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THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON / THE WOODSMAN Sean Penn's reputation often exceeds his actual accomplishments (an Oscar for chewing the scenery in Mystic River? Please...), yet here's the actor delivering one of his finest performances to date in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Conversely, Penn's Mystic River co-star Kevin Bacon rarely gets singled out for his understated but effective turns, yet he likewise can be seen in top form in The Woodsman. Released in Los Angeles and New York at the tail end of 2004 to qualify its stars for Oscar bids, both movies have proven too low-key to cause even minor ripples. Yet anybody in the mood for a downbeat drama anchored by a sturdy lead performance won't go wrong with either film. Nixon, inspired by actual events of the mid-70s, centers on an ordinary joe who's a failure both professionally - he's barely holding onto his job as a salesman - and personally - his separation from his wife (Naomi Watts) is clearly going to become a divorce. Tired of constantly getting beaten down by life, he decides to murder Nixon, the man he feels best exemplifies everything that's wrong with America. The Woodsman, meanwhile, casts Bacon as a former convict trying to adjust to life on the outside after spending years in prison for molesting young girls. He does his best to stay clean, but discovers it just might be a losing battle when those around him aren't even willing to give him a chance to start anew. Nixon focuses on a man succumbing to sickness while Woodsman centers on someone who's trying to escape it, and both films dole out will-he-or-won't-he? tension in comparable doses. Both movies:

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 A favorite of critics and cultists alike, 1976's Assault On Precinct 13 was a nifty little "B" flick John Carpenter helmed before hitting the big time with Halloween. Propelled by an excellent music score (composed by Carpenter) and economical in its use of settings, dialogue and character development, the film concerns itself with the members of an LA street gang who descend upon a nearly abandoned police station with the sole purpose of wiping out everyone inside. That the protagonists never learn the reason for the siege (though we do) adds to their sense of discombobulation, and the brutal death of a little girl in the early going remains one of the most disturbing (and unexpected) acts of homicide ever committed on screen. In this flashy update, there's no little girl, no bloodthirsty street gang, and no kick-ass Carpenter score. Instead, we get a competent but entirely generic action opus in which it's a group of rogue cops who attack the precinct in order to kill a captured crime lord whose testimony would put them behind bars. Laurence Fishburne plays the cool-under-fire kingpin, who reluctantly teams up with an honest officer (Ethan Hawke) to ensure his own survival. Bucking the trend of cinematic puritanism that Carpenter himself helped jumpstart with Halloween (in which the heroine was a virgin while her victimized friends were all sexually active), this movie switches cultural gears by allowing the nympho (Drea De Matteo) to be more heroic than the bookworm (Maria Bello); beyond that, expect no surprises from yet another needless remake.

COACH CARTER First, The Incredibles comes along and pushes the message that it's OK - even advantageous - to be exceptional in America instead of conforming by dumbing down. And now here's Coach Carter to nudge a similar theme about the importance of a solid education over all else, even (gasp!) sports. In a nation where more people have seen Fear Factor than The Fog of War, should such films be considered acts of anarchy? At any rate, Coach Carter works the usual underdog cliches fairly well as it tells the true story of Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a high school basketball coach in California who manages to turn a team that won only four games during its previous season into a statewide powerhouse. But at the height of their success, with an unbroken string of victories, Coach Carter elects to bench the entire team once he discovers that most of his players are performing poorly in class. It's a sad state of affairs that most parents (and even some educators) opposed Carter's genuine concern for the well-being of these kids (who needs to learn how to read when a sports scholarship just might be around the corner?), yet this individual's selfless actions against a failed education system register even when the movie surrounding him turns on itself. All pertinent points are made after a full two hours, yet the picture drags on for another 20 minutes simply so viewers can be treated to a climactic Big Game. Ultimately, Coach Carter's sincerity gets trumped by its savvy at milking the sports formula for all it's worth. 1/2

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