI profiler Will Graham, who barely survives an encounter with the homicidal shrink during the prologue, then volunteers to pick the brain of the imprisoned Lecter, hoping for clues to the identity of the Red Dragon, a serial killer played by Ralph Fiennes. It amuses Lecter to try to kill Graham by proxy while sharing a few clues.

• Satin Rouge (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, with a sustained interlude of simulated intercourse) **1/2. The sexiest Tunisian movie I've ever seen and a reliable distraction for anyone who finds belly dancing a sight for sore eyes. A young writer-director named Raja Amari seems to finesse locale taboos while celebrating the professional and erotic awakening of an attractive, widowed seamstress named Lilia (Hiam Abbass), who discovers a natural affinity for the dance after blundering into a Tunis cabaret. The absurd soft-core payoff is predicated on the coincidence that both Lilia and her teen-age daughter fall for the same seductive bongo player. Something has to give when the three of them finally get in the same place at the same time. Nevertheless, the cabaret highlights compensate for quite a bit of expedient romantic entanglement. In Arabic with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cinema Arts.

• Spirited Away (2002) (PG: Fleeting ominous episodes and occasional repulsive and sinister illustrative details) *1/2. The revamped edition of a popular Japanese animated feature about the adventures of a little girl, Chihiro, who blunders into a secret world ruled by sorcery while spending an afternoon with her parents, who take a wrong turn while driving to their new home. Chihiro, initially timid and whiny, must work as a servant in a vast bathhouse for spirits. Her foolish parents are promptly warehoused: they stuff themselves and turn into swine. It's suggested that they will eventually become meals for the monstrous guests. There's a lot of gluttony and revulsion on display as writer-director Hayao Miyazaki embroiders his fable, whose intentions may seem crystal-clear to Japanese but remain opaque and grossly redudant from an American perspective. The two-hour running time grows slightly interminable.

• Sweet Home Alabama (2002) (PG-13: Occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; fleeting and would-be facetious violence) * A romantic comedy about the wacky homecoming of an Alabama girl, played by Reese Witherspoon, who has found success as a fashion designer in New York City. Engaged to Patrick Dempsey, the nice and eligible son of New York's mayor, Candice Bergen, the heroine must take care of a minor detail: a belated divorce from her estranged hometown spouse, Josh Lucas, who prefers to be uncooperative. The pretext couldn't be flimsier, and the rampant stupidities invented to sustain it rival the batch that made Miss Witherspoon a chuckleheaded favorite in "Legally Blonde." New York City replaces Harvard as the heavy. The heroine is a deceitful wretch, but the return to Pigeon Creek, Ala., supposedly confirms her adorability.

• Swimfan (2002) (PG-13: simulated sex, profanity and violence) **. This teen variation on "Fatal Attraction" finds a promising high school swimmer (Jesse Bradford) unable to shake a beautiful stalker ("Traffic's" Erika Christensen). Their one night of passion threatens his swimming career and his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Shiri Appleby. The film takes its time to build suspense without overtly pandering to its young demographic. But disbelief is the order of the day once the stalker takes a murderous turn. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Tuxedo (2002) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity and violence) **. An amusing sorcerer's apprentice pretext that might have been ideal for Jackie Chan but turns out to be maddeningly haphazard, since most of the stunt and chase scenes are photographed in a choppy, blurry fashion. The script seems to have clever ideas to burn; the movie is executed so poorly that it wastes many of them. A cabbie with aspirations, Mr. Chan becomes the chauffeur for Jason Isaacs, an industrialist who also happens to be the equivalent of James Bond. When the master spy is injured in an assassination attempt, the driver assumes his espionage duties, which rely on the phenomenal skills programmed into a magical, high-tech tuxedo. The notion of Mr. Chan suddenly adjusting to superlative acrobatic and combat prowess is enjoyable, and there are amusing support mechanisms apart from the tux: Jennifer Love Hewitt gets her best movie showcase as his sidekick, a government chemist; and Ritchie Coster and Peter Stormare are effectively preposterous as the villains, who hope to contaminate the bottled water industry.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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