ADAM SANDLER'S EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS Any critical goodwill Adam Sandler earned for Punch-Drunk Love will be negated by his participation in this animated feature for which he co-wrote the script, served as a producer, and voiced three of the central characters. Basically a frat-house version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, this shows how an anti-social slacker becomes a swell guy thanks to the efforts of a diminutive elderly man. As is par for the course, the movie turns faux-sentimental in time for the fadeout, but before that, we're subjected to the usual gross-out humor. The musical numbers (featuring lyrics like "I don't decorate no trees... But I'll give this old lady's melons a squeeze") are well-executed, but the movie's product placements travel far beyond the already shameful norm, as logos for (among others) Foot Locker and Victoria's Secret come alive to offer lectures on the meaning of Christmas. This corporate pimping is actually far more offensive than the scatological humor, which, had this been live-action rather than animated, would have earned the film an R rather than its benign PG-13 rating. 1/2
ANALYZE THAT With Robin Williams ceasing his whoring ways with the one-two punch of Insomnia and One Hour Photo, it's now squarely Robert De Niro who's doing his best to keep the world's oldest profession flourishing in Hollywood. In yet another take-the-paycheck-and-run example, the once respectable actor shamelessly mugs his way through a needless (not to mention unfunny) sequel to 1999's Analyze This. In this outing, his mob boss is released from prison into the care of his hapless psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) on the condition that he go straight, but it's not long before he's up to his arched eyebrows in gangland shenanigans. This sloppy sequel requires De Niro to gleefully mangle tunes from West Side Story and wave his "sausage" at middle-aged ladies, and it's impossible to feel anything but embarrassment for the actor. 1/2
ANTWONE FISHER "But what I really want to do is direct" is an age-old adage that has seemingly fallen from the lips of every Hollywood employee from screenwriter to key grip, but because of their clout, it's the members of the acting profession who get to realize this fantasy the most. The latest example is Denzel Washington; he doesn't do a damn thing fancy in his first at-bat behind the camera, and that turns out to be his strong suit. The screenplay's the story here, and Washington gets out of its way, letting his actors (including himself) relate it simply and honestly without feeling the need to gum it up with show-off stylistics. Antwone Fisher wrote the script, based on his own life story, and he and Washington luck out by having an engaging newcomer named Derek Luke handle the heavy lifting. This talented young actor gives his all in this drama about a troubled sailor whose anti-social behavior brings him into contact with a Navy psychiatrist (Washington) who eventually helps him get to the root of his emotional problems. Luke enjoys an easy rapport with his co-stars (his romantic interludes opposite the bright Joy Bryant are especially pleasing), and the film's Psychology Lite is effective enough that we buy into the satisfying resolution.
FAR FROM HEAVEN While many films sacrifice emotional investment for the sake of stylistic innovation and vice versa, this one fearlessly tackles both facets and emerges a winner on both fronts. In crafting what turns out to be one of the best films of the year, writer-director Todd Haynes (Safe) has made a glorious-looking picture that's almost fetishistic in its desire to replicate cult director Douglas Sirk's Technicolor-soaked melodramas from the 50s. Haynes pulls off this verisimilitude, yet he also nails the oversized emotions and barely repressed attitudes, resulting in one of the most affecting "weepies" of recent times. Julianne Moore, in what may endure as the performance of 2002, stars as a content housewife in 1957 Connecticut whose life starts to unravel once she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual and that she's feeling an attraction for her gentle black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Foregoing any semblance of irony or camp or even dreamy nostalgia (traits that invariably affect any 50s-set flick made today), Haynes has instead come up with a straight-faced triumph that works as both a poignant love story and a piercing social commentary. I'm upping this a half-star from my original review, not only because the film has stuck with me more than any other 2002 release but also because it holds up beautifully on a second viewing.
GANGS OF NEW YORK There's no hemming and hawing on projects like Gangs of New York, those epic undertakings that result in inflated budgets, overlong shoots, studio bickering, and reams of newspaper copy predicting failure (see Apocalypse Now and Titanic). A quick answer is all but required by curious moviegoers: yes or no? In the case of Martin Scorsese's 170-minute achievement -- hell, yeah. The bad news for Miramax is that it's unlikely such a grim picture will make back its $100 million cost, especially at Christmastime. Instead, the studio will have to console itself with the fact that it has produced one of the year's most notable films, a historical drama that presents a compelling revenge yarn set against the backdrop of New York in the mid-19th century, with an explosive climax that brings the draft riots of 1863 to chilling life. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a strong-willed kid who seeks to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson),the leader of a borough's immigrant crop, at the hands of "Bill the Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis), the brutal yet clever ruler of the "natives." It'd be a mistake to dismiss this as a period Death Wish -- there's genuine tension in Amsterdam's mission, and Scorsese and his crackerjack team spare no expense in immersing us in what amounts to a grungy hell on earth. DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are both solid, yet it's Day-Lewis' riveting work in an unexpectedly complex role that puts New York over the top. 1/2