Author Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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Everything old is new again. In the case of Finding Nemo, Pixar’s fifth film and the first released during the summer blockbuster season, it’s back in movie theaters this weekend, the result of Pixar/Disney’s latest attempt to wring money from moviegoers for one of their most cherished properties. Converted into 3D more as a sales tactic or gimmick, Finding Nemo still looks positively gorgeous even with the dimming effects of 3D glasses. It’s also stood the test of time (if less than a decade counts as time where the phrase is involved). Finding Nemo remains one of Pixar/Disney’s strongest entries, an inventive, imaginative, original film that combines lush, textured visuals with an underlying family-centered theme that can be only described as equal parts poignant and heart-rending.

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Fueled by bad bets of the trillion-dollar variety, the 2008 financial crisis quickly snowballed into the Great Recession, sending millions of Americans into unemployment, tens of thousands of homes into foreclosure, billions lost in savings and retirement plans, and ripple effects that threatened to send the economy here and elsewhere into a Second Great Depression. Instead, federal intervention on multiple fronts ameliorated the worst effects of the financial crisis. Instead of a Great Depression, Americans and Europeans experienced (and are still experiencing) the Great Recession. The culprits responsible for the financial crisis emerged relatively unscathed financially and legally. It’s surprising then that Nicholas Jarecki (The Weight, The Outsider) made a so-called Master of the Universe, the central character in his first film as a director, Arbitrage.

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Massively popular in the UK, but relatively unknown elsewhere, “The Inbetweeners,” a high-school sitcom centered on four friends, ran for three seasons (“series” in British parlance) between 2008-2010. Naturally enough, small-screen success led to a jump to the big screen and the aptly, if unoriginally titled, The Inbetweeners Movie. The R-rated result wallows in a sea of crudity, vulgarity, and profanity that only sporadically passes the “funny” test. Unsurprisingly, Brit moviegoers responded favorably (a sequel, we’ve been warned, is already on the way), but anyone outside the UK will have a difficult, if not impossible, time understanding the appeal of the four sex-obsessed male characters (and friends) at the center of the big-screen adaptation.

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In moviegoers’ terms (and experience), January, not April, is the cruelest month of the year, but September, that nebulous, limbo-like period between the end of the summer blockbuster season and the beginning of the Oscar season (or Oscar-bait season, if you prefer), generally brings more clunkers than non-clunkers (i.e., successes) both commercially and, less importantly, critically. With one or two exceptions, September is usually filled with also-rans and wannabes, middlebrow films low on ambition and/or execution. We need look no further than The Words, a literary drama co-written and co-directed by first-timers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, for all the evidence needed to support this particular claim.

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Whenever a film, regardless of genre, opens with a title card claiming it’s “based on a true story” or “based on true events,” moviegoers generally know to bring a certain level of skepticism to the proceedings. The “based on…” line may give a particular film a sheen of verisimilitude that, at least when the shocks and scares are occupying the screen, intensify them, but no one should expect anything approaching a fundamental truth or truths about the subject, especially when the subject in question, demonic possession, and thus, the film centered on the subject, The Possession, remains one mired in religious superstition and not in verifiable fact. In short, don’t believe what you see or here, except whatever causes you to jump out of your seat or curl up in your chair, half-hidden under your coat, jacket, or blanket.

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In less than three months, U.S. voters will decide whether to give the current president a second term or elect the candidate from the other side of the political divide. Before American voters make that possibly, potentially, probably momentous decision, they’ll get one of the few opportunities to laugh, if not cry, at our deeply flawed, deeply compromised political system with The Campaign, an extremely broad, R-rated satire that’s every bit as scattershot and, on occasion, dead on, as you’d expect from a comedy co-starring Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis and directed by Jay Roach (Game Change, Dinner for Schmucks, Recount, Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents, Austin Powers I-III).

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There’s a moment in Celeste and Jesse Forever, anti-romantic comedy starring and co-written by Rashida Jones, when Jones’ character, Celeste, faces the proverbial moment of truth. Director Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) frames a pensive, preoccupied Celeste from behind as she takes a drag from a cigarette outside a tent filled with partygoers. They’re celebrating a wedding; Celeste is mourning the end of her marriage to Jesse (Andy Samberg), a marriage that apparently crashed and burned on their unequal socio-economic status (she’s a successful, driven trend forecaster and company owner, he’s an unambitious artist-slacker). Everything in Celeste and Jesse Forever leads toward and away from that powerful, poignant image of Celeste at a nadir in her personal life. That Celeste and Jesse Forever follows that scene with a series of familiar romantic conventions and clichés can be forgiven on the strength of everything that precedes that particular scene.

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The words “absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “ludicrous” (among many other synonyms) come to mind mere seconds into Red Lights, Rodrigo Cortés’ follow-up to 2010’s Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-coffin-for-90-minutes thriller, Buried. But almost two very long hours later, those words pale in comparison to a twist ending that makes you wonder why (a) Cortés made Red Lights and, more importantly, (b) why Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, and Elizabeth Olsen, a talented young actress who gave an award-worthy performance in last year’s Sundance/indie hit, Martha Marcy May Marlene, agreed to co-star in Red Lights. It’s a mystery that may remain forever unsolved. The central mystery involving paranormal activity in Red Lights, however, is one that Cortés answers definitively, oddly borrowing the ending from Byron Haskin’s (War of the Worlds) little-seen sci-fi thriller, The Power (1967). Or maybe it’s a coincidence that the two films share a similar ending. Coincidence or not, Red Lights’ ending turns everything that preceded it on its head, making the final, supposedly cathartic, moments into an opportunity for laughter.

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Can you, can we, change the world through dance? In the real world, the answer is a categorical no. In the reel world of the Step Up series that began six years ago, the answer is a resounding, toe-tapping, body-moving yes. That level of unreality tells you almost everything you need to know about Step Up: Revolution, the fourth entry in the lucrative series. Made inexpensively, usually with a no-name, if talented cast, thrown together with little, if any, attention to character, story, dialogue, or acting, but creatively choreographed and performed with impressive energy and even more impressive skill, the Step Up series are a feast for the eyes and, more often than not given the hip, contemporary (urban) soundtrack, for the ears as well. That said, the fourth entry in the series, Step Up: Revolution has all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors.

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Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield (Kids and Money, Thin) spent more than three years following Orlando, Florida-based timeshare magnate David Siegel and his thirty-years-young wife, Jackie, their eight kids (one “inherited” per Jackie’s description), five or six (or more) dogs, and a household staff of 19, including nannies, housemaids, cooks, and a full-time driver. By luck or coincidence, Greenfield encountered the Siegel family at their highest point, financially speaking. The 2008 banking crisis and the recession that followed heavily impacted the timeshare market, dependent as it was on cheap loans and subprime mortgages to grow and thrive, and with it, David’s company, Westgate Resorts, and his personal fortune. What follows is a cautionary tale of hubris, conspicuous consumption, and comeuppance, a nouveau riche satire, and an indictment not just of hyper-capitalism, but of the American Dream (on steroids) as well.

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