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Director: James Gray

Producers: Nick Wechsler, Paul Webster, Kerry Orent

Written by: James Gray & Matt Reeves

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, James Caan

Rating: out of 5

James Gray wrote the harrowing LITTLE ODESSA a few years back, so I went into THE YARDS with unrealistically high expectations that may be the reason I’m only giving this two stars.

Mark Wahlberg is Leo Handler, a small-timer who’s just out on parole. He comes back to a welcome-home party at his mom’s (Burstyn) place, full of family and friends. There are assorted cousins and neighbors. There’s his mom’s sister, Kitty (Dunaway). There’s her daughter, Erica (Theron), with whom, apparently, Leo has some murky history. There’s her boyfriend, his old running buddy, Willie (Phoenix). And there’s his new parole officer, who reminds him to get a job, pronto.

Next day finds Leo in the offices of Aunt Kitty’s husband, his step-uncle (Caan), who heads a company that has city (we assume NYC) contracts for subway cars. Instead of honest gainful employment that Uncle Frank tries to steer him toward, Leo starts riding along with Willie, Uncle Frank’s "fixer." This gives the screenwriters the opportunity to show us cynical scenes of modern-day crime, where the stealing is done with pens instead of with guns and knives. Eventually, though, real weapons come out, events spiral out of control, and Leo finds himself a murder suspect. Soon enough, the family decides Leo poses a threat to their continued operations, and he’s not just on the run from the cops, he’s running and hiding from everyone.

There are some nice touches, including the type of realistic fight scene I’ve always wanted to see in a movie — one where the combatants tug at each other’s clothes, roll around a lot, only throw a couple of punches, and get up winded at the end. There’s also an intermittent power outage situation in the city, never explained, but interesting for the times in the story when it crops up.

Writer-director Gray returns to his theme of ethnic American families-in- crime and also continues his willingness to kill off major characters. This story doesn’t pack the emotional punch of LITTLE ODESSA, though it does occasionally reach the heights in the tragic character of Willie, who has just that combination of weakness and strength that Joaquin Phoenix (think GLADIATOR) seems particularly suited for. Phoenix’s tough guy desperately seeking approval is a fine performance. Charlize Theron, on the other hand, seemed content to let her eye makeup do the acting for her.

I’ve read that, basically, most criminals are just plain dumb, and to his credit, Wahlberg plays Leo as none too bright. It’s nice to see so many older actors employed here —Dunaway, Caan, Tony Musante, a pleasingly cheesy Steve Lawrence, and woman of the month Ellen Burstyn (whose films THE EXORCIST and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM are also on screens now) — but it’s not enough reason to see the movie.

—Roxanne Bogucka

HYBRID Ratings Guide:

- Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

- It’s worth a full-price ticket.

- It’s worth a matinee ticket.

- Wait for video rental.

- Check out the video from the library, if you must.

- While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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