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Michael Mann’s crime opera clocks in at over 3 hours. It is too long, but not by much. The trimming of one plot line could have made this cool and intricate crime drama excellent. Instead, it is merely very good.

Robert De Niro and his crew of criminals (which includes Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer) are master thieves in LA.  Al Pacino and his crew of cops (which includes Wes Studi and Mykelti Williams) are master thief busters. The criminals plan and execute three jobs, and the cops try and stop them, while juggling family, wives/girlfriends, and the hazards of the professions.

The opening and closing heists are brilliantly staged by Mann, especially a bravura bank job gone wrong in downtown LA.  De Niro’s crew tears through the police, making Swiss cheese of them in a several block, by-car and then on-foot getaway. I had always assumed the scene was based on a real-life North Hollywood shootout where 2 heavily armed men In body armor robbed a bank, were confronted by lightly armed police and injured a dozen of them before being shot down.  In fact, the real-life robbery came two years after the movie.

The story also smartly weaves the stories of a three secondary characters (a member of De Niro’s crew who was kicked out and seeks revenge; a crooked investor for drug interests who takes exception to being ripped of by De Niro’s crew; and, a recently paroled criminal trying to stay out of the game), all of whom intersect with and enhance the primary plot.  Pacino’s relationship with his third wife and her emotionally fragile daughter (Natalie Portman) is also handled well. The wife is not a stoic sufferer but a modern, divorced and frustrated character who is too focused on Pacino to the detriment of her fragile daughter.

I have three complaints. First, Pacino goes a little too Scent of a Woman. He is so ferocious at times that it is hard to stifle a chuckle, and his accent is strangely southern, then not. He is either very good in the movie (his low-key confrontation over coffee with De Niro is one such moment) or he is cartoonish (the entire scene with his informant is bizarre; Pacino looks like he might start speaking in tongues and “Hoooooo-AHHHHHH” never seems far off).


ACTUAL STILL FROM THE PICTURE

Second, the attempt to humanize De Niro by introducing a forced love interest with Amy Brenneman is a mistake and it interrupts the pace. The relationship is unconvincing and as such, does not explain certain choices De Niro makes at the end.  Given the brutality of De Niro (by my count, he kills or wounds a dozen cops and orders the execution of a security guard), it is enough for us to root for him only when he is pitted against others of his ilk. But the attempt to make the audience empathize with his lonely life of crime is several bridges too far.

Third, Val Kilmer’s escape is unconvincing, making a police character we’d been led to believe was sharp look borderline incompetent.

Otherwise, this is a stylish, gripping picture.  And for music fans, Henry Rollins and Tone Loc get minor roles.  Also, it features a young Ashley Judd, who bravely allowed herself to look as worn and haggard as the wife of a brutal, volatile and uncommunicative criminal should.

The Artist. I was not excited to see a silent film, and it took a little while for me to warm up to it, but this is a natural, funny and beautifully shot picture, a riches-to-rags-to riches love story with enormous heart.

The movie is almost entirely dependent on its two leads, Jean Jujardin and Bérénice Bejo, both of whom are nominated for Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Dujardin is a silent film king who gives Bejo her big break, falling in love with her in the process. She ascends in the talkie era and he fades away. Particularly affecting is the scene of Dujardin in his last gasp movie, lost in quicksand:

Dejardin’s descent dragged a little bit, but that is the only criticism I have.

Dejardin and Bejo are aided by a plucky performance by a dog and the contributions of John Goodman as the studio mogul and James Cromwell as the loyal chauffeur. But they carry the film and their performances, which could easily have been big and over-the-top, are subtle and moving. The scene where they fall in love – a series of takes where Dujardin dances with then-extra Bejo, each take becoming more entranced – is captivating.

This is the favorite to win Best Picture tonight and it is the second best picture of the year.

Margin Call, nominated for best original screenplay, is still at the top of my heap.

The movie starts off trying your patience with an overlong introduction of clarinet music and scenes of modern Paris. We are then introduced to American screenwriter Owen Wilson and his nagging, dispiriting fiancee, Rachel McAdams. Wilson is nervous and nasally and a noodge. McAdams is flat out hostile to Wilson. The idea that these two would ever be engaged is absurd. I kid you not, McAdams says to Wilson, “You always take the side of the help.” So, Wilson is married to a monster, doesn’t seem to know it, and yet, Allen wants us to care about him.

Worse, McAdams travels with her ugly American parents, who are (gasp) Republicans, distrustful of the French and country club obnoxious.

Allen makes the modern so unpleasant you can’t wait for Wilson to be transported to the 1920s. Sadly, we have to go to the 1920s with Wilson. And he’s doing Woody Allen, but whinier. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein says, “I was just telling Pablo . . .”

The greats are condescending, self-satisfied characters and they lord their superiority over all. Allen does the same thing, hiding it in his puny, nebbish persona, so his portrayal of them makes sense.

This movie is terrible. Perhaps Allen can still make a good picture. Match Point (2005) was a revelation and Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) was charming, but he’s about done, and the nomination of this movie as best picture is ridiculous. The nomination as best screenplay is an affront. Perhaps Allen’s digs at Bush and The Tea Party explain it, but if not, and the Academy wanted to give him an unwarranted accolade, isn’t that why the Irving Thalberg award was created?

Some gems: “How long have you been dating Picasso. I can’t believe I’m saying that.”

Hemingway: “Have you ever shot a charging lion . . . Who wants to fight!”

“I wouldn’t call my babbling poetic, though I was on a roll there.”

“500 francs for a Matisse? I wouldn’t mind getting five or six.”

“The present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.”

Yeesh.

There are some funny moments when Wilson lapses into Seinfeldian chatter and the folks from the 1920s look at him funny. Adrien Brody is a hoot as Dali. The movie is also very pretty.

That’s not enough, notwithstanding the Academy and a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Brendan Fraser plays a 35 year old man mistakenly vaulted in a bomb shelter with his parents (Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken) since the early 60s. Now, he’s out in modern L.A., and he’s wearing a windbreaker and calling black people “Negroes.”

While Fraser is pretty funny, and Walken and Spacek are properly “kooky” as conservative parents who took to the fallout shelter and never came out during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this romantic comedy lags.  Alicia Silverstone, as the love interest, is dull and plump, a bad actress with weak comic timing (didn’t she come and go in a hurry?). Dave Foley, of “Kids in the Hall,” plays Silverstone’s gay, advice-dispensing roommate, but he’s forced and given none of the snappy patter of a Cam or Mitchell from “Modern Family” (and if you needed someone to play the gay roommate from “Kids in the Hall”, why not Scott Thompson?)

In the end, fish-out-of-water can only get you so far.

200 Cigarettes. IMDB tells us “A collection of twentysomethings try to cope with relationships, loneliness, desire and their individual neuroses.” Oh goodie.

This is a ponderous picture about one New Year’s Eve in the early 1980s and the intersection of a bunch of New Yorkers in the city on that night. They chatter and say cute things and go on and on about the meaningless of it all. They also over-emote and incessantly navel-gaze.

They started making these ensemble/group hug/chit chat/why are we here? movies after the insidious The Big Chill which spawned the terrible Reality Bites.

Nothing is funny – save one Janeane Garafolo line (“These matches are disappointing me”) and one Ben Affleck attempt at a pick up line (“How do you like your eggs in the morning? Scrambled or fertilized?”). Other than that, the film is awful. Everyone is bad, but special merit for over-the-top histrionics goes to Christina Ricci, Martha Plimpton, and Paul Rudd.

The director, Risa Ramoan Garcia, wasn’t given another film to helm for 11 years. He has, however, paid the bills as a casting director for CSI. The writer, Shana Larsen, never wrote another movie.

Fitting.

John Frankenheimer’s Ronin was a primer on film car chases, equaling Friedken’s work in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. and surpassing Peter Yates in Bullitt (though, The Seven Ups has the best car chase scene in film history).

In James Foley’s The Corruptor, you can see the worst car chase in all of film, a 25 mile per hour snorefest through the alleys of NYC’s Chinatown. One straight line, very low speed, back and forth, back and forth. One Adam 12 had wilder high speed pursuits.

The “chase” is indicative of Foley’s ineptitude with the action genre (Foley’s best work has been in the non-action category (Glengarry Glen Ross and After Dark, My Sweet). His principals – Mark Wahlberg and Yun Fat Chow – kill everyone in sight with handguns, loaded by their inexhaustible supply of clips. And if you are firing at Wahlberg or Chow with a machine gun, you will miss, but you will also break a lot of glass. Indeed, the opening action sequence is a shootout in a lamp and ceramic store.

The script is a problem as well. In a nutshell: Old vet meets young rookie, who has been assigned to Chinatown. Old vet tells young rookie, “You don’t change Chinatown. It changes you.” Or something like that, because Chow’s English is a little iffy, so the line may come across as follow: “Ru don chanse Chintown. It chanses ru.” Thereafter, we here the patented dow, dow, ding of Chinese massage parlor music.

Chow’s principal strength is an ability to make his eyes go all crazy just before he’s about to shoot a bunch of guys.

Wahlberg, who can be effective when leashed very tight, merely sleepwalks through this muddle.

Thirteen Days. No matter the gravity of the historical event, be it the assassination of JFK or the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kevin Costner raises the hard questions: “What the hell kind of accent is that? Did Jim Garrison and Kenny O’Donnell have speech impediments?”

As to the movie, Thirteen Days is the historically inaccurate drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis told through the eyes of former JFK advisor Kenny O’Donnell, who most historians agree was more of a gofer and pal than a policy force. While it is not unreasonable to inflate the involvement of a tertiary character in historical drama, if you’re going to make stuff up, then do it smart. Make O’Donnell from Delaware, so Costner doesn’t have to butcher an accent. And make him interesting. As written in Thirteen Days and played by Costner, O’Donnell is dull as dishwater, has poor political instincts and the temperment of a teen. Indeed, his primary motivation seems to be to have the Kennedys (as played by Bruce Greenwood and Stephen Culp) really, really like him (upon reflection, given the sycophancy surrounding the Kennedys, that motivation may be more in line with actual history than I surmised).

Blocky, uniform, anti-climactic, and predictable (it even uses black-and-white reverence to Camelot), you’d do much better with the classic teleplay The Missiles of October, which had William Devane as Jack and Martin Sheen as an angry, blustering Bobby.

“Cub-er, Cub-er, Cub -ah – er”

The only thing that recommends the film is Greenwood, who does a fine job conveying President Kennedy’s angst and his sense of isolation. Conversely, Culp’s Bobby Kennedy is portrayed as borderline stupid with impulse control issues.

Even when the film does pick up a little speed (after all, it is the story of the nation on the brink of nuclear holocaust), Costner’s O’Donnell re-enters with his domestic issues and bizarre elocution, to grind it to a halt.