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Seth Rogen might just win the award for All-Time-Great Drug-Tripping Performance in The Night Before, a very funny holiday film from director Jonathan Levine.

Rogen and Anthony Mackie play Isaac and Chris, best friends to Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who lost his parents when he was young. Since the death of Ethan’s parents, the three have gathered every Christmas Eve to celebrate—in rambunctious fashion.

In what is supposed to be their final Christmas Eve journey—Isaac’s wife is having a baby, and Chris is a famous football player—Ethan scores tickets to the wildest party of the year. Rogen spends the majority of the film tripping balls after consuming mushrooms, pot and cocaine (gifts from the wife); he should get some sort of drug-performance Oscar for what he does in this movie.

Michael Shannon shows up as one of the strangest drug-dealers in cinema history; lord knows there have been some strange ones. However, the film gives us the greatest gift of all with Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s love interest; let’s face it: She’s awesome. Miley Cyrus makes a fun cameo as herself, while somebody else I shall not reveal makes a surprise appearance and steals some scenes.

This one is a nice addition to the holiday movie canon, and Rogen solidifies himself as a stoner hero.

The Night Before is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Robert Zemeckis—with the help of some massively talented special-effects artists—puts viewers on a wire more than 1,300 feet above Manhattan in The Walk, an uneven but ultimately thrilling account of Philippe Petit’s amazing 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers.

If you’ve seen Man on Wire, the documentary featuring Petit himself, you’ve seen most of what happens in The Walk. The big difference in The Walk is a stunning re-enactment of Petit’s stunt rather than still pictures. The people who crafted this film have done a terrific job of re-creating the towers, and Zemeckis really does put you on the wire with Petit.

Having grown up in Long Island, N.Y., I spent some time in, around and on top of those towers. While I can’t say what it was like to walk a wire from one building to another (I’m not insane, after all), I can tell you what it was like to stand atop one of them, or to gaze up at them, legs wobbling, from the ground—and Zemeckis absolutely nails it. Every inch of the buildings looks authentic.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting a French accent that sounds a lot like Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, plays a very jovial Petit. The film picks up when he is a young man miming in the streets of Paris. After a visit to the dentist’s office, Petit spies a picture of the Twin Towers and immediately starts planning his “Coup.”

The buildup to the big walk is a little goofy and a tad tedious. Zemeckis utilizes a framing device that has Petit narrating from the torch on the Statue of Liberty; it feels a little trite. However, the depiction of a rusty, dirty Liberty torch is a nice authentic touch: The city cleaned up the statue about 10 years later.

After some uninteresting stuff involving Petit and a tightrope-walking circus mentor (Ben Kingsley in a useless “Obi-Wan” role), Petit goes to Manhattan and assembles his team. As soon as he gets next to those buildings, the movie soars to a new level.

With the help of some fake moustaches, as well as architect and construction-worker disguises, Petit and friends managed to study the building multiple times before actually shooting a wire between the towers with a bow and arrow—and shocking the living heck out of city-dwellers on their way to work.

The walk itself has to be one of the year’s finest examples of special effects. I watched the film in 3-D IMAX, and the last act of the movie is stunning. The buildings are perfectly replicated, and there’s a true sense of being on that wire—and being one misstep away from a very long drop.

Petit didn’t just do one walk cross and call it a day. He was on the wire for more than a half-hour, during which time he laid down on the wire, saluted the people down below, and saluted skyward like the absolute maniac he was. Sure, Evel Knievel did some messed-up stuff on his motorcycle around the same time, but “the walk” has to be the most amazing daredevil feat of the 20th century.

Levitt is fine in the central role, even if his accent is a bit distracting at times. Apparently, he trained with Petit himself and got fairly astute at wire-walking and juggling. He also taught himself how to speak French. That’s a lot of work for a movie not many are likely to see: It’s not doing well at the box office. Perhaps that’s because most people who would be interested feel they have already seen the film after taking in Man on Wire.

This is not the case: Even if you have seen the documentary, see The Walk. When it is firing on all cylinders, it’s like the most dizzying of amusement-park rides, and the final 40 minutes are some of the most fun you will have at the movies this year. You just have to wade through the pre-Manhattan, Paris-dwelling boring minutes first.

The Walk is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

It feels like writer-director Robert Rodriguez delivered the first Sin City a million years ago.

However, it was just nine years ago, back in 2005. Rodriguez was reaching the apex of his creative strengths, making good movies for relatively small budgets and doing much of the work himself. Sin City was truly groundbreaking; it was preceded by fine films like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the first three Spy Kids movies (two of which were really good) and, my personal favorite, From Dusk Till Dawn.

Since Sin City, a lot of people have been making good-looking films on reasonable budgets. Rodriguez, in the meantime, has been losing steam, with misfires like The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lavagirl 3-D, Shorts, the fourth (and truly awful) Spy Kids film and Machete Kills. Yes, he did good work with his Grindhouse segment, Planet Terror and the first Machete—but the bad has far outweighed the good.

Now comes Rodriguez’s long-in-development Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It’s a batch of shorts based on the musings of Frank Miller—and not one of them offers anything better than the original film. It’s a tedious, worthless film from a director who seems to be running out of original ideas.

Much of the cast returns, including Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, even though their characters died in the first movie. In the case of Rourke, his Marv segments are prequels, based on graphic novels that took place before his character got the electric chair. As for Willis … think The Sixth Sense.

Jessica Alba returns to dance provocatively (although she keeps her clothes on) as stripper Nancy, and Powers Boothe is back as the evil Senator Roark. Dennis Haysbert replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan, and Josh Brolin steps in for Clive Owen as Dwight. Also new to the cast are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, and Eva Green as Ava.

There are a whole lot of people driving around in black-and-white, doing those deliberately paced, film-noir voiceovers. What was once visually breathtaking has become visually blah, and none of the stories in A Dame to Kill For merit interest. The film plays like a batch of outtakes from the first movie that were slapped together and put on display.

It’s also the second time this year that Eva Green has given a spectacular, villainous performance in a film adapted from a Miller graphic novel that sucks around her (the first one being 300: Rise of an Empire). Green is the only reason to see this movie; her Ava is far more terrifying than Boothe’s deranged senator.

Gordon-Levitt seems out of place in this film; he’s way too cool and popular to be hanging around such a subpar undertaking. It’s sort of like when Bill Murray lent his voice to the Garfield movies, or Tom Hanks took a paycheck for The Da Vinci Code. It just feels wrong. Gordon-Levitt was in the running for Guardians of the Galaxy and Godzilla … and he winds up in this? The agent firings must commence.

For the first time in a long time, Rodriguez doesn’t have any films listed in development. Perhaps this is a good thing; maybe he needs a break. He’s better than Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill for is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

In director Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting and somber The Wind Rises, Jiro (a character based on one of the designers of World War II Japanese bombers) shares his dreams with Caproni, an Italian airplane-builder who intends to retire.

Caproni has something in common with Miyzaki: The Wind Rises is allegedly the last animated feature from Miyazaki, the legendary director of such films as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. If this is, indeed, his final film, Miyazaki, 73, is going out on a high note: The film is nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and it’s my pick for the award.

The Wind Rises stands as my favorite Miyazaki film. There’s a hand-drawn beauty to every frame; the sounds are astonishing; and, most importantly, it tells a compelling and heartbreaking story in a graceful and touching way.

We first meet Jiro as a young boy, as he dreams about airplanes. (This is also where we meet Caproni, who sometimes “shares” Jiro’s dreams.) Jiro’s early dreams contain the beauty and wonderment of flying—but they also include his plane disintegrating, and his body falling helplessly toward the ground. Jiro is a complicated sort.

The film then jumps to Jiro as a young man, heading to work in Tokyo on a train, when a frightening earthquake hits. This earthquake is the film’s most-stunning sequence, bolstered by exaggerated drawings of the earth rolling. It’s also here that we see Miyazaki’s extraordinary attention to detail. (The earthquake’s end is shown via a pile of small rocks, with the natural disaster coming to a pause after a couple of final, tiny stones tumble.)

Jiro helps a young woman and her younger sister, Nahoko, in the accident’s aftermath. They lose touch as Jiro goes to work under the tutelage of the cantankerous Kurokawa; he designs wing struts for a Japanese corporation that’s building warplanes. Jiro notices details in the bones from his mackerel lunch, and incorporates their sleekness into his designs. Through a series of dreams, paper airplanes and hard work, we eventually see the culmination of Jiro’s work: the bombers that will attack Pearl Harbor and turn Japan into one of the world’s most-sinister war machines.

Miyazaki doesn’t explore the politics of such an invention all that much. There are some rough dealings with German engineers, and brief mentions of Nazis and how Japan will eventually “blow itself up.” That particular statement is very eerie in a film that is so beautiful. We see the creation of the bombers from the designer’s standpoint; Jiro is the Walter Mitty of airplane daydreamers, in a sense. He simply wants to build majestic flying machines, with no political leanings toward their wartime significance.

A love story kicks into gear when Nahoko is reintroduced. She and Jiro come together and are married as Nahoko is in the throes of tuberculosis. As with his airplane dreams, his dreams of eternal love are hindered by the distinct hint of death.

The dream sequences with Caproni are full of wonderment. He and Jiro can walk on plane wings and observe huge passenger-plane prototypes that look like the Howard Hughes Spruce Goose. These beguiling sequences distinguish Miyazaki’s work from all other animated-film directors.

Miyazaki integrates human voices in a lot of his sound effects. You can hear them a bit when plane engines start up; it lends to the film’s organic feel. Those human voices work best when Tokyo catches fire during the earthquake sequences. The earth belches and moans as the fire starts, almost as if to say, “What’s about to happen here is really quite bad.” It’s a subtle, distinctive touch from Miyazaki.

We see those subtle touches in the visuals as well. Watch the way cigarette smoke billows from a smoker’s mouth, or the way vegetation reacts to hard raindrops. Everything is treated with an amazing amount of focus and detail. As amazing as Pixar’s computer-animated movies are, they miss the humanistic quality of a Miyazaki film.

I watched The Wind Rises with its original Japanese language track (with a little bit of German, Italian and French mixed in). The film is being released nationally with an English-dubbed track featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jiro), Emily Blunt (Nahoko), Martin Short (Kurokawa) and Stanley Tucci (Caproni). English translations usually go OK with Miyazaki movies, but if you want to see it in the original Japanese, it’ll probably be included on future home-video releases.

I could see why, thematically, Miyazaki would want this to be his last animated feature; The Wind Rises feels like a proper culmination of his work. The selfish movie fan in me wants him to keep making movies as long as he breathes, but there’s something quite befitting and satisfying in the way this movie, and possibly Miyazaki’s film journey, comes to an end.

The Wind Rises opens Friday, Feb. 28, at theaters including the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615) and the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs and stars in Don Jon, a frank comedy about a sex addict who thinks porn is better than true romance.

Levitt is excellent and consistently funny as the title character, a Jersey boy who is quite the stud—yet he finds himself jerking off to Internet porn within mere minutes of having sex with a live woman.

His problem comes to the forefront when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the first real love of his life—a woman with high standards who doesn’t approve of the porn thing.

Gordon-Levitt has given us something akin to a funnier Saturday Night Fever, with porn replacing disco. Yes, the movie is full of porn clips, so don’t see it with kids or a first date, unless you and that first date have some sort of naughty understanding.

Julianne Moore is her usual excellent self in a supporting role, and the shock casting of Tony Danza as Don’s dad proves smart; Danza gets to show some cinematic comedy chops. Kudos to Gordon-Levitt for giving the old dude a shot.

Johansson is great, playing a role that gives her a chance to have a lot more fun than she has had in most of her previous projects.

This is a triumph for Gordon-Levitt. At the moment, he has signed on to produce Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for the big screen. I think he has some pretty good directing chops, so it would be nice to see him star in and direct the project as well.

Special Features: There are a couple of decent making-of doc, and some short films.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs and stars in Don Jon, a frank comedy about a sex addict who thinks porn is better than true romance.

Levitt is excellent and consistently funny as the title character, a Jersey boy who is quite the stud, yet he finds himself jerking off to Internet porn within mere minutes of finishing with a live woman.

His little problem comes to the forefront when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the first real love of his life—a woman with high standards who doesn’t approve of the porn thing.

The movie is full of porn clips, so don’t see it with kids or a first date—unless you and that first date have some sort of naughty understanding.

Gordon-Levitt has given us something akin to a funnier Saturday Night Fever, with porn replacing disco. Julianne Moore is her usual excellent self in a supporting role, and the surprising casting of Tony Danza as Don’s dad proves smart: Danza displays cinematic comedy chops that he hasn’t been able to show off before.

This is a triumph for Gordon-Levitt. Go see it.

Don Jon is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

If you missed this one in theaters, you missed one of the year’s best big-screen experiences. Director Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller is startlingly good-looking film.

It’s also a great brain-twister, featuring a bravura performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hired assassin killing people sent back from the future the instant they pop up in front of him. Things get a little kooky when the person sent back to be offed is actually an older version of himself (a strong Bruce Willis).

Gordon-Levitt wears makeup to achieve a look more akin to Willis, but it’s the smirk and airy voice that really nail it down. Gordon-Levitt had a blockbuster year with this and The Dark Knight Rises, with this being the best screen work he has done to date.

A supporting cast including Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels is top-notch. Dano is especially good as a fellow assassin (or “looper”) who loses his nerve at the wrong time—and pays a grisly price.

In a role that isn’t getting the notice it deserves (although she has gotten a nomination from the Broadcast Film Critics Association), Emily Blunt takes a break from funny stuff to deliver stellar work as a mom protecting a strange son (played by talented child actor Pierce Gagnon). Blunt holds her own with Gordon-Levitt, matching him at every turn.

Willis gets a chance to do some seedy stuff as his character goes on an unfortunate crusade. He does a good job of making his version of Joe a sympathetic character, even as he does unspeakable things.

As time-travel movies go, this is one of the best. The moment when future Joe sits down in a diner with present Joe is a real winner. (The universe does not end, as Doc Brown predicted would happen in Back to the Future Part II.) If you missed this on the big screen, don’t fret: The Blu-ray will look mighty good in your living room.

Let it be noted that this movie cost $30 million to make, according to IMDb.com. That’s a pretty low budget considering the look Johnson has achieved. It seems like the movie would’ve cost five times that amount, at least.

Special Features: A great commentary with the director, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt. It’s actually one of the year’s better commentaries, a truly fun listen. You also get deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes on the making of the film, and a short doc about the film’s score. 

 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing