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jdberkley

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27 reviews in total 
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Undefeated (2011)
28 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
The best football movie I've ever seen..., 2 January 2012
9/10

I should probably begin by apologizing-- calling this a "football movie" is a bit demeaning. Superficially, it's accurate, but the true subject of "Undefeated" is the education of inner-city kids through the competition of sports. If you value the lessons team sports can teach, or if you care about kids trying to pull themselves up from desperate circumstances, then I have to believe this is a film you want to see.

I had the privilege of seeing it a couple of months ago at the Chicago International Film Festival, with an audience that I'd wager was comprised mostly of people who didn't grow up in violent inner-city neighborhoods, and there were scenes in this film that reduced many of us in that audience to tears. These weren't tears of self-serving pity, either, but of admiration at what the Manassas Tigers accomplished in this wonder of a season. The film follows the storytelling tradition of the championship season, for the most part, but it's tough to criticize a documentary film for adherence to cliché. In fact, there are scenes in this that you'd dismiss as improbable in a fiction film, and scenes of such close personal observation that you wonder how the filmmakers got them on camera. These filmmakers had astonishing access to coach Bill Courtney and his players O.C. Brown, Montrail "Money" Brown, and the remarkable Chavis Daniels. You will get to know them so well over the course of the film that you might hope for a sequel. I know I do.

My only criticism of the film may not strike you as criticism at all-- in the Q&A session I attended with the filmmakers, they said they cut over an hour of footage to get the film's running time down for the theatrical market. As enthralled as I was with this film, I gladly would have watched another hour-- I wanted to meet more of these players and learn more about their lives. As such, at this length, the film doesn't quite rise to the level of "Hoop Dreams," as that film masterfully integrated its focus on sports into a larger narrative of inner-city life. But "Undefeated" comes awfully close, especially in one of the most moving scenes I've ever seen in a documentary, when a kid gets a piece of news that will change his life forever. You want to see this scene. You want to see this film.

8 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A marvelous, good-hearted comedy(minor spoilers ahead)., 14 October 2009
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I had the good fortune to attend a world premiere tonight at the Chicago International Film Festival. I had no idea when I bought the ticket that it was a world premiere, nor did I know anything about the film other than what I could glean from the festival's summary. But this is the kind of film you go to a festival to find. It's a small, deeply felt, honest, and thoroughly engrossing movie about matters at the core of life. "The Be All And End All" is a very funny comedy, which is fairly amazing considering that it involves us in a story that from a distance we wouldn't find funny at all. It finds emotional payoffs without being too formulaic, and it gives you characters you care about.

The plot summary may well convince some people they wouldn't want to see this film, and this story may hit too much of a nerve at times for some. It's the story of a teenage boy from Liverpool, Robbie Wallace(Josh Bolt) who is diagnosed with a fatal illness, and decides that his last wish, what he wants most in the world, is to have sex. He is a teenage boy, after all. Naturally, he can't ask the medical establishment or his parents to help him with his wish, but his best mate Ziggy(Eugene Byrne) is determined to help his mate, in his words, "go out with a bang." As you may guess, arranging the details of this tryst prove rather difficult. It's hard enough being a teenage boy and wanting to ask a girl in your class out to a movie-- imagine trying to set this up, and you'll have some empathy for Ziggy's predicament.

In a less-intelligent movie, we'd only focus on the kids, and the hilarity of sexual misadventures, and we'd get an exercise in funny bad taste. Here, though, even with the current of sorrow that runs throughout the film, what we get is a joy. We can see that Ziggy really would go this far for his best friend, not simply because of the strength of Eugene Byrne's remarkable performance(according to the director, this kid has never acted before), but because the story gives us real insight into his life at home-- his father walked out on his family years ago, while he and his mother have reached that point nearly every teenage boy reaches with his mother at some point where neither talks to the other well about anything. We see the pain Robbie's parents are going through, not through long, histrionic scenes, but with looks, silences, bad choices, and one genuinely shocking moment of emotional explosion. We can see the decency in a children's ward nurse(Liza Tarbuck) who learns what's going on pretty quickly, and has decisions to make on exactly what she can allow. In short, we get a movie we can believe in, one that makes us laugh and moves us in equal measure.

I hope this film gets a wide release, and I hope it finds the wider audience it deserves. I was grateful to see it.

Star Wars (1977)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
This is the first film I ever saw..., 17 May 2006
10/10

Having read a lot of the other comments here, I have to say it's interesting to see how many people begin by saying how old they were when they saw "Star Wars" for the first time(Full disclosure: I was three. My parents saw it at a drive-in theatre, and all I can remember of that experience was seeing Darth Vader for the first time, and knowing that he was very, very bad). I think that speaks to its extraordinary impact. "Star Wars" was an event, I suppose in the way that the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time was an event. It dates you, to a degree, but the reason it was important-- the reason it remains important-- is that it showed you what was possible. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers had concentrated on showing us the brutal, heartbreaking truth of our world(The Godfather, Chinatown, Nashville-- some of the best movies ever made), and many of them succeeded brilliantly. But there's a place for dreaming dreams of things that have never been, too, and "Star Wars", with its epic tale of an Empire and a rebellion in a galaxy far, far away, was the dream a generation didn't know it wanted to have until George Lucas gave it to us.

Is it juvenile, at times? Simplistic, even? Sure. So's the truth, sometimes. We want to believe there's a Force, and that Luke can master its use in time to defeat the forces of darkness. So we believe it. Are the effects a bit dated now? Sure, although I still believe them. Did the success of "Star Wars" possibly kick off the modern blockbuster era, which gives us more and more special-effects-drenched dreck every year? Sadly, it probably did. But the thing the wannabe heirs of "Star Wars" usually lack is the one thing that made "Star Wars" such an event--courage.

Back in 1977, nobody was making movies like this. Nobody thought a film like this, with its mythic storytelling arc and its sweeping vision of intergalactic war, could possibly work...with the exception of George Lucas and his fellow filmmakers.I didn't know all that at the time, of course. Like I said, I was only three. But having watched more movies than most people my age now, I feel comfortable saying that in its way, "Star Wars" is as much an independent auteur's film as anything by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen-- it has the same sort of daring, the same desire not to settle for less than showing us something we've never seen before. A bold, grand sense of old-style craftsmanship infuses everything in "Star Wars", and the film delivers on the promise contained in its subtitle. At the time, it really was a new hope.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
The Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint!, 4 May 2006
10/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's almost no point in commenting on "The Big Lebowski"-- there's no way of summing up exactly what makes this movie so tremendously entertaining to the people that get it, and there's no way of convincing the people that don't that they're just stark raving mad. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to say something here, as I've insisted on several occasions that friends and relations watch this film, and no one I've recommended it to has complained yet.

I have a theory, which is probably complete hooey, about the genesis of this film. For years, the Coen brothers had made well-reviewed films that were usually overlooked by the Academy. Once "Fargo" broke through and earned them their deserved degree of industry acclaim, the Coens had a degree of freedom they'd never really had before. So, when they went to make a film to follow up what was considered a masterpiece, they chose the silliest subject matter they could come up with-- a noir comedy starring a unemployed stoner named Jeffrey Lebowski, a business tycoon of the same name, a porn king, a feminist conceptual artist, a wayward young wife, a buddy who can never get a word in edgewise, a gang of German nihilists, and a best friend named Walter Sobchak, who doesn't so much have flashbacks to the Vietnam War as he simply refuses to acknowledge that the war ever ended. Oh, and I left out the bowling pederast named Jesus.

Never before, and never since, have the Coens made a film with this much sheer, unadulterated glee. As has been said many times in earlier comments, John Goodman's performance as Walter is an award-worthy amalgamation of loyalty, hyper-rationalism and homicidal rage. Jeff Bridges, as the unemployed Lebowski(he prefers "the Dude"), has never been funnier(the scene where he tries and fails to throw a cigarette out of his car window is especially brilliant) as he aimlessly navigates the Dude's way through a kidnapping plot that is anything but routine. The Coens pepper the script with some of the sharpest dialogue they've ever come up with, and they're fearless in simply following their storytelling instincts wherever they lead. Any film that includes a musical sequence set to Kenny Rogers and the Second Edition and features both Julianne Moore in a Viking costume and Saddam Hussein as a bowling-alley attendant has more than its share of guts.

Do my comments explain why this film has become the cult classic that it is? Of course not-- if I could write that well, I'd have written "The Big Lebowksi" myself. At one point, the film's narrator, a cowboy played by Sam Elliott(darn, left him out too) is trying to describe The Dude, and he says something like, "The Dude was...man, I lost my train of thought." It's ridiculous as narration, but it's also instructive-- this is an entire movie that quite often loses its train of thought. And it's all the richer for it.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
It deserved every award it got..., 17 February 2006
10/10

I was reminded of a great observation I'd once read about film acting when I was watching Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." I believe Roger Ebert said(I could be mistaken there), in an analysis of great film actors, that Marlon Brando showed us all everything that could be brought to a film performance, that Paul Newman learned that from Brando, and then went on to learn what could be left out. Clint Eastwood learned from a lot of great directors in his days as one of the greatest movie stars in the world, and he's become one of the greatest directors we have, because he's confident enough, and disciplined enough, to know exactly what he needs to show you, so that you understand why the characters have made the choices they've made.

Million Dollar Baby is one of the two best films Eastwood has given us(his other Best Picture winner, "Unforgiven" would be the other one), and it's superb because every single scene, every single line, builds on the one before it. It's a masterpiece of story-telling economy(all the more miraculous because Eastwood shot Paul Haggis' first draft of the script) that pulls you in to the classic story of an underdog boxer that gets a shot at the big time only to then break your heart without ever taking a false or cheap step. This movie doesn't depend on a twist-- the ending is where this story was heading the entire time. It's just that the writer, the director, and the actors(Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman, all perfectly cast and at the top of their game) have too much story-telling integrity to let you ever get ahead of them.

It's simple, it's powerful, it's honest, and it's heartbreaking. You can't ask for much more than this.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
It's not about the scares, or the "surprise" ending..., 14 February 2004
10/10

Those things only work, and only matter, because they serve a story in "The Sixth Sense" that is genuinely emotionally affecting. You care about what happens to Cole Sear, so hauntingly played by Haley Joel Osment, and you want to see Dr. Malcolm Crowe(Bruce Willis, in arguably his best performance) help him. You believe every second of Toni Collette's brilliant performance as Cole's mother, a woman pushed to her limits of worry and grief. In short, "The Sixth Sense" is that rare Hollywood thriller that isn't about the plot so much as it's about the characters, and that's why it works.

Already legendary, and deservedly so..., 8 February 2004
10/10

You realize you're in a different sort of thriller when Clarice Starling walks down that corridor, trying to ignore the cat-calls of a cell-block full of lunatics, only to find that the most dangerous inmate on the block is standing calmly in his cell, waiting for her, almost as if he's welcoming her to a cocktail party. Rare is the movie that gets everything right, but "The Silence of the Lambs" comes awfully close to providing the perfect example for a modern thriller. It's so disturbing to watch for some people that it's often described as a horror movie, which says more about other films involving serial killing, in my opinion, than it does about this one. We're not used to crime thrillers that actually show killing and its aftermath in gruesome, clinical detail-- "The Silence of the Lambs" does. We're not used to films showing us psychopaths of unnerving ferocity-- "The Silence of the Lambs" does. Most importantly, we're not used to seeing this kind of story presented in such a matter-of-fact way-- "The Silence of Lambs" is never showy in its camera work or its performances. Most crime thrillers don't quite thrill, and certainly don't frighten, because you never quite believe them. You believe "The Silence of the Lambs", especially when you wish you didn't.

A film about what matters most..., 10 January 2004
10/10

You know that feeling when you've met someone, maybe in a place far from home, and you've gotten along well, exchanging small talk and laughing a bit together, and you've reached the point where you've run out of meaningless things to say? You're at the point where you either say goodbye, and wander off in search of more forgettable pleasantry, or you take the chance to say what's really on your mind and to give another person a chance to know who you really are. "Lost in Translation" is a movie about two people who reach that place in their ongoing conversation, and decide to take the chance. It isn't a romance, at least not in the traditional sense-- these two people don't simply need someone to love, they need someone to remind them why they get up every morning. It's one of the most humane, genuinely good-hearted films I can recall watching, and at the risk of imitating earlier comments and reviews of this movie, I think it's one of the best films in recent years.

It doesn't have "that scene"-- it's never flashy or obvious. Its single best moment comes when we don't know exactly what its lead characters are saying to each other. Its visual style is a sort of oddly placid bewilderment-- the movie does an excellent job of making you feel as if you're lost in a city where you don't understand anything. If you were there, maybe you'd be looking for someone who doesn't understand it either, but might understand you. I loved this movie, because I believed every second of it. Bill Murray has never been better in his life than he is in this film, playing an American movie star who's just a little too smart and a little too wise to be impressed with himself anymore, and he's matched note for note by Scarlett Johansson, as a young woman who hasn't found her place in the world yet but is pretty sure she's made a wrong turn somewhere. This is a movie about finding someone who'll listen to you, someone who doesn't know you well enough to know what it is you want to hear, but might tell you what you need to hear. In this movie, two people connect, if only for a little while, and it is a wonderful thing to experience with them.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
I must agree with those who believe this film is badly overrated(MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)..., 22 October 2003
5/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In fact, while it is well-acted, it isn't at all a successful film in my opinion, because it bails out on a storyline it doesn't have the guts to follow through on. Let me explain this in detail, because I want to be clear about this-- the people who made this film are exceptional artists(especially its late, great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall), and they're certainly not careless people. But in this case, I think they blew it.

The very first scene of this film shows a videotape recording of a girl being asked by her boyfriend if she would like him to kill her father. She replies, "Yes. Would you?" Now, why is this scene there? It is repeated and shown in its full context later, in which the boy later says, somewhat unconvincingly, that he was kidding. But in showing this scene twice, the movie creates a very real expectation in any viewer who is reasonably well-versed in the mechanics of the mystery genre.

That's what "American Beauty" is, ultimately-- it is the story of a murder, and of a murder victim. You can tell a murder story in many ways, but usually they're just variations of the following two plotlines. You can either make the story about finding out who the killer is, or you can make the killer known early, and make the story about hunting that person down. "American Beauty" sets up the expectation, by repeating that scene, that Lester Burnham, who tells us in the first scene he'll be dead by the end of the movie, will be murdered, and that these two kids will kill him. Part of the intrigue of watching "American Beauty" after the repeated scene is in learning how much you like both Lester Burnham and his daughter and her boyfriend, and in hoping against hope that the result the movie has promised won't happen. But then, it doesn't. The movie bails out, and pins the crime on the one wholly unsympathetic character in the movie, a character that has little or no dimension until the end and no real motivation to commit the crime he does.

"American Beauty" cheats the audience out of the family tragedy it promised from the very first frame, in order to give us an easy villain to hiss. How am I so certain "American Beauty" went wrong? In an interview with "Creative Screenwriter" magazine, screenwriter Alan Ball said that in his original draft, the kids committed the murder, but in the aftermath of several killing sprees by American teenagers, he and the studio thought that was just too hot a button to press in this story, and so they changed the ending. With this film's obvious intelligence and style, I would have liked to have seen it follow through with its intentions, and give us the tough, tragic story it wants to tell. But it doesn't, and thereby, as good as it is in many moments, it fails.

Asps...very dangerous...you go first., 19 October 2003
10/10

Some films you can theorize about and speak in solemn tones about the nature of their artistry. Some films, on the other hand, just make you grin from ear to ear as you remember the sheer thrill of experiencing them for the first time. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is happily one of those second types of films, a movie you do not passively watch so much as you careen through with equal measures of fear and glee. It's the two-hour equivalent of the best amusement park ride you've ever been on, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. The opening scene alone is worth the price of a rental, as Harrison Ford's immortal Indiana Jones escapes an evilly booby-trapped treasure chamber only to run right into, and then past, an ambush. It contains one of the best fight scenes ever filmed, and possibly the best chase scene ever filmed. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is one of the first movies I can remember seeing in a theatre, and it is a film I love above nearly all others, because it is the sort of story the movies were really invented to tell.


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