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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS Clint Eastwood’s sober tribute to our fighting forces during World War II manages the tricky feat of honoring the past while also subtly deflating the attendant mythology that over time attaches itself like a barnacle to a ship side. It’s this strength of conviction that allows the film to toss aside some niggling aspects and earn its keep as a memorable war movie.  Working from a script by William Broyles Jr. and Crash Oscar winner Paul Haggis (adapting James Bradley’s book), Eastwood focuses on the events surrounding the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. The movie details how this single act, captured in a historic photograph, became a rallying point around which the military was able to energize an American nation weary of war. Publicity tours were staged with the active participation of the three surviving men who helped hoist the flag: sensitive Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), outgoing Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and anguished Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Eastwood and company view the tour as a necessary evil, a much-needed fundraiser that nevertheless leads the participating soldiers to feel increasingly uncomfortable donning the designation of “heroes” when so many of their friends have already died in combat. Similarly, Eastwood looks at all sides of various issues throughout the picture, and it’s this willingness to paint in shades of gray rather than stick with black and white that allows the picture to overcome a frequently choppy narrative structure (the movie skips around, ofttimes clumsily, between the past and the present) and a protracted final section. Flags of Our Fathers isn’t a masterwork like Eastwood’s two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby -- it’s easy to admire but more difficult to adore -- yet it commands our respect for reclaiming the notion of patriotism from opportunistic politicians who have turned it into a dirty word.

MARIE ANTOINETTE The fall season’s premiere love-it-or-leave-it title, Marie Antoinette was booed by French scribes at the Cannes Film Festival before being rescued by American critics, the slight majority of whom have graced it with positive reviews. Yet despite its divisive nature, I’ve managed to come down in the middle: The movie, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s first since her magnificent Lost In Translation, is better than I had expected (at least based on the trailer) but not as good as I had hoped. It’s recommended, but with reservations. In much the manner of A Knight’s Tale, Coppola has added a sprinkling of contemporary trappings to her luxuriant period piece. Thus, a shopping spree with the girls is backed by Bow Wow Wow’s 80s hit “I Want Candy,” and anachronisms can frequently be found within the dialogue. Coppola’s intention was to create a teenager for our times, a girl who just wants to have fun even though her position in the French royal court demands so much more. It’s an interesting idea that’s only partially successful, largely because Coppola doesn’t go far enough. Coppola should have rolled the dice without hesitancy; instead, she too often hedges her bets. Where Marie Antoinette fares best is its examination of the royal life as a treadmill of constantly winding boredom; the scenes in which Marie, winningly played by Kirsten Dunst, is forced to succumb to the nonsensical rules and rituals of etiquette are poignant because they deny a child, that most impulsive of all creatures, the chance to experience life for herself.

FLICKA In Flicka, it isn’t a case of boy meets girl; it’s a case of boy becomes girl. Mary O’Hara’s classic novel My Friend Flicka details the relationship between a young lad and a wild horse (it was made into a 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall); this new screen version turns the protagonist into a teenage girl, a gender switch that adds different dimensions to the story. Alison Lohman plays Katy, a strong-willed 16-year-old who locates a soulmate in a wild mustang wandering the acres on her family’s Wyoming spread. Katy’s dad Rob (Tim McGraw), already peeved that his daughter isn’t capitalizing enough on her studies at a private school, forbids the girl to have any contact with the ill-tempered horse, but Katy ignores his mandate and proceeds to train the animal behind his back. Meanwhile, Katy’s brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) isn’t thrilled that he’s expected to inherit the ranch -- whereas Katy prefers the cowboy lifestyle to formal schooling, he dreams only of being allowed to go to college. It’s left up to mom Nell (Maria Bello) to serve as referee for all these familial grudge matches. It’s refreshing to see an American family on screen that doesn’t wallow in dysfunction: While there are plenty of conflicts, the overriding sense is that these folks truly love one another, and the relationships between husband and wife and between brother and sister are especially fresh and reassuring. Unfortunately, more so than in its source material (itself more than a simple kid-and-his-animal yarn), the emphasis on the humans de-emphasizes the presence of the mustang, and there simply aren’t enough scenes illustrating the burgeoning bond between Katy and Flicka. The heavy-handed approach to the dramatic plot devices also doesn’t help: In moments of despair, you can always count on director Michael Mayer adding some heavy rainstorms to externalize the characters’ inner anguish. 

MAN OF THE YEAR It’s junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn’t just a job; it’s an adventure -- and I’m owed some serious combat pay. Merging the premises of Warren Beatty’s razor-sharp Bulworth, Kevin Kline’s decent Dave and Chris Rock’s flaccid Head of State, writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian became president of the United States. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for office, finds himself on the ballot in 13 states. It’s a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson’s approach is so timid that it makes last spring’s soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn’t playing a fictional character running for president as much as he’s playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it’s the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passe around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. Soon, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal plotline in which a techie (Laura Linney) at a company that produces Diebold-style voting machines realizes that a computer glitch led to Dobbs’ ascendancy to the Oval Office. As she tries to reveal the truth, the company goons (led by a what-is-he-doing-here? Jeff Goldblum) decide to shut her up permanently, but Three Days of the Condor this ain’t.

THE DEPARTED At this point in his illustrious career, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker’s hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that’s what’s taking place with The Departed, which isn’t an original screen story but rather a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film titled Infernal Affairs. Working from a script by William Monahan, Scorsese has made a picture that’s more in line with such past mob morality tales as GoodFellas and Mean Streets than with his recent spate of ambitious (and Oscar-lunging) period epics like The Aviator and Gangs of New York. But while The Departed is a strong film, it’s by no means a match for any of those aforementioned titles. Nor is it equal to Infernal Affairs, which wore its sleek 100-minute running time far better than this one navigates its 150-minute length. Set in Boston, this new take casts Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, the crime lord with the foresight to make sure that one of his protégées, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is placed in a position to be able to rise through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police Department. Colin is eventually assigned to the special unit tasked with investigating Costello, an outfit run by the animated Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Ellerby trusts Colin, little suspecting that his right-hand man is actually the informant. Meanwhile, down the hall, the paternal Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the blunt Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) are just as determined as Ellerby to nail Costello. To that end, they assign Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get his hands dirty enough to convince Costello that he’s a bona fide criminal and worth adding to his band of outlaws. Having been raised on the wrong side of the tracks, Billy has no trouble fitting in, although the strain of having to lead a double life soon wears him down. He strikes up a relationship with the police department’s psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), not realizing that she’s Colin’s girlfriend. Issues of identity, duplicity and deception remain constants throughout the film, and it’s refreshing to find a stateside remake that for once doesn’t feel the need to dumb down its philosophical musings for the sake of Yank audiences. The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and even taking the milieu into consideration, they occasionally verge on overkill. So, too, does the performance by Nicholson, who begins the film as a terrifying villain but winds down as a raving buffoon. The younger actors do a better job maintaining the appropriate levels of intensity. DiCaprio is coiled and edgy, Damon alternates between charismatic and creepy, and Wahlberg (stealing the film) somehow turns surlinessinto an endearing character trait. Baldwin contributes some choice moments as the mercurial Captain Ellerby; like Wahlberg, he’s blessed by being handed the lion’s share of the script’s best bursts of profanity. In fact, given their similarities, Wahlberg’s Sergeant Dignam almost qualifies as Ellerby’s own Mini-Me -- give these two guys their own film, and there’s a “buddy cop” flick worth seeing. Infernal Affairs climaxes with a shocking twist, and I was curious to see if Scorsese would have the nerve to end his big-budget studio flick in an equally uncompromising manner. Well, yes and no. On one hand, the startling moment is still included, but on the other, it’s tempered by a tacked-on coda that insures justice has been fully served. I don’t know if this addition was intended as a sop to the studio, to the moviegoing public or to Academy voters, but it neither enhances nor detracts from the compelling crime story that precedes it.

THE GUARDIAN Isn’t it too soon to be subjected to another showing of Flyboys all over again? At least that’s the sense of deja vu that settled in after viewing the two films in consecutive weeks. Here we have the same running time (an overextended 135 minutes), the same degree of quality in the CGI work (impressive), and the same fortune-cookie-level pontificating about the need for sacrifice, bravery and personal responsibility. Even more than Flyboys, though, this resembles An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to the scene where our handsome hero bursts into his girlfriend’s place of employment to declare his everlasting love. Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its cliches pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP I doubt any other movie of 2006 will inspire as many walkouts as The Science of Sleep, a declaration which in itself should function as a no-holds-barred recommendation for those seeking something unusual in their moviegoing diet. Michel Gondry previously helmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet his latest picture (which he both wrote and directed) is so out there that it makes that Charlie Kaufman-penned movie seem as streamlined as Bambi by comparison. With its dialogue alternately spoken in English, French and Spanish (those who whine about subtitles be warned), this oddity stars Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, a young man who moves from Mexico to Paris and lands a dull job working at a calendar publishing firm. Stephane has a hard time keeping his waking life separate from his dream state, which causes all manner of complications both professionally and personally, the latter mainly built around trying to forge a relationship with across-the-hall neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Before turning to film, Gondry established his rep as the creator of highly celebrated commercials and music videos, yet while this new film allows him to once more tap into those largely unregulated arenas, his real inspiration seems to come from Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay -- those masters of offbeat (and unsettling) animated efforts -- to say nothing of Freud, Jung and Adler. The Science of Sleep employs deliberately rudimentary effects and slipshod animation to convey Stephane’s REM visions, yet it also posits the character as a childlike individual whose inability to cope with adult emotions balances him precariously on the line between untainted innocence and troublesome obsession. It’s a shame the movie pulls back from examining this angle, but at it stands, it’s still a marvel of whimsy. 

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN II At 145 minutes, Dead Man’s Chest ends up providing too much bang for the buck. That’s just about the same running time as its predecessor, but that film wore its length better. Certainly, those expecting amazing feats of derring-do won’t be disappointed by this new film. The effects-driven action scenes are clearly the picture’s highlights, and they alone make Dead Man’s Chest worth the price of admission. The first Pirates felt like both a stand-alone movie and the theme park attraction on which it was based; this one just feels like a roller coaster ride, full of momentary thrills but leaving little in its wake except a sudden desire to rest for a minute. It isn’t breathless as much as it grows tiresome, and it’s especially depressing to see how little the characters have been allowed to evolve. Those who found Curse’s plot a bit on the convoluted side might as well not even attempt to unscramble the goings-on this time around. But the central thrust finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) tangling with the ghostly Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in an effort to save his own soul from eternal damnation beneath the sea’s surface; it’s possible that his scheme will require sacrificing his friends Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), but that’s a compromise the self-serving Jack can accept.