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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Damsels is a winning, funny film!, 21 April 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Sometimes a movie can be annoying, pretentious, or merely static. Sometimes a movie gets you on its side quickly, allowing you to forgive any flaws. I can see how some audiences could react to a social comedy like "Damsels in Distress" with its obvious debts to the works of Jane Austen, its nods to the self-obsessed world of academia, and its sun-dappled walks amongst gorgeous columned buildings. I think this film won me over in its first twenty minutes by being strange and deeply funny, so I decided to go along for the ride. I found myself beaming at the end and really recommend it, though I will understand if you dislike it.

Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), one of the lead characters in Whit Stillman's new film "Damsels in Distress," warns the women around her about men who send drinks to them at bars: "What you are describing is a 'playboy' or 'operator move.'" The way that she draws out the syllables in the word had me laughing more and more each time she said it. Rose, along with Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) form a trio committed to Suicide Prevention at Seven Oaks College, and in the first scene they adopt transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), taking her under the wing and bring her into their world. As Violet hilariously reminds Lily, "Have you heard the expression, prevention is nine tenths the cure? Well, in the case of suicide, it's ten tenths the cure." Violet and her friends upend the social order by selecting guys far below them on the social scale to date: "Take a man who hasn't realized his full potential-or doesn't have much yet...Then help him realize it or find more." Their philosophy involves elaborate dance sequences, long walks through campus, and pillow talk conversations where all four leads share a room. In a loose construction of chapters with cute names, the girls address the major issues of the day: dance crazes, 'operator' types, parties, and the like.

I first discovered Whit Stillman films in college where the Film Society showed "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona." I remember the intelligence of his characters, the commitments to studying upper-crust society mores, and the brilliance of Chris Eigeman. "Damsels in Distress" is Gerwig's film, and as Violet she shines and gives very funny line readings. As an idealized, romantic version of college, Stillman constructs Seven Oaks as a site of warring interests, with the Romans (not Greek system) clashing with the elitist newspaper writers for the Daily Complainer being most amusing. Does everything in the film work? No. Tipton is asked to carry far too much of the storyline on her own which muddles the film. No male character is half as interesting as the female ones. Yet the work of Gerwig and Echikunwoke carry the day, and instead of a cool kids in school film like "Mean Girls" or "Heathers," and instead of an acidic attack on college and dating like Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," Stillman focuses on a delightfully aloof, well- intentioned bubble of socially privileged and sheltered women with sharp wit, heartfelt emotions, and the ability to country line dance. From fashion to dialogue, the women seem wonderfully out of joint with their time. No one carries a phone or checks email. It is almost a shame that the men have to be included.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained, 13 March 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Oz The Great and Powerful" exists as a calibrated commercial attempt to feed off of the reputation of the 1939 classic American film "The Wizard of Oz." "Oz" is clearly not a filmmaker's personal vision with the stamp of someone in love with the source material. And, that does not need to be an entirely bad thing if the film is interesting and has a compelling story told in a fresh way. Sam Raimi's take on the Oz universe starts out promising, but fails to come together, substituting CGI for story and offering strange lead performances which build towards a conventional climax with no room for nuance.

James Franco plays Oz, a bit of a rake and a charlatan, a traveling magician in Kansas who loves them and leaves them before climbing into a marvelous hot air balloon that gets sucked into the center of a tornado. On the other side, Oz crash-lands and finds himself embroiled in a fight between the denizens of Oz and the machinations of three witches: Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams. Kunis is Theodora who finds Oz and falls for him, Weisz is Evanora, and Williams is Glinda. He has several traveling companions that include a talking flying monkey in a bellhop costume named Finley (Zach Braff) and the very breakable China Girl (Joey King). The film chronicles their journey to the Emerald City and confrontations with the three witches; the fate of the merry old land of Oz hangs in the balance.

Raimi mirrors the original film by filming in black and white only until the Wizard travels to Oz, and there are some pretty moments of twisted trees and curling mountains, hints of Tim Burton. Several actors reappear in Oz after being introduced in Kansas, some through voice work. One of the major special effects at the end really works well, re-introducing a key moment from the original film, making a comment on the power of movie-making itself. However, the film fails on multiple levels despite its fine pedigree.

A major criticism that I have is that Franco's Wizard has a major epiphany which Raimi has to play as a surprise, not as a development of character because the behavior is not grounded in any sort of evidence from the character himself. He changes, but we never see what prompts that change, robbing the scene of its power. As for the witches, Raimi struggles to balance all three of them, giving them rather dull personalities with little shading. Glinda, for example, played by one of the great actresses of our time, Michelle Williams, comes off as wooden and obtuse. Weisz should have stolen multiple scenes, and the capable, Academy Award-winning actress has little to do with an underwritten character with few juicy lines. Compared to Charlize Theron's delicious work in "Snow White and The Huntsman," Weisz simply does not stand out or inspire fear. Kunis's character should be the most tragic of all but comes across merely as the most immature. There is a potentially strong concept here--that the Wizard falls in love (or simply, lust) with all three witches and his attempts to pursue them have unintended, disastrous consequences--but Raimi is making a PG film here, so any logic that goes beyond "She's mad because he left her once" is not included. The Munchkins are also given very little to do. Jokes fall flat, are repeated, still fall flat. At times, Franco seems to be overacting, over-emoting with his face and gestures, yet that makes sense given his character's showy, performative nature. For much of the film, Franco struggles to find his eye-line with CGI monkey Finley or China Girl, reminding me of Liam Neeson struggling to talk to Jar-Jar Binks in "Star Wars: Episode One-The Phantom Menace." In both films, the attempt to show something immense ruins the fun of seeing something small done well, and the weight of what we already know as an audience is insurmountable. There, Lucas was doling out hints and echoes purposefully; here, Raimi is constrained by what he is allowed to show and what he is forbidden to reference (Where are the ruby slippers?).

The Land of Oz is a powerful place rendered in a way that still haunts me from the 1939 film: ugly trees that throw their apples, poppy fields that cast a spell, imposing castles with chanting guards, and the throne room with its eerie smoke. The image of Dorothy skipping down the road with Toto and companions is as iconic as any in American cinema. It seems a shame to make a film involving Oz that shies away from making any memorable music and cares little about making one memorable scene or sequence beyond Glinda's fog (pretty cool!) and flying monkeys (even more scary than the original). "Oz The Great and Powerful" is potentially exciting and probably great fun for young people, though the universe of the musical "Wicked" makes a better impression. The fault lies not in Franco or the witches or the voice work. Rather, I think Raimi's commercial instincts to deliver a PG film simplified the story, reduced complex characters to simple emotions, and hesitated in doing anything truly weird or amazing. One can only wonder what a visionary unafraid of weirdness or darkness like Guillermo del Toro can have done with Oz.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

6 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Les Miserables: C'est magnifique!, 24 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Wow. Tom Hooper's sensational film version of the beloved musical "Les Miserables" comes close to cinematic greatness, offering a thrilling story with few frills. Hooper relies upon his strong cast to shoulder the weight of the story instead of using cinematic pyrotechnics or CGI. He trains his camera confidently on his actors, and it is enough. "Les Miserables" is one of the best films of the year and an event of the season.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) served nineteen years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread and breaks parole leading to his pursuit by the indefatigable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). In a new life, Valjean's carelessness leads to the destruction of the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory worker scrimping to send money to her beloved daughter Cosette. Young Cosette lives with the reprehensible Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) before a decision by Valjean changes her life. Time passes, and the plot centers upon a burgeoning insurrection in Paris involving young Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine (Samantha Barks). With love and revolution in the air, Valjean must evade his past and protect Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).

Hooper's direction focuses on the faces of the lead characters, and he delivers long, uninterrupted takes of the singing which I feel is to his credit. He does not chop or edit this film into fragments. Having only seen the musical once (this past fall in Houston), I sat in the back of the theater, enjoying the scale of the cast and songs, but I never got the sense of the faces of the actors that would come from sitting in a front row seat. And, who can afford that? Well, for the price of admission to this film, Hooper puts his stars out in front, scaling down the film from gigantic sets and props. He makes "Les Miserables" a film of faces and emotions, rendered beautifully by Jackman, Hathaway, and Barks particularly. With this film and his previous "The King's Speech," Hooper has emerged as an actor's director, putting the best in front of his camera and letting them act. That film earned Colin Firth a Best Actor Oscar and Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush supporting acting nominations. His strengths are at play here with actors ready for the challenge.

"Les Miserables" examines the reclamation of one man's soul, the role of faith in a person's life. A kindness delivered upon Valjean early in the film manifests itself in two major decisions that he makes later. Without being clumsy, "Les Miserables" offers up its treatise on the importance of liberty, equality, and brotherhood unabashedly within the framing of faith. I feel that it is Hugh Jackman's best work ever as he proves himself fully capable, both strong and vulnerable, as Valjean. Anne Hathaway's brief work as Fantine is memorable, and her signature song "I Dreamed a Dream" stops the film in its tracks with its impressive holding of her face as she delivers a wounded, defiant vocal. Both Jackman and Hathaway are deserving of nominations for acting. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter delight as the Innkeeper and his wife, and "Master of the House" delivers comedic gold. Both do really brilliant work here, adding levity and humor to a dark story, as well as a flurry of comic sequences to disrupt the staid pace of the film. I do wish there were an Oscar for Best Comedic Duo; I would hand it to them.

"Les Miserables" feels a bit long, and I felt at times that I admired it more than loved it. From a technical standpoint, the film feels, looks, and sounds terrific. I found myself less enthusiastic about Russell Crowe's performance as Javert, but nearly everyone else delivers. A film deserving of great praise and no doubt thick crowds this holiday season, "Les Miserables" will receive a slate of Oscar nominations and probably a Best Supporting Actress statue for Anne Hathaway who this year handled two iconic roles (Catwoman and Fantine) with dexterity. "Les Miserables" is an admirable, technically brilliant film and a fantastic trip to the movies.

4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
I Heart Silver Lining Playbook!, 1 December 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Bradley Cooper proves that he can act, David O. Russell proves that he is a preeminent director of A-list talent, and "Silver Linings Playbook" proves to be an emotional, visceral film of strange power and grace. It is one of the best films of the year.

"Three Kings" was a story of a community of soldiers during Desert Storm with Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Mark Wahlberg, and George Clooney. "The Fighter" is nothing if not a family story with Mark Wahlberg's drug-addicted brother, smattering of sisters, domineering mother, and equally tough girlfriend. "The Silver Lining Playbook" features multiple scenes that layer in family members, neighbors, friends, police officers, and extended family. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver play Pat Senior and Dolores. Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Stiles play sisters Tiffany and Veronica; Cooper and Shea Whigham play brothers Pat and Jake. Danny (Chris Tucker, welcome back!) plays a friend Pat meets in a Baltimore institution, and Pat's best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) who is married to Veronica. There's Pat's psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) and Pat's local Officer Keogh and a Pat's dad's best friend, a Cowboy fan and a bookie who I don't think is ever named or introduced, but his name is Randy in the credits (Paul Herman). Russell doesn't necessarily introduce anyone in this film; he just layers them in, one on top of the other. A character that begins the film as possibly being imaginary ends up being incredibly real. A character that I thought was dead magically shows up halfway into the film without explanation. It is a magical, transporting film.

Without giving anything away (since deferred information is one of the strengths of Russell's screenplay of Matthew Quick's novel), Pat is recovering from a violent episode, hopes to reconcile with his wife, and checks out of the hospital with his mom. The film begins with his return to his parents' home, and then it centers the concentric circles surrounding Pat. He literally runs in circles around his neighborhood, trapped in his head and his past, triggered by the world around him, struggling with his mental illness. He meets Tiffany, a recent widow, and they forge an unusual, unconventional connection.

Everyone in this film is interesting. Everyone. Even bit parts. I wanted to see an entire movie with Chris Tucker's character Danny. And Ronnie. And Randy. And the mom.

Russell's use of setting is inspired. The film takes place in a community, a neighborhood where a screaming episode wakes up all the neighbors who stand out on their stoops. Most scenes take place inside homes. The film breathes Philadelphia in with a lived-in quality and few obvious references beyond one scene at Lincoln Financial Field. The film features Halloween trick or treating, eating at the Llanerch Diner, running around the winding roads around Pat and Tiffany's Philadelphia neighborhood, Christmas celebrations, outside of the Eagles game with the tailgaters, at a dance competition happening the same time as an Eagles-Cowboys game on television. Russell is uncovering some deep stuff here, exploring where mental illness ends and rabid fandom begins.

Put another way, isn't being a Philadelphia Eagles fan (or, insert your favorite sports team or television show or website or musician here) just another form of mental illness? Is Pat any different, worse, or exactly the same as the E-A-G-L-E-S-EAGLES! shouting fans outside Lincoln Financial Field eight Sundays a year?

The way sports can be used in lieu of communication in American culture is insightful. Pat Senior wants to spend time with Pat watching the game. Let's watch the game together. Let's have something to talk about. Russell is commenting on our national cultural practices in a way rarely depicted. He's not mocking them but questioning our habits. He's wrestling with the rituals of American life: wearing costumes, decorations, watching games, superstition, gambling, competitions, eating, recovery, rallying.

In short, family.

The performances are spectacular. I'm expecting multiple acting nominations, starting with Cooper and Lawrence who are both deserving. I loved seeing Chris Tucker again. The filmmaking layers in sound: the doorbell, Cooper's rapid-fire no-filter conversation, the spectacle of watching two, three, four characters speaking over each other. Russell's philosophy is to cram a scene full of as many people as possible and have it absolutely work, have it absolutely make sense. Because really, all these people are a part of the story, know each other, care about each, make sense to Pat, and for economy of storytelling, why not have them in the same room?

I think the filmmaking mirrors the feelings of mental illness, and I'm in awe of Russell's powers as a filmmaker with specific cinematography and editing choices. He avoids clichés and mawkishness, cutting deep into characters in pain. Yet, the film is ultimately one of hope and joy, earning its ending, and surprising me in the amount I was moved by it.

A must see film from one of our greatest living directors.

Skyfall (2012)
4 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
From Scotland With Shotguns, 23 November 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In "GoldenEye," the modern M (Judi Dench) calls Bond "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War" and announces to him in that same film "If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead-wrong," a sentiment put to the test in the bang-bang motorcycle rooftop turned train chase outside of Istanbul that opens "Skyfall."

M's decisions to protect an encrypted list of embedded spy names thrust the film into the dazzling title credit sequence, a swirl of underworld imagery, with Bond being sucked into a whirlpool that dissolves into a skull, a cemetery with an open grave, Chinese red dragons swirling about, and shattering mirrors featuring Bond shooting himself. Post credit sequence set to the incomparable Adele theme song, Mendes then cuts to M, and this film centers itself on her. She is the Bond girl in this film, facing an imminent forced retirement from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) as well as an oversight board for her running of MI-6. M is seen drinking a lot in this film, and Trevelyan's words from Dench's first film regarding drinking to silence the screams could be directed at her. Her words and actions put her agents in mortal danger, and culpability is hers. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," the Bard wrote in "Henry IV, Part 2," and M struggles to relinquish hers until the job is done.

Bond returns to action after a mission gone awry with a bullet in his shoulder and grudge against M. He returns to a subterranean M1-6 as a result of a terrorist attack on the headquarters itself. In the tunnels underneath London, M reevaluates Bond and sends him off to China to retrieve the stolen list. The hunt leads to a shimmering assassination sequence in a Shang-Hai skyscraper with the complex interplay of light and shadow as well as a spooky scene in a Macau casino, all reds and yellows and Komodo dragons. Bond is shown entering the mouth of the dragon that marks the casino's front (he might as well be crossing over the river Styx with his coin for Charon), and Mendes's film embraces this image: Bond entering death, Bond entering his own past. Komodo dragons swirl underneath the steps of Bond as he meanders into more and more trouble. Another ship to an abandoned island. A bad guy awaits, over one hour into the film, and Javier Bardem delivers a provocative performance filled with verve and fun, as well as pathos. Bardem is given three powerful entrances as villain (one a long extended monologue as he approaches a captive Bond, one a Hannibal Lecter-style incarceration, and one announced by an Animals cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" as he steps off a helicopter-ride of death, automatic weapon in hand, revenge on his mind). Bardem proves capable in all three sequences, a lethal Byronic hero who implores M to "Think of your sins" as well as proves a mirror to Bond. Silva's tortured past implicates M, and he serves as a reminder of her own guilty conscience. Silva is what Bond could become and also a tie back to Alec Trevelyan. Silva is the collateral damage of the actions of both MI-6 and M.

"Skyfall" delivers a Bond film of impressive emotional heft. Mendes has won the Academy Award for directing (and Bardem and Dench, both for acting) and seems as interested in the visual palette of the film (tunnels, abandonment, archways) as he is in letting his small cast dig into the material.

The staging of the final thirty minutes of the film in Scotland at Bond's ancestral home is quite possibly the most exciting Bond action sequence ever put to film. The less said about it, the better. Dench is strong here, as is the supporting cast of Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, and the great Albert Finney. There is a sufficient amount of wry humor in the film, ably delivered by Craig; Silva asks Bond his hobby, and Bond spits out, "Resurrection."

Mendes has resurrected the character and the series from the depths of "Quantum of Solace," a nonsensical, muddled step backwards from the character-driven "Casino Royale." He has resurrected the notion of a Bond song being a smash hit, something entering the pop culture beyond Bond. He has resurrected the conceit that Bond the man is infinitely more interesting than Bond the visual effect. Pierce Brosnan left the series several years back in "Die Another Day" with an invisible car and hang-gliding while a laser sliced an iceberg behind him. Craig and Dench have, with help from director Martin Campbell and now Sam Mendes, grounded the Bond series in a man, a man who was a child once, wounded and vulnerable by his parents' death. Bond is a man gripping by his fingertips, yet able to pull himself up. Bond is haunted, yet capable and confident, able to stand on a train track and ignore the approaching train. Bond is a lone warrior, staring out from the rooftops at the end, in a nod to the recent "Batman" series, always on guard.

"Skyfall" is about the changing of the guard with the Bond series in many ways, and I am proud to place it alongside "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and "License To Kill" as a masterpiece.

Four stars, my highest rating.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Phelps, Lochte, Bolt, Fraser-Pryce, Manzano, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt?, 25 August 2012

A bike messenger who pedals the streets of Manhattan with no brakes clashes with a gambling-addicted scumbag psychopath in need of cash who similarly lives his life without restraint. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (as in Coyote), the recently broken-up protagonist who careens through the alleyways, traffic jams, and crushing cabs of NYC with maniacal fervor. He picks up a delivery that is wanted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who starts out reasonably asking for the message and ends up raising the stakes dramatically. Without giving too much away, let me say this: Premium Rush is a virtual nonstop chase movie, and a quite good one, with Levitt riding his bike like it is a contact sport. Koepp tips his hat to video game influenced films like Run Lola Run and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by imbuing Wilee with an almost supernatural ability to read traffic patterns, play out scenarios in a split second, decide which route to take when all others will involve probable accidents and possible death. Dania Ramirez is Vanessa, Wilee's ex who becomes wrapped up in the chase as well, and there's a potential new biker interested in her who is named Manny (Wole Parks) and might be an even stronger cyclist than Wilee.

Shannon's Monday is bug-eyed, maniacal, and scenery-chewing, but I liked decisions that were made to go smaller with his character than is usually seen with a bad guy in a New York City action movie. Instead of feeling like there is a Keyser Soze type mastermind at work pulling all strings or a Hannibal Lecter of infinite foresight and intelligent, Bobby Monday is a mess, careening off the wrong choices he makes into the lives of others, and skidding up against multiple other characters. The star of Boardwalk Empire and criminally under seen Take Shelter, Shannon is such a strong actor with such genuinely interesting choices that I kept wanting him to have even more to do. He plays well off of Levitt here who has a credible bike presence and arrogance.

Koepp plays for laughs, at times, with a relentless biking cop always chasing Wilee's heels and Aasif Mandiv as the home base operator of the bike messenger system. There are some clunky moments involving what Wilee's carrying and why he's got to deliver it, as well as some leaps of logic especially regarding Bobby Monday's degenerate character and Wilee's anti- corporate principles (as he delivers for the corporations, sans suit), but I feel like Koepp has striven to portray a subculture of astonishing speed and daring (the bike messengers who possess skills and talents still necessary in our email, internet-obsessed age) with accuracy and reverence. There is something fun about seeing two actors bike through Central Park, pedaling at top speed, making some jumps that I would never dare on my bike. It's the same draw and appeal of seeing Lochte best Phelps in the pool, seeing Manzano stretch from 6th to 2nd in the 1500 meter final, seeing Bolt pull away from Blake and Gatlin in the 100, or watching Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce take down Carmelita Jeter. The thrill of speed and pushing to the limit exists in this film, despite some of its weaknesses.

In a summer of CGI that explodes space ships over alien planets, detonates nuclear weapons, and has a superhero fly bombs into portals through outer space, it was refreshing and charming to see such Premium Rush's technology implemented to simulate traffic accidents, tight squeezes between buses, cabs and their omnipresent opening doors (kinda terrifying!), and some good old fashioned bike moves.

It's kinda sweet.

Better than you think it would be, 1 August 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The new Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill buddy cop retro-television show reboot 21 Jump Street pays homage to a world of mid-eighties undercover police activity where a young Johnny Depp went undercover in a local high school in order to infiltrate gangs, bust drug activity, and expose what was really going on in America's high schools. I think. I don't know because I never watched 21 Jump Street, partly because I was a little too young for it, partly because it never outweighed my desire to watch Cheers or Night Court on WGN. And Hunter. And some of that weird Nick-At-Nite stuff I watched. It wasn't a show my parents watched (that was Wiseguy, L.A. Law), and I don't have any preconceived notions going into this film besides the fact that historically, not many films made from television shows happen to be very memorable or strong. Of course, there was Goodfellas made from Wiseguy, and I'm a fan of Michael Mann's brooding, moody Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx, though I don't think that anyone else is. The Flintstones was no good, I saw unpromising portions of the A-Team, and I'm still waiting on NYPD Blue: The Movie. However, the concept of recycling an 80's television show, stripping it down to its essential parts, and rotating in bright, funny actors works splendidly in this film, one of the best comedies of the year so far.

21 Jump Street, directed by two men and having five writing/story credits, feels like a bit of a mishmash, a stew of graphic violence, wonderful obscenity, nonsensical car chases, skilled high school satire, funny moments with Ice Cube as Captain Dickson who supervises the undercovers, as well as some very physical comedy involving Tatum and Hill. As a stew of a film, 21 Jump Street works because at its core it is funny. It made me laugh quite a bit, and the interplay, the chemistry, the bond between Jonah Hill as Schmidt and Channing Tatum as Jenko works. They both are having a really good time making this film, riffing off of each other, sliding over cars, pumping shotguns, wearing tuxes to prom, and playing two characters who deeply desire a chance to redo high school.

There is the strange sight of a guy who looks like James Franco, talks like James Franco, but isn't James Franco (played by his brother Dave Franco). There are biker gangs and potent drugs, a forgettable female supporting character that seems an afterthought in a bromance of this kind. There is the wonderful Rob Riggle as an inappropriate coach, a fun, raunchy Ellie Kemper as a teacher, and the always entertaining Nick Offerman as a stoic Deputy Chief who after chewing the leads out for botching an arrest by not knowing the Miranda Rights ("Did you just say you have the right to be an attorney?") announces, "We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle **** from the past and hope that nobody will notice." A hilarious line reading by Offerman, but by getting in front of this concept, taking the air out of its criticism, the film smartly allows itself the possibility of being wry and self-aware of its own ridiculousness and origins. Similarly, the brilliant move to switch Schmidt and Jenko's roles in high school results in some of the best moments in the film as Hill plays the jock and Tatum, the brains: Schmidt's leaping through the air as Peter Pan in a theater production; Jenko announcing "Kneel before Zod!" to enter the Science nerds lab room where he struggles to understand covalent bonds; Schmidt's faux- aggressiveness as he takes center stage in a social scene he would have hidden from in high school as well as his supposed Track prowess. The jealousy between the characters is fun, a party scene and its aftermath have their moments, and the level of fun that the directors, writers, and cast seem to be having is palpable. Tatum is a good actor and quite funny, and Hill continues to do his fast-talking thing, which is richly comedic. What a fun pairing of talents.

A comedy is supposed to make you laugh, and 21 Jump Street delivers. Fun lead chemistry and raw, dark humor mix together in an addictive way. With little to no expectations going in (and zero investment because I never watched the show), I was pleasantly surprised. Recommended.

Cabaret (1972)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Unstoppable Liza & Incomparable Joel Grey, 27 July 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!" croons a divine Sally Bowles, the American expatriate living in pre-World War Two decadent Berlin, sleeping around and dancing on stage at the Kit-Kat club, played with great vulnerability and aplomb by Liza Minnelli. Partnered with Joel Grey's astonishing turn as the Master of Ceremonies, the two shine in Bob Fosse's remarkable musical Cabaret, a film that foregrounds the messy, tumultuous relationships among Sally, her next door neighbor and lover, the very British Brian Roberts (Michael York), a charismatic German businessman Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) with his laissez faire political and sexual interests, and another couple, one Jewish, one not. Ultimately, the film foretells the growing crucible of Berlin with its boots and swastikas, its fear and violence, by focusing on the lives of these men and women in a time of growing crisis.

Liza Minnelli carries the film with a performance of great humanity and grace. Her expressive eyes do so much work in the many close-up shots that Fosse employs; her singing and choreography are both stunningly original and remarkably human. She lives, breathes, performs like a performer, and despite the role's manic-pixie-dream-girl template, Minnelli plumbs the depths of Sally's misery and anxiousness: her anger at her absent father, her ardent desire for fame, her unflappable determination to be the life of the party. A favorite scene involves Sally Bowles trying to contain herself while in the presence of another beautiful woman, and the gestures and frustration boil over in ways that are interesting and true. Minelli's Sally Bowles is a sad character, one of intelligence and passion, and one that I fear for in the ramp-up to the Third Reich. Perhaps, Sally's character lacks some of the naiveté or hollowness that Fosse intends by casting her with the dynamic Liza Minnelli (In fact, I had a difficult time figuring out how anyone would not be captivated by Sally, not take her to Hollywood, not make her a star!). Simply put, the film would not work without Minnelli's tour de force performance of singing, dancing, and embodying the weakness and the strength of Sally Bowles, the American who has lost her way in a darkening city.

In addition to riveting dance numbers and filming everything with medium shots or close-ups which give great focus on the eyes, make-up, and lips of characters, director Bob Fosse stages tableau shots which give us snapshots of the time: the beaten Kit-Kat club owner, bloodied by Nazi boots; a Russian corpse, presumably communist, strewn across a busy street with people looking in horror; an older German man who remains sitting while everyone around him stands in a nationalistic fever singing the song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," in a moment of ominous foreshadowing. Fosse inserts German radio in the background of multiple scenes at Sally and Brian's flat, with the chatter underlining the rise of Nazism and Hitler, along with an elderly German woman stating at one point, "I wish we could go back to the days of the Kaiser!"

And the emcee, Master of Ceremonies, and Greek chorus of Cabaret is the marvelous Joel Grey, an elfin performer with a haunting and childlike whimsy of a performance with wigs, make-up, various costume changes which go from milkmaid to goose stepping soldier, and a charismatic sense of play. The emcee's role, it seems, is to welcome and usher us into the darkness and twisted mirrors of the Kit-Kat club, to entertain us with his commentary and routines, to comment on the chapters of the film itself through song and dance and comedy, as well as to provoke us into considering the role of art in a fascist state, the role of the artist who performs for those he or she may personally abhor. Can you take a Nazi Party member's money as an artist? Should you? In a world where famous musical artists are taken to task for exorbitant birthday party performances such as Beyonce or Mariah Carey's recent events for the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the role of the artist when confronted with cruel power is still present with us today. Grey's emcee playfully sings a dazzling array of songs with amazing choreography, and the film lights up every time he appears. Fosse shows restraint and lets dance sequences play out in real-time or at least in long, unbroken takes compared to the frenetic editing of today's films, allowing us to drink in everything that is going on at once on stage, as well as giving the cramped, confined quarters of the Kit-Kat club stage with its mirrors, curtains, and band an intimate feel; the barrier between performer and audience is nearly nonexistent as Grey dips into the audience from time to time for jokes and laughter. Fosse uses shots of the Master's face as jump cuts at other important moments in the film, signifying the performer's role as always commenting on those men and women and their travails, always seeing everything around him in the city as it spirals and spirals.

It is an astonishing performance.

The Master of Ceremonies adds an elegiac air to the dwindling days of bustling, cosmopolitan Berlin. By all accounts, it was one of the most wonderful cities in the world during this time. The audience slowly changes over the course of the film until the devastating final shot. His songs and dancing then take on the air of a survivalist, a clownish desperate attempt to curry favor and possible reprieve from what is to come. Is there hope? When the SS Storm Troopers come to the Kit-Kat club, and come they will, the Master of Ceremonies and his troupe will have no place in the Third Reich. We know where the Nazis will place them.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Bane vs. The Memory of Heath: Heath Wins, 27 July 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I'm declaring The Dark Knight Rises to be a misfire, a confusing barrage of plot and speechifying without enough sticking to it. Nolan directs with very little of the stylistic energy of Inception or the propulsion of The Dark Knight. Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year, and despite an A-level cast, cutting edge special effects, and a terrifying villain, The Dark Knight Rises sinks.

For a minute, I'm going to focus on Bane, the villain of this third film in the Nolan Batman series. As played by Thomas Hardy, Bane resembles Darth Vader, Osama bin Laden, Sensei John Reese from the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid with his trademark lapel-grabbing, and a He-Man Masters of the Universe character with swollen arms. Bane's spider-like mask robs us of seeing Hardy's full face, but his voice is wonderfully high-pitched and eerie, supposedly modeled on Eastern European voices recorded in the 1920's. However, I do have to complain if I cannot understand over 20% of the dialogue because of the way it was recorded. Frankly, I needed subtitles or Bane. I'm not saying do without the mask. Absolutely not. The mask ties Bane to Batman as well as the tradition of samurai, as well as it provides endless speculation about its functionality. How is it keeping him alive? Why does he need it? What happens when Batman punches it real, real hard? However, when the recording of a major character's voice is murky and indecipherable, Nolan has just undercut his own film. I lost threads of major speeches because of the sound quality. Bane's philosophies seem anarchic and revolutionary, and yet I'm not sure what drives him. Glimmers arrive in the last third of the film, far too late in my opinion.

I'm not a Batman scholar, and I can't rule definitively on the series. I've read that Nolan did not want to mention the character of The Joker in this film at all out of respect to Heath Ledger's memory, and that to me, again seems like a misfire and a miscalculation. The Joker's decision to kill Rachel Dawes rocked Bruce Wayne to his core; the open-ended decision to leave Heath Ledger's Joker hanging off the scaffolding of a building, tied up and ready for Arkham Asylum begs the question, What would have happened if Bane had united with the recently freed Joker in this film? At one moment, Bane calls the inmates of Blackgate, Gotham's most notorious prison, to join him in his revolution and they overwhelm the guards. Did this film need a slap of Ledger's brilliant, anarchic performance as The Joker? I say whole-heartedly, Yes! Bane seems content during the last third of the film to stand in the shadows, retreat and withdraw, in a way that is sadly disappointing and fails to develop him as a character. I'm endlessly impressed with his quick fighting style, Hardy's ferocious biceps, as well as his WWF-style, fur-coat wearing posture. I'm not at all satisfied by how Bane's story line was resolved as well. It felt like a cheat for a character of his mythos.

Nolan is reaching in the film, reaching for profundity, for connection to world that we live in with banks terrorizing homeowners, with Wall Street destroying Main Street, with the 1% vs. the 99%. Attempts are clumsily made to link the Dent Act to the overreach of the Patriot Act in our post-9-11 society. I admire the desire to be topical and cash in on some of the rage that has boiled over in America. However, beyond a few riotous crowds pushing the rich out onto the street, as well as some destruction, there is little sense of the chaos that has descended upon Gotham during the days of Bane's rule. I didn't get a sense of how the populace responded to the brazen act of terrorism or Bane's order to govern themselves. I was interested in how Commissioner Gordon and other police officers subverted Bane's rules and avoided the death squads, but not enough was ever made clear. Fall turns into winter, and the film boils down at moment to Gary Oldman jumping onto moving trucks which are simply not as guarded and secure as they should be. I'm still unclear who was holding the detonator. Nolan lost an opportunity to present a fully realized universe here, the hidden, cowering citizenry of Gotham with all of their naked ambition and desires unrestrained by police or common order.

In his pursuit of hyper-realism, has Nolan lost something in the telling of the Batman legend? Or, is this film just a minor step backwards from The Dark Knight, a high-watermark of comic book blockbusting entertainment, but still miles above the typical Hollywood dreck? As for this film's ending, Nolan had an opportunity to fully close a chapter forever with his sage and begin a new one. I'll say this; I liked the opening of the new chapter, and the penultimate sequence of shots in Italy robs the film of some of its pathos and power. There was a way to keep some open-ended qualities to that scene, and Nolan chose to avoid his ambiguous Inception spinning top. In this film, he shows us the top falling over which to me is not as enjoyable as the mystery. And, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker and that character itself casts a shadow over The Dark Knight Rises in terms of performance and passion. It is hard to escape that shadow. But cheers to Tom Hardy for all that he did to make Bane indelible.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Gimme More Take Shelter: Best Scary Movie of the Past Five Years, 21 July 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Take Shelter is the most frightening movie of the year. Here are movies that have seriously scared me.

The Silence of the Lambs: Serial killers, cannibals, guys with moving vans, night-vision goggles, and a sense of methodical purpose.

The Exorcist: Demonic possession, little kids spewing vomit and hatred, battle between good and evil.

Scream: Unkillable, unstoppable, undeniable Ghostface killer with his sharp knives, deadly garage doors, and cell phone torments.

Let The Right One In: A realistic, cold, and scary vampire movie set in Sweden.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Cults, family conflict, your family is a cult, and dissolving reality.

Signs: A sonic nightmare of claws and alien clicks, a father furiously hammering wood over his home's windows, a family terrorized by an unknown force.

Pan's Labyrinth: The Pale Man is a singularly terrifying creature.

Halloween: A supernatural, spooky, silent killer in a William Shatner mask spray painted white. Babysitting gone wrong.

The Ring: Little girl coming out of the television. Rainy Seattle. Grainy, eerie VHS tape. Enough said.

The Shining: A movie that felt wrong when I watched it in high school, and I still think it would feel wrong now at 33; elevators of blood, twins, hotel rooms with unspeakable images.

Jaws: Undeniably effective and psychically scarring for me; there is no point in stepping into a lake, river, pond, or ocean where I don't think about its apex predator gone mad with human blood.

And now, Take Shelter. I want to write as little as possible about this movie because I'm still wrestling with it in my mind, and I think that you should go into the film knowing very little. I need to see the film again, but I think it has something profound to say about mental illness and families, as well as the fragility of a person who knows their own background and makeup. The underrated and under-appreciated Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a working- class guy in small town America (southern Ohio) who works on a construction crew, tries his best, saves his money, and then starts seeing visions. Horrifying, visceral, realistic scenes best left undescribed. Curtis lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, again brilliant) and their daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who happens to be deaf. They are a family struggling to pay bills, to cover health costs for a cochlear implant for their daughter, strains with both sets of their parents. And then, there's Curtis's visions or revelations or hallucinations which threaten the very fabric of their family and relationships with each other. Shannon and Chastain are both so good here as a couple under duress, and the sense of small town life seems spot-on. I won't say more.

For me, cinematic fright takes many forms as you can see from my list above: serial killers, aliens, elevators of blood, creepy little long-haired girls, great white sharks, lethal vampires, the unkillable, etc... Now, add losing one's mind, family, home, and existence to that list. Take Shelter is a horror film for our times, a film that delves deep into a community, faith, and a family, and its answers are never simple.

A phenomenal achievement. Please go see it!

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