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The Matador (2005)

This is an adequate movie that doesn’t really resonate because at its heart it feels like a lot of interesting ideas and characters that are languished with a sitcom plot. I never thought Pierce Brosnan’s performance as the aging hit man was as funny as the film thought it was. The Matador is actually a more interesting movie than funny or amusing. The movie doesn’t go deep enough; the story isn’t as refined as it could be, and there are so few set pieces that this flick could have worked as a play. The end feels a bit too tidy and asks Greg Kinnear’s ordinary husband character to act out of character. There?s an extended talk in The Matador between Kinnear and his wife and Brosnan upon his unexpected visit, and it feels like a sitcom like the wacky neighbor next door has come over and hatched a hilarious scheme. I enjoyed the characters but they really just sit and stew in a really weak story. The characters are richly drawn but have nowhere to go.

Nate’s Grade: B-

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Randall Wallace and Gibson last teamed up on Braveheart and came away with a bushel of gold statuettes. Their latest collaboration is a Vietnam war flick called We Were Soldiers based upon the novel by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and photographer Joe Galloway. It details the chaos of the battle at Ia Drang where 400 US soldiers were surrounded in a valley by 2000 North Vietnamese fighters and held their own for three long days.

The opening chunk of We Were Soldiers concerns the domestic side of the soldiers. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is a man of great honor and battlefield heroics complete with five kids and a determined and loving wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe). Does anyone have any problems identifying the hero yet? Moore has been commanded to assemble an inexperienced band of soldiers and mold them into the 7th Cavalry division. His men include new father Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and grizzled veteran Sgt.-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). They’ve been called in to be apart of one of the first strikes of the Vietnam War in 1965. Gibson rallies the troops and they head toward the East. What followed could be deemed a suicide mission as the 7th Cavalry and other divisions were surrounded by the advancing Vietcong and fought to the teeth for their survival.

Director Randall Wallace (who last directed and adapted for the screen Man in the Iron Mask) is a director that doesn’t know a thing about subtlety in his mess of patriotism. Wallace just doesn’t hammer his points and views; he’ll bludgeon you to death with them. Gibson ensures his men that he will be the first one into battle and the last to leave. Sure enough, as the helicopter is setting down we see a big close-up of Gibson’s boot hitting the earth and a thunderous echo follows. The point has been made. Wallace also manages to squeeze in a bit where he can skewer the media. A horde of reporters show up at the end of the battle, ducking at any noise they hear, and stick their mics in Gibson’s face asking absurd questions like “How do you feel about the loss of your men?” Oh Wallace, you are such a shrewd satirist.

The violence in the film is incredibly graphic, as with the tradition of most recent war movies like Black Hawk Down. The violence almost reaches a sadistic level where we see slow motion shot after shot of people with a geyser of blood spewing from head wounds. The blood flows freely and often but loses its impact. I would even go as far as saying that much of the violence in ‘We Were Soldiers’ is overkill under Wallace.

The makeup that accompanies some of the battle wounds is surprisingly disappointing (as is a lot in the film). One character, after an accidental blast from napalm, has half his head looking like a burnt marshmallow. The shoddiness of the look inspires more laughs under your breath than gasps.

The battle of Ia Drang shows reactions from both sides of those fighting. Every now and then the film cuts back to the Vietnamese side in their underground lair. The leadership over explains all their strategic movements in large flailing gestures. It’s like a cheap play-by-play for the audience. We Were Soldiers also follows the recent trend of trying to humanize the enemy. But these attempts are easily seen as the hollow politically correct handouts that they are. One scene shows a Vietnamese soldier writing in a book to his honey back home. It’s nice to see clichés transcend ethnicity.

The film succumbs to the usual war movie clichés and Hollywood formula. The problem with making a supposed “emotional” Vietnam movie is that the definitive Vietnam movies concerning the madness of battle (Apocalypse Now and Platoon) and the crippling after-effects (The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July) have already been made. We Were Soldiers portrays Vietnam before the politics got in the way and concentrates on the courage of the men who dutifully entered into battle at the heed of their country’s call. I can’t help but feel that the men who bled and died in that battle don’t deserve a better movie.

Gibson as Moore gives a stoic performance and adds a level of humor to the figure, but there’s no questioning the mettle of this soldier. Gibson’s character is almost an exaggerated propaganda action figure. Moore’s courage is unquestionable and that’s the way they want it. Madeleine Stowe is a terrific actress but is generally wasted here. Most of the movie she spends her time hugging people while wearing some horrible Cher wig and looking eerily like Hillary Swank in The Gift. Chris Klein looks entirely out of place, as does his wife played by curly-coifed Felicity actress Keri Russell. Greg Kinnear spends the entire movie sitting in a helicopter chair barely seen. They could have saved some money and hired an extra.

We Were Soldiers is an okay film but it should have been much more. Gibson elevates what could have been worse but Wallace isn’t doing the film any justice. Wallace is too heavy-handed with his direction and flag-waving message and seems to have his film begging to be taken seriously. We Were Soldiers can pass the time all right, but there are better things you could do then watch this force-fed old-fashioned narrative.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Gift (2000)

Sam Raimi is a slick director and is maturing smoothly. The Gift is a nice ensemble pot-boiler in the South. Cate Blanchett gives a remarkable performance that was, as most were that were nominated, better than Julia. Keanu Reeves finds a role he can actually excel with in that of a wife beating redneck – he’s actually quite scary in it. Giovanni Ribisi gives the best performance of his career as a mentally challenged mechanic. The film coasts on some good atmosphere and direction by Raimi, but it is too easy to figure out the final turns in the end. And yes, Katie Holmes does get naked briefly in the movie. Enjoy, Internet.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nurse Betty (2000)

Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?

Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.

Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.

Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.

The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.

The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.

Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

Loser (2000)

Jason Biggs came to fame by getting sexual healing from pastry and Mena Suvari for coming up roses besides Kevin Spacey. So now the two American Pie graduates embark on college in Loser, the latest offering by classic teen comedy director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless).

Loser tells the tale of a self-describe outcast Paul (Biggs) who ventures out of a rural town to the big bad city of New York for college education. Before he leaves he confides to his family his fear that everyone will be “like on Seinfeld.” Upon Paul’s arrival he’s deemed a laughable dolt by his fratboy roomies and even forced to live in an animal shelter. Paul has a difficult time adjusting to the new world until he meets a kindred spirit in the intriguing Dora (Suvari) one day in class. Dora herself is a struggling student not fitting in easily. She even has a secret tryst with her professor played by Greg Kinnear.

All of the characters in Loser other then its leads are one-dimensional cartoons. Paul’s dorm mates start off as mean-spirited brats but then unsettlingly become attempted date rapists with plans involving roofies. Am I the only one bothered that their actions are never dealt with but glossed over? Dora’s relationship with Kinnear only cheapens the intelligence of her character. From the beginning he is a smarmy jerk (as are most in Loser) whose most romantic line consists of “Would you please sit there and just not talk.” What woman wouldn’t fall for someone like that?

Loser is no outright loser though. It does have its funny moments and starts off well enough. Paul and Dora are sweet characters that keep our interest. Kinnear plays a snide jerk well. But somewhere in the middle Loser shifts from what it could have been into what it reluctantly is.

Biggs and Suvari are the only nice people on screen, and it makes little sense that in a world of hipsters that these two would put up with all of their abuse and not see one another. It’s obvious that they should be together except to them, so it’s just a matter of time before they hug and kiss. The movie is basically a waiting game to see when Suvari is going to wise up.

Heckerling has been a strong force for many an influential teen comedy but her latest effort seems like she lost interest somewhere within. Loser had the possibility of being the Clueless for the not-so-in-crowd but instead mimics the title far more than intended.

Nate’s Grade: C

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