ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
STARRING: Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penelope Cruz, Lucas Black DIRECTOR: Billy Bob Thornton OPENS: Dec. 25
In 1940s Texas, young John Grady Cole (Damon) loses the ranch he loves in a battle, rounds up a buddy (Thomas) and heads for Mexico, looking for work, looking for adventure; looking for the sort of experience that will make men in full of them.
That, stripped of the fancy writing that rendered Cormac McCarthy's novel unreadable to some of us, is the narrative essence of All the Pretty Horses, and it's not a bad one. The lads almost immediately encounter a funny, violent, nutsy kid (Black), and you know right away that his heedlessness is going to cause them a lot of bother. Among other things, his wild--indeed, murderous--ways will eventually mess up Grady's soulful romance with Alejandra (the lovely Cruz), daughter of the rich rancher the boys sign on with.
All in all, it is, to borrow the old bunkhouse cliche, a rattling good yarn, even if it is all surface, no subtext. Whether there was some larger meaning in director Thornton's original cut--said to have been close to four hours long--is impossible to say, at least until the DVD comes out. For the moment, we have a perfectly coherent, handsomely rendered couple of hours, animated in particular by Damon's good performance--shrewd, innocent, angry, wistful and, above all, likable. Maybe this movie might have been more. But it could easily have been a lot less. --R.S.
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis OPENS: Dec. 22
Tom Hanks is back on a killer beach, this time alone. The soldiers hitting the Normandy sands in Saving Private Ryan faced grim death, but it might come in the arms of a buddy. Chuck Noland, the FedEx manager stranded on a Pacific island after a plane crash, has no one to talk to, to bray at, as he did to his harried underlings at work--no one to shore up his resolve or share his desperation. Well, all right. Chuck is a doer. So he will fashion tools, clothing, shelter; find food, draw cave paintings, make fire. He will replicate the ascent of man, all by his lonesome. He'll be Robinson Crusoe without Friday, Gilligan without the crew, Survivor without all those annoying other survivors.
Hanks has often played a decent man isolated--in his mind (Forrest Gump), his disease (Philadelphia), his bereavement (Sleepless in Seattle) or outer space (Apollo 13). As Chuck, he finds his best, most resourceful self in isolation. So does William Broyles Jr.'s script; the 80 minutes it spends on the atoll alone with Hanks make for engrossing storytelling. The film is less sure-footed back in civilization, with the girl Chuck left behind (Hunt). For its soul is on the beach, in its gradually unfolding secrets, its new perils and triumphs. The film has loved inhabiting the real estate of a restless, splendid solitude. So, perhaps, has Chuck; he's Adam in a more daunting Eden. --R.C.
THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE
STARRING: The voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton DIRECTOR: Mark Dindal OPENED: Dec. 15