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Column Fri Apr 18 2014

Transcendence, Heaven Is for Real, The Railway Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Unknown Known & Hateship Loveship

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Transcendence

Transcendence is one of those science-fiction works you foolishly allow yourself to get excited about because a whole lot of smart, talented people are involved in its conception and execution. The pedigree includes executive producer Christopher Nolan, first-time director (and Nolan's constant director of photography) Wally Pfister, and actors Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins, Jr., to name a few. Even the concept is intriguing: what if one of the world's most authoritative minds on artificial intelligence is able to have his memories and mind placed online, where he could have access to literally everything to world has to offer?

But wait, you say, a scientist putting his brain on a computer? Didn't I just see that as a subplot in the new Captain America movie (and a few other films dating back to the 1980s)? Yes and yes, but Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is no ordinary scientist; he's someone who believes that such an achievement can lead to giant leaps in research, medicine, security and many other things useful to human kind, far away from the prying eyes and weaponizing hands of the government and military. He would be the first computer with an emotional core, which was kept in check (in theory) by his loving wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Water (Bettany), both scientists as well. Dr. Caster calls this state of computer-human mind meld "transcendence," and what could possibly go wrong?

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Column Fri Apr 11 2014

Draft Day, Oculus, Rio 2, Cuban Fury, Joe, Dom Hemingway & Cheap Thrills

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Draft Day


If Ivan Reitman's first film since No Strings Attached three years ago and his first truly enjoyable film in about 20 years was just about the general manager of an NFL football team (in this case, the Cleveland Browns for no particular reason) wheeling and dealing in the hours leading up to the draft, I would have thought it an interesting choice. But when you cast Kevin Costner, arguably the king of sports films that actually have heart (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup), as general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., it means something and adds something to the overall significance of what's going in this behind-the-scenes look inside and outside the organization.

Costner doesn't play this role as a slick insider who manipulates to get what he wants, despite what the team's coach (Denis Leary), owner (Frank Langella) or money manager (Jennifer Garner) say. That's exactly what he is, but he doesn't play it that way. Instead, Sonny is a man trying to live in the shadow of his late father, a hero to the organization; deal with a pestering mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (a marginalized Rosanna Arquette); and process the news that his girlfriend Ali (that would also be Garner) just found out she's pregnant.

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Column Fri Apr 04 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Raid 2, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, Anita & Finding Vivian Maier

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The latest installment in the Captain America story reminds us that although the super soldier (still played/embodied by Chris Evans) can make short work out of a cosmically enhanced Red Skull and an invading horde of aliens with his Avengers pals, the greatest threat to mankind is itself. In this case, it's a shadow organization that literally has the means to decide who lives and dies on the planet to make it a more peaceful/docile place to live.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is many things, and most of them work. It's a fit and proper sequel to both Captain America and The Avengers; it's a political thriller steeped in healthy fear of technology; it's a fleshed-out, highly watchable expanded episode of the ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (if you're still watching it, make sure to see this week's episode before you head to Winter Soldier for an added bit of fun); it introduces some of the most interesting and useful new characters (good and bad guys) that we've seen in a while — that includes you, Hawkeye; and it's just a magnificently plotted and paced action film that uses Captain America's past as a device to haunt and alter his present and future.

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Column Fri Mar 28 2014

Noah, Sabotage, Cesar Chavez & Jodorowsky's Dune

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Noah

There's a sequence in director and co-writer (with Ari Handel) Darren Aronofsky's Noah in which the title character (Russell Crowe) is relaying to one of his children the story of creation, pretty much word for word right as we know it from the Bible — six days, ending in the creation of man and woman. But the visuals that accompany this telling are what makes the sequence so magnificent, and in many ways, best explain Aronofsky's take of his version of Noah, his ark, the great flood, and the restart that humanity and civilization got as a result of said event.

What we see when being told the creationism version of life on Earth is actually the scientific version, including evolution — a creature crawls up out of the water, stands upright and takes on human qualities. It's all shown in an accelerated manner, but there's no doubt that Aronofsky isn't so much placating both sides of the discussion; he's attempting to find a way to see if both versions would exist in the same universe. It's as if he's saying, "Let's assume all of these events happened as written in the Bible. How would that be possible?" In some cases, the answer is simply, "It isn't." But in other cases, he attempts to find ways in which religious mysticism and hard fact work together to create circumstances and beings that might be easier to accept.

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Column Fri Mar 21 2014

Divergent, Bad Words, Muppets Most Wanted & Nymphomaniac, Volume 1

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Divergent

There are times while watching Divergent where I felt like I needed a flow chart to keep track of all of the various factions that exist in this tiny corner of the earth that looks a lot like a run-down, grown-over Chicago, where Lake Michigan and the Chicago River have all but dried up, and apparently it's possible to zip line from the top of the Hancock Building to somewhere in the Loop. That part of the film is actually pretty cool. But basically all you need to know (and accept) about this caste system is that this existence is divided into five groups, including ones made up of the intelligentsia, warriors, truth tellers, hippies and the selfless, who are for whatever reason deemed the most worthy to be the leaders of this weirdly utopian society formed after some vague war. At the age of 16, all youngsters much choose what group they want to be a part of, and if they are rejected by their chosen group, they are cast out of society.

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Column Fri Mar 14 2014

Need for Speed & The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Need for Speed

So I guess there's a video game called "Need for Speed" that in at least some versions involves driving across the country, not unlike the plot of the new film version, made by former stuntman and Act of Valor director Scott Waugh. Much as he did with Act of Valor, Waugh has emphasized authenticity. In his military movie, he used real members of the military. And in a film that recalls quite frequently the great muscle car films of the 1960s and '70s, the new film features no computer-enhanced stunt work, instead allowing real cars to race at top speeds, often wrecking spectacularly. And anyone who thinks it doesn't make a difference is fooling themselves. The stunts in Need for Speed look and feel undeniably dangerous.

Granted, a film featuring grown men sitting around revving their engines as loud as they can, as well as a sequence involving a character forced to take an office job suddenly strip naked and walk outside in just his socks clearly isn't emphasizing character development, but anything would have helped make me care about these gear heads. I never quite understood why guys who race cars in movies also have to prove they they can beat another driver up, or why any of the drivers or mechanics insist on constantly measuring each other's penises to see whose has the most horsepower. There's a whole lot of posing in Need for Speed, and it borders on distracting.

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Column Fri Feb 28 2014

Non-Stop, Son of God, Omar, Kids of Cash & Stalingrad

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Non-Stop

I can almost guarantee that if I went back for a second viewing of the new Liam Neeson air marshall thriller Non-Stop, I'd spend a lot of its running time saying, "How the hell did the bad guys find out X about Neeson?" And that's for the plain and simple reason that the villains in this film seem to have the uncanny ability to see through luggage, doors and minds and be able to know exactly what every single person on this New York City-to-London plane is going to do next, especially US Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson). And that's just the jumping off point to a whole slew of questionable plausibility issues the film has. But if you can set those aside, and just assume that none of these leaps of faith is really that logical, you might have a blast watching this movie.

We learn or suspect fairly early on that Marks is a troubled man. We hear his side of a phone conversation at the beginning of the film in which he is clearly trying to get out of flying that particular day. He's a near-broken man who orders a stiff drink when he takes his first-class seat; the flight attendant (who clearly knows him) brings him a bottle of water instead. We suspect he's suffered a loss of some sort, coupled with alcoholic tendencies (to what degree, we don't know immediately), and to put him on a long flight charged with protecting the passengers seems like a bad idea. In many ways, he's playing the same character he did in The Grey, minus the wolf punching.

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Column Fri Feb 21 2014

Pompeii, The Wind Rises, In Secret, Stranger by the Lake, Black Out & The Girls in the Band

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Pompeii

The one overwhelmingly positive thing I can say about the latest disaster film Pompeii is that the volcano eruption sequence is spectacular. Does anything else really matter to you? If so, you're going to likely be hating life and wishing for death by ash and fiery magma by the end of this film, which fancies itself the imperfect hybrid rip-off of Gladiator and Titanic. We have the lowly slave Milo (Kit Harington, Jon Snow in "Games of Thrones") whose parents were slaughtered when he was a child in a battle waged by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, clearly believing he's auditioning for Loki's understudy in the next Thor movie). He's spent his life becoming the perfect gladiator, with revenge in his heart.

On the road to a big tournament in Pompeii, Milo first lays eyes on Cassia (Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch), the untouchable daughter of upper-class citizens Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), who is returning after a year in Rome with her lady servant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas, from the Evil Dead remake). Cassia left Rome because she was relentlessly pursued by the creepy Corvus, who is in fact on his way to Pompeii to listen to plans from her father on improving the city with the emperor's investment. But Corvus is such a scumbag, he not only threatens to not recommend that the emperor fund these infrastructure upgrades if Cassia won't marry him, but tell the emperor that the family spoke ill of him, thus assuring their execution.

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Column Fri Feb 14 2014

RoboCop, About Last Night, Endless Love, Winter's Tale, Tim's Vermeer, Camille Claudel 1915 & In No Great Hurry

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RoboCop

Perhaps the biggest thing the new RoboCop film has going for it is that is largely abandons the plot of the first film and uses certain elements of the 1987 source material to make it its own monster. Hey, if you're going to remake a great movie, you might as well try to make it your own rather than a dim copy. The job at hand is still to make the streets of America safe for both citizens and police officers. In order to do that, the robotics company OmniCorp has devised various types of mechanized law enforcement robots, including ones that have a vaguely humanoid form. The robots are already used in cities all over the world as a police force, and by the U.S military in the ongoing war on terror instead of soldiers. But because Americans don't like the idea that the robots don't have more discerning human characteristics and would shoot an 8-year-old holding a knife because it's programmed to, there's actually a Congressional ban on robots keeping the peace.

So OmniCorp chief Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and its top scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) come up with a way to put a human face on their robots... literally. When Detroit undercover cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blown to bits by the bad guys who have figured out he's police, the scientists take over and manage to save his head, esophagus, lungs and one hand (I'm not making this up) — just enough to build a body around him that makes him the perfect, thinking mechanical cop. But OmniCorp soon discovers two things: a partly human robot is slower than a full robot because it hesitates before it shoots, and a robot with a human brain has nightmares and violent flashbacks to his near-death experience. To cope, Dr. Norton must "adjust" Murphy's brain to make him more robot, thus eliminating any emotions he might have, partciularly about his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son.

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Column Fri Feb 07 2014

The Monuments Men, The Lego Movie, Gloria, 24 Exposures, If You Build It & Hank: 5 Years from the Brink

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The Monuments Men

Is the story if the real-life, World War II-era Monuments Men one worth telling? Without a doubt. Is this George Clooney-directed and -co-written film about this team the way it should have been told? Probably not. The Monuments Men is something of a tonal cluster-frick that can't decide whether it wants to be "Hogan's Heroes" or something far more serious.

This story about an international group of largely middle-aged art historians, curators and architects who must go into Europe (often behind enemy lines, although Germany is basically retreating at this point) to both locate and save precious works of art that the Nazis stole and are hiding, as well as keep the Allied forces from destroying the wrong buildings and artifacts as they advance and liberate the continent, is a remarkable and important one.

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Column Fri Jan 31 2014

Labor Day; That Awkward Moment; At Middleton; 2 Autumns, 3 Winters & Oscar Shorts

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Labor Day

Whenever someone tells me that a trailer or commercial for a film doesn't make it clear to them what the film is about, I take that as a great sign. Yes, folks, sometimes a film is complicated enough that it doesn't easily reduce itself to a two-minute trailer. That doesn't mean the film is good, necessarily, but it's a healthy sign that there are still works out there that are trying to be something more than just cut-and-dry stories, where you can anticipate every turn and remain numb to every feeling. Based on Joyce Maynard's emotionally complex novel, Labor Day is a film with many layers and jumbled motivations, all of which director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (Up In the Air, Juno) has sifted through and made into something that presents a handful of broken character's all seeking to put themselves back together with each other's help.

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Column Fri Jan 24 2014

The Invisible Woman, Gimme Shelter, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Here Comes the Devil, Maidentrip & An Honest Living

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Before I just into the regular reviews, I must mention a couple of special events happening in Chicago in the next week that you should take full advantage of as film lovers.

The first is a film that the recently liquor-licensed Music Box Theatre is playing at midnight this weekend (in addition to Here Comes the Devil, which I review below) and it's called Fateful Findings, a movie from director Neil Breen that I was secretly shown over a year ago in another city. Rightfully so, the film is being compared to The Room, not so much in terms of its story, but in terms of the clear delusional belief by the filmmaker that he is somehow making art and exposing the greater truth about the things that really control the way the world works. I'm not reviewing here because I don't remember a great deal about it (having seen it at about 3am) other than it's one of the most ridiculous and still hilarious films you will ever see. I will buy a copy as soon as it's available.

The other film event you might want to check out is the latest in the annual installment of the Music Box Theatre's Sundance USA event, in which a highly regarded film from the just-wrapping-up Sundance Film Festival makes its way to Chicago along with the filmmaker. This year, we get the most recent film from Drinking Buddies writer-director (and Chicago resident) Joe Swanberg, Happy Christmas, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber and Lena Dunham. I haven't seen the film, and all I know about it is that it concerns a young woman moving in with her older brother, his wife, and their two-year-old son after she breaks up with her boyfriend. I'll be in the crowd that night for sure since Swanberg will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening, which starts at 7:30pm. Check out the Music Box's site for details on the screening and to buy advance tickets (it will likely sell out).

And finally, Facets Cinématheque is playing for two consecutive weekends a fairly violent little piece called Raze, starring stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell (Death Proof). It might not be for everyone, but if you think you might enjoy attractive women beating the living crap out of each other for 90 minutes under gladiator-style conditions, you might find it amusing, and Bell is certainly one of the most skilled, badass female action stars in quite a while. I'm guessing that the film is playing Friday and Saturday around 11pm at Facets, but at deadline their website didn't have showtimes. But give their hotline a call on Friday at 773-281-4114, and showtimes will hopefully be updated. In the meantime, check out my exclusive interview with Bell and director Josh C. Waller on Ain't It Cool News.

Now onto this week's releases — but not I, Frankenstein, since it wasn't screened for critics...

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Column Fri Jan 17 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Ride Along, The Best Offer, Big Bad Wolves, The Square & Old Goats

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I have a fondness for the adventures of Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's many novels about the CIA analyst-turned-operative. One of my fondest memories is of my grandfather, a WWII Navy veteran, giving me his copy of The Hunt for Red October and telling me what a great read it was (and he was right). And I continued reading Clancy's books (the ones he actually wrote; not the ghost-written ones) for quite some time after that. And certainly the first three films based on his works (October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) are easy to like; the fourth, The Sum of All Fears, not so much. The fifth film featuring Ryan (with the fourth actor to play him) is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and it's an attempt at reaching back into Ryan's backstory to the point in his career where he shifted from government desk job to working undercover for the CIA on Wall Street to uncover the financial hiding places of terrorist organizations, to running around Moscow with a gun and carrying out secret missions.

I actually like how this film begins, with Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek films) as a young college student abroad in London when the attacks on the World Trade Center happen (clearly any sort of continuity for the Clancy stories has been thrown out the window). Inspired to action, Ryan joins the Marines, and after several heroic missions, he's severely injured in a helicopter crash to the point where there is some doubt if he'll ever be able to walk again. In the physical therapy hospital, he meets pretty young nurse Cathy (Keira Knightley), and when he exits the facility able to walk, they begin to date.

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Column Fri Jan 10 2014

Lone Survivor, August: Osage County, The Past & The Selfish Giant

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Lone Survivor

Director Peter Berg has never shied away from films about manly men, especially when those manly men are in the military. I think he shares the same fantastical idea that Michael Bay does that if you hang around enough men in uniform, people might actually start looking at you as a tough guy. Why that is important to them, I'll never understand. And the fact that it's delusional makes it all the more curious. But in works like The Rundown, Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, Berg has shown a real flair for staging impressive action sequences that actually make sense and aren't simply a blur of explosions, screaming and bullet fire. (Yes, I realize Friday Night Lights is a sports movie, but if you think it's any less an action film than one with soldiers, watch it again.)

With his last two films, Hancock and Battleship, Berg hasn't lost his ability to stage solid action, but he lost himself in the silly, fantastical elements of those movies, and the work has suffered as a result. But with his latest, the wildly violent Lone Survivor, Berg returns to familiar stomping grounds and the results are quite impressive, in a brutal, hard-R-rated way. The film is the story of the failed 2005 SEAL Team 10 Operation Red Wings mission to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, told through the eyes of the mission's lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Berg adapted the book Luttrell co-wrote with Patrick Robinson).

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Column Fri Jan 03 2014

Steve at the Movies: Best Films of 2013

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I landed four shy of seeing 500 new films in 2013 (a personal best that includes a small number of restored-print screenings). As usual, I actually wait until a given year is completed before I finalize my "Best of..." list, because in the final few weeks of every year, I play a ferocious game of catch-up — revisiting films I've already seen to see if they are as good as I remember, as well as view a few works that I may have missed in the shuffle of the previous year. In the final two weeks of 2013, I watched about 20 films, a few of which landed on one of my two lists this time around.

So why 40 picks? I guess the best answer is, because I said so. Hell, last year I had a list of 50, and I promised myself this year I'd be more selective. But I still ended up with about 45 that I trimmed back for my own sanity. And why separate out documentaries? I love them so much, I want to get as many titles out there as possible. But I can tell you that my favorite doc pick would have easily landed in my Top 5 feature films' list if I combined the two. I firmly stand by the principle that if you watch each and every one of the 60 films on these two lists, you'll have a hell of a great time at the movies.

And for the first time ever, I'm skipping my annual Worst Of... list because I started to compile one, and the list got so long, I was losing perspective. I guess in one of the best years in recent film history, and in a year where the number of means of accessing movies is growing by the month, more shit made its way to the surface and my prying eyes.

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Column Fri Jan 03 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, The Great Beauty, Aftermath & Liv & Ingmar

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Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Let's assume that if you're reading this you haven't completely given up on the found-footage format or the ongoing Paranormal Activity storyline, which up to this point has found ways to focus on the present or past tormenting of sisters Katie and Kristi Rey, either separately or together. I'm not giving away whether or not any members of the Rey family show up in this adjacent tale or not, but I like that the people producing this series have at least made an attempt to break with a few mainstays and are branching out ever so slightly, with still terrifying results.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones will likely be referred to as the Latino Paranormal Activity (I'm thinking alternate titles like Actividad Paranormal or perhaps Fenómeno Paranormal) since it's set primarily in a small apartment complex that seems occupied entirely by Latino residents. Unlike the other films in the series, The Marked Ones does not make use of security or otherwise fixed cameras as its primary source of footage.

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Column Fri Dec 27 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Her, Grudge Match, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Ms. 45 & Cold Turkey

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Sometime the less-is-more adage just doesn't do a story justice. I can't image a subtly told version of The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who isn't best known for dialed-back stories or performances, but is certainly capable of them. The truth is, like all great directors, Scorsese knows how to temper the tones of his films to the material. This may seem like an obvious ploy, but you'd be surprised how often the two don't mesh as they should. But the director of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed clearly had a few ideas about how to approach the book by the film's subject, New York strockbroker Jordan Belfort (the screenplay was written by Terence Winter, a showrunner of Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire" as well as a frequent writer on "The Sopranos"). He goes about as far and as fast as you can go without your head exploding.

A word you're probably already hearing a lot of in connection with this film is "excess," which is indeed appropriate to a point. The film epitomizes a culture where an almost unlimited supply of cash is at hand — most of which is legitimately gotten under the financial laws of the time — and what can be done with it is limited only by imagination. But what is perhaps more terrifying about this story is that the true source of excess isn't money; it's that there is almost no one in the world (government, law enforcement, etc.) telling these clowns "stop" with any credible means of making them do so. I don't mean to imply that simply saying the word would make them cease and desist, but it would have been nice to no someone was trying to put a stop to what they were up to or at least closing the loopholes they were doing swan dives through to take money from trusting clients.

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Column Fri Dec 20 2013

American Hustle, Anchorman 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Walking with Dinosaurs 3D & Some Velvet Morning

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American Hustle

Why are people so intent on comparing David O. Russell's American Hustle with Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street? First off, it's not a contest. There can be two truly great ensemble dark comedies that incorporate the themes of greed and freewheeling disrespect of the law without one laying claim to being better than the other. The two films are actually remarkably dissimilar in both their execution and the filmmakers' view of their characters. While Scorsese clearly has something of an admiration for the levels of chaos reached by his antiheroes, Russell seems more intent on getting below the surface and figuring out just what makes his deeply flawed and easily manipulated characters tick. But one wonders if said ticking is the sound of a finely tuned motor keeping these people moving forward or a time bomb counting down to their inevitable destruction.

Since so much about the FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM is still confidential, writers Russell and Eric Singer have built an entire fiction around a small amount of actual hidden-camera footage of fake sheiks giving various politicians (including a U.S. senator) bribes to help out with getting U.S. citizenship applications expedited for criminal purposes. But long before we get to that, we must meet and appreciate the greatness that is Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable), he of the bad posture and even worse combover, but a guy who knows the angle and how to maneuver people to invest money with him that they'll never see again. He's got his fingers in the art world, real estate, banking, and it's all complete bullshit. But Irving knows when to apply pressure and when to pull back just enough not to appear too eager, and Bale captures his master con artist at work.

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Column Fri Dec 13 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Saving Mr. Banks, Go For Sisters, The Punk Singer & White Reindeer

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

It's difficult to deny that this second installment of what has now become The Hobbit trilogy exists as a more complete film than An Unexpected Journey. Having dispensed with introducing dozens of new characters (and saying hello again to a few familiar ones), director Peter Jackson could make The Desolation of Smaug into something that focuses more on solid action and even a bit of character building, both of which are good things. What is not so good is that there is still a great deal of fluff and filler in the mix; and some of what is great about Smaug is unexpected and welcome. It's a mixed bag, but one that unreservedly works far better than what came before, and gives many signs of greater things to come.

Weirdly enough, much like The Two Towers, the second film in The Hobbit series features a tremendous amount of walking. The 13 dwarfs and their recruited hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and place Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, still stubborn but less so) as the new dwarf king. The only thing standing in their way (that they know about) is a massive dragon named Smaug, who loves the treasure that sits inside the kingdom just as much as Thorin's grandfather did. Since hobbits are believed to be naturally sneak and clever, the mission is to send Bilbo into the treasure room, find the Arkenstone (the giant jewel that designates the holder as king), and get out of there without waking Smaug and getting burned to a cinder. Good luck with that.

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Column Fri Dec 06 2013

Out of the Furnace, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Bettie Page Reveals All, I Am Divine & The Ghosts in Our Machine

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Out of the Furnace

If you're like me, then you live day to day thinking to yourself, "There just aren't enough truly grim movies in the world." Well, you're prayers have been answered thanks to Out of the Furnace, a new film from director and co-writer (with Brad Ingelsby) Scott Cooper, the former actor now director who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart a few years back. Grim isn't necessarily meant to be a bad word under the right circumstances, but this film is so relentlessly gloomy, dark (as in dimly lit) and full-tilt bitter that it's tough not to feel smothered by its misery. A handful of substantially strong performances save the film from sinking entirely into a dour tar pit, but in so many scenes it feels like Cooper simply lost control of his actors, turning several exchanges between actors into several rounds of thespian boxing.

I loved the opening of the film more than just about anything else in the movie, and it features my favorite actor with a Southern twang (who isn't Matthew McConaughey), Woody Harrelson, playing Harlan DeGroat, who has a scene at a drive-in movie that establishes him as the film's resident pitbull. And then we don't see him again for a while, but we don't forget he's coming back, and we're always nervous about how exactly that's going to happen.

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Column Fri Nov 29 2013

Oldboy, Frozen, Homefront, Black Nativity, Philomena, Concussion & Contracted

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Oldboy


I'm going to guess that roughly 75 percent of the people that saw Chan-wook Park's 2003 adaptation of the Japanese manga comic Oldboy and loved it already hate Spike Lee's version based solely on the fact that it exists, sight unseen. If you're in that camp, I'm not talking to you during this review. Continue living in your world of knee-jerk reactions to remakes and let the rest of us judge a film based on its own merits. As for the rest of you who are rightfully curious about what Lee brings to his telling of this truly messed-up revenge story, I'm perfectly willing to respect that you might genuinely dislike the film after having seen it. There's no getting around the fact that Lee's version of Oldboy has issues and flaws, but I think it's one of the his most visually interesting, and it's great seeing him take chances like this so deep into his career.

The most fascinating aspect of Oldboy is what Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich chose to leave the same and what has changed, because when something is altered it is deeply altered here. Even the length of time ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) spends in solitary confinement in a prison that looks like a motel room. In the first version, the character as held 15 years; in Lee's version, it's 20. It's not a huge difference, but it's Lee's way of saying, "This is not exactly the same; pay attention to the differences." Doucett is not a good man, and there are many suspects on his list of enemies that might want to torment him like this. He finds out by watching a TV in his room that his ex-wife has been killed, he is the prime suspect and his daughter is now lost to him probably forever.

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Column Fri Nov 22 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Nebraska, Delivery Man & Oh Boy

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


It may have taken me two films into this series to realize it, but there a substantial difference between a Young Adult film (meaning one made for YAs) and a film about young adults that is geared more toward an older crowd. You can spot the differences in the character development and the themes of the three novels by Suzanne Collins versus the Twilight books/films (an easy target, I know). In the Twilight material, love (in all its selfishness) matters most of all, even if it mean the deaths of so many good people. In The Hunger Games and even more so in this newest chapter, Catching Fire, the lead heroine Katniss Everdeen (brought to soulful life by Jennifer Lawrence) does something that is almost unspeakable in the world of YA fiction: she pushes aside romantic entanglements from two fronts in the name of the greater good. Even Thor couldn't do that. And this makes Katniss one of the great, pure heroes in film right now.

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Column Fri Nov 15 2013

The Book Thief, The Best Man Holiday, The Armstrong Lie, Big Ass Spider! & Running from Crazy

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The Book Thief

Good intentions and popular source material can be a dangerous and risky combination. It's so clear as you watch the film adaptation of the hit Markus Zusak novel The Book Thief why this material is such a hit with young and old alike, and it took little effort to see how this story would succeed on the page. But as a film in the hands of director Brian Percival (a regular director on the "Downton Abbey" television series), drama is lost to boatloads of overly sentimental writing and certain performers playing things too broadly.

I was actually a fan of the gentlemanly voice of Death (Roger Allam) acting as our narrator; it was just a strange enough idea to work, and he delivers certain bits of startling news that shake up the proceedings in the right ways. The World War II timeframe gives us the story of a young German girl named Liesel (relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse), whose parents are killed and is adopted by provincial couple Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Hans is not getting a lot of work as a painter, partly because he refuses to join the Nazi party — this is our first clue that he's a good German, I suppose. Our second clue is that the family takes in a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose parents apparently knew Hans and Rosa at some point in the past and was told to come find them if he made it to their village.

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Column Fri Nov 08 2013

Reeling Film Festival, Thor: The Dark World, Dallas Buyers Club, How I Live Now, The Motel Life, Great Expectations & Il Futuro

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Reeling 31: The LGBT International Film Festival


Reeling, the second-longest-running LGBT film festival in the world and a Chicago cultural institution for more than 30 years is back with another slate of films that showcase not only diversity within the queer community but also diversity in the range of possibilities within film itself. The 31st edition of Reeling began on Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 14.

Reeling's main venue this year is The Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.) , with the fest's home base at Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.), which will also host screenings. Satellite screenings will take place at the Block Cinema at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art (40 Arts Circle Dr., on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston), the DuSable Museum of African American History (740 E. 56th Pl.), Sidetrack (3349 N. Halsted St.), and the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library (1210 W. Elmdale Ave.).

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Column Fri Nov 01 2013

Ender's Game, Last Vegas, About Time, Blue is the Warmest Color, Diana, Kill Your Darlings, Man of Tai Chi & Broadway Idiot

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Ender's Game


Why do such a huge percentage of all invading alien races have to be a bug or crustacean species? Other than that little pet peeve of mine, I'm on board with this bit of military-heavy science fiction that covers a paranoid period in Earth's future where child soldiers are being trained and prepped to be the next wave of defense against a possible second massive attack from an alien race known as the Formics, who, shockingly enough, look like bugs. Many years earlier, the Formics attacked and nearly wiped out Earth were it not for the inventive battle tactics of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), considered by all to be a sainted hero of the planet.

Based on the first of many novels in the Enderverse series by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggin (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), a child from a family of siblings who tried and failed to make it to Battle School (let alone Command School, where the true leaders land). His brother was kicked out for being too violent; his sister (Abigail Breslin) was eliminated because she was too emotional (girls, right?), but she still supports Ender in his quest for greatness and acts as something of a spirit guide as he contemplates battle strategy and how to play well with others. Part of the reason Ender is so successful in his education and training is that he's a contemplative lad who evaluates each situation with a cool head and a killer's heart, a fact that he sometimes finds troubling.

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Film Fri Oct 25 2013

The Counselor, All Is Lost, Escape from Tomorrow & Spinning Plates

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The Counselor

There is fascinating for all the right reasons and then there's The Counselor kind of fascinating. I guess the cliché is a train wreck, except The Counselor isn't like a wreck; it's too controlled and measured for that. As batshit crazy as they are, the words are too precisely chosen and so precisely delivered that there's nothing about the film that's speeding out of control exactly. While the film is never, ever boring, it's so laughably earnest in its "look at me" execution that you'll walk out wondering what the hell the point to it all is, and that's never a good thing with either a Ridley Scott-directed film or the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road).

I was in love with the trailers for The Counselor because they seemed to go out of their way to make it impossible to figure out what the story was, and I'll give them credit for succeeding on that front. In fact, the film's plot is a remarkably straight-forward tale of an attorney who gets involved in a one-time only massive drug deal that goes sideways almost from the get-go. The first scene in the film features the title character — never given a name and played by Michael Fassbender — and his wife (Penelope Cruz) rolling around in bed, so we know right from the beginning where his primary weakness lies.

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Column Fri Oct 18 2013

Carrie, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, Escape Plan, Zero Charisma, Let the Fire Burn & After Tiller

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Before I dive into the week's new releases, I'd like to point you to a couple of truly wonderful events going on in the next week, both at the Music Box Theatre. The first is a weeklong celebration of the work of the great German director Werner Herzog, specifically the first phase of his career, often working with the insane actor Klaus Kinski. For those of you who know Herzog primarily as the maker of some of the most thought-provoking documentaries in the last 10 years, you have quite a lot to discover, and you'll be able to do so via "Werner Herzog: Feats of Madness," showing 35mm prints of films like Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972); Fitzcarraldo (1982) and the companion documentary about its making, Burden of Dream (1982), directed by Les Blank; Herzog's first feature, Signs of Life (1968); Kaspar Hauser (1974); Stroszek (1977) and Heart of Glass (1974). For the complete schedule, go to the official website.

And this weekend the Music Box holds its annual target="_blank">Music Box of Horrors, which begins at noon on Saturday, Oct. 19 and continues for about 26 hours until around 2pm on Sunday, Oct. 20. Special guests at this year's event include William Lustig, director of the original Maniac, Vigilante and the Maniac Cop trilogy, who will present a new restoration of Maniac Cop 2; and David Schmoeller (Puppetmaster, Tourist Trap) presenting his demented classic Crawlspace, starring the aforementioned Klaus Kinski.

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Column Fri Oct 11 2013

Chicago International Film Festival, Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, We Are What We Are, The Summit & A.C.O.D.

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49th Chicago International Film Festival

I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few of the more than 130 features being shown over the next two weeks as part of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. As many top-notch, more recognizable films being shown that you might have actually heard of, the best part of any festival like this is taking a chance on something you may never get to see again. If you haven't checked out my interview with festival programming director Mimi Plauché, she has quite a few of her own recommendations. But allow me to name drop a few titles, some of which I've seen, others I'm offering up based on reputation.

Let's begin with the biggest of the bunch: the Festival Centerpiece, the latest from director Alexander Payne, Nebraska, a glorious and frustrating story about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) traveling from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, because the father thinks he's won a sweepstake. I'll be moderating the Q&A with Dern, so don't miss it. The Closing Night Gala belongs to the latest from the Coen Brothers, the musically inclined Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (who will be attending), Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, in a story set in the early-1960s folk scene.

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Column Fri Oct 04 2013

Gravity, Runner Runner, Parkland, Muscle Shoals, Bad Milo! & Docs at the Box

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Gravity

My first thought after seeing Alfonso Cuarón's latest masterwork, Gravity, remains the one that has stuck in my brain for the last three weeks. I've seen the film again more recently on the IMAX screen, and the thought is only amplified. And it's a simple way of describing it: I've never seen anything like it in a movie theater in my life. I suppose there are many ways of interpreting that statement — some even negative. But let's not be silly or cynical. Gravity is one of those benchmark films that stands alone in its greatness, elegance and seamless means of blending the real with the artificial to make it all look genuine in its portrayal of space travel in all its beauty and danger.

So naturally, set in the vast emptiness of space, Cuarón (Children of God, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has chosen to tell the most intimate and personal story you'll see all year (with the possible exception of the Robert Redford-starring All Is Lost, which I've seen; that film — about a man stranded at sea attempting to survive — shares a remarkably similar premise and execution in many ways). But take away all of its how-did-they-do-that visuals, and Gravity still exceeds as a simple story about medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is using the vastness and silence of space to escape her somewhat troubled life back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois (a Chicago suburb). That little detail got a big laugh in both screenings I attended, primarily when her spacewalk partner and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) asks Stone what she might be doing on a typical day at 8pm in Lake Zurich. Both screenings were at 7pm, and this question hit at about the 7:30-7:45pm mark. It's the small things...

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Column Fri Sep 27 2013

Rush, Don Jon, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Metallica: Through the Never, Baggage Claim, Enough Said, Blue Caprice & Computer Chess

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Rush

What separates Ron Howard's latest film Rush from so many other sports-related docudramas (whether they're based on a true story, as this one is, or not) is that you could remove all of the Formula 1 racing sequences and still have a really strong film, thanks in large part to a smart, interesting screenplay from Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). Am I saying the races aren't wonderfully re-created and thrilling? Of course not. But the heart and soul of Rush isn't the racing; it's the contentious but respectful relationship between 1970s-era rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, at his most swaggerific) and the highly disciplined Austrian Niki Luada (Daniel Brühl of Inglourious Basterds).

The film makes the interesting point that these two men could not have lived their lives more differently, but their careers were locked together for many years as they often found themselves fighting for points on Grand Prix racetracks. As much as Howard is known for being a stylistic chameleon, able to adapt his style to fit whatever story he is telling, I tend to get a little giddy when he dips his toes in the R-rated pool. And with healthy doses of nudity (done in large part to illustrate Hunt's reputation as a ladies' man) and a certain amount of unflinching violence (Formula 1 races do have their accidents), Howard has made a solidly mature film that often feels not only like it was set in the 1970s, but shot then as well.

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Column Fri Sep 20 2013

Prisoners, A Single Shot, Salinger, Thanks for Sharing, Good Ol' Freda, Wadjda, Money for Nothing, Cutie and the Boxer & Sole Survivor

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Prisoners

This tale of child kidnapping is a tricky little monster that wonderfully dodges being pigeonholed into a single genre, and instead claws and fights to be something much deeper as a statement about the terrible side of human nature. It's also a mystery, a thriller, drama in its highest form, a police procedural, and a character study about a handful of neighbors in a sleepy, dreary New England community that you may regret ever meeting.

I don't mean that as a criticism of the new film Prisoners; quite the opposite. I mean that we get to know so much about these desperate people — what makes them tick, what makes them fall to pieces — that you almost might feel you know too many intimate details, and that makes things eye-avertingly uncomfortable. And quite frankly, I can't remember the last time I saw a film with a high-profile cast such as this that made me feel like I was watching real human beings display so much raw, ugly emotion. It's a rare and welcome experience, but Prisoners goes into some truly dark corners before it comes out the other side (if it truly does).

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Column Fri Sep 13 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2, Short Term 12, Populaire, Sample This, The Muslims Are Coming! & Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

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Insidious: Chapter 2

It would be in your best interest, if you have an inkling to go and see Insidious: Chapter 2 anytime soon, to re-watch Insidious right before you hit the sequel. I'm a big proponent that every sequel — even a horror sequel — should stand on its own as a film and not wholly depend on what has come before, but clearly the makers of Insidious 2 don't agree. Insidious was a wonderful piece of scary, with a group of top-notch lead actors (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as husband and wife Josh and Renai Lambert) and handful of great character actors (including one of the queens of character actors, Lin Shaye) being put through the paces by ghosts being drawn to the couple's oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins, most recently seen as the kid in Iron Man 3).

We learned in Insidious that Josh actually had similar issues when he was Dalton's age but that spiritual advisor Elise (Shaye) erased the terrible memories from the boy at the request of his mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Normally when reviewing a sequel, I don't dig too deep into the storyline of the film before, but Insidious 2 actually retells portions of the first film in different ways. For example, the movie opens showing us exactly what I just described, with younger actors playing Josh, Lorraine and Elise (although I'm pretty sure Shaye's voice is still being dubbed in during those scenes) going through the motions of recognizing what is wrong with Josh (he had a ghost getting progressively closer to him every time a photo was taken) and then wiping the fear from him, as well as his ability to send an astral version of himself into "the Further," where ghosts chill out until someone decides where they should move on to.

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Column Fri Sep 06 2013

Riddick, Afternoon Delight, The Patience Stone, Una Noche & Red Obsession

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Riddick

For those of you expecting wall-to-wall action from Riddick, you might be mistaking this film for an entry in that other Vin Diesel franchise. If you want eye-popping science-fiction visuals, again, that not exactly what this third installment in the series that began with 2000's Pitch Black and trudged along in 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. I think the elements of Richard Riddick (at least the first film — certainly the latest) that appealed so greatly to Diesel are the themes of isolation and of one skilled killer fighting against a small army of... something. In this first film, it was a scorched, seemingly lifeless planet by day and a lethal darkness at night. But this time around, Riddick is death in the dark, at least for a large part of this movie, and he seems to be enjoying the turnaround.

Kind of sort of picking up sometime after Chronicles (with an appearance by a familiar face from that film), this story eventually sees Riddick back on another sun-burnt, nameless planet, severely injured and fighting for his life against alien creatures that want nothing more than just to eat him up. The first 30 minutes or so of the film feature no dialogue (outside of a bit of narration and the flashback to how he got here in the first place); it's Riddick versus everything this planet has to throw at him. There's a race of alien dingos and a hideous set of creatures that look like a combination of lizard and scorpion. There aren't a ton of different unfamiliar wildlife featured in Riddick, but the creature design is pretty great in the way it blends the familiar with the grotesque.

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Column Fri Aug 30 2013

Getaway, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Grandmaster, Closed Circuit, One Direction: This Is Us, The Attack, The Lifeguard & Saturday Morning Mystery

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Getaway


I don't think I've seen a more perfect example of paint-by-numbers filmmaking than director Courtney (Dungeons & Dragons) Soloman's car-chase/heist film Getaway. Here's what I mean: I'm convinced that Solomon and his team shot one long car chase through some city in Bulgaria using their stunt teams, then they shot hours of footage of just Ethan Hawke's hand shifting gears in the Shelby GT500 Super Snake, then they shot hours of Selena Gomez (playing Hawke's prisoner/sidekick) screaming at Hawke various versions of "I hate you" and "Your driving sucks." Then probably 15 minutes of just Jon Voight's withered, villainous mouth saying variations on "Time is running out," "Tick tock," and "I don't think you're going to make it" as he taunts the former racer (Hawke), performing certain tasks for Voight so he doesn't kill Hawke's wife (Rebecca Budig).

Yes, of course I realize this is how movies are made. You film the individual parts and edit them together. No shit. But with Getaway, you can actually still see the numbers underneath the painted screen that read "Voight-mouth," "Shift," "Screaming Selena," "Bulgarian police car flips," "Hawke downshifts," and the list rinses and repeats in a pattern that is almost freakishly predictable. I bet people who are good at counting cards can predict the next six scenes at any given point in this movie. It's horribly embarrassing how this nonsense is pulled together.

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Film Fri Aug 23 2013

The World's End, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Drinking Buddies, You're Next & Austenland

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The World's End

Yes, The World's End — the latest work from co-writers Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who also stars) — is a celebration of the debauchery of youth, with beer being the ever-present fuel. The backdrop for this film is a 12-pub crawl through the hometown of five old school friends, who are now grown up more than 20 years later and have adult problems and hang-ups to deal with. The movie is about many things, and one of them is the sad attempt to recapture youthful glory.

There's a moment late in the film where Andy Knightley (Nick Frost, the third constant in the loosely linked trilogy that also includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) says to self-appointed ringleader Gary King (Pegg), "Why is this so important to you?" to which Gary says, "It's all I've got." I can't think of a single moment in any of these three films that felt more like a punch to the gut than that one; it's the cry of a desperate man who literally hasn't had a better moment in life since school and that epic (and failed, I might add) pub crawl. And he's determined this time around that nothing will stop them from reaching the 12th pub, appropriately named the World's End — not even alien robot invaders.

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Column Fri Aug 16 2013

Kick-Ass 2, Prince Avalanche, Jobs, Paranoia, The Act of Killing & In A World...

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Kick-Ass 2

I'm placing this statement at the beginning of this review because, odds are, it'll get read the most here. None of the "bad" films opening this weekend are as bad as some critics are saying. That being said, all of them can be easily ignored this weekend if your other option for film viewing is to see something like Prince Avalanche or The Act of Killing or even In A World.... For those of you declaring the summer of 2013 to be a disappointing one for movies, I hate to sound like a broken record (or skipping CD for you younger folks), but you aren't looking in the right place. Films taking up one screen at a multiplex or playing at our local art houses have been consistently strong all year. And they have certainly saved my summer. It's the reason I maintain my Art-House Round-Up column on Ain't It Cool, and you should feel free to check that out if you need a list of strong closers for the summer of 2013.

So what the hell happened to Kick-Ass 2? It feels weirdly like a research film polling 100 "average" citizens to find out what they liked so much about the first film, and they all got it wrong. Sure the profanity, occasionally excessive violence and overall irreverent attitude made Kick-Ass a great deal of fun in the hands of director Matthew Vaughn. But there were more important messages about family, surviving as an bullied outcast, and a twisted code of justice, all of which are reduced to shadows by writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Vaughn is still listed as a producer).

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Column Fri Aug 09 2013

Elysium, We're the Millers, Planes, The Spectacular Now & Lovelace

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Elysium

It's hard to believe it was four years ago when Neill Blomkamp became one of a select few new filmmakers to give many of us hope that the future of science-fiction film was in capable hands. Sure, Blomkamp's District 9 delivered wildly entertaining action and impossibly realistic effects (for very little money), but like all great sci-fi, it acted as social commentary about what happens in a society in which one class attempts to segregate another because the minority is looked at as something less than equal.

In many ways, his latest film, Elysium, covers a bit of the same ground, although the perceived threat is not from an alien race this time but from our own. The year is 2154, and planet Earth is a dried-up, polluted, overcrowded, garbage dump of a world. Not only have the rich built an enormous space station (called Elysium) orbiting Earth, but they have a medical device that not only can detect any ailment you might have, but re-arrange your atoms so that you are cured almost instantly. In other words, barring any catastrophic injury that kills you instantly, you could feasibly live forever, or at least a very long time. Needless to say, the poor saps on Earth don't have this.

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Column Fri Aug 02 2013

2 Guns, Blue Jasmine & The Hunt

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2 Guns

Whatever you might think of Mark Wahlberg as an actor (I happen to think he's pretty great under certain circumstances, which I'll discuss), he's the type of performer who adapts and absorbs what's around him. If a great filmmaker or co-star is in the mix, he improves as an actor. And Wahlberg is smart enough to more often than not surround himself with some of the best, whether it's going back as far as working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights or the team that worked Three Kings or being directed by Scorsese in The Departed. Hell, I'll even throw in his work in Pain & Gain, giving a very different style of comedy performance by working alongside Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie. And of course really sealing his comedic chops with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys.

But when you place Wahlberg alongside the likes of Denzel Washington in the new 2 Guns, it unleashes something unexpected as Wahlberg becomes the comic-relief sidekick and an especially cool, charming character who holds his own next to the two-time Oscar winner. When we meet Bobby (Washington) and Marcus (Wahlberg), they are plotting a bank heist when they plan to break into a specific safe deposit box where a drug dealers cash is securely held, somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million bucks. But when the robbery goes down and they open every box in the bank vaults, every single one is stuffed with cash, totally tens of millions. Naturally, they take it.

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Column Fri Jul 26 2013

The Wolverine, Blackfish, Still Mine, In the House & the Chicago French Film Festival

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The Wolverine

The latest adventure of everyone's favorite X-Man is easily better than his last solo outing (not a tough job, admittedly), X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I also think it's the mutant's best overall outing in terms of story, cinematic value and action. That being said, there is still a great deal about the film that didn't connect with me, and there are a couple of elements in The Wolverine that are downright terrible.

Taking on my personal favorite era of the original Wolverine comic books, The Wolverine tackles Logan's (still Hugh Jackman) time in Japan, where he falls in love with Mariko (newcomer Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), one of the richest men in Japan, who happens to know Logan from their time together in the last days of World War II. Yashida sends one of his associates, the red-haired, future-seeing mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan (voluntarily living in exile) to his deathbed so he can say good bye to his old friend. But it turns out Yashida really wants to syphon off Logan's healing factor so he can live longer. Knowing Logan doesn't enjoy the prospect of living forever, Yashida thinks Logan might go for this plan, but he refuses, and the old man dies, leaving his entire fortune and business to Mariko instead of her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who immediately tries to have his daughter killed so he can take over the business.

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Column Fri Jul 19 2013

RED 2, The Conjuring, Fruitvale Station, Turbo, Girl Most Likely, Only God Forgives, Crystal Fairy & Terms and Conditions May Apply

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RED 2

I wasn't much of a fan of the first RED film about middle-aged/over-the-hill former CIA operatives (mostly assassins) who are forced out of retirement to take on both the agency and other assorted bad guys. The primary reason I disliked the film is that, with the exception of Morgan Freeman's character and maybe Helen Mirren, none of the retirees were that old. But as the film went on, the truly aggravating parts of the film involved Bruce Willis' harpy, would-be girlfriend Sarah, played by Mary-Louise Parker. Thankfully, the makers of RED 2 have seen fit to dial up the action quite a bit (a good thing), introduce more interesting characters in the form of Anthony Hopkins and South Korean superstar Byung-hum Lee (also good things), and made Sarah the single most annoying character to have populated a film this year.

But even more irritating is that once again in a mindless action film, the fate of the free world is at stake and people are trying to save friends and loved ones rather than concentrate on, I don't know, saving the planet. Maybe I'm cold blooded, and I apologize if you are someone who is close to me, but if it comes down to saving you or saving the world, kiss your ass good-bye. The needs of the many and all that shit...

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Column Fri Jul 12 2013

Pacific Rim, 20 Feet from Stardom, Dealin' With Idiots, The Look of Love & Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

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Pacific Rim

In the weeks leading up to the release of Pacific Rim, I've been rewatching the films of director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro in order. And just for the hell of it, I've been watching the "making of" extras as well, just because for many of them I never did previously. What I was reminded of through this process is that Del Toro is an obsessive fan of practical effects. This isn't a big secret, but often he went practical because of a combination of budgetary constraints and him liking the weight and texture of the "realness."

I've known since the first trailers of Pacific Rim that the showcased Kaiju (the giant monsters that are being released from a wormhole-like portal deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean) and Jaegers (the human-made army of human-controlled, 250-foot-tall mech warriors that are built to defend the Pacific coastlines of North America and Asia primarily) were not going to be practical and nature, and I was willing to accept that this was Del Toro working on a scale he had never experienced before. My concern was that the emotional context that he so wonderfully maintains in all of his works would be lost at this scale. It wasn't that I had lost faith in his abilities, but scale sometimes triumphs over the most heartfelt of intentions.

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Column Fri Jul 05 2013

The Lone Ranger, Despicable Me 2, The Way, Way Back, I'm So Excited, A Hijacking & The Wall

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The Lone Ranger

First thing's first: just because a particular character is the one telling the story in flashback — namely Johnny Depp's version of Tonto — doesn't mean that the story is actually being told from that character's point of view. Most times, it does mean that, but not always. Case in point, the framing device of this overlong, overstuffed, overblown version of The Lone Ranger story is an elderly Tonto (who looks a little too much like Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man) relaying the birth of the Ranger-Tonto partnership during a time when railroads were cutting through pristine lands and opening up America in ways that could never be reversed.

But I find it difficult to believe that the way Depp, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and director Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Rango) would choose to honor Tonto and portray him more accurately as an equal partner with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger is to turn the Native American into a clown. Tonto is nothing more than The Lone Ranger's comic relief, and Depp is essentially swapping out black face for red face, making the sum total of his performance a series of bug eyes, exaggerated grimaces, and limp jokes that would be better suited for the Catskills than the open desert of Monument Valley. The Lone Ranger has elements that work better than others, but Depp's choices with Tonto must be chalked up as a rare example of when his instincts about creating unique and memorable characters have failed him.

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Column Fri Jun 28 2013

White House Down, The Heat, 100 Bloody Acres & The Summer Music Film Festival

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White House Down

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I don't subscribe to the "so bad it's good" or the "turn your brain off" schools of film loving. I don't need every film to be The Tree of Life, but I need something or someone to grab onto and give a shit about. The latest from disaster film maestro Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), White House Down, is not a great movie, but it fulfills a very basic need in me in that it gives me several characters whose fate I actually cared about because I liked them as people, or at least movie people. Much of the reason I empathized is that the actors inject a pulse into their characters that simply isn't there on the page. But that's allowed, and it worked wonders for me.

White House Down is the second film this year (after Olympus Has Fallen) featuring an attack and takeover of the president's residence. Just before that happens, Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum, exuding a confidence and charm that seems to grow with each film) applies for a job as a US Secret Service agent, and is politely refused by the head of the White House detail, Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Cale has his young daughter (Joey King) with him, and he manages to get them passes for a tour of the White House before they leave. Naturally, while they're on the tour, the White House is attacked by some kind of domestic paramilitary group (seemingly led by Jason Clarke), which moves in quickly and deadly.

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Column Fri Jun 21 2013

World War Z, Monsters University, Much Ado About Nothing, The Bling Ring, Augustine & Far Out Isn't Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

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World War Z

I'll admit, when I hear an upcoming film is going to cover a familiar topic — whether it be zombies or vampires or buddy cops or an alien invasion — I typically want the filmmakers to bring something new to the table. Or, at the very least, add a few new twists to the familiar. Strangely enough, when I read that Max Brooks' World War Z was being turned into a film (after years of trying), I knew that this book that I'd read and loved could never be made into a big-budget, mainstream film without some considerable changes. Against current thought, it could have been made into a film in its original form as, perhaps a fake documentary, but we all know how well those have been going over lately.

My point is twofold: anyone upset about the film's structure probably didn't want it made into a movie in the first place; and, the film delivers a zombie film that does, in fact, add a few new wrinkles to the zombie canon. These certainly aren't Mr. Romero's (or Robert Kirkman's) slow-moving, decomposing walking dead that have mostly risen from their graves to eat humans. From what I can tell about the zombies in World War Z, they seem more into biting than eating. Their mission is to spread their virus-like condition to other humans as quickly as possible — and considering the time it takes from a bite to turn you into a zombie is about 12 seconds, that's pretty fast.

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Column Fri Jun 14 2013

Man of Steel, This is the End, Dirty Wars, Somm & Pandora's Promise

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Man of Steel


The point at which I knew that writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were doing something very smart and very different with their version of Superman in Man of Steel was early on, when we're having the history (it's not really an origin, in the classic superhero sense) of Kal-El (who will eventually grow up to be Clark Kent when he reaches Earth) revealed to us in flashback. In this version of events, the men and women of Krypton have advanced so far that natural birth is a thing of the past, and every child is genetically engineered for certain functions — leaders, scientists, warriors, etc. Kal-El's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist, and he and his wife (Ayelet Zurer) decide that their son will have a choice in his destiny, which will not be fulfilled on Krypton, which is a dying planet. They have a natural birth and send their son across the universe to Earth, with the literal future of Krypton resting with him (I won't explain that further).

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Column Fri Jun 07 2013

The Internship, The Purge, The East, The Kings of Summer, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay & Violet & Daisy

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The Internship

Although I suspect this will change as early as next week, 2013 has been a terrible year for comedies. There are some promising works on the horizon, but between the annoying Identity Thief to the impotent A Haunted House to the two-laugh The Hangover Part III, there's been very little intentional laughing going on in theater this year. And I'm afraid the re-teaming of Wedding Crashers' stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson doesn't help the situation; in fact, I'd say it makes things so much worse. You know what? I don't even care that The Internship is a giant sex act performed on the company Google. If a movie is funny, I don't care who funded it, how many product placements there are, or how perfect a corporation wants to portray itself. I'll recommend it, if it makes me laugh. And aside from a few muted chuckles, The Internship did not make me laugh. It made me restless.

Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, a pair of high-end-watch salesmen whose company goes under while they're on a big sales call. Their boss (John Goodman) pulls the rug out from under them, with nothing to fall back on but their chemistry and witty banter. Yes, shockingly enough Vaughn is front-loaded with salesman-like banter, while Wilson takes a folksier approach to selling. Scraping around for a new job, Billy discovers that Google has a summer internship program, and the intern team that does the best goes on to receive guaranteed jobs at the company. After enlisting in an internet college so they can claim they are students, the pair are actually accepted to the program and are immediately branded as "old" and "without any usable computer skills," both of which are true. And cue the hilarity.

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Column Fri May 31 2013

After Earth, Now You See Me, Before Midnight, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, American Mary & Paradise: Love

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After Earth

The ugly truth about the latest Will Smith film (he even gets a sole "Story by..." credit) is that it's not that bad, which is to say it's completely possible to sit through its 100 minutes and not want to tear your eyes out. It's certainly a good-looking movie, with some interesting future tech on display, and in a couple of scenes, director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan even gives us a sense of how things work. I'll admit, when I heard the idea of After Earth, I was intrigued. I like the idea of this big-scale science-fiction film that was really just about two characters trying to survive a couple of brutal days on a planet they know little about — Earth.

As the film begins, we soon discover that the father-son relationship between Cypher Raige (Smith, the elder) and son Kitai (Jaden Smith from The Karate Kid remake) is strained. Dad is basically king of the Rangers, the military-like branch that protects the human population forced to relocated when cataclysmic events pushed earthlings off the planet about 1,000 years ago and apparently gave everyone weird accents that come and go.

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Column Fri May 24 2013

Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover Part III, Epic, What Maisie Knew, Frances Ha & Safety Last

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Fast & Furious 6


You'd figure that six films deep into a franchise, I'd have made up my mind whether I'm fully on board. But I think after having taken in Fast & Furious 6, I'm willing to say I'm a fan of this wildly inconsistent series, whose most recent two chapters did their job selling me on these films. Most of my hesitation coming out of all of these films has been due to the god-awful writing. Look, I know you don't go to Fast & Furious films for the story or character development, but throw us a bone every once and a while, if only to have something of substance to bite down on.

But what pushed me in the fan column with Fast 6 is that it actually has something of a story, characters who much actually change and grow to advance it, and a villain I really enjoyed. It's not the perfect combination, but it's enough to get you through the film between the always-mind-blowing stunt sequences.

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Column Fri May 17 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, Stories We Tell, The Iceman, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's & Sightseers

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Star Trek Into Darkness

There has literally never been a day of my life when Star Trek in some form did not exist. The original television series beat me to existence by a couple of years; I was 11 years old when the first film came out. And what I always loved about the ideas behind Star Trek was that it was a place on network television where science fiction was taken seriously, even when it got silly or opted for action over philosophy. It was that rare ground where pop culture met deep thinking, and even as a pre-teen, I understood that ideas were at work here, even if I didn't always fully comprehend the deeper meanings.

And the plain, wonderful truth is that nothing can ever take that away from me. So even though the films were hit and miss, and the franchise expanded on television to other heroes and villains and versions of our future. But none of it diluted my love for what moved me the most about being exposed again and again to the series and early movies. I know it inside out, have discussed and debated it to exhaustion, and have changed my mind dozens of times about my favorite characters, episodes, villains and conceits.

Then here comes this young upstart J.J. Abrams and his team of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, taking what Gene Roddenberry created and mixing it all up by throwing off timelines and such, and daring to show us in two movies where life began for the classic Enterprise crew. In a way, they could stop making Star Trek movies with Star Trek Into Darkness, because the film literally ends where the original series began. I'm sure more are coming, but to simply end here would be bordering on graceful.

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Column Fri May 10 2013

The Great Gatsby, Peeples, Love Is All You Need & Something in the Air

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The Great Gatsby

I have genuinely mixed emotions about director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann's take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. On the one hand, the lush look and resplendent pageantry on display is breathtaking to the point of being difficult to believe a film of this scale and indulgence can still be made; it's the Lawrence of Arabia of shallow people. On the other hand, so much of the film looks fake, and I'm pretty sure it's not on purpose most of the time. Shot in Sidney but set largely in and around Long Island, the shots of New York City and the coastline mansions where the characters all live look like they are three-dimensional version of period postcard paintings rather than the real thing. At its worse, the film resembles a pop-up-book rendering of the Jazz Age devoid of any flesh-and-blood characters for us to really care about.

When Luhrmann last worked with Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays the titular Jay Gatsby) on their version of Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, the director actually allowed the camera to pause for while to let us live and love and become enraged with the characters. But with Gatsby, Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan have ants in their collective pants, and keep the camera swinging and swooping across epic party sequences, across water and land, car chases on paved and dirt roads, and even within small rooms to convey a sense of mayhem, where no one has the time or inclination to look to closely at what Gatsby is really all about (assuming people even know what he looks like).

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Column Fri May 03 2013

Iron Man 3, At Any Price, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Kon-Tiki & Graceland

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Iron Man 3

People are going to poke and prod at the good and bad of Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers work from Marvel Studios and the first of a new group of films from the comic book company that makes up what they're calling "Phase Two," which presumably ends with Avengers 2. But what ultimately makes this fourth appearance of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) so satisfying is deceptively simple. It's not the more satisfying humor, action, plot, characters or direction (courtesy of co-writer Shane Black); it's that this is the first of this latest round of Marvel movies (aka Phase One) that doesn't feel like it's leading up to something.

Sure, technically it is leading to another Avengers movie, I guess. But it doesn't feel like simply a prologue. Hell, even the post-credits tag is more of a pure comedy piece than a transition to another film that in turn would eventually take us to Joss Whedon's next film. Iron Man 3 is its own, beautifully self-contained story. If anything, the filmmakers have opted to make this a film that arises out of and deals with history, rather than leading us into the future to a movie we won't see for two years. Here, Stark is dealing with the very real emotional and psychological repercussions of nearly dying in a worm hole into another universe and then hurtling down to earth (barely saved by the Hulk, if memory serves). He's also come to realize that he's deathly afraid of his lady love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), becoming a target because of the world knowing his identity.

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Column Fri Apr 26 2013

Pain & Gain, Mud, The Big Wedding, Renoir & Violeta Went to Heaven

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Pain & Gain

If you have a low tolerance for people in movies doing dumb shit, then you're probably going to hate the new Michael Bay film Pain & Gain, a film filled with exactly that. But if you go in realizing that much of the story about three personal trainers who engage in bizarre and violent criminal acts to make money they could never make at their jobs is true and that these gentlemen were, in fact, experts at being idiots, you'll probably enjoy the hell out of this over-the-top example of the American Dream gone utterly sideways.

The setting is 1990s Miami, a place where body builders (or men and women who look like body builders) are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) from dreaming big, so much so that he gets busted for running a scam on unsuspecting investors in a side gig outside of his training job. But he's an ambitious man who gets a job at a high-profile gym (run by Rob Corddry's John Mese) and triples memberships in just a couple of months, along with his partner Adrian (Anthony Mackie), whose overuse of steroids has left him impotent with raisins for balls. The two men are tired of training filthy rich clients, and they decide the best course of action is to somehow find a way to not just kidnap one of these people, but force them through torture to sign over their entire fortunes to Daniel. Why didn't I think of that?

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Column Fri Apr 19 2013

Oblivion, To the Wonder, No Place on Earth & Antiviral

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Oblivion

The latest Tom Cruise science-fiction epic features a pair of fairly major plot twists, neither of which I'll reveal here, but one I found fairly predictable and the other took me by complete surprise. And I like those percentages, since usually I figure this crap out pretty early on. Oblivion feels like a beautiful quilt, made up of squares from so many different science fiction stories that you feel like you're playing a "Guess That Reference" game as you're watching it. But there's no denying the film is a stunning visual achievement (I highly recommend seeing this in IMAX; it's not in 3-D, thankfully) with a story that is both derivative but still capable of being smart and entertaining.

I particularly liked the setup. Cruise plays Jack, one of only a few humans who still works on the surface of Earth. According to Jack, most humans live on the Jupiter moon Titan, while a few inhabit a space station above the earth, which keeps track of the surface. The future story is that Earth was invaded by alien "Scavs." We managed to drive them out, but the planet was so utterly laid to waste (due in large part to the aliens destroying our moon) that it had to be evacuated. Giant syphons are pulling the earth's water supply off the planet for fuel, and those machines are being guarded by automated drones that are under constant attack from stray aliens that Jack must take out as he makes sure the drones are in good working order.

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Column Fri Apr 12 2013

42, Trance, The Company You Keep, Upstream Color, Disconnect & Bert Stern: Original Mad Man

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42

The reason it has taken Hollywood so long to put together a Jackie Robinson bio film has nothing to do with racism or anyone questioning Robinson's groundbreaking achievements, both on the field and in history, as major league baseball's first-ever black player. The problem is that Robinson led a pretty dull (at least cinematically) life off the field, at least as far as anyone is willing to say on record, including his widow and his fellow players. So how do you make a film about Robinson interesting? You can't just fill it full of moments on the field, although there are so many to choose from.

Truthfully, you have to take some of the movie version of Robinson's life away from him and give it to the people around him — the white members of the Brooklyn Dodgers ball club who had to get used to a new kind of attention at their games; the fans, who slowly began to realize that Robinson was going to succeed or fail on his own merits and not because of his race; and perhaps most importantly, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (played in the new film 42 by Harrison Ford, who seems more awake and alive in this part than he has in quite some time), who made the decision in 1946 to bring Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on board as much for money and publicity as any kind of statement about equality.

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Column Fri Apr 05 2013

Evil Dead, The Place Beyond the Pines, Room 237 & Jurassic Park 3D

It seems strange yet appropriate that I spent much of my Thursday writing reviews, all of which I happen to love. Roger Ebert, the man who taught me the most about loving film and expressing that passion through writing, died on Thursday. He's the reason I do what I do, the reason I live in Chicago, and he was my friend and supporter for nearly 15 years. I wrote up a lengthy remembrance for Ain't It Cool News yesterday. Feel free to peruse my emotional ramblings there; for those who don't know, I write as Capone for the site, so you have to scroll down a little bit. In the meantime, I'm going to honor Roger by reviewing four movies I really liked this week. Go see something good this weekend, in Roger's honor.

Evil Dead

People forget that while the stories about the making of the original 1981 The Evil Dead are quite hilarious, the film itself is quite serious, and I remember being utterly terrified by it when the 14-year-old me watched it home alone in the middle of the day. The silliness that some associate with the Sam Raimi-directed, Bruce Campbell-starring series didn't enter the picture until Evil Dead 2. So in that respect, this Evil Dead relaunch (not so much a remake since the curse may be the same, but the story and characters are completely different) is similar in tone to the source material.

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Column Fri Mar 29 2013

The Host, Wrong, The Sapphires, Starbuck & Gimme the Loot

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Hey, everyone. First a quick note about a couple of films that won't be reviewed this week. First off is G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film that I think looks completely badass but unfortunately screened for press in Chicago while I was out of town. The other films I missed due to a scheduling conflict was the Japanese animated work From Up on Poppy Hill, written by the great Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro. It comes from the great Studio Ghibli and opens this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, so it's a good bet you should go see it immediately. And just so I'm fair to all the films that I was unable to review this week, Tyler Perry's Temptation was not screened for press at all, but I'm sure it's wonderful. Alright, onto the stuff I did get to see.

The Host

Simply reading or hearing the statement "from Stephenie Meyer, worldwide bestselling author and creator of The Twilight Saga" may send many of you running for he hills, but I'll admit I was more than a little curious about The Host, based on Meyer's most recent novel of the same name. I wanted to know if this woman who seems to have tapped into something in the teen psyche could transfer that "gift" to a science fiction story in which alien beings are injected into human hosts and take over their minds in the hope of creating a better society. (I know it sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it's not exactly since the human bodies aren't destroyed in the process.)

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Column Fri Mar 22 2013

Olympus Has Fallen, The Croods, Admission, Spring Breakers & War Witch

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Olympus Has Fallen

This movie is so crazy it just might work. Whether you enjoy this White House-takeover film from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Shooter) or don't is going to depend on how much the absurd appeals to you. The premise is certainly intriguing, so much so that two movies about terrorists storming the White House are coming out this year (White House Down is scheduled for a June release). But Olympus Has Fallen is the first out of the gate and features some action sequences that range from completely effective to moments worthy of grand fits of groaning and eye rolling.

The film opens with a solid set up. Gerard Butler plays Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, the man in charge of security for President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, which includes the first lady (Ashley Judd), who is killed in a nasty car accident. Banning blames himself for her death since his focus was on saving the president, but that's his job. Skip ahead two years, Banning now works a desk job for the Treasury Department, enjoys time with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and is still tortured by the first lady's death.

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Column Fri Mar 15 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Call, Koch, Reincarnated & The Bitter Buddha

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

It may be PG-13 and the trailers might not inspire you to go see it, but I'll be damned if The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, set in the Vegas magic act scene, isn't remarkably funny in most places. Much of this is thanks to going-for-broke performances by Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, who seems to have rediscovered the physical comedy that put him on the map, while still creating a real character with dark secrets and an even darker ability to come up and go through with nasty, often self-mutilating stunts. Carrey gives the movie an edge it simply wouldn't be capable of with him.

Burt Wonderstone is about a young boy who discovers his love of magic by getting a magic set said to be put out by his favorite television magician, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The kid becomes pretty good with the tricks in the box and even manages to find an even dorkier friend to become his partner in illusions. The two grow up to become Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), would-class magicians with a top-billing, sold-out act on the Vegas strip. The only thing more awesome than their act is Burt's ego and the creepy way he seduces women (complete with a souvenir, after-sex photo). Burt manages to chase away on-stage assistants (who all seem to be named Nicole) at an alarming rate, so he grabs one of the show's backstage techs, Jane (Olivia Wilde), to be the new assistant (still calling her Nicole).

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Column Fri Mar 08 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful, No, Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey & Somebody Up There Likes Me

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Oz the Great and Powerful

There's nothing like an impossible task to get Sam Raimi's creative juices flowing. He gave us two great Spider-Man movies (and one not-so-great one) before superhero movies were back in fashion. And now he has made a film about the land of Oz that honors 1939's The Wizard of Oz (which he clearly worships) but doesn't simply drop visual and dialog winks to that family classic, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playright David Lindsay-Abaire use the known universe of Oz as a starting out point, but then take us back to the beginnings, when a second-rate magician/con-man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco, employing equal parts playfully sleazy and charming) found himself transported to the land of Oz, where he meets familiar characters and less-than-familiar ones, giving Raimi and his team a chance to pay homage and be utterly creative.

Clearly hoping to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Disney has actually got a much better film on its hands than that appalling, ugly spectacle — which doesn't automatically mean it will make as much money, but it's not my job to guess the box office. Much like the '39 classic, Oz the Great and Powerful begins with reduced screen ratio and in black & white, as we see Diggs (nicknamed Oz) seduce a young, would-be assistant (more like a plant in the audience) for his circus magic show. In this lovely prologue, we meet a young girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who begs the magician to make her walk again, Oz's right-hand man, Frank (Zach Braff), and Oz's true love, Annie (Michelle Williams), who has just been asked by another man (last name: Gale) to get married. Oz knows he cannot commit, so he sets her free with much pain in his heart. Soon after, a familiar Kansas storm kicks up a tornado, which sends Oz in a hot-air balloon off to the land where brilliant color and a widescreen await him.

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Column Fri Mar 01 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer, 21 & Over, Stoker, Phantom, A Place at the Table, Like Someone In Love & The Sweeney

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Hello, everyone. I'm not a big fan of doing this, but due to combination of a busy week and a lot movies being released this week, I'm going to have to blaze through these reviews, with just two or three paragraphs per film.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Whether you love, hate or are indifferent about the latest fairy tale fleshed out and turned into a feature-length film, Jack the Giant Slayer (based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story), you're all going to come out of it with at least one common thought: "Those giants were pretty fucking cool." There's really no denying it, especially when the leader of the giants, General Fallon, is voiced by the great Bill Nighy and has a second, malformed head on his shoulders that acts as something of a mentally challenged parrot for his proclamations of war against the humans that invade the giants' land in the clouds.

I was genuinely excited to see this film due in large part to the director, Bryan Singer, who has a solid track record with the first two X-Men movies (and the next one as well), The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Apt Pupil. I also like the cast, led by Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, X-Men: First Class), Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane and the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson. Jack is handed a small number of beans by a monk trying to escape capture by the king's men, but when they get wet, a giant beanstalk grows into the clouds taking with it Jack's house and Princess Isabelle (Tomlinson). The king's guard (led by McGregor's Elmont) heads up the stalk to retrieve the princess. One member of the party, Roderick (Tucci), is planning to marry the princess and overthrow the King (McShane), but Isabelle has her eyes on Jack, because the young pretty ones deserve each other.

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Column Fri Feb 22 2013

Snitch, The Gatekeepers, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga & Future Weather

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Snitch

I'm not going to lie: I happen to be a committed fan of Dwayne Johnson as an actor, whether he's doing action work, comedy, or even a somewhat serious drama. Believe me, I know the man has starred in some true stinkers, but if one of his movies tanks, it's not because he isn't trying. More importantly, I'm impressed at the way he's managed to career and role choices. Lately, he seems to have the attitude that he'll do one for his fans that have been loyal to him since his wrestling days as The Rock, and one to help round him out as a performer. The improvements in his acting have been noticeable, and he's even done a couple of films where he's able to combine somewhat serious dramatic work with a bit of action thrown in.

A couple of years ago, Johnson did a really interesting revenge b-movie called Faster (which also starred Billy Bob Thornton and Maggie Grace), and I loved that film for the way Johnson played his character with a quiet rage. There was a lot more acting going on than the marketing would have led you to believe, and now Johnson has another film, Snitch, that features just a couple of action-oriented sequences and a whole lot of impressive inner torment from Johnson as John Matthews, owner of a fairly successful construction materials company in Missouri whose son Jason (from his first marriage to Melina Kanakaredes) has been arrested for dealing drugs after a friend of his mailed him a package loaded with pills.

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Column Fri Feb 15 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard, Beautiful Creatures, Safe Haven, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, The Taste of Money & Lore

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Before we dive into the reviews, I want to alert you to a very special film festival that will be happening at the Music Box Theatre for the next two weeks. The 70mm Film Festival features a collection of nine films being screening multiple times beginning tonight until February 28, including the return of Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-nominated The Master, which must be seen in this format for you to fully appreciate its glory (of course, the same could be said for all of these films).

Take a look at this list: Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Lifeforce, Lord Jim, West Side Story, Hamlet (Kenneth Brannagh's version), Playtime and The Master. The Music Box if offering a $70 pass to see all nine movies. A full screening schedule and details on the films and purchasing tickets can be found on the Music Box Theatre's website. I'm attending just about all of these films at some point — starting with Vertigo and 2011 on opening night. Hope to see you there.

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Art Around Town Fri Feb 08 2013

Art Around Town

Tonight:

  • Elsa Muñoz, Laura Denzer and Rine Boyer: EN ROUTE: "she divided the world into thirds" @ North Park University
  • Randy Simmons & Friends @ David Leonardis
  • Eric Stefanski: Vacancies, Monuments of Social Despair @ The Ugly Step Sister Gallery
  • Becca Mann: Wane's World: A History of "Things" @ The Soccer Club Club
  • Rodney Quiriconi: Constructions, 1960-1970 @ Corbett vs. Dempsey
  • Diane Simpson @ Corbett vs. Dempsey
  • Tranquility through Assemblage @ ROOMS Gallery
  • Judith Brotman & Karolina Gnatowski: Stranger Danger @ Adult contemporary
  • Don't Fret: Love in the Time of Online Dating @ Johalla Projects
  • George Desort's winter photography @ Blue Sky Bakery

  • Saturday:

  • Johanna Billing: I'm Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die & Matthew Metzger: Waver @ Kavi Gupta
  • Open Studio @ Autotelic {Studios}
  • Robert Burnier: The Horseless Carriage @ Andrew Rafacz Gallery
  • Chris Smith: The Visitor's Hours & Visitation Rites @ The Franklin
  • Jeremy Bolen: Cern @ Andrew Rafacz Gallery
  • What is Afro-Surreal? (discussion) @ Chicago Cultural Center
  • schizo panel (discussion) @ threewalls
  • Lauren Levato and Andréa Stanislav (artist talks) @ Packer Schopf

  • Sunday:

  • Surfin' @ Adds Donna
  • #With: The Jerks @ ACRE Projects
  • Anne Rorimer Lecture - Joy of the Real: The Reception of "New Art" in 1970s Chicago @ The Renaissance Society
  • Christina McClelland & Tom Costa: After The After Party @ Roxaboxen Editions
  • Performances in The Snow @ Anatomy/Gift/Association
  • Anamalis Baculus Minimus @ Elastic Arts Center

  • Wednesday:

  • The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 @ Smart Museum of Art
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    Column Fri Feb 08 2013

    Side Effects & John Dies at the End

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    Side Effects

    Director Steven Soderbergh is a man of many talents who likes nothing more than to defy expectations by treading in many different genre pools, sometimes in the same film. It seems only fitting that what he claims will be his last feature film (his Liberace biography, Behind the Candelabra, airs on HBO later this year) incorporates different styles, tones and storylines that come together rather beautifully, if not perfectly. Side Effects is a relationship drama, psychological thriller, social commentary, mystery, and a sleazy film noir all in one messy and wholly entertaining package.

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    Column Fri Feb 01 2013

    Warm Bodies, Bullet to the Head, Stand Up Guys, 56 Up & Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

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    Warm Bodies

    I firmly believe that if you give this zombie rom-com a shot, you'll really like it. I want to be perfectly clear about that up front, because I'm genuinely surprised how many people are inflexible when it comes to zombie films. There is no point in making zombie movie after zombie movie (or TV series) if you aren't going to mix things up within a certain framework established in George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. That groundbreaking film is a perfect jumping off point, but there's room for variety and even improvement.

    The makers of Warm Bodies are perfectly aware that the premise (from Isaac Marion's novel) of a zombie and human falling in love is preposterous, but writer-director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) doesn't let that keep him from taking the story and the romance seriously. He's committed to making us believe in this relationship — one that leads to a potential cure for being undead. Borrowing heavily from the plot of Romeo and Juliet (right down to the names of the lead characters — R played by Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer's Julie), Warm Bodies is told to us from R's point of view, complete with narration by Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) that sets up just how much he remembers from his pre-zombie life (not much), how he communicates with his best zombie friend M (Rob Corddry), and how the world of zombies and humans is divided.

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    Column Fri Jan 25 2013

    Quartet, The Man in the White Suit, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) & The Waiting Room

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    Quartet

    Covering some of the same ground as last year's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and covering it much better comes what is shockingly the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, Quartet. Quartet is written by Ronald Harwood (Being Julia, The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), based on his play. Both films are about finding the pleasures still available in life to those of a certain advanced age, but Quartet doesn't take itself quite so seriously and feels less like pandering than Marigold Hotel. Of course, neither one is in any way hurt by the fact that they both count Maggie Smith among their stars.

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    Column Fri Jan 18 2013

    Broken City, Mama, The Last Stand, West of Memphis & LUV

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    Broken City

    The biggest crime in the new Mark Wahlberg political crime drama Broken City is that it's trying to pack too much story into one two-hour movie. It's rare that I say this about any film, but there's so much going on in this New York City tale of corrupt cops, politicians and city contractors that I almost wish the film had been given a little more room to open up and breathe. Add to that all of the character flaws of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart (possible murderer, substance abuse, jealous husband), and you have what amounts to a film so stuffed with plot points that it's about ready to burst. There are worse things than having too much of a good thing, but that's not exactly the case with Broken City.

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    Column Fri Jan 11 2013

    Gangster Squad, Amour, Somewhere Between & Tess

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    Gangster Squad

    Despite our great love for such contemporary gangster vs. law enforcement efforts such as The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, even in those great films, the portrayal of the bad guys in particular is exaggerated, even bordering on cartoonish. But I like cartoons, and there are few things I love more than watching Robert De Niro making a David Mamet-written speech about the great American pastime while pacing around a table of his lieutenants just before he brains one of them with a baseball bat. It may be unbelievable, but it's simply great cinema.

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    Column Fri Jan 04 2013

    Best and Worst Films of 2012, Zero Dark Thirty & Sister

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    Best Films of 2012

    I saw 415 new films (including a small number of restored-print screenings) in 2012. So call me crazy, but I actually wait until a given year is completed before I finalize my "Best of..." list. In the final few weeks of every year, I play a little catch up: reviewing films I've already seen to see if they are as good or bad as I remember, as well as view a few smaller works that I may have missed in the shuffle of the previous year. I believe four of the choice in my Top 50 features or Top 20 documentaries made its respective list in this time period.

    So why 50? I guess the best answer is, because I said so. When I made my initial list of my favorite films of 2012 (not paying any attention to how many films I selected), I came up with 49 titles; with documentaries, the number was 19. I ranked by groups of films, went back the original list of 415, and found one more in each category to round out both lists. If you think no list should go beyond 20, or even 10, here's what you should do: stop reading at the number you think is self-indulgent on my part.

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    Column Fri Dec 28 2012

    Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Promised Land, Not Fade Away, Parental Guidance & The Big Picture

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    Django Unchained

    I'm not going to get into a discussion about whether or not the latest offering from writer-director Quentin Tarantino uses the N-word one too many times (or a hundred too many times). I suspect that the word is used as much in the movie (and in the same historical usage) as it was in the time period and place that is portrayed here: the deep South, two years prior to the Civil War. Maybe I'm wrong, and I'll admit it took me a while to get over the shock of hearing the word so many times. But Django Unchained isn't about a word; it's about the slave culture that gave birth to it.

    Pay particular attention to the extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter who enlists the help of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, as physically and emotionally committed as I've ever seen him in any role). Waltz played a notorious Jew hunter in Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, and in that work, he uttered the word Jew with such venom that it almost burned your ears to hear it. But when Schultz and most other characters use the N-word in Django Unchained, it's simply the word of choice back in the day. Intent is the key, and while there are certainly plenty of characters here that flat out hate blacks across the board, for the most part, the word is not used as hate speech. At least that's what I tell myself to sleep better at night.

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    Column Fri Dec 21 2012

    This is 40, The Impossible, Jack Reacher, The Guilt Trip, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away & Scrooge & Marley

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    When you strip away the jokes (and I'm not suggest in any way that you do that; the film is extraordinarily funny), This is 40 is about the results of bad parenting and the daily struggle not to be a bad parent. Both lead characters, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann), supporting players in Apatow's Knocked Up, come from broken homes. Pete's father (played magnificently by Albert Brooks) is a world-class mooch, borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from his son so he can support his relatively new family that includes triplet toddlers. He levels guilt trips on his son that belong in the hall of fame for guilt trips (I firmly believe such a place exists). While Debbie's long-absent dad (John Lithgow) left when she was young and has made infrequent stops into her life every seven or eight years. Amid all of the spousal dismay over money, sex, aging, child rearing, etc., it's the details about these parent/grown child relationships that I found myself most drawn into.

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    Column Fri Dec 14 2012

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hyde Park on Hudson, Citadel & Beauty Is Embarrassing

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    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

    Some people like returning home, to a place that felt like a safe haven from the dangers of the world around them. For others, home isn't such a great place, and they are not particularly eager to return. For me, stepping back into Middle-Earth with members of the Baggins clan, a greying wizard, some familiar elves, a wiry, fractured creature named Gollum and director Peter Jackson feels like going home. And while there are stretches of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that feel like, well, they're being stretched, I never was bored or exhausted by the untold number of dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls or hobbits, because seeing them on the screen again (or for the first time) was somehow comforting, satisfying and tonally familiar. Nothing wrong with any of those feelings while watching a movie.

    I'm not here to dwell on frame rates and visual quality. I've seen An Unexpected Journey at both 48 and 24 frames per second, and I'd say they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Since much of the film takes place at night or underground, the 3D is problematic at 24fps; things are simply too dark. The 48fps presentation doesn't have these light issues, but it does result in a bizarre-looking video-esque style that, in these darker moments, looks pretty great. But in scenes set in broad daylight, something ain't right. If you're ultra curious and open minded about high frame rate, seek out a theater screening the film that way. Otherwise, stick with what you know. It's not great, but at least it looks like a movie.

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    Column Fri Dec 07 2012

    Playing for Keeps, Starlet, The Central Park Five & Generation P

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    Playing for Keeps

    Let me just stop you before you even ask the question, Why do you bother seeing -- let alone reviewing -- a movie like the new attempt at life-affirming romantic comedy Playing for Keeps? The answer is painfully simple: because part of my job, my obligation, is to steer you and those you care about clear of this kind of drivel. And rest assured, this movie is 900 percent, often nonsensical drivel.

    Let me give you an example of how this story about former soccer star George (Gerard Butler), trying to be a better man as well as a better dad, makes no sense. There's a scene deep into the movie where George arrives home late one night to find Patti (Uma Thurman) in his bed, eager to seduce him. Patti is the wife of one of George's new friends, Carl (Dennis Quaid), the father of one of the kids on a school soccer team that George coaches (his son is also on the team). It has already been established that the philandering Carl has a jealous streak when it comes to his wife, going so far as to having her followed sometimes, including the night she goes to George's house. Despite already having bed a few of the other soccer moms who have thrown themselves at him (including ones played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer), George rejects Patti, and she eventually leaves.

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    Column Thu Nov 22 2012

    Life of Pi, Hitchcock, Red Dawn & Rise of the Guardians

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    Life of Pi

    The art of telling a story orally is a dying one, but those who can do it well (Ira Glass, David Sedaris, the late Spaulding Gray, and the list goes on...but not that far) are some of my personal heroes simply because they keep the tradition alive. I don't know if the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is fashioned in a similar sense, but the film version from director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) is a celebration of passing an oral history from one person to another. It's also a transformative visual display, the likes of which I haven't seen in many years, combining the realistic and the surreal to the point where looking at the image of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger often resembles a painting featuring colors that appear invented for just the movie. Life of Pi also happens to be one of the finest works done in 3-D that I have ever viewed.

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    Column Fri Nov 16 2012

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, Silver Linings Playbook, Anna Karenina, This Must Be the Place & Chasing Ice

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    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

    There have been some very capable actors who have been a part of the Twilight films over the last five years, and I include lead actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Of course, there are also some actors in these films who make make it their life's mission to suck the breath and soul out of every scene they're in (I'm looking squarely into your eyes, Taylor Lautner and Ashley Greene). Having made this five-film journey with these characters and this saga that could have easily been told in a tightly edited three-film stretch, I feel I've been more than fair to these movies. I loathed Twilight, and felt that the next two films got progressively better, only to have the first part of Breaking Dawn simply collapse in a heap on screen that no amount of vigorous, bed-breaking pretend sex could help.

    The overall issues I've had with the series have little to do with how author Stephenie Meyer and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have essentially changed all the rules about what vampires and werewolves are. I love a good overhaul, especially in dealing with supernatural creatures that have been done to death. No, my real problem with The Twilight Saga is that the love triangle that plays out between the chronically indecisive Bella (Stewart), the pussified vampire Edward (Pattinson), and the pouty wolf boy Jacob (Lautner) never felt real.

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    Column Fri Nov 09 2012

    Skyfall, Lincoln, The Bay, A Royal Affair & Nobody Walks

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    Skyfall

    There's a great deal to absorb in Daniel Craig's third outing as Ian Fleming's master MI6 agent James Bond. It's clear that it's important to the actor to give his take on Bond a little emotional and psychological heft without skimping on the death-defying action (which includes another sequence involving heavy construction equipment, as well as a rooftop chase in Turkey that I'm pretty sure are the exact rooftops featuring in Taken 2 — I half expected Bond to trip over Liam Neeson at one point, which would have been awesome). As a result, we get more of the Bond back story than any other film in the past 50 years has given us. Plus, it doesn't suck and it actually adds some welcome depth to the icy spy with a license to kill.

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    Column Fri Nov 02 2012

    Flight, Wreck-It Ralph, A Late Quartet, The Loneliest Planet & Brooklyn Castle

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    Flight

    Regardless of what you might think you know or expect about the first live-action Robert Zemeckis film since 2000's Cast Away, what you actually see will surprise you, because Flight isn't just one type of film. Above all things, the film is a hardcore, rough-around-the-edges drama that begins with a horrific but spectacular plane crash in which pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is able to put his disintegrating plane down in an empty field with minimal loss of life. He is hailed as a hero by the media almost immediately, but as the facts in the accident start to come out, it becomes clear the Whip was not in complete control of his faculties (or was he?) when he boarded the aircraft that fateful morning.

    While the trailers for Flight make it look like some kind of cross between a mystery, thriller, courtroom drama about whether or not Whip was drunk while flying the plane, you'll know from the first scene that he absolutely was drunk, with a little cocaine thrown in for good measure. He'd also spent most of the night before partying and having sex with one of the flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez). So, you see: there's no mystery here at all.

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    Column Fri Oct 26 2012

    Cloud Atlas, The Sessions, Chasing Mavericks, Fun Size & Keep the Lights On

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    Cloud Atlas

    Last year, when I reviewed Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, I started out by saying that you would hear a great number of interpretations from critics of what the symbolism in the film meant, what the deeper meaning of the subtext was all about, etc. And I concluded my opening remarks by saying that all of this analysis was both totally wrong and totally right. Although the new movie Cloud Atlas bares little resemblance to Malick's family drama combined with a history of life on earth, it shares the wonderful notion that films are not meant just to be something you experience for the two hours (or damn near three, in this case) you're in a dark theater. The best films are the ones you take home with you in your head and your heart, the ones that reveal themselves to you hours or even days after you see them, the ones you feel absolutely compelled to see again because the one viewing simply isn't enough (for whatever reason).

    As co-written and -directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), based on the dense book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas has already been picked apart for deeper meaning and hidden agendas. But the truth is, most of the film's messages and themes are worn at surface level and — for better or worse — there isn't much much digging to be done. This didn't bother me at all, since there's enough to keep track of here in terms of plot and sheer volume of characters without then also getting lost in metaphors. But the messages worn on the sleeve of Cloud Atlas are plenty ambitious and worthy to keep things interesting and impressive. And as much as these filmmakers plumb the depths of faith and philosophy and expression and the soul, they never forget to keep the proceedings flowing, moving and, above all, entertaining. This one is the whole enchilada, folks.

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    Column Fri Oct 19 2012

    Paranormal Activity 4, Smashed & Easy Money

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    Paranormal Activity 4

    They may not look pretty or come across as especially sophisticated, but watching the fourth installment (as I have the previous three) of the Paranormal Activity series with an audience, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the folks the make these movies know how to wind up and freak out an audience. Watching Paranormal Activity movies is unlike viewing any other films in a given year.

    There's something of a formula (thanks to title cards that read Day 1, Day 3, Day 11, etc.). We learn to look at a series of static shots with a keener eye than we do most other horror films. We're scanning every corner of the frame for movement or a shadowy figure or a swinging light fixture — any sign of a ghostly presence. I love that moment when a new scene starts, and inevitably someone in the audience will whisper "Uh oh." The latest ads for PA4 have night-vision shots of a preview audience jumping, screaming, and otherwise getting antsy while watching the film. I was skeptical that the audience I saw it with would follow suit, but I'll be damned if they didn't. The fear was genuine, the screams well earned, even if the particular story in this new installment is a little threadbare.

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    Column Fri Oct 12 2012

    48th Chicago International Film Festival, Argo, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, Here Comes the Boom, The Other Dream Team & the Music Box of Horrors

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    48th Chicago International Film Festival

    Right off the bat in looking over the schedule for the 48th Chicago International Film Festival, I recognize a serious improvement over last year's fairly strong offerings. The mere inclusion of such films as the wonderfully expansive and moving Cloud Atlas -- co-directed by Chicago's own Lana and Andy Wachowski and Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer -- and Chicago native Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, the closing night movie Flight, and we know good things are on the way.

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    Column Fri Oct 05 2012

    Frankenweenie, Taken 2, The Ambassador, V/H/S, The Oranges & The American Scream

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    Frankenweenie

    The excitement and anticipation level I feel about any new Tim Burton film will rise and fall, but it will never go away completely. While I've endured many years of Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows and Planet of the Apes, his latest work — the stunning black-and-white, stop-motion homage to old-timey horror film Frankenweenie — is a return to form the likes of which I haven't experienced from this or any faded director in quite some time. And if for no other reason, Frankenweenie is a triumph because it celebrates original story telling. Yes, it's a fleshed-out version of Burton's 1984 short of the same name, made a year before his first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And yes, it uses characters and cinematic styles of a bygone era in horror films, but Burton uses these tools in ways that border on the brilliant.

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    Column Fri Sep 28 2012

    Looper, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Hotel Transylvania & Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel

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    Looper

    There are times when you watch a film, and you can feel the brain power working in conjunction with the heart and soul of the filmmaker. It's that feeling that washes over you, when the movie is working in every way because its creator cares deeply and has worked over the material so carefully and with such a detailed eye that the film has no choice but to be damn-near perfect.

    And then it's time to consider the performances. In a perfect world, great source material stays great no matter who the actors are, but we know we don't live in a perfect world. And what happens in writer-director Rian Johnson's Looper is that the performances serve to magnify the finest qualities of the screenplay and sweeping visual style. Johnson has made a modern classic in the science fiction genre, but he's also made a wonderful work that combines elements of westerns, family dramas and gangster pictures where some of the bad guys are actually the good guys. In most other films, the character of Joe (played as a younger man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and older by Bruce Willis) is the villain. He's a heartless assassin (known as a Looper) working in the near future who has been assigned the task of killing hooded men transported from the future at an exact time and place and disposing of their bodies clean and easy.

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    Column Fri Sep 21 2012

    The Master & Dredd 3D

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    The Master


    I know a lot of people are going to walk out of the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and think that they need to see it one or two more times just to get to the film's deeper meanings and the sources of its underlying tension. If I may be so bold, I don't think that's necessary; I think this may be Anderson's most in-your-face, on-the-surface work, and I don't level that as a criticism. I just sincerely doubt any additional digging is required; the scenes as they play out make the themes clearly and precisely evident.

    And while we're talking about things that aren't necessary or relevant, can we drop the Scientology discussion? The Master is not a film about Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard. Sure, Anderson borrows some of the dogma and practices of the relatively new religion, but the film isn't some classless exposé. Between this film and There Will Be Blood, it's become clear that Anderson has a fascination (some might call it a healthy disrespect) for religious leaders. He seem less interested in what they're preaching and more in how they're preaching it. He also explores the idea that there is the thinnest of lines between being a spiritual guide and a crazy person.

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    Column Fri Sep 14 2012

    Finding Nemo 3D, Arbitrage, Beloved & Side by Side

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    Finding Nemo 3D

    Surprisingly enough, the 3D version of Finding Nemo is remarkably similar to the 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo. But like the previously released converted Pixar movies, this transfer is pristine and adds a stunning element to the under-the-ocean views and the... holy shit, wait until you see Marlin and Dory get swallowed by the whale in 3D!!!

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    Column Fri Sep 07 2012

    The Words, Samsara & California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown

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    The Words

    The directing debut from sometime-actor Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (both of whom wrote this film as well and got a story credit for Tron: Legacy) is called The Words, and it's three fairly simple stories thrown into a blender and made so much more complicated than they need to be. Somewhere in the twisted wreckage is an interesting tale of struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who is having trouble making ends meet and is forced to continually borrow money from his father (J.K. Simmons... I can see the resemblance) and can barely afford to support himself and his wife (Zoe Saldana).

    But on a trip to Europe (their honeymoon, I believe), Rory stumbles upon a vintage leather briefcase that he buys. Once home, he discovers the manuscript for a short novel about two lovers during wartime Europe who are separated and heartbroken. The story is so moving, Rory types it into his computer and submits it to a publisher he works for (in the mailroom) who falls in love with it. Before long, the book is a massive bestseller and Jansen is famous... until the story's actual writer (an unnamed old man played by Jeremy Irons) approaches Jansen wondering aloud if there is a price to pay for stealing another man's story so boldly.

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    Column Fri Aug 31 2012

    Lawless, The Possession, Compliance, For A Good Time, Call..., Little White Lies, Sleepwalk With Me, The Awakening & Oslo, August 31st

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    Lawless

    I'll be up front about this: Any film that centers on my chosen profession of bootlegging warms my heart something fierce. Although the real-life Bondurant gang of Franklin County were about running moonshine throughout southern Virginia (as opposed to my own practice of bringing Canadian whiskey into our fine nation), I admire their industrious spirit and their tenacity. Hell, the Capone name even comes up a couple of times in the movie Lawless, based on the author Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized tale of his grandfather and his two brothers and their adventures during the country's darkest hour, known as Prohibition.

    The word that kept popping into my head as I watched Lawless was "authentic." Despite some plot elements being fictionalized by either the author or screenwriter Nick Cave, the movie feels like an accurate account of the times, if not always the actual events. This period in Bondurant's family history simply weren't chronicled, so with only a few key moments of record, he built the connective tissue of the conflict between the Bondurant brothers and the crooked Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (a ferocious and twisted Guy Pearce), who was actually from the area and not Chicago, as the movie claims (even we don't build them quite as messed up as this version of Rakes).

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    Column Fri Aug 24 2012

    Hit & Run, Premium Rush, Cosmopolis, Robot & Frank, The Imposter & Chicken With Plums

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    Hit & Run

    I have very clear recollections of being inexplicably drawn to empty-headed carsploitation films. Actually, that's not entirely true. I wasn't "inexplicably" drawn to them; I knew exactly why I loved them. Because they allowed me 90 minutes or so to turn my brain off and concentrate on stupid jokes; barely there stories; and car stunts, wrecks and explosions. Although I didn't know his name at the time, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham was the perpetrator of many of the films I loved, and Burt Reynolds was very often his partner in crime. The Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies were the most popular, but there was also Hooper and Stroker Ace. Hell, Needham also did Megaforce; how could I not love him?

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    Column Fri Aug 17 2012

    ParaNorman, Sparkle, The Odd Life of Timothy Green & 2 Days In New York

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    ParaNorman

    The latest stop-motion animated film to hit screens is almost too easy to review. It's about a boy who grows up watching horror movies, can see and talk to the dead, and is his school's primary outcast as a result. If you can identify with even one of those things, ParaNorman is going to have you doing a little happy dance as you leave the theater.

    Sure, there are messages about being kind to people with special gifts, instead of ostracizing or bullying them, but really Norman Babcock (voiced by Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a kid who digs scary movies, and his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) seem OK with that because at least they consider that somewhat more normal behavior than Norman's other interest -- talking to his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who often joins him on the couch to watch said films. No one else can see her or the dozens of other ghosts Norman chats with on a daily basis, often on his way to school. They are certainly nicer to him than his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) or the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

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    Column Fri Aug 10 2012

    The Bourne Legacy, The Campaign, Hope Springs, Celeste and Jesse Forever & Searching for Sugar Man

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    The Bourne Legacy

    Is there even precedent for a franchise losing its title character/main actor and continuing on? Smokey and the Bandit 3, maybe. Still, I have to admit, The Bourne Legacy makes a daring leap of faith and comes out the other side pretty strong thanks to an ambitious script by Tony and Dan Gilroy (Tony directed as well) and a nicely conceived lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who continues to impress me as a thinking man's action star in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and The Avengers.

    Set in a timeline that is largely parallel with The Bourne Ultimatum (which we're aware of thanks to key shots of some of that film's supporting players like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and Paddy Considine), the new film reveals that Jason Bourne was not the only chemically enhanced government agent. But because Bourne went rogue and exposed the role of one particular division (led by Edward Norton, in full-on bad-guy mode) in this project, those in the know decide it's time to shut down the project in a hurry. And they don't simply call in the agents; they kill them all, mostly by poisoning their daily meds. But Renner's Aaron Cross (a slightly more rugged version of Bourne) is targeted for a missile launch at a small cabin in the snowy mountains where he's hiding out. He doesn't die but those trying to kill him think he did.

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    Column Fri Aug 03 2012

    Total Recall, Killer Joe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, The Queen of Versailles & Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

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    Total Recall

    Flashy, nice to look at, and completely devoid of any soul. But enough about my taste in women; let's talk about the latest adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," whose lead character is described more as a younger Woody Allen than Arnold Schwarzenegger or Colin Farrell. In this version of Total Recall, most of the earth has been reduced to an unbreathable wasteland, with colonies of humans living in the United Kingdom (mostly for rich folk) and Australia (filled with workers, who literally travel through the core of the earth to work in factories in the UK building an army's worth of robot police. What could they possibly be for?

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    Column Fri Jul 27 2012

    The Watch, Ruby Sparks, Red Lights & Sacrifice

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    The Watch

    I'm guessing there's a running theory in filmmaking that if you throw enough funny people in a movie, something funny is bound to result. And considering the sheer volume of usually talented folks involved in the making of The Watch (both in front of and behind the camera), on paper this movie should be the fucking end-all comedy of the decade. Alas, it is not. From a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (along with contributions from Jared Stern), directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer, and starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and British scene-stealer Richard Ayoade ("The IT Crowd"), The Watch has a few big laughs, a handful of medium-size laughs, and a few chuckles, but honestly, this thing should have been so much better.

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    Column Fri Jul 20 2012

    The Dark Knight Rises, Trishna & The Magic of Belle Isle

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    The Dark Knight Rises


    Why are you reading this? You already know whether or not you're going to see director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's concluding chapter in his three-film Batman story arc; you might even know how many times you're going to see The Dark Knight Rises. I've seen it twice, and I'll admit, the first time left me a little empty and partly unsatisfied with big sections of the story. But the second time brought a lot more together than I'd expected. As hard as it is to believe that a film written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan might be dense and feature a few too many characters for its own good, a repeat viewing did a lot to clear up what I thought were strange choices.

    But the Nolans have earned the right to take whatever path they want to in closing out their time with the Dark Knight and his eclectic group of supporters and detractors, just as we've earned the right to question their choices. As an overall comment on The Dark Knight Rises, there are several instances where it seems the filmmakers take the most roundabout way to get from Point A to Point B, when a straight line might have been more advisable. As a result, the film feels like its loaded with a lot of filler, mostly in the form of extraneous characters. As a minor example, is Juno Temple's sidekick character to Anne Hathaway's cat burglar Selina Kyle completely necessary? I'd love to see someone make a case that she is. Even returning supporting players (some of whom were unexpected by me in their cameos) seem to just eat up time and scenery. Is it a nice inside joke that the one-time Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) returns as the mayor of Gotham? Of course. Is it necessary? Of course not.

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    Column Fri Jul 06 2012

    The Amazing Spider-Man, Savages, Katie Perry: Part of Me, Beasts of the Southern Wild & The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

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    The Amazing Spider-Man

    Because it's being released in such close proximity to The Avengers, the temptation I'm sure many critics and civilians will face is comparing that film with director Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man. And what I'm hoping you all do is be sophisticated enough to realize that both are very strong movies for almost entirely different reasons. Of course, the other temptation will be to compare Webb's relationship-heavy take on the life of young Peter Parker with Sam Raimi's trilogy. This is unavoidable but would still be doing the new film a great disservice.

    The Amazing Spider-Man does something almost unheard of in the superhero arena: it treats its relationships with reverence. And in that sense, this film is like no other superhero movie I've ever seen. These characters care about each other, and as a result, we care about them. I always got the sense the Mary Jane Watson loved Peter Parker but was turned on by the suit; but in Webb's version of things, Gwen Stacy (beautifully played as the most mature, emotionally stable character in the film by Emma Stone) is madly in love with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, who captures the shy, awkward, intelligent jokester so much more convincingly than Tobey Maguire ever did, and I say that having always been a fan of Maguire's work).

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    Column Fri Jun 29 2012

    Magic Mike, Ted, People Like Us, To Rome with Love, Last Ride, Invisible War & Paul Williams Still Alive

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    With The Amazing Spider-Man opening Tuesday, July 3, I didn't want you to have to wait until next Friday to read my review of it, so I've already posted it on Ain't It Cool News for your perusal. Lots to talk about this week, and most of it's well worth your time and money to check out. Shall we continue?

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    Column Fri Jun 22 2012

    Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Brave, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dark Horse & The Woman of the Fifth

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    Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

    Of course, everything about it is ridiculous right down to the title. Yes, it's positively blasphemous to tie the Civil War to vampires needing to keep slavery alive so they will have a constant supply of food. It's downright sacrilegious to turn Harriet Tubman into a soldier in the fight against bloodsuckers. And its positively insane to make Abraham Lincoln a vicious assassin, trained in the art of hunting and killing vampires. And it's because of all of those things that this bit of historical fiction had to be told. People who roll their eyes at the very idea of this story (let alone this movie) have completely lost their sense of fun.

    That being said, the elements of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that are most disappointing have nothing to do with its premise and everything to do with its execution. Almost every second of director Timur Bekmambetov's (Wanted, Night Watch) film seems single-mindedly focused on moving forward as fast and blurrily as possible. Yes, in most cases, the plot should move forward (with the exception of a handful of flashbacks), but the director (working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel) never lets up. He pushes so hard to get to the next scene and the next scene and the next scene that we never get time to settle in with these characters and actually experience a bit of their lives. Character development is a thing for dreamers here. People become friends because we are told they are friends; Lincoln and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fall in love because we are told they do.

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    Column Fri Jun 15 2012

    Rock of Ages, That's My Boy, My Sister's Sister & Safety Not Guaranteed

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    Rock of Ages

    The only thing more frustrating that sitting through an overlong, cliche-driven jukebox musical is watching one that has one truly strong performance surrounded by mediocrity. Tom Cruise has forsaken all of us at one point or another over the years, but when he pulls out something inspired, I am compelled to give him credit, and I do so happily.

    Rock of Ages is a collection of familiar '80s hard rock songs and power ballads with a plot that is a small part Footloose and a whole lot of familiar, tired music industry stereotypes that have so little to do with actually loving this music (assuming those who go to see this movie based on a stage musical do). People give speeches about loving music and the transformative power of rock 'n' roll. They wear variations on the rock star uniform and pushing forth a very paint-by-number approach to both the acting and the music performances.

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    Column Fri Jun 08 2012

    Prometheus, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Elles & Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

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    Prometheus

    Most people who have reviewed this film have only seen it once, and therefore there is every reason to have a healthy skepticism about the wide array of opinions that have already been voiced about Ridley Scott's return to the world of science fiction, Prometheus. I can't imagine truly grasping some of the concepts at work here after only one viewing. The plot itself isn't confusing, but the amount of philosophy and speculative science at work here makes at least two viewings necessary. And I say that as someone who wasn't particularly impressed with a lot of this film on the first go-round.

    Before I dive into the boilerplate, let me digress just a moment on one aspect of Prometheus. One of the elements of the movie that I was riveted by was the idea that Noomi Rapace's character, Elizabeth Shaw, is a woman of faith, something I'm fairly certain we haven't seen in any of the Alien movies. There's a moment in the trailer that I've always found gripping — when her whole world seems to be crashing down on her, Shaw suddenly clasps her hands together in desperation and prays. That's her defense mechanism, her last-ditch move to survive the insanity around her.

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    Column Fri Jun 01 2012

    Snow White and the Huntsman, The Intouchables & For Greater Glory

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    Snow White and the Huntsman


    It's a story we all know well. Hell, we just had it told to us in movie form mere weeks ago in a breezier version called Mirror Mirror. But I can honestly say, I've never seen the Snow White story told in which the heroine puts on a suit of armor, takes up arms, and starts hacking and stabbing away at people. I kind of like that idea, if only to radically alter to familiar story and make it fresh and unpredictable. In theory.

    Snow White and the Huntsman gets a lot right in its bleak, surprisingly dark tale, beginning and ending with just how gorgeous the film looks — both the scenery and the special effects. The tale opens with Snow White as a child and her happy parents, the king and queen of this land. But after the mother dies, the inconsolable father meets Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who tricks the king into marrying her and then turns around and kills the poor man and steals his youth. Much like the other recent version of the evil Queen, Ravenna is literally a soul-sucking witch who absorbs youth and beauty to stay young herself.

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    Column Fri May 25 2012

    Men In Black III, Hysteria & Polisse

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    Men In Black III

    I hate sequels that require you to have seen the previous chapters in a franchise to understand the third (or even second) installment. Each film, sequel or not, should stand on its own as a piece of film. Now I'm not talking about a series like the Harry Potter films where the movies are an ongoing story that was established before the films were put into production. But in the case of Men In Black III, this is a story that is basically made up as it goes along, so the potential for creating new and interesting plots using a couple of the same characters from movie to move is there.

    But the committee that came up with the script (or sections of the script) for MIB3 leans so heavily on previously established relationships and circumstances that it doesn't leave room for much in the way of creativity. This film is so spent for new ideas that it actually relies on the age-old going back in time scenario to move itself forward. What the hell am I talking about?

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    Column Fri May 18 2012

    The Dictator, Bernie, Mansome, Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog & First Position

    Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgHey everyone. First a note of apology. Due to my insane travel schedule this week and next, I'm going to be missing a fair amount of press screenings of some of the bigger and/or more important films being released this month. For example, this week I don't have reviews for Battleship or What To Expect When You're Expecting (I know how broken up most of you are about the latter; probably no more so than I am). Next week's big release, Men In Black 3, I actually will get to see for review, but there may still be one or two that escape my grasp. Anyway, there is still plenty to choose from this week. Let us continue...


    The Dictator


    While I would never call myself a Sacha Baron Cohen apologist (the guy doesn't have to apologize for his style of humor), I will say that I've liked most of what he's done in the TV and film world, which includes everything he did with his Ali G character on both sides of the pond to Borat to his supporting work in Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Cohen isn't always going for the big laughs in his work, but when he does, he tends to try harder than just about any other comic actor today. He doesn't always succeed, but I don't think he'll ever be accused of phoning in a performance.

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    Column Fri May 11 2012

    Dark Shadows, Sound of My Voice & God Bless America

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    Dark Shadows

    To talk about my personal history with the Dark Shadows source material seems slightly pointless even to me, but let me see if I can bring it around to the subject at hand, which is director Tim Burton's more comedic approach to the televised story of Barnabas Collins, a New England vampire protecting his family (more like his descendants) while fending off those who would do them harm. I'm pretty sure I've seen every episode, having watched the nightly reruns that aired in the city in which I grew up. It wasn't until years later that I understood that "Dark Shadows" was a soap opera shot live on tape, thus the reels of mistakes that humorously plagued the show.

    But the original Barnabas, Johathan Frid (who passed away last month), remains one of my all-time favorite vampires, with his buttoned-down manners and fierce devotion to old-fashioned morals and sensibilities. And the best thing star Johnny Depp does with his revamped portrayal of Barnabas is to capture this reserved side to the elder Collins and put him in direct conflict with the times (in this case, the early 1970s).

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    Column Fri May 04 2012

    The Avengers, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel & Mother's Day

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    The Avengers

    The reason a super-group comic book like The Avengers is so much fun is because its members spend as much time clashing into each other as they do the foes they fought every month. Someone asked me recently to compare director and co-writer Joss Whedon's The Avengers with the X-Men movies, and the reality is, you can't — not fairly at least. The members of the X-Men came together under a common struggle (mutant rights), and are all trained by the same methods as each other (for the most part). But The Avengers are like puzzle pieces that were never meant to go together, and with the exception of Captain America (Chris Evans), they don't even really see themselves as heroes, let alone ones fighting a common enemy.

    The story of The Avengers gives these solo acts that unifying enemy: an alien army brought to earth by Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) adopted brother Loki (the magnificent Tom Hiddleston, easily my favorite performer in the film). But before Whedon even gets to that point, he gives us micro-stories about where the lead characters sit in the grand scheme of their own lives.

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    Column Fri Apr 27 2012

    The Five-Year Engagement, The Raven, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Hunter, Monsieur Lazhar & Darling Companion

    Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgBefore we dive into this week's releases, I wanted to let you know that since I've been oppressively busy lately, I missed last week's column despite there being a couple of solid releases worth your time and money. Top of that list is the extraordinary documentary Marley, the expansive, definitive chronicle of Bob Marley's life, music, and cultural impact, which continues its run at the Music Box Theatre for the next week. And while the film is sanctioned by the Marley estate, it is far from a glossy portrait of his life as director Kevin Macdonald does a fantastic job of assembling a balanced look at Marley as both a creative genius and a man who wanted to please everyone and achieve worldwide popularity. And yes, we do get a great deal of discussion about his having a whole lot of kids by a whole lot of women, many of whom appear in the film. Certainly fans of Marley's music will not want to miss this piece, but I also think casual admirers will get a great deal out of it.

    Also on the documentary front, the latest from Disney Nature was released last week, Chimpanzee, which presents a beautifully photographed slice of life look at a tribe of chimps doing everything from gathering food, using tools to crack nuts (which still blows me away for some reason), and fighting off attackers who want to take over their prized nut grove. As in many of the Disney Nature films, there's a surprising amount of inherent drama that is captured in this movie, including a significant amount of peril and even death (presented off camera, but still pretty harrowing). Perhaps my biggest complaint with Chimpanzee is the a-little-to-cutesy narration by Tim Allen (I guess Carrot Top wasn't available), but overall the film is a gorgeous document in a series of nature films that I've thoroughly enjoyed every year.

    Finally, one of the biggest surprises in last week's rundown was the ensemble comedy Think Like A Man, not so much based on the relationship advice book by comic Steve Harvey, but more a story of how the book's "secrets" about men changed the dating world. While the film is overly long and the various plots progress and wrap up a bit too neatly, the film is also fairly insightful and extremely funny, due in great part to comedian Kevin Hart as a man in the middle of a divorce who has no interest in a relationship, watching his friends panic then rework their dating routines based on the book. At its core, the film is a call for honestly in relationships, and it certainly has a leg up on most typical romantic comedies (which this is not). The impressive (mostly African-American) cast includes Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Regina Hall, Meagan Good, Romany Malco and Gabrielle Union, all treating the subject and material seriously (for the most part). The result is a thought-provoking, quality comedy that has a lot to say to and about both sexes.

    OK, now onto this week's offerings...

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    Column Fri Apr 13 2012

    The Cabin in the Woods, The Three Stooges, Lockout, Bully & Nailbiter

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    The Cabin in the Woods

    The day has arrived. The Cabin in the Woods, the film many of you have been waiting years to see, has finally made it to theaters. If you've chosen to, you've read virtually unanimous positive reviews, but hopefully you played this one smart and went with the advice of many of us who saw this a while back to stay away from any reviews or descriptions of the film, whether they have spoilers or not. There is something to be said for the days when the most you could ever know about a film before sitting in the theater to watch it might have been one trailer and one or two TV commercials. And few people have benefitted from the less-is-more approach to movie promoting like director and co-writer of Cabin Drew Goddard, who last writing gig, Cloverfield, seemingly came out of nowhere.

    But The Cabin in the Woods is a different monster entirely. No, it isn't a game changer that is going to set the horror movie-making community on its head and make it rethink the way it operates from here on out. But the film clearly comes from a place of frustration with, as well as love of, the genre. It lets those who make horror films know that we see into their bag of tricks, their basements filled with artifacts that may trigger any manner of scary creatures, their paint-by-numbers approach to knocking off young victims, their loud music crashes that make us jump at nothing.

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    Column Fri Apr 06 2012

    American Reunion, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Four Lovers & A Trip to the Moon/The Extraordinary Voyage

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    American Reunion

    This fourth (and hopefully final) installment of the American Pie series feels different than the previous, not especially inspired sequels, and that may have something to do with it having been written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholossberg (the writers of all of the Harold & Kumar movies), who have had nothing to do with this franchise until this film. American Reunion feels like it was made by fans of the series and its characters, and like most fan-driven writing, the movie relies a lot on knowledge of the previous films (especially the first one) and adds very little in terms of funny or inventive new material.

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    Column Fri Mar 23 2012

    The Hunger Games & The Raid: Redemption

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    The Hunger Games

    Much as I did with the Harry Potter films, when I first heard they were making Suzanne Collins' hugely successful trilogy of books into a series of movies, I opted to go into each of them without having read the novels. I'm a firm believer that, although having read The Hunger Games might have provided me with insight into characters and situations, a film should stand on its own regardless of the source material. I didn't want to get lost or frustrated tracking what minor characters or subplots got dropped or altered in the transition from book to screen, and I just wanted to enjoy or loathe the movies as stand-alone entities.

    What struck me almost immediately about director Gary Ross' (who adapted the book with Collins and Billy Ray) telling of this story is how wonderfully subversive and angry the story is under the surface. This isn't a story about kids killing kids; that's just something that happens in the much larger tale of class war, about the rich thinking they're doing a favor for the poor by taking their children at random and having them executed by other children rather than doing it themselves, about a world on the brink of another rebellion much like the one that set these terrible games in motion nearly 75 years earlier. And although I haven't got a clue how the next two books progress this story, I see young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as someone with the potential to lead the next civil war in the nation of Panem between a government lost in its own opulence and 12 districts of citizens tired of sacrificing for nothing more than the privilege of doing so again and again. Or I could be talking shit. Who cares, The Hunger Games is a really great movie.

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    Column Fri Mar 16 2012

    21 Jump Street, Casa de mi Padre, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, Footnote & Seeking Justice

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    21 Jump Street

    They deal with it right up front, the often annoying and unsatisfying manner in which Hollywood recycled old material (via remakes, TV adaptations or videogame-inspired films) and try to pass it off as something new. One of the most thoroughly entertaining surprises of the year so far is the way in which the makers of 21 Jump Street feels fresh by simply throwing out the formula of the TV show that launched the career of Johnny Depp in the late 1980s and turning it into the story of a high school outcast who gets a second chance at being cool and popular.

    The film opens with an encounter between a teenaged Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who also has a story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall and is executive producer on the film) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, also an exec producer). The shy Schmidt attempts to ask a pretty girl to prom, and she flatly rejects him much to the amusement of Jenko. The two aren't friends, but it's clear that Schmidt is extremely smart, while Jenko is popular but dumb. And there are moments where they wish they could switch places, as when Jenko doesn't get the grades he needs to even go to prom. Jump forward several years, when both men are in the police academy of their unnamed city. Schmidt can pass all the tests but he needs help with the physical training; Jenko is an ace at the training but continues to fail the exams. "Wanna be friends?" The problem is solved, and the two get each other through the academy and become best friends and partners.

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    Column Fri Mar 09 2012

    John Carter, Silent House, Friends with Kids, Being Flynn & Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

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    John Carter

    I'm not here to evaluate the place of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series in the history of science fiction or tell you about all of the other science fiction books and movies that "borrowed" from its storylines and characters. Nor am I here to speculate how much money it will make or talk about how poorly the marketing for the film may have been early on. I'm going to assume you all know that how much money a film makes is no measure of its quality. Because honestly, none of those things have anything to do with whether John Carter, the film, is any damn good. And all of those people who have written articles about how the film is going to bomb, or worse, people who actively wish John Carter (or any film for that matter) fails financially, those folks are the scum of the the universe I write about.

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    Column Sat Mar 03 2012

    The Lorax, Project X, Undefeated & Bullhead

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    Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

    As a very wise man who does a voice in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax said to me recently, "Who the fuck cares if the message of The Lorax is 'Take care of your environment.'?" Guess what? The book had the same message, and it wasn't even in 3-D. I think the worst thing I can say about this latest adaptation of the lovely book of Dr. Seuss is that it tries to hard to be all things to all people, especially if those people are children. So many filmmakers producing works for youngsters seem to think that they key to keeping kids' attention is dumbing down the work, and that simply isn't the case. But that's how The Lorax was constructed, and as a result we get bathroom humor, broadly drawn villains, and a grammy character voiced by Betty White.

    The Lorax isn't even the star of the film. That honor goes to a young man named Ted (Zac Efron), who is trying so hard to impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), that he escapes his nature-free community (everything seems to be made of plastic, and you have to buy clean air the same way we pay for water today) to find a real-life tree, which he's heard you can get from a character called the Once-ler (Ed Helms). The man in control of the plasticized town is O'Hare, a little man with the big voice of Rob Riggle, and for reasons that are a mystery, he uses all of his money and power to keep Ted from leaving the town or ever discovering a real tree.

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    Column Fri Feb 24 2012

    Wanderlust, Act of Valor, Hell and Back Again, Chico & Rita, Crazy Horse & Thin Ice

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    Wanderlust

    It's Oscar weekend, so I'm guessing that a lot of you are going to be filling these next couple of days trying to catch one or two of the nominees you may have missed, and that's a noble effort. But if you let this weekend pass without seeing the awfully funny new film from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models), you'd be making a horrible mistake. Wain once again teams up with his constant actor companion Paul Rudd and co-writer Ken Marino (who appears in the film as Rudd's piggish brother) to make Wanderlust, a movie that had me laughing throughout, sometimes convulsing into violent fits that resemble a seizure (yeah, I'm a lot of fun to sit next to in the theater).

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    Column Fri Feb 17 2012

    This Means War, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Secret World of Arrietty, Rampart & In Darkness

    This Means War

    Just in time to crap-up your Valentine's Day week, we have the latest shallow example of grown adults acting like special-needs children, This Means War, a romantic comedy set in the spy world that has as much to do with romance as a heart-shaped Peep and as much to do with the spy world as an episode of "Chuck." Actually, the "Chuck" comparison is appropriate since the movie is directed by the now-defunct show's executive producer McG (helmer of We Are Marshall, both Charlie's Angels films and Terminator Salvation).

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    Column Fri Feb 10 2012

    Safe House, The Vow, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island & Live Action & Animated Oscar Shorts

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    Safe House

    I've never had the pleasure of seeing any of Swedish-born director Daniel Espinosa's other films (he's only made three, all in his native country/tongue), but based on his approach to his first studio movie, Safe House, I have to imagine there are probably examples in his older works of his "more-is-more" style that nearly smothers what might have been a fairly interesting psychological action film. The idea of a rookie CIA safe house operative trying to protect a prisoner, while said prisoner is trying to get into the rookie's head and make him doubt his every decision and move is a cool one. But Espinosa's overdone atmosphere is at times so distracting that you forget to actually pay attention to what's being said. Add to that some ridiculous shaky-cam cinematography (thanks to Oliver Wood, who clearly never met a tripod that was good enough for him), and you get a film that feels like the actors are actually competing for attention with the director.

    The rookie CIA agent is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, stripped of most of his comic smarm, and that's a good thing for this role), stationed in South Africa for a year and wanting desperately to be reassigned to Paris, where his hot girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) is about to move. He's lobbying a higher-up fellow agent and friend David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) for a better job, but even he's not sure he can help Weston with his promotion.

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    Column Fri Feb 03 2012

    The Woman In Black, Chronicle, Coriolanus & The Innkeepers

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    The Woman In Black

    The thing that strikes you about the new Gothic ghost story The Woman In Black is how little talking there is. There are huge passages of this film that are completely dialogue free, and by committing to that filmmaking style, director James Watkins (maker of the little-known but well worth checking out Eden Lake) removes any distractions we might have from being as tense and scared as we possibly can. And believe me, you will spend a great deal of time being both while watching this one. Sure, Watkins throws in a few cheap thrills in the process (a bird flying out of a chimney springs to mind), but most of his scares are well-earned in this classic tale of vengeful spirits courtesy of the folks at the revitalized Hammer Film.

    A much older looking Daniel Radcliffe (well, he looks older than a wizard schoolboy now) plays Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer whose wife died during childbirth, and who has been thrust into single parenthood to raise his son. His work at his law firm has also suffered as a result of his grief, and when his superior sends him to a small village in the English countryside to settle the estate of a recently deceased woman, he makes it clear that if he screws things up, his days at the firm are through. One of the more interesting aspect of The Woman In Black is how shrouded in death everything is even before Arthur gets to the village, where it's very clear that he is not welcome and that his very presence seems to send the parents of the community into a frenzy of hiding their children. The open sequence of the film is of three little girls having a tea party, suddenly stopping their play, and jumping out a high window to their certain death. As a fellow Chicago critic pointed out to me, there is an awful lot of child death for a PG-13-rated movie. Whatever you do, don't let that rating fool you; it in no way reduced the number of truly terrifying moments.

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    Column Fri Jan 27 2012

    The Grey, Man on a Ledge, A Separation, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Albert Nobbs & Tomboy

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    The Grey

    The latest and greatest work from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces, The A-Team ) both is and isn't exactly what you think it is. Sure, it's a movie with a group of oil company grunts returning home from Alaska for the winter, and when their plane crashes in the wilderness they spend much of the film fending off a steady barrage of wolf attacks. But The Grey is so much more than that. It's really the story of men who need a life-or-death struggle such as this to remember that life is worth living, even if death is a certainty, either by the fangs of a wolf or the extreme and ruthless cold.

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    Column Fri Jan 20 2012

    Red Tails, Haywire, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Flowers of War, Pina 3D, Norwegian Wood & Mulberry Child

    Red Tails

    For those of you who have heard the stories of how much of Red Tails executive producer George Lucas may or may not have directed/re-shot personally, try to put such thoughts out of your head as you attempt to watch this story of the first-ever squadron of African-American pilots to fly in combat. It's better if you hate this film on its own merits rather than because Lucas may have pushed aside credited director Anthony Hemingway and put his hands all over this worthy story, turning it into a horribly written, trite adventure film that cares more about aerial battles than it does about telling the glorious but often heartbreaking account of the segregated Tuskegee airmen of World War II.

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    Column Fri Jan 13 2012

    Contraband, The Iron Lady, Carnage, Beauty and the Beast 3D, Newlyweds & Charlotte Rampling: The Look

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    Contraband

    In his first film since The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg returns to the action genre with Contraband, in which he plays Chris Farraday, a one-time smuggler living in New Orleans with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids who is now attempting to play it straight as the head of his own security company. When his dumb-ass brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones, who played Banshee in X-Men: First Class) decides to try a bit of smuggling himself on the high seas, he is forced to dump his cargo when customs officials raid his boat. He doesn't get caught, but he is suddenly several hundred thousand dollars in debt to drug dealer Tim (Giovanni Ribisi, again trying on a new squeaky voice and accent). Andy turns to Chris for help, forcing Chris to return to the life he swore he'd leave behind.

    With the help of his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris selects a group of men to play crew on a cargo ship bound for Panama where he will pick up a massive shipment of counterfeit money (for some reason, Chris refuses to smuggle drugs, despite the much higher profit margin), right under the nose of the suspicious ship's captain, played by J.K. Simmons, who knew Chris's father as a low-down smuggler himself years ago. While Chris is making his treacherous journey, Tim is back in New Orleans making not-so-veiled threats against Kate and the kids, who are under the protection of Sebastian.

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    Column Fri Jan 06 2012

    In the Land of Blood and Honey, Pariah, Outrage, The Conquest & The Love We Make

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    In the Land of Blood and Honey

    I'll say one thing for Angelina Jolie, when she selected the subject of her writing-directing debut, she didn't pull any punches in selecting the unspeakably brutal subject of the Bosnian War of the 1990s, which forever changed the face of the Balkan region, due in large part to rape being used by the Bosnian Serb Army as a weapon of female submission. Say what you will about the depiction of rape in any film, but Jolie does not flinch when it comes to not only showing it but also to making it painfully clear that any time a man and a woman are in the same room together at any point in this film, the threat of rape is in the room with them. It makes for a sickening but highly effective film-watching experience.

    In the Land of Blood and Honey actually begins as a story of new love in pre-war Bosnia, in this case between Serb Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a beautiful Muslim artist, who meet in a club which is subsequently bombed while their seduction is in full swing. Months later, after the ethnic conflict has begun, they meet again after Ajla is rounded up with other women and held captive, essentially as sex slaves for the Serbian soldiers. When Danijel spots her, he immediately lets it be known that she belongs to him. He is the commanding officer and the son of an important general (Rade Serbedszija), so his underlings obey him assuming he wants to only have sex with her. In fact, he protects her, they talk, and he allows her to draw and paint in private. Because of who he is, she is extremely distrustful of him, but eventually she breaks down, and the two have something approximating a relationship, albeit a secret one.

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    Column Fri Dec 30 2011

    Best and Worst Films of 2011

    Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgAccording to my albeit unscientific calculations, I watched right around 400 new movies in 2011 (with a smattering of vintage films thrown in, but only if I saw them on the big screen), either in the theater or as a screener. Dear lord, what is wrong with me? Actually, nothing, since I'm simply doing the two-fold job that was given to me: to point you, the reader, in the direction of worthy films, and steer you clear of the crap ‐ not always an easy task since people seem to flock to the crap at an alarming rate regardless of the countless warnings from me and others.

    But in 2011, guiding folks into theaters playing damn fine films seemed like an easier job than it has been in recent years. I wasn't always pointing you in the direction of a multiplex, but there was never a time when someone would ask me what's worth plunking down money to see at any given point during the year that I couldn't point them to at least half-a-dozen great films, many of which were made for very little money. If you had given me a list at the beginning of 2011 of all the films that I would see in the coming year, I doubt if many, if any, of the below titles would been have predictable as my year-end favorites. I love when that happens.

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    Column Fri Dec 23 2011

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, We Bought A Zoo, The Artist & Miss Minoes

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    There was a time when it would have seemed absurd that a two-year-old Swedish film was getting an American remake simply because the perception was that hardly anyone in America actually saw the version with those pesky subtitles. But let us not forget that it was only last year when Let Me In was released only two years after the Swedish Let the Right One In freaked many of us out in new and exquisite ways. Some, including myself, saw the remake as a slightly better version of the film because the story was better told, while the atmosphere was left largely intact. Enjoying a remake takes nothing away from the original film or the source material. That's an important thing to remember.

    So here we are, a year later, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film that most Americans didn't see until 2010, has been remade by no one less than David Fincher, the recent Oscar nominated director of last year's The Social Network. Without making any radical adjustments from director Niels Arden Oplev's original film or, from what I'm told by those who have read it, from the book by Stieg Larsson, adapted here by the great Steven Zaillian, Fincher has managed to create a largely faithful, dense mystery peppered with wonderfully realized characters (in most cases) and location shooting in wind-swept Sweden that will have your reaching for your scarf and wool cap for fear of frostbite.

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    Column Fri Dec 16 2011

    Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy & A Dangerous Method

    Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

    Before my review begins, it should be noted that this film technically opens today only in certain IMAX theaters across the country. Certain portions of the film were actually shot in IMAX, so this isn't one of those fake IMAX situations. In those theaters before the film, audience members will be treated to the first few minutes of The Dark Knight Rises. The official, non-IMAX release of Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol is next Wednesday, Dec. 21. Got it? Good.

    By maintaining a fairly streamlined story, some incredible stunts and effects sequences, and having the most colorful and interesting team of any of the previous Mission: Impossible films, Ghost Protocol (the franchise's fourth installment) is at least as strong as the much-revered first M:I film, and I think better. Continuing the tradition of having a different director for each chapter of this Tom Cruise-starring vehicle, Ghost Protocol has enlisted the exceedingly capable Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant) to direct his first live-action movie. Bird has this crazy reputation of caring about fleshing out the characters he's put in charge of, and it's nice to see an emphasis placed on developing the team members as people and not just action props.

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    Column Fri Dec 09 2011

    Young Adult, The Sitter, New Year's Eve, Young Goethe In Love & Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

    Young Adult

    For many, Young Adult is going to be an exercise in defying expectations. You'd be surprised how many people like or dislike a film based on their preconceived ideas of what it is they're walking into, based on such things as trailers, word of mouth, reviews, etc. If a movie isn't "what they expected," they somehow think that's the basis for judging its worth. And often they punish a film in their minds because it didn't live up to some internal standard that has little to do with its actual entertainment value. Here's an idea: walk into a movie with zero expectations; walk in open minded, able to let the film wash over you and, dare I say, surprise you in the process. It's a great thing, trust me.

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    Column Fri Dec 02 2011

    Shame, Tyrannosaur, America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments & Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

    There isn't a whole lot opening this week, but a lot of what is opening is pretty good stuff. However, I did want to direct your attention to a particularly fun event happening at the famed Music Box Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 2pm. Camp Midnight presents "A Very Carrie Christmas," hosted by the always-entertaining Dick O'Day (the alias for film critic Richard Knight, Jr.), who will screen and provide commentary for Brian De Palma's great 1976 horror classic Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King.

    All of the campy details about the day's activities and details about buying advance tickets can be found on the Music Box's website, but the one reason you absolutely must show up is the special appearance of Carrie's mother, Margaret White herself, Piper Laurie, who will take part in a Q&A and who knows what else. There will also be a costume parade, sing-a-long, photos with "Margaret" and "Carrie," and the whole shameless event should be a ton of fun. If I weren't out of town this weekend, you couldn't keep me away. Now, on to more serious business...

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    Column Wed Nov 23 2011

    The Muppets, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey & The Last Rites of Joe May

    The Muppets

    At this point, another review of The Muppets seems superfluous, but hell, the movie is so damn good, it can't really hurt. I'll admit, I held my breath when I saw the "Smalltown, USA" sign, marking the community where Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Stoller) and his pal Walter (the film's new Muppet character) grew up together as huge fans of the Muppet TV show. That little detail seemed a little too quaint, but it took about five minutes and one catchy tune to win me over. Segel and Stoller are such devoted fans that they know what about the Muppets is sacred ground and what they can play and tinker with a little bit.

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    Column Fri Nov 18 2011

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, The Descendants & Happy Feet Two

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1

    How does one even begin to discuss any of the Twilight films without sounding like an outsider looking in? Up until the latest installment, the first of the two-part conclusion of Breaking Dawn, I'd seen these films getting slightly better with each new film. Part of the reason for this was that the choice of directors was improving with each new movie, and I thought that would be the case when I heard Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters; Dreamgirls) was on board for the climax of this story of young love, supernatural creatures, and shirtless men. But Breaking Dawn, perhaps in an effort to drag this story out to roughly four hours across two films, feels like its moving in slow motion.

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    Column Fri Nov 11 2011

    J. Edgar, Jack and Jill, Melancholia, Into the Abyss, The Women on the 6th Floor & Revenge of the Electric Car

    J. Edgar

    I don't tend to let things like bad old-man makeup change my opinion of a film, or even distract me, so I'm not going to harp on the absolutely terrible job done on aging Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. A great performance — and both men give truly great ones here — tops waxy-looking skin and a healthy smattering of fake liver spots every time. And that's the last we'll speak of that. If you find J. Edgar difficult to engage with it will be because the script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk and several episodes of HBO's "Big Love") is spotty. You can spot the shortcuts and the moments where single sentences are meant to sum up a character's motivations or the movie's themes a little too just so.

    But then there are other moments in the screenplay that are undeniably poignant. When Black is focusing on material having to do with Hoover changing the face and prominence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during his nearly 50-year reign as its chief, the film is informative but not especially elevated. However, when the script puts a microscope on Hoover's relationship with other people — his domineering mother Annie (Judi Dench), faithful secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) or longtime companion and number-two man at the bureau Clyde Tolson (Hammer) — J. Edgar is close to extraordinary.

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    Column Fri Nov 04 2011

    Tower Heist, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Like Crazy, Le Havre, The Double & Urbanized

    Tower Heist

    I'll admit, there was a part of me that thought the latest from director Brett Ratner might actually have something to it, even if that something was Eddie Murphy's somewhat return to comedic form. But saddled with a PG-13 rating (in a role that is screaming to be set free by an R), a producer credit, and surprisingly little screen time, Murphy is at best slightly funnier than we've seen him in many years. All we actually get is Murphy yelling a whole lot and acting tough in a story that treats his character as something served on the side, rather than the main course.

    Tower Heist seems like a fairly timely endeavor. The staff of a luxury Manhattan apartment building is swindled by one of the building's residents, a Wall Street tycoon played by Alan Alda, who is arrested by the FBI and held under house arrest while he awaits a court date. Initially, it appears Alda is friendly with the staff, led by building manager Josh (Ben Stiller), but when their entire pension fund vanishes, the staff turns against Alda.

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    Column Fri Oct 28 2011

    In Time, The Rum Diary, Puss in Boots, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Anonymous & Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

    In Time

    In a strange and utterly coincidental way, the new film by writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War, and writer of The Truman Show and The Terminal) is one of the most relevant films in theaters right now — a time when protestors are gathering in the streets of many major cities around the U.S. talking about the nation's wealth being the hands of a very few. In Time is about just that subject, only the currency in Niccol's version of the not-to-distant future is not money but minutes.

    The plot centers on a future where all humans stop aging at 25, but once they hit that age, a clock in their forearm is activated that goes for exactly one year. People can use time to buy goods, gamble, bribe; others simply take it from you, especially if you live in a "time zone" that looks a lot like a ghetto. Justin Timberlake plays Will, who is given more than a century's worth of time by a man about to commit suicide, which makes him a target in his neighborhood of both local thugs (called Minute Men, led by Alex Pettyfer) who simply take your time, and Time Keepers (led by a 50-year veteran of the practice played by Cillian Murphy), who are more like police and keep the time poor separate from the time rich.

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    Column Fri Oct 14 2011

    47th Chicago International Film Festival, The Thing, Footloose, The Big Year, Trespass, Fireflies in the Garden, The Black Power Mixtape & Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure

    47th Chicago International Film Festival

    The best film you will likely see at this years Chicago Film Festival is the final one, the closing night presentation: The Artist, a beautiful black-and-white, largely silent (as in dialogue-free) offering from France starring one of that nation's biggest stars, Jean Dujardin (the lead in the wildly successful OSS 117 franchise, which, like The Artist, are directed by Michel Hazanavicius). What's especially fun about this movie is that it's actually about the last hurrah of silent films in America (the film features a handful of American actors) and concerns a world-famous actor who meets a pretty extra on one of his film sets, and as his star descends, hers begins to rise. This is a movie about loving movies -- it celebrates the art form in ways I've never seen, and it's easily one of the best things you'll see all year.

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    Column Fri Oct 07 2011

    Chicago International Film Festival previews, The Ides of March, Real Steel, Puncture, The Way, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil & The Human Centipede 2

    47th Chicago International Film Festival

    The time is upon those of us in Chicago once again, when cinephiles are forced out of their dark hovels to wander into equally dark theaters to check out the latest films from around the world. This year's CIFF offerings feature one of the greatest varieties of titles and types of films I can recall in recent years, and most of what I've seen so far is good stuff. Please allow me to point you in the direction of a few titles that might be worth sampling in its first week. All films take place at the AMC River East 21; check the CIFF website for exact times.

    By this point, you've already missed CIFF's Opening Night film, the locally produced The Last Rites of Joe May, a slight indie production from Steppenwolf Films, featuring a solid, low-key performance by Dennis Farina. I believe the movie opens in November locally, so I'll give you my full review then. The festival's Centerpiece selection is the lovely, funny and charming My Week with Marilyn, based on the book by the man who served as Lawrence Olivier's assistant during the production of Olivier's movie with Monroe, The Princess and the Showgirl. Michelle Williams plays Monroe as a woman lacking any kind of confidence in her acting, while Kenneth Branagh does an uncanny Olivier. Oscar nominations will be forthcoming on this one for sure.

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    Column Fri Sep 30 2011

    50/50, Machine Gun Preacher, What's Your Number?, My Afternoons with Margueritte & Pearl Jam Twenty

    50/50

    One of the oldest cliches in film criticism is the classic adage "You'll laugh, you'll cry." I'm pretty certain I've never used that expression in my career... until now, because there is truly no better way to describe the cancer comedy 50/50, based on small doses of the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, a TV writer and producer who was diagnosed with cancer when he was still in his 20s, and also happened to be good friends with Seth Rogen, who co-stars in the film as the lead character's best friend. What are the odds?

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    Column Fri Sep 23 2011

    Moneyball, Killer Elite, Restless, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame & Dolphin Tale

    Moneyball

    Perhaps more than any other sport in existence, baseball is the one Americans love to romanticize in film, and hours have been spent analyzing why, so I won't add to the discussion except to say that I think it has something to do with the pace of play. There's a lot of time to think both on the field and in the stands, and with that extra time habits are born, superstitions are invented, and rituals take shape. And although I wouldn't call myself a baseball fan, it is the sport that I attend more than any other in a given year — more a product of living 10 minutes (on foot) from Wrigley Field, one of the oldest ballparks in existence.

    And because fans are as attached as players to the ritualistic and meditative ways of baseball, as well as the utterly bizarre methods by which scouts seek out new blood for their teams with a formula of accomplishments and "intangibles" (as they are called in this film), I can clearly understand why anyone coming into the sport with a computer and absolutely no regard for how much personality a player might have could be deemed a threat to everything the game is about. And that's exactly how Oakland A's general manager Bill Beane was perceived when he brought in experts on Sabermetrics to rebuild his team from the ground up.

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    Column Fri Sep 16 2011

    Drive, Straw Dogs, I Don't Know How She Does It, The Lion King 3D, Amigo & Where Soldiers Come From

    Drive

    I've now seen Drive, the latest movie from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, twice, and both times I loved it equally for different reasons. The first time was back in July, and I got into the film's retro, Michael Mann-ish qualities -- colors and light that popped off the screen, the almost pornographic way that Refn lets the camera glide over the curves of the vintage cars that populate the movie, and the sleazy electronic score and songs (usually with a female singer) that is draped across every scene. I fell in love with the vibe of the film before the plot even kicked in.

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    Column Fri Sep 09 2011

    Warrior, Contagion, The Hedgehog & Circumstance

    Warrior

    Although this tale of two brothers that both fight in the same Mixed Martial Arts tournament contains many familiar moments and emotions featured in other sports films (including Miracle, which director Gavin O'Connor also helmed), I think I'm safe in saying that you have never seen a film quite like Warrior, a work that represents powerful, brutal, thunderous, intimate filmmaking at its very best. This is due to two of the most sweat-and-blood masculine performances I've seen since Stallone first entered the ring as Rocky and changed the world.

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    Column Fri Sep 02 2011

    A Good Old Fashioned Orgy; The Debt; Life, Above All; Seven Days In Utopia; 5 Days of War; Higher Ground; Rapt & Chasing Madoff

    A Good Old Fashioned Orgy

    Oh sure, Mr. Studio Man. Hide things I actually want to see, like Shark Night 3D and Apollo 18, from my prying eyes, but allow to to ingest garbage like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy from first time feature writer-directors Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck. This long-on-the-shelf comedy starring a bunch of TV actors (I guess Jason Sudeikis could be considered a movie actor now, but not when he made this originally) playing vapid characters whose only point of intersect are blow-out parties thrown every few months at the Hamptons summer home of the dad of Eric (Sudeikis, with dad played by Don Johnson). Seriously, these idiots don't talk about anything but the next party, and who they're banging or not banging.

    When Dad announces that he's selling the house, Eric and best buddy McCrudden (Tyler Labine) decide that instead of their typical themed parties with hundreds of guests, they would have an intimate gathering of their closest few friends to have an orgy. Some of these friends, whom they've known since high school, are in relationships but most aren't, so eventually the idea gets a little heat behind it, and everyone is game. Big shocker, since, you know, it's right there in the title.

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    Column Fri Aug 26 2011

    Our Idiot Brother, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness & Phunny Business

    Our Idiot Brother

    I know a lot of people like to begin their assessments of certain films by saying "If you don't love this movie, you have no soul," or "...there's something damaged inside of you," or "...I can't be friends with you anymore." You get the drift. And although the new film from director Jesse Peretz, Our Idiot Brother, is far from the best film or even the best comedy of the year so far, it's so inherently likable that to not allow yourself to be charmed is actually a criminal act. The film also provides us with one of the best examples of how once tight-knit families become dysfunctional and then rally in times of crisis.

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    Column Fri Aug 19 2011

    Fright Night, Conan the Barbarian, One Day, Viva Riva! & Senna

    Fright Night

    Here's a newsflash that some of you might not agree with. Some remakes are actually alright. Yes, most of them are made because a familiar title tends to bring in more box office dollars than an unfamiliar one, but every so often the right team of people get together and give enough of a shit about a story and its characters to make something old feel fresh. Welcome to Fright Night, one of the better examples of a horror remake I've seen in quite some time. The original story by Tom Holland (and updated by the great Marti Noxon) about a teenager and a late-night television horror movie host going up against a vampire or two to save a small town still has a bit of fun left in it and some neat new ideas.

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    Column Fri Aug 12 2011

    30 Minutes Or Less, The Help, The Whistleblower, The Interrupters, Final Destination 5, Point Blank & Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

    Hey everyone. A busy week and some much-needed prep time for this weekend's big Flashback Weekend Horror Convention out in Rosemont, which I emcee, haven't given me much time to get my column together this weekend, so I've had to do something I haven't done in years -- a roundup of films coming out this week. Two or three (maybe more) paragraphs on each film, and hopefully that'll do the trick. Lots of good stuff this week, so pay attention...

    30 Minutes or Less

    This is a funny fucking movie and one that flies in the face of polite society in all the right ways by giving us four main characters who are largely difficult to like, which of course made me like them even more. Jesse Eisenberg is stoner-slacker pizza delivery guy Nick, who is best friends with Dwayne (Aziz Ansari), a school teacher who really hates kids. On the other side of town, low-life thugs played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson devise a plan to hire a hitman to kill McBride's overbearing father (Fred Ward) and inherit a tidy sum of money so he can build his dream business -- a tanning salon/brothel. To make this happen, they kidnap Nick, strap a very real bomb to his chest, and force him to rob a bank to get the money.

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    Column Fri Aug 05 2011

    Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Change-Up, The Future & The Devil's Double

    Rise of the Planet of the Apes

    While the month of August has traditionally been a dumping ground as far as summer movies are concerned, a look at the offerings being released in the next four weeks provide some hope the coming weeks will have its fair share of highlights. I'm not allowed to say anything specific just yet, but I will advise you to keep a look out for films like 30 Minutes or Less, Fright Night, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Our Idiot Brother to name a few. I'm just saying.

    But I'll be goddamned if I didn't walk out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes absolutely stunned at how exactly right the filmmakers nailed this one. Finding ways to both give nods to and integrate with the mythology of the other Planet of the Apes movies (thanks to a smart script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver), this new tale takes us back to the beginning of the cycle in what I can only describe as one of the best "setting-the-stage" prequels I've ever seen, thanks in large part to director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) and another mind-bending motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

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    Column Fri Jul 29 2011

    Cowboys & Aliens, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Attack the Block, Another Earth & The Smurfs

    Cowboys & Aliens

    I've never opened a review like this, but for some reason I feel compelled to do so for director Jon Favreau's latest action opus. Somewhere around the halfway mark of Cowboys & Aliens, the gun-slinging female lead Ella (Olivia Wilde, maximizing her exotic beauty by minimizing the glam qualities of her hair, makeup, and costume) is literally lassoed off her horse by a flying alien. Riding next to her is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), aka The Man with No Past (at least temporarily), who immediately sets out to rescue her by chasing down the low-flying alien craft and leaping from his horse onto the top of said ship. After much struggle and attempts by the craft to shake its unwanted passenger, the ship crashes in the desert and Ella and Jake go tumbling across the sand, bruised and battered, but still alive.

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    Column Fri Jul 15 2011

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Winnie the Pooh, Tabloid, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest & Public Speaking

    As a lover of film, I've really enjoyed watching the parade of great British actors come in and out of Harry's work as various professors or bad guys or parents of Harry's classmates. It seems like nearly everyone of them makes an appearance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, whether their characters are dead or alive, but I didn't really care because I love seeing them. Although I will admit it's bizarre spotting a fleeting glimpse of Emma Thompson's Prof. Sybil Trelawney in one sequence in this film and realize she never utters a word. And she's not the only prominent actor whose appearance here is reduced to a single line or no lines at all.

    There's no real need to recap the plot of Deathly Hallows, Part 2. If you saw the last film, it's more of the same. Harry, Hermione and Ron are still chasing down the remaining Horcruxes. Lord Voldemort (the fantastic Ralph Fiennes) launches an assault on Hogwarts that results in some phenomenal destruction. And secrets involving Harry, the late Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, seen a great deal in flashback here), Prof. Snape (possibly my favorite Potter-verse character, played by Alan Rickman), and many others are revealed. The amount of pure information unleashed on the audience in this two-hour-plus film is exhausting, and while I'm sure it will please the fans of the books, as a means of moving the story forward, it feels like maybe the filmmakers are pushing too hard. The film's most emotionally devastating moments are slower, quiet events, in particular, the absolutely perfect epilogue set many years after the end of the great war between Potter and Voldemort.

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    Column Fri Jul 08 2011

    Horrible Bosses, A Better Life & Zookeeper

    Horrible Bosses

    There's no denying that this has been a good summer for original R-rated comedies. (I use the caveat "original" to eliminate The Hangover, Part II from the discussion.) Bridesmaids set the bar early, Bad Teacher is unexpectedly strong thanks to a throwing-caution-to-the-wind performance by Cameron Diaz, and the upcoming 30 Minutes or Less, well, let's just say it fits right in with my thesis. And this week, we have the another strong entry, Horrible Bosses, about three slightly dopey friends who decide that each of their bosses needs to die, so they decide to get one of the other guys to do it.

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    Column Fri Jul 01 2011

    Transformers: Dark of the Moon & Page One: Inside the New York Times

    Hey everyone. Due to my wacky travel schedule this week, I missed the only press screening of Larry Crowne, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, in a week that's already pretty skimpy for new releases. But really, there's only one movie opening this week that truly matters...

    Transformers: Dark of the Moon

    All I wanted to do when I left the theater the first time I saw Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third and easily best of the Michael Bay-directed franchise, was gaze upon my beautiful city, just to make sure it was still in one piece. The first time I saw this film about a month ago, it was not in 3D, but I have since seen it in 3D, and it is quite simply the best 3D experience I've had in a theater possibly (probably) in my life.

    Let me say two quick things before I dive into this review. The first is that, as a kid growing up, I could not have cared less about Transformers — the toys, TV show or animated movie. When it was first announced that a live-action Transformers movie was being made, directed by Bay, I couldn't have cared less, not because I didn't dig Bay's work but because I simply didn't care about the subject matter. Second, and perhaps more directly relevant to this discussion, the only nightmares I remember having as a child (we're talking Reagan-era 1980s) involved the destruction of the city I was living in at the time, Washington, DC. I didn't know how many nuclear missiles the Russians had, but I knew damn well that a whole bunch of them were pointed at the nation's capital. Seeing War Games for the first time as a teen did not do me a bit of good.

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    Column Fri Jun 24 2011

    Cars 2, Bad Teacher, Conan O'Brien Can't Be Stopped, Buck, Troll Hunter & Rejoice and Shout

    Cars 2

    I've long believed that Cars has long been held as the weakest of the Pixar offerings because it has the broadest appeal and seems more squarely aimed at younger viewers than any of the other works. Beyond that, it's also the one that seems the most "red state," featuring an abundance of racing and core messages about homespun values as seen from the vantage point of Smalltown USA. Those of us who adore what Pixar does in terms of innovation and not always casting the most obvious voice talent for its movies seemed to flat out reject the presence of Larry the Cable Guy's tow truck character Mater, perhaps the broadest stroke in the Pixar character army.

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    Column Fri Jun 17 2011

    Green Lantern, Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Trip, Just Like Us & Le Quattro Volte

    Green Lantern

    If there was even an outside chance of you caring about this movie based on your already established love of the comic book source material or even just the progressively more interesting trailers that have been released over the last few months, then you've already likely read a half-dozen or more reviews of this film that have warned you to stay far, far away from Green Lantern. And I'm afraid my review isn't going to stray far from that line of thinking either, so I'm going to keep this short and sweet.

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    Column Fri Jun 10 2011

    Super 8, Submarine, Beautiful Boy, Beginners, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer & The Big Uneasy

    Super 8

    It took me awhile to realize what the J.J. Abrams written and directed work Super 8 actually was, and once I settled into that notion, the world got a whole lot better. More Stand By Me than Close Encounters or E.T., Super 8 is one of the truest, purest examples in recent memory of a movie that reminded me of friends gone by, the fun that being a kid used to be, and the way movies energized our spirit of adventure to make our own sci-fi short films that borrowed from Star Wars, as well as episodes of "Star Trek" and "Buck Rodgers." If you ever walked out of a Steven Spielberg (a producer on this movie) film wanting to find out more about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life — or wanting to just kick ass after walking out of an Indiana Jones movie — you will absolutely respond to Super 8.

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    Column Fri Jun 03 2011

    X-Men: First Class & The Tree of Life

    X-Men: First Class

    I did not see this one coming, and I'm not sure why. To varying degrees, I like all of director Matthew Vaughn's work (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass), but the X-Men franchise just kept getting more and more scattered after Bryan Singer's second film to the point where it seemed impossible to get this right with an almost-entirely new team in front of and behind the cameras. But as the cast came together, I became more and more hopeful. Mixed in with a few lesser-known young actors are a handful of genuinely fine performers who elevate this material to such a degree that the final product ranks among the best that Marvel Studios has put together in its existence. And by setting the film mostly in the 1960s (during the Kennedy years), it opens up the possibility for future X-Men films that could be set pretty much in any decade that seems appropriate.

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    Column Fri May 27 2011

    The Hangover Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, Midnight In Paris & 13 Assassins

    The Hangover Part II

    I was talking to (IM'ing, actually) Ain't It Cool's Harry Knowles shortly after we both saw press screenings of The Hangover Part II in our respective cities, and I told him I liked the current film about 50 percent less than the first, but upon reflection I realized that's not entirely true. Fifty percent, to me, is a failing grade, and this sequel doesn't outright fail. It still has its outrageous and funny moments, but I was surprised how much of the performances by the film's three leads (Bradley Cooper as Phil, Ed Helms as Stu, and the extra-giggly Zach Galifianakis as Alan) is reduced to pure reaction to other people and events who are typically far funnier than they are in this movie. The most common lines of dialogue include "Oh my god!" "Holy shit!" and the ever-reliable "Fuck!" That's not exactly ground-breaking comedy, folks.

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    Column Fri May 20 2011

    Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The First Grader & Bill Cunningham New York

    Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

    I own a thesaurus too, my fellow critics; and I know how to use it. But I'm going to leave it on the shelf for my review of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment for the simple reason that if I actually make the effort to walk the 30-or-so feet from my office to the bookshelf where my thesaurus sits, I will officially have expended more energy on that task than most people involved in the making of On Stranger Tides did making this movie. I can't remember the last time so many hundreds of people worked so hard on a movie for such mediocre results. It's as if the goal was to be stupendously average. While I am not using my thesaurus for this review, I am selecting my words carefully. On Stranger Tides is average beyond compare. It is not horrible, gut-wrenching, painful, god-awful or a plague upon humanity. It is simply a textbook example of putting in the maximum effort for the absolute minimum in entertainment.

    I'm going to repeat a statement I made about a year ago regarding 3D, converted or otherwise. The greatest, universal issue I (and millions of others) have with 3D is that it makes the world (and the movie) a darker place, literally. It kills a hefty percentage of the light reaching your eyes. So, if you are going to set 75 percent of your film in relative darkness (I'm talking to you, Priest), 3D is virtually useless. With On Stranger Tides, which was shot in 3D, the sequences set during daylight hours or just well lit look stupendous. But much of the film takes place in reduced lighting situations, and the result is, well, shite. I'm not here to debate the merits of 3D, just to say that if you studios are going to continue giving us 3D movies, at least give us something to look at. End sidebar.

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    Column Fri May 13 2011

    Bridesmaids, Hesher, Meek's Cutoff, Everything Must Go & The Double Hour

    Bridesmaids

    I don't think any number of great reviews you might read for Bridesmaids can prepare you for just how strong a film it is. Now you notice, I don't say how funny the film is; I'm saying how strong. That's intentional. The movie is without a doubt funnier than anything I've seen in quite some time (it's from the R-rated House of Apatow, so that's not surprising), but the reason Bridesmaids works goes far beyond the laughs. And you figure that out almost right out of the gate.

    The second scene in the movie is between stars Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo) and SNL alum Maya Rudolph, playing lifelong friends Annie and Lillian. The pair do nothing more than have one of the funniest conversations I've ever heard between two people on film, and nothing about the moment feels scripted or forced. In every sense of the word, these are two old friends playing off each other about relationships, the future and life's little disappointments. There are actually many scenes like this in Bridesmaids, moments that actually bother to give us two or three minutes of time where the emphasis isn't about moving the plot forward. Instead, the filmmakers want us to learn something about the characters, get a peek inside their minds and hearts, and actually care about what happens to them. There are no villains here, and despite all of the silliness that transpires, this is a movie whose characters and situations you truly care about.

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    Column Fri May 06 2011

    Thor, The Beaver, Jumping the Broom, Something Borrowed, Nuremberg: The Lesson for Today & Mother's Day

    Thor

    I firmly believe that the key to any good movie based on popular source material — whether it be a comic book, a best-selling novel, a well-regarded play, etc. — is that the film adaptation appeals beyond those who are fans of the original material to begin with. I shouldn't have to be a fan of the Thor comic books, or even the Marvel Universe, to like the movie version of Thor. I may get more of a charge watching the characters from the Thor comics come to life if I were a fan going in, but I should get a pretty substantial jolt just seeing the imaginary realm of Asgard for the first time, or the incredible costumes, or The Destroyer, whether I've heard of these characters or not.

    I'll admit, I'm kind of tired of positive reviews for Thor that incorporate the notion that "it's not a perfect film, but..." or "it's got problems, but..." Guess what, people? No movie is perfect and every movie has problems. Those are wasted words. The truth of the matter is that Thor is the best comic book movie since Iron Man, and in some ways, it even surpasses that movie. The primary reason for its excellence is two-fold. Kenneth Branagh's direction is exactly what Asgard needs. After decades of directing films based on Shakespeare's works, he knows how to direct pomposity and make it sound cool. More than half the movie is set in a realm where everyone is a god, or thinks they're a god, and Branagh is gifted at taking dialogue that is meant to be heard in the furthest reaches of any size room and unstuff its hot air.

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    Film Fri Apr 29 2011

    Fast Five, Stake Land, Queen of the Sun, Henry's Crime & American: The Bill Hicks Story

    Fast Five

    The franchise that was born with The Fast and the Furious was never one that I've waited with baited breath for new installments of since it began 10 years ago. But I will admit that, although I know nothing about cars, this variety of car porn has always made my heart race, especially when those muscle cars are standing still and feature sexy ladies draped over them (and all five of the films in this series have managed to include such scenes as reliably as they have included car chases/races). These movies were never about character, story, strong performances, or even humor (yes, even the dumb jokes are underwritten). All of that being said, there is something about these big, dopey, clunky, loud films that is seriously appealing, and Fast Five, a film that finally gets the formula more or less down, is the best of the bunch.

    The way you break down this or any of the FFF (Fast/Furious Films) is simple: there's either something going on or there is not. And usually when there is not, the movie slams on the brakes. Banter is attempted and almost always fails to be witty. So, really all there is for us to do is listen to the exposition and/or stare at either biceps or boobs, both struggling to break free of their unnaturally tight clothes. With Fast Five, there's one more thing to do: enjoy the parade of characters returning from one or more of the previous four films. The core characters--Vin Diesel as master thief and driver Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and the former police officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker)--are all back again. The film opens with O'Conner and Mia leading a small team to help Dominic escape from a prison transport vehicle. It's a pretty splashy action sequence, and director Justin Lin (who has helmed this series since the third installment, Tokyo Drift) wisely ramps up each new chase with just a little more speed, destruction, noise, and general excitement.

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    Column Fri Apr 22 2011

    Water for Elephants, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold & The Bang Bang Club

    Water for Elephants

    I'm not even sure where to begin with this one. I know a weirdly disproportionate number of people who not only have read the Sara Gruen novel upon which this films is based, but also loved it. In watch the film, I can almost see moments where having insight into various characters' thoughts and emotions would make the material quite good. But as adapted by the usually more reliable screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), this version of Water for Elephants is a surface-level melodrama that never allowed me access into the hearts and minds of its subjects. Feelings don't seem to exist in this movie unless they're actually spoken aloud, and I finally realized that it's because Robert Pattinson simply isn't a strong enough actor to carry this material.

    I don't mean to dump on the guy who has pretty much been the butt of all jokes since he starred in the first Twilight movie, but Pattinson's entire method of expressing any level or type of emotion is putting on an angsty face. At least I think that's what it is. He may just be constipated. But that only explains Pattinson's part in this debacle. There are some good actors in this thing too, and they have fewer excuses beyond the writing. I tend to enjoy the works of Reese Witherspoon, but she's practically a background player in Water for Elephants as Marlena, a circus performer married to the ringmaster and head of the operation, August (Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz). Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student at Cornell who is pulled out of his final exam with news that his father has died and left him nothing. Rather than return to school, Jacob chooses the life of a hobo and hops a train that just happens to belong to the circus.

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    Column Fri Apr 15 2011

    Scream 4, Rio, In A Better World & The Conspirator

    Scream 4

    In many ways, Scream 4 (or Scre4m, which I refuse to call it) feels like an act of wild desperation, which is not necessarily the same thing as being a terrible movie, but it's certainly not a great movie either. And while it's mildly fun to see the primaries from the original three films return to play victim and sleuth, the movie spends so much time winking at its audience and tossing what feels like dozens of new characters at us that I found myself exhausted by the end and really not giving a shit who the killer was or even who was dead or alive when the final body count was tallied.

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    Column Fri Apr 08 2011

    Your Highness, Arthur & Super

    Your Highness

    I'll admit, I was stunned at my reaction to David Gordon Green's latest comedy (following Pineapple Express) Your Highness, because every fiber of my being told me going in that I was going to really like this movie. And then in scene after scene, I found myself searching high and low (questing, if you will) for laughs. In my humble opinion, Green hasn't made anything but great movies, beginning with 2000's George Washington and continuing on through All the Pretty Girls (which co-stars Your Highness actors Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel), Undertow, Snow Angels (perhaps my personal favorite), and a half-dozen episodes of the fantastic HBO series "Eastbound and Down."

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    Column Fri Apr 01 2011

    Source Code, Insidious, Hop, Trust & The Music Never Stopped

    Source Code

    Simply put, director Duncan (Moon) Jones' latest dip into the science-fiction pool succeeds because it doesn't rely on a single trick or reveal to give it strength. Instead, it relies on great acting, a carefully plotting story and some adventurous directing to propel it through one of the most ambitious stories since Inception, although the two films share almost nothing in common besides a marketing campaign.

    I think the less you know about Source Code, the better, but I'm going to tell you as much as I can without giving away too much. Pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train, which isn't so bad except that the last thing he remembers is crashing his plane in Afghanistan. In the eight minutes that follow, he discovers that he's on a commuter train heading into Chicago, and that he's inside the body of a man named Sean Fentriss. Across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), clearly someone he knows from sharing this same train ride every morning, but they aren't exactly friends. The train is fairly full, and by the end of the eight minutes, a bomb goes off and everyone on the train dies.

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    Column Fri Mar 25 2011

    Win Win, I Saw the Devil & The Trip

    Hey everyone. I've been doing a ton of traveling both for work and fun in March--four trips this month--and, as a result, I have been missing screenings in Chicago and haven't been able to see some big releases. Actually, I've been lucky so far, in that I've caught most of the major releases, but this week I miss a film I've truly been looking forward to seeing, writer-director Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, opening today. I won't even attempt an educated guess as to what the film is about or whether it's any good, but since I've enjoyed a great deal his remake of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, I'm guessing Sucker Punch will appeal to me on at least a visual level, plus their appears to be a bevy of beautiful women starring in this film, and there's nothing wrong with that. Time will tell when I get back from my travels. Enjoy the few reviews I can send you way...

    Win Win

    Writer-director (and sometimes actor, but never in his own films) Thomas McCarthy has made two wonderful films (The Station Agent and The Visitor) about loners reconnecting with the world around them by making friends with strangers. But the first thing you notice about the lead character in McCarthy's third film, Win Win, is that Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is that he is by no definition of the word a loner. Mike is a lawyer whose business is struggling, but his family and friend base is strong. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is a rock; his co-worker (Jeffrey Tambor) is a good man; and his buddy and fellow high school wrestling coach Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is perhaps his greatest (and funniest) asset. The team that Mike takes time to coach after work is terrible but an essential part of who he is and was.

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    Column Fri Mar 18 2011

    The Lincoln Lawyer, Paul, Limitless & Jane Eyre

    The Lincoln Lawyer

    For all his bad romantic-comedy attempts or just bad movies (hello, Tiptoes), I still find Matthew McConaughey an actor worth supporting. When he gets his teeth into a character in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, A Time to Kill, The Newton Boys, Frailty, We Are Marshall, and Tropic Thunder, he's kind of unstoppable. And for a guy who is so well known for showing his shirtless torso in every damn movie, what has always fascinated me about his approach to acting is what he's capable of doing with his face. He can go from seduction mode, concern, fear, and intimidation all with a few tilts of the eyebrows or slight adjustments in how much teeth he shows--not that I've ever freeze-framed his face repeatedly watching The Wedding Planner or anything creepy like that. Heh. But as L.A. attorney Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey gets to use all of his acting prowess, and the result is probably the best purely dramatic role he's every played.

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    Column Fri Mar 11 2011

    Battle: Los Angeles, Red Riding Hood, happythankyoumoreplease, Mars Needs Moms & Of Gods and Men

    Battle: Los Angeles

    In a way, I guess I understand some of the initial negative response to this big, loud summer movie released in mid-March, but I don't necessarily agree with most of it. As an alien-invasion exercise, it works pretty successfully at creating a real-world scenario where aliens suddenly land on the shores of our world and begin a brutal campaign to extinguish human life (or at least enough human life to get done what they came to do). The story is told from the vantage point of a Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart), who has seen his fair share of action, most recently in Afghanistan, and he's ready to call it quits after 20 years in the service.

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    Column Fri Mar 04 2011

    The Adjustment Bureau, Rango, Beastly & Ip Man 2

    The Adjustment Bureau

    Science fiction and love stories so rarely work well together, but when they do, it can be a beautiful thing. And I think it's safe to say that first-time feature director George Nolfi (who adapted the Philip K. Dick short story "Adjustment Team") has melded these two elements rather perfectly, so that neither one is slighted nor its impact lessened. Now, some may argue that The Adjustment Bureau isn't technically science fiction, and those people would be wrong. No matter what you call the mysterious men in hats who seem to nudge citizens like you and me into following a prescribed and predetermined path so that foreseen events will take place as they should, they are classic science fiction tools that may or may not also represent religious deities of a kind. They're also really cool dressers.

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    Column Fri Feb 25 2011

    Drive Angry 3D, Hall Pass & Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

    Drive Angry 3D

    Second only to James Cameron, Patrick Lussier is my favorite director working with 3D. While so many other directors making 3D films in the last couple years made a point to say, "We aren't throwing things at the camera," and "We don't want this to be a gimmick," Lussier opted for a different approach. He took a fairly shitty '80s slasher film, spruced it up, and made the absolutely glorious My Bloody Valentine, which came out at the beginning of 2009 and said to its audience, "Hey, we've got about 50 pointy objects we'd like to throw right at your head. Care to join us?" Lussier threw in some tasteful full-frontal nudity, a nice supporting role for the legendary Tom Atkins, and a metric shit-ton of blood and guts, and My Bloody Valentine turned a decent profit because it remembered to be entertaining.

    His latest work uses the same 3D formula with an original story and an overwhelming number of fantastic car chases and wrecks. Like Valentine, Drive Angry was shot in 3D, a fact that Lussier makes abundantly clear (in the original posters, the "Shot In 3D" tagline was in the same size font as the film's title). But making a film in 3D is not enough of a reason to see any movie. No, the real and true reason you want to see Drive Angry in any dimension is the magnificent William Fichtner as a character known only as The Accountant.

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    Column Fri Feb 18 2011

    I Am Number Four, Unknown, Kaboom, And Everything Is Going Fine & Oscar Shorts

    I Am Number Four

    For the most part, I dig the way director D.J. Caruso works. He game out of the gate with a few interesting films, including The Salton Sea, Taking Lives and Two for the Money. Each of these films was a little on the slick side, but within tolerable limits. He also did a handful of really solid episodes of "The Shield," which gives him points in my book. But the two films he made with Shia LaBeouf — Disturbia and Eagle Eye — didn't really connect with me. They are certainly well-executed movies, but I felt like they were talking down to the audience, over-explaining the plot, and having the characters jump through hoops that smarter folks might not have felt the need to jump through. His latest effort, the sci-fi adventure story I Am Number Four, (based on the novel by "Pittacus Lore") has some great action sequences, and a couple of nice performance (especially by Timothy Olyphant), but I found a tough time connecting with the lead characters or really caring about what happened to the young man at the center of the story.

    We know right off the bat that people are out to kill John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), the fourth in a line of special young men and women (I won't say how, but most of you probably know already) with powers that make them stand out. Apparently, these special kids must be killed in the order in which they are numbered, so the film begins with the death of Number 3. John is one of those annoying-as-hell teens who doesn't like to do what he's told and frequently ignore the safety protocols set up by his protector Henri (Olyphant), who is posing as John's father. I'm not sure why they feel the need to send John to public school in Ohio, but that's where he lands when his original location is compromised. Let's not forget that high school is the land of cell phone cameras and self-created websites where John's image could be posted and scanned for by those pursuing him.

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    Column Fri Feb 11 2011

    The Eagle, Cedar Rapids, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Inspector Bellamy & Waste Land

    Before I dive into this week's offerings. Let me remind everyone that on Friday, February 11 and Saturday, February 12, I will be moderating Q&A with the legendary Tommy Wiseau after screenings of his cult hit The Room at the Music Box Theatre. Both shows begin at 10pm, and we may even have some surprises in store for those who already bought tickets. This event marks the one-year anniversary of Wiseau's first appearance in Chicago, and believe me when I say, the best way to see The Room is with an audience during the film and Wiseau in the house after it.

    But here's the catch. Both 10pm shows are sold out. However, the Music Box has just added a 7pm show on Saturday, and you should get your tickets now. Don't get left outside of The Room!

    The Eagle

    This one comes a whole lot closer to nailing it than I thought it would, and the one of the key elements that holds it back is that damned PG-13 rating. From Jeremy Brock's screenplay based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, this story of a Roman soldier in 2nd century Britain crossing into British-controlled territory to retrieve a golden eagle emblem of his dead father's legion is practically crying out to let the blood flow, and perhaps the DVD of The Eagle will allow director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) to include a few graphic beheadings and eviscerations to keep his gritty story more lively. (If you crave a sword-and-sandal movie with blood to spare, please rent Neil Marshall's Centurion; it's so damn good.) Still, as it exists now, The Eagle is a decent telling of an interesting story.

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    Column Fri Feb 04 2011

    Sanctum, The Housemaid & Louder Than A Bomb

    Sanctum

    It was right there. The makings of a fairly solid, beautifully photographed, suspenseful 3D movie were within their grasp, and they blew it. Spectacularly. On multiple levels. Sanctum is being advertised as being producer James Cameron's post-Avatar 3D adventure story, and I'm sure that director Alister Grierson (who made the Australian war film Kokoda a few years back) is quite alright with that. Maybe some people will mistakenly think that Cameron directed the film and take some of the heat off of Grierson for this horribly written and acted mess of a story, which follows a group of underwater cave diver-explorers who get trapped underground and must seek out an escape route via miles of unexplored tunnels, caverns, and waterways.

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    Column Fri Jan 28 2011

    The Mechanic, The Rite & Nora's Will

    The Mechanic

    Some people refer to the Coen Brothers' True Grit as a remake, which isn't entirely wrong, but it's far from entirely correct. If you would like to do a side-by-side comparison of a film and its exceedingly faithful remake, you need look no further than Simon (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the pilot of "The Cape") West's remake of the Michael (Death Wish I, II & III) Winner directed, Charles Bronson-starring actioner about an stoic professional killer who takes a young man (in the original, it was Jan-Michael Vincent) as his protege after killing the young man's father. Other than West's slicker directing style and some newer, cooler weapons, there is very little different in the details of this remake, starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the killer/killer-in-training combo.

    Statham's Arthur Bishop is a man of few words and even fewer personal connections. One of his only friendships is with Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), the man who usually gives him his killing assignments and the occasional bit of advice. But when Harry's boss Dean (Tony Goldwyn, playing the villain a little too much by the book) tells Bishop to take out Harry, Bishop does so begrudgingly. Primarily out of guilt, Bishop befriends Harry's son Steve, who's aware of what his dad and Bishop did and wants to learn the tricks of the trade. Bishop tries to teach him to be stealthy and quick, but Steve has a lust for loud, messy and bloody. Foster excels in these kind of roles, where he gets to play a character who can be quiet and charming, then suddenly launch into a complete fucking maniac.

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    Column Fri Jan 21 2011

    The Company Men, The Way Back, Barney's Version, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & Great Directors

    The Company Men

    I know several critical thinkers who really dislike this movie, and I'm baffled as to why this is the case. I'm not saying that writer-director John Wells first time out as a filmmaker (he's made a comfortable living writing and producing shows like "E.R.," "The West Wing," and the new Showtime dark comedy "Shameless") is the finest example of high drama around in this awards season, but I actually found it a fairly accurate portrayal of the current corporate culture that has led to layoff that have nothing to do with merit and everything to do with the bottom line. If two highly skilled and qualified people are making more money than two underperforming but lesser paid employees, guess which two get the axe. It's short sighted behavior, but it's also exactly what's happening, and I thought the movie captured this trend rather nicely.

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    Column Fri Jan 14 2011

    The Dilemma, The Green Hornet, Another Year, The Illusionist & Marwencol

    The Dilemma

    It's always a frustrating thing when a film is promoted one way, when the true nature of the work is something quite different. The most recent example of that might be James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which is a quite worthy film about three 30-somethings going through transitions in their lives that are leaving their futures with more question marks than any of them thought imaginable. And now we also have the Ron Howard-directed The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.

    On the surface (and according to all forms of advertising for the film), the movie seems to be a comedy about a Ronny (Vaughn), who owns a car-design business with his oldest friend Nick (James), and finds out that Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), is cheating. While Ronny has no doubt in his mind that Nick needs to be told about the infidelity, he questions the timing of the news delivery. The pair are on the brink of signing the biggest deal of their professional career, and Ronny is afraid that breaking the news will wreck Nick's ability to finish the project. Ronny confronts Geneva with his knowledge, and she promises to be the one to tell Nick, but not without revealing a few things about the marriage that shock Ronny right out of his belief that the two have the perfect relationship, one that he has modeled his relationship with long-term girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) after. In the end, Geneva chickens out, leaving the burden of telling and proving the affair all on Ronny.

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    Column Fri Jan 07 2011

    Blue Valentine, Country Strong, Season of the Witch & My Uncle

    Blue Valentine

    The first feature film in a very long time from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) is an emotion typhoon that manifests the bulk of its power from juxtaposing two very distinct timelines in the lives of Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), a young married couple whose disintegrating marriage is made all the more tragic with constant reminders of how happy and carefree they were in their initial courtship. Blue Valentine crushes our hearts effortlessly that to the two incredible performances at its core.

    The film is filled with secrets, passion, rage, tension, and a collection of moments that reveal how far the couple has drifted apart in only six years. In the present day, Dean and Cindy decide to take a night away from their daughter and got to a hotel with "theme" rooms, in a pathetic attempt to rekindle the romance. An attempt to seduce his wife in the shower is shut down fast by Cindy, and in the next scene (set six years prior) we see Dean put on the same moves with Cindy with more favorable results (you may have heard about the scene in question, which almost earned the film an NC-17 rating). Cianfrance subtly repeats this idea of having scenes mirror each other, proving how much the couple are in love in the earlier moments, and showing how fractured they've become today. It's the equivalent of having a thread of molten metal strung directly through your heart.

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    Column Fri Dec 31 2010

    Best and Worst Films of 2010 + a Review of Casino Jack

    Hey everyone. Wow, I watched more than 400 movies on the big screen on 2010. That's not a record for me, but it's damn close. This was one of the most difficult "Best Of..." lists to compile, because so many of the films in the first 20 or so are separated in my mind by a micro-fraction of greatness. As I do every year, I conclude with my "Worst Of..." list, and it becomes painfully clear that I took enough bullets to save a small army of a medium-sized nation. I also created a new category that seemed necessary. I selected my 10 favorite films that I'm pretty sure never were released in the United States outside of a festival setting but will more than likely make their way into theaters in 2011. Consider that list you starting point of films to get very excited about seeing in the coming year.

    I've spared you lengthy write-ups on every single film on these lists--just the first 10 on my main list and only the top choice on the other ones. Oh, and if you think 40 is too many for a Best Of list, keep it to yourself and simply stop reading when you've had enough. Prologue done. Let's get to the lists, and allow me to bathe in your loving reactions!

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    Column Wed Dec 22 2010

    True Grit, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, All Good Things, Little Fockers & Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

    True Grit

    Sometimes, filmmakers put together something that is so strong, so perfect, so abundantly great that they make it look easy, and you wonder why everyone making movies can't produce something this close to flawless. Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit is just such a film, an effortless work of perfection that captures a sense of place and period so convincingly that you are taken aback by how effortless it all seems. The Coens haven't always reached this level of moviemaking, but they do so with alarming regularity with such works as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. Now, if I didn't name your favorite Coen Brothers movie, it's not because I didn't like it. But in all of their other films, I could see them trying maybe a little too hard. Nothing wrong with that, but when I stumble upon one of these five films (and True Grit will be added to the list) on a movie channel, it gets watched to the end because I don't even notice time passing.

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    Column Fri Dec 17 2010

    Tron: Legacy, How Do You Know, The King's Speech, The Tempest & Yogi Bear

    Tron: Legacy

    I have to admit, I have very little to say about this decades-in-the-making sequel to arguably one of the most influential films in the last 50 years. Notice, I said "most influential" and not "greatest" films. Animators, computer gurus and other creative types have all named Tron as the inspiration to choosing their career paths and passions. Having rewatched Tron recently, I can confirm the movie isn't that good. That being said, seeing it with fresh eyes actually made me remember what it was about the movie that I loved so much as a youth. I didn't understand computers, let alone own one, so for all I knew the idea of programs with human faces talking to each other, competing against each other, etc., was exactly how the electronic world worked. Plus, I loved the hell out of the Tron arcade game. I'd never seen a film that looked liked Tron or even existed in the same universe, so I was hypnotized in a way. So much so, that I ignored the overacting and cringe-worthy dialogue. Still, I never forgot this Disney production and anytime a sequel rumor surfaced, I got a charge.

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    Column Fri Dec 10 2010

    The Fighter, The Tourist, I Love You Phillip Morris, Tiny Furniture & Heartless

    The Fighter

    Sometimes, when you don't expect something to be truly great, it goes and surprises the hell out of you and turns out to be just that. Like many of you, I'd seen the trailer for director David O. Russell's The Fighter, the first film in far too long from the maker of Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees and his previous best work, Three Kings. The two latter films star Mark Wahlberg, who has done arguably much of his best work under Russell's direction. But The Fighter is an entirely different animal, possibly because this project has been Wahlberg's passion for the better part of the last decade. Not only is this the best performance in the actor's career, but the film itself easily ranks among the best of the year. There's a good chance you're going to be hearing me say that about a couple more films before the end of the year, for obvious reasons, but The Fighter is so nakedly raw as a narrative and stylistically flawless that it's virtually impossible to escape its brutal grip.

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    Column Fri Dec 03 2010

    Black Swan, Carlos, Idiots and Angels & Kings of Pastry

    Black Swan

    When is a movie about a ballerina obsessed with perfection not just that? Probably about as often as a horror film takes the conventions of the genre and turns them inside out, while still remaining true to the practices of building tension, piercing the mind of the unstable central character, and making her fragile yet imaginative psyche as much of a character as the timid woman whose mind can't quite keep it locked up.

    In the finest work of her career, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in the New York City whose all-consuming search for the flawless performance is surpassed only by her overbearing mother's (Barbara Hershey) desire to see all of her dreams realized through her daughter's life. I've always been fascinated by the world of ballet and dance, not so much to see the resulting performance but more to see the toe-crushing work that goes into each routine. Director Darren Aronofsky seems to have a similar curiosity about the grueling steps it takes to shape a ballet, which clearly goes far beyond simply knowing the choreography. Nina's career has a chance to soar when the company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, who splits his time between being seducer and dictator) decides to put on a production of "Swan Lake" with an emphasis on the darker aspects of the ballet 's lead role of the White Swan/Black Swan.

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    Column Thu Nov 25 2010

    Love and Other Drugs, Tangled, Made in Dagenham, Burlesque, The Nutcracker in 3D & Welcome to the Rileys

    Love and Other Drugs

    There's a name I want all of you to know. He's a supporting actor in the new Edward (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance) Zwick dramedy Love and Other Drugs (adapted from the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy), and his name is Josh Gad. Now, I don't know the man personally, never met him, interviewed him, etc.-- I'm sure he's a lovely man. I kinda recognized him from being in The Rocker, 21, and a recent episode of "Bored to Death," but that's it. In Love and Other Drugs he has one of the highest-profile roles of his career as Josh, the brother of Jake Gyllenhaal's pharmaceutical-rep character, Jamie. Here's why you should know him: because he nearly single-handedly destroys what is an otherwise really wonderful film about relationships in the face of medical adversity.

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    Column Fri Nov 19 2010

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, The Next Three Days, Monsters, White Material & Today's Special

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

    I always feel compelled to mention at some point in my reviews of any Harry Potter film that my sole exposure to this material is the film franchise. I've had access to the books for years, but once I realized that most of the movies were going to be works of quality, I thought they should be able to stand on their own with no prior knowledge cluttering my brain and filling in gaps that the book would plug. If I got lost or confused, then the movies failed me on a cinematic level. So far, that hasn't happened to any real degree. And while I fully intend on reading the books after the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits theaters, the only way I'm prepping for wrapping up my years-long journey with Harry, Ron, and Hermione is by doing a marathon of all the films that came before leading up to seeing the final chapter.

    The first part of Deathly Hallows is exquisite and exists on a plane that none of the other films have so far. And that plane is maturity and all the pain and responsibility that entails. Gone are the confines of Hogwarts, which I don't think is ever seen outside of flashbacks and visions. This is not a film about school children any longer. The reality for Harry Potter is that a legion of evildoers want to murder him, and these killers will accept any level of collateral damage to make that happen. An early scene in Deathly Hallows is exquisite shows shows Voldemort (the splendid Ralph Fiennes) prowling around a table of his minions, setting the stage for what is to come and the lengths that they must go to to get Harry. The scene reminded me of the one from The Untouchables, where Robert DeNiro's Al Capone walks around behind his lieutenants with violence in his eyes. The danger is exponentially more palpable in this Harry Potter story than in any of the others.

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    Column Fri Nov 12 2010

    Unstoppable, 127 Hours, Morning Glory, Cool It, Four Lions & The Freebie

    Unstoppable

    If ever there was a film pairing between director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington (the two have made five films together), you might think that the runaway-train thriller Unstoppable would be that movie. Scott is best known stylistically for a rapid-fire editing technique and basically never being able to keep his camera still. Even the films of his I like (Crimson Tide, True Romance, Man on Fire, Domino) seem like all kinds of overkill. Since Scott does mostly action films, his style doesn't always seem inappropriate, but Unstoppable is only about half an action film and even that half is confined to two, fast-moving trains on the same track going in the same direction. Here's the problem with Unstoppable: it tells us right off the bat that it's based on a true story, which I'll accept. I bet the true story is actually kind of interesting. What Scott has done is loaded this "true-life" plot with jet fuel and thrown a match on it, resulting in a film that feels fake when it wants so desperately to come across as authentic.

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    Column Fri Nov 05 2010

    Due Date, For Colored Girls, Megamind, Fair Game & The Island Inside

    Due Date

    When I was leaving the screening of Todd Phillips' (Road Trip; Old School; Starsky & Hutch; The Hangover) latest comedy opus Due Date, I heard a fellow audience member utter the immortal and highly quotable statement, "It had its moments." I concur...only I think that person's comment was meant as more of a ho-hum evaluation than if I had said it. Truth be told, Due Date has quite a collection of moments that are at times tasteless, hysterical, shocking and occasionally moving. And while the episodic nature of the film (whose screenplay is credited to Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel and Phillips) results in big laughs and even bigger groans at times, I'm not sure Due Date really holds together as a cohesive unit. What it reminds me of is the difference between a stand-up comic who tells joke after joke after joke versus one who tells very funny stories. This movie is like two guys roasting each other, as opposed to a Patton Oswalt or Louis C.K. doing what they do best on stage. One isn't necessarily funnier than the other, but at the end of the latter, you feel a little more satisfied as a human being.

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    Column Fri Oct 29 2010

    The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, & The Desert of Forbidden Art

    The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

    After watching the third and final installment of the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular Millennium trilogy (following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was just released on DVD this week), I realized that as three separate films viewed months apart, the story seems strangely and unnecessarily stretched out. Watched in a single day, one after the other, I think these three movies would feel like exactly what they are--a single, layered story that takes place in both the present and the past, in which the two time frames merge in a fairly unique and imaginative manner. Still, to get this trilogy in a single calendar year feels pretty special, especially when you consider the powerhouse performance we get from actress Noomi Rapace, who played the beyond-damage (but not beyond-rapair) Lisbeth Salander.

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    Column Fri Oct 22 2010

    Hereafter, Tamara Drewe, Paranormal Activity 2 & The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

    Hereafter

    Despite what the somewhat sappy trailers for Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort might lead you to believe, this is not a film about what happens after you die, nor is it about what you may or may not see when you die for a time and are brought back to life (in a non-zombie manner). In fact, Hereafter spends all of about 10 minutes dealing directly with these subjects at all, and that's a choice made by Eastwood and the great screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon) that makes the film something very special indeed. Rather than deal with his subject as something precious and new-agey, Eastwood makes Hereafter a work about three very isolated people who are not only seeking answers but also looking for connection with others that understand their specific plight.

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    Column Fri Oct 15 2010

    RED, Conviction, Nowhere Boy, Inside Job, Last Train Home, & Winnebago Man

    RED

    The more I think about it, the more I truly dislike RED (which we're cleverly told stand for "Retired Extremely Dangerous"; ooooooh). I actually got into arguments with people about this movie at Fantastic Fest, a festival that is populated largely by folks who admire creativity and edgy works by remarkable filmmakers, both established and brand spanking new. Those who claimed to like RED seemed to come at me with this: "For what it is, it's pretty good." Okay, that's true... if what the film is boils down to unoriginal action sequences, unfunny jokes, and a paint-by-numbers plot, then yes, for what it is (shit), RED is pretty good (shit). Of course it's fun to see Helen Mirren holding a gun, John Malkovich playing monkey-shit crazy, and a great series of extended cameos from the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, and Brian Cox, but the film consistently fails to bring anything to life with these touches, and the resulting work is almost entirely devoid of sustained fun.

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    Column Fri Oct 08 2010

    Stone, Secretariat, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Life As We Know It & I Spit on Your Grave

    46th Chicago International Film Festival Preview

    By the time you read this, the 46th Chicago International Film Festival will have just kicked off with the star-studded premiere of Stone, starring Edward Norton, who was scheduled to attend the Opening Night screening. My review of the film is below. I have to admit, I'm impressed more than I usually am with some of the offerings the festival has this year, including the Closing Night film, director John Madden's The Debt, starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington; the Festival Centerpiece, Danny (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle's latest 127 Hours, starring James Franco, about a mountain climber who must cut his own arm off to escape certain death after having a boulder fall on the appendage; Darren Aronofsky's already-celebrated Black Swan; director Tony Goldwyn's well-constructed Conviction, starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell (expect my review next week); Doug Liman's Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts in the story of former CIA operative Valerie Plame; the creepy and exquisite South Korean film The Housemaid; and the lovely story of bored teens on a Friday night, The Myth of the American Sleepover.

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    Column Fri Oct 01 2010

    The Social Network, Let Me In, Waiting for Superman, Howl, Hatchet II & A Film Unfinished

    The Social Network

    I saw the Aaron Sorkin-written, David Fincher-directed The Social Network two days in a row, and I've held off writing about it because I wanted to get my thoughts exactly right. I'm not sure I did, but this is what I've got. With three months left in the year, The Social Network is the best film I've seen so far in 2010. Is that clear enough for you? If it's at all possible, don't go into The Social Network thinking you're going to discover "the truth" about the founding and possible idea stealing being Facebook, the online phenom that has introduced a slew of new lingo to the English language and has made it possible for every single friend I had in high school to find me within one month of me joining a couple years back. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

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    Column Fri Sep 24 2010

    Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Buried, Jack Goes Boating, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Never Let Me Go, Catfish & Enter the Void

    Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

    As much as I'm not really eager to do so, I really feel like I need to view Oliver Stone's follow-up to his 1987 indictment of corporate mergers gone wrong and the buying and selling of lives as well as companies to really get a sense of everything that's going on in it. The film is actually about five or six different films all rolling into one intoxicating mess, and at least a couple of the stories are worth telling and watching. In light of the U.S. economy, the bank crisis, government bailouts, and the stock market tumbles of the last couple of year, my only question is, Why has it taken Stone so long to bring Gordon Gekko (still played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for the part more than 20 years ago) out of mothballs.

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    Column Fri Sep 17 2010

    The Town, The Virginity Hit, Heartbreaker & Mademoiselle Chambon

    The Town

    Say what you want about Ben Affleck the actor. I'm sure I have said some not-so-nice things myself about the guy. I think he's a solid performer, and that his biggest crime is just picking cruddy movies a little too often. But I will punch a person in the face who even dares to suggest the man can't direct. And with his second film behind the camera, The Town, we have the added bonus of Affleck drawing a fully-realized, well-played character for himself to inhabit in front of the camera as well. Stepping up the scope and scale from his first film as director, Gone Baby Gone, he's also secured one of the best ensemble casts of any film this year, making The Town stand out as one of the single finest crime dramas of the year.

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    Column Fri Sep 10 2010

    I'm Still Here, Legendary & The Sicilian Girl

    Hello, everyone. Because two of the weekend's bigger releases — Resident Evil: Afterlife and The Virginity Hit — did not screen in time to be reviewed, this week's column is relatively dialed back. Still, if you'd like to read my Comic-Con interviews with the creative team behind Resident Evil, please feel free to hit Ain't It Cool News to see my chats with star Milla Jovovich, director Paul W.S. Anderson, and co-stars Ali Larter and Wentworth Miller.

    I'm Still Here

    People are asking all the wrong questions about this Joaquin Phoenix's video diary of this period of transition in his life. It doesn't matter if the film is all real or if it's an elaborate hoax. The only two things that matter are if the film is any good and if this is a human being worth following and documenting. These are the questions you ask of any documentary that profiles a human being — dead or alive. And I can say that without hesitation that the Casey Affleck-directed I'm Still Here is one of the worst films I've seen all year, and I say that being someone who went into the film really hoping to like it on same level, either as a piece of performance art or as a fascinating trajectory of a celebrity's life gone horribly wrong. At the very least, I thought this would be some sort of low-rent, Borat-style comedy. But what we're left with, instead, is an unfocused, rambling, embarrassing garbage heap of a film.

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    Column Fri Sep 03 2010

    The American, Machete, Going the Distance, The Tillman Story & Valhalla Rising

    The American

    You're going to hear a lot of people (critics, in particular) agree that The American feels retro or has a certain European wire running through its core, and I can see that and maybe even agree with the latter assessment. But what the only 2010 offering from actor George Clooney (after three films out last year) really has is a level of sophistication and understated menace that sets it apart from perhaps every other film about a professional assassin ever made. With guidance from the great photographer/music video maker, Control director Anton Corbijn, The American takes us inside the mind of a man who can kill for a living and lets us examine not only what makes him good at his job, but also how those very elements are the ones eating away at his soul and slowly consuming any remaining thing about him that is good.

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    Column Fri Aug 27 2010

    The Last Exorcism, Takers, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, Flipped, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, & Lebanon

    The Last Exorcism

    The Last Exorcism it as a story of a preacher who has gotten into the exorcism game to bilk the faithful out of their hard-earned cash. He has taken advantage of the uncertainty of the times and the stress that society is under, and has turned that into a business for his unique brand of knowledge and skills as an orator. There's a moment in the beginning of the film where the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tells the film crew following him that he can insert anything into a sermon, and his followers will eat it up. He proves his point by literally working in the recipe for banana bread into his fire-and-brimstone speech. He's also considered one of the South's greatest performers of exorcisms. But we soon realize that Marcus hasn't invited a camera crew to document want a fine preacher he is; he's brought them in so he can show them that he's a fraud. This is his version of confession, and his plan is to pick a letter at random from the hundreds he gets requesting his exorcism services and walking us through his tricks of the trade on what is meant to be his final performance as an extractor of Satan.

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    Column Fri Aug 20 2010

    The Switch, Nanny McPhee Returns, Animal Kingdom, Lottery Ticket, Mao's Last Dancer, The Duel & Behind the Burly Q

    The Switch

    Do you know how awful the new Jason Bateman-Jennifer Aniston comedy is? It's so awful that even the official synopsis is a lie. Here's how it reads: "An unmarried 40-year-old woman turns to a turkey baster in order to become pregnant. Seven years later, she reunites with her best friend, who has been living with a secret: he replaced her preferred sperm sample with his own." And, no, the lie is not that Aniston is actually 41 (more like 41 and a half). The lie comes (pardon the pun) in the second sentence. Bateman's character Wally is not "living with a secret" because he was so drunk when the titular switch was made that he didn't remember doing it until a combination of meeting Kassie's (Aniston) son and his co-worker (Jeff Goldblum) reminding him of some drunken mumblings said the night of the seed swapping triggers the memory. Got it? Now, please stop the lies.

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    Column Fri Aug 13 2010

    Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Expendables, Eat Pray Love & The Extra Man

    Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

    A lot has already been written about this film in the last month or so, so simply plowing through the plot and high volume of characters doesn't seem entirely necessary. So I'll keep that part of my review to a minimum. But to simply ghettoize Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as a pop-culture mishmash aimed at teens and twentysomethings is to be both narrow-minded and ignorant. I'm not saying you have to love or even like the movie, but to simply dismiss this ambitious, hormonally explosive and joyous work is asinine.

    In many ways, director and co-adapter (with Michael Bacall, based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series) Edgar Wright has wisely rethought the way films based on comic books or graphic novels should be visualized. Wright has always favored the occasional fast-paced editing style in his previous features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but with Scott Pilgrim, he dismisses the idea that you need long takes and subtle editing to tell a story or get into the head of a character. Instead he interweaves quick cuts, fantastic videogame-like graphics and music, and a host of great young actors to tell this story of young Scott (Michael Cera), who is torn between his band that is on the verge of breaking big, and the great love of his life, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In many ways, the story of the band (called Sex Bob-omb) is as important as Scott's "battles" with Ramona's seven evil exes.

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    Column Fri Jul 30 2010

    Dinner for Schmucks, Charlie St. Cloud, Best Worst Movie, & Cropsey

    Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's releases I wanted to tell you about something so stupendous, so magnificent, happening in Chicagoland in a couple weeks, that any true movie lover...hell, any true Chicagoan...would be a fool to miss. And to top it all off, the event in question is free.

    On Friday, August 13, the good folks of the Alamo Drafthouse's 2010 Rolling Roadshow (co-sponsored by Levi's brand) have organized a screening of the classic John Landis-directed The Blues Brothers to take place in the only place it truly could--just outside the walls of the Old Joliet Prison--from where "Joliet" Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released at the beginning of the film. The address is 1125 Collins Street, Joliet, IL. Make it your mission from God to make it to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Start time appears to be 8pm. Don't be late. And did I mention, the screening is free? Well, it is.

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    Column Fri Jul 23 2010

    Ramona & Beezus and Agora

    Hey everyone. This is a light week for film releases anyway, but with my travel schedule what it is this week (I'm in San Diego covering Comic-Con), I'm afraid I've missed the week's biggest opening, Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. Because of this trip, I'm missing a couple of next week's films as well. Sorry, no Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore review. We should be mostly back on track the following week.

    One other thing going on for the next week beginning today (Friday), the Gene Siskel Film Center is bringing back one of my (and Roger Ebert's) favorite documentaries of the year, director Jennifer Burns' Vincent: A Life in Color. You can read my original review here. But I wanted to let you know that Burns and star Vincent P. Falk will be present for audience discussion at all Friday-Saturday-Sunday screenings and at all 8pm screenings on Monday through Thursday.

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    Column Fri Jul 16 2010

    Inception, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Wild Grass & The Living Wake

    Inception

    When I ran an Ain't It Cool contest for tickets to the Chicago Inception screening last week, I asked those who entered to tell me what they thought the film was about when they saw the first trailer. Now having seen it twice, I can say with complete confidence that nobody, including me, came even close to capturing just what this miraculous effort accomplishes. The first thing you have to realize is that Inception isn't simply a movie; it's a symphony of images, ideas, performances and, yes, music that is meant to continue on living and breathing in your head long, long after you've taken it all in. And it is absolutely crucial that you see Inception twice before you really form your opinion about it. The work is not confusing, but it is dense and layered and complicated and is a powerful exercise in using your brain. Don't let any of that scare you. Seeing it the second time wasn't as much about clearing things up as it was making a select few fuzzy moments become crystal clear and tightly focused in my mind.

    Another thing you must realize about Inception (and this may be something you've figured out long ago) is that writer-director Christopher Nolan's brain works differently than the rest of us humans. His eyes see the world as something that needs deconstructing and rearranging. This is evident going all the way back to his first feature, Following, but it really became clear with 2000's Memento, a mystery that was only a mystery because the story was told in reverse through the eyes of a man with no short-term memory. Perhaps the only truly disappointing thing about Nolan's work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that he doesn't quite have the free to tinker with reality. But that doesn't mean he isn't playing up the psychological elements of the plot. Sure, The Joker is the villain, but he's a villain in whom we see fractured pieces of ourselves. He's the sum total of a broken society and the ugliest parts of human behavior.

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    Column Fri Jul 09 2010

    Predators, Despicable Me, The Kids Are All Right, The Girl Who Played with Fire, La Mission, Grease Sing-a-Long & [REC] 2

    Due to a slightly overwhelming travel schedule and work load this week, I've had next to no time to devote to keeping you informed about what films are worth checking out and which aren't. And so I'm going to resort to something I haven't done in well over a year, possibly closer to two: the movie round-up. One or two paragraphs per review, regardless of whether they cost $200 million or $200,000 to make. I'm not a fan of these, but I don't really have a choice. A lot opens this weekend, so let's get to it...

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    Column Fri Jul 02 2010

    The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky & Let It Rain

    The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

    I remember about two years ago almost to the day standing in line for about two hours at the San Diego Comic-Con waiting to get into the panel that would include the world's first look at footage from Twilight. I had to be there to cover the event, but nearly everyone else in line wanted to be there. So I took advantage of the situation to chat with a woman about my age and her 14-year-old niece, both of whom were rabid fans of the then-three Stephenie Meyer books and were eagerly awaiting a chance to gaze upon the actors who had been chosen to embody their beloved characters. I was completely uneducated about the Twilight world when I got in line, but thanks to these two lovely ladies, I got schooled pretty fast. Although their quick synopsis of the first book wasn't winning me over, their unbridled enthusiasm was infectious, and it gave me the energy I needed to survive the screaming mayhem of the panel and the one-on-one interviews I got with the clearly shell-shocked star Kristen Stewart and director Catherine Hardwicke.

    I remember while waiting to chat with Stewart, I looked to my right, and saw Robert Pattinson standing almost at my shoulder, unattended as he awaited his next interview. I said hello, told him I liked his work as Cedric in the Harry Potter movies, and for a brief moment, he seemed really happy not to be talking about vampires or how hot he was or what kind of underwear he wore. And if it were possible, he looked even more shaken up than Stewart, like a cannon had been fired while he was in a deep sleep. But again, my mind kept returning to those two ladies in line who made me understand a bit of why they loved the Twilight material. I was envious of their passion and I remembered a time in my younger days when it didn't take much to get me that revved up about a film. So imagine my surprise when I finally saw Twilight months later and felt like I'd just witnessed the birth on one of Satan's largest, most evil toilet babies.

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    Column Fri Jun 25 2010

    Knight and Day, Cyrus, Grown Ups, The Killer Inside Me & Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee

    Knight and Day

    This will not be a long review; there's really no reason. There's no deep, existentialist examination of the human condition going on with Tom Cruise's action-comedy Knight and Day, and that's okay. I actually get a great deal of joy watching Cruise play fast and loose on screen; when he wants to be, he can be a great comic actor. The reason I never took to the Mission: Impossible films like I wanted to (except maybe the third one) is that they took themselves so damn seriously, and they really didn't need to. Knight and Day almost floats off the screen with cottonball weightlessness, but Cruise and his sly grin--and the attitude that fuels that grin--make this film a harmless couple hours spent watching attractive people pretend to get placed in the midst of some dangerous situations and come out the other side smiling and a little bit in love. I probably should have said "Spoiler Alert" right there, because there's no way you could have guessed any of that. Sorry. But please, even when Cruise is shot in this film, it's treated with the urgency of a kid in a Band-Aid commercial. Oopsie!

    If there's an actual plot to Knight and Day, I totally missed it. Cruise is being chased down by assassins being led by Peter Sarsgaard because...no, see I knew this, and now I've lost it. I'm not quite sure why they're chasing him. I think there's a battery involved. No, seriously. Cruise meets June Havens (Cameron Diaz) on a plane going from Wichita to Boston, even though she's not supposed to be on the plane. He lovingly hijacks her person in an effort to protect her from the government baddies who clearly won't believe her when she tells them she doesn't know who Cruise's Roy Miller actually is. As much as Cruise's cavalier attitude toward even the most dangerous circumstances is enjoyable, it's also part of my problem with the film. We're never quite sure what we're supposed to be taking as a serious threat and what is a silly distraction.

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    Column Fri Jun 18 2010

    Toy Story 3, Jonah Hex, Winter's Bone, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Living In Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders & I Am Comic

    Toy Story 3

    How is it possible that the folks at Pixar keep managing to surprise me? Did I expect to like Toy Story 3? Well, yeah. What about Pixar or this franchise would lead you to believe anything else? I might have been a little concerned that the original film's director (and the second film's co-director) John Lasseter is only listed as one of three "story" men (the other two being Andrew Stanton and Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich); Michael Arndt, who won the screenwriting Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, is credited with the screenplay.

    But after about 10 minutes, I realized that this third installment in the adventures of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, Rex and those weird little green rubber alien dudes was going to be the best one yet. Let's get the hyperbole out of the way right now. This is the best Toy Story movie, period. This is the best 3D experience I've ever had, period. And this is the best film of 2010 so far, arguably. And I pity those of you that don't have the ability to see this in IMAX, because the opening action sequence alone — which appears to take place in a Grand Canyon-like location — is worth the IMAX and 3D upcharges. And wait until you see the landfill dump section of the film. On the IMAX screen, you can almost smell it.

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    Column Fri Jun 11 2010

    Winnebago Man, The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Solitary Man, Ondine, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Daddy Longlegs, & The Little Traitor

    Winnebago Man

    Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's reviews, I wanted to alert you to a special event happening next week. As part of the Just for Laughs festival invading Chicago in the coming week, the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening two excellent works, including a preview of a superb documentary opening later in the summer across the nation.

    At the SXSW Film Festival of 2009, I saw Winnebago Man, one of the best documentaries I saw that year (it made my 15 Best Docs list, coming in at #8). I felt for certain that this profile of one of the internet's first YouTube heroes, Jack Rebney ("the angriest man in the world"), would be released without hesitation. I guess with docs, it's a bit tougher to predict what will get released or catch on, but I can't imagine a single soul watching this movie and not finding some aspect utterly fascinating. Rebney's profanity laden outtakes from what appears to be an in-house selling tool for the Winnebago sales staff made the VHS rounds before they were put on YouTube, where millions of people giggled with delight at Rebney's seemingly insane rants. Part of the film is a thoughtful examination of what makes some internet clips a phenomenon and others seem forced and not as interesting. The rest of Winnebago Man is the search for the reclusive Rebney and attempts to get him to a found-footage film festival where he can meet his adoring fans. This part of the film is absolutely gripping and, in so many ways, heart wrenching.

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    Column Fri Jun 04 2010

    Get Him to the Greek, Splice, Micmacs, Metropolis, Marmaduke & Holy Rollers

    Get Him to the Greek

    Easily the funniest film of the year so far, Get Him to the Greek also manages to capture elements of the present-day music industry by dropping its hero, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character persona), directly into the epicenter of the music scene. And it's this level of authenticity that results in many of the laughs before a single joke is told. Wisely enough, writer-director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow take their approach with Knocked Up (remember, Katherine Heigl worked for E!, putting her in close proximity to a parade of famous faces). Aldous is on every TV show from MTV to the "Today Show" and is seen in the company of singers from Pink to Christina Aguilera (and that's just in the first five minutes of the movie). The filmmakers establish early that anything is possible and anyone might show up.

    Now normally I'm not a fan of a string of cameos passing for comedy, but anyone who dares step in front of these cameras does not come out unscathed on the other side. Right off the bat, I have to give credit to three people with brief appearances in Get Him to the Greek: "Showbiz Tonight's" Brooke Anderson, "Today's" Meredith Vieira, and Metallica's Lars Ulrich. The two chat show anchors pull off incredibly tough scenes, one opposite Aldous and his lady love and superstar singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne, brilliantly channeling a mash-up of Fergie and Lily Allen), and the other Aldous and record company peon Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, not playing his Sarah Marshall character). As for Ulrich, the things that Aldous says to him are too dead on and rude to ruin here.

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    Column Fri May 28 2010

    Sex and the City 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, The City of Your Final Destination & The Father of My Children

    Sex and the City 2

    I know I jokingly say sometimes about films I don't like some variation on the idea that I don't where to start picking it apart. But with the horrifically shallow Sex and the City 2, truer sentiments have never been spoken. This movie is literally about nothing. I don't mean it's not about anything important or significant or noble; I don't need that in my escapist entertainment. No, this film is has no heart, no brain, and an empty soul. And let me throw one more thought your way; this might be one of the most racist, anti-Arab films you will ever have the displeasure of sitting through. Maybe that's a good place to start...

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    Column Fri May 21 2010

    MacGruber, Shrek: The Final Chapter, Mother and Child, Princess Kaiulani and Kites

    MacGruber

    It's kind of staggering to me how many people have written off MacGruber without having seen it, and yet everyone I know who saw it at the SXSW Film Festival or at one of the many college screenings that have occurred more recently are kinda loving the thing. Let me give you a hint: if you ever typed a line about this film that involved the historic failures of "Saturday Night Live" turning 90-second sketches into feature-length films, you and your statement are officially cliches. The thing that separates MacGruber from the SNL-based films before it that the central characters never had the benefit of fully realized sketches in which any amount of backstory could be attached. So the writing team of star Will Forte, John Solomon, and director (and Lonely Island member) Jorma Taccone had the freedom to essentially start from scratch.

    MacGruber is the first film since Hot Fuzz that really captures in parody form what was so great about '80s action movies and what made them essential viewing when I was growing up. And while Hot Fuzz focused more on adrenaline-fueled cop movies, MacGruber is more about explosions, secret government agencies, maniacal villains, high-tech weaponry, and more explosions. And did I mention that it carries with it a fairly hard-R rating? There's violence, more than enough man ass for one lifetime, and so much crude and disgusting language that I was forced to see the film a second time because I missed so much dialog from laughing the first time I saw it. As you can probably deduce, above all other things, MacGruber is downright hilarious in its juvenile antics and obsession with fireballs.

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    Column Fri May 14 2010

    Robin Hood, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and Lourdes

    Robin Hood

    I'm kind of over people (critics and others) who see the film world in black and white terms (unless, you know, they're talking about a B&W movie). There are so few films that come out in a given year that are so without merit that they warrant the label "suck." All of the digital ink that has been wasted on people trying to explain how terrible Iron Man 2 is or Top 5-10 lists of how it could have been better--give me a fucking break. I'm not saying it's a classic effort, but is it really so terrible that it deserves this much attention? Of course not. But here's the big secret: negativity in the extreme translates into readership.

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    Column Fri May 07 2010

    Iron Man 2, Babies, The Good Heart, The Human Centipede, Vincent: A Life in Color, and Ferlinghetti

    Iron Man 2

    In many ways, director Jon Favreau has done something rather remarkable--he's made a film about a man who has decided rather impetuously to take on the problems of the entire world and make them his own. And then we get the distinct pleasure of watching that man crack and crumble under the weight of that responsibility. Tony Stark has learned that with great power comes a psychological meltdown that he may not recover from, as only Robert Downey Jr. can personify. As much as we like to think that Christopher Nolan's dark, brooding and largely perfect Batman films have cornered the market on tapping into the psyche of a man who has elected to become a protector of humans, allow me to submit Favreau's Iron Man 2 as a film that challenges nearly every level of hero building and turns it into a profile of a man whose ego is simply not enough to handle the task at hand.

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    Column Fri Apr 30 2010

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    Hey everyone. Somehow, mostly through no fault of my own other than a continuingly excessive travel schedule, I have managed to miss a great deal of the smaller films opening this weekend, including a couple I'm hearing are quite good, including the Chess Records biopic Who Do You Love (opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) and the intense Australian film-noirish work The Square (which opens at the Music Box). I was also excited to see at Facets Cinemateque the new surreal sci-fi work The Scientist, which I've heard is quite cool. And let's not forget, also opening the Landmark, is the latest work from Michael Caine, Harry Brown, and The Cartel, a doc about school teachers struggling to find alternative methods to make sure kids learn, even if those ways directly contradict the way the school boards insist that they teach.

    The one thing I did manage to get to that opens this week is this little gem. Hopefully I'll improve my track record and get to a few more screenings. In the meantime, enjoy...

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    Column Fri Apr 23 2010

    The Losers, The Back-Up Plan, Oceans, Hubble 3-D, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Girl on the Train, and Soundtrack for a Revolution

    The Losers

    In the first of what promises to be a summer loaded to the gills with testosterone-infused films about groups of gun-toting, muscular men on a mission (The A-Team, The Expendables), this week's release The Losers, based on the DC/Vertigo comic book series, has the distinction of being, well, first. While there isn't a particularly original story at play here, and the visual style includes such tried-and-true favorites as a Right Stuff-style slo-mo walking toward the camera, The Losers' scores many points based on the strength of its enjoyable characters...some of them anyway.

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    Column Fri Apr 16 2010

    Kick Ass, Death at a Funeral, The Joneses, The Eclipse, and Home

    Kick-Ass

    I'm not even sure why I'm reviewing Kick-Ass. It's complete and utterly awesome, and in all likelihood, you're all going to see it, and most of you will have some degree of love for it. Kick-Ass isn't the first film about regular people with no super-human abilities throwing on costumes and attempting to be crime fighters. But it's the first one that's shot like a superhero movie. Let me clarify that; few superhero movies relish their violence and other twisted aspect quite as wholly as Kick-Ass. The film's main villain is a member of organized crime, and the movie takes on the appropriate tone, with a climax that seems ripped right out of Scarface, complete with a torrential rain of bullets and enough explosions to take down a five-story building. And then there is the blood. My god, is there blood. Blood and gore and severed body parts and burning flesh and more blood. When I wasn't laughing or cheering right along with Kick-Ass, I was smiling the smile of a person who has just seen the greatest movie he didn't even know he was waiting to see. With film's like Iron Man 2 less than a month away from opening, I'm sure Kick-Ass will be dethroned, but right now this is the best movie I've seen in the first three-and-a-half months of 2010.

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    Column Fri Apr 09 2010

    Date Night, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, After.Life, The Greatest, and When You're Strange

    Date Night

    If I really wanted to, I could write this review in one paragraph. In fact, with most comedies, a paragraph--or sometimes a sentence--is all you need. If you laughed more often than you didn't, a comedy is probably worth seeing. The story and the characters are important to a degree, but it's that laugh factor that matters most of all. And Date Night, with its many flaws and occasional dead spots, still had me laughing a whole lot, largely on the strength of the sweet married couple at the center, played by two Second City vets Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

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    Column Fri Apr 02 2010

    City Island, The Secret of Kells, and Vincere

    Hey, everyone. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but it's probably worth repeating. I've been traveling like a fiend the last couple of weeks (including most of this week), and as a result, I've missed a couple of big press screenings, including most notably this week's Clash of the Titans. I also somehow managed to miss the screening of the long-awaited Miley Cyrus-Nicholas Sparks collaboration The Last Song (which opened Wednesday) and the Tyler Perry sequel Why Did I Get Married Too? (actually this didn't screen for critics, but I wish it had). I'm pretty sure things will return to normal beginning next week, when I should have reviews of Date Night, the latest Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and a few other choice nuggets.

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    Column Fri Mar 26 2010

    Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Chloe, Mother and Prodigal Sons

    Hot Tub Time Machine

    Sometimes you admire a comedy because of its subtle wit and cleverness, because it keeps a sustained smile on your face that lasts the duration of the film. Other times, you fall head over heels for a comedy because it is balls-out the perfect combination of stupidity and intelligence, with a healthy serving of charm thrown in and a dash of the grotesque. Welcome to Hot Tub Time Machine, folks, a movie that almost dares you not to giggle your way into a frothy stupor. What put this film over the top for me was its complete and utter disregard not only for conventional logic and sensibility, but the film actually bothers to set up its own time-space continuum rules and then breaks them with a wanton disregard for the Butterfly Effect. On the plus side, Time Cop's essential rule about the same person from two different times occupying the same space is cited and dealt with quite effectively. But for God's sake, this isn't a movie about science; it's about partying '80s style, and who better to do that with than John Cusack?

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    Column Fri Mar 19 2010

    The Runaways

    Hey everyone. So, I've been in Austin, Texas, for the last week or so attending the SXSW Film Festival. I've done 17 interviews and seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 movies (when you read this I'll be at the tail end of the my time at the fest). As a result, I've missed a few screenings of things opening in Chicago this weekend, including Repo Men, The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Neil Young Trunk Show at the Music Box, which might hurt most of all. And I'm not done traveling. I've got a couple more short jaunts that will force me to miss films like How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans. And while I've seen many other films opening in the coming weeks in advance, this week in particular I've been pretty useless to you, with one notable exception. Read on, and I'll see you when I have my feet on the ground.

    The Runaways

    As much as I'd been led to believe that The Runaways was going to be a document of the short-lived, all-female rock band seen through the eyes of its most famous member, Joan Jett (played with convincing edge by Kristen Stewart), the film is, in fact, told from two perspectives--Jett's and that of underage singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning in a career-altering performance). My knowledge of The Runaways is limited at best. There were two of the band's songs featured in the film I recognized, including their biggest hit "Cherry Bomb." But I believe that a bio pic or documentary to any musical performer should not be a love letter to that person or group. The job of a film like The Runaways is to convince those ignorant of their music (like me) that these are people worth paying attention to, exploring, and maybe even collecting. And for the most part, first-time feature writer-director Floria Sigismondi (whose background is in music videos, although the film thankfully doesn't take on that rapid-fire editing approach) has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful examination of a band that needed to exist in the 1970s landscape.

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    Column Thu Mar 11 2010

    Green Zone, She's out of My League, The Red Riding Trilogy, Remember Me, The Art of the Steal, and The Yellow Handkerchief

    Green Zone

    I feel pretty confident in saying that there is no better director of realistic, complex action sequences working today than Paul Greenglass (United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the most recent two Bourne movies). He also has an uncanny ability of building unbearable levels of suspense and making sure an intelligent audience always knows exactly what is happening and what the specific geography of every sequence is. This may sound bizarre, but one of my biggest complaints about the current crap of action directors is that they simply toss the camera around, set off a shitload of explosions, and rattle off gunfire with very little care if the audience can keep track of where all of the players are and who they are attempting to capture or kill. But with Green Zone, Greengrass' dense and perfect military thriller set in the early weeks of the current war in Iraq, we are always perfectly clear who's after who and why. He almost makes it look easy.

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    Column Fri Mar 05 2010

    Alice in Wonderland, Brooklyn's Finest, A Prophet, and An Overview of The EU Film Festival

    Alice in Wonderland

    It's right and good that folks get excited each time director Tim Burton and his male muse Johnny Depp work together, but here's the worst kept secret about their creative partnering: the more special effects, make-up, and intentional wackiness they pile on to a particular film, the less successful it is as art. I don't think I'll get too much push-back on saying that Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands are their best (and earliest) collaborations. And since they made those two films, they've been trying to recapture some sort of elusive, creepy magic that usually results in something entertaining but not sustained greatness. I don't have an overwhelming need to revisit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the way I do their initial pairings (perhaps unfairly, I'm excluding Corpse Bride, which I love, from this discussion). Sweeney Todd is probably the closest they've come to brandishing the kind of goth greatness audiences are hoping for, but Alice in Wonderland (barely based on the Lewis Carroll books) is an entirely different creature altogether, one that I both appreciate and struggled with. I'll tell you right off the bat, I'm split about as close down the middle on this film as I possibly can be. If you want to hear why, keep reading.

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    Column Fri Feb 26 2010

    The Crazies, The Ghost Writer and North Face

    The Crazies

    There will always be a place in horror for the story of city folks wandering into a small town (often in the South) and getting themselves in a heap of trouble because they drive a nice car and don't wear coveralls. But The Crazies--a remake of George Romero's 1973 semi-classic that came in the period between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (as did Martin)--the big city/big government/big military threat comes to a small town in Iowa (a relocation from a small town in Pennsylvania in the original). What's interesting and works extremely well in the new film is that there are no secrets and no great mystery to solve. We learn early on that something in the water is slowly turning the townsfolk into homicidal killers who don't just walk up and kill like brainless zombies; there's an amount of deviant plotting going on behind those crazy eyes and veiny skin. And the transformation is gradual, so unaffected people aren't always sure if those around them are just scared and paranoid or actually turning into something dangerous.

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    Column Fri Feb 19 2010

    Shutter Island, Ajami, Oscar Shorts, Creation

    Shutter Island

    As he creeps toward 70 years old, Martin Scorsese still has a few tricks up his sleeve. There was never any doubt in my mind that the guy was still in one of the most creatively vital periods of his long career, but that didn't prepare me for what he gives us with Shutter Island, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone; Mystic River) and adapted by Laeta Kalogridies (Alexander). Borrowing a bit from some of the great mental hospital-set films of old, with a dash of Hitchcock mind games, Scorsese has given us a true mind fuck of a movie that I think needs to be seen at least twice to be fully appreciated.

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    Column Fri Feb 12 2010

    The Wolfman, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Valentine's Day, Life as Lincoln, Saint John of Las Vegas and Still Bill

    Hey, everyone. Don't forget, tonight (Friday) is the night that The Room writer-director-producer-actor Tommy Wiseau comes to Chicago to lay down his particular brand of crazy on our unworthy brains. There are two showing of The Room tonight at the Music Box Theatre , the first is at 8pm and the second is at 11:30pm. I'll be handling the Q&A for the first show, which may actually take place before the movie, so be sure to get there early. As of this writing, I hear the early show is on the brink of a selling out, and the late show isn't far behind. Brace yourself! And now, onto this week's releases.

    The Wolfman

    I've been tearing my hair out about this one for about two hours now trying to decide how I feel about this latest version of The Wolfman, and the fact that I'm still contemplating it and have so many feelings about it makes me think that I genuinely did enjoy the experience of watching this often-flawed exercise in bizarre horror, gothic weirdness, controlled hammy acting, and the evolution of werewolf transformation effects that takes the process to somewhere beyond awesome. Thank you, Rick Baker.

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    Column Fri Feb 05 2010

    From Paris with Love, Dear John, Frozen, Fish Tank and The Last Station

    From Paris with Love

    The action genre should be kissing director Pierre Morel's feet for adding a little fire and insane fun back into its tired ass. Working for and under the production guidance of Luc Besson for several years (he's also set to direct the reboot of Dune), Morel directed two dynamite-in-your-pants fun movies, District B13 and last year's surprise hit Taken, with Liam Neeson. Both films seemed intent on making their action sequences feel as unrehearsed and unchoreographed as possible. The results are some of the most raw and shocking fight scenes I've seen in a long time. With his latest work (from a screenplay by Adi Hasak from a Luc Besson story), Morel takes his organic style adds a layer of crazy in the form of a bald John Travolta, playing the ugliest of ugly American operatives who enters the City of Lights and blows most of it up.

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    Column Fri Jan 29 2010

    Edge of Darkness, When in Rome and The Chaser

    Hey everyone. Before I dive into this week's column, I wanted to alert to the single greatest event in film history, and it's happening the Friday before Valentine's Day right here in Chicago.

    A lot has been written (some of it by me) about both the film The Room and its creator Tommy Wiseau in both the mainstream and underground press. The speculation has run rampant about both the man and his notorious work. Last year at Comic-Con, I came this close to securing an interview with Wiseau, but we just couldn't make our schedules sync up. But I did talk to him on the phone for a bit, and was like I'd put my ear up to the mouth of God.

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    Column Fri Jan 22 2010

    Extraordinary Measures, 35 Shots of Rum, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

    Extraordinary Measures

    Less than a month ago, I named the ensemble drama Crossing Over as the single worst movie I saw in 2009. The overwrought film that dealt with the many aspects of immigration literally buried itself with do-gooder intention, terrible writing, and largely phoned-in performances, including what I would consider the single laziest and least-inspired work I've ever seen from Harrison Ford. But Ford's latest work, Extraordinary Measures, might be just a tiny bit worse, but not because Ford isn't trying. If anything, he's trying waaaaay too hard, as is the movie-of-the-week screenplay that lays the groundwork for one of the most overly sentimental films I've seen outside the Lifetime network in a very long time.

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    Column Fri Jan 15 2010

    The Book of Eli, The Lovely Bones, The White Ribbon, A Town Called Panic, and The Spy Next Door

    The Book of Eli

    I've poured over all of the possible synonyms for the first word that popped into my brain to describe the long-overdue new movie from The Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Dead Presidents, Menace II Society, American Pimp), but nothing quite does it justice. So I'll just say it: The Book of Eli is a cool movie. It's not a great movie; it's far from a masterpiece. But it is unabashedly cool, and I don't use that word often. But when you combine one of the coolest American actors of his generation and pit him against one of the coolest British actors ever and then throw in Tom Waits in a supporting part, well, that math lands you squarely at Cool.

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    Column Fri Jan 08 2010

    Daybreakers, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Leap Year, and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

    Daybreakers

    It's no secret that the world is being bombarded with vampire movies and TV shows. The best of the recent crop is Sweden's Let the Right One In; there's no debating that. It's a fact, so shut up. But I put to you that coming in at a close second is this week's Daybreakers, a science-fiction terror film with a deep subtext about exploiting natural resources and human greed. Rightfully and blessedly so, the film also features nasty monsters, gore galore (both thanks to WETA Workshop), and an exceptional cast of actors, led by Ethan Hawke as a blood researcher and reluctant vampire (he refuses to drink human blood) determined to find a blood substitute before the human blood supply runs out in a world dominated by vampires.

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    Column Thu Dec 31 2009

    The Best and Worst Movies of 2009

    Call me crazy, but I actually waited until the year was over before I finalized my Best Of... list. I managed to squeeze in a few more movies in the last two weeks of the year that were serious contenders for at least one of my lists. And if you think that a list of the 30 finest pieces of cinema of 2009 in overindulgent or just plain unnecessary, please feel free to stop at Number 10.

    As in most years, I simply couldn't help myself — plus there were way too many great movies this year to ignore, and I'm not a big fan of simply piling all of the almost-made-it movies into a list. I've got 30 features, 15 documentaries, and 20 of the worst pieces of dung I got to endure in the past 365 days. With the first 10 of my Top 30, I've included excerpts of my original reviews. I'm sure you'll all disagree with my choices, so allow me to throw raw meat to the lions and wave a red rag in front of a bull. Enjoy.

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    Column Sat Dec 26 2009

    Sherlock Holmes, Nine, It's Complicated, Crazy Heart, A Single Man, Police, Adjective, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

    Sherlock Holmes

    I was fortunate enough to catch a press screening of Guy Ritchie's richly triumphant, energetic, and fiercely intelligent Sherlock Holmes a couple weeks ago, and everyone I've told how good it is has reacted in a combination of surprise and relief (with a twinge of doubt that will be erased as soon as they see the movie themselves). People clearly want this film to wok, but Guy Ritchie has been on a bit of a downward streak since Snatch, and it's satisfying to see him use his talents as a visual acrobat in combination with a script that almost couldn't fail in the hands of any competent director. I'm not putting Ritchie down by any stretch; to the contrary, his loose and kinetic style with the camera brings this story to life in ways the trailers don't even hint at.

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    Column Fri Dec 18 2009

    Avatar, Broken Embraces, The Young Victoria and Mammoth

    Avatar

    Is there anything left to say about writer-director James Cameron's years-in-the-making epic Avatar? Well first of all let's look at something about that question and notice the term "writer-director." Avatar is not another special effects-driven studio film made by committee to please a target audience; instead, it is the vision of one man whose ability to wow and entertain us is nearly unrivaled in film history. Sure, thousands of people helped make this movie, but the spectacular 3-D images on the screen come straight from the brain of Cameron, who hasn't helmed a feature film in 12 years. Apparently he simply waited until technology could catch up to the worlds he wanted to create.

    Now make no mistake, I have a small handful of real issues with Avatar, beginning and ending with the fact that it's so damn derivative — both of Cameron's previous work and some fairly high-profile works by other filmmakers — that it's almost distracting. I've read a couple of critics who compared the movie to Dances with Wolves, and that's not exactly right. Avatar isn't similar to Dances with Wolves; it's a fucking carbon copy of Dances with Wolves at times (I might also throw in a little The New World). Granted, there hasn't been a truly original movie plot for a big-budget studio film since the silent-film era, but holy Christ was I surprised to see this story of a military man sent in to tame an indigenous population and ends up "going native" after falling in love with one of the locals. Some people might not be able to forgive Cameron for this lift, but I eventually looked past it and into a world and palette of images that simply robbed me of words.

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    Column Fri Dec 11 2009

    Invictus, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles and Collapse

    Invictus

    My first thought after viewing director Clint Eastwood's latest noble stab at accumulating more Oscars was "That was a story told." And before I write another word, let me make it clear that I am absolutely recommending Invictus, the story of how recently elected South African President Nelson Mandela found a way to unite all races in his nation using a sport closely identified with the white Afrikaners that oppressed the black population for decades under apartheid. And while there was never any doubt in my mind that Eastwood could tell this inherently interesting story in the manner we have become accustomed from one of America's greatest storytellers, I felt the film was a touch on the dry side to really pull me in the way I wanted to be.

    I go back and forth on this point, because there are absolutely times when I was immersed in this true story. Eastwood wisely lets the story unfold organically, with no artificial sweeteners. He's simply too good to ruin a great story with such ploys. And the screenplay from Anthony Peckham (from the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin) is smart in making sure every nuance of Mandela's thinking and the team's playing is examined and made clear. For example, Peckham understands that most Americans don't know a thing about the rules of rugby, so he includes a sequence in which the almost entirely white South African team goes to an all-black township to teach the children the game. And guess who else gets to learn the basic rules of the game as a result of this makeshift rugby camp?

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    Column Fri Dec 04 2009

    Up in the Air, Brothers, Everybody's Fine and Assassination of a High School President

    Up in the Air

    Connections are the most important thing we make as human beings, but not everyone is capable or driven to make them. And then there are those select few human beings that actively discourage connections with other people or possessions. In the case of Ryan Bingham (played with a marvelous, understated blend of charm and contempt by George Clooney), the only connections that matter are those at airports (although being the seasoned business traveler that he is, he probably would laugh at the very idea of booking a flight that required a connection), and the only groups he wants to belong to usually involve a platinum card that is earned after millions of miles of flying or staying at the same hotel chain for the better part of a given year.

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    Column Wed Nov 25 2009

    The Road, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ninja Assassin, Red Cliff, Old Dogs and La Bell Personne

    The Road

    What is it with all of these end-of-days movies? A couple weeks ago, it was 2012, and early into next year, we have Legion (which I guess technically counts as pre-apocalypse) with Paul Bettany, and The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. And while 2012 is about hope and action in the face of near-certain death, author Cormac (No Country for Old Men) McCarthy's The Road is about something much more serious and believable — the final existence of life on Earth. Existing in a world set afire by unnamed forces (the biblical undercurrent runs very close to the surface here), this story is about the lengths people would go to when they are starving, when all the planet's animals are dead, water is poison, and the only meat available to them is that of other human beings. The Road is certainly the grimmest movie of 2009, but there's an elegance and dignity to this telling of the novel (directed by The Proposition helmer John Hillcoat and adapted by Joe Penhall) that also makes it a work of great beauty in its own grey and haunting manner.

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    Column Fri Nov 20 2009

    The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The Messenger, The Blind Side, Planet 51 and La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

    The Twilight Saga: New Moon

    The first time we see vampire Edward Cullen (still pale with ruby red lips, and hair slightly less crazy than in Twilight), he's walking through a high school parking lot in slow motion, looking like he just stepped out of a goth band's music video. For about 90 percent of New Moon, Jacob Black (a beefed up Taylor Lautner) is walking around shirtless, wearing only tattered sweatpants, looking like he just stepped off a gay porn set. Never having read any of Stephenie Meyer's novels about the tortured romance between Edward (Robert Pettinson) and human heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), I may be a little late to this revelation, but seeing Edward and Jacob at their best and worst in New Moon made me realize that this is a film about the classic female dilemma — does she allow herself to fall for the more stable but still temperamental, hunky jock (he's also good with machines), or does she stray to the dark gothy side of life, possibly even becoming a vampire herself (which she seems more than willing to do)?

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    Column Fri Nov 13 2009

    2012, Pirate Radio, Gentlemen Broncos, Skin, Ong Bak 2 and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

    2012

    Be honest. When you first saw the trailer for or clips from 2012, you got a little sexually excited, didn't you? It's OK, I won't tell anyone. At Comic-Con in July, when director and co-writer Roland Emmerich showed an extended clip of California essentially dying from the earthquake to end all earthquakes (literally), I voided my bowls, ran to the men's room, changed my adult Huggies, and voided them a second time. And as much as Emmerich has made some colossal missteps over the years (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and the worst of all, 10,000 B.C.), the man also knows how to make some interesting if not entirely engaging works, such as Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day and The Patriot. The guy also knows how to blow stuff up on a spectacular scale; what he has failed to do time and time again is draw even somewhat believable characters that seem like anything more than gameboard pieces to be moved around, screaming, running, looking terrified, and occasionally die.

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    Column Fri Nov 06 2009

    The Men Who Stare at Goats, A Christmas Carol, The Fourth Kind, Precious and (Untitled)

    The Men Who Stare at Goats

    You can file this under "story so utterly ridiculous that it has to be true." This is one of those tales you may have heard your favorite neighborhood conspiracy theorist mutter about over the years. The idea that the U.S. Army had a small unit of men singled out because they possessed even a hint of psychic abilities seems preposterous, yet if even one such soldier proved to have such abilities, the military immediately attempting to somehow capture and weaponize these powers seems all too believable. And according to newspaper man Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor presumably standing in for source material author Jon Ronson), that's exactly what happened.

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    Column Fri Oct 30 2009

    This Is It, Bronson, The Yes Men Fix the World and Labor Day

    This Is It

    Let's start by putting aside the ethical decision to release this film in the first place. I have less of a problem with Sony releasing this film so soon after Michael Jackson's death and more with the fact that the unpolished nature of the work being shown would never have seen the light of day if Jackson were still alive. The performer was a perfectionist to a fault, and having footage of him at anything less than his absolute best simply wouldn't have been allowed to be viewed by the public. But Michael Jackson is not in control of his image anymore, or even his own output.

    This Is It is the first of what I'm sure will be many film and music releases that will now make their way to the public, and you know what? I thought it was pretty strong material. You have to remember that unpolished Michael Jackson is better than 95 percent of most other singers and performers in the world. The footage is taken from a series of rehearsals from March to June 2008, but the stuff I liked the most are the unguarded moments where Jackson issues forth orders to his band, his dancers, and his production director Kenny Ortega (who also assembled this film).

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    Column Fri Oct 23 2009

    Amelia, Astro Boy, Motherhood, An Education, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Antichrist and Walt & El Grupo

    Amelia

    When it comes to biography films, the absolute worst thing you can be is pointless. But in so many ways, this look at the famous years of Amelia Earhart's life and career is exactly that. When a historical figure's accomplishments are so well documented and their demise so infamous, you don't need to spend as much time detailing the events that are in every history book. In fact, it's an excellent opportunity to get inside the head and heart of the subject. What's particularly frustrating about Amelia is that I know so little about Earhart as a child and her upbringing — all of the things that brought her to such notoriety — yet the film decides to introduce us to her after she's already fairly famous and well on her way to becoming the most famous woman in America.

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    Column Fri Oct 16 2009

    Where the Wild Things Are, Law Abiding Citizen, The Damned United, Black Dynamite, More than a Game and We Live In Public

    Where the Wild Things Are

    Director and co-writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (Away We Go) have given birth to a type of film that defies conventional film criticism. To say you loved, like, were neutral on, or hated their adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are doesn't quite get the job done. No, this work demands a far purer emotional response and deep psychological self-examination to get to the heart of why this telling of this very simple story gets to the root of what we are as human beings. Jonze might be better at this than any director working today. He doesn't thrust cold, therapeutic analysis at us. With films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, he takes us by the hand and guides us into the often-scary world inside our collective mind and shared experiences as both children and adults.

    With Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze and Eggers acknowledge the very real and often totally overlooked (at least in movies) fact that children's minds work in an awesomely different way than the minds of adults. So often in films, kids are written simply as tiny adults — smarter and more in control of their thoughts and feelings than any kid I've ever met. I'm not saying there aren't smart children; there are. But no matter how intelligent a child may be, you can't accelerate maturity. Even a kid with a high IQ can have a temper tantrum. In fact, the odds are pretty great that they will. In Wild Things, Max (played by the gifted Max Records) may or may not be smart, but he is highly creative and has an imagination that may be so highly refined it might be a hindrance rather than an asset. Dressed in his wolf costume for dinner, he climbs on a counter and demands that his mother (Catherine Keener) "Feed me, woman!" in his most booming voice, her reaction is a mixture of anger and humiliation (her new boyfriend — Mark Ruffalo — is in the next room).

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    Column Fri Oct 09 2009

    Selections from Chicago International Film Festival, Couples Retreat, A Serious Man, Good Hair and Trucker

    Today marks the first full day of screenings for the Chicago International Film Festival, this year a rather subdued affair all taking place at the AMC River East theaters. There are slightly fewer offerings this year, but in most cases, there are more showings of each film, which is always a good thing. Forgiving the open-night selection Motherhood, an abysmal self-important treatise on hipster parents starring Uma Thuman (more on the film when it opens in a few weeks), the rest of the festival is a promising mixture of accessible art house fare, a solid selection of foreign films that have been gathering acclaim on the festival circuit, and even a couple of films that feature Oscar-hopeful performances. Here's a quick rundown of some of the films playing in the first week of CIFF that you might want to consider checking out.

    Antichrist

    In what was the most divisive film at the Cannes Film Festival, and may end up being the most divisive of the year, period, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist opens with what is the most beautiful prologue you will see in 2009. It ends with acts of sexual brutality (inflicted by a man and a woman against each other and themselves) that are difficult to describe even on the filterless internet. In between these unforgettable book ends is actually where the controversy occurs. There's a whole lot of psychobabble between a distraught wife (the wonderfully neurotic/psychotic Charlotte Rampling) and her therapist husband (the remarkable Willem Dafoe). I found the on-the-go, free-flowing analysis fascinating; others have found it mind-numbingly inane and insufferable. And I don't think I'd pick of fight with people who feel that way. The cabin-in-the-foggy-woods setting and the bizarre, excessive mutilations in the film's final minutes gave the entire experience a fairy tale quality to it, and I think it's possible that Antichrist actually hypnotized me. If less intriguing and talented actors were at the center of this movie, I don't think I would have liked it as much. But Dafoe and Rampling maneuver through this murky plot like masters. If you have the stomach for the violence, the rest of Antichrist will probably impress you. My first reaction after the film ended was that it was neither as bloody or shocking as I'd been led to believe. It was the emotional trauma of the entire work that stuck with me and not simply the shocking visuals. Give this one a try, if only to celebrate the fact that Von Trier is still making movies that people cannot stop talking about.

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    Column Fri Oct 02 2009

    Zombieland, Whip It, Paranormal Activity, Capitalism: A Love Story, Big Fan, The Boys Are Back and Toy Story & Toy Story 2 in 3D

    Zombieland

    There are two things you need to do before seeing Zombieland for the first of what will inevitably be many times. The first thing is to erase the memory of Shaun of the Dead, if only for the 90-minute duration of this film. Despite both works being very funny, bloody and full of zombies, they are two very different creatures. Zombieland is not the American version of Shaun — it's certainly not trying to be — and any comparisons between the two are foolish and lazy. The second thing you need to do is stay as far away from any cast list you might have access to for this film. If you've already seen a reference to a certain extended cameo in this film, they you've ruined one of the truly great sequences in any film of 2009 for yourself. Maybe you stumbled upon it by accident, who knows. But going in not knowing gave me one of the true joys of going to a movie this year. And here's the thing, somebody actually told me about the appearance, and I just plain forgot. Thank god for that. My point is, go into Zombieland pure and with a head just empty enough to truly appreciate what director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have carefully constructed — a film that appears to be all about the fun-filled world of the zombie Apocalypse but has a little something for your mind and soul as well. You will laugh, without a doubt, but you're also going to feel something for these characters and their individual situations.

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    Column Fri Sep 25 2009

    Fame and The Providence Effect

    Fame

    Films like this remake of Fame are frustrating for so many reasons, chief among them is that it's clear they aren't trying particularly hard to be great. Contrary to foggy memories, the 1980 version of Fame isn't that great a movie. It's sort of the prequel to A Chorus Line, showing a group of dancers, singers, musicians, actors, and other artistic types at a high school for the performing arts, where a group of teachers ply them with skills, push them harder than they've ever been pushed, and load them up with all of the cliches about effort and talent and placing the art before the celebrity they may or may not achieve. If even this plot description makes you roll your eyes, imagine the experience of watching the film.

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    Column Fri Sep 18 2009

    The Informant!, Jennifer's Body, Bright Star, No Impact Man, Amreeka, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Burning Plain and What's the Matter with Kansas?

    Hey everyone. Before we dive into this week's mainstream and art house offerings, I wanted to alert you to a neat little film festival taking root in Chicago for the first time this year at the Music Box Theatre for one week. The Chicago United Film Festival features a weird little mixture of documentaries, shorts and features, but there are some gems in the mix (at least among the films I've seen or am familiar with). The crown jewel of the bunch is the Jaws documentary The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws, narrated by the late Roy Scheider and featuring interviews with many of those responsible for getting that film made. But the movie also examines the new redefining of the summer blockbuster as a result of that film. It's playing three times this coming weekend, and you should absolutely see it. As a bonus film, Friday night at midnight sees a screening of the original Jaws in all its bloody glory.

    I'm also going to highly recommend the doc The Providence Effect, which tells the almost impossible to believe story of Chicago's own Providence St. Mel school and its 30-year, 100 percent college placement record. Their way of teaching and putting much of the responsibility of learning on the students and their parents is remarkable and it is baffling why other schools aren't following this model. I'll have a longer review soon, when the film opens in wider release.

    For information on purchasing tickets and the full screening schedule, go to theunitedfest.com/chicago/. There's some good stuff here, and if I wasn't heading off to Fantastic Fest in Austin next week, I'd be hitting quite a bit of it.

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    Column Fri Sep 11 2009

    9, Whiteout, The September Issue, Five Minutes of Heaven, The Baader Meinhof Complex and American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

    9

    I've spoken to enough directors over the last 11 years or so to know that scraping together a handful of short films and getting them shown at festivals has been the path that many successful filmmakers have taken to land them their first feature film job. About five years ago, I saw a wonderful live-action short called Cashback, from writer-director Sean Ellis. About two years following the short's acclaimed journey through the festival circuit, Ellis took his short and made it the centerpiece of a feature-length work of the same name that garnered a great deal of acclaim from most critics who saw it (including me). Ellis has since directed another feature, but continues making shorts as well. In 2005, writer-director-student Shane Acker developed a groundbreaking and much talked about animated short called 9, which showed up in animation and other film festivals. It caught the attention of Tim Burton and others who were eager to work with Acker and add him to the growing list of directing greats in the animation universe. The result of this process is a feature-length version of 9 that does not feature material from the short, although it certainly does take place with the same lead character in the same post-apocalyptic world. It's actually kind of rare that a first-time director will get to make an enhanced version of their own short as their premiere movie, but both Ellis and Acker are the worthy exceptions to the standard operating procedure.

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    Column Fri Sep 04 2009

    Extract, World's Greatest Dad, Still Walking, My One and Only and Treeless Mountain

    Extract

    The workplace is undoubtedly a great environment to base a whole lot of comedy, and the first time writer-director Mike Judge wrote a film about how much genuine inanity was borne in the world of white-collar business, he called it Office Space, and it was good. Judge had already established his place as a scary observer of human behavior with Beavis & Butt-Head (both the TV show and the feature film), but Office Space was so right on the money that a generation of middle managers and cubicle dwellers turned the film into their source for the finest quotes the world had to offer at the time. Judge hasn't exactly transplanted the Office Space template and moved it into a factory assembly line setting for his latest film Extract, but the results are just as funny, even if some of the best humor takes place outside of the work environment.

    The first thing you notice about Extract is that the employees actually seem to like their boss, Joel (played by Jason Bateman), who built this small, privately owned factory that makes a special brand of extracts with flavor that lasts longer. Joel has done well for himself, but he's frustrated because his wife (Kristen Wiig) hasn't slept with him in weeks. After a serious industrial accident involving an employee (Clifton Collins, Jr.) losing a testicle, a temp shows up to work on the line in the form of Mila Kunis' Cindy, a seemingly sweet, beautiful woman who seems genuinely interested in Joel's line of work. After some prompting from his best friend Dean (the bearded Ben Affleck, as a sort of stoner philosopher), Joel realizes that the only way he could even dream of cheating on his wife with Cindy (he kind of makes that leap with consulting Cindy first, but let's not get lost in the details) is if his wife cheated on him first. One male prostitute (the hilarious Dustin Milligan) later, Joel is ready to make a play for Cindy, but nothing in this movie is that easy. In fact, that's part of the problem I had with Extract.

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    Column Fri Aug 28 2009

    Taking Woodstock

    Hey, everyone. Thanks to a combination of me missing a couple of screenings and a couple films not being screened for critics at all this week, the column this week is a little light. That said, I've heard nothing but great things about the documentary It Might Get Loud, opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema today. From director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), the film is about nothing less than the evolution of the sound and styles of the electric guitar, featuring a gathering of three of the guitar's most influential players: Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, who not only talk but also jam together. I cannot wait to see this film.

    Under the category of running scared we have two horror films sneaking onto screens today that were too underwhelmed by their own magical powers to show the critics (I'll still see them, mind you). Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 and The Final Destination (in 3-D!) were kept from critical eyes so that we wouldn't muddy the opening weekend. The truth is, I've enjoyed most of the Final Destination movies, so it really surprises me that they didn't screen this one, especially considering the 3-D aspect. Anyway, hope that helps you in planning your weekend movie-going endeavors.

    Taking Woodstock

    You have to give Taiwan-born director Ang Lee credit for at least one thing. The guy never, ever repeats himself. Lee has been making movies for less than 20 years, with about half of his productions being English-language films that have been highly regarded for their sensitivity. Of course, he also like to kick ass with such works as the original Hulk movie and one of the finest wire-fu offerings ever made, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you haven't seen them, his earliest films — Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman — are equally beautiful, funny and moving efforts that transition nicely into his tellings of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil and his masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain. His last movie, Lust, Caution, was explicit in its sexuality and its emotional nakedness, but many of the critical press rejected it. I found myself enraptured by its beauty, lust and fascinating wartime story. With Taking Woodstock, Lee returns to his lighter origins, and I think it suits him, at least for now.

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    Column Fri Aug 21 2009

    Inglourious Basterds, Cold Souls, Post Grad, Shorts, Fifty Dead Men Walking, Flame & Citron, Art & Copy, Weather Girl and X Games 3D: The Movie

    Inglourious Basterds

    My greatest regret going into writing this review is that I've only seen this film once so far, at Comic-Con about three weeks ago. While writer-director Quentin Tarantino has certainly crafted films that almost demand that you see them two, three, four times before you really soak in all of their nuances, his latest, Inglourious Basterds, is a beast of an entirely different nature. And seeing twice before even legally being allowed to discuss it seems necessary. So I guess I'm breaking the law, but here goes.

    Basterds feels like the film that Tarantino has been building steam toward his entire career, which I guess goes without saying since it is his latest work. But I'm talking about something different. I don't think Tarantino could have made a film with this scope and level of sophistication without having gone through some of the finest trail-and-error exercises a filmmaker in the modern age has ever gone through. There's a patience and elegance to Basterds that I simply wasn't prepared for. Sure, the blood flows like a geyser at times, but not nearly as much as I thought it would, which makes the film infinitely better. You are actually able to settle down with the movie's many American, German and British characters, and get comfortable in their presence by simply listening to them chat and interact with each other. Then, when the violence begins, it breaks the serenity and lets Hell rush out until it consumes you. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but that's really what it felt like.

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    Column Fri Aug 14 2009

    District 9, Thirst, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, Lorna's Silence, The Beaches of Agnes and Throw Down Your Heart

    District 9

    I've seen this film twice now, under fairly similar circumstances in two different cities, and I'm really dying to see this very different take on the "alien invasion" style of film plays to a paying audience that really has no idea just what kind of film District 9 transforms into before your very eyes. I'm tempted to keep this review extremely short. I've said this before about other films, but in the case of this one, I think it's crucial that you know as little going in as possible. What you have seen on the film's various websites and different commercials and trailers is certainly a part of what District 9 is about, but the marketing people for this film have been almost incomprehensibly wise about not showing too much. And what they have shown you isn't even a fraction of the most interesting elements of this seriously well-made science fiction epic that combines politics, social commentary, aliens, extreme cartoony violence, and one of the best classic Hitchcock-ian, wrong-man-pursued plots in recent memory.

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    Column Fri Aug 07 2009

    G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Julie & Julia, Paper Heart, Adam and A Perfect Getaway

    Hey everyone. I just wanted to toss in a couple notes before we move on to the reviews regarding some recent headlines that have moved across my desk in the last couple of days.

    For those of you who were at my Ain't It Cool screening of Public Enemies at the end of June, I told the very true story of how John Landis' The Blues Brothers and Michael Mann's Thief were the primary reasons when I was in high school that I wanted to move to Chicago. When the summer of 1986 came around, I had just graduated high school and was mentally preparing for my move from a suburb of Washington, D.C., to Northwestern University in an immediate northern suburb of Chicago. In June 1986, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, written and directed by the recently departed John Hughes, came out, and I went from planning a big move to Chicago to actually having a blueprint for some of the things I wanted to do when I got there. Chicago stopped being a big, scary city and became a place where I was going to have fun for a very long time. A year or so later, my all-time favorite Hughes film was released, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, an absolute holiday standard in my house every Thanksgiving.

    Feel free to go to a thousand other sites to get a complete list of all the movies John Hughes directed, wrote, or otherwise had a hand in. But favorite films and favorite directors aren't about lists; they're about the personal connection you have to that person's work. And these two films hold a very special place in my life, as do many of Hughes' works. I vividly recalled seeing The Breakfast Club and immediately slotting in my friends into the different roles and types presented in that film. It also made me realize that it was OK for someone under the age of 18 to have grown-up thoughts. Even reading the David Bowie lyrics that open that movie made me shutter and think, This filmmaker knows me: "And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations / They're quite aware of what they're going through." Indeed.

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    Column Fri Jul 31 2009

    Funny People, The Ugly Truth, In the Loop, Humpday and Soul Power

    Hey, everyone. Sorry about not having any reviews for you last week, but my prep work for and travels to Comic-Con 2009 basically wrecked my writing time. But because this week is kind of light on the new releases (at least new releases that were screened in advance for critics), I've included all of the films I should have had for you last weekend. So, Funny People opens this week, and all the rest of the films in this column opened last week. Enjoy.

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    Column Fri Jul 17 2009

    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, (500) Days of Summer, Three Monkeys, An Unlikely Weapon and Burma VJ

    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

    One of the many great joys of watching the sixth, and most deeply satisfying, installment in the Harry Potter film series is watching returning director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves beef up characters whose roles (in the movies, at least) have been soundly in the background up to this point. I liked watching members of the Weasley family finally be brought to the foreground in anticipation of major contributions from them in the final two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finale. I was particularly impressed with the way Tom Felton has transformed Draco Malfoy from a sneering bully into a genuine source of tortured menace, worthy of being both feared and pitied. But more than anything, it's great watching every element of the sweeping overall story come together so wonderfully and have the acting by the one-time child performers be able to match the power of the maturing plotlines.

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    Column Fri Jul 10 2009

    Brüno, The Hurt Locker, Blood: The Last Vampire, Il Divo and In Search of Beethoven

    Brüno

    A review of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest sort-of documentary featuring a character that brings out the very worst in American behavior and prejudices is set loose on the world this weekend, and while there are many differences between the flaming Austrian fashion show host Brüno and Kazakhstani traveler Borat (or the British hip-hop wannabe Ali G, for that matter), it's the things that are similar to Cohen's other characters that make the film work so well despite a few shortcomings. With the very clear objective of finding the ultra-shallow and the wildly homophobic in the world today (Brüno does travel the world a bit in this film), Cohen is a master manipulator and instigator; he also feeds off other people's discomfort, and I completely understand how addictive that is, because I certainly enjoy watching it. And while a review for this film could easy just be me describing or transcribing joke after joke, I'm not going to ruin any more of the fun than the trailer already has. Well, maybe a little.

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    Column Fri Jul 03 2009

    Public Enemies, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, The Girl from Monaco and Herb & Dorothy

    Public Enemies

    Although the trailers for Michael Mann's latest slice of magnificence emphasize the more action-oriented scenes from his film about the latter days of bank robber and cultural icon John Dillinger, in truth the strength of Public Enemies is not entirely in those moments. There are certainly a handful of bank robberies and moments where law enforcement corner Dillinger and his gang that feature some ferocious gunplay, but it's what happens between the scenes of bullets flying that impressed me the most and helps this become one of the greatest films about the birth of modern day crime and crime-fighting that I've ever seen.

    Public Enemies also serves as a much-needed reminder that Johnny Depp gained his reputation as one of the greatest actors living today by actually acting and not simply creating real-life cartoon characters with pale skin, funny makeup and wigs. With Mann's guidance, Depp breathes life and soul into a man who has served a lengthy prison sentence and learned much while behind bars about military-style bank heists and what's important to him. Depp doesn't play Dillinger as overly tough or as some ridiculously suave ladies man. His flaws and qualities aren't nearly as easy to spot immediately, but Depp does a fantastic job of parceling out personality details about John Dillinger in a way that we grow eager to discover more as the film goes on.

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    Column Thu Jun 25 2009

    The Room, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Whatever Works, Cheri, Jerichow, Break-Up Date and A Wink and a Smile

    Before we dive into this week's offerings, I wanted to tell you about a little movie that you've probably never heard of (or only heard about in whispered tones in dark alleys) that is finally, after six long years of playing almost non-stop in a Los Angeles theater, making its way to a screen in Chicago. The film is called The Room, and that's really all you need to know about it, other than it's playing at midnight shows at the Music Box Theatre June 26 and 27, and July 24 and 25.

    I get mad when I see critics attempt to review or even summarize The Room because it's impossible to capture in words just how truly bad this movie from writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau is. I love that Chicago audiences will finally get a chance to watch this movie, one that needs to be seen in the comfort and safety of a crowd. The film is simply too dangerous to watch alone at home. That being said, the only thing greater than The Room as a theatrical event are the extras on the DVD release, which features an interview with Wiseau that is beyond hilarious. Free promo DVDs will be given out to the first 50 people at each Music Box performance.

    Wiseau himself has taken to calling the film a dark comedy, which is a load of crap. I firmly believe he thought he was making high drama when he spent what I'm hearing is millions of dollars making this movie. But don't take my word for it. This film has a celebrity endorsement from none other than Paul Rudd, who first brought the film to my attention a couple years ago. More recently, Rudd's I Love You, Man director John Hamburg told me, "I've been in Paul's bedroom. He has a little table next to his side of the bed, and the only thing on that table is a copy of The Room." There you have it. If someone told me today that The Room was an elaborate hoax, made deliberately bad to make people laugh, I'd almost believe it, but not quite. There are things in this film that you just couldn't make this bad on purpose. See it and then see it again. You've been warned and encouraged; the rest is up to you. All else opening this week pales in comparison, but here it is anyway.

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    Column Fri Jun 19 2009

    Moon, The Proposal, Year One, Tetro and Seraphine

    Moon

    Before I begin my review, I must vent: I just finished watching the hideous incarnation of "At the Movies" with Bens Lyons & Mankiewicz (I watch it purely for scientific purposes, like observing the mating habits of wild slugs). Anyway, these two turd burglars (in particular Mankiewicz) did something I consider something above and beyond the realm of their normal level of assholishness: they spoiled a significant plot point about the Duncan Jones film Moon. Yes, the plot point in question is probably all over the internet for those who love the spoilers, and yes, to a degree, the trailer gives away that something stinky is up in Denmark. But the trailer wisely keeps the film's mysteries cloaked and uncertain; it's actually a magnificent trailer that is even more misleading than you might think and I love it for that very reason. Regardless, the Bens flat out said what the film's only real twist is and they are a couple of dicks for doing it.

    That said, I don't think anything could truly ruin the experience of watching Moon, one of the finest works of cinematic science fiction that I've seen in a very long time. I've been telling people that it's the best sci-fi work I've seen in five years, but that timeframe isn't really tied to a particular movie. For all I know, it's the best science fiction film made in 20 years. I keep searching my personal databank to think of a film set in the future that I've enjoyed more, and I have to go back to some major league classic to find one. Like most of my favorite films in this genre, Moon is based on reality. I thoroughly believe that if scientists discovered that the surface of the moon had an energy source stored in it (called Helium 3), it wouldn't take long for a corporation or two to find ways to set up massive mining operations to scrape off the moon's surface, process the material, and ship it back to Earth. I also firmly believe that said corporations would be so cheap that they would use as few employees as possible to man these operations, maybe as few as one worker.

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    Column Fri Jun 12 2009

    The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Away We Go, Imagine That, The Force Among Us, Enlighten Up!, Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight, Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect and Visioneers

    The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

    The not-so-big secret about the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (which was the actual title) was that the heist itself was just an excuse to get to know some really interesting and very human characters on both sides of the crime equation. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw would have been nearly as interesting playing two people checking out library books as they were as a transit cop and subway hostage taker, respectively. Watching that film today, the stakes seem ludicrously low and New York is a very different place.

    The 2009 edition of 1 2 3 is a beast of a different nature, but director Tony Scott is wise enough to at least leave the fundamentals the same as he navigates Brian Helgeland's far more dense screenplay. The focus is still on characters, even if the characters aren't nearly as compelling as they were 35 years ago. Much has been updated to this story of group of angry New Yorkers who hijack a subway car filled with passengers and demand a massive sum of money in one hour before they start killing hostages, and for the most part I didn't mind the changes. The head of the criminals, Ryder (played by John Travolta), has motivations behind his actions that seem solid. The film also acknowledges the role that modern telecommunications would play in such an incident — yes, in some cities, you can get a wireless signal in the subway. Above ground is an entirely different story...

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    Column Fri Jun 05 2009

    The Hangover, Objectified, My Life In Ruins and Sleep Dealer

    The Hangover

    This may be one of most unusual reviews of any movie I've ever written for the plain and simple fact that I saw the film two times, and each time I had radically different reactions to it. Of course, every critic — hell, every human being — has good days and bad days; we bring prejudices into a film, both positive and negative; and we all think we're mature enough to not let those things influence the opinions we put forth in the most unbiased way possible. We go into each film with higher or lower expectations than we did the last one for various reason, whether it be a particular actor in the film or the movie's director, plot, writers, etc. The key to dealing with these prejudices is to acknowledge them and compensate for them when formulating a critique.

    The other thing I do, when given the opportunity, is take note of how an audience of non-critics reacts to a certain film. I'm not looking for cues when to laugh or scream or cry; but if I go to a movie aimed at little kids, and I'm not enjoying it but the kids in the audience clearly are, I'll mention that in my review. It won't in any way change my opinion of the film, but parents contemplating taking their kids will at least know that their youngsters might enjoy a movie even if I didn't. With horror films, I'm not easily scared or shocked, but if the crowd seems freaked out by a certain amount of blood or scares, I'll mention that in my write-up, especially if I didn't like the movie. As a rule, I'm not a big fan of watching comedies or scare films in a roomful of critics; the reactions very often seem off and not like those of audiences made up on the general public. I love my Chicago critical peers, but they are a tough audience. If you can win them over, they will love you; but if you can't, it kind of poisons the experience for me. This isn't always the case, but when that Chicago screening room is quiet when it's meant to be filled with laughter, the silence is deafening. Sometimes, the silence is well deserved; other times, I'm less sure. Case in point: The Hangover.

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    Column Fri May 29 2009

    Drag Me To Hell, Up, Easy Virtue and Courting Condi

    Drag Me To Hell

    Sometimes fans don't like it when a director strays too far from what they perceive to be his/her comfort zone. And probably an equal number of fans hate it when a director repeats himself a few too many times. You can't please everybody (I think I'll copyright that because it's so damn original). It's tough to think of another director that fans would love to see do nothing more than repeat himself than Sam Raimi. If he did nothing but make Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies, most of the world's geeks would be completely satisfied. But if that had happened, we would have never gotten such tasty nuggets as Dark Man, A Simple Plan or The Gift. But a director like Raimi, like the consummate artist that he is, needs to stretch his wings every so often just to remind himself that he can. Watching a nearly finished work-in-progress print of Drag Me To Hell at SXSW last March saw Raimi somehow managing to do something I didn't think was possible — satisfying both schools of thought by making a non-franchise movie that still managed to tap into all of the thrill-house antics that have made him so damn much fun to watch over the nearly 30 years since The Evil Dead first changed the face of horror.

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    Column Fri May 22 2009

    Terminator Salvation, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Brothers Bloom, The Girlfriend Experience, Outrage and Adoration

    First off, some exciting news for those of you in town over the holiday weekend concerning one of the films reviewed this week, The Brothers Bloom. Writer-director Rian Johnson will be doing a post-screening Q&A (with yours truly) on Saturday night, May 23 after the 7pm showing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema (Clark/Diversey); as a bonus, Rian will be sticking around to introduce the 10:10pm showing as well. Rian's a fantastic talker, and the evening promises to be an entertaining both during and after the film. I'm expecting a capacity crowd for the 7pm show, so get your tickets early if you can; this is not a free screening, but tickets will probably sell out. Hope to see you there.

    Terminator Salvation

    This fourth installment in the end-of-the-world franchise is not really science fiction at all. Nope, this is director McG's big, loud, gritty, steely-gray war epic. Gone is the philosophy and metaphors about time travel, the dangers of letting machines and computers take over our lives, the loss of innocence, motherhood. With this new film, the other thing that has officially vanished from the Terminator universe is heart — ironic since the human heart is a major plot point in Terminator Salvation. What we're left with is a collection of hardened bad-asses battling some of the meanest fucking robots I've ever seen. In any other movie, I might be less bothered by this. But one of the things I always loved about Cameron's first two films, and even the subpar third movie and the "Sarah Connor Chronicles" TV show (which I contend got progressively better as it went on), is that not everybody in each story was supposed to be a grizzled soldier. Sarah Connor was an unremarkable woman when we met her; she became remarkable to protect her son, who in turn grew into a little shit who had to learn to fight from a friendly Terminator sent back to protect him.

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    Column Fri May 15 2009

    Angels & Demons, Management, Every Little Step and Lost in the Fog

    Angels & Demons

    People sure did spend a lot of time picking apart every small detail, plot hole, inconsistency or just dopey maneuver in Star Trek last week; let's see if these same people bother to do the same with the second big-screen adaptation of author Dan Brown's Robert Langdon stories, Angels & Demons. My guess is nobody will for two reasons, and one of them isn't "because the film's plot is flawless." The first reason is that nobody cares as much about Langdon's exploits as they do about the folks of the Trek universe. Second, Angels & Demons isn't nearly as ambitious or adventurous as Trek or 75 percent of the other films I see in a given summer. It's not the kind of film people bother analyzing ad nauseum, which I guess brings me back to reason one. There wasn't a moment in this film's entire 2-hour 20-minute length that I didn't know what most of the bigger-picture secrets were in this story. I knew who were going to be revealed as the real hidden bad guys and what kind of treachery they were up do. Not that the movie doesn't have its share of lofty intentions and a great cast to give those intentions weight and significance; it does. But at some point early in the film, I stopped caring what happened to most of the characters or even whether Vatican City was lost to the world with the help of a bomb created out of antimatter. I guess it's the lapsed Catholic in me.

    Let's get into some of the performance first, because at this point you either know the basic plot or you don't because — all together now — you don't care. Robert Langdon is the least interesting character from an actor that has spent his entire career creating memorable and interesting characters, even when the elements that made them so weren't in the script. Langdon uses history to solve ancient puzzles. I'm sure in print, reading the innermost thought processes of Langdon is fascinating, but this massive amount of brain activity does not translate well to a visual medium. Tom Hanks spends a lot of time vocalizing his thoughts as he combs through the Vatican archives (long kept away from his prying eyes because of what happened in The Da Vinci Code). But here's the thing, Langdon is following a trail that has been in existence for hundreds of years. If the ancient order of the Illuminati changed even one small detail of this path (which they easily could have), Langdon's smarts would be of no use. This deduction led me to believe that the powers-that-be wanted Langdon to find the bomb in a very specific manner, which would lead into a series of predictable events, blah, blah, blah. This is how I figure shit out; it's not that tough.

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    Column Fri May 08 2009

    Star Trek, The Limits of Control and Next Day Air

    Star Trek

    I've noticed a lot of people who have reviewed this film so far have felt obligated to detail their personal history for the Star Trek franchise over the decades. Fair enough, although one of many beautiful things about J.J. Abrams' indecently entertaining take on the Trek universe is that it truly doesn't matter how much history you have with many series and feature films. My Star Trek history is simply: I worshipped the original series, never watched a single episode of any of the follow-up series, and faithfully lined up every few years to see each new film version on the day it opened. I loved that the original series wasn't afraid to laugh at itself as often as it took itself with a degree of seriousness usually reserved for medical dramas or detective shows. When I was young, I never noticed that almost everything was done on the cheap and that Captain Kirk seemed to care as much about his hair and his blinding-glow tan as he did about saving his crew and his ship. I focused on and admired the moral code that Starfleet operated under, on the that the show's creators saw space travel as more than just jaunts from Earth to the moon or to Mars. This was the first indication in my mind that space went on forever in every direction.

    What I've had to endure in recent years (through subpar TV episodes and lesser films) is a franchise that has been bleeding integrity. J.J. Abrams' job with his new Star Trek film wasn't to reboot it — anyone who calls this a reboot is truly missing the essence of this movie — it was to save it and breathe new life into it by making us see these characters in ways we'd never dreamed possible. These are the same men and women who took us into space in 1966; none of the characters have been radically reinvented, and their core personality traits and flaws are all still here for all the faithful to see. What Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done is build a world before the series that will impact the world during and after the series. They haven't hit the 'Reset' button exactly, but they have taken the events we know, rewound them to the beginning, and laid out the possibility that things may not play out the same way this time around. I'm making this sound far more complicated than it actually is, because what I'm really impressed with is that the creative team behind Star Trek have made the first real film in the franchise that doesn't feel like an extended version of a TV episode. That said, I have no idea where Abrams and Co. could possibly go from here in a way that won't feel like episodic television. I can't imagine these characters in anyone else's hands right now, or anyone else playing these fine folks, but time will tell.

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    Column Fri May 01 2009

    X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Lymelife, Tyson, Sita Sings the Blues & The Merry Gentleman

    X-Men Origins: Wolverine

    It pains me to report that the first official film of the summer movie season doesn't even quite reach the level of so-so. Somehow actor Hugh Jackman, director Gavin Hood, and whoever else stepped in with the intention of making Wolverine a better, more exciting work, have instead created a film that is a patchwork plot populated by characters that we never get to know or care about. Remember when Wolverine was arguably the most interesting character in any of the X-Men film? I'm not sure what happened to that dude. What this film consists of is character after character trying to out-badass each other by looking meaner or dressing cooler than the next guy. The Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am in cowboy attire was more than I could take.

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    Column Fri Apr 24 2009

    The Soloist, Fighting, Earth and Anvil! The Story of Anvil

    By the time you read this, I'll be well into my long weekend in Champaign attending my first-ever Ebertfest (also known as the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival and formerly known as the Overlooked Film Festival). In the last year or so, I've become friendly with Ebert and his lovely wife Chaz, although I think it goes without saying that without Ebert's influence in my life, you wouldn't be reading this column right now. Because Roger's ailment renders him without speech, for the past couple of years, he's asked various film industry types and peers (including the Tribune's Michael Phillips and the Sun-Times Richard Roeper) to come and handle some of the panel discussions and post-screening Q&As with filmmakers and actors. And as bizarre, unlikely, and somewhat disturbing as it may seem, Ebert asked me to handle some of these duties this year. I'll be taking part in a panel called "Film Critics and the Internet" on Friday morning and doing a Q&A with Catinca Untaru, the young star of writer-director Tarsem's great film from last year, The Fall.

    It goes without saying that being invited to take part in this event might be the biggest honor of my career as a film critic. My respect and admiration for Ebert's accomplishments are well documented in both my condemnation of the current version of the "At the Movies" television show, and my interview with Ebert in October of last year. So I'm off to Champaign. I have little idea what to expect, and I fully expect that all of the lessons I've learned from my years of public speaking will fly right out the window. But I'm excited as hell about the lineup this year, and about being at a film festival that does actually seem to bring filmmakers and film lovers together in a setting where they might actually get to talk to each other. What a concept. Anyway, here are a bunch of movies coming out this week, including a couple very good ones.

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    Column Thu Apr 16 2009

    State of Play, 17 Again, Sugar, American Violet, Hunger and While She Was Out

    State of Play

    Something that struck me almost immediately about the smart, complicated, and wholly satisfying State of Play were the three men credited with the screenplay. Now, I have no idea whether these three collaborated in any way — I'm guessing not — but they are three screenwriters who have impressed me with their knowledge and means of telling convincing stories about journalists and those who occupy positions of power in our world. And the result of this carefully crafted screenplay (based on the much-praised BBC miniseries of the same name, which I have not seen but is sitting on my shelf ready to be watched very soon) is a tale that is more about the way in which even the purest forms of journalism can be influenced and less about simply a scandal and possible cover-up involving big business and corrupt politicians.

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    Column Fri Apr 10 2009

    Observe and Report, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Gigantic and Hannah Montana: The Movie

    Observe and Report

    The absolute best way to see this movie is to stop reading this or any other review of it. I'm not so much concerned about critics giving away too much of the plot or the best lines. No, it's more about letting slip just how messed up this depraved piece of perfection truly is. I saw this film for the first time at SXSW, and I struggled trying to remember the last time a film, especially one with this many laughs, really shook me up like this. This is a film with no moral compass, no mercy, and with a soul as dark and poisoned as the most hardened criminal. This is a movie borne of a crack whore mother and absent father (who probably could have been any one of a dozen men), given to be raised by a 300-pound uncle who spent his days beating this movie and his nights committing unspeakable acts. This film ran away from home at 15, and turned tricks with businessmen in alleys stinking of long-dead fish and rat shit, while catching every festering disease in the book. Now imagine, if you can, what a movie like this would look like, smell like; then imagine this movie is a comedy.

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    Column Fri Apr 03 2009

    Adventureland, Fast and Furious, Alien Trespass and Shall We Kiss?

    Adventureland

    In a strange and wonderful way, I'm both a little ticked off and extremely pleased with the folks that are marketing the latest film from writer-director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) entitled Adventureland. Most of you probably think this is a silly comedy about a bunch of teenagers who work at a rundown amusement park circa the 1980s, and you'd be about half right. There's a big part of me that wants you to walk into Adventureland thinking you know exactly what you're in for, so if you like surprises then walk away from this review right now. While I won't spoil any major plot points in this review, those of you who continue reading need to understand that you're going to discover that the tone and plot of this film are a lot more interesting and weighty than any of the advertising might lead you to believe. As long as you're cool with knowing that ahead of time, continue reading.

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    Column Fri Mar 27 2009

    Monsters vs. Aliens, The Haunting in Connecticut and Goodbye Solo

    Monsters vs. Aliens

    One of the biggest corners of my heart is held in reserve for old (usually black-and-white) sci-fi films. I'm talking ginormous man-in-suit monsters, slow-moving aliens with tentacles and either one or 50 eyes, or regular-sized animals that are made to look humongous as they terrorize poor citizens like us. Watch any of them repeatedly and you notice one thing almost without fail: they are about 85 percent chatter and 15 percent actual creature feature... if you were lucky. The philosophies and theories bandied about were pretty hilarious, and were usually just an excuse to keep the cameras rolling to get that running time to at least 75 minutes. Now imagine taking the best parts of these alien invasion flicks, these giant spider films, these creeping menace pictures, and these home-grown mutated abominations of nature movies and tossing them all into one big 3D animated work, and you have some idea of just how much fun Monsters vs. Aliens was for me.

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    Column Fri Mar 20 2009

    I Love You, Man, The Great Buck Howard & Sunshine Cleaners

    I Love You, Man

    Not that a truly funny film featuring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel is all that surprising (Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, anyone?), but this is a work that has probably been under the radar for a lot of you, and I think it's time to blow the door off this I Love You, Man's cloak of invisibility and get you excited about seeing it.

    I'm sure a day will come when Paul Rudd will star in a bad R-rated comedy, but that day will have to wait just a little longer. It almost doesn't seem fair. Back when I interviewed him for Role Models, we talked a great deal about I Love You, Man, and it was very clear that he was pretty happy with the script and the way the film turned out. He seemed especially pleased with the non-mean tone of the film. For the most part, this isn't a movie about people insulting each other or putting each other down for the sake of a laugh. Certainly, Rudd has been in films like that and they remain some of the funniest things I've ever seen. And I'm not implying that I Love You, Man is some kind of feel-good horseshit that makes you want to skip out of the theater and hug 100 strangers because you've found a new lease on life. Instead, the movie manages to earn its laughs from a combination of good old-fashioned writing and trusting in its actors to do what they do best — ad lib some of the funniest jokes and references the human brain can produce. So what is this film about exactly? Allow me to let Paul Rudd explain...

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    Column Fri Mar 13 2009

    Crossing Over, The Last House on the Left, Brothers at War, Race to Witch Mountain, Tokyo! & Everlasting Moments

    Crossing Over

    I was not a Crash hater; I don't think it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar a couple years back, but I was a supporter of the film that featured intersecting storylines to illustrate the fractured state of race and human relations in the world. I even went back a second time to watch it just to try and understand why those who despised it did so with such fervor. I never quite figured that part out. Cut from the same cloth (at least in theory) is the long-delayed Crossing Over. (Side note: have you noticed that just about every film from The Weinstein Company these days can be preceded by the phrase "long-delayed"?) The biggest difference between Crash and Crossing Over is that the latter film takes a great idea and compelling structure — exposing the current state of immigration and earned citizenship in America with several stories about different types of legal and illegal immigrants — and then forgets even some of the most basic fundamentals of filmed storytelling, like credible acting, editing that makes sense, believable scenarios, and not feeling like the film's message needs to be broadcast from a megaphone atop the tallest building in the land.

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    Column Fri Mar 06 2009

    The Black Balloon and the European Union Film Festival

    Hey everyone. Just a brief introduction to this week's column to explain two things about what's happening here. First off, this is the opening weekend of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, for my money the single best and most reliable film festival the city has to offer. This is a solid collection of the best of European cinema right now, and a great deal of what plays at this event will get released through the year, with many of these offerings either being their nation's selection for 2008 Oscar consideration or being those selected for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Check out the entire schedule at the Siskel Center's website.

    More immediately, you'll notice I do not have a review of Watchmen this week, and that's for the plain and simple reason that the studio only had one advance screening of the film in Chicago, and it happened to coincide with a screening I had organized for another film, a screening that included guests I deemed far more important than Watchmen. I am seeing the film over the weekend in IMAX (possibly even twice), so it's not like I'm ignoring it... I'm just not reviewing it.

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    Column Fri Feb 27 2009

    Two Lovers, Gomorrah and Bigger Than Life

    Two Lovers

    If you believed the trumped-up, self-generated hype surrounding Joaquin Phoenix these days (hint: the crazy, bearded behavior is all being documented and compiled for a Borat-style fake documentary) then Two Lovers might be his last work as an actor. And after two pretty weak collaborations with director James Gray in The Yards and We Own the Night, Phoenix has finally hit his emotional stride with Gray at the helm. In the previous two efforts, Gray cast Phoenix as a tough guy thug type, but with Two Lovers, Gray taps into Phoenix as a purely emotional and slightly unstable creature who is trying desperately to get over the grief of losing a fiancee by throwing himself into an unwise relationship with a party-girl neighbor, played beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow.

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    Column Fri Feb 20 2009

    Fired Up and Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

    Hey, everyone. I was brutally tempted to skip the column this week, but one of the two films that I'm reviewing is particularly worth seeing, so I didn't want to the opportunity to talk it up pass me (or you) by. The weekend of the Oscars is usually pretty slow for new releases because studios believe that everyone is out catching up on any nominated films they may not have seen yet, and that's a good thing. That also explains why the new Tyler Perry film, Madea Goes to Jail, is opening this weekend and didn't screen for critics. We'll have a slightly more beefed up line up for you next week.

    Fired Up

    I'll give this silly comedy some credit. At least this film has some jokes in it, and it doesn't resort to sensory memory to get its laughs the way films like Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie and all of those other terrible movies that end in Movie do. On a certain level, Fired Up certainly has fun with the cheerleader movie format. Specifically, it's a send-up of Bring It On; hell, there is even a scene in which all of the cheerleaders at a three-week cheerleading camp watch Bring It On with the earnestness that many of us would watch The Godfather. That scene at least made me laugh. Let me rephrase that: that's the only scene is this movie that made me laugh.

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    Column Fri Feb 13 2009

    The International, Friday the 13th, Ballerina and Oscar-nominated Shorts, Part 2

    The International

    Despite its exceptional cast and a usually inventive and visually thrilling director, the new political thriller The International is a classic case of a film being crushed under the weight of its own unnecessarily dense and confusing and more dense plot.

    Before I talk about the film at all (I won't even attempt to summarize the plot here; it's nearly impossible), I do want to underscore one sequence that every review you read for this film will talk about at length, and with good reason. There is an action sequence at the heart of this two-hour endurance test that is nothing short of spectacular. The filmmaker knows it, the actors know it, everybody connected with this sequence knows it is absolutely one of the coolest things you're going to see ever in a rough and tumble shoot out-type scene maybe ever. And a big part of the reason the sequence is so wonderful is that it's set on the winding ramps of New York's Guggenheim Museum. I shit you not when I say that Clive Owen as Interpol Agent Louis Salinger and a crew of thugs shoot the living shit out of the Guggenheim. No surface or exhibit is left without a bullet hole or nine by the time the shooting stops... actually I'm not sure it has stopped. The destruction and staging and spurting blood is glorious, and if The International was an even slightly better movie, I'd say that this sequence is worth the price of admission. Better hope it shows up as an isolated clip in YouTube.

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    Column Fri Feb 06 2009

    Coraline, Fanboys, He's Just Not That Into You, The Class and Oscar Shorts

    Coraline

    I've never read the Neil Gaiman novel that inspired director-adapter Henry Selick to create this magnificent work of stop-motion animated art, and frankly I may never want to. I certainly have nothing against Mr. Gaiman's writing, but Selick has done such a complete and fulfilling rendition of the world inhabited by young Coraline Jones that my heart and imagination are stuffed to capacity.

    Selick has wowed up in the past with such film miracles as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. He's even played God for Wes Anderson, who charged Selick with inventing new species of undersea life for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou. And who better to literally invent life forms. He has promoted and elevated the art of stop-motion filmmaking to such a degree, I can't imagine studios not taking a step back from so much CG animation and try having this level of patience with the creative process. In every conceivable way, Coraline is a celebration of the riches and beauty of all things handmade. Not only is everything we see on screen made by hand, but the story itself is about creating a world by hand.

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    Column Fri Jan 30 2009

    Taken, Wendy and Lucy, New In Town & The Uninvited

    Taken

    For the better part of the last 365 days, the Luc Besson-written and -produced Taken has been opening country by country across the world until it finally hits screens in America this weekend. I'm guessing this film has been out on DVD already in some lands for quite some time, so those of you desperate enough to see this probably already have. But for the rest of us, the long wait it over — I've been seeing trailers for this film on and off for about six months now. And I'm happy to report the wait is mostly worth it. This is a quick-fix, shot of adrenaline in the brain work that doesn't offer much in the way of character development or plot, but has just enough of both to make this an above-average thriller and one of the better offerings I've seen from the Besson camp in recent years.

    Perhaps an unlikely — although certainly not unwelcome — choice for our hero is Liam Neeson playing Bryan Mills, a seemingly mild-mannered father who has recently quit his government job and relocated to be closer to his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace, once of "Lost"), who has lived with her mother (Famke Janssen) and exceedingly wealthy stepfather. Kim seems open to allowing her long-absent father back into her life, but a lot of time has passed when he hasn't been there for her because of his mysterious job, and Bryan is impatient to reconnect. On the eve of a lunch Bryan and Kim area supposed to have together, Bryan is pulled by some old work buddies into a one-night, well-paid security job that involves playing babysitter to a young pop star, whose life Bryan saves from a stalker's knife. This is the first chance we get to see just how well trained this man is, and the veil is slowly lifted from his past.

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    Column Fri Jan 23 2009

    Waltz with Bashir, Inkheart, Outlander, Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains, Ice People and Killer Poet

    Waltz with Bashir

    Part documentary, part animated splendor, part fever dream, writer-director Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (having just captured the Golden Globe in this category, it's probably the current frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) is a surreal, sometimes terrifying essay on the fragile nature of memory as related to times of war. Folman was in the Israeli Army in the early 1980s, during the first Lebanon War, and he had led a life believing that his recollections about that time in his life are solid and accurate. But when an old army buddy tells Folman about recurring nightmare he's had, the two men convince themselves that both the nightmare and other aspects of their waking and sleeping state are a reaction to a time during that war that neither of them can recall accurately, if at all. Folman's film collects testimony primarily from men he served with or who served in the Israeli Army at the same time in the same place as he did, and he tries to piece together this missing fragment of his life. For the most part, the conversations we hear between Folman and these other men are the actual taped conversations he had with them in doing research for this film, but rather than simply show us talking heads in the form of a traditional documentary, Folman and a team of animators have pieced together something far more captivating.

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    Column Fri Jan 16 2009

    Che, Defiance, Last Chance Harvey, My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Chandni Chowk to China, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Notorious and Good Dick

    Well, we're three weekends into the new year, and I'm already doing a movie roundup. And this might be the absolute worst week to pull something like this, but I've been so busy that I must resort to capsule reviews. But the good news is, I've got links to some pretty kick-ass interviews I've done in the last month or so, if I do say so myself. Enjoy.

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    Column Fri Jan 09 2009

    Timecrimes, Bride Wars, Not Easily Broken, House of the Sleeping Beauties, Living with the Tudors and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

    Timecrimes

    The single best science fiction film of 2008 (OK, so the film came out in 2007 in most European nations and isn't really being released wide in the U.S. until 2009, but I saw it for the first time in March 2008, so suck it) is a movie that has no special effects and only four characters... OK, technically it has six characters, but three of them are the same guy. The least science-fictiony of all of the year's sci-fi works is from Spain, and it's called Timecrimes, a marvelous mind-bender of a movie that uses very simple storytelling to bend us around the same few hours of one day three different times, each time revealing just a little bit more about elements of the plot that were there from the beginning, we just didn't realize it until the end of this 90-minute masterpiece.

    Karra Elejalde plays Hector, who is staying at what appears to be an isolated country home with his wife Clara (Candela Fernandez). While sitting in his backyard looking through is binoculars, Hector spots a beautiful young woman (Barbara Goenaga) removing her clothes in the woods behind his home. He also spots a strangely dressed man with bloody bandages around his head, and he runs to the woods to investigate. He finds the young woman lying naked and out cold against a tree. When he goes to help her, he is stabbed in the arm by the strange man, and he runs through the woods to escape what he assumes is immediate danger. He ends up at a nearby laboratory with a sole occupant, a scientist (the film's writer-director Nacho Vigalondo) working after hours on a secret project. With a crazed maniac supposedly coming after the two men, the scientist hides Hector in a strange tank filled with water and bright lights. When Hector emerges seemingly minutes later, he discovers that it is actually earlier that same day, right around the time these events began to unfold in the first place. The tank was in fact a time machine, and when Hector comes out of it, the scientist naturally has no idea who this man is stepping out of his equipment. Got it?

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    Column Fri Jan 02 2009

    Best & Worst Films of 2008, Revolutionary Road and Azur & Asmar

    Happy New Years and all that good stuff. Let me first have you take a quick peek at this. First of all, I'm inviting this guy to every screening I host. Clearly he has good taste in films (see my Best of 2008 list below to see why I think this), but really I'd like him to come because he personifies the frustration my fellow film lovers and I have felt over the years as we try desperately to enjoy films without the distraction of human voices, cell phones, and all manner of devices that emit light. If you read this column regularly or don't but profess to being a film lover, let's make a New Year's Resolution Pact: turn everything off when you enter a movie theater. Don't put it on vibrate, don't dim the light; just turn it off. You can go two hours, give or take, without communication with the outside world. And if you can't, a) you have a problem bordering on addiction, and b) you don't belong in a movie theater. Especially in this day and age, people are clearly getting a lot pickier about how they spend their entertainment dollar. If they choose to spend it at a movie, they don't want a frickin' circus going on around them.

    I'll tell you why I especially feel for this guy in Philadelphia — because in recent months, I've been pretty forward about telling me to shut up or turn things off. Let's face it, most theater management won't do shit about disruptive patrons. I remember one foreign film I went to see a couple years back with an especially chatty bunch. I complained to the manager, and his response (no lie) was "Well, the movie has subtitles; you don't need to hear it." Please feel free to count the number of wrongs that statement is. As terrifying a prospect as it is to confront talkative moviegoers, nine times out of 10, asking them to be quiet one time gets the job done. I realize when you're at a movie that attracts a younger crowd (I'm talking Bolt young), there's a noise source you can't really do anything about. But there's no damn excuse for talking through Benjamin Button or anything else for that matter. Let the (non-violent) revolution begin in Chicago; it seems like the sensible place. We've already seen at least one push for change out of our little corner of the Midwest. This call to action seems like small potatoes, and a lot easier for everyone to get on board with. Vote 'Yes' for shutting the fuck up and letting me watch my movies in piece.

    First up is my wrap-up on 2008, followed by a couple reviews for films opening this first weekend of 2009.

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    Column Thu Dec 25 2008

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Valkyrie, The Wrestler, The Reader, The Spirit, Bedtime Stories & Monks - The Transatlantic Feedback

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

    If all goes as planned, I'll have my Best & Worst of 2008 piece for you in about a week. But here's a little preview: David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be at the top of my Best list. I could, quite literally, spend 4,000 words talking about this single film and ignore almost everything else that opened in theaters this holiday weekend (everything except The Wrestler; that one will be on my list too). Instead, I'll try to break it down to its essentials.

    First and foremost, Benjamin Button will engage you emotionally, in the most pure and fulfilling way possible. If you cry at movies, you'll cry at this one. If you don't cry at movies, well, you'll probably cry at this one. At the very least, you'll be like me. I never cry at movies. But I do get this strange strain in the back of my throat that is probably my body hurting me just a little because I refuse to cry. I never feel like I'm holding back the tears, but that strange sensation is just a friendly reminder that if I responded to emotion like a human being, I'd be crying at that moment. I've seen Benjamin Button three times to date, and I've gotten that feeling every time.

    I also love the fact that Benjamin Button celebrates the fine art of great storytelling but giving us not only an examination of a full life — birth to death — but also a life lived fully. In this age of biography films seeing a resurgence — Milk being the most recent example — even the finest of those films only gives us a fraction of a life, usually some turning point in a person's journey. But screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali, The Good Shepherd) takes the germ of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story and transforms it into something, well, transformative. It's a film that takes full advantage of its primarily New Orleans locales by adding healthy doses of surrealism, magic and, yes, even a touch of spirituality to tell one of the most complete and fulfilling films in recent memory.

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    Column Fri Dec 19 2008

    Gran Torino, Seven Pounds, Yes Man & The Tale of Despereaux

    Gran Torino

    I think in the end Clint Eastwood's latest directed effort (his second of the year, in case you're counting, after Changeling) will be remembered as a minor effort from one of the greatest living American directors. But I can also see Gran Torino being a real crowd pleaser, as Clint returns to film acting in a sort of Grumpy Old Bigot Man role that I'm 75 percent sure is supposed to be funny even though the film dives into some fairly serious shit concerning gang violence, rape and the healing power of racism. But in the end, I can't really recommend the film because, outside of Eastwood's performance, the acting in the film is god-awful — strictly amateur hour, after-school special level stuff that I could never get into or get past.

    Eastwood plays Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, whose wife has just died. The film opens at her funeral service in the local church, and we immediately see that Walt has little patience for other human beings, even those in his own family. He literally snarls at anyone who pisses him off...which is pretty much everyone. He's mad at two people whispering and smiling during the service; he's mad at the way his granddaughter dresses for the event; he's mad at the young priest (Christopher Carley) who was friendly with Walt's wife and who promised her before she died that he'd check in on Walt to make sure the crotchety bastard was doing alright. Every offer for help, every attempt by his grown kids to move Walt out of the terrible neighborhood where he lives (he is apparently the only white guy still living in the crime-ridden area) is met with something that goes beyond resistance. Walt hates the world and the world responds in kind.

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    Column Fri Dec 12 2008

    The Day the Earth Stood Still, Doubt, Nothing Like the Holidays & Dark Streets

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Sigh!

    Why has science fiction been so horrible this year? For every solid work like Wall-E or even Cloverfield, we get crap like The Happening, the second X-Files movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Jumper. Do people who make these films understand that we don't need conventional love stories or cute kids or cuddly animals cluttering up and diluting our science fiction? Do the writers of such fare realize that the minute they include a scene of one person insisting on saving another person before they get around to the business of, oh, I don't know, saving the world ("I won't leave without [insert name of loved one]!") that I immediately get angry and disconnected from the film in every possible way? The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still has about a million such scenes, or at least it feels like it does.

    When I'm preparing to watching a franchise film (take High School Musical 3, for example), I tend to watch the movies that came before the most recent to reacquaint myself with the characters and situations. But with remakes, I stay away from the originals until after I've seen the newer version. Every new film deserves to be judged on its own merits and not on strictly how carefully version 2.0 follows the source material. But I know the original TDTESS pretty damn well; I have a poster of it in my bathroom and stare at it lovingly while I'm using the facilities. And other than a few names and the very basic starting-off point, the makers of the remake — director Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) Derrickson and writers David Scarpa and Edmund H. North — have gutted and rebuilt this legendary sci-fi plot. Let me rephrase that, they've taken a perfectly workable, easily updatable work, destroyed it with a wrecking ball and C4 explosives, and tried to put it back together with Scotch tape, thumb tacks, a stapler and bubble gum.

    I repeat: Sigh!

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    Column Fri Dec 05 2008

    Frost/Nixon, Cadillac Records and Nobel Son

    Frost/Nixon

    The greatest feeling I get from any film is one of inspiration. Sometimes the inspiration is simply to feel something more than I did when I first sat down to watch the movie. Other times I'm driven to act or think a little differently about a person or circumstances than I did previously. And in the case of many of the film featuring screenplays by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), I'm inspired to dig a little deeper into the real events that inspired him to write his extraordinary story-behind-the-story works. With The Queen, Morgan wanted to show us how an entire nation's feeling toward its monarchy shifted as a result of a tragedy. And with Frost/Nixon, based on Morgan's celebrated play, he delivers to us the inner workings of one of the most legendary television interview programs in history, an interview that not only was the informal trial of Richard Nixon that the nation never got thanks to Gerald Ford's knee-jerk pardon of Nixon when he took office, but also the opportunity for Nixon to essentially apologize to the nation for shaming the office of President.

    It might seem like old hat today to look upon the office of president with some amount of disdain (both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both have much to answer for), but at the time — the summer of 1977 — the nation was still hurting deeply from a single man who resigned from the office without a hint of apology or admission of wrong doing. In an early scene in Frost/Nixon (set three years prior to the interviews), David Frost (played to perfection by Michael Sheen, who did an equally fine job as Tony Blair in The Queen) has just finished taping his Australian talk show when he catches live footage of Nixon leaving the White House and getting onto the helicopter that took him away. He sees the smiling face of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, who won a Tony for played the role on Broadway), but just before he turns to get on the helicopter, the facade drops and the face of ultimate defeat shows itself. I have no idea if Nixon really looked that way upon his departure, but the scene shows the spark of inspiration that drove Frost to ask for the face to face with Nixon.

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    Column Thu Nov 27 2008

    Milk, Australia, Four Christmases, Transporter 3, My Name Is Bruce and Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm

    Milk
    It's almost inconceivable to think that the real Harvey Milk, just weeks before his assassination, provided an account of his life story onto a series of tapes to be played upon his death. Yet those recording session done alone in his home provide the perfect framework for one of the most well-executed biography films in recent memory and one of the year's finest efforts. When I was in college in the late 1980s, I became obsessed with documentaries. I raided the film library of my university seeking out any doc I could get my hands on. And it was during this that I first saw the 1984 Oscar-winning work The Times of Harvey Milk, so Harvey's life, work, and fate were not surprises to me going into Gus Van Sant's Milk. What did surprise me was just how damn perfect Van Sant got this movie, with more than a little help from a top-notch cast led by Sean Penn, who throws himself into the role of America's first openly gay politician to achieve a significant office circa the late 1970s.

    With only the slightest nose extension and a whole lot of New York moxie, Penn embodies Milk's energy, unflappable optimism, controlled rage, and remarkable sense of how to attract media attention. Milk is as much about a guy working the political machine as it is about a gay man pushing the nation into a new level of understanding and acceptance. And with all that is going on in the nation with gay marriage and the legal rights of domestic partners (hell, even eHarmony said it would open itself up to gay matchmaking next year), the film could not seem any more relevant.

    The film opens at the end of Harvey's closeted existence in New York, where he meets the love of his life, Scott Smith (James Franco in a fascinating role as the man who often played second fiddle to his Milk's political ambitions). Upon moving to San Francisco, Milk is astonished to find a level of bigotry among the police and even some of his neighbors in the Castro section of the city. Milk immediately sets to organizing his own community groups of gay business owners, a move that gains the support of unions and eventually turns the Castro into gay HQ. It's almost impossible to fathom this much gay activism in an era before AIDS, but the 1970s was a time when gay rights was equated with civil rights, and Christian fundamentalists like Anita Bryant (who plays the film's villain through some beautifully incorporated archival footage) were leading a city-by-city charge to revoke equal rights legislation that included gay rights.

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    Column Fri Nov 21 2008

    Twilight, Bolt and A Christmas Tale

    Twilight
    I've never read one of Stephenie Meyer's novels about the tormented love affair between the human Bella and the vampire Edward, so when I speak about Twilight, I am only discussing the film version and whether or not I was indoctrinated into this story to any degree of satisfaction. I want to know if screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg and director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) have constructed a compelling film for those of us who know nothing about novels or where the tale of these angst-ridden teens is headed. The truth is that Twilight is a beautiful-looking work with a pair of the most bizarre and frustrating characters you're likely to see in a film this year. I'll give the movie credit for avoiding most of the infuriating trappings of modern vampire films, but that doesn't make the resulting work all that captivating.

    And let me add this right up front, if you do go see Twilight and coo and swoon over the film and try to tell me it's a great movie, I'm going to point you right at a theater in this city playing Let the Right One In to give you a prime example of a truly great young vampire tale. I realize it's not fair to compare these two movies, but for all its trumped-up drama, longing gazes and breathy dialogue, Twilight doesn't hold a candle to the emotional weight of the stark Swedish vampire story about a 12-year-old boy who falls in love with a same-aged vampire girl.

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    Architecture Mon Apr 14 2014

    "Mecca Flat Blues": Where Modernism Began in Chicago

    By Nancy Bishop

    Explore one of the most important buildings in the city at a new Chicago Cultural Center exhibition.
    Read this feature »

    Steve at the Movies Fri Apr 18 2014

    Transcendence, Heaven Is for Real, The Railway Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Unknown Known & Hateship Loveship

    By Steve Prokopy

    Read this column »

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    Sun Apr 20 2014
    Cake Frame 2 @ Co-Prosperity Sphere

    Sun Apr 20 2014
    Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory @ Music Box

    Mon Apr 21 2014
    Secret History of Chicago Music Anniversary show @ Empty Bottle

    Tue Apr 22 2014
    Chicago Pun Slam @ Door No. 3

    Wed Apr 23 2014
    Sound Opinions at the Movies: Almost Famous

    Wed Apr 23 2014
    The Strange Love of Molly Louvain @ Patio Theater

    Thu Apr 24 2014
    Bring the Ruckus: Red Grooms on Celluloid @ Co-Prosperity Sphere

    Fri Apr 25 2014
    Applied Words: Voices of Protest

    Fri Apr 25 2014
    Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo

    Sat Apr 26 2014
    Applied Words: Voices of Protest

    Sat Apr 26 2014
    Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo


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    About A/C

    A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
    Please see our submission guidelines.

    Editor: LaShawn Williams, ldw@gapersblock.com
    A/C staff inbox: ac@gapersblock.com

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