- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

OPENING

• Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004) (No MPAA rating: Adult subject matter, involving some documentary footage of violent events) — **. A documentary chronicle of the 1974 abduction of Patricia Hearst, the daughter of San Francisco Examiner publisher Randolph Hearst, from a Berkeley, Calif., apartment house by members of an obscure radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. During captivity she became a notorious temporary convert to the SLA’s propaganda line, which enjoyed lavish publicity until five members died in a flamboyant shootout with Los Angeles police. The ignorance and squalor of the insurgents were captured more effectively in a dramatized account of 1988, “Patty Hearst,” directed by Paul Schrader from a script by Nicholas Kazan. This reprise kind of stirs the embers of homegrown radicalism at its sorriest. There are relatively few interview subjects, and Miss Hearst is not one of them. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

NOW SHOWING

• The Aviator (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity, and depictions of demented behavior; fleeting nudity) — **1/2. A curiously compressed and bewildering plunge into the colorful, notorious life of Howard Hughes, impersonated by Leonardo DiCaprio from the eccentric genius’ early 20s to early 40s, or 1927-47. The romance of Hollywood and the romance of aviation during the 1930s provide director Martin Scorsese with his liveliest inducements. There is a trio of dandy sequences with Mr. Hughes in the cockpit, two spectacularly perilous and one a charming romantic interlude with Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. Screenwriter John Logan portrays the hero’s sudden, debilitating lapses into dementia but neglects to cushion or clarify their weirdness. The last hour or so bogs down in a supremely bizarre breakdown and a tedious duel with a hostile senator played by Alan Alda.

• Beyond the Sea (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting profanity and occasional sexual candor; episodes of family conflict) — ***. A tour de force from Kevin Spacey, long possessed by an irresistible impulse to impersonate the pop singer Bobby Darin, whose career flourished in the early 1960s. Always energized and frequently inventive, the movie employs a confessional format that might be better suited to the stage, where it would also be less disconcerting to hear the star simulate the song style of his subject. One rather expects to hear the original voice in a movie. Mr. Spacey, who also directed, is a bit venerable for the role. Nevertheless, his dedication would be hard to match.

• Blade: Trinity (2004) (R: Violence, sexual content and coarse language) — **. Wesley Snipes returns as the Marvel Comics’ vampire hunter for the third and presumably last time. Mr. Snipes’ Blade is set up by the Vampire Nation for a series of vicious killings, forcing him to team with human vampire hunters to avenge his name. The film also stars Jessica Biel, Ryan Reynolds and series regular Kris Kristofferson. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Christmas with the Kranks (2004) (PG: Brief coarse language and suggestive content) — **. Tim Allen revisits the yuletide season in this conflicted reworking of John Grisham’s novel “Skipping Christmas.” Mr. Allen co-stars with Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple who decide to skip the holiday since their daughter will be out of the country. The news doesn’t sit well with their Santa-obsessed neighbors, who turn the couple into pariahs for their choice. The film’s darker observations too quickly give way to gooey sentiment and stale slapstick. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Closer (2004) (R: Systematic sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity, fleeting nudity and violence) — *1/2. Mike Nichols’ movie version of Patrick Marber’s play about four shabby consorts in London — photographer Julia Roberts, aspiring author Jude Law, physician Clive Owen and stripper Rachel Portman — remains disenchanting. The needy-to-repulsive characters shift between twosomes while trifling with liaisons and rivalries that never transcend dubious introductions. Mr. Owen is forceful when spreading ill will and uttering obscene threats. The other roles are wasted tawdry effort.

• Darkness (2004) (R: Terror, violence and harsh language) — *. When a dysfunctional family, played by young Anna Paquin and Lena Olin, moves into a house that holds a horrible secret, the building’s spirits appear ready to fulfill a long dormant promise of terror. This shopworn wannabe haunted-house thriller, made in 2002 but just now released, makes little sense, and what can be sussed out has been swiped from a dozen better fright flicks. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Fat Albert (2004) (PG: Some mild slapstick violence) — **1/2. Hey, hey, hey, the ‘70s cartoon series from the mind of Bill Cosby is coming our way. Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” is Fat Albert, the oversized junkyard kid with the equally huge heart. This live-action vehicle continues the show’s strong moral tradition but can’t convince us we needed to see these characters in three dimensions. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (2004) (No MPAA Rating but suitable for general audiences) — ***. A new Imax featurette, directed by Stephen Low, that observes the conclusive exercise in an international combat training program for jet pilots, conducted at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. The aerial and target-practice sequences should meet all expectations for pictorial dynamism and coolness. Exclusively at the National and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly.

• Finding Neverland (2004) (PG: Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy and loss) — ***. A stirring and often imaginative tearjerker predicated on the original production of James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” a century ago. The unhappily married author (Johnny Depp), adopts a grieving family after a chance meeting with four boys whose father has recently died. Barrie grows fond of the boys and their mother, Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet), then creates his wistful fantasy of Neverland as an act of rejuvenating devotion. Several facts are altered: the doomed father, never seen in the film, died three years after the premiere of “Peter Pan.” The role of Barrie is blandly benign, but the story remains a sentimental powerhouse. With Julie Christie as Miss Winslet’s suspicious mother and Freddie Highmore as the most prominent of the boys.

• Flight of the Phoenix (2004) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and fleeting profanity) — **. An updated but down-sized remake of Robert Aldrich’s absorbing 1965 castaway saga about the survivors of an airplane crash in the Sahara Desert who rally to rebuild the wreckage into an airworthy escape vehicle. Director John Moore gets decent teamwork from Dennis Quaid and Tyrese Gibson, and there’s an impressive digital sandstorm at the outset.

• House of Flying Daggers (2004) (PG-13: Stylized martial arts violence and some sexual themes) — ****. Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “Daggers” aims to be this year’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” but manages to actually upstage that critical darling. The film follows a clash between revolutionaries wielding “flying daggers” and the government forces out to stop them. The director’s last film, “Hero,” earned strong notices and the praise of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino earlier this year and this epic should be no different. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Incredibles (2004) (PG: Occasional perilous situations and melodramatic intensity; stylized cartoon violence in a clear-cut adventure spectacle tradition) — ****. The Pixar winning streak continues, with a family-glorifying adventure spectacle that excels at many aspects of popular entertainment, from character delineation to cliffhanging set pieces, sight gags and genre homage. Brad Bird of “The Iron Giant” joins the Pixar team and prompts a fresh surge of gusto and invention with the Incredibles, a union of former superheroes whose everyday, domesticated identities as Bob and Helen Parr (dubbed by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) will not suffice when a despotic villain called Syndrome plots to entrap them. The Parrs have three children whose budding potential proves indispensable: the vanishing Violet, fleet-footed Dash and gurgling baby Jack-Jack. Despite the shift to familiar sources — adventure comics and movies — this animated sensation is so clever and expert that it makes a virtue of familiarity.

• Kinsey (2004) (R: Pervasive sexual content; explicit images) — ***. Writer-director Bill Condon’s controversial look at the life and legacy of mid-century sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey (Liam Neeson). While it takes its subject’s side, the movie doesn’t flinch from Kinsey’s seamy personal life and boasts a masterful supporting cast, including Laura Linney, Peter Saarsgard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ (2004) (PG: disturbing themes and scary images) — ***.A darkly amusing gothic fantasy in the pre-Disney mold, starring Jim Carrey as conniving Count Olaf, a distant relative after the fortune of the Baudelaire orphans. Based on the series of children books by Lemony Snicket, aka Brad Silberling. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) (R: Profanity, drug use, brief nudity) — *1/2. Bill Murray, playing a spoofy, Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer-filmmaker, never lets you forget you’re watching a Bill Murray movie. And director Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) never lets you forget you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. “Aquatic” is the work of two ironists gone mad. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Lightning in a Bottle (2004) (PG-13: Brief profanity) — **1/2. Anton Fuqua (“Training Day”) documents last year’s Salute to the Blues Concert at Radio City Music Hall. The performances and the backstage footage are wonderful, but the film’s weakness, as with much of recent popular histories of the blues, is a feeling that the music is the stuff of a living funeral. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Meet the Fockers (2004) (PG-13: Crude humor, profanity, brief drug reference) — **1/2. A mixed bag that taps into enough of its predecessor’s comedy of mayhem to generate consistent laughs. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand join “Meet the Parents” vets Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro for this South Florida-based sequel, in which luckless Greg Focker (Mr. Stiller) introduces his future in-laws to his zany parents. Directed by Jay Roach. Also starring Teri Polo. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Ocean’s Twelve (PG-13: Profanity) — ***. The gang of Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 stylish heist remake “Ocean’s Eleven” is back with newcomer Catherine Zeta-Jones for a continent-hopping romp of wealth, glamour and grand larceny. It won’t win awards, but it will make you lust for new threads, more credit card debt and new ink on your passport. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and many others. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Phantom of the Opera (2004) (PG-13: Sustained ominous elements and erotic undercurrents; occasional violence and morbidity) — ****. Gaston Leroux’s horror fable about a mad genius haunting a Parisian opera house has proved the finest melodic inspiration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s checkered career. The composer and director Joel Schumacher have finally delivered with a sumptuous and frequently enthralling movie edition. There has never been a finer movie love duet than the Emmy Rossum-Patrick Wilson rendition of “All I Ask of You.” Have handkerchiefs ready.

• The Polar Express (2004) (G: Ominous episodes and perilous situations) — **1/2. Undeniably ambitious, elaborate and distinctive, this computer-animated movie version of the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg seems likely to crash the gallery of Christmas movie perennials. The drawback is that director Robert Zemeckis and his collaborators — co-writer William Broyles, Jr. star Tom Hanks (who provides the voice and model for several roles) and visual effects designers Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen — make such an overblown case that their labor of love also becomes a Frankenstein’s monster of seasonal whimsy. Pictorially faithful to Mr. Van Allsburg’s illustrative style, the movie pads the plot mercilessly, inserting numerous thrill sequences as a Christmas Eve train steams to the North Pole in order to persuade skeptical kids that Santa Claus is a going concern.

• Ray (2004) (PG-13: Depiction of drug addiction; sexuality; tragic death scene) — ***1/2. Jamie Foxx gives a memorable performance as the late Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s moving biography of an American musical icon. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Santa vs. the Snowman 3D (2004) (G) — An Imax featurette, directed in a computer-animated 3D process by John A. Davis from a screenplay by Steve Oedekerk, who envisions a brash snowman trying to horn in on Santa Claus’ established delivery service. Exclusively at the Johnson Imax Theater at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. The voice cast includes Jonathan Winters, Ben Stein and Victoria Jackson. Not reviewed.

• The Sea Inside (2004) (PG-13: Adult thematic content, involving severe injury and suicide; occasional profanity, domestic conflict and sexual allusions) — **1/2. The talented young Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, who directed “Open Your Eyes” and “The Others,” takes on the real-life story of a former ship’s mechanic named Ramon Sampedro, who sustained a 30-year campaign to end his life and became the figurehead of an organization called “Death With Dignity.” Paralyzed from the neck down, Ramon (Javier Bardem) resides with a tight-knit family in Galicia, augmented by a harem of activists and admirers. Since he remains intellectually acute, the “quality of life” issue is never cut-and-dried. The movie tends to be at its weakest when taking it for granted that euthanasia is the preferable and enlightened option. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• Sideways (2004) (R: Coarse language, simulated sexual situations, violence and crude humor) — ***1/2. A wine tasting trip turns into a chance for some serious soul searching for two mismatched pals (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church). Writer-director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”) jumps into the Oscar fray with this richly imagined comic drama brimming with deft performances. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Spanglish (2004) (PG-13: Sexual situations, mature themes and coarse language) — **1/2. James L. Brooks’ latest features a cross-cultural clash between a Mexican maid and her dysfunctional bosses. The dynamic Paz Vega plays the far from helpless help and Adam Sandler shines as her boss and potential love interest. Tea Leoni’s harpy-like turn as the third member of this trio, Mr. Sandler’s type-A wife, stymies the film’s wry humor. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (PG: Mildly crude humor) — **1/2. The popular kiddie series with the adult sense of humor gets the big-screen treatment with uneven results. Our strangely shaped hero finds himself knee deep in a new undersea adventure in Nickelodeon’s attempt to prove 2-D animation can still draw a crowd. Suffice to say the goofy SpongeBob character is better suited to tidy, 10-minute servings. Reviewed by Christian Toto.• A Very Long Engagement (2004) (R: Occasional graphic violence, typically depictions of World War I trench warfare; occasional profanity and sexual candor) — **. A formidable but wearisome bit of virtuosity from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, derived from a best-seller by the late mystery specialist Sebastien Japrisot. The movie evokes World War I in lavish detail. The heroine, an orphan called Mathilde (Audrey Tatou), refuses to believe that her childhood sweetheart Maneche has perished on the Sommes front. Mathilde hires a private detective and begins a search that leads in perplexing directions. Jodie Foster turns up in an unbilled role and gets a brief erotic workout. In French with English subtitles.

• Vodka Lemon (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with fleeting violence and sexual allusions) — *1/2. A rare feature from Armenia, directed by Hiner Saleem, an Iraqi Kurd in exile who resides in Paris. He observes the static, morose, deadpan texture of life in a snowbound, impoverished village somewhere in Kurdish Armenia. The movie attempts to generate whimsical and hopeful notes of humor despite the enveloping stagnation. Eventually, Mr. Saleem resorts to magic realism to contrive an upbeat fadeout. In Armenian, Kurdish, Russian and French with English subtitles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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