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Tupac Resurrection

The life of murdered rapper/lukewarm activist Tupac Shakur is a difficult one to sort out. Documentarian Nick Broomfield tried to investigate the strange world of Shakur in his feature, “Biggie and Tupac,” but was left with very little to work with outside of court records and home video appearances. The new documentary “Tupac Resurrection” attempts to sort out the life of Shakur, but through his own interviews and public appearances.

The feature starts out innocently enough. Recalling Tupac’s early days as the son of a Black Panther and his childhood witnessing the pain of poverty crippling his fellow man, “Resurrection” credibly begins to Sharpie the lines between Tupac’s youth and what eventually fed his future musical missions. Director Lauren Lazin is given access to a wealth of Tupac footage, showcasing his Baltimore School of the Arts teenage years (with classmate Jada Pinkett) to some early footage of Tupac humping rubber dolls as a background dancer for Digital Underground (of “The Humpty Dance” fame). Lazin plays fast and loose with the connective tissue that takes Tupac from city to city, and experience to experience, but it’s forgivable since the meat of the matter comes when Tupac arrives in California to begin his journey to the top of the charts.

It’s in this segment of the film where Lazin begins to explore more familiar incidents: Tupac’s various arrests, violent behavior, and ability to cover his questionable actions by laying down thoughtful hip-hop tracks of hope. Because “Resurrection” is told through Tupac only, the audience actually does get the chance to see a side of the rapper that few wanted to see: an incredibly bright, well spoken young man who knew more about his actions than he ever let on. The picture also paints Tupac as a man who took very little responsibility for his choices. His shady dealings with Death Row Records owner Suge Knightr It was to get back at those that shunned him in prison. A history of mistreating women, which led to a 1995 jail stintr He loves women, and they knew what they were doing dealing with him (seen in one shockingly unexplained clip of Tupac seducing a groupie). His constant and well documented harassment of other African-American artistsr He’s just got a lovable big mouth sometimes, that‘s all. Tupac’s bigger ideas, like his “Thug Life” mission of urban responsibility, are investigated in great detail, but Shakur’s own inability to take control or properly explain his actions limits “Resurrection” from being the celebration it rather repulsively is created to be.

“Tupac Resurrection” was never meant to give a rounded, full explanation of Shakur’s volatile existence. Tupac Shakur was a complicated man, a best selling rap artist, and a beacon to which millions looking for hope in their bleak existence turned to. Those people deserve better than endless shots of heavenly clouds, grotesquely manipulated sound bites (this alone is almost too fraudulent for words), and softball answers to serious questions on how this man lived his life.

Rating: D
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The Singing Detective

Stuck in a hospital bed, suffering from a debilitating and disfiguring skin disease that leaves him unable to express his creativity, 1940s dime-store detective novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is slowly losing his mind. Dark imagines himself a character in one of his own novels, chased by hired goons (Adrien Brody and Joe Polito), trying to sort out a mystery involving a dame who looks just like his real-life wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), and spending his days singing bouncy songs in a shadowy nightclub. As Dark’s paranoia mounts slowly, the hospital brings in therapist Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson) to help the afflicted writer sort it all out before he goes mad.

Director Keith Gordon loves to explore the fractured mind. In his past films, “Waking The Dead” and “Mother Night,” the filmmaker spent a consider amount of screen time trying to disrupt the moviegoing experience with elaborate plotting and shifting perspectives. So it shouldn’t come as any great shock that Gordon was drawn to “The Singing Detective.” Probably the most kaleidoscopic of any recent silver screen head games, “Detective” is loosely based on the novel by Dennis Potter, with Gordon returning to Potter’s original screenplay for this new adaptation. To many, the 1986 BBC production of “Detective” ranks as one of the best word-to-celluloid adaptations of all time, leaving Gordon with quite a load to bear. The previous “Detective” also ran over 6 hours, with the new film’s 108 minute running time small potatoes in comparison.

Because there isn’t as thorough an investigation of the material this time around, Gordon’s trademarked techniques of misdirection and pretension stand out all the more. Gordon has fun building the dream world that Dark attempts to live in; getting his rocks off on the neon noir, smoldering-cherry cigarettes, and gangster elements that define this story, as well as staging lip-synched musical numbers to classic songs like “At The Hop” and “Poison Ivy.” Gordon also makes sure the audience knows every inch of Dark’s skin disease, shown in all its extreme close-up glory. The little asides, which are entertaining and interesting, add up, but the main body of the film suffers. Irritatingly, the comedy rarely works since the audience has to spend time trying to sort all the psychosis out. And a crucial plot thread, about Dark and Nicola arguing over Dark’s missing screenplay, is a muddled mess even when it’s handled directly by Gordon.

Even though Gordon ultimately fails him, it is great to see Robert Downey Jr. back on the screen. After a nearly three-year hiatus from film work due to unfortunate circumstances, Downey finds a role in “Detective” that fits him like a glove. Utilizing his gifts for comedy, pop acting, and smoky gumshoe, Downey is the only reason “Detective” is praiseworthy at all. Even under the gobs of peeling, scabby makeup, Downey is the beating heart in Gordon’s stone cold film.

I would qualify “The Singing Detective” as a disaster if only compared to the 1986 version. On its own, the picture is merely a misfire, though an persistently indulgent one.

Rating: D+
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Matrix Revolutions, The

When we last left Neo (Keanu Reeves, oddly absent for nearly a third of this picture), he was laid out on a table in a coma next to the Agent Smith-controlled Bane (Ian Bliss). With the machines burrowing their way into Zion for a last, winner-takes-all battle, it’s up to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, in a distant supporting role) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to help Neo out of his mental prison, which takes them to the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and the Oracle (Mary Alice) for assistance. Now, with time ticking away before Zion is destroyed, Neo must make choices that will affect his life, and those of his loved ones; also having to defeat the machines and the even greater evil approaching on the distant horizon: the rapidly spreading Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, stealing the film) who is becoming impatient in his pursuit of Neo.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way early: “The Matrix Revolutions” is the direct continuation of last May’s “The Matrix Reloaded,” thus the over-thought plotting, melodramatic performances, and phrases like “systemic anomaly” all make reappearances in the new film. “Reloaded” has become the stuff of legends; endlessly debated between fans of 1999’s “The Matrix” on what went wrong with the sequel and what it all means. Personally, it took some time to digest “Reloaded,” but I’m partial to its quizzical screenplay and the gangbusters imagery. I was secretly praying that “Revolutions” would be the key element in quieting my fears on the overall quality of “Reloaded,” which is downright detested by many.

“Revolutions” starts off on familiar ground, returning to the Wachowski Brothers’ (Larry and Andy) towering screenplay of exposition and thesaurus-bending dialog. The film is very lean on introductions, plunging right into the third chapter of Neo’s journey to become the chosen one, though a base knowledge of what occurs in the video game “Enter The Matrix” might help with understanding what exactly happened to Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her ship. “Revolutions” is more direct in its story since the film isn’t saddled with the burden of setting up plot threads like “Reloaded” was frantically trying to do. “Revolutions” is a war film; a soliloquy on sacrifice and death, and another round of the Wachowskis’ philosophical discussions. Gone are the Architect and his unquestionably summer-blockbuster-unfriendly nonsense, the dance parties on Zion, and the defining action sequences that made the first two films so memorable. Outside of an introductory fight in the Merovingian’s Club Hell (featuring an all too fleeting glimpse of Monica Bellucci’s Persephone, who is reduced to a paragraph of dialog), there is nothing in “Revolutions” that could compare to the “Burly Brawl” or the freeway chase of “Reloaded.” And quite honestly, those touches are missed.

Because the plot has been straightened out, the visual feast the Wachowskis’ have prepared is decidedly larger in scale and ferociousness. The main course of the film is the machine attack on Zion, realized through a massive battle between the millions of swarming “squiddies” and the Zion’s defense force: an army of mechanical heavy-lifting machines (shades of the power loader seen in “Aliens“), each outfitted with gigantic guns and operators prepared to sacrifice themselves for the future of their land. This is obviously where the money was spent. The Wachowskis’ blow the doors off their own film with the sheer scope of this battle, which combines great looking special effects with traditional war film chestnuts such as the disillusioned general, the meek private who saves the day, and the desperate moments within the firefight, when prayers for help are rarely answered. Calling it enormous doesn’t do justice to this sequence.

Coming close to topping it is the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith, which makes good on the promise of something apocalyptic for the final act. As the two pummel each other in the streets and in the air of the Matrix, the Wachowskis utilize imaginative special effects and cautious camera placement to cover this battle to end all battles.

I know what you’re saying, “Will ’Revolutions’ answer the mysteries revealed in ‘Reloadedr‘” It’s tough to sort out all the details in one sitting (like “Reloaded”), and if you held me at gunpoint, my theories on the events in “Revolutions” might not hold water. But I feel comfort in the knowledge that Larry and Andy know what they are doing with this trilogy, and regardless of the puzzling developments seen in the last two movies, the basic material is strong enough to withstand some logic blunders or convoluted “systemic anomaly” dialog. “Revolutions” doesn’t have the fun factor of its original creation (that was bled dry long ago), but its chaos-free epic nature is something to be treasured even if this isn’t exactly where I thought (had you asked me in 1999) the series would go.

So, at the end of the day, when the children are tucked into bed and the money can be sorted out, what do we haver “The Matrix” is the sleek, efficient classic; a forefather to modern special effects and a kick in the pants at a time when movies needed it. “The Matrix Reloaded” is the head-scratcher, yet delicate flower of acquired taste, revealing burgeoning and ambitious plotting and deeper thematic searching. “The Matrix Revolutions” is the final, essential movement of the Wachowskis’ vivid imagination for their series. It doesn’t quite answer all the questions, but it delivers the thrills and the reverence. This final chapter is sure to be debated for years to come.

Rating: B+
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Elf

Having stowed away in Santa’s (a perfectly cast Edward Asner) bag a long time ago, Buddy (Will Ferrell) has spent the last 30 years being raised by elves in the North Pole, happily laboring in Santa’s toy workshop. When his human dimensions begin to become a liability in the elf world, Santa suggests that Buddy head to New York City and find his biological father (James Caan). Of course, the sight of a 6’5’’ man in a green outfit doesn’t blend in too well with the big city, and Buddy finds himself in all sorts of mishaps as he tries to ingratiate himself into his new family and surroundings. Learning the ways of his new world, he forms a romantic attachment to department store elf, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, showing stellar chops as a singer), as well as spreading much needed Christmas cheer to all those who come into contact with him.

“Elf” is a throwback to Christmas movies that just aren’t made anymore. Directed by actor Jon Favreau (“Made,” “Swingers“), “Elf” is a wonderful concoction of holiday movies past, present, and future. It’s a delicious fantasy film, a rip-snorting comedy for both kids and adults, and, most importantly, a strong step forward for star Will Ferrell into leading man status.

Favreau has done his homework with “Elf,” utilizing the holiday specials of his youth to serve the picture’s magical world. Using stop-motion animation to breathe life into the north pole’s fantastical creatures, Favreau brings back the art form that died out with the Rankin-Bass specials of years gone by – even directly paying tribute to the animated classics with Buddy’s snowman best friend, who is a dead ringer for the Burl Ives character in the 1964 special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” To feed the eyes, Favreau has filled “Elf” with candy-cane forests, radiant department store Christmas displays, and elf toy workshop wonders (using the same miniature photographic techniques as seen in the “Lord of the Rings” series). On a simple holiday, family film, storybook level, “Elf” is a wonderful reminder of the imagination at play in the service of creating a vivid landscape for this silly story to take place in. Having shown critical low-budget authority in “Made,” Favreau stretches his slightly larger budget this time out to beautiful heights of Christmas wonder. In the process, he may even have succeeded in creating something of a new holiday tradition. Time will tell.

Of course, all this eye candy would be lost if the film wasn’t so painfully hilarious. It really is Ferrell’s big show, as the actor stomps around the frame like a gigantic 9-year-old. Buddy is an intensely hyper character, fueled by a diet of maple syrup and cotton balls. Ferrell appears to be using up every last ounce of his strength trying to maintain Buddy’s rapture with the real world, but it’s truly a ballet of slapstick and Ferrell’s patented oddball one-liners. Only this actor could pull off 90 minutes in yellow tights and a green pointy hat, believe me. Favreau makes sure Farrell has plenty to work with, giving Buddy wonderful touches such as his unfailing ability to create anything with an etch-a-sketch (including his “Dear John“ letter to his father), his endless discoveries of wonders like escalators and revolving doors throughout New York City, and a tender courtship with Jovie.

Because Ferrell is such a force of nature, it renders James Caan’s work as his father a bit sleepy in contrast. At times it looks like the production should be placing a mirror by Caan’s mouth to check for signs of life. Caan seems like he doesn’t quite know what type of film he’s stepped into. Since the film is playing at a very broad pitch, Caan’s silence isn’t welcomed.

Maybe to bring good omens to “Elf,” Favreau has recruited his “Made” producer Peter Billingsley to cameo as an elf workshop manager. Billingsley was Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” Good luck charms do not come better than that.

“Elf” will warm the heart with nostalgia, dazzle the eyes, tickle the funny bone, and make Christmas feel like it can‘t come fast enough.

Rating: A-
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Love Actually

It’s only five weeks until Christmas in London, and love is in the air for a large variety of citizens. There’s a married couple (Emma Thompson and national treasure Alan Rickman) facing relationship woes. An emotionally-burdened office worker (Laura Linney), who secretly desires a co-worker. A widower (Liam Neeson) who is trying to piece his life back together while helping his stepchild (Thomas Sangster) land a girlfriend. Two adult film lighting stand-ins (Joanna Page and Martin Freeman) who connect while at work. A lonely young man (Andrew Lincoln) who secretly desires his best friend’s wife (Kira Knightley). An aging rocker (Bill Nighy) who is taking his manager for granted. A romantically undesirable man (Kris Marshall) who feels he must travel to America to find love. A writer (Colin Firth) who is pining for his maid (Lucia Moniz). And the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who can’t keep his assistant (Martine McCutcheon) out of his head. All these people collide during the holiday weeks as they try to find love in the face of overwhelming odds.

“Love Actually” is the latest crushingly happy affair from Working Title Films, the producers of “Four Weddings and a Funeral, “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The company has elected to give screenwriter Richard Curtis his first big shot at directing, having already scripted the aforementioned smashes, along with his extensive work on the “Mr. Bean” franchise. For his big debut behind the camera, Curtis has made the excellent decision and decided to call in every possible favor from the top tier of British acting talent. He has also added a pinch of American intelligence (Linney) and eye-candy (Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards, Elisha Cuthbert, and January Jones appear briefly), and has chosen the greatest cinematic holiday from which to work from: Christmas. “Love Actually” is smug, childish, cliched, unrelentingly and sickeningly upbeat, and when Hugh Grant decides to shake his ass to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” the picture becomes embarrassingly silly. But, inner-preciousness detectors be damned, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. “Love” isn’t the most romantic featured I’ve come into contact with, but it’s the one film that stands out in brilliant colors for being so defiantly in love with the idea of love. Bombastic audience-hooting moments aside, Curtis has written his best film yet, and found time to direct the hell out of it as well. And it’s even gloriously R-rated!

Assembling a cast of about 20 main characters (the above synopsis leaves a lot of people out) to follow in the continually intertwining story, “Love Actually” often resembles a Robert Altman film if it were on Prozac and maybe a touch of Viagra. It zigzags through two handfuls of stories about all kinds of love found in the world, whether it’s platonic, romantic, fraternal, reliable, detestable, forgettable, desirable, taken for granted, or so heartfelt it crushes all in its path. Curtis opens the film up in an airport, having Hugh Grant explain to the audience that no matter how impossible the world can be, there is always a capacity for love in humanity, seen everyday in the arrivals area of the average airport. This sets the tone expertly since, as saccharine as the plot and the characters appear to be, Curtis maintains a level of realism not often seen in a picture this fanciful and filled with holiday cheer. Yes, there are the romantic comedy staples such as a last minute dash to find the one true woman that dreams are made of, oodles of meet cutes, and there is a teetering on the brink of truly nauseating romantic comedy dialog that Curtis has been known to dish out time and again in his earlier scripts. But the malarkey stops right at the point of no return. There isn’t a silver lining to some of the characters’ futures, and Curtis doesn’t pretend that he knows all the answers. Like another gem from 2003, “Lost In Translation,” there is a palatable sense of regret strung, much like the tinsel, throughout “Love,” with heartbreaking characters unable to get what they want, or unable to voice their desires clearly. It’s in these delicious glimpses of frustrated yearning that Curtis develops a real bond with his characters and the audience, balancing out the more improbable takes on romance with little eggnog sips of aching reality.

To wax rhapsodic about the cast would take days, so suffice it to say that this is one amazing ensemble. Extra credit is certainly due for Emma Thompson’s return to the screen, after a long hiatus, as a fidelity-questioning wife, Liam Neeson showing signs of likeability again as the widowed father of a love-struck child, and Andrew Lincoln doing his best unspoken desire routine as he pines for a woman he cannot have, taking with him the film’s finest, Bob Dylanesque moment. And Hugh Grant makes for a very fashionable Prime Minister, with a performance that is reliable in all the good ways Grant is known for. All this is trumped by Bill Nighy, who commits grand theft movie in the role of aging rocker Billy Mack, who wants nothing more than one last hurrah on the holiday charts, using unflappable honesty and public desperation as his way there. He’s an absolute scream. In actuality, the whole cast is aces, making Curtis look like a better director than he might very well be.

It’s easy to be blinded by the show stopping, rollicking sequences that close “Love Actually,” but attention must be paid to what Curtis doesn’t show the audience. For every celebratory shot of a love connection, Curtis gives us a relationship that is on the brink of crumbling, or never even getting a chance to begin. The film closes with a moment of reassurance, but under the buttery crust lies the truth about relationships, and “Love Actually” deserves major credit for steering clear of becoming a complete game of Candyland. Still, I’d advise viewers to bring floss, because the sight of a 12 year-old chasing the girl of his dreams through Heathrow is sweet enough to cause major moviegoing cavities.

I would hazard to guess that the only depressing aspect of “Love Actually” is that Curtis has been giving his scripts away to other directors all these years when he should’ve been doing the job himself. “Love Actually” isn’t nearly as cringe inducing as it looks (or that I was expecting in all honesty), and if you’re any kind of romantic, it’s a marvelous choice for both the holiday season and a reminder to appreciate the loved ones that surround you.

Rating: A
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In the Cut

A wallflower high school teacher, Frannie (Meg Ryan, dull and soulless) has become rather used to her lonely life, resigned to caring for her lowlife, sexually obsessed sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh, typically sleepy). When Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, hilariously profane), a local detective, comes looking for information on a possible serial killer who struck nearby, Frannie is taken by Malloy’s frank demeanor and sexual forthrightness. The two begin a kinky affair, which beings to burrow into Frannie’s psyche, conjuring up old memories and uncertainties. When the killer continues to strike, Frannie grows fearful of Malloy and his lurid games, even going so far as to suspect he’s the man behind the crimes.

Sexual dominance and fascination seem to play a large role in every film by acclaimed director Jane Campion. Through “The Piano” and “The Portrait Of A Lady,” to her last film, the underrated battle of the sexes comedy “Holy Smoke!,” Campion has never backed down when offered the chance to explore human sexuality, and how it can often corrode the spirit. “In The Cut,” adapted from the best selling thriller novel by Susanna Moore (who also co-scripted), takes the themes of erotica and untapped desires, and sets them in the serial killer genre. The story – as told through Campion – concerns the sexual awakening of a dour, repressed woman on the verge of giving up on relationships, only to find a man who can take her on a voyage of yearning and sexual aggression. And every so often a traditional thriller plot point stands at attention to remind all of the principal narrative. Moore’s story gets in the way of Campion’s exploration of Frannie’s sexual landscape. The filmmaker is much more assured fetishizing details like Frannie’s handwriting, poems written on the subway, and stroking, searching hands than to be bothered with telling a routine thriller story.

Since heightened sexual situations and the breakdown of masculinity is her specialty, Campion does a proficient job arranging the lustful scenes in a way in which the audience can easily access Frannie’s head. Using barely focused, handheld cinematography, Campion weaves a smoky haze of kinky sex and bloody beheadings, attempting to build a rather humid yet uncomfortable atmosphere. Campion succeeds. “In The Cut” is glacially paced, oddly acted, and isn’t easy to sit through, and I’m irritated to think that’s Campion’s suggestion of the ideal moviegoing experience. By taking Meg Ryan, America’s sweetheart, and tossing her in a genre she has little experience in, the filmmakers seems obsessed with trying to develop something different than what is traditionally found in sex thrillers. I’ll give the film credit, it certainly weaves a vivid pastiche of erotically charged images and confrontational desires together thoroughly. But the film remains an icky affair, possibly crossing into misogynistic territory, made even worse by the sheer number of females involved with the making of the film.

It’s in Campion’s inability to keep this tale moving in the right directions that “In the Cut” becomes a real drag. While never a snappily paced picture to begin with, Campion and Moore’s endless parade of transparent red-herrings, ice skating flashbacks, and extended takes that go on for decades forces the audience to truly confront the inadequacies of the film. The climax of the picture is pure “NYPD Blue,” and that’s a crying shame. Had Campion put as much effort into her film’s structure as she did in convincing Ryan to take off her clothes, “In The Cut” might have had a fighting chance to be something more than a future Saturday night Cinemax staple.

Rating: D+
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