It's far from even-handed as most of the white characters have seemingly complex lives and personalities; the African-American characters (except Latifah's) appear to be jive-talking stereotypes. Besides the engaging rapport and chemistry Martin and Latifah enjoy, the movie also earns praise for NOT putting all of its funniest lines and gags in the trailer. "Bringing Down The House" won't win any awards, but it will have you smiling. ***
"Tears of the Sun" Shot with gritty intensity and chock-full of "hold-your-breath" close calls with the enemy, "Tears of the Sun" desperately wants to be more than another Bruce Willis-to-the-rescue action-adventure. Although it comes awfully close, the movie doesn't quite live up to its own expectations. Willis is Lt. A.K. Waters, a Navy SEAL leading a squadron into Nigeria during a fictional rebel takeover to rescue an American-by-marriage doctor (Monica Bellucci, sporting too much mascara and cleavage to be mistaken for anything more than love-interest potential). She, of course, refuses to leave without the refugees in her care, forcing Waters to ignore both his orders and his career-long rule of not getting involved. But his choice seems a no-brainer; here, the good are truly good and the evil, truly evil. Murderous ethnic cleansing is shown with harrowing, disturbing immediacy several times, as rebel African soldiers shoot and rape innocent African villagers. But, in the end, the plot is far too simple for these complicated times. Willis certainly tries hard to "feel" his part, which translates into far too many close-ups of his sweaty brow knitted in painful introspection. However, the real heroes are the military tech guys who get the look, feel and sound of battle just right. ***
"About Schmidt" Jack Nicholson gives a master class in the fine art of understatement in this character-driven tale of one man's reawakening, rekindling and reassessment of his life. He's Warren Schmidt, a newly retired and widowed insurance executive embarking upon a cross-country trip. His destination is Denver, where his estranged daughter (Hope Davis) is about to marry a waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney, sporting a hilarious "mullet") who aspires to mediocrity. Although the movie (by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) moves as slowly and plainly as its Midwest setting, there are powerful emotions percolating below the surface. And Nicholson delivers one of the most powerful yet subtle performances of his career. If you doubt such a thing is possible, then you don't know Jack!
"Dark Blue" Directed by Ron Shelton, this gritty riff on the time-honored action-movie plot that pits a rookie cop against his veteran mentor's questionable police methods has two things going for it: One, its setting East Los Angeles during jury deliberations in the Rodney King police-beating trial. And two, Kurt Russell's multilayered performance as the veteran rogue cop who's one flash point away from self-destruction. A human metaphor for the powder keg Los Angeles was during the officers' first trial, Russell's Eldon Perry is teetering on the edge. When his corrupt superior (Brendan Gleeson) orders him and his young partner (Scott Speedman) to frame two guys, he reaches a crisis point. Ving Rhames plays the dedicated assistant chief who's gunning for Perry. Although often over-the-top thanks to Shelton's laying on the hyperrealism, Russell makes "Dark Blue" pretty darn watchable. ***
"Gods & Generals" In this lengthy prequel to the 1993 flawed but stirring "Gettysburg," writer-director Ron Maxwell appears to have forgotten what made his first Civil War epic work the human touch. Although Robert Duvall is quiet perfection as the revered Gen. Robert E. Lee and Stephen Lang eerily captures the deeply spiritual flame always smoldering just below Stonewall Jackson's surface, these two can't make up for the hokey dialogue or Maxwell's impersonal directing. Running one minute longer than "Gone With the Wind" (counting the 12-minute intermission), "Gods & Generals" unspools like a detail-driven re-enactment, a movie which begs the question: Why should we care about these combatants' deaths, if we're given no reason to care about their lives?
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