"You ship 400 000 trained killers over to some foreign land better give them a war " Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) quips. "War is hell but peace? Peace is boring." Set in 1989 at Theodore Roosevelt Army Base just outside of Stuttgart West Germany Elwood like most of the men at the base are there out of military servitude: the army serves as a reasonable alternative to a prison sentence. Elwood occupies his time by selling products like Mop'N'Glo on the black market and cooking heroin for the base's head of Military Police Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahumd-Bey). But when Elwood literally stumbles on about $5 million worth of weapons he thinks he can finally retire--until a new base sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) sets his sights on cleaning up the base. Elwood gets back at Lee by sleeping with his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) but Lee has more sinister plans for the battalion secretary. Based on the 1993 novel by Robert E. O'Connor Buffalo Soldiers graphically illustrates rampant drug use and criminal activities that the author describes as a bad patch in the Army's history in the late 1980s. Although the film's depiction of events has been called into question its explicit scenes including one in which some soldiers take a hit of smack and drive their tank over some gas pumps and fry two officers in the process are harshly persuasive. Buffalo Soldiers is a haunting look at a military that is at war--with itself.
Phoenix has churned up scores of strong performances in the past including roles in To Die For The Yards and Gladiator--which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Roman emperor Commodus. With the role of Elwood in Buffalo Soldiers he once again gets to show off his remarkable range. Phoenix shows conviction as a bureaucratic con artist by day and drug dealer by night. But just when you think his character has no scruples he begins to care about his sniveling roommate sticking up for him when base bullies harass him and cleaning up his cuts when he gets beaten up. And even though he starts off dating Robyn to piss off her father his motives change once he gets to know her. Phoenix's Elwood plays his cards close to his chest; we can never tell if he really wants to change for the better or just wants Robyn to believe that he does. There is something we like about him either way as does Robyn. Paquin's Robyn is young rebellious and incredibly sharp. She has grown up on a military base and has become an expert at figuring people out which makes her a perfect match for Elwood. Does she change this antihero for the better? You will have to see the movie to find out.
Miramax Films acquired Buffalo Soldiers at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10 2001--the day before the terrorist attacks radically changed public opinion on the American military's role. With the tagline "Steal All You Can Steal " the film was bound to set off sparks. Fearing moviegoers would view the film's release as inappropriate the studio shelved it until now. Helmed by Australian director Gregor Jordan Buffalo Soldiers does not paint a pretty portrait of the U.S. Army; there is plenty of gritty imagery of soldiers shooting up heroin juxtaposed against familiar slogans like "Be All That You Can Be." Whether you believe Jordan's take on the subject matter to be accurate or not the film is not as anti-military as it has been made out to be. Jordan's two extreme perspectives effectively illustrate the connection O'Connor makes in his novel between the century-old Buffalo Soldiers a term used to describe the freed slaves employed by the Union Army to wipe out the native population in the 1800s and the movie's uniformed dregs stationed in West Germany at the fringe of the Cold War era: Neither group had anything to gain from fighting. In the film Elwood and company have an even harder time dealing with the boredom that comes from being idled by peace thus rekindling their delinquent tendencies. The U.S. Army in Buffalo Soldiers is in effect representative of a society or a subculture set in a greedy decade that operates under its own rules and values and Jordan's screenplay gets this point across without ever preaching to the audience.
The time is the 18th century and with authentic settings steeped in a dense mass of fog Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl succeeds as a predatory period piece. In the Caribbean Sea Pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has just led a mutiny against the Black Pearl's captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) assailed the colonial town of Port Royal and kidnapped the Governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Barbossa's motives are simple: a cursed treasure has doomed him and his crew to live eternally as the "undead " human by day living skeletons by night and the only way to lift this curse is to return the last missing piece of the plundered treasure and spill the blood of its possessor. It so happens that Elizabeth is wearing that very piece around her neck--a gold skull-embossed doubloon she took from her childhood friend Will (Orlando Bloom) whom her father rescued from a sinking pirate ship as a boy. Will promptly sets out to save her from Barbossa and finds an unlikely ally in Jack the bumbling and untrustworthy sea captain who just wants his ship back. But since these ghastly Pirates of the Caribbean can't be killed again sending them to Davy Jones's locker proves to be the challenge of a lifetime for Will and Jack.
It is a delight to see Depp in a new film (his last big feature was the 2001 historical horror thriller From Hell) and Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow is tailor-made for the former 21 Jump Street teen idol. The most intriguing thing about Depp's Jack Sparrow is the duality the actor gives the character: On the one hand Jack is this lusty fearless man with a deeply defiant streak. On the other his delicate features long dreadlocked hair kohl-rimmed eyes and almost girly mannerisms give Jack a subtly effeminate air that belies his macho antics. Depp who has said he equates 18th century pirates with modern-day rock stars used Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as inspiration for the role and it comes across clearly in his slurred speech swaying swagger and slack waving arms. He obviously had fun and in the process created a rich multifaceted character; in fact Depp's performance here is so riveting that when Jack does not appear in a scene the film almost drags. The movie's co-stars also do a wonderful job with the material but their performances pale in comparison to Depp's. As the old wily Barbossa Rush brings an air of authenticity to the role of a weathered sea captain. The young Knightley who made her big-screen debut in the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham is enchanting as Elizabeth--a sharp-witted damsel in distress who knows how to hold her own--and the 18-year-old actress also holds her own alongside such an experienced cast. Bloom however is a bit bland as Elizabeth's devoted friend Will.
After his successful horror thriller The Ring director Gore Verbinski gives this supernatural adventure pic less terror and more humor. Inspired by the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and produced by explosion maestro Jerry Bruckheimer Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean unfolds a terrific tale which when combined with superb performances from Depp and the cast and genuine-looking sets makes for a great moviegoing experience. Verbinski pays close attention to detail here especially when it comes down to the costumes hair and makeup and does so by avoiding the usual buccaneer clichés such as eye patches hook hands and peg legs; with their deplorable hygiene and silver-capped teeth the pirates look undeniably real. Take for instance a scene in which Jack is speaking up close to a commodore: The navy officer slightly shrinks back after getting a whiff of his breath and we can understand why. The most challenging scenes for the director however had to be the fight sequences involving the pirates who turn into skeletons when exposed to moonlight. The characters switch back and forth from human forms to carcasses depending on their exposure to night light and Verbinski achieves this visual effect convincingly. But although beautifully executed the elaborate ship-to-ship battle waged between the Black Pearl and the Interceptor is too time-consuming and with the movie coming in at 133 minutes that could have been whittled down.
January 11, 2002 11:05am EST
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is sitting on the beach pondering the mysteries of life after losing his surfing buddy to a tsunami when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel Straitjacket buried in the sand. The book by a mythical Kerouac-type author who teaches at Stanford University profoundly influences Shaun who in turn decides he will become a writer. But Shaun's dreams of attending Stanford and studying under the guidance of his new mentor get squashed when a scatterbrained guidance counselor sends the wrong transcripts to the university. With the help of his peace-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his junkie brother Lance (Jack Black) the trio sets off to Stanford to convince school officials to reconsider his application before the deadline the following day. After a series of catastrophes Shaun becomes convinced that his dysfunctional family is conspiring to keep him in Orange County.
Colin Hanks (Get Over It not to mention Tom Hank's son) is the film's protagonist Shaun Brumder. He and his on-screen sweetheart played by Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day not to mention Sissy Spacek's daughter) bring quality to a good script suffering from shaky direction. The two interact quite naturally and make a pretty sweet couple. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is hysterical and not just when he is standing around half-naked and dirty. Some of the funniest scenes are when Black's character Lance tries to be serious and stoned at the same time. Catherine O'Hara (Best in Show) plays Shaun's boozy mother without going over the top and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) is equally convincing as his rich father now married to someone half his age. There are several notable cameo appearances from actors including Lily Tomlin Ben Stiller Kevin Kline and Chevy Chase but they do not bring anything unique to their performances.
Orange County is directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who more recently directed episodes of teen TV series Freaks and Geeks Undeclared and Grosse Pointe--and it shows. While the script is hilarious and the acting above par the pacing is a bit uneven. The film jumps from really gross shots of Black prancing around in his skanky underpants to sentimentalized family issues that are a little too real to be funny. Then we are subject to scenes of Shaun's wheelchair-bound stepfather rolling out onto the street and getting hit by a car being the target of falling objects or crying out in pain because no one remembers to give him his medication. When did the blatant neglect of invalids become funny? Unfortunately these elements did not come together very well. Of course Kasdan does not resist the temptation of subjecting us to a dreaded college frat party scene involving flaky teenage girls and pompous college boys that with the help of Monica Keena (Undeclared) almost felt like a sitcom.