FLYBOYS Long before cultural divisions involving "freedom fries," there was the Lafayette Escadrille, the World War I squadron of young American flyers who gladly lent a helping hand to the French before the US officially entered the conflict. Flyboys is supposedly inspired by true events, though its veracity often makes the film seem about as believable as that Brat Pack favorite Young Guns, another picture which sought to marry young hunks to a dusty Hollywood genre. Stock characters make the movie seem even more hoary than vintage WWI aerial flicks like Wings (1927) and The Dawn Patrol (1930): There's the cocky blue blood (Philip Winchester) who turns out to be a coward, only rousing his heretofore hidden courageous side at the last nanosecond; there's the portly Southern gentleman (Tyler Labine) who refuses to share quarters with the squadron's only black member (Abdul Salis), eventually shedding his deeply ingrained racism with the same ease most of us clip a fingernail; there's the battle-scarred commander (Martin Henderson) of the outfit, who keeps his distance because he's already seen too many of his comrades killed; and so on. Stereotypes are acceptable, often even desired, in this sort of red-meat genre picture, but when no room is left for any surprises, boredom invariably rears its head -- more so in this film, since it runs a punishing 135 minutes. Because of his smoldering good looks, lead James Franco (as swaggering farmboy-turned-pilot Blaine Rawlings) has been repeatedly compared to James Dean, even playing him in a 2001 TV movie; given Franco's lack of edge and mystery (two qualities Dean possessed in spades), this is like comparing David Spade to Cary Grant. The movie ends in a battle between Blaine and a ruthless German pilot known simply as the Black Falcon. Given my druthers, I'll take Snoopy vs. the Red Baron any day of the week.
BROKEN BRIDGES The first motion picture produced by Country Music Television, Broken Bridges has no business playing in multiplexes, given that it basically warbles "made-for-TV" throughout its entire running time. In his feature film debut, country music star Toby Keith plays Bo Price, a -- you guessed it -- country music star who's fallen on hard times thanks to booze and bad memories. He returns to his tiny hometown at the same time as Angela Delton (Kelly Preston), the woman he impregnated and abandoned 16 years earlier. Hoping to start anew, Bo does his best to not only break down Angela's defenses but also those of Dixie (Lindsey Haun), the daughter he's meeting for the first time. Keith, who never changes expressions over the course of this generic film (he remains as immobile as a bookcase), may receive top billing, but he's trumped at every turn in his own star vehicle, as Haun easily bests him in both the acting and singing departments. Perhaps not since George Strait shut eyelids nationwide with 1992's Pure Country has C&W had it so bad on screen.
THE DESCENT With rare exception, Hollywood has lost its ability to create memorable or meaningful horror flicks, which makes this British import all the more welcome. One of the finest terror tales in many a full moon, writer/director Neil Marshall's gory gem follows six outdoor enthusiasts -- all female -- as they embark on a spelunking expedition deep in the Appalachian mountains. The competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza) leads the outfit while Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) tries to overcome a recent tragedy in her life; along with the others, they descend deep into a cavern that's frightening even before its cannibalistic occupants (who all look like Gollum's cousins) show up and start tearing into human flesh. The Descent is so expertly made that it more than holds its own as a full-throttle horror flick, yet it's Marshall's decision to provide it with a psychological bent that puts it firmly over the top. The film addresses guilt -- specifically, survivor's guilt -- in a welcome manner and imbues its protagonists with messy moral dilemmas that allow them to alternate between heroine and villain, survivor and victim, wallflower and warrior. It's just a shame they didn't keep the original British ending.
HOLLYWOODLAND Before Christopher Reeve, it was George Reeves who was most identified with the role of Superman, thanks to the hit TV series that ran throughout much of the 1950s. But in 1959, Reeves apparently committed suicide, though speculation has always run rampant that the hulking actor was actually the victim of foul play. Hollywoodland is a fictionalized take on this theory, centering on a smalltime detective (Adrien Brody) as he sets off to uncover the truth. Was Reeves (Ben Affleck) murdered by his opportunistic girlfriend (Robin Tunney)? By his older lover (Diane Lane)? By the older woman's husband (Bob Hoskins)? Or, in the final analysis, did Reeves really pull the trigger himself? Hell if anyone knows for sure, and that includes the makers of this film, who trot out every conceivable scenario without ever committing to one. Still, that's hardly a flaw, as the open-endedness allows this handsome picture to tantalizingly jump back and forth between its colorful characters. The performances are uniformly fine, and the movie basks in its nostalgia-twinged visions of vintage LA.