- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Agent Cody Banks (2003) (PG: Action violence, mild language and some sexual content, according to the MPAA) An inevitable challenge to the "Spy Kids" franchise, revolving around Frankie Muniz as a high schooler and clandestine agent for the CIA. His assignment: spy on the activities of robotics scientist Dr. Connors (Martin Davidson) by ingratiating himself with the man's daughter, Natalie, a dream girl embodied by Hilary Duff. Slight problem: agent Cody Banks is shy with girls.
The Hunted (2003) (R: Occasional graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; fleeting profanity) *1/2. A feral whopper from director William Friedkin, who casts Benicio Del Toro as a former Special Forces soldier who has gone off his rocker, targeting hunters and then overmatched lawmen around Portland, Ore. Only his mentor, survivalist and tracker Tommy Lee Jones, stands a chance of capturing or killing the renegade. Mr. Friedkin insists on flogging the teacher-student angle to the last strenuous improbability. An interlude on a commuter train is clearly meant to recall the car chase in Mr. Friedkin's "The French Connection." It wanders as far off the rails as poor Mr. Del Toro.
Spider (2002) (R) David Cronenberg's movie version of a novel by Patrick McGrath, adapted by the author and starring Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic recalling a murderous past that now extends from the 1960s through the 1980s against a decaying urban-industrial backdrop in London. With Miranda Richardson and Lynn Redgrave in trick supporting roles, plus John Neville and Gabriel Byrne.
Till Human Voices Wake Us (2003) (No MPAA Rating morbid story elements; fleeting nudity and sexual candor) . Borrowing a title from the last line of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" fails to dignify this Australian plunge into lovelorn mysticism. Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter prove rather fitful cast members in a scenario that spends considerable time recalling teenage sweethearts, impersonated by Lindley Joyner and Brooke Harman. A youthful tragedy haunts Mr. Pearce, a lonely physician. Returning to a rural town called Genoa for his father's funeral, the hero is confronted with an amnesiac stranger on a train: Miss Bonham as Ruby, evidently invisible to everyone except Mr. Pearce and us. The suspicion that she is a phantom is immediate and easy to mock. Theoretically, she provides solace for lingering emotional wounds that date back 20 years. As a practical matter, the movie becomes hostage to terminal sappiness.
Willard (2003) (PG-13: Terror violence, some sexual content and language'' according to the MPAA) A remake of the 1971 horror curiosity that featured Bruce Davison as a shy and insecure young chap who found it easier to befriend rats than people. When circumstances gang up on him, he unleashes his rodent pets to exact vengeance on human tormentors. Crispin Glover inherits the title role, which could be a camp classic in his oddball custody.

About Schmidt (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity, with a facetious emphasis) *1/2. The elegant, recently widowed New York sophisticate of Louis Begley's novel almost vanishes inside the film Schmidt, a stolid Omaha resident embodied by a physically squat, emotionally stunted Jack Nicholson. 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. Oscar nominations for Mr. Nicholson and Miss Bates.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002) (PG-13: Occasional documentary images of violence) **. The subtitle doesn't help much to clarify the title, evidently the Zhosa term for "power." The work of a young American political activist, Lee Hirsch, who ventured to South Africa in the early 1990s, this historical-cultural survey recruits such notable musicians as trumpeter Hugh Masekela, vocalist Miriam Makeba, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela to celebrate the influence of popular music, notably so-called "freedom songs," in the mass political movements that resisted apartheid for decades after World War II. The chronicle begins with a tribute to a martyred musician, songwriter Vuyisile Mini, and culminates with the presidential election of Nelson Mandela. Often stirring despite its awkward and overcompensating tendencies.
The Ballad of Bering Strait (2002) (NR: nothing objectionable) **. Nina Gilden Seavey, head of George Washington University's Documentary Center, follows a Russian country-western band called Bering Strait from its arrival in Nashville to a performance at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium and finally to a warm-up gig for Trisha Yearwood at Wolf Trap. "Ballad" is a little fuzzy on details at times and there's little treatment of the band's interpersonal relations. Too much gloss and too few warts: Bering Strait is an interesting novelty, but as of yet, not much more. Cinematography by Erich Roland. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
Bringing Down the House (2003) (PG-13: Systematic comic vulgarity; frequent lewd allusions and fleeting depictions of drug use) *1/2. Another farcical orgy for chuckleheads. Steve Martin plays a divorced tax lawyer whose uptight flaws are cured by a devious house guest, Queen Latifah as a brash felon who craves legal counsel and protection. The bogus nature of the bonding between hero and heroine is underlined by the fact that Latifah attracts a willing, funnier admirer in Eugene Levy as Mr. Martin's lecherous colleague. Jean Smart gets a thankless role as the hero's ex. Missi Pyle plays a gold digger who dukes it out with Latifah in a country club restroom; Joan Plowright and Betty White play elderly cranks, also obliged to act like bigots for the sake of convenience. Miss Plowright's character compensates by sharing a joint with strangers at a black nightclub. Evidently, the token toking scene is officially cute in Hollywood again. The movie seems unable to resist pandering gags of any tendency.
Chicago (2002) (PG-13: Sustained cynical tone and frequent sexual candor; occasional violence) ****. Rob Marshall's dazzling movie version of 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 1981. Both heroines are predatory: 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 (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 prison warden Mama Morton. Golden Globe awards for Miss Zellweger and Mr. Gere, plus best musical or comedy. Thirteen Oscar nominations, including best movie, actress (Renee Zellweger) and supporting actress (both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah).
Cradle 2 the Grave (2003) (R: Extreme violence, partial nudity, foul language and minor alcohol use) **. Jet Li and rapper DMX team up in this noisy action caper hoping to unite martial arts and hip-hop audiences. DMX is a jewel thief with a conscience who finds his latest haul a bevy of black diamonds has made him a target of both a criminal kingpin and a Taiwanese arms dealer. Mr. Li's fighting skills remain a marvel to behold, but "Cradle's" nonstop action can't disguise a reed-thin plot cobbled together from too many other action films. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
Daredevil (2003) (PG-13: Comic book-style violence, drug use, a brief sexual encounter) ***. Ben Affleck is Daredevil, a blind attorney by day and brooding vigilante by night who uses his supercharged other senses to fight crime. The Marvel superhero must battle more than his personal demons in the latest comic book saga to hit the big screen. Villains Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Bullseye (an electric Colin Farrell) want to crush the crimson-clad hero. Director Mark Steven Johnson creates a darker version of the comic book hero, and in doing so continues in the tradition of 1989's "Batman." "Daredevil" can't match that film's dizzying heights, but it boasts a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Garner of "Alias" as Daredevil's love interest. 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 take on 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. Oscar nominations for best actress (Julianne Moore) and screenplay. 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. Ten Oscar nominations, including best movie and actor (Daniel Day Lewis).
Gods and Generals (2003) (PG-13: Prolonged and sometimes graphic depictions of Civil War battles) ***. The impressive successor to "Gettysburg." Adapting a historical novel by Jeffrey M. Shaara, director-screenwriter Ronald F. Maxwell doubles back to the early years of the war and dramatizes battles at Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The central figure is Stephen Lang as the Confederacy's boldest field commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. Mr. Lang reincarnates him as a fascinating mix of piety, introspection and belligerence. Jeff Daniels returns as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, which suffers a defeat outside Fredericksburg that anticipates certain aspects of the slaughter awaiting Pickett's men at Gettysburg. The magnitude of the sacrifice on both sides is a source of profound pathos. Mr. Maxwell has returned to a tradition of biographical and historical melodrama that was once a Hollywood staple. Moreover, he has rediscovered many of its merits. With Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee.
The Guru (2003) (R: Sustained comic and sexual vulgarity; occasional profanity and fleeting nudity; facetious episodes about a porn film company) . This contemporary musical farce is the latest facetious groaner from Daisy von Schlerer Mayer, who emerged as a menace to film comedy in "Party Girl." The plot revolves around an emigrant from Delhi, Jimi Mistry as Ramu Gupta, a dance instructor who takes up residence with three earlier arrivals in the Bronx. A ditzy socialite, Marisa Tomei's Lexi, mistakes him for a seer and adopts him as a boyfriend. But Ramu has fallen in love with a porn actress named Sharrona, played by Miss Damaged Goods herself, Heather Graham. Having embraced rather desperate compromises and deceptions, hero and heroine must struggle to get a fresh start by the denouement. They wage a losing struggle to survive the suffocating, amateurish embrace of Miss Mayer.
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. An 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 the late 1940s, 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. The three women are linked through remarks, gestures and events but it's always a stretch to believe that the fictional Laura and Clarissa exist independently while echoing some aspects of the authentic Virginia. Golden Globe awards for best dramatic movie and to Miss Kidman. Nine Academy Award nominations, including best movie and actress (Miss Kidman).
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) (PG-13: Sexually suggestive material) *1/2. Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey star in a forced romantic comedy poking fun at the rules we bring to the dating scene. Miss Hudson plays a columnist whose latest assignment involves dating and dumping a man to illustrate the mistakes women make in relationships. Mr. McConaughey plays her unsuspecting victim, but he has an equally vapid ulterior motive all his own. "Lose" serves up tired observations on dating mores without giving us any real romantic moments to savor. Also starring Michael Michele and Bebe Neuwirth. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
The Jungle Book 2 (2003) (G: nothing objectionable, but small children may be slightly spooked by non-cuddly jungle animals, such as snakes and bats) **. The kiddies will thoroughly enjoy this sequel to "The Jungle Book," the 1967 Disney animation classic adapted from Rudyard Kipling's late-19th-century novel. Disney has done a wonderful job of reproducing the visual quality of the original "Jungle" in this follow-up, originally slated for a direct-to-video release. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
Old School (2003) (R: Frequent drinking, sexual situations, crude language and nudity) **. Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn star in this "old school" slob comedy that comes off like "Animal House's" distant cousin. The trio's characters are beyond their college years, but when Mr. Wilson's Mitch rents a home near the local university, his pals convince him to turn the pad into a makeshift fraternity house. The movie will no doubt evoke nostalgia in 30- and 40-somethings who long for college's carefree days. "Old School" doesn't capitalize on its witty premise, several funny set pieces notwithstanding. Mr. Ferrell supplies most of the humor, proving his post-"Saturday Night Live" career could be worth watching. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
Open Hearts (2002) (R: strong language, simulated intercourse, nudity, mature subject matter) **1/2. A circuitous tale of adultery and…paralysis. Something's going on in the hospitals of Europe: Apparently they're the place to make love connections. "Open Hearts" is a complex story of follow closely a quadriplegic whose fiancee falls in love with the husband of the woman who ran into him with her car. A couple of the performances are terrific (those of Danish actresses Paprika Steen and Stine Bjerregaard, in particular), and Danish director Susanne Bier's spartan direction is interesting to look at, but it's ultimately impossible to get over the preposterousness of "Open Hearts'" premise. Love may be blind, irrational and inexplicable but not this blind, irrational and inexplicable. 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. Seven Academy Award nominations, including best movie and actor (Mr. Brody).
The Quiet American (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence, including depictions of wartime combat and urban terrorism) .*1/2. This remake of Graham Greene's allegorical political thriller of 1955 seems admirably faithful and absorbing until the epilogue, which succumbs to hindsight and reminds us that Americans became implicated in a costly war in Vietnam. Scenically, it's authenticated by location shooting in Vietnam. The ingrained Greene hostility to American political power is complicated by Michael Caine's performance as his embittered English mouthpiece, the aging and dissolute journalist Fowler. The appearance of a personable and idealistic American interloper named Pyle (Brendan Fraser), attached to an aid mission in Saigon in the early 1950s, stirs Fowler's resentment when his young Vietnamese mistress is courted by Pyle. Eventually, Fowler lends himself to the assassination of Pyle by a Communist cadre, rationalizing his treachery because of the Quiet American's collusion with a military junta. The book's mid-1950s perspective is reflected accurately enough. If Pyle forecasts a treacherous future under American influence, Fowler certainly embodies European colonial disgrace and defeatism. Oscar nomination for Michael Caine as best actor.
The Safety of Objects (2003) (R: Strong language, sexual situations and partial nudity) **1/2. Glenn Close leads a strong ensemble cast looking at the familiar turf of suburban malaise. Director Rose Troche ("Go Fish") highlights the foibles of four neighboring families each suffering from hidden pain. Co-stars Dermot Mulroney, Mary Kay Place and Patricia Clarkson lend "Objects" a refreshing verisimilitude, but we've seen much of this angst before. Reviewed by Christian Toto.
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. Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar as best director. In Spanish with English subtitles. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
Tears of the Sun (2003) (R: Frequent graphic violence, involving depictions of military combat and atrocities; occasional profanity; fleeting nudity and depictions of rape in wartorn settings) ***1/2. An exceptionally dynamic and stirring blend of escape thriller and combat spectacle, well timed from the standpoint of people who regard themselves as pro-military. The movie celebrates the prowess of a Navy SEAL squadron commanded by Bruce Willis, who must freelance with orders to extract a quartet of foreign nationals from a Catholic medical mission in a rain-forest region of Nigeria. Honor and necessity oblige him to shepherd scores of Christian Ibo refugees to safety after the outbreak of another civil war. Stripped for action, with only the squadron and a reduced party of refugees, stalked by hundreds of rebel soldiers as they near the Cameroon border, "Tears" becomes a streamlined juggernaut of suspense and visceral excitement. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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