Tuesday, November 13, 2007

American Gangster

AMERICAN GANGSTER (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Free enterprise and old-fashioned hard work carry Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) from a low but trusted spot as a crime boss's driver to the pinnacle of the 1970s New York drug empire in AMERICAN GANGSTER. Frank molds himself into a respected and feared Harlem entrepreneur who gives customers higher quality heroin at a lower price than the competition. He also prefers to maintain a small profile to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement.

Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is the cop leading a task force to bust up the drug underground, but everywhere he turns, he approaches another dead end. Tracing the familiar organized crime players doesn't lead to the kingpin ruling the market. Richie's rigid code of ethics concerning work places him on the outside of a police community riddled with corruption. He has more in common with Frank, another highly principled man, although Richie is the only one on the right side of the law.

As a showcase for Washington and Crowe, AMERICAN GANGSTER does not disappoint. Washington gives Frank an elegant malevolence while never idealizing his vicious core. Depending on the venue, he can be ruthless or respectable, a combination that makes him more dangerous than his thuggish competitors. With a gleam in his eyes, Washington relishes the opportunity to play the smooth criminal.

Alternately, Crowe's Richie is a frayed bundle of turmoil and integrity, an imperfect man rubbed raw by the standards he observes and fails to meet. Combining bookish sensibility and physicality is one of Crowe's strengths as an actor. In Richie he finds an ideal character who must be capable of outfoxing his opponents in the investigation office and courtroom and outhitting them on the inner city's mean streets.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian lay out AMERICAN GANGSTER like dual case studies of the drug trade and narcotics investigation. Frank operates with the brutal efficiency and market awareness that could have made him a tycoon examined in business schools if he had put his energy into legitimate endeavors. It's fascinating to follow the ingenuity responsible for his ascension to and residency at the top. Likewise, the labyrinthine nature of Richie's probe makes for compelling viewing. While tough guy posturing is critical and produces exciting chases and shootouts, sifting through mountains of evidence is where the most important work is accomplished.

The meticulous depiction of the ins and outs of the protagonists' chosen professions tends to squeeze out the human side. Richie's family problems are given short shrift. Frank's domestic situation isn't explained enough to understand why his clan would follow him unquestioningly. Filling in these empty corners would have made this a richer film, but AMERICAN GANGSTER is solely concerned with the promise in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps in dogged pursuit of the American dream. Everything else is secondary. After all, it's just business.

Grade: B

Lars and the Real Girl

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (Craig Gillespie, 2007)

In LARS AND THE REAL GIRL shy, unassuming Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) creates quite a stir around his Wisconsin town when he introduces his new girlfriend to family, friends, and co-workers. The wheelchair-bound Bianca had been doing work for the church in Brazil when she and Lars met online. Folks are happy that Lars has found someone, at least until they learn that Bianca is a life-size sex doll--or a real doll, as the film refers to her.

By all appearances, Lars isn't pulling an elaborate joke. He dotes on Bianca, acting as though she is a living, breathing human being and insisting that everyone else do likewise. Naturally this distresses his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) a great deal. How do they explain the rubber gal accompanying Lars to their fellow congregants on Sundays?

A trip to Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the local doctor, doesn't produce the quick remedy that Gus wants for his brother. She encourages indulging Lars' fantasy. In her opinion, when he is ready to let go of it, he will. Before long the community has accepted Bianca as though she is flesh and blood. Her calendar is so thoroughly booked that Lars begins to get upset at not having enough time to see her.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL isn't as outrageous as it sounds in concept. Actually, it's a sweet and funny film invested with midwestern values. Family ties and community obligation to one of their own anchor the movie. It's touching how everyone rallies around Lars even if they think what he's doing is weird.

Gosling's career is built on eccentric characters, like the Jewish neo-Nazi in THE BELIEVER and inspirational, cocaine-addicted teacher in HALF NELSON. Although Lars follows in that offbeat tradition, he is a decidedly less flashy role because the character is so bottled up. This is a performance of enormous control. Gosling regulates Lars' growth like a slow tire leak. The strength of his acting is found in how he makes a person of limited expression open up in tiny increments until he is a transformed man.

There's also a lot to be said for how Gosling, the other actors, and director Craig Gillespie are able to pull off the film's conceit convincingly. For all the silliness of its premise, it is counterbalanced with substantial exploration of loneliness, introversion and grief. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL could have felt overly precious, like a cheap stunt or joke, but the emotional depth and warmth make this quirky regional character study anything but plastic.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 12, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (Susanne Bier, 2007)

After Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is killed while intervening during a domestic dispute between strangers, his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) invites his childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) to live with them. Still grappling with the loss of her husband and the ordeal of raising a ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son alone, she's obviously in pain and in need of someone nearby. Her reaching out to Jerry wouldn't seem so unusual except that he is a recovering heroin addict and someone she took pains not to associate with until this moment.

In THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE Jerry moves into the garage next to the spacious Seattle home that couldn't feel any emptier to Audrey. The garage, like Jerry, is a work in progress. It has gone unrepaired for years after an electrical fire destroyed many precious family items housed in it. Jerry, on the other hand, has suffered from self-neglect and the junk he can't seem to break himself of.

Damaged individuals healing one another is a serviceable idea for a film, but THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is missing an essential component: plausibility. People do funny things out of grief. Offering to let an unrehabilitated junkie move in and become part of the family is a big stretch, especially when the addict in question has been repelled for a long time.

Even so, the new arrangement might have been believable if the characters didn't feel as though they were being forced through the gears of Allan Loeb's screenplay. Each person in the film seems predisposed to connect instantly with everyone else, a matter exaggerated through truncated scenes that rush toward the inevitable resolution while failing to establish a foundation.

It isn't fair to characterize Jerry as a "magical junkie"--Del Toro plays the part free of excess sympathy and uncommon wisdom--but the fact remains that the film treats him like a redemptive talisman. Jerry might know how to induce slumber quickly, but the method he knows best doesn't come from cuddling and earlobe stroking but at the tip of a needle.

It's especially surprising that THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is such a miss since director Susanne Bier has excelled in transforming soap opera material into the stuff of high drama in her Danish films. Volatile feelings fueled the blazing melodrama of BROTHERS and AFTER THE WEDDING, yet it was the universal truths underneath those outsized emotions that kept the films relatable. Conversely, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE feels dishonest and cool to the touch. Forget about fires. This film couldn't produce a puff of smoke from tinder.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Lions for Lambs

LIONS FOR LAMBS (Robert Redford, 2007)

A term paper isn't due when the end credits roll for LIONS FOR LAMBS, but don't feel bad if you leave thinking you spent an hour and a half doing research for an end of the semester assignment. This well-meaning talkathon about the war on terror, contemporary politics, journalistic integrity, and civic engagement has enlightenment more than entertainment as its goal. LIONS FOR LAMBS aims to eliminate apathetic attitudes and inspire action in our democracy. It's a noble effort that seems like homework.

A war drama in which the big guns are the above-the-title talent instead of on-screen artillery, LIONS FOR LAMBS alternates among three concurrent storylines. Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) offers cable TV news reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) exclusive information about a pivotal shift in U.S. military stategy in Afghanistan that's being carried out as they speak. Meanwhile, soldiers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) are on the front line in this mission. In the third thread, California university professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) attempts to shake promising but lazy student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) of his cynicism about the political machine.

Redford, who also directs, and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who penned this fall's action-intensive Iraq drama THE KINGDOM as well, utilize the measured tone of weekly periodical reporting to deliver arguments littering hundreds of comments sections in the blogosphere. This tempered rhetoric may make LIONS FOR LAMBS more palatable for those who wouldn't dream of reading Daily Kos, but it's hard to believe that the film will hold the slightest interest for anyone outside of the choir it's preaching to. Even those sympathetic to the film's viewpoint are likely to find LIONS FOR LAMBS to be earnest and hopelessly stiff.

The characters are as much nameless chess pieces to be moved around for the purposes that suit Redford and Carnahan as the troops are for the chickenhawk officeholders the film condemns. The individuals populating the film are trusty op-ed types--ambitious neoconservative warmonger, honorable servicemen, conscientious veteran journalist, idealistic professor, jaded young adult--spouting think tank studies in the form of dialogue. LIONS FOR LAMBS isn't objectionable because of its message but for how dully it is imparted.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Caveman's Not Quite Valentine

CAVEMEN has been the target of derision since its inclusion on ABC's fall TV schedule was announced. A sitcom based on car insurance ad characters? Did no one learn the lesson of BABY BOB? Add in accusations of the show being racially insensitive (or worse), a poorly received pilot episode unseen by the general public, news of creative retooling, and cast changes--all before the program hit the air. If the show wasn't dead on arrival, surely it wouldn't last.

I don't slow down to look when passing accidents on the side of the road, but CAVEMEN was one disaster I couldn't wait to relish in its sure-to-be brief but spectacular ignominy. I set the cable company DVR to record the series and settled in to watch the first episode. Some of the GEICO Cavemen commercials were mildly amusing, so I was willing to give it a chance.

After all the advance fuss the show created and knives that were out, I was disappointed to encounter a mediocre single camera sitcom instead of the supernova of suckitude I'd been expecting and, to be honest, wanting. New episodes keep appearing on the DVR, so I've continued watching with the hope that it will get much, much worse. It hasn't.

Sure, CAVEMEN won't be mistaken for good television, and I can't imagine it will be long for this world. The caveman makeup isn't particularly good, and most of the characters are annoying more than anything. Nevertheless, I will concede that it has drawn a few laughs from me, mostly from the secondary character (and original ad caveman) Maurice, played by Jeff Daniel Phillips. Unlike the neurotic primaries, Maurice is more unrefined, uninhibited, and, well, caveman-like.

The show haphazardly walks the fine line between biting social commentary and bad taste, more often lapsing into the latter. The fourth episode had an inspired storyline about an offensive high school nickname ("Savages") and grossly caricatured mascot. Coming on the heels of a mini brouhaha over how some Cleveland Indians fans were outfitted, it even had some timeliness. CAVEMEN deals out way too many lame and potentially problematic jokes steeped in racial stereotypes to get sufficient credit for taking the high ground, although it has discovered one hate-worthy group that won't stir up letter-writing protesters: those scurrilous hipsters.

My DVR informs me that another episode awaits viewing tonight. I guess there's nothing to do but not enjoy it while it lasts.

Friday, November 02, 2007

At the movies

Since I've been a critic, I've gorged on movies, seeing practically anything and everything, especially when I have the luxury of an annual pass to specific theaters. Carte blanche access makes it easy to be omnivorous and undiscriminating when weighing moviegoing choices. It's also not the healthiest approach.

I realized that my compulsion to see as many of the films that open commercially in town, not to mention the arty and repertory offerings at the Wexner Center, is not always the best expenditure of time and energy even if it costs nothing to get in the door. Is it really essential that I see BRATZ? No, although that doesn't explain why I blew a couple hours on a perfectly nice Saturday morning at a press screening of DADDY DAY CAMP. Seeing more than three hundred films theatrically in a calendar year is a badge of honor and a pathology, even if it is something you can define as work.

While I still see the lion's share of new films that flicker on the multitude of screens in this city, I have cut back in the past year. Life is not less complete because I missed WHO'S YOUR CADDY? or the rare theatrical exhibition of SATANTANGO, although I'm sure a reasonably compelling argument could be made in the case of the latter film.

Even with my modest reduction in films attended--a number that is likely higher than what a family might tally in a year--I still like going. It almost doesn't matter what is playing. I've been enjoying taking advantage of AMC Theatres' A.M. Cinema on Saturdays to catch up with something I missed or watching a film that didn't screen for the media.

Usually it's meant some crap horror film or other disreputable genre release, but the act of going to the theater and the possibility of being surprised, however unlikely that might be, endures. Don't get me wrong. I'd prefer to see something good, but if not, being able to pay four bucks, bring in a coffee, and watch film projected through celluloid still holds an allure undiminished by the hundreds (or thousands) of other times I've taken a seat in an auditorium to do just that.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


First off, yes, I know it's been quiet around here. With Now Playing not being in production since late June, it was very easy for me to lapse into non-posting. The station moved this summer and has been working on returning to our ordinary mode of operation. Tentatively, we're planning to record a new show on November 13. So, content I generate for the TV program will naturally find a home here.

The show began in March 1997 and taped every two weeks until June 19 this year. I've been writing movie reviews, good, bad, and otherwise, on a regular basis until this recent extended blip of non-activity. (I'm still seeing the movies, though.) While I wasn't looking to take a break from the writing, it has been nice to enjoy a breather. I've intended to write about some of the films I've seen. My blog dashboard shows draft entries for a couple non-starter reviews, including what I thought was the beginning of an interesting take on the unsuccessful curiosity THE INVASION. Whatever the reason, I couldn't manage to finish anything. Everyone hates the deadline, but without a pressing need to finish the reviews, I lost the motivation to complete pieces.

In the long run, I think the time off will serve me and my readers well. I'm not looking at movies differently, but I do feel somewhat rejuvenated in being loosed from the obligation of writing about them all the time. (I suppose it's ironic, and natural, that this fallow period follows a very productive early part of the year.)

I'm not going to commit yet, but to kickstart my return to maintaining this site on a regular basis, I may participate in National Blog Posting Month (or NaBloPoMo, as all the cool kids call it). Baby steps...

Anyway, thanks to however few of you have been visiting and wondering what in the world was up with the static you got when tuning in here. I didn't fall of the edge of the earth. Rather, I was dangling over it.