"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.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.
As the competition heats up at the otherwise chilly 2003 Sundance Film Festival, film distributors are scrambling to find the latest and greatest independent films.
Variety reports bidders are eyeing indie standouts such as the Katie Holmes starrer Pieces of April, about a Thanksgiving dinner from hell; Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter, about a prepubescent girl trying to become popular; and The Station Agent, about a dwarf who connects with two other people at a train station, starring Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven).
Also sparking buzz is the dark comedy Bookies, centering on a trio of college friends who start their own gambling ring. From the director of Happy, Texas, it stars Nick Stahl (In the Bedroom) and Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!).
There is also HBO Films' American Splendor. According to Variety, the film is based on the underground comic book series of the same name and combines animation and documentary techniques to tell the true story of Harvey Pekar, an eccentric and self-described flunky file clerk who finds salvation and a measure of fame by documenting his life in comics illustrated by artists like Robert Crumb. It stars Paul Giamatti (Duets) and Hope Davis (About Schmidt).
So far the only confirmed deal was made Tuesday by the small New York distributor Women Make Movies, which acquired the North American rights to the documentary Love & Diane, Variety reports. The film revolves around a recovering crack addict who is reunited with her children only to find her oldest daughter following in her footsteps.
The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 16 through Jan. 26.