D_Burke

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Reviews

The Wolf of Wall Street
(2013)

"The Wolf of Wall Street" Smiles, But Shows No Teeth
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is tremendously entertaining. When watching this movie in a theater, and you resist using the bathroom even after imbibing a medium Cherry Coke, you know it is the sign of exceptional storytelling.

This movie's narrative structure is similar to "Goodfellas" (1990) and "Boogie Nights" (1997) in that the first half of the film is fun to watch as you witness the rise of the antihero protagonist and the supporting players. Especially if you greatly dislike the protagonist and resent his rise to power, if the second half is hard to watch, you know you are seeing something good.

However, although the story arc is similar, it's not quite as great as the aforementioned films. Granted you witness great acting from almost everyone involved, and eye-opening moments.

Unfortunately, the movie never got past the excesses and to the true consequences of the protagonist's actions. Even then, the movie seemed to be mostly preoccupied with the high lives these stock-brokers were living, and virtually ignored the lives they ruined on their way to the top.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, an ambitious man who takes a job as a stockbroker on Wall Street. Unfortunately, despite having a dynamic mentor (played by a superb, scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey), it is 1987, and the stock market takes a plunge that puts him of work.

Soon afterwords, he takes a modest job in a boiler room selling penny stocks. It turns out that Belfort is not just good at selling these worthless intangibles: he's great at it.

Eventually, he starts his own company with shady children's furniture salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and other compatriots from the boiler room, where they employ the pump and dump scam to their advantage. When they amass enough money, they begin to give their firm a respectable name, Stratton Oakmont, and make money hand over fist using the same marauding techniques, only on a larger scale.

I'll be the first to admit that stock trading and the tribulations of Wall Street are very foreign to me. If I see a movie like "Wall Street", I don't know what the numbers scrolling across the NYSE mean. I could only rely on the faces of Michael Douglass or Charlie Sheen to know if the overall news was good or not.

To the film's credit, I could understand how Stratton Oakmont amassed their wealth. I can also understand the illegality of their trade, and I'm certain that most audience members with no Wall Street familiarity will not be lost.

Even if one hates these people for their avarice, and the immoral and reprehensible lives that they lead as a result of their accumulated fortune, one cannot deny how entertaining it is to watch these shenanigans. Their charades may not be appealing, especially when the Securities and Exchange Commission begins to take note of their activities, but they are still engrossing.

However, the party lasts a little too long at a running time of 180 minutes. This movie could have easily been cut back 40 minutes by taking out a party scene or two. Another scene where Belfort meets with corrupt Swiss banker Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) could also have been shortened significantly.

Plus, with these people living so high off their riches, it is impossible to believe that no one got hurt financially in the process. Belfort lived the high life (both figuratively because of his wealth, and literally because of his excessive drug use), but there had to have been lives that were ruined because of his schemes.

Still, as far as acting goes, DiCaprio himself owns this film, and it definitely is among his best performances. His breaking the fourth wall is done enough so that it is not redundant, and his motivational speeches to his firm members are incredibly over-the-top, but appropriately so given his character.

Jonah Hill was decent as Belfort's right hand man, although his performance sometimes became a little too comically inappropriate, as if he was playing the fat guy who falls on his face the same way he has done in lesser comedies (excluding "Superbad" (2007) and "21 Jump Street"). However, the scene where he nearly chokes to death when high on Quaalude was scary for me to watch.

That same scene, where Belfort is also dramatically debilitated from the same kind of Quaalude, received some laughs from the audience in my theater, but I didn't find the scene funny at all. It was one of the most memorable drug scenes I've seen in a mainstream movie, but like Uma Thurman's heroin overdose moment in "Pulp Fiction" (1994), and Julianne Moore's hyper, heartbreaking, high-on-cocaine "too many things" scene in "Boogie Nights" (1997), it made me never want to try drugs.

On top of stand-out performances by Margot Robbie as Belfort's trophy wife, Rob Reiner as Belfort's profane and no-nonsense father, and McConaughey's brief but memorable role, the ensemble cast succeeded for the most part in making greed look ugly. When the firm hits their chests and chant an innocuous but catchy quasi-tribal tune, they make true fools out of themselves, but are too busy conforming to care.

While "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a memorable movie, it doesn't quite reach the emotional depths of director Martin Scorsese's previous movies like "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas". In the latter film, when Henry Hill's life takes a turn for the worst, you can feel him crash and burn.

Here, Jordan Belfort eventually falls, but appears to hit a bed of roses. He story ends with consequences, but he just ends up not as wealthy as he used to be.

This movie leaves with the implication that Belfort lived his high life so well that the tab he had to pay wasn't all that steep. Somebody had to pay the rest of that bill, and probably did, but you wouldn't know it from seeing it here.

Confessions of a Porn Addict
(2008)

If You Know It's A Mockumentary, You Might Enjoy It
So, "Confessions of a Porn Addict" is not a real documentary. I mention that fact in the beginning of this review because I didn't know that fact while I was watching it. It was only when I looked the film up later that its intent as a mockumentary came to my attention.

Did not knowing it was a mockumentary ruin my enjoyment of the film? Well, movies about people who struggle with addiction, particularly an addiction as complicated as sex addiction, are not entertaining to begin with. They can be fascinating, but definitely not enjoyable to watch.

For instance, Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" (2002) was a good film that started out as kind of fun, only to gradually decline in mood into a grim portrayal of a bleak and sad life that catches up to the protagonist. The film has no shortage of nudity, but a huge shortage of eroticism and excitement.

Simply put, there's nothing inherently funny about sex addiction. Its status as an actual addiction is the subject of hot debate within psychology circles, but those who succumb to it lead truly sad lives.

So if sex addiction is not funny, why make a mockumentary about it? Why make a film about a guy who spends most of his time in his apartment masturbating to hardcore porn to the point where he loses his girlfriend, his job, and a chance at a normal productive life, and pass it off as a comedy? What's the point?

I have read defenders of this film label this movie as "deadpan", and "of an acquired taste", which may be what the filmmakers intended. However, to me, this film was equivalent to a friend of mine telling me that he has cancer, and then telling me he was just kidding three days later.

If an actual friend told me this outright lie, I wouldn't laugh, nor would I be particularly offended. If anything, I would wonder what the point of lying to me was.

I watch these events unfold on the screen, and the last thing I want to do is laugh. I see Mark Tobias (Spencer Rice) going through stacks of porno DVDs and magazines, and want him to get help and declutter his apartment.

I see Mark go to a support group by the urging of his friends who are filming this documentary, and, after the group director suggests Mark literally lock his penis up in a cage and throw away the key, I want him to join another group. This bizarre solution to Mark's curbing his masturbation habit flies right in the face of the group's serenity prayer, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The group director's apparent not knowing the difference is ironic, but not funny.

I also see Mark's ex-girlfriend, Felice (Lindsey Connell), actually move to Los Angeles to star in pornographic films, presumably to spite Mark, and I think to myself, "Hey, that is one of those scenarios where truth is stranger than fiction". But in the end, it's not funny.

"Confessions of a Sex Addict" would have made an engrossing documentary if it were real. Showing someone's struggle to overcome an addiction more rooted in selfishness and self-indulgence than other addictions would not only have made a captivating, albeit grim, subject, and it could have been a tool to help others struggling with similar demons.

Instead, its mockumentary style and execution felt simultaneously inappropriate, inert, flaccid, and most of all, pointless. There's nothing wrong with making fun of a taboo subject, but it helps when the filmmakers actually know how to make it funny.

Maleficent
(2014)

If You're Not Too Attached to Disney's "Sleeping Beauty", You'll Love "Maleficent"
Maleficent has always been my favorite Disney villain, which is even more ironic because "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) is one of my least favorite Disney animated films. Sure "Sleeping Beauty" was superbly animated, but I doubt I'm the only man who, while watching it on video as a boy, willingly fast-forwarded through the song "Once Upon A Dream".

The witch Maleficent made "Sleeping Beauty" worth watching for anyone with any hint of a rebellious streak. While the good characters went through the motions, Maleficent seemed to be the only character who actually had fun in her role.

That's why, when I heard Disney was making an animated film about the origins of that delightful, Gothic sorceress, and it was going to be live action, I was excited. I also can't think of any actress better suited to play Maleficent than Angelina Jolie.

Jolie portrays Maleficent in a cool, calculated way that is a lot of fun to watch. When Jolie plays bad, she plays it very well, as evidenced from her Oscar-winning supporting role in "Girl, Interrupted" (1999), and a few other roles.

While Jolie seldom disappoints in her role, and the impressive set design makes the film unspeakably exquisite, the story, while an original take on the Sleeping Beauty story, may disappoint some Disney purists. The Maleficent origin exposition is indeed a welcome, and surprising, addition to the story. The artistic liberties screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes with the "good guys" might take some Disney fans out of the movie.

I admit that going into the film, I expected "Maleficent" to follow Disney's adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty" a little more closely. Specifically, I presumed that the movie would approach Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" the same way the novel "Grendel" by John Gardner told the tale of Beowulf through the perspective of the antagonist.

In "Grendel", Gardner didn't change the story of Beowulf as it was told in the eponymous, Anglo-Saxon epic poem. The Grendel creature was granted good intentions in that story, but it didn't change the way the humans in the story reacted to him, and his ultimate death.

In "Maleficent", the original Disney story, and perhaps every other "Sleeping Beauty" adaptation, is changed significantly to make Maleficent less ruthless toward the princess Aurora, which may not be a welcome change for some. In the Disney animated movie, Maleficent places a curse on Aurora intending for her to die. In this movie, her words are changed significantly, almost giving Aurora a pass that feels too convenient.

Like in the 1959 cartoon, upon being placed under this curse, Aurora's king father sends her to live in the cabin with three magical fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple). They wear the same colors as their hand-drawn animated predecessors, but are far more comically inept. Perhaps too inept sometimes, as their fighting with one another feels as annoying as certain children throwing tantrums in stores.

Plus, Jolie's Maleficent knows where Aurora is raised by Day 1. Although it creates some amusing scenes (such as one where Maleficent makes it rain in the cabin), it may prompt a viewer to ask, "Why doesn't she just kill the kid if she's so close?" Disney purists who took comic relief from Aurora's father in the original Disney movie may be sorely disappointed by the turn of the king here who, in this movie, is named Stefan (Sharlto Copely, best known for "District 9" (2009)). I actually liked the back story where it's revealed that Stefan, before he was king, had a relationship with young Maleficent (played here captivatingly by Isobelle Molloy).

There's an intriguing love story between the two characters, but the fault lies in young Stefan growing apart from Maleficent. It's not bad (story-wise) that the growing apart happens, but rather that it is told by way of a narrator (Janet McTeer), not shown as needed to be.

Plus, the way in which Stefan, before he is king, lies to a dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) that he killed the sorceress in order to obtain the throne is far too similar to "Beowulf" (2007). Because Ray Winstone's eponymous protagonist also claimed to kill a beast who happened to be played by the same actress, I would not be surprised if either director Robert Zemeckis or screenwriters Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary sued for copyright infringement.

With all that said about the story, I can't say I was disappointed with the movie, or at least not the same way I was with Tim Burton's "Alice In Wonderland" (2010). Both had superb visual effects, were based on Disney animated classics, and were actually written by the same screenwriter.

Whereas "Alice In Wonderland" told a story that bore no resemblance to any of Lewis Carroll's stories despite having all the same characters, "Maleficent" at least got the general structure of "Sleeping Beauty" right. If he were alive today, Uncle Walt might not approve of the changes in the story and characters, but he would love what Jolie did with Maleficent, and would marvel at the set and character design.

The Walt Disney Company's enormously popular Disney Princess franchise has given them a solid footing in the girl's market. Making a film like "Maleficent", in spite of the title character being female, appears to be a far more sensible way to appeal to boys than merely coughing up money to buy other boy-approved franchises (i.e. Marvel comics, Star Wars).

Disney already wrote their checks, but developing and rebooting their darker characters is something they should keep doing. If "Maleficent" is financially successful, they could make some amazing films based on other villains that would make boys flock to theaters. I wouldn't be against seeing an Ursula movie, or one about Gaston, and that's just for starters.

Curly Sue
(1991)

An Adorable Leading Lady In A Tentative Story
"Curly Sue" has the distinction of being John Hughes's last directorial effort. After an impressive catalog of modern-day classics with him at the director's chair, beginning with "Sixteen Candles" (1984) and ending (before this movie) with "Uncle Buck" (1989) and not one bad movie within that list, Hughes didn't quite make his winning streak complete with this film.

It's not that "Curly Sue" is a bad film. It isn't at all, actually. It's just a film with a noticeable identity crisis, and it's either that fact or its poor home video distribution over the years that has prevented it from being considered one of the quintessential John Hughes classics.

A movie about an precocious, cunning, homeless girl who hones her con-artist skills with the help of her deadbeat father invites itself to comedy. However, it seems as if Hughes focused more on the homeless aspect of Curly Sue, and the film felt more dramatic than it should have been.

That isn't so much the fault of the story as it is with the instrumental main title of the movie, composed by Groeges Delerue with an unforgettable leading clarinet solo. It's a beautiful piece, but one that gave the entire film a melancholy feeling right from the start that never felt quite fitting.

That is not to say I did not like the film, or that the film should have been a flat-out farce. It just did not have the same kind of balance of comedy and drama that the John Hughes-penned classic "Home Alone" (1990) had, and the previews for "Curly Sue" promised a comedy.

Fortunately, Alison Lohman was absolutely adorable as Curly Sue. Whether she was in rags or in skirts bought at Lord & Taylor, she exuded a charisma some adult actors take years to learn.

Lohman never utters a catchphrase, but she owned the movie. How she did not elevate to the same child star status as Macaulay Culkin is beyond me, although she fortunately did not end up like him either.

Jim Belushi, as Curly Sue's father, was pretty good, although I could not help but think that he was trying to emulate Bill Murray in this movie more so than any other he has done before and since. It is to his credit that he never attempted to play any of the kinds of characters his late older brother played, but he could have been more original here too.

I also enjoyed Kelly Lynch as Grey Ellison, a strong, independent attorney who ultimately gets conned into taking in Curly Sue and her father. Lynch plays a female protagonist refreshingly unlike many that populate romantic comedies, and its a character we rarely see in family movies even today.

I did take issue with the decisions Grey made with her career as the movie progressed and she grew more fond of Curly Sue. She started out with a lifestyle modern feminists could applaud, only to make an ultimate decision that one could say flies in feminists' faces.

There are some other areas in the movie where the main characters perform questionable actions, and the reactions of those around are equally improbable. One scene has Belushi's character repeatedly punching a rude maître d' in the face, only for the man to continue grovelling without even a blemish, or anyone else ever reacting to it.

There's another scene when Curly Sue explains how she got her nickname, which was not from her curly hair. It turns out another vagabond thought she looked like Curly from the Three Stooges, which doesn't make sense given how much hair Curly had. Plus, Curly's nickname was ironic, whereas Curly Sue's is fitting for obvious reasons.

The character of Curly Sue is not one for whom you are supposed to feel bad. She should be an iconic character about whom children, especially young girls, fantasize because of her freedom and her street smarts.

Unfortunately, the Delerue-composed theme music gave the film a more depressing tone from which it never recovered, not even during the funny parts. And when you feel bad for a girl based not on what she does on screen, but because of a piece of music that almost tells you how you should feel, who would want to look up to her?

The Other Woman
(2014)

"The Other Woman" Needs To Just Dump The Guy Already
"The Other Woman" is a harmless film, but I think that's part of its problem. When a wife befriends her husband's well-intentioned and equally duped paramour, and teams up with her to exact revenge on him for philandering, it would help if the story had a little more bite to it.

The film has a few laughs, but its main problem lies in its consistent meandering around a solvable problem. The story inserts forced slapstick that has Leslie Mann & Cameron Diaz (mostly Mann) literally falling over themselves in a seemingly desperate attempt to add more time to this movie.

Anyone who has seen the preview for "The Other Woman" knows the story. Cameron Diaz is a lawyer who has the problems that every professional woman has in a Lifetime movie: she works too hard, she has a sassy secretary (Nikki Minaj) who tells her that to beleaguer that point for exposition's sake, and she's finally found the "perfect man" in Mark (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau).

After dating Mark for months, she decides to surprise him by arriving at his house in an outfit that will most definitely draw men to theaters. It comes as a surprise to no one that his wife Kate (Leslie Mann) answers the door, but I suppose you have to have something to get a plot like this going.

While the two points in the love triangle meeting isn't supposed to be a surprise except to these two women, there are supposed to be other spontaneous moments in the movie. Unfortunately, the movie lacks any truly unpredictable ones.

That problem is not entirely the fault of the screenwriter, relative newcomer Melissa Stack. I think the movie would have been a more refreshing surprise if the marketers had left the cheating man's third girlfriend, the voluptuous, too-good-to-be-true beach bunny Amber (Kate Upton), out of the advertising campaign entirely. I guess they thought Cameron Diaz wasn't enough of a reason to draw in male audience members, which makes me feel bad for her actually.

Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with Upton's acting in this movie. Granted she isn't given a lot to do, but she's believable enough when given dialogue.

As for Diaz, she can be funny, and has proved herself in other comedies ("There Something About Mary" (1998), "Being John Malkovich" (1999)) to be more than just a pin-up girl. I thought she tried too hard to be funny and edgy simultaneously in "Bad Teacher" (2011), but the $100 million that movie ultimately made may have proved me wrong.

Leslie Mann has more solid comedy credentials, as demonstrated in her husband Judd Apatow's films. In "The Other Woman", the scenes where she gets drunk with Diaz seem too desperate to echo her much more enlightened, and funnier, scene in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005).

It also seemed as if both Diaz & Mann were told by someone on the set, "When the laughs get low, run into something or just fall down." In 9 out of 10 scenes when either or both of them fell into something or out of somewhere, the sad trombone (wah wah waaaahhhh . . .) would have fit too conveniently.

However, the ways in which the three women exact revenge on Mark revealed the film's lack of originality. There are several ways, all of which audiences have seen in other movies, and most of which are brought up in one scene, and dropped in the next.

Seeing Mann put hair loss formula into her on-screen husband's shampoo bottle leads to one comic moment that is dropped entirely for the rest of the movie, like Daffy Duck getting shot in the face by Elmer Fudd. The difference between Daffy being fine in the next scene and Mark still having perfect hair is that "The Other Woman" is not a cartoon.

If you've seen "9 To 5" (1980), "She-Devil" (1990), "The First Wives Club" (1996), or even the remake of "The Longest Yard" (2005), you'll already know the methods of downfall these scorned women bring to Mark. The only difference is that in the previously-mentioned films, the methods were actually permanent.

The final climax that leads to Mark's downfall is one you knew was coming anyway. The story's meandering and stalling makes you wonder why Mann's character just doesn't go up to her husband and say, "I want a divorce".

It would help even more if Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau didn't make Mark such a bland character, making the audience neither feel the pain of his women's furies nor hate him for being a jerk. He just looks like a J. Crew model with the personality of the paper on which that model is printed.

If he was given a personality the same way Mann, Diaz, & Upton were, it would have been a better movie. It would have been a classic if these three likable women actually sat down and watched movies of similar formulas, then thought it better to exact their revenge in other ways.

Transcendence
(2014)

"Transcendence" Raises More Questions Than It Answers
"Transcendence" is a very good looking film with an ensemble cast of terrific actors in it. It also has a great premise that can raise a multitude of philosophical questions, all of which would be intriguing if explored individually.

The problem with "Transcendence" is that it could have gone deeper into the concept of a human life form merging with technology, and what piece of humanity gets lost in the process. Instead, its story merely skims the surface of any possibility, and what's left is a surprisingly bland movie that could have been so much more.

The movie deals with artificial intelligence, as its main character, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), tells a lecture hall full of journalists and inquisitive minds about how he and his research team have created a computer that thinks for herself. One person in the audience asks argumentatively "Are you creating your own God?", to which Dr. Caster calmly replies, "Hasn't that been what humans have always done?"

This is where the movie is almost guaranteed to lose people. I never thought artificial intelligence had any theological intent. Computers were invented and advanced to make life easier, but I doubt any programmer (before or even today) had any intention of playing God.

The beginning of the film is also hard to follow because you mostly hear Johnny Depp talking, and you don't see what he and his team have created until after a member of an extremist vigilante group attempts to assassinate him. Because this is a movie, the audience needs to see what Dr. Caster has created, then welcome feedback (good, bad, or in the form of bullets) from other characters.

The movie gets interesting when you see the actual computer and hear her communicate with actual humans, like a fully-realized HAL-9000 ("2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)). Sure the computer is larger than the pre-Apple computers from the 1960's, but who cares? It talks to us!

The story becomes more intriguing when Dr. Caster becomes terminally ill from the bullet wound, and his grief-stricken wife and lab partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his memory and speech patterns into the super computer. After the real Dr. Caster dies, Evelyn soon discovers that her risky experiment worked, and that Will supposedly lives on in the computer.

As far as special effects go, it is very cool to see Johnny Depp get uploaded onto a screen. The special effects continue to perform wonders as Evelyn assists her computer husband in expanding near a God-forsaken, run down desert small town seemingly out of "The Last Picture Show" (1971).

You see this supercomputer gain more power through a vast network of satellite dishes posted through this desert. You see him practically perform miracle work on injured people, literally making lame men walk and blind men see.

The audience knows there is a catch to this messiah-like power when Dr. Caster is able to communicate with Evelyn not just through a computer screen, but through the people he has healed. It is even odder when it doesn't occur to Evelyn to run after hearing Johnny Depp's voice through another human being that is clearly not Johnny Depp.

Shortly after this scene, Dr. Caster's well-meaning collaborator Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) visits the desert facilities. When he discretely hands Evelyn a hand-written note that says "RUN FROM THIS PLACE", you wonder why that didn't occur to her earlier.

Some may see Depp's performance in this movie as monotone, which it is at least when he's one with the computer, but that's not the point. It could be scary to see him heal the sick, and potentially brain wash them, but it's not.

The lack of scares here comes not from Depp playing this role in autopilot, but instead directly from not knowing what this supercomputer is trying to do. It really isn't clear if the supercomputer is trying to take over the world, or even what he plans to do with it after he takes it over.

Plus, besides creepily taking over other people's minds, not to mention an entire town, it's not clear what evil, if any, he could potentially inflict on the world.

Another one of Dr. Caster's colleagues, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), was right to be suspicious about the computer's motives, and ultimately joins an extremist group led by Bree (Kate Mara). The group's motives aren't entirely clear here either. It would be one thing if they were against technology, but then again, they use a GPS tracking system to find Evelyn.

FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) briefly describes this group's motives, but only in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene. If a viewer finds herself wondering if her attention span is that short, she can take comfort in knowing the fault lies in poor, fleeting exposition.

The end result has two sides fighting against each other with impressive special effects, but no idea where either side stands. The movie could have gone with the theme that a being's ability to play God can be corrupting, but it seems so caught up in its wondrous computer effects to even attempt to extrapolate upon such a heavy topic.

"Transcendence" marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who was cinematographer for all of Christopher Nolan's most recent films (e.g. "Inception" (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy). Pfister has never been nominated for an Oscar, but his ability for great cinematography shows in this film.

Although Nolan serves as a producer for this movie, he could have given writer Jack Paglen's script a second look. With Nolan's revisions, "Transcendence" could have made the artificial intelligence world as intriguing as the subconscious world was in "Inception". Instead, "Transcendence" is a lot of gloss without any stabilization, and not even Morgan Freeman's smooth voice and insightful monologues can save such a potentially profound movie from its own plot holes.

Muppets Most Wanted
(2014)

"Muppets Most Wanted" Left Me Wanting More
When I reviewed "The Muppets" (2011) upon its release, I was ecstatic about it. I loved the story, the songs, and everything the Muppets themselves did in the movie.

Most people who saw "The Muppets" who were not Muppet fans before seeing it enjoyed the film. Muppet fans themselves, in addition to loving the movie, could sense the heart and passion the filmmakers put into every aspect, and felt no doubt everyone involved in making "The Muppets" were Muppet fans themselves.

"Muppets Most Wanted" is the 8th Muppet movie, but the first one that is technically a sequel because it acknowledges the events that took place in its immediate predecessor. Many of those involved in "The Muppets" return in this sequel, including director and co-writer James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, songwriter (and Oscar-winner) Bret McKenzie, and all the Muppets including newcomer Walter . . . but something was missing.

As I watched the film, I could see all the Muppets were there, and it seemed like they were trying to perform "The Muppet Show" as well as they did in their previous film. There was a coherent story about a criminal mastermind who happened to look identical to Kermit the Frog, and exploits this coincidence to help him escape from prison.

I wanted this movie to make me laugh. I want to tell everyone that the Muppets are cool and funny again like I did back when I saw "The Muppets" . . . but I can't.

The problem may have had to do with the story, or at least the motivations of antagonist and Kermit-lookalike Constantine. With his partner in crime Dominic Badguy (pronounced BA-jee, & played by Ricky Gervais), he uses the Muppets' world tour as a front to rob European museums of their precious diamonds.

"The Great Muppet Caper" had a similar plot, but that movie was more clever because virtually all the Muppets in that movie parodied how overdone such a plot was. This movie doesn't even want to acknowledge the banality of that hackneyed plot line, or even consider why any modern audience would care about a jewel heist.

Also, whereas the songs were a major strength in "The Muppets", the song "We're Doing A Sequel" is the only one worth remembering. It's a promising, tongue-in-cheek song that acknowledges the stigma and symptoms of sequelitis, only to allow the whole film to fall victim to its own diagnosis.

Many of the other songs are surprisingly mundane, considering McKenzie wrote far more brilliant songs for "The Muppets". For example, the song "I'll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)" has lyrics that include "I can give you anything you want/Give you anything you need/I'll make your dreams come true/Give you anything you want".

You're waiting for a funny line, but McKenzie, for the first time in his songwriting career, never delivers one. Considering the hilarious, genre-bashing songs he made famous with Flight Of The Conchords, it feels as if he didn't even try.

Last but not least, everything "The Muppets" did right with celebrity cameos, "Muppets Most Wanted" did wrong. You see Christoph Waltz dancing the waltz, Salma Hayek getting on and off stage, Danny Trejo in prison, and Celine Dion just singing.

You don't see Gonzo doing a crazy stunt (you only hear him talking about it), Fozzie Bear telling a joke, or most of the Muppets doing what they do best. Even Lew Zealand forgets to throw a fish.

Of the human stars who actually have relevant roles, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell actually look like they're having fun. Ricky Gervais is surprisingly dull, being both unfunny enough to stand alongside the Muppets, and not menacing enough to be a villain.

The Muppets are the stars of this movie, not the humans. Somewhere in the making of this movie, the filmmakers left their love of the Muppets, and their desire to make them intriguing characters, by the door, and it shows by what you don't see the Muppets do.

"Muppets Most Wanted" has some laughs, but they are more like light chuckles with no feelings of joy or poignancy. The Muppets have already proved they can make a comeback, but this is not the movie that proves their staying power.

"Muppets Most Wanted" is by no means a terrible movie, but I hope the Muppets prove their worth in their next movie. I hope there is a next movie.

One last note: The Walt Disney Company has not yet released "The Muppet Show" Seasons 4 & 5 on DVD in addition to many other long-unavailable Muppet TV specials (e.g. "A Muppet Family Christmas" (1987)), yet has purchased Marvel Comics and the Star Wars franchise. Maybe the problem lies with Disney not caring enough about the Muppets.

A Muppet Family Christmas
(1987)

Quintessential Christmas Movie . . . If You Can Get A Copy
"A Muppet Family Christmas" is not only the greatest Muppet Christmas TV special ever made, but it is also the greatest Muppet TV special bar none. Some may even consider it the greatest Christmas TV special ever made.

"A Muppet Family Christmas" is so delightful to watch that you may not find yourself caring that the special really doesn't have a plot. Most of the adult Muppets (i.e. the ones from "The Muppet Show" (1976-1981)) accompany Fozzie Bear to his mother's country house, and they spend the rest of the special settling in and getting ready for Christmas.

That's pretty much the extent of the story. What makes this special . . . well . . . special is when more Muppets appear and crowd the house. First, there are most of the "Sesame Street" Muppets who come a-caroling, only to later make themselves at home.

Later, the Fraggles from "Fraggle Rock" appear below Ma Bear's house. Oh yeah, and those Muppet fans who are relatively unfamiliar with "Fraggle Rock" may not notice that the human who intended to rent Ma Bear's house for the holiday is none other than Doc (Gerard Parkes), who brought his dog Sprocket with him.

Muppet fans who are familiar with all three Muppet universes (or at least two) will find some surprising poignancy in these different characters interacting. I especially treasured scenes like Bert & Ernie engaging in "small talk" with Doc, or the Swedish Chef trying in vain to cook Big Bird only to reconsider after receiving a special gift. I also laughed when Rowlf and Sprocket speaking "dog".

To fully enjoy this special, it helps if you know most of the Muppet characters beforehand, which is a prerequisite almost all children of the 1970's and 1980's fulfilled effortlessly. I imagine children born after 1990 will know the "Sesame Street" characters, but not the others as much. Undoubtedly, they will wonder why Elmo didn't get more screen time.

"A Muppet Family Christmas" was actually one of Jim Henson's favorite specials on which he worked, and was even described by Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones as "one of (Henson's) finest, and most under-appreciated, productions". It's under-appreciated for a good reason: it has rarely been seen on TV in years, and is out of print on VHS and DVD.

Also because of music royalty issues, and because the "Muppet Show" Muppets are owned by Disney, the "Sesame Street" Muppets are owned by Sesame Workshop, and "Fraggle Rock" is owned by HIT Entertainment, the best chances of seeing this special are unfortunately by spending $50+ on a DVD copy on eBay or Amazon.

A special like this one, which Muppet fans love and some have even worn out their old VHS copy they taped from TV, deserves to be seen perennially, and obtaining a copy of it should not be difficult. In fact, there is a Facebook group dedicated to getting the special the DVD release it deserves, and the page is already "liked" by several cult followers (Campaign for Eventual "Muppet Family Christmas" DVD Release).

This special is very much like the holiday season: craziness and chaos abound, but it is nothing that good company, song, and the comfort of love and companionship can't make worthwhile. Just like the holiday season is one to which people look forward, they may have to wait longer to own a copy of this movie. However, if you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on an uncut copy, consider yourself lucky.

Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular
(2013)

When Mediocre Projects Happen to Great Performers
A TV special starring Lady Gaga and the Muppets packs a lot of promise, especially when the special is titled "Lady Gaga & The Muppets' Holiday Spectacular". If you notice the repetitiveness of that last sentence, it's to prove a point.

This special appeared to be less "Lady Gaga & the Muppets" and more "Lady Gaga featuring the Muppets". Consequently, even the word "Spectacular" in the show's title proved to be an excessive overstatement.

Lady Gaga is among the most polarizing pop stars today. People either like her or hate her, but no one can deny her talent, stage presence, or that certain X factor that relevant pop stars possess.

So this review would not be complete without this reviewer expressing how he feels about her. And truthfully, I like Lady Gaga. I think her songs are often times great, she owns every stage performance without a hint of gregariousness or desperation, and she was phenomenally great as host and musical guest of "Saturday Night Live" last month.

It just astonishes me that, while she worked so well alongside SNL cast members, the interactions between her and the Muppets were noticeably finite and pithy. Yes, Kermit sat alongside her as she sang a surprisingly touching rendition of her own "Gypsy", and there was a scene with her and the other Muppets brainstorming over a final act. There was also Miss Piggy's usual fame envy complete with karate chops.

However, when it came to many of the other musical numbers, the Muppets were noticeably absent. The exceptions were the songs where the major Muppet players seemingly rushed onto the scene near the end to lip sync the given song's final chorus.

Lady Gaga was right in toning down the sexuality of her musical numbers, wisely resulting in her performances of "Applause" in this special bearing little resemblance to her overtly carnal music video. You saw dance numbers mostly involving men in tuxedos, but no . . . well, Muppets!

Did the writers and choreographers of this special even see "The Muppet Show"? If they did, they could have, and should have, taken inspiration from famous episodes with Diana Ross performing "Love Hangover" alongside giant Muppet birds, or Raquel Welch dancing with a gargantuan black spider. Even Alice Cooper danced with Sweetums, Doglion, and other large Muppets when he sang "School's Out".

Sure, "The Muppet Show" left the airwaves over 30 years ago, but the box office success of "The Muppets" (2011) proved that people still had a soft spot in their heart for it. Plus, that movie succeeded because the Muppets were all doing things that were interesting and unique to their given personalities.

Here, they just pad Lady Gaga's stage appearances, and that's not enough. Especially because the special was partially intended to promote the upcoming movie "Muppets Most Wanted", the Muppets deserve better.

There's really no fault in Lady Gaga's song performances, especially her charming duets with Elton John, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and even RuPaul. However, if she's sharing top billing with the Muppets, they should be treated like co-headliners, not opening acts.

As a result, "Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular" could have been most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and Muppetational. Instead, it was . . . okay.

Church Ball
(2006)

Hokey, Hackneyed, Holy "Hoosiers" . . . But Not Wholly Horrible
The title "Church Ball" alone will inevitably alienate millions, if not billions, of movie fans who are either not Mormon, not Christian, or simply hate going to church and seldom do unless forced to do so. On the bright side, once you get past this film's title, you get a light comedy that, to its credit, emboldens community involvement via teamwork and enthusiastic participation in a fun extracurricular activity, and never gets preachy. It's a great message for anyone, let alone the audience who was not scared away by the movie's name.

On the not-so-bright side, "Church Ball", as far as sports movies go, is so very, very predictable. Its plot involving a number of grossly untalented athletes chasing the impossible dream has been done to death, most notably in "Dodgeball" (2004).

Also, wasn't there a basketball movie about a tiny team of five players who come together against the odds and, with the help of one supremely talented basketball player who joins the roster at the last minute, go on to win the championship in the end? It's surprising that the makers of "Hoosiers" (1986) didn't sue these filmmakers for copyright infringement given these blatant similarities, but they probably didn't care either.

Truth be told, "Church Ball" is one overdone sports cliché after another. Even the film's tagline, "It's not how you play the game. It's whether you win or lose.", isn't all that clever. In fact, it was spoken verbatim by a character in ANOTHER movie with basketball as a crucial plot point, "Teen Wolf" (1985).

Even the main characters on the basketball team lack so much originality that they become stereotypes without any dimensions to them. Church accountant Gene Jensen (Clint Howard) may as well have had his character named "The Bookworm", Nadar Nazbarechov (Sina Amedson) could have been "The Foreign Guy", and Don Weaver (Chad Long) was mainly "The Unathletic Fat Guy".

One minor character could have called this team "A Ragtag Team of Misfits", but I don't remember. It wouldn't have surprised me if they did.

With all that said, I actually liked some of the other characters when they actively avoided the stereotype trap. Andrew Wilson (older brother of Owen & Luke) actually did well here as a decent family man whose amateur basketball talent makes him look like Larry Bird compared to the rest of the team. I also liked Amy Stewart as his wife. She was very likable, but the movie could have done without her "Oh, boys will be boys!" narration.

The late Gary Coleman also did what he could as the most unlikely person to be on the team for obvious reasons. However, when it's shown that he has three full-grown sons who happen to love playing basketball (and are good at it), no explanation whatsoever is given why they don't join the church ball team.

Fred Willard was probably the most surprising casting in this movie. With an estimated budget of only $1 million, it could not have been easy to get him.

However, Willard wasn't as funny here as he could have been. As Bishop Linderman, he plays the role as if he's comic relief, as he should, but doesn't really have anything funny to say.

His character's creating the play book for the team was clever, but it's never explained why his character doesn't coach the team himself, consequently leaving the burden to another player. Willard also wears an eye patch which keeps slipping off, revealing that there's nothing evidently wrong with his eye. I couldn't tell whether that was supposed to be the joke, or if that was a mistake the director didn't notice.

Another inconsistency involved the fate of the church basketball league itself. According to Bishop Linderman, the current season in the movie would be the last, and then they would shut down Church Ball for good without any explanation as to why.

If it was because of budget cuts, that would be understandable. However, they already have their own basketball court, not to mention active and enthusiastic participation by church members who could otherwise stay at home and watch TV, or go to a bar (Oops, I forgot! They're Mormon, but you know what I mean).

The fact that the movie didn't explain why church ball was shut down shows another lack of originality in plot execution. Fierce competition between basketball teams should (and does) supply enough conflict for a good story.

I have to credit "Church Ball" with being made on a shoestring budget with obviously good intentions. I especially liked the scenes between Wilson and former NBA great Thurl Bailey, which provided a decent amount of heart to an otherwise mediocre comedy. I just wish the rest of the film could have simply sunk the ball into the basket, instead of focusing on making their moves fancier than they needed to be.

Machete Kills
(2013)

"Machete Kills" But Forgets Its Origins
First came "Grindhouse" (2007), a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful ode to exploitation films of the 1970's & 1980's. Then came "Machete" (2010), an unapologetically violent spin off adapted by popular demand from one of the fake trailers that accompanied "Grindhouse".

Unlike "Grindhouse", "Machete" was a commercial success, making 2 1/2 times its money back in domestic grosses alone. Inevitably, there would be a sequel. Because of how much I enjoyed "Machete", I was looking forward to "Machete Kills" (2013).

Unfortunately, while the movie's predecessors were aware that they were both parodying and paying tribute to low budget schlock flicks, "Machete Kills" somehow forgets that fact. The over-the-top violence and sex is still there, but something still did not feel right as I was watching this film.

The movie starts out right as you get an allegedly fake trailer for "Machete Kills Again . . . In Space". In this "preview" (which may or may not actually get made in the near future), the film is grainy, scientifically unrealistic, and primarily fun to watch.

Then the movie begins, and the film is as clear as crystal, the first indication that the director, Robert Rodriguez, somehow forgot what he was parodying. Based on the casting of supporting characters, Rodriguez may have also intended "Machete Kills" more as a second chance for once-prominent actors with now-notorious reputations than a tongue-in-cheek tribute to his love for fun, low-budget cinema.

The original "Machete" was no masterpiece, but it was enjoyable to watch because Danny Trejo played an appealing bad-ass, and the narrative was solid. In "Machete Kills", Danny Trejo somehow doesn't seem to be into the character he made his own, keeping the same inexpressive face throughout as if he is already bored with playing the character.

The story in this movie is also too simplified and hackneyed to accommodate as many supporting characters as it does. There's a terrorist who is about to launch a nuclear missile from Mexico to Washington, D.C., and is one of those villains who doesn't know what he wants to do with the world once he takes it over.

While Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, and others from the original movie make welcome returns to this sequel, so many characters are added to this story that their presence actually makes the story more confusing. There's a Miss Texas beauty pageant contestant (Amber Heard) who serves as both a femme fatale and almost an Agent Q to Machete, a brothel owner (Sofia Vergara) with an uninspired bra gun which has been done in countless movies and TV shows before, and a lone assassin who assumes many identities (including Lady Gaga) who wants to kill Machete for reasons the film doesn't seem to explain.

If you're going to accommodate that many characters, write a story where every character has more of a useful goal than "Kill the hero", or even "Make a clever cameo". While I thought it was clever to have Charlie Sheen be credited as Carlos Estevez (his birth name) in the beginning sequence, he served no purpose playing the President of the United States.

It's as if the screenwriters just said, "Hey, you know what would be funny? Let's have a formerly legitimate actor whose life is a train wreck play the President!" Sure, Sheen smokes, womanizes, and swears in his role, but those actions alone don't elicit more than a chuckle.

On the other hand, I bought into Mel Gibson playing Voz, the villainous operator of a weapons manufacturer who made the nuclear missile. Does Gibson's presence here show how fall the former A-lister has fallen? Maybe, but he still sold every line he spoke, and still showed his good acting days are not behind him.

As for the gratuitous violence, I was hoping for more irony in what I was watching. Machete doesn't seem to have more creative ways to use a large knife beside slashing it from right to left. Plus, any creative ways a nemesis dies seems to be ripped right from "The Itchy & Scratchy Show" cartoon on "The Simpsons".

If Robert Rodriguez decides to go ahead and make "Machete Kills Again . . . In Space", he needs to make sure there's enough room in the story for any celebrities whose careers he wants to revitalize. Plus, he needs to embrace the graininess of fun B-movies, and remember that even schlock fails without a coherent story.

Probably foremost, he also needs to make sure Danny Trejo actually wants to reprise his role, because you got no indication of that desire here. Or, even better, give Michelle Rodriguez her own spin off as Luz, the Mexican revolutionary. Unlike Trejo, she actually seemed like she wanted to be there.

Lovelace
(2013)

For All Its Acting Strengths, "Lovelace" Should Have Gone Deeper
It is debatable what differentiates a great film biography from the rest. Arguably, a great biopic embraces the complexities of a person's life while using storytelling to organize such intricacies. It makes the film's subject all the more intriguing.

Poor and mediocre biopics either become blatantly overwhelmed by a life's complications, or ignore them altogether. Unfortunately, "Lovelace" chooses to ignore, and consequently misses greatness.

The woman who was born Linda Susan Boreman, and would later be better known by her stage name, Linda Lovelace, lived a very complicated, and devastatingly sad, life. This film centers on the real life Lovelace's claims of being used and abused by her first husband, Chuck Traynor, and being browbeaten into the pornography industry.

Lovelace's allegations of spousal abuse have been disputed by some, and supported by others who knew her personally, but that's beside the point. The film was right in basing its narrative solely on Lovelace's side of the story, not getting bogged down by antipathetic discrepancies. Still, there were crucial parts of her life the movie should not have left out.

For instance, "Lovelace" strongly implies that "Deep Throat" was Lovelace's first pornographic film (untrue) and her last (also untrue). It doesn't mention a stag film in which she engages in bestiality with a dog.

In one of her four books (yes, she wrote four books), she claimed that Traynor forced her to act in such movies, which would have made a good case in this movie for how controlling Traynor was. After all, having sex with a dog, especially on camera, is not an action in which most would engage willingly.

I could go on about relevant moments of the real Lovelace's life that this movie chose to ignore. However, the primary faults of "Lovelace" lie not in what they left out, but in a questionable storytelling structure where the filmmakers obviously tried to be too clever in their narrative.

Basically, the first half of the film chronicles a 21-year-old, naive Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) who lives with her strict, Catholic parents (Robert Patrick and a shockingly deglamorized, unrecognizable Sharon Stone) in Florida. A charismatic, 27-year-old Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) spots Linda at a rollerskating rink and begins dating her.

While Traynor claims to own a bar and restaurant, young Linda doesn't realize he dabbles in prostitution until after they are married, and she bails him out of jail. Eventually, Traynor coerces her into performing sexual acts on complete strangers for money before taking her to audition for pornographic movies.

From here, the film chronicles the making of the notorious "Deep Throat", the rise of Linda Lovelace, and does more than hint at the unexpected cultural impact the film creates.

Halfway through, the film makes the mistake of jumping ahead six years later (I guess circa 1980), and showing a visibly disheveled Linda taking a lie detector test administered by a publisher (Eric Roberts) in order to assess the validity of her marital abuse claims in her new autobiography, "Ordeal". The film then jumps back 8 or 9 years to show many of the same scenes over again, except adding footage at the end of each scene actually showing Traynor physically and sexually abusing Linda.

Why go back and show these scenes? The lie detector scene would have made a good narrative framework, especially since you see Amanda Seyfried look so shockingly worn down. This is not the same doe- eyed, blonde hottie from "Mamma Mia" (2008), or at least it doesn't look like her.

The point is, though, that going back and retreading all the scenes feels like a waste of time. Considering the film's running time of 93 minutes, there is no excuse for retread, especially considering Sarah Jessica Parker's well-publicized cameo as Gloria Steinem was cut out of the film altogether.

However, casting was the film's main strength, which I initially thought would be its weakness. I had my doubts about Seyfried portraying Lovelace, considering that Seyfried is exceptionally gorgeous, and the real Linda Lovelace was (Is there any way to say this nicely?) not even close. Listing actresses in this review who bear a stronger resemblance to the doomed porn starlet would probably be insulting to them.

While Seyfried donned a shaggy brunette hairstyle and freckles to deglamorize herself, she still looked a lot prettier than Lovelace on her best day. Scenes such as low-level mobster Butchie Periano (Bobby Cannavale) arguing that she is not attractive enough for the porno he is financing appear consequently more dubious.

Still, Seyfried did well with what she was given. Her best scenes include the lie-detection test, a surprisingly touching moment with an unexpectedly cordial publicity photographer (Wes Bentley), and her begging her emotionally cold mother for asylum from her abusive husband. Another scene where she is raped by five men at Traynor's behest shows little, but is still hard to watch.

While Peter Sarsgaard is effectively charismatic as Chuck Traynor, he wasn't convincing enough during the abuse scenes. Every time he threw Seyfried around, his face looked as though he would apologize to her right after the directors yelled "Cut!".

Sharon Stone, as Dorothy Boreman, had the movie's best performance, and not just because she is indistinguishable from her more glamorous roles. The scene where she does anything but console a visibly frightened Seyfried makes her eerily believable, and surprisingly multifaceted.

While the performances were well done, and "Lovelace" successfully shied away from exploitation, it suffered from fractured storytelling, awkward editing, and the vague epilogue implying that Lovelace's life only improved before her untimely death in 2002 in a car crash. If you watch the insightful documentary "Inside Deep Throat" (2005), or read Joe Bob Briggs' excellent, astute retrospective on her life (http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-briggs042502.asp), you'll get a far more accurate, and grimmer, account of her life after pornography. It's sad, dismal, and, as "Lovelace" proves, a story Hollywood still does not want to tell.

Live Freaky Die Freaky
(2006)

If You Find Mass Genocide Hilarious, You'll Love "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!"
Could anyone make the story of Charles Manson, his followers, and their crimes funny by way of parody? Maybe, but not the people at Hellcat Pictures, the movie studio that released the first class junk that is "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!".

A film that is mostly stop-motion animated and features voice talent from some notable modern punk rock icons (Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Tim Armstrong of Rancid) packs a lot of promise. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do every conceivable thing wrong in this movie's delivery and execution.

The end result is a shoddy film that is highly vulgar but mean-spirited and consequently unfunny. Additionally, the film's pacing is mind-numbingly slow when it tries desperately to be funny, the animation is terrible, and the material that is supposed to pass as acceptable in the realm of storytelling is so appallingly bad.

In one of the worst framing devices ever put on film, we're taken to the year 3069 (I'm guessing the filmmakers put "69" at the end of that year as a joke they were sure would get a laugh), when Earth is depleted of its natural resources and therefore deserted. A lone man wandering in the desert spontaneously comes across a copy of the book "Healter Skelter" (sic). Desperate for a messiah in this post-apocalyptic world, he begins reading it.

Every fan of true crime stories probably knows that "Helter Skelter" was a groundbreaking true crime novel (after it was a Beatles song) written by prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi. The book strongly condemns the Manson family and their crimes, and understandably so considering Bugliosi was responsible for putting Manson and his savage minions behind bars.

However, as you find throughout this movie, the desert wanderer either misinterprets the book, or the parts where the Manson family's crimes are condemned are torn out of this ragged, aged copy. Another possibility is that a Manson devotee wrote this copy of the book, which would explain why "Helter" is misspelled "Healter" as you see on the cover. No explanation is ever given.

Regardless, the Manson family story, as read by this nomad, is shown through stop-motion animation, which should be the film's saving grace. Instead, the animation is so bad that if you look closely, hands can be seen moving the figures in some shots. A six-year-old playing with his action figures can produce better animation than this movie.

Even worse, rather than the remainder of the movie parodying the Manson family murders, it actually seems to condone and fully support their actions. Interrogating cops have the heads of pigs, and Sharon Tate and her doomed friends are depicted as shallow, wasteful, and stupid celebutantes.

To even suggest that Manson's victims had it coming is so disrespectful that it doesn't merit words. Sadly, that is precisely what this film intends us to believe.

Even worse, a later courtroom scene has a character that is supposed to be Bugliosi revealing to a reporter how he will write a book about the trial while donating no proceeds to the victims' families. For writer and director John Roecker to have the audacity to suggest Bugliosi's bestselling novel was made solely for profit makes me wonder just how much of the profits from this movie were intended to be donated to any good cause, let alone victims of savage murders.

Everything about this movie doesn't work. You can tell when the movie is trying to be funny, and it's painful to just listen to every attempt at humor. Every joke in this movie is poorly timed, and is often mean and shallow.

There are also repellent scenes where the stop-motion figures have sex, and they're not funny either. The notorious puppet sex scenes in "Team America: World Police" (2004) were funny because they were so over the top and outrageous, similar to the Michael Bay-like action movies the filmmakers were parodying. In "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!", the sex scenes are about as clever as a real porn film, with money shots and all.

I don't think I have ever hated a movie as much as I hate "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!". The potential in its promise, and its failing on all cylinders, just adds to the disappointment. The filmmakers may be skilled at making great punk rock music, but when it comes to making movies, they are true rebels without a clue.

Joyeux Noël
(2005)

If "Joyeux Noel" Is Not A Classic Yet, It Will Be.
Among the many films that take place during Christmas, most succeed in entertaining. Some give a credible message of hope with which audiences genuinely identify.

However, only two movies of which I know succeed in moving audiences and rekindling their hope in the virtues of which mankind is capable: "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), and this movie.

"Joyeux Noel" is not just a Christmas movie. I imagine anyone who sees this film will make an emotional connection to it regardless of their race, color, or creed.

Based on a true story, the film chronicles the start of what was then known as the Great War, but what we know today as World War I. It's hard to believe when you read about WWI in a text book, but at the time, it was the bloodiest war in (then) recent memory.

It's also easy to forget how senseless the war actually was from the very beginning. However, this film succeeds in emphasizing the inhumanity of war through a brilliant beginning montage of children from England, France, and Germany reciting actual text from each nation's respective official war declarations.

Putting children in these parts was a smart move, because your attention wouldn't perk up if an adult was saying these lines. When children are seriously discussing war in a classroom, and not on the playground, you know something's amiss. Adding to the cold authenticity, the children speak in their own languages.

"Joyeux Noel" was filmed and financed in France, Germany, Romania, and Scotland. It's important to note this fact because if it got near Hollywood, EVERYONE in it would be speaking English, a move that regularly damages the credibility of many American films that take place overseas.

The film continues showing civilians from France, Germany, and Scotland right when war breaks out in 1914. One young Scottish man is excited to enlist, stating that it is the "start of (his) life". His local priest, Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), is not so sure.

You are also introduced to two famous German opera singers who are also lovers, Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger) and Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), whose voices are heaven sent. Neither singer is required to enlist in the Great War, but they are both sent to the German front lines to entertain the troops on Christmas Eve.

After a few more introductions, we see the Western Front of the war in France, with French, German, and Scottish soldiers engaging in combat that is far from romantic. You see the trenches, not so much of the actual combat, but you don't have to guess how ugly the war actually was.

Even worse, these soldiers are fighting on Christmas Eve, when many of them looked forward to returning home to their families. Eventually, what begins as Anna and Nikolaus singing for the German soldiers results in the lieutenants of each platoon agreeing to a Christmas Day ceasefire. However, thanks to these opera singers, what further evolves becomes something more uplifting and moving than just a day off.

In 1914, the Great War was far from over. To those fighting in it, there seemed to be no end in sight. However, on that Christmas Eve, as this film so brilliantly elaborates, the battle grounds became an actual common ground for all the troops. Seeing that gradual metamorphosis of the land and the soldiers is truly breathtaking.

From this point of the movie on, you may become an opera fan if you weren't one before seeing this film. You will look at the World War I German army in a far better way if you're an American or British person. World War II may be a different story, but go along with me here.

Finally, you may never listen to "Adeste Fideles" (the Latin version of "O Come All Ye Faithful") the same way again. It's even more astounding how great holiday songs become better through the darkest of times, and that is probably the point of the entire movie.

Just like "It's A Wonderful Life", "Joyeux Noel" details a bleak time in history, and shows how the human spirit of generosity can make a world of difference through even the darkest times. The comparisons to the 1946 classic don't stop there.

"Joyeux Noel" has a story line that gradually builds to a grand conclusion, and the sum of the previous events is not equal to its parts. Like "It's A Wonderful Life", the thrill is seeing how all the circumstances come together to create that conclusion. It may be complicated to detail to friends, but once you see the movie, you realize it's more profound than just cocktail party chatter.

While these two movies differ greatly in their plots, they also have a few other things in common. "Joyeux Noel", with a budget of $22,000,000, made less than that worldwide, thereby making it a flop. It also was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005, but lost.

However, just like "It's A Wonderful Life", it will be considered a classic soon. It may not be next year, but it could be 10 years from now, or even 20. It's not just an entertaining film, but a truly great and important film.

There are no magic tricks in this film to remind the characters about the true meaning of the holiday season, and for good reason. Kindness and charity are things of which all humans are capable even in terrible times. "Joyeux Noel" gets that idea. I only hope that others who see this remarkable cinematic achievement will take away that message, and still come back to the movie year after year.

Lean on Me
(1989)

If Only The Rest of The Movie Could Keep Up With Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman's performance, as Principal Joe Clark, is hands down the best thing about "Lean On Me". It could even be considered today to be one of Freeman's Top 5 most iconic performances, easily ranking alongside "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994), "Se7en" (1995), and "Million Dollar Baby" (2004).

Freeman effectively displays a take-charge attitude with his performance that the real life Joe Clark most likely had when he took over the real Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey. His best scene is when he first addresses the Eastside students in the auditorium, and swiftly expels the repeat troublemakers indefinitely. Following his rousing speech, one student, Kaneesha Carter (Karen Malina White), remarks, "Mr. Clark don't play!" You really can't disagree.

The beginning of the movie shows the thriving educational institution Eastside High School was in the late 1960's, when Joe Clark first taught there. 20 years later, the promising early days of Eastside were long gone, as the school gradually decayed into a dangerous, run-down inner city public school.

The first 20 minutes of "Lean On Me" shows what still ranks as one of the most intense and (somehow) least exploitative depictions of a typical day in a bad inner city public school. Guns N Roses' classic "Welcome To The Jungle" is the most fitting song. It may not be fun and games, but it's enough to bring you to your knees

Hallways fights occur daily, drug dealers frequently visit, and bars cover the windows. Even a young kid getting trapped in his locker only results in a custodian shaking his head in apathy. Just like "A Tale of Two Cities", where French peasants are drinking wine off the Paris streets, things are bad!

Much to the reluctance of Patterson Mayor Don Bottman (Alan North), Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume) convinces Joe Clark to take over as principal of Eastside High, and attempt to restore its former glory. Clark, who was fired from the school 20 years ago due to budget cuts, reluctantly agrees. However, Clark takes charge in a way Dr. Napier never expected.

Mr. Clark's unorthodox methods of discipline are probably still the subject of hot debate. Was his expelling the troublemakers on his first day the right thing to do? I think so, especially given the opening credits. However, a number of angry parents, especially Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen), think otherwise.

Lynne Thigpen was a great actress, and she did well in her role here as a community member who is against Mr. Clark from the start. However, her character lacked definition. We know she's a parent of someone who attended Eastside High, but we never see her child. It's implied that her child was expelled, but she seems way too dedicated a community member to let her child fall through the cracks.

Most importantly, her character seems completely unaware of the mess that Eastside High was before Mr. Clark became principal. Was she ever in the high school, let alone when a fight occurred? Thigpen did what she could with the character, but Ms. Barrett needed to be more established.

Similarly, all the teachers we see appear more dedicated than Mr. Clark gives them credit for being. That's not a bad thing, but we never see any inept or corrupt teachers. We just see Mr. Clark unjustly fire music teacher Mrs. Elliot (Robin Bartlett), and even more unreasonably suspend Mr. Darnell (Michael Beach), the latter of whom Dr. Napier even describes as "a good, strong young Black teacher".

Did Mr. Clark fire teachers like them in real life? I don't know, but he may have. However, the real Eastside High must have had corrupt teachers who took part in the drug trade, had sex with students, or did similarly inappropriate and illegal things. These kinds of behaviors do happen in high schools across America, especially decaying inner-city public schools. The latter schools just have more tolerance for it.

When you see Mr. Clark immediately fire a good teacher for not teaching students the school song, it makes him out to be a bully. If you saw him throwing a teacher out of school for selling drugs, that action would be more justifiable, and the audience would be better able to sympathize with him.

Then there's the case of putting locks and chains on the doors. Mr. Clark orders the school security guards to do this after an altercation with a suspended student who came back into school with a knife in his hand. This order gets Mr. Clark in trouble with both the mayor and Fire Chief Gaines (John Ring), who correctly declare the action a fire hazard.

You can understand Mr. Clark's motivation for putting on the chains: there are dangerous people outside, and one of their friends can just push open the doors and let them in. Plus, the school doesn't have the budget for doors that unlock automatically in case of emergency. On the other hand, the Fire Chief has a point too. This conflict is probably what got the real Mr. Clark in trouble, and you can tell because it's very complicated. There are easy solutions to this problem, but like many problems in America's educational system, they are not attainable ones.

There is a lot "Lean On Me" does right, beginning with casting Morgan Freeman and Robert Guillaume. It's also inspiring to see the students who stay in Eastside High School warm up to Mr. Clark, and appreciate his disciplinary actions as "tough love".

However, the antagonists in this movie caused the most inconsistency, seemingly not even acknowledging a lot of the good Mr. Clark did, which unquestionably outweighed the bad. If these characters actually stepped out of the movie and watched the opening credit sequence, they may have changed their minds. Then again, Mr. Clark seemed to be the only character who saw the big picture. It's hard to say.

Get Over It
(2001)

After "She's All That", "Get Over It" Is Just A Bag of Chips
There is not much that makes "Get Over It" stand out amongst other teen movies released around the same time period. The main plot point, about a boy being dumped by his girlfriend, who then begins dating a minor celebrity who happens to be a douche bag, had interestingly enough been a subplot in another high school comedy released two years earlier: "She's All That" (1999).

Even more interestingly, this movie's screenwriter, R. Lee Fleming, Jr., actually wrote the screenplay to "She's All That". Although he doesn't have to worry about being sued for copyright infringement, it really shows laziness on his part that "Get Over It" doesn't do more to add originality to a hackneyed story involving young, unrequited love.

In all fairness, though, Fleming actually wrote the screenplay to "Get Over It" before "She's All That" according to interviews. Still, there are other elements of this movie that feel mercilessly ripped from other teen comedies.

Most notably, the love story within this movie loosely follows the non-supernatural plot line to William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", which, not coincidentally, happens to be the play in which the movie's characters participate. A little too reminiscent of "10 Things I Hate About You" (1999), wouldn't you say? Recycled teen movie trends aside, a movie called "Get Over It" should effectively make the audience feel for the protagonist who has just been dumped. The said protagonist is Berke Landers (Ben Foster), whose longtime girlfriend Alison (Melissa Sagemiller) breaks off their 16 month relationship.

It's not because she's a bad person, or because she's fallen for someone else. She clearly explains that she just doesn't feel the same way about Berke anymore.

Of course, breaking up is hard to do, and it hurts no matter what age you are. However, it's difficult to feel bad for Berke for these reasons.

First, all you see of Berke and Alison's previous relationship is a montage of them making out. Sure, Melissa Sagemiller is pretty, but the film needed more vivid scenes reflecting the anecdotal happiness of their relationship.

Second, other than Ben Foster's sulking expression, you get no indication from his acting how much this breakup really hurts him, or why and how he misses Alison. As good an actor as Foster is in movies like "Liberty Heights" (1999) and "3:10 To Yuma" (2007), he's not convincing enough here to play heartbroken. His expression is morose, but that's about it.

Third, while Sagemiller seems to be (and play) a nice person, you don't get what it is about her that sets her apart from other girls, especially the many hot ones that exist in this movie (including then-unknown Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis, who have supporting roles). Berke doesn't seem to explain that fact at any point in the movie, either, and it hurts his case.

Finally, in the film's opening credits, you see Berke, departing Alison's house after she lay down the bad news, being followed by Vitamin C and an accompanying band as they lip synch Captain & Tennille's classic "Love Will Keep Us Together". Vitamin C mouths the song very well, but would feel less out-of-place in that scene if she were actually mocking Berke on his walk of shame.

So Berke tries out for the spring play, a musical version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", specifically to spite Alison and Bentley (Shane West). Bentley is her jerk of a rebound boyfriend who is a former boy band member with a very phony British accent. When Kelly Woods (Kirsten Dunst), a cheerful, magnetic girl who happens to be the sister of Berke's best friend Felix (Colin Hanks), offers to help Berke with his lines, you pretty much know how the story is going to go.

Kirsten Dunst gets top billing in this movie despite having fewer lines and scenes than Ben Foster, but she totally deserves it. She's a welcome presence on screen, and the only downside to her character is that you fall in love with her instantly, thereby making you wonder why Berke doesn't do the same sooner.

Interestingly enough, Sisqo gets third billing after Dunst and Foster. Despite an energetic ending sequence where he and Vitamin C sing a rendition of Earth, Wind, & Fire's "September", Sisqo has a thankless role as the Token Black Guy. On the other hand, it's better to remember Sisqo from this movie than for his only hit, the atrocious "The Thong Song".

While Foster is on emotional autopilot along with the love story, Dunst actively makes the best of her role. One of her best scenes is when she sings "Dream Of Me", a touching song her character wrote and included in the play against the wishes of Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates (Martin Short), the production's narcissistic director. Dunst is one of the few actresses and singers to make that song more heartbreaking and less cheesy, and she sells it.

"Get Over It" has its good moments, and the climactic final showing of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" lives up to more than the entire film ultimately does. It just could have been so much more if it had tried to differentiate itself plot-wise with "She's All That" and other teen films. As it is, it's worth at least bag of chips, but not much more that that.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
(2012)

Impending Doom With a Side of Honey
Everyone knows about the calm that happens before the storm. In "Seeking A Friend for the End of the World", what's amazing is just how long that calm lasts.

Throughout the first part of this film, you can't help but wonder, as you watch, how you would react if you heard nonchalant reports on radio and TV about a 70-mile wide asteroid heading for Earth and destroying life as we know it. Would you seek refuge in a fallout shelter and hope for the best, or say "To hell with it!" and do all the things you couldn't do when there was established order with a purpose?

Dodge (Steve Carell) seems to find a third option no one else even tries to consider: sitting calmly and maintaining his own order as virtually everyone else is participating in an orgy or a riot. While being calm works for him as a survival instinct, it also reflects his loneliness. The more people surrounding him, the lonelier he seems.

Very similar to Bill Murray's character in "Lost In Translation", Carell is great at conveying so much despite doing so little. It becomes all the more fascinating when he's the only character in the movie who does not throw caution into the wind. After all, would you be this calm if the world was going to end?

Keira Knightley is Penny, a vibrant but distraught British woman who lives in the same building as Dodge. She appears one night outside his window, and is frantically crying after her realization that she can't fly back home to Great Britain to see her family. Knightley serves as a great contrast to Carell in many ways, and she is a welcome presence in this movie. And I am SO glad the film didn't try to cover her sweet British accent.

The film evolves into a sort of road-trip movie when a riot ensues outside their apartment building, and Dodge persuades Penny to drive to Somerset, Delaware because he knows someone who owns an airplane. As it turns out, Dodge also had a high school girlfriend who wrote to him a few months earlier, before his wife left him.

Sounds like a familiar journey from another movie? Well, "Seeking A Friend For The End of the World" takes you in one direction you think you're going, and then often makes a sharp left when you least expect it. The movie is also funnier than the title suggests, has some startling moments I never saw coming nor expected, and keeps you watching for many reasons.

Is there a love story between Dodge and Penny? Like the recent "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" (2012), you find yourself unsure if the two main characters should fall in love, or if there is at least a little attraction, or if it really makes any difference.

There are other things you wonder while watching this movie. Most notably, is the world really going to end? Everyone in this movie seems to think so. While it's fascinating to see how different characters react to the news, you keep watching because you want to see if it really does. It can't be a dream or a delusion, can it?

It's great that in a summer season of action flicks and disaster films, there's one film that takes its time showing how ordinary people react to extraordinary things. There's an asteroid headed towards Earth, but there are no explosions, deaths, astronauts, superheroes, or even (surprisingly) camera shots of the sky in this movie whatsoever. Moviegoers who hated "Armageddon" (1998) will be relieved, I'm sure.

Besides Carell and Knightley, other fairly well-known actors show up so briefly, their appearances could practically be considered cameos. Still, every performance by everyone involved stays with you to the point where you probably pinpoint one character and say, "Yeah, I'd probably be THAT guy given the circumstances". As the doomsday clock counts down and the movie ends, you may find yourself reevaluating what you want the last image in your mind to be before it's all over.

That's My Boy
(2012)

And Now The Excited Southerner Makes a Stupid Movie
A dumb lead character in a comedy can result in a funny movie. However, if every other character is dumb enough to be even slightly charmed by a vulgar, drunken, slovenly 41-year-old man with an annoying voice who looks like a washed-up Guns N Roses roadie, plausibility flies right out the window, and so do the laughs.

"That's My Boy" has more promise in its male leads than it ultimately delivers. After all, Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg have a lot more in common besides initials. They're both Saturday Night Live alumni who made names for themselves by writing original, funny songs. They also both practically single-handedly revitalized SNL's popularity by attracting a younger following.

You would think a movie starring both of them would showcase each of their talents. Unfortunately, in "That's My Boy", Samberg was restricted to a straight man role, while Sandler routinely eats scenery with his atrocious Boston accent that sounds more Louisianan.

The film's premise does not leave much room for laughs as it is. Sandler plays Donny, a native of Somerville, Massachusetts who, when he's 13 years old, has a thing for older women, particularly his teacher, Miss McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino).

When Miss McGarricle takes too much of a liking to the young Donny, they have sex, they get caught, and Miss McGarricle gets pregnant. She bears a son, but gets sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In a contrived, totally unrealistic plot point that only serves as fodder for jokes later on in the film, young Donny is ordered by the court, who apparently had never heard of child care services, to raise his newborn son. Even more unrealistically, Donny becomes a celebrity, sells his life story for six figures, and blows his money away.

The second part of that scenario rubbed me the wrong way already. Do you remember the name of the boy with whom 6th grade teacher Mary Kay Letorneau had sex? I don't. That boy was featured in the New York Times, but not on the cover of Teen Beat!

Anyway, Donny's son Todd (Samberg) grows up to become a successful hedge fund manager, but only after moving away from Donny when he turned 18 (Again, child services anyone?). Donny, on the other hand, spends his money so irresponsibly that he ultimately owes $43,000 in back taxes.

When he finds out about Todd's engagement to beautiful Jamie (Leighton Meester), Donny convinces a TV talk show host to pay him $50,000 for exclusive footage of Donny, Todd, and Todd's biological mother (still in jail) reuniting at last. Such a contrived plot point serves as the reason Donny shows up unannounced to Todd's wedding site days before the wedding.

Rather than the wedding party, consisting of Jamie's family and Todd's boss Steve Spirou (Tony Orlando), being repulsed by Donny's disheveled hair, ratty clothes, vernacular that consists of the f-word spoken every third sentence, and his irritating faux Boston accent, they somehow see his charm. It's surprising, because if a guy who acted like Donny showed up at my wedding, I would call security before he even opened his mouth.

Naturally, because Donny is a boy who never grew up, his shenanigans supposedly ruin Todd's plans for the perfect wedding. The usual cliché plot points happen when Donny and Todd have a falling out the night before the wedding, sentimental music borrowed from "Full House" reruns play during the night scenes, and the climax happens right when the bride and groom are taking their vows.

I should note that there's also a plot twist involving the bride that was so out of left field that it landed in another ball park. Without giving it away, I really wish the film hadn't gone there. That twist made me cringe far more than it made me laugh.

Add those hackneyed wedding movie story lines to Sandler's constantly disseminating his tired onslaught of fat jokes, penis gags, fart noises, antics revolving around elderly people having sex, and homophobic humor, and you've got "That's My Boy". The difference between him doing those jokes in this movie and his last movie, "Jack and Jill" (2011), is that here, when using an irritating voice, he doesn't cross dress.

Don't get me wrong, though. I don't hate Adam Sandler. In fact, "Happy Gilmore" (1996), "The Wedding Singer" (1998), and "The Waterboy" (1998) still make me laugh both because the jokes are fresher and funnier, and because Sandler's character in those movies had heart. Here, he plays a buffoon so obnoxious you want to punch him in the face.

The other jokes not spoken by Sandler, but by other characters, fall flat 9 times out of 10. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan plays Sandler's financial adviser who happens to be a huge New England Patriots fan. Get it? Because he's actually the Jets coach in real life? Hardy har har!

Among the many cameos in this film, the only one that's genuinely funny is Vanilla Ice, who plays himself. He surprisingly does such a good job parodying his image from 20 years ago that Happy Madison Productions should actually give him his own movie.

However, Vanilla Ice's role in the movie reflected the problem of "That's My Boy": when Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg are in a movie together, the funniest person should not be Vanilla Ice! Sandler really needs to reevaluate his on-screen humor and his career. While his movies are making money, he's gradually losing credibility.

To paraphrase an earlier, funnier Sandler movie ("Billy Madison" (1995)), "That's My Boy" is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever seen. At no point in this rambling, incoherent film was Sandler even close to anything that could be considered funny. Everyone in my screening room is now dumber for having seen it. I award this movie 2 out of 10 stars, and may God have mercy on Adam Sandler's soul.

The Three Stooges
(2012)

"The Three Stooges" Made This Wiseguy Laugh
There's already a risk in creating a Three Stooges movie that is not a biopic, but one where three modern-day actors play three hugely iconic characters. In particular, characters whose popularity has not dimmed in the slightest since their heyday in the Great Depression.

A five year old today may wonder why people aren't talking in a Charlie Chaplin movie, or what the Marx Brothers are talking about in their films. However, if you show him a Three Stooges short, chances are he will be so busy laughing he won't wonder where the color went.

A child born in 2007 will no doubt find the Three Stooges as funny as one born in 1927. Therefore, if Hollywood screws this movie up, they can anticipate a sizable band of enraged fans carrying pitchforks and torches, and maybe a few hammers too.

Fortunately, the mob can rest their pitchforks and hammers, provided they don't land on another guy's head. If they see "The Three Stooges", they will probably laugh, as I did.

"The Three Stooges" had the potential to fail miserably, but did not thanks to the movie mainly sticking to what makes the Three Stooges funny: the slapstick. The actors who play the Stooges never miss a beat, and their timing on the physical gags could not be better timed.

It helps that at least two out of the three actors are relative unknowns. Chris Diamantopolous (as Moe) and Will Sasso (as Curly) are not household names, and are known best for their TV appearances (with Sasso having been a cast member on "Mad TV"). However, once the movie gets going, you begin to think that they have been possessed by the spirits of Moses and Jerry Horwitz, respectively.

Sean Hayes is the most recognizable of the three, which poses a slight liability. When he first appears on screen, you may find yourself saying, "Is Jack from 'Will & Grace' going to a Halloween party?" However, Hayes also goes for gold as Larry, and fortunately nails the role as much as he gets nailed in the eyes.

Getting hit in the head may look easy when you're watching it, but it's just like spoken word comedy: the timing better be right. In almost every case, the slaps to the face or hits with a hammer are funny, and the Farrelly Brothers never forget the element of surprise in many of the gags.

The plot is far from original, and unquestionably borrowed from other movies. The Three Stooges are raised in an orphanage run by nuns. Once it's revealed that the orphanage will be shut down because of unpaid back taxes, I almost expected Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) to inform the Stooges with a ruler in her hand. If Moe had told her, "It looks like you're up the creek", it would have been a great setup for slapstick, but one that has definitely been done before (as in "The Blues Brothers" (1980)).

Having no clue how to raise the $830,000 necessary to save the orphanage, the nitwits get suckered into a plot to kill a wealthy man by his greedy wife Lydia (Sofia Vergara) and her lover Mac (Craig Bierko). It doesn't matter that this subplot is hackneyed. The movie doesn't forget the fun in seeing how these three guys are going to royally screw up whatever plans the villains have. What matters is whether or not their bumbling and stumbling is funny.

These Three Stooges of the same name but different actors fumble like experts, which is where the movie triumphs. The film falters when it adds pop culture and trends to the mix. For every mention of new technology, there seems to be an awful pun one of the Stooges blurts out. Try not to groan when someone asks to tweet the three knuckleheads, and Curly replies, "Tweet us to dinner? Why soitenly!"

I also thought the parts where Moe joins the cast of "Jersey Shore" could have been taken out entirely. When Moe bonks The Situation in the head, or pulls out Jennifer "J-woww" Farley's hairs out of her nose, it's not as funny as when he does it to Larry or Curly. Plus, it is amazing how bad the cast of "Jersey Shore" acts even when playing themselves!

The reason "The Three Stooges" legacy continues to live on long after the deaths of the original seven (yes seven) actors is because the movies weren't dated. Sure, they were black and white, but slapstick never goes out of style. "Jersey Shore", on the other hand, will be yesterday's news at least three years from now.

When sticking with the injurious gags that kept us laughing for decades, "The Three Stooges" succeeds in being funny, and can fortunately not be considered the monumentally bad idea many die-hard fans predicted it would be. Plus, with an appropriate rating of PG, kids will like it too.

Do parents have to worry? My parents did when I was a kid, which is why, growing up, I was not allowed to watch the Three Stooges. However, the Farrelly Brothers have a disclaimer at the end that could have been seen as a cop-out, but which they also managed to make funny without being preachy. I agree with that part too: Do not try this at home.

Dogtown
(1997)

A Solid, Poignant Film Buried Like A Dead Dog In The Backyard
"Dogtown" is a film worth seeing which, unfortunately, also happens to be the kind of movie modern day Hollywood doesn't seem to want to make. It's a film that is in no rush to tell a story. In doing so, it allows itself to breathe and the audience to take the story in piece by piece, very much in the tradition of movies like "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) and "The Last Picture Show" (1971).

Because of the fact that the movie, despite some shocking parts, is less in-your-face than your average big budget multiplex staple, it was given a very limited theater release. It's too bad also, because the acting in the film is fantastic, and every character stays with you. It is also a story that should hit close to home for everyone who grew up in a small town, left for the big city, and returned even to visit.

The dilemma facing Phillip Van Horn (Trevor St. John) is that he tried to make it as an actor in Hollywood, did not quite make it, and returned to his hometown of Cuba, Missouri in hopes that he would get back on his feet. Although the most notable work he received in Hollywood was an extra in a Jeff Bridges film, most of the town sees him as a hero who "made it" on the outside. Other townies, particularly tow truck driver Ezra Good (Jon Favreau), whom Phillip knew from high school, are just plain jealous, although they would never admit it.

While Phillip has prospects that give him the possibility of getting out of living with his eccentric mother (Karen Black) and mentally handicapped sister (Natasha Gregson Wagner), one thing holds him back: Dorothy Sternan (Mary Stuart Masterson), a woman who was the most popular girl in his high school. The trouble is that she also happens to be dating Ezra.

While this love story is quite familiar, it's really the supporting actors who make this film great. Trevor St. John is a good actor, and he serves as a good emotional anchor around a town of what the untrained eye would consider crazy people.

Jon Favreau serves as a great antagonist, and, as you get to know his character better, he excels at reflecting the past disappointments of the former high school basketball star. His dried out glory days also serve as an understandable, but not condonable, root to his racism, which plays out later in the film.

Mary Stuart Masterson's character also seemingly had it easy in high school, only to have it very rough afterwords. Plus, when you see the scenes with her and her father (Ancel Cook), who sits in the shadows, it reveals a lot about how her high school glory was really an illusion in which even she believed.

There were two other performances that stayed with me. The first was Rory Cochrane, who played Custis Lasky, Ezra's co-worker and friend who has a bit more moral grounding than Ezra.

Harold Russell, who played World War II veteran and cigar store owner Blessed William, was perhaps the most memorable character in the film. Anyone who grew up in a small town knows an elderly veteran like Blessed William, someone who is recognized and respected by all in the community in part because they're always around. Having hooks for hands as a result of defending our country further enhances that unspoken gratitude.

Russell, who actually did lose both his hand in an explosion while fighting in World War II, shines in every scene. The movie cuts to him a few times sitting on a park bench smoking a cigar, and even those scenes are profound.

I thought the best scene with Russell was when he, as Blessed William, describes to Phillip how he earned the moniker "Blessed". Russell's natural storytelling skills pull you into the scene. Any other filmmaker would have cut to black and white flashback scenes. Director George Hickenlooper fortunately never did. It could be argued that Hickenlooper didn't have the budget for it, but I like to think differently.

While the film was draggy at times, and there was narration by Trevor St. John that didn't need to be there, "Dogtown" is still a great movie. It was Hickenlooper's third feature film after directing a few documentaries (most notably "Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" (1991)) and short films (most notably "Some Call It A Sling Blade" (1994), which star Billy Bob Thornton would later expand into the celebrated full-length film "Sling Blade" (1996)).

"Dogtown" did not get the theatrical release it deserved, partly because of it's low, low budget of less than $500,000, and partly because of typical Hollywood politics. It also hasn't gotten the attention it deserves because of it's title, thereby being confused with the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" (2001) and the docudrama "Lords of Dogtown" (2005), both movies about Southern California skateboarding culture in the 1970's.

Hopefully, its current availability on Netflix and streaming will get it a wider audience with an open mind. It should be seen for Harold Russell's performance, which turned out to be his very last film appearance. He had won two Academy Awards for his performance in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), making him the only actor in movie history to win two Oscars for the same film role. His scenes in "Dogtown" showed how truly blessed he was.

Intruders
(2011)

Besides One Really Clever Plot Twist, "Intruders" Lacks Shock Value
A supernatural creature terrorizes a child, and the adults in that child's life either dismiss the child's fears as nightmarish, or assume the child has some sort of psychosis. This plot line has been done so many times that it's amazing that adults in present-day movies don't second guess themselves more often.

"Intruders" has a bit more of a clever twist to this tired horror movie story line in that the terrorized child, 12-year-old Mia (Ella Purnell), at least has an ally in her father John (Clive Owen), who has actually seen the being trying to harm his daughter.

The being, known to Mia as Hollowman, wears a dark hood and cloak that moves mysteriously in the air like something out of "The Matrix" (1999). The mysterious spirit has the shape of a man, but its face is completely obscured by its hood, making it look a lot like Bruce Willis in the underrated "Invincible" (2000).

The unwelcome visitor does not speak, but Mia somehow knows it does not have a face, and is willing to steal one from a child. Also, despite the plurality of the movie's title, there is only one intruder: this one.

Mia is apparently not the only child haunted by this creature. A much younger Spanish boy named Juan (Izan Corchero) also receives visits from it. The film intersects between the nightly terrors of Mia and Juan, and it makes you wonder what the connection is between these two children. Why did this spirit choose to haunt these two children in two different European countries (Great Britain and Spain), when there are millions of other children in this world whose face (or faces) he could steal? The way these two children's stories intersect is revealed late in the film in a twist I honestly did not see coming. Because it was so clever, I can't ruin it for you, the reader, either.

Unfortunately, it being a horror movie and a suspense thriller, the moments that were supposed to be shocking, and scary, weren't either. The film made the fatal mistake of making the music, which gradually got louder as a scary moment or a "gotcha!" part was approaching, ruin the overall suspense. By the time the mysterious hooded person appeared from out of the dark closet, the score felt more like a great opening act for a weak headliner.

The shock value of this film, or lack thereof, is even more unfortunate when you consider the superb cinematography and great acting from just about everyone involved. Clive Owen rarely fails to disappoint, and fortunately plays a parent who actually believes his petrified daughter.

I especially liked Ella Purnell, who is the kind of child actress who guys in their 20's look at and say, "In five years, she's going to be really hot!" Besides being strikingly beautiful, Purnell looks genuinely scared during the scenes with the creature in the hood, and she is very convincing as Owen's daughter in other less-intense scenes.

I also thought every scene with Corchero, as Juan, and his mother Luisa (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), scary or not, was done incredibly well. They played in good contrast to scenes involving John and Mia. Whereas John believes his daughter's problems are more than nightmares, Luisa believes her son, but uses words of comfort almost in vain. She tries to tell her boy it's only a bad dream, when she's really trying to convince herself. It's a fascinating paradox.

Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is best known to American audiences as the writer & director of "28 Weeks Later" (2007), the well-received sequel to Danny Boyle's acclaimed "28 Days Later" (2003). He definitely knows his horror films, which is why it's so disappointing that "Intruders" didn't live up to his previous effort. While great acting and a dark, eerie atmosphere strengthened this movie, it wasn't enough to scare me.

Putting it another way, I consider a great horror film one where my hands are covering my entire face except one eye, and two of my fingers are on standby to affix over that eye should a scary moment present itself. With "Intruders", throughout the scary parts, my hands remained at my sides.

Who Is Alan Smithee?
(2002)

Alan Smithee Himself Is Fascinating, Even If He Doesn't Exist
"Who Is Alan Smithee?", or "Directed By Alan Smithee" as its DVD release is titled, is a documentary about a fascinating subject and chapter in Hollywood history. If this documentary had more time, and perhaps wasn't restricted to AMC's maximum of 50 minutes to make time for commercial break, it also could have told more of a story.

The basics of Alan Smithee's origin are all here. Smithee is not a real person, but a pseudonym used by directors who wish to take their names off a picture they have directed. The Smithee name was a well-kept Hollywood secret by the Director's Guild of America, who approved the use of that name, until "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn" (1998) gave the name more notorious exposure.

This short documentary told the story of Smithee's beginnings very well. I was always curious why they chose the name Alan Smithee, and why they couldn't have just used a name like "John Smith". The rationale behind the name above other options was explained in great detail, particularly by former members of the DGA.

However, the documentary only explained the story behind two films credited to Alan Smithee: the first one, "Death of a Gunfighter" (1969), and "Burn, Hollywood, Burn". While the documentary briefly showed a list of Alan Smithee's other films, I wanted to hear more stories behind those other films.

I liked some of the commentary contributed by other directors who had lived to tell about Hollywood's shady other side, such as Martha Coolidge and her failed attempt to get her name taken off "Joy of Sex" (1984), her dismal follow up to the well-received "Valley Girl" (1982). She makes the argument that the studio wanted more nude scenes despite the fact that the scenes had nothing to do with the story. Seeing as Coolidge does not seem to be fond of exploitation, you can't help but believe her.

But when this documentary gets on the subject of British director Tony Kaye, director of "American History X" (1999), that's when the documentary loses its focus and credibility. Apparently, "American History X" was not in Kaye's vision, and was re-cut to fit the studio's demands.

While you have to credit Kaye for standing up for his artistic liberty, the film that resulted wasn't just good, it was great. Kaye would have made a better argument releasing a director's cut of the film. With this documentary dedicating 20 minutes of Kaye's vain efforts to take his name off the film, it makes Kaye look more like a bitchy perfectionist.

I wanted to hear more about other films with the Alan Smithee pseudonym. They show a clip of "Shock Treatment" (1981), the poorly-received sequel to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", in this doc, but don't explain why director Jim Sharman, who directed both films, wanted to take his name off it. In fact, the clip they show is very energetic, and suggests "Shock Treatment" is a fun movie. Also, according to IMDb, Sharman is still credited, not Alan Smithee.

Plus, while they show a clip of David Lynch, who used the pseudonym for the director's cut of "Dune" (1984), they neglected to tell the story behind his reasoning to discredit himself from his re-cut. Strangely enough, the director's cut was better than the original "Dune" release, the latter of which was a notorious critical and commercial failure. Did the studio re-cut his director's cut? Why? "Who Is Alan Smithee?" should have answered these questions.

"Burn, Hollywood, Burn" was ironic for two reasons. First, legendary director Arthur Hiller ("Love Story" (1970), "Silver Streak" (1976)) actually took his name off the movie because the studio re-cut it to his dissatisfaction. Second, the movie outed Alan Smithee despite receiving terrible reviews and bombing at the box office. If this documentary had eased up on Tony Kaye's artistic woes and told some more compelling Alan Smithee anecdotes, it could have taken that distinction away from "Burn, Hollywood, Burn". It would have deserved it, too.

The Room
(2003)

The Worst Movie I've Ever Enjoyed Watching
"The Room" is a film that must be seen. Usually, when a movie deserves one star, it's not worth wasting your time watching. This movie, on the other hand, must be seen . . . in order to be believed.

A more appropriate title for this film should be "Murphy's Film", because everything that could possibly go wrong with a movie did go wrong with this one. I suppose a light didn't fall on a cast member while filming, but that's not a compliment to give to any film.

"The Room" could be the worst film ever made for a variety of reasons that feels like a grocery list. The story feels ripped from the most basic soap opera, there are subplots that are out of place and go nowhere, the dialogue is terrible, the actors in the film either underact or overact, there are too many shots that are out of focus, there are unnecessary sex scenes that drag the pace of the story . . . I could go on.

As a matter of fact, the basic plot of "The Room" can be described in one sentence, whereas all the things that are wrong with the film can fill a book. It should be shown in film school to show students how NOT to make a movie.

Tommy Wiseau, a man of unknown origin whose accent sounds Austrian (I guess), starred in, co-produced, directed, and wrote this film on a $6 million budget. He shot it using a 35 mm camera and an HD digital camera simultaneously, reportedly not knowing the difference between the two.

Also alleged is his financing for the film, which Wiseau claims he did by taking leather jackets he mysteriously acquired from North Korea and selling them for a profit. That explanation seems more plausible than actually convincing someone to put money down to finance a script already so weak.

What results is a film that is just a mess in virtually every aspect. The main story, should you care, involves ad executive Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) and his frustrations with his fiancé Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Johnny is oblivious to her having an affair with Johnny's best friend Mark (Greg Sustero), but notices how distant she has become. Wiseau even goes as far as to vent his frustration by channeling James Dean when he shouts, "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!".

The subplots that go nowhere include a creepy college student named Denny (Philip Haldiman) who likes to watch Johnny and Lisa have sex (and actually tells them so!), Denny's borrowing money from a drug dealer which he can't pay back, Lisa's mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) revealing she has breast cancer, and a pointless game of football in tuxedos. These scenes come and go so often, that you wonder why they were there in the first place.

Why, then, am I recommending the film? I went to a midnight showing of it at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, and had the time of my life. Similar to watching a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", fans brought plastic spoons and footballs to throw around during crucial parts of the screening, and shouted out responses to the dense dialogue like it was "Mystery Science Theater 3000" times 1000.

The film is available on DVD, but like many films famous for their midnight showings, including "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "The Room" has to be seen in one of these public screenings. It is no fun sitting at home alone watching a film like this one.

I hate using the hackneyed phrase "It's so bad, it's good" for that reason: it's so overused. I won't give "The Room" credit for being good, because it's not. It's just very fun to watch, and I urge whoever reads this to find a movie theater that screens midnight showings in the nearest city and get tickets for this film if you can. It is terrible, but so worth checking out.

Game Change
(2012)

We All Lived Through "Game Change", & It's Hard To Believe We Did
There will be a lot of people who see "Game Change" and will absolutely hate it. No doubt, Sarah Palin, if she chooses to watch it, will probably be one of those people. I can't imagine a Democrat hating the movie. Either way, you can't talk about "Game Change" without feeling the bottoms of your shoes slightly thump against a soap box.

I personally don't know how accurate "Game Change" is. The film is based upon one-third of the 2010 bestseller of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Their book, detailing the entire 2008 Presidential election and allegations thereof in both parties, had been criticized for relying on too many anonymous sources and lacking explicit sourcing.

This movie, written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach, takes the most intriguing segment of the 2008 election, namely the nomination and introduction of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and lets the ridiculousness of the events surrounding her expose itself.

Like "Recount" (2008), the previous collaboration between Roach and Strong, what is most astounding about this movie is not the events in it, but that we actually lived through them not too long ago. To paraphrase Hannibal Lector, anyone labeling this movie as exploitation only needs to see the barrage of CNN and Fox News footage in this film to remind themselves that the past is real.

"Recount" told the story of the chaotic 2000 election returns, and how little Al Gore and George W. Bush actually had to do with the transpired events, contrary to popular opinion. "Game Change" shows the interactions between those in and out of the spotlight, and how candidates in an election can be the cause of their own undoing.

The film centers around Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), Senator John McCain's chief political adviser during his 2008 campaign for President. After winning the Republican nomination despite being last in the polls in 2007, McCain (Ed Harris) finds himself relying on Schmidt and other political advisers to find a V.P. candidate. Behind in the polls against Senator Barack Obama, he agrees to choose a female running mate to put him at an advantage against the first African-American nominee for President.

National Campaign Manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) does his homework on a viable female candidate via a YouTube search in the only really inconsistent part of the film. You see him watch videos of female Republican politicians ranging from then-Hawaiian Governor Linda Lingle to Maine Senator Susan Collins. What you don't see clearly is Davis' rationale behind not choosing one of these women. Why would Senator Collins not be a better choice than Sarah Palin? Of course, being originally from Maine, I am biased.

What you learn from this movie is that while the Republican strategists did some homework on the then-Alaska Governor, they should have done more. This fact becomes apparent when Governor Palin (Julianne Moore) does not know, among other things, that the British Prime Minister is the head of government in Great Britain, not the Queen of England.

In what could have been a farcical portrayal of a politician of whom it's easy to make fun, Julianne Moore is astonishingly great as Sarah Palin. Like Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in "You Don't Know Jack" (2010), Moore is so believable as Palin that you would swear Palin was playing herself.

More than having the "You betcha!" accent down pat, Moore never has one wavering moment where you think you're watching the same actress from "Boogie Nights" (1997) or "The Kids Are All Right" (2010). She nails every aspect about Palin from her firm belief in her politics, her reactions to the press, her ill preparation for the notorious Katie Couric interview, and her butting heads with political advisers. It's all completely believable.

While there was less pressure on Harrelson to play a public figure, he also did a great job as an adviser whose recommendation to nominate Palin truly seemed like a good idea at the time. Harrelson's Schmidt more or less regrets his decision to convince McCain, only to try to make the best of it later on.

Also equally effective is Sarah Paulson, who plays senior adviser Nicholle Wallace. In the scenes where she tries in vain to help Palin properly prepare for the Katie Couric interview, it's like watching an A-student try to get a D-student to study for a final exam. Considering how the real Palin bombed that interview, that scene could not have been far from the truth. Paulson really reflects Wallace's frustration well, and is believably too tired in the end to say she told her so.

Ed Harris, while not doing a dead-on imitation of John McCain, effectively reflects the frustration and regret McCain must have felt after choosing Palin as a running mate. McCain may have been capable of dealing with the failing economy and foreign relations, but Palin clearly was not.

While Palin may not have been the sole contributor to McCain's defeat, she undoubtedly threw an anchor off the side of the Straight Talk Express. In the end, Harrelson, as Schmidt, probably would not answer "no" to Anderson Cooper's question of whether he regretted putting Palin on the ticket. His actions and reactions throughout the movie answer that question already.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
(2011)

"Salmon Fishing" Makes For An Interesting Ride
Enjoying a film like "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" is similar to acquiring a taste for actual fishing. Like the sport that some find invigorating while others find it dreadfully dull, this film has its draggy moments. However, there are also enlightening points to the movie that come when you least expect them.

Of course, that is not to say that you have to actually LIKE fishing, or understand it, to enjoy "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen". Fishing serves as a crucial plot point, but you don't have to be a card-carrying member of Cabella's or L.L. Bean to enjoy it.

The film has elements of romantic comedy, environmentalism, foreign relations drama, and insightfulness that makes it difficult to concretely categorize. Fortunately, all these facets combine to create a story that's far from predictable. Just like a current, there are times you don't know where the story is going.

Ewan McGregor plays Fred Jones, a fisheries expert for the British government who receives an odd request from legal representative Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). Harriet represents a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who resides in both Great Britain and Yemen, and has an unusual fondness for salmon fishing. He wants to take a healthy population of salmon from the British lakes, and transport them to the Yemen River to live and breed.

The reason this plot does not make for good cocktail party small talk or water cooler chatter is because it takes such a long time to describe the rationale behind such an ambitious task. For instance, can salmon, who thrive in cold water, even survive in the Middle East, where it's obviously hot? Plus, why would people from Yemen even be interested in fishing? The film answers these questions and others very well, and allows the story to breathe better as each subplot reveals itself. Nothing is rushed in this movie, which, while a few parts drag here and there, is overall a welcome departure from certain high-octane multiplex drivel that passes as entertainment.

Once you actually listen to the characters and hear their reasoning, a lot of the story makes sense. This fact is especially true for Amr Waked, who is not yet a well known actor, but whose character has a profound impact on the film.

Western audiences are not used to seeing a Middle Eastern character that is not a terrorist, let alone one who credibly connects fishing and faith better than any PBS show even could. Waked, who is Egyptian in real life but whose character is Yemeni, does so incredibly well, and is truly the breakout star of this movie. It's a shame that Oscar season just ended, because the early release of this film alone hurts his chances of receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination, although he deserves it.

The inevitable love story in the movie is also unpredictable, if only because you're not sure whether McGregor and Blunt should be together. McGregor's Fred is married, and Blunt's Harriet has a boyfriend who is sent off to fight in the Afghanistan War. There are plot twists for both characters, but even you, the audience, remains unsure whether the two characters working together so well to bring salmon to Yemen means they should be together. It creates a necessary tension few romantic comedies dare to address.

As for their performances, McGregor seems to play a more mature leading role than in other films he's made before. His character here is more practical than idealist (as in "Moulin Rouge" (2001)), more professional than playboy (as in "Down With Love" (2003)), and knows where his morals lie (unlike "Trainspotting" (1996)). While he was good in those other films, he can only play those roles for so long.

Emily Blunt also delivered a balanced, multi-layered performance, and worked very well off McGregor. I thought there would be an explanation for why her character's last name was hyphenated, as you almost never see characters with two last names in movies. Could there have been a failed marriage in her past, perhaps? It wasn't ever explained, nor was it really crucial to the plot.

Kristin Scott Thomas also provides some unexpected comic relief as a press secretary for Parliament who chats with the British Prime Minister on Instant Messenger. Her character spearheads the campaign to transport the salmon to Yemen in order to divert public attention from the Afghanistan War. Again, a crucial subplot, but one that has to be seen, not explained second hand.

"Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" is enjoyable like some find fishing to be: there's a lot of calm to it, but when the funny parts happen, they can be as surprising and as fulfilling as catching a big fish. Also, if you actually listen to Amr Waked's character the same way some expert fisherman have pearls of wisdom, the movie's enjoyment may even come as a bigger surprise.

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