- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

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.
Bringing Down the House (2003) (PG-13) A farce matching Steve Martin with Queen Latifah. He plays a lawyer who still hasn't gotten over a divorce from Jean Smart. An on-line acquaintance that sounds promising backfires when the sympathetic correspondent turns out to be an escaped prisoner who hopes to enlist the lawyer in her campaign to rectify unjust imprisonment. In short, Queen Latifah takes up residence with Mr. Martin, a reluctant benefactor, but does him a world of good, broadening his outlook and even facilitating a reconciliation with his ex. The supporting cast includes Joan Plowright and Eugene Levy.
Open Hearts (2002) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A Danish melodrama about emotional entanglements in the aftermath of a potentially fatal car accident. In Danish with English subtitles.
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.
Tears of the Sun (2003) (R: "Strong war violence, some brutality and language," according to the MPAA) An adventure melodrama starring Bruce Willis as the commander of a Navy SEAL squadron assigned to rescue a physician, Monica Bellucci, who has been dispensing medical services in Central Africa under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders. Political unrest threatens her station, but she refuses to depart without an entire village. Mr. Willis resolves to shepherd the refugees to a safe border while pursued by unfriendly troops.

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 Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates.
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.
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.
Dark Blue (2003) (R: Frequent profanity, graphic violence and racial epithets; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity) *1/2. This stale, ramshackle mea culpa harks back 12 years, to the period of the Rodney King incident and the initial trial verdict that triggered riots in some parts of the city. While the fictional characters have nothing to do with the King case per se, Kurt Russell hams it up as a bombastic cop whose lawless tendencies finally come back to shame him while collaborating on a last dirty errand for his mentor, a police official played by Brendan Gleeson. Redemption is symbolized by Ving Rhames as Mr. Gleeson's scowling but righteous rival. Martyrdom falls on Scott Speedman as Mr. Russell's severely overmatched partner. A re-enactment of the riots themselves is exploited rather dubiously as a colorful backdrop and obstacle course for Mr. Russell's wild car ride to a date with public confession.
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).
Gerry (2003) (R: strong language) ***. A brave, clever and interesting piece that's worthy of director Gus Van Sant's earlier movies such as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho." But, alas, it doesn't quite achieve lift-off. The story of two friends (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the desert, the film is "Cast Away" meets "The Blair Witch Project." Dialogue is improvised, the score is minimalist and the cinematography (by Harris Savides) is bleak. In the end, it's less than the sum of its starkly beautiful images. And another thing: It's brain-freezingly boring. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.
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.
The Life of David Gale (2003) (R: Sustained morbid and tendentious thematic elements; occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor; graphic simulation of homicide interspersed with nudity) *1/2. A polemical monstrosity from the English director Alan Parker, struggling to rationalize an argument against capital punishment that requires so much deranged deception that the advocates appear to be self-defeating and criminally insane zealots. The target state is Texas, governed by a figure obviously meant to suggest and scorn President Bush. The ultimate zealot is Kevin Spacey as an ultra-hip academic who has been spearheading agitation for a repeal of capital punishment. He has a calmer colleague played by Laura Linney, whose health is frail. An always suspicious sequence of events has put Mr. Spacey on Death Row for Miss Linney's murder. With the clock ticking down, he arranges to tell his story to reporter Kate Winslet for a hefty fee.
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 updates on the heroes. The battle at Helm's Deep is 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. Oscar nomination for best movie.
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. 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.
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.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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