The year is 1885. The place is New Mexico, close to the Mexican border. The hair is long and shaggy. Tommy Lee Jones is doing a hard-target search of every residence, warehouse, outhouse, doghouse and hen house in the area to find his granddaughter. And “The Missing” (Sony Pictures) is one of the best westerns in quite some time.
Samuel Jones (Jones) left his wife and daughter, Maggie (Cate Blanchet), many years ago. Maggie has grown up to become a local medicine woman and cattle rancher, all while raising two daughters to be strong, independent women like herself. But when her oldest daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) is taken by a gang of vicious Calvary defectors looking to sell teenage girls as prostitutes, Maggie must turn to her father in order to track down the kidnappers before they cross the Mexican border. Sam and his daughter work to heal old family wounds as deeper, much bloodier wounds are inflicted on everyone else.
The story seems rather simplistic, but director Ron Howard’s ability to maintain an epic scope while keeping the emotion quite personal makes the film outstanding. Jones adeptly mixes his usual grandfatherly gruffness with an air of regret and sadness. Sam is conflicted about nearly everything he’s done in his life and may, in fact, be the best role of Jones’ career. Blanchet also does quite nicely as the desperate, stubborn daughter and mother. The rest of the cast manages to fill in any gaps, with Wood as the captive teen, a brief appearance by Val Kilmer as a general and the menacing, toothy Eric Schweig as the psychopathic villain with mystical powers. And yes, Howard’s little brother Clint Howard, shows his creepy, creepy face.
While the visuals are breathtaking, not nearly enough use is made of the beautiful backdrops against which the story takes place. And though expertly paced, it seems as though the film could end at multiple points, yet chooses to continue instead. In the end, “The Missing’s” flaws are few and far between. This exemplary epic is a welcome gift during the holiday season.
“Bad Santa” (Dimension Films) is a true product of a Hollywood under the influence of the Farrelly brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”). Absolutely anything goes in this film, including a collection of well-known celebrities involved in vulgar, politically incorrect situations. Several scenes will leave audience members checking with each other to confirm that they really heard what they thought they did. When a bunch of Santa-adoring children are thrown into the picture, it’s even harder to believe what’s happening.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a mall Santa who works once a year through the Christmas season and then robs the mall with his partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), posing as Santa’s elf. Bernie Mack and John Ritter play the mall employees who hold several meetings to discuss the situation with the newly hired Santa. “Bad Santa” is such a dark comedy that at points it’s hard to believe it’s a comedy at all. Thornton, playing an astoundingly depressing and vulgar character, takes the role of a drunken, cranky man to a whole new level of indecency. But it’s not just Thornton – the script is full of one-liners that completely shock the audience.
The biggest laughs, of course, come from the more traditionally funny ideas. While it is reminiscent of the Farrelly brothers’ films, “Bad Santa” lacks their painstaking attention to detail and togetherness that are needed to make borderline offensive jokes funny. “Bad Santa” seems repetitive and thrown together at points, making the tastelessness sometimes seem useless.
Thanks to its premise, the film is still funny. The idea of the mall Santa showing up drunk at work and falling all over the mall food court is hilarious to watch. The experienced cast members add their own personalities to help shape the film even further. “Bad Santa” offers a new take on the Christmas movie, and those who can handle such dark comedy may even walk out with a little bit of Christmas spirit in them, although they won’t really be sure how it got there.
“The Last Samurai”
The trailer for “The Last Samurai” (Warner Bros.) looks pretty damn cool. Samurais, guns, swords and foreign chicks – what more could a person ask for? If that’s your thinking, this movie will not disappoint. If, on the other hand, you were drawn to the theater because you are a fan of Edward Zwick, the man who directed “Glory” and produced “Shakespeare in Love,” you will leave rather disappointed.
The film opens with Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a war “hero” in despair over who he is a as warrior. Having committed what he feels are some heinous sins on the Trail of Tears, he begins to feel war – and, by extension, life – is meaningless. Algren’s former commander, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), persuades the captain to go to Japan to help modernize its army as part of the country’s effort to revamp itself. Elements of the past – namely, the Samurai – have made the process difficult for the Japanese.
The setup reminds me a little too much of that scene in “Adaptation” when Donald tells Charlie about his new script idea, saying, “it’s like machine versus horse.” The film’s title itself brings to mind “Last of the Mohicans,” so yes, these themes have been explored before. Unfortunately, “Samurai” covers little new ground.
Shortly after Algren arrives, his employers want him to send his newly trained army into battle prematurely. Algren protests in vain, and he loses the battle. Samurai warriors, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), capture the defeated captain, who must choose whether to help his captors or help his employers.
Aesthetically, the film is absolutely beautiful, and Cruise gives a solid performance, considering the script. However, neither the aesthetics nor the acting is enough to overcome the film’s problems. An hour into it, the ending is obvious and leaves you feeling disappointed. And at nearly two and a half hours, “Samurai” is a long trip to a place you have been many times before.
There are two ways to adapt a novel into a film: one is to carefully condense plot elements and characterizations into a tightly- wound ball of yarn, the other is to do everything really quickly and hope no one notices. “Timeline” (Paramount Pictures) clearly falls into the second category.
A team of archaeologists led by Paul Walker (“2 Fast 2 Furious”) travel back in time to an obscure battle during the Hundred Years War. They’ve come to rescue another archaeologist who’s being held by the English, who hope to use Walker’s technical knowledge to win a battle the French are supposed to win, thus changing history. It’s a painfully shallow story, with clumsy direction and dull characters. The acting is paper thin, but don’t hold it against the actors – they’re working with a script that could have been written on Post-It notes. It’s a wonder they hold their own at all.
Now, I like dumb movies because I’m a cheap thrill aficionado, but this isn’t a dumb movie – it’s a would-be intelligent movie made in a fantastically dumb fashion. Time travel is a tricky thing, filled with so many complexities, paradoxes and logical acrobatics that the only way to address them is to pretend they don’t matter. Case in point: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is the best time travel movie ever made, solely because it doesn’t stop to ponder its own implications. Director Richard Donner and screenwriter Jeff Maguire could have learned a lot from those two dudes from San Dimas, Calif.
“Timeline” is based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name, so it’s filled with science gone horribly wrong, plot twists that hang on a technicality and voyages of self-discovery amidst all the mayhem. But while this took Crichton more than 500 pages, the film version isn’t willing to spend valuable seconds on luxuries such as character development, plot logistics or mood setting. That would take away from valuable smashing time.
And therein lies the rub. “Timeline” wants to have it both ways, aping the motions of epic popcorn flicks while waxing philosophic about destiny, freewill and the forces that shape history. But both the metaphysics and the decapitations feel forced and tired. The film rushes so quickly toward its unbelievably trite ending that it loses any chance it might have had of capturing the audience’s imagination or adrenaline. It’s a film that’s not smart enough or exciting enough to challenge its own destiny – ending up in the bargain rental bin for all time.