- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

OPENING • Autumn Spring (2001) (R) A Czech comedy about a retired actor, Fanda, played by Vlastimil Brodsky, whose irrepressible eccentricities and zest for life demand exceptional patience from his wife (Stella Zazvorkova) and son (Ondrej Vetchy). Directed by Vladimir Michalek from a screenplay by Jiri Hubac. In Czech with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Cinema Arts in Fairfax.

• Duplex (2003) (PG-13) A comedy of malevolence from Danny DeVito, directing a screenplay by Larry Doyle. An affluent Manhattan couple played by Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore acquires a duplex that becomes burdensome when they realize that the elderly tenant of the rent-controlled apartment upstairs may be difficult to dislodge.

• Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2003) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2003) (No MPAA Rating adult subject matter) A domestic comedy from the British director Shane Meadows and screenwriter Paul Fraser, who observe the conflicts provoked when unmarried Dek and Shirley (Rhys Ifans and Shirley Henderson) must contend with the return of Shirley’s prodigal consort Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), a petty thief and the father of her 12-year-old daughter. A conspiracy forms among friends and family members who deplore Jimmy and want to prevent Shirley from being seduced and abandoned twice by the same cad.

• The Rundown (2003) (PG:13: Crude language and adventure-style violence. Wrestling superstar The Rock, formerly Dwayne Johnson, is back to solidify his action-hero status. He stars as a bounty hunter headed to the Amazon for his latest assignment. His fast-talking prey (Seann William Scott) isn’t who he appears to be and soon the two team up against a wicked despot (Christopher Walken) who is plundering the jungle’s rich treasures. Actor Peter Berg (“Chicago Hope”) directs.

• Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity) Diane Lane, Hollywood’s favorite swooning adulterous heroine, attempts to add notes of madcap wistfulness in this shameless trivialization of Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir about a gratifying experiment in homesteading in the Tuscany region of Italy. The original author had a husband who collaborated in the experience. The fictional Frances (Miss Lane) is a San Francisco writer who travels to Europe to escape a demoralizing divorce. Eventually, she is joined in Tuscany by a pregnant lesbian pal played by 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. There may never have been a visiting American pushover to rival Miss Lane’s Frances. Reliably picturesque but you’ll pay a steep price in unmerited sentiment and slapdash farce.

NOW SHOWING • American Splendor(2003) (R: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor) — *1/2. Splendor means oddball celebrity in this fitfully amusing but seldom persuasive biographical love letter to the prickly individuality of Harvey Pekar, a retired file clerk from Cleveland who became a counterculture curmudgeon. The shambling role seems more of a burden than an opportunity for the stubby character actor Paul Giamatti. Mr. Pekar himself sometimes appears in the movie and narrates several episodes. An ambitious attempt at semi-documentary comic portraiture, the movie is easier to admire as a notion than a finished product.

• Anything Else (2003) (R) — Woody Allen observes the romantic woes of an aspiring young comedy writer, Jason Biggs, who falls in love at first sight with a manipulative opportunist, Christina Ricci. The supporting cast includes Mr. Allen as a worried mentor, Stockard Channing as Miss Ricci’s mercenary mother and Danny DeVito as an incompetent agent.

• 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. Clearly inspired by rambunctious horror flicks like “Evil Dead” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Cabin Fever” too often stoops to those films’ baser instincts. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Cold Creek Manor (2003) (R: Violence, language and sexual situations). Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone star as city slickers who move into a dilapidated mansion far away from any urban pressures. A series of bizarre events leads them to discover the dark secrets within their new house. Directed by Mike Figgis (“Leaving Las Vegas”).

• The Cuckoo (2003) (PG-13: Violence; sexual themes; brief nudity) — ***. A deceptively simple, funny and clever Russian movie set in Finland as World War II is expiring. Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) is a reindeer herding Sami; Veiko (Ville Haapasalo) is a cheery, bookish young Finnish sniper left for dead by his comrades; Ivan (Viktor Bychkov) is a middle-aged Russian soldier weary of war but still in its mindset. The three wind up on Anni’s wilderness hut, where none speaks the other’s language and they, nevertheless, reach an uneasy modus vivendi. In Sami, Russian and Finnish with subtitles. Exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Demonlover (2003) (PG-13) — A suspense melodrama about industrial espionage in the interactive video trade, with Connie Nielsen as a dishy saboteur hired to damage a prospective merger of multinationals. Her mission involves the discovery of a porn Web site named after the Victorian “Hellfire Club,” an association of wealthy libertines. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, frequent comic vulgarity and occasional sexual and drug allusions) — *1/2. The new David Spade farce, a highly uneven blend of thundering ineptitude and sly wit. About two-thirds of the movie is stinko, yet the sheer scarcity of the clever bits tends to magnify their enjoyability. Mr. Spade plays the hapless title character, once the popular brat on a TV sitcom and now a struggling actor and parking attendant. Desperate for a role in a new Rob Reiner film, he takes it to heart when the director suggests that he lacks firsthand experience of a normal family environment. Dickie arranges to board with a suburban family. Far less plausibly, he’s positioned to replace their dad, Craig Bierko, who is in the process of alienating spouse Mary McCormack.

• Dirty Pretty Things (2003) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; morbid plot elements involving a black market in organ transplants) — ***. Stephen Frears rediscovers the promise and pathos of ethnic London. This romantic suspense melodrama concerns illegal aliens trying to make a living and normalize their status while eluding immigration agents. The young Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the story a solid emotional foundation as a refugee doctor, Okwe, who works two jobs while trying to remain in the shadows: cabbie and hotel night clerk. He has made arrangements with Senay, a Turkish hotel maid (Audrey Tatou of “Amelie”), to use her flat as sleeping quarters while she works a morning shift. The attachment intensifies when they are threatened with exposure and intimidation, some of it engineered by Sneaky (Sergi Lopez in excellent loathsome form), their boss at the hotel.

• The Fighting Temptations (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual allusions) — **. An initially tempting romantic comedy pretext contrived to reunite characters played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles. They were devoted in childhood, when members of a gospel-singing church congregation in a small Georgia town. Mr. Gooding returns to his roots in the wake of his mother’s death and a professional disgrace, while employed as an unscrupulous ad executive in New York. Miss Knowles has remained 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 and then follows through smartly in the present with Miss Knowles’ sultry nightclub rendition of “Fever.” Slowly but irreversibly, gauche miscalculations chip away at plausibility and good will. Ultimately, the movie degenerates into an all-embracing mishmash.

• Freaky Friday (2003) (PG: Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) — **. A haphazard update of the Mary Rodgers comic novel about a turnabout situation: Mother and teenage daughter exchange bodies for a hectic but enlightening day. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, the delightful discovery of the 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap,” are the new switchers. The younger actresses get to act mature for their ages, but acting immature does nothing for Miss Curtis in this revamp. Miss Lohan is the reassuring element.

• Freddy vs. Jason (2003) (R: Slasher-film violence and gore, nudity, sexuality, drug use and strong language) — **. Two of Hollywood’s most resilient monsters face off in a film seeking to reinvent two dying franchises. “Freddy vs. Jason” finds the “Nightmare on Elm Street” villain (Robert Englund) invading the dreams of Jason of “Friday the 13th” infamy. The youthful cast are overshadowed by the WWE-like grudge match between the monsters. The rest of the film is an unimaginative rehash of slasher film conventions. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• In This World (2003) (R) — A topical suspense melodrama from the British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who observes the struggle of two Afghan cousins to migrate to London.

• Lost in Translation (2003) (R: Fleeting profanity, nudity and sexual candor) — **1/2. The second feature from Sofia Coppola is a bemusing, sweet-tempered improvement on her first, “The Virgin Suicides,” but she is kind of faking it without a writer. It takes Miss Coppola about half the movie to sidle up to an introduction between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as lonely Americans in Tokyo. A former Hollywood star, he’s there to shoot a lucrative set of commercials for a whiskey company. She is accompanying her neglectful husband, Giovanni Ribisi, a busy celebrity photographer. You wait patiently for Miss Coppola to activate a friendship between these exiles, reassured by her pictorial fascination with the Tokyo settings and some effective comic episodes. At the fadeout we’re still waiting for proof that these sympathetic outcasts have been indispensable to each other.

• 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 — surely a few possessed a flicker of kindness — but otherwise it realistically recounts the actual horrors thousands of women faced. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Masked and Anonymous (2003) (PG-13: brief violence, some profanity) — **. Dylanologists will puzzle over “Masked and Anonymous” for as long as they can stand it, which probably is the point of this very odd, impenetrable and incoherent movie. Bob Dylan plays Jack Fate, a once-popular singer-songwriter sprung from jail to play a benefit concert in the war-torn America of an unspecified future. “Seinfeld” collaborator Larry Charles directed and co-wrote with Mr. Dylan, and a passel of big-name actors turn up. It never makes sense; Mr. Dylan barely acts. But the tunes are good — so maybe that was the point. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Matchstick Men (2003) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions) — ****. A sardonic and cleverly sustained parable about the pitfalls of a criminal mentality and profession. It revolves around a phobic telemarketing swindler named Roy, played by Nicolas Cage in topflight eccentric form. Roy’s apprehensive and hermetic Los Angeles milieu is wittily evoked by director Ridley Scott, cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Tom Foden. Roy’s oddities threaten to disrupt his successful partnership with a young protege named Frank, smartly played by Sam Rockwell. Roy learns that he has a teenage daughter, who enters in the beguiling, troubling form of Alison Lohman, the discovery of “White Oleander.” Mr. Scott’s confidence with imagery and actors gives the plot manipulations a rare cinematic sophistication and ruefulness. He guarantees a deluxe exercise in deception.

• The Medallion (2003) (PG-13) — *1/2. The latest Jackie Chan action farce. He plays a Hong Kong policeman who seems to be blessed with supernatural powers after a brush with death. A mysterious medallion figures in his survival and leads to the discovery of a secret brotherhood called Highbinders, riven between good and evil factions. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Mondays in the Sun (2002) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor) — **1/2. Javier Bardem, bulking up for an entire characterization, gives a commanding performance as a growling, bearish former welder who has become the unrepentant cynic and bellyacher in a group of six comrades once employed at an abandoned shipyard in Galicia. These middle-aged men haunt the site of their old workplace, hanging out in the bar now owned by a member of the fraternity. Since much of the argumentation takes place within the tavern, the movie often suggests “The Iceman Cometh” with an updated Spanish context and Mr. Bardem as the resident, permanently disillusioned Hickey. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) (R: Pervasive violence; profanity) — **1/2. Robert Rodriguez repeats himself in this, the third in a series of guerrilla films that began with 1992’s “El Mariachi,” but the writer-director is a master of gallows humor. There’s another evil drug lord (played by a duskified Willem Dafoe), the same acrobatic, dizzyingly edited gun battles and, again, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) has a score to settle. “Mexico” works at least as often as it flounders, and it’s always a pleasure to see an action movie with a sharp sense of humor, especially that of scene-stealer Johnny Depp. Also starring Enrique Iglesias. Partly in Spanish with subtitles. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Open Range (2003) (R: Occasional profanity and graphic violence in a frontier Western setting)**** One of the most distinctive and satisfying Westerns of the past generation, “Open Range” is intelligently contrived by screenwriter Craig Storper and vigorously realized by Kevin Costner. The setting is Montana in 1882, about a decade before the frontier was officially closed as a haven for homesteaders and free-grazers, small-scale cattlemen who drive their herds across open rangeland. Robert Duvall is such a free-grazer, and Mr. Costner is his wary but dependable right hand. They run afoul of a tyrannical rancher played by Michael Gambon and refuse to be intimidated. The conflict sets up a sensational finale of gunfights.

• The Order (2003) (R: Bloody, disturbing rituals; graphic violence; profanity; some sexuality) — **. Heath Ledger plays Alex Bernier, a young Catholic priest of a breakaway sect eyed suspiciously by the Vatican. He jets off to Rome to investigate the death of his mentor, who died in a mysterious ceremony at the hands of a “sin eater,” the practitioner of a medieval myth said to cleanse the unfaithful of their transgressions. A flawed, facilely written movie but may incite a big thought or two. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details in an adventure spectacle format; elements of supernatural horror) — **1/2. Despite the interminable fourth act, “Pirates” is an astute blend of comic characterization and rejuvenated adventure cliches at its most diverting. Johnny Depp does an extroverted masquerade as a roguish pirate captain called Jack Sparrow, intent on retrieving his ship, the Black Pearl, from a mutinous mate, Barbossa, an imposing corrupt presence as played by Geoffrey Rush. Keira Knightley of “Bend It Like Beckham” looks very attractive in period costume, and she gets two valiant suitors in Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport.

• 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 youngster, Haley Joel Osment, becomes devoted to the codgers, his great-uncles, when unceremoniously dropped on their doorstep one summer in the late 1950s by his no-account mom, Kyra Sedgwick. Crotchety bachelors who may have been globetrotting soldiers of fortune in their youth, the uncs also soften up as quickly as you’d predict to their young stray. Mr. Osment has reached an awkward age, and acting seems to have become a struggle. Mr. Caine has the least offensive role as the more contemplative uncle, who enchants the impressionable youth with tall-tale accounts of an adventurous and perhaps fabulously lucrative past. Writer-director Tim McCanlies hints that he’s hustling a semi-autobiographical family yarn, but his 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 conjugal 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 of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” and when David briefly ventures backstage, he sees his wife of 10 years in some kind of romantic trance with another man, whose identity remains obscure for the duration. However, infidelity proves more than a suspicion, and the story concentrates on David’s method of responding. Exceptionally introspective and affecting.

• Step into Liquid (No MPAA Rating — Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity, consistent with the PG category) ****. The most beautiful surfing feature ever seen. This surprisingly comprehensive and stirring update on the sport’s lore, evolution and international popularity was compiled by Dana Brown, the son of surfing movie pioneer Bruce Brown of “Endless Summer” renown. Pictorially, “Liquid” is an awesome scenic spectacle, reflecting quantum improvements in camera platforms, lenses and all-around versatility since Bruce Brown was an enterprising amateur filmmaker four decades ago. Exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

• S.W.A.T. (2003) (PG:13: Violent sequences, strong language and sexual references) — *1/2. Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell star in this limp update of the ‘70s television series. Mr. Farrell is an LAPD cop who rejoins the elite cop force (Special Weapons and Tactics unit) after disobeying orders. The group’s new assignment involves a captured drug lord offering $100 million to anyone who can free him from police custody. Stale cop cliches and logic-free action sequences handcuff a good cast. 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

• Underworld (2003) (R: Supernatural-inspired gore, violence and profanity) — **. Two of Hollywood’s favorite monsters, the vampire and the werewolf, are cast as long-feuding clans in this disappointing feature. The blood suckers and lycanthropes, the latter known as Lycans, may seem like perfect adversaries, but “Underworld’s” murky story and incoherent action doom the feature to the cinematic graveyard. Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman lead an undistinguished cast. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Uptown Girls (2003) (PG-13: Mild sexual content and language) — *1/2. Little more than throwaway entertainment for beating the August heat. It’s fuzzy, touchy-feely and so gaseous it could float away before your eyes. Princess of pout Brittany Murphy plays Molly Gunn, the undermotivated daughter of a rock star who died, along with Molly’s mother, in a plane crash. After an accountant steals her trust-fund booty, Molly ends up as an au pair for Ray, (Dakota Fanning), the neurotic woman-child daughter of an icy, inattentive record company exec (Heather Locklear). Directed by Boaz Yakin. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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