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All the King's Men, Flyboys

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ALL THE KING'S MEN Writer-director Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period and no clear delineation of its central themes. Zaillian has stated in interviews that he deliberately avoided seeing the 1949 film version (an Oscar winner for Best Picture), preferring instead to take all material from the printed source; in retrospect, that was a faulty decision, since studying that movie would have enabled him to see how weighty material can be effectively thinned out and streamlined for the screen. The film's faults are many, but let's start with the grotesque miscasting of Sean Penn as self-proclaimed "hick" politician Willie Stark. Penn, who's about as folksy as a Manhattan Starbucks, turns in one of his worst performances, second only to his shameless "Look, Ma, I'm retarded!" showboating in I Am Sam. Still, he's hardly the only one who was hired for name recognition rather than because he was right for the role: Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins are similarly ill-used in this stultifying boondoggle.

*

THE BLACK DAHLIA Until it derails heading into its final turn, The Black Dahlia represents Brian De Palma's most assured moviemaking in at least a decade, a gritty neo-noir which reminds us that only Scorsese and maybe a couple of others can match this maverick filmmaker when it comes to astonishing feats of technical derring-do. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, it presents a fictionalized take on the real-life slaying of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short (touchingly played by Mia Kirshner), with Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as the cops on the case and Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank set up as the potential femme fatales. Working from Josh Friedman's initially sharp screenplay and backed by tremendous production values, DePalma spins a compelling murder-mystery that clicks until the last act, at which point the movie madly dashes through its messy resolutions, pausing only long enough to succumb to some ill-placed camp. Yet even if the movie had kept its head from start to finish, it still wouldn't have survived the critical miscasting of Hartnett, whose complete inability to project anything more than glazed befuddlement leaves the film with a cavernous hole right where its noir heart should beat.

**1/2

FLYBOYS Long before cultural divisions involving "freedom fries," there was the Lafayette Escadrille, the World War I squadron of American flyers who gladly lent a helping hand to the French before the U.S. officially entered the conflict. Flyboys is inspired by true events, though its veracity often makes it seem about as believable as that Brat Pack favorite Young Guns, another picture which sought to marry young hunks to a dusty Hollywood genre. Stereotypes are acceptable, often even desired, in this sort of red-meat picture, but when no room is left for surprises, boredom invariably rears its head -- more so in this film, since it runs a punishing 135 minutes. Because of his smoldering good looks, James Franco (as swaggering pilot Blaine Rawlings) has been compared to James Dean; 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 as the Black Falcon. Given my druthers, I'll take Snoopy vs. the Red Baron any day of the week.

**

THE GUARDIAN In this pale imitation of An Officer and a Gentleman, 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 while, The Guardian wears its clichés pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way. Director Andrew Davis and scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff tease us by hinting that the final act might actually stray from its preordained path, but no: When push comes to shove, the pair pummel us with the shameless ending we dreaded from the minute the opening credits appeared on the screen. *1/2

HALF NELSON An examination of stunted idealism as well as a showcase for an actor who just gets better and better, Half Nelson wears its indie street cred in the most unassuming manner imaginable. In a nicely understated performance, Ryan Gosling plays Dan, a Brooklyn school teacher respected by his students because he's engaging, quick-witted and doesn't condescend. But Dan's also a crack addict, something his 13-year-old student Drey (Shareeka Epps) learns upon finding him laid out in a bathroom stall at school. Drey's used to such downtrodden sights -- her dad's split, her brother's in jail and her brother's acquaintance (Anthony Mackie) keeps trying to bring her into the drug business -- so she accepts Dan's imperfections and the pair strike up a friendship. The white teacher and the black student -- it's a perfect formula for formula filmmaking, yet Half Nelson continues to surprise through the manner in which it avoids any simple solutions or miraculous about-faces and instead remains true to its setting and its characters.

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