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Bee Movie, Fred Claus, Lions For Lambs, others

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AMERICAN GANGSTER American Gangster is yet one more tale about a confident crime figure who rises to the top before taking that inevitable plunge down the elevator shaft. Yet for all its familiar trappings, director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian invest their tale with plenty of verve, even if they frequently soft-pedal the deeds of their real-life protagonist. Denzel Washington, perhaps our most charismatic actor, has been charged with bringing Frank Lucas to the screen, and, as expected, he turns the Harlem kingpin into a magnetic menace, a self-starter who becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade. American Gangster could easily have been called American Capitalist or American Dreamcatcher – it's a Horatio Alger tale shot up with heroin – but perhaps sensing that Lucas' fine qualities might likely overshadow the fact that he's selling death to his own people (only one sequence hammers home the horrors brought about by Lucas' exploits), Scott and Zaillian offer up a standard movie hero in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the honest cop tasked with busting open the New York/Jersey drug racket. Roberts could have come across as a cardboard saint, but thanks to Crowe's deft underplaying, he's an interesting figure and strikes a nice counterbalance to the more dynamic Frank Lucas. American Gangster is long but not overlong – its 160 minutes are well spent – and while it never achieves the epic grandeur of, say, The Godfather (for one thing, the real-life denouement prohibits any Scarface-style theatrics), it manages to pump a measure of respect back into a genre that thrives on it. ***

BEE MOVIE The best thing about Bee Movie isn't even in the film. It's the jar of Ray Liotta Honey sent to members of the media, and there's something so surreal, so absurd, about seeing the GoodFella's mug on a food product that it tickled the fancy with promises of an animated feature that would follow suit. Unfortunately, Bee Movie is the same nondescript toon tale we've pretty much come to expect from any animated outlet not named Pixar. In this one, it's Jerry Seinfeld contributing the vocals to the central character, a bee (named Barry) who leaves the hive to explore the world outside. He finds a New York City full of sound and fury, but also one that contains a sweet florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). Breaking the long-standing rule that bees must never talk to humans, Barry makes contact with Vanessa, and the two strike up an unorthodox friendship. But Barry freaks out once he spots the rows of honey lining supermarket shelves: The bees work hard to make that honey, and, feeling that his kind are being exploited, he ends up suing humankind. The appearance by Liotta (or, rather, his toon rendition) is a high point, certainly more clever than the cameos by Sting and the tiresome Larry King. In fact, Liotta outshines just about everyone, including dull Matthew Broderick as Barry's best friend. And while most animated features, even the bad ones, champion individuality, this flies in the opposite direction by rallying around the notions of conformity and subservience. Surely that's not what the filmmakers intended, but regardless, it kills the good buzz that the movie manages to generate in spurts. **

DAN IN REAL LIFE One look at the coming attraction preview for Dan In Real Life reveals that here's a movie that's going to try to milk audience emotions for all they're worth. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll sing! You'll reflect! You'll hug the moviegoer sitting next to you, even if he smells like an NFL wide receiver's socks after a particularly grueling Sunday match-up! The trailer doesn't lie: Dan In Real Life wants to offer it all – a fine sentiment when a movie can pull it off, an example of trying too hard when it doesn't. This one falls somewhere in the middle: There are individual scenes that work nicely, even if the finished product doesn't produce the flood of emotions one might have reasonably expected. Writer-director Peter Hedges soft-pedals this material, offering a warm and fuzzy tale of a popular newspaper writer (Steve Carell) whose column, "Dan In Real Life," offers practical advice that he can't seem to apply to his own life. A widower with three daughters, Dan travels to Rhode Island for the annual family get-together; he falls for Marie (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman he meets in a book store, only to learn that she's the girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). It's nice to see this normal a family on screen, but the movie pays a price for its politeness, since there's never any sense that feelings might be hurt or egos bruised – this is especially true at the conclusion, which basically ignores conflicts that have already been established in order to send everyone home smiling. Dan In Real Life is the equivalent of a warm glass of milk, and that's meant neither as a compliment nor a criticism, merely a stated fact. **1/2

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