- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003


• 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.

• Bad Santa (2003) (R: Coarse language, sexual situations, alcohol abuse and anger toward children) — *1/2. Billy Bob Thornton plays a soused Santa wreaking mayhem on a series of department stores. The film desperately wants to tweak the mushy Christmas movies released each yuletide, but only manages to drown itself in mean-spirited, one-note mockery. Even the often brilliant Mr. Thornton can’t muster an ounce of humanity for his depraved rent-a-Santa. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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 shapeshifting 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.

• Dr. Seuss’ ‘The Cat in the Hat’ (2003) (PG: Occasional comic vulgarity and sexual innuendo) — **.Brian Grazer produced the stupefying but profitable movie version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” three years ago. He’s back with this adaptation of the 1957 primer that envisioned uninhibited imagination as a gleeful cat in a stovepipe hat, who creates domestic chaos to relieve the boredom of two kids on a rainy day. As the interloper, Mike Myers demonstrates a zest for masquerade partying, and he gives the cat some endearing vocal inflections. from Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers and Ed Wynn, who were still going strong when the book was published. However, he may have been outmaneuvered this season by a “Saturday Night Live” successor, Will Ferrell, who slipped into the marketplace first with a more companionable and child-friendly identity in “Elf.” “Cat” is mercifully shorter than the ponderous “Grinch.” It measures its weight more discreetly and lightens the madcap burden for Mr. Myers. The juvenile players, Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin, are also very capable. The shortcomings cling to other characters, especially Alec Baldwin as a treacherous neighbor and Kelly Preston as an airheaded mom.

• 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.

• 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.

• Gothika (2003) (R: Coarse language, violence and nudity) * — Halle Berry plays a psychiatrist who awakes to find herself a patient in her own hospital. She can’t remember recent events but is told she killed her husband. When she tries to uncover the truth, she learns a vengeful spirit may be to blame. If only audiences could forget this hackneyed swipe from “The Ring” and other modern thrillers. The implausible plot quickly spirals downward, taking the talented Miss Berry along with it. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Haunted Mansion (2003) (PG: Occasional ominous and morbid depiction; fleeting comic vulgarity) — *1/2. A supernatural farce inspired to some extent by the popular Disneyland attraction, “Mansion” isn’t consistently clever. The setting tends to inhibit slapstick fleetness and ingenuity, especially from Eddie Murphy. He stars as a glad-handing, workaholic and much too square New Orleans real estate agent, stranded during an overnight thunderstorm with his wife and two kids. Marcia Thompson is an adorable choice as the wife, but the new movie waxes erotically creepy by making her a prey to sexual extortion. The movie takes more cues from “Ghost” than “Ghostbusters,” and this emphasis proves wrongheaded for a smart comedian. With Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters as an amusing set of servants with good intentions.

• 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 tearjerker 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 the decision of young Coleman to conceal his racial parentage half a century earlier, while a college student. 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 America (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor, graphic violence and allusions to drug addiction) — **. A semi-autobiographical tearjerker from the Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Through Paddy Considine as a floundering young family man called Johnny Sullivan (a less than flattering alter ego of Mr. Sheridan) he recalls a period in the early 1980s when he moved into a Hell’s Kitchen slum with his wife and two young daughters while working as an off-Broadway director. The filmmaker seems to be repaying intimate emotional debts to the wife and kids. His own daughters are credited as co-writers. Samantha Morton is radiant as the young wife, as are juveniles Sara and Emma Bolger as her daughters. It’s unfair competition for Mr. Considine. With Djimon Hounsou as an outrageously suffering and then generous neighbor who bails the Sullivans out of trouble by dying in a timely fashion.

• In the Cut (2003) (R: Strong sexuality, nudity, explicit dialogue; graphic crime scenes; profanity) — **. Director Jane Campion glues together 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. 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 due to 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.

• 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. The film marries the manic energy of the average Warner Bros. short with postmodern riffs on political correctness and the media. The overly daffy final reel will leave adult viewers squirming, but children will delight in the excess. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a setting of historical naval warfare) — ****. 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 H.M.S. 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 Surprise and Acheron.

• The Matrix Revolutions (2003) (R) — ***1/2.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. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Missing (2003) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence, with extremely gruesome illustrative details of atrocities; occasional sexual candor, including allusions to child abduction and prostitution; fleeting comic vulgarity) — **. A Western chase melodrama set in New Mexico in the 1880s. Cate Blanchett plays a tenacious rancher whose teenage daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, is abducted by a degenerate gang that trafficks in white slavery across the Mexican border. In her desperation the heroine turns to a prodigal father, Tommy Lee Jones, a renegade who abandoned his family decades earlier to consort with the Apaches. This association is meant to prove indispensable in tracking the kidnappers. Unfortunately, an ominous and gripping start slips away from director Ron Howard as he begins making social-allegorical points at the expense of an urgent chase. The movie’s sense of mission becomes a synthesis of the Western and the voodoo thriller, and the measures taken to outwit the villains look utterly harebrained. With Eric Schweig as a genuine gorgon of a menace, a character who enjoys handling rattlesnakes and blends potions from their secretions. The movie itself seems to surrender to his influence by going off its rocker.

• Radio (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity; fleeting episodes about juvenile malice) — *1/2. A tearjerker 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.

• 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’s 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 called 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: he moonlights as a band vocalist. The encounters with Nicola and a cagey psychotherapist called 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.

• Timeline (2003) (PG-13: “Intense battle scenes and brief language” according to the MPAA) — Richard Donner’s movie version of the time-traveling Michael Crichton adventure novel. A team of archaeologists working at a site in rural France blunders into a time warp that obliges them to survive culture shock and peril in the 14th century. The cast includes Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Billy Connolly and Gerard Butler. Not reviewed.

• To Be and To Have (2002) (No MPAA Rating; adult subject matter but suitable for all ages) — ****. An exceptionally strong year for documentary features is enhanced anew with this French-made tribute to a dedicated teacher, Georges Lopez, observed during a winter and spring of instruction in Saint-Etienne sur Usson, a small dairy community in the Auvergne. Though not exactly a “one-room” schoolmaster, he is responsible for a small group of students whose ages range from 4 or 5 to 11 or 12. Emulating the patience and concentration of his subject, filmmaker Nicolas Philibert emerges with a lucid and affectionate impression of elementary teaching and learning. “To Be” really does elevate the cliche “back to basics,” linking it to the intimacy of a particular classroom and set of personalities. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• Tupac: Resurrection (2003) (R: Crude language, drug use and violence) — ***. 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.

• 21 Grams (2003) (R) — A new byzantine collaboration from the Mexican team of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who did “Amores Perros” a few years ago. They again employ the device of an auto accident to link the lives and struggles of several characters — among them Sean Penn as a college professor awaiting a heart transplant, Naomi Watts as a struggling housewife and Benicio Del Toro as an ex-convict intent on rehabilitation. The cast also includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Clea DuVall, Danny Huston and Melissa Leo. Not reviewed.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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