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Enigma, About a Boy, more

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ENIGMA Although equally responsible for the repellent Enough, director Michael Apted puts his considerable talents to better use with Enigma, a wartime thriller centered around the complex code the Germans used during World War II and the British masterminds who tried cracking it. Dougray Scott stars as Tom Jericho, a codebreaker who, after suffering a mental breakdown (coincidentally, he looks like Russell Crowe playing a similarly disturbed genius in A Beautiful Mind), returns to help decipher the latest garbled transmissions while simultaneously searching for the woman (Saffron Burrows) who broke his heart and, not incidentally, also might have been a traitor working for the Nazis. Jericho is aided in his investigation by the woman's roommate (Kate Winslet), but his every move is tracked by a government agent (Jeremy Northam) who may always be one step ahead, or behind, him (Jericho can't tell for sure). U-571 also employed an Enigma machine in its plot (and, of course, the Americans got credit for its capture in that film, though history dictates otherwise), but that silly sub drama doesn't compare to this film, which unfolds just as a smart thriller should. All of the performances are excellent, though Northam stands out as the faux-friendly agent: It's the type of role generally played with a touch of romanticism (think Claude Rains in Casablanca), but Northam shrewdly never suggests that there's any trace of a soft heart at the center of this tough character. ***

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Time for an English quiz: Oscar Wilde's immortal play may deserve its lofty reputation, but because it's so stridently stagebound in origin, writer-director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) has elected to open up the piece by doing everything except a) chop a radical amount of Wilde's wonderful dialogue; b) have Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) and Miss Prism (Anna Massey) involved in a chase straight out of a cheesy Carry On comedy; c) add a scene in which Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor) gets the name "Ernest" tattooed on her buttocks; d) include a sequence in which the Green Goblin crashes British high society. If you answered d), you'd be correct, but considering Parker's other modifications, would the existence of such a sequence really seem that radical? Yet because the play's the thing, it's impossible to completely screw up this tale of mistaken identity -- as a result, the movie offers some pleasures through Wilde's way with words and the skills of the actors mouthing them. As Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, the two men who both adopt the moniker of Ernest in an attempt to woo their ladies (Reese Witherspoon and O'Connor), Rupert Everett and Colin Firth make ideal leads, while Dench offers her usual poison-pen delivery as the no-nonsense Lady Bracknell. Parker's direction and script are needlessly fussy, but thanks to his source material, he's like an artist working with a net, unable to do complete harm to himself or to others. **1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

ABOUT A BOY John Wayne often played cowboys, while Clint Eastwood frequently portrays detectives. So when Hugh Grant once again turns on his ample "aw, shucks" neon charms to play a suave, occasionally self-effacing bachelor whose rakish demeanor and liquid mercury eyes (they practically blink, "Please rest this adorable head in your lap") are instant turn-ons to the women surrounding him, there's no reason to jeer. When given the (rare) chance, the man has shown he can do other things, but who can blame him for returning to the field that suits him best? Especially when he's able to offer slight variations on a theme, thereby keeping his characterizations fresh and funny? That's certainly the case with this thoroughly entertaining comedy that uses Grant's own twist of acidity to prevent itself from succumbing to its own bathos. Grant's character, Will Freeman, is the ultimate in Slacker Chic: a hip, 38-year-old Londoner whose inheritance insures he'll never have to hold a job a day in his life. In other words, Will is no work and all play -- this includes spending lots of time wooing and then dumping women. But his ill-advised plan of targeting single mothers because they're more vulnerable takes an unexpected twist when it leads to his acquaintance of Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old boy with no friends, a lousy wardrobe and a suicidal hippie mom (Toni Collette). Will and Marcus predictably teach each other some valuable life lessons, but what isn't so predictable is the unassuming manner in which the movie goes about its business, with plenty of charm and sincerity. ***

HOLLYWOOD ENDING It used to be that the annual arrival of the latest Woody Allen movie was like receiving an additional Christmas present; these days, it feels more like being asked to stay after school for detention. At its core, Hollywood Ending features an ingenious comic hook, the best one Allen's come up with in years: Relate the adventures of a has-been director who's suddenly struck blind just as he begins shooting his comeback picture. It's a marvelous premise, and imagine the possibilities had Allen been blessed with this idea back in the mid-70s. Instead, this farcical mother lode gets largely wasted here, with Allen recycling gags so moldy you half-expect one of those giant hooks so popular in vaudeville halls to enter the frame and yank him right off the screen. The actors can't be faulted -- Tea Leoni, Treat Williams and Debra Messing all perform to the best of their limiting roles -- and Allen does manage to zip off an occasional zinger that proves some of those nyuk-nyuk instincts are still operational. But even with a final denouement that's deliciously apt, too much of Hollywood Ending feels like the work of a man who still loves the job but may no longer possess all the skills necessary to turn out top product. **

INSOMNIA With its bleak atmosphere, internally driven performances and unsettling ending, the 1997 Norwegian character study Insomnia seemed like just the type of movie whose pedigree would be tainted by a needless American remake. Instead, the new Insomnia is a surprisingly faithful remake of its chilly predecessor, and when it does elect to head off in its own direction, it employs changes that fit it well -- that still work within the context of the storyline -- rather than ones that were imposed for the sake of commercial sensibilities. And while nothing in this production quite matches the ferocious intensity provided by Stellen Skarsgard's excellent performance in the first picture, it compensates by featuring two often ill-used Hollywood stars -- Al Pacino and Robin Williams -- doing some of their best work in years. Pacino drops the ham to play Will Dormer, an exhausted LA detective who journeys to Alaska to help investigate the murder of a high school student. Plagued by bad luck that doggedly clings to him like clothes static in a dryer and wracked by guilt over an unfortunate turn of events, Dormer begins to allow his fatigue to dictate his actions, even to the point where he enters into an unorthodox partnership of sorts with the case's primary suspect (Williams). Insomnia is directed by Christopher Nolan (the man responsible for last year's best picture, Memento), and he and scripter Hillary Seitz manage to turn it into a slow yet satisfying morality play. ***

THE SCORPION KING In the ripe-cheese tradition of Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror and dozens of grade-Z sword-and-sorcery epics that invariably featured the hammy likes of Jack Palance or Richard Lynch as the sneering villain, we now get The Scorpion King, a made-on-the-run quickie meant to transform the wrestling world's The Rock into the latest Schwarzenegger model. A prequel to last year's The Mummy Returns (which itself was a sequel to 1999's The Mummy), this relates the back story of the villainous character The Rock played in that blockbuster's prologue, showing how he once was a likable anti-hero, a mercenary with a soft spot for kids, camels and comely sorceresses. In this outing, he squares off against a ruthless Russell Crowe wanna-be (Steven Brand) and a duplicitous warrior (Peter Facinelli) who looks like Christian Bale and talks like Tom Cruise. You also get a shapely co-star (Kelly Hu) who wears just enough clothing to maintain a PG-13 rating, a slumming Oscar nominee (The Green Mile's Michael Clarke Duncan) as a fellow fighter, special effects that are often downright laughable (dig those goofy ants), and a monolith of a leading man whose undeniable screen presence constantly wages war against his wooden line delivery. Thanks to its awareness of its own limitations, The Scorpion King is watchable enough, but you'll be satisfied after an hour. **

SPIDER-MAN Separate this long-awaited adaptation of the Marvel comic book from the cacophony of hype and it becomes readily apparent that this is one summer film that satisfies. Although not in the same league as the screen versions of Superman, Batman or X-Men, this one largely works because director Sam Raimi and scripter David Koepp have managed to turn their movie into a successful tightrope act between soap opera and spectacle, retaining the personal elements that made the comic book so wildly popular while also providing the requisite big-bang special effects that thankfully never overwhelm the story. The first half of the film is remarkably faithful to the origin tale, showing how nerdy teenager Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) turns into a wall-crawling, web-swinging superhero after getting bit by a unique arachnid. The second part settles into more conventional territory, detailing Peter's burgeoning romance with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Spidey's ongoing battle with his arch-nemesis, The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Dunst and Dafoe are well cast, though the film occasionally suffers from its erratic portrayal of Mary Jane as well as too much Goblin gobbledygook (not to mention, that cumbersome outfit makes him look about as frightening as Count Chocula). Still, Raimi keeps the picture hopping, and Maguire is wonderfully endearing as Peter Parker, the clumsy kid whose newfound powers enable him to take the necessary steps from youthful indiscretion toward adult responsibility. ***

SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON While DreamWorks' irreverent animated features (Antz, Chicken Run, Shrek) have been more entertaining than their traditional attempts (The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado), here's an old-school feature that's at least worth a glance. The title character is indeed a horse, but the movie automatically wins points for not anthropomorphizing it (the most we hear are its inner thoughts, provided by Matt Damon). Indeed, the cuteness quotient is remarkably low in this engaging if not particularly distinguished tale about a magnificent stallion that befriends a Lakota lad (voiced by Daniel Studi) in the days of the Old West. Owing more to Dances With Wolves than to the Disney animated canon, Spirit gets by on the extreme care that went into giving its central hoofer a vibrant personality -- even if the other characters pale in comparison. The songs by Bryan Adams are the musical equivalent of live leeches being driven into the ear drums, though I reckon we should expect to see one of them competing against equally dismal ballads from other movies at next year's Oscar shindig. **1/2

STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES The earlier films in this blockbuster franchise may have stirred memories of Flash Gordon serials and epochal Westerns, but who would have guessed that the latest entry in the saga would readily bring to mind All the President's Men? Political intrigue does indeed seem to be the order of the day in this chapter, but fans need not worry that creator George Lucas has basically churned out a C-Span feed with droids instead of drones. Attack of the Clones is many things: a rock-solid mystery yarn, an initially shaky but ultimately affecting love story, an edge-of-the-seat action flick, and, perhaps most importantly, a vast improvement over its 1999 predecessor, The Phantom Menace. With that film's Jar-Jar Binks (that computer-generated abomination who seemed to be equal parts Jerry Lewis and Stepin Fetchit) relegated to a minor role, this exciting entry can deal with the real business at hand -- detailing the demise of the Republic while simultaneously charting the development of Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi knight who would eventually embrace the Dark Side of the Force and transform into the all-powerful warlord Darth Vader. Only some wretched dialogue and a stiff performance from Natalie Portman (co-stars Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen are much better) prevent this from achieving total success; otherwise, this is the perfect matinee flick, providing the requisite thrills while also deepening the arc of the entire storyline. ***

THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE In this adaptation of Marivaux's 18th century play, it's love at first sight when a princess (Mira Sorvino) spots the bare buttocks of a local hunk (Jay Rodan) who, alas, has grown up hating and avoiding women while being schooled by a stuffy philosopher (Ben Kingsley) and his scientist sister (Fiona Lewis). Determined to win his heart, the princess disguises herself as a man to get close to him; her plan initially succeeds, but she quickly finds herself being wooed by all three members of the household. This contains all the trappings of a classic farce, but under the direction of Claire Peploe (who co-wrote the screenplay with husband Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin), it proves to be unspeakably, unbearably dull, featuring reams of flatly delivered dialogue and a heroine who comes across as both shallow and dim-witted. Peploe's decision to incorporate a few modern elements, such as a theater audience watching the shenanigans from the estate lawn or the occasional presence of an electric guitar on the otherwise period-friendly soundtrack, feels like the ultimate in creative desperation. *1/2

UNFAITHFUL For much of his career, director Adrian Lyne has clearly had sex on the brain, turning out huff'n'puff features both good (Fatal Attraction, Lolita) and bad (9-1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal, the latter firmly cemented as one of the very worst films of its decade). Happily, Unfaithful rests more toward the upper end of the spectrum; based on a 1969 French film by Claude Chabrol (La Femme Infidele), the movie sports a Continental demeanor that seems wholly appropriate. Diane Lane's standout performance is what elevates the first half, which could easily be dismissed as a straight-to-cable soaper: A well-to-do housewife, seemingly content with her husband (Richard Gere, doing some of his best work here), her son (Erik Per Sullivan), and her home in a quaint New York suburb, unexpectedly enters into a torrid affair with a French book dealer (Olivier Martinez). Lane's complex portrayal of a woman caught between the borders of reason and risk is simply smashing, yet eventually she's not required to carry the picture by herself, as the second half heads off in some interesting (and not always expected) directions that ultimately lead to a wonderfully ambiguous final shot. Unfaithful is the type of movie that only works for viewers willing to put some thought into it -- patrons seeking cheap thrills will probably be disappointed, but those willing to accept this as a cautionary tale about the illusion of eternal bliss will find it eerily satisfying. ***

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN To tag this Mexican import from director Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess) and screenwriter Carlos Cuaron the art-house equivalent of a teen sex comedy would not only be irresponsible but also entirely misleading, since it quickly becomes obvious that Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too) has more on its mind than simply the male orgasm. Ultimately, it begs comparison with something like Thelma & Louise more than American Pie, exploring not only the liberation (sexual and otherwise) of its leading characters but also the mythos and pathos of the landscape across which they make their life-altering journey. Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna portray two of the most realistic teenagers recently seen on screen, raging bulls of hormonal overdrive whose actions always remain within the context of utter believability (in short, nobody humps a pastry in this movie). During one fateful summer, they decide to embark on a road trip to the beach with an "older" (read: late-20s) woman (Maribel Verdu) at their side, a dental assistant from Spain who's trying to come to terms with both the failure of her marriage and the dark secret that seemingly inspires her increasingly bold actions. Sexually explicit in a manner rarely seen in American titles (MPAA goon Jack Valenti would have a heart attack if he tried to sit through this, so its studio chose to release it unrated) yet also mindful of its country's sociopolitical breakdown, this is a mature drama that snares the viewer with seductive ease. ***1/2

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