- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

OPENING

• Intacto (2002) (R) A Spanish import, the first feature directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. He chooses an out-of-the-way location, Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, as a backdrop for a plot about a policewoman investigating a man whom she suspects of being responsible for the death of her parents in a car accident. With Max von Sydow in a supporting role. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Nicholas Nickleby (2002) (PG: Sinister elements in several episodes, particularly those involving cruelty to children) *1/2. A keenly deficient digest of the awesomely teeming Charles Dickens novel of 1839 from Douglas McGrath, who displayed a graceful and promising touch with Jane Austen's "Emma" several years ago. He emphasizes the pathetic abused child Smike to mawkish excess, while depending on hapless sentimental instruments in Charlie Hunnam as the protective Nicholas or Jamie Bell as the needy Smike. Christopher Plummer's performance as Ralph Nickleby, the hero's unscrupulous uncle, might have emerged powerfully in a movie that wasn't so weak in other crucial respects. Blundering systematically, Mr. McGrath even contrives to shortchange the humorous characters and episodes.

• The Pianist (2002) (R: Graphic violence and depictions of anti-Semitism in a World War II setting) **1/2. Roman Polanski lacks the staying power needed to sustain this movie version of a 1946 memoir by the classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who recalled his ordeal of surviving German conquest and occupation in Warsaw for five years. Adrien Brody, looking serene and elegant at the piano in the pre-war scenes, is cast as Szpilman. His prosperous Jewish family must adjust to humiliation and impoverishment in the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi control. A fluke spares him from transportation to the death camps with other members of the family, who perished. The movie's compelling aspects also diminish after the Szpilman family is lost. The first half seems as gripping and individualized as "Schindler's List" or "The Grey Zone." The depiction begins to lose intensity once the protagonist becomes a more or less solitary, fugitive survivor, with few resources of his own. As a consequence, the movie goes torpid and never quite recovers, despite the singularity of Szpilman's encounter with a German officer, Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who shelters him during the last days of fighting in the ravaged city.


NOW SHOWING

• About Schmidt (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity, with a facetious emphasis) *1/2. A departure from the source material, a novel by Louis Begley about an elegant, recently widowed New York sophisticate. This New York Schmidt almost vanishes inside a stolid Omaha resident named Warren Schmidt, embodied by Jack Nicholson with an emphasis on the physically squat and emotionally stunted. Still the sudden widower, he dreads the approaching nuptials of his only daughter, Hope Davis, whose intended is a good-natured chucklehead, Dermot Mulroney. The novel's entire social setting is uprooted and comically vulgarized. The most defensible result of the upheaval is Kathy Bates' presence as the bridegroom's mom, a middle-aged hippie with amorous designs on Schmidt. Director Alexander Payne gets Miss Bates and Mr. Nicholson into a hot tub together, an admirable comic inspiration, but they still lack a scene worth playing.

• Adaptation (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and interludes of graphic violence) ***. This encore project for the "Being John Malkovich" team of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is exceptionally clever and entertaining until it takes a turn for the ruinous in the final half hour. Nicolas Cage, cast in the fictionalized dual roles of Mr. Kaufman and his exasperating twin brother Donald, makes contact with Meryl Streep, cast as a fictionalized version of the authentic New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. In the aftermath of this meeting the movie rapidly deteriorates into a brutal, self-destructive muddle that exemplifies all the worst tendencies of Hollywood crime thrillers. The intention is probably satiric, because Charlie has been railing against Hollywood cliches while struggling to adapt Miss Orleans' non-fiction book about orchid culture in Florida. The movie is a kick while it remains playfully discursive and faithful to the source material, deploying Miss Streep as Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper as her eccentric principal subject, the scroungy orchid poacher-breeder-expert John Larouche. Mr. Cage's schizoid personality contrasts are also fun to watch. "Adaptation" sustains the joke with zest and virtuosity until losing its grip in the last reel.

• Antwone Fisher (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, racial epithets and depictions of domestic violence and child abuse; intimations of sexual depravity, including child molestation) *1/2. A well-meaning but often dubious exercise in heavily fictionalized biographical uplift, supposedly based on the memoirs of an authentic Antwone Fisher. Denzel Washington makes his directing debut while playing a Navy psychiatrist who tries to rescue the title character, a young sailor played by Derek Luke who is subject to belligerent flare-ups. The hostility is traced in flashbacks to an abusive childhood in Cleveland; Antwone must endure systematic tyranny and sometimes sexual molestation in the home of a despotic foster mother, formidably embodied by Novella Nelson. This domestic menace has a daughter (Yolonda Ross) who likes to mess with young boys. The maladjusted Antwone also lucks into a lovely Navy girlfriend in the person of Joy Bryant. Eventually, he locates a huge and welcoming Cleveland family. Meanwhile, Mr. Washington and his wife (Salli Richardson) are haunted by some kind of shadowy estrangement. The filmmakers don't seem to realize that this loose end makes the good doctor's extra-special interest in Antwone a bit peculiar.

• Catch Me If You Can (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and sexual candor) *1/2. The most negligible movie ever directed by Steven Spielberg. A good many scenes in this would-be lighthearted adaptation of a ghost-written autobiography are more laborious than deft. The subject is Frank Abagnale, a precocious impostor and forger in his teens during the early 1960s. The leading role transforms Leonardo DiCaprio into a kid again, but the role seems better suited to an engaging newcomer. Tom Hanks plays a dogged FBI man on the trail of the young felon. It's apparent that the filmmakers feel very superior to federal agents of this period. With Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye as Frank's parents and Martin Sheen as a prospective, exceptionally stupid father-in-law.

• Chicago (2002) (PG-13: Sustained cynical tone and frequent sexual candor; occasional violence) ****. Rob Marshall's dazzling movie version of "Chicago," the Bob Fosse revamp of "Roxie Hart," is the most accomplished thing of its kind since Herbert Ross' remarkable adaptation of Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven" in 1979. It's a little impossible to warm to the predatory heroines of "Chicago," Catherine Zeta-Jones as vaudeville headliner Velma Kelly and Renee Zellweger as the avid nobody Roxie Hart, who lusts after Velma's status and inadvertently takes a shortcut to notoriety by gunning down her boyfriend, Dominic West. This brings Roxie to the attention of Chicago tabloids and attracts the services of unscrupulous criminal attorney Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere. Several performers show unexpected flair, particularly Miss Zellweger and Mr. Gere. Every last number is a knockout. The material could not possibly be executed with more precision or luster. With John C. Reilly as Roxie's patsy of a spouse and Queen Latifah in a terrific impersonation of the prison warden Mama Morton.

• Die Another Day (2002) (PG-13: Frequent violence in an adventure fantasy context; recurrent sexual allusions and innuendo; some gruesome illustrative details) *1/2. An off-performance of gargantuan magnitude and an anniversary letdown: "Die" is No. 20 in the remarkably durable series that began in 1962 with "Dr. No." The movie lurches from one strenuous, self-defeating episode to the next. Pierce Brosnan as Bond is captured and tortured by the North Koreans and then has to redeem himself as a free-lancer after being scorned by Her Majesty's Secret Service. The character seems to take a bashing at the hands of director Lee Tamahori and his frenzied collaborators. Halle Berry fares better as a hired gun called Jinx Johnson who echoes the Ursula Andress entrance in "Dr. No." Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike bring youthful confidence and glamour to the roles of the principal villain and Bond's more reluctant conquest, respectively.

• Drumline (2002) (PG-13: strong language and sexual innuendo) **1/2.Hip-hop drummer Devon, played by Nickelodeon cable personality Nick Cannon, enters the competitive world of college marching bands. But will Devon's raw talent and attitude rub officials at Atlanta A&T University the wrong way, or will he learn to harness his considerable skills? Mr. Cannon displays a cool charisma and proficient drum skills as Devon, but the film's narrative can't stay in sync with its energized musical sequences. Comic actor Orlando Jones ("Evolution") sets aside his comic mannerisms to play the revered band director in charge of the mostly unknown cast. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Empire (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence; fleeting nudity and sexual candor; allusions to drug trafficking) *1/2. A vanity crime melodrama that would make more sense if revamped for farce. As a South Bronx homeboy and drug dealer called Victor Rosa, John Leguizamo has need of both psychological and career counseling in the wake of deceitful investment counseling from a Wall Street swindler played by Peter Sarsgaard. Victor's clueless girlfriend Carmen (the ineffable Delilah Cotto) is an unwitting facilitator; her college campus friendship with troublemaker Denise Richards, the shameless girlfriend of Mr. Sarsgaard, leads to a corrupting whiff of downtown luxury and privilege. The star has amusing rapport with the members of Victor's crew. It seems a pity they aren't presented as a comedy troupe or rap ensemble instead of bogus boy mobsters. With Isabella Rossellini as a hilarious boss moll with big, big hair.

• Evelyn (2002) (PG: mild profanity) **. This loose adaptation of a true story, starring a very un-Bondish Pierce Brosnan, pours on the treacle rather profusely and trots out one too many movie cliches. Mr. Brosnan plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work painter and decorator who battles a stubborn Irish justice system to win back custody of his three children after his wife abandons them. It's funny and heartwarming, but it lacks both imagination and originality and, ultimately, fails. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Far From Heaven (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and graphic violence; occasional sexual candor, including a subplot about furtive homosexual behavior) **1/2. Julianne Moore and writer-director Todd Haynes proved a haunting team seven years ago with "Safe." They're reunited for a more quixotic project in this homage to a vintage Hollywood tearjerker, "All That Heaven Allows," circa 1955. Mr. Haynes casts Miss Moore as a Hartford, Conn., housewife who discovers that spouse Dennis Quaid is not only a lush but also an adulterer with homosexual inclinations. The heroine finds some comfort in the friendship of her widowed black gardener, an easygoing tower of strength as embodied by Dennis Haysbert. However, it remains to be seen if the friendship can ripen into a romance secure enough to defy the color line. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, Shirling and White Flint.

• Frida (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor, including simulated interludes of intercourse; fleeting nudity and graphic violence, connected with the depiction of a gruesome traffic accident and subsequent medical procedures) **1/2. A vividly visualized and always watchable biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, portrayed by the irrepressibly robust and confident sexpot Selma Hayek. A profusion of color saturation distinguishes "Frida," directed by Julie Taymor and lit by Rodrigo Prieto. But the scenario never comes close to breaking with superficial and trite Hollywood conventions. It plods along while doting on the amours and struggles of artists including a lifetime tug-of-war with philandering spouse Diego Rivera, impersonated by Alfred Molina. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Gangs of New York (2002) (R: Persistent profanity and graphic violence, typically depicting brutality and gang warfare in a mid-19th Century setting; frequent gruesome illustrative details; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity, with nudity and fleeting interludes of simulated intercourse; fleeting depictions of opium use) *1/2. Wretched excess in a sordid historical setting. This unwieldy and elaborately brutal epic from Martin Scorsese is derived from the chapters in Herbert Asbury's 1928 social history that recalled gang rivalries in the heyday of Irish immigration to New York. The movie begins with a rumble matching an Irish clan called the Dead Rabbits against nativist thugs under a witty despot named William Cutting, familiarly Bill the Butcher. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a classic villain's performance as Bill, the only reason for tolerating the movie's ineptitudes. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the son of a martyred rival of Bill's, infiltrates himself into the Cutting gang, intending to avenge the father he saw killed. The screenwriters fail to get the Big Picture and Little Picture coherently aligned: When the time frame shifts to the Civil War, the filmmakers try to incorporate the infamous New York City draft riots, intercutting its depredations with a final rumble between Bill's gang and the revived Rabbits. The two clashes refuse to harmonize.

• Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) (PG: Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence in an adventure fantasy context; fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) ****. Director Chris Columbus and his colleagues shake off the stilted aspects of last year's introductory feature, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," operating with confidence and cleverness for 160 spellbinding minutes. "Chamber of Secrets" improves on "Sorcerer's Stone" in every respect except the ongoing charm of the principal juvenile characters, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione. Kenneth Branagh is a happily absurd addition to the faculty as a celebrity wizard with bogus skills. The servile little gnome Dobbie perks up the story immediately, and there's also an entertaining school phantom, Moaning Myrtle, a succession of awesome and sometimes alarming critters and all kinds of optical marvels. Richard Harris' recent death gives a valedictory pathos to his impersonation of Dumbledore, the headmaster. One of the most satisfying storybook entertainments ever made.

• The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (PG-13: Graphic violence in episodes depicting combat in medieval settings; sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional gruesome illustrative details) ***. The second installment in Peter Jackson's three-part movie epic derived from the J.R.R. Tolkien "Ring" trilogy. Now scattered, the members of the valiant fellowship try to survive and reach far-flung destinations while menaced by Orc armies under the control of despotic wizards. Ian McKellen returns as the virtuous wizard Gandalf, who must survive an awesome plunge into the abyss that appeared to doom him in the first picture. This dazzling dilemma gives the movie plenty of initial propulsion, but chinks in the Jackson armor begin to surface after about 140 minutes of absorbing and suspenseful updates on the heroes. We are primed for a titanic battle at an outpost called Helm's Deep, but must settle for an overscaled, digital-dependent letdown that fails to concentrate Mr. Jackson's mind or teeming scenic resources. Still a whale of a show, but some miscalculations and breakdowns defy concealment.

• Maid in Manhattan (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting sexual candor and comic vulgarity) **. A Cinderella romance that casts Jennifer Lopez as a single mother and hard-working chambermaid at a Manhattan hotel. Miss Lopez blunders into a case of mistaken identity that attracts a Prince Charming, a role entrusted, not all that securely, to Ralph Fiennes, supposedly a political candidate and dashing bachelor. The movie seldom transcends good-natured mediocrity, but the star projects a sometimes careworn sincerity and ardor that prove distinctive and appealing.

• Pinocchio (2002) (G: nothing objectionable, save for a mildly scary great white shark) No stars. Roberto Benigni's take on the famous Italian fairy tale is bad tear-your-hair-out, gouge-your-eyes-out bad, cheap and shoddy and downright annoying. Shot originally with actors speaking in Italian, the American version features English voiceovers; they might as well have been reading Dickens, the synching is so bad. And with Mr. Benigni in the role of Pinocchio the wooden puppet who desperately wants to be a real live boy the irrepressible paisan becomes an enemy of sanity. He skips, he simpers, he whines, he wails he is a grown man acting like a deranged child, and it's enough to make you want to take Pinocchio's elongated nose and choke the poor puppet out of his misery. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) (PG: Fleeting profanity and episodes dealing with child abuse; thematic concentration on themes of racial and social prejudice against aboriginal children in Australia during the 1930s) **. A polemical chase thriller set in Australia, circa 1931, and inspired by the case history of three aboriginal children who escaped from a state orphanage in hopes of reaching their home in the outback. Director Philip Noyce doesn't do wonders with the juvenile cast members, but he profits from a calmly sinister characterization by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is cast as the well-meaning but stiffnecked bureaucrat who supervises the removal of aboriginal kids to orphanages, where native customs are effaced and the young people are trained as domestic servants. It's still shocking to encounter the racism of the 1930s in this particular exotic guise. With David Gulpilil as the aboriginetracker assigned to retrieve the runaways.

• Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional violence in a science-fiction adventure context; a fleeting interlude of sexual menace) **.. The fourth installment with cast members of the "Next Generation" series, whose return probably rides on the popularity of this episode. It definitely improves on the last, "Star Trek: Insurrection," remaining effectively concentrated on the need to outfox a young despot, Shinzon, encountered during a diplomatic mission to the Romulan zone. As Capt. Picard, Patrick Stewart is compelled to acknowledge a certain family resemblance in Shinzon, an upstart who is also seething with resentments. The character of this warlord may prove a slow-burning triumph for British recruit Tom Hardy. Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden are also on board.

• Talk to Her (2002) (R: frequent nudity, profanity, mature sexual themes) ***. Not an easy film to digest. Themes and sub-themes twist, tango and collide with surprising grace. The film's visual beauty almost subsumes the complicated narrative. A weird and creepy psychodrama, its central focus is silence: the way it colors loneliness, the way it prevents authentic human connection. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar makes this point in several interesting ways, most centrally through two comatose women. In Spanish with English subtitles. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Two Weeks Notice (2002) (PG-13: Sexual humor, strong language) **1/2Romantic comedy staple Sandra Bullock stars as a frazzled chief counsel to her billionaire boss, a Donald Trump type played by Hugh Grant. Miss Bullock's character up and quits over his demanding ways, but the duo soon realize their working relationship may have sired some genuine affection. Mr. Grant's impeccable timing consistently elevates the middling material, and Miss Bullock proves a capable comic foil. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Wild Thornberrys (2002) (PG: Occasional ominous episodes and fleeting comic vulgarity) **. A mind-boggling crossover feature for the Nickelodeon cartoon characters, a family of explorers who specialize in photographing wildlife. They must foil poachers in lion and elephant country. The incongruous sources of slapstick include a hale-fellow British dad, dubbed by Tim Curry; a sarcastic teenage daughter who keeps longing for mall culture while traveling in Africa; and an adopted, wild-child son whose specialty is a "wedgie dance." The heroine is a completely sincere kid sister called Eliza, endowed by a shaman with the ability to talk to the animals. The mixture of gratuitous slapstick and P.C. gospel is pretty merciless.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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