Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Day 62: Treasure Buddies

"What are you thinking?"
"How rad this is!"

Ah, Treasure Buddies, where have you been all my life? Disney has been churning out these spin-offs to the Air Bud series with unstoppable force, much to the delight of my five-year old daughter. In five years, they've managed to produce seven films, Air Buddies, Snow Buddies, Space Buddies, Santa Buddies, The Search for Santa Paws, Spooky Buddies, and now Treasure Buddies. The delight in my soul when I found out the wait for another buddies movie was a mere four months since the last was overwhelming to the point of sheer ecstasy. Some may confuse this as Indiana Jones-lite with dogs for kids, but it's hardly willing to be pigeon-holed so easily.

The buddies, Butterball, B-Dawg, Mudbud, Buddha, & Rosebud, are the offspring of the original Air Bud, and have had all manner of adventures in their lives. They've raced in the Iditarod, walked on the moon, helped Santa, and now, they have to stop an evil Egyptian cat from turning mankind against its best friend. They've also got the expected menagerie of friends to help in their adventure, this time utilizing those old desert stand-bys, a monkey and a camel. The verisimilitude with which the filmmakers recreate the Egyptian desert really sets the film apart from other low-budget affairs.

The plot concerns a wealthy industrialist, is there any other kind, named Phillip Wellington (Edward Herrmann, in his best work since Reds) trying to track down the lost treasure of Cleopatra. As part of his quest, he needs the help of an experienced archaeologist, Professor Thomas Howard (Richard Riehle, best known as Santa from The Search for Santa Paws, though he also played Tom in Office Space) who decides to bring along his grandson Pete (Mason Cook), the current owner of the buddies. The buddies are clued into the real plot behind Mr. Wellington's adventure by his cat, who tells the buddies that she's going to reverse an ancient spell by Cleopatra to turn all humans against dogs, and restore cats to their rightful place atop the pet world.

Now, I know what you're thinking, the cats are the bad guys again? Believe me, this isn't mere anti-cat propaganda, there's certainly nothing here beyond some innocent fun, and certainly nothing that will make children think twice before wanting to own a cat for a pet. The film is populated with all manner of character actors who look Egyptian enough for my taste, and will definitely not fool children into thinking that all brown people are the same.

So anyway, back to the plot, before I forget. The buddies stow-away and find an adventure of their own in the desert. Walking through the desert and hallucinating, attending dance parties in the middle of nowhere, sampling the local delicacies like grape leaf wraps and various and sundry. It's not at all what you'd expect. Pete overhears Mr. Wellington's true motives and tries to warn his grandpa, but it's too late, and they're forced to find the treasure and give it to him. Will the buddies find them in time to save them and the dogs of the world. Well, you're not going to get any spoilers out of me, that's for sure.

The plot moves with alacrity from point to point, never slowing its break-neck pace for a moment. When the buddies hop into an air balloon to save the day, I... whoops, I promised no spoilers. This is class-A family entertainment, and almost certainly not a cheaply made cash-grab for gullible parents looking to shut their kids up for eighty minutes.

In addition to Herrmann and Riehle, it's also populated with other actors that kids love, like Lochlyn Munro (though he doesn't play the same character he did in Space Buddies) and Ellie Harvey (though she doesn't play the same character she played in Santa Buddies) and even Tim Conway, reprising his role as the voice of Deputy Sniffer from Spooky & Santa Buddies for roughly thirty seconds. It's a veritable who's-who of direct-to-video stars. Many times, my daughter has asked me why we don't rent more Tim Conway movies, and I just never had an answer. Thanks again, Treasure Buddies.

Director Robert Vince oversaw production on this, as he has all the buddies films, as well as the MVP films of the early 2000s about a chimp that plays hockey and skateboards. He's the go-to guy for talking anthropomorphic animals doing things only adults do in real life films. The film has five credited writers, and while that's usually an indication of "too many chiefs and not enough indians," here it seems like they must have collaborated well and churned out a script that's not just entertaining, but full of the kind of historical accuracy you don't get in many of today's films. So if you've got twenty bucks burning a hole in your pocket and a kid or two that just won't get off your back, head on down to your local retailer and pick up Treasure Buddies. And don't forget to tell them the elitist movie snob sent you!

I promise I'll be back tomorrow with my review of Drive.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Day 61: The Tree of Life

"The nuns taught us that no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."

So, I'm switching things up a bit. Since Drive comes out tomorrow on blu-ray, I want to wait to watch it again before doing my review, leaving me with a bit of a conundrum since I wanted to do these in order. I've decided just to review the last two out of order instead. Make no mistake, I loved Drive, but Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was the best film I saw last year beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, I have to warn you first off, I make no guarantee that you will like this film. You may downright hate it, especially if you didn't have the chance to see it in a theater. It's a film that requires the biggest and best presentation available. Fox's blu-ray release is immaculate and is one of the absolute best discs in the format, but it still pales in comparison to seeing it on the big screen.

Dissecting and analyzing the plot would be folly. The film is a free-flowing, almost stream of consciousness film that defies all of the basic tenets of storytelling, yet manages to work in spite of it all. I'm not sure which critic it was from avclub.com that said this, but the film is almost shot from the point of view of a higher power watching one family's life unfold.

The use of voiceover in particular reinforces this theory as most of it is solemn and prayer-like. It is a disorienting experience the first time you watch it, and my overriding emotion for the first forty-five minutes or so was frustration. I wanted the film to just settle down so I could follow what in the hell was happening. This isn't a film that's going to give you what you want, and it presents human life as a microcosm of experience in this world. There are moments that will resonate deep within you, no matter what sort of childhood you had, and I feel that if more people were willing to just give the film a chance, they would find themselves connecting with it in a visceral way.

After opening with a quote from the Book of Job, the film jumps back and forth a bit in the first half hour, showing a family learning of the death of one of their sons. The father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) are grief-stricken and deal with the grief in their own way. When the film flashes back to their early life, they are a classic study in nature versus nurture. The father, representing the former, is hard on his sons, trying to teach them that the world isn't fair, and they'll have to fight for what they want in this world. The mother, representing grace, connects with her children in a deeper way than their father, showing them that grace and forgiveness are the best way through this life.

Sean Penn plays the eldest son, Jack, as an adult, and he is shown in the present, working a job as an architect, and dealing with the grief over his brother and haunted by memories of his childhood. Just when the film seems it's never going to settle down, we abruptly jump to the creation of the universe. It's a bold leap, yet somehow manages to work in a way that I never, ever thought it would. We're taken back to the dawn of time, and then through the Earth's evolution (yes, there's dinosaurs, and no it's not as strange as it sounds). After this nearly thirty minute diversion, the film finally settles down to show the history of the O'Brien family. It takes us through their marriage, the birth of their three children, and then the bulk of the rest of the film follows them while the boys are pre-teens. We see the father projecting his failures on his children, how they thrive whenever he's not around, and what it was like to be a small-town kid in the late 50s and early 60s.

The films final act flashes back to adult Jack as he wanders away from his office building and onto a beach, reuniting with his family in some sort of metaphorical shore that may or may not represent heaven. It's not cut and dry, and is more than certainly up to the individual viewers interpretation, and Malick is a smart enough filmmaker to not spell things out and trust that the audience will read their own experiences into this story and interpret it in their own way. I've spoken with several people about the last twenty minutes of the film and heard something different from each of them, so I'm curious to know more about what some of you thought of the third act.

First and foremost, the film is gorgeous. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the film using a luscious color palette of warm ambers and greens. It's certainly breathtaking and has the feel of a home movie, making it connect in an even deeper way with the viewer. The film looks as if it was shot using only natural light, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it was. I know from watching a documentary about the film that they had essentially a two block radius to themselves during the shoot that was always "in character" so if they wanted to move a scene outdoors, they could do so without fear of ruining continuity. There's also no panning, tilting or zooming at all in the film, which is pretty remarkable for a 139-minute film, but I was amazed to see that the camera never pans, tilts or zooms, utilizing handheld almost exclusively.

It really says something for a film when someone comes out of retirement to work on it, and that's the case here with Visual Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull. He hadn't worked on a film since 1982's Blade Runner, yet he was approached by Malick to create practical effects for the universe creation sequence similar to what he had done some 45 years ago on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick was apparently unhappy with the solely computer generated effects and wanted them to have a more realistic feel, which Trumbull is able to create like no one else. There are behind the scenes videos on you tube (such as this one: http://youtu.be/qeaVwcypiSs) that document the creation of these effects and they're remarkable in their practicality.

The parallels between this film and 2001 are striking: The use of classical music rather than a conventional score, non-linear storytelling, a prologue & epilogue of sorts that are more suggestive than straight-forward, limited use of dialogue, the list goes on. The Tree of Life is the only film that's ever been made that I feel comfortable comparing to 2001. They're poetic, meditative and up for interpretation; Neither film panders to the viewer, and trusts that you'll draw your own conclusions, whatever they may be. Malick is a director that has never conformed to any of the structural norms of filmmaking. His films all have a lyricism to them that makes them more like experiences than films. He's made five films in forty years, and while each of the films is unique in its story, they're all similar in their storytelling. He's been an admirer of nature and long shots of the environment and landscapes are always as much a character in his films as the actors.

Speaking of which, the actors here are all stellar. Brad Pitt is fantastic, as always, and he can make you hate him one minute and feel deeply sorry for him the next. His early scene where he regrets criticizing his now deceased son's page turning at church is particularly powerful, as is his first scene where he's informed of the death.

Jessica Chastain is also wonderful, an actress who really exploded this year, and with good reason. She plays the mother you wish you had, no matter how great your own mother was, she's a true saint as illustrated in the beautiful scene where she floats ethereally around a tree. Her natural grace on display in her body language, and the scenes where she plays with her sons as babies are especially moving. Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy, and he is a pure natural. His ease on screen is revelatory for someone who had never acted before, and he has several great scenes, my favorite of which is when he sneaks into the girls' house he's been admiring and rummages through her room, running off with one of her slips. Penn is also very good because he's a deeply expressive actor even without dialogue, and you can read his emotions anytime he's on screen.

As I said earlier, this is not a film for everyone, and it's one of the true love-it or hate-it films, but I have always loved those kinds of films for that very reason. Films like Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, Apocalypse Now, 2001, & most recently Black Swan transcend being merely good films because they take such enormous risks, fly so boldly in the face of traditional wisdom, and go so far out on a limb that I can't help but love and admire them. If you don't like the film, I understand completely, but I would like to talk about why. Contrary to popular opinion, I enjoy engaging with people whom I have differences of opinion on, and I am always eager to debate challenging films like this. There is a lot to love about this film, and if you give yourself over to it, you'll recognize yourself and your childhood in there somewhere. And if not, I'd love to hear why…

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 60: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

"Stop visiting tattoo removal websites or I'll do it again... Right here!"

There's a long, sad story behind the creation of these novels by the author Stieg Larsson which involves his death before he could see the unbelievable success they became first as novels, then as Swedish films, and now as an American film. He was a journalist and an activist, and there has been tremendous controversy surrounding not only the cause of his death, but also the division of his assets. All that aside, he possessed a wonderful talent as a writer, and created probably the greatest heroine of this new century in the character of Lisbeth Salander.

When it was first announced that David Fincher was directing the American adaptation of the first novel in his Millennium Trilogy, I thought it superfluous at best and a downright cash grab at worst. I love David Fincher, he is one of the elite directors working in film today, but I didn't see it as necessary to do English language versions of the books, especially since the Swedish language version were not only well-liked, but also fairly faithful to the novels. What could any American director, let alone one of the great ones, possibly have to say that hadn't already been said?

A lot, apparently, and I have very rarely been so wrong as to write off a film sight unseen before. Fincher is a master and he puts on a clinic with this film. The story is pretty well-known at this point, but it involves a  journalist with a tarnished reputation named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, proving once again he is one of the best actors working today) who has been approached by a wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, wonderful as always) to aid in solving the decades old disappearance of his niece. Blomkvist travels to the secluded northern Swedish estate where Vanger and his family live, to not only figure out the mystery, but also to escape the scrutiny he's under for his seemingly misguided attempt to sue a possibly corrupt businessman.

When he finds the case too much to handle alone, he asks for an assistant, and is paired with the aforementioned Salander (Rooney Mara, in the year's best performance by a mile), a young computer hacker with a sullied past of her own. Her scenes leading up to her involvement in the case are brutal, but she is no wilting flower, and is shown not just fending for herself, but leaving an indelible mark (pun fully intended) on anyone who wrongs her. As the two dig deeper and the mystery begins to unravel, it proves to be a murkier and more unsettling series of events than either was prepared to confront. If, like me, you're walking into this story cold, the less said about the details of the mystery, the better.

The film is full of wonderful character actors giving great performances, among them Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James & Robin Wright. As far as the two leads go, they are a force to be reckoned with on-screen. Craig shows that he has not gone so far to the tough guy side after playing Bond for the better part of the last decade. He plays a weak man in over his head, and he's thoroughly convincing (even if his accent does wax and wane). As for Mara, she is a revelation, and she announces her presence to the world in the boldest way possible, Now granted, the character is incredibly well written, but in the wrong hands, it could have been nothing more than a wasted opportunity at greatness. Thankfully, she is an actress as adept at infusing the character with life as the man who created her in the first place. She is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and I cannot wait to see what her future holds.

Fincher frames his film as only a master can, never getting bogged down in coverage, and always selecting the most eye-catching angles imaginable. The film reunites him with his best cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, who shot Fight Club and The Social Network with him, and the two are a formidable pair when working together. He's also wise in using Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor for the score, and it compliments every scene without ever being distracting.

Another reason to love Fincher is that he's a master of the long dead art of the opening credit sequence. His credit sequence here is like an S&M James Bond credit sequence, and it sets the mood perfectly for what follows. I wish more directors would invest the kind of time into opening titles that Fincher does, although it remains his conquered domain.

I sincerely hope that this team reassembles to make the other two films in the series. They deserve the chance to complete the trilogy. It depends upon a number of circumstances, but I am truly hopeful that it happens. I skirted a lot of the nastiness of the film that others have been dwelling on, and I have to tell you, there are three scenes in the film that are unbearably tense and disturbing, but they occupy a total of 10 of the film's 160 minutes, so they aren't worth not seeing the film over. They're awful, but they're so integral an necessary. They establish the awfulness of the human race that permeates the entire story and they're not superfluously tossed in for shock value. They're certainly not for the squeamish, but they're also not worth missing out on this entire film for.

Be back tomorrow for my number 2 film of 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Day 59: Hugo

"If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around... this is where they're made."

Martin Scorsese is an icon, a living legend, and, I'll go ahead and say it, the greatest director of his generation, a generation that produced a ton of great directors, but only one true master of the cinema. His early life was spent as a sick child, indoors, watching films while his friends spent their lives playing outdoors, and we, the movie-going public, have reaped the benefits of his time spent absorbing cinema.

No other director of his ilk can move so seamlessly not just between genres, but between fiction and documentary filmmaking. If you can name another director that can do this, I'd like to hear about it. Werner Herzog maybe, but it's an amazing talent that very few have attempted, let alone mastered. In his documentaries, most notably My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey... he has been able to parlay his love of film as a medium into an enjoyable narrative, but he's never attempted to construct a true love letter to film in the confines of fiction.

Hugo is his first attempt to do so, and it is a resounding success. It's the kind of film that only a true cinephile could have made. Using Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret as a jumping off point, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan tell the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, a true natural on-screen), a young boy orphaned by the death of his father (Jude Law) and forced to live in a early 20th Century Parisian train station by his uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunk who takes care of the clocks in the station.

He scours around the walls of the station every day, trying to avoid the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and stealing spare parts from a toy store run by a stern old man named Georges (Ben Kingsley), in an attempt to fix an automaton robot left to him by his father. After befriending Georges' god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, fast becoming one of the best young actresses in film today), he notices a key she wears around her neck, that is shaped like the keyhole on the back of the automaton. While it's important for the film's magic to keep the hows and whys a secret in a review, the automaton was created by Georges, who is actually silent filmmaker Georges Melies, director of such films as A Trip to the Moon. He has fallen into a deep depression, thinking that his work had been lost and forgotten, but with the help of film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg, from the Coen Brothers' underrated A Serious Man), Hugo and Isabelle set out to prove to Melies that he hasn't been forgotten.

Okay, first of all, any film where the protagonists turn to a film historian for help is gonna get high marks from me, but the film is so much more than that. The flashbacks to Melies creating his films are the stuff of pure cinema magic, and give the film a lived-in luxuriousness that a lesser director would have skirted over. This also brings me to the use of 3D. It is absolutely, positively the best use of the technology yet put on film, and I feel it's essential to see the film this way if at all possible. It almost makes me want to buy a 3D television so I never have to see the film in 2D. The depth of field he achieves, particularly in the breathtaking opening shot that breezes in and out of the walls of the train station, is nothing short of miraculous. It makes filmgoing an immersive experience. You feel like you're there in the train station with them. It's amazing.

The parallels between Hugo and Georges are powerful, and give the film it's true emotional punch. Georges sees in Hugo a boy that should, by all rights, have given up on humanity and turned hard-hearted and cynical like him, but Hugo's firm belief in the human condition and its power to move people permeates Georges, and makes him remember what it was like to be that way. His friendship with Isabelle is definitely his gateway to human connection again, but it's through his faith in Georges, when seemingly no one else has it, that gives Georges the will to regain his status as a cinema master.
It's a beautiful film, and one that made me glad to say that I took my daughter to see her first Scorsese movie. The special effects are incredible. The way the camera glides through the train station and 1930s Paris gives the film a truly magical aura, and allows you to get lost in a world we'll never see again in real life. Howard Shore's score is equally magical, never feeling overbearing like John Williams at his worst. It gives even the most mundane shots, of which there are very few, an air of whimsy that allows you to be transported right along with the images.

The performances are also fantastic, across the board. Both young actors are wonderful, and Ben Kingsley manages to return to greatness again, after spending the last decade since Sexy Beast meandering in dreck like Bloodrayne and The Love Guru. Everyone needs a paycheck, but even that's no excuse for the kind of slumming he's been doing. Sacha Baron Cohen also proves that he's a good actor that can hold his own on screen when he's not endlessly winking at the audience. Helen McCrory is also very good as Melies' wife, and Christopher Lee is always a welcome sight.

Martin Scorsese reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place with Hugo. He has made better movies, but I don't think he's ever been this romantic a filmmaker before. Even Age of Innocence has a cold detachment to it, despite its lush interiors and costumes. This is Scorsese in full-on film lover mode, and it's a wonder to behold. Even the most cold hearted cynic will find that facade melting away throughout the second hour of this film, and my biggest disappointment with this film is that it never found the audience it deserved. It kind of got buried by the deluge of family films all released around the same time at the end of last year, and it has struggled to connect with a wide audience. Oh well, it's their loss, and yours if you don't see Hugo.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Day 58: The Muppets

"Nobody cares about you anymore. Nobody cares about your hippie dippie Dom DeLuise and Julie Andrews hosts."

Coming in at number five on my list of the best films of 2011 is a film that I've been waiting my whole life for, The Muppets. The only Muppet movie I had seen in the theater until this was released was The Muppets Take Manahattan when I was six years old, and I had been a fan my entire life, just waiting for the chance to see some of my childhood heroes take back the big screen. The Muppet movies of the 1990s were decent, but I had never felt compelled to go see any of them in the theater. Now, with kids of my own, I couldn't wait for this to come out, and when I got to see an advanced screening of it two weeks prior to its theatrical release, I jumped at the chance to take Clementine to her first Muppet movie. We went back and saw it all together as a family a few weeks ago, and it just confirmed how magical the Muppets truly are.

Actor & writer Jason Segel has harbored a life-long obsession with the Muppets as well, and after his 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall featured some Muppet-inspired puppetry, he was able to parlay that love into a job writing the next Muppets movie. The original title of the film was The Greatest Muppets Movie Ever, and while I do enjoy hyperbole, I'm glad they just called it The Muppets as it doesn't unnecessarily inflate your expectations going in. The film opens with the story of Gary (Segel) and Walter (a new muppet character, performed and voiced by Peter Linz) a pair of life-long friends (or possibly brothers, the script gives mixed signals as to whether or not they're related) who have loved The Muppets their entire lives. Walter in particular loves them as they represent him in a society where he's always felt like he didn't truly belong. Gary and his fiancee Mary (the wonderful Amy Adams) are taking a trip to Los Angeles, and Gary invites Walter to come along so he can see The Muppet Studios in person.

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, they discover that not only have the Muppets disbanded, but a wealthy oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, brilliant as always) has purchased the studio because there's apparently oil underneath the theater. There is a clause that states that if the Muppets can raise ten million dollars by midnight on a certain, fast approaching date, they retain the rights to the studio and their name. Walter, Gary and Mary leap into action, recruiting Kermit for help in solving the problem. Kermit thinks it's pretty hopeless, but if they were to get the whole gang back together and put on a show, then maybe, just maybe, they can raise the money they need to save their legacy.

They begin a road trip to round up the old gang, the details of which I'll save for those who haven't seen it yet, but it keeps beautifully in the style of the old films (I particularly liked the snide, tongue-in-cheek reference to critics of the new film's humor through Gonzo's new vocation). Once the gang is reassembled (and all your favorites are there, rest assured, they left no one out), they set about the business of getting together a telethon, provided they can find a celebrity host and get the theater in order in 48 hours. Most of the last half of the film is the show itself, and the film truly delivers for Muppet fans as it manages to encapsulate everything you love about the Muppets from their movies to their tv shows. It's a top-to-bottom lovingly done film that will have the true believers dancing for joy and thrilled to see their childhood heroes be treated with the love and care that many properties from their childhood have not gotten.

The film is loaded with cameos, as to be expected, although I would loved to have seen Steve Martin as I've always associated him with the Muppets, but the wide array of cameos they pull-off are great. The script was written by Segel and his writing collaborator Nicholas Stoller have delivered a gift to the parents of today, and director James Bobin, who honed his skills on HBO's Flight of the Conchords directs with the loving attention to detail that can be expected from another true fan. The songs in the film were written by Bret McKenzie, one half of the aforementioned Conchords, and they are sublime. The opening number "Life's a Happy Song," is as clever and winking an opening number as you could hope for, and his Oscar-nominated "Man or Muppet" is fantastic as well.

I won't spoil how it all shakes out, but the theme of the film is believing in yourself, and staying true to who you are, something I touched upon in my review of Happy Feet, and it's truly one of the best lessons a parent can teach a child, or a Muppet for that matter. I am appalled by the number of people who felt that the film somehow dishonored the true spirit of the Muppets by adding "one" fart joke, or having Kermit living in a mansion, but these are low blows, and anyone who thinks that this film was made by anyone other than people with the Muppets' best intentions in mind is a fool. It makes perfect sense that Kermit lives in a mansion because it wasn't his idea to have a mansion. Clearly he was forced to live there by Miss Piggy, no stranger to excess, and when she left, he couldn't bring himself to go because he still carried the torch for her. Also, just to quickly address the controversial addition of Cee-Lo Green's song, it is used brilliantly, and anyone unfamiliar with the song, like kids, will never know it's being used, but the adults familiar with the song will get a kick out of it.

Believe me when I tell you that this is the feel-good movie of the year. That phrase gets bandied about so much, but this is the real deal. You cannot leave the theater with anything but a beaming, glowing inner-child, and maybe one or two by your side. It's everything you're hoping it will be and more. Go see it, bring your children, and if you don't have any, bring your inner-child. They'll thank you for it.

I'll be back tomorrow with Martin Scorsese's 3D love letter to the silent film era, Hugo.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 57: Moneyball

"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"

Preach it, brother. Moneyball has the same romantic streak for the game of baseball that fuels the other great romantic baseball films like Field of Dreams and The Natural. It's a movie that's way inside the game, but also has the smarts to appeal to people who may not know much about the game. It does it in the best, smartest way possible, by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. It expects you to keep up, whether you know what they're talking about or not, and it rewards your patience and resolve, much like the game of baseball itself.

Now, a quick summation of my feelings on the over-arching theme of the book and film. I don't feel that Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta (changed here to the fictional Peter Brand) necessarily changed the game. I think it was Michael Lewis' book Moneyball that changed the game because it gave away all of the secrets these two men had figured out. It's no secret that they did something radical, and it paid off to some extent, but once that book came out, and everyone was able to figure out the method to their madness, that's what changed the game.

When men like Theo Epstein adopted the philosophies that Beane and company implemented in Oakland, the game was forever altered. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is not for me to decide, but personally, I think it was one step towards undoing a lot of the damage that was done to the game in the steroids era, if for no other reason that it started to put value back on role players rather than guys that swing a big bat.

The film opens with Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, looking so much like Robert Redford in this scene, it's eerie) sitting in an empty stadium, listening to his team lose the 2001 division series to the reviled New York Yankees. His team is now at a crossroads. They're about to lose three of their biggest players to free agency, and he is not going to get any more money to put together another team like the one he had, so his orders are simple: Put together a championship team with the money they are giving him.

The game of baseball is one of serious financial inequality. Unlike the NFL & NBA, there's no salary cap in baseball, so it allows big market teams to buy as many players as they want, pay them whatever they want, leaving smaller market teams, like the A's, to make due with the players they can buy with the limited resources they have.

On a trip to Cleveland to talk to their GM Mark Shapiro about a possible trade, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistician, who Shapiro seems to put a lot of faith in. Beane strikes up a conversation with him, and ends up deciding that his method of valuing players by things like on base percentage (later to be referred to as saber-metrics) is something he wants to try in Oakland, so he buys Brand away from Cleveland and sets out putting together a team of cast-off and misfit players that nobody values anymore. Beane puts so much credence into Brand's system, that he begins summarily ignoring what his scouts have to say, putting him in a precarious position where everyone seems to turn their back on him for ignoring the way the game has been played for over a hundred years.

Beane's present day struggles are intercut with his past as a former player. He was drafted in the first round of the 1980 draft by the New York Mets, and was talked up as the next big thing, a true five tool player. He failed to live up to these expectations, and revelations about his playing career are given at moments when he seems to be failing in the present. It's an interesting way to approach the source material, and I think it's incredibly effective. It certainly gives Pitt the opportunity to really sink his teeth into some meaty, actor-y stuff, and it pays off brilliantly. The entire script, written by two modern masters, Aaron Sorkin & Steve Zaillian, is ridiculously good. It never sacrifices the game for drama and vice versa, and it walks a tightrope between the two that ends up making it that much better a screenplay and film as a result of its ambition.

If you don't know much about baseball, or the 2002 season, I won't spoil it for you, but the way the film handles the ups and downs of that season is incredibly effective, and made me, a die hard baseball fan, forget about certain milestones this team achieved. The film also includes details about Beane's personal life and his tenuous relationship with his ex (Robin Wright), as well as his only real relationship with anyone outside of work, his daughter (Kerris Dorsey, a wonderful young actress). All of these gamuts pay off, even though you think they won't. The film has a very light touch and handles all of these multiple storylines well. The film is directed by Bennett Miller, who's only other film, Capote, really made me wonder why on earth he was directing a baseball movie, but as the film goes on, you see what really attracted him to the material, and why he ends up being an excellent choice to direct the film.

Brad Pitt has truly earned his status as one of the greatest living film actors, and he is outstanding here. Between his performances here and in Tree of Life, he has had a truly remarkable year. A lot has also been made of Jonah Hill's performance (it earned him an Oscar nomination). I will say this, he's good, almost to the point of making you forget that he's never really acted before, he's always just sort of played a variation on the angry, young fat guy, but he shows here that he does have talent. I don't know how deserving of a nomination he is, but I certainly won't roll my eyes when he turns up in a movie from now on.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays former A's manager Art Howe, and he is sorely underused. Don't get me wrong, he's great in all of his scenes, but he's given only a handful of scenes, and makes you wish he had more to do because of his little flourishes that make him one of the elite actors working today, like the way he fidgets with his watch while waiting to talk to Beane near the beginning.

If you don't like baseball, I promise you'll still like Moneyball, and if you do like baseball, you'll appreciate the film all the more for its ability to be deep inside the game and also be a great drama to boot.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 56: The Ides of March

"I don't believe in extortion. I don't believe in tying myself to you for the next eight years."
"Four years, let's not get ahead of ourselves."

My number seven film of 2011 is based on the play Farragut North, which was penned by Beau Willimon, a former campaign worker for Howard Dean during his 2004 Presidential bid, making The Ides of March is one of the more savvy political films that's been made in the last few years. George Clooney is a movie star of the highest order, he harkens back to the era of actors like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne who played variations on the same role their entire careers. As a director however, Clooney has shown where his true versatility lies. He's only made four films, but they have been diverse, interesting and, with the exception of Leatherheads, pretty fantastic. He believes, as I do, that the 1970s was the best decade for film and filmmakers in the history of cinema, and his films all beat with the same heart that films of the 70s beat.

The Ides of March tells the story of a fictional Ohio Democratic primary that hinges on the endorsement of a powerful Senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose endorsement will swing the contest to one of the two candidates left standing. The film's focus centers on the one candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney) and his campaign managers Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Paul is the hardened, cynical veteran, Stephen, the young idealist. It's established from the very beginning that Stephen is a true believer in Morris. He believes that Morris is the man who can take the country in a new direction. It's more than a job for him, and this sets him apart from Paul and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the man running the campaign of Morris' opponent. On a side note, I can't believe this is the first on-screen pairing of Hoffman and Giamatti. I'd love to see another film where they can really go toe-to-toe, somebody write that movie. I've even got a great title, you could call it "Schlubs."

Stephen begins an affair with an intern on the campaign, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who at 24 years old is wearing entirely too much makeup in the film, but is otherwise very good). While this is going on, Stephen is approached by Duffy to come and join the other campaign, because Duffy knows that with Ohio being an open primary state, Republicans and Independents can vote as well, and they will turn out in force to ensure that his candidate gets the nomination, if for no other reason than they think that he's beatable in a national election.

There is a revelation that happens around the forty minute mark that turns Stephen's opinions on Morris around, and I won't reveal it here as I didn't know it going in, and I think it may hinder your enjoyment of the film. It's not far outside the realm of believability, and it wouldn't hinder your enjoyment of the further twists and turns that follow, but the less known about it, the better. The story of the film then becomes Stephen's journey from an idealist to a cynic, and while it's not new ground the film is treading, it's done in such a way that it makes it feel new and revelatory.

Top to bottom, front to back, this is the best ensemble cast of the year, and probably of the last few years. These are all Actors, with a capital A, and they relish the witty and crackling dialogue that the script, written by Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov, gives them to bounce off of one another. Everyone gets a big scene, and they all, Hoffman in particular, make the most of them. Marisa Tomei is also great in a small role as a reporter playing all sides to get a scoop, and even Jennifer Ehle, as Morris' wife, has a really nice little scene with Clooney that shines a spotlight on the plight of being a candidate's spouse.

The film is incredibly well directed. As good as Clooney is in his role in the film, he is becoming a better director every time he steps behind the camera. His first effort with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was outstanding, one of my favorite movies, but it had a lot of flourishes that a first time director can get consumed with, like his long shots that spanned time and space. With Good Night, and Good Luck, he scaled back considerably with those stylistic touches, and told a great story in a tense, spare way.

Here, he's taken his cue from the paranoia thrillers of the 70s (Pakula's All the President's Men, Coppola's The Conversation & Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle leap immediately to mind), and the film belongs right alongside those as a great example of less is more. It's incredibly well-made, and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael lights the film amazingly, and gives you instant visual clues as to the tone of a given scene. My favorite scene has no dialogue at all, and is when Paul leaves a barber shop and is called into an SUV by Morris for a chat. It's done with just a slow push-in on the shot, and it tells you everything you need to know about what's going on in the SUV without having to show a frame of dialogue being spoken.

Ryan Gosling is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors. His turn in this film, along with my number two film Drive, and his performance in last year's Blue Valentine are all the work of a very intense and dedicated actor, and I look forward to whatever he does next. Here, he works alongside some actors that he's probably taken a few cues from in his career, and he leads the ensemble ably and excellently. He's no longer an actor to watch, he commands your attention with just his presence, and that's a pretty hard thing to do.

I'll be back tomorrow with my number six film of 2011, Bennett Miller's Moneyball with Oscar nominees Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day 55: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

"Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!"

First things first, the title is stupid beyond words. There's seven words and four of them are "of the." It's a classic case of Hollywood thinking that people are stupid and won't know that Rise of the Apes is a Planet of the Apes movie, so they have to add more words to the title. Granted, there's a lot of stupid people in this world, but it's no excuse for clumsy titling. Once you get past the stupid title, there's actually a gem of a sci-fi action film to be discovered here.

The film falls squarely into a category of it's own. It's not a remake, although it tells a story that's been covered in the series before with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It's not a reboot, because it's very clearly indebted to its forebears, and references them whenever it gets a chance (my favorite example being when Caesar is assembling a Statue of Liberty puzzle). It's pretty much a true prequel to the original 1968 original, though it leaves room for a sequel to squeeze as much from this franchise as humanly possible.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist who is working on a cure for Alzheimer's, presumably to cure his own father (John Lithgow). One of the apes, Bright Eyes, that they've been administering his serum to gives birth to a baby ape, and on the day of Will's big presentation to the board, Bright Eyes freaks out while protecting her baby, and is gunned down by a security guard. Will takes the baby ape, Caesar, home with him and discovers that the traits from the serum given to his mother have been passed to him genetically. He begins advancing at a rapid rate and becomes a super smart ape. Will has also begun giving the serum to his father, and he improves virtually overnight.

As time goes on, Caesar thrives, as does Will's father, but Will discovers that the disease combats the serum over time and soon, his father's disease comes back. One day when their neighbor gets into an altercation with the father, Caesar moves to protect the father and bites the neighbor's finger off. Caesar is ordered to go to an ape sanctuary and cannot live with the Rodmans anymore. The sanctuary is run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his tyrannical son Dodge (Tom Felton, whom I hope gets the chance to play a good guy at some point, lest he risk playing assholes for the rest of time).

At first Caesar is an outcast because of his integration into human society, but soon he proves that he is smarter than the other apes and earns their loyalty. Will meanwhile has begun developing a new strand of his treatment, but unbeknownst to him, it's toxic to humans. Caesar escapes the sanctuary one night, returning to Will's house and stealing the new serum. He returns, gives it to the apes, and begins training them for war.

It's so easy to pick sides in a film like this because the villains are drawn with such broad strokes that it's impossible to root for anyone besides the characters the filmmakers have chosen for you to root for. Avatar is another such film like that. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it's been happening for as long as there's been drama, it just throws the balance off. You find yourself rooting for the apes because all the humans are assholes. Of course, this is what the original did in reverse, it forced you to root for Taylor because Chuck Heston looked so good in that loincloth.

Let's talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and that's Andy Serkis. The man is undoubtedly talented and a master at what he does, but that doesn't mean he should win an Oscar for it. A nomination would at the very least be a step towards legitimizing performance capture, but that puts entirely too much value on the Oscar itself. I understand it's symbolic and is a validation of your work by your peers, but the Academy has never been known for championing the cutting-edge, daring and truly great films. They get it wrong 90% of the time. He'll get nominated when he's 70 and playing Caesar in Return of the Conquest of the Battle of the Planet of the Apes.

So why do I like this film so much? It's because it's both visceral and cerebral and plays both sides of that coin so well. The technical work done on the film by the mo-cap performers and visual effects artists is outstanding. It's also very visceral, like I said, and plays to your base instincts. You find yourself cheering the apes as they take back what's theirs, and it's a great popcorn flick, arguably the best one released this past summer.

The human performers are also uniformly good. James Franco has a knowing, winking sort of demeanor in everything he does, but it works here. It's like he knows it's not Shakespeare, but that's not going to stop him from committing to it like it is. John Lithgow is great in everything, and this is no exception. He's another fully committed actor and I always look forward to seeing him on film. Director Rupert Wyatt has a big future in front of him as an action director, and I also look forward to what the future holds for him.

On a side note, I would love to see a side movie about the Rodman's neighbor. The guy somehow manages to always be in the thick of misfortune. I was waiting for him and his family to be picnicking in the Redwood forest at the end when the apes took it over. It would have been awesome. It'd make a great short, if nothing else, to show this normal guy, having trouble at home, trying to keep his temper in check, and always getting set off by his weirdo neighbors who've been keeping a chimp as a pet. Someone make this movie, please.

Tomorrow we'll look at my number seven film of 2011, George Clooney's The Ides of March featuring the best ensemble cast of the year.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 54: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living and, above all, those who live without love."

Apart from being the most successful franchise in film history, the Harry Potter series of films is notable for being a gigantic undertaking that produced eight very good to great films that will most likely be cherished for generations. The first two films were directed with a slavishly pedestrian loyalty to the books by Chris Columbus. By film three, the directing reigns had been passed to Alfonso Cuaron, a vastly superior filmmaker who made by far the most unique film of the series. Film four was directed by Mike Newell, and while it wasn't the best adaptation in the series, it has its merits and is incredibly fun if taken as a separate entity from the book. Films 5-8 based on books 5-7 were directed by David Yates, a television director not known for big spectacle, but who managed to make some fantastic films.

Splitting the final book into two films was a capital idea, in both senses of the word. It enabled the studio to wring as much money as possible from the series, but it also allowed the expansive nature of the book to play out at a suitably expansive pace. While Part One is far and away my favorite film of the series, Part Two does something that virtually no other final film in a series has been able to do; Wrap everything up in a satisfactory manner, yet manage to tell a self-contained story that unfolds in a traditional three-act structure.

Picking up immediately where Part One left off (in fact, it actually repeats the final scene from Part One of Voldemort stealing the famed Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb), the film takes its time setting up the story before launching the main characters back into action. When Part Two first came out on dvd at the tail end of last year, I watched both parts back to back, and the most ingenious thing about the second film is how seamlessly the tone of the first part continues for the first thirty minutes or so before taking on a life and an energy all its own. Those who've seen the film and read the books know the plot well enough for me to not have to rehash it here, and those who don't will be lost by a simple plot dissection, so I'm going to eschew that in favor of a more analytical discussion of the film's elements.

The most noticeable thing about this film is how wonderful the actors all are. The core trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson & Rupert Grint have grown into full-blown actors. They're no longer just little vessels for conveying plot, but they're able to convey emotion and infuse their characters with nuance and feeling. I don't say this as a knock, it's high praise. Many a child actor has tried and failed to make that transition from cute kid to actor, but these three, along with the many other young actors that have been in all three films, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, and Bonnie Wright among them.

The adult actors are solidly fantastic as well. The loss of Richard Harris as Dumbledore was sad, but Michael Gambon is absolutely note-perfect, and was at least partially responsible for making Dumbledore my favorite character in the entire Potter universe. Alan Rickman as Snape is sublime. Once his true motives are revealed, it makes you want to rewatch the entire series to see just how good he's been all along. His scene discovering Lily's dead body is heartbreaking and intense and everything you had hoped it would be when you read the book. Helena Bonham Carter is ridiculously good, not only because she's so evil as Bellatrix, but her ability to ape Emma Watson's body language in the scenes where she's playing Hermione playing Bellatrix is really great.

Although not given much to do, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Warwick Davis, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Julie Walters & Robbie Coltrane all make the most of their limited roles. The shining star of this series however from his very first appearance all the way through to the end has been Ralph Fiennes. I'm an unabashed admirer of his as an actor, but he is so adept as an actor and plays Voldemort as evil incarnate. There's not a bit of good in him, anywhere, and Fiennes relishes playing such a bad dude. His performance is so effective that his specter hangs over every scene, even ones he isn't in. He was only in one scene in Part One, but really chews every bit of scenery in sight for at least half of Part Two's running time, and he is note-perfect in every way.

I was a huge fan of Order of the Phoenix and I feel that David Yates has actually grown as a filmmaker throughout each successive film. This film is incredibly well-made and its best moments rival the best moments in Lord of the Rings and are superior to a lot of Peter Jackson's directorial choices. The entire Snape penseive scene is done better than virtually anything in the entirety of Lord of the Rings, and sadly, not many people talk about how well-directed this film is. The King's Cross scene between Harry and Dumbledore is also incredible, and ballsy too. To grind all of the action to a halt and have a two person conversation in a neutral setting is super-ballsy and it works so incredibly well because it never feels slow or boring.

The film is also sleek and compact. It doesn't get bogged down in holding for applause the way The Return of the King did. The big moments are followed by bigger moments, and the film doesn't stop to let the audience breathe for even a minute. Once the battle for Hogwarts begins, it doesn't let up except for the King's Cross scene, and it's blissfully awesome and exciting and unrelenting. This is an true event film, and it's the kind of film people talk about when they say, they just don't make them like that anymore. It's spectacle, but it's also intimate and personal and is never afraid to linger on the little moments that make films like this transcend good and become great. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two is a pretty perfect film. It can't exist without Part One, but it's so well done, it makes you glad the filmmakers stayed true to themselves, true to the books, and true to the audience without ever sacrificing anything to bring these books to life in the best way possible. If you're a fan and a true believer in the Harry Potter series, this is exactly the film you were hoping for when you first sat down to watch Sorcerer's Stone. It makes good on every promise that a book adaptation should, and I am sad to see the films end.

Be back tomorrow for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, my number eight film of 2011.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 53: The Beaver

"Starting over isn't crazy. Crazy is being miserable and walking around half asleep, numb, day after day after day. Crazy is pretending to be happy. Pretending that the way things are is the way they have to be for the rest of your bleeding life"

For my number ten film of 2011, I selected Jodie Foster's The Beaver, the much-hyped, devastatingly under-seen first starring role for Mel Gibson since his much-publicized fall from grace in 2010. The film grossed a paltry one million dollars in its entire theatrical run, despite a pretty clever ad campaign and a lot of buzz as the script had topped the famous "Black List" of best unproduced screenplays in 2009. Steve Carell had been attached to it at one point, and Jim Carrey as well according to imdb, though I hadn't heard that before now. By the time it trickled down to Gibson, people just seemed to have lost interest. There is a certain amount of time that people consider to be "too soon" when dealing with a public catastrophe, and it seems like it was just too soon for many of Gibson's detractors.

The script by Kyle Killen is brilliant beyond words. In fact, if the film itself is anything, it's a mediocre vehicle for a fantastic script. Not that I think the film isn't good, it's just not as good as the script itself. The film tells the story of Walter Black, the CEO of a struggling toy company who is in a deep depression. As the film opens, he is being kicked out of his house by his wife (Jodie Foster) and he drives to a liquor store where he discovers a beaver puppet in the dumpster. He takes the puppet with him to the hotel, and just as he is about to kill himself, the puppet talks to him and his suicide attempt fails.

Okay, I know what you're thinking right now, but believe me, it works. Whenever the beaver is talking, it's very clear that Walter is operating the puppet and talking. It's not like it's magic or something, so don't worry about that. Walter goes everywhere with the puppet, handing people a card that says he's under the care of a prescription puppet that is supposed to help him create a psychological distance between him and his problems. He begins communicating with people solely through the puppet, to mixed results at best. It's best not to spoil any of the details, but for me anyway, it all worked beautifully.

Walter's story is juxtaposed with the story of his oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin). At school, people pay Porter to write papers for them and he is apparently very talented at it. At home, Porter has a litany of post-it notes in his bedroom, each one containing a similarity between himself and his father that he wishes to purge himself of. Porter is approached by the class valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, hands-down the best young actress in film today) for help writing her graduation speech. The relationship that develops between the two also takes some interesting twists and turns, and is done just as well as the main story line.

The film does have some visual flair to it, which was a nice surprise. Jodie Foster has always been a director that worked well with child actors, and she gets a very nice performance from the young actor who plays their youngest son, Riley Thomas Stewart. I also loved her little touches, like the suit Walter wears when he finds the puppet, it looks like it's two sizes too big, not because he can't afford a suit that fits, but because he's a shadow of the man he used to be.

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that haters gonna hate, but I'll go ahead and say it, this is the best performance of Mel Gibson's career. I was a big fan of Gibson as an actor for most of my life. I kind of got off his bandwagon around the early 2000s when he was just making the same movie over and over and then stopped doing that to focus on directing. Passion of the Christ is an undeniably gorgeous film, even though it's downright pornographic in its violent content. The thought of any parent taking their child to that film makes me ill, and just shows the amount of delusion that can be found among the zealots in the church, but I digress.

I never really got caught up in any of his personal shenanigans beyond thinking that they were amusing at best and stupid at worst. I'm sorry, but no one censors themselves when they're leaving private voicemails, so to make the man a pariah for that never made any sense to me. I've never given a shit about what people do in their private lives, so long as they delivered in their jobs (Bill Clinton, Russell Crowe & Robert Downey, Jr. being notable examples). Gibson was dragged through the mud, and I'm not saying he wasn't complicit in what happened, but what does it matter, really, at the end of the day? The man's an entertainer. If you don't like his attitude, don't date him. Okay, that's the end of my tangent.

The other actors are also great, top to bottom. It's easy to forget how good Jodie Foster is as an actress because she acts so infrequently, but she's pretty spectacular as well. Yelchin and Lawrence are also outstanding, as is Cherry Jones as the vice president of the toy company. For me, this film felt like a logical extension of Fight Club. It's the middle-aged version of it, and I think that seeing the film will make that pretty obvious. What at first seems like the perfect diversion from our problems, can end up controlling our lives, but are we better men because of it or in spite of it?

The Beaver was far and away the most pleasant surprise of the year for me, and it's a movie I wish more people would see. It's worth your time, and I think that if you're willing to go along for the ride, it'll take you to some pretty surprising and fantastic places.

I'll be back tomorrow with my number nine film of 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Day 52: The Kentucky Fried Movie

"A quick reminder, these reports are not intended to foster a belief in astrology, but merely to support people who cannot take responsibility for their own lives."

The writing collective of David & Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams got their start doing sketch comedy in their hometown of Milwaukee, operating under the name "Kentucky Fried Theatre." These three men would go on to create some of the greatest comedies of all time, Airplane!, Top Secret & The Naked Gun, but like everyone, that had to start somewhere. Fortunately for them, that somewhere is the hysterically funny sketch comedy film The Kentucky Fried Movie directed by their friend John Landis. This was Landis' second film, and he made it right before he rocketed to stardom with 1978's Animal House.

The film is one of a kind. There hadn't really been films like it before, and the few that have come since, Amazon Women on the Moon & The Onion Movie to name two, have paled in comparison. A great deal of the sketches are horrendously dated, but the humor is timeless. It also features some great cameos from all over the spectrum: George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland, Henry Gibson, Bill Bixby, & Tony Dow to name a few.

The structure is pretty basic, it begins with a commercial parody, then transitions to a morning talk show parody that really kicks things into high gear when a gorilla begins assaulting everyone and everything in sight. It's absurd humor, fully rooted in the tradition of its forebears like The Marx Brothers and Monty Python, but it has an energy all its own. The high point of the early part of the film is a parody trailer for a sexploitation film called Catholic High School Girls in Trouble, produced by the fictional Samuel L. Bronkowitz. The sex, nudity and profanity come fast and furious and it's refreshing to see such a brazen disregard for the standards of the time.

The centerpiece of the film is a forty minute kung-fu parody called A Fistful of Yen. Some of the best jokes are found in this section, and it's the most obvious precursor to their films to come. It's a spot-on parody of the insanely (yet inexplicably, at least to me) popular Bruce Lee films of the 70s. The loving recreation of the tropes of the genre are on full display here, along with the clever wordplay that would come to define their later work.

The last half hour of the film is more sketches. Some highlights include the parody trailers for Cleopatra Schwartz and That's Armageddon, both produced by Samuel L. Bronkowitz, and the final segment of the film where a couple begins having sex while watching the late news, and the late news devolves into a bunch of dudes enjoying the show being put on by the couple.

Top to bottom, the film is inspired and holds up because of its hilarious and brash sensibilities. It's certainly not a career best for any of the talent involved, but it's a pretty damn good first effort for a bunch of amateurs finding their voices. The opening and closing credits feature a song titled "You'll Dream of the New Carioca" and good luck getting it out of your head. It's infectious, annoying, yet endlessly catchy. It's still stuck in my head.

I doubt there are many kids today who would see this film and appreciate it, but considering that I saw it for the first time some fifteen years after it came out, there's hope that future generations will discover it the same way I did. It's a great little movie and will most assuredly have you laughing for the majority of its 83 minute running time.

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The 10 Best and Worst Films of 2011

So beginning tomorrow, January 22, I will be doing long form reviews of all my picks for the best films of 2011, but I wanted to put them in list form first. I've been holding off on reviewing some of these for a while, but I've had a chance to see almost all of these films at least twice. Here is my official list for your perusal with the date the review will appear next to it, so be sure to check back every day for my review. I've also listed my picks for the worst films of the year. I've reviewed some of them, and the others I'm not about to revisit any time soon, so don't look for long reviews of those. We'll start with honorable mentions, some of which I reviewed already...

Honorable Mention
The Artist (reviewed on 12/26/11)
Beginners (reviewed on 1/4/12)
Hobo with a Shotgun (review coming soon)
Midnight in Paris (reviewed on 12/22/11)
The Rum Diary (review coming soon)
Winnie the Pooh (reviewed on 12/28/11)

The Best Films of 2011

10. The Beaver (January 22)
9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (January 23)
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (January 24)
7. The Ides of March (January 25)
6. Moneyball (January 26)
5. The Muppets (January 27)
4. Hugo (January 28)
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (January 29)
2. Drive (January 30)
1. The Tree of Life (January 31)

The Worst Films of 2011

10. Immortals
9. 30 Minutes or Less (reviewed on 12/8/11)
8. Super 8
7. Zookeeper
6. Your Highness
5. Apollo 18 (reviewed on 1/11/12)
4. Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World
3. Sucker Punch
2. Another Earth (reviewed on 1/1/12)
1. Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star (reviewed on 1/18/12)

So there you have it. Like I said, long form reviews start tomorrow, so we'll see you back here for my review of Jodie Foster's The Beaver.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day 51: The Descendants

"Elizabeth is dying, wait, Fuck You! And she's dying."

I wanted to love this film, I really did. I thought for most of its running time that I did, but the longer it went on, the harder it was for me to love it. Alexander Payne is an insanely talented writer and director, but he has no sense of pacing, and it's painfully obvious in all of his films with the possible exception of Election. His films just have no forward momentum and it feels like just when his films finally get going, they end. Now, I love About Schmidt, but it doesn't really pick up steam until Warren's speech at the wedding, and it ends roughly ten minutes later. Same thing with Sideways, that film really comes to life in the scene where Miles goes to get Jack's wallet back, and that's about 90 minutes into the movie. Signs of life finally show up near the end, and then he wraps things up. It's a choice, otherwise it wouldn't be such a noticeable pattern.

The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a man dealing simultaneously with the sale of a large piece of land in Hawaii that his family owns as well as the imminent death of his wife who is in a come following a boating accident. Matt is a man who has spent most of his married life as the second parent to his two daughters 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), and now he is thrust into a situation where he is doing all the heavy lifting in the family. Through a conversation with Alex, Matt finds out that his wife was carrying on an affair, and this begins to consume Matt. He is also dealing with having to break the news of his wife's looming death. If you feel overwhelmed just reading all this, imagine what it's like witnessing it. This is a man who seems to have had it all figured out his entire life, and now he's just getting thrown one curveball after another.

He is also getting to know his daughters for the first time. He hasn't spent a lot of time raising them, and the film above and beyond anything else is about a man who's been a father for a long time figuring out how to be a dad. This part of the story really connected for me, and maybe there's other angles that will connect with other people, but for me, this is what the movie is about. Matt is dealing with protecting his youngest daughter from the harsh reality of her mother's situation, and he's also dealing with his eldest daughter's rebellious streak and her ever-present friend Sid (Nick Krause). After tracking down the man his wife was having the affair with, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), he also finds himself facing a man who is married and has children, and he becomes conflicted about confronting him.

The film has a ton of balls up in the air and that, for me, was its biggest problem. I suppose it all flows naturally enough, but the way that revelation on top of revelation just piles up and then effectively resolves itself in the last ten minutes of the film kind of bothered me. As natural and easy-going as the flow is, it felt like watching the first season of Lost all over again; Part of me was excited by each new revelation and twist to the story, but the other part of me was just left wondering, when are we going to start tying up some of these loose ends?

Clooney has had a long and distinguished career, but he's kind of been playing a variation on the same character for years. It's a curse of being a movie star, I suppose, but there is part of me that wants to see him really stretch. The Coen Brothers have offered him that chance at least twice (O Brother & Burn After Reading) and I loved him in the horrendously under-seen Welcome to Collinwood, but there is a part of me that wants to be floored by him in a role like this, and I just know that I won't because it's just that same type of character again. All of this is not to say that he isn't good in the film, he's outstanding, but he was just as good in Michael Clayton & Up in the Air.

Shailene Woodley, on the other hand, is revelatory. She is as good a discovery as Haillee Stenifeld in last year's True Grit. She has a long career ahead of her, if she wants it, and I look forward to what the future holds for her. She has an honesty in her delivery and a burning intensity in her eyes, and I thoroughly enjoyed her.

The film was full of memorable bit parts, as all of Payne's films are, but my favorite has to be Nick Krause as Sid. At first, I thought he was going to be a grating addition to the cast, but once his scene with Clooney where they talk about Sid's family lands, his motivation and character come into focus, and he is great. The scene where Robert Forster punches him was far and away my favorite, and I began looking forward to him being in scenes after that.

The cinematography is wonderful, as to be expected from a film shot in Hawaii. Every landscape is gorgeous and the camera lingers, sometimes too long, on some of the breathtaking vistas. I'm glad that the film eschewed some of the moments that seemed like it was on a collision course with, i.e. there was no long monologue by Matt to his cousins explaining his decision about the land. There were several moments where I braced myself for some hardcore monologuing, and they never came up, which is a welcome omission from a film such as this.

There is a lot to admire about The Descendants, it's a very good film, but I feel that it's thoroughly forgettable. It doesn't bring anything new to the table, and while that's not a requirement for any film, when a film has the pedigree that this one does, you expect it to break some new ground somewhere, or have that moment where you realize that it's just gone from a good film to a great film, and this film just doesn't cut it. I would recommend it to anyone who's a fan of any of the talent involved, but don't be swayed by the hype. The studio wants you to believe it's the best film you'll see this year, and it falls sadly shy of that lofty goal.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day 50: Dolphin Tale

"In this changing world, it's harder than ever to find something extraordinary, but every once in a while, a symbol of hope breaks through. And this time, her name is Winter."

There's nothing extraordinary about the film Dolphin Tale. It's a fairly by-the-numbers tale of survival with a bit of "we need to save the rec center" thrown in for good measure. What makes the film a very good one though, is the true story of a dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in after getting caught in a crab trap and washing ashore near Clearwater, Florida. All summer long, I was inundated with advertisements and trailers for the film every time I went to the movies, and the trailer tells pretty much the entire story.

It's sad that we live in a day and age where the people who cut trailers for films treat their audiences with such contempt that they feel the need to give away every major plot point in the trailer. The first noticeable example of this for me was Pleasantville, a movie I absolutely adore, but I was so angry after I saw it and realized that every major plot development was revealed in the trailer. I had an eerily similar experience here, and if you have somehow managed to avoid the trailers, I would urge you to continue to do so before you see the film. In fact, avoid my review as well.

The film tells the story of a young boy named Sawyer (Mason Gamble) a lonely outsider who lives with his mom (Ashley Judd) and doesn't seem to have many friends aside from his swim champion cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). While riding home from school one day, he comes across a fisherman who has discovered a beached dolphin caught in a crab trap. The local marine rescue team, headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr) arrives and transports the dolphin to their research facility. The dolphin, Winter, ends up losing her tail to infection. Sawyer stops by to visit Winter and strikes up a friendship with Clay's daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). The doctors have been having a hard time getting Winter to respond to them, but she instantly responds to Sawyer, most likely because she recognizes him as the one who cut her free from the trap.

Sawyer begins cutting class to spend time with Winter and the Hasketts, which inevitably gets him in trouble with his mother. After bringing her to the facility to meet Winter, his mother pleads with his teacher to allow him to miss the semester to spend time living and learning at the center. Sawyer's cousin Kyle has gone off to war and there was an incident that caused him to permanently damage his leg and he has been discharged and sent home. When he goes to visit Kyle in the VA Hospital, he also meets Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a prosthetics expert, whom he convinces to come to the center to meet Winter. Winter has been swimming without her tail, but in doing so, she has been causing damage to her spine and muscles, and if she continues to do so, may become paralyzed and die. Dr. McCarthy agrees to help figure out a way to construct a prosthetic tail for Winter.

Things are further complicated by the fact that a wealthy entrepreneur has offered to buy the struggling marine center in an attempt to ease its financial woes, but he wants to tear it down and build a luxury beachfront hotel. Of course, without a top-line research facility, Winter will likely die before they can raise enough money to save the center. I guess it's a bit obvious where all this is headed, but needless to say, it all works out in the end. It wouldn't have made for a very good movie if it didn't.

The film is full of heart and is a thoroughly wonderful film to watch with your family. Winter becomes an inspiration to people with disabilities and missing limbs all over the country, and people begin coming from all over to see the dolphin. In my favorite scene, a mother and her four year-old daughter drive from Atlanta to see the dolphin they've heard about. The daughter is missing a leg and when she sees the dolphin, she says "look Mommy, he's just like me." It's a simple and genuinely touching scene that made even a tough guy like me cry. Yes, it's heavy-handed, but it's genuine. It's not John Williams ratcheting up a swelling orchestra to cue you in to the fact that you're supposed to be having an emotional reaction to what you're seeing. You feel the pain and the hope that Winter inspires.

The film ends with a montage of footage of the real Winter, who plays herself in the film, and her journey. The most affecting scenes in the montage involve real life amputees, many of them children, who came to visit Winter and see the dolphin who was just like them. It's beautifully done, and almost makes me wish this had been a documentary instead of a dramatized version of the events. I watched it with my daughters, and my oldest daughter Clementine genuinely enjoyed the film. She told me about halfway through, "Daddy, this movie is really good. We should buy it." I don't want to say I was swayed by her opinion of the film, and maybe for a time, my enjoyment of the film came vicariously through her enjoyment of it, but the film is powerful, mainly because Winter's story is powerful.

Winter is a fighter and the people who are inspired by her are fighters too, and that is what makes the story so compelling. It would be so much easier to succumb to adversity and just give in, but the heart of a fighter beats inside Winter and gives the people who see her and touch her and are inspired by her the will to carry on and continue their fight. It's a lesson we all should take to heart. Likely most of us don't have anywhere near the struggles to overcome that these characters do, but just as they fight on, so too should we.

The film is directed by Charles Martin Smith, a former character actor famous for his roles in American Graffiti and The Untouchables, and he avoids a lot of the sentimentality that tends to bog down films like this. It's not the best directed film you'll ever see, but you never feel manipulated by it, and that's so key to making a film like this work. With a lesser director behind the camera, the film could have easily been treacly mush, but he's a smart enough director to skirt those obvious emotional manipulations and let the power of Winter and those around her move you.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 49: Bucky Larson, Born to Be a Star

"You can't go around whippin' your dick out at mac & cheese commercial auditions."

You're welcome. I just spoiled the only funny thing that anyone in this entire fucking catastrophe uttered. I am so god damned angry right now, I'm glad my family is asleep and doesn't have to see me like this. I have never been so angry after watching a movie. Well, maybe I have, but the anger rising in me throughout this entire 95 minute abomination feels unrivaled at the moment. At least Old Dogs had the fucking decency to start the end credits around the 79 minute mark. This fucking atrocity was still going strong. It hadn't even gotten to the climax. Jesus Christ, there was still 11 more minutes of this shit to go at that point.

I used to like Adam Sandler. I never loved him like a lot of people did, but I always enjoyed his movies. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Wedding Singer, these movies made me laugh. I own them. His performances for writer/directors who knew how to harness his energy were effective: Punch Drunk Love, Funny People, even Spanglish. But the dude just seemed to want a career to give his friends jobs. His hangers-on have all gotten their moment in the spotlight thanks to his Happy Madison production company: Rob Schneider, Allen Covert, David Spade, Kevin James, and now, Nick Swardson. Swardson is a talented stand-up yet nobody's figured out what to do with him in a feature film. This is his first starring vehicle and to call it an unmitigated failure is an understatement.

Swardson plays Bucky Larson, a bumpkin from Iowa who discovers that his parents were porn stars in the 70s. He decides it's his destiny to go to Hollywood and follow in their footsteps. He does. That's it. That's the whole fucking plot. Yeah, there's other stuff, but that's pretty much it. It would be one thing if there was something new to add to that notion, but that ground was pretty well covered by Trey Parker & Matt Stone's vastly superior Orgazmo; Naive kid ends up in porn, becomes a superstar, rebels against the industry and evil dudes who run it. Why does this movie exist? Because Adam Sandler's rich and if you do enough small roles in his shitty starring vehicles, you get $10 million to make your own vanity project.

This movie is a fucking piece of shit. I have no qualms with saying that. I remember when it came out and everyone took a shit on it and Nick Swardson tried in vain to defend it, saying that it was never intended to be a movie for critics, but this isn't a movie for anyone. In the interest of fairness, I'm going to list the things that this film considers funny and you can decide for yourself if the problem is with the critics or the lazy screenwriting. What follows is just a list, presented objectively and you tell me if any of these things are funny in and of themselves:

Dutch page boy wigs
Endless jokes about dutch page boy wigs
Buck teeth
Endless jokes about buck teeth
Midwestern accents
Endless jokes about Midwestern accents
Small penises
Endless jokes about small penises
Every single ancillary character is a total creep
Stephen Dorff as a porn star
Don Johnson as a porn director
The guy from Zohan (Ido Mosseri) playing the same character he played in Zohan
Fake porn titles that aren't funny i.e. The Farmer in the Smell
Old people saying dirty things
Young people saying dirty things
Kevin Nealon
Pauly Shore
Using a cut off end of a straw as a condom

That's all I wrote down, but I'm sure there are others. Maybe there's something funny about some of those, but when the film appears to just be a string of essentially the same four jokes, they lose their punch. First of all, there's nothing about the character of Bucky Larson that would lead anyone with a brain to believe that he is a heterosexual. I don't know why people seem to take that for granted in encounters with him, but apparently he's not even questioning, and that's odd to me.

This brings me to my biggest problem with the movie (I know, as if all that was just the warm-up to my real problem). My biggest problem with the movie is Christina Ricci. Not necessarily her character, although it's a fucking joke of a character arc they give her (her dream is to be a waitress in a fancy restaurant, but she accidentally scalded an old woman with hot soup and now she's afraid to work in a restaurant with trays. This is all true). My problem is that she's in this movie at all. She used to be awesome. She was the fucking indie movie queen for much of the late 90s and early aughts, and then she lost weight and started doing shit (Black Snake Moan? Anyone? That movie was made during Samuel L. Jackson's "I'll do anything with Snake in the title" period {thank you Andy Grigg}). We all gotta eat, I get that, and I'm not looking to cast aspersions on people, but between this and Pan Am, I'm starting to seriously question her desire to be taken seriously anymore.

She has a scene with Bucky late in the movie, after he's won 12 adult film awards (not making that up) where she tells him that she's never won any fancy awards, and part of me can't help but feel that her mere presence in this whole endeavor is a fuck you to anyone who's ever liked her as an actress. I need to watch Buffalo '66 again soon to remind myself that she was once a great actress. Why on earth she would consider being in a relationship with someone as emotionally retarded as Bucky is beyond me. And I don't use that word in the mean sense, I use it in the sense of the definition of the word. He is fucking retarded. He's not just naive, or sensitive, or overly trusting, he's retarded.

You could not convince me that there was more than one draft of this fucking abortion written down on paper. There are three credited writers (Sandler, Swardson, & Covert) but I would bet both my kidneys that this thing was written on the fly. It seems like a funnier idea than it actually is, and it's not that funny of an idea. I would love to talk to someone who worked on this thing that would be honest with me and tell me that they got sides every morning and that there was no official written script. It's the only plausible explanation for this shit. Everyone in this movie is naive. Nobody in the world is as naive as the characters in this movie, and I'm not just talking about Bucky. Everyone takes everything at face value.

There's no attempt at characterization, and why do that when it's funny just to stick a bunch of caricatures in the frame and let them mug it up. Throw a wig on that guy who was famous fifteen years ago and let him say whatever pops into his head. That seems to have been the mantra of this project. It's directed by a guy named Tom Brady, and if ever there were a more ironic name for a guy directing a movie like this, I don't know what it would be. The real director went down, the back-up got thrown in, and made the worst movie of the decade. It's a cinderella story if I've ever heard one. I don't know that that's what happened, but it sounds like a fitting analogy for such an aptly named director.

I could write a dissertation on this travesty, but my better sense is telling me to wrap it up. Do not... I repeat DO NOT go near this thing with a forty foot pole. It is absolutely, positively one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It made Zookeeper look like the fucking laugh riot of the year. This movie should be held against everyone involved for the rest of their lives. They should wear it around their necks like the albatross it is and have to suffer countless indignities for agreeing to appear in it.

There's pretty much nothing to convince me that Adam Sandler will ever be good again, particularly because he not only produced it, but took the top writing credit. He deserves it. Fuck him. I hope he's happy and has his money and his New York fucking Yankees to keep him happy at night. He's certainly done bringing joy to the lives of anyone in the world outside of his friends, and he seems perfectly content to do so. And as for Nick Swardson, I hope someone figures out something to do with him, because he can be a funny dude. I just don't hold out much hope that it'll happen if even he can't write a good starring vehicle for himself. God help us all.

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Day 48: Midnight Cowboy

"John Wayne! He's a cowboy! You calling John Wayne a fag?"

Holy crap this is a depressing movie. I remember seeing it when I was in high school, but this is not a movie for high schoolers, even sophisticated ones such as myself at the time ;-) I distinctly remember not liking it, but there are a lot of films I didn't like as a teenager that I now love and cherish: The Graduate, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, and now, most certainly, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a naive young man who leaves a small town in Texas to travel to New York City with aspirations of becoming a hustler. He's heard stories of how there are thousands of rich old ladies in New York just itching to pay young studs such as himself for sex. Upon arriving in New York, he moves into a hotel and sets out to make his fortune. Things don't necessarily go as planned, especially after his first encounter with a woman named Cass (Andy Warhol fixture Sylvia Miles) who is appalled that he would ask her for money.

Broke and desperate, Joe encouters Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman in one of the greatest screen performances of all time), a crippled degenerate who offers to hook him up with a pimp. Needless to say, he ends up conning Joe, dumping him off with a religious fanatic, and now Joe is officially destitute. He's kicked out of his hotel room, and decides to hang around the area where men are looking to pick up prostitutes. In a heartbreaking scene, he's picked up by a young man played by Bob Balaban, whom Joe discovers, after the fact, doesn't have any money. In yet another example of Joe's naivete and genuineness, he is unable to follow through on his threat to beat the crap out of the man.

He hooks up again with Ratso who offers to let him squat in his abandoned flat with him, and offers to be his pimp. Like seemingly everything else that these two lost souls attempt, this proposition falls flat on its face. Joe & Ratso struggle to survive, Joe on his endless optimism and Ratso on his dream of moving to Florida and living the high life. Joe, however is haunted by memories of his past in Texas. From what I was able to glean, he was in love with a girl in town who had a history of sleeping with a lot of men, all of whom didn't like the idea of her not sleeping with them anymore, so one night, they dragged the lovers out of their car and raped them both. When the police arrived, the girl fingered Joe as the lone assailant. He also had a rough childhood, rife with abuse and abandonment.

Voight's performance is so incredibly good and filled with nuance. You can feel his broken heart and his endless desire to make something of himself and your heart breaks for him with every dead end he hits. If he's the beating heart of the film, Ratso is the film's soul. Ratso sees a lot of himself in Joe, which is why I think he takes him in. He sees a man much like himself who doesn't give up and lets the sheer determination to achieve his dream sustain him. The film is a love story in the truest sense of the word. It's about finding a soul mate in this world and helping that person achieve their dreams.

The film was revolutionary in 1969 when it was released, and it explores taboos that still exist in today's United States. Our country's puritanical roots are still the foundation that drives people's attitudes towards sexual mores and this film flies boldly in the face of that. Waldo Salt's screenplay is brilliantly attuned to the language of the street. There's so much stylization in the film's style, much of it clearly indebted to the films of Andy Warhol, but the dialogue is rich with deep, real characterization. It's a delicate balance, but the film strikes it perfectly. All three Oscars won by the film and these men were thoroughly deserved.

The fateful bus trips that bookend the film strike a metaphorical chord that films have been aping in the years following the film's release. I'd point to the door knocks that bookend Sideways as a recent example of this. I know this film didn't invent the technique, but it's almost certainly the gold standard for this trope.

This is a film for dreamers and lovers and there is so much hope in its ending, in spite of the fact that it's incredibly sad. The hope that Joe Buck brought with him to New York City has not been crushed by his never ending failures. It's alive and well, and a new life awaits him. Our heart continues to break for him and for Ratso, but our hope that he will make it in this life will never die. It's a beautiful film in its ugliness. It doesn't pull any punches, it doesn't gloss things over, but its heart beats with a sense that anyone and everyone can achieve their dreams in the end. That's a lesson we all should take to heart.

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