- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

OPENING

• The Gospel of John (2003) (PG-13). A Canadian-British collaboration on a biblical drama, the prototype in a series that plans to use the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible as the text for dramatizations. Christopher Plummer narrates this account of Christ’s ministry as recounted in one of the New Testament Gospels, with Henry Ian Cusick portraying Jesus. Directed by Philip Saville. The running time is three hours. Not reviewed.

• Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) (PG: Mild violence). That wascally wabbit returns in this trippy combination of live action and animation in the spirit of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Bugs, Daffy Duck and the gang join Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and Steve Martin for some animated adventures. Mr. Fraser stars as an exasperated stuntman who teams with Daffy to find a rare blue diamond, with Bugs and Miss Elfman hot on their trail. Not reviewed.

• Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a setting of historical naval warfare) — ****.Four stars.# Peter Weir sets the bar very high for prestige entertainments with this stirring and accomplished seafaring adventure, derived from the 10th book in the esteemed series by the late Patrick O’Brian. The HMS Surprise, under the command of Russell Crowe’s wonderfully redoubtable Capt. Jack Aubrey, is imperiled by a formidable French warship, the Acheron, which is spreading havoc along the Brazilian coast. It cripples the Surprise in an early encounter, keeping the English sailors on the defensive for the duration. The evocation of the period, 1805, and the simulations of the ships, built at the lavish facility 20th Century-Fox created to accommodate James Cameron’s “Titanic,” defy improvement. Paul Bettany is a witty and ascetic contrast to Mr. Crowe as the learned but nautically challenged Dr. Stephen Maturin, who gets to explore the Galapagos Islands a generation before Darwin. His familiarity with exotic species comes in handy when the final showdown looms between the Surprise and Acheron.

• Tupac: Resurrection (2003) (R: Crude language, drug use and violence) — ***.Three stars.# The late rapper Tupac Shakur narrates the story of his own life in this cohesive, compelling documentary. The rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, serves as executive producer, but the film still manages to show a fairly balanced portrait of the conflicted, gifted, rapper. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

NOW SHOWING

• Alien (1979) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence, with exceedingly gruesome illustrative details) — ****. An almost-25th-anniversary revival engagement of Ridley Scott’s brilliant science-fiction thriller, which began the summer movie season of 1979 and reimposed the idea of extraterrestrial terror in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s benign visionary outlook in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Mr. Scott has restored two brief scenes omitted from the original theatrical release.

• Brother Bear (2003) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — *1/2. A Disney animated feature that tries to reconcile special-pleading folklore with entertainment. An Indian tribal myth about shape shifting proves a bumpy vehicle for scenic backdrops, slapstick and fraternal reaffirmation. Kenai, one of three brothers dwelling in an Alaskan village long, long ago, is transformed into a bear, the creature he fears and hates above all others. The change alters his outlook, especially when he must protect an orphaned cub.

• Die, Mommie, Die (2003) (R: Strong sexuality, nudity; profanity; drug use) — ***. Drag queen Charles Busch adapts his stage play of deathly Greek proportions for director Mark Rucker’s joyous homage to golden-age cinema and Hollywood divas. Mr. Busch doubles as a washed-up chanteuse in this often vulgar, but highly entertaining sex-and-music farce. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Elephant (2003) (R: Disturbing images of violence; brief nudity; sexuality; profanity) — *** A chilling meditation on school shootings by Cannes-conquering director Gus Van Sant. Shot improvisationally with a cast of Portland, Ore., natives, “Elephant” offers little in the way of answers but provokes and horrifies like no other film made in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Elf (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo) — **. A frequently slipshod but ingratiating showcase for Will Ferrell. He is cast as Buddy, an orphaned human raised by Santa’s elves who goes back to Manhattan to find his people. A hardhearted biological dad, played by James Caan, proves a tough sell — not to mention a bad casting choice for the movie, which needs humorous rather than mulish responses to Buddy’s ingenuous personality. Mr. Ferrell should emerge as a favorite Big Silly with children and a fresh comedy asset for Hollywood. With Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage and Daniel Tay.

• The Event (2003) (R: Systematic morbid content; frequent sexual vulgarity, occasional profanity and fleeting nudity; frequent allusions to AIDS and homosexual relationships) — 1/2*.A cinematic non-event of an essentially repugnant kind. Parker Posey is cast as an earnest drudge, an assistant district attorney investigating the suspicious death of a young man who was fatally stricken with AIDS. She discovers that he departed during a kind of assisted-suicide gala, surrounded by flaming creatures from Greenwich Village, not to mention Olympia Dukakis as a monstrously doting mother. The implication is that AIDS martyrdom excuses all outrages and illegalities. The case will seem open and shut only to a morbidly doting audience. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• Girls Will Be Girls (2003) (R) — A low-budget farce about a trio of woebegone Hollywood slatterns, impersonated in drag. Exclusively at Visions Cinema. Not reviewed.

• Good Boy! (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — **. An appealing but exceedingly slight variation on “E.T.,” with Liam Aiken as a dog-walking suburban youngster who acquires a pet of his own and discovers that this stray is a talking emissary from the “dog star,” Sirius, supposedly the source of all canines on Earth. Their ruling tyrant, a Great Dane, plans an inspection tour to investigate dire reports that dogs have slacked off by failing to dominate the planet. Young Liam is a reliably pensive and wistful juvenile hero. There also are amusing throwaway stunts with the mutts, but the movie starts to depend too heavily on a facetious babel of talking dog voices.

• The Human Stain (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, morbidity and graphic violence; episodes about racial conflict and identity; considerable nudity in one sequence) — **1/2. From Philip Roth’s polemical tome of 2000 comes this tear-jerker about a perilous love affair between a classics professor named Coleman Silk, played by Anthony Hopkins, and a young woman of misfortune named Faunia Farely, played by Nicole Kidman. The Roth alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (curiously assigned to Gary Sinise), is also drawn into the tangled webs of narration. In their fidelity to an unwieldy book, director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer derive some wonderful scenes from flashbacks about young Coleman’s decision, half a century earlier while a college student, to conceal his racial parentage. The main plot isn’t remotely as interesting. Newcomer Wentworth Miller is a spellbinder as the devious young Coleman. With Anna Deavere Smith and Harry Lennix in estimable performances as Coleman’s parents. Ed Harris is persuasively sinister as Miss Kidman’s deadly ex.

• In the Cut (2003) (R: Strong sexuality, nudity, explicit dialogue; graphic crime scenes; profanity) — **. Director Jane Campion glues a procedural murder mystery to a psychosexual thriller and flounders between genres. Spunky Meg Ryan, as an introverted English teacher in inner-city Manhattan, is caught up in a string of grisly murders, and Mark Ruffalo plays a mysterious gumshoe. It’s visually rich but ends flaccidly with a whodunit conventionality. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) (R: Extreme violence, multiple dismemberments, harsh language and bloodshed aplenty) — **. Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film is actually the first of two features broken in two because of the project’s unwieldy length. The acclaimed director casts Uma Thurman as a double-crossed assassin left for dead by her old mates. Now, four years later, it’s payback time. Unrelentingly violent and stylish, “Kill Bill” will please action and martial-arts fans and alienate everyone else. Also starring Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Lost in Translation (2003) (R: Fleeting profanity, nudity and sexual candor) — **1/2. A bemusing, sweet-tempered second feature from director Sofia Coppola. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play lonely Americans in Tokyo. A former Hollywood star, he’s there to shoot commercials. She is accompanying her neglectful husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a busy celebrity photographer.

• Love Actually (2003) (R: Frequent sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse, deliberately facetious in some episodes) — *1/2. A miscellany of subplots meant to reflect the joys of love in many guises, this is a holiday crock from the English humorist Richard Curtis. He makes his directing debut while recruiting several actors — Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson — who were indispensable to films he wrote, such as “The Tall Guy,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.” The movie proves pseudo-adorable. Mr. Thompson encourages us to lap up pitiful morsels of romantic farce or pathos. The hapless ensemble also includes Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley and Laura Linney.

• Luther (2003) (PG-13: Disturbing images of violence) — **1/2. Directed by Eric Till and bankrolled in part by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a faith-based financial services organization, “Luther” is a no-warts biopic about the German monk who changed the world, Martin Luther. It glosses over unsavory details, but even without the warts, Luther’s courageous life makes for decent drama. The miscast Joseph Fiennes is a dignified Luther, but Sir Peter Ustinov steals the show as Prince Frederick the Wise. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Matrix Revolutions (2003) (R) — The third and concluding installment of the science-fiction saga, which has been anticipating revolt in an urban population of humans enslaved to a despotic race of monstrous machines. The principal cast members remain Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci and Harry Lennix. Opens Wednesday.

• Mystic River (2003) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and frequent profanity; episodes depicting the abduction and molestation of a child) — *1/2. The miserable principal characters are played by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon. Mr. Penn overacts in a seething and explosive fashion; Mr. Robbins overacts in a pathetic, walking-wounded fashion. As Whitey, Mr. Bacon’s sidekick on the police force, Laurence Fishburne seems enviably free from local attachments and torments.

• Radio (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity; fleeting episodes about juvenile malice) — *1/2. A tear-jerker inspired by a Sports Illustrated story about real folks in Anderson, S.C. — a retired high school football coach named Harold Jones and a mentally retarded man named James Robert Kennedy, nicknamed Radio, who became an inspirational fixture with Mr. Jones’ teams in the 1970s. Ed Harris plays the coach and Mr. Gooding the outsider who becomes a kind of honorary manager, cheerleader and assistant coach. The relationships the filmmakers want to honor defy their fictional and sentimental meddling, but Mr. Gooding seems determined to accentuate the pathetic. It’s obvious that this material might be better served by a documentary format.

• Scary Movie 3 (2003) (PG:13: Crude language, sexual situations and drug references) — **. The third chapter of the “Scary Movie” franchise takes comic pot shots at “The Ring,” “Signs” and every other horror cliche deemed ripe for ridicule. Anna Faris, Charlie Sheen and Leslie Nielsen co-star as director David Zucker (“The Naked Gun,” “Airplane”) takes over the series from Keenen Ivory Wayans with mixed results. For every solid laugh, viewers must endure at least a dozen duds. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• School of Rock (2003) (PG-13: Crude humor; drug reference) — ***1/2. Jack Black’s mixture of pinpoint parody and idolatrous celebration transforms this formulaic story into an inspired and original comic success. Mr. Black plays Dewey Finn, an out-of-work rock musician who shams as a substitute teacher in an elite prep school and turns his charges into a rock outfit. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Mike White. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Shattered Glass (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and sexual allusions) — ****. An exemplary first feature from writer-director Billy Ray, who takes a humorously lucid approach to the scandal of writer Stephen Glass, who was sacked by the New Republic in 1998 after fabricating two dozen stories. The young actor Hayden Christensen portrays the ingenuous, disarming and pathologically dishonest Glass. Peter Sarsgaard is a brilliantly slow-burning contrast as Charles Lane, the honest editor forced to deal with the realization that he has been pampering a compulsive liar.

• The Singing Detective (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, with interludes of nudity and simulated intercourse) — **1/2. An eccentric labor of love, mounted on a modest budget by Mel Gibson’s production company and directed with fitful distinction by Keith Gordon. The late Dennis Potter rewrote his six-part BBC miniseries of 1986 as a condensed and Americanized feature a few years later. Now it’s here with Robert Downey Jr. in Michael Gambon’s original role as the bedridden and embittered writer, now named Daniel Dark, whose imagination takes perverse flights while he’s hospitalized for a recurrence of psoriatic arthritis. Robin Wright Penn plays his estranged spouse, Nicola, who has decided to wait out his physical torment and defensive hatefulness. The title alludes to a sleuth in Dark’s lurid detective fiction who moonlights as a band vocalist. The encounters with Nicola and a cagey psychotherapist named Dr. Gibbon assume a fresh importance in this film version. There’s also a wonderful stealth performance by a star who has been very cleverly disguised.

• The Station Agent (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor) — **. An underwhelming but sympathetic first feature from actor-turned-writer-director Tom McCarthy. He concentrates on a solitary, tight-lipped protagonist, the impressive dwarf actor Peter Dinklage as Fin McBride, who works in a model-train store in Hoboken, N.J., and inherits an offbeat abode, an abandoned train depot, when his employer dies. In his new location, silent Fin becomes a magnet for talkative and needful misfits. The miscalculation here is that Fin remains in his shell too long to become an adequate voice. However, the movie’s shortcomings are cushioned by generous impulses.

• Sylvia (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor, with fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; repeated allusions to suicide) — ****. An eloquently apprehensive and painful distillation of the enraptured and then estranged conjugal-poetic union between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, impressively portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Screenwriter John Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs are astute observers of an intense romantic attachment, commencing at Cambridge with a whirlwind courtship in 1956, that sours into a bitter separation within a matter of years, terminated by Miss Plath’s quietly harrowing suicide in London in February 1963. Miss Paltrow demonstrates a spellbinding command of her character’s passions, resentments and delusions. Mr. Craig brings a marvelous vocal authority to his early scenes as Ted Hughes, along with a persuasive hint of Byronic danger. The character is somewhat sidetracked when he and Sylvia separate, but Jared Harris adds a sympathetic third-party perspective as A. Alvarez, the critic and friend who is loath to choose sides in the conflict. Blythe Danner makes such a powerful impression as Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, in two early scenes that it’s a pity she lacks encores. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

• The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) (R: Horror-style violence, crude language and drug content) — ***. The classic horror yarn, made for less than $150,000 back in 1974, is re-imagined for today’s moviegoers with a surprising number of chills. It loosely follows the true-life account of a mass murderer who wore the skins of his prey. Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” headlines a feisty cast left to grapple with Leatherface and pals. “Chainsaw’s” plot devices, from Leatherface himself to the isolated mansion where he dwells, are overly familiar, yet the film still packs plenty of goose bumps. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Veronica Guerin (2003) (R: Frequent profanity, occasional graphic violence and sexual candor, fleeting nudity, episodes about drug dealing and addiction) — **. A biographical suspense melodrama about a crusading Dublin newspaper reporter (Cate Blanchett), whose exposes of the drug underworld in the city led to her murder in 1996. What we’re left with, finally, is a daunting and humbling sort of protagonist who gets elevated to cinematic sainthood in a context that remains superficially observed at best and luridly sensationalized at worst. Nevertheless, watching Cate Blanchett on any pretext has become a good reason for keeping up with new movies.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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