ANTWONE FISHER "But what I really want to do is direct" is an age-old adage that has fallen from the lips of nearly 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.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN Steven Spielberg had already fulfilled his quota of quality entertainment for 2002 when he released Minority Report last summer, but as an added treat he's now offering this pleasing little picture that finds the director in a downright playful mood. From its snazzy opening credits -- the type normally found in frothy romantic comedies of the early 60s -- to John Williams' bouncy, infectious score, Catch Me feels like nothing so much as pure old-fashioned escapism -- it's the retro-movie that the fall flop The Truth About Charlie desperately wanted to be. Inspired by a true story, this stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in a smooth, charismatic performance) as Frank Abagnale, who, while still a teenager, manages to successfully impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher, all the while cashing false checks to the tune of more than $2 million. Frank stays ahead of the law for years, but never too far ahead, as his every move is dogged by a persistent FBI agent (Tom Hanks, very good). Because this is a Spielberg project, you can bet some poignant subtext involving splintered family units will come into play (Christopher Walken does a nice job as Frank's perpetually weary dad), but for the most part, this is engaging, stress-free entertainment -- just kick back and enjoy.
FAR FROM HEAVEN While many films sacrifice emotional investment for the sake of stylistic innovation and vice versa, this one 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.
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. Instead, the studio will have to console itself with the fact that it's 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