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An outlaw, a gangster and a bee 

‘Assassination’ luminous and lovely; ‘Gangster’ captivates; ‘Bee’ is all Seinfeld.

PAINT YOUR WAGON
  • PAINT YOUR WAGON

Some of the best advice I ever received was: “Never meet your heroes.” Under close inspection, the most highly polished idol will be found to have flaws. All too often, an admirer has found his or her alabaster god to be only plaster and sawdust when seen up close.

In a nutshell, that's the story behind the plot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Though it's a long film — two hours and 40 minutes — and even though its plot often feels like a thing made of rain, it's still a truly stirring piece of cinema, a magic lantern slide of a film, full of artful blurs and soft focus, tight shots of grass in the wind and light. Add to that some truly virtuoso performances by Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and others, and you've got a Western that remakes the genre.

Affleck plays one of the title roles: young, naive would-be bandit Robert Ford. From the time he can remember, Ford has been reading dime novels about Jesse James — florid, pulpy trash that has sold Ford and the rest of America on the idea of James as robber prince. When he gets old enough, Ford seeks out James (Brad Pitt) to join his gang, and finds the truth of him: He's a moody, murderous, ghost-white slip of a man, often assaulted by depression and guilt. The longer they ride together, the more Ford comes to resent James, who obviously doesn't want the notoriety he has been given. After James begins systematically killing the members of his old gang, Ford goes to the authorities, agreeing to bring in his old hero in exchange for the reward. From there, the film quickly rises to a climax that weds Jesse James and Robert Ford together in both history and infamy.

While I could have done without the intrusive narration throughout the film — passages from the book the movie came from — I absolutely loved “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Whereas my other favorite Western, “Unforgiven,” touches on the theme of infamy and how it can come back to haunt you, “Assassination” goes full bore after the issue of fame and mythmaking in the West (even the tongue-twister of a title plays on the destructive elements of fame, aping the titles of the dime novels that turned the real Jesse James from a murderous sociopath into a six-gun-toting Robin Hood in the popular imagination). Like sausage, the creation of heroes isn't something you want to witness — damning for both the idol and the idolizer. Because of this, the most beautiful and heart-rending parts of the film are actually those that come after James has been martyred, with a guilt-ravaged Ford working the vaudeville circuit, doomed to re-enact the murder of his friend night after night before an increasingly hostile crowd; actively helping create the monster that he'll run from and, eventually, die for.

In short: a lovely, luminous piece of cinema, sure to attract nominations for all involved come Oscar season. Check it out soon.

David Koon

‘American Gangster'

The title of “American Gangster” announces the film's intention to become a major entrant into the mobster canon, but it's deceiving. The film is really a mash-up of the gangster and detective genres.

The screenplay is based on a 2000 New York magazine profile of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a 1960s Harlem kingpin who made his fortune buying heroin direct from Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The megalomaniacal Lucas of the profile takes a back seat in the film to a modest and calculating mob boss who knows that ostentation can get him in trouble. (Funny though: He has the gall to think that popping a rival in the middle of a busy street won't.)

Lucas' problems begin when he abandons discretion and makes a spectacle of himself at an Ali-Frazier fight. Now, he not only has to grease a New York City narcotics detective (Josh Brolin, with a truly sleazy haircut and moustache); he also attracts the attention of Richie Roberts (a jowly Russell Crowe), a New Jersey detective more interested in justice than personal gain as he looks into the heroin epidemic sweeping the area.

Despite a huge cast, the movie is really a two-man show about Roberts and Lucas, who, for a large part of the movie, is oblivious to Roberts' investigation. After two-plus hours, the two men are bound to meet. When they finally do, the tension of the movie is drained and quickly shifts to a (brief) drama of legal procedure.

One gets the sense that the filmmakers had too much material to work with here. There are many potential themes, and the film tries to give each of them a little space without delving very deep. As we learn toward the end of the movie, Lucas was affected by the murder of his brother by the Klan, but we don't get more than a suggestion of how it motivated his crime career. The movie takes a stab at a family-oriented psychological profile of Roberts, but that goes nowhere. The idea of military complicity in the heroin trade is suggested but not developed.

Still, in a film that stakes itself on the interplay between the two major characters, these are quibbles. “American Gangster” may not be a particularly nuanced movie, but its pair of protagonists makes it a captivating one.

John Williams

‘Bee Movie'

When I sat down to watch “Bee Movie,” I wasn't expecting much. The extended production time and hyper-promotion it enjoyed usually foreshadow bad things. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jerry Seinfeld had not lost his touch and that his foray into animated movies can be counted as a success.

In true form, “Bee Movie” is a show about nothing, a 90-minute riff on what it's like to be a bee. And who better to expound on bee minutiae than Seinfeld, disguised as Barry B. Benson, a recent college graduate who wants to experience the world beyond the hive.

Dared into going on an excursion with the “pollen jocks,” Barry's first experience in the outer world results in many near-death experiences. He's ultimately saved and befriended by forward-thinking florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger).

Vanessa schools Barry in the ways of humans, which leads him to find that honey is regularly taken from hives and sold in stores. Incensed, Barry sues the human race for stealing the bees' honey, where he fights defense attorney Layton T. Montgomery (John Goodman, in a perfectly drawn role).

I won't give away the ending, but to this film's credit, it effectively avoids a preachy, “Fern Gully”-like message and charms with its “Think Bee” peppiness.

There's no shortage of jokes about being a bee — from the restrictive wardrobe of black and yellow to the anxious way Barry's parents ask him if his new girlfriend is “beeish” — the movie has that trademark Seinfeld tear-inducing wit.

There are playful jabs at celebrities Ray Liotta, Larry King and Sting. There's even a lawyer joke. Maybe the funniest sequence in the movie comes when the story delves into what bees might do if they didn't have to concentrate on making honey all day.

And although the animation is fun to watch, it's clear that “Bee Movie” is mainly for adults who can appreciate jokes about a mosquito (Chris Rock) seeking a high on moose blood. Children may enjoy the effects but will probably be bored with the story.

Bottom line: If you liked “Seinfeld,” you'll love “Bee Movie.” Both, in their way, examine the banality of daily life hilariously.

Becca Gardner

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