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Body of Lies: Better than most 9/11 yarns 

Plus, reviews of The Express and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

Body of Lies serves up the superstar teaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, but it's the pairing of DiCaprio and the relatively unknown Mark Strong which provides the fireworks in this latest attempt to make a successful motion picture set in the Middle East.

Certainly, Crowe proves to be reliable in his role as Ed Hoffman, a ruthless CIA officer who masterminds Middle East operations from his comfy spot back in the USA. Adding approximately the weight of a small child to his normally muscular frame, the puffy Crowe clearly relishes this break away from playing the noble hero, even if his Southern accent proves to be a frequent distraction. Yet it's the character himself who holds our attention, as Hoffman sees practically everyone involved in this particular spy game as a political pawn, merely there to be moved according to his own whims and desires.

Despite Crowe's shared marquee billing, this is really DiCaprio's film, as the able young thespian handles the part of Roger Ferris, Hoffman's compassionate point man in the Middle East. Hoping to track down a bin Laden-like terrorist (a menacing Alon Aboutboul) responsible for a series of attacks on America and its allies, Ferris ends up traveling to Jordan and entering into a terse relationship with Hani Salaam (Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. Hani is a fascinating character: Smooth and shrewd, he appears more at home wooing a foreign blonde at a swanky nightclub than overseeing the torture of an enemy combatant. Yet he's more aware than any of the American agents -- even Ferris, who he admires more than most Yanks -- on the best way to run anti-terrorist operations, and he bristles whenever he feels that Hoffman and Ferris are treating him like a subordinate. Strong, perhaps best known as the villainous Septimus in last year's Stardust, and DiCaprio, brandishing the proper mix of actorly intensity and movie-star magnetism, prove to be a well-matched team, as their characters alternate between working together and keeping each other at arm's length.

Better than the vast majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such heavy-handed duds as Rendition and Redacted. Director Ridley Scott (who last teamed with Crowe on American Gangster) and The Departed's Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monaghan (working from David Ignatius' novel) refrain from merely putting Ferris and Hoffman through the good-cop-bad-cop routine: Ferris' idealism isn't always beneficial, while Hoffman might be a prick, but he occasionally exhibits more clarity than might be expected. And even a superfluous romance between Ferris and a Muslim nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) allows for some insight into societal disapproval for such a coupling, as the pair can't even shake hands in public. It's the extra attention to details such as this that gives this Body its necessary heft.

THE PROBLEM WITH both musical and sports biopics -- even decent ones like Ray (in the former camp) and Cinderella Man (in the latter) -- is they adhere so much to rigid formula that they rarely allow their subjects to breathe. There's a sameness to these types of films -- their characters' triumphs and travails can be predicted at every juncture -- that it's no surprise to see most critics go gaga over something that dares to break the mold like the Bob Dylan piece I'm Not There, which was audacious enough to allow both a woman and a black child to portray the singer during various points in his career.

There's nothing daring in the least about The Express, which, like most real-life sports stories co-opted by major Hollywood studios (The Rookie, Miracle, Remember the Titans), strips the achievements of any individuality or historical worth and renders them all part of the same gumbo of sticky clichés. Here, the story sanitized to the point of worthlessness is that of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who became the first African-American player to win college football's Heisman Trophy, only to helplessly stand by as personal tragedy derailed his plans to become an NFL superstar opposite his idol, Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown.

It's a heartrending tale worthy of the Greek gods, yet as presented here, it doesn't even begin to compete with the classic '70s TV movie Brian's Song, the ultimate in sports weepies and, it must be said, a film that itself no longer retains its original punch. The life of Ernie Davis has been robbed of its vibrancy, and as blandly and beatifically played by Brown, the character never registers as anything more than a walking sliver of American history (Derek Luke might have found a way to provide more depth to the role).

The sight of gridiron-star-turned-actor Jim Brown (played in this film by Darrin Dewitt Henson) does raise a thought, however. How about a movie based on this individual's interesting life? Because even if the studio homogenizes it to the point of tepidity, at least audiences might get treated to a few scenes from Brown's best-known Hollywood outing, The Dirty Dozen.

NICK AND NORA (no "h") were the sophisticated sleuths played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the wildly popular The Thin Man movies back in the 1930s and '40s, and this married team never encountered a criminal they couldn't bring to justice. By contrast, the Nick and Norah in this new feature are vanquished by the piece's villains, who are eventually revealed to be director Peter Sollet and scripter Lorene Scafaria (adapting the book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan). In short, this is one Thin Movie.

Michael Cera, who needs to play a Norman Bates-like character to shake things up, stars as Nick, a high school kid dismayed by the fact that he's been dumped by Tris (Alexis Dziena), the sort of vapid princess who in real life wouldn't even give someone like Nick the time of day, let alone six months of quality dating time. Through plot contrivances too laborious to outline here, Tris' pal Norah (Kat Dennings) ends up meeting Nick, not initially realizing that he's the ex who's been making all these great CD mixes for an unappreciative Tris. One thing leads to another, and Nick and Norah end up spending an entire after-hours session combing New York for both Norah's drunken friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and a secret jam session by the city's latest "It" band, Where's Fluffy?

Dennings displays a slightly off-kilter personality that marks her as someone to continue watching (she's also appeared in Charlie Bartlett and The House Bunny), and Cera's teddy-bear cynicism -- his wisecracking character is sweet even when trying to be caustic -- provides extra zip to a few of his better lines. But for a film set amidst the hustle and bustle of late-night NYC, this is one lethargic picture, with Sollet's inert direction bringing nothing to the party. As for the around-town odyssey, there's no invention employed in its creation, with characters simply stumbling into each other whenever the plot requires. (Compare this to Martin Scorsese's After Hours, in which the harrowing trip undertaken by Griffin Dunne's character constantly looped back on itself in ways as unexpected as they were delightfully deranged.)

For an infinitely better movie about hipsters looking for love, wait for the recent theatrical release In Search of a Midnight Kiss to hit DVD. That one's not only more edgy, more poignant and more humorous, but it also knows how to smoothly work its soundtrack tunes into the very fabric of the tale. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, on the other hand, remains resolutely tone-deaf.

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