American Gangster – A Story You Wish Wasn’t True

American Gangster     A

Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, and Josh Brolin
Directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator)
Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality
Appropriate for ages 17+

The Story: Based on the life of drug-kingpin-turned-informant Frank Lucas (Washington), American Gangster tells the tale of the infamous drug lord’s rise to to power and the police officer that wants to take him down (Crowe).  Responsible for most of the early heroine trade in Harlem, Lucas became a multi-millionaire by personally traveling to Vietnam to buy the drugs, and then having them shipped back to the states in the coffins of American soldiers.  By doing this, he became more powerful than even the mafia during this dark chapter in American history. 

The Good: Not since the 70s have we seen such a gritty and intense crime drama.  Throw Scarface and The French Connection in a blender and you might come up with something that looks like American Gangster.  Washington and Crowe are so good here that I can see both being brought up for Oscar nods for best actor.  The supporting cast is just as good.  The script by Shindler’s List scriber Steven Zaillian is a tremendous piece of work that gives the actors and director Ridley Scott an easy road map to work with.  While almost three hours long, the pacing makes the time go by fast, although I would recommend the small drink so that you don’t have to take a bathroom break and miss any of this great film. 

The Bad: This movie is almost perfect, until the last five minutes.  If I could have left five minutes early, I would already be declaring my best film of the year choice in October.  I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that I was very disappointed in the way the ending was handled. 

The Summary: In the world of crime thrillers, American Gangster will go down as a classic.

Across the Universe – Beatlemania

Across the Universe     A

Starring Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, and Joe Anderson
Directed by Julie Taymor (Frida)
Rated PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language
Appropriate for ages 13+

The Story: This musical, set to the music of the Beatles, follows a young British man named Jude (Sturgess) that comes to America and falls in love with a young girl named Lucy, all against the backdrop of 1960’s Vietnam. 

The Good: As a huge musical fan, and as a huge Beatles fan, one can easily understand why I would love this film.  Not only are the songs some of the best the Fab Four wrote, but the arrangements here are fantastically put together with a wild spectrum of beautiful voices performing them.  I will go so far as to say that some of the pieces are better than the originals such as Come Together (performed by Joe Cocker), I Am the Walrus (performed by Bono), Strawberry Fields Forever, and an incredible rendition of Dear Prudence.  Brought to the screen by famous stage director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King), it is no surprise that the look and choreography of the film are quite stunning.

The Bad: While there are a few little plot problems here and there, and some of the film feels disjointed at times, the movie is so likable that one can’t help but overlook these forgivable offenses.  Also, the pic tends to feel like a large scale music video at times, but I think that’s what most people expect anyhow. 

The Summary: This addictive and ambitious little pic will help you remember why you loved the Beatles so much in the first place. 

Transformers – Monster Truck Show

Starring Shia LeBeouf, Josh Duhamel, and Jon Voight
Directed by Michael Bay (Armageddon)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language
Appropriate for boys of all ages (and maybe a few older girls as well)
Release Date: October 16, 2007

While the film hit theaters only a few months ago, Transformers decided an early DVD release date, and providing it’s fans with this huge two-disc special edition.  Based on the original toys and subsequent cartoon, Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay had the idea to create this mega tent pole that studies the basic story of a boy and his car.  When young Sam Witwicky (LeBeouf) discovers that his new car is really a robot from another planet, he is thrust into the middle of a battle that could lead to the destruction of Earth.  While the CG is out of this world (no pun intended), the special features on disc two show the impressive amount of non-CG that went into the picture.  The scope and scale of this film are enormous and make the second viewing even more fun.  The set includes hours of extras including a commentary and tons of documentaries.  Also, while I loved watching the HD-DVD version, if you purchase the regular DVD two-disc set at Target stores, the case turns into a robot.  I’m sorry, but that is just way too cool!

30 Days of Night – Fright Night

30 Days of Night    B

Starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, and Danny Huston
Rated R for strong horror violence and language
Appropriate for ages 17+

The Story: In the middle of winter, in the town of Barrows, Alaska, the sun sets for an entire month, leaving the town in complete darkness for thirty days.  A group of savvy vampires discovers this and thrusts itself upon this small town, bent on devouring every inch of life that occupies it.  Now it’s up to a young sheriff (Hartnett) and his soon to be ex-wife (George) to save Barrows from total destruction.

The Good: Based on the famous graphic novel by the same title, 30 Days proves to be as intense as it looks.  While more disturbing and chilling than frightening, it still makes for an effective horror flick.  I appreciated the unique look of the vampires and the resemblance to the creatures from the novel.  The spooky moments are relentless and the pacing makes this a fast, thrill ride of a scary pic.  This is the perfect film to help you get a head start on Halloween.

The Bad: Like many films in this genre, this one is based on stupid people doing stupid things.  The hero and his gang could have easily just camped out in their original hiding place till sunrise, but instead they chose to keep running around the town exposing themselves to their predators.  Granted, without this there wouldn’t be much of a movie, but still, it would be nice if the characters didn’t act so irrationally. 

The Summary: The excess of scares more than make up for the film’s lack of brains.

Michael Clayton – Tastes Like Grisham

Michael Clayton   B+

Starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Rated R for language, including some sexual dialogue
Appropriate for ages 17+

The Story: Michael Clayton is a “fixer” at one of the most powerful law firms in New York City.  He takes care of the dirty work better than any attorney in the business.  With job burn-out, a divorce, a failed restaurant, and a gambling addiction to contend with, he must put his life together long enough to survive a controversial and dangerous case his firm is litigating. 

The Good: This is a smart, witty, suspenseful little flick that will leave many audiences very satisfied.  Saying it feels like a John Grisham movie is a compliment to the film.  Dirty lawyers with a conscious and a big character arc usually always make for good entertainment.  It doesn’t hurt that the performances are terrific.  Clooney gives you a huge portal into his soul and Wilkinson steals every scene he appears in. 

The Bad: This isn’t that original of a story.  The case being worked on smells too much like Erin Brokavich and Clooney makes a poor replacement for Julia Roberts.  Clayton is an interesting character, and worth a two-hour film, but the ground here has been tread before, many, many times. 

The Summary:
While not innovative in the least, Michael Clayton still serves up an entertaining yarn.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age – A Forgetable History Lesson

Elizabeth: The Golden Age   C

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, and Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth)
Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity
Appropriate for ages 13+

The Story: Many years after the events of the first Elizabeth film, Queen Elizabeth is still entrenched in a battle of religion between the Catholics and the Protestants.  Spain, being the most powerful country in Europe, launches a crusade to dethrone the Queen and convert England into a Catholic state again. 

The Good: As a history lesson, I’ve seen worse.  There is a lot of fiction here, much revolving around Sir Walter Raleigh (Owen), but it’s not enough to make you hate the film.  The performances, especially Blanchett’s, are solid throughout.  The film is beautifully shot and the costumes are a sight to behold.  Also, the music by Craig Armstrong provides for a moving score, although it, and the film, are a little too playful at times.

The Bad: What worked so well for the first Elizabeth was it’s complex and dark tone, full of violence and sexuality.  Much like you would picture England was at that time.  This new pic is very toned down by comparison.  Making this film PG-13 might be great for the kids, but it does nothing for it’s integrity.  Imagine The Sopranos made by NBC.  Imagine Braveheart brought to you by The History Channel.  Imagine Disney’s South Park.  That’s what a PG-13 Elizabeth is like.  It’s a sell-out to make more dough – and I predict it will backfire horribly.  Sure there are other little problems like a painfully long second act, and a frightfully shortened and unexplained third act, but the tone of the film is what brings it down.

The Summary: The Queen has gotten soft and slow.

War – A New Ken Burns Masterpiece

The War – A Ken Burns Film
Release Date: October 2, 2007

Ken Burns is famous for his hard-hitting documentaries, but never before has he put together such a remarkable piece of film making as his new picture The War.  This seven-part PBS series takes a never-before-seen look at the Second World War and the effect it had on American lives.  This six disc set contains all fifteen hours of unbelievably impressive footage, much of which has been newly discovered.  With narration by some of the biggest names in Hollywood and the intellectual community and music by famed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, this film will go down as the crowning achievement of Burns, as well as the defining archive of information about the war.  As an added note, Burns will be speaking at the Lutcher theater in Orange on October 17, 2007 at 6:30 PM.