- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

OPENING

• City of God (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence against a backdrop of urban squalor; fleeting nudity and occasional sexual candor) *1/2. Fernando Meirelles' "city" alludes to a sprawling slum in Rio de Janiero and offers a spectacle of youthful depravity and criminality, loosely organized around the rags-to-opportunity chronicle of a youth called Rocket. His attraction to photography gives him an exit route from the gang culture that engulfs cronies from the 'hood. Employing young people from the actual Cidade de Deus district, Mr. Meirelles brings a superficial authenticity to his subject but becomes too engulfed in episodic savagery to modulate toward coherence. The movie depends on recurrent viciousness and brutality at the expense of social perspective and character insight. It becomes a monotonous ordeal long before it ends. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence; seriocomic treatment of essentially depraved behavior; allusions to drug use; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) **. The clever young screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has distilled this script from the memoirs of former TV game show impresario Chuck Barris. The Barris memoir recalled years of show business opportunism during the 1960s and 1970s while producing the likes of "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show." He also put himself forward as a moonlighting CIA hit man, with more than 30 notches on his gun. Mr. Kaufman and director George Clooney take this account as a pretext for nostalgic satire, playing up farcical and ludicrous angles. They show flashes of playful talent along with bad judgment. The re-enactments of the Barris shows are hideously amusing, and there's one fabulous sequence in which a beautiful but scornful creature encounters Sam Rockwell's Barris in a private swimming grotto. Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts pop in and out of the flashback continuity as lunatic consorts. Miss Roberts abets the CIA fantasies, which also display Mr. Clooney as a Mephistophelian spook. It's more fun to welcome back Rutger Hauer as an agent in Europe. The Barris double life demands far too much of Mr. Rockwell, who is not a comic or devious virtuoso.

• Darkness Falls (2002) (R) A horror thriller predicated on a long-ago grisly legend in a town with the inviting name of Darkness Falls. It seems there was once a nice old lady named Matilda Dixon who may have become a vindictive ghost after being victimized back in the 1840s. In a contemporary setting hero Kyle Walsh (Chaney Kley) returns to his haunted hometown, where girlfriend Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) and her kid brother Michael (Lee Cormie) are targeted for the curse of Matilda Dixon.

• Intacto (2002) (R: Violence, coarse language and brief nudity) First-time director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo serves up a moody examination of luck and how it affects the lives of those with the ability to absorb it from others. Max von Sydow ("Minority Report") stars as Sam, the mysterious head of an isolated casino where luck can be gambled with and taken away by those with a special power. Sam survived Hitler's concentration camps, but his considerable luck has become a burden, a lesson others who enter his casino soon learn. In Spanish with English subtitles.


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. Golden Globe awards for Mr. Nicholson and the screenplay.

• 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. Golden Globe awards for supporting actress and actor to Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.

• 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. Golden Globe awards for Miss Zellweger and Mr. Gere, plus best musical or comedy.

• 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.

• 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. Named best movie of 2002 by the New York Film Critics. Exclusively at Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, Shirlington and White Flint.

• 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.

• A Guy Thing (2003) (PG-13: some profanity, crude jokes about soiled undergarments and venereal disease, marijuana humor, mild sexual suggestiveness) * Soon-to-be-married man gets wasted drunk at bachelor party. Wakes up with strange woman the next morning. Strange woman is fiancee's cousin. Man weaves a web of deceit to keep truth from outing. Falls in love with cousin instead. That's it. That's the collective product of four different screenwriters. The otherwise talented Jason Lee (who plays the groom-to-be) and Julia Stiles (the cousin) are wasted in this trite and imbecilic farce. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Hours (2002) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; subplot about a terminal AIDS case; fleeting allusions to lesbian encounters or relationships) **1/2. A faithful and accomplished movie version of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, adapted by the English team of playwright David Hare and director Stephen Daldry. The execution is clever and the cast is stocked with prestige performers. Yet the source material remains a conceptual monstrosity. Like the book, the film begins with Virginia Woolf's suicide by drowning in 1941. Then it backtracks to an earlier point in the life of the author (impersonated with spellbinding skill by a facially altered Nicole Kidman) the day when Woolf began composing her novel "Mrs. Dalloway," published in 1925. This time frame is interwoven with episodes about fictional heroines in emotional distress. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, an unhappily married young mother of late 1940s vintage, expecting a second child and reading a copy of "Mrs. Dalloway." Meryl Streep plays the well-meaning Clarissa Vaughn, a book editor in contemporary Manhattan. She is sometimes mocked as a Mrs. Dalloway (whose first name was Clarissa) by a former lover, Richard (Ed Harris), a poet and novelist dying of AIDS. Remarks, gestures and events are invented to link the three women and provide transitions between their stories, but it's always a stretch to believe that the fictional Laura and Clarissa exist independently while echoing some aspects of the authentic Virginia. Nevertheless, Mr. Daltry proves a deft orchestrator of heavy-handed and tricked-up melodrama, which bottoms out when Laura Brown is inflated into a maternal calamity. Golden Globe awards for best dramatic movie and to Miss Kidman.

• Just Married (2003) (PG-13: mild profanity, crude humor, near-constant harping about lovemaking, fleeting drug reference) *1/2. Colossally stupid and juvenile movie about two mismatched young lovers on a European honeymoon from hell. Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy have zero chemistry together, and their onscreen romance looks coldly forced and labored. Geared as it is toward teenagers with the attention span of cold coffee, "Just Married" provides the requisite amount of toilet jokes and sight gags. There are bloody noses, old ladies with gas, messy gropings in an airplane lavatory and a rectal customs search. It's funny for about five minutes, and it quickly runs out of comedic steam. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Kangaroo Jack (2003) (PG: slapstick violence, gangster-level gunplay and excretory humor) *1/2. Two lifelong pals (Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson) are sent to Australia by a Mafia kingpin to make a special delivery. Along the way they literally run into the title character, a fleet-footed kangaroo who makes off with their package. Too crude for kids and too infantile for adults, this is an arduous 84 minutes despite the Australian scenery. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Narc (2002) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; fleeting nudity and episodes of domestic conflict) ***. A gripping and resourceful crime thriller about a partnership of convenience among Detroit cops investigating the still unsolved death of a colleague, a narc who may have been murdered on the job. His mentor, Ray Liotta as Henry Oak, is a brawny, hard-charging fixture of the robbery-homicide division. He claims there has been a murder, but Oak also has a hidden agenda that could be clouding his judgment. Jason Patric plays his introspective, damaged new sidekick, a former narc named Nick Tellis, offered an opportunity to come off suspension in order to keep tabs on the explosive Oak. The roles suit the co-stars admirably, and the young writer-director Joe Carnaham demonstrates a flair for naturalism that transcends the merely brutal requirements of his script. The revelation of the mystery is more frenzied than the case seems to warrant, but Mr. Carnahan sustains his raw and hard-nosed intentions with considerable impact.

• National Security (2003) (PG-13: mild profanity, prolific gunfire) *. A vapid addition to the "buddy movie" genre, starring Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn as two LAPD rejects who uncover a smuggling operation led by the horrible Eric Roberts. Director Dennis Dugan's overall approach to the movie seems to have been: When in doubt, blow something up. There are several "A-Team"-style, slow-motion car wrecks and explosions, and they are mostly pointless. But Mr. Lawrence gets to strut his stuff, and his antic humor is mildly funny at times. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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. Named best movie of 2002 by the National Society of Film Critics.

• 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.

• 25th Hour (2003) (R: strong language, some violence, references to drug use and underage sex) ***. Without a doubt one of Spike Lee's finest films. It's mature, challenging and smart, all the while steering clear of the high-voltage polemics that characterized the director's earlier work. The story of a New York drug dealer (a typically superb Edward Norton) on his last night of freedom before serving a seven-year stretch in prison, "25th Hour" somewhat clunkily weaves in a backdrop of the city in post-September 11 recovery. But a stellar supporting cast Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson and others and a sharp screenplay by novelist David Benioff make up in brio what the movie lacks in thematic unity. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Two Weeks Notice (2002) (PG-13: Sexual humor, strong language) **1/2. Romantic 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.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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