David Ansen

Stories by David Ansen

  • Harlem’s Hero And Heroin

    Denzel and Russell can't save 'American Gangster' from feeling like just another Hollywood mob job.
  • 7,714 Movies, and Counting

    When he was 12, NEWSWEEK's David Ansen started a list of every film he'd seen. No. 1 was 'Cinderella.' The last is—well, that's a long story. In fact, it's the story of his life, and of his generation.
  • A Cautionary Tale

    Ang Lee's opulent new period melodrama is filled with explosive elements that never fully ignite.
  • Bite-Size Cinema

    Three big-name filmmakers are behind three big-budget ad campaigns on TV right now. They gave us 30 seconds of cinema, so our critic David Ansen gives them 30-second reviews: Michel Gondry for Motorola: A slicker, busier version of the cardboard-cutout surrealism of "The Science of Sleep," this French ad for the Razr2 cell phone is terribly hip, but what exactly it's selling (aside from Gondry's style) is unclear. Michael Mann for Nike : Wow. A tactile paean to all-out effort, Mann's mini-action flick is one continuous movement of bone-crushing contact, set to the stirring score of his "Last of the Mohicans." The message: "Leave nothing." Mann obliges. Wes Anderson for AT&T: Where some directors cut, the artifice-loving Anderson likes to move his camera from room to room, going for a living diorama effect. That's what he does in his droll spots for AT&T, showing in one unbroken shot the many worlds a customer visits by phone in a day. Clever.
  • The Hollywood War Front

    Angry filmmakers are gung-ho on Iraq movies, but the war as entertainment is proving to be a tough sell to audiences.
  • Ansen Reviews 'Into the Wild'

    How you respond to Sean Penn's vital, lyrical, unsettling adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book—whether you find the idealistic Christopher McCandless's (Emile Hirsch) search for freedom exemplary or self-indulgent (or somewhere in between)—will depend on your own history. McCandless gave up all his worldly possessions, changed his name to Alexander Supertramp and began a solitary cross-country odyssey that ended in wintry Alaska. Penn's eye for landscapes is stunning, and his affection for outsider lifestyles is tangible. Hirsch, who carries the film on his increasingly emaciated shoulders, performs heroically, but there's an edge missing. The ideal casting would have been the young Sean Penn.Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums") transports his arch, pristine, melancholic sensibility to India, where three estranged brothers meet after their father's death and hop a train in a quixotic attempt to heal their spiritual wounds. The oldest is the bossy, gung-ho Francis (Owen...
  • Torrents Of Arabia

    'The Kingdom' is full of action—and full of itself.
  • Movies: Ang Lee’s New Thriller

    Ang Lee's new movie has plenty of lust, but one wonders if there isn't a bit too much caution in the mix as well.
  • Turning Back The Clock

    There was a lot of grumbling last week at the Toronto Film Festival about how this venerable showcase for world cinema has been turned into a launching pad for Hollywood's Oscar campaigns. With the likes of Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt and George Clooney parading down Bloor Street, one could've easily mistaken the festival for an out-of-town Hollywood press junket. But under the glittering surface was a more interesting story. A striking number of the American movies on display were throwbacks to the cinema of the 1960s and '70s, in both subject and style. Just as the ghost of Vietnam hangs over Iraq, the spirit of the social-protest movies of the early '70s can be felt in the myriad films tackling terror in the Middle East—from Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah" to 1960s maestro Brian de Palma's blistering "Redacted," a fictionalized account of the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl and her family by U.S. soldiers.Some of the movies truly took us back to the 1960s. Julie Taymor's...
  • Ansen on the Toronto Film Festival

    The movies in this year's Toronto Film Festival were collectively like a wayback machine to the obsessions—and the memorable filmmaking—of the '60s and '70s.
  • The Train To The Plain

    James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 Western “3:10 to Yuma” is a decent-enough entertainment, though it’s hardly going to breathe new life to a genre whose demise has been reported for at least 30 years. What this version offers is the chance to watch Russell Crowe and Christian Bale—two of the more charismatic, macho leading men around—duke it out psychologically, while another fine but less well-known intensity artist, Ben Foster, steals whatever scenes are left.Bale plays beleaguered rancher Dan Evans, who’s hobbled by a Civil War injury. Unable to pay his bills, he’s lost the respect of his wife (Gretchen Mol) and 14-year-old son, Will (Logan Lerman), and is about to lose his ranch. Evans glimpses a chance for both money and redemption by signing up to bring the legendary outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) to the train station in Contention, Ariz., where the 3:10 will take Wade to face justice in Yuma.Crowe’s Wade is everything the struggling rancher isn’t—suave, confident, a master...
  • Review: 'Rocket Science' Has Big Brain, Bigger Heart

    Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) is a stutterer. His problem is so severe that he has to practice ordering pizza as he stands in line at his high-school cafeteria—and has to settle for sloppy Joes because he can't get the words out fast enough. Hal would seem to be the least likely candidate in the world to join the school's debate team, yet he's recruited by its alluring, motormouthed star, Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), to replace her former partner, the legendary Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), after he suffers an onstage meltdown at the New Jersey State Finals and drops out of school."Rocket Science" joins a long line of movies about teenage outcasts struggling to find their place in the world; two years ago the prize entry was "Thumbsucker." But this sharp and painfully funny coming-of-age story—a hyperarticulate comedy about an inarticulate boy—manages to avoid just about every cliché of the genre. Each time you fear it's going to go for the obvious, it upends your...
  • 'Bourne Ultimatum': Meth for Action Junkies

    How fast and furious is the third installment of the Bourne trilogy? Just in the first 15 minutes it charges from a chase in Moscow to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.; to Turin, Italy; Paris, London and New York City, barely pausing to catch its (or our) breath. The amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is on the run again, closing in on the secret of his identity, outsmarting and outmuscling vast teams of CIA hit men who use every weapon in their arsenal to stop him from discovering the truth about his past.For action junkies, "The Bourne Ultimatum" will be like a hit of pure meth. It's bravura filmmaking in the jittery, handheld, frenetically edited Paul Greengrass style. That visceral, vérité style caught many people by surprise in "The Bourne Supremacy." (They obviously hadn't seen his earlier film about the Irish Troubles, "Bloody Sunday.") But now, after his acclaimed, unnerving "United 93," we know what he can do, and it's momentarily disconcerting to realize that he...
  • Deadly Decisions

    Lucidly, dramatically and without resorting to partisan rhetoric, Charles Ferguson's not-to-be-missed documentary "No End in Sight" lays out in convincing, appalling detail the disastrous missteps of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The magnitude of the errors perpetrated by the Bush administration—a lethal combination of ignorance, incompetence, arrogance, bad or nonexistent planning, cronyism and naiveté—can make you weep with anger. We hear about the many jobs in Iraq handed to the sons of Bush campaign donors, and of the young woman, fresh out of college, who is put in charge of managing all traffic in chaotic Baghdad—despite having no experience studying traffic control or speaking Arabic.These examples would almost be funny were they not a microcosm of all the bad edicts that emanated from Washington. Those decisions were made by a small cadre—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice and the president, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the film—that...
  • Ansen Looks at Bergman, Antonioni

    On the same day, two giants of the cinema gone. For anyone who grew up in the golden age of cinephilia—that remarkable period between the end of the 1950s and the mid ‘70s, when movies held pride of place at the white-hot center of the culture—the passing of Ingmar Bergman, 89, and Michelangelo Antonioni, 94, is the kind of double whammy that slams the door on an era.They will be remembered, however, for the doors of perception they opened. If you were a teenager raised on Hollywood movies, your first encounter with Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” or “The Seventh Seal” was a life-altering expe­rience, a shocking immersion into Swedish angst, expressionistic dream sequences, daunting symbolism (clocks without hands!) and a brooding black-and-white existentialism that was a slap in the face to the Technicolor optimism of your child­hood fantasies. A few years later (in 1960, to be precise) came Antonioni’s rule-break­ing “L’Avventura,” a mystery without a so­lution, a despairing but...
  • Review: Don Cheadle Is 'Sensational' in New Film

    Don Cheadle has proved time and again that he's an actor of many faces. The only common denominator between his work in "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Boogie Nights," "Ocean's Eleven" and "Hotel Rwanda" is his quicksilver talent. The beauty of his performance in "Talk to Me," playing the streetwise, flamboyantly cocky yet deeply insecure radio DJ Petey Greene, is how many faces he can locate in this one man—often in the same moment. It's a sensational turn, unlike anything he's done.Greene was an ex-con who became a radio icon in Washington, D.C., in the late '60s with his profane, tell-it-like-it-is braggadocio. When the city exploded in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, it was Greene's wise on-air improvisations that helped keep the rage in check. Brilliant, alcoholic and self-destructive, Greene is the fascinating subject of Kasi Lemmons's funky, R&B-driven biopic—a vital entertainment that struts confidently between comedy and drama.The equally versatile...
  • Ansen on 'Chuck and Larry'

    Adam Sandler knows his audience, wants to please his audience … and wants, in his just-one-of-the-guys way, to make them a little bit better than he suspects they are. Thus you have "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," directed by Dennis Dugan, a broad, sometimes wince-inducing comedy built on what is usually called homosexual panic (shouldn't it be heterosexual panic?). Sandler, who plays Chuck, a Brooklyn fireman and ladies man who has to pretend to be gay (for reasons we'll get to), encourages his audience to laugh at all the usual fag stereotypes while offering up an explicit and heartfelt plea for tolerance and diversity.Anyone who's followed Sandler's career knows that he's always slid gay-friendly subplots into his comedies, so no one should be surprised that "Chuck and Larry" comes out on the side of the angels. You could also predict, given his penchant for adolescent humor, that the comedy will pander to the lowest common denominator, if that means getting easy laughs...
  • Ansen Review: Latest 'Harry Potter' Never Takes Off

    Decidedly older, definitely angrier, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) goes through his darkest days in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." He has good reason to be both paranoid and rebellious. Dementors attack him on his school break, he's threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts, and The Daily Prophet, the official organ of the Ministry of Magic, calls him a liar for claiming that the evil Lord Voldemort has reappeared on the scene. Even Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) seems to distance himself from Harry. Making matters far, far worse, the smiling, pink-clad fascist, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Hogwarts's new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is transforming the school into a joyless, repressive prison for Harry and his friends.This description will be redundant to the millions of readers of the fifth installment of Harry's adventures—an 870-page epic that had to shed many pounds to squeeze into a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie. Those who have not read the book,...
  • Ansen on 'Ratatouille'

    It would seem that Pixar's newest animated movie, "Ratatouille," has a few obstacles to overcome. The title isn't in English, and a good percentage of the audience has probably never tasted it, let alone heard of it. The hero, Remy, is a rat. Not only that, a rat who spends most of his time just where we don't want to see one—in a kitchen. The setting is Paris, and the movie is a love letter to a romantic notion of France that is not currently in fashion, at least in certain political quarters. And who would ever think of making a family movie aimed at foodies?Has Pixar lost its pixilated mind? Pas du tout. Brad Bird, the unconventional creator of "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," has come up with a film as rich as a sauce béarnaise, as refreshing as a raspberry sorbet, and a lot less predictable than the damn food metaphors and adjectives all us critics will churn out to describe it. OK, one more and then I'll be done: it's yummy.Bird seems to relish the challenge, and even...
  • A Werner Herzog Action Movie

    Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an American Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, is shot down over Laos, captured, tortured and held in a POW camp in the Laotian jungle, where he immediately begins plotting his escape, though no one has flown the coop before. He is, in many respects, a classic action-movie hero—courageous, clever, indomitable. But "Rescue Dawn" is a Werner Herzog movie (and a true story), and though it's as taut and exciting as many edge-of-your-seat Hollywood escape movies, there's a mania about Dieter that sets him apart, a wild-eyed bravado that suggests the line between bravery and complete lunacy is a thin one. Who better than Bale, who is scarily good at macho obsessiveness, to take on the challenge?Herzog, always at his best working in insufferable jungle conditions ("Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo") is fascinated by stories of extreme will. He's told this one before, in his 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," and it clearly has its hooks in...
  • Ansen on 'Live Free or Die Harder'

    The last time we saw John McClane (Bruce Willis) he was ... who can remember?  It's been 12 years since "Die Hard with a Vengeance," and while the first "Die Hard" is now properly thought of as an action-movie classic, nobody's been sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the return of New York's toughest, most put-upon detective.  Would anyone care that he was back?  The good news is, "Live Free or Die Hard" makes you care.  Of all the overproduced sequels promising mindless summer fun, this one actually delivers.I looked up my review of the 1990 "Die Hard 2" and what I wrote then still applies: "The 'Die Hard' movies have many of the same virtues as the James Bond movies: first-rate production values, an endless supply of escalating cliffhangers and a fine sense of their own preposterousness."  "Live Free or Die Harder" may pretend to take place in the real world of terrorist threats, but any movie in which the hero brings down a chopper by catapulting a speeding car into...
  • Talk Transcript: Sean Smith on Angelina Jolie

    Like old-time Hollywood movie stars, Angelina Jolie has always seemed larger than life. Not one to disappear into a role, she makes the character fit her fiercely glamorous persona. "A Mighty Heart" changes all that. Playing Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic militants in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002, Jolie does a miraculous vanishing act, down to her complex French accent, inflected with the Cuban and Dutch of her parents. Smart, prickly, courageous, her terror often covered over with steely flashes of anger, Pearl—as anyone who saw her on TV after her loss—refused the public role of victim that the touchy-feely American media tried to impose on her. Jolie honors her fortitude with a performance of meticulous honesty. Every flicker of Mariane's conflicting emotions passes like quicksilver over Jolie's face, but nothing is milked for pathos.This is in keeping with the tone of director Michael Winterbottom's...
  • David Ansen Reviews 'Sicko'

    Whatever you think of Michael Moore—and who doesn't have an opinion?—the man has an impeccable sense of timing. His newest polemic, "Sicko," takes aim at our disastrous health-care system at a moment in the national debate when even the die-hardest boosters of free enterprise acknowledge that major changes have to be made, if not the free universal health care that most Western countries offer, and that we resist.The "we," as Moore takes pains to show us, are the drug companies, the hospital industry, the bought-and-paid-for politicians and the health-insurance companies, the latter being the true focus of this alternately hilarious and heartbreaking screed. This time around, Moore spares us the spectacle of himself storming the offices of his villains, his camera ever ready to capture their clench-jawed embarrassment. He's more concerned with the victims—not the 50 million uninsured, but the much vaster numbers who have private health insurance, and suffer for it. We see their...
  • 'Mr. Brooks': Murder in 12 Steps

    If you've seen the trailer for the Kevin-Costner-is-a-killer movie "Mr. Brooks," you might fear that the entire plot has been given away. The good news: there are many twists, turns, subplots and surprises that the coming attractions don't even hint at. The bad news: these twists and turns are so preposterous, or so irrelevant, that they undermine the movie they're meant to tart up.The title character, played by Costner, is a pillar of the Portland, Ore., community, a happily married husband and father who has an unfortunate addiction to murder. He even goes to AA meetings to deal with his problem, though he's understandably reticent about sharing. His only confidant is—himself: Mr. Brooks has a devilish alter ego who goads him on in his life of crime, and this evil id-dude is played, very cannily, by William Hurt. As the bickering sides of Mr. Brooks's twisted psyche, Costner and Hurt have a delicious chemistry, but it doesn't bode well for a movie when the only two compelling...
  • Birth of an Insemination

    What "the 40-year-Old Virgin" suggested, "Knocked Up" confirms. Judd Apatow is making the freshest, most honest mainstream comedies in Hollywood. The writer-director has managed to synthesize the neurotic, outsider comedy of Woody Allen, the benign satire of Paul Mazursky and the gross-out combustibility of the Farrelly Brothers into a sweet, raunchy and loose style all his own.Apatow's favorite subject is the eternally adolescent male, in this case the reefer-smoking, videogame-playing slacker Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), whose inclination is to remain forever in the romper room of overgrown childhood. Reality bites in the form of Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), an out-of-his-league beauty who takes the frazzled, grateful Ben to bed after too many drinks. The movie's title telegraphs the outcome. Alison wants the baby, and she wants to get to know the father, and thus "Knocked Up" weaves its very contemporary variation on a romantic comedy, in which Ben must face the horror of ......
  • Ansen: 'Pirates' Stinks Then Sinks

    I knew I was in for a long night when Johnny Depp finally makes his appearance in the third—and let us pray final—installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” Depp, as Jack Sparrow, is residing in Davy Jones’s locker—i.e., he’s dead—where he is the solitary captain of a landlocked Black Pearl, and subject to hallucinations. In his visions, every crew member looks like Johnny Depp, and in fact is Johnny Depp, but if you think that 10 versions of the scene-stealing star will increase your enjoyment tenfold, think again. Sparrow, I am sorry to say, does not get one explosive laugh in the entire 168 minutes of this loud, cluttered and confusing sequel. More is not merrier.The plot is not only hard to follow, there seems to be nothing real at stake. Half the characters are already dead, and half the movie seems to involve swordfights with dead people who can’t be killed with swords. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley expended their chemistry in the first, and best, “Pirates”...