- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

OPENING

• Alexander (2004) (R) — Oliver Stone’s historical spectacle about the precocious Macedonian conqueror (356-323 B.C.), portrayed by Colin Farrell. The cast also features Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto and Rosario Dawson. Opens Wednesday.

• Christmas With the Kranks (2004) (PG) — A holiday comedy derived from John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas,” with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple noted for elaborate festivities and decorations. After they decide go away on vacation instead, a sudden reversal of plans finds them racing to duplicate their customary celebration on short notice. Opens Wednesday.

• 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.

• Kinsey (2004) (R) — A biographical drama about the University of Indiana zoologist who became a pioneering sex researcher, emerging as a scholarly celebrity in 1948 with the publication of the controversial best-seller “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Liam Neeson is cast as Alfred Kinsey and Laura Linney as his obliging spouse Clara, who also became a founding member of a furtive sex club that swapped partners and filmed graphic interludes for the archives.

• National Treasure (2004) (PG) — Nicolas Cage channels Indiana Jones in this adventure melodrama about a treasure-hunting historian intent on finding a rumored cache of funds from the period of the American Revolution.

• Overnight (2004) (R) — A documentary feature about the pitfalls of independent filmmaking, compiled by Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana, once the confidants of a Boston bartender-turned-screenwriter named Troy Duffy. After selling an original script, “The Boondock Saints,” to Miramax, Mr. Duffy anticipated a writing-directing debut. Instead, the deal languished and fizzled, prompting considerable rancor between Mr. Duffy and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein.

• 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. Opens Wednesday.

• Sex Is Comedy (2002) (R: Occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse) — *1/2. The French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, whose previous features, “Romance” and “Fat Girl,” demonstrated an insatiable need to divorce romance from sexual attraction, celebrates her own mystique. The erstwhile “Femme Nikita,” Anne Parrilaud, remains a bewitching camera subject despite playing a self-infatuated self-portrait of the filmmaker. Miss Parrilaud is observed while directing a movie about teenage infatuation that ultimately revolves around a graphic sex scene, very similar to the ugly finale of “Fat Girl.” This perverse curiosity suggests a sleazy update of Francois Truffaut’s “Day For Night.” In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (PG: “Mild crude humor” according to the MPAA) — The popular kiddie series with the adult sense of humor gets the big-screen treatment. 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. Expect a guest appearance by Mr. “Baywatch” himself, David Hasselhoff.

NOW SHOWING

• After the Sunset (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting violence and profanity; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity) — *1/2. A caper comedy-mystery with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek as a team of diamond thieves in retirement on a Caribbean island. The filmmakers hope to evoke the glamour of Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” in a different setting, but they have trouble keeping pace with such acknowledged recent remakes as “The Good Thief” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” Woody Harrelson plays a curiously smug nemesis who disgraces the FBI. Looking almost hilariously shapely and scrumptious, Miss Hayek rivals ships, Nassau resorts, beachscapes and mere sunsets as a scenic marvel.

• Alfie (2004) (R) — ** A remake of the 1966 British movie about a Cockney womanizer that confirmed Michael Caine’s stellar potential. The American writer-director Charles Shyer retains the Cockney characteristics while casting Jude Law as an Alfie transposed to New York City in the present. The protagonist still takes the audience directly into his confidence. The consorts include Jane Krakowski, Nia Long, Sienna Miller and Susan Sarandon. The source material is a play by Bill Naughton. Elaine Pope collaborated on the new screenplay.

• Being Julia (2004) (R: Sexuality; brief nudity) — **1/2. Annette Bening plays a vain and sulky but gradually sympathetic queen of West End theater in this whimsical high-fashion farce set in prewar London. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Also starring Jeremy Irons. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) (R) — **. The movie version of Helen Fielding’s follow-up novel to her enormously successful brainstorm, the diary of a lovelorn comic heroine in contemporary London. The plot of the original was designed to mirror Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The sequel borrows aspects of “Persuasion.” Renee Zellweger returns in the title role, with Colin Firth as steady beau Mark Darcy, destined to be alienated for a spell, and Hugh Grant as returning snake in the grass Daniel Cleaver.

• Fade to Black (2004) (R) — A pop music concert documentary about a Madison Square Garden appearance by the hip-hop headliner Jay-Z in November 2003. Guest performers include Beyonce Knowles, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, R. Kelly and Foxy Brown. Not reviewed.

• The Grudge (2004) (PG-13: Sustained ominous atmosphere; recurrent scenes of death or supernatural assault, with gruesome illustrative details; a demon child as a menace) — *. A remake of the Japanese horror thriller “Ju-On,” currently at the E Street Cinema. The same filmmaker, Takashi Shimizu, guided a predominantly American cast through the same plot while shooting in Japan with his regular crew. The results are predictably superfluous and monotonous. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an exchange student who agrees to substitute for a nurse and finds herself in a severely haunted house. The unfortunate visitors include Bill Pullman, William Mapother, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall and Grace Zabriskie. Any building that makes noises or has a landing, stairwell, closet, attic, mirror, bathtub and wall space hospitable to shadow patterns is bound to be treacherous in Mr. Shimizu’s clammy grip.

• I Heart Huckabees (2004) (R: Frequent profanity; occasional comic and sexual vulgarity, including brief simulations of intercourse; facetious depictions of violence) — *. A woefully freakish, pseudo-philosophical farce that wallows in crackpot disaster. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are clumsily teamed as a conjugal set of “existential detectives,” closer to shrinks than traditional gumshoes. Their clients include two young men in professional conflict: Jason Schwartzman as a surly environmental activist and Jude Law as an ingratiating executive with an expanding retail chain called Huckabees. Despite the personality contrast, their vulnerabilities seem to overlap.

• 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.

• The Machinist (2004) (R: Sustained ominous and morbid elements; occasional graphic violence, nudity and sexual candor) — **1/2. A psychological suspense melodrama showcasing a severely emaciated Christian Bale as Trevor, a tormented lathe operator discovered in an advanced stage of chronic insomnia and despair. There is a traumatic cause, concealed until the denouement, but it turns out to be the weakest link in the system of illusion. A beefy, smirking figure called Ivan (John Sharian, recalling Telly Savalas) reappears to taunt and mislead the suffering Trevor. As fables of mental breakdown go, this one plays relatively fair with its clues and evasions.

• The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual candor and vulgarity) — **. Nostalgic balm for aging radicals. The Brazilian director Walter Salles retrieves episodes from a diary of Ernesto Che Guevara and recalls a prodigious odyssey through South America Mr. Guevara shared with a friend, Alberto Granado, in 1951-52, on an unreliable old motorcycle. The early episodes surge with exuberance, but lulls and breakdowns start to accumulate. Rodrigo de la Serna is the more vigorous presence as Granado. The Mexican matinee idol Gael Garcia Bernal seems a more ethereal seeker in the Guevara role, but at this stage Che’s idolators may prefer him as an angelic dreamboat. In Spanish with English subtitles.

• 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.

• P.S. (2004) (R: Sexual situations, mature themes and strong language) — **. Laura Linney and Topher Grace sparkle in this otherwise muddled mess about love, divorce and lost dreams. Miss Linney stars as a disillusioned single woman who falls for a young man (Mr. Grace) who may be an old flame reincarnated. The strong cast, including Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Rudd, nearly pull the film’s disparate themes together. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Saw (2004) (R: Graphic violence, adult themes and torture) — *1/2. First-time director James Wan bungles some novel thrills in this sadist, would-be psychological thriller. Cary Elwes plays a doctor imprisoned by a serial killer who likes to make his victims kill or maim themselves through his macabre mind games. Horrific acting provides the biggest scares here, beyond the fact that Danny Glover ever agreed to co-star in this mess. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Seed of Chucky (2004) (R: Strong horror content, sexual situations and coarse language) — 1/2. The doll that simply won’t die is back in the dubious horror franchise’s fifth installment. Chucky (Brad Dourif) and bride Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) are the proud parents of a doll baby who unfortunately might take after its parents. “Chucky” serves up a few self-referential gags but ultimately is a crass concoction of killings and witless direction. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Shall We Dance (PG-13: Occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions; fleeting profanity) — **1/2. The 1997 Japanese hit celebrated the spiritual regeneration of an accountant who falls in love with ballroom dancing. This American revamp gives us Richard Gere as John Clark, an estate lawyer in Chicago, where oblivious spouse Susan Sarandon has a posh job at Saks. Something has been missing from their stable marriage: a sense of passion reawakened when Clark is attracted by the sight of a beautiful young woman (Jennifer Lopez) in the window of a dance studio. He decides to have a closer look and enrolls in a beginner’s ballroom course, which leads to a lovely platonic highlight, a private tango lesson between muse and admirer.

• Shark Tale (2004) (PG: Mild slapstick violence) —**1/2. Will Smith’s hip-hop persona drives the latest computer-animated film that wants to be this fall’s answer to “Finding Nemo.” It’s more like a second-tier “Shrek,” but packs enough laughs for the kids or the kid within us. Mr. Smith stars as Oscar, a dreaming, scheming fish who manipulates the media into thinking he killed a shark all on his own. Co-starring the voices of Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro, having a grand time spoofing his past Mafia roles. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Shaun of the Dead (2004) (R: Zombie violence/gore; profanity) — ..8888. A smart zombie spoof from British director Edgar Wright. North London is overrun by the living dead, but working-stiff Shaun (Simon Pegg) and fat-friend Ed (Nick Frost) are too busy drinking beer and playing video games to notice. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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.

• Tarnation (2004) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity, nudity and sexual candor; autobiographical content that emphasizes grotesque footage of aging or mentally disturbed relatives) — 1/2*. The sort of vanity production now within the grasp of all shameless neurotics with video cameras and editing machines. Jonathan Caouette, a wayward homosexual youth from Texas who fled to New York in search of an elusive acting career, draws on an excruciating private archive of home movies and confessional videos that testify to his unstable heritage. Self-exposure doesn’t get much uglier. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Taxi (2004) (PG-13: Strong language sexuality and comic violence) —*1/2. Jimmy Fallon tries to follow Aykroyd, Belushi and Chase in making the jump from “Saturday Night Live” to big screen fame. Too bad his first film stalls at the starting line. He stars as an inept NYPD cop who teams up with a testy taxi driver (Queen Latifah) to bag a gang of gorgeous bank robbers. This loud, dumb vehicle showcases Queen Latifah’s appeal but little else. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Team America: World Police (2004) (R: Coarse language, simulated sexual situations, violence and crude humor) — ***. Those “South Park” bad boys are at it again, mocking the war on terror, dopey action films and liberal Hollywood via marionette puppetry. The film’s heroes set out to stop North Korea’s dictator from handing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. “Team America” may be crude and offensive at nearly every turn, but it’s also occasionally brilliant in its even-keeled satire. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Woman, Thou Art Loosed (2004) (R: violence, sexual content and drug use) — * — Bishop T.D. Jakes first published “Woman Thou Art Loosed!” — a self-help tome filled with accounts of women who’ve overcome abuse, addiction and other life wounds — in 1994. Since then, the book has spun off several successive titles, a CD and a string of conferences. The movie casts Bishop Jakes as himself, a spiritual catalyst for redemption in two bedeviled women: Kimberly Elise as a lost soul and Loretta Devine as her ineffectual mother. The story is told through disjointed flashbacks. The uneven pacing is tedious and the film also manages to trot out a plethora of stereotypes from the so-called gospel musicals. A murder is committed at the movie’s start, and eventually the mystery is solved. Yet you needn’t waste your money at the theater for the answer. Reviewed by Robyn-Denise Yourse.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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