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Just another businessman having a bad day: Craig in Layer Cake.

A Dangerous Mix
By Ann Morrow

Layer Cake

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

For the cool cucumber of a drug dealer who narrates Layer Cake, it’s not that last score that does him in: It’s one last luncheon. The dealer (Daniel Craig)—a total professional who eschews violence—is secretly retiring from his very lucrative cocaine operation. He has only to attend to his supplier, an underworld kingpin, at a private lunch meeting before disappearing into the good life without a trace. But as is often the case for gangsters who think they can make a clean break—especially those criminals who are in a British crime caper—there is no such thing as getting out while you’re still ahead. And so the “middle man” (as he’s referred to by the other characters) gets ensnared in a web of exhilarating complexity.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, the producer of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Layer Cake is inhabited by similarly colorful (and occasionally incomprehensible) mobsters, henchmen, and riff raff, as well as the requisite convoluted plot (adapted by J.J. Connolly from his debut novel). But Layer Cake is better than either of those films, and one of the reasons is its magnetic protagonist: Like Steve McQueen, whom he vaguely resembles, Craig has smoldering sex appeal and an aura of danger that intensifies the more it’s held in check. When a fit of ultra violence is thrown (stunningly shot from the vantage of the enraged attacker), it’s by his older but volatile partner, a West Indian named Mortimer (George Harris). Part of the appeal of these kinds of capers is the cast of snarky players one usually meets, and Layer Cake has its share; the most enjoyable are Colm Meany as a sensible Irish enforcer, and Michael Gambon as the big, big boss. Big boss is a member of the new high society, a classless stratosphere of wealth that disregards such niceties as distinguishing between ill-gotten gains and legitimate success.

Forced into unloading a million tabs of Ecstasy, middle man gets the short end of all the rapidly escalating repercussions, including a contingent of pissed-off Serbian mobsters and the interruption of his hot date with a gorgeous coke whore (Sienna Miller). To his even greater distaste, he has to do business with low lifes and nut jobs. As a major player will reveal, “layer cake” is an analogy for how the smartest players rise to the top of the hierarchy. In Connolly’s fiendishly dexterous plot, it also stands for the full strata of corruption, from subsistence-level junkie-dealers to global conspiracies involving whole industries and entire governments. We can enjoy middle man’s laconic company without reservation because by comparison, he’s just a hard-working salesman. And besides, he’s completely screwed. There’s a finely honed edge of humor to his exasperation, especially when he realizes that knowing all the angles is no help at all.

The Shoe Doesn’t Fit

Cinderella Man

Directed by Ron Howard

Like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man tells the story of a come-from-behind win against seemingly impossible odds by an unlikely hero, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. In each case, the protagonist—the former, a horse, the latter, an Irish-American boxer by the name of James J. Braddock—represented a popular sentiment, a still-burning belief in miracles despite devastating losses, both personal and national. Like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man is much, much better in book form—see Jeremy Schaap’s book of same name for excellent summer reading—than it is, sadly, translated to the big screen.

Granted, Russell Crowe as Braddock has finally found another role that suits his sheer physicality right down to a T. He really looks the part of a 1930s boxer, and not some modern day Hollywood golden boy buffed up from three months of endurance training. For those who may not know, Braddock was a dazzling boxer whose heyday faded at the time of the stock market crash; he was scrounging for dock work when he was plucked to play victim to a would-be heavyweight contender. The joke was that he won, and embarked on a remarkable comeback, culminating in a suspenseful challenge to the, at times, deadly Max Baer (an excellent, chilling Craig Bierko). These stakes, combined with the fact that Paul Giamatti plays Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould, provide filmgoers with the rare treat of two good actors playing off each other with exquisite grace and good humor. Sadly, however, these moments prove too few and far between.

Instead, director Ron Howard, working with his Beautiful Mind screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, is intent on giving us a monumental weeper—so much so that I half expected the ghost of Jackie Cooper or a young Mickey Rooney to make a tearstained appearance. This Cinderella Man is all about the sheer perfection of its main character: Even in desperate poverty, with the wolf at the door, the children sick and the electricity and heat cut off, this Braddock never evidences impotent rage, let alone mild annoyance. Let’s face it, Jake LaMotta was a whole lot better subject matter for a movie than, say, Gandhi, and so it is with Cinderella Man that the filmmakers are so reluctant to let Braddock—by all accounts an upstanding guy in every way—bleed or cry or bellyache in the way that even our most treasured idols must at times. They might as well have castrated him in Act I, Scene I, to get it over with.

As with Seabiscuit the movie, Cinderella Man is terrified lest its audience not “get” the big picture, hence, when Braddock is struggling in the ring against a tough opponent, Howard inundates us with flashbacks of the Braddock tykes freezing in a basement apartment, of past-due notices piling up. The worst offense is when the filmmakers remind us of the political ramifications of the economic downturn. They do this in the highly annoying character of Mike (Paddy Considine), Braddock’s fellow dock worker and a former stockbroker turned commie agitator. Even without his babbling about how the rich get richer, Mike seems like the guy you’d least want to have lunch with (never mind work alongside), so a patched-together subplot of his involvment in a Central Park hobo uprising serves only to provide even more flashbacks for Howard to throw at us. When Braddock’s wife Mae (Renée Zellwegger channeling little Shirley Temple at her whiniest) worries that Baer will obliterate her hubby, we get flashbacks of Mike’s widow walking through the cemetery; when Braddock himself is examining film of Baer’s deadly 81-inch span, he imagines poor Mike as the victim of the pugilist’s dangerous excesses. Who’d have thunk that Irish Jim Braddock was, in fact, the grandfather of method acting?

And of course, we slobs in the theater can’t be expected to remember that the fight before us is, in fact, the big fight, unless the filmmakers include titles like The Big Fight, Braddock vs. Baer, or something to that effect, on the screen. Gould and Braddock will discuss the upcoming Lasky fight, and next thing you know, Braddock’s in the ring, and the screen is telling us “Braddock-Lasky fight, such-and-such date.” It’s as if Howard wants to imbue his fairy-tale biopic with the serious trappings of documentary—but it further infuriates viewers and takes away from the essential, thoroughly engaging story. The actual fight scenes are exciting and well-filmed, more like Scorsese’s Raging Bull than anything in the treacly script, but one can’t help but feel that the real story was shortchanged. For all Howard’s grandstanding, the movie does pack something of a feel-good emotional punch, but it’s really more a jab than the solid left hook it should have been.

—Laura Leon

Denim Daisy Chain

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Directed by Ken Kwapis

This is the story of four teen -age girls and one pair of magic pants.

Yep, it’s a pretty funny concept, but The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is an amazingly successful coming-of-age story that combines comedy and drama in equal measure with a sophistication that’s rarely seen in “teen” movies. Idealistic without being too idealized, moral without being moralizing, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a celebration of the power, and limits, of teenage friendship.

The main characters were friends before birth (their moms shared a prenatal exercise class), and have stayed loyal to each other through thick and thin. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is the antisocial one, often saddled with babysitting her mom’s squawking brats; Lena (Alexis Bledel) is the delicate one who’s never faced tragedy, or romance; Carmen (America Ferrera) is the angry one, abandoned by her dad; and Bridget (Blake Lively) is the relentlessly striving one, overcompensating for her mom’s suicide.

The story follows them through one summer, as they bump up against their unresolved problems and impending adulthood. Tibby stays home and works in a megastore; Lena visits relatives for a quiet summer in Greece; Carmen takes off to spend what she hopes will be a bonding-type summer with her dad; and über- athlete Bridget is off to Mexico for soccer camp. Nothing succeeds as planned however: Carmen, for example, discovers that dad (Bradley Whitford) is getting married and acquiring a whole new family. There are lessons for all the girls.

How, you are wondering, to the magic pants fit in?

That’s the greatest joke. The thrift-store Levis, inexplicably, fit each of the girls perfectly. They see this as a mystical sign, and resolve to rotate the pants among them, in turn, through the summer. They will each write about whatever adventures the pants bring them. Of course, they would have had their adventures anyway, but their faith in the pants is, well, their faith in each other.

The filmmaking is seamless, though sometimes more slick than deft; the moments with a too-heavy touch, however, don’t last long enough to interrupt the story’s easy flow. Director Ken Kwapis, who has a peculiar résumé (a body of work that ranges from the ’80s Sesame Street feature Follow That Bird to the debut episode of the U.S. version of The Office), keeps things moving. The script intercuts the four girls’ stories almost scene-by-scene, but, miraculously, the film is never confusing. The drastically varied settings—captured vividly by John Bailey’s colorful cinematography—help, but it’s the filmmaker’s ability to keep a comprehensible emotional arc going that really makes Pants so impressive.

This is acting and directing at its most satisfying—there are no showy, “award-winning” performances, but everyone contributes to the effectiveness of the story.

The endings—all four of them—though necessarily happy, are textured with surprisingly real emotions. Carmen, for example, may reconcile with her dad, but her initial expression at his wedding—a mix of rage, hurt and love—is a satisfying shock, and reinforces the film’s emotional authority.

—Shawn Stone

Sk8ter Boys

Lords of Dogtown

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Lords of Dogtown, about the early days of skateboarding as an extreme sport, is a fictionalized, often exhilarating, version of the acclaimed 2001 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. The Z-Boys were a gang of teen skate rats named for their hangout, Zephyr, a surf and skate shop on Venice Beach. Formed into a team by the shop’s surfer-dude owner, one of the Z-Boys’ brightest stars was Stacy Peralta. Peralta later became a filmmaker (Riding Giants); he filmed the documentary and also wrote the script for Lords, which, unsurprisingly, covers the same ground. The main difference is that in the fictional version, the Z-Boys are played by young, cute actors rather than their middle-aged real selves. Another difference is that the movie has Heath Ledger as Skip, the amusingly fried owner of Zephyr, and Rebecca De Mornay, vividly authentic as the burned-out hippie-chick mom of one of the boys.

The boys are from the Venice slum called Dogtown, and most of them come from broken homes. Their backgrounds are affectionately idealized, but raw truth isn’t what Peralta or director Catharine Hardwicke are after: What they seek to convey is the youthful innovation and sheer joy of daredevilry that transformed skateboarding from a hobby to a breakout sport. With its impressionistic narrative, the film succeeds, swiftly covering the introduction of urethane wheels that grip; the drought that emptied swimming pools, providing an arena for the development of aerial maneuvers; the almost overnight sensationalizing of the sport and the lure of hugely lucrative endorsements; and inevitably, the dissolution of the gang.

Along the way, Lords provides a close approximation of the adrenalin rush of unfettered physicality—what the Z-Boys are still remembered for is the low-riding, gravity-defying surfing style they created, which replaced the figure-skating-type conventions of the early 1970s. Especially winning are the portrayals of Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), a pioneer who went underground with the arrival of punk; and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), a superstar who made the most of his financial opportunities.

—Ann Morrow

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