[box cover]

The Yards

The Yards is a four-star movie trapped in the body of a teen action film. Sure, it stars presumed heartthrob Mark Wahlberg and Phoenix-brood escapee Joaquin, later to find mature acceptance by the industry with an Oscar nomination for Gladiator. But unlike actual teen films, director-co-writer James Gray's story shows a profound interest in character and a mostly unerring handle on realism. The film concerns Leo Handler (Wahlberg), just released from prison after taking a fall for others. At his welcome home party we quickly grasp the complicated connections of his life, from his nervous mother (Ellen Burstyn, whose performance in Requiem for a Dream the same year eclipsed The Yards), his nominal love interest (Charlize Theron), and best friend Willie (Phoenix), who works for Leo's uncle Frank (James Caan, who, after his work with Gray, Wes Anderson, and Christopher McQuarrie, constitutes a one-man mine for indie action characters). Frank runs a subway train manufacturing firm that survives via bribes and corruption. Since the last time Leo has seen Willie, the troubled, grasping Hispanic youth has evolved into a pol-briber by day and a guerrilla vandal of competing subway trains by night. Suffice it to say that Leo is soon accused of yet another crime he didn't commit, but this time much more is at stake. This arm of the plot culminates in a marvelous behind-closed-doors deal-making scene that involves Frank and various cops and politicians (among them singer Steve Lawrence, in a cool little turn). At the same time, tensions between Leo and Willie lead to a street brawl, and not since The Field has a fight scene evinced both the clumsiness and brutality of a real fistfight. Gray's dramaturgy isn't perfect (a death late in the narrative is melodramatically enacted), but his commitment to character and verisimilitude is admirable and nearly unique. Miramax, which didn't make a heck of a lot of money from The Yards' theatrical release (the $20 million movie grossed about $800, 000 in the U.S.), has gone all out on their DVD, which is loaded with extras. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a spotless print is marred by digital noise, which wrecks cinematographer Harris Savides's otherwise gritty photography with shimmer and poor image definition. Otherwise, the DVD offers a clean Dolby Digital 5.1 track, the theatrical trailer, a "making-of" featurette, and original concept art. The jewel of the extras proves to be Gray's audio commentary track. Gray, who has directed one other film (1994's Little Odessa) to date, comes across as a meticulous artist. He details why Dunaway's role was reduced and how difficult Phoenix was to work with, chronicles some problems with the photography, and in general shows himself to be a director who cares about his cast and crew and who has a keen attention to detail. And much of the plot, we learn, is based on stories about his father, who served as the model for Frank. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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