Sunday, June 27, 2010

Movie Review: "Grown Ups"

It’s hard to tear down a movie as well-intentioned as “Grown Ups.”

The new Adam Sandler comedy features the famous funnyman starring alongside Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James and consists largely of the four men sitting around trading wisecracks and occasionally participating in a plot that seems to wander in off the streets from time to time. It’s obvious Sandler has a camaraderie with these men—who have starred in films produced by Sandler’s “Happy Madison Productions” and most of them worked with him on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-90s. The film gives the four the opportunity to hang out, trade some jokes and make a quick buck. If George Clooney and Brad Pitt were able to chill and call it “Ocean’s 12,” why can’t Sandler and his pals do the same thing with “Grown Ups”?

Of course, “Ocean’s 12” was a mess. And while “Grown Ups” is nowhere near as pretentious or self-satisfied as that film, an amazingly lazy script and some flat direction by Dennis Dugan keep the comedy from being the riot some might expect from this ensemble.

The characters all have names, but the comedians are all playing so closely to their established types that for purposes of this review we’ll just call them by their real names. Sandler’s character is a Hollywood agent, called back to his hometown after the death of his fifth grade basketball coach. He tries to hide his massive wealth, spoiled kids and nanny from his friends—who include James, with a wife (Maria Bello) who still breastfeeds her 4-year-old son; Spade, as a sarcastic ladies man; Schneider, as a sensitive hippy married to a septuagenarian and Rock, who plays Mr. Mom to his pregnant wife (Maya Rudolph).

The characters spend the weekend at the lake house where they grew up and, occasionally, a story thread emerges to distract us, although Dugan seems quick to shoo it away to allow for more shots of the boys sitting around trading quips. There are scenes of Sandler’s fashion designer wife (Salma Hayek) being prissy and moody, hints that Rock may feel unappreciated and belittled by his wife, suggestions that James may feel his wife is babying his children and the undercurrent that Spade is…well, suffering from being a David Spade character. But each of these subplots is dashed off with a shrug of the shoulders or a quick “I forgive you.” Even a big basketball rematch that seems to be given so much weight early in the film is never mentioned again until the film’s final scenes, where the movie grinds to a halt to remind us that James is out of shape and Sandler has game. There’s no tension or character to carry the plot and the film seems to shift about, genially yet befuddled, as if Sandler and Company thought it would be a great idea to get the gang together for a movie and then not only rolled camera without a script but edited that way as well.

And maybe that’s what happened. Given Sandler’s credit as a co-producer and co-writer, it’s obvious he liked the premise. And with the many shots of him talking to his buddies, it’s apparent he wanted to do a film with his old gang. Even his character—a Hollywood success story who just wants to be around “real people” again—could conceivably be the big movie star trying to prove he’s just a regular guy.

And for what it’s worth, Sandler is the film’s strongest part. One of the subplots that actually works deals with Sandler trying to teach his sons how to use their imagination, play outside and become normal kids. There are a few minutes early in the film where Sandler really seems to have something to say about this and, were the film edited to focus on Sandler and his family, I could see an entertaining and somewhat meaningful family comedy. It helps that Sandler is one of the most likable comedians in Hollywood. He’s displayed real acting chops in “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Reign Over Me” and last year’s “Funny People”. If he wants to dip his toes back into the old waters every once in awhile, he has that right and, to his credit, I don’t think he ever coasts through a film.

The rest of the gang succeeds based on your tolerance for the comedians behind the roles. I’ve always found Kevin James to have a genuinely funny, likable comedic presence and, while I don’t think Rock is much of an actor, he’s able to sell a punch line when he needs to. Spade’s sarcastic shtick grew old without Chris Farley’s warmth to balance him out, and while he gets a few nice one-liners, his boozy party animal grows old quick. Schneider gets shot in the foot with an arrow—and seeing him in pain should tell you how I normally feel about Schneider.

The women are woefully underused here, particularly the charming Bello and the always wonderful Rudolph. A scene at a water park in which the women try to lure in a cute lifeguard has an energy to it that the rest of the film lacks and, for a moment, I wanted to see the movie from these women’s perspective. Regular Sandler cohorts Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows and Steve Buscemi show up in cameos to varying success—Meadows is utterly wasted, although an extended sequence with Buscemi is a body cast had me giggling a bit.

The film is not without its pleasures. As I said, I think Sandler’s character has a storyline that’s refreshing in this area of constantly-texting children. There’s a genuine feeling of goodwill to the film—it’s apparent everyone in the cast had a great time making this movie and that feeling is contagious. While there’s nothing uproarious in the dialogue, Sandler and his buddies have a genuine chemistry and it’s a bit fun to see them wisecrack and poke fun at each other without resorting to annoying voices and cloying characters. Some of the film’s bigger gags—a dog with no vocal chords, blue dye in a swimming pool—work better than others (a farting grandma? Really?), but that’s par for the course in these comedies. And I do have to admit that it was nice to make it through a comedy that didn’t feature the f-word every five seconds or graphic sex references the entire way through.

There’s a good movie somewhere in “Grown Ups.” If Dugan and Sandler had focused the script and been a little more judicious in the editing process, I think it could have been a fairly successful family comedy. Instead, it’s a scattershot comedy suffering from a directionless script and a director with no other directive than to “point the camera at the funny people.” It’s far from the worst thing that those involved with the movie have ever done, but it’s not going to be the film they’re known for, either.

But I’m glad Sandler was able to play with his friends for a bit. Now maybe he can actually grow up and get back to the good, serious acting he puts on display from time to time.

Originally published in the June 27 edition of The Source.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Movie Review: "Toy Story 3"

I'm man enough to admit when I am wrong.

After a series of wonderfully original films that culminated with knock-out punch of "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up," I was worried about Pixar going back to the well for "Toy Story 3."
It wasn't that I had no desire to revisit Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang. I think 1995's "Toy Story" still stands not only as a game-changer in the film world, but as a lovingly-crafted and highly-entertaining story. Pixar only upped the ante in 1999 with "Toy Story 2," which was funnier, more exciting and had a surprising emotional depth--"Jessie's Song" was the first animated moment to ever make me cry. And the wonderfully cast of characters was always a blast to revisit--particularly Mr. Potato Head, Rex and the three-eyed martians (all together now: oooooooooohhhh!).

But then Pixar spoiled us. They raised the bar each time out and then vaulted over it so easily. The mixed pure creative genius with heart, soul, wit and technical artistry so beautifully that, for me, a new film from the company became not simply another release to look forward to, but an Event. There's not a bad film in the bunch and some, such as "The Incredibles," are among my favorite films ever made. The last two years, Pixar films have topped my year-end list. It was the rare studio that satisfied me fully each time out and made me want to see them continue stretching and surprising me with their magic.

So, for me, going back to the first series they had done seemed a bit disappointing. Had they lined up their creative best just to prepare for a possible separation from Disney? And when they stayed with the studio, did they just agree to "Toy Story 3" as a condition? Was this a cash grab? And, as a rule, don't second sequels usually suck?

Well, Pixar, I apologize. Because "Toy Story 3" deserves to be mentioned alongside the studio's best--right up there with "WALL-E," "The Incredibles" and "Up." It's a film brimming with so much invention, heart and goodwill that it may be impossible to dislike it. It's pure joy on display, constantly surprising us, thrilling us, making us laugh and then delivering an emotional knockout punch that will have everyone in the theater feeling guilty for growing up.

The first film tackled the tendency we have to love the new at the expense of the old and "Toy Story 2" dealt with abandonment and loyalty. Now, as the kids who thrilled to the first movie are growing up and moving on in the world, the film asks us to look at letting go. Is there a point where we've outlived our usefulness? What happens when we don't feel needed, when our friends begin to fade away and life moves on without us? Are we, ultimately, useless junk that can just be discarded? Will we just be thrown out and forgotten?

That's what the toys are dealing with as Andy, the young boy who so loved Woody and Buzz in the first installment, prepares to leave for college. Many of the old toys we loved in the first few films are gone, given away at yard sales or donated to other families. Those who remain--Woody, Buzz, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinkie Dog and the martians--have sat in the toy box for years and are reduced to stealing Andy's cell phone and calling him just so he'll open the box and look at them once again.

Andy's mother tells him to clean out his room and decide which toys are trash and which are to be given to the attic--not that either option is appealing. Andy chooses to take Woody with him to college and puts the rest in a bag to go to the attic; but circumstances send the toys out to the curb and, after a daring escape, to a donation box for Sunnyside Day Care--a place that at first resembles a posh resort or, perhaps more appropriate to the movie's themes, a retirement village. The toys are welcomed with opened arms by the cuddly, purple and strawberry-scented Lotso Hugging Bear (Ned Beatty), who presides over Sunnyside alongside the droopy-eyed, eerily silent Big Baby and plastic, fantastic Ken (Michael Keaton)...who, of course, quickly locks eyes with Barbie (Jodi Benson).

It's not long, however, before the toys learn the truth: Lotso has a sadistic streak and rules over Sunnyside with an iron (yet furry) fist. The toys are relegated to the toddler room, where the tykes smash, toss, drool on and try to ingest the plastic heroes. Buzz is reset to his original Space Trooper mode and put in place as a prison warden. And Woody, who has tried to escape back to Andy, quickly gets wind of the situation and mounts a heroic mission to save the gang and get them back to their owner.

I've mentioned before that the film deals with darker issues, such as mortality, usefulness and abandonment. But what I should also stress is that "Toy Story 3" does it with the same amount of wit, joy and creativity that fuel every one of Pixar's masterpieces. The opening sequence is an action packed riot that perfectly captures the ingenuity and absurdity of a boy's imagination. The "prison film"-flavored sequences at Sunnyside pay homage to every great escape movie ever made Watching Mr. Potato head endure his out-of-body via a tortilla shell is one of those moments that had me collapsing in laughter while also marveling "who would have thought of that?" As is usually the case, this film is bursting at the seams with clever dialogue, close escapes and uproarious sight gags. One can come away from "Toy Story 3" absolutely spoiled by the creativity on display.

When "Toy Story" was released back in 1995, it had was notable not just for its pitch-perfect storytelling (which is still a Pixar staple all these years later), but for being the first computer generated feature film. I had a chance to watch the original a few weeks back and was amazed by how good it still looks all these years later. Due to advancements in technology, "Toy Story 3" looks even better, with the characters coming to beautiful, colorful life and the world they play in refined and made even vaster by the ever-extending amount of tools Pixar's wizards have to play with.

The new toys are welcome editions to the franchise. Conniving, yet still oddly cuddly, Lotso is a great villain, voiced with pure down home menace by Beatty. On his adventures away from the Day Care, Woody meets a group of toys just as committed to their owner as he is to Andy, and I imagine they have their own stories that could fill a trilogy--I particularly enjoyed the thespian porcupine and the Instant Message addicted Triceratops. Big Baby may be one of the creepiest cartoon creations I've ever seen, and Keaton steals every scene he's in voicing the fashion-loving, Barbie smitten mimbo, Ken (but he's not a girl's toy!).
It's worth noting just how much we've come to love these characters over the course of 15 years. As voiced by Hanks with his awe-shucks charm and Allen with over-the-top male bravado, Woody and Buzz have endured as one of cinema's most beloved buddy teams. But I was surprised just how big of a smile was put on my face just to see Rex, the Potato Heads and the Martians again (and yes, the martians still get some of the biggest laughs). As everyone (even the family dog) has aged, there's a sense of history between the characters, from a burgeoning romance between Buzz and Jesse (another surprising sweet spot in a movie full of them) to the sad commentary on the toys who have gone onto other places (poor Little Bo Peep), there's the sense that, yes, years have passed from the first one. Time is marching on. And when it happens to characters we love, it carries resonance--even if those characters are plastic.
Anyone can deliver a well-timed joke or a funny gag. What Pixar excels at is doing all that while making the audience invest in their creations. After three movies, we've come to love each and every one of these toys and, in its final stretches, "Toy Story 3" hits the levels of emotional perfection we've seen them return to time and again. There's a scene in an incinerator where the toys join hands and prepare for the worst--the seriousness and the subtlety used in this scene give it a surprising suspense and gravity, something most live-action dramas and action films can't sell. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film's final 10 minutes, but suffice to say that there was a giant lump in my throat. Without giving anything away, the film ends on a note of pure bliss and sentiment and may be the most perfectly-realized trilogy capper I've seen. There's a gesture that Andy makes in one moment that is nothing more than a look on his face and the drawing back of his hand...and it's that one small, quiet moment that will likely drive a sledgehammer into the audiences' hearts. The film ends on a series of small grace notes, perfectly delivered to remind us all of the power of playtime and the important imaginary friends who helped us grow older.

And yet, Pixar makes it look so easy. There's never a sense that director Lee Unkrich trying too hard or hitting us over the head with the film's (many) big ideas. The film simply unfolds with an unflagging amount of energy, passion and joy. Is it Pixar's best? That's a hard determination to make in a field that includes "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up." But I will say this: "Toy Story 3" belongs in the same company as those films. Yes, much of its power comes because we've had two other adventures in this trilogy...but I would also argue that "Toy Story 3," particularly in its final moments, makes the first two "Toy Story's" even better films.

There's a mad love I have for Pixar. There is a pure whimsy and magic at work in everything they've produced. Their films have not only entertained me, they've enriched my life. I feel happier, richer for having been able to enjoy their artistry and see things from their perspective, letting their creative teams remind me of some of life's deepest truths. It pleases me to no end that "Toy Story 3" continues that tradition. I can't wait to see it again. And again. And again.

Movie Review: "The A-Team"

"Overkill is underrated…”

So says Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) near the end of “The A-Team,” Joe Carnahan’s ridiculously entertaining update of the popular 1980s television action show. By the time he says this, the characters have already barrel-rolled a helicopter, broken out of three maximum security prisons and flown a tank (you read that correctly)-- and the bazookas, machine guns and firecrackers are still moments away.

At least “The A-Team” practices what it preaches.

Then again, “The A-Team” never shied away from excess. The program, best known for capitalizing on Mr. T’s post-“Rocky III” career, was a testosterone-laden action-comedy centered on four Vietnam vets who, after wrongful imprisonment, went underground as mercenaries. Today it’s best-known for its over-the-top stunts and action sequences—which featured little bloodshed and hardly any death--and a cast of characters who spent just as much time wisecracking as they did solving missions.

It’s no surprise that Carnahan, last seen helming “Smokin’ Aces,” would amp up the stunts and action sequences in this update. What is refreshing, however, is how Carnahan keeps the franchise’s daffy soul intact by spending just as much time letting his actors wisecrack and play around.

Neeson suitably takes over for George Peppard as the calm, stogie-loving team leader Hannibal; he’s first seen freeing himself from the clutches of a Mexican drug cartel and dispatching two guard dogs by handcuffing them together. Neeson’s made a career playing strong, wise mentors and he’s not really doing any heavy lifting here. But the relish with which he declares “I love it when a plan comes together” shows that he’s clearly having fun in what would be an otherwise throwaway role.

Bradley Cooper seems born to place Face, the group’s smooth-talking ladies’ man. Cooper brings the same swagger and sense of humor that served him so well in last year’s “The Hangover,” and replicates Dirk Benedict’s smarm with surprising accuracy; there’s really no one else who could play this part so well. Mixed-martial arts star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson has the unenviable task of taking over for Mr. T as tough guy B.A. Baracus, but shows the requisite blend of intimidation and teddy bear likability to earn the Mohawk. Jackson is even able to bring a touch more character to the role, with a corny but entertaining subplot about B.A. renouncing violence. And yes, he’s still afraid to fly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley as Murdock, the group’s insane pilot. Switching accents for no apparent reason, speaking through hand puppets and amused by every near-death experience, Copley makes Murdock the film’s most refreshing and entertaining character. He’s so fun to watch that it’s easy to forget that he’s basically just doing the same shtick Dwight Schultz did 30 years ago. Jessica Biel is easy on the eyes, but light on the interest, as a government official hunting down the team, but Patrick Wilson (“Watchmen”) is a hoot as the quirky villain who seems more amused than perturbed at the way the team frustrates his plans.

Carnahan may have let his love for extreme editing and absurd action get away from him with “Aces,” a film I was not particularly fond of, but he finds the right balance for action and comedy here. Rather than turn it dark and edgy, as others may have been tempted to do, he honors the show’s legacy by winking at the audience and letting them know that it’s okay to laugh: it’s meant to be silly. That’s helpful to know when an entire sequence hinges on parachuting a tank to the ground while dodging missiles. The film rushes headlong from one action sequence to the next without giving the audience time to register how over-the-top everything is; in many ways, the film is one exquisitely staged climax after another, each delivered with a flair for the absurd that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud.

Carnahan makes sure to honor the hallmarks of nearly every “A-Team” episode. The black van makes an appearance and, yes, there are numerous escapes from prisons and mental institutions. New ways are found to trick B.A. into getting onto a plane and even the show’s iconic theme song is incorporated several times. The film’s final sequence, which both sets up a sequel and calls back to the show’s opening credits, is pure nostalgia for ‘80s geeks.

Yet even the uninitiated should have a good time with “The A-Team.” It’s the type of wispy, light-hearted fun that is rarely seen in this age of gritty franchises and reality-laced action dramas. Is it absurd, silly and ridiculous? Sure. But that’s all part of the plan. And I don’t know about you, but I love it when a plan comes together.

Originally published in the June 20 edition of The Source.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Main Essentials--Top 20 Favorite Films

This has not been a typical movie summer.

Ever since "Jurassic Park" gave me goosebumps at age 13, I've loved the summer movie season. While my friends were out playing baseball, enjoying the beach or (ahem) going on dates, I was finding my way to an air-conditioned movie theater to check out the latest, loudest and biggest releases of the year. "Independence Day," "The Rock," "Men In Black," "Gladiator"...these have been the films that have made summer one of my favorite times of the year.

I'm older and I'd hope my cinematic pallate has grown a bit more refined. I no longer salivate over the summer blockbusters...instead, my interest begins to pique around October, when studios start to send out their award fare. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for loud, big, special-effects driven extravaganzas.

This year has found me more tied up with my day job and personal developments, with less time to hit a theater. Sure, I've seen "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek 4," but I still am not hitting the theaters with the furvor I was over the past years (much of that is due to the fact that my job makes me it harder to hit press screenings for freelance work). And so, there's been a lack of reviews that I hope to get back into the swing of doing in the next few weeks (after a business trip to Texas).

But, what better way to fill the void of reviews than by gathering my thoughts and updating a list of my 20 favorite films? I try to do this every year because, to be honest, my thoughts on what I love change from year to year as I see faults with old favorites ("The Matrix" no longer has a place on this list) and films grow on me after repeated viewings (there are a few films on this list that I hated upon seeing the first time). So, here are my top 20 films. There's really no particular for the first one. :-)

A few caveats: Yes, there are more than 20 films on this list...I eliminated a lot but, in some cases, I grouped where a trilogy or series might be appropriate. I know the list skews heavily to films made within the last 20-30 years. Part of that is, based on my background, I'm just starting to catch up with older films. But most of that is that this is a list of my 20 favorite films, not the 20 best films I've seen. There are cases to be made for including "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane," or others...but these are the films that warm my heart, challenge me and cause me to return time and again to find their secrets out. A list of the best films I've seen would, well, be nearly impossible to compile. And in the end, it's not about what's best but about the films that have touched me, made me smile and made my life a bit better. Some of these are masterpieces. Some are guilty pleasures. Some are incredibly flawed but put a smile on my face anyway. That's the movies, for ya...

1. The Shawshank Redemption: Ever since I saw this movie early in my college years, it has merited the top spot on my list. Frank Darabont's debut--and still his finest film--is a powerful meditation on hope and friendship, wrapped up in a dark, funny, adventurous and spiritual story. Technically, the film earns its top spot: the acting--particularly Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman--contains career-best performances and Darabont is a masterful writer-director, combining witty, smart dialogue with some beautifully composed shots. But emotionally, this is a deep, spiritual film told with earnestness and optimism, encouraging us that while people and circumstances may be at their worst, hope is still the best thing we have. It's the film I turn to when I feel despair coming on, and the beautiful passage where Andy plays opera for the inmates is my favorite film scene ever.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Michel Gondry's sci-fi romantic comedy is a wonderful mind-bender of a film. I love Charlie Kauffman's script and the way it weaves in and out of time and through the realities of the mind, always weird but never confusing. It's a brilliant concept--what if we could erase the memories of the person who broke our heart--and yet for all its intelligence, the film never feels cold or detached. This is an examination of the nature of memory, the power of love and the human tendency to go for easy fixes rather than growing through our pain. I love Jim Carrey, in a quiet and internalized performance, and Kate Winslet is perfection as the unpredictable and fragile Clementine. I love the film's ending and the arguments that can be had as to whether it is a happy or tragic finale.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: I guess that on any given day you could substitute this film with "Jaws" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I love early Spielberg--the sense of wonder, fun and awe. "Close Encounters" always comes back as my favorite of his early works, though. I love the way he balances familiar, "real-life" suburbia with the awe of his otherworldly visitors. I love the final 30 minutes, and that Spielberg maintains a sense of innocence and awe--he doesn't turn it into a standard thriller, but allows us to imagine a harmonious meeting between two species. This is such a wonderful look at obsession and passion, and I love that Spielberg doesn't hold Roy Neary back from abandoning all to follow his heart at the end. It's a film that is told with a startling intelligence and skill and balanced with a childlike sense of wonderment.

4. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset: Yes, it's technically two films. But Richaard Linklater's minor masterpieces compose my favorite cinematic love story. "Before Sunrise," which chronicles the meeting of two young people over one night in Vienna, is one of the first films I watched with my now-fiancee. I love the look of Vienna, the rhythm of the dialogue and the feeling that I am eavesdropping on a first date. It's a plotless film, but it's mezmerizing to watch Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters fall in love. Even more, I love the 2004 follow up, where we catch up with the characters in Paris. It's a tougher film--Jesse and Celine both have scars from their night in Vienna and Linklater spends 3/4 of the film sidestepping the relationship issues, only to hit us with an emotional sledgehammer at the end. I love these characters and revisit this story once a year. "Before Sunset" has one of the most perfect final shots I've seen, but if Linklater wants to pick up the story again later this decade, I don't know that I'd mind.

5. WALL-E: I probably could fill this list only with Pixar movies if I wanted. No other studio is as consistent at turning out masterpieces as this one. And I debated about whether this slot should go to "Up" or "The Incredibles," both of which I love just as dearly. But "WALL-E" is such a brilliantly-conceived film, that it edges them out. I love this mixture of Charlie Chaplin, 2001 and Johnny 5. It's a funny, near-silent comedy that takes right turns into romance and hard science fiction, with a dash of sermonizing to boot. WALL-E and EVE have a beautiful love story, which is odd since they are two robots with limited vocabularies. But it doesn't matter; their waltz in space is one of my most beloved cinematic moments.

6. The Muppet Movie: For whatever reason, this movie was therapeutic for me as I turned 30. Perhaps it was just a nostalgia factor; I was a Muppet fan growing up and I don't know that I've ever stopped loving Kermit & Co. But really, I think it was the pure joy in this silly road trip comedy. I love the corny jokes, the silly songs and the general anarchy that permeates every frame. But deeper still is the pure earnestness in Kermit, probably no more autobiographical for Jim Henson than here. His desire to entertain, make people happy and help his friends achieve their dreams reminded me of my most innocent moments. It's a beautiful, joyful movie for the lovers and dreamers in all of us.

7. Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe is a favorite director of mine and the one film per director rule is the only thing keeping "Say Anything" off this list. "Almost Famous" is Crowe's masterpiece, a lovingly autobiographical love letter to 1970s rock and life on the road. Patrick Fugit is fittingly innocent as William Miller, the uncool witness to rock and roll debauchery and the one man who can reveal everyone's secrets. I love every character and every actor in this film, be it Billy Crudup as Stillwater's pretty boy or Kate Hudson as the mysterious Penny Lane. It's a movie that, when I put it on, just makes me grin from ear-to-ear, loving every minute I spend with this disfunctional family.

8. Taxi Driver: Probably the obvious choice for Scorsese movie, but I'm not going to apologize for that. I love this unnerving, dark odyssey. Robert Deniro's Travis Bickle is a haunting character. He's not a hero and not a villain...just a lonely man wanting to impress a girl and clean up the world. I know Travis Bickles, have heard them cry out for loneliness and vent their despair in howls of anger and promises of retribution. And yet, Travis is not a fearsome character. We sympathize with him and pity him. And only Deniro and Scorsese, with Paul Schraeder's bleak script, could pull that off.

9. Ghostbusters: A perfect comedy. This is a film that shouldn't work--big budget comedies are, as a rule, bloated and clunky. And yet, "Ghostbusters" makes me laugh each time. Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray created such a great concept--blue-collared supernatural exterminators, and the dialogue is intelligent, hilarious and absurd. Murray is, of course, the key...Peter Venkeman is the scientist who doesn't really believe all this supernatural stuff until it's staring him in the face. And even then, he's above it all, ready to crack a joke. The chemistry among the actors and director Ivan Reitman's ability to make the deadpan humor work among extravagant effects makes this one of the films I could put on any time and watch from beginning to end.

10. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: The go-to crazy comedy for this list was always "The Naked Gun." And while I still love Frank Drebin's adventure, I have to admit that "Anchorman" is probably the most infinitely quotable and aggressively funny films I've ever seen. Will Ferrell comedies are easy sells for me, and I've loved "Talladega Nights" and "Step Brothers," his other collaborations with director Adam McKay. But Ron Burgundy, with his deep voice, fine suits and love for scotch, it Ferrell's greatest creation. The supporting cast is just as hilarious, particularly Steve Carrell as the dim-witted weatherman ("I love lamp.") And the absurdity of the film, from the juvenile antics of the anchors to a no-holds-barred news reporter war (including horses and a trident), is so purely silly that it makes me giggle just remembering it. Parmount reportedly turned down a sequel. That is so not classy.

11. Hell House: I love a good documentary. And I wrestled with whether to put this, "Hoop Dreams," "Murderball" or "Young @ Heart" on this list. I settled with this--a look at a Texas church's efforts to construct and Evangelical haunted house--because no documentary has caused me to reflect on my faith, my efforts to share that faith and the motives for doing so. I love that the film is objective: it's fair to the teens putting on Hell House and also allows that they may be crossing a line. You don't question the church's devotion, but you do question their actions. The film looks at the attraction believers still have to sin and the danger of dressing up the Gospel. But it also is a celebration of passion and the desire to share Good News. An endlessly fascinating film.

12. A Simple Plan: I showed this to my fiancee a few months back and she couldn't get to the end. Sam Raimi's adaptation of Scott Smith's novel is dark, twisty noir. It's an examination of the depths greed will take us to and the evil that we are capable of. It's an intriguing question: if you found $3 million in the woods, would you keep it? And then Raimi lets fate run its course, drawing three men into an ever-tightening web of lies, mistrust and murder. If ever a film illustrated the theme "the love of money is the root of all evil," it is this film. And yet, Raimi pulls it off with flawless showmanship--the tragedy has an ironic comedy to it, the suspense is unbearably and the film is punctuated by career-high performances from Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton. A heartbreaking, gut-clenching thriller whose plausibility makes it all the more chilling and tragic.

13. Ikiru: I've seen this film once and it devastated me. Akira Kurosawa's look at a lonely Tokyo government worker facing his death is both joyful and sobering. This isn't a movie about a man deciding that he's going to live it up once he learns of his cancer--it's about a man who learns he is going to die, only to find he's never lived. It exposes the folly of "living it up" and tells about a man determined to live for something...and then contains a final act in which his life is celebrated and our own hypocrisy and timidity exposed.

14. Punch-Drunk Love: Pure poetry. I've told the tale often enough about how I hated this film upon first viewing, finding it confusing and frustrating. And yet, over time, it's won me over. I love this ode to love's ability to heal us. Paul Thomas Anderson isn't subtle with his symbolism or emotions...and he shouldn't be. This isn't a subtle movie but a loud, beautiful sonnet to love and how it can make us better when we find it. Adam Sandler is fantastic as an angry, lonely man. And I particularly love Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the sleazy mattress man trying to scam Sandler. A film that makes me feel warm inside

15. Lost in Translation: Another film in which I feel like I'm revisiting old friends. I don't know that Bill Murray has ever been better than he is here, as a beaten-down actor whose passions are fading. Scarlett Johanssen may have gone the movie star route, but here she's adorable as a young newlywed discovering that she doesn't know what she wants from life. The friendship she and Bob form in a Tokyo hotel is beautiful, touching and healing to both of them. I love that this isn't a romance but simply a story of two people forming a deep, healing bond. And I never want to know the words Bob whispers at the end.

16. Back to the Future: Possibly the most tightly-written, finely-tuned examples of high concept comedy. This film is pure joy, with a script that is intelligent and funny and performances by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd that created characters we loved throughout the entire trilogy.

17. Shaun of the Dead: We've had zombie comedies before "Shaun" and after "Shaun." Some have been bad. Some have been good. But none have been as memorable or hilarious as Edgar Wright's slacker-saves-the-day opus, which celebrates Romero's formula while spoofing it. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are the new millenium's great buddy team and, on any given day, I can't tell whether I like this or "Hot Fuzz" more. But Shaun's slacker sensibility gives it a slight edge.

18. Kill Bill: I love the epic of the Bride. I love the exploitation-cinema-on-crack insanity of the bullet-paced, blood-soaked first part and the epic feel of the dialogue-heavy, Western-and-kung-fu-themed concluding volume. Uma Thurman's work as the blood spattered Bride is the best female action work since Ripley escaped the Nostromo. Tarantino holds it all together with giddy glee...if a film projector allowed us to see what was in his brain, this is the film that would emerge. And David Carradine steals the entire affair with his brilliantly-delivered Superman monologue at the end.

19. Groundhog Day: Bill Murray again. And this film grows on me each time I watch it. Funny, brilliantly scripted and acted, it's a comedic musing on the book of Ecclesiasties. It's hilarious and quotable and yet filled with a goodness and joy that make comparisons to "It's a Wonderful Life" surprisingly apt.

20. The Truman Show: I love Peter Weir's film. It's another great Jim Carrey performance in a profound film that asks the deepest questions about how we become the people we are, what effect our settings and environments have on us and whether the human spirit can be stifled and contained. The final 20 minutes of this movie are some of my favorite big screen moments.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.