© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2002
We Were Soldiers (R)
Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of U.S. troops at the first major land battle of the Vietnam War in 1965. Moore's training and leadership of troops in a new kind of warfare is balanced by home-front sequences focused on their wives and girlfriends, with both groups carrying on patriotic traditions not yet questioned by antiwar factions. Madeleine Stowe is solid as Moore's wife, acting as mother hen for younger military wives. Directed by Randall Wallace, who won an Oscar for his Braveheart screenplay.
First impressions: "We Were Soldiers works best in those stateside sequences. . . . the leaving rather than the returning home: last kisses, silent shifts to professionalism and soldiers sharing glances to confirm each other's resolve.
"When the choppers land in the vital Ia Drang Valley and the action gets hot, Wallace can't keep the confusion under cinematic control. The skirmishes over three days are brutally graphic with some memorable images, such as a flare exposing enemy soldiers too close for comfort. Yet so many bodies get mangled that it's hard to tell which side gains advantage until somebody tells us."
Second thoughts: Still the best of the wartime flicks that, coincidentally, arrived in theaters in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rental audience: Gibson fans, war movie buffs, Vietnam vets seeking a more sympathetic view than, say, Apocalypse Now.
Rent it if you enjoy: Sands of Iwo Jima, Black Hawk Down.
Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed author-philosopher until Alzheimer's disease ravaged her mind, leaving her helpless except for the undying devotion of her husband, author John Bayley. Director Richard Eyre's film traces Murdoch's life from youthful flirt to a ghost of a woman, with Academy Award nominees Judi Dench and Kate Winslet handling different stages of her life. Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville do the same with Bayley's character and an uncanny physical resemblance.
First impressions: "Iris is essentially a two-character drama inhabited by four actors working at the top of their games. Beyond the striking performances, however, Eyre's film has some minor problems. One is Eyre's time-shuffling technique, which sometimes can't make a sound connection between Iris' past and present. Some side characters aren't well-defined, and whatever attention that can be paid to Murdoch's philosophy is weighted toward Winslet. The film's conclusion is obvious after the first 30 minutes; all that's left is watching these superb actors play it out."
Second thoughts: Broadbent richly deserved his Oscar for best supporting actor. He rightfully credited Bonneville's assistance in his acceptance speech.
Rental audience: Art-film fans, viewers with a personal connection to academia or Alzheimer's disease.
Rent it if you enjoy: A Beautiful Mind, Lorenzo's Oil.
A weekend cruise in 1924 on a yacht owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst results in one corpse and decades of speculation. Director Peter Bogdanovich heard the gossip from his friend, the late Orson Welles, and turned it into a classy drama-comedy of bad manners. Edward Herrmann stars as Hearst, with Kirsten Dunst as his lover Marion Davies and Eddie Izzard as the vain, flirtatious Charlie Chaplin.
First impressions: "The Cat's Meow plays like an American cousin to Gosford Park, full of self-centered muckety mucks spouting verbal daggers at each other until homicide spoils the party. The writing isn't as crisp as Julian Fellowes' Oscar-winning screenplay, but the notion that famous people like Chaplin are being so catty improves the effect. Everyone aboard that ship has an agenda to improve love lives or professional careers. And everyone is at the mercy of Hearst, marvelously played by Herrmann as a slightly daft sugar daddy who's wising up."
Second thoughts: Sadly overlooked in theaters, this one deserves an audience on home video.
Rental audience: Fans of Hollywood's Golden Era when talkies were just beginning.
Rent it if you enjoy: The Last of Sheila; The E! True Hollywood Story.