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New releases: Body of Lies, Nick and Norah, etc. 

Body of Lies

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. Yet despite Crowe’s shared marquee billing, this is really DiCaprio’s film, as he handles the part of Roger Ferris, Hoffman’s compassionate point man. 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 the American agents of the best way to run antiterrorist operations. Better than the majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such 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 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.

The Express

Like most real-life sports stories co-opted by major Hollywood studios (The Rookie, Miracle, Remember the Titans), The Express 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, 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.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Nora (no “h”) were the sophisticated sleuths played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the wildly popular The Thin Man movies 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, eventually revealed to be director Peter Sollet and scripter Lorene Scafari. Michael Cera stars as Nick, a high school rock’n’roller dismayed that he’s been dumped by Tris (Alexis Dziena), the sort of vapid princess who in real life wouldn’t give someone like Nick the time of day. 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. For a film set amidst the hustle and bustle of late-night NYC, this is one lethargic picture.

Blindness

After the back-to-back helming of two excellent motion pictures -- City of God and The Constant Gardener -- Fernando Meirelles now goes for the gold (Oscar?) with his adaptation of Jose Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel Blindness. In this film’s unnamed city (the country and characters similarly go unnamed), the disaster is a lack of vision that affects a significant number of citizens. Since it’s not what we assume to be normal blindness -- the victims state that all they see is white, not black -- the afflicted are quarantined, and if the government knows what’s behind the illness, they’re not revealing anything. One of those infected is a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who’s then ordered to a containment facility that will soon be harboring others who have been struck blind. The doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore) still retains her eyesight, but not wanting to be apart from her husband, she feigns blindness in order to travel with him. In a variation on the theme that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” the wife turns out to be a powerful figure in the ward, as her vision allows her to better help those around her.

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More by Matt Brunson

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    The major liabilities of the first picture have been neatly carried over into this latest endeavor, beginning with the fact that the general prudishness permeating throughout American society makes it impossible for Hollywood to produce an honest, provocative or explicit film about S-E-X and have it receive an R rating.
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    Robert De Niro is in fine form here, particularly when he’s taking no prisoners in his stand-up routines.
    • Jan 31, 2017
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