- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

OPENING:

• Abandon (2002) (PG-13: "Drug and alcohol content, sexuality, some violence and language," according to the MPAA) A mystery thriller set on a New England college campus. It revolves around Katie Holmes, a coed approached by police detective Benjamin Bratt, investigating the prolonged disappearance of her boyfriend, supposedly an elusive and charismatic figure.

• Below (2002) (R) A submarine thriller with supernatural horror elements. A World War II sub called the Tiger Shark is suddenly at the mercy of weird fears and delusions after rescuing a trio of survivors. With Bruce Greenwood and Matt Davis as the officers in command, plus Olivia Williams, Scott Foley and Holt McCallany.

• Bowling For Columbine (2002) (R) The latest polemical documentary from disingenuous radical Michael Moore, targeting gun owners and the gun culture.

• Formula 51 (2002) (R) A satirical crime thriller with Samuel L. Jackson as a disreputable but resourceful protagonist, a fish-out-of-water chemist who specializes in designer drugs for the Ecstasy set. He travels to Liverpool with a shipment of his newest pills. He is assigned an escort, Robert Carlyle, by the local gangsters. The mismatch becomes a dynamic duo while facing double crosses and ambushes.

• I'm Coming Home (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A character study of an aging actor, portrayed by Michel Piccoli, under the direction of the venerable Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira. The cast also includes John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.

• Jonah A Veggietales Movie (2002) (G) The debut feature for the popular video cartoon series in which the principal characters are vegetables. The biblical tale of Jonah and the whale serves as a reference point for this musical adventure fantasy.

• The Man From Elysian Fields (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and systematic sexual candor, involving carriage-trade prostitution) …. An absorbing new variant on "Sunset Boulevard," written by Philip Jayson Lasker, a vintage sitcom specialist, and directed by George Hickenlooper, best known for assembling the fascinating behind-the-scenes chronicle about Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" titled "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Andy Garcia portrays the compromised protagonist, Byron Tiller, a struggling novelist in Pasadena, Calif., who conceals a lucrative moonlighting job as a male escort from devoted wife Julianna Margulies. The agency he works for, Elysian Fields, is managed by an elegant wraith named Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). A celebrity literary couple, the Alcotts, monopolize Tiller's services. The young wife (Olivia Williams) is being pampered by her best-selling but very senior spouse (James Coburn). The weak and susceptible Tiller also becomes an editor and then co-writer on Alcott's sprawling final novel, expecting recognition upon its publication. Eventually, he awakens to his fundamental lack of bargaining power as a glorified temp for wealthy patrons. With Anjelica Huston as the rich client who slams the door on Luther's fond hopes of legitimacy.

• Punch-Drunk Love (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence, with a frequently facetious context) … Adam Sandler is getting an Academy Award build-up for playing a neurotic wreck whose avoidance syndrome almost spoils a budding attachment to a potential sweetheart played by Emily Watson. The performance isn't nearly as dynamic or appealing as his work in "Happy Gilmore" or "The Wedding Singer," but partisans may want to mistake it for a Chaplinesque baby step.

• The Ring (2002) (PG-13) A suspense thriller, derived from a successful Japanese feature, about a wave of murders linked to an ominous video. Watching it supposedly leads to death exactly seven days later. Naomi Watts plays a newspaper reporter who can't help being curious about the dread legend. She tracks down the video, watches it and prepares to outwit a week of danger.

• Welcome to Collinwood (2002) (R) A remake of the endearing Italian crime comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street," which observed a gang of inept burglars, circa 1958. The Cleveland fraternal team of Anthony and Joe Russo makes a feature debut with this updated homage, transposed to a working-class neighborhood in their hometown. A paroled con played by Luis Guzman returns with a lifer's scheme for a perfect heist. He recruits a crew that consists of boxer Sam Rockwell, photographer William H. Macy, single dad Isaiah Washington, Italian gigolo Andrew Davoli, broken-down thief Michael Jeter and screwball safecracker George Clooney.


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.

• 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.

• 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. 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, disillusioned 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.

• Knockaround Guys (2002) (R: Profanity, execution-style murders, graphic torture scene, drug use) *1/2. The Sicilian mafia looks positively like MTV's "The Real World" in "Knockaround Guys," a film that dumps four incompetent wannabe wiseguys into a rural Montana town. With clumsy nods to "The Godfather" and "Reservoir Dogs," the movie is a crude caricature of citified goons vs. backward Montanans. John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper turn in middling performances, as do Barry Pepper, Seth Green and the mesomorphic Vin Diesel. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• 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. Not reviewed.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• Swept Away (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and systematic sexual vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse) 1/2*. A dismal 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 a fellow castaway, a seething deckhand she had scorned when safe and bossy. The castaways are now played by Madonna and Adriano Giannini, the son of the original leading man, Giancarlo Giannini. You're painfully aware that the door has closed on Madonna's potential as a movie star. She is here miscast and mishandled by spouse Guy Ritchie, whose aptitute for gangster farce in English settings has no carryover value at all in a Mediterranean cruise setting.

• The Transporter (2002) (PG-13: Brief nudity, exagerrated violence) **1/2. Jason Statham makes a strong bid for action hero status in this improbably yarn about a disciplined "transporter" whose life changes when he takes a peek at a package he is assigned to deliver. Mr. Statham's bulky frame proves surprisingly flexible and director Corey Yuen constructs a series of compelling set pieces that distract from their utter improbability. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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 Wright Penn; 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.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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