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Across the Universe, American Gangster, others



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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. 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

AMERICAN GANGSTER American Gangster is 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 becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade. 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/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. ***

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. 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 movie 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

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