- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever (2002) (R) An espionage thriller pitting FBI manhunter Jeremiah Ecks, played by Antonio Banderas, against a DIA-trained renegade code-named Sever, played by Lucy Liu. For the sake of human interest, Ecks is coming off a period of mourning caused by the mysterious death of his wife.
The Banger Sisters (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and systematic sexual vulgarity; doting allusions to drug use and promiscuity) 1/2*. A tacky, smugly facetious variant on "The First Wives' Club," with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon as former rock groupies they used to grope Jim Morrison during their salad days who must navigate a moronic reunion as advancing middle-agers. Miss Hawn is cast as the incorrigible free spirit, or hapless tart, Suzette, who aspires to do a bit of freeloading off her erstwhile comrade, Lavinia, now an uptight, wealthy housewife in Phoenix. Geoffrey Rush is inserted as a timorous and perhaps suicidal writer who helps finance the trip and may be mistaken for Suzette's perfect consort. Lavinia has two teenage daughters. Suzette arrives just in time to save the eldest, played by Erika Christensen, from an acid overdose at her senior prom. The younger, not yet as drastic, is played by Miss Sarandon's own daughter, Eva Amurri. The abiding lesson is that Lavinia needs to get back in touch with her inner hippie. All too obviously, writer-director Bob Dolman has never outgrown his.
The Four Feathers (2002) (PG-13: Episodes of graphic violence in a wartorn historical setting; allusions to torture and racism) *1/2. Indian director Shekhar Kapur seems to be specializing in overwrought revisionism at the expense of English history. Having detected feet of clay among the Tudors in "Elizabeth," he trifles with a vintage adventure yarn about British officers in Egypt and Sudan toward the end of the 19th century. The source material, a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason, was filmed by the team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in 1929, by Zoltan Korda in 1939 and again by Mr. Korda in 1955, under the title "Storm Over the Nile." There have also been television versions. Mr. Kapur fails to protect his young leads from looking callow and anachronistic to a fault. As the reluctant warrior Harry Faversham, who tries to atone for fleeting, ill-timed cowardice by disguising himself as a native and saving the lives of his comrades, the oversold Heath Ledger never looks capable of the necessary masquerade. Wes Bentley as Jack Durrance becomes unintentionally funny when his character goes blind in the desert. Back in England, Kate Hudson as their mutual beloved, Ethne, looks just as unready for costume melodrama. The screenwriters add politically correct touches: digressions intended to flatter subsidiary African characters, notably Djimon Hounsou of "Amistad" as a would-be majestic porter-informant who saves Mr. Ledger every so often. He also wears an accusing fifth white feather (a symbol of cowardice) as a head ornament. The desert expeditions and battles are consistently muddled, though sometimes picturesque.
Igby Goes Down (2002) (R: Crude language, sexual situations and drug use). 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.
Mad Love (2001) (R) A Spanish historical drama about the consequences of a dynastic marriage between the courts of Castile and Flanders at the end of the 15th Century. In Spanish with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
Merci pour le chocolat (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A mystery thriller reuniting director Claube Chabrol with leading lady Isabelle Huppert. The setting is a wealthy lakeside community in Lausanne, Switzerland. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.
Satin Rouge (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A Tunisian feature about the struggles of a widowed seamstress. In Arabic with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and Landmark Bethesda Row.
Snipes (2002) (R: Continuous profanity, drug use, sexual situations and violence) **. A young sniper, those workers who plaster inner city neighborhoods with ads for rap albums, learns the seamier side of the record industry. Real life rapper Nelly co-stars as Prolifik, a rising rapper whose upcoming album could make him a superstar, if it ever gets released. Starring Sam Jones III, Dean Winters and Zoe Saldana. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
Spirited Away (2002) (PG) The revamped edition of a popular Japanese animated feature about the adventures of a little girl who blunders into a secret world ruled by sorcery while spending an afternoon in the country with her family. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, whose allegorical "Princess Mononoke," also a major success in Japan, was imported five years ago. His new movie has been dubbed into English under the supervision of Pixar's John Lasseter.
Trapped (2002) (R) A suspense thriller about a kidnapping plot aimed at a wealthy young couple played by Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend, isolated in different cities while trying to deal with the perpetrators, Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love. The beguiling juvenile from "I Am Sam," Dakota Fanning, plays the kidnapped child.

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.
Blue Crush (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and revolting illustrative details; allusions to promiscuity and prostitution) *1/2. An inane but picturesque and diverting attempt to glorify the aspiring girl surfers of Hawaii. Kate Bosworth, who resembles the young Mariel Hemingway and doesn't look nearly athletic or mature enough to be competing against genuine female surf jocks, is the demure but determined heroine, Anne Marie. She must conquer fear and a three-year layoff from competition while entered in the annual Pipe Masters event on Oahu. Michelle Rodriguez and Sanoe Lake are cast as her exotic, ethnic sidekicks. Directed by John Stockwell, whose technique has improved since the prurient "crazy/beautiful." Everyone owes a great debt of gratitude to the photogenic appeal of big waves and agile surfers.
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 played by James Franco, becomes wanted for murder and his father, a New York City police detective named Vincent LaMarca, played by 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. The setting is superbly evoked by director Michael Caton-Jones and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who also collaborated on "Rob Roy" and "The Jackal," but it's also an evocative fakeout: Asbury Park, N.J. doubles for a picturesesquely derelict Long Beach because the latter has rebounded from decay in recent decades. 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 Dzunda as his affable partner and Eliza Dushku as Mr. Franco's apprehensive girlfriend, also an addict. Moviegoers should find the DeNiro-Franco pairing a savory meeting of the generations as time goes by. The screenplay would be trimmer and stronger if the denouement followed soon after their long nocturnal conversation on the boardwalk.
Elling (2002) (R) A low-key Norwegian comedy, nominated last year for an Oscar for best foreign film. it follows two middle-aged men, newly discharged from a mental hospital, as they try to cope with life on their own in Oslo. Feel-good and sugary, but inspirational to some.
The Good Girl (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence; sustained morbid and despondent undercurrents) *1/2. Jennifer Aniston brings admirable sincerity but dubious professional judgment to the impersonation of a young, ultra-melancholy Texas housewife who drifts into a love affair with an erratic youngster (Jake Gyllenhaal), also employed as a clerk at a discount store. Screenwriter Mike White, well cast as a store security guard, and director Miguel Arteta do a lot of condescending to sad hearts at the supermarket while observing this hapless liaison. Married to a house painter played by John C. Reilly, the heroine becomes vulnerable to sexual blackmail from his sidekick (Tim Blake Nelson), who happens to see her stealing a motel date. The filmmakers aren't exactly masters of deadpan pathos and lower middle class social satire, but the cast frequently saves the material from kneejerk rejection.
Me Without You (2001) (R: Frequent profanity and systematic sexual candor, revolving around the promiscuous behavior of two young women) 1/2*. Michelle Williams of "Dawson's Creek" attempts to join the English masqueraders in this hilariously parochial and sex-crazed British movie about the unhealthy friendship of two girls who grow up next door to each other in suburban comfort and go on to be college roomies, rivals and hysterics. Miss Williams draws the more introspective specimen, Holly, while Anna Friel takes charge of the galloping trollop, Marina. The advisability of cultivating new friends and dependencies when you leave home has never been more vividly illustrated, but director Sandra Goldbacher seems to revel in the near-incestuous intimacy and stupidity of her depraved heroines.
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 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. The resolutions to plot and subplot prove strangely inept, but it's difficult to resist the idea that surrogate motherhood and a humorous boyfriend are beneficial influences on this uptight heroine. Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. In German and Italian with English subtitles.
Notorious C.H.O. (2002) (No MPAA Rating; adult subject matter, with frequent profanity and systematic sexual vulgarity) *1/2. A distillation of a set of Margaret Cho comedy concerts in Seattle. The timing allows her to ring in with a relatively early obscene joke about visiting the ruins of the World Trade Center. Loyalists should be consistently amused by her lewd impudence. Outsiders will confront a more dubious spectacle of facetiousness, but to her credit, Miss Cho is not averse to mocking herself and the predominantly homosexual public that dotes on her.
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 fixation 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 acknowledges the influence of such 1970s prototypes as "The Conversation," "The Tenant" and "Taxi Driver." His 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.
Possession (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity, sexual candor and morbid plot elements) ***1/2. A surprisingly faithful and satisfying distillation of A.S. Byatt's formidable romantic-scholarly novel of 1990. The novel unites a set of modern academic sleuths as they discover a hidden love affair between Victorian poets. Gwyneth Paltrow resumes her English accent as the modern scholar, Maud Bailey, a decendant of one of the Victorian subjects (a lyric poet named Christabel LaMotte, embodied with smoldering distinction by Jennifer Ehle). As the research assistant whose curiosity begins the investigation, Aaron Eckhart transforms Roland Michell into a ruggedly humorous and likeable American. He has some eloquently tentative love scenes with Miss Paltrow. Arguably overshadowed in the book by the Victorian affair, the modern romance is astutely protected by the filmmakers. As Randolph Henry Ash, Jeremy Northam completes the co-starring quartet on a desirable note.
Secret Ballot (2001) (G) An Iranian topical comedy about the election day encounter of a soldier and a government vote counter, a young woman parachuted onto his remote island outpost to collect the eligible ballots. The second feature of Babak Payami, who made his debut in 2000 with "One More Day." In Farsi with English subtitles. Not reviewed.
Signs (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; flashback episodes dealing with a traumatic family loss; subplot about a pastor's loss of faith; episodes in which young children are imperiled by extraterrestrial monsters ) *1/2. The latest supernatural fraud from the absurdly overrated M. Night Shyamalan. He sites this dud spookshow in a farm community in Bucks County, Pa. The idea is to orchestrate dread around the appearance of mysterious shapes and omens carved into the cornfields, presumably by extraterrestrial intruders. The director hunkers down with one little family group, ultimately taking refuge in the basement while a solitary, elusive alien rattles around behind walls and doors. The monotony is enhanced by an absence of grown-up and talkative womenfolk. Mel Gibson plays a widowed farmer and lapsed minister named Graham Hess, with Joaquin Phoenix as his brother and Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as his children. They're all brooding about the accidental death of Mrs. Hess months earlier, a grotesque calamity recalled in flashback.
Simone (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) **. A fitfully clever and insinuating satire about the movie business from Andrew Niccol, the transplanted New Zealander who wrote "The Truman Show" and wrote and directed "Gattaca." The premise bears a conspicuous resemblance to Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" earlier this summer. Al Pacino is cast as a struggling maverick director, Viktor Taransky, whose new movie is sabotaged by a temperamental leading lady, Winona Ryder. Approached by a dying computer graphics genius, the filmmaker becomes the custodian of a digital animation system supposedly so refined that it can simulate humans with uncanny verisimilitude. A desirable, always cooperative leading lady nicknamed Simone, short for Simulation One, emerges and becomes an absurdly elusive, reclusive sensation as Taransky's new discovery. The Simone hoax is prolonged well beyond any plausible time limit. Neither her appearance (Nordic cosmetics model) nor the vehicles her mentor directs looks foolproof for a mass market. Nevertheless, Mr. Niccol protects his plot to some extent with the rationale that people everywhere prefer to be credulous and idolatrous.
Stealing Harvard (2002) (PG-13) *1/2. A little of Tom Green goes a long, long way. In this slight, stupid comedy co-starring Jason Lee, Mr. Green ratchets down his R-rated proclivities but still manages to try our patience. Straight arrow John (Mr. Lee), who needs a quick $30,000 to pay for his niece's tuition at Harvard, turns for help to his old pal, slacker Duff (Mr. Green). Duff's harebrained schemes, all of which involve petty crime, make a mess of John's life. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
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.

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