- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

OPENING

• The Barbarian Invasions (2003) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; a subplot about heroin addiction) — **. The French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand gave boudoir farce a literate and sophisticated update in 1986 with “Decline of the American Empire,” which satirized the moral and political complacency of a group of hedonistic, left-wing faculty colleagues from Montreal. They were observed at a country retreat, sharing opinions and bedmates. “Invasions” revisits this overprivileged bunch about 15 years later, and age is taking a toll. The puckish satyr Remy (Remy Girard), who teaches American Colonial history, has been hospitalized for cancer treatments in a crowded Montreal hospital where pain relief includes heroin injections from the junkie daughter of one of his former mistresses. The entire harem rallies around to dote on the patient, who remains a largely unrepentant fool, sometimes troubled by the thought of having endorsed every left-wing “ism” that was available. Mr. Arcand goes soft to a fault himself as departure time nears for Remy. The characters are bilingual, but a considerable amount of dialogue is in French with English subtitles.

• Calendar Girls (2003) (PG-13: Sustained sexual innuendo; occasional profanity and fleeting nudity) — ***. An overextended but genial tribute to a group of Yorkshire club women who turn their annual calendar into a more lucrative fund-raiser for cancer by adding discreetly nude poses to the traditional celebration of homemaking and gardening skills. The plot derives from a real-life caper that made a small town called Rylstone newsworthy in 2000. This fictionalized telling conjures up a similar close-knit community, Knapely, and teams Julie Walters and Helen Mirren as the ringleaders. The movie remains fresh and appealing until the models head off for a promotional jaunt to Los Angeles, an excursion that persuades you the characters should stay as close as possible to Yorkshire.

• The Cooler (2003) (R: Nudity, sexual situations, alcohol use and spasms of violence) — ***. William H. Macy is “the Cooler,” a sad sack so unlucky he works at a casino where he “cools” hot gamblers just by standing near them. Lady luck finally smiles on him when he meets a fetching cocktail waitress (an earthy Maria Bello) who falls for his inherent kindness. Director Wayne Kramer fashions a gritty tale with a kiss of fantasy, aided by a rageful Alec Baldwin as the casino boss. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Mona Lisa Smile (2003) (PG-13) — A collegiate melodrama set on the Wellesley campus during the academic year of 1953-54, with Julia Roberts as a new art history teacher who appears to be a faculty misfit but attempts to encourage open-minded responses in her students, who initially seem more prepared for the course than she. With Marcia Gay Harden as a timid colleague, Dominic West as a seductive colleague and Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a contrasting set of undergrads.

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 Janeiro 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 ultra-obvious 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 two youngsters 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. A 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 youngsters. 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 dance choreographer who gets her big break as a back-up 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 tearjerker 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 semi-autobiographical tearjerker from the Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Through Paddy Considine as a floundering young family man called 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 kids. 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 called 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 the filmmakers. The case for his alternately sneering and suffering interference remains a shambles.

• The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; intense chases and battle sequences, with occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details) — ****. Peter Jackson closes the cinematic book in suitably stirring fashion for his triple epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological saga about the valiant preservers of Middle Earth. Mr. Jackson has certainly set imposing and sumptuous new standards for heroic adventure spectacle and fantasy. The tenacious heroes endure their final ordeals while carrying the insidious ring of the evil-eye wizard Sauron to its only safe repository, the lava pits of Mt. Doom. And they defend the mountainside citadel of Minas Tirith, capital of the kingdom of Gondor, from massive assaults by Sauron’s barbaric hordes. There are so many farewell scenes and recessionals before the fadeout that you suspect Mr. Jackson is reluctant to part with the illusion he has sustained over three consecutive holiday seasons. He deserves a final Oscar coronation, but don’t be surprised if Hollywood finds some ridiculous way to deny him.

• Love Don’t Cost a Thing (2003) (PG-13: sexual content) — *1/2. A retooling of the 1987 romantic teen comedy “Can’t Buy Me Love,” with “Drumline’s” Nick Cannon in the role of the low-on-mojo dweeb who pays a cheerleader beauty (Christina Milian) to pose as his girlfriend and thereby break him into the popular crowd. Slightly more risque, obsessively focused on brand-name hip-hop gear, this “Love” is no better — and, to its credit, no worse — than the original. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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 H.M.S. 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 Surprise and 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 traffics 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 utterly 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.

• 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. Not reviewed.

• 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.

• Something’s Gotta Give (2003) (PG-13: sexual content, brief comic nudity, occasional profanity) — **. A menopausal little ditty starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton as aging lovebirds. Despite two top-shelf actors who sizzle together, “Give” is, after all, a grayed-over retread of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan heart-tuggers, with the added wrinkle that it thinks it’s delivering a news flash: that men and women in their twilight years are still vital. Also starring Keanu Reeves and Frances McDormand. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Stuck on You (2003) (PG: 13: Sexual situations and humor, coarse language and cartoon-style violence) — **1/2.. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear stars 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.

• 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.

• 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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