Friday, November 30, 2007

De Palma goes to war and it's hell

Summary: I've been putting off writing about Brian De Palma's "Redacted" for a couple of weeks. A faux documentary -- or rather a combination of faux documentaries -- "Redacted" looks better than it should and plays worse than it should.

So far "Redacted" seems to be a box-office dud, but it tries to buck the odds in Denver beginning today (Friday). Based on a true story that has been altered to avoid lawsuits, "Redacted" shows how two soldiers led an assault on a Samarra home. The incident, if that's not an overly neutral word, resulted in the murder of an innocent family, the rape of a 15-year-old girl and the destruction of the house.

De Palma takes a gamble for a major filmmaker, relying on moves you might expect to see in an under-financed indie production. He assembles his horrific tale from video purportedly shot by a GI with film school aspirations, from footage lifted from a supposed French documentary about life at a checkpoint and from clips provided by a fictionalized Arab news network. The resultant film -- only still photos shown at the end are real -- coheres as an anti-war statement not unlike the one that De Palma delivered in his 1989 Vietnam film, "Casualties of War."

Redacted means edited -- as in partially censored. That may be the key to understanding De Palma's movie. Perhaps he wants to tell us that if Americans saw the full horror of the Iraq war, they would storm Washington's barricades in protest. Or maybe he's attempting to give us a telling look at the ironies of a moment that has produced a massive amount of visual information, much of it undigested. Without a video-obsessed soldier attempting to record the 24/7 of the war, maybe we wouldn't believe that the depicted crimes occurred. Truth -- if that's what it is -- by accident?

Filmed quickly -- possibly to enhance its sense of urgency -- "Redacted" might have worked had it felt less self-conscious and canned. De Palma mixes the boredom of the GIs with deeply disturbing instances of American and insurgent brutality, but movie's faux realism feels as faux as it does real. We seldom forget that what we're watching involves reenactments, actors and a director's calculated touch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gyllenhaal as Joe Willie?

Summary: Variety reports that Jake Gyllenhaal will play flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath in an upcoming biopic. I lived in New York City when "Broadway Joe" was king -- and Gyllenhaal certainly isn't the first guy I'd think of to play the brash quarterback who beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Maybe Gyllenhaal can pull it off, but it's difficult for me to picture the "Brokeback Mountain" star lacing up Namath's shoes and going long to a fleet Don Maynard. If I think about it (and I there's no reason I should) it seems as if someone such as Matthew McConaughey might have been a better choice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Celebrating a new cinema voice

Summary: New voices qualify as one of our most valuable cinematic possessions. I'm not talking about the kind of hip new voices one typically -- and sometimes wrongly -- associates with American independent filmmaking, but about the kind of voices that bring us into contact with those who generally are disenfranchised from contemporary cinema culture. That's why the new movie, "Vanaja," deserves to be seen and celebrated.

As portrayed by a group of non-professionals, the characters who populate "Vanaja" are ordinary people leading the kind of lives movies mostly overlook: a poor village girl who wants nothing more than to learn to the art of Kuchipudi dance, her stumbling, drunken father, the girl's best friend, the woman who becomes the girl's mentor and the mentor's handsome but callous son.

Mamatha Bhukya, a girl of irrepressible spirit and flinty character, plays the title character of director Rajnesh Domalpalli's captivating new movie. The moment we meet the playful Vanaja -- at a dance performance she's watching -- we realize that we're in vibrant company.

As is the case with many fine movies, the plot of "Vanaja" follows a simple arc: Vanaja's father pushes the girl to leave school and find work. Vanaja says she's willing, but only if she can land employment at the house of the village's upper-crust patroness, a woman known as the Landlady.

You don't need to know much about either life or Indian film to know that such dreams do not necessarily come true.

Although far from an impassioned screed, "Vanaja" manages to expose the continuing tyrannies of India's class and caste divisions, and there's one more surprising that about it. This lively, colorful movie was made as a master's of fine arts thesis at Columbia University. I haven't seen may student films like "Domalpalli's. "Vanaja" may not be seamless, but it has enough heart to make up for whatever gaps a miniscule budget couldn't fill.

If you're in Denver, "Vanaja'' can seen at The Starz FilmCenter.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Afterthoughts in the time of leftovers

Summary: On the day when the country begins eating leftovers, it seemed appropriate to offer a few of my own:

-- Is it just me or does anyone else wish that director Robert Zemeckis ("Beowulf") would stop with the performance-capture animation and make a real movie?

-- I can't help wondering what movies would look like (and how our perception of certain actors might change) if every movie ended with the kind of dance sequence you'll find at the end of "This is Christmas." And, yes, that includes "Lions for Lambs." What? You wouldn't want to see Robert Redford line dance?

-- Amy Adams did a wonderful job as an animated character come to life in "Enchanted," but what's with the talk of an Oscar nomination? Please.

-- Question: Is it possible for Charlie Rose to do an interesting show about a movie?

-- If seeing Robin Williams in the trailer for "August Rush" weren't enough to put you off the movie, you'd do well not to share that information with anyone.

-- The reviews for "Love in the Time of Cholera" were appropriately negative, but came on way too strong.

-- The animated film, "Persopolis," which opens in December and which deals with coming-of-age inside and outside Iran, proves once and for all that an animated films really can be made for adults.

__ At the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival someone who should know better told me he thought the Coen brothers were over after "Miller's Crossing."

-- And speaking of the Starz Denver Film Festival, which paid me to moderate three panels, what was with all the grousing about the opening-night film, "The Savages?" "Too much of a downer." "Not what I go to the movies for." "Set the wrong tone for the festival." Come on, people. It's a film festival, not a pep rally. "Savages" is an intelligent film about coming to grips with dementia and death of parent. It's also seasoned with humor.

-- Could Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais," an adaptation of a Balzac novella I saw at the festival, be the most boring film of the year? I know it's early, but make that the century.

-- During a festival interview, Norman Jewison -- who received a lifetime achievement award -- told me that he thought all movie stars have big heads. He was speaking literally not metaphorically.

-- While we're on the subject of heads: The appearance of Timothy Olyphant in the abysmal, incoherent "Hitman," a movie with enough gall to take itself seriously, proves once and for all that most white guys have no business shaving their heads.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

'I'm Not There;' neither is the movie

Summary: In “I’m Not There,” director Todd Haynes takes on the multi-faceted mythology that surrounds Bob Dylan, an artist whose career has been through enough incarnations to fuel six biopics. Maybe that's why six actors play Dylan-like characters in this adventurous but flawed endeavor.

I expected more dizzying, fractured spirit from a movie that tells six different stories with six different actors, all by way of demonstrating (I think) that attempting to capture Dylan amounts to an exercise in futility.

The movie begins by introducing us to a black youth (Marcus Carl Franklin) who tells us he’s Woody Guthrie. This spunky version of Guthrie leads the movie's parade of personae, each presumably representing aspects of Dylan’s personality and art. In service to this concept, Haynes employs Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere. No, I'm not kidding, Richard Gere.

Blanchett, who does a nifty Dylan impersonation, portrays the singer during the disillusioning years in which he approached rock stardom. Blanchett's spot-on interpretation makes for the film’s best and most enjoyable segments. I can’t say I thought much of the other "Dylans," although Gere’s performance scores lowest. He's doing a Billy the Kid riff, which apparently has something to do with Dylan's appearance in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Other "Dylans" include a poet, a movie star and a character who seems to embody the traits of the early Dylan.

Despite what you might think, the various stories intersect and overlap in ways that aren't all that difficult to follow, and Haynes makes strong points about the ways in which a phenomenally successful artist must wrestle with fame. He also shows that the constant demands of fans -- who expect perpetual profundity from their idol -- can be more than a little debilitating. At other points, we see the religious Dylan, the folk-hero Dylan or the Dylan who's busy trying not to live up (or down) to anyone's expectations.

In the end, "I'm Not There" comes off as a stylish, ambitious and uninvolving in the distanced way that a fractured narrative can be. A friend who knows far more about Dylan than I tells me that he admires the movie. Maybe you need to be steeped in Dylan fact and lore to arrive at such higher levels of appreciation. For me, "I'm Not There" seemed a movie composed mainly of side trips, some diverting, some illuminating, some beyond repair.

I've liked Haynes' work in the past -- from "Velvet Goldmine" to "Far From Heaven" -- but I couldn't help wondering what a director such as Julian Schnabel, who understands the artist as outsider and who can be stylistically looser than Haynes, might have done with Dylan as a subject. Oh well, we've had two Capote movies; maybe it's time someone took another run at Dylan.

Horror and enchantment mark the holiday


Director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile") again adapts a Stephen King story, this time for a minor helping of horror about a small Maine town that must fight off giant insects and other monstrous creatures resulting from'll have to see the picture to find out what brought about this hellish scenario.

A second-tier cast led by Thomas Jane lends its skills to the story of a group of townsfolk trapped in the local supermarket after a hazardous mist arrives. Jane plays David Drayton, who's caught with his young son in the supermarket. As tensions mount, Drayton winds up sparring with a Manhattan lawyer (Andre Braugher) who insists on leaving the market. Marcia Gay Harden shows up as a religious nut who, of course, endangers everyone in between Bible-crazed rants. Perhaps trying to shake off his turn as Capote in "Infamous," British actor Toby Jones shows up as the man who runs the supermarket.

"The Mist" delivers the requisite jolts, as Darabont sets out to show us how people behave under extreme pressure. That would have been easier had the movie been populated by people instead of a series of characters who sometimes seem like comic-book creations.

A big-shock ending, perhaps intended to dislodge the movie from its horror roots and give it an existential kick in the pants, didn't help -- at least not for me.


I'm not sure that I'd recommend "Enchanted" to most of the people I know. I'm not saying the movie is bad -- far from it -- but most of my pals prefer alienation to enchantment. Mention the words "fairy tale," and they're likely to start lobbing verbal grenades at the screen. But you know what? "Enchanted" manages to be a pretty successful slice of romance, and it's creative to boot.

Deftly mixing animation and live action, the movie tells the story of Giselle (Amy Adams), a young woman who travels from the animated world to upscale Manhattan, emerging in Times Square through a manhole. Once in New York, Giselle meets Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), a divorce lawyer who can't quite believe he's run into this too-good-to-be-true princess. Robert's daughter (Rachel Covey) has less trouble believing in magic: She becomes the first real-world character to be enchanted by this visitor from a pastel-colored Disney paradise that practically reeks of happily-ever-afters.

Meanwhile, Giselle's dream prince (James Marsden) follows his love to New York in hopes of rescuing her. He's got a mommy problem, though. His mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) wants to derail his pending marriage -- with help from some poison apples and a lackey played by Timothy Spall, who's at his sniveling, rodent-like best. The humor has a slight edge to it, and that makes the movie palatable for adults; the musical numbers are agreeable (if not classic); and Adams' golly-gee sincerity proves funny and winning, particularly when played against Dempsey's more sober turn.

The end-of-movie special effects may be a bit bombastic, but overall "Enchanted" accomplishes its mission: reaffirming romance while goofing -- ever so mildly -- on its own starry-eyed pretensions.

As for the other supposedly enchanted movie of the weekend -- "August Rush" -- let's just say that director Kirsten Sheridan has concocted a movie that tries to sketch its story in the broadest possible strokes. "August Rush" introduces us to an 11-year-old boy (Freddie Highmore) who runs away from an orphanage to search for his parents in Manhattan. The entire picture, which plays like updated Dickens filtered through an overly emphatic "Flashdance" sensibility, builds toward the boy's meeting with his parents (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Mostly preposterous, this contemporary fairy tale features Robin Williams as Wizard, a Fagin-like character who makes his living sending children into the streets to play music for money. Sporting a soul patch and "Midnight Cowboy" garb, Williams hits a lower bottom than the rest of a movie that risks exhaustion by strenuously attempting to tug at the heartstrings.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

When in doubt, opt for depression

Summary: I vacillated for a minute about how I should spend closing night of the Starz Denver Film Festival. Should I see "August Rush," an inspirational movie whose ads describe it as "a captivating fantasy?" Or should I head straight for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the devastatingly bleak Romanian movie that won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival? If you guessed "August Rush," I refer you to a line from a song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. "If you don't know me by now, you will never never know me."

I went Romanian and wasn't sorry. Director Cristian Mungiu's movie has been picking up raves at festivals ever since its triumph at Cannes. Turns out the Cannes' jurors were right. Gripping as it is grim, "4 Months'' might be the year's least compromised movie.

"4 Months" deals with a university student (Anamaria Marinca) who's trying to help a friend arrange an abortion in 1987 Romania. At the time, abortion was illegal and carried stiff penalties -- as much as 10 years in prison. To make matters even more precarious, the woman who wants the abortion (Laura Vasiliu) has tarried. She's in the fifth month of her pregnancy.

Mingiu establishes a climate of economic desperation so severe, it's hardly surprising that the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) proves even more predatory than expected.

Mungiu's lengthy takes allow the story to unfold with an agonizing sense of realism. (It almost seems as if events are taking place in real time.) But he also builds tension, as he paints a telling picture of the meanness of life in Caucescue's Romania. Be warned: A couple of the movie's images could prompt walkouts. This is tough stuff.

To its credit, "4 Months" can be read either as pro or anti-abortion, but the movie's real achievement revolves around the ways in which Mingiu toys with our perceptions. He primes us to anticipate conventional moves, but outsmarts us at every turn, ultimately reminding us that we sometimes allow our expectations to blind us to horrors that are right in front of our eyes.

Look for a review when the picture opens.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Listen to Norman Jewison discuss his career

Director Norman Jewison received the Mayor's Lifetime Achievement Award at the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival. Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" won the Oscar for best picture in 1967. His filmographry includes movies such "Moonstruck," "A Soldier’s Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" and "The Cincinnati Kid." A pristine new print of "In the Heat of the Night," which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, showed at the festival.

When I sat down for a festival podcast with Jewison, he proved an amiable and interesting conversationalist who offered a guided tour through a career that has found him directing an array of actors that includes Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Steve McQueen, Denzel Washington and Cher, who initially resisted the idea of making "Moonstruck," a picture that won her a best-actress Oscar. Hear the podcast.

At the same site, you can also hear interviews with director Jason Reitman, whose new movie "Juno" opens soon, as well as with underground director Ron Bronstein, whose "Frownland" received attention at SXSW and in Denver, and with veteran cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who did the cinematography on the upcoming "Charlie Wilson's War," which was directed by Mike Nichols.

A dark masterpiece from the Coen brothers

Summary: "No Country for Old Men'' ranks as one of the strongest films of the year. In adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel for the screen, the Coen brothers serve up nearly unbearable amounts of tension, and their picture becomes a gritty meditation on the power of fate and the implacability of evil.

Tommy Lee Jones' face can look as worn-out as an old sofa and as tough as a steel-toed boot. In "No Country For Old Men," that face serves Jones well, standing as kind of craggy metaphor for West Texas land that's been weathered by blood. Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a West Texas lawman who soldiers on despite the fact that he knows he can't win. It's not that Sheriff Bell never catches bad guys; it's that he understands that the battle between good and evil has gotten lopsided. Evil has the advantage because it has neither conscience nor memory. It simply does what it does.

If Jones' performance embodies the sense of defeat that stems from fighting a long and losing battle, Javier Bardem perfectly embodies the relentless march of evil. As Anton Chigurh, a man with a pageboy haircut and a heart of stone, Bardem stalks his prey with the kind of air-compression stun gun that's used to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. Chigurh's a matter-of-fact killer. In one scene, he asks a gas-station attendant to flip a coin. We know that the confused man's life depends on the call, and we watch with equal amounts of fascination and dread as the poor sap tries to figure what the hell's going on.

"No Country For Old Men'' pulls its story out of ill-gotten gains. Early on, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto the scene of a killing, surveying carnage that resulted from a drug deal gone bad. Moss also finds $2 million in cash, and fatefully decides to keep it. Bardem's Chigurh also wants the money. Naively, we think Moss may be able to take the money and slip into some vaguely defined happily-ever-after moment. To do that, he must outsmart or kill Chigurh, a definite long shot. Still, we hope for Moss. He's not much of a guy, either, but in this world gone sour, he's the closest we're going to get to a rooting interest.

All of this takes place against sparse West Texas landscapes -- the picture was shot in New Mexico by cinematographer Roger Deakins -- that seem as forbidding as the characters. This is country in which the welcome mat long ago got rolled up.

If there's a false note in any of the performances, I didn't hear it. Jones perfectly delivers the movie's colorful language, some of it taken directly from McCarthy's book. When a sheriff's deputy sees the terrible crime scene that opens the movie, he asks whether Bell agrees that they've stumbled into one awful mess. "If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here,'' says Jones, whose sardonic wit blends perfectly with Bell's nearly ingrained battle fatigue.

Brolin steps up and more than meets the challenge of playing a man who hopes that he'll be able to pass go and collect his $200 (actually $2 million). He wants to take off with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) and live a better life.

Some of the scenes are deceptively simple. Moss sits in a hotel room waiting for Bardem's character to show. The tension becomes unbearable, like being in a room with a cocked and loaded revolver on the table. The Coens play this scene out several times, offering newly twisted variations on a terror-laden scenario. And, yes, there's plenty of the Coens' trademark blood and guts.

The movie, which takes place in 1980, has a strangely alarming feel. Throughout, there's a sense that something important has snapped, that the country's moral center has collapsed, so much so that even hardened lawmen can't quite comprehend the level of heartless brutality that has been unleashed.

The dialog isn't without humor, but the seriousness of "No Country" can't be denied. I left "No Country'' shaken by the unforgiving grimness of its vision. More mythic than real, "No Country For Old Men" sounds a death knell for decency, and you may hear it toll long after you've left the theater.

At the same time, you may also feel buoyed. After all, you will just have witnessed the best filmmaking of the year.

Sidney Lumet sidesteps the devil

Summary: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is director Sidney Lumet's latest movie. Perhaps because most of us want the 83-year-old Lumet to keep making movies, "Devil" has been slightly overpraised. It's worth seeing, though, even if it doesn't earn a lasting place in your book of movie memories.

Lumet has a flair for mixing melodrama and realism, and he does it again in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a small thriller that demonstrates the ways in which miscalculation -- driven by psychological frailty -- can produce tragic results. Although Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney hardly look as if they sprang from the same gene pool, they're cast are two brothers and their father in a story centered on a botched jewelry store robbery. By the end, I thought Lumet had pushed the proceedings too far over the top, and I couldn't suppress a yearning for the gritty textural richness that characterized the director's best urban work -- movies such as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City" and "Q&A." Still, I went along for the ride with a movie that narrows its focus until its characters seem to scream with the kind of pain induced by lifetimes of mistakes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Like many, Mailer came to Telluride

Talk about chutzpah. A friend of mine once asked Norman Mailer if he'd read several short stories my friend had written. The request was made at a long-ago Telluride Film Festival, where Mailer had come to be Mailer and to show portions of "Maidstone," a film he shot in the Hamptons in 1968.

When a section entitled "The Death of the Director," reached the screen, the audience in Telluride's Sheridan Opera House applauded, an act of critical cruelty about which Mailer grumbled. It seemed to Mailer -- and maybe he was right -- that a festival audience should be receptive to all kinds of work. Maybe he thought it inappropriate that a sophisticated group of cinema enthusiasts would resort to the kind of boisterous expression more typically associated with the boxing matches Mailer loved.

Anyway, Mailer gave my friend an address where he could send his scratchings, but also issued a warning. Mailer promised if he read the work, he'd tell my friend exactly what he thought. There'd be no holding back. That didn't sound good to me, but I guess it's how things should be. If you dare to ask the oracle a question, you probably ought to be man enough to handle the answer. I'm not sure that Mailer's response would have been kind, but it probably would have been right, maybe too right.

I don't think my friend ever heard back from Mailer, and if he didn't, he certainly won't now. Mailer died Saturday at the age of 84.

Over the next few days, you'll read plenty of commentary about Mailer: the writer, politician, journalist, boxer, mayoral candidate and provocateur. But unlike most who'll be assessing Mailer's legacy, I once sat next to him at a movie. It was during that same distantly remembered Telluride Film Festival. I can't recall the film.

Of course, I was awe struck. As a reader, I always relied on Mailer to say something that would eviscerate the cliches of the moment. I never read a more compelling writer about the art that can emerge when two men try to beat each other's brains out in a boxing ring. Mailer also wrote great non-fiction pieces that eclipsed anything that all but a few journalists have managed to write: “The Armies of the Night” (1968) and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979).

Beyond that, Mailer seemed to live a big life. No matter what he did, he usually loomed above his material. And I have to say that sitting next to him in the Sheridan Opera House made me nervous. I was a little intimidated to be sharing the same armrest with a writer who made no secret about the fact that he was physically and spiritually prepared to wrestle with greatness -- and who sometimes won.

A trivial bit of business to be sure, but I remember it clearly. Why not? Mailer didn't only write about momentous events, he seemed to be one.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A lame debate poses as a movie

Summary: "Lions for Lambs" is the first movie Robert Redford has directed in seven years. The layoff seems to have hurt. Redford, who has brought some fine movies to the screen, makes the kind of mistakes you'd expect from a rookie: "Lions for Lambs" is didactic, under-dramatized and lacking in emotional power.

Some critics may consider "Lions for Lambs" Redford's most overtly political movie yet. I don't buy it. "Lions for Lambs" could have benefited from being more of an impassioned screed and less of a thinly dramatized version of a debate that might be too balanced even for public TV. Redford employs some heavyweight actors (including himself), but they're pushing around a pipsqueak of a premise, parceled out in a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote "The Kingdom."

The presence of Redford -- as well as Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise -- does surprisingly little to charge a series of loosely connected vignettes, as the narrative hops from one situation to another in an attempt to send a wake-up call to a slumbering nation.

In one of these episodes, Redford plays Dr. Stephen Malley, a political science professor who's trying to convince a bright but disillusioned student (Todd Hayes) to turn onto politics. Malley wants his young protege to drop his cynicism before it becomes crippling. In another episode, two of Malley's former students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) fight in Afghanistan. Malley opposed their joining the military, but acknowledges that at least they took some kind of action.

Finally, Streep plays television reporter Janine Roth. She's summoned to the office of Republican senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) for an exclusive interview. Irving tries to convince her that he's authored a new military plan to change the course of events in Afghanistan. In possession of a "big story," Roth wrestles with her conscience because there's a strong possibility that the senator may be asking her to carry his water in another pending fiasco.

The Cruise/Streep segment, set mostly in the senator's office, probably qualifies as the film's best, but who needs a movie composed of arguments rather than flesh-and-blood characters struggling to find the kind of deeply felt dramatic truth that eludes "Lions" during most its 90 minutes?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"The Savages" opens Denver's film festival

The Starz Denver Film Festival opens Thursday evening with "The Savages." For Boomers who are beginning to deal with aging parents, a movie such as "The Savages" should prove both painfully and humorously relevant. For details about opening night see the Festival's Web site.

"The Savages" was one of the best films I saw at January's Sundance Film Festival. It's a carefully mounted, observant look at two grown siblings (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) dealing with a father who's suffering from severe dementia. You probably need no reminding that Hoffman and Linney are first-rate actors, and you'll find both in top form as Jon and Wendy Savage. Jon, a noted Bertolt Brecht scholar, teaches theater at the university level; sister Wendy works a day job, but aspires to be a playwright.

I'll have more to say about "The Savages" when it opens later this year, but for now know that the movie shows that writer/director Tamara Jenkins ("The Slums of Beverly Hills") understands plenty about brother/sister dynamics and the difficulties of dealing with an aging parent, particularly by adults who haven't entirely shed the psychological residues of childhood.

And while we're on the subject of the Starz Denver Film Festival, I should -- in the interest of full disclosure -- note that I'm being employed by the festival to moderate several of this year's panels. I'm also conducting a series of Podcasts during the festivals. The first (already available) are interviews with festival organizers, posted as a way of helping you get oriented. The second wave of Podcasts will consist of interviews with various filmmakers as the 10-day festival unfolds. Listen in.

Friday, November 2, 2007

"American Gangster" shoots and shoots up

Summary: It has Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and plenty of power moments, but this gangster tale falls short when it comes to lasting impact.

"American Gangster" is a volatile throwback to '70s filmmaking from director Ridley Scott, who's on firmer ground here than he was with "A Good Year," a misguided romantic comedy also starring Russell Crowe.

I hate to go all Hollywood on you, but it's possible to think of "American Gangster" as a cross between "Scarface" and "Serpico," a bifurcated tale of drug smuggling and New York City police corruption.

The movie, based on a New York Magazine article, also offers a trenchant bit of social commentary about the ways in which racism pervades every corner of American society, including crime. The cops have trouble believing that a black man -- real-life gangster Frank Lucas, the American gangster of the title -- could establish a multi-million dollar heroin importing business on his own.

In a deliciously perverted twist on the capitalist impulse, Lucas proved them wrong. During the Vietnam War -- when a few corrupt GIs began smuggling heroin out of Southeast Asia -- Lucas traveled to Thailand to set up his own supply system. He conceived a daring business plan that eliminated middlemen and passed the savings along to his customers, a time-honored retail objective only this time applied to the heroin trade.

Washington plays Lucas with carloads of cool, another tightly coiled performance from the master of tightly coiled performances. Lucas can shoot someone at point blank range and then happily return to his breakfast. He's also committed to helping his family, bringing a fair amount of nepotism to his business, employing a variety of relatives wherever possible.

But Lucas (and I think this was a mistake) is only half the story. Scott -- and screenwriter Steve Zallian -- also focus on a cop. Crowe's Richie Roberts is presented as a rarity, a detective who's so scrupulously honest that he turns in $1 million of untraceable drug money. Most of Roberts' fellow cops think he's crazy -- or at minimum a threat to their complicated system of payoffs.

Crowe eventually must merge the movie's two narrative streams. Lucas based his success on maintaining a low profile, but he attracts Roberts' attention when he shows up at an Ali/Frazier championship fight wearing a boast of a fur coat that his wife purchased for him. Crowe and Washington share some scenes together toward the end, and both are in fine form, but the movie's dual focus -- probably intended as a way of showing that the both criminals and cops are caught in the same rotten web -- tends to create a bit of narrative stutter.

The result: a good movie where a great one may have been possible. We've seen a lot of what "American Gangster" has to offer before, and the movie's tumultuous parts never quite coalesce into an astonishing, revelatory whole.