LARS AND THE REAL GIRL How is it even possible to make a PG-13 movie about a man and his plastic sex doll? To their (sort-of) credit, director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver give it a shot by fashioning a gentle parable about an introvert whose relationship with said object is actually a cry for help – plus, it doesn't hurt audience acceptance of the film (and the character) that he never uses the faux-female for what she was intended. In a performance that's as calculating as it is sweet-natured, Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a shy man who cringes at the mere thought of interacting with other humans, whether at the office, at parties, or even in the home of his brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer). Lars ends up purchasing a sex doll online, but rather than using her to satisfy God-given urges, he maintains a platonic relationship, escorting her all over town and introducing her to bewildered townsfolk as his Brazilian girlfriend Bianca. Rather than shunning Lars, his family and neighbors go along with the delusion, coaxing him (and Bianca!) into becoming more involved with the community even as a psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson) attempts to uncover the source of his behavior. An often clumsy fable about the sting of loneliness and the welcome balm of selfless intervention, Lars and the Real Girl can't quite manage a gimmick that's well-suited for a short film but thin when stretched out over 105 minutes. The supporting cast is fine, especially Schneider and Mortimer as Lars' perplexed family members and Kelli Garner as a co-worker who could use some of that love and affection that Lars bestows on Bianca. **1/2
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE Fashioning a story around a catalogue of classic Beatles tunes, Across the Universe proves to be a magical mystery tour with the power to restore one's faith in both movies and music. One can nitpick about the thin plot, though it's sturdy enough to function as a support beam to director Julie Taymor's outlandish ideas. Taking place in the late 1960s, the story, credited to Taymor and the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (the blokes responsible for the smashing Irish R&B flick The Commitments), finds Liverpool laborer Jude (Jim Sturgess) traveling to America, whereupon he finds a best friend in college kid Max (Joe Anderson) and a lover in Max's kid sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Eventually, the three end up in New York, at which point Jude develops his passion for drawing, Max gets drafted into the army, and Lucy finds her political consciousness awakened. The movie takes great care to not only honor the music of The Beatles but also to pay tribute to other musical staples of the period, among them Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and even the Apple Records logo. Combining the song sampling technique of Moulin Rouge with Forrest Gump's journey through the turbulent 1960s (and owing reams to Hair as well), Across the Universe serves up some truly staggering images, achieved through an eye-popping mix of computer graphics, oversized puppets and color-saturated set decorations. But while there's plenty of hallucinatory material, there's also plenty of heart, not to mention a handful of respectable covers of Fab Four tunes. ***1/2
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD So much for all that talk of a troubled production, studio hesitancy (Warner Bros. took forever to nail down an opening date) and a monumental misfire-to-be on the order of Heaven's Gate. While it's unlikely to make any sort of dent at the box office, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is no turkey; on the contrary, it's a sterling example of accomplished filmmaking on a grand scale, wielding a lengthy running time that allows it to explore its themes and characters in satisfying detail. Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel by writer-director Andrew Dominik, this comes from the same school of Westerns as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven and Lawrence Kasdan's underrated Wyatt Earp: Hardly a straight shoot-em-up, it instead serves as a commentary on the manner in which Western fact morphed into Western myth even as the ink was still drying on that particular time in American history. It also explores the allure of celebrity, using its powerful final half-hour (after the outlaw has been killed) to recount how Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was vilified while Jesse James (Brad Pitt) was elevated to legendary status. Aided by stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins and a music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that grows in stature as the film progresses, The Assassination of Jesse James also benefits from Hugh Ross' sturdy narration, which adds depth to a movie already awash in it. Pitt makes his mark via a skillfully etched portrayal yet top honors go to Casey Affleck, who's as impressive here as he is in Gone Baby Gone. ***1/2
DAN IN REAL LIFE One look at the coming attraction preview for Dan In Real Life reveals that here's a movie that's going to try to milk audience emotions for all they're worth. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll sing! You'll reflect! You'll hug the moviegoer sitting next to you, even if he smells like an NFL wide receiver's socks after a particularly grueling Sunday match-up! The trailer doesn't lie: Dan In Real Life wants to offer it all – a fine sentiment when a movie can pull it off, an example of trying too hard when it doesn't. This one falls somewhere in the middle: There are individual scenes that work nicely, even if the finished product doesn't produce the flood of emotions one might have reasonably expected. Writer-director Peter Hedges soft-pedals this material, offering a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, "Dan In Real Life," offers practical advice that he can't seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together; he falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to learn that she's the girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). It's nice to see this normal a family on screen, but the movie pays a price for its politeness, since there's never any sense that feelings might be hurt or egos bruised – this is especially true at the conclusion, which basically ignores conflicts that have already been established in order to send everyone home smiling. Dan In Real Life is the equivalent of a warm glass of milk, and that's meant neither as a compliment nor a criticism, merely a stated fact. **1/2
THE DARJEELING LIMITED Wes Anderson is the type of filmmaker who stirs love-him-or-leave-him vibes in audience members, which makes my own ambivalence toward him slightly perplexing: I've mildly enjoyed all of his films to date, yet I've never detected that spark of genius that his fans (and many critics) insist he possesses. Anderson's movies are too slight to earn such hefty acclaim, and were they not peopled with strong actors who can punch across his sweet-and-sour declarations (most memorably Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums), they would blow off the screen with the ease of a dandelion caught in a summer breeze. The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson's most wispish work to date, a road movie in which the road is made of railroad tracks. Carrying over the thematic baggage of most of his previous efforts, this one also concerns itself with familiar discord – here, Francis (Owen Wilson) invites his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to India to join him on a spiritual quest. They travel mainly aboard the train The Darjeeling Limited, attempting to communicate (but often just miscommunicating) with each other as they reflect on their relationships with loved ones as well as with each other. Anderson regular Bill Murray pops up at the very beginning, and his shaggy-dog appearance sets the tone for the remainder of the picture. This is a mixed bag of a movie, with some exquisite camera shots and clever exchanges not quite enough to overtake the tale's slenderness or the limitations of the lead characters. But it still offers enough modest charms to earn it a mild recommendation. **1/2
THE GAME PLAN After his film career began floundering, action star Vin Diesel turned to the family audience with The Pacifier and ended up with a $113 million hit. Along the same lines, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson now throws himself on the mercy of the small fry and their easy-to-please parental units with The Game Plan, an innocuous mediocrity whose biggest sin is its punishing running time. Rocky stars as Joe Kingman, a narcissistic quarterback who's blindsided when 8-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter. Livin' la vida loca with a lavishly designed bachelor pad, a European model for a girlfriend, and a flashy sports car to complement his lifestyle of the rich and famous, Joe (whose clunky gridiron nickname is "Never Say No Joe") learns that in order to become an effective parent (which he does so begrudgingly), he has to accept a pink tutu being placed on his bulldog, his football trophies getting BeDazzled, and his mode of transport getting downsized to a station wagon. Considering that The Game Plan holds next to no surprises for anyone who's ever seen a movie before, a 90-minute length would have been plenty; instead, this gets mercilessly stretched out to 110 minutes. Pettis mostly relies on calculated precociousness, but Johnson actually proves to be Rock-solid as Kingman, displaying modest but sufficient amounts of charm and comic timing. **
GONE BABY GONE Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, and by playing it close to the vest, he turns out a compelling drama that's deeply absorbing and constantly surprising. A better movie than Clint Eastwood's marginally overrated Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone sports a connection to that film since both were adapted from novels by Dennis Lehane. Here, a little girl is snatched from her home in a working-class Boston neighborhood, and the family hires two private investigators (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to track down the missing moppet. Working in uneasy unison with a couple of detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), sometimes without the knowledge of the cops' superior officer (Morgan Freeman), the pair follow the trail of clues wherever it leads, which is usually straight into an underworld populated by thuggish crime lords and coke-addled pedophiles. Aided by a stellar cast that showcases superlative turns by Ben's brother Casey, Harris and Amy Ryan as the child's trashy mom, Affleck (who also co-scripted with Aaron Stockard) has crafted a forceful crime flick that's made even more irresistible by way of a moral ambivalence that's extremely rare in modern dramas. It's this stance that propels the film through its knockout finale, since a sequence about two-thirds through the picture erroneously leads us to believe that the film is winding down with a disappointingly conventional ending. But it's a mere ruse, since it clears the way for more surprises that in turn build toward a devastating conclusion guaranteed to remain in the mind for days, weeks, maybe even months. ***1/2
INTO THE WILD Sean Penn's performances – even the fine ones – can best be described as overwrought, but place the actor behind the camera, and the opposite holds true: As a director, his preference has been for subtlety rather than showboating. Into the Wild finds him turning in his best directorial effort to date; adapting Jon Krakauer's based-on-fact novel, he has fashioned a somber, reflective film about a young man whose actions are so open to interpretation that where some will see an idealist, others will see an obnoxious brat; where some will see a martyr, others will merely see a moron. Emile Hirsch delivers a strong performance as Chris McCandless, a well-to-do college graduate who donates all his savings to charity and head for the wilderness. Determined to leave society and all its hypocrisies behind, he treks all over North America's untamed terrain, meeting a wide range of interesting individuals along the way. Into the Wild is especially memorable in the manner in which it offers no absolutes. Functioning as a bookend piece to Werner Herzog's excellent documentary Grizzly Man, it demonstrates that nature is as beastly as it is beautiful, and even noble aspirations run the risk of getting trampled under its imposing weight. All of the characters have their say, yet even when people's opinions run counter to each other's, everyone is making sense and no one is being disingenuous. Penn obviously feels enormous sympathy for his protagonist, yet he doesn't present him as a saint, only a charismatic if troubled kid whose defining feature is that he managed to live a life less ordinary. ***
LUST, CAUTION How necessary are sex scenes to a film's identity? In some instances, such as Last Tango In Paris and Shortbus, they're integral to our understanding of the characters' psyches. In most cases, they're merely movie decorations, there to entertain us and arouse us and not do much more. The carnal encounters in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, couplings that earned the film an NC-17, are open to debate. Certainly, part of Lee's intent is to employ the sex as a means of charting the complex relationship between the two central characters. At the same time, there's a nagging sense that, having stirred up controversy with Brokeback Mountain, he's hoping to keep the fires burning by going even further in his exploration of sexuality. The trouble is, Brokeback Mountain truly gave us something unique (at least in American cinema), while the softcore romps here can be caught on late-night cable any given weekend. Expanding a story by Eileen Chang, this moves back and forth between the war years 1938-1942, with drama student Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) becoming a spy in order to get close to – and help assassinate – Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese. Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which wears its identical 160-minute running time with greater ease, Lust, Caution is overlong, with much of the inherent tension drained through protracted setups and select sequences that extend rather than deepen the storyline. Still, the spy-game maneuverings provide dramatic heft, and Tang Wei is a luminous actress who could end up being the next Gong Li – or at least Zhang Ziyi. **1/2
MICHAEL CLAYTON Far easier to follow than its impenetrable trailer would lead one to believe, Michael Clayton plays like Erin Brockovich without the populist appeal – it centers on the title character (George Clooney), a law firm "fixer" who's always called upon to clean up messy problems for the company's clients. Hating his job but stuck with it due to massive debts and an expensive divorce, Michael finds himself caught in the middle when Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), Michael's good friend and the firm's best attorney, seemingly goes bonkers and threatens to derail their most important case: defending an agrochemical company against a lawsuit filed by ordinary citizens. Michael's boss (Sydney Pollack) orders him to talk some sense into Arthur, but it turns out that the agrochemical company's chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) is willing to go to more extreme lengths to silence the wayward lawyer. Tony Gilroy, adapter of the Jason Bourne novels, makes his directorial debut here (as well as writing the script), and it's an assured first effort. Almost everything about the movie is muted – the settings, the exchanges, the emotions – and this decision gives the story a real-world gravitas that makes the odious executive actions seem even more plausible than they already are. Gilroy steadfastly avoids including anything that can be deemed extraneous or overreaching, preferring to rest his faith – and the picture's fate – in the hands of his accomplished actors and in the strength of his own script. There are no real surprises in Michael Clayton, just the awareness of a job well done. ***
RANDY AND THE MOB Ray McKinnon isn't one of those pampered Hollywood suits who makes faux-Southern pictures like The Dukes of Hazzard and Sweet Home Alabama; a Georgia native, he followed his 2001 film The Accountant (which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short) with the impressive 2004 drama Chrystal, with Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount (McKinnon's wife and producing partner) as an estranged Ozarkian couple mourning the loss of their child. Deep-fried in Southern heritage, it evoked a specific landscape and its people, and only the participation of an A-list star like Thornton prevented it from qualifying as an example of low-budget regional filmmaking. This is why Randy and the Mob comes off as such a disappointment. Arch in a way that his previous feature was honest, it's a clumsy attempt to lay an overcoat of forced cornpone whimsy on a drab storyline involving mobsters. McKinnon plays two roles: Randy, an irresponsible good-ole-boy stereotype, and Cecil, his flaming twin brother. As the title hints, Randy owes a large sum to buffoonish gangsters, who send an odd character named Tino (Walter Goggins) work out a deal. Tino is presented as an inspirational life force who's meant to earn our admiration (and our laughs), but he's merely annoying, coming across like a quirky reject from an early draft of a Coen Brothers screenplay. The mob shenanigans seem as artificial as the family dysfunction, and the whole enterprise has the feel of one of those sloppy, homemade films posted on YouTube. But at least McKinnon had the sense to offer a cameo to the former king of Southern cinema, Burt Reynolds. *1/2
RENDITION What's the point of tackling a real-life hot-button issue if everything about it is presented in an only-in-Hollywood style of fantasy filmmaking? The post-9/11 topic on hand is "extraordinary rendition," which allows the U.S. government to send suspected terrorists to other countries in order to be interrogated. Since the Bush Administration has no qualms about torturing any foreigners whose skin is darker than, say, Nicole Kidman's, it's a viable and volatile subject for a movie to tackle, but Rendition does so in the most simplistic manner possible. Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, a pregnant mom whose Egyptian-born, U.S.-raised husband (Omar Metwally) has disappeared without a trace, snatched at the Washington, D.C. airport for his suspected part in a bombing. The U.S. government's evidence is feeble, but Senator Whitman (Meryl Streep, not particularly effective) decides that's all the proof she needs to ship him off to be subjected to all manner of pain. The American analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to preside over the torture finds the treatment shocking; meanwhile, Isabella seeks help from a former college fling (Peter Sarsgaard), who just happens to be the assistant to a senator (Alan Arkin) who works closely with Whitman. As if this weren't all convenient enough for the sake of tidy storytelling and tentative armchair liberalism, there's also a plot thread involving a love affair between a terrorist and the daughter of the head of the torture unit. Coupled with a narrative "Gotcha!" more suited to Memento, it all adds up to a dilution of the real issues at hand. With friends like this movie, who needs Dick Cheney? **
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE Hot from helming last year's After the Wedding (an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film), Danish director Susanne Bier returns with her first film in the English language. But if there was any worry that Bier was "going Hollywood," this somber and mature drama immediately quells that notion. Bier's steady hand behind the camera is enough to overcome the flaws in Allan Loeb's script, which relates the story of how two people – a widow (Halle Berry) and her late husband's drug-addicted friend (Benicio Del Toro) – cope in the aftermath of their shared tragedy. Bier, one of the disciples of the Dogme 95 style of moviemaking (basically, a Danish movement that insists on no employment of movie artifice like special effects and soundtracks and maximum use of natural light, hand-held cameras, etc.), has retained some of her European filmmaking instincts to cut down on the melodrama inherent in Loeb's screenplay. For the most part, she keeps the excess in check, which in turn leads to scenes that are even more powerful thanks to their subtlety. Berry does fine work in a rather difficult (i.e. inconsistent) role, yet it's Del Toro's staggering performance that will have tongues wagging throughout award season. Del Toro's face can be a map of emotions, and he's allowed to unfold it freely in a multifaceted performance that really allow us to measure the actor's immense talents. ***
WE OWN THE NIGHT At least writer-director James Gray sports a surname that helpfully describes his motion pictures. It's isn't that Gray's a poor filmmaker, but his previous efforts – the competent but colorless crime dramas Little Odessa and The Yards – were so ordinary that, years later, I honestly can't remember a single scene from either one. If nothing else, We Own the Night marks a step in the right direction in that it boasts of one terrific sequence worth recalling: a car-chase-cum-gun-battle unfolding in a rainstorm so blinding and fierce that even the raindrops sound like bullets hitting their designated targets. Beyond this mesmerizing sequence, the movie, set in 1988 New York City, is another example of (crime) business as usual. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a nightclub manager at odds with his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall), both respected police officers. But after a drug dealer (Alex Veadov) orders a hit on Joseph, Bobby must choose sides in the fight between law and disorder. Phoenix and Wahlberg (who previously co-starred in The Yards and serve as producers here) are solid but unremarkable, and even a great actor like Duvall can't do much with his threadbare role. Far more interesting than the casting are Gray's choices for the songs overheard at a trendy NYC nightclub in 1988: Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and "Rapture," both from 1979. Presumably, Gray couldn't secure the rights for such actual 1988 tunes as New Kids on the Block's "Please Don't Go Girl" and Tiffany's "All This Time" – either that, or good taste simply overtook chronological consistency. **1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2:
AMERICAN GANGSTER: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe.
BEE MOVIE: Animated; voices of Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zelwegger.
MARTIAN CHILD: John Cusack, Amanda Peet.
WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon.