It usually isn’t hard to tell a war movie from an anti-war movie. If the combat experience is presented as a rousing boys’ adventure in which the good guys stomp on the bad guys and clear-cut goals are met, then it’s a war movie (e.g. practically every WWII film ever made). But if the combat experience is presented as a murky affair in which objectives are unclear, the good guys die (or, worse, deteriorate mentally) and nothing tangible gets accomplished, then it’s an anti-war movie (e.g. practically every Vietnam War film ever made, with the obvious exception of John Wayne’s The Green Berets). Jarhead doesn’t quite fall under either classification. If anything, it’s the pioneer in a new genre: the anti-war-movie movie. With steadfast determination, it refuses to take sides, name names, push agendas or do anything that might potentially inspire the wrath of moviegoers, Oscar voters, Op-Ed editors, war hawks or pacifists. In adapting Anthony Swofford’s book, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) apparently felt that they had to be solely sympathetic to the travails of the foot soldiers -- in this case, the Marine “jarheads” who were dispatched to Iraq back in the early 90s to take part in the Gulf War. For the most part, they succeed, even though the structure of the piece is frequently problematic.

In much the same fashion as Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead opens stateside, as we see the basic training undergone by “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to mold himself into a military man of steel. There’s the verbally abusive D.I., the hazing by the other grunts, the rigorous workouts, etc. From here, it’s off to the Middle East, where these young men -- pumped up by visions of macho exploits, bonding with their phallic rifles and whipped into a feeding frenzy by a screening of Apocalypse Now’s Wagnerian interlude (a scene whose absurdist elements completely elude the whooping Marines) -- are ready to kill countless Iraqis for God and country.

Only things don’t quite work out that way. Instead, their enemy turns out to be boredom, as days become weeks become months of endless waiting in the punishing desert heat, killing the time by tossing around footballs, repeatedly inspecting their weapons, and drinking lots of water to remain hydrated. And when Desert Shield eventually transforms into Desert Storm, there’s a risk, as one soldier notes, that the battle is so fast-paced that the U.S. jets will have already settled the score before the ground troops can even get within a couple of miles of the skirmish.

Mendes’ film, therefore, is about warriors without a war, young men who have been primed to kill and are then denied that opportunity, leaving them antsy, unfulfilled and still ready to shoot their loads (the movie’s awash in masturbatory motifs). Jarhead does its best to remain apolitical through and through: One soldier (Lucas Black) who correctly states that the only reason we’re over there is to protect the oil is quickly silenced by another character who declares, “Fuck politics!” Yet the very nature of the piece insures that correlations can be made to the current debacle in the Middle East. Sam Mendes may have been reluctant to offend the war hawks, but history can’t afford a similar luxury: It’s too busy repeating itself to balk.


With its hand-drawn animation division boarded up and its profitable partnership with Pixar having crashed and burned, Walt Disney Pictures has taken the next step by creating its own fully computer-animated movie. Yet if Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. To be fair, this toon flick -- a frantic yarn about a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an impending alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals in the town of Oakey Oaks -- has its moments, most of them arriving courtesy of a supporting character known as Fish Out of Water. A mischievous type who never utters a single word, he’s like a cartoon version of Harpo Marx, earning laughs through his aberrant behavior and perpetual cheeriness. But the central thrust of Chicken Little -- a standard “follow your dream” slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus. And what do we make of the annoying character of Runt of the Litter, who’s known for his Streisand collection and affinity for diva tunes, yet who in the waning moments inexplicably falls for a giggly classmate with the emotional constitution of a 6-year-old? The kids won’t understand any of it, leaving parents to scratch their heads and wonder if the film is really advocating pedophilia over homosexuality.



It’s been seven years since the delightful swashbuckling adventure The Mask of Zorro hit theaters, and the lengthy interim suggests that this follow-up was largely an afterthought on the part of Columbia Pictures. Maybe so, but at least nobody can accuse this of being hastily put together to cash in on the success of the first film. Set approximately nine years after the conclusion of Mask, this finds Don Alejandro de la Vega (returning star Antonio Banderas) having trouble shedding his day job as Zorro in order to spend more time with his lovely wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and rambunctious young son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But once Alejandro learns of a criminal plan that threatens not only California but the rest of the nation as well, he steps back into his role as the other Man In Black, receiving some unexpected help along the way from his own kid. The presence of Anthony Hopkins (who played the original, aging Zorro in the first film) is sorely missed, but Banderas and Zeta-Jones remain a sexy and spirited screen couple.


Nicolas Cage, who throughout the past decade has been more grating than ingratiating, here delivers one of his better performances in a movie that mines much of the same emotional terrain as About Schmidt. A serio-comic piece written by Steven Conrad, this finds Cage cast as David Spritz, a Chicago TV weatherman whose lack of legitimate credentials hasn’t slowed down his career ascension. One of the final candidates for the weatherman position on the nationally televised morning show Hello, America, David realizes that if he lands the gig, he would have to relocate to New York City, a move that he hopes would bring his family back together. Gore Verbinski may have directed the smashes Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring, but he’s clearly not planning on coasting the rest of his career: The man who previously gave us the only decent Home Alone rip-off (Mouse Hunt) as well as a loopy star vehicle that pissed off the masses (the Pitt-Roberts yarn The Mexican) has now tackled an affecting tale about a man who has trouble seeing the big picture because all of life’s little asides keep obstructing his view. The film’s sensibilities are just off-center enough to make it interesting, yet there’s always a tug of universal recognition in David’s travails.


Stating that Doom is probably the best of the numerous flicks based on a video game ranks as the feeblest praise imaginable, akin to noting that benign genital herpes is the best sexually transmitted disease to acquire, or that strawberry is the best tasting Schnapps flavor. Doom rips off Aliens at every turn (at least its makers steal from the best), as a group of military grunts find themselves combating vicious creatures at a manned outpost in outer space. Led by the gruff Sarge (The Rock), the outfit consists of the usual stock characters: reluctant hero, nervous novice, perpetual whiner, wisecracking black guy, monolithic black guy, and so on. And, of course, there’s a pretty lady scientist (Rosamund Pike) to mollify red-meat moviegoers by functioning as eye candy to go along with the expected quota of guns ‘n’ gore.


North Country is loosely based on a true story, and it’d be interesting if transcripts from the actual trials surrounding this tale were made available at the film’s screenings. That way, we could see for ourselves if the courtroom shenanigans were really as difficult to swallow as the ones that conclude this film. Inspired by this nation’s first successful sexual harassment lawsuit, the movie stars Charlize Theron as a single mom who returns to her Minnesota hometown and lands a job in the local mines. One of only a handful of women who work there, she has to contend with the incessant torment perpetrated by the yahoos who work alongside her, good ol’ boys who don’t believe that girls have any business laboring in the mines. Tired of their lewd taunts and cruel pranks, she decides to take the company to court, a decision that alienates her from practically everyone, including the women who abhor their own treatment but refuse to cause waves. North Country is directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro, and her primary asset is Charlize Theron, who again demonstrates (as if there was any doubt after Monster) that she’s a master thespian residing within a model’s body.


A pretty ironic title for a film that will be hard-pressed to keep audience members in their seats for even 15 of its pretentious minutes. This movie mind-bender stars Ewan McGregor as Sam Foster, a psychiatrist with a formerly suicidal patient as his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) and an intriguing new case study under his care. That would be Henry Lethem (The Notebook’s Ryan Gosling), a disturbed artist who plans to commit suicide on his 21st birthday.


Taking a well-worn formula and adding some flavor through the rich characterizations of its leading players, Dreamer centers on the circumstances that transpire when horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) elect to nurse an injured race horse named Sonador (Spanish for Dreamer) back to health. Planning to use the mare for breeding purposes until learning she’s infertile, the financially strapped Ben, with constant prodding by his daughter as well as his own crusty dad (Kris Kristofferson), decides to take a chance on prepping her for competition contention. Many child stars are either sloppily sentimental or coldly calculating, and while Fanning has occasionally veered toward the latter, she delivers her warmest performance in this picture.


With Elizabethtown, director Cameron Crowe seeks to honor the memory of his father, who died of a heart attack in 1989. It’s a noble endeavor but a disappointing movie, as engaging individual scenes fail to disguise either the slackness or superficiality of the piece. Orlando Bloom, nothing special but getting the job done, stars as Drew Baylor, a failed shoe designer who temporarily shelves his own demons in order to attend the funeral of his dad back in the title Kentucky town. Along the way, he meets a chatty flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who stirs him out of his stupor.


Ever since winning that Oscar for Scent of a Woman (still the worst con job ever to snag a Best Actor statue), Al Pacino has elected to “Hoo-ah!” his way through almost every subsequent role. Pacino’s back in full manic mode in Two for the Money, a malnourished morality tale not dissimilar in structure to the other Pacino vehicles in which he serves as a shady mentor to a hot young actor. Here, he plays Walter Abrams, the head of a sports consulting firm who finds his protege in Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey), a former college football star permanently sidelined by a leg injury.


Schmaltz-loving women will grab their tissues while Neanderthal males will roll their eyes. But In Her Shoes isn’t designed for any of these people; instead, it will attract viewers who have little use for rigid societal labels and who anticipate a well-crafted blend of comedy and pathos. The picture stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as Maggie and Rose, two sisters who have nothing in common except their shoe size. In this case, the ties that bind have been shredded down to a mere string, one which snaps when Maggie cruelly betrays Rose in an act of astonishing thoughtlessness. Banished by her older sister, Maggie heads to Florida to meet Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), the grandmother she only recently learned she had.


In the same manner that David Lynch deconstructed the myth of the squeaky-clean small Southern town in Blue Velvet, so does director David Cronenberg take a hatchet to the façade of bland Midwestern homeliness. The movie establishes the proper tone from the start, as two men check out of their motel in the grisliest way imaginable. From here, we jump to the home of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a hard-working café owner blessed with a devoted wife named Edie (Maria Bello) and two children. Tom’s peaceful existence disappears the night that a pair of murderous strangers bust into his diner. Tom kills the intruders, which in turn leads to his national status as a hero. This widespread exposure brings more strangers to town -- gruff mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his two flunkies. Viggo Mortensen, formerly a wretched actor who has matured in leaps and bounds these last few years, was a wise choice -- it’s impossible to read anything on his passive face, thus making it hard to gauge whether or not he’s telling the truth about his past.


Not only the best animated flick of the year but also one of the most enjoyable outings in any genre. In this yarn, Wallace and his silent sidekick have taken it upon themselves to rid their burg’s rabbits by forming a pest control outfit called Anti-Pesto. Using Wallace’s latest invention, the Bun-Vac 6000, the team is able to humanely capture all the bunnies that have been helping themselves to the neighbors’ garden patches.


Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a recent widow catching a flight along with her six-year-old daughter, becomes frantic once the girl disappears during the course of the flight. The entire premise rests on the fact that no one else aboard the plane, from the crew to the passengers, ever once caught a glimpse of the moppet, thereby establishing in their minds Kyle as a woman who’s delusional and possibly dangerous. Director Robert Schwentke exhibits aptitude in his ability to stage confrontations between Kyle and her doubters, while the recreation of a jumbo airliner provides the film with a setting that feels as expansive and full of mystery as Baskerville Hall.


More by Matt Brunson

  • Review: Keeping Up With The Joneses
  • Review: Keeping Up With The Joneses

    Galifianakis continues to become less annoying and more likable with each subsequent turn (this might be his best role to date), and Hamm again reveals the prankster’s soul buried underneath the matinee-idol looks.
    • Oct 19, 2016
  • Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
  • Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

    Niceties have fallen by the wayside for this dreary sequel, which seems to exist for the sole purpose of serving as a vanity project for its aging star (who also produced).
    • Oct 18, 2016
  • Review: The Accountant
  • Review: The Accountant

    Smart movies tend to avoid offering obvious patterns, imbecilic narrative coincidences, and imploding third acts. Unfortunately, The Accountant isn’t that smart.
    • Oct 11, 2016
  • More »


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