Set in post-World War III Los Angeles Southland Tales takes place over the three days leading up to a huge Fourth of July celebration as the world is crumbling around the city’s citizens who are living in a city that has been turned into an armed camp by the government. There’s a huge cast of characters in this disjointed tale written and directed by Richard Kelly including Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) an action-movie star married to Madeline (Mandy Moore) the spoiled rich daughter of a powerful senator. Boxer turns up near the beach in L. A. suffering from complete amnesia; he’s watched by a military sniper named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who also narrates the film and seems to hold the key to the mystery of what happened to Santaros in the desert that caused his mental breakdown. Meanwhile Santaros falls for activist porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as radical anti-government forces led by Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) plot a huge terrorist event to take place on the Fourth. Add in a police officer (Seann William Scott) who may be the link between all the other characters and you’ve got the gist of the story. Unfortunately there are easily 10 other characters wandering around in this mishmash of a plot played by everyone from Miranda Richardson John Larroquette and Christopher Lambert to Wallace Shawn Kevin Smith Jon Lovitz and Bai Ling and not one of them seems to have a clue as to what is actually going on--which is exactly how the audience watching feels too. It is a mystery how so many usually talented actors stumbled into this incoherent mess of a movie much less how they have all succeeded in giving some of the worst performances of their careers. Dwayne Johnson the usually likable wrestler-turned-actor leads the pack resorting to rolling his eyes and twitching his fingers to portray a man in emotional distress. Sarah Michelle Gellar is equally abysmal; her ridiculous porn-star/talk-show-host character comes off as a complete caricature not a characterization. Miranda Richardson simply chews the scenery and Wallace Shawn actually does a caricature of himself which is just weird. It is no wonder that when this inane flick debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 people booed and walked out. The shock is that Sony coughed up more money for special effects and a re-edit--perhaps that is because there are so many well-known names on the cast list? Whatever the reason the still two-and-a-half-hour film is so jumbled enervating and downright boring that we’re pretty certain you’ll be tempted to head for the bathroom and never come back. The only thing that might keep you interested is if you have a Bai Ling fetish (although why you would pick her to obsess over is a complete mystery); she spends the movie vamping it up in costumes that make her look like the porn star instead of Gellar. Writer-director Richard Kelly had a cult hit with Donnie Darko which apparently made him believe that there is a market for movies that are incredibly incoherent and lacking in the most basic narrative focus. Sadly he’s made just that movie with Southland Tales; in fact he explains himself in three graphic novels and a large Web site the prequel to the movie that we apparently should have investigated beforehand since the film is supposed to be the last three chapters of the saga. But therein lies the rub as no filmmaker should assume that moviegoers will have taken the time to do those things before entering the theater. For anyone who has not embraced this self-involved filmmaker’s other work Southland Tales simply comes across as a mixed-up jumble of half-baked ideas performed by actors who look like they are involved in a high school video project not a bona fide Hollywood movie. And if the steady stampede for the door during the screening we sat all the way through is any indication this is a movie that will have patrons who have actually paid for the experience considering a quick sneak away into a different movie in the multiplex. Lord knows that only someone who is paid to watch would actually sit through this whole film. After all those are two hours and 24 minutes of life that we will never get back.
The first Santa Clause had a somewhat clever premise on how an ordinary guy can become Santa Claus just by putting on the red suit while the second Clause was about finding a Mrs. Claus. What’s the third clause? The Escape Clause which allows anyone who is Santa the option to give it all up and become a mortal man again. Of course Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) aka the current Santa has no intentions of leaving the job. But his lovely wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) is expecting their first child and missing home a great deal so Scott has to juggle having his in-laws (Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret) come to the North Pole--which he has to disguise as Canada to keep the “Secret of Santa” alive--with getting ready for Christmas. It’s kind of hectic. And throwing a huge wrench in the whole deal is the envious Jack Frost (Martin Short). Relegated as the “opening act” to Christmas Frost wants his own gig and sabotages Scott at every turn in order to steal the job away from him. There’s no nipping at your nose with this guy; it’s all-out war. Allen makes no apologies for his career. Why should he? He’s been moderately successful playing everyday dads in Disney comedies displaying the right mix of milquetoast-iness and humor. Plus as Scott/Santa he also gets to be sentimental. I just wonder if he still wouldn’t like to do something more cutting edge? Short on the other hand never could find the right kind of starring vehicle for himself but instead has created some hilarious supporting characters (if you don’t believe me rent The Big Picture). Jack Frost is another one to add to the list. The comedian has way too much fun playing the nasty ice man with steely blue eyes a smart--if frosty--three-piece suit and who gets to say lines like “I invented ‘Chill!’” Mitchell (TV’s Lost) reprises her role as the sweet-as-pie Mrs. Claus and has some nice moments with Scott. And what a surprise to see Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret in this! They are perfect as the meddling in-laws especially Arkin who finds everything wrong with Scott and his “toy factory.” Buena Vista didn’t feel it was necessary to pre-screen Santa Clause 3 for critics. They probably believe the audiences for this franchise is already built in and they don’t need jaded critics slamming the film for being silly and meaningless. Smart. But as much as it pains me to say it Santa Clause 3 directed by Michael Lembeck (who did Santa Clause 2) really isn’t that awful. Yes it’s all terribly predictable with the schmaltz so thick you could cut it with a knife. But there’s also something surprisingly endearing about these movies. They have always provided a sort of warm family-friendly feel without too much forced circumstances—and most importantly they are legitimate Christmas movies--even its being released just as we are putting away the Halloween decorations. Honestly I’d take a Santa Clause 3 over a Christmas with the Kranks (sorry Tim Allen) any day.
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 those rare incidences a sequel can actually be better than the original. Such is the case with X2: X-Men United where this time around the X-Men--including mind-benders Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); optically enhanced Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden); weather controller Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Paquin) aptly named newcomers Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford); and last but not least the hunky yet steely Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)--have their work cut out for them trying to keep the peace between the human and mutant races. After a teleporting mutant assailant known as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attacks the White House relations between mutants and humans take a turn for the worse starting an anti-mutant movement. The movement is fueled by baddie scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) who bears a grudge against mutants and his henchwoman Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) both of whom have a mysterious connection to Wolverine's past. They seek to wipe out all the mutants on Earth by manipulating Xavier and his all-powerful machine Cerebro--a machine that can locate and even destroy every mutant and/or human on the planet in mere moments using mind power. Stryker is in for a fight though. Militant mutants the iron-clad Magneto (Ian McKellen) and morph-happy Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) join forces with the X-Men to stop this madman--but of course they have their own agendas. Can the X-Men repair the rift in mutant/human co-existence? Or is war imminent? Guess we'll have to wait until X3.
X2 does a nice job giving its comic book heroes and villains more of an emotional core than in the first X-Men. The relationships have deepened and are further explored with Jackman's haunted Logan/Wolverine looking for clues to his past still a standout. Janssen another standout gets more to chew on as Jean whose triangle with Logan and Scott grows more complicated and her character arc takes a surprising turn. But will somebody please write Halle Berry out of this franchise? They say her blonde wig was improved for the sequel but it's as unbelievable as her acting. As for the kids Paquin and Ashmore sweetly play out Rogue and Bobby's budding love story but its Stanford's sullen John who holds the most interest as you see his resentment toward humans growing and luring him to the dark side. In the villains' corner Cox plays Stryker as stonily evil as he can while Romijn-Stamos seems to have a lot more fun as the ultra-cool Mystique even getting to shed the blue paint in one scene and simply use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Cumming too seems to enjoy being blue as the bible quoting German-accented Nightcrawler who really isn't so bad after all (and has one of the snazzier entrances in the movie). But the most compelling relationship by far has to be between Xavier and Magneto. British thesps Stewart and McKellen portray the two as the old friends they are but whose disparaging views on how mutants and humans should interact has torn them apart giving the film some dramatic weight.
With the original X-Men director Bryan Singer had the dubious task of introducing all of the Marvel comic book's attributes and characters in a way that would appease rabid fans and newbies while also creating a compelling movie with a beginning middle and end. The result was adequate but a tad muddled and cartoonish. With X2 however Singer is able to fine-tune those characters and delve further into the story's universal theme: ridding the world of xenophobia and creating a peaceful co-existence. The three-tiered points of view--from Magneto's defiantly anti-human stance to Stryker's anti-mutant attempts at genocide and Xavier's hopes to find a happy middle ground--parallels today's political climate and actually makes you ponder the world's affairs even while you are watching the very cool very mutant-esque action. X2 leaves you wanting more to find out what is going to happen next to these people. Honestly if there is a war between mutants and humans who do you think is going to win? If only I could use powers of telepathy…