- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

OPENING

• The Heart of Me (2003) (R) — An adultery melodrama about the rude awakening that awaits Olivia Williams, a happily married English wife and mother during the 1940s. She discovers that her sister, Helena Bonham Carter, and her husband, Paul Bettany, have been clandestine lovers for a considerable period. Based on the Rosamund Lehmann novel “The Echoing Grove.”

• Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) (PG:13: Excessive violence) — **1/2. Angelina Jolie reprises her role as the no-nonsense explorer in a sequel that’s a vast improvement over the original. That isn’t saying much given the quality of the first film, but “Cradle of Life” director Jan de Bont (“Speed”) makes the most of the video game source material. Co-star Gerard Butler shines as Croft’s would be accomplice and possible love match. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Seabiscuit (2003) (PG-13) — A movie version of Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring best-seller about the great race horse, a late bloomer of the 1930s whose unexpected emergence led to a famous match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The principal cast members are Jeff Bridges as owner Charles Howard, Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith and Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard. Real-life jockey Gary Stevens is cast as George Woolf, the great rider who replaced Pollard when he was severely injured.

• Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003) (PG) — Perhaps not the final installment of the “Spy Kids” series but certainly the first enhanced by 3-D sequences, evidently triggered when Alexa Vega as Carmen and Daryl Sabara as kid brother Juni are lured into a virtual reality labyrinth. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino return as their parents and Sylvester Stallone has been recruited to play a whimsical new villain.

• Tycoon (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — A Russian feature about a college professor who masterminds a conspiracy to get a jump on get-rich-quick schemes in the immediate aftermath of the communist government collapse in the early 1990s. A limited engagement, exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge. In Russian with English subtitles.

NOW SHOWING

• L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) (R: strong sexuality; brief nudity; profanity) — **. Like MTV’s “The Real World,” the long-running reality series from which French writer-director Cedric Klapisch basically derives his formula, “L’Auberge” intimately peeps into the lives of an emotionally charged bunch of young adults moving in tight quarters in a slovenly group house, located in uber-hip Barcelona. For Mr. Klapisch, it’s like a microcosmic version of greater Europe. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Bad Boys II (2003) (R: Action and graphic violence; pervasive profanity; sexuality; drug content) — **. Overblown explosions, outsized car wrecks and blinding firefights — that’s the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay hallmark of action-farce quality. The producer-director duo have collaborated on several movies (including the first “Bad Boys,” “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor”) and “BBII” takes things even further over the top than any actioner that preceded it. It’s vulgar, cheap, thrill-seeking filmmaking, but Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, who play Miami drug cops Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, are often hilarious together, making this a worthwhile, if desensitizing, affair. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Bonhoeffer (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) —A documentary feature about the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who collaborated in one of the assassination attempts aimed at Adolf Hitler. Directed by Martin Doblmeier. Exclusively at the Avalon.

• Capturing the Friedmans (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with frequent profanity and sexual candor; fleeting glimpses of pornographic illustrations; recollections of a criminal case involving charges of sexual molestation) — ***1/2. An extraordinarily, painfully revealing documentary feature about the ordeal of a family in Great Neck, N.Y., that suffered public disgrace in the late 1980s. A postal sting aimed at the distribution of child pornography led to the arrest of a science teacher named Arnold Friedman, now deceased. The original search for pornographic literature led to graver accusations of child molestation, predicated on the fact that Mr. Friedman taught piano and computer lessons at home. Eventually, his teenage son Jesse was accused of being an accomplice in sexual abuse. Both pleaded guilty and were sent to prison. Director Andrew Jarecki drew on the home movies and video recordings kept by the eldest son, David Friedman. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) (PG:13: Sexual innuendo, violent fistfights and car crashes, partial nudity). — **1/2. Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore return in the sequel to 2000’s guilty-pleasure spinoff from the TV series. The trio must battle a fallen angel (Demi Moore) bent on selling the identities of everyone on the government’s witness protection program. Miss Moore’s presence alone raises one of many pop culture goose bumps, but the main attractions are the loopy fight scenes and playful spirit shown by the film’s stars. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Finding Nemo (2003) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — ****. In this first family attraction of the summer season, the estimable Pixar animators continue to blend illustrative sophistication and humorous invention with sound story construction. A widowed, overprotective clownfish called Marlin (Albert Brooks seems his perfect vocal embodiment) embarks on a desperate quest across the Great Barrier Reef to retrieve his kid Nemo, who has ended up in the aquarium of a dentist in Sydney, Australia. Marlin acquires a memory-challenged traveling companion in Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. An abundance of marine life alternately aids and obstructs their rescue mission. The voice cast also includes Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe, Barry Humphries, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, John Ratzenberger (as a precision “school” of fish) and Elizabeth Perkins.

• How To Deal (2003) (PG-13) — Mandy Moore’s follow-up to “A Walk to Remember.” While no longer threatened by incurable illness, she does suffer from teenage cynicism, exacerbated by her divorced parents, Allison Janney and Peter Gallagher, and a sister (Alexandra Holden) preoccupied with marriage plans. Things look up for the heroine when she meets a young man played by Trent Ford. Adapted from a series of teen novels written by Sarah Dessen. Not reviewed.

• I Capture the Castle (2003) (R: Sustained sexual candor, with occasional nudity and simulated intercourse; episodes of intense family conflict) — **. A belated movie version of an early novel by Dodie Smith, the English novelist and sometime screenwriter who enhanced the Disney inventory by writing “101 Dalmatians.” It remains a tough source to popularize in many respects, but director Tim Fywell and his associates make a game attempt. The plot is framed as the diary of the youngest daughter in a bohemian English family struggling to make ends meet while residing in a castle with few modern amenities, circa 1936. The future prospects for narrator Cassie (Romola Garai) and her older sister Rose (Rose Byrne) improve when the estate is purchased by wealthy Americans with two eligible sons, Simon (Henry Thomas) and Neil (Marc Blucas in a vigorous and amusing performance that recalls the young Jeff Bridges). The upshot is that Cassie finds herself an overmatched romantic rival with Rose, whose absence of scruples comes as a painful surprise. Heidi Thomas wrote the screenplay.

• Jet Lag (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and frequent sexual candor) — ***. This slight but deft and ultimately exhilarating romantic comedy illustrates how star chemistry and sensibility can rescue a dubious pretext. Juliette Binoche, a beautician trying to elude a domineering mother and boyfriend, and Jean Reno, a chef prone to anxiety attacks, meet by chance at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, where flights are delayed indefinitely by strikes. Mr. Reno’s Felix loans Miss Binoche’s Rose a cell phone and the shelter of his hotel room, where they get acquainted but also get on each other’s nerves during a room service meal. Miraculously, director Daniele Thompson seems to salvage an illusion of genuine mutual need and rapport in the aftermath of this rancorous interlude, persuading us that a flurry of separations actually demonstrate how much these middle-aged lonelyhearts belong together. The screenplay is a rare sort of collaboration for the movies: Daniele Thompson and Christopher Thompson are mother and son. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• Johnny English (2003) (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity, including sequences dependent on scatological sightgags; occasional sexual allusions and facetious depictions of violence) — **1/2. Already a resounding hit overseas, this diverting, low-stakes espionage farce introduces Rowan Atkinson as an amusing contemporary rival to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers. An eager-beaver desk jockey in the British Secret Service, Johnny English is promoted out of desperation when calamity diminishes the ranks of experienced Double-0 spies. He does not lack for courage or initiative, but his judgment and execution are pitiful. Mr. Atkinson’s facility with both overconfident and sheepish character traits seems ideal for this profile, and English is wittily reinforced by a loyal, resourceful sidekick impeccably played by comedian Ben Miller. John Malkovich is cast as the villainous mastermind, a fiendish Frenchman named Pascal Sauvage, who intends to transform the British Isles into a penal colony. The movie is clever enough to end strongly, as English struggles to sabotage Sauvage’s coronation ceremony, which appears to have stirred little resistance from a docile population.

• The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) (PG-13: Systematic violence and horror stylization in an adventure-fantasy format) — .. This stupefying rattletrap collapses while trying to juggle futuristic, anachronistic and plagiaristic traits. Several fictional characters from late Victorian or Edwardian literature — white hunter Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), submariner Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), U.S. Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Mina Harker (Petra Wilson) and Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), usually bullied by Mr. Hyde, an Incredible Hulk of an alter-ego — are recruited under dubious circumstances to combat a wave of terrorist attacks. The crimes seem to be aimed at provoking war in Europe 15 years before World War I. The defenders meet in London, lugging so much hang-up baggage that it’s surprising Dr. Sigmund Freud isn’t a consulting crimestopper. The system of illusion is laughable, especially when the crises shift to Venice and then a remote armaments factory in wintry Mongolia — an appropriate spot for a movie bound to tank.

• Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003) (PG-13: Fleeting sexual allusions and comic vulgarity) — *1/2. A compatibly chuckleheaded sequel to the preposterous law school farce of two summers ago. In a nutshell, it’s “Elle Goes to Washington.” Reese Witherspoon returns in the role of disarming, effusive Southern California cutie Elle Woods, a transplanted Barbie Doll of a sorority girl from Bel Air. After confirming an engagement to Harvard Law prof Luke Wilson, the beamish heroine uses her Crimson connections to land a job as the newest intern with a congresswoman played by Sally Field, whose commitment to Elle’s pet issue, protecting animals from being used as test critters for cosmetics, proves less than ironclad. Directed with a blinding sense of bogus adorability by Chares Herman-Wurmfeld of “Kissing Jessica Stein.”

• Northfork (2003) (PG-13: Systematic morbid humor; fleeting profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) — *1/2. A deadpan, American Gothic social satire from the eccentric twins, Michael and Mark Polish. They collaborate as writer-producers with Michael directing. Mark also appears as a principal cast member, playing the son of James Woods, the only performer who manages to anchor the ephemeral conception, which is akin to staging sketch comedy in the wide-open spaces. Father and son are government checkers in 1955 in a Montana town called Northfork, which a dam project is about to drown beneath a reservoir. The stylization is droll to a fault. The twins fail to sustain comic pathos around the idea of people confronting states of limbo or farewell, but there are some witty moments and pictorial touches.

• Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details in an adventure spectacle format; elements of supernatural horror) — **1/2. This belated companion piece to the venerable Disneyland attraction could have been the most clever and entertaining revamp of the buccaneer genre since “The Crimson Pirate.” But the modern tendency to “supersize” prevents a perfectly dandy yarn of about 105 minutes from reaching a timely showdown. Despite the interminable fourth act, “Pirates” is an astute blend of comic characterization and rejuvenated adventure cliches at its most diverting. Johnny Depp is encouraged to enjoy himself in an extroverted masquerade as a roguish pirate captain called Jack Sparrow, intent on retrieving his ship, the Black Pearl, from a mutinous mate, Barbossa, an imposing corrupt presence as played by Geoffrey Rush. Keira Knightley of “Bend It Like Beckham” looks very attractive in period costume, and she gets two valiant suitors in Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport.

• Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) (PG: Pirate-style violence). **1/2. The legendary Sinbad comes to life once more in a new animated feature that should delight children and prevent their parents from nodding off. Brad Pitt voices the title role, that of a lovable pirate who discovers there’s more to life than thievery. Mr. Pitt’s vocal work sounds too modern for such a throwback role. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sinbad’s love interest and Michelle Pfeiffer as the Goddess of Chaos overshadow such complaints. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Spellbound (2003) (G) — ***. This top-flight documentary turns a spelling contest into a white-knuckle viewing experience. It tracks eight children from across the country as they converge on Washington for the National Spelling Bee. The film captures the American dream in all its abstract glory. The bright, engaging children are cast in almost uniformly appealing tones, but their dogged efforts render them all too human. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Swimming Pool (2003) (R: Frequent nudity; occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence) — **. An intriguing but ultimately disappointing reunion project for Charlotte Rampling and the young French writer-director Francois Ozon, memorably associated a few years ago on “Under the Sea.” Mr. Ozon’s first English-language feature, this exploration of one woman’s mind casts Miss Rampling as a popular English author of crime fiction, Sarah Morton, who is offered a change of scene by her publisher (Charles Dance): the use of his country home in Provence. Soon after arriving and beginning to work on a new book, she is joined by an unexpected guest: Ludivine Sagnier as Mr. Dance’s footloose daughter Julie, whose hedonism proves an irritating but also insidiously seductive distraction. There’s a murder mystery along the way, but the essential toss-up question for moviegoers is whether anything having to do with Julie is real or imagined. Some dialogue in French with English subtitles.

• Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines(2003) (R: Frequent graphic violence in a science-fiction format; fleeting profanity and nudity) *1/2 “I feel the weight of the future bearing down,” complains Nick Stahl as the new incarnation of marked youth John Connor, but it’s the weight of past success and present redundancy that crushes this chintzy and cumbersome sequel. The resourceful prototype was a genuine sleeper of 1984 and the initial sequel was the preeminent summer spectacle of 1991. That’s been some time now. This afterthought enters the marketplace with scant novelty value and without director James Cameron, who bid the franchise adieu. According to Arnold Schwarzenegger, fans have been clamoring for another sequel, but this restart, entrusted to Jonathan Mostow, the director of “U-571,” is always slapdash and disillusioning. Having done the ruthless Terminator and then the redemptive Terminator, there’s not much the star can do with the overmatched Terminator, an obsolete cyborg hulk who must struggle to protect Connor and a companion played by Claire Danes from a souped-up model called the T-X, disguised as dishy Kristanna Loken. The thrill episodes prove a succession of rambling wrecks; they commence with a stupefying vehicular chase through Los Angeles and culminate in Armageddon, which looks rather merciful at this stage of franchise exhaustion. For some reason, the star’s Austrian accent seems to have grown thicker.*

• 28 Days Later (2003) (R: Frontal nudity, gratuitous violence and blood shed, sexual situations and harsh language) — ***. “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle brings style and intelligence to what essentially is a B-movie zombie yarn. The awkwardly titled film follows Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier who is one of the few survivors of a virus that kills nearly everyone living in London and beyond. Jim and a scattered group of healthy humans must do battle with the bloodthirsty “infected” who rule the nights and crave human flesh. The film attempts some modest social commentary but is most effective as a gory thrill generator. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Whale Rider (2002) (PG-13: Fleeting episodes of intense family conflict; sustained ominous elements that place a child in jeopardy; fleeting graphic violence) *1/2. A New Zealand import contrived to glorify Maori renewal through girl power for members of a seacoast tribe. The mulish elderly patriarch, Rawiri Paratene, refuses to recognize his granddaughter, Keisha Castle-Hughes, as a legitimate heir and suitable candidate for warrior training and mythology. Director Niki Caro is not a Maori herself. Subject to repeated lapses of attention and continuity, she thinks it’s fine to reawaken cultural superstition and mysticism as long as there’s a good chance that a little princess will be worshipped. The title alludes to a legend that tribal salvation will come when a new chief rides the back of a whale, a miracle that never looks persuasive as cinematic spectacle.

• Winged Migration (2002) (PG: Occasional graphic violence in documentary depictions of wildlife) — ***. An impressive, French-made documentary feature about migratory bird travels around the globe, assembled from hundreds of cameramen and embellished by computer graphics, which seem to account for the sequences that resemble beautifully animated paintings of wildlife more than photorealistic observation and celebration. One of the finalists as best documentary feature during the last Academy Awards.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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