1 (Touchstone) Director: Mira Nair. Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai. (PG-13)
Take One: Thackeray's much-adapted “novel without a hero” returns to the screen helmed by Monsoon Wedding director Nair, with Witherspoon as calculating Becky Sharp, a strong-willed 19th-century Englishwoman of no particular means with her eye on the social ladder.
Take Two: In Nair's hands the novel without a hero becomes a film about a heroine, with Becky eclipsing her literary costar Amelia. Brief partial nudity, a marital bedroom scene (no explicit nudity), and a scene of post-battle mayhem.
Final Take: Thackeray said he wanted the end of his novel to leave readers dissatisfied and unhappy — a goal not apparently shared by Nair, but which she might be said to have achieved, though in a way not to her credit, or the film's.
(Miramax) Director: Zhang Yimou. Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung. (PG-13)
Take One: Here's an authentically Eastern counterpart to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with stylized characterization and plotting — and the most dazzling visuals this side of The Lord of the Rings.
Take Two: Hero's political implications have raised eyebrows in both East and West: The film extols non-violence and spiritual detachment but also justifies political harmony at any cost, even military oppression. Intense stylized violence, a brief but forceful sexual encounter (no nudity), ambiguous treatment of moral issues.
Final Take: As a cogent philosophical or moral statement, Hero is unconvincing, but as a mythic compendium of Chinese moral affections it is impressive. Artistically it warrants comparison with nothing less than The Passion of the Christ; its cinematic achievement is that extraordinary.
3 THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT (Buena Vista) Director: Garry Marshall. Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo. (G)
Take One: Quintessential fairy-tale princess Hathaway is back in Princess Di mode in a perfunctory sequel written from scratch by the writers of the abysmal Coyote Ugly.
Take Two: The original may have been borderline tolerable, but this strictly by-the-numbers sequel scrupulously avoids anything like inspiration or freshness. Poor John “Gimli” Rhys-Davies joins humiliatingly misused thespians Andrews and Elizondo as a sinister MP. A homosexual-themed joke or two.
Final Take: This is the kind of film that gives a bad name to sequels, films rated “G,” fairy tales and — with its embarrassingly crass Americanization of a supposedly European setting — maybe our whole country.
(Paramount) Director: Michael Mann. Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith. (R)
Take One: Cruise dials down the charisma and gives a career-best performance in an ambitious noir morality play centered on slick hitman Vincent (Cruise) and cab driver Max (Foxx), whom Vincent forces to drive him around L.A. on business.
Take Two: For the first two acts, Collateral explores Max's moral response to Vincent's horrific amorality to define characters and raise important questions. In the last act, though, it succumbs to standard thriller mode. Extreme obscene language and some profanity; much deadly violence and gunplay.
Final Take: Much objectionable content is finally unredeemed as the potential of a promising beginning is squandered in pointless action.
5 THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
(Paramount) Director: Jonathan Demme. Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber. (R)
Take One: Cold War paranoia is passé, but paranoia cinema is still entertaining, so Demme's remake of the classic film replaces Communist brainwashers with a faceless corporate cabal with murky motives and politics. Denzel at last returns to righteous form in the Sinatra role as a troubled soldier.
Take Two: As with Shyamalan's The Village, political interpretations from both sides of the aisle have been made, though the film can be read as an anti-conservative thriller. Some profane and obscene language, brief incestuous overtones, recurring deadly violence and torture.
Final Take: Honors its source material without matching its political impact, succeeding as a decent thriller.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
- September 5-11, 2004