Based on the popular American Girl series of books and doll line this first edition focuses on Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) an aspiring young cub reporter who during the Great Depression finds her sunny world turned upside down when her father’s (Chris O'Donnell) car dealership goes under and he must leave Cincinnati to find other work. This leaves Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond) to fend for themselves selling eggs and home-grown veggies and renting out rooms in order to keep the family home. Kit always has time for others bringing home a stray Basset hound or convincing her parents to let a couple of hobo friends (Max Thieriot Willow Smith) help out around the house in return for meals. They are among the colorful characters in her life including the Kittredge’s new tenants a magician (Stanley Tucci) a man-hungry dancer (Jane Krakowski) and a ditzy librarian (Joan Cusack). Kit also spends a lot of time writing articles including a glowing one on the hobo community which she hopes to sell to the craggy publisher (Wallace Shawn) of the local newspaper. When a crime spree suddenly hits and the Kittredge’s savings are wiped out blame is pointed at the hobo camp. With the help of her buddies Stirling (Zach Mills) and Ruthie (Madison Davenport) Kit must solve the mystery and save the day. With a part tailor-made for her Breslin is the perfect Kit endlessly optimistic determined and hopeful. Clearly she is the child star of the moment walking capably in the footsteps of the Culkins and Fannings of the world. The film not designed for anyone over 10-years-old really belongs to the kids with both Mills--as the awkward Stirling--and Davenport--as best friend Ruthie--add a lot of charm to the proceedings. Also doing nicely is Thieriot (Jumper) as one of the young hobo boys and Will Smith’s daughter Willow in a surprising turn as his good friend (who may or may not be who she seems). Adult roles are largely one-dimensional but a good supporting cast makes the most of them particularly Tucci and the colorful Cusack. Shawn is fun as the editor Kit keeps trying to impress and O'Donnell and Ormond are sympathetic parents. Director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) competently directs this old-fashioned live-action family film that is so “G” and squeaky clean it seems out of place with all the hipper CGI-type of fare aimed at younger audiences today. Since this film was obviously designed to sell the enormously popular American Girl dolls you can’t expect a masterpiece. Still there is a certain sweetness and longing for a life long ago that makes this more a cousin to something out of the ‘30s or ‘40s like Judy Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis than to Breslin’s previous hits Nim's Island and Little Miss Sunshine. How her fans react will be interesting but clearly the filmmakers (which include executive producer Julia Roberts) are just hoping to move some merchandise and put a smile on the faces of the very youn--and very female--target audience. If Rozema’s pleasant film does that you can expect a slew of sequels based on other American Girl dolls.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!