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.
Set in 1984 Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her ice-cold hometown in Northern Minnesota after fleeing from an abusive husband. In order to care for her two young kids she needs a job--and for most of the townsfolk including her distant dad (Richard Jenkins) that means working in the local iron mines. Problem is not too many women work there and those who do are subjected to continual harassment by their male coworkers. Josey lands a job anyway and starts to get her fair share of sexual innuendos. One day her former high-school sweetheart also a mine employee takes it way too far with her. Although met with strong resistance of course a lawsuit ensues that results in a groundbreaking decision for women’s rights in the workplace. Ah what an Oscar can do for a career. It wasn't that long ago Theron wouldn’t even have been considered for such a dramatic role. But with deserved recognition she gets to strut her stuff in North Country. She's no Monster but she's no supermodel either--and while it's impossible to erase her beauty its glare has been reduced. A second-consecutive Oscar win? Maybe not but a nomination wouldn't be out of the place. Co-star Frances McDormand might also be in line for a nod of her own. She plays Glory a woman who gets Josey the job and encourages her to fight the good fight something that seems visceral for McDormand. Woody Harrelson is also solid as Josey's attorney though his Midwest-stoner drawl gets in the way of the northern accent he's supposed to be selling. New Zealand director Niki Caro mightily impressed us with Whale Rider a poignant mixture of grief and vigor and with North Country she continues to impress. As more an observer than anything else Caro lets the true story tell itself--of what happened in this small town with its frigid denizens and sexist behavior. And the film is definitely a period piece á la Norma Rae in that it's from a specific period albeit a recent one and pertains to a specific region. But it's kind of slow going. There’s a lot of weeping and dramatic speeches. Still Caro makes up for it by including several Bob Dylan songs who rarely grants the use of his songs in films. Perhaps he felt a certain a kinship to this film since it takes place in the desolate cold Northern Minnesota where he comes from--and so resents.
All Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes) has ever really wanted is to meet the dad she's never known. Growing up in New York with her loving and free-spirited musician mother Libby (Kelly Preston) she makes her mom tell the story of her parents' whirlwind romance over and over. How much in love they were but how unbeknownst to him his aristocratic family drove Libby away. Now at 17 Daphne is determined to live the fantasy of the father-daughter relationship she craves. Arriving in London she finds out pop is Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth) a high-profile politician who is about to marry the snooty Glynnis (Anna Chancellor). Needless to say Henry is dumbfounded to discover he has a daughter and together with his regretful mother Lady Jocelyn (Eileen Atkins) they open Dashwood manor to the spirited girl. As Daphne and Henry tentatively test their newfound relationship the teen has a hard time fitting in with stuffy British high society and soon begins to jeopardize her father's political career. She tries to suppress her bubbly personality and turn herself into a respectable debutante but Daphne soon realizes she's giving up too much of herself to be Henry's daughter. The question is will Henry realize it is he who is not made for the suffocating life he's been shoved into and reclaim his daughter and the only woman he has ever loved? Oh stop the suspense is killing us.
The 17-year-old Bynes is already a brand name in comedy--at least to the 'tween set who from the time Bynes was 10 years old have enjoyed her slapstick antics on Nickelodeon's variety show All That her own variety show The Amanda Show and her current WB sitcom What I Like About You. Bynes is all grown up now and as the cute sexy--and klutzy--Daphne she excels at performing pratfalls and infuses as much charm as she can into the character. It is clear however the young comedian has some work to do before becoming a good actress. Thank goodness she is surrounded by talented actors such as Atkins (Gosford Park) and even Preston who does a nice job as the bohemian Libby. Yet it's Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary) who truly elevates the film when on-screen and helps Bynes reach those dramatic highpoints. He has the uncanny ability to turn even the most insipid of parts into something worth watching. His best moment as Henry is when he tries on some old leather pants and dances around in his opulent bedroom pretending to be a rock star. It's very un-British of him--and it's brilliant.
To put it mildly What a Girl Wants really looks bad. TV director Dennie Gordon obviously hasn't mastered the art of filmmaking in any way because not only are many of the shots blurry and poorly lit often times it seems Bynes is shot through an entirely different softer lens than the other actors. Usually that kind of treatment is given to older actresses who want to hide all the little imperfections but for a 17-year-old cutie? Obviously it's a mistake. As well the sugar-pop theme gets out of hand trying way too hard to appeal to the hip and cool 'tweeners. To a rockin' soundtrack look how Daphne can turn a pretentious coming-out ball into a choreographed dance number! Or see how she can try on different '70s outfits and funky glasses while her father amusedly looks on! (Even Firth looks uncomfortable). Sure 11-14-year-old girls are going to love it especially the sweet love story between Daphne and a local London musician Ian (Oliver James). It's only the heart of the story--the father-daughter relationship--that keeps the film from falling into just another Teen Beat tableau.