- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 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.” The crew of a space freighter called Nostromo are menaced by a rapacious, elusive organism after responding to a distress call from a storm-tossed planet whose elegantly nightmarish features include a subterranean garden of pods, evidently awaiting unwary prey. Sigourney Weaver became a star as the valiant executive officer Ripley, who faces an unrelenting showdown with annihilation. John Hurt and Ian Holm have the stunning trick roles as colleagues whose bodies surge way out of control. With Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright as the remaining targets of monstrous devouring. 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 glaring example of the 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 desire to salute the efforts of international relief workers. On the commercially exploitable 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. Developed for several years as an Oliver Stone polemic, the movie was slightly downsized when he bailed out, then entrusted to Martin Campbell, the director of “GoldenEye” and “The Mask of Zorro.” Nothing prevents it from becoming a synthetic fiasco.

• Pieces of April (2003) (PG-13) — A domestic comedy-drama with Katie Holmes as a young woman struggling to impress her suburban parents, Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt, by preparing Thanksgiving dinner in the Lower East Side apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Derek Luke. Written and directed by Peter Hedges.

• Radio (2003) (PG) — An inspirational fable derived from a Sports Illustrated human-interest story about a high school in Anderson, S.C., that has cherished a retarded man named James Robert Kennedy, nicknamed Radio, for several decades. The movie condenses this long association to a pivotal football season, in which a coach named Harold Jones (Ed Harris) decides to recruit the sports-loving Radio, impersonated by Cuba Gooding Jr., as a kind of honorary manager and cheerleader, with mutually gratifying results. The cast also includes Debra Winger as the coach’s wife and Alfre Woodard as the school’s principal. Directed by Mike Tollin from a screenplay by Mike Rich, who also wrote “The Rookie.”

• 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. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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 too judicious and magnanimous to pick sides in the lingering academic feuds about who betrayed whom most profoundly. They’re content to remain 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 loathe to choose sides in the conflict. The episodes set in New England were shot in Miss Jeffs’ native New Zealand. 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.


• 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 Londo0n 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 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.

• House of the Dead (2003) (R: Strong language, horror-style gore, some nudity and violence) — 1/2* . 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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

• 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.

• 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 real estate agent; 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.

• 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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