- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

OPENING

• Assisted Living (2003) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter, revolving around geriatric patients; fleeting profanity — *1/2. A precarious first feature with scattered humorous merits. A feckless stoner (Michael Bonsignore), employed as a custodian in a nursing home in Louisville, brightens the prospects for an elderly widow (Maggie Riley) who confuses him with her son. Cast and shot in Louisville, using a real nursing home for its principal setting, with residents and staff as extras. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• Boogeyman (2005) (PG-13) — A horror thriller made under the production auspices of Sam Raimi, with Barry Watson as a young man obliged to return home and rummage around the traumatizing Gothic house where he dwelled as a lad. He clings to a childhood impression that his father was abducted by an authentic boogeyman.

• Days of Being Wild (1991) (No MPAA Rating — adult subject matter) — Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema. A revival of an early feature by the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, whose aptitude for lush romanticism crystallized in 2000 with “In the Mood for Love,” a sumptuous Asian variation on “Brief Encounter.” The co-stars of “Mood,” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, are also principal cast members of “Being Wild,” which revolves around the conquests of a compulsive seducer played by Leslie Cheung. In Cantonese with English subtitles.

• In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) (No MPAA Rating — art history subject matter involving some elements of sexual and morbid illustration) — *** A fascinating biographical-artistic profile of the late naive phenomenon Henry Joseph Darger (1892-1972), a self-taught illustrator and fabulist who compiled a distinctive, haunting life’s work of drawings and adventure yarns while secluded in a small apartment in Chicago and employed as a custodian in a Catholic charity organization. Filmmaker Jessica Yu resolved to document the Darger story after a visit to the apartment, preserved as an archive by his former landlords until 2000. An invaluable record of how imagination operates if suffused with longing but estranged from conventional forms of social and professional development. Exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

• The Wedding Date (2005) (PG-13) — Dermot Mulroney, the groom in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” is cast as the outsider who emerges as the big catch at another wedding. A professional escort, he pretends to be the steady of Debra Messing, who lacks a genuine boyfriend when invited to attend the London bash where her younger half-sister, Amy Adams, will be wed. Based in Manhattan, the heroine finds her date’s $6,000 fee a bargain; the escort turns out to be an irresistible paragon who charms everyone in sight.

NOW SHOWING

• Alone in the Dark (2005) (R: Strong violence and mature language — 1/2* Christian Slater headlines this amateurish adaptation of the popular Atari video game, which lets players battle supernatural forces. The actor plays a detective who, while investigating a friend’s mysterious death, uncovers a plot by an ancient culture to take over the world. “Alone” fails on so many levels it’s hard to tally the damage. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Are We There Yet? (2005) (PG: Comic violence) — ** Ice Cube gets all warm and fuzzy on us with this middling family yarn. The rapper plays a ladies’ man who falls hard for a single mother of two. He agrees to escort her children to Vancouver, where their mother has an important work assignment, but getting there proves a calamitous journey for Ice Cube and his treasured SUV. The stars do their part, but the script’s hackneyed sentiment leaves them stranded. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) (R) — The portrait of an obscure, failed assassin, Sam Bicke, portrayed by Sean Penn, who resolves to kill President Nixon in 1974 following a number of demoralizing personal setbacks, including separation from his wife (Naomi Watts) and children. Evidently regarded as a ducky inauguration week attraction by the distributor, ThinkFilm.

• Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) (R: Extreme violence, strong language and gore) — *** Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne get stuck in this trashy remake of an already cheesy feature from director John Carpenter (“Halloween”). The update keeps the nifty premise — a Detroit precinct about to be retired gets ambushed by thugs trying to free their criminal leader (Mr. Fishburne). The assailants aren’t who we expect, but the film’s glittery cast (Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello and John Leguizamo) should have seen this clunker a mile away. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• The Aviator (2004) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity, and depictions of demented behavior; fleeting nudity) — **1/2. A compressed and bewildering plunge into the colorful, notorious life of Howard Hughes, impersonated by Leonardo DiCaprio from the eccentric genius’s 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. DiCaprio’s 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. Eleven Academy Award nominations, including best movie, director, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress.

• Bad Education (2004) (NC-17: Pervasive sexuality; nudity; drug use) — *** Spanish master Pedro Almodovar pays ecstatic homage to the films noir of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, adding his own modernist twist: His femme fatale is a transvestite (a virtuosic Gael Garcia Bernal) with a back story of abuse at the hands of Catholic priest. In Spanish with English subtitles. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• The Chorus (2004) (PG-13: Fleeting violence and profanity; thematic emphasis on juvenile delinquency) — *** The most successful movie in France during the past year and a plausible favorite as best foreign language film in the Academy Awards. It salutes an exemplary teacher (Gerard Jugnot), who uses choral music to break down the resistance of students at a school for orphaned and delinquent boys in the Auvergne, circa 1949. In French with English subtitles. Oscar nominations for best song and foreign language film.

• Coach Carter (2005) (PG-13: Occasional profanity, racial epithets and sexual candor, including a subplot about a pregnant teenager) — ** Ponderous inspirational sledding from Thomas Carter, the director of “Swing Kids” and “Save the Last Dance.” His eponymous hero is the stubbornly demanding Ken Carter, a businessman in Richmond, Calif., who agrees to take over as the high school basketball coach and then dares to suspend the entire squad and forfeit games when players fall short of his minimum academic standards. Samuel L. Jackson stars as the estimable coach, and it’s too easy to endorse his goals without finding the role itself genuinely clever and winning.

• Fascination (2005) (R: Sexual situations and harsh language) — * Jacqueline Bisset stars as a recent widow whose decision to remarry right away causes her son Scott (Adam Garcia) to doubt her intentions. The intrigue deepens when Scott begins to suspect his real father’s death was no accident and he develops feelings for his new stepfather’s daughter (Alice Evans). The story’s sinister elements draw us in until the characters slowly drift away from reality. Miss Bisset remains radiant but she’s given little to do in this convoluted thriller. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Finding Neverland (2004) (PG: Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy and loss) — *** A stirring and often imaginative tear-jerker 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 died recently. 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. Seven Oscar nominations, including best movie and actor.

• Hide and Seek (2005) (R: Frightening sequences; violence) — **1/2. Taut psychological thriller starring Robert De Niro as the father of a traumatized girl (Dakota Fanning) with violent fantasies involving an imaginary friend. Director John Polson and first-time screenwriter Ari Schlossberg do everything right except what matters most: the Big Twist. Also starring Dylan Baker. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• In Good Company 2005 (PG-13: Sexual situations, harsh language and alcohol use) — *** “About a Boy” writer-director Paul Weitz thumbs his nose at corporate misdeeds with this almost great dramedy. Dennis Quaid stars as an older ad salesman who gets replaced at work by an upstart (Topher Grace) who has never sold an ad in his life. Their tense relationship sharpens when said upstart falls for Mr. Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson). The film’s bright performances and sophistication get torpedoed by a conventional epilogue that belongs in another, lesser, film. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

• Hotel Rwanda (2004) (PG-13: Occasional graphic violence and profanity; fleeting images of sexual abuse and exploitation) — **1/2. A dramatization of the harrowing dilemma experienced by Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigala, Rwanda, who sheltered hundreds of refugees during the genocidal slaughters of 1994, in which members of the Tutsi tribal population were murdered systematically by vengeful Hutu countrymen. Don Cheadle is cast as Mr. Rusesabagina, a compassionate sophisticate obliged to bribe and outwit cutthroats. Sophie Okonedo contributes a vivid and impressive performance as his wife. Oscar nominations for Mr. Cheadle and Miss Okonedo.

• 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 actually manages to 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 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. 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.

• A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004) (R: Occasional profanity and sexual vulgarity; emphasis on alcoholic characters) — *1/2. A dubious tearjerker about family estrangement that sends footloose teenager Scarlett Johansson back to New Orleans in the wake of her mother’s death. She finds a couple of squatters in mom’s ramshackle residence: John Travolta as the title character, a former Auburn University English professor steeped in alcoholic bravado and decay; and Gabriel Macht as his former teaching assistant, whose degeneracy may not be quite as severe. Despite the sordid trappings, the heroine moves in and the new menage is meant to be poignant and mutually beneficial. Directed by novice Shainee Gabel, loving not wisely but too well.

• 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.

• Million Dollar Baby (2004) (PG-13: Boxing violence; mild profanity; disturbing themes) — …. Another emotionally powerful, morally daring movie from Clint Eastwood, who directs and stars as boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, who reluctantly takes female pugilist Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) into his corner. Also starring Morgan Freeman. Seven Academy Award nominations, including best movie, director, actor, actress and supporting actor. 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 finally have delivered with a sumptuous and frequently enthralling movie edition.

• Racing Stripes (2005) (PG: Recurrent slapstick vulgarity, including scatological jokes entrusted to talking insects) — ** The most agreeably ridiculous thing of its kind since “Hot to Trot,” the late John Candy’s 1988 talking-horse farce. Aimed largely at the juvenile and family audience, this variation recruits Frankie Muniz as the voice of an orphaned zebra named Stripes, adopted by a Kentucky widower (Bruce Greenwood) and his beaming daughter (Hayden Panettiere). Their farm, adjacent to a racetrack and thoroughbred ranch, shelters Whoopi Goldberg as a talking goat, Dustin Hoffman as a talking Shetland pony and Joe Pantoliano as a talking pelican. The plucky, if conspicuously undersized, Stripes is matched in a race with the snooty thoroughbreds.

• 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. Oscar nominations for best movie, director and actor. Reviewed by Scott Galupo.

• 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 takes on the real-life story of a former ship’s mechanic who fought 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 Sampedro (Javier Bardem) resides with a tight-knit family in Galicia, surrounded by activists and admirers. Because 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 enlightened option. In Spanish with English subtitles. Oscar nomination as best foreign language film.

• 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. Academy Award nominations for best movie, director, supporting actor and supporting actress. 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.

• White Noise (2005) (PG-13) — *1/2. This supernatural suspense thriller attempts to make the case for EVP, short for electronic voice phenomenon. Michael Keaton as a bereaved architect is approached by an EVP adept, Ian McNeice, who claims to have recorded urgent postmortem transmissions from the hero’s late wife. The late spouse spurs Mr. Keaton to become a tracer of lost persons and virtual Mr. Incredible. The filmmakers definitely overreach while insisting on a shotgun wedding between EVP and diabolical spectacle, but perhaps they have blundered into an exploitable new approach to ghost stories.

• William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’(2004) (R: Occasional profanity and portents of gruesome violence; allusions to anti-Semitism in a late 16th century setting) — **1/2. A creditable, if frequently miscalculated, movie version of the play. The trial scene achieves an embittered and vivid intensity, and it’s entertaining to watch Al Pacino have a go at Shylock, even when his accent and cadences take turns for the peculiar. Jeremy Irons makes a very woebegone Antonio and Joseph Fiennes a far from seductive Bassanio, but Chris Marshall proves a striking Graziano. Lynn Collins acquires a devious authority when disguised as the advocate Balthasar in the trial scene.

• The Woodsman (2004) (R: Mature themes, partial nudity, strong language and violence) — ***1/2. Kevin Bacon turns in a bravura performance as a convicted child molester trying to rejoin society after 12 years in prison. His re-entry faces considerable odds because he still feels the immoral desires that sent him to jail, and everyone around him treats him like a leper. Everyone, that is, except a co-worker (Kyra Sedgwick) who sees a glimmer of hope in his sad blue eyes. The film finds the humanity in its subject without glossing over the horrors tied to the subject matter. Reviewed by Christian Toto.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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