HART'S WAR Certainly one of the more ambitious projects of the new year, this WWII drama falls just shy of qualifying as an out-and-out hit. The problem rests with the pontification, as an initially absorbing storyline eventually gets railroaded by a final half-hour in which everyone boasts about the sacrifices they'll make before actually getting around to making them. Despite top billing and prominence in all the trailers, Bruce Willis is actually a supporting character, portraying the top dog among the Americans being held at a German POW camp. The Hart of the title is played by Colin Farrell, who's cast as a greenhorn lieutenant ordered to defend a fellow officer -- a black flyer (Terrence Howard) accused of murdering a racist GI (Cole Hauser) -- in a kangaroo court set up within the confines of the camp. This extremely well-made drama has its share of high-minded themes to push -- for starters, the divisiveness of racism is not only inherently evil but also detrimental to a necessary spirit of camaraderie and self-sacrifice -- but such notions of nobility work far more effectively when subtly woven into the fabric of the piece rather than written large across a billboard that's then toppled onto audience members' heads. 1/2
JOHN Q Emotionally effective but also dishonest and irresponsible, John Q is largely DOA. It's tough not to side with a movie that sticks it to America's health care crisis, but this heavy-handed button-pusher stacks matters so densely, it doesn't give any rationale room to breathe. Denzel Washington plays struggling factory worker John Quincy Archibald, who learns that his insurance won't cover a heart transplant operation for his dying son (Daniel E. Smith). With nowhere to turn, John elects to hold an emergency room hostage, threatening dire consequences if his son's name isn't placed on the donor recipient list. This one offers a virtual checklist of "social drama" cliches: the opportunistic police chief (Ray Liotta) wanting to make a good impression in an election year; a tanned TV reporter (Paul Johansson) hungry for ratings ("This is my white Bronco!" he exclaims in one of scripter James Kearns' many dopey lines); and unfeeling hospital personnel (Anne Heche and James Woods). Furthermore, the notion that the US public would outwardly cheer a man holding innocent people hostage (no matter what the reason) is not only ludicrous but somewhat insulting as well.
RETURN TO NEVER LAND Over the past few years, Disney has been hell-bent on releasing a slew of needless and inferior sequels (e.g. Cinderella II, The Little Mermaid II) to their classic animated features directly to the video market. What, then, persuaded them to throw this sorry sequel to 1953's Peter Pan into theaters? Perhaps it's to test the waters on how these shoddy products would fare with highly publicized theatrical campaigns; if that's the case, then let's pray this one tanks, since I have no real desire to see the movie marketplace cluttered with the likes of Hercules or Fox and the Hound sequels. Despite the brand name recognition, the '53 Peter Pan hardly ranks alongside the studio's finest efforts, but it's still miles ahead of this poorly realized follow-up that finds Wendy's daughter Jane helping Peter and the Lost Boys battle persistent Captain Hook. Dull characters, unmemorable songs and flat animation sink this one. 1/2
BIRTHDAY GIRL Birthday Girl is one of those movies that starts out so unexpectedly off-kilter, you can't help but be disappointed once it turns stridently conventional. Ben Chaplin is merely average as John Buckingham, a British milquetoast who sends off for a Russian mail-order bride; he ends up with Nadia (Nicole Kidman), a willowy beauty who speaks no English, smokes non-stop, and works hard to satisfy her new husband's sexual fetishes. Initially content, he soon finds matters going awry with the arrival of two of her countrymates (Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz and Brotherhood of the Wolf's Vincent Cassel). This curio begins as an interesting study of how two dissimilar individuals tentatively break down various communication barriers, and, on the heels of her star turns in The Others and Moulin Rouge, Kidman again demonstrates that she had been living in Tom Cruise's shadow for far too long. But after an initially intriguing set-up, the film tosses out a "surprise" plot twist that could be spotted from two continents away, and from there it dissolves into a soggy and illogical thriller.
BLACK HAWK DOWN This adaptation of Mark Bowen's account of the 1993 military operation in Somalia that left several Americans dead is being given the Oscar push, but the truth is that the film adds precious little to the long line of war pictures that have come out of Hollywood over the last century -- on the contrary, the movie seems to exist in a bubble, hermetically sealed off from the emotional pull that helped define most of the great war flicks. From the start, this fails to provide much historical or political context to its proceedings, yet even more detrimental is that none of the key contributors -- director Ridley Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer or novice screenwriter Ken Nolan -- deemed it important to place any stock in their cast of characters. Obviously, Scott et al wanted to recreate the wartime experience in all its shell-shocked urgency rather than fashion a more traditional (read: narrative-driven) movie, but Saving Private Ryan managed to accomplish both objectives without any compromises. Some familiar actors pop up here and there, but for the most part, the unflagging sound and fury make it impossible to identify or empathize with these characters as individuals, since their primary function seems to be to serve as an anonymous slab of American fortitude.