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.
Former NFL star quarterback Paul Crewe (Sandler) doesn't really like himself much these days. Unproven accusations of points shaving have sent Crewe into a downward spiral of drunkenness and self-destructive behavior. It all comes to a very bad end one night when he takes a wild joyride in his girlfriend's Bentley with cops in pursuit. Crewe is sent to a Texas penitentiary where he figures he'll just quietly ride out his time in hopes of leaving a changed man. The sadistic warden (James Cromwell) however has other plans for Crewe. He forces the quarterback to transform a diverse group of inmates into a football team so that they can play his elite semi-pro team of guards. You know to make the guards look good when they crush the convicts. What the warden doesn't expect is how far Crewe--with the help of fellow inmates Nate Scarborough (Burt Reynolds) and Caretaker (Rock)--takes his task. He recruits his unlikely but somewhat talented teammates with the promise that they'll get a chance to exact revenge on the guards during anything-goes bone-crushing showdown. This is Crewe's one chance to redeem himself. Can he do it? You can do it Paul!
Seems like when Adam Sandler puts his mind to it he really can't lose. And The Longest Yard proves to another perfect Sandler vehicle. As Paul Crewe the comedian returns to his sports roots (Happy Gilmore The Waterboy) and basically plays the same unassuming slightly sardonic straight man. Crewe though is perhaps a little less angry and more resigned about his circumstances. Sandler also displays a fairly convincing flair for quarterbacking. The thing is Sandler doesn't need to stretch to be successful. He tried it in Punch-Drunk Love--and actually pulled it off quite nicely I might add--but if he's making billions of dollars playing himself why mess with a good thing? It's who he surrounds himself with that counts. Reynolds who played Crewe in the 1974 original looks like he's just as pleased as punch to be there as he relive some glory days as the grizzled coach Scarborough. He even gets in a little playing time on the field. What fun for him. The always-hysterical Rock complements his longtime SNL pal to a tee and with his petite frame next to all these hulking men naturally delivers all the funniest lines ("I'll teach you anything just don't eat me!"). Hip-hopper Nelly in his acting debut brings a certain MTV quality to the proceedings (and has a few songs on the soundtrack). And as far as the rest of the cast of ex-football players and professional wrestlers well they are there for a reason.
The 1974 The Longest Yard is apparently one of Sandler's favorite films and it's easy to see why. First of all it has Burt Reynolds who is so cool as the beleaguered Crewe. Then there's the classic underdog theme in which the good guys are actually bad guys--they are all convicted felons--but who we see systematically beat down by the "Man." You want them to thrash the holy crap out of those mean and nasty guards. I mean cons are people too right? Plus there are some great football sequences. So Sandler along with his Happy Madison Productions decides to pay homage assembles another crack team--including director Peter Segal who worked with Sandler on 50 First Dates and Anger Management--and produces a very worthy remake. They stay close to the original material--comedy tinged with sentiment--but of course can't help but add the requisite Sandler-isms. Those over-the-top "isms"--the bathroom humor the lame prison-sex jokes Rob Schneider yelling "You can do it!" et al.--is what all die-hard Sandler fans want to see so I guess it's expected. It's just not my cup of tea.
OK so we've met the Parents: Uptight ex-CIA operative Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) his preppy wife Dina (Blythe Danner) and their sweet daughter Pam (Teri Polo) who's marrying the adorable if slightly anxious male nurse Greg aka Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller). Now it's time to Meet the Fockers Greg's kooky but lovable parents who soon threaten Greg's standing in Jack's coveted "circle of trust." In the inevitable meeting of the in-laws Jack is lead to believe Greg's dad the effervescent Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) is a lawyer but finds out he became a stay-at-home dad to raise little Gaylord. Greg's mom the outspoken Roz (Barbra Streisand) a "doctor " is really a sex therapist for the elderly. Big big problem. There's also incidents involving the Fockers' dog and the Byrneses' cat and Jack's toddler grandson some glue and a bottle of rum. Don't ask. At some point Greg and Pam have just got to cut the umbilical cord and move on.
One thing you can say about the Fockers' cast--they sure do look like they're having fun. Stiller is back doing the whole neurotic accident-prone thing he does so well. There's one meltdown scene in which he bears his soul while under the influence of Sodium Pentathol (courtesy of Jack of course). De Niro is once again playing the "heavy " as the suspicious elder Byrnes--and is still pretty good at making you laugh. On the other hand the wasted Danner and Polo stand around in the background looking appropriately appalled or sympathetic depending on the moment. Hoffman and Streisand however are the true standouts. They liven up the proceedings just by the sheer nature of their spirited characters. For the first time in awhile Hoffman's tendency to overact works as the bubbly Bernie while the delightful Streisand who's taken a break from acting for the past eight years gets to tap into her zany yet grounded What's Up Doc? persona we remember so well. Good times.
Meet the Parents director Jay Roach has a tough act to follow with Meet the Fockers. The original did surprisingly well at the box office probably because audiences got a kick out of seeing funny guy Ben Stiller go head to head with the Goodfella himself De Niro. But somehow the mishaps and miscommunications that made Parents so wacky seems to have been replaced with feel-good-about-your-family mush in Fockers. Jack for example is mostly up to his "let's catch Greg in the act" high jinks--until he sees the errors of his ways and gets in touch with his feelings. Huh? Granted the moments of inspired hilarity are still entertaining but the extra sentimentality doesn't really work as well given what the younger fans of Parents have come to expect.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.