- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

OPENING

• Elephant (2003) (R) — Gus Van Sant’s re-enactment of the Columbine High School shootings, emphasizing the banality and vulnerability inherent in any given “normal” day until violence and calamity erupt. The cast members are drawn from the student body of a school in Portland, Ore.

• 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 youngsters 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) (PG-13) — A homosexual-themed whodunit improbably predicated on the casting of Parker Posey as an assistant district attorney investigating the suspicious death of a young man who was fatally stricken with AIDS. The supporting cast includes Olympia Dukakis, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley and Brent Carver.

• Girls Will Be Girls (2003) (R) — A low-budget farce about a trio of woebegone Hollywood slatterns, impersonated in drag. Exclusively at Visions Cinema.

• Love Actually (2003) (R) — A Christmas season romantic comedy miscellany by the English humorist Richard Curtis, who makes his directing debut while recruiting several actors who have been indispensable to films he wrote — Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth and Rowan Atkinson. With Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Billy Bob Thornton, Keira Knightley and Laura Linney.

• 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. 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.

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.

• Beyond Borders (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; episodes involving death threats to children) — *1/2. A well-meaning monstrosity, which tries to have its cake and eat it while juggling high-minded and gaga attitudes. On the socially virtuous side, the filmmakers salute the efforts of international relief workers. On the commercial side, they hope to sell a star-crossed illicit romance, mismatching Clive Owen as a dedicated but grandstanding physician with Angelina Jolie as a dishy London socialite who becomes his heartthrob and benefactor. Their paths first cross in London, then recross in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya, where Mr. Owen seems to be waging a losing battle against lust and expediency.

• Brother Bear (2003) (G: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — *1/2. A Disney animated feature that requires patience, while the filmmakers try 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 (pronounced “Keen Eye”), 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. The scenario suffers from defective resemblances to the far more clever “Ice Age.” With a stale, overemphatic song score by Phil Collins.

• 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.

• Dirty Pretty Things (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; morbid plot elements involving a black market in organ transplants) — ***. This romantic suspense melodrama concerns illegal aliens in London trying to make a living and normalize their status while eluding immigration agents. With the young Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a refugee doctor, Audrey Tatou (of “Amelie”) as a Turkish hotel maid and Sergi Lopez as their loathsome boss.

• 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, allegedly 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 are also 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 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 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.

• 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; while she accompanies her neglectful husband (Giovanni Ribisi) a busy celebrity photographer.

• 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.

• Mambo Italiano (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity) — ***. A flamboyant, hilarious Canadian domestic farce about a wrangling Italian immigrant family in Montreal. Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno play big fat mulish parents who find out that their only son Angelo (Luke Kirby) has been living in closeted homosexual intimacy with a former childhood pal named Nino (Peter Miller), who is inclined to backslide into heterosexual behavior. Efforts to set up the wayward young men with suitable young women are ill-advised, but Nino has already been seduced by a mantrap (Sophie Lorian), a worthy rival to his mother (Mary Walsh), an insinuating and domineering widow. Miss Reno, Miss Lorian and Miss Walsh contribute sensational comic performances.

• 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.

• Pieces of April (2003) (PG-13: Profanity; sensuality; drug use; images of nudity) — **. An understuffed, undercooked and ultimately unsatisfying Thanksgiving charmer. The Burnses are converging for what could be their last holiday together, as mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) has breast cancer. April (Katie Holmes) is the black sheep living in downtown Manhattan, and she frantically and comically tries to prepare the feast as the rest of clan makes its way down the turnpike. Punky Miss Holmes misfires but Miss Clarkson’s performance is a poignant winner. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Runaway Jury (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) — *1/2. Derived from a John Grisham novel, this stupefying courtroom melodrama mistakes itself for a crusading polemic. It teems with double-crosses that are never justified by the desire to rig a damages trial in New Orleans in order to punish an arms manufacturer vicariously. Gene Hackman plays a fuming jury consultant whose client is the maker of the automatic weapon used in a mass murder. Dustin Hoffman represents the plaintiff, Joanna Going, whose husband was one of the victims. Both sides are being conned by a stealth juror, John Cusack, and his supermanipulative girlfriend Rachel Weisz. The whole case repeatedly begs to be thrown out, and the dysfunctional jury dismissed. Instead, irregularities and miscarriages run amok.

• 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.

• 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 of 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 surprisingly 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 by now overly familiar yet the film still packs plenty of goosebumps. 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.

• Wonderland (2003) (R: Profanity, drug use, sexual situations, nudity, graphic violence) — **1/2. The descent and crash of ex-porn star John Holmes (Val Kilmer), who is implicated in a quadruple slaying in 1981 Los Angeles. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are standard fare, but Lisa Kudrow, as Mr. Holmes’ estranged wife Sharon, brings an element of mystery to the sordidness. Directed by James Cox. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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