Review of reviews: Film

Lars and the Real Girl, Sleuth, We Own the Night, Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Lars and the Real Girl

Directed by Craig Gillespie (PG-13) A painfully shy man finds solace with a sex toy.

In the wrong hands, Lars and the Real Girl could have easily turned into Mannequin, said Christy Lemire in the Associated Press. First-time feature writer Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie have created a wonderfully gentle and humane story about a painfully introverted man who falls in love with a sex doll. Lars Lindstrom is a 27-year-old who, unable to cope with the social demands of life, finds solace with Bianca, a life-size, anatomically correct blow-up doll he ordered online. “Her slightly open mouth, curvy frame, fishnet stockings, and flexible limbs” make it clear she “wasn’t intended for religious purposes,” but Lars sees only her purity, and humanizes her with love and affection. Bianca becomes real not only to him but also to his family and eventually everyone around him. Forced to play opposite a piece of plastic, Ryan Gosling responds with an astounding amount of empathy and depth, said Meghan Keane in The New York Sun. “His flawless interpretation strikes exactly the right tone to sweep the audience past the absurdity of the plot, directly into the heart of the story.” Lars and the Real Girl is an “almost perfect movie,” said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s nothing less than a miracle” that writer, director, and cast have produced “such an endearing, intelligent, and tender comedy from a premise that, in other hands, might sustain a five-minute sketch on TV.”

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Directed by Kenneth Branagh (R) In a war of words and biting wit, two men attempt to win a woman.

The 1972 screen version of Sleuth played as a “feast of acting,” said Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly. This dark, slinkier remake is a satisfying second course. Michael Caine, who starred opposite Laurence Olivier in the original, trades places to take on the role of Andrew Wyke, a wealthy crime novelist who seeks revenge upon the man who stole his wife, here played by Jude Law. Sleuth follows much of the same arc as Anthony Shaffer’s original play, unfolding as a deadly cat-and-mouse game, and the two men attack the material with ferocity. Law, who often disappears “inside the placidity of his coppery beauty, here shows a reckless and dynamic side, a gigolo sleaziness” that works. Caine, meanwhile, reigns over the screen with the “joyful snarl-and-pause of his rhythms.” Both actors owe thanks to Harold Pinter, whose adaptation adds biting dialogue, said Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times. The “verbal sparring” between the two characters is “so sharp it’s a wonder nobody loses an eye.” Unfortunately, Kenneth Branagh’s poor direction squanders the clever script, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Branagh overembellishes the screenplay’s every conceit. “It’s safe to say he has no feel or facility for cinema when he’s calling the shots behind the camera.”

We Own the Night

Directed by James Gray (R) Trouble with the Russian mob reunites two estranged brothers.

Writer and director James Gray “makes essentially the same film over and over again,” said Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter. Like 2000’s The Yards, We Own the Night concerns male family members who face a moral struggle inside New York’s corrupt world of cops and gangsters. Gray even resorts to using the same leading men, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, whom he cast in The Yards. This time, Phoenix plays a coke-dealing nightclub owner whose brother (Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) are both cops. At their behest, Phoenix infiltrates the Russian mob. “The problem is not that Gray is an especially bad filmmaker but rather that he is an unimaginative one.” Gray, who grew up in Queens, could expand these family themes with autobiographical details. Instead he searches for leftovers in an overly familiar genre dominated by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. To attempt such a feat, “you have to do better than dial-acliché dialogue,” said Kyle Smith in the New York Post. Overused lines such as “It’s like a war out there” and “Don’t be a hero” pop up too often here. “Scorsese would have fired the writer.” Unfortunately, Gray is the writer, said Peter Rainer in The Christian Science Monitor. He should focus his energy on directing, where he displays “a sinuous camera style that pulls us into the brackish allure of the underworld” and more than enough ideas of his own.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Directed by Shekhar Kapur (PG-13) The Virgin Queen dolls up only to be dulled down.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age “gives what’s usually Masterpiece Theatre material the blockbuster treatment,” said David Fear in Time Out New York. Director Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his Elizabeth picks up three decades later in the life of the Virgin Queen. It’s 1585 and Elizabeth, once again played by Cate Blanchett, maintains power over Protestant England. Only now her cousin wants to assassinate her, her primary advisor is dangerously ill, and Spain’s Catholic leaders are threatening to declare a holy war. The poor girl is also falling for an adventurer who is smitten with her best friend. The Golden Age is weighed down by its pageantry, said Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun- Times. “The costumes are so sumptuous, the sets so vast, the music so insistent that we lose sight of the humans behind the dazzle of the production,” which is a shame since Blanchett is one of the film’s few redeeming features. She unveils “the secret, fragile soul behind the queen’s stoic, public persona,” said Connie Ogle in The Miami Herald, but her performance isn’t enough. Though this role earned her an Oscar nod and a coveted spot in Hollywood, Blanchett was reluctant to sign on to the sequel. Looking back, she probably should’ve passed.

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