Forget “Glee”: This Movie Shows the Real Deal!

I do not watch the television show Glee and I thank my lucky stars for that. I once had the misfortune of watching an episode (sorry, Tara) and remember trying to comprehend the reason for its enormous popularity. As a theater teacher and director, it all seemed so phony and so exaggerated to me. I couldn’t help but feel insulted as a viewer. From my experience, this was not a genuine reflection of the arts and musical theatre in the high school arena.

I’ve had many jobs in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that being a high school English and theater teacher was the most challenging job I ever had. But even with the many difficulties, obstacles, and hardships that I encountered directing the school’s theatrical productions each year, it was also the most rewarding work experience I have ever had – by far. Whether it was for the school’s annual musical or a scene worked on in drama class, the level of talent these kids displayed never ceased to amaze and confound me. The experience also proved to me that, when given the opportunity, kids of any age, from any background, can accomplish nearly anything. So many of my former students – several of whom I still keep in contact with and am forever grateful for knowing — inspired me to work harder to make our productions look as professional as possible. The experiences are cemented in my memory and I will take with me wherever I go – all because of the remarkable students I had.

So why am I sharing this personal information here on my film blog? Well, I recently watched the documentary Most Valuable Players directed by Matthew D. Kallis – and I must say, as a person who works in theatre and has taught HS drama, that I was moved and inspired by this rousing little film. The movie follows three (of the competing 27) high school theatre troupes in Lehigh Valley, PA on their way to the annual Freddy Awards, which are treated like the Tony Awards of high school musicals in the area. Like many areas across the country, Lehigh Valley is a sports-driven community – so much money, press, and attention is spent on athletics. This is a great thing. However, many school districts in our country have had severe budget cuts to their performing arts departments – some schools wiping the arts off the map completely. This is not a great thing and in fact, quite sad as the performing arts can provide so much to our youth, as illustrated in Kallis’ film.

I was amazed at the tremendous enthusiasm throughout the community surrounding the Freddy Awards – and not just from the students participating. The nominations are announced live on local television – and the ceremony itself is televised live and broadcast to millions of local homes. And just look at how packed that theatre gets for this annual event! The ceremony is held at the historic State Theatre in Easton, PA and is the brainchild of former PBS producer Shelley Brown. Shelley is in much of the documentary and her level of commitment to the arts, the Freddy’s, the students, and the community is beyond reproach. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish I was still directing high school students in wonderful musicals and plays – for no other reason than seeing the joy in all of their faces and the level of commitment made by faculty and students alike.

Most Valuable Players may not be the most important documentary made this year – but it does serve as a wake-up call concerning arts education in America. It shows us why the performing arts must remain in our schools and offered to young people who want to take part. Sure, the Freddy Awards provide these students with added incentive to push even harder (and the competitive nature of the ceremony is touched upon) – but really, you can clearly see just how dedicated they would be without them. As for the theatre instructors, their allegiance to their kids and exemplary work ethic is a wonder to watch. I only wish that every school district took part in something very much like this – it would make a significant difference in the lives of so many.

And the Good News: You don’t have to wait for Most Valuable Players to play at an art-house theater near you — or come out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The film was picked up by Oprah’s Winfrey’s channel (OWN) — and you can watch it Thursday, September 8th at 9:00pm EST. If you are a theatre-lover, an educator, a student, or (heaven forbid) actually watch Glee — this movie is a must-see!


“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”: Movie Review

The long wait is over. Harry Potter fans can now rejoice with the long-anticipated release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 today and in theaters everywhere (though I’m sure many already went to the midnight screening last night). The film, directed by David Yates,  follows our infamous trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in their quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort and is slated to be the final installment in the mega-franchise. But — is it worth the wait? The hype? The hoopla? Does this last film live up to all of the lofty expectations and do justice to J.K. Rowling‘s book? Well, lucky for us, The Lantern has Potter extraordinaire William Buhagiar to give us the scoop and tell us what we might be in store for. Mr. Buhagiar does possess a Ph.D in Rowling Studies from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry and is an all-around film nerd. Here is his film review. — P.E.

It is arguably very melodramatic to begin this review by examining the brutal reality that nothing, not even anything as exquisite as the Harry Potter series, lasts forever. For the past twelve (out of twenty years of my life), I’ve always had a Harry Potter-something to look forward to, a reason to assemble amongst fellow nerds in bookstores and movie theaters in the middle of the night, waiting to resume by page or screen the epic tale of the Boy Who Lived. Now, after over a decade, I’ve stepped off the Hogwarts Express for good. Is it fair or is it absurd to view this as the most prominent rite of passage I have yet experienced? Outrageous as it may seem, never before have I felt so distant from childhood. My childhood was Harry Potter, and Harry Potter is now over. It is absolutely the most exhausted I’ve ever felt.

Deathly Hallows: Part II doesn’t ease the audience into the narrative – if you haven’t seen Part I, the film makes it very clear that you do not belong here. The Order of the Phoenix is at its weakest, Harry has just buried the heroic house-elf Dobby, and the despicable Dark Lord Voldemort has violated Albus Dumbledore’s tomb to steal the Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows and the most powerful magical instrument ever created…and so it begins.

Within minutes, the trio (each of whom reach their acting peak — they’re all superb) are raiding Gringott’s Wizarding Bank, flying over London atop a monstrous dragon, and quickly realize the shit has hit the fan when Voldemort discovers their secret mission to undo him – this, among other things, ultimately leads back to Hogwart’s, where the good guys will make their final stand against the bad guys. The Battle of Hogwarts, which should’ve been an insanely climactic cinematic spectacle, was generally a brief, disappointing series of flashes of magical combat. The handful of notable deaths we found devastating in the book are examined all-too-briefly here, and the novel’s profound examination of the consequences of war, the need to keep fighting and the triumph of good over evil feel tossed aside at times.

However, the film achieves something of a phenomenon in one of the series’ central characters, Professor Severus Snape, whose storyline ultimately lifts the quality of the movie tenfold and who becomes the primary focus of the film for a good stretch of about seven minutes. This was not only the finest chapter of the book series, but will ultimately go down as the finest sequence in the adaptations. There are many movies I will discuss and casually claim I have cried during (when in fact I just found them sad), but I promise I do not even mildly exaggerate when I say that I was sobbing, harder than I ever have before in a movie, during the scenes that properly explain the complicated, brilliant and ultimately tragic character that is Professor Severus Snape. Alan Rickman, who for eight films showed us a cold, sneering Potions Master with a disposition for sadism, annihilates the image he’s so artfully sustained for the past decade and brings something new to him – his vulnerability, desperation and grief stirred me into a frenzy and I couldn’t help but openly sob during Snape’s finest hour. God bless Alan Rickman.

I’ve always had a rocky relationship with the Harry Potter films; this is no secret; some I’ve come to appreciate and some I’ve come to absolutely despise. In the case of Deathly Hallows: Part II, my initial response is generally mixed. Something felt anti-climactic; many important events overlooked, but when the film got it right, it was nearly perfect. We can’t expect the films to be anything quite as extraordinary as the novels, I suppose, and they must always be viewed as separate entities. What I will always remember fondly will be the books, and the films will always be there to provide some quick entertainment. There will be no more Harry Potter releases, all is said and done, and there will be no more speculation over it. Despite my many grievances, it’s been fun watching J.K. Rowling’s world translated to the big screen, though sometimes infuriating for ten years. Mischief managed.

William’s Rating

Some Mixed Thoughts on “Midnight in Paris”

While, this is not technically a film review, I did want to vent a bit on Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, which is getting raves from critics and the public alike. This is great news, as Mr. Allen has been somewhat off his game for a few years and, as a tremendous fan of his work, I could not be happier. Hell, just look at the graphic I use as my avatar on this site! The movie also looks like it will easily eclipse Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) as his greatest domestic box-office success. This is also good news because I don’t think nearly enough people give his films a chance. Well, the modern-day fairy tale Midnight in Paris has been out for a while now, so I am a little late to the game…but after seeing it a couple of weeks ago, I felt I had to — as an objective admirer of his artistry — jot down some of my very profound thoughts. 🙂

First, the good. Anyone familiar with Allen’s canon of work knows that he’s been tapping the well pretty dry as of late. Same themes and the same characters in pretty unoriginal and disappointing films. With Midnight in Paris, Allen brings to the screen his most imaginative and creative movie since The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). That’s saying something and was very refreshing to finally see. It’s also been a bit challenging to find a suitable Woody archetype to play the lead roles. John Cusack did it very well. Here, Owen Wilson does a wonderful job as Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is struggling to finish his first novel. He is affable, charming, witty, and romantic.

Woody usually gets great performances from his all-star ensembles, and this film is no different. Adrien Brody is magnificent in the one scene he is in, playing Salvador Dali. He is hysterical and nearly steals the show. The lovely Marion Cotillard is also a wonder to watch as Pablo Picasso’s mistress. Michael Sheen is perfectly cast as the pseudo-intellectual who knows much less about art and culture than he’d like to think. You dislike him just the right amount. Kathy Bates (as Gertrude Stein), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway), Allison Pill (as Zelda Fitzgerald) also stand out and deliver some fun and believable performances as their 1920’s icons.

It was a lot of fun keeping your eyes out, waiting to see which famous character we would be introduced to next. Picasso, Gauguin, Degas, Bunuel, Eliot, Fitzgerald? They’re all here and having a ball. The costume design and art direction provide a genuine look and feel of Paris in the 20’s, which is no surprise as Allen’s period pieces always do an admirable job of this.

And now for the not so good. Rachel McAdams is too bitchy and too dislikable as Gil’s fiancee. Her mother too. You just can’t stand them, which I know is the idea — but it is laid on too thick, giving the characters little dimension. My biggest flaw with the film was that for a movie with such a remarkable premise to it…so magical and so fantastic…it doesn’t go nearly as far as it should. Other than introducing a number of famous cultural icons to us, very little is done with them. Subplots arise with little follow-through. And the ending itself is far too abrupt. It just…ends. You are left wanting more — and not in a good way. Rather, you’re left (at least I was) feeling somewhat let down. I felt that this time, Woody was almost there…he had a great idea, a solid script, strong performances, lovely design and locations…and just didn’t take it all the way home.

So all in all — a cute, fun, highly imaginative film that unfortunately could have gone much further and ranked among Woody’s best. I have read all of the hoopla declaring that “Woody’s back!” and that Midnight in Paris ranks among his greatest films ever. I think, after so many stinkers during the past decade, that the bar has been set a bit low, so the hype here is overdone. It’s a very good movie — and I surely recommend people to go see it — but in my opinion, doesn’t go into his Top 10.

My Rating:

Film Review: Louder Than A Bomb

With the recent “wake-up call”-style documentaries showing us all that is wrong with America’s schools, it is refreshing to see one showing us what is indeed right – even if it is just an itsy-bitsy piece of the puzzle in what is the grand scheme of our educational system. Louder Than A Bomb, produced and directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (yes, Gene’s nephew), gets its title from the youth poetry slam competition held in Chicago since its inception in 2001.  With over 60 local schools competing, it is the world’s largest of its kind. In this inspiring and affecting film, Jacobs and Siskel focus on four schools and a handful of student slam-poets as they make their way to February’s heated competition.

In selecting the schools and students they would follow, Jacobs and Siskel chose very well, with much of the focus spent on the team from South Side’s Steinmetz High School, who won last year’s contest in their very first year of competition. Now trying to repeat, coach James Sloan must rally his troops and apply much patience and counsel to the few team members who have been acting out of line. The scene where he and his co-instructor confront three unruly students, threatening to kick them off the team illustrates just how much this poetry slam competition – and being a part of a team – means to them. When one of the kids starts crying, we are reminded of the hard fact that, no matter how tough and mature they appear to be, they are still children.

Like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom before it, Louder Than A Bomb reminds us that children, no matter what their socio-economic background may be, when given the opportunity, are capable of achieving great things. The student-poets and their talents really get to shine here, especially when on stage in front of a supportive audience and a mic. Seventeen year-old Nova from Oak Park/River Forest High School writes with passion about her special-needs younger brother and the father she hasn’t spoken to since she was twelve. Her composition is raw; her delivery poised and moving. Nate from Whitney Young Magnet High School is the veteran of the competition, on the cusp of graduating and moving on to bigger things. Nate is a mentor and coach to his younger peers and his advanced writing skills and flair with the pen are clearly on display. He may come off as a bit too confident and cocky, but that’s a miniscule nitpick judging from where he came from (his parents were both drug addicts when he was young) and more importantly, where he may be headed for. The standout here is the immensely likable Adam Gottlieb from Northside College Prep. His poem celebrating all that is poetry is an exceptional blend of writing and performance that brings the house down and makes us aware of a major talent on the rise. Later, Adam performs a piece commemorating his Jewish heritage – a completely different piece, with a different style and register that shows off his impressive discipline and range. Near the end of the film, the group poetry piece performed by four students of Steinmartz is also a stand-out in a film full of passionate, honest, and stirring performances.

One of the mantras of the competition is “The point is not the points…The point is the poetry.” This, a reference to the judges who grade each performance on a scale of 1-10 for scoring purposes is brought to fruition when we see a student from Steinmartz at the end of the film explain what the competition and the art of poetry means to him. It makes for a moving scene and provides us with a tremendous sense of hope. Kevin Coval, co-founder of the Louder Than A Bomb competition, freely admits that “grading” or scoring each piece is not the ideal method for judging a teenager’s efforts and should not even be done, but for the sake of having winners and losers, is inevitable.

Jacobs and Siskel could have explored the tough backgrounds that many of these students seem to come from. Instead, they (perhaps wisely) choose to focus on the competition, and the work itself. Certain aspects are mentioned here and there, but not in a way that detracts from the film’s pacing and scope. In a society that can’t get enough of the reality shows, here we are given a contest with incredible meaning and purpose – and more entertaining and impressive than anything you will see on prime time. Youth poetry slams would make for a wonderful new reality show, but I am afraid that most of the television-viewing public would be dismissive of the art form of the written word. Louder Than A Bomb is an enriching reminder of what students can accomplish with a little hard work and some leadership – one hopes that other states and districts will take a page from the people behind this poetry contest and follow suit.

Director: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Year:       2011

This review was previously published for the D.C.-based online entertainment site Brightest Young Things.

My interview with director Jon Siskel will be posted on The Lantern this week.

Film Review: The Last Mountain

I always walk away with such conflicting feelings whenever I see such eye-opening, alarmist documentaries like Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain. On one hand, I feel like I live in an absolute bubble, completely oblivious to a particular subject that is of vital significance to our society and the world in general. On the other, I am grateful for being alerted to such devastating topics and feel somewhat educated as I peek  outside of my proverbial bubble. The matter then becomes how many movie-goers will also see this small film with a small distribution – and then, of greater importance, what action will the public at large take, if any? This is perhaps the ultimate goal of the documentary filmmaker – get your audience to take action.

The Last Mountain is classic David versus Goliath. However, I am not sure if David ever faced such a formidable opponent as Big Coal. Haney’s film focuses on the battle between the longtime residents of Coal River Valley in West Virginia and the powerful coal companies who continue with the ruinous practice of Mountain Top Removal. Almost half the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal – and a third of this coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia where the battle over blasting the top of “the last mountain” is taking place. The humble townsfolk claim that the practice pollutes our air and water – and is responsible for many deaths in the area. The coal companies, of course, have their own agenda and continue to find loopholes and political friends to support their efforts.

Haney throws many frightening statistics and facts about Mountain Top Removal and the coal industry in general our way – while still managing to focus primarily on the passionate residents of Coal River Mountain. And though the film depicts their own struggle, Haney makes it abundantly clear that this is not simply a West Virginia problem, but a problem that the entire country must face as well.

There are clear heroes and villains portrayed here, with Massey Energy, the third largest coal company in America and responsible for more Mountain Top Removal than any other company, being at the forefront of the black hat brigade. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is shown in the worst light and has since retired amidst civil and criminal investigations. In addition to the many egregious safety regulation violations under Massey’s leadership, he also proved to be an enemy of the unionized coal miner – eliminating over 40,000 jobs and hiring non-union workers. Joe Manchin, the Governor of West Virginia is also implicated. Haney illustrates how Big Coal and politicians are in bed together, and does so in one beautiful juxtaposition where Governor Manchin is in his offices telling local residents that he will do everything in his power to help their cause and have a new school built for the children out of harm’s way of toxic pollutants. In the very next scene, Manchin is seen at a political gathering proclaiming, “I’m a friend of coal.” Another chilling fact is that the coal mining industry has spent more than $86 million on political campaigns and lobbying efforts. You begin to realize why leaders like George W. Bush and yes, Barack Obama don’t act in the best interests of the people and our environment. Bush received tons of money from the coal companies – and the Obama administration has been hesitant in altering the legalization of Mountain Top Removal for the very same reasons.

The heroes are many – those residents of Coal River Valley who are fighting the good fight. Their mouthpiece is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose WaterKeeper Alliance has fought for clean water in the United States. Mr. Kennedy gets a lot of camera time here and he is clearly passionate about the cause and not by simply signing over a check, but by fighting alongside those in need, fighting the uphill battle. One wonders if this is one of those documentaries that tell only one side of the story, but when Mr. Kennedy confronts Bill Raney (president of the West Virginia Coal Association) in a local restaurant to discuss their differing positions, Raney comes off looking ignorant and silly, without a leg to stand on.

The Last Mountain is a moving and powerful film that shows us how much power we as citizens can have if we stand up for what we believe in and act. We may not have heard of Coal River Mountain residents Bo Webb, Ed Willey, Jennifer Hall-Massey, or Maria Gunnoe – but they are clearly heroes in their own right. They are fighting not only to save their own small place on the map – but for the rest of America as well. Gunnoe states at the end of the film that we are all connected to coal in one way or another. The Last Mountain does an admirable job at helping us take our very own positions on this fight.

Director:   Bill Haney
Year:          2011

Review of Redford’s “The Conspirator”: A Gripping Historical Drama

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? The category – “4th Grade History.”
Q: Who shot President Abraham Lincoln?
A: John Wilkes Booth, of course.
OK, that was a lay-up. Fine…good for you. Now let’s play a little hardball.
Q: Who was the first woman to be executed by the United States government and for what offense?
Yes, I know it’s a two-part question, but it’s my game and I make the rules.

The answer is certainly not common knowledge – and not taught in any elementary textbook covering American history. But leave it tofilmmaker Robert Redford — who is certainly drawn to historical/political dramas — to tackle this notorious subject, which remains one of the most fascinating subplots in our country’s tumultuous history.

The horrifying news spread quickly across the country that was already in a state of turmoil and bereavement in the wake of the Civil War. The President had been shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC – and the very next morning (April 15, 1865), died from a shot to the head from a .44 caliber Derringer at the hands of Mr. Booth. The unforgiving government needed to act – and quickly – to satisfy the country’s thirst for revenge into this heinous act. As Booth went on the lam, seven men and one woman were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State. That woman was Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house where Booth and his men (which included Surratt’s son, John) would meet and allegedly plan. Her trial, outlandishly held in front of a military tribunal rather than in the confines of a civil court, is at the heart of Mr. Redford’s gripping courtroom drama, The Conspirator.

Defending Mary Surratt (a stone-faced Robin Wright) is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an officer who is just covering from combat while he fought for the union. He wants no part of this case, nor does he allow himself to believe in Surratt’s possible innocence for a minute. However, it is Senator Reverdy Johnson (the always magnetic Tom Wilkinson) who reminds him of the constitutional rights given to our citizens and thus persuades him into taking the case, albeit with extreme reluctance. His opposition? Just about the entire United States government, led by the mighty Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincoln’s Secretary of War whose actions and demeanor eerily resemble one Dick Cheney in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. He wants revenge – at any cost, no matter that there may be no tangible proof that Ms. Surratt had anything to do with conspiring against the president. In addition, the inexperienced Aiken must try his case in front of a panel of Union Army officers (headed by Colm Meaney) who seem more eager in declaring the defendant’s guilt than allowing any evidence that may in fact by beneficial to her. Danny Huston, always cast as the heavy, plays the shrewd prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt.

The all-star cast, for the most part, turns in some splendid performances. McAvoy is quickly becoming one of the industry’s strongest (young) leading men – and here, he holds the film together in impressive fashion. Not only do we see him wrestle with his feelings concerning his defendant, but his own domestic issues as well — mainly, wanting to begin his life anew and marry the girl (Alexis Bledel) who waited for him while he was off fighting in the war. Kevin Kline lights up the screen as always – and it is great to see him take on such a ruthless character. As Mary Surratt, Wright is stoic and valiant – but I wish we were able to see a bit more emotion from this woman who is caught in such a helpless situation. She rarely, if ever, lets her guard down and we never get to see what the character is feeling deep down. She seems too detached, too apathetic. The wonderful character actor Stephen Root has a small turn as a key witness for the prosecution. Root makes the very most of his screen time, as he lies and fumbles his way on the witness stand. The one terrible misfire in casting here is comedic actor Justin Long who plays Aiken’s close friend and injured Civil War soldier. Here, Long looks completely out of place – like a square peg in a round hole.

The overall look of The Conspirator is strikingly authentic. It is very clear that much research went into all details — from the sinister looking conspirator hoods to the 19th century handcuffs to the small accessories on the aristocracy – all providing us with a genuine sense of the time. Louise Frogley’s costumes are spot on and Melissa M. Levander’s production design provides a true sense of time and place – creating a long ago Washington DC from their shooting locales in Savannah, Georgia. Redford always seems to be very aware of lighting  – and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography works from a vast palette of rich colors.

The Conspirator is the debut film of The American Film Company whose mission is to produce movies about true events from our nation’s past. In teaming up with the studio, Redford was forced to work on a much smaller, more modest budget than he had become accustomed to. Not that you could tell. The grandeur is still clearly up on the screen — and though a historical drama, the film is certainly entertaining and hopefully will appeal to a wider, more commercial audience. The courtroom scenes are quite intense and the intimate scenes between McAvoy and Wright are gripping. And though the film never gets preachy or overly political in any way, what comes across loud and clear is that we are witnessing the unfortunate case of one woman being tried in what proved to be a mockery of the judicial system. Panic, fear and vengeance prevailed over reason and the rights of a human being who may or may not have been guilty. For those familiar with Redford’s work in front of and behind the camera, you can see why he may have been easily drawn into this subject matter – it is an American story that raises many questions about the ideals on which this country was founded. It illustrates heroism and corruption at the highest of levels – and though it never reaches the depths I was hoping it would go to, The Conspirator is certainly worth seeing — and yes, an important, provocative film.

Director:   Robert Redford
Year:         2011

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s mostly-successful directorial debut, is part sci-fi/fantasy, part suspense/thriller – but at its heart is a true, old-fashioned love story. How much is one man willing to sacrifice…how far is he willing to go — to be with the woman he loves? Do we control our own destiny or does fate direct the story of our lives? There lies the premise in this intriguing and fast-paced flick based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 classic-paranoid short story.

Matt Damon stars as the young and charismatic New York politician David Norris. He’s the politico flavor-of-the-moment and seemingly has everything going for him – charm, wit, good looks, and perhaps most importantly, on the cusp of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, has lots of registered voters who adore him. Strange that this man who seemingly has it all doesn’t have a lovely lady by his side, which irked me as I kept thinking how far-fetched that was – until I later realized….that is all part of “the plan.”

David “unexpectedly” meets Elise Sellas (the very beautiful Emily Blunt) in a men’s bathroom just moments before he’s about to make one of the biggest speeches of his career. Elise is a ballet dancer and unlike any woman that David has ever met. She’s not simply stunning (and available, as chance might have it), but funny, free-spirited, and very talented. There’s an immediate connection and David must be with her – it’s kismet. The two were meant to be together. Or were they? [add sound cue here: BA-BA-BUMMMM!!!]

As the two quickly fall for one another, a mysterious group of men conspire to keep the two apart, interfering in David’s daily routines. These are the men who control our fates – the men of the Adjustment Bureau, and though they may look like government agents, they are operatives of a far different kind – agents of Fate itself who do their clandestine work on behalf of The Chairman. You see, there is a remarkable future mapped out for David – a future that the Bureau desperately wants to ensure – that may lead all the way to the White House. Elise is to become a world renowned dancer. None of this happens if the two lovers end up together. A fascinating dilemma that is handled quite nimbly, as David must consider whether to give up the one woman he has ever truly loved – or go up against seemingly overpowering odds and tackle the forces of destiny.

Nolfi (author of the screenplays for The Sentinel, The Bourne Ultimatum, and the disastrous Ocean’s 12) shows that he can surely direct a big-budget Hollywood thriller. And he has made sure to get a top-notch creative team to assist him, leading with two-time Oscar winner John Toll as his cinematographer. The many exterior shots of New York City are wonderfully handled and the pacing during the action sequences happens at breakneck speed. In fact, the city itself is marvelously showcased here, taking you back to Lumet’s 1970’s city films. Jay Rabinowitz’s editing is effective and at times, razor-sharp, while 10-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman has composed a fitting score that deftly weaves in and out from action and suspense to the more intimate scenes between the two lovers.

Matt Damon fits the bill quite nicely here, though at first I was a bit surprised to see him representing the great state of New Yawk (rather than his beloved Massachusetts). Damon, for the most part, has made a habit of selecting choice roles and strong films to star in. His political demeanor comes off as authentic, as does his love for the stunning dancer. When Fate intervenes and separates the two, David takes the same bus at the same exact time every day for three years with the hopes of seeing her yet again – and Damon illustrates this longing determination in subtle fashion, careful not to step into overly melodramatic territory. Blunt’s playfulness and spontaneity help showcase the strong chemistry between the two. She also has the slender body to play a professional dancer. The supporting cast does a fine job as well. Terence Stamp brings his magnificent presence and weighty voice to Thompson, a kind of “cleanup” guy for the Bureau. He never loses his cool and, much to his credit, doesn’t play the “villainy” role, but rather, tries to convince David of the greater good in the Chairman’s master plan. As the sympathetic Bureau agent Harry Mitchell, Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) brings an intelligent humanity to the situation and offers careful guidance to David when it is most needed.

But for all of its merits, the film comes to a crashing halt in its last few minutes. And it isn’t so much how the film ends that totally bummed me out (happy or sad – I won’t give that away), but the abrupt way in which it ended that left me feeling absolutely disgruntled and unsatisfied. This is not simply a bad ending, but, dare I say, a lazy one sans any creativity (which is even more of a letdown considering how inventive the story is to begin with). Here we are treated to an absolute deus ex machina in its most blatant form – one that would make Euripedes himself blush with shame – that we half expect to see The Chairman him/herself descend down to earth and put an end to the proceedings. I’m also not much of a stickler for continuity errors, but this film had one of the sloppiest ones in recent memory — Elise makes such a strong point of loosening David’s tie before he speaks to his constituents and in the very next shot, his tie is nicely tightened. I just couldn’t let it go. For 90 minutes, The Adjustment Bureau has all of the makings of being an excellent film – romantic, intriguing, and suspenseful. And though the lethargic storytelling and overall corniness of the finale nearly ruins all of this goodwill, I would recommend the movie to anyone who likes a smart action flick or an imaginative love story. I simply wish it ended with more of a Bang and much less of a feeble Clunk. Oh, what might have been…

Year:       2011
Director:  George Nolfi

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