- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

OPENING

• My Life Without Me (2003) (R: Adult themes, sexual situations and mature language) — ***. Indie darling Sarah Polley anchors this bittersweet weeper about a young woman diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rather than tell her loved ones, she keeps the news to herself and vows to live her final days to the fullest. Miss Polley’s nuanced work here cushions her morally dubious decisions, making “My Life” both unpredictable and warm. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Shane (1953) (No MPAA Rating — made before the advent of the rating system; occasional graphic violence in a frontier Western setting) — ****. A brief 50th anniversary revival for George Stevens’ stirring and memorable Western, available in a newly restored print. Alan Ladd had the chivalrous role of a lifetime as Shane, a mysterious gunfighter who sides with the Wyoming Territory homesteaders — the valiant little farm family of Van Heflin, Jean Arthur and Brandon de Wilde — in a conflict with despotic ranchers who ultimately resort to a cadaverous executioner played by the young Jack Palance. Awesome scenery, eloquent art direction, outstanding cinematography and music. The Grand Tetons provided an awesome scenic backdrop. Art directors Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler gave the foregrounds a distinctive bareness and eloquence, especially the muddy “main street” where all social activity is funneled into an adjacent saloon and general store. Cinematographer Loyal Griggs and composer Victor Young also contributed indispensably to the mood of heroic enchantment and pathos. One week only, exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

• 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.

• 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. 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 cast of unfamiliar faces.

• Touchez pas au Grisbi (1953) (No MPAA Rating — made years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter and treatment, with occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor) — ***. A 50th anniversary revival of the French crime melodrama that anticipated the latter stage of Jean Gabin’s film starring career.Through Oct. 30, exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

• Veronica Guerin (2003) (R) — 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. Not reviewed.

• Wonderland (2003) (R) — A crime chronicle based on a multiple murder case of 1981 that claimed the sordid life of porn star John Holmes, portrayed by Val Kilmer. The supporting cast also includes Tim Blake Nelson, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Janeane Garofalo and Carrie Fisher. Directed by James Cox. Not reviewed.

NOW SHOWING

• Cabin Fever (2003) (R: Extreme violence and gore, drug use, coarse language and sexual situations) — **.. First-time director Eli Roth sets a flesh-eating virus loose on a cabin full of college graduates in this feisty but immature horror yarn. A cast of unknowns battles the virus, local hillbillies and each other, but viewers won’t care much about these undernourished characters. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Casa de los Babys (2003) (R: Adult themes and mature language) — **1/2. Writer-director John Sayles assembles six talented actresses to flesh out his tale of women waiting to adopt children in a poor Latin country. Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden leaves the biggest impact as a stubborn woman willing to buy her way to motherhood. The others (Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah among them) are given much less to do, emotionally. Mr. Sayles proves more adept at recording cultural observations than he does achieving any narrative flow. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Dopamine (2003) (R: Strong language; sexual situations, nudity; brief drug use) — **. Chews on a question that will take more than this little movie to digest: Does love have a higher meaning? Or is it just, literally, a chemical reaction? A pair of wised-up San Franciscoans (John Livingston, Sabrina Lloyd) put their neurotransmitters to the test. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Fighting Temptations (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual allusions) — **. An initially tempting romantic comedy. In childhood Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles were members of a gospel-singing church congregation in a small Georgia town. Mr. Gooding returns to his roots after his mother’s death and a professional disgrace in New York. Miss Knowles has stayed close to home but has drifted from the flock. The movie gets off to a splendid start with a rousing gospel number set in the past. Slowly but irreversibly, gauche miscalculations chip away at plausibility and good will.

• Good Boy! (2003) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — **. An appealing but exceedingly slight variation on “E.T.,” with Liam Aiken as a dog-walking suburban kid 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.

• House of the Dead (2003) (R: Strong language, horror-style gore, some nudity and violence). A group of fun-loving teens travel to a remote island to attend a rave party. When they arrive, they find the party house deserted. The friends soon come under attack from scores of bloodthirsty zombies. “Dead” is inspired by the Sega video game of the same name. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Intolerable Cruelty (2003) (PG-13: Frequent sexual vulgarity; fleeting profanity and facetious episodes of violence) — *1/2. A sour confection, meant to exploit George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as glamorous consorts in a romantic farce, evidently revamped by Joel and Ethan Coen from another team’s defective scenario. The infrastructure remains a shambles. Mr. Clooney’s Miles Massey, the prince of L.A. divorce lawyers, upsets the fortune-hunting plans of Miss Zeta-Jones as gold digger Marylin Rexroth. She devises a get-even scheme to seduce and pauperize him. Neither reversal is convincing on the face of things. The movie also leaves itself ill-equipped to rationalize the redemptive idea that Miles and Marylin are capable of genuine attraction and changes of heart.

• 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.

• 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.

• Madame Sata (2001) (No MPAA Rating: adult subject matter and treatment, compatible with the R category — frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence; fleeting simulations of intercourse, including homosexual encounters) An evocation of criminal lowlife in Brazil in the 1930s, revolving around a petty criminal and ex-con who dabbles in female impersonation, adopting his nickname from the title character of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 mind-boggler “Madam Satan.” In Portuguese with English subtitles. Exclusively at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle. Not reviewed.

• The Magdalene Sisters — (2003) (R: Nudity, harsh language and violent sequences) — ***. The titular “sisters” are a group of young women in the mid-1960s sentenced to hard labor in Catholic laundries in Ireland for the sins of professing randy thoughts or being sexually assaulted. Based on the real-life Magdalene asylums, the women’s stories prove harrowing under the stern hand of director Peter Mullan. The film stacks the deck against the nuns, but otherwise it realistically recounts the actual horrors thousands of Irish women faced. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Mystic River (2003) (R: Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and frequent profanity; episodes depicting the abduction and molestation of a child) — *1/2. A morbidly unrewarding pulp tragedy from Clint Eastwood, who observes the misfortunes that haunt the childhood and then the adulthood of three characters who were boyhood friends in the Roxbury district of Boston. 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.

• Out of Time (2003) (PG-13: A lenient judgment, given frequent graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse) — **. A mystery melodrama starring Denzel Washington as an unwary police chief in tiny Banyan Key, Fla. Recently divorced from one sultry consort (Eva Mendes as a Miami homicide detective), he has consoled himself with a married woman played by Sanaa Lathan. This liaison sets him up for criminal jeopardy as the fall guy in a murder and extortion conspiracy.

• Party Monster (2003) (R) — Another fable of degeneracy, this one featuring Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green as moths to the flame who destroy themselves while frequenting a drug-besotted nightclub culture in New York City. Exclusively at Visions Cinema. Not reviewed.

• The Rundown (2003) (PG:13: Crude language and adventure-style violence) — **. WWE superstar The Rock, the actor formerly known as Dwayne Johnson, makes a solid play for action-hero status in this otherwise lunkheaded yarn. 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.

• Secondhand Lions (2003) (PG: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity; fleeting violence in tongue-in-cheek flashbacks about martial exploits) — . Michael Caine and Robert Duvall are teamed as old crocks from Texas in this facetiously sentimental crock. A castoff kid, Haley Joel Osment, becomes devoted to the codgers, his great-uncles, when dropped on their doorstep one summer in the late 1950s by his no-account mom, Kyra Sedgwick. The crotchety bachelors soften up to their young stray. Writer-director Tim McCanlies’ amateurism defies finesse or credibility.

• The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor, including brief depictions of intercourse; episodes of marital and family conflict)****. This seriocomic gem is derived from the Jane Smiley novella “The Age of Grief.” Campbell Scott, as dentist David Hurst, shares a practice in Westchester County, N.Y., with his wife Dana, played by Hope Davis. Dana is an ecstatic member of the chorus in a community opera production, and when David briefly ventures backstage he sees his wife in a romantic trance with another man, whose identity remains obscure. The story concentrates on David’s method of responding. Exceptionally introspective and affecting.

• Thirteen (2003) (R: Sexual situations, drug use, harsh language, violence) — …. Adolescence never seemed as cruel as in this sobering drama co-written by then 13-year-old co-star Nikki Reed. “Thirteen” follows a former good girl gone bad (Evan Rachel Wood) after she strikes up a dangerous friendship with her school’s most popular girl (Miss Reed). Holly Hunter plays the mom in way over her head. The film is too unflinching at times in its assessment of today’s youth, but its power and poignancy are undeniable. Reviewed by Christian Toto

• Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity) — *1/2. A shameless trivialization of Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir about homesteading in Tuscany. The original author had a husband who collaborated in the experience. The fictional Frances (Diane Lane) is a writer who travels to Europe to escape a demoralizing divorce. Eventually, she is joined in Tuscany by a pregnant lesbian pal (Sandra Oh). Miss Lane is helped through some difficult fixer-upper months by a kindly realtor; then she becomes putty in the hands of a young heartbreaker. Reliably picturesque but you’ll pay a steep price in unmerited sentiment and slapdash farce.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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