- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

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.

• 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. “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.

• Big Fish (2003) (PG-13: fight scene; partial nudity; innuendo) — ***1/2. A magical-realist cocktail of Southern gothic, fairy-tale whimsy and psychedelic freak show from director Tim Burton. Beneath the gleaming set-pieces, “Fish” is a very old and human story, of an estranged son seeing his father to death’s door. Starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) (PG: brief profanity; mature themes) — *1/2. Barely resembling its 1950 predecessor, this remake stars Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt raising 12 children while holding down their dream jobs. Lots of predictable physical humor laden with easy sentimentality. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Cold Mountain (2003) (R: Graphic violence against the setting of the Civil War; occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse) — *1/2. Anthony Minghella, the accomplished adapter of “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” gets stuck in treacherous expository ruts while attempting a faithful transposition of the award-winning novel by Charles Frazier. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are cast as the Civil War love match Inman and Ada, who begin a tentative courtship in the far western North Carolina town of Cold Mountain shortly before the war and survive long enough to cherish a reunion in the winter before it ends. Inman undertakes a perilous trek home after being injured at Petersburg. Ada is rescued from solitude and genteel ineptitude by a resourceful, blunt farmhand named Ruby, enjoyably portrayed by Renee Zellweger. The vitality that enters with Ruby fails to sustain the grueling romantic odyssey, always hostage to sadistic delaying tactics, especially the recurrent atrocities committed by a Home Guard posse led by psychopaths Ray Winstone and Charlie Hunnam.

• 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.

• 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 kids 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.

• 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 Fog of War (2003) (PG-13: Intense images of war and destruction) — ***. Documentarian Errol Morris spends quality time with the once-reviled defense secretary Robert McNamara, who recalls his involvement not only in Vietnam but in World War II and the Cuban Missile crisis as well. Often riveting and never as tendentious as one might expect. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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 kids. 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.

• House of Sand and Fog (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) — **1/2. The principal characters take a mortal beating in this faithfully doleful movie version of a novel by Andre Dubus III. Nevertheless, writer-director Vadim Perelman, a transplanted Russian, has an aptitude for painful intimacy and emotional calamity. The movie’s merciless sorrows are reinforced by compelling performances from Sir Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly and the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. Miss Connelly is cast as a despondent, destructive young woman who loses her family home in the San Francisco Bay Area to neglect and possible bureaucratic error. The residence is bought at public auction by aristocratic Iranian immigrants, Sir Ben and Miss Aghdashloo. The psychological costs of dispossession loom very large in this story, and Sir Ben is magnificent as a strong personality who proves unable to avert disaster.

• 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.

• Mona Lisa Smile (2003) (PG-13: Sexuality; mature themes) — *1/2. Julia Roberts is the most agreeable, lovable bohemian from Berkeley you’ll ever meet in this protofeminist caricature of the Eisenhower era. Miss Roberts plays a maverick art history professor at buttoned-up Wellesley, where she encourages her young charges to look beyond motherhood and marriage for satisfaction. Also starring Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Paycheck (2003) (PG:13: Intense violence, harsh language) — **. The overexposed Ben Affleck plays a scientist on the run in “Paycheck,” a futuristic tale based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (his work also inspired “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”). Mr. Affleck’s character does work for high-tech businesses and then has his memory erased for security purposes. His latest employer not only zaps his memory but neglects to pay him, leaving him only with an envelope full of seemingly random objects. Uma Thurman co-stars as the woman who helps Mr. Affleck reassemble his past from those objects and save his future when his employer finds out about their task. If only we could forget Mr. Affleck’s wooden performance and how easily “Paycheck” squanders its nifty premise. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Peter Pan (2003) (PG: Fleeting ominous episodes and comic vulgarity) — **1/2. A fitfully appealing reprise of the James M. Barrie classic from Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan, entrusted with the novelty of a live-action production that casts an actual adolescent boy as Peter. The choice, Jeremy Sumpter, doesn’t exactly redefine the role, but he’s robust and good-humored. Mr. Hogan wisely returns to Barrie himself for the wittiest lines and situations; he turns to deft computer animators for miraculous enhancements that can rival or surpass the Disney animators of half a century ago. The Disney version was a 50th anniversary “Pan.” This one anticipates the centennial by a year.

• 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.

• Young Black Stallion (2003) (G) — A belated “prequel” to Carroll Ballard’s superlative 1979 movie version of the Walter Farley children’s classic “The Black Stallion.” Directed in an Imax format by Australian Simon Wincer, the film has a featurette running time of about 50 minutes. It concerns a North African girl called Neera who becomes lost in the desert and is rescued by the sudden appearance of the stallion, who bonds with the child and carries her back to safety. A limited engagement, exclusively at the National Museum of Natural History. Not reviewed.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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