- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

OPENING

• The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (PG-13) — The third and concluding adventure epic in Peter Jackson’s imposing adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga about an ancient civilization, Middle Earth, confronted with ultimate peril. The intrepid Hobbits, Elijah Wood as Frodo and Sean Astin as Sam, sustain their ominous trek to Mount Doom with the crazed and treacherous gnome Gollum as their guide. The Hobbit team of Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, respectively), emerge as fighting squires at the sides of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the warrior princess Eowyn (Miranda Otto). All prove crucial to the defense of the beleaguered kingdom of Gondor, the ancestral home of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, who must rally an army of ghosts to help defeat the barbaric legions assaulting the capital, Minas Tirith. Orlando Bloom as the peerless archer Legolas and John Rhys-Davies as the hirsute dwarf Gimli remain inseparable from Mr. Mortensen during the decisive last battles. Opens Wednesday. (The second movie in the cycle, “The Two Towers,” is being revived exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Uptown through Tuesday in its “extended” version.)

• Love Don’t Cost a Thing (2003) (PG-13) — A high school romantic comedy, updated from the 1987 film “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Nick Cannon plays an auto-shop virtuoso who agrees to repair the car of reckless dream girl Christina Milian if she consents to pose as his girlfriend for a few weeks.

• The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003) (No MPAA rating — adult subject matter) — A documentary feature about contemporary political conflict in Venezuela. Exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Something’s Gotta Give (2003) (PG-13) — A romantic comedy co-starring Jack Nicholson as an aging playboy and Diane Keaton as the divorced playwright who ultimately warms to his charm and vulnerability, despite the fact that he is introduced as the jocular boyfriend of her daughter, Amanda Peet. Miss Keaton also has a young admirer, Keanu Reeves as the physician summoned to treat Mr. Nicholson for a heart irregularity. The cast also includes Frances McDormand, Jon Favreau and Paul Michael Glaser.

• Stuck on You (2003) (PG: 13: Sexual situations and humor, coarse language and cartoon-style violence) — ..1/2** Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear star as conjoined twins in the Farrelly brothers’ latest farce. What sounds offensive on paper isn’t nearly so rude, thanks to the Farrellys’ affection for the characters. The gags, alas, can’t measure up to the duo’s best work, “There’s Something About Mary,” or even their infantile “Kingpin.” Reviewed by Christian Toto.

NOW SHOWING

• Bad Santa (2003) (R: Coarse language, sexual situations, alcohol abuse and anger toward children) — *1/2. Billy Bob Thornton plays a soused Santa wreaking mayhem on a series of department stores. The film desperately wants to tweak the mushy Christmas movies released each yuletide but only manages to drown itself in mean-spirited, one-note mockery. Even the often brilliant Mr. Thornton can’t muster an ounce of humanity for his depraved rent-a-Santa. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Bus 174 (2003) (No MPAA rating — adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and footage of an authentic hostage crisis that culminated in fatalities) — *1/2. This documentary feature recalls a “Dog Day Afternoon” impasse in Rio de Janiero in June 2000. Bus passengers were held hostage until nightfall by a lone hijacker with no visible bargaining power. Some aspects are undeniably astonishing, but the filmmakers are much too complacent about milking the scenic, sordid and ultraobvious potential in this incident. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (2003) (PG: Occasional comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo) — **. Brian Grazer produced the stupefying but profitable movie version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” three years ago. He’s back with this adaptation of the 1957 primer that envisioned uninhibited imagination as a gleeful cat in a stovepipe hat who creates domestic chaos to relieve the boredom of children on a rainy day. Mike Myers demonstrates a zest for masquerade partying, and he gives the cat some endearing vocal inflections. The juvenile players, Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin, are also very capable. The shortcomings cling to other characters, especially Alec Baldwin as a treacherous neighbor and Kelly Preston as an airheaded mom.

• Elephant (2003) (R: Disturbing images of violence; brief nudity; sexuality; profanity) — ***. A chilling meditation on school shootings by Cannes-conquering director Gus Van Sant. Shot improvisationally with a cast of Portland, Ore., natives, “Elephant” offers little in the way of answers but provokes and horrifies like no other film made in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Elf (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo) — **. A frequently slipshod but ingratiating showcase for Will Ferrell. He is cast as Buddy, an orphaned human raised by Santa’s elves who goes back to Manhattan to find his people. A hardhearted biological dad, played by James Caan, proves a tough sell.

• The Haunted Mansion (2003) (PG: Occasional ominous and morbid depiction; fleeting comic vulgarity) — *1/2. This supernatural farce inspired to some extent by the popular Disneyland attraction “Mansion” isn’t consistently clever. The setting tends to inhibit slapstick fleetness and ingenuity, especially from Eddie Murphy. He stars as a glad-handing workaholic and square New Orleans real estate agent stranded during an overnight thunderstorm with his wife and two children. Marcia Thompson is an adorable choice as the wife, but the new movie waxes erotically creepy by making her a prey to sexual extortion.

• Honey (2003) (PG: 13: Drug content and sexual situations) — **. Jessica Alba of “Dark Angel” fame stars as a talented choreographer who gets her big break as a backup dancer for a prominent video director. Miss Alba’s pluck and stunning looks can’t overcome the hackneyed script, which bubbles over with “Flashdance”-style theatrics. Real-life R&B stars Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Tweet give the film a sense of authenticity. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Human Stain (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, morbidity and graphic violence; episodes about racial conflict and identity; considerable nudity in one sequence) — **1/2. From Philip Roth’s polemical tome of 2000 comes this tear-jerker about a perilous love affair between a classics professor named Coleman Silk, played by Anthony Hopkins, and a young woman of misfortune named Faunia Farely, played by Nicole Kidman. The Roth alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), is also drawn into the tangled webs of narration. In their fidelity to an unwieldy book, director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer derive some wonderful scenes from flashbacks about the decision of young Coleman to conceal his racial parentage half a century earlier, while a college student. The main plot isn’t remotely as interesting.

• In America (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, graphic violence and allusions to drug addiction) — *.. A semiautobiographical tear-jerker from the Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Through Paddy Considine as a floundering young family man named Johnny Sullivan, he recalls a period in the early 1980s when he moved into a Hell’s Kitchen slum with his wife and two young daughters while working as an off-Broadway director. The filmmaker seems to be repaying intimate emotional debts to the wife and children. His own daughters are credited as co-writers. Samantha Morton is radiant as the young wife, as are juveniles Sara and Emma Bolger as her daughters. It’s unfair competition for Mr. Considine. With Djimon Hounsou as an outrageously suffering and then generous neighbor who bails the Sullivans out of trouble by dying in a timely fashion.

• The Last Samurai (2003) (R: Graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details, during extended battle sequences; occasional profanity) — *1/2. Tom Cruise is cast as an American interloper in Japan, a disenchanted veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars named Capt. Nathan Algren. Hired to train Imperial conscripts, Algren is captured during an encounter with a samurai warlord (Ken Watanabe) and his band. He winters as a captive and then rides with the warlord to a spectacular battlefield defeat. Algren is mistaken for a morally superior scold by the star and filmmakers. The case for his alternately sneering and suffering interference remains a shambles.

• Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) (PG: Mild violence) — ***. That wascally wabbit returns in this trippy combination of live action and animation in the spirit of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Bugs, Daffy Duck and the gang join Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and Steve Martin for some animated adventures. The film marries the manic energy of the average Warner Bros. short with postmodern riffs on political correctness and the media. The overly daffy final reel will leave adult viewers squirming, but children will delight in the excess. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Love Actually (2003) (R: Frequent sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse, deliberately facetious in some episodes) — *1/2. A miscellany of subplots meant to reflect the joys of love in many guises, this is a holiday crock from the English humorist Richard Curtis. He makes his directing debut while recruiting several actors — Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson — who were indispensable to films he wrote, such as “The Tall Guy,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.” The movie proves pseudo-adorable. Mr. Thompson encourages us to lap up pitiful morsels of romantic farce or pathos. The hapless ensemble also includes Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley and Laura Linney.

• Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a setting of historical naval warfare) — ****. Peter Weir sets the bar very high for prestige entertainments with this stirring and accomplished seafaring adventure derived from the 10th book in the esteemed series by the late Patrick O’Brian. The HMS Surprise, under the command of Russell Crowe’s wonderfully redoubtable Capt. Jack Aubrey, is imperiled by a formidable French warship, the Acheron, which is spreading havoc along the Brazilian coast. It cripples the Surprise in an early encounter, keeping the English sailors on the defensive for the duration. The evocation of the period, 1805, and the simulations of the ships, built at the lavish facility 20th Century-Fox created to accommodate James Cameron’s “Titanic,” defy improvement. Paul Bettany is a witty and ascetic contrast to Mr. Crowe as the learned but nautically challenged Dr. Stephen Maturin, who gets to explore the Galapagos Islands a generation before Darwin. His familiarity with exotic species comes in handy when the final showdown looms between the Surprise and the Acheron.

• The Matrix Revolutions (2003) (R) — ***1/2.The third and concluding installment of the science-fiction saga, which has been anticipating revolt in an urban population of humans enslaved to a despotic race of monstrous machines. The principal cast members remain Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci and Harry Lennix. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Missing (2003) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence, with extremely gruesome illustrative details of atrocities; occasional sexual candor, including allusions to child abduction and prostitution; fleeting comic vulgarity) — **. A Western chase melodrama set in New Mexico in the 1880s. Cate Blanchett plays a tenacious rancher whose teenage daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, is abducted by a degenerate gang that trafficks in white slavery across the Mexican border. In her desperation, the heroine turns to a prodigal father, Tommy Lee Jones, a renegade who abandoned his family decades earlier to consort with the Apaches. This association is meant to prove indispensable in tracking the kidnappers. Unfortunately, an ominous and gripping start slips away from director Ron Howard as he begins making social-allegorical points at the expense of an urgent chase. The movie’s sense of mission becomes a synthesis of the Western and the voodoo thriller, and the measures taken to outwit the villains look harebrained. With Eric Schweig as a genuine gorgon of a menace, a character who enjoys handling rattlesnakes and blends potions from their secretions. The movie itself seems to surrender to his influence by going off its rocker.

• Shattered Glass (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual allusions) — .***. An exemplary first feature from writer-director Billy Ray, who takes a humorously lucid approach to the scandal of writer Stephen Glass, who was sacked by the New Republic in 1998 after fabricating two dozen stories. The young actor Hayden Christensen portrays the ingenuous, disarming and pathologically dishonest Glass. Peter Sarsgaard is a brilliantly slow-burning contrast as Charles Lane, the honest editor forced to deal with the realization that he’s been pampering a compulsive liar.

• Timeline (2003) (PG-13: intense battle sequences; brief profanity) —*1/2. A torturous adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name. A team of archaeologists travels down a wormhole in the space-time continuum to rescue its leader (Billy Connolly), who’s trapped in medieval France. As interpreted by director Richard Donner (of “Lethal Weapon” and “Superman” franchise fame), “Timeline” is a disastrously fragmented sci-fi fantasy that turns both science and history into bad punch lines. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• To Be and To Have (2002) (No MPAA rating; adult subject matter but suitable for all ages) — ****. An exceptionally strong year for documentary features is enhanced anew with this French-made tribute to a dedicated teacher, Georges Lopez, observed during a winter and spring of instruction in Saint-Etienne sur Usson, a small dairy community in the Auvergne. Though not exactly a “one-room” schoolmaster, he is responsible for a small group of students whose ages range from 4 or 5 to 11 or 12. Emulating the patience and concentration of his subject, filmmaker Nicolas Philibert emerges with a lucid and affectionate impression of elementary teaching and learning. “To Be” really does elevate the cliche “back to basics,” linking it to the intimacy of a particular classroom and set of personalities. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• Tupac: Resurrection (2003) (R: Crude language, drug use and violence) — ***. The late rapper Tupac Shakur narrates the story of his own life in this cohesive, compelling documentary. The rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, serves as executive producer, but the film still manages to show a fairly balanced portrait of the conflicted, gifted, rapper. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 21 Grams (2003) (R: profanity; sexuality and nudity; brief violence; drug use) — ****. Another brilliant ballad of death from Mexican new-wave director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Three Memphis residents (a stellar cast of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio Del Toro) are pulled into a maelstrom of despair by a horrific hit-and-run accident. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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