- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

All the Real Girls (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; nudity and simulated intercourse; fleeting violence) ***. The second feature of a young North Carolina filmmaker, David Gordon Green, who appears to be evolving a distinctive, disarming and potentially eloquent flair for intimacy and poetic realism. The catch is that the methodology still seems far more intriguing than the end result, which falls well short of unmitigated satisfaction. The setting is a mill town (simulated in Marshall and Asheville, N.C.) where the young people seem to be simultaneously footloose and derelict. The romance between a young man named Paul (Paul Schneider) and a recent prep school grad named Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the kid sister of his best friend, proves vulnerable to peer pressure and the uncertainties of the principals. Evidently, they're incapable of trusting each other or themselves enough during the preliminary stages of a love affair. The movie's moods, textures and images are often fresh and stirring, but the scenario remains as tentative as the characters.
Basic (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence; fleeting sexual allusions) *1/2. The barometer reads hurricane weather and the script is drenched in deceptions, all aimed at confusing the audience rather than making sense of alleged melodramatic conflicts, in this bombastically insincere thriller. John Travolta gets to ham it up as the consulting detective, a suspended agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration who is summoned to an Army Ranger base in the Canal Zone to help investigate the foul play that seems to have occurred during a harebrained training mission, supervised by his own Ranger mentor, topkick Samuel L. Jackson. The summons comes from the base's commanding officer, Tim Daly, also an old friend. There appear to be two survivors: Brian Van Holt and Giovanni Ribisi, definitely a contrast of physical specimens. Their stories clash, exposing Rashomonian enmities and inconsistencies. Mr. Travolta and military police captain Connie Nielsen conduct the grillings, which are calculated to keep you guessing at all costs and with a complete sacrifice disregard of plausibility. Directed by John McTiernan from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt. The cast also includes Taye Diggs, Roselyn Sanchez, Dash Mihok and Harry Connick Jr.
Bend It Like Beckham (2001) (PG-13: Occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; fleeting profanity) *1/2. A gauche blend of ethnic domestic farce and youthful sports melodrama, revolving around Parminder Nagra as the younger daughter in a transplanted Sikh family residing in suburban London. Both her older sister, whose wedding is imminent, and her father work at nearby Heathrow Airport. The heroine, called Jess, has a flair for soccer and idolizes the professional star David Beckham. Recruited for a local women's team, she feels constrained to hide her participation from her straitlaced parents. Misunderstandings and ruses proliferate before everything gets patched up, with the older sister married and Jess headed for the United States with a soccer scholarship. The family episodes rival "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for complacent vulgarity. Evenhanded in her buffoonery, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha is also chummy to a fault while lampooning Juliet Stevenson as an anxious English mum of the upper middle class, alarmed at her daughter's soccer team friendship with Jess. The game footage has scant regard for authenticity.
The Core (2003) (PG-13: "Sci-fi death situations and brief strong language" according to the MPAA) The most outlandish disaster spectacle premise since "Armageddon." A series of mystifying occurrences leads to an alarming deduction: Rotation is slowing at the Earth's core, threatening planetary collapse. An emergency mission envisions detonating a nuclear device that will reactive the ailing core. Getting close enough to blast away requires a fantastic voyage in "an untested subterranean craft." It will need to penetrate the Earth a considerable distance on its shakedown cruise. The principals include Aaron Eckhart and Stanley Tucci as geophysicists, Tcheky Karo as a French expert (yes, you read correctly) in atomic weaponry, Delroy Lindo as the designer of the experimental coreship, Hilary Swank and Bruce Greenwood as its operators, D.J. Qualls as a computer genius and Alfre Woodard as head of Mission Control. Directed by Jon Amiel from a screenplay by Cooper Lane and John Rogers, a former stand-up comic.
Head of State (2003) (PG-13: "Language, some sexuality and drug references" according to the MPAA) The latest Chris Rock farce, directed by the star from a screenplay he contrived with Ali LeRoi. The setting is Washington, where Mr. Rock plays a variant on James Stewart's Mr. Smith. Now called Mays Gilliam, he is a former city alderman selected to replace a national political candidate who has suddenly died. The party views him as a stopgap while looking ahead to the next election. Mays runs such a spirited and distinctive populist campaign that he emerges as a genuine contender. With Bernie Mac as the hero's older brother, a bail bondsman, who becomes his running mate. The cast also includes Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens, Tamala Jones, Dylan Baker, Nick Searcy, James Rebhorn and rapper Nate Dogg as a musical narrator.
Nowhere in Africa (2002) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) The new Academy Award winner as best foreign language film, this German import depicts the exile of a Jewish family during the Hitler regime. Leaving Breslau, a lawyer, his wife and little girl find refuge in Kenya for the duration of World War II, struggling to manage a farm with the aid of a Kenyan cook and foreman. Directed by Caroline Link and derived from an autobiographical book by Stefanie Zweig. Dialogue in both German and English, with English subtitles.
Spun (2003) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) The feature debut of a music video director named Jonas Akerlund, who casts Jason Schwartzman as an addicted college drop-out desperate for a supply of amphetamines. He becomes part of the menage in a household of manufacturers, dealers and tarts in Los Angeles. This rogues' gallery includes John Leguizamo, Mickey Rourke, Mena Suvari, Brittany Murphy and Patrick Fugit.

Agent Cody Banks (2003) (PG: Action violence, mild language and sexual suggestiveness ) **. A sorry attempt to repeat the success of the "Spy Kids" franchise, a pair of recent movies about under-age spies who make like James Bond and perform feats of derring-do. This caper, with "Malcolm in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz in the title role, trades on that same formula, but its humor is flat, its special effects junky and its acting one big parodic mess. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
Bringing Down the House (2003) (PG-13: Systematic comic vulgarity; frequent lewd allusions and flleting 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 houseguest, 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.
Boat Trip (2003) (R: stong sexual situations, nudity, obscenity, profanity) . One of the stupidest films released so far this year and, if you've seen "Just Married" or "A Guy Thing," you know that's saying something. Starring the increasingly ridiculous Cuba Gooding Jr. alongside the lovably chubby but marginally funny Horatio Sanz, "Boat Trip" takes a premise full of comedic possibilities straight buddies mistakenly aboard a cruise ship chockablock with homosexual men into a stinking heap of misfired jokes, numskulled sight gags and corny sentimentality. Consider this movie outed. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
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. Six Academy Awards, including best picture and best supporting actress for Miss Zeta-Jones.
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.
Dreamcatcher (2003) (R) **. A supernatural horror thriller derived from a Stephen King novel, adapted by William Goldman and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Four lifelong friends Thomas Jane, Damian Lewis, Jason Lee and Timothy Olyphant reunite in a cabin in snowy Maine for an annual hunting trip. A stranger, contaminated by some kind of alien parasite, intrudes and obliges the friends to counter the threat with telepathic resources, dating back to a boyhood crisis that demanded extraordinary heroism. The men also become targets for a military unit stalking the alien menace. the new movie proves a doomsday monstrosity, destined to become more laborious and insufferable the longer it strings out an entrapment premise for suspenseful uncertainty or graphically appalling impact. The cast includes Morgan Freeman, Tom Sizemore and Donnie Wahlberg.
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. Best actress Academy Award for Miss Kidman.
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.
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.
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. Academy Awards for Mr. Polanski, Mr. Brody and screenwriter Ronald Harwood.
Piglet's Big Movie (2003) (G) **. The title exaggerates, since this addition to the Disney studio's Winnie the Pooh animated films is a very small proposition, intended mostly for preschoolers. It may track pretty young even in that audience. The idea is that kind and resourceful Piglet has been underappreciated by the other critters of the Hundred Acre Wood. At the outset they're even too vain to notice when he saves them from calamity during a blundering honey harvest that riles a swarm of bees. Through a series of flashback episodes that borrow vignettes from the A.A. Milne books, the foolish ingrates begin to appreciate what a sterling little fellow they have in their habitat. Carly Simon, who composed the song score, makes a somewhat terrifying live-action appearance at the end, communing ecstatically with her guitar in a bucolic setting. Try to keep the children and horses as calm as possible as you flee this epilogue.
Rivers and Tides (2001) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A German-made documentary feature about artist Andy Goldsworthy, who prefers to work with "found materials" from the vicinity of rivers and oceans. Exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row.
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.
Spider (2003) (R: profanity, simulated intercourse, brief violence, perpetually disturbing atmosphere) ***. Adapted from a 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath (who wrote the screenplay), "Spider" stars Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic recalling a murderous past in urban-industrial London. A wonderful, and wonderfully provocative, movie. Also starring Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
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. Academy Award for best original screenplay to Mr. Almodovar. 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.
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 become hostage to terminal sappiness.
A View From the Top (2003) (PG-13) **1/2. A romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a young woman who aspires to be an international flight attendant. The supporting cast includes Kelly Preston, Christina Applegate, Mark Ruffalo, Rob Lowe, Candice Bergen and Mike Myers. It doesn't take too long to notice that the cast seems to outclass the material in "A View From the Top." Clearing the deck for a gem of a picture might have required an extended rehearsal period, in which outclassing the script became a conscious game plan, perhaps abetted by wittier writers.
Willard (2003) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional violence with gruesome illustrative details; fleeting profanity and sexual allusions) ***. A very persuasive demonstration that remakes can be better than the originals. In this case the 1971 prototype was a freak horror hit that starred Bruce Davison as the title character, a timid young psychopath who used pet rats to wreak vengeance on his tormentors. A no-contest improvement, the remake showcases Crispin Glover, the freakiest actor of his generation, as a slightly older version of poor vindictive Willard. It's a wonderful brainstorm: Mr. Glover might have been created to portray this role. Glen Morgan makes a very clever writing and directing debut. The ingredients are spare but brilliantly deployed: Mr. Glover, a decaying deathtrap of a house and an array of real and simulated rodents. The filmmakers create a framework in which the oddness of Mr. Glover can blossom into camp madness in a disciplined way, taking optimum advantage of the comic-berserk potential in his sharply chiseled profile, flaring eyes, clenched teeth, malicious smirk and whiney rants.

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