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White House Down is mostly action-by-numbers
29 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Roland Emmerich is mainly known for his big budget spectacles, but ever since the dismal '2012' he seems to be scaling it back a bit. His newest effort has only the White House under siege, but in this case, smaller isn't necessarily better. Here he manages to deliver a pretty stale summer blockbuster, in which both the action and comedy are just a step off. After watching, there isn't a discussion about "was it good" or "was it bad," but rather, "why did they bother?" The film is tired, and it wants to masquerade as geopolitical commentary, but it fails on virtually any conceivable level. The film isn't even entertaining. In the end, there doesn't seem to be any real passion behind 'White House Down,' and it shows with every minute that ticks by on-screen. Spoilers to follow.

The film stars Channing Tatum as a want-to-be secret service agent who gets caught up in an attack on the White House while he is there for a tour with his daughter (the surprisingly-effective Joey King). Tatum is actually pretty decent in the role, but is nothing spectacular or praise-worthy. His performance is simply good and believable, all one could want out of a summer blockbuster, but especially from Emmerich. Also believable is Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer, and while Foxx does add flourishes of depth to the character, these are brief and barely sidenotes once the action gets going. The film doesn't really spend a lot of time on Sawyer as the president, what he believes, or any of that- it simply focuses on the action plot so as not to try to make the film overly political. At least not yet, anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal is barely effective as a secret service agent and isn't given much to do with the role but stand around looking concerned.

James Woods also stars in the film as the head of the secret service, agent Walker, and is also the film's villain. This isn't a spoiler, since it immediately establishes this in the first moments he is on the screen. Once the actual attack begins, Woods turns out one of the hammiest performances in recent memory and has a lot of fun with his role, even if most of it is relatively nonsensical. The mercenary team that attacks the White House is able to dispatch all of the guards and secret service personnel therein within a matter of seconds; they might as well have been shooting at dummies. If anyone should be angry about the film it is the secret service, who are here portrayed as either traitors or ineffective wimps or target practice. Suspension of disbelief falls to pieces here. Sure, some of the mercenaries were well-trained, but Emmerich wants the audience to believe that the secret service is made of up retired mall cops and wanna-be security guards.

For a big summer blockbuster, the film is a relative snore. Sure, it has some pretty effects, but none of its action set pieces, twists, or comedic moments hit the mark. The only funny moments come from Nicolas Wright as the White House tour guide, but they are peppered in as a distraction at best and probably to make sure the audience is still awake. Lots of things explode, and there is plenty of money on the screen, but none of it is really compelling or exciting to watch. Emmerich quite literally seems to have just thrown it on the screen, and it shows. It doesn't do anything surprising to throw off the audience or keep them engaged. It is literally action-by-numbers, quick comedic scene, quick heartfelt scene, exposition, more action-by-numbers. It was boring, Roland, and watching the Capitol explode shouldn't be boring. Its concluding action piece- the "race to complete the mission before the planes bomb the building" scene, is boring and is also standard fare. Nothing that happens in the film isn't predictable, save for the final reveal of the real villain, which comes so far out of left field that it is cringe-worthy. Throwing in a big twist at the very end to try to "gotcha" the audience is just lazy writing on the part of James Vanderbilt.

Where the film is at its most-flawed, however, is in its blatant attempts at geopolitical commentary. While one can appreciate that no political party is ever given for Sawyer's administration, the film turns into an over-the-top political cheesefest with Vanderbilt's revelations that the whole attack was motivated by a military-industrial complex desperate to keep the war machines running. Sawyer makes note in the film that war equals profit, which is true, and while no one can argue that Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex is a very valid point, it all comes off as an afterthought, and a halfhearted one at that. The film's decidedly anti-war and war-exhausted atmosphere is something that a lot of Americans can connect with, but in the end it all falls apart. It is a conspiracy script, desperate to give credence to the conspiracy mindset that there must be more at work than we can know. Like most conspiracies, 'White House Down' doesn't hold a lot of water, nor does it hold up to any kind of scrutiny in the end. Dwight Eisenhower's warning is as true today as ever it was, but it needs a better spotlight than this ineffective garbage.
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Star Trek (2009)
Good sequel, better reboot, all-around triumph
20 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Star Trek is a series that could keep going forever. It has seen so many incarnations, between television, movies, comic books, and the like, and each bit has added just a little bit more to the vast canon that makes it up. So rebooting a series such as this- returning to the crew that started it all- was sure to be a difficult task. Enter writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams with a fantastic idea to not only reboot the series, but to create a sequel to it as well, to pay homage to the immense canon that came before but give the franchise a future free of adhering directly to it. With this they were able to create a fantastic film that captures the heart and camaraderie that always lay at the heart of Trek, and a great sci-fi action flick to boot.

Star Trek begins as a sequel, with a Romulan vessel piloted by the mysterious Captain Nero (Eric Bana) arriving out of a black hole in front of the USS Kelvin. They immediately attack and cripple the ship, leaving first officer George Kirk (a not-yet-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) giving birth to their son. They are tragically torn apart when Kirk must take the Kelvin on a collision course with the Romulan ship; the last sounds he hears are his infant son, whom they decide to name James.

The film spends its first hour growing with- and exploring the dynamic between- James Kirk and Mr. Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto). Abrams and his team assembled a brilliant cast here, the heart and soul of which are these two characters. Pine and Quinto do more than just impressions of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy- though there are clearly hints of the two in their performances- but they strive to truly connect as Kirk and Spock, be they friends or adversaries as the film continues. Pine and Quinto take the immeasurable mantle of these two characters and they wear it incredibly well- fantastic performances both.

The rest of the crew rounds out and is introduced as the film goes on- from Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban). Each of the cast members does a great job in their respective roles, particularly Urban as Bones, who steals every scene he is in. Less effective is Simon Pegg as Scotty- he is a great actor and adds some good comic relief, but his Scotty is less an engineering genius than a sideshow. The film needed some comedy, and between Bones and Kirk it has plenty- Pegg's Scotty practically grinds the film to a halt every time he is on the screen.

Another weakness of the film is Bana's Nero, who is an utterly dis-interesting character and a lackluster villain. While his anger over the destruction of Romulus is understandable, and his motivation fitting, he gets little to no development. What happens to him after the destruction of the Kelvin? How does he know what happens to Spock and where to find him? Too much of his story ends up on the cutting room floor, and it's a shame. Five more minutes of screen time exploring Nero would have benefited the film greatly.

Despite these minor flaws, however, the film is a triumph. Beautiful special effects and spectacular actions sequences, and a small role for Leonard Nimoy as the time-traveling Ambassador Spock- this film quite literally has it all, tie-ins and homages to old Trek while paving a new path for itself. Particular credit has to go to Abrams and his screenwriters for focusing so strongly on character, and the interactions between them. At its core, Star Trek is as much about going "where no one has gone before" as it is about the limits within all of us- indeed, our very human nature. More than that, Abrams has taken a franchise that once alienated all but its hardcore viewers and made it something accessible to a massive audience- and from here, Star Trek has no limits. Truly, the franchise will now go where it has never gone before, and a new generation can grow up with Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise in the same way their grandparents did.
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Soars with a stellar cast and script
20 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Star Trek (2009) was a fantastic accomplishment for many reasons. Chief among these was its honoring of the Trek that was, while re-booting the franchise to liberate it from the weighty canon that preceded it. It also returned it to its roots, with the original crew of the USS Enterprise that started it all. With the freedom to now do what they pleased with the franchise, J.J. Abrams and his team have created a bold, thrilling installment with the sequel, Star Trek into Darkness.

The film picks up largely where the first film left off- Kirk (Chris Pine) is now in command of the Enterprise, and is still hot-headed, reckless, and impulsive. He is grounded by his counterpoint, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), who clearly respects his captain but does not agree with his disdain for the rules. Abrams does the sequel justice by not forgetting that this dynamic between these two characters is the crux of this film franchise, and they haven't lost a step. The chemistry these two actors bring to these roles is perfect and seamless- the two characters can and do disagree, but they could practically finish one another's sentences.

It is because of the genius of this cast that the first film worked so well, and that carries perfectly into the sequel. Bones (Karl Urban) still has an amazing dynamic with Jim, and Urban is fantastic once again. Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) continue to shine in their relatively smaller roles, and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) really turns her supporting role into something stronger. Though her lover's quarrel with Spock in the middle of a mission on the Klingon home planet is drastically out of place in the film- one of its few weaknesses- she and Quinto continue to have great chemistry and their dynamic is yet another successful one.

The film's only real weakness, like its predecessor, is Simon Pegg as Scotty. He is great in the role as he was in the first film, but he is played as largely comic relief again. The character lends himself to comedy and when the scenes aren't forced, they are great, but sadly too many scenes are written just for him to be funny and they interrupt the flow of the film. It is not as jarring as it was in the first film this time around, and isn't as much of a distraction, but it is still a waste at best and irritating at worse. And why was that little creature companion of his back? It's as if the film needed to force Scotty to have some kind of audience at all times so he could be absurdly cartoonish through the runtime. Please, for the sequel's sake, tone down the utter ridiculousness of Scotty in part III.

Outside of the few gripes above, however, the film is beautiful and brilliant. The script- all at once about love, honor, friendship, sacrifice, and heroism- is absolutely phenomenal. Through it the characters grow- particularly Pine's Kirk, who learns about humility and what it takes to be a hero. Quinto's Spock still struggles with the human and Vulcan parts of his heritage, but learns to better communicate his feelings. He and Kirk grow to understand one another better- Kirk learns what it means to respect orders and follow them, and Spock understands what it means to be emotional and impulsive.

The story is equally phenomenal here- an attack on Starfleet sends Kirk and his crew on a manhunt to the Klingon home planet, searching for John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Once the audience really gets a chance to see Harrison in action, however, it is clear that this is only a ruse, which is explained shortly thereafter in a frankly stellar nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- as long rumored, Cumberbatch reveals himself as Khan, one of the greatest villains in Trek history, and does him incredible justice. Cumberbatch frankly steals every scene he is in, but the film doesn't play as a remake of WoK at all- with the changes to the timeline, this alternate universe sees an entirely different story for Khan. Once again Abrams and the screen writing team- this time joined by 'LOST' alum and Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof- have paid homage to Trek of old in a brilliant way, but forged something entirely their own. Cumberbatch's Khan is a completely different animal than was Ricardo Montalbon's, but he is every bit as cunning and dangerous.

Once the reveal comes that Harrison is actually Khan, the film kicks into high gear and never looks back. Its final homage to WoK sees a Kirk desperate to protect his loved ones at any cost and at his most selfless- Pine has an amazing journey with this character in the first film and that journey continues strongly here. Contrary to criticisms from hardcore Trek fans, Abrams knows that Star Trek is, at is core, a journey to the center of the self- to the heart of humanity, and this film again succeeds not only in sending the Enterprise to different worlds and meeting alien races, but at driving to the depths of mankind to find the good within us all. His Trek, however, doesn't alienate- it invites. It doesn't lose itself within its techno-jargon and self-indulgence, it makes it accessible for all. Abrams continues to cement himself as one of the best directors working in Hollywood- can't wait to see what he'll bring to Star Wars. The only question that remains is, where will the sequel take Kirk and his crew?
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Glitz and Glamour with beautiful Subtext!
13 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The Great Gatsby is explosively vibrant from its beginning to its end. Baz Luhrmann takes his stunning artistry to F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, projecting the lavishness and decadence of the roaring 20s onto the screen with a modern soundtrack. A bold choice, perhaps, but make no mistake, Luhrmann's Gatsby is a wonderfully deep and poignant picture about love, lust, and greed that bursts onto the screen in vibrant detail.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jay Gatsby, a reclusive millionaire living in a lavish mansion, who dazzles all of New York with opulent parties weekend to weekend. Yet, for all of this, Gatsby himself is a bit of a recluse- few of his party guests even know who he is, fewer still know anything about him. DiCaprio gives a splendid performance as the enigmatic Gatsby, always hinting that there is more to him beneath the surface and always seeming that, despite the opulence that he surrounds himself with, he is a smaller man with smaller dreams. No, not necessarily smaller- but closer to heart.

The film is told through the eyes of young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who moves in next door to Gatsby after graduating from Yale. Maguire, too, gives a good performance here, and he was perfectly cast for this role- he has a great wide-eyed, always-in-wonder stare through which the audience can be introduced into the decadence of Gatsby's world. He always seems a bit out of place and a bit blown away by what's going on around him and the character is better for it. He is captivated not by the money and status that surround him, but by the humanity of the people living it- Carraway is by far the most "human" and relate-able character in the film.

Gatsby's story, ultimately, is a story of love, whether it be the love of another person or the love of wealth, status, and power. Luhrmann contrasts the two beautifully against one another in Gatsby and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Both are wealthy, but in terms of set design and even in the performances, it is obvious that it isn't wealth and status that are important to Gatsby, while these are everything to Buchanan. Their beautiful mansions, on opposing shores, are a reflection of this.

Much has been made of Luhrmann's use of modern hip-hop music as a backdrop for Gatsby's tale, with Jay-Z serving as an executive producer on the film- this is a stylistic choice that works for a few reasons. One, it gives the film and the story a timelessness- not many people alive today can relate to living in the Jazz age, when American decadence reached its pinnacle. Two, it draws a parallel with the decadence of the modern day, particularly in the hip-hop culture- whether this was intentional or not is anyone's guess, but the correlation is there. It gives the lavishness of the life lived by Gatsby a fantastic musical backdrop and gives the film a vibrant signature all its own.

The whole film is, of course, a slow unraveling of the mystery of exactly who Jay Gatsby is. Leo plays Gatsby as coy, carefully guarded, never fully revealing anything about himself to anyone. His is a tragic tale, a man who lost the woman he loved and would do anything to get her back- in the end, of course, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) has forgotten all about him, more in love with status and money. Real, human love is tossed aside and left behind in the wake of money and power- Luhrmann's film does a great job of exploring this theme, most particularly the loss of humanity and the battle for love. Carraway describes Gatsby as being filled with a limitless hope. His tales of his amazing exploits at war are echoed in his quest to reclaim Daisy- fighting single-handedly against impossible odds to defeat a powerful enemy. His hope is indeed limitless, and his is the hope to reclaim his lost love and live forever in romance, a hope that is dashed by the greed and want for status, money, and power. Gatsby is rich, but his money, ultimately, means nothing to him.

Luhrmann's direction is meant to lose the viewer in the tumult of Gatsby's world (and heart)- indeed, there are times when it seems rather directionless, and the over-the-top production seems about to crash down on itself. This choice feels deliberate, as Luhrmann wants the audience lost in the world as Carraway is- his vision is fantastically realized, and even if it comes off a bit stagey at times, it is still larger-than-life and layered deep. At the center of it all, in the chaos of the opulent parties and the wealth literally poured away, stands Gatsby. DiCaprio easily shoulders the weight of the film and gives a great performance, begging the audience to look closer and peel back the layers that encompass him to get to the ultimate truth.
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Not just bad, it's insulting
13 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Iron Man and his alter-ego, billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are back in a big way after the events of The Avengers, and it's clear Stark feels a little out of place in a world with gods, alien invasions, and Hulks. Captain America's line to Stark in the film: "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?" resonates in Iron Man 3 as Stark seems haunted by his alter-ego and whether or not it defines him. The film sets out to answer this question; it is far more about Tony Stark than it is about Iron Man, so anyone who went into the film expecting the opposite left disappointed. Stark's character arc concludes magnificently in the film, and if this were the only merit on which it were to be judged, it'd be five stars out of five. Sadly, the film that surrounds this wonderful piece of cinema is drowned out by a colossal red herring, throw-away characters, and wasted opportunities. Special mention should also go to Downey Jr, because his portrayal of Stark in this film is his best yet.

One of the biggest gripes about the Iron Man trilogy to date has been its rather bland villains, especially when compared to the likes of Thor or Cap, whose respective villains (Loki and Red Skull) were excellent. Iron Man 3 decided to resolve this problem by doing absolutely nothing to resolve it, by making a hamming-it-up Guy Pearce as the villain we know next to nothing about, and then by pretending- through trailers, marketing, and the film's plot itself- that the main villain was Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Well into its second hour, the film reveals that The Mandarin is little more than a sideshow- a demon, for the public to focus its hate on- and Killian proudly announces at the end of it all that "I am the Mandarin!!!" No, Aldrich, you're not, and the film could've been a lot better had it actually spent time developing your character instead of making you a sniveling crybaby 'cuz Tony didn't come up to the roof to meet you.

The Mandarin- especially with an actor the likes of Kingsley behind him- would be an instant sell. As Iron Man's most-recognizable villain he'd make for great merchandising and was easily promotable as the film's main villain. The real reveal here is the fact that they wrote another terrible, empty suit of a villain who poses no real threat to Stark, and who is about as menacing as a sunburn. The reveal is poorly-timed and adds nothing to the story- Stark's point about "creating our own demons" is evident in Killian. It grinds the entire film to a halt to explain the reveal, once from actor portraying him, and then again by Killian. The film does such a bad job of planting this seed that he has to shout it again at the end to make sure the audience gets the twist. After the dismal Iron Man 2, fans deserved better than this, but we got more of the same- sure, Downey Jr. is great as always, but the rest is basically a waste of time. One could argue that the writers were in fact developing Killian the entire time, but they weren't- his Mandarin was a theater act. He had no ideology or reasoning, he simply hated Stark and wanted money.

Essentially, they had Stark's character arc written and they had nothing else to write it to. They wanted Tony to prove he's a hero without his armor on, and he truly was. The audience learns nothing about Killian or his chief lackey, played by James Badge Dale. Rhodey (Don Cheadle) returns as the Iron Patriot, but the film doesn't give him much to do outside of standing around in a big red, white, and blue suit the whole time. The Mandarin turns from menacing super-terrorist to a drunk Ben Kingsley as comic relief, every moment of which just felt like a slap in the face and- again- ground the film to an absolute halt. Speaking of comic relief, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) got way too much screen time. Obsession with security badges? Really? Was any of it supposed to be funny? The only thing that worked about this dreck was Downey Jr. as Stark. He manages to be the glue, and is funny, heroic, and charming all at once. Without him the film would be a colossal disaster.

The film never quite seems to recover after the twist plays off- frankly, Killian is just not as compelling or as menacing as Kingsley, and this is frankly more of a missed opportunity. Their point here was understandable- creating a mysterious, evil figurehead to represent evil, basically in order to frighten people into submission. A chilling point to make in this day and age, but Pearce isn't up to the task, and his Mandarin reveal comes too late in the film for it to carry any weight or substance.

As far as effects, they're good enough, for what they're trying to achieve. There are some great scenes, like Tony trying on his Mark 42 armor for the first time, or his many scenes with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). There is a great deal to like about Iron Man 3, which makes its failings all the more tragic. The action and music are largely forgettable. They throw every brand of armor in the film just because they might as well, who knows if they'll ever make another solo Iron Man film. It feels like they simply had no idea where to take Tony Stark after the success of the first film, and outside of his stint in Avengers, he can't seem to find a good story- or an interesting villain- to save his life.
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Wonderful and thought-provoking, but a mess
18 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Oz the Great and Powerful is a pseudo-prequel to the indomitable Wizard of Oz, so it's hard to see the film doing anything to satisfy the expectations of film-goers everywhere. In terms of direction, effects, and (most of) the script, the film is utterly spectacular; it is marred by flat-out bad performances from most of its major cast, and the supporting cast isn't enough to prop it up, no matter how cute that little china doll (Joey King) is. It seems, unfortunately, to forget the whimsy and wonder that made the 1939 film so endearing to audiences- most of the actors herein seem rather bored, and their characters are all profoundly thin. Oz is a great movie to look at, but director Sam Raimi seems to have taken a page out of the George Lucas playbook, paying more attention to visual effects and set pieces than the performances on which any good film must, ultimately, rest.

The film stars James Franco as a small-time con man and magician in a traveling circus who is whisked away to the magical land of Oz when he runs afoul of the neighborhood strongman. He first meets the young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who instantly falls in love with him as they journey to the Emerald City, which has fallen under hard times. The king was murdered, and the "wizard" is prophesied to become the new king, if only he can slay the Wicked Witch. So, the journey begins, and... Franco is really annoying most of the time he's on-screen. Yes, yes, he's supposed to be somewhat aloof and conniving, but his character is so reprehensible and regards so much of what he sees with disdain that to actively root for him as a protagonist just feels wrong. Franco is overacting, to a fantastic degree, and the film suffers for it. Even as the film goes on and he gradually transforms into the "hero" that the film wants him to be, his pandering performance only saps away from the wondrous world that Raimi and company have created.

Despite the film directly positioning itself as a prequel to the Wizard of Oz, the interesting question is... is it a dream? Raimi utilizes the same trick here, with actors appearing in the opening 4:3 shot in sepia tones and playing primary characters in Oz. They each represent a facet of Oz's life or personality that he is unable to rectify in real life: He is unable to help a little girl at his show to walk, but in Oz, he fixes her legs. He badly mistreats his assistant Frank (Zach Braff), only to come to respect his counterpart in Oz. In Theodora, one sees the manifestation of his carelessness, greed, and womanizing, turning her into the evil Wicked Witch of the West. And, of course, the grandest of all- he is a failure as a magician in his real life, but is able to become a great success in Oz. Isn't it all a little too... neat? Regardless, this aspect of the film is by far its most fascinating. One wonders if there was a sequence scripted to have the magician wake up back in the sepia-toned real world at the end- the aforementioned legal troubles might have played into this, but as it is the film is meant to precede Baum's original works, in which Oz was unequivocally real.

For the most part, the rest of the cast simply phones it in. Michelle Williams is relatively bland as Glinda the Good Witch, adding no subtext or offering no complexities to the character and instead content to pawn her off as a symbol of absolute purity. Returning to the above, this may have been intentional- Oz sees Annie, her counterpart in Kansas, as a symbol of love, elegance, and purity, and it is no surprise then to see her as a manifestation of such in Oz. Still, Williams does nothing with the role. Not sure who to blame exactly for Mila Kunis' over-the-top performance as Theodora: her or the script. It largely relegates her turn as the Wicked Witch of the West into petty jealousy and a revenge stunt against a womanizing idiot, and both she and the role deserve better than this. She plays Theodora as wickedly naive, and plays the Wicked Witch as so flamboyantly evil she may has well have carried around a giant banner that said, 'I'm really evil!' The only one who really gives a great performance here is Rachel Weisz as Evanora, who is so deliciously and subtly evil and was an enormous pleasure to watch. Outside of the main cast, the only standouts are Braff as the flying monkey Finley and King as the little china doll, the latter being so heartwarming that the film could've been about her for a solid two hours and it would've been fantastic. The others are forgettable and/or comic relief, particularly the running gag of Oz never being able to remember Knuck's (Tony Cox) real name.

Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is gorgeous to look at and the 3D is well-done and not over-the-top. It is used well to great effect, much to Raimi's credit. This cast was simply wrong for this film, and Franco's performance is not nearly strong enough to carry it. Go for the stunning visuals and great effects, and the (mostly) great writing. The script hands down a great character arc for Oz, and with an actor who maybe wanted to play the role, the film probably would've been a lot more enjoyable to watch. In the "literature as film" sense- if the characters in Oz are little more than metaphors for various facets of the wizard's own life and personality- it is a fantastic and marvelous success. The performances only needed to deliver this, but they fell resoundingly flat.
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Flight (I) (2012)
Only soars on Denzel Washington's fantastic performance
21 February 2013
Flight is the kind of movie that studio marketing departments seem to hate. Watching the trailer, it gives the feeling of a lighter film, dramatic, with some suspense. It does not, however, indicate that this is an incredibly dark film about the depths and perils of addiction. The trailer gives a completely different idea of what this movie is going to be about, but with Denzel Washington's "Whip" Whitaker doing cocaine about thirty seconds into the runtime, one can safely throw away any thoughts they may have had about it.

Mr. Washington stars as Captain Whitaker, piloting a flight from Florida to Georgia; a relatively short flight, but when something goes wrong at 30,000 feet, the quick-thinking and talented Whip rolls the plane to pull it out of its dive and ends up crash-landing, saving the lives of all but six people on-board the plane. The namesake sequence of the film is probably its best, filled with amazing tension and some stellar effects.

Washington absolutely shines in this role, and being an actor of immeasurable talent, there is no question why he is up for an Academy Award for best actor. His acting is the kind of amazing that doesn't even require words- near the end of the film, his performance is absolutely heartbreaking, and Denzel Washington wears it in his face. Sadly, the rest of the film (outside of scene-stealing performances from John Goodman and James Badge Dale) isn't really up to par. The film follows Whip's self-destructive alcoholism as he is caught up in an investigation into the cause of the plane crash; friends try to help him and are spurned, he is alienated from his family, and he finds fleeting comfort in strangers such as Nicole (Kelly Reilly).

This is where the film runs into problems, however. It wastes far too much screen time developing Nicole's character only to drop her off the face of the Earth. She enters Whip's life as a common ally, someone battling her own demons and addictions, but she is seeking help. She then vanishes from it just as quickly. Her character isn't all that interesting to begin with, and the same can be said for most of the rest of the characters and the story in the film; they only serve as a backdrop, a mirror through which Whip's many, many demons are reflected.

Flight is, unfortunately, a film without much of a sense of direction. Robert Zemeckis seems to be all over the place, pouring multitudes of attention into Nicole's character, the plane crash, and Whip battling his demons, and it never seems to make up its mind as to what it's about. The film never, for a moment, questions whether Whip is actually at fault for the plane crash, and in fact it was his actions that saved many lives. Maybe it is Washington's poise and gravitas in the scene, but it never feels like Whip isn't in control. True that he is drunk and on drugs, and has many serious, serious problems, but saving the lives of ninety-six people (himself included) wasn't one of them. So while the plane crash story is certainly interesting, there's never any doubt about exactly how it is going to play out.

Flight could have been a better film if it had capitalized on the success of the tension it so well displayed early during the plane crash. Whip's story, his battles with his numerous demons- and ultimately, his freedom from them- are moving and wonderful to watch. If Zemeckis hadn't tried to shoehorn in this ridiculous investigation plot that never really merits any attention, it would have been that much better. Washington gives a five-star performance, but the rest of Flight lands at a dismal Three and a half out of Five Stars.

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Life of Pi (2012)
Beautiful, but self-defeating
21 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Life of Pi is an encouraging and optimistic tale about human survival and the struggle to battle ones inner demons. Visually dazzling and filled with great tension, Ang Lee's latest does a lot of things right in its quest to steady the soul. Its themes and its overall narrative, however, are purposefully deceptive, which leaves a lot of the film rather muddled and lost in its own message. A stunning testament to the human spirit and to love, and in the end, the journey one man takes to find himself and to find God. It is too bad that Lee's presentation comes off as a little overwrought.

Irrfan Khan stars in the film as Pi, who recounts the tale of his life to a writer (Rafe Spall). He was the son of a zookeeper and his wife, living in India. Through some happenstance, the family decides to move to Canada, taking the animals with them, which they plan on selling once they arrive in order to financially establish themselves. En route, the Japanese cargo ship sinks, the animals escape, and Pi finds himself stranded alone on a lifeboat with a few of them.

The bulk of the narrative revolves around a younger Pi (Suraj Sharma in a fantastic performance) and his attempts to survive stranded at sea with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The two share a fantastic voyage across the sea in which Pi learns about courage and finds the strength to survive, often out of fearing for his own life. However, the narrative often seems a touch too fantastic and out of touch with reality- a fact given a great deal of attention since the older Pi prefaces the story with a warning about how fantastic it is.

As a young boy, Pi spent a great deal of time searching for himself through faith- proclaiming himself to be a Hindu, Christian, and a Muslim simultaneously. His father (Adil Hussain) tells him that one who believes in all things at once really believes in nothing at all, and urges him to choose a path. He asks him to listen to reason (one could argue, a faith all its own). Life of Pi is, at its core, a metaphor for religion, but not one specific religion, and ultimately argues there is no one path to peace and spirituality, to faith, love, and wisdom. It instead marries all of the ideas together, showing that there is no one true path. Science, reason, faith, and religion, all different paths leading to the same destination.

Life of Pi asks whether the journey is more important than the destination, and the film clearly argues that the former is more important; at the end, the elder Pi recalls telling two stories. In both stories, his ship sinks, his family dies, and he survives. Yet he asks which is the better story; the writer responds, "the one with the tiger." With this, the elder Pi replies, "and so it goes with God." Life of Pi, then, places upon the viewer that the destination- finding God- is always the same, but that each must find the best way.

In revealing his narrator as unreliable, Lee unfortunately detracts from the themes that he is trying to present. It would have been Lee's masterstroke had he simply let the film tell this story; his attempts at selling his point of view to the audience are weakened by placing doubt in the mind of the viewer. The film makes the point he wants it to without the ham-fisted exposition, and it forces the vigilant viewer to ever question the journey. Without the needless revelation- by cutting out anything regarding the adult Pi until the end of the film- it would have been absolutely magnificent. As it stands now, it is just one flaw too many in a film that spends half its run time on a boat with a man and a tiger, which is devoid of tension since the audience knows how it ends.

In the end, take away from Life of Pi the thematic questions it raises and the points it makes, but don't expect it to unfold naturally. Despite all of the nature, the serenity, and the unpredictability of the setting of the film, it has a simplistic, mechanical feel that is too inorganic by comparison.

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Amour (2012)
Vivid mise en scène and rich performances
12 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Amour is a film for film-makers and is a film student's dream. It is the kind of movie that demands analysis over and over for its dense symbolism and wonderful structure. It makes some really odd choices, but overall writer/director Michael Haneke knows exactly where he's putting the camera and why, and every shot on the screen oozes purpose. Foreign films don't often gets nominated at the Oscars outside of the best foreign film award, let alone for best director and a best actress nomination for star Emmanuelle Riva, but Amour is moving, brutally honest cinema about love, life, sacrifice, and death. NOTE: Spoilers to come. A lot of them.

The aforementioned Emmanuelle Riva stars in the film as Anne along with co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges, a couple of retired music teachers in their eighties enjoying their quiet little life together. The film takes a turn when Anne suffers a stroke, paralyzing her right side and forcing Georges to take care of her. The attack puts a strain on their relationship, with Anne falling increasingly ill and wanting more for her husband than to take care of her, and with Georges ever-loyal and willing to do anything to make her well again.

The performances by both Riva and Trintignant are simply spectacular. There is a love and devotion between these two characters that goes beyond words and it is bright and alive in the air between them at all times. Most enjoyable are the scenes between the two just looking at one another, such as Georges attempting to feed Anne and give her water; the look on Anne's face is one of such excruciating pain. The real crime is Trintignant being overlooked at the Oscars for his amazing performance; he is every bit as spectacular as Riva is, and their performances compliment one another perfectly. Truly, one would not have been possible without the other.

The film co-stars Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, a far smaller role but a character just as large as the other two. It is fantastic to see her evolution as a character, and how her mother's deteriorating health commands more and more of her attention as the film goes on. Alexandre Tharaud plays Alexandre, a former student of the couple's who has gone on to great success and fame.

The amazing acting, however, is only a small portion of the very large picture that is Amour. It owes everything to the script from Haneke and to his careful direction. The camera-work is a bit jarring at first; shots remain steady for quite a long time, looking at characters from behind or from the side, keeping things out of focus, and keeping its distance; an interesting choice that serves to truly isolate Anne and Georges. In some scenes the camera-work is deliberately meant to make the viewer almost uncomfortable; others, it serves to illustrate the slow, stagnant lives that the two of them live. The viewer is only allowed certain access to these moments, the minutes that make up these lives. Georges and Eva have a discussion about her relationships and career- Georges has his back to the camera, while all the viewer can see is Eva. Haneke closes the audience off emotionally from Georges, forcing them to wonder with him at what happened to Anne in the prior scene.

Amour also uses beautiful symbolism, in many ways but most specifically in the form of a pigeon twice arriving at Georges and Anne's home. The bird finds its way in through an open window, popping about the apartment- the first time through, Georges shoos it away, chasing it back to the window and out of the apartment. The second- after Anne has already passed away- he captures and cradles closely in his arms. In both of these instances the pigeon represents death, passage into the afterlife- he wants more than anything to keep his wife alive, and make her well again, and chases the bird off. Once she has passed, however, there is little left on Earth for Georges, and he embraces death to join his beloved Anne.

There is too much to say about a film so richly layered and this review barely touches the surface. Amour is a moving film about real love and real life and the struggles that love must endure. It certainly isn't a blockbuster, it can be a bit slow and a bit jarring at times- the camera is unforgiving, and the characters grow more and more haggard as the movie goes on. Yet it is, to its core, a testament to the beauty and unending power of love that transcends this or any other life. Its performers simply live and breathe these characters for two hours, but I promise they'll stay with you for a very long time after.
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Frivilous, with no lessons learned
9 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Having defeated the leader of the mutant gang in The Dark Knight Returns: Part I, Batman (Peter Weller) has inspired a wave of new vigilantism, which inspires even more of the previously derided television news panels and news programs that spout off the film's various running themes at the viewer, lest they forget that they need to select a point of view they most agree with and be reminded of it every five minutes. Unlike the first film, however, which was content to only ask the question, this film does everything it can to convince the viewer that they are wrong if they like the Batman or support the kind of vigilantism that he represents. How does the film manage this? Fifty seconds into the film it stages a talk show debate both for and against Batman, selecting for its "pro" Batman voice a grotesquely overweight and ignorant Lana Lang who babbles inanely at the audience that it isn't Batman's fault that he has inspired further vigilantism in his name. Many arguments can be made about the Batman, but the vigilantes he inspires in his wake are a direct result of his actions, which the film makes overtly clear.

In the meantime, Commissioner Jim Gordon (David Selby) is retiring, leaving newcomer Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera) to take over the job. Being decidedly anti-Batman, she becomes the face of a city that will no longer tolerate Batman's vigilante antics, and thus dedicates every single police resource possible to taking him down. This specific plot is annoying at best, something contrived in hero stories when A.) the hero needs to be delayed in reaching a goal, and B.) the villain needs to be given time to achieve their goals. The Dark Knight Rises adapted this onto the big screen and it was just as ignorant there as it is here; it defies any logical sense that the police would dedicate so many resources to take down Batman but ignore the serial killers and super villains that are plotting beneath their noses.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Michael Emerson) has stirred, beginning another killing spree that sends the Batman after him (murdering an entire studio audience while no police were around, since Batman is clearly the bigger threat). The chase and subsequent battle between the two of them is downright amazing, capturing the bitterness and hatred the two characters have for one another perfectly. The Joker going so far as to kill himself to pin his murder on Batman is an inspired stroke of writing. It is tragic that his time in the film is rather short, since their confrontation is easily the film's best sequence.

Meantime, the president decides that Batman's renewed antics are a menace and must be put to an end. He sends Superman (Mark Valley) off to give the Batman a stern talking to that goes as well as anyone might expect. From this point on the film just... it just falls apart. Seeing Superman as a government lackey, fighting against the Soviets on Corto Maltese was so absurd that there is no response appropriate enough for it. So Superman allows himself to be used as a human weapon for political ends now? This, similar to portraying Batman as a dual personality of Bruce Wayne in the first film, is so bafflingly out-of-sorts with the character. Worse is his diversion of a nuclear strike in Corto Maltese that renders him crippled and looking like a super zombie. So Superman then proceeds to... suck the life force out of the Earth to replenish himself?!

Thanks to the ineptitude of the Man of Tomorrow, the nuclear strike instead cripples the United States with an electromagnetic pulse, sending the country into pseudo-martial law. Batman, not content to let crime overthrow Gotham, rounds up the vigilantes that have been acting in his name and decides to keep the streets safe. This makes Gotham the safest city in the country, something that the Feds deem to be a colossal embarrassment, so they send Superman in to take Batman out.

All things considered, the fight between Bats and Supes was very well done. Batman shows his strength of character and his intellect, attempting to weaken the Man of Steel before facing him in a full-on showdown that he knows he will likely lose. As in the previous installment, the animation style completely suits the sort of heavy-fisted fighting that it again showcases here, as well as earlier in the Joker fight. The whole affair is very well done, with Bruce enlisting the help of Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, to help him take down Superman. Robin (Ariel Winter) also lends a helping hand here and at other places in the film, but is really just a throwaway character.

Just as in part one, this film could've been made a lot better if it had cut down on the insipid newscasts that constantly intercut it, content to yell at the viewer over and over what they should be thinking and believing that audiences are too stupid to think for themselves or to glean the themes of the film from the film itself. This could've easily been done as a single feature-length animated feature, instead of two 75-minute films that are drawn out and overlong and replete with the same repetitive newscasts that never, ever stop. The whole thing reeks as a cash grab from DC, whose feature films always seem to falter unless they star Batman. Can't blame the company from cashing in on its relatively successful (and for the most part, very well-done) animated featurettes, one supposes. The animation style is terrible for anything outside of the film's action sequences or those not featuring Batman, and despite some great voicework from the cast, the whole affair feels as worthless as part one before it. It's a shame that the Joker couldn't have hung around longer, because once he died, he took the energy of the film with him.
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Flawed, Insulting, Incredible
9 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 has many wonderful moments, some good voice work, and some amazing animation. It also allows itself to become terribly distracted, some scenes drone on for far too long, and these leave the film feeling overly short.

What exactly it is that drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman? If this film is to be believed, it is that Batman (Peter Weller) is a separate personality who talks to Wayne and haunts his dreams. This sad portrayal thus makes it seem like Wayne is crippled by some sort of split personality disorder (done perhaps to draw some kind of unnecessary parallel between he and Harvey Two-Face). Bruce Wayne is Batman in the same way that water is wet or that grass is green; he simply is, and that is the entire driving force of his character. Without Batman, Bruce Wayne wanders around lost and has no purpose. While the film does touch on this to some extent, even the suggestion that Batman is some separate personality is outside of the reality of the character. Wayne does a good job wearing the mask of Bruce Wayne, but this is hardly the same, and this moment early on- where he hears his own voice in his head tormenting him- completely removes one from the film. Play these scenes without the voice-over from himself, and instead they becomes about a Wayne who is still haunted by the night his parents were murdered and is driven to fight crime to ensure that no one ever suffers the same fate.

Another drawback is the newscasters in the film. They serve the purpose of questioning of whether or not Batman's presence (and re-emergence) is a good thing. The only problem with it is that Batman's return is questioned by the other characters in the film, coupled with the fact that it cuts away to them repeatedly for this purpose. They are there to remind the viewer, lest they forget, that Batman is a vigilante and that some may not find his return to be a good thing. Remind the viewer they will, over and over and over again, leading to an utterly startling amount of redundancy.

It is only the worst kind of film that subjects its audience to this kind of "hit-me-with-a-sledgehammer-and-ask-if-it-hurts" exposition, and this film is ultimately not something that anyone should repeatedly enjoy watching because of it. The question of what good Batman's return does- and what negative effects his return might have- are answered within the film's very frames. The Joker, in a catatonic state, returns to reality upon hearing the name of Batman. He emboldens the police and the citizens, fights against criminals, but also emboldens the same criminals. All of these serve to force the viewer to ask themselves the very same questions that the film does. What the film refuses to do is allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions, instead standing on the sideline screaming answers. The Dark Knight Returns: Part I does its very best to remove any cognition on the part of the viewer, and this is and should be seen as insulting.

The animation and animation style in the film are both utterly fantastic when dealing with Batman doing his Bat-thing. In the shadows, swooping about, attacking thugs unseen, to straight-out brawling: everything is rendered beautifully and is never anything short of convincing. The animation style definitely lends itself well to Batman's very nature; lurking, overpowering, a dark terror shooting out of the night. All of the scenes with Wayne as Batman are clearly the best the film has to offer for this reason. This animation style does not, however, lend itself as well to the normal, day-to-day scenes in the film. Many of them fall flat or look awkward or goofy, and some of the characters just look flat-out ridiculous (the mayor, for example).

All that said, The Dark Knight Returns: Part I still works in a number of different ways, and is still immensely enjoyable. Weller's voice work is outstanding, as is much of the voice work in the film. 'The Dark Knight Returns' is such an important story in the pantheon of Batman lore that it has affected nearly every single piece of Batman-related media since its publication in 1986, from Tim Burton's 1989 Batman straight up to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, which clearly draws inspiration from the graphic novel. All of these touches are still completely in place in the animated adaptation. The Batman in the animated film commands authority and respect, and power beyond telling. His two fights against the leader of the mutant gang (Gary Anthony Williams) are epic beyond recount, with the dark knight remembering a great lesson in fighting with his brains, not his brawn.

That, ultimately, is the crux of the film, whether or not the 55-year-old Bruce Wayne can re-don the cape and cowl, what his life is without Batman, and whether or not Gotham City really does need Batman. One of the strongest threads of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is the question of escalation; that being, is Batman's presence in Gotham City a good or bad thing? Does his presence incite super villains and draw crime to the city? This is a key theme in The Dark Knight Returns: Part I as well. Batman's presence, ultimately, is about more than Batman himself. It is about providing a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham City, about showing them that the city belongs to them, not to corrupt criminals and street gangs. Despite all its failings, the animated feature definitely brings a smile to the face of anyone who loves anything about the Batman, and once he slips that cowl back on, one can tell that he is finally himself again.
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Hugh Jackman is masterful
7 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Les Misérables is, at once, one of the most engrossing, emotionally realized, and overwhelming theatrical experiences of the last decade. Many parts of it are so grandiose and spectacular that few words exist to describe how memorable they are; others are baffling and confusing. Still others are almost horrid mistakes. Its complexities and intricacies are many, but in the end, Les Mis stands as a fantastically beautiful film that should have been the best picture of the year.

The film's primary (and most engaging) narrative is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner 24601, recently paroled after nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After his parole, his treatment and exclusion almost forces him to be a criminal in order to survive, leading him to steal silver from a church. Rather than condemn him, the priest instead takes pity on Valjean and gives him the silver, on the condition that he use it to become an honest man. Horrified by how low he had sunk and touched by this gesture, Valjean resolves to become just that.

Hugh Jackman deserves to win best actor at this year's Academy Awards for this role. He is absolutely amazing as the tormented Jean Valjean, even after he skips out on parole and is living a good life he is still on the run, still afraid, bitter, angry, and uncaring. Jackman infuses all of these layers into his performance, creating a character that is utterly captivating. His voice is equally amazing, his singing digging deep to the core of the character. His evolution from selfish to selfless, and his redemption for his crimes, all brought to life effortlessly by Jackman's brilliant performance.

Equally moving is Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, an inspired bit of casting on the part of Tom Hooper, which has drawn some ire from some circles but is a tremendous success. Though clearly not as musically inclined as the castmates around him, Crowe plays Javert's dedication to finding the escaped 24601 with zeal and hunger. He vanishes into the role and is effortless, and gives a performance that was sadly overlooked this awards season. His Inspector is firm, cold, and unforgiving, and played wonderfully so.

Hooper does a fantastic job blending the need for strong performances with the emotional singing, not content to just let one side or the other do the job. With such wonderful music, it could have been easy to allow it to elicit the emotion, but many of the performers blend it seamlessly with deep, visceral performances that complement each other beautifully.

Anne Hathaway will almost certainly walk away with an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Fantine. While this is a truly great performance, the film nearly falls apart during her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" for a few reasons. Hooper pushes the camera in close, allowing all of Fantine's raw despair and anguish to pour from the screen. She has a fantastic voice, but frankly Hathaway mugs the camera during the song, and she goes a little bit overboard in her performance toward the end- she is utterly perfect through most of it. More than this, the scene demands such emotional investment (between the performance, the close-up, and the song itself) that it becomes almost overwhelming. The film takes some time before it returns to the level of emotion displayed here, leading to a kind of slump that drags through the film. It's as if this were the complete focus of all of Hooper's efforts, and it feels too much like awards bait.

Nine years later, the film truly hits its stride as the tides of revolution wash in; the microcosm that was Valjean's treatment early in the film becomes the experience of all the poor in France. Éponine (Samantha Barks) is grown up and is desperately in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), but he is oblivious to this fact. Compound that with the fact that he and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) fall madly in love with one another from the moment they see one another, and that Marius is swept up in the struggle for freedom alongside Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). For the final ninety minutes, the film builds and builds to a magnificent climax, both in plot and in its characterizations. Redmayne in particular gives an astounding performance as Marius, especially with his brilliant rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Mind-blowing isn't apt enough a description.

Inevitably, Les Misérables has so many amazing moments it would be nearly impossible to recount them all. It is a film that demands multiple viewings. The music is brilliant, the voices singing it crafting each note with heart-wrenching honesty and emotion. That Tom Hooper, fresh off his win for his amazing work in The King's Speech, was ignored for a nomination for best director at the Oscars is criminal (despite it being a very crowded category).

It should have been the best picture of the year- in many ways, it is. Yet its pacing and length detract from what would have otherwise been a masterpiece of an offering. Too much screen time is wasted on the Thénardiers, between Helena Bonham Carter's wardrobe and Sacha Baron Cohen's ridiculous French accent (the only one in a film set in France). Still, from the moment Enjolras begins singing "Do you Hear the People Sing?" the film's pace thunders forward, finally re-capturing the emotional wave that had roared in when Hathaway belted out the film's most recognizable tune. It is a shame that wave too long receded, and that Hathaway's is the most talked-about performance in the film. From the very beginning to the end, this film belongs to Hugh Jackman, and his is the kind of performance that absolutely transforms a great work into something spectacular.

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The Sessions (2012)
John Hawkes' great performance cannot carry The Sessions
6 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The Sessions is all at once simplistic, sweet, charming, lifeless, and boring. The film's pace and characterizations are as paralyzed as its protagonist, barely registering much movement through the runtime, and save for some decent performances, isn't really anything worth remembering. It is one of those "based on a true story" movies that reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place- to escape the boredom and tedium of reality.

The film centers on Mark O'Brien (the always-wonderful John Hawkes), a man suffering from polio which renders him largely immobile. Despite this handicap, however, Mark still manages to earn a graduate degree and is an accomplished writer- because of his handicap, he is still a virgin, and vows to lose his virginity. That Hawkes was largely overlooked on the awards circuit this year is criminal- he vanishes inside of O'Brien, delivering a remarkable performance with little more than his facial expressions and his voice. It is his performance alone that carries the film, suffering from a woeful lack of a supporting cast, and sadly his is not enough to do it all.

Eager to lose his virginity, Mark turns to the church and Father Brennan for advice. These scenes should have been a little more poignant, especially given William H. Macy in the role, but he phones it in- he gives the priest almost no depth or characterization, turning him instead into rather ill-placed comic relief (Brennan's reactions to O'Brien's depictions of his therapy are at least chuckle-worthy, however). With seemingly few options, Mark seeks out a sex surrogate to teach him about his body and to help him lose his virginity.

Enter Helen Hunt as the surrogate Cheryl, in a wonderful performance that is nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. Hunt plays Cheryl as a strong but relatively vacant woman, going through the motions of life and marriage but definitely lacking for some kind of tangibility. Given this and her intimacy with Mark, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the two will end up falling for one another- Mark because of his naivety and inexperience, and Cheryl because of her loneliness and vulnerability (based on a true story, sprinkled with a touch of Hollywood).

Hunt truly delivers a wonderful performance, at least in parts. Her Boston accent wavers throughout the film, appearing and disappearing at will, and would have been better left out altogether. She also plays the role with a downright startling amount of nudity, and full-frontal nudity at that- while this is appropriate at least to some degree given her character, it becomes overkill after awhile, and leaves one wondering when on Earth Helen Hunt is going to put on some pants. It helps to better illustrate her vulnerability, true, but eventually, the audience gets the point.

This, ultimately, is the only real takeaway from this film. The Sessions has some great moments, but ultimately falls flat as a film and is relatively forgettable. Too little time is spent exploring any character that is not O'Brien, and the film suffers as a result. Scenes without him then become overlong and boring, since writer/director Ben Lewin gives the audience no reason to particularly care about them or the characters in them anyway. It is nothing profound, or moving, or Earth-shattering, but this is its point- it is the simple journey of one man to become a man, and against the odds he succeeds. It is tragic, then, that it is so disengaging.

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Rich with metaphor and wonder
5 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
There is no mistaking why young Quvenzhané Wallis is up for an Oscar for best actress at this year's Academy Awards: she shoulders the entire narrative of Beasts of the Southern Wild and does so with a depth and power that captivates with every moment she graces the screen. Though only six years old at the time of filming, Wallis commands the screen, and make no mistake, she is through-and-through the star of this film. Set on "the Bathtub" on the Gulf side of the levee, Beasts is less a film about flooding and the poor as it is a film wrapped in decadent metaphors about love, loss, pain, sacrifice, and responsibility.

The young Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a resident of the Bathtub being raised alone by her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Her mother passed away at some point in the past, but Hushpuppy still communicates with her, obviously unable to deal with something so poignant as the loss of her mother. Her father is, to put it fairly, a rough but loving man trying to toughen up his daughter to face the harshness of the world around her. Sadly too many people see this film and can only condemn Wink for his treatment of Hushpuppy, missing the absolute dedication and love that he has for his daughter. Early in the film he vanishes, only to return several days later wearing a hospital gown, having clearly escaped. The film never makes clear whether or not he goes willingly, but given his characterization throughout the film, it is doubtful. Though his treatment of his daughter is nothing to be condoned (slapping her, screaming at her, and the like), Henry manages to infuse his brutality and his rough-around-the-edges demeanor with a strong sense of love, responsibility, and honor.

When a storm threatens the Bathtub, most of the residents flee, but Wink decides to stay behind with Hushpuppy, along with other residents. The flood destroys their homes, but not their spirits- even when forced to evacuate, the remaining residents of the Bathtub band together to break free and return to their homes, devastated or not. All the while, a pack of aurochs- prehistoric beasts about which Hushpuppy learns in school- break free from the Antarctic ice and begin a path of destruction toward her home. While a bit distracting to the overall plot at times- the script could've done with a few less scenes of them- the aurochs are a refreshing touch of magical realism in a world that is all-too-real for everyone, and do offer a break from the hopelessness of life in the Bathtub after the flood.

All the while, Quvenzhané Wallis carries the entire film with her enigmatic performance. At six years old, Hushpuppy is forced more often than not to fend for herself while dealing with complex emotions she's not even old enough to understand. Over time she begins to realize her father is dying, and is forced to come to terms with this fact as well as the loss of her mother, all while dealing with the loss of her home. The majestic aurochs charge through the film, a pure metaphor for the crushing realities of life and the acceptance of life's hardships. Faced with being alone without either of her parents, Hushpuppy's entire world is crashing down around her, and no matter if she is ready or not, this reality is coming slowly but surely to completely overturn her world.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is at once a journey of innocence to maturity and the path from naivety to understanding. Hushpuppy at the start of the film is hardly the character that she is at its end, having accepted the loss of her mother and made peace with the imminent death of her father, she comes into a realization of the complexities of emotion that go along with it. She goes on an imagined journey and finds her mother, giving her the strength to cope with the loss of her father- by the time the aurochs arrive, the devastation and chaos they represent is understood, and Hushpuppy stands poised and prepared for the next journey she must take in life.

A great deal of the credit for all the wonderful emotions realized in this film must go to Quvenzhané Wallis, but just as much should go to writer/director Benh Zeitlin and screenwriter Lucy Alibar, who have infused a simple journey of one indomitable little girl with layers so rich that multiple viewings are nearly required to see between them all. The film's score is utterly magnificent, lending each and every scene an extra level of depth and beauty. While not perfect, Beasts is so imaginative and rich that it comes to life effortlessly on the screen, and top to bottom all involved deserve every accolade for it. Dwight Henry deserved a nomination alongside Wallis, whose performance could (but likely will not) catapult her to Oscar gold. Even if she doesn't win, she gives a vivid and wonderful performance that will never be forgotten by anyone who sees this magnificent film.
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Beautifully complex and surprisingly deep
28 January 2013
If there is a word apt enough to describe Django Unchained, it would be "relentless." In his latest revenge epic, Quentin Tarantino transports the audience to the American South in the waning days of slavery, to deliver an uncompromising tale of revenge, love, and morality. He does so in his usual fashion, with tremendous brutality and language amid wonderfully dressed settings and characters. It has all the staples of the Quentin that his audience loves, and while the revenge theme is becoming a little tiresome, the film is punctuated with magnificent performances that place it among the year's best films.

Django Unchained is not an easy film to watch; the path of brutality cut across every reel by the protagonists feels secondary to the reality of life for a slave circa 1858. Inglorious Basterds was very similar thematically: revenge of the oppressed Jews against the Nazis, but in that film, he avoided too overtly showcasing the brutality suffered by the Jews in World War II. Not so in Unchained, in which the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is covered in scars he received as a slave, and the bloodiest parts of the film are not the revenge-spree, but those of innocent slaves brutalized by the cruelty of the world around them. Revenge, while still prevalent, takes a back seat to the deep-seeded wrong of inequality.

Foxx stars along with Christoph Waltz as his bounty hunter/mentor Dr. King Schultz, who absolutely shines and captivates every moment he is on-screen. Waltz is the type of actor that is capable of infusing so much nuance into a role that his every movement and every emotion are almost shining on the screen. Already holding a Golden Globe for the performance, he is going to be a contender at the Oscars as well in an incredibly tough supporting actor category.

As Django, Foxx is an angry, yet reserved, basket of complex emotions, though Foxx doesn't really seem to hit on the depth that the character requires. One can't help but wonder if Will Smith- whom Tarantino had wanted for the role- would have done Django that much more justice. Foxx has been largely ignored by major awards circuits, which is criminal given the character's journey in the film and the complexity of his situation. Instead the film is largely stolen from under him by Waltz and the ever-fantastic Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. Leo may ham it up a bit in the role, but it is good to see him have some fun with the role after being ignored on the awards circuit for some absolutely brilliant turns. Still, Foxx does imbue the vengeful Django with a quiet strength that it is doubtful few actors could replicate; as much as he is meant to stick out in the story, Foxx plays him as subdued as possible, his end goal- finding his wife (Kerry Washington)- ever within his sights.

For the Tarantino-phile, the film is replete with the director's trademarks: long scenes of dialogue with slowly mounting tension throughout, Mexican standoffs, incredible close-ups, a magnificent cameo by the man himself, and razor-sharp character development. His devotion to the re-creation and re-birthing of genres is nothing short of fantastic, fully transplanting the western into the American South. Quentin's script is as unrelenting as his vision, and has landed him a Golden Globe as well, making him a contender for the Best Original Screenplay statue at the Oscars.

Particular mention must go to the score of the film and its period setting, both of which are absolutely fantastic. From its opening seconds, the film transports the audience to the pre-Civil War South, and uncomfortably or not forces them to stay there until the final seconds roll away. Tarantino's films always have a way of immersing their audience within the world in which they are occurring, and this is no exception.

Little more can be said about Django Unchained that would do it any justice. While it'd be great to see Quentin move on to a theme that isn't revenge, Django showcases a thematic maturity and complexity that few of his prior films really engage in, and this is why his Golden Globe was so deserved, as would be an Oscar should he win. But for all of this, the greatest stroke of genius was casting Samuel L. Jackson as the Uncle Tom, and he is absolutely fantastic in the role. Hollywood also needs to start putting Walton Goggins (of The Shield fame) in more films, because even in this small role, he shines. Even if you need to turn away a time or two, don't miss this incredible film in theaters.

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Intriguing, but lifeless
26 January 2013
When the Oscar nominations were announced, many felt that the exclusion of Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award-winning director of The Hurt Locker, was a particularly large snub. Having now seen Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow being nominated would have been a pretty drastic misstep on the part of the Academy. While it certainly isn't a bad film, Zero Dark Thirty isn't necessarily a great one either, which is a disappointment from this director coming off of an incredible job on The Hurt Locker. The fact that the film is topping many "best of 2012" lists is equally baffling. Despite the even pacing, some great production design, and a phenomenal performance by Jessica Chastain, "the greatest manhunt in history" ends up being little more than a whimper when it should really, really be a bang.

Starring as CIA agent Maya, Jessica Chastain absolutely commands on-screen, leading the manhunt to capture public enemy # 1, Osama bin Laden, beginning in 2003 up to his eventual capture and killing in 2011. Make no mistake, despite some really interesting casting choices (wonderful to see Mark Duplass in a supporting role), this movie belongs 100% to Chastain. She owns every second of screen time that she gets in this film, her performance quiet, strong, and dedicated, her mind set ultimately on one goal: finding bin Laden. Her performance is subdued and restrained outside of the few moments that it need not be, and in all of them she shines.

Sadly, however, Chastain's performance is the only thing about Zero Dark Thirty that is subdued. Based on true events, far too many elements of the film seem to be just a touch too dramatized, to the point where they become detrimental to the film. The multiple torture sequences become difficult to watch after a time, and too many scenes of following and tracking and analyzing seem to go on for a bit too long. Perhaps this was Bigelow's intention, to infuse the audience with the same kind of despair and hopelessness that Maya had felt about the mission to find bin Laden, and to express that it was about much more than the final action-packed raid on the compound. This is lost in the translation, however, and despite the film's even pace, it really just seemed to... keep going on and on. Don't mistake this, however, for a cry for more action- the film doesn't have much, and doesn't need or want for more. It is the failure on Bigelow's part to keep the interest, the tension, and the intrigue going through the runtime that is, ultimately, the film's weakest point.

This film did not need to be 2-1/2 hours long, and it feels like it's every bit that long and then some. It wasn't exciting, thrilling, or engaging; it is stuffy, over-long, bureaucratic, and boring. It was all very interesting to watch, of course, and it has glimmers of greatness within it, but too much of the film is spent watching characters stand around, look around, or wander around. Again, this could've been intentional, but if it was, it begs the question: "Why?" The film is so well-shot, its production design, sets, costumes, and atmosphere so masterfully realized, that it is criminal that this environment doesn't yield anything that, in the end, is really worth watching. The nuts and bolts of the hunt for bin Laden are so complex and wide-sweeping and Bigelow does a good job of exploring this macrocosm in detail. Why isn't it more interesting to actually watch it? In this light, it isn't difficult to see why Kathryn Bigelow wasn't nominated. The bigger mystery for Oscar devotees might be how on Earth this film was nominated for best picture in the first place because it certainly isn't, and it more than certainly shouldn't win. Outside of Maya, all of its characters exist only on the periphery of her mission to find bin Laden; the audience learns nothing about any of them, and most of them are flat and one-dimensional. Living, breathing characters drive the narrative of any good story, and this film suffers for lack of them. Having directed The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal are no stranger to this, so it is all the more surprising to see them fall so drastically short. Maya, as she is written, isn't a very compelling character either- it is Chastain's effortless performance that elevates her to something more, but without her it'd be hard to find anything very redeemable about the film at all.

In spite of all of this, however, the film is not a bad film, and is certainly not a poorly made film. Rather, it just seems that Bigelow chose an odd direction to tell her story, and it just isn't very entertaining to watch. Its marketing is strangely telling of the misshapen structure of the narrative; few trailers for films are so off-putting and boring as is the feature trailer for Zero Dark Thirty. It doesn't even look like a film someone would want to go see. Everything rests on the premise that this film depicts the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, but it lacks any sort of substance, tension, or depth. When the audience already knows the ending, the purpose of the film then should be to make the journey to that destination something engaging and intriguing- Zero Dark Thirty, however, seems to be looking at its watch, wondering when it will ever get around to it.

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Lincoln (2012)
Nothing short of a masterpiece
26 January 2013
Lincoln, through every second of its runtime, evokes such an overwhelming array of emotions that it is nearly impossible to explain exactly how one feels about the film, only that one truly feels the film. The film centers around the last year of the Civil War, in January, during which President Lincoln was attempting to get the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed through the House of Representatives.

At the center of this is Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President, with a performance so fully realized and engaging that it won't be hard to see DD-L winning his third Oscar for it. His Lincoln is a humble and quiet man, wrapped in untold strength and charisma, loving to regale his cabinet, staff, and anyone who'll listen with stories. Huge, huge chunks of the film are little more than Daniel Day-Lewis telling stories, but each and every second his Lincoln is on-screen he demands the fullest attention. The brilliance of his performance lies in its subtleties, his posture, the way he moves his hands, the way he crafts every single word and sentence as if it is the most important he'll say in an entire lifetime. For a period drama with no action the runtime is in no way a hindrance at almost 2-1/2 hours; in fact it only lends more time for the audience to fall incontrovertibly in love with the man and the entire film.

This is so easily accomplished because of the attention to detail on the part of everyone in the production, from the actors to the director, to the costume and set design. Spielberg's attention to detail on historical pieces such as this is nothing short of perfect; he brings the audience right back to 1865 in the film, completely immersing the audience. Yet the comparisons to modern day are unmistakable; a largely political film, it spends a great deal of time on the floor of the House while Democrats and Republicans attack one another over the cause of ending slavery. This immediately draws comparisons with modern politics. Yet it goes to educate audiences about American political history, in that it has always been a dirty game, a hard-fought battle in the trenches of the houses of Congress and the White House. Indeed, the modern political scene isn't the only one of gridlock, of impassioned arguments on both sides of the floor, of favors and political grandstanding.

Spielberg assembles a masterful cast here alongside DD-L and each choice was made brilliantly. Beside him is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, her performance a whirlwind of strength and fragility wrapped into one. It is with Field's Mary that DD-L's Lincoln has many of his best scenes, from quieter moments to continued mourning over the death of Willy Lincoln, to angry and explosive fighting. Their performances together are simply brilliant, each character exhausted from fighting so many battles separately and together, but at their core there is a tenderness and love that is irreplaceable.

Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely magnificent in the film as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. His speeches and his moments in the film are by far its most passionate offerings, with Jones infusing his Stevens with so much life and hostility at the very notion that freedom and equality are not the rights of every man. His words are chilling, with Jones delivering them with such power and depth. Also standing out in the amazing cast as Secretary of State William Seward is David Strathairn, who gives a fantastic performance as Lincoln's main confidant and friend.

Yet the biggest praise must go to Spielberg for his absolutely incredible direction. This is a man who has received a great deal of flak over the last decade, with many suggesting that he has lost a step. This film, make no mistake, is the master returning to what makes him great. Spielberg is such a brilliant and masterful storyteller; his images on the screen tell stories that words never could. In a particular scene, Lincoln is pulled in two different directions: end the war, or end slavery? An impossible decision to make, but Day-Lewis pulls off the tug-of-war going on inside of the president with such beautiful precision, each facet of those decisions cutting him like a knife. He sits alone in the telegraph room with two other men, telling a story that will inevitably lead him to his decision. Spielberg shoots it from a very high angle, with the president and the two men in the very corner of the shot, the remainder of the room completely empty- it represents the solitude Lincoln feels in his decision, as many in his cabinet feel that ending the war is the more important course of action. Few directors know how to tell a story with the camera so well as Spielberg, and when he gets it as right as he does in Lincoln, there are simply no words of praise adequate enough to heap onto him for the incredible work.

Let it be said, in no uncertain terms, that Lincoln is a masterpiece. Spielberg weaves together such a complex set of narratives, directing every single one of them through the masterful performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, whose utter strength of character is spellbinding. It reminds us that Abraham Lincoln, for all that loved and hated him (and kudos to all involved for showing us both sides of that coin), was a president who was tasked with impossibly mountainous tasks, and yet with the help of great people around him he completed them. Lincoln's narrative is so moving, and demands such an emotional investment that by the time it all ends in the way that every single American knows the life of Abraham Lincoln ended, there is little more to do than sit and stare transfixed as the final credits roll, tears falling, overwhelmed in ways unimaginable.

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Overindulgence in Middle-Earth
26 January 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The Hobbit tells the tale of a young(er) Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who is dragged into a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarven kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug, who has overthrown it. The film begins with a tie-in to The Lord of the Rings with Old Bilbo and Frodo (the returning Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, respectively), wherein Bilbo sits down to recount his tales. It is here that Jackson makes his first misstep, so early in the film- does anyone need to see this? A better question may be, in fact, what does this add to The Hobbit, and how does this better tie it to LOTR? Nothing, to the first, and it doesn't, to the second. If the film needs to have a bridge to LOTR (which is in itself debatable), then it can just be Old Bilbo, from behind, sitting down to begin writing his book. Does anyone need to see the "no admittance" sign from Fellowship nailed to the door, or Frodo heading off into the woods to surprise Gandalf? No, is the answer.

Nonetheless, the film finally gets around to telling its own story, with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) not-so-subtly nudging Bilbo into the quest to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor by turning his home into a meeting place for the company of dwarfs who set out to reclaim it. The party arrives, one or two or a few at a time, and proceeds to eat Bilbo out of house and home before getting down to the business at hand upon the arrival of the leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). After an exhaustive amount of screen time (if it was Peter Jackson's intention to make the audience feel suffocated and claustrophobic trapped in the hobbit hole, mission accomplished), the party finally sets out for their homeland, with Bilbo deciding to run after them and join them after some initial hesitation.

The biggest problem with the film isn't the changes it makes to the book. Nor is it the film's attempts to tie the film into the larger Lord of the Rings universe for its audience. It is in continually overindulgent scenes that carry on far longer than they need to. While the subplot with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is enjoyable and important to the link that Jackson is trying to make to LOTR, why does he ride a ridiculous rabbit-drawn sleigh? Repeatedly? It looks utterly ridiculous, the same for Radagast himself, who has a thick, crusty trail of bird droppings matting down part of his hair. Similarly ridiculous is the entire sequence in the goblin city with Gandalf and the dwarfs, be it the utterly absurd goblin king and his fifty-six chins that swing with his every movement or the frantic escape from said city, in which it becomes almost cartoonishly stupid.

Luckily, however, the eye-rolling and groaning moments such as these are few and far between, and the remainder of the film is incredibly strong. The 3D, for the most part, was used effectively, giving Jackson a greater depth of field and a broader setting to tell his story, and is seldom used gratuitously. Strong performances from McKellan and Armitage are wonderful companions to the fantastic performance of Martin Freeman, who continually makes his Bilbo feel like a frightened outsider who simply doesn't belong. As the film continues, however, he gains strength and courage, and truly becomes a member of the company, and once separated from it his absence seems erroneous.

While separated from the company, Bilbo has a chance encounter with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), with whom he plays a game of riddles, hoping to escape from the cave with his life (and uneaten!). He also finds a mysterious ring and wins the game, making off with the 'precious' ring and earning Gollum's enduring hatred. The film's villain, the pale orc Azog, feels similar to the Uruk-Hai in Fellowship of the Ring in that he is not nearly as threatening as the threats that loom over the horizon, particularly as Smaug is awakened as the film ends. Not to detract from the action sequences involving him, but it feels a little "been there, done that" and feels like a pointless side-journey en route to the true evil and the real adventure.

Overall, Peter Jackson could use a lesson or two in "less is more" and one only imagines that with the impending arrival of the dragon in the next installment, it will not be a lesson learned. Clearly, Jackson faced a daunting task of adapting what is a children's novel for a broader audience, and (unnecessarily) felt the need to tie it to his Lord of the Rings adaptation. Overall his success remains to be seen, but whereas his trilogy a decade ago practically begged for more in any way possible, his Hobbit instead asks for a break. Shave 20 minutes off the runtime and cut out the really absurd and nonsensical CGI overdoses, and this would be every bit as epic as the trilogy that preceded it. Instead Jackson delivers an overlong, mostly-wonderful epic that can't quite find the charm it so desperately needs.

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Stereotype-ridden Snorefest
26 January 2013
Though made for a plethora of reasons, a film need only achieve one goal to be successful: it needs to be entertaining. Engaging characters, good performances, and a story that is engrossing, even if a bit cardboard or cliché. When a film ultimately fails, it is because its characters are wooden or stereotypical, the storyline is boring, and the only question it might raise is, "was this intended to be sleep therapy for a study on insomnia?" Set that film in 1949 and make it about gangsters and cops, and you've got Gangster Squad, a film so inept that Ruben Fleischer should win an award for managing to make a violent action movie that could put an Olympic sprinter to sleep in mid-stride.

Josh Brolin stars as Sgt. Something-or-other, a no-nonsense cop who is recruited by the grizzled police chief (Nick Nolte, who eats sandpaper, apparently) to stop a gangster from taking over Los Angeles. Brolin broods as the take-no-prisoners Sarge, his squad rarely referring to him by name because they probably can't remember his name either. Despite how stylized the trailers may seem, how action-packed and exciting it promises to be, this is little more than a stable of stereotypes loosed upon mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles and hoping not to bore it half to death. It becomes exhausting to try to care about what's going on in the film because the characters haven't got a shred of credibility between them; the only enjoyment comes from Robert Patrick, himself packed tightly into the stereotype of the sharpshooting old westerner.

Sean Penn's utterly ham-fisted Mickey Cohen is taken down, but who cares? The film never makes you care about the struggle against him or the city under his rule; he's ruthless, he's tough as nails, and he's every other stereotype of the evil gangster that Sean Penn could look up the day after he got cast and decided to cram into the character. Every single actor in this film has been utterly fantastic in other films; how could the ensemble be so frightfully uninteresting? The utterly versatile and likable Ryan Gosling is so bland and watered-down that he seems confused as to why he is even in the film. Emma Stone is rendered to eye candy, a crime given her considerable talents.

Yet, as contrived as the characters are, it doesn't come close to touching how terrible the script is. Penn mugs at the camera, his only character direction seemingly "sound more angry" or "be more gangster-y." The film does itself a disservice to not show Cohen's rise to power- it wants the audience to see how powerful Cohen is, but killing his own men for their ineptitude and eating a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant does nothing to imbue the fear that Mickey is supposed to represent into the script. He quite honestly seems rather harmless, and without a villain to care about, the gangster squad's mission to tackle said villain becomes even more pointless.

The real tragedy here is the fact that for two hours, there are guns firing, flashy action sequences and big period set pieces, yet none of it seems all that interesting. It needed to be longer; it needed to go deeper. Having Sarge's wife tell the audience that he'll pick duty over family is supposed to be meaningful, but the scene is unnecessary- the opening sequence with Brolin's character tells everyone that. Too much time is spent between characters needlessly talking exposition at the audience. Time better spent developing a camaraderie between the squad members is instead spent on slow-motion sequences or on Brolin's chin-set, Mickey-Cohen-is-bad speeches. If Mickey Cohen is so terrible, why doesn't a film about his downfall just show the audience that? Not to say that Gangster Squad is completely bereft of enjoyment. The period setting was very well done, with some magnificent costume and set design. It may have been senseless and boring, but at least it felt like it was boring in 1949 and wasn't really out of place. A chase sequence early on with some vintage automobiles is excellently handled, filled with some great explosive tension, figuratively and literally. The film handles most of its gunplay and action sequences quite well, it's just a shame that all the bullets are coming from guns shot by gunmen and are flying at targets that are equally vapid and meaningless. These aren't characters, they're shells, into which an actor was poured and just told to act like a single-line description from an old pulp novel about gangsters.

Despite a moment here or there of decent action, there's nothing redeemable about the entire experience that is Gangster Squad. It is empty, boring, and ultimately will leave the audience feeling... well, nothing. What should have been an excellent period film with gangsters and cops with some depth and character exploration is instead ripe with brevity, with everything thrown at the screen wrapped in a stereotype with so little substance, you can almost see through Mickey Cohen.

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Wonderfully engrossing and engaging
26 January 2013
David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook is the kind of film that dares you to invest yourself in it. It is smart, it is funny, and it is a romantic comedy with some serious issues. It is also categorically one of the most engrossing film experiences in recent memory, littered with fantastic performances and feeling, for every moment of its runtime, real. Russell's script doesn't want anyone in the audience wandering on its periphery; like it or not, everyone is going along for the ride, and no one should be disappointed by the end.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, recently released from a mental hospital in Baltimore after eight months, coming home to live with his parents. He is diagnosed bi-polar, and upon his release is convinced that he's going to reunite with his estranged wife Nikki. Cooper is nominated for an Oscar for best actor, and it's easy to see why mere minutes into the film- he lives and breathes this character. Cooper completely disappears into the role, giving Pat's painful struggle with his illness and his attempts to cope with the world a vivid and uncompromising reality. His world is turned upside down, however, when he meets Tiffany (the mesmerizing Jennifer Lawrence), recently widowed and trying to find her own way in the world.

Lawrence is fresh off a Golden Globe win for her part and is also up for an Oscar, an award she may be poised to win on the strength, beauty, anger, and passion she imbues in her character. Already one of the most versatile actresses in this generation, she goes far beyond any of her prior work here. The chemistry between herself and Cooper is also absolutely white-hot, lending a tremendous dose of sexual tension to the entire film. The pain and bitterness beneath both characters is deeply seeded, but these two find one another at the perfect moment, when they most need one another, and every minute of their evolving feelings is deeply felt.

Despite the two fantastic leads, it is Robert DeNiro as Pat Sr. who absolutely steals the film, playing a character so tormented and emotionally realized that even the iconic De Niro is completely unrecognizable inside the character. This is easily his most memorable role in years. Jacki Weaver shines beside him as his wife and Pat's mother Dolores, and both of them are up for best supporting statues at the Oscars.

The brilliant performances are only a shade of why Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best pictures of the year, however. David O. Russell's script and direction take what might have been something far less interesting or engrossing and transforms it into a brutally tragic slice of reality, so beautifully realized in every single shot of the film. Russell puts the camera right in each actor's face, removing any semblance of choice for the audience to emotionally invest itself in these characters- every nuance between them explodes on the screen, allowing each already magnificent performance to transcend great and become truly extraordinary. Using the camera to so invest the audience in the film could have backfired, but with such incredible performances and a top-notch script it comes off brilliantly.

If anything is lacking it is a sense of actual tension in the love story between Cooper and Lawrence, since it becomes obvious early on that it isn't a matter of if they will get together, it is when. The script manages to overcome this somewhat with a story arc about his father betting on football, but the tension that creates is only minor and is equally predictable. Even knowing what is coming doesn't detract from the experience, however, because of how engaging and inviting the film is. This is a family absolutely riddled with problems, but they love one another, and there is a deep-seeded loyalty here that is as apparent as their love of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Little could be done or said that could have made Silver Linings Playbook a better film. It was predictably rom-com-ish in its presentation, despite its off-kilter characters, but this was never a detriment to the film. No matter the genre or the overtold patterns therein, any film that can showcase characters this fully realized is a magnificent one, and this film deserves every accolade being sent its way.

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American Reunion re-captures the magic of '99
8 April 2012
In the summer of '99, this reviewer was fresh out of high school and facing the world ahead- facing the "next step" in my life. Along came a little movie called American Pie, a raucous and raunchy comedy about high school, virginity, and growing up. Of course it had all the staples of the raunchy teen comedy- drinking, swearing, more screen time for breasts than some characters, and absurd characters (looking at you, Sherminator), but at its core was a film about the friendship of four men, about learning how to grow up, about the broken road one leaves behind and the bumpy road ahead. As a nineteen-year-old still learning his way about the world, the film carried the all-too important thought that everybody's gotta grow up- the characters did, and so did I.

The regular cast of the Pie flicks haven't been seen together in some time- they haven't all been together since 2001's American Pie 2. So the main question that must be asked is- especially after the atrocious Wedding and the throw-away direct-to-DVD sequels- can they re-capture the magic of the original two? The answer is a resounding yes. American Pie was never about one person, it was about the whole cast, their bond, their friendships, and their shared humiliations, failures, and victories. American Reunion succeeds on all of these levels, bringing back the laughter for one last hilarious slice.

It's the thirteenth reunion at East Great Falls, but we join our characters in their adult lives to see where they are now. Jim and Michelle are still married, now with a kid, but seem to have hit a pothole in their marriage. Kevin is married and a freelance architect, but is mostly a house husband. Finch has disappeared off the radar, and Oz is a successful sports broadcaster and pseudo-celebrity dating the utterly vacuous Mia. All of them decide to head back into town for the reunion, though none of them decides to tell Stifler, who is still as immature as ever. Getting the four together takes a bit, as the writers take time to re-acquaint the audience with the characters, and this part of the film is admittedly its one downfall, as it is rather slow and isn't very funny (Mia and her gay interior decorator are eye-rolling at best).

Eventually the four guys head back into town. Jim runs into a girl he used to babysit, the almost-eighteen Kara, who is overjoyed to see her old babysitter. Jim is tasked with spending time with the guys for the weekend, but also trying to find time to spend with Michelle, as both have realized the gap between them is growing larger. All four guys return and run into Stifler, and the five of them promise to make the weekend one they'll never forget.

From here the film is, in every sense, a true successor to the original Pie. Kevin and Oz's lost loves return in Vicky and Heather, and old feelings come rushing back. In a welcome bit of character development, Finch doesn't spend the film pining over Stifler's Mom, but has instead met the geek-turned-gorgeous Selena. All of the old staples of the Pie series that made it such a winning hit return- Jim suffers more public humiliations, Stifler's antics are outrageous, Kevin is still boring, and Oz is still hung up on Heather. The guys get stuck in ridiculous situations that they try to squirm themselves out of.

The great thing about Reunion is that, even though it is treading familiar territory, the film still feels fresh and funny, and isn't just a ripoff of the first two. Instead it is a great reflection on the fact that things for the characters have changed so much, but that they are undoubtedly still who they are and will never escape that. No matter how much they change, they're still the same people, and best of all the writers knew how to dial it down with the over-the-top nonsense. Stifler is not nearly as absurd and ridiculous as he is in American Wedding, which was one of the film's biggest issues- but he's still Stifler. That said, one of the worst (and best) parts of Reunion is the guys trying to avoid Stifler and still blaming him for being stuck in high school- but by the end they realize that he is one of them, and that without him they just wouldn't be whole. They're not necessarily wrong- Stifler, of all the characters, is still trying to hold onto a life that has long-since ended, and he is finally forced to take the "next step" that has been a running theme of this series- the whole series comes full-circle, and that's why it resonates so much.

The film can be forgiven for being slow, and for some forced dialogue, and for throw-away cameos by the returning Jessica and Nadia. Particularly the former, whose screen time might be 45 seconds, and none of it is actually shared with Vicky. But for any negative it might have, it is outweighed a thousand times by the film's great moments. Now watching as a 31-year-old adult, removed from college and settled into the hum-drum grind of a daily commute and bills and responsibilities, the film reminds me that one is only as young as one feels- that memories are the most precious things of all- and that whatever life may bring, for all its boredom and drab situations, one's youth only endures as long as one remembers it. Boredom is okay, the daily grind is okay, as long as we remember who we are. Ultimately, we hold onto the past not that we may live in it, but that it may live through us, waiting for those times we get a chance to re-capture it. The past can bring reflection, but the past can also breed change.
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2012 (I) (2009)
You aren't important enough to survive the apocalypse.
16 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Seriously, why does Emmerich even bother casting actors? Just show stuff blowing up. That's all he cares about. Watching this is like seeing any number of faceless human traits and personalities in human skin. There's not a shred of acting going on here, because everyone has a one-line definition of who their character is and what he does. John Cusack? Writer and terrible dad. Woody Harrelson? Crazy government conspiracy cook. Danny Glover? Selfless president. Chiwetel Ejiofor? Intelligent scientist with all the answers. Roland, next time, just blow stuff up. Save the money you'd be paying actors and just blow more stuff up.

The effects were all that you would even care to look at here. There was nothing redeeming about this utter pile. The action is so over-the-top and excessive that you can't even tell what's going on half the time. That, and how many times do we have to see the SAME ACTION SEQUENCE? How many times did a plane fall off a crumbling runway in this movie? How many times did John Cusack (aka the world's BEST FRIGGIN' DRIVER EVER) jump over cracks or fireballs or chasms in his vehicle? Seriously, John Cusack is not Superman. Although he can apparently outrun the pyroclastic flow of a FRIGGIN' SUPERVOLCANO. I'm not kidding. Roland Emmerich just took science and not only wiped his rear end with it, he dropped a deuce on its chest and hit it repeatedly in the face with a shovel.

But the most ridiculous part of this movie is the film's "theme" and how it plays out. Cusack's character is a writer who wrote this book about how human beings need to be selfless and think of others and save each other. Actually a really decent theme, right? Especially with the whole world-is-ending thing.

Well now let's apply that theme to the movie at large. It's like 2010 and the government figures out that the world is SCREWED, so they get together with the rest of the world's governments and they get their stuff together and they're gonna save humanity. They are coming up with a plan, damn it, and screw you 2012 apocalypse, MANKIND WILL LIVE ON. Hmmmmm... that's pretty sweet actually. Can't complain about that at all. Mankind will be saved. ASSUMING THAT THEY HAVE A BILLION DOLLARS! That's right. Mankind has to be selfless and love one another, ASSUMING YOU'RE OF GREAT IMPORTANCE TO HUMANITY or that you HAVE A BILLION DOLLARS *PER SEAT* to buy a ticket on an ark. If you're just Joe-nobody or Jane-nobody, you can basically go get screwed, because the government has no interest in saving you because you're worthless.

But they'll at least tell us that doom is impending, right? They'll let us know. I mean they gotta, THE WORLD IS ACTUALLY GOING TO END AND MOST OF HUMANITY WILL DIE. Either that or they'll completely ignore telling us and say nothing for years, and only finally tell us after the Yellowstone SUPERVOLCANO erupts and we're all screwed anyway. I dunno, I just like to think that if the world was going to end, they'd kinda let us simple folk know. In the movie they even said that they "didn't want to cause anarchy." WHO CARES?! The WORLD IS GOING TO END. WHO CARES if there's anarchy? You already don't care enough to let us know that we're gonna die, or to include us in your grand "save humanity" plan because we're not important enough to you - so who gives a crap if we tear the world apart before mother nature rips the entire Earth a new one? I'll tell you who - really rich and important people, THAT'S WHO! Numerous people are murdered simply because they dare to try to tell people that the Earth is going to flush them down the planetary toilet, and that the world's governments knew AND lied about it, and have a big "save humanity" plan that they casually forgot to mention to most of the 6 billion of us living on the planet.

I'd like to think that if the world's governments got together in 2010 and said, hey, in 2012, the world is really gonna die, we've got proof, but we've got a plan to build ships and save humanity. We'll need a lot of resources to complete this, do you care? I think a tax hike to pay for a few dozen or so of these big arks to save mankind is a pretty decent reason to take some of my hard-earned money. Granted, they would have to let it be known that not *EVERYONE* could be saved, but hell, at least take the children? Let a new generation have a chance at survival? Nope. Apparently the only way they could afford to pay for the arks is to have really rich people do it, so that really rich people were the only ones who would get saved. I'm sorry, WHAT? It's great to know that honestly, in Emmerich's world, Paris Hilton could be saved from utter destruction of humanity while so many people with at least some kind of intelligence will be left to die in an unholy torrent of hell and fire and DEATH. To top it off, the movie has the arrogance to play its theme at the end when they try to leave a bunch of these way-more-important-than-you people behind, and we get a big impassioned speech about how we have to be selfless and help our fellow man. You know, like the 5 or 6 billion of us you just let die because you were too busy being elitist pricks to tell us the world was going to end or to ask us if we wanted to pitch in some cash to build some live-saving arks.

Avoid, avoid, AVOID this movie unless you want to be insulted and told that you'll never be as good or important as the rich and powerful elite.
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Great, cheesy, B-movie summer fun
17 August 2006
Oh my god. I think I might still be a little excited, since I just got back from the advance screening of Snakes on a Plane. I want to preface this review by saying that IT'S NOT SERIOUS. DO NOT go to this film expecting to see some great, dramatic film because you'll be let down. However, if you want to go and see Samuel L. Jackson kick the holy sh*t out of snakes (on a plane) then this is the film for you. It's dumb B-movie summer fun, and it delivered it by the truckload. It knows it isn't serious (with that title, how could it be), and honestly, the whole time everyone involved is just having FUN with it. So go, sit back, have fun, and see some snakes (on a plane).

The plot on this bad-boy is razor thin with a pathetic, throw-away villain. After witnessing a murder, Sean (Nathan Phillips) is taken into protective custody by the FBI and more specifically, Jackson's Neville Flynn. He has to be flown from Hawaii to LA to testify and blah, blah, blah. Who cares, right? No one, seriously, NO ONE. Our villain, Eddie Kim, is worthless. We get two minutes or so of screen time from him. He's not the villain; the SNAKES are the villains!!!!! The real fireworks start when we GET ON THAT PLANE. You all know what's going to happen, so they don't waste (much) time building up to it. Eventually the snakes (on the plane) are released. People are bitten in hilarious and very painful fashion. Samuel L. Jackson has to control the situation in that bad-ass way that only he can, and he disposes of the snakes in downright hilarious ways (which I won't spoil, you have to see it to believe it). Most of your characters are generally stereotypes and some of the acting is wooden. Most of the characters are very clichéd and stupid as well, and they don't do the most logical things in the situations they are presented. But that's not what you care about. THAT'S NOT IMPORTANT! What is important, is the fact, that there are SNAKES... ON A PLANE! It's cheesy, B-movie fun, and don't let anyone tell you any different. You want to see snakes on a plane, you're going to see snakes on a plane. Period. It also plays homage to some Jackson flicks of old, I'll let you decide which ones, since the scenes are obviously set up in that way. Try to think of other films Jackson has been in with reptiles.

The special effects were PRETTY good; it was obvious when you were looking at a CGI snake or a real snake, that much I can tell you. But it didn't matter. It doesn't take you out of the movie at all. The action is as good as you can expect from people whooping snakes and vice-versa. It was a good thriller, they kept it moving and didn't slow down, and they kept the tension riding high throughout the film. And it's FUNNY. It's funny if you expect it to be cheesy fun, and it is, and I was constantly laughing throughout. Even as snakes (on a plane) are killing people, you're laughing at it. It was just that good.

I don't know what else I can say about this, except that if you have the chance, SEE THIS FILM OPENING WEEKEND. Get a crowd in there that wants to have good, dumb, popcorn-movie fun and you will have a blast. My theater was off the hook, and it's seriously the most fun I've had at the movies in longer than I can remember. Go into this film knowing what it is and watch it with exactly that in mind and you'll have a GREAT time. Expect nothing from it and just let yourself have fun for a couple of hours. This film won't be the darling of the critics; it wasn't pre-screened because the makers KNOW what this film is and what they expect from it. I can't think of another instance where a film drew this kind of buzz on its title alone, and where everyone who went to see it completely knew it was going to be "so bad it's good." And it really is. Kudos to the studio that ordered re-shoots after all the buzz on the internet kicked in, it really shines. And thanks for the "line" which is quoted at the head of the review. Everyone in my theater said it with him, and EVERYONE was cheering.

Snakes on a Plane has landed. And it's good summer fun. With snakes. On a plane. Eight out of ten stars.

  • Sgt. Fluffy
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Silent Hill (2006)
Tampering with Silent Hill
22 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Silent Hill (Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden, Jodelle Ferland) Six out of ten stars ****** "Only the Dark one opens and closes the door to Silent Hill." Silent Hill is an absolutely frightening video game. I still won't play the game alone at night, that's how much it STILL freaks me out. The game plays on your isolation and fear, especially thanks to the environment (going from foggy, to dark, to hell and back again). It is a creepy, psychological horror game, and it is still among my favorites. When I found there was a movie coming out, I was thrilled; could they capture the same psychological terror that the game gave us so well? The trailers all looked so very promising. Unfortunately, the movie just failed to live up to expectations.

Once Rose (Mitchell) reaches Silent Hill, the movie takes basically the exact same path as the first game for around ten minutes or so. We get crazy camera shots (a nice nod to the awkward camera of the games) following Rose as she chases someone that she thinks is her daughter down a dark alley. All of a sudden the film shifts into "hell" world, which was a nice effect, but suddenly hundreds of monsters show up. This was one of those things that has changed from the games... in the game there were monsters, but only ever a few at a time. Anyway, Rose wakes up with the monsters suddenly gone (again, nod to the game) and heads back to her vehicle. She even finds a drawing from Sharon (Alessa?) directing her to go to the school! I LOVE THIS MOVIE! So many great tie-ins with the game. Then, officer Bennett shows up.

In what was the first of many deviations from the game that I did not like, Cybil shows up and treats Rose like complete crap, even ARRESTING her and trying to take her out of Silent Hill. What? Then again I don't know why they had Rose speed away after being pulled over by Cybil anyway... they should have left the opening more like the opening of the game. They changed Cybil's character for some reason, that's OKAY, I guess. Why does she follow Sharon around? One of the KEY components of the game, one of the most fun elements of the game was the fact that you were always isolated and alone in this freaky place. Why is it that Rose isn't alone for most of this film? It's like the filmmakers knew what made Silent Hill freaky and terrifying, and they added characters to it, which totally destroyed the whole thing. When Rose is alone in the film, pretty much at any time, those are the film's best scenes.

But the film never quite seems to grasp onto the terror that the game had pumping through it. The story was pretty good, but I have to draw attention to the fact that, about 3/4 of the way through the film, they stopped everything to tell us the entire plot since they didn't do much in the way of plot development throughout the rest of the movie. This smacked of laziness and I found myself rolling my eyes when this happened. We see who appears to be Lisa with Alessa, but she doesn't have red hair and isn't explained at all, a rip-off since Lisa was one of the game's best characters because of her connection to Alessa. Where was Kaufmann? Why was Dahlia just some sympathetic old lady? Dahlia in the game was a terrific villain, why remove her from the picture completely but still keep her in the film? Why were there (at least) 40 or 50 people in Silent Hill? Crowd scenes?! Where in any of the games do you ever see a crowd?! It started out promising, had its better parts, but it just didn't capture the essence of the games. The worst part of this, however, was probably the fact that they didn't stay in Silent Hill. At any number of times through the film, they cut out of Silent Hill to the B story going on with Chris (Sean Bean), Rose's husband, who is not in the world of Silent Hill and is trying to find his wife and daughter. This story wasn't even that interesting, quite frankly, and every time they cut away to it, you lost a little bit of what made the games so great. The fact that Harry was trapped in Silent Hill the whole time made it that much creepier; that environment started to wear on you after awhile. Cutting away to the real world of which Silent Hill is not a part completely destroys the effect.

It had its good parts, but it never captured the terror and all-out creepy feeling that the game(s) give you. They changed some aspects of the story, which I wouldn't have had a problem with if they hadn't tampered with the exact formula that makes each game what it is: that being the isolation and trapped feeling of the characters. It did so many things right and tied into the games so well at times, but it just deviated far too much at other times. Unfortunately those deviations managed to steer the film too far off course and removed the audience from it. I did rather enjoy the ending, however, which I am understanding many people did not understand; I won't ruin that for any potential moviegoers. Six out of ten stars.
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Jarhead (2005)
Beautifully moving, personal film...
5 November 2005
I've never been in the United States military. Sure, I've seen my fair share of war films, but I don't pretend to know what it's like for soldiers out there on the front lines, fighting a war, going through that intense training. With films like Jarhead, I'm still not going to get there, but I can at least watch an intense, dramatic representation that has to be as close to the truth as I can possibly figure.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Anthony Swofford, a U.S. Marine who went through the Gulf War. We follow Swofford from boot camp early in the film (though briefly), to his post at Camp Pendleton, to the desert sands of Iraq and back again. First thing I'll say about him, is LORD did he beef up for this role. He looks the part about as well as I can judge. Throughout the film we follow Swofford closely, watching his relationships with his fellow Marines, with his commanding officers, and with his back-home girlfriend. Through it all Gyllenhaal is up to the task, and he displayed such a great array of emotions in this character I'd be hard-pressed to come up with names for all of them. We get glimpses of the people and places that made the man who he is, but we don't get too much; in fact he deliberately doesn't let us see these events and people. What we get is Swofford's life in the Corps. Always around is his Staff Sergeant, played wonderfully by Jamie Foxx. I had to remind myself at times that this is the same guy who won an Oscar for portraying Ray Charles; he absorbs himself into this character and he really puts himself in charge. Support is also offered from the ever-delightful Chris Cooper (who I swear doesn't make bad movies) and Peter Sarsgaard, who was equally moving in his role as Troy, a fellow Marine. It was also nice to see 24-alum Dennis Haysbert poke his head in as a Major, but his role wasn't all that big.

The time spent in boot camp is minimal; ditto his post at Pendleton, though we can see through these brief glimpses that he is not exactly the favorite of his commanding officers. He makes the cut as a scout sniper when it is announced that Saddam Hussein (yeah, we all know that name) has invaded Kuwait, and that the United Nations have been called to intervene. So, we're going to war.

Once Swofford and his fellow Marines arrive in the desert, they are literally bored out of their minds. First part of "Operation Desert Shield", meant to protect Iraqi neighbor Saudi Arabia from attack. It is here in the heat of the desert that the characters start to fall apart; especially from sour news back home of wives and girlfriends who have left our soldiers behind (one particular scene in which a soldier gets a nasty revelation by video is, although predictable, hard-hitting nonetheless). After a mishap over Christmas gets Swofford busted down to private, the war truly begins, but these Marines can't help but be disgruntled that they will not see any action. The war is moving too fast for the sniper, the infantryman. The soldiers persevere, though they are tested mentally and physically by the hot desert and the oil fires that burn brightly in the night sky. Before you know it the war is over, without having seen any combat, without even having fired their weapons; the Marines get to go home.

The brains behind this beautifully personal and moving film are none other than Sam Mendes, the Academy Award-winner for American Beauty. So going into this film, I had high expectations, and they weren't let down in the least. Much as he did with his actors in American Beauty, every one of the actors (starring and supporting right down to extras) turns out something better than expected here. Mendes is proving himself over and over to be a great actor's director, bringing characters to life like you can't believe on the screen. That's not to say he lacks the gift elsewhere; this film looked beautiful too. Even in the desert when oil was falling like rain, Mendes somehow managed to make it look beautiful.

All in all, Jarhead wasn't much of a war film, so don't go into it expecting to see much combat; you won't. Instead you'll get a beautifully-crafted, intensely personal film about soldiers on the brink of combat, and the trials and struggles they go through waiting on the edge of the front lines. Stellar performances by an all-star cast and some incredible settings and camera work will floor you. Another incredible film for Sam Mendes; definitely one of the must-see films of the year.
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