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American Gangster, Lars and the Real Girl, others



New Releases

AMERICAN GANGSTER Ever since 1990's one-two punch of GoodFellas and Miller's Crossing, it's been mostly downhill for the mob movie, and even acclaimed efforts like Donnie Brasco and The Godfather Part III couldn't light my fire (and, despite the insistence of friends over the years, I have yet to be stirred enough to tackle six seasons of The Sopranos). And make no mistake: What's offered in American Gangster isn't particularly fresh, as it's yet one more tale about a confident crime figure who rises to the top before taking that inevitable plunge down the elevator shaft. Yet for all its familiar trappings, director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian invest their tale with plenty of verve, even if they frequently soft-pedal the deeds of their real-life protagonist. Denzel Washington, perhaps our most charismatic actor, has been charged with bringing Frank Lucas to the screen, and, as expected, he turns the Harlem kingpin into a magnetic menace, a self-starter who, after serving as apprentice to bigwig Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) throughout the 1960s, becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade, thereby infuriating the Italians who are used to being at the apex of this particular food chain. American Gangster could easily have been called American Capitalist or American Dreamcatcher – it's a Horatio Alger tale shot up with heroin – but perhaps sensing that Lucas' fine qualities might likely overshadow the fact that he's selling death to his own people (only one sequence hammers home the horrors brought about by Lucas' exploits), Scott and Zaillian offer up a standard movie hero in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the honest cop tasked with busting open the New York/New Jersey drug racket. Roberts could have come across as a cardboard saint, but thanks to Crowe's deft underplaying, he's an interesting figure and strikes a nice counterbalance to the more dynamic Frank Lucas. American Gangster is long but not overlong – its 160 minutes are well spent – and while it never achieves the epic grandeur of, say, The Godfather (for one thing, the real-life denouement prohibits any Scarface-style theatrics), it manages to pump a measure of respect back into a genre that thrives on it.  ***

Current Releases

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. Taking place in the late 1960s, the story, credited to director Julie 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. 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 Here'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. Writer-director Andrew Dominik's Western comes from the same school as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Unforgiven and the underrated Wyatt Earp: Hardly a straight shoot-em-up, it 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 score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that grows in stature as the film progresses, this 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