What will it take for Kevin Costner to give a performance again? His new movie, the western Open Range, which he also directed, has a lot going for it - beautiful camerawork, impressive editing, a strong, simple storyline, a marvelously cantankerous Robert Duvall - yet smack at the center is sweet, dear, painfully inadequate Kevin Costner, looking and sounding so uninvolved with his surroundings and his fellow actors that he weakens his entire film. (It took great restraint to laugh at him only once, at his hysterically unmotivated reading of the cowpoke classic "Let's rustle up some grub.") Some will argue that Costner is actually deeply in character, playing an uncivilized man for whom conversation and companionship offer little comfort, but look at him onscreen: His Zen blankness is indistinguishable from a coma, and his "concentration" resembles nothing so much as a somnambulist struggling to stay awake. As usual, Costner is fine with rare moments of fringe comedy - reminding us why we once liked him in movies like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams and Tin Cup - but he's positively deadly in Open Range, and not because of his character's prowess with a gun.
Thankfully, he's on much surer footing as a director here. Though Open Range is square and obvious, and features the year's most odious musical score, it's a perfectly acceptable audience-pleaser - a less-pandering Seabiscuit. Constructed as a hybrid of Lonesome Dove and Unforgiven, the genre's finest works of the past 20 years, Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper dust off western clichés so they feel, if not new, at least welcome after a long absence, and Costner proves terrifically adept at the staging of the climactic gunfight, which has some of the primal power of Sergio Leone. (Though it's not as much of a compliment as it sounds, Costner's direction easily bests his work on Dances with Wolves.) Annette Bening, Michael Jeter, Michael Gambon, and Diego Luna play their archetypes admirably, and Duvall is really something to see; the role might be Augustus McCrae for Dummies, but it's blazingly well-performed. As a director, Costner has done much good for this latest tale of the old West; too bad he couldn't have found some way to stay behind the scenes.
FREDDY VS. JASON
Within the first 20 minutes of Freddy Vs. Jason, I was reminded why I stopped watching the titular duo's horror flicks in the first place: They became almost unbearably dull. The Friday the 13th movies were always the more predictably dreary of the two - teenagers sneak off together, have sex, and get butchered - but the Nightmare on Elm Street series became just as lazy, with its senseless dream logic and insistence on making Freddy Krueger a jokey bogeyman, the serial killer as class clown. One would have hoped that the Freddy Vs. Jason filmmakers would have re-invented the two series for a post-'80s universe, as Wes Craven (mostly) did for 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and injected some cleverness or surprise into this combination of hackneyed genre pics. One would have hoped in vain. After opening with some metaphysical gobbledygook that involves Freddy resurrecting Jason in order to resume his own killing spree (?!?),Freddy Vs. Jason provides just what the original horror flicks' numerous sequels did: awful writing, amateurish acting, cheap effects, and, if I counted correctly, exactly zero good scares. Sadly, none of this seems to matter much to the throngs of young people flocking to see the picture, but then again, anticipation for the movie seemed so high that the filmmakers could probably have followed the Freddy Vs. Jason title card with a blank screen for ninety minutes and audiences would have left satisfied.
There can be little doubt that Dakota Fanning possesses an almost frightening amount of acting skill for her age - to be honest, the maturity she displays scares the bejeezus out of me - but what I'm grudgingly coming to respect in this 10-year-old is her stubborn refusal to play it cute. Playing the kidnapee in the abhorrent thriller Trapped, the concentration Fanning put into her character's asthmatic attacks made her scenes almost harrowing; your response to the girl's plight wasn't so much "Someone rescue her because she's so sweet" as it was "Someone get her to a hospital." (Fanning appeared to be the only performer taking the movie seriously.) In her latest film, Boaz Yakin's Uptown Girls, she plays a hypochondriacal, mature-beyond-her-years rich kid who becomes the charge of flighty Brittany Murphy, and once again, the last adjective you'd use to describe Fanning is "cute." Petulant, sarcastic, and rude, Fanning's character rattles off insults like a miniature Thelma Ritter, but this young actress is shrewd enough to clue us in to the pain underneath - her mother ignores her and her father is in a vegetative coma - and Fanning's understated, honest acting, aided by Murphy's skilled partnership, gives the project far more integrity than it deserves. Uptown Girls is messy and hardly worth sitting through - Yakin's tone vacillates incoherently between farce, complete with numerous unfunny pratfalls, and soap opera - but when Dakota Fanning is picking up her lifetime-achievement award in, like, 15 years, we'll be able to watch clips from this and remark, "Jeez, she was good, wasn't she?"
Nobody writes bitchy bon mots like Paul Rudnick. Despite their faults, there are enough hilarious lines in Rudnick's scripts for In & Out, Jeffrey, and Addams Family Values (though not, I should add, in Isn't She Great) for the films to easily merit repeat viewing; Rudnick, with his knowing jabs at show biz and knack for the perfect offhand retort, is a slightly de-fanged, pop-culture-savvy Dorothy Parker, effortlessly witty and often inspired. His most recent screenwriting effort, the Richard Benjamin-directed comedy Marci X - which concerns a well-meaning socialite (Lisa Kudrow) who initiates herself into the world of gangsta rap and one of its leading artists (Damon Wayans) - feels about six years stale, is indifferently executed, and manages the bizarre feat of feeling overlong at 80 minutes. That being said, I should add that, at odd moments all throughout Marci X, I laughed harder than I have at anything since Johnny Depp's antics in Pirates of the Caribbean. This is due partly to the indefatigable charm of Kudrow, the comic confidence of Wayans, and the sass of theatre veterans Jane Krakowski and Veanne Cox, but what's most terrific about Marci X is pure Rudnick and his zippy one-liners that hit you sideways and surprise you into laughter. Plus, he's aided here by musician Marc Shaiman (of South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut and Broadway's Hairspray), and together they write some viciously smart musical parodies; who could resist the film's spoof of a latently gay boy band featuring the lyric: "We're kinda butch / We're kinda femme / We just had sex / with Eminem"?