- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

OPENING

• The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2004) (R: Bloody, stylized violence) Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano writes, directs and stars in this samurai epic about a blind swordsman trying to live a simple life as a masseur. His serenity crumbles when he moves to a town where a wicked gang is extorting the villagers through brute force.

• Broadway: The Golden Age (2004) (No MPAA rating — fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity) — ***1/2. Compiled over six years as a labor of love by actor and documentary filmmaker Rick McKay, this memoir of Broadway lore, emphasizing musical comedies during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, recaptures the nostalgic glamour and gusto that eludes the lamentable “De-Lovely.” Savory interviews with scores of show people are enhanced by archival illustration, wonderfully evocative of time and place even if a bit tattered pictorially. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Collateral (2004) (R: Sustained ominous content with graphic violence; occasional profanity) — *1/2. A novelty monstrosity from director Michael Mann, who struggles to sell us Tom Cruise as a mobster Terminator, programmed to execute five victims one night in Los Angeles. Far from incisive or foolproof, the movie repeatedly stalls as a suspense and chase vehicle.

• Garden State (2004) (R) — A whimsical homecoming comedy about a neurotic young actor, played by writer-director Zach Braff, a regular on the “Scrubs” sitcom, who returns to his hometown in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. While hanging out, he visits old pals, notably Peter Sarsgaard, a gravedigger; consults a neurologist, Ron Leibman; reunites with his estranged dad, Ian Holm; and falls for an epileptic kook, Natalie Portman.

• Intimate Strangers (2003) (R: Candid dialogue about sex; ominous undercurrents) — *1/2. The French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, having finessed oddball encounters in “The Girl on the Bridge” and “Man on a Train,” presses his luck with this consultation-room bonding fable about an estranged wife who mistakes a tax adviser for a psychotherapist. He’s too shy and intrigued to correct her misapprehension at first. She prefers to exploit him as a sounding board after she discovers his real profession. The pretext grows coy and tiresome. In French with English subtitles.

• Little Black Book (2004) (PG-13: Sexual content and language). Brittany Murphy (“Uptown Girls”) finds out more than she wanted to know about her boyfriend in this frilly sex comedy. Miss Murphy plays a talk show host’s assistant who gets her hands on her beau’s digital organizer and starts looking up all his ex-girlfriends. Ron Livingstone plays the hoodwinked boyfriend and Kathy Bates co-stars as Miss Murphy’s boss..

• Open Water (2004) (R) — Reputedly a new sleeper in the “Blair Witch Project” vein, this shoestring suspense thriller, written and directed by Chris Kentis, strands a vacationing couple in shark-infested tropical waters when they are accidentally abandoned during a scuba-diving jaunt. Their boat fails to return, night approaches and the sharks begin to circle.

NOW SHOWING

• Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) (PG-13: Sexual language, humor and comic violence) — **1/2. Will Ferrell looks to build on his “Elf” momentum with this throwback comedy about a very ‘70s newsman threatened by a beautiful reporter (Christina Applegate). Mr. Ferrell, donning a disco-era ‘do and a bushy mustache, is joined on the news desk by Paul Rudd and David Koechner. Mr. Ferrell’s unchecked performance generates nearly as many laughs as the film’s cultural anachronisms, but it’s never as cutting as the material promises. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Before Sunset (2004) (R: Adult language and situationsþ — ***. Slight but satisfying sequel to the 1995 film “Before Sunrise,” which explored the perils and delights of instant chemistry. We revisit that film’s characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nearly a decade after they met, and fell for each other, on a train. Those feelings haven’t dissipated over time, but their subsequent life choices threaten any chance at reconciliation. Director Richard Linklater fashions a marvelously told tale chiefly out of natural dialogue and honest emoting. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

m The Bourne Supremacy (2004) (PG-13: Violence, intense action) — …. Matt Damon returns as amnesiac CIA hitman Jason Bourne in this enthralling, if far-flung, sequel to “The Bourne Identity.” Director Paul Greengrass keeps the action immediate and vertiginous as Bourne is drawn back into the vortex of his past. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Catwoman (2004) (PG-13: Action violence and some sensuality) — *1/2. Not even the sight of Halle Berry encased in leather can give this lightly anticipated film a pulse. The Oscar winner plays Patience Philips, a dowdy ad designer who gains super powers when a magical cat breathes life back into her after she drowns. Along for the bumpy ride are Sharon Stone and Benjamin Bratt as Catwoman’s enemy and love interest, respectively. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• A Cinderella Story (2004) (PG: Fleeting comic vulgarity) — **. Hilary Duff is a San Fernando Valley update of Cinderella in this fumbling but generally amiable high school romantic comedy, at its best when soft-pedaling the heroine’s alleged underdog status. If anything, the obstacles are pretty lame. The Cinderella isn’t much of a stranger to her Prince Charming, a star quarterback played by Chad Michael Murray. Both are destined for very early acceptance to Princeton, for one thing. Dan Byrd emerges as an amusing sidekick and Regina King is a steadfast fairy godmother.

• The Clearing (2004) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor) — *1/2. A negligible suspense melodrama, with Robert Redford as a wealthy executive abducted at gunpoint in the driveway of his suburban Pittsburgh home by Willem Dafoe, who leads the victim on an extended trek over mountains. Mr. Redford’s wife, Helen Mirren, must share a vigil with FBI agent Matt Craven. The audience may wish she’d take charge, in the spirit of “Prime Suspect.” The crisis suffers from a diminishing sense of urgency. A novice director, Pieter Jan Brugge, and screenwriter, Justin Haythe, seem to have selected the most deflating of all possible alternatives.

• De-Lovely (2004) (PG-13: Occasional sexual candor and innuendo, dominated by allusions to the homosexuality of Cole Porter; fleeting profanity and depictions of grave injury or illness) — *1/2. A would-be poignant but hopelessly blundering attempt to recall the career of Cole Porter while acknowledging the clandestine homosexual activity that needed to be concealed when Hollywood paid its first tribute almost 60 years ago, with Cary Grant in “Night and Day.” “De-Lovely” co-stars Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as his loyal socialite wife Linda Lee. Sappiness abounds, and the filmmakers are vastly less proficient at devising attractive showcases for famous Porter songs.

• The Door in the Floor 2004 (R: Harsh language, sexuality, violence and alcohol use) — ***1/2. John Irving’s “A Widow for One Year” gets a first-class adaptation from young writer-director Tod Williams. The movie, which concerns itself with only the first third of Mr. Irving’s novel, captures both the author’s invigorating characters and his occasional dark humor. Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger star as a couple, still grieving over the death of their twin sons, who accept a young writer into their fractured lives. A brilliant turn by Mr. Bridges and a whipsmart script make this, arguably, the most faithful adaptation of all of Mr. Irving’s works. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Facing Windows (2004) (R: Sexual situations and harsh language) — ***. A working class Italian couple invites an elderly man into their home in “Windows,” a touching import directed by Ferzan Ozpetek. The old man’s shattered memory slowly reveals the horrors of his earliest days in Nazi-era Germany, while the housewife releases the stress caused by their new border by focusing her passions on a handsome neighbor. The pace may be neighborly but the emotions roiled by the old man’s presence prove meaningful. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and images of wartime carnage) — *1/2.Somehow, a frankly prejudicial outlook fails to prevent Michael Moore from being a butterfingered specialist in hatchet jobs. He can’t keep a firm grip on a very blunt polemical instrument. The intended victim of this pseudo-documentary roast is President George W. Bush, assailed and ridiculed from election night in 2000 through the prosecution of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Golden Palm winner at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

• Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004) (R: Strong language, marijuana use, nudity and comic violence) — **1/2. The latest addition to the “stoner comedy” genre manages to be witty and sweet despite its nonstop profanity. The titular buddies want nothing more than a dozen or so White Castle burgers to cap their Friday night. That innocent impulse leads to a series of bawdy misadventures guaranteed to leave teen males cheering. The film’s humorous moments do plenty to alleviate its uneven tone and sloppy storytelling. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) (PG: Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence) — **1/2. A dank and misleading third feature derived from J.K. Rowling’s saga of the orphaned boy wizard Harry Potter. Back for his third year at Hogwarts, revamped for a bleaker look, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is supposedly threatened by a fugitive wizard, Sirius Black, who eventually surfaces in the person of Gary Oldman. David Thewlis is an impressive addition to the faculty, and a flying creature called a Hippogriff provides one lyrical sequence. Maybe it’s the “Star Trek” pattern all over again: the better movies will be the even-numbered ones.

• A Home at the End of the World (2004) (R: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and depictions of drug use by minors; sexual candor, including simulations of intercourse between teenage boys) — *1/2. A wistfully alienating chronicle of dubious designs for living that traces a pair of 1960s schoolboy friends in Cleveland, Bobby and Jonathan. They experiment with drugs and sex under the shocked but indulgent gaze of the latter’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek. Nominally grown, with Colin Farrell as Bobby and Dallas Roberts as Jonathan, the boys share a New York menage with a bohemian older sister surrogate played by Robin Wright Penn. We’re meant to sympathize with their forlorn efforts to “redefine” a family group. It’s easier to find them oblivious and ridiculous.

• I, Robot (2004) (PG-13: Violent action sequences, some brief partial nudity) — ***1/2. Will Smith reclaims the summer blockbuster mantle with this sci-fi thriller based on stories by Isaac Asimov. Mr. Smith stars as a cynical cop who believes a robot is responsible for an unsolved murder, even if it goes against the robotic programming drummed into every machine. The film marries colossal effects with a vibrant star turn by Mr. Smith to become the best popcorn film of the summer. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Manchurian Candidate (2004) (R: Frequent profanity and graphic violence; gruesome scenes of mental and physical torture; fleeting sexual candor) —1/2*. Jonathan Demme mangles the durably haunting John Frankenheimer-George Axelrod version of Richard Condon’s Cold War thriller about a time-bomb assassin. Now there’s a nefarious multinational called Manchurian Global that seeks to dominate everything, including an approaching national election. In the Frank Sinatra role, Denzel Washington becomes a frenzied dupe. In the Laurence Harvey role, Liev Schreiber becomes a superfluous dupe. In the Angela Lansbury role, Meryl Streep seems to be losing her chin, not to mention her chops. This will be a tough one to live down.

• Maria Full of Grace (2004) (R: profanity, violence, scenes of drug production) — ***. A simple, swift blow to the thorax from director Joshua Marston, using first-time actors to capture the harrowingly personal trafficking of drugs from Bogota to the United States. The title character (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an impoverished, flinty Colombian teen, conceals scores of pellets full of narcotics in her stomach in a high-stakes game of airline smuggling. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004) (NR: Profanity) —****. An engrossing, fly-on-the-wall documentary from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the megapopular heavy metal band Metallica. The band’s future is in limbo, and it doesn’t hesitate once in airing its dirty laundry for our delectation. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Notebook (2004) (PG-13: Some moments of sensuality) — **1/2. Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, “The Notebook” follows an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) as she learns about a pair of lovestruck teens from stories left behind in an old notebook. The film flashes back to that 1940s-era romance, then returns to the present day, where the senile old woman is cared for by a kindly senior citizen (James Garner). Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter). Yet another polemical documentary feature with a grudge against the Bush administration, assembled and narrated by Robert Kane Pappas, who purports to sound the alarm against power-grabbing politicians and international media proprietors. Exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. Not reviewed.

• Riding Giants (2004) (PG-13: Coarse language) — **1/2. Director Stacy Peralta (“Dogtown and Z-Boys”) casts his documentary eye on the origins of surf culture with often stirring results. “Giants” traces the sport from his its infancy in Polynesian culture to its rebirth in 20th-century America. Along the way we meet the sport’s most dangerous players, all of whom never met a wave they didn’t want to super-size. The film crackles when we hear from the old-timers, who recall their exploits with grand style and humility. The modern crop of big-wave surfers, while enormously gifted, can’t compete with their predecessors in the art of storytelling. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Seducing Dr. Lewis (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter; occasional profanity and comic and sexual vulgarity) — * A French-Canadian comedy that loses a tug-of-war between the distinctive and the trite. A small, impoverished fishing community needs to attract a town doctor in order to compete for a factory that might revive the local economy. Instead of making an honest pitch, the residents opt for deception, an alternative that leaves both the community and its candidate looking more contemptible than endearing. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Visions Cinema, Bistro & Lounge.

• Spider-Man 2 (2004) (PG-13: Stylized action sequences) — **1/2. Tobey Maguire returns as the neurotic wall-crawler who battles his feelings for Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) as well as a new supervillain. Alfred Molina gives the wicked Dr. Octavious a bruised soul, but the battles between him and Spider-Man seem more video game than movie magic. Returning director Sam Raimi gives far more attention to the film’s romantic core, a rarity in big-budget sequels. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) (PG: Essentially suitable for all ages; elements of natural candor, including a sequence about camels giving birth) — ****. The loveliest movie of the year so far. Filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa, a Mongolian, and Luigi Falorni, an Italian, observe the spring calving season and its aftermath with a family that herds sheep and Bactrian camels. The family itself, ranging from great grandparents to a toddler, is exceptionally attractive. They face a crisis: how to reconcile a mother camel to the pleading calf she repeatedly rejects. The scenes are largely authentic and unrehearsed, but they incorporate a tribal fable of reconciliation through music that proves sublimely gratifying. In a Mongolian dialect with English subtitles.

• Thunderbirds (2004) (PG: Ominous episodes; fleeting profanity and vulgarity) — **1/2. An affectionate homage to the 1960s, cleverly timed to shame the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” This cheerful live-action salute to the vintage British animation series is fearlessly unfashionable. But its good-natured virtues and absurdities deserve to beguile the “Spy Kids” public. A trio of intrepid youngsters must foil a sinister mastermind, who invades the South Pacific hideaway of International Rescue, a family firm of troubleshooters dependent on a fleet of awesome spaceships and rescue vehicles.

• Twist (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter). A contemporary crime thriller, set among petty thieves and male hustlers in Toronto. Director Jacob Tierney presumes to borrow certain aspects of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” including an update of the Artful Dodger, played by Nick Stahl. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Not reviewed.

• The Village (2004) (PG-13: Violence and frightening situations) — **1/2. Scare-meister M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) returns with this creepy but hollow tale of a Utopian village harboring a deep, dark secret. The all-star cast, including Adrien Brody, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver, play villagers surrounded by a forest teeming with creatures kept at bay by a long-kept promise. The writer-director’s work hinges so thoroughly on his third act surprises that the storytelling suffers, no matter how ingenious the twists may be. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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