- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002


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 Dzundza as his affable partner and Eliza Dushku as Mr. Franco's apprehensive girlfriend, also an addict. Moviegoers should find the De Niro-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.

• 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. Holly nurses a lifelong crush on Marina's brother Nat, played by Oliver Milburn, entangled for years with a French consort. Poor Holly is also seduced by Kyle MacLachlan as a brazenly lecherous prof from the United States. It would have been amusing to see him whacked by a vigilante parents' group. This is the sort of hedonistic, foul-mouthed fiasco that seems especially funny when perpetrated by overwrought Brits.

Secret Ballot (2001) (G) An Iranian topical comedy about the election day encounter of a soldier and a government vote counter, a young woman who 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.

• Swimfan (2002) (PG-13) A "Fatal Attraction" for the high school set, with Jesse Bradford as a model student and Olympic-hopeful swimming star who is stalked by newcomer Erika Christensen. Directed by John Polson from a screenplay by Charles F. Bohl and Phillipe Schneider.


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.

• Feardotcom (2002) (R: "Violence, including grisly images of torture; nudity and language" according to the MPAA) A murder thriller contrived to team a homicide detective played by Stephen Dorff with a public health researcher played by Natascha McElhone in the investigation of four killings linked by an ominous Web site called Feardotcom.com. The cast also includes Stephen Rea, Udo Kier, Amelia Curtis, Jeffrey Combs and Michael Sarazin. Directed by Willima Malone from a screenplay by Josephine Coyle.

• 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.

• The Last Kiss (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional comic vulgarity; interludes of simulated intercourse) **1/2. An enjoyably facile but clearly evasive, equivocating Italian social comedy about infidelity and its discontents. The writer-director, Gabriele Muccino, seems an emerging virtuoso with whirlwind plot construction and agitated, wrangling characters. The breathless, faithless tendencies that seem to preoccupy him are best summarized in a kiss-off line, "Goodbye, baby, forgive me if you can." A wedding, a funeral and another wedding serve as signposts for the plot. Ultimately, Mr. Muccino emphasizes the desperate and perhaps fleeting lechery of a young ad executive named Carlo (Stefano Accorsi), who pursues a high-school temptation named Francesca (Martina Stella) soon after his fiancee of three years, Giulia (the stunning Giovanna Mezzogiorno), announces her pregnancy. This betrayal is echoed in the restlessness of Carlo's male friends and the incongruous, half-hearted truancy of Giulia's mother Anna (Stefania Sandrelli, aging very handsomely), who gets recurrent urges to leave her husband, an imperturbable shrink. The Muccino canvas teems with Romans who crave holidays from loyalty and responsibility. He orchestrates their squirming with undeniable flair, especially as a pictorial stylist, but it may take a while to clarify exactly what he does value. In Italian with English subtitles.

• 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.

• My Wife Is an Actress (2001) (R: Occasional profanity, nudity and sexual candor; fleeting and facetious interjections of violence) *1/2. An alternately promising and maddening introduction to the comic mentality of Yvan Attal, a French actor-writer-director who bears a physical resemblance to compatriot Daniel Auteuil but seems to have borrowed Kenneth Branagh's smile. He works overtime to appear insufferable by playing a sports journalist who surrenders to ridiculous attacks of jealousy while wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, a popular film actress, is in London playing a flight attendant who supposedly falls in love with aging pilot Terrence Stamp. The grounds for jealousy couldn't be more far-fetched, in part because the feared rival is the most boring of actors. It's also difficult to believe that Mr. Attal is gainfully employed or should be moonlighting as an acting student. Nevertheless, there are funny episodes and the tempo remains zestful. In French 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 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.

Read My Lips (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter and presentation, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details) **1/2. A French import that puts some coherence into the Hollywood screenwriting cliche, "character-driven." A distinctive mixture of lovelorn, mercenary and devious drives distinguish a partnership that evolves between Emmanuelle Devos as a partially deaf secretary named Carla and Vincent Cassel as a paroled con named Paul. They meet when she hires him as an office assistant. They use each other to undermine petty tyrants an office salesman who belittles Carla and then a mob creditor who intimidates Paul. The title alludes to Carla's lip-reading skills, which are not as foolproof as Paul imagines but do manage to save his life during a pivotal episode. The director, Jacques Audiard, seems to have a flair for character studies about distinctive, resourceful scroungers and outcasts. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.

Serving Sara (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity; systematic comic and sexual vulgarity; facetiously violent interludes) 1/2*. A frenzied and inept romantic farce that inflicts the dumpy, unsightly Matthew Perry on an evidently desperate Elizabeth Hurley. Cast as a New York City process server, Mr. Perry is persuaded to switch sides after he serves Miss Hurley with divorce papers from a wretched Texas spouse, Bruce Campbell. The co-stars pursue their mutual prey from Dallas to Durango, while director Reginald Hudlin stages one defective slapstick sequence after another. There are two genuinely horrifying moments, when Miss Hurley is obliged to kiss her leading man. No actress has sacrificed more for the greater degradation of romantic comedy in our time.

Seven Samurai (1954) (No MPA Rating made years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with graphic scenes of violence and squalor in a 16th Century setting; revised subtitles also translate dialogue with more profanity and candor than in previous releases) ****. An extended revival of Akira Kurosawa's great historical-martial-social spectacle about the gallant, eccentric samurai mercenaries hired to defend a farm village against marauding bandits. Durably influential, it inspired the John Sturges Western "The Magnificent Seven" in 1960 and provided "A Bug's Life" with its plot in 1998. "Samurai" was originally released in Japan in 1954 and imported to the United States in a truncated but still overwhelming version in 1956. Restorations of this classic keep getting more and more satisfying. The complete version, running about 200 minutes, was finally brought to American art-houses in the early 1980s. A new print expands the subtitles in freshly revealing ways, so that even admirers who think they know the movie intimately should be surprised by this enhancement. For one thing, it's now possible to identify the precise year, 1587. Numerous character points, lines of dialogue and minor details are now clarified, enriching an already imposing tapestry of characters and relationships. This translation also adds a smattering of profane expletives. It's conceivable that the movie might now qualify for an "R" rating if it was a new release. Anyway, parents who love the movie may want to know that their children will be reading a few "F" words while getting acquainted with "Seven Samurai." The immortal seven are, of course, anchored by Toshiro Mifune as the impulsive, fearless Kikuchiyo, the peasant samurai, and Takashi Shimura as the battle-tested, disciplined Kambei. In Japanese with English subtitles. Exclusively at the American Film Institute Theater through Sept. 18.

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.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002) (PG: "Action sequences and brief rude humor" according to the MPAA) *1/2. A busily stupefying replica of Robert Rodriguez's popular caprice about the resourceful offspring of master spies. The parents, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, are played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino. An obvious sag in glamor and credibility must be overlooked to believe that their kids, Alexa Vega as Carmen and Daryl Sabara as Juni, are precocious phenoms. A rival set of youngsters, Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment (sister of Haley Joel), is added to challenge the Cortez siblings. The newcomers belong to Mike Judge as the director of the spy agency called OSS. Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor also come aboard as grandparents.

24-Hour Party People (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and allusions to drug use; occasional nudity and sexual candor, with fleeting simulations of intercourse; a tone of nostalgic bemusement about vice in a show business setting) *1/2. Being a Manchester chauvinist may be a key to humoring this satirical British chronicle about the label Factory Records and the rock club Hacienda, Manchester pop meccas during the 1980s. Under the deliberately anarchic, slapdash management of Tony Wilson, a moonlighting TV personality from the Granada TV network, the label and club thrived for a time. The emphasis remained on bands with a local identity and a showcase known to be rowdy and drug-saturated. Steve Coogan, an amusing and distinctive saturnine type in the Alan Rickman mold, is the film's ongoing asset in the role of Wilson. Entrusted with a mocking narration of the prototype's trials and tribulations, Mr. Coogan excels at a Cambridge-educated hauteur and sense of entitlement. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

Undisputed (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence, with a backdrop of prizefighting among convicts; allusions to rape and murder cases) *1/2. Walter Hill revisits the themes of his first feature, the 1975 bare-knuckles saga "Hard Times," in this updated but curiously handcuffed fisticuffs yarn, which casts Wesley Snipes as a former ring contender who is serving a prison sentence. When the inmate population is enhanced by the arrival of the reigning heavyweight champion, belligerent and overconfident Ving Rhames, a redemptive opportunity knocks. The resident fixer is an aging mobster con played by Peter Falk, who gets an F-word rant as part of his shtik. Mr. Snipes' strong, silent identity seems to keep him out of the plot while Mr. Rhames is kicking up a rumpus. The eventual bout never looks too plausible, and it's poorly staged, a cliched festival of bogus haymakers and thunderous sound effects. Mr. Hill and writing partner David Giler are veteran filmmakers struggling to get back in the game, but this effort looks like a tune-up rather than a main event.

XXX (2002) (PG-13: Systematic gratuitous violence in the context of a farfetched adventure spectacle; sustained vulgar tone and occasional sexual allusions) * The stupefying follow-up collaboration of roughneck Vin Diesel and ultra-mercenary director Rob Cohen, who were involved in last summer's car-chase hoot "The Fast and the Furious." They envision Mr. Diesel as an indispensable addition to the super-spy roster, an "extreme" sports headliner called Xander Cage, recruited to inflict his fearless attitude and stuntwork aptitude on Eurotrash plotting biochemical calamity from a castle near Prague. Xander's antics are much funnier than Austin Powers' if approached in the properly sarcastic frame of mind. Samuel L. Jackson, defaced by a ludicrous toupee and a grotesquely scarred makeup job on the left side of his face, plays Xander's boss at the National Security Agency.


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