- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003


• 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 youngster 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.

• Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — A documentary feature that chronicles the partnership of rock musicians John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who comprise the “group” They Might Be Giants. Exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre through June 15 only.

• The Italian Job (2003) (PG:13: Strong language, vehicular mayhem, occasional gunplay). — **1/2. Mark Wahlberg heads an eclectic cast in this stylish but forgettable remake of the 1969 original starring Michael Caine. Mr. Wahlberg’s gang of thieves swipes $35 million in gold from a Venice home, then get held up by a traitorous member of their own gang (Edward Norton). What results is a slick tale of manipulation and revenge elevated by its strong cast (Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron and Seth Green among them) and international settings. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Manic (2003) (R) — A melodrama about the patients at a mental asylum that specializes in juvenile cases. The plot revolves around Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a new arrival, a teenager with violent tendencies. Zooey Deschanel is cast as Lisa to his David. Don Cheadle plays the resident psychologist determined to help them.

• Spellbound (2003) (Not Rated)— ***. 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.

• Wrong Turn (2003) (R) — An entrapment thriller that illustrates what can happen if you take a shortcut off the interstate while traveling to a job interview in Raleigh, N.C. When Desmond Harrington tries to save time, he encounters five other young people in jeopardy, stranded in the woods when their SUV was disabled by a booby trap. The group is forced to venture deeper into ominous terrain, becoming prey for a trio of grisly mountain men.


• 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. Where he fails with the film is that he set out to make his little Europe look like a zesty salad, but it turned out looking more like a pudding. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002) (PG: frank discussion of the Holocaust and wartime violence) — ***. It seems unlikely that an elderly interview subject, filmed unglamorously as she sits and smokes in a modest apartment, could command your attention for 90 minutes, during which there’s nothing but talk, talk, talk. Yet that’s exactly what Traudl Junge does here. A modest little documentary by Austrian filmmakers Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, the film takes a whack at explaining Adolf Hitler indirectly, through one of his private secretaries, the late Miss Junge, who died, at 81, just hours after the film premiered at a Berlin film festival. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Blue Car — (2003) (R: Strong language, one sexual situation and scenes of shoplifting) — ***. Relative unknown Agnes Bruckner shines in this touching film centered on a teen poet crushed by those closest to her. Miss Bruckner is Meg, a beautiful high school senior headed to Florida to compete in a poetry contest. She owes it all to her kind English teacher (the underappreciated David Strathairn) but his intentions become cloudy as the film wears on. Strong support by Margaret Colin as Meg’s self-absorbed mother lifts “Blue Car” from its occasionally mawkish moments. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Bread, My Sweet (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity and sexual candor) — * A low-budget comedy-tearjerker from the Pittsburgh area. Scott Baio plays the hero, a prince of a guy named Dom Pyzola whose favorite hangout is the Biscotti Company, where he employs his brothers Eddie and Pino (Billy Mott and Shuler Hensley, respectively) as bakers. He also dotes on the elderly upstairs tenants, Bella and Massimo (Rosemary Prinz and John Seitz). Wealthy but dateless, Dom gets it into his head that he should arrange to marry Lucca (Kristin Minter), the wandering daughter of Bella and Massimo, before Bella succumbs to terminal cancer. It remains a bad idea in many respects, and the movie wallows in bathos and amateurism while trying to brazen it out. The photography is so inept that it undercuts the sensuous advantage of scenes that need to celebrate meals and baked goods. Cinema Arts and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• Bruce Almighty (2003) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity; occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions) — **1/2. The idea of Jim Carrey as a loose cannon permitted to play God for a short period of time sounds promising, and “Bruce Almighty” realizes the promise in scattered slapstick gags and whimsies. It won’t survive much seriocomic reflection and gets mawkish to a fault in the last reel. Mr. Carrey as Bruce Nolan, a disgruntled TV personality in Buffalo, N.Y., is the squeaky wheel that God, personified by Morgan Freeman, singles out for humbling attention, perhaps in answer to the prayers of a long-suffering girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston). The best comedy sequences match Mr. Carrey and Mr. Freeman or illustrate the mischievous liberties Bruce takes when trying out his prowess as a godlike apprentice.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• Friday Night (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) — . A soft-core tease from French filmmaker Claire Denis. Stalled in bumper-to-bumper Paris traffic as a municipal transit strike ties up the city, heroine Laure (Valerie Lemercier) offer a stationary lift to a stranger named Jean (Vincent Lindon), who becomes her overnight sex fantasy. When dawn breaks, she slips away from their love nest hotel with a glow on. Miss Denis is averse to conversation and fond of abstract, expectant imagery. As a result, it’s easy to divorce almost every impression from reality. Laure might as well be waiting for aliens to ravish her before she even gets behind the wheel. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Avalon.

• 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.

• The In-Laws (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual slapstick; fleeting nudity and facetious episodes of violence) — **1/2. An update of a 1979 farce with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas have the new co-starring roles. Their teamwork achieves a harmony that eluded the Arkin-Falk duo. The principal characters are prospective fathers-in-law with diametrically different personalities. They meet on the eve of their children’s wedding ceremony in Chicago. Mr. Brooks is an apprehensive podiatrist who finds himself at the thrill-seeking mercy of Mr. Douglas, a CIA agent who thrives on the strenuous and perilous life. The unwilling doctor is recruited for a mission to Provence that also introduces David Suchet as the genuine menace, a demented international smuggler. With Candice Bergen as Mr. Douglas’ resentful ex and Maria Ricossa, a disarming scene-stealer, as Mr. Brooks’ affectionate spouse.

• 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 advisors 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.

• Man on a Train (2002) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence) — **1/2. “Man on a Train” matches a pair of guys who may not have much to live for: the venerable pop star Johnny Hallyday as a craggy-faced, tight-lipped man of mystery who arrives by train in a provincial town and finds shelter with Jean Rochefort, a retired and chatty schoolteacher who welcomes companionship. The actors generate an odd couple chemistry that seems unique and appealing. While recognizing the humor in this freakish friendship, French filmmaker Patrice Leconte neglects to give it a satisfying comic framework. The payoffs are a keen letdown. In French with English subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington.

• The Man Without a Past (2002) (PG-13: brief graphic violence) — **1/2. A Finnish movie nominated for best foreign film Oscar this year, “Man” is an otherworldly, darkly humorous paean to underclass solidarity. Directed by the acclaimed Aki Kaurismaki, the movie follows a nameless amnesiac (Markku Peltola) as he scrapes by among Helsinki’s wretches, eventually finding a meaningful happiness with a buttoned-up Salvation Army worker (Kati Outinen). Mr. Kaurismaki’s polemics, while convoluted, aren’t pushy, and Timo Salminen’s cinematography is richly bold and captivating. In Finnish with English subtitles. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Marooned in Iraq (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with allusions to mass murder and the plight of refugees; fleeting graphic violence and sexual candor) — **. An exotic odyssey from a Kurdish Iranian filmmaker named Bahman Ghobadi, who travels in regions rarely seen on the screen while depicting the efforts of an elderly father and his two middle-aged sons to locate a former spouse rumored to be alive and in dire straits in refugee camps. The search takes place in Kurdish outposts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Desert Storm war, with the populace threatened by bombing raids from Saddam Hussein’s air force. The episodes tend to be bewildering and inconclusive, but the setting allows Mr. Ghobadi to generate fitfully stirring and poetic images of exile and struggle. The principal players are also popular Kurdish folk singers, and the film accommodates a number of musical interludes. In Farsi with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

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