The Alamo is surprisingly not-bad. John Lee Hancock's long-delayed drama is by no means a great movie, but it's a pretty darned good audience movie, a middlebrow weeper like A Beautiful Mind or Titanic that, despite its flaws (and against your better judgment), you can find yourself really falling for.
This latest screen re-telling of the tragic siege in Texas is almost doggedly earnest as it introduces our heroes - Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and William Travis (Patrick Wilson) - and establishes their relationships; listening to the serviceable, uninspired dialogue (occasionally peppered with sitcom-cute punchlines) during the film's first 20 minutes, you might be fearing the worst. Yet, almost miraculously, director Hancock and company manage to transcend the banality of the script. With the exception of a rare ghastly musical score by Carter Burwell, the design of the film is outstanding, with special props going to Dean Semler for his marvelous cinematography, and Hancock comes through with terrifically affecting moments throughout; by establishing a tone of escalating hopelessness as the final attack draws near, Hancock moves us with touching simplicity.
As for the cast, Hancock's actors might know they're working with second-rate material, but damned if they're not giving that material their all. Thornton employs his laconic drawl and aw-shucks grin to endearing effect, which makes Crockett's take-charge heroism all the more satisfying; the one bum note in Thornton's portrayal comes when, leaning near a dying officer in the heat of battle, he's forced to say, "I'm really sorry about all of this." Nobody could make that line work. (Hancock edited hours from the film, yet somehow this nugget survived the final cut?) Quaid's Sam Houston is a ripe caricature, just over-the-top enough for Houston to appear larger-than-life, and Patric's boozy anger matches up nicely with Wilson's (intentional) dullness; the actors make you buy their whole clichéd mutual-hatred-turning-into-mutual-respect relationship. Except for Emilio Echevarria, whose Santa Anna has been directed as a barking sadist from a James Bond movie, the entire cast acquits itself admirably; if this group actually had some decent lines to deliver, The Alamo might have really been something. Nevertheless, it's by no means the debacle the advance buzz suggested. The Alamo is simplistic, yes. Obvious, yes. But does it work? Believe it or not ... yes.
I'm a little surprised by the critical raves for Hellboy. Sure, writer-director Guillermo del Toro gives the proceedings visual style to spare - the filmmaker seems to have a real affinity for oozing, slithery grossness - but what, in the name of heaven, is going on in this movie? I understood that Hellboy came into being from a black hole, or something, that the Nazis created when they were employing the powers of Lucifer, or someone, as a weapon during World War II and ... oh, screw it, let's not even pretend I understood that. Fun though the film's effects are, I found Hellboy incoherent and annoyingly derivative; isn't Hellboy really just Wolverine in Satanic garb? (He even smokes a stogie.) In the title role, Ron Perlman is fine, I suppose, but his line readings don't have any surprise - using his old Beauty & The Beast cadences, Perlman is lovably gruff, just as you imagine he'll be - and when he shares scenes with the deathly dull Selma Blair the movie grinds to a complete halt. Everything at the heart of the movie is generic and rote, so it makes perfect sense that del Toro spends so much time whipping your senses into a frenzy; Hellboy is loud and visually audacious, and I still had a hard time keeping my eyes open.
I'm all for more movies that clock in at under ninety minutes, especially if they're easily disposable pieces of genre trash like Walking Tall. This remake of the 1973 "classic," featuring The Rock in the speak-softly-and-carry-a-really-big-stick role originated by Joe Don Baker, is an obvious and ludicrous pulp fantasy, but man does it move; director Kevin Bray has fashioned a punchy, effective revenge drama with a wellspring of good humor and a terrific role for The Rock, and the zippy little thing wraps up at just under 75 minutes. (Michael Bay should take notes.) As the man who returns to his boyhood home to find the bucolic paradise he left a modern-day Pottersville, our star is in great form here. His iconic character is a perfect fit for The Rock's unique blend of humor and ass-kicking bravado; he's a genuinely likable big-screen bruiser, and possesses more natural charisma than many of his far-more-experienced contemporaries. (I make full apologies for dissing him in his Scorpion King days; after The Rundown and now Walking Tall, The Rock has become, unquestionably, my favorite action-movie star.) Bray has assembled an almost shockingly good group of supporting performers - including Johnny Knoxville, Neal McDonough, Michael Bowen, and that amazing find from Disney's Holes, young Khelo Thomas - and stages the movie's fight scenes with vigor; Walking Tall is garbage, but garbage made with talent and surprising conviction. It's a true guilty pleasure; leaving the theater, you might find it hard to wipe the goofy smile from your face.
THE FOG OF WAR and IN AMERICA
I wish I had made it to The Fog of War at the Brew & View sooner than I did; Errol Morris' wonderful film about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which won Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, left the Quad Cities right when I was ready to rave about it. In the hopes that some will check it out on DVD and video next month, I'll just say that Morris' work - while not in the league of his The Thin Blue Line or Mr. Death: The Rise & Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. - is a spellbinding blend of archival and interview footage involving the notorious McNamara, and what results is a fascinating, frightening character study in the guise of a history lesson; it's terrifically engaging nonfiction entertainment.
Along with the eagerly awaited cult comedy Bubba Ho-tep (more on this one next week), the film that replaced The Fog of War at the Brew & View is Jim Sheridan's thrice-Oscar-nominated In America, which is a peculiar little movie. So much of it - the performances, the design, a lot of the dialogue - is so good, yet you don't necessarily believe a thing in it; Sheridan's tale of Irish immigrants in New York is an odd hybrid of naturalism and fantasy, and the characters' behavior changes depending on the mandates of the plot. (Djimon Hounsou's shrieking, AIDS-inflicted artist becomes a teddy bear in record time.) In America is still worth it, though, for the raw, shattering work by Samantha Morton, and for Emily and Sarah Bolger, who give two of the most astonishing child performances I've ever seen.