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THE LAST SAMURAI Director Edward Zwick has already demonstrated his capacity to handle expansive epics with Glory and Legends of the Fall, but the picture this most resembles is Dances With Wolves. Yet that maxim about familiarity breeding contempt doesn't apply here: For all its recognizable trappings, this is an enormously entertaining film. Tom Cruise stars as a former Civil War hero who accepts an assignment to help train the Japanese emperor's armies in modern forms of combat. This places him in direct conflict with the "old-school" Samurai, but after he's captured, he becomes fond of their customs and forms an alliance with their leader (magnetic Ken Watanabe). Aside from the weak epilogue, there's little to dislike in this impressive undertaking. 1/2
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION The term "specialized cinema" refers to art-house features, but this live-action/animation hybrid, a quantum leap over the wretched Space Jam, qualifies as much as any other movie that comes to mind. With its pleasures aimed at three specific segments of the moviegoing population, this might prove to be a tough nut to crack for anyone not keyed into its frenetic frequency. Yet children will enjoy the cartoon antics, diehard Looney Tunes junkies will embrace Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as they fill the big screen, and film buffs will delight in the endless array of in-jokes. Slapstick shenanigans, inspired non sequiturs and guest appearances by a dozen other LT regulars prevent the merriment from ever slowing down.
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD Based on Patrick O'Brian's series of novels, this casts Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, a British naval hero assigned to bring down a formidable French vessel during the Napoleonic Wars. For a swashbuckling epic, the film is rather subdued in its approach, with director Peter Weir taking great pains to present an oft-times understated tale that's about the art of warfare as much as it's about the battles themselves. Paul Bettany, Crowe's A Beautiful Mind co-star, portrays the ship's doctor (and Aubrey's best friend), and it's the relationship between their two characters -- coupled with Weir's attention to minute detail -- that largely drives the story.
THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS As a joyride of a movie, this final installment delivers the goods. But on a human level, it's clear that the Wachowskis allowed the series to get away from them. Thus, fascinating characters introduced in Reloaded are almost completely forgotten, while the series mainstays have largely been drained of personality, existing only to stand around mouthing increasingly vague philosophies. Too bad. This is certainly no disgrace -- it trumps most series' third entries (Alien 3, anyone?) and will probably stand up to repeat viewings quite nicely. But for a series that began with audiences gleefully agreeing with Neo's declaration of "Whoa!," this one is sure to leave as many moviegoers shrugging, "So?" 1/2
THE MISSING Director Ron Howard's latest concerns itself with a plucky frontierswoman (Cate Blanchett) and the circumstances that transpire after her oldest daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by a band of renegades who ferry captured girls across the Mexican border to sell them into slavery. With her other daughter (Jenna Boyd) in tow, she sets out to rescue her offspring, receiving help from her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) along the way. With a 130-minute running time, the film's not lacking for length, and tighter editing in the more redundant passages might have opened up some breathing room for its more savory ingredients. The Missing is a decent picture and worth a marginal recommendation, but what's really missing is the proper balance to make it truly memorable. 1/2
THE STATION AGENT It can't be a coincidence that the year's two best films both center around lonely, troubled people tentatively reaching out to other isolated souls. But like Lost In Translation, The Station Agent is another splendid human drama about likable folks cutting through a surrounding haze of complacency long enough to make the sorts of connections that don't require a dial-up tone. The focal character is Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who, after moving into a decrepit train depot, only wishes that people would leave him alone. Instead, a few neighbors, most notably a tortured artist (Patricia Clarkson) and a hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale), manage to locate his dormant vein of compassion and bring it bubbling to the surface. Debuting writer-director Tom McCarthy is off to a blazing start with this exemplary seriocomic gem.
TIMELINE Based on the Michael Crichton novel, this Medieval romp couldn't be sillier if Monty Python's knights who say "Ni!" turned up for an extended cameo. A group of present-day archaeologists are hurled back to 14th century France to rescue their professor (Billy Connolly), who himself had been sent back after a wormhole linking the past and present had been discovered. Bless this cornball picture for holding our interest throughout its entire length -- how could it not, when practically every scene will leave audiences tittering for one reason or another? If it's not the overripe dialogue, it's the incompetent performance by star Paul Walker, the baffling plot inconsistencies, the clashing dialects or the puzzling character motivations.