In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who along with his band of thugs has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady Allison French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town. She complicates the picture walking on the gray line between good and evil and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film based on the novel by Robert B. Parker smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West. Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000’s Pollock to an Oscar Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors at least most of them into superlative performances which includes himself. In fact the actor doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman who quietly goes about his business determined to clean up the wild wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris’ partner in stopping sagebrush crime looking like he’s lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen’s demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there’s nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger on the other hand lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair her character rarely adds up but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law. In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era he nobly honors the great American western tradition crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast and he’s picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler’s stunning New Mexico landscapes.
This long-delayed fantasy film touted as the most expensive film in South Korean history is some kind of mess. As the title implies dragons do go to war--but the real casualty of this endeavor is the patience of even the most undiscriminating viewer. Here is a movie absolutely overstuffed with exposition and backstory but none of it adds up to anything remotely cohesive or comprehensible. An ancient prophecy about Korean serpents becoming dragons and laying waste to the world is about to come true--some 500 years after it first came to pass. Pressed into service to save the world (or a computer-generated facsimile thereof) are a young TV reporter (Jason Behr) and a girl named Sarah (Amanda Brooks) both of whom are destined to play a pivotal part in the ultimate salvation--or destruction--of mankind. It’s only a matter of time before downtown Los Angeles becomes a war zone. Both Behr and Brooks play their roles with absolute conviction. Unfortunately in this unintentionally outrageous context they come off as laughably stiff as a result. Their obligatory onscreen romance comes off as just that--obligatory. If they’re humanity’s last hope then we’re in big trouble. Chris Mulkey and Elizabeth Pena turn up as FBI agents. Nice to see them getting work but it would be even nicer if they--being the talented actors they are--were given something anything to do. By default Robert Forster comes off best as Jack a wise antiques dealer who definitely has a vested interested in the fantastic goings-on. It’s a stock role and not a particularly good one loaded with senseless dialogue. But Forster manages unlike his co-stars to inject just a little bit of humanity and humor into the proceedings. Writer/director Hyung-rae Shim relies totally and wholly on CGI effects to tell the story but because the story is so unabashedly stupid that reliance comes off as seriously misguided. Dragon Wars is not remotely credible even by fantasy-film standards and it’s not fun enough to encourage audiences to suspend disbelief. There’s never a sense of wonderment or fun and that’s deadly in a film like this. As befits the filmmaker behind such a one-dimensional a film Shim is basically a traffic cop. The actors go here. The effects go here. And despite the endless CGI effects the rest of the cinematography is murky and dark. Dragon Wars (or D-War as it was originally known) does qualify as a movie: It has a beginning a middle and an end--and all of them are useless.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
In this film based on the Newbery Award-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) is a lonely 10-year-old girl who has moved to a sluggish small town in Florida with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels). She has a tough time getting through to her dad: when he is not preaching the gospel he walks around in a haze haunted by the departure of Opal's mother many years before. But when Opal adopts Winn-Dixie named after the supermarket where she found the mutt things start to brighten up for the little girl. With her special companion by her side Opal ends up meeting some pretty interesting people in the town. They include Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) the local spinster librarian who spins great stories; Otis (Dave Matthews) the shy drifter working at Gertrude's Pet Shop; and Gloria (Cicely Tyson) an old blind lady living with ghosts from her past. Through Opal's sunny disposition and Winn-Dixie doggone tenaciousness they help the town find their joy and their sorrow. And at the same time they mend Opal's troubled relationship with her father. Collectively now awwww!
All the players fit snugly in this warmhearted movie especially the talented young Robb who makes her feature film debut in Winn-Dixie. It's imperative to cast an adorable child and Robb doesn't disappoint keeping things genuinely fresh with the big eyes infectious smile and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm charm. Daniels too doesn't overplay it as the wounded preacher--aptly described by Opal as a turtle--who rarely sticks his head out of his shell. Veterans Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson do what they can with their stereotypical parts as the kindly spinster storyteller and kindly old wise woman respectively. But it's singer-turned-actor Dave Matthews who stands out as the drifter with a troubled past but can "sing most anything " even charming the animals in the pet shop á la the Pied Piper. His poignant performance is up there in the sentiment department.
Here we go with the children and the animals again. Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan The Joy Luck Club) is the latest director to take a stab at guiding those most unpredictable of actors. As he explains "Sometimes the going is slow. But then suddenly something magical happens that you couldn't possibly have planned or anticipated." It's true. There are definite moments of inspired sweetness especially between Opal and Winn-Dixie played by a Picardy Shepherd a rare breed of dog from France that has the look of a big old lovable mutt. And of course you can't go too wrong using heart-tugging material based on a beloved children's novel on par with Where the Red Fern Grows and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. That's also Because of Winn-Dixie main problem. Fans of the book will certainly love the film but overall it doesn't really offer anything new in this genre. It's the same general premise about the kid and a dog--or a horse a deer whichever animal works best--who can change the lives of those around them just from being pure of heart. Maybe it's the curmudgeon in me but Winn-Dixie just doesn't stand out among the plethora of films similar to it.