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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.