"A lion in Woolf's clothing"

Dir: Stephen Daldry; writ. David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham; feat. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly (PG-13)

Early in Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor, goes into a flower shop on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Outside a film is being shot, and through the window Clarissa glimpses a movie star emerging from her trailer - Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep in The Hours

In the movie version of The Hours, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa, and it was an inspired choice, not simply because Streep turns in a consummate performance, within an ensemble that provides a workshop in the intricacies of the acting art. The casting of Streep is one of many sly allusions to Cunningham's book, which is itself fraught with references to its tutelary spirit, Virginia Woolf. The novel is an extraordinary act of homage (nay, femage) to the woman who in 1923 wrote Mrs. Dalloway. While recreating the circumstances in which Woolf created her book and 18 years later ended her life, Cunningham also offers parallel stories in postwar Los Angeles and contemporary New York. Director Stephen Daldry has created a cinematic adaptation of a literary work that is already a complex system of adaptations. The result, even for viewers innocent of any words by Woolf and Cunningham, is a lushly layered fulfillment of Woolf's aspiration "to look life in the face and to know it."

Nicole Kidman provides the face of Virginia Woolf, but in a season of Stanislavskyan triumphs (Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can), she stands out for how completely she does not stand out. Unrecognizable as the Australian movie star, Kidman submerges herself as completely in the part as, at the beginning and end of The Hours, Woolf engulfs herself in the River Ouse. "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been," writes Woolf in the suicide note she leaves for her husband, Leonard. The Hours does not attempt to explain despair, merely to confront it in all its intricacies, through a single day in the lives of Woolf, Clarissa, and Laura Brown (Moore), a middle-class housewife suffocating from the vapors of American ebullience.

Clarissa spends the day planning a party for Richard (Harris), a poet who has just won a major prize. Though each is gay, they are linked by the memory of a romantic idyll together many years ago. One of many sage decisions made by Daldry is not to distract us through flashbacks but rather, in the spirit of Woolf, to focus on the subtle tropisms of shuddering human lives. Dexterous editing conflates and magnifies Sussex, Los Angeles, and New York as well as Woolf and Cunningham. Afflicted with AIDS and the certainty that his happiest moments are in the past, Richard asks Clarissa: "I still have to face the hours, don't I?" Cinema is not obligatory, and no one has to face The Hours. At the screening I attended, some walked out, averting their eyes from a richly textured warp and woof fully worthy of Virginia Woolf. — SGK


"Better left at the altar"

Dir. Shawn Levy; writ. Sam Harper; feat. Ashton Kutcher, Brittany Murphy, Christian Kane, David Moscow. (PG-13)

He's a smooth-talking traffic reporter who dreams of being a sportscaster; she's the Ivy League daughter of a California business scion. Despite their economic and educational differences, both are vapid, insipid, inane: a perfect match for one another. Combined, they are less intelligent than her pet pooch; at least he had enough sense to leap out of a second-story window, thereby ending his participation in this mess of a movie.

Brittany Murphy and Ashton Kutcher on their honeymoon in Just Married

Tom (played by Ashton "that guy from That '70s Show" Kutcher) and Sarah (Brittany "the 'I'll never tell' girl" Murphy) quickly fall for each other and wed, despite objections from her snobbish parents and ex-boyfriend. It's hard to say who's creepier: Sarah's leathery-looking father; her plasticine, clone-ish brothers; or her would-be suitor (and wanna-be stalker) Peter.

Things rapidly go from bad to worse as the couple honeymoons in Europe. Not-quite-working-class-hero Tom quickly acquiesces to Sarah's bourgeois demands - tossing out what little integrity Kutcher relied on for characterization - as he competes with Peter for her affection. The gags are cheap, predictable, and quickly forgotten. French jokes, Italian jokes, ditzy blonde jokes - it's all been done before. Thankfully, the film doesn't drag on. To his credit, the director keeps the story moving at a steady pace instead of lingering on scenes that just don't work. Unfortunately, in his rush to keep things moving, he skips over several potentially humorous bits in the process.

Touted as the first comedy of the new year, Just Married joins an already crowded field of similar movies (Maid in Manhattan, Two Weeks Notice, and A Guy Thing, new this week) pairing together opposites from the social spectrum. Like the others, Just Married offers nothing new or rewarding to the romantic comedy genre; unlike Tom and Sarah trying to build on the bonds they shared, there's no reason to hope for better in this flick.

Incidentally: Kutcher, who previously starred in Dude, Where's My Car? will return next year in the imaginatively titled and completely un-anticipated Seriously Dude, Where's My Car? Consider yourself warned. — AP


"Australian for 'stupid movie'"

Dir. David McNally; writ. Scott Rosenberg, Steve Bing, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel; feat. Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson, Estella Warren, Christopher Walken (PG)

I made the mistake of believing that this film would actually feature its title character. Instead, Kangaroo Jack centers on Charlie Carbone (O'Connell), a passive-aggressive hairdresser whose stepfather, Sal Maggio (Walken), is a Brooklyn mob boss. The children at the preview - including my 3-and-a-half-year old - were visibly uninterested in the film's elaborate plot setup, and anxiously awaited the appearance of the cute, computer-generated kangaroo they, too, thought was the star attraction. Sorry, kids.

I'll keep this short and spare readers the film's thin, nonsensical excuse for a storyline: The 'roo, despite his shiny red Brooklyn jacket and cheap sunglasses (which he acquires during a disturbing segment in which Charlie and his childhood friend, Louis, believe that they are engaging in fun photo opportunities with a dead kangaroo), has no personality - although he does breakdance and speaks briefly during a copout dream sequence. Charlie is a reluctant, blithering hero; his friend Louis is a clumsy dolt whose lame jokes weren't funny the first time we heard them in other movies; and the villains are mobsters, whose malice and motives few in the young set understood.

Stick with Stuart Little (but not its sequel) to see an intelligent, well-scripted, animated creature feature. Kangaroo Jack should stay in the outback. — WK


"Makes other "gritty" cop flicks look like kids' stuff"

Dir. and writ. Joe Carnahan; feat. Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, Busta Rhymes, Krista Bridges, Anne Openshaw (R)

Rumor has it that Hollywood suits were lukewarm toward this, indie filmmaker Carnahan's first big film, until some real players got to see it and raved: Tom Cruise, who wound up attaching his name to the credits; first-name stars Dustin, Warren, and Harrison; and William Friedkin, who made a tough little flick called The French Connection.

Ninety seconds in, you'll understand what Friedkin saw in it: The film starts with a brutally intense handheld chase sequence, in which Jason Patric's undercover cop pursues a demonic junkie who's carrying two syringes filled with some serious poison. It's as gripping as anything in French Connection, and the rest of the movie is true to the set-up - raw, dirty, and as sharp as a venom-filled needle.

Ray Liotta and Jason Patric in Narc

In the course of stopping the aforementioned demon druggie, Patric's Nick Tellis shoots a pregnant woman and is relieved of duty. In one of the screenplay's forgivable concessions to cliché, Tellis is reinstated because his superiors "need him on this case": the investigation of a cop's killing. He's teamed with Liotta's appropriately sturdy-named Henry Oak, a haggard bear of a policeman who is well known for vigilante tendencies. Like Russell Crowe's thuggish cop in L.A. Confidential, Oak is motivated to beat up on people by a disgust for criminals instead of general misanthropy - unlike Crowe's character, Oak isn't an avenging angel; in a flashback that will disturb American Civil Liberties Union members by making them identify with police brutality, his outbursts are made to seem like the most natural thing in the world, the only possible response to the viciousness he sees on the job.

The two fringe cops take to the streets in a split-screen sequence that shows the long process of trolling for leads; here and in other scenes, Carnahan makes sure we feel the labor involved in tedious work. He focuses equally on Tellis' haunted mental state: We get repeated peeks through the disgraced cop's mind's eye, little strobing glimpses of memory and imagination that could be drawn from a gritty music video - but here, the images are accompanied by appropriately reflective atmospheric music instead of metal.

Carnahan's story occasionally lags behind his cinematic style: There are one or two too many cop-flick conventions exploited here (for instance, the loving wife who simply will not tolerate her husband losing himself in another case), but in each event the director's tone keeps things from feeling forced. Strained, yes - and hair-pulling, and nail-biting, and wince-inducing - but all in service of a movie that translates the gritty world of The French Connection to the 21st century, and goes further by giving the tale a real and complicated moral center. — JD

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AP: Alejandro Pérez

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