- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

OPENING

La Belle et la Bete (1946) (No MPAA Rating — made years before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter with eerie and ominous aspects; fleeting violent episodes) — ***1/2. A revival of Jean Cocteau’s famous movie version of the fairy tale, which had a regenerative effect on both his artistic career and the French film industry in the aftermath of World War II. Though a period piece of 1945-46 designed to evoke a magical environment with 17th-century trappings, the movie remains a uniquely imaginative and beguiling triumph of decor, costuming, makeup and atmosphere. With Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais, a Cocteau protege at the time, as both the Beast and an ardent country suitor named Avenant. Freshly minted and subtitled prints have become available. An exclusive engagement at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre for two weeks begins tomorrow; it will be supplemented by a one-week engagement at the AFI National Theater at Kennedy Center, beginning May 23.

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002) (PG) — A documentary feature that consists of interview material with an elderly woman who was once a secretary for Adolf Hitler and doesn’t mind confiding her admiration.

The Bread, My Sweet (2003) (PG-13) — A sentimental comedy set in an Italian-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh and starring Scott Baio as a businessman who likes to conceal his generous and vulnerable side from potential rivals, who regard him as a cutthroat. Within the trusted circle of his biscotti company and immediate family he is known as a prince of a guy.

Down With Love (2003) (PG-13: Frequent sexual innuendo) — *1/2. An energetic but wrongheaded attempt to evoke the mood and look of romantic comedies of about 40-something years ago, especially the Doris Day-Rock Hudson series that began with “Pillow Talk.” This unwary copy remains a blundering masquerade, spared from total calamity by sumptuous examples of decor and costuming. Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, who don’t look much like movie stars when expected to sparkle with glamour, are the mismatch. She has written a scandalous best-seller that urges sexual freedom for women; he’s a playboy journalist who schemes to seduce her.

Man on a Train (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — A new feature from Patrice Leconte, the deft director of “Man on a Bridge.” The venerable French pop star Johnny Hallyday is cast as a man of mystery called Milan who arrives by train in a provincial town and acquires a friend in a retired schoolteacher played by Jean Rochefort. In French with English subtitles.

The Man Without a Past (2002) (PG-13) — An eccentric character study from the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, with Markuu Peltola as an unnamed hulk who survives a beating and takes up residence in a storage container on the Helsinki waterfront. In Finnish with English subtitles.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) (R: Extreme violence, a brief sexual situation, strong language) — ***. “The Matrix” revolutionized the modern action sequence, and its eagerly awaited sequel (the second sequel comes at year’s end) raises that bar several notches higher. The film, starring Keanu Reeves as the one chosen to free humans from enslavement by a machine program dubbed the Matrix, mixes even more philosophy between fisticuffs. Hard-core fans will devour these second-rate musings. The rest of us will stare agog at the film’s hyper-realistic action scenes, which come up to much of the film’s pre-release hype. Opens today. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

Pokemon Heroes (2002) (G) — The fifth of the Pokemon animated features, set in a mysterious aquatic city where Ash, Pikachu and their companions hunt a pair of thieves.

NOW SHOWING

Anger Management (2003) (PG-13: arguably a lenient rating, given recurrent profanity and comic vulgarity; an abundance of jokes about genitalia; fleeting farcical violence; occasional sexual allusions and vulgarity) — *1/2. A presold but keenly disappointing comedy revolving around an enforced odd-couple relationship between Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. A mild-mannered fellow named Dave Buznik, Mr. Sandler is ordered to attend anger management sessions after being removed from an airplane. Mr. Nicholson is cast as his scruffy, volatile therapist, Buddy Rydell, whose hands-on measures include taking up residence with his new subject. Everything about the presentation is slack and arbitrary.

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 living in suburban London. 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.

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. Every last number is a knockout. The material could not possibly be executed with more precision or luster. Golden Globe awards for Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere, plus best musical or comedy. Six Academy Awards, including best picture and best supporting actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

City of Ghosts (2003) (R:profanity, occasional graphic violence) — **. A brave directorial debut for a largely unaccomplished actor, Matt Dillon, who also co-wrote (with novelist Barry Gifford) and stars in the movie. Amid all the Third World exotica of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, Mr. Dillon’s Jimmy Cremmins, a New Yorker, searches for Marvin (James Caan), his partner in an insurance scam that robbed millions from the victims of a catastrophic hurricane. Mr. Dillon ultimately tries too hard to say too much with “Ghosts.” He has a knack for pictures, which should serve, but never subsume, the story. “Ghosts” got things backwards. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

Confidence (2003) (R: Profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity; fleeting nudity and glimpses of porn movies) — *1/2. Deception remains the only game in town for contemporary thrillers. Director James Foley tries to bring some hard-boiled dynamism to this double-crossing fable, but the characterizations are too shallow to justify the pretense. There’s little reason to believe that a gang of swindlers bossed by Edward Burns is resourceful enough to repair a rift with Los Angeles crime czar Dustin Hoffman (enjoying himself as a prince of sleaze) by doing him a favor — a swindle aimed at banker Robert Forster (sorely wasted in a bit part). There’s even less reason to care if they succeed, in part because Mr. Burns is more annoying than engaging. Clearly, the fix will always be in, and the audience is the only mark that counts.

Daddy Day Care (2003) (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity) — *1/2. Eddie Murphy’s feeble bid to beat the other comedians to a summer movie comedy. Partnered with Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Mr. Murphy plays a suburban advertising executive who loses his job and needs to improvise a new livelihood. One ridiculous workplace seems to provoke another: the spacious home Mr. Murphy shares with spouse Regina King and little boy Khamani Griffin is transformed into a play school whose popularity supposedly riles Anjelica Huston, the headmistress of a pricey and regimented “academy.”

The Dancer Upstairs (2003) (R: Occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details, some involving the mutilation of animals; occasional profanity and sexual candor) — *** An intriguing but far from reliable or streamlined directorial debut from John Malkovich, who recruited the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare to adapt his own 1993 novel. The book fictionalized the circumstances that led to the capture of Abimael Guzman, the founding fanatic of the “Shining Path” terrorist movement in Peru. Guzman was discovered hiding in a flat above a dance studio in Lima, and the author backtracked from that detail, using a tenacious police detective as his protagonist. The role of this admirable but melancholy lawman, Agustin Rejas, proves burdensome for the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, in part because Mr. Malkovich lingers to a fault. He holds cast members in close-up too long, and the key players are Europeans without ready fluency in English dialogue. The continuity does a lot of drifting, but there are compelling interludes and moments scattered throughout, so it’s possible to argue that patience is rewarded.

Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) (G: contains nothing objectionable) — ***. Six years after scoring the highest-grossing movie in history, director James Cameron brings us back to the Titanic. But this time, there’s no Leo, no Kate, no syrupy love story, no “king of the world” swagger — just the massive tangled wreck itself, brought to three-dimensional life by cutting edge Imax technology. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

The Good Thief (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; simulaltions of drug use) — ***. Neil Jordan’s playfully mercenary update of the vintage French caper melodrama “Bob le Flambeur,” now transposed to a French Riviera that teems with exotic felons. The most engaging is also the most weather-beaten: Nick Nolte as a half-American outcast, gambler and drug addict who resolves to kick his habit and protect a young prostitute (Nutsa Kukhianidze) from her worst impulses while participating in a scheme to purloin a villa full of masterpieces. The diverting confederates include Ralph Fiennes.

Holes (2003) (PG: Occasional violence and comic vulgarity; morbid story elements and gruesome illustrative details) — *1/2. The teenage members of a juvenile chain gang in the Texas badlands are obliged to dig holes in the desert to satisfy the greed of unscrupulous jailers Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Tim Blake Nelson, corrupted by tales of a buried treasure.

Identity (2003) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and profanity; coarse sexual allusions; gruesome illustrative details) — *1/2. More gratuitous deception, crammed into the framework of an entrapment thriller that strands a set of victims at a horror motel during a driving rainstorm. There hasn’t been such a drenched runaround since “Hard Rain.” The fundamental fakeout is suggested during the prologue, in which Alfred Molina appears as a psychiatrist investigating a case of “fractured psyche” in a mass murderer called Malcolm Rivers. The plot then keeps Rivers on ice while the waters and corpses rise around John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C. McGinley, Jake Busey, an unrecognizable Rebecca de Mornay and other displaced characters, stalked and murdered by a phantom fiend at the motel of doom.

It Runs in the Family (2003) (PG-13: Sexual situations, drug use and coarse language) — **1/2. Kirk and Michael Douglas make their first on-screen appearance together as dysfunctional family members coping with life, loss and the advance of time. Three generations of Douglases, including grandson Cameron Douglas and Michael’s mother, Diana Douglas, make this middling affair watchable. Still, it’s hard to deny the potency of scenes featuring the famous father and son, even if the pair deserved a better vehicle to mark their first joint venture. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

Lawless Heart (2003) (R) — An English feature about the tangled relationships of several mourners gathered for the funeral of a young restaurant owner in Essex. Not reviewed.

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — * A generic pestilence derived from a juvenile comedy series on the Disney Channel. Middle school klutz Lizzie is played by Hilary Duff, reputed to be 15 going on 16. She and most of her fictional classmates look as if middle school should be several years behind them. On a class excursion to Rome, starstruck Lizzie is seduced and conned by a pop star called Paolo (Yani Gellman). While a devoted classmate covers for her escapades, Lizzie gets scooter rides around the city, accompanied by such ethnic classics as “Volare!” She wises up just in time to duet with herself at a pop concert.

Malibu’s Most Wanted (2003) (PG-13: Gangsta-style gunplay, alcohol use, strong language and a mild sexual situation) — **1/2. Jamie Kennedy brings his Brad “B-Rad” Gluckman rap character from his self-titled WB show to the big screen with charming results. The film finds the clueless white rapper proving an embarrassment to his father (Ryan O’Neal), a politico running for California’s governorship. So his father’s advisers hire two actors to kidnap B-Rad and dump him in a real ghetto neighborhood to keep him out of the way until election day. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

A Mighty Wind (2003) (PG-13: Occasional comic candor and vulgarity) — ****. A classic new comedy from Christopher Guest, who reunites almost everyone from “Best of Show” and adds a few more virtuosi, while demonstrating that his mock-documentary technique is as clever and satisfying as ever. On the death of a venerable show business figure who managed several folk rock acts during the 1960s, a memorial concert is planned for Town Hall in New York. Three acts are booked: singers Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), The Folksmen (Mr. Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) and the updated edition of a beamish ensemble called The New Main Street Singers, with Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey in prominent spots. Fred Willard gets the run of a few sensational interludes as their screwball manager. There’s a slightly ponderous tendency in the Mitch and Mickey subplot, but the lapses are fleeting, decisively outnumbered by the high spots. Ed Begley Jr. is wonderful as an ethnically confused broadcasting executive for public television.

Only the Strong Survive (2003) (PG-13) — A documentary survey of notable soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s, compiled by the conjugal team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. The participants include Wilson Pickett, Jerry Butler, Mary Wilson, Sam Moore, Carla and Rufus Thomas and The Chi-Lites. Not reviewed.

Raising Victor Vargas (2003) (R: Sexual situations, coarse language) — ***. A team of fresh faces transforms this coming-of-age saga into a touching peek at an inner-city family. The sweet-talking Victor (Victor Rasuk) thinks he knows all there is to know about the women in his Lower East Side neighborhood. When he fails to win over the sly, attractive Judy (Judy Marte), he’s forced to revisit his thoughts not only on women but also what it means to be a man. Both helping and hindering that maturation process is his iron-willed grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), left to raise Victor and his two siblings. Improvised dialogue and the actors’ utter lack of affect render this small film a large, honestly told treat. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

The Shape of Things (2003) (R: Brief nudity and strong language) — **1/2. Director Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”) returns to his romantically dour ways with this patchy but thought-provoking film, based on his 2001 stage play about two college students spiraling into an unhealthy love affair. That poisonous descent proves as compelling as a “Twilight Zone” shocker but Mr. LaBute’s usually astute characterization feels manipulated to fit the stark ending. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

Stevie (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with frequent profanity and occasional sexual candor, much of it concerned with a child molestation case; accounts of domestic violence and threats of violence between family members) — **. A revealing but often excruciating documentary feature from Steve James, the director of “Hoop Dreams” and “Prefontaine.” This painfully candid chronicle of stunted small town lives in Southern Illinois centers on a fatherless young man named Stephen Fielding, whom Mr. James had met in the early 1980s and mentored for a time in the Big Brother program. Years later the filmmaker, based in Chicago with a family of his own, discovers that Stevie has a record and could face prosecution on a child molestation charge. Mr. James wants to be helpful, but it’s not at all certain that Stevie is salvageable. Doggedly, the movie remains so close to an embittered and hard-luck family as it tries to sort out years of conflict and failure, that you start hoping for miracles. The camera is undeniably intrusive, but maybe its sheer presence serves as a wake-up call for these people.

Stone Reader (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter but no objectionable depiction) — ***. A rare movie to exalt the obsessions of bibliophiles, admirably timed to reinforce the preservation efforts that led to the revival of the Avalon Theater, which officially reopens as a first-run showcase with this documentary feature. The title alludes to a forgotten novel of 1972 titled “The Stones of Summer,” which acquired a belated but devoted reader in Mark Moskowitz, a non-theatrical filmmaker who specializes in commercials and campaign spots for political candidates. Discovering little about the author, Dow Mossman, Mr. Moskowitz spent a couple of years trying to track him down. The quest reaches a gratifying conclusion in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. On the way the filmmaker discusses lost novels and novelists with such interested literary parties as Leslie Fiedler, John Seelye, Robert Gottlieb and William Cotter Murray.

X2 (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence in a science-fiction adventure format; fleeting sexual allusions) — *1/2. The second movie outing for Marvel’s “X-Men,” who threaten to grow more tedious than intriguing on renewed acquaintance. The plot begins with an assault on the president by a satanic, inky mutant played by Alan Cumming; it concludes with a stern warning from Patrick Stewart (as Prof. Xavier) and other “good” X-mutants that they intend to keep a close eye on the president’s policies in the future. Mr. Stewart’s band of superheroes is again portrayed by Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Anna Paquin. The imprisoned nemesis of the first installment, Ian McKellen as Magneto, seizes a chance to escape from captivity.The new menace is a tyrannical human, Brian Cox as a government spymaster nursing a major grudge against the professor. Plenty of commotion but nothing that resembles clever characterization or streamlined spectacle.

XX/XY (2003) (R: profanity; brief violence; mature subject matter) — *1/2. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to dramatize the otherwise uninteresting lives of elite New Yorkers in a hedonistic love triangle. After an opening scene involving a frothy attempt at menage a trois, the movie never finds its moral bearings and fails to match its lusty subject matter with real storytelling verve. Starring Mark Ruffalo. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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