From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is an award-winning director who has jumped the shark and is now in Canada shooting deodorant commercials for nickels and dimes and well animal pelts. So when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) and her new husband slick Hollywood studio exec Hal Yeager (Treat Williams) ask him to helm Galaxy Pictures' next big-budget movie he reluctantly signs the deal. Unfortunately the script for The City That Never Sleeps reminds Val of his own failed relationship with his son and causes him to go psychosomatically blind. Poor Val doesn't want to lose this much-needed gig and allows his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to persuade him to direct the film anyway which means keeping his blindness a secret. To make matters worse the publicity department has given a reporter from Esquire magazine the green light to cover the daily happenings on the set. Needless to say no one can do a better job than Allen of talking and gesticulating to the air walking into large objects and falling off sets.
Nervous and jittery like most of his characters Woody Allen is hilarious as Val and he makes the character's blindness completely believable. Allen's performance is priceless especially in the scenes where he is out with Ellie; he tries his best to have a professional discussion with her but constantly blurts out these Turrets-like comments about their breakup. Téa Leoni (Jurassic Park III) is superb and very natural in the role of Ellie--she has come such a long way since her short-lived 1995 television series The Naked Truth. Treat Williams (Venomous) and George Hamilton (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) are perfectly cast as glossy Hollywood tycoons while Mark Rydell (Intersection) personifies perfectly the loyal entertainment agent. Will & Grace's Debra Messing struts her big screen skills with her portrayal of Lori the ditzy aspiring actress and Val's live-in girlfriend but much like sultry Tiffani Thiessen's (The Ladies Man) part her role is rather small.
Allen has written a clever satire of Hollywood films and what goes on behind the scenes. When his character Val loses his vision and exclaims that he will not be able to direct the film his agent Al responds "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" The rest of the film never lets up down to the film's crowd-pleasing "Hollywood Ending." There are quick-witted jabs at everyone and everything especially West Coast culture. The film even pokes fun at itself sometimes: Messing's character Lori leaves for an extended stay at a fitness spa early on in the film and when she finally returns Ellie comments "I forgot about her." Well so had we all. Allen also drops a lot of little references that will leave you wondering. For example his character mentions that when his first wife left him she changed their son's name. (Wasn't Seamus Allen's real life son with Mia Farrow once called Satchel?) Although there are some preachy moments including a dinner party scene where the characters discuss their favorite Hitchcock film the film is witty and entertaining.