- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2004

OPENING

• Dig! (2004) (No MPAA Rating: Adult subject matter) — A rock music chronicle that recalls seven years of camaraderie and conflict between the leaders of two bands: Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols. Directed by Ondi Timoner and narrated by Mr. Taylor. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• The Grudge (2004) (PG-13: “Mature thematic material, disturbing images, terror violence and some sensuality” according to the MPAA) — A remake of the Japanese horror thriller “Ju-On,” currently playing at the E Street Cinema. The same filmmaker, Takashi Shimizu, was persuaded to guide a predominantly American cast through the same plot while shooting in Japan with his regular crew. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an exchange student who agrees to substitute for a nurse and finds herself in a severely haunted house. With Bill Pullman, William Mapother, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall and Grace Zabriskie. The English-language adaptation was written by Stephen Susco.

• Head in the Clouds (2004) (R) — Potentially the funniest thing of its kind since “Shining Through.” Acting sweethearts Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend portray star-crossed lovers who meet at Cambridge University in the early 1930s; they reunite at intervals during the next decade or so, depending on the demands of such geopolitical intrusions as the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Penelope Cruz is cast as an impassioned Spaniard who complicates things by provoking a romantic triangle. Written and directed by John Duigan.

• Surviving Christmas (2004) (PG-13: “Sexual content, language and a brief drug reference” according to the MPAA) — The first blatant Christmas attraction of the season, a domestic farce that revolves around Ben Affleck as a wealthy but lonely yuppie who returns to his hometown for the holidays and makes an outrageous offer to the residents of his boyhood house: $250,000 if they’ll agree to take him in and recreate fond yuletide memories. With James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara as the susceptible parents and Christina Applegate and Josh Zuckerman as their peeved kids. Bill Macy returns in a supporting role as an actor hired to fake a grandpa.



• Vera Drake (2004) (R: Thematic concentration on abortion practices in England circa 1950; occasional profanity; considerable sexual and clinical candor) — ***1/2. English filmmaker Mike Leigh applies his flair for domestic humor and pathos to the early 1950s and a haunting renewal of slice-of-life, tight-little-parlor melodrama. The evocation of time, place, idiom and human nature seems impeccable, but the subject matter is shocking: a nice, middle-aged working-class mum, the title character (Imelda Staunton) conceals a double life as an amateur abortionist. Far from mercenary, Vera regards her technique, a carbolic soap solution, as safe; she has the gentlest of bedside manners and justifies her avocation sincerely as “helping girls out.” Also aware that she’s been breaking the law, Vera is profoundly shamed when exposed and arrested. Mr. Leigh creates the illusion of a case history, but the scenario is completely fictionalized. The naturalistic acting and stylization achieve exceptional credibility.

NOW SHOWING

• Around the Bend (2004) (R: Coarse language) — *1/2. Christopher Walken stars in this hackneyed drama, inspired by the relationship between writer-director Jordan Roberts and his absentee dad. “Bend” follows four generations of men coming together to uncover their family’s past. The film, which also stars Michael Caine and Josh Lucas, never paints a convincing family portrait. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Cellular (2004) (PG-13: Violence, sexual situations and harsh language) — **1/2. Kim Basinger stars as a woman in peril who dials a random number on her cell phone looking for help. The call is answered by a young man (Chris Evans) who decides to rush to her side, but he doesn’t know what awaits him when he gets there. “Cellular” jams its own signal with too many illogical turns but rights itself in time for a nifty final reel. The solid supporting cast includes William H. Macy, Noah Emmerich and Jason Statham. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Final Cut (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; allusions to incest and child molestation) — *. In this futuristic polemic Robin Williams suffers away as a video editor, Alan Hakman, who prepares memorial bios shown at the funeral services of people who have had video implants in their brains since a uterine stage. Hakman specializes in effacing the bad impressions; he is menaced by an apostate cutter (Jim Caviezel) who has joined a radical group dedicated to banning the implants. Writer-director Omar Naim fails to make a persuasive case for either the technology or its baleful effects.

• The Forgotten (2004) (PG-13: Some strong language and intense subject matter) — ***. Julianne Moore plays a mother, grieving over the death of her 8-year-old boy, who is told by her psychiatrist the boy never existed. She thinks she may be going insane but soon finds a man who also is told a huge part of his life never happened even though he’s sure it did. The film, which co-stars Anthony Edwards (of “ER”) and Dominic West, treats its heroes like rational adults, unlike some thrillers these days. That maturity, combined with uniformly taut acting, lets it dance over some obvious story flaws. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Friday Night Lights (2004) (PG-13: Coarse language, teen drinking and violent sports action) — ***. Texans take their high school football very seriously, as viewers of the new “Friday Night Lights” soon find out. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a straight arrow couch trying to bring another championship to a small Texas town known for its gridiron heroes. “Lights” never glosses over the punishment the players face both on the field and from their neighbors and loved ones when the ball doesn’t bounce their way. The often exhilarating film is based on H.G. Bissinger’s book. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Garden State (2004) (R) — **1/2. 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.

• 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.

• Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) (R: Frightening images) —**1/2. “Ringu” director Takashi Shimizu returns with a new horror yarn, which features a haunted house whose terrors seep into the neighborhood. “Ju-On’s” creepy camerawork and unsettling sounds do get under our skin, but the narrative’s repetitiveness deadens the goose bumps. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Ladder 49 (2004) (PG-13: Coarse language and gags, fire-related violence and mature themes) — **1/2. “Ladder 49” serves as a belated salute to firefighters following September 11, but director Jay Russell idealizes the men and women who risk their lives for us. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a veteran firefighter who gets seriously injured fighting a Baltimore warehouse blaze. We flash back to his early days and watch as he grows into a respected firefighter and father to two young children. John Travolta adds little support as Mr. Phoenix’s superior but the fire sequences grab us by the neck. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• 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.

• Primer (2004) (PG-13) — ****.The grand prize winner at the last Sundance Film Festival, this debut feature was written and directed by Shane Carruth, who also portrays one of the principal characters. Working in their spare time, a quartet of computer engineers invents a time machine; before perfecting the device, they also succumb to the temptation of taking mercenary advantage of being able to foresee the future.

• Raise Your Voice (2004) (PG: Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions; episodes of domestic conflict and family loss) —*1/2. The latest outing for Hilary Duff, flirting with premature blahness while cast as a young woman who vows to honor the memory of her recently deceased brother by singing up a storm at a performing arts academy in Los Angeles. The upshot is “Fame” transposed to L.A. The heroine somehow makes herself a campus darling despite a thin voice and recurrent blubbering fits.

• Red Lights (2002) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and graphic violence; allusions to alcoholism and sexual molestation) —*1/2. A French adaptation of a Georges Simenon thriller, with Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Carole Bouquet as a bickering couple who become prey to a psychopath during a car trip to the South of France. Director Cedric Kahn modulates less than brilliantly from the apprehensive to the morbid to the anticlimactic. The initial scene-setting tension and nocturnal shivers never recover from a plot twist that removes the patrician Miss Bouquet from the continuity for the better part of an hour. Left to the solitary husband’s self-pity, alarm and alcoholic stupors, the movie veers off the road and into a melodramatic ditch. In French with English subtitles.

• Saints and Soldiers (2004) (PG-13: Occasional scenes of combat, suffering and atrocity in a World War II setting) — *. A low-budget attempt to echo the appeal of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” but sabotaged by ludicrous plot manipulation. Four American soldiers who escape death at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge cross paths with a stranded English paratrooper who claims to have vital information about the German offensive. They trek through the woods and snows of Belgium in hopes of reaching safety. Ultimately, they’re parties to a melodramatic cave-in, memorable for one remarkable coincidence involving a devout G.I. who discovers a soulmate from his missionary days in pre-war Germany. The terrain, weather and props look right, but director Ryan Little remains at the mercy of an amateurish heroic fable.

• 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) — ***. 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.

• Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) (PG: Stylized sci-fi violence; brief profanity; sensuality) — ***. A fun, computer-generated ride with Jude Law (as fighter pilot Joe Sullivan) and Gwyneth Paltrow (as danger-seeking Gotham reporter Polly Perkins) in a retro-futuristic story world wherein the fate of the Earth is threatened by a mad German scientist. Written and directed by Kerry Conran. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• Stage Beauty (2004) (R) — **. An attempt to create a Restoration period counterpart to “Shakespeare in Love.” Derived from a play by Jeffrey Hatcher, who also did the screenplay, this account of theater people embroiled with royalty casts Billy Crudup as a suddenly obsolete actor, Ned Kynaston, the most popular female impersonator of the classical stage. When the newly crowned Charles II (Rupert Everett) decides to reform the theater licensing laws and permit women to act in public, Kynaston’s dresser Maria (Claire Danes) becomes the first aspiring actress to capitalize on the policy. In the event, Ned and Maria become lovers and a promising new acting alliance. Directed by Richard Eyre.

• 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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