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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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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In the summer of 1994, a 13-year-old boy, Nicholas Barclay, disappeared from San Antonio, Texas. Three-and-a-half years later, a young man in Southern Spain, found in the pouring rain without ID of any kind, claimed he was the now 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay. He spun an outrageous tale that involved kidnapping, a child-sex ring, shadowy authority figures, and an unlikely escape. Despite the horrific nature of that story, or, in hindsight, because of the horrific nature of that story, the young man claiming to be Nicholas was given a pass. The Spanish authorities contacted Nicholas’ family in Texas. Nicholas’ sister, Carey Gibson, flew out to Spain. Remarkably, she identified the oddly accented young man as Nicholas and made arrangements to bring him back to the United States.

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Nothing says “shameless cash grab” and “creative bankruptcy” like an unwanted fourth entry in a sputtering franchise. To backtrack (and to be fair), senior-level executives at 20th Century Fox definitely wanted to another potentially lucrative entry in the family-friendly, computer-animated Ice Age franchise, regardless of the artistic nadir reached by the previous entry, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. That no one involved on the creative side (“creative” being used here purely for description) had a single imaginative, a single inventive idea didn’t stop 20th Century Fox executives from giving the green light to Ice Age: Continental Drift from their animation subsidiary, Blue Sky Studios, especially after Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs became the fourth highest grossing animation film of all time (behind Toy Story 3, The Lion King, and Shrek 2).

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To borrow a phrase, actually a subtitle, from the literary journal Granta, families, “they f*ck you up.” No family f*cks you up in quite the same way or maybe we like to think we’re unique in the dysfunction created and disseminated by our respective families. Over the last three films, one-time “mumblecore” pioneers Jay and Mark Duplass have focused on the pernicious effects the family unit in its various permutations, masculine norms, and the central characters who fail to live up to their societal expectations and norms. Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home centered on emotionally unstable, developmentally arrested characters seemingly incapable of taking (and making) the next step into adulthood. Their latest, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, revisits similar masculine territory, often to insightful and hilarious effect.

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Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s 23rd feature-length film and his second collaboration with Channing Tatum (Haywire was their first), has many life lessons, some practical, some impractical, for moviegoers to parse, digest, and regurgitate. For example, Magic Mike doesn’t suggest or even imply that the hedonistic life(style) is not worth living, it says as much thematically in the character arc Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Reid Carolin, give Tatum’s character, Mike Martingano, a 30-year-old male stripper we first meet awakening from a threesome with Joanna (Olivia Munn) and an unidentified, nameless woman. There’s a joke in there about Mike and Joanna’s inability to remember the woman’s name because, well, they’re hedonists, they take physical pleasures as they come (no pun intended). But we’re expected to believe that there’s more to Mike than meets the female (or male) gaze.

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After the biggest commercial hit of his six-decade career, not to mention another Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Midnight in Paris), Woody Allen is back for his 43rd film as writer-director, To Rome With Love, farcical comedy-drama that revisits many of the same ideas, themes, and character types found in Midnight in Paris, but to diminishing returns. A trifle by any definition, To Rome With Love is minor Allen, the work of a well-respected filmmaker content to produce unchallenging films filled with superficial pleasures, albeit pleasures that made To Rome With Love more than passably watchable or adequately entertaining.

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Writer Seth Grahame-Smith made something of a name for himself when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up of Jane Austen’s period romance and 20th-21st century horror became an unlikely bestseller. A big-screen adaptation seemed all-but-inevitable, especially after Grahame-Smith sold the film rights to a major Hollywood studio. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stalled, disappearing into development purgatory, Grahame-Smith’s horror-history mash-up, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had better luck. Not only did it become a bestseller like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the film rights, once sold, didn’t languish like its predecessor. With Grahame-Smith adapting his novel into a screenplay and wild man Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Day Watch, Night Watch) directing, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter practically sailed into production. It shouldn’t have.

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