Pretty Boys In a Pretty Film

In a movie year marked for demolition by the blatant consistency of its mediocrity, a few year-end pearls have finally appeared among the discarded oyster shells. All the Pretty Horses , a faithful rendering of the literary classic by Cormac McCarthy, is a western saga that charts the odyssey of John Grady (Matt Damon), a young cowboy who loses his grandfather’s ranch in West Texas in 1949 to tax debts and family greed, but never relinquishes his love for wide-open spaces. Searching for freedom from hobbles and fences, Grady rounds up his best buddy, Rawlins (Henry Thomas), another saddle tramp as tough as a battered Stetson, and they travel from their childhood homes in San Angelo, Texas, through the sagebrush and cactus of the Panhandle, to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.

Finding work branding cattle and breaking wild mustangs for a wealthy rancher (Rubén Blades), Grady finds romance with the rancher’s daughter (Penélope Cruz), opposition from her stern, thorny aunt (a brilliant, show-stopping bit by the marvelous Miriam Colon, in a role originally intended for Katy Jurado), and an unexpected ally in a runaway teenager named Blevins (Lucas Black). Wrongly accused of being horse thieves, all three boys are thrown into a time-forgotten Mexican prison where they experience harrowing, life-changing horrors.

Sensitively helmed by Billy Bob Thornton, who is as meticulous a director as he is an actor, and written with an ear for the understated cadence of calloused Westerners by Ted Tally, All the Pretty Horses is about loyalty, friendship, honor and love among men who have a hard time showing real feelings. It’s a rugged canvas of life among a dying breed of young people still in love with the land at a time when the West was changing forever, gorgeously photographed by Barry Markowitz with a fresh feel for the ink-blue skies and orange prairies of the great outdoors.

The remarkable cast is outstanding. Mr. Damon gives one of his most solid and inspired performances, Mr. Thomas is heartbreaking as a boy with decency and principles who kills a man in self-defense and is tortured by the moral consequences, and young Mr. Black (the 18-year-old Alabama high school student with an authentic Southern accent as down home as ‘possum stew, who was discovered by Mr. Thornton in Swing Blade ) is just plain perfect. Mr. Thornton’s personal stamp is self-evident in the way he illuminates the hard alliance between boys growing into men and the endless sweep of unchartered land they cherish, giving us the gift of his own poetic vision in the process. A film with the page-turning adventure and courage of boy’s-book splendor, it’s a rare and exemplary work of intelligence, beauty, tragedy, humor and artistry.

What War On Drugs?

With Traffic , Steven Soderbergh tackles the enormity of the illegal-drug-trafficking problem on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border in a complex, labyrinthine tale of drug busts, sting operations and undercover informers that follows the greed and corruption all the way from warring drug lords to Supreme Court justices. Set in the shady, inescapable milieu of junkies, criminals, crooked cops and naïve do-gooders, the film exposes a web of deceit and betrayal on both sides of the law in a hopeless war on drugs where it’s not enough to “Just say no.” Enhancing the documentary-style narrative with a richly layered ensemble cast, Mr. Soderbergh’s sobering premise is that drugs are here to stay because of money, profiteering and demand. (We are, he says, a nation of addicts.)

Among the many realistic and detailed performances, there are powerful and persuasive contributions by Michael Douglas as an Ohio judge appointed as the new head of the National Drug Control Policy forces in Washington, whose own straight-A teenage daughter is a secret addict herself; Benicio Del Toro as the Mexican street cop betrayed by his own partner; Catherine Zeta-Jones as the rich, pregnant wife of a drug czar who takes over her husband’s business and brazenly blackmails an entire drug cartel to get him out of jail; Dennis Quaid as her unscrupulous lawyer; and Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Miguel Ferrer and Steven Bauer as assorted cops and crooks who fight the war on narcotics in the front-line trenches.

All of these stories, and others, intersect and overlap like ammo in a film requiring rapt attention if you don’t want to get wounded in the crossfire. But Mr. Soderbergh weaves these threads with so much tension that your mind never wanders throughout the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time.

007 Mentors A Hoops Star

Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester is about a sentimental attachment between an impoverished black slum kid with a remarkable I.Q. (a splendid debut by Rob Brown) and a sour recluse named William Forrester (played with a gritty mendacity that mellows gradually by Sean Connery), who grudgingly becomes his role model. This old eccentric, who once wrote a novel hailed as a landmark of American literature, now lives under an assumed name, wanders around in his pajama bottoms and socks that are inside-out, and suffers from such acute agoraphobia that even his groceries are delivered by messenger. Although he hasn’t published a book in 50 years, he’s written manuscripts nobody has seen.

When the kid is invited to enroll in a private prep school on an athletic scholarship, Forrester gives him ideas based on his own unpublished works for his class assignments, and the boy’s professor (F. Murray Abraham) accuses him of plagiarism. On the verge of expulsion, the boy’s reputation can only be saved by his mentor, but that means going out into the world and confronting the mendacity of man for the first time in years. Will he do it? In a surprise ending, we find out just how promising the future will be for them both, as the old man helps the boy realize his dreams and the boy inspires the man to revive his own.

This is an unusual film about literature and basketball that will raise eyebrows among cynics and reduce others to tears. Mr. Connery is always fun to watch, and he literally chews the scenery to the hilt in this one. Imagine a warm, nurturing, life-altering and highly unlikely bond of mutual affection between J. D. Salinger and Dennis Rodman, and you get the idea of what’s behind Finding Forrester .

This Ain’t What Women Want

In the moronic What Women Want , Mel Gibson finds his feminine side. It’s not pretty. The contrived and desperately unfunny premise: An arrogant jerk and self-adoring hotshot ad executive who thinks a “man’s man” is defined by his collection of swinging Frank Sinatra records (how pathetic is that?) learns humility when he finds out how it feels to wear toenail polish. The idea is silly enough, but with Mel Gibson as the man waxing his legs, it borders on disgusting.

For reasons too absurd to reveal, Mr. Gibson’s character loses a job promotion to a shapely new creative director (Helen Hunt) who has been hired to bring in new revenue from the untapped women’s market, and simultaneously gets electrified while falling into a bathtub with a hair dryer. The resulting shock leaves him with a miraculous ability to read the minds of all the females in Chicago (including French poodles). Here, at last, is the first man in the history of civilization who really knows “what women want”-but all that transgendered E.S.P. backfires, and he becomes a bigger heel than ever as he uses it to seduce his attractive new boss, sabotage her creative ideas (for a feminist campaign for running shoes) and wreck her career, smashing all hope of happiness with the first woman he’s ever loved in the process. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving, self-deluded chauvinist pig.

The shrewd wit with which director Nancy Meyers dissected the differences between the sexes in such delightful films as Private Benjamin and Baby Boom has sadly curdled, and Mr. Gibson’s testosterone level is too high to make anything he does believable. The movie aims its big comedy payoff at a labored scene where the stud secretly samples a lineup of women’s products in his bachelor apartment, but the result is more embarrassing than humorous. Limp-wristedly modeling panty hose in a Maidenform bra wearing red nail polish, he looks as writhingly miserable as a quarterback in Ethel Merman drag. In fairness, Mr. Gibson does glide gracefully into an imitation of a suave Fred Astaire dance number from Royal Wedding with enough charm to make me wonder why he’s never done a musical. And there’s more chemistry between Mr. Gibson and Ms. Hunt than Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe mustered in the balmy Proof of Life . But this is just noodling around for the camera; there isn’t much conviction in any of it, and no evidence that anything he does is really what women want at all. If this is Mel Gibson’s attempt to prove he’s a good sport who doesn’t take himself seriously as a sex symbol, why is he so spastic and self-conscious? He looks like he made this movie at gunpoint.

‘O Brother’ Is Right!

Still living on their inflated reputations from Fargo , the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, just keep turning out one abysmal fiasco after another, but with O Brother, Where Art Thou ? they finally hit rock bottom. This sludge-pile farce, set in 1937 and pretentiously based on Homer’s The Odyssey , is an amateurish disaster of such monumental incompetence it would, with any other filmmakers’ names attached, be considered unreleaseable.

George Clooney, wearing goose-grease pomade and a hairnet, John Turturro and an actor I pray I will never see again named Tim Blake Nelson play three Mississippi convicts who escape from a chain gang in search of a buried treasure. In the excruciating journey that follows, they get baptized in a river by singing religious nuts, feast on barbecued gopher and rancid horsemeat stew, record a hillbilly song for a blind record producer, rob a bank with Babyface Nelson, survive a savage beating by a one-eyed Bible salesman, rescue a black guitar player from a Ku Klux Klan lynching and get banned from Woolworth’s.

Mr. Clooney sings a few songs with an adenoidal, tone-deaf honk that may kill his Aunt Rosemary, and speaks in long philosophical sentences that nobody understands, while the other two mumble and squeak with Southern accents so absurd they make the swamp trash in Tobacco Road sound like John Gielgud. It’s hard to tell which is worse-the hysterical, misguided acting or the idiotic script. What John Goodman, Holly Hunter and Charles Durning are doing in the supporting cast is almost as baffling as the film itself. They are all dreadful. Not content merely to be one of the worst movies of the year, O Brother, Where Art Thou ? manages to be one of the worst movies of all time.

And a Happy New Year to you, too.