TBT: The B.F.G. (Big Friendly Giant) (1989)

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Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and now here we are, at the end of Roald Dahl month on TBT. I hope you all have enjoyed going through these posts as much as I have in creating them. I have to confess, when we entered the new year I had absolutely no game plan for January. But that actually happens with most months. 😀 I wanted to start off this year with a more well-defined series of throwbacks. Then I thought about all the Roald Dahl books I had read as a child, and all the films I had watched that were adapted from his work. Of course some escaped me. Throwback Thursday has helped me explore more of his world and has introduced me to some wonderful motion pictures at the same time, and with any luck I’ve helped some of you do the same. Now, we close out the month with one of the more obscure entries, but a solid one nonetheless. 

Today’s food for thought: The B.F.G. (Big Friendly Giant)

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Release: Christmas Day 1989

[Netflix]

Although this is arguably one of the strangest and most obscure of all the Roald Dahl big screen translations, The B.F.G. is undoubtedly Dahl through-and-through. Though this might be the first time some have ever heard of it, this touching adventure could be one of the more heartwarming pieces he had to offer.

A lonely orphan named Sophie (voiced by Amanda Root) is suddenly snatched from her bed in the terrible confines of the Clonkers Home for Girls by a mysterious giant figure late at night. It takes her far away from this place and to seemingly another world, where other giants apparently exist, ones that are not quite as nice and friendly as this one. She is stolen away to the giant’s little nook in the side of a mountain, where he introduces himself as The Big Friendly Giant. He explains that not only is he different from the rest because he’s pleasant, but that he has no intention of eating humans like the others. Thank goodness for that.

The two become fast friends. Being the inquisitive little girl that she is, Sophie wants to know what he was doing in her town late that night. As it turns out, the B.F.G. is a dream-weaver of sorts, as his job is to catch dreams in a spectacular place known as Dream Country and then to travel back to our world and blow them into the imaginations of sleeping children all throughout the night using a trumpet-like device. He bottles the dreams and stores them in his home until he decides where he’s going to take each one. Sophie is at first reluctant to believe that this is real, until the B.F.G. takes her there himself.

It’s not long, however, before one of the evil giants senses that there is a human in the area. This being a Roald Dahl adaptation, these beasts have some really odd names: there’s the Butcher Boy, the Fleshlumpeater, the Manhugger, the Childchewer, the Meatdripper, the Gizzardgulper, the Maidmasher, the Bloodbottler and, of course, who can forget the Bonecruncher. It is he, the Bonecruncher, who stumbles upon the B.F.G.’s lair one night and trashes his place in his search for this child but the friendly giant insists there’s no one there and that he is just talking to himself.

The thing with beasts, you see, is that they like to sleep all day and scour the land by night, looking for children to gorge themselves on. The B.F.G. wants nothing to do with them, and actively avoids going near them. With the help of this young girl, maybe the B.F.G. can become brave enough to find a way to rid the land permanently of these vicious creatures. Indeed, that is just what they do together.

When one trip back to Sophie’s home town finds the two in danger yet again since the Bonecruncher has found a way to follow them, the B.F.G. realizes that they might not ever be out of danger. He feels awful for putting Sophie in harm’s way. Returning to the land of giants, they form a plan that will involve the Queen, her Royal Air Force and a few acts of courage to rid this world of danger.

The B.F.G. has unfortunately slipped through the cracks compared to other productions based off of the renowned author’s scribblings. That’s strange considering the popularity of Dahl’s book. The novel’s 1981 release ensured a loyal following had already formed behind it (this book was his eleventh). However, that’s not to say the picture lacks in its passion for showing that there are indeed good people in this world. The B.F.G. represents the good adult role model wayward children so desperately need in their lives, and thanks to David Jason’s wonderful voiceover work, the film indeed offers that.

Scenes like the one in which the B.F.G. introduces Sophie to what he calls frobscottle — a strange drink in which the carbonation bubbles drift to the bottom, rather than up to the top, causing the person to fart (or ‘whizpop’) rather than burp — proof that this film is decidedly more for the benefit of children rather than adults; all the same, it’s an enchanting adventure that will often take you by surprise.

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3-0Recommendation: The B.F.G. is definitely worth the searching through Netflix’s immense collection, and should you choose it, be prepared for a great deal of silliness and perhaps even more strangeness. Reiterating, the younger viewers will benefit more from this quirky little animation and the film doesn’t quite hold the classic appeal of some of Dahl’s more popular adaptations, yet the journey is still a great deal of fun and I wish I had gotten to it sooner. At least I have now.

Rated: G

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “Meanings is not important. I cannot be right all the time. Quite often I is left instead of right.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.youtube.com; http://www.mubi.com

The Act of Killing

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Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Abundant are the films that, post-viewing, make you grateful for the experience, even though they took you far outside your comfort zone. There are even those that you really wish you could un-see; those that haunt your mind like a recurring nightmare. And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a torturous two hours you should receive an award for enduring.

Before I take my ceremonial bow, the first person to receive a big pat on the back (or hug, I’m not sure which is more appropriate at this point) should be the Danish-based director who skillfully pieces together one of the most horrifying and revealing documentaries that will perhaps ever be crafted. It’s a little difficult, in this present moment at least, to fathom a film going to the places and lengths that this monstrosity does.

A camera crew takes to the dirty streets of Medan, Indonesia where they locate a number of death squad leaders responsible for the mass slaughter of millions of fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. The objective? To prompt these men to talk extensively and candidly about the events that took place during the military overthrow of the Indonesian government, while also allowing them to perform re-enactments of precisely what, who and how they killed.

The staged killings would become part of a film Anwar Congo and his ‘gangster’ friends (notables include Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry) are making in an effort to publicly boast about how they were able to eliminate so-called communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and any other individuals they deemed ‘undesirable’ and threats to the stability of their nation. (The concept of stability is somewhat ironic, considering a military coup d’état became necessary in restoring the perceived balance of power in this perpetually troubled nation.) A paramilitary organization known as Pemuda Pancasila evolved out of the death squads led by Congo and Zulkadry, and has been in place ever since. In the documentary, we are forced to confront this most intimidating of groups as they continue to harass Indonesians mere feet away from the camera crew. Frightening as this organization is, its really not the focus of Oppenheimer’s/Congo’s project.

Really this film has dual purposes. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for these truly vile men to express their nostalgia for the good ole days, when they raped, tortured and murdered those who they thought deserved it. On the other, Oppenheimer is giving these individuals all the tools they need to show their true colors. One might argue that they already have done that by performing the acts that they did in the ’60s, but one would only be 50% accurate in that assumption. What is said and revealed in this documentary surpass the murders themselves.

Watch the scenes in which the fat, disgusting blob of a human being named Herman Koto. . . you know what? There’s almost no point talking about this anymore. It is just crushing my heart. I literally have no words to describe the vast majority of the content, and at the risk of me sounding like I’m writing this film off, this review in itself was next-to-impossible to write, and is causing depression of the highest degree, so I no longer have desire to analyze this as a piece of creative expression. Mainly, because it’s not. This may very well be looked at as terrifyingly effective propaganda for the opposition. I have spent days trying to pin down my feelings on it. Such a task seems now fruitless, and I don’t feel comfortable diverting any more attention to this abomination. There is genius in the construction but the subject matter is too off-putting. It’s almost offensive considering the power that The Act of Killing may add to the anti-communist sentiment found in southeastern Asia.

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0-5Recommendation: Don’t do this to yourselves. This is the cruelest thing you’ll ever watch; not to mention, it’s paced like a snail and the subject matter makes it feel even longer. The fact that a documentary was made on these people has scary implications — Oppenheimer just took a can of gasoline to a raging fire. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia. What a fool. And what a fool this reviewer is for thinking this was going to be anything other than ugly. Where’s my damn prize?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.theactofkilling.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lone Survivor

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Release: Christmas Day 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Before we dive into an analysis of this film, let’s first get one thing straight: this is no Saving Private Ryan. The critic who made that comparison probably made it in the (understandably) dizzying buzz after experiencing an early screening of Peter Berg’s war film and felt compelled to give it the highest of accolades to kick off the onslaught of promotional efforts that was to come. In so doing, he was pretty successful in spreading the fire. There has been almost no end to people calling this a modern Spielbergian masterpiece.

Here are a few things the two films have in common: blood. Bullets. Blood. Excessive swearing. Blood. Gut-wrenching deaths. Blood. Blue skies. Blood. Americans and their red blood. But there the commonalities run out.

Lone Survivor is a grisly look at the botched Operation Red Wings, a mission undertaken by four Navy SEALS in an effort to track down and eliminate a high-priority member of the Taliban in the hostile hillsides of Afghanistan. Over the course of roughly 72 hours, the fates of Navy Lieutenant and team leader Michael P. Murphy (here portrayed by Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officers Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), and Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) would be decided by a combination of poor communication and even worse luck. As the film’s title blatantly informs the masses, only one would be living to tell the tale of these extraordinary days. That man was Marcus Luttrell.

Director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) bases his film off of the written accounts penned by Luttrell in 2007. He apparently benefited from the technical support of former Navy SEALS, including Luttrell, to stage a good chunk of the action sequences. The director set a precedent by becoming the first civilian to become embedded with a Navy SEALs team in Iraq for a month while he wrote the script. As a result, Lone Survivor is more than likely technical perfection. But taken as a filmgoing experience, there is simply something missing from the equation that would have earmarked his film for not only inspirational but educational purposes. For reasons that are about to be explained, and though it’s far more graphic, Saving Private Ryan still seems like the go-to option for classroom use.

This really isn’t intended to be a compare-and-contrast review; it’s coming across that way because the claim that this is “the most extraordinary war film since Saving Private Ryan” is an overly sensationalized marketing strategy for Berg’s picture — one that needs to be put into perspective.

The first thing that should be noted in the differences column is that Lone Survivor severely lacks character development and enough chemistry between these Navy SEALS to make the circumstances truly horrific. In the line of fire they call each other brothers but that word is in the script, not in their hearts. We enter the field with machines, not distinct human personalities that we easily can attach life stories to. However, Berg believes its possible to empathize with the performances since this is based on a real occurrence. Based on his direction, the patriotism on display should be more than sufficient to make an audience care. In actual fact, it’s just barely enough. There’s no denying the emotional impact of the film, yet the question still lingers. If we got to know these soldiers as more than just the rough, gruff American heroes that they most certainly are, the aftermath would be even more devastating.

Berg also can hardly be described as the master of subtlety. Lone Survivor ultimately feels like a blunt instrument with which he may bludgeon us over the head, and the lack of character development makes the proceedings even more numbing. During the protracted (read: violent) sequences of confrontation with members of al Qaeda, bullets and bodies fly at random, and often times it’s not the fact that 180 cajillion bullets pierce through flesh that’s painful to watch so much as the environment is unforgiving. Several times over watch in agony as the four guys tumble down the mountainside, smacking into trees, rocks, animals — you name it.

During any one of these excruciating slow-motion edits it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see Berg pop out of a bush, break the fourth wall and ask those in the audience who are still dubious about our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Well what do you think of our soldiers now?!” We get it — war is hell, and the sacrifices these people make are enormous. If that’s the main take away from the film it’s hardly an original one. We can get the same effect by watching the news. More often than not live footage of what’s occurring is more affecting than a movie can ever hope to be.

A third, and lesser flaw revolves around the casting of Mark Wahlberg. The marquee name is just large enough to ensure the others get shoved to the background and that as many tickets to this event are sold. Marky-Mark’s a likable enough actor, but where Spielberg’s epically sprawling film can get away with so many big names (Hanks, Sizemore, Damon, etc.) Lone Survivor‘s disinterest in developing characters or even a great deal of camaraderie between the guys makes Wahlberg’s presence seem awkward and misjudged. Contrast him to Hirsch, Foster and Kitsch — still relatively known actors but at least these three are relegated to the tragic roles that they play.

This is not a terrible film, but it’s not going to end up being the definitive story about what happened during Operation Red Wings — although that may not be possible. There was so much chaos on this mission, as evidenced by Berg’s storytelling here. Truth be told, it’s probably impossible conceiving a film that truly renders the nightmare experienced by this lone survivor. Though Luttrell was on set, often providing advice to Berg on how to best depict what he saw over these few days, the others sadly weren’t able to offer their input. It’s realistic, sure. But a classic film it most certainly is not.

Film Title: Lone Survivor

2-5Recommendation: Though patriotism bleeds through the film reel, there’s not enough here to show why this disastrous mission really mattered. For those who haven’t heard about this mission (or anyone still undecided about seeing this film), the best route to take would be to track down Luttrell’s written account (of the same name) where, presumably, no detail should be spared. There’s detail aplenty in Berg’s film, too, but much of that pertains to the gruesome way in which some of our beloved soldiers have fallen. That’s not noble; it’s just sickening.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You can die for your country, but I’m gonna live for mine.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Matilda (1996)

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Throwback Thursday is here once again, offering up only the most nostalgic trips back in time as possible. This week is certainly no different. We go back to a time and place where children were best seen and not heard from; where it was alright for their parents to be downright nasty to them (even despite one of them being almost shorter than their six-year-old); a time when learning was a privilege and not a right. (That actually doesn’t make any sense, I just needed another sentence in there to make this paragraph longer.) But what does make sense is that this TBT is what I would consider as yet another classic film, and not just because it’s a great book adaptation, either. 

Today’s food for thought: Matilda

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Release: August 2, 1996

[VHS]

Beware, the Trunchbull.

Danny DeVito’s fourth feature film as a director is uncompromising in its refusal to be just another lighthearted children’s movie. This was no young adult adaptation nor even a dark comedy, but rather a film based upon the children’s book of the same name in which a brave young girl learns to use her gifted imagination to overcome the oppression that’s perpetually hurled at her.

The deception is what powers this particular movie; the maturity of the thematic elements is still to this day almost shocking. Unlike other big-screen conversions like Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach and The B.F.G., Matilda (and to a lesser degree Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was an adaptation that truly took advantage of the dark, drab atmospheres that Dahl so famously immersed his young readers in. This was due in part to the live-action screenplay and the fact that a man of DeVito’s stature helmed the project.

Matilda (Mara Wilson) was a special girl whose home life was an absolute nightmare. This child epitomized the concept of having an active imagination. In fact, she had telekinetic powers that would prove to be both problematic and liberating. At home with her disgusting parents (DeVito and Rhea Perlman), Matilda often found herself bullied because of her inclination to read. When she’s forced into attending school at Crunchem Hall — a place that with the passage of time seems to only resemble more of a prison barrack than an educational institution — Matilda found friends in a few students and in particular, the kind-hearted Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). However, she also discovered her great enemy in the terrible Miss Agatha Trunchbull (an intimidating performance from Pam Ferris that has left me scarred to this very day). The Trunch enjoyed terrorizing students, and was quite effective in keeping the Hall under her thumb. That is until she came across the strange but brilliant Matilda Wormwood.

Dahl’s imagination apparently knew no bounds. He invented The Chokey for chrissake. And those who have watched this film/read the book understand what that horrible contraption was all about. The punishment for disobedience in this particular setting was severe, and here came this young girl willing to defy the odds just for the sake of seeking justice. Justice, in Dahl’s eyes here, being the right to be treated fairly, like any other normal kid at the time would be treated.

But Matilda found herself a target of the evil Trunchbull and victimized by her awful parents at every turn — until one day, enough was enough. One of the beautiful things about this decidedly bleak affair was getting to see the confidence building up in this little girl and seeing where she could most effectively apply her telekinetic energy. There’s no doubt that if there was one thing DeVito got right about his adaptation, it was this uncanny ability of Matilda to outwit her adult opponents. The cat-and-mouse chase through Trunch’s house one afternoon serves as a highlight.

But that’s not all DeVito nailed with his film. As a director, he managed to effect the tone almost perfectly. The book was no light read, just as the film doesn’t pretend to beautify the world. The performances he extracts from his cast are effective in the extreme, particularly those of Ferris and Wilson. DeVito turns in fine work as Matilda’s sketchy car dealer Harry, and Davidtz is wonderful as the shining light, the sole person to truly care for Matilda.

The film is set in appropriately depressing environs, with the Hall and the Wormwood home coloring in the black-and-white impressions we gained from Dahl’s writing, not to mention a handful of other story elements as well.

At the end of the day, Matilda is a wonderful movie that offers up charm and danger in equal doses, and its thematic elements still bear significance nearly twenty years on. As a child this can often be abrasive viewing, but watching this now is more likely to cause chuckles at the sheer overwrought nastiness in characters like the Trunchbull and Harry Wormwood. Therein lies the genius in the Roald Dahl school of thought.

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4-0Recommendation: Matilda is a remarkably mature read for six-to-ten-year-olds (it might be argued its just as good of a read now as it was then) and the film doesn’t abandon the notion. It’s not the nicest Dahl adaptation you’ll find, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a classic. It has its flaws, but those who grew up loving Roald Dahl should have already seen Matilda so many times on VHS that the tape no longer plays properly in the cassette.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “They’re all mistakes, children! Filthy, nasty things. Glad I never was one.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.pastposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Saving Mr. Banks

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Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

What’s that old adage — the Poppins you do know is better than the Poppins you don’t?

Director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) takes on the challenge of recreating the experiences shared by Walt Disney, his band of dedicated, enthusiastic studio hands and P.L. Travers, the author who dreamt up the timeless and near-mythical Mary Poppins, during the time in which she and Disney were in talks of adapting her beloved children’s book into a motion picture. As he was backed by Disney studios, Hancock’s final product, despite it featuring award-worthy performances, can’t be described as an achievement so much as it may be considered a tidy, predictable Disney package.

At least in this case, though, the playing-it-safe strategy doesn’t completely devalue the price of your ticket. There is an infectious spirit that is inescapable — a quality that permeates everything from the lead performances to the set design to the editing — even if it’s one that comes off as more than a little self-congratulatory. Ignoring this, however, Saving Mr. Banks is a difficult film to dislike.

The charm is no secret. The A-list cast, led by Emma Thompson, makes this production pop. Her portrayal of the prickly author P.L. Travers may not be the definition of charming, but it is Thompson’s character’s perspective with which we are forced to try and identify. Contrast her with the eternally upbeat Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). His demeanor is a night and day difference from Travers’ and the pair are eminently watchable because of the rapport (or lack thereof). Toss in an enjoyable turn from Paul Giamatti as Travers’ taxi driver Ralph, and an amusing recreation of the musically-inclined Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman as Richard and B.J. Novak as Robert) and the film suddenly has the gravitas that Mrs. Travers feared would be missing from this script she’s having to approve.

As if the two lead roles don’t provide enough substance, Saving Mr. Banks feels compelled to shower the viewer with scenes that are intended to gain sympathy — because, let’s face it, sympathy is not exactly the first emotion felt whenever the author is present.

The present-day development of the film is juxtaposed against Travers’ childhood. Both timelines occupy roughly the same amount of screen time, and while the constant jumping back and forth starts to become nauseating after awhile, the plot device is mostly successful in stirring up manipulating the emotions. Saving Mr. Banks starts off in the past before fast-forwarding to Travers’ modern-day life in England, where she has more or less given up on writing, is reluctant (to say the least) to have this Walt Disney fellow seize control of her life’s work, and is going bankrupt. Seeing as though the third condition is the most pressing of all her current issues, the two weeks she’d be required to spend in Los Angeles meeting Disney and discussing film rights is an opportunity she can ill afford to miss out on.

Of course, the moment she arrives on the scene she takes great pains to make life as difficult as possible for everyone around her. Criticizing everything from the way the American air smells like chlorine, to the fact that the Shermans are inventing words to insert into the film, to the way Disney addresses people on a first-name basis, the (formerly) esteemed author quickly loses what little interest she had to begin with in this project. The rest, as they say, is history misery.

Though Saving Mr. Banks‘ narrative structure becomes repetitive after the one hundredth flashback, Hancock has done a great job of staying consistent with the Disney image. (Did he really have any choice, though?) Predictability is not only what sustains the story, but it’s a fact of life for the actual studio, too. Everyone already knows how musical Mary Poppins is going to end up becoming (thus Travers’ resistance against that concept being a fruitless effort); everyone is already aware of the film’s place in the canon of classic films (thus her concerns are also, ultimately pointless). What we didn’t realize or perhaps appreciate sufficiently beforehand was just how unlikely it was for the production to come into fruition. Thompson’s codger of a woman helps ensure that it took more than just a spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down.

As difficult as it is to enjoy and embrace by the masses who have no doubt flocked to see this thing in the recent month, Thompson’s performance should be noted as the film’s saving grace. If it weren’t for her grouchiness, Hancock would undoubtedly have drowned the audience in his serendipitous charm. Thanks to great acting from two reliable leads, Saving Mr. Banks just manages to save itself from death-by-Disneyfication.

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3-0Recommendation: Hancock takes great pains to ensure his representation of the studio is as comforting as possible. Even despite the quarrelsome author, the movie still nearly overdoses on sweetness. The saccharine tone is just something viewers who aren’t completely wooed by Disney’s magic are going to have to get over. As another idea, avoid seeing this film if you have hesitations at all about it. This is one of those filmgoing experiences that if you hold any before going in, you’ll end up coming out of it with a big “I told myself so” written across your own forehead. This doesn’t dismiss this as a bad film, just one that’s far too easy to predict.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Disappointments are to the soul what a thunderstorm is to the sky.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Ride Along

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Release: Friday, January 17, 2014

[Theater]

It’s official. Kevin Hart is the black Chris Farley. Er, well. . .he’s certainly trying.

His new comedy vehicle sees him performing at a spasmodic level not seen since cocaine was readily available in the 80s. I mean, damn dude, someone give this guy a beta blocker before he strokes out! Bless his little fast-beating heart, he is more than welcome to try and imitate the great SNL star, just as long as he makes a promise to not go out in the same way as Farley. . .

The jokester, standing all of five-foot-four, is a storm of energy and quick wit in Ride Along, and while the laughs he extracts from audiences may not quite approach the painful levels of his Philadelphian peers like Dave Chapelle or Eddie Murphy, he turns this incredibly bland buddy-cop adventure into an enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. There’s not much to chatter about excitedly afterwards, yet for the lack of creativity on display there’s no harm done in the process. Unless, of course, you take exception to the mental images of Kevin Hart and his black hammer. Ew.

Ben (Hart) is waiting for the right moment to ask James (Ice Cube) for his blessing in taking his sister’s hand in marriage. The two haven’t exactly been getting along ever since Ben apparently damn near barbecued his potential brother-in-law alive at a family gathering awhile back. But because he failed to melt Ice Cube’s cold heart over a charcoal grill, Ben sets out on a mission to prove himself worthy of James’ respect. So he enrolls in the Atlanta police academy, with the goal of becoming a lieutenant on his horizon.

Oh man, can you imagine?

One thing that actually isn’t difficult to imagine is the fact that the camera gravitates toward Hart for most of the duration, despite some other big names present as well, such as Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill and, yes, the aforementioned Barbershop star. Because James reluctantly agrees to take this obnoxious motor-mouth on a “ride along” with him, Ben finds all sorts of ways to become an obstacle more than a useful partner, and more importantly, a man worthy of Angela (Tika Sumpter)’s love. James is attempting to track down the whereabouts of a notorious criminal named Omar (Fishburne), much to the annoyance of his superior, Lt. Brooks (McGill), who doesn’t approve of this hot-shot officer’s renegade tactics. Wherever these two go, the camera can’t help but get stuck on Hart’s frenetic energy and perpetually rubberized facial expressions.

However, when it moves away from Hart and reveals other bits and pieces of this loosely-assembled plot, the problems stack up quicker than Hart’s feathery frame getting blown sideways against a wall at the firing range.

Ride Along simply insists on being a very brainless exercise as director Tim Story seems comfortable with his usual formula (you need not know much more than the fact he directed Fantastic Four and Think Like a Man to realize he’s a pretty uninspired filmmaker). In this case, he maps out the Atlanta area in a simplistic blueprint, leading us by the hand from point A to point B, tossing in jokes wherever and whenever possible. As it so happens, this is arguably the only fault in Hart’s presence: at times he gets a bit irritating with the sheer number of his faux-Farley freakouts. The supporting roles barely are worth mentioning, although it is quite chuckle-worthy to see Morpheus talking all gangsta-like in his role as the big baddie.

Despite the film’s underachieving status, extra points are still going to be awarded here because Ride Along makes the best of the chemistry between Ice Cube and the world’s funniest short man. If that’s not enough for you to call shotgun on this joy ride, then. . .well, you can just ride in the backseat. Party pooper.

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Legit gamer.

2-5Recommendation: Ride Along fails and it doesn’t. The audience it plays up to should be perfectly satisfied with the results — as evidenced by the drastic difference between critical and audience reviews on the big aggregate sites like RT and IMDb. Feel free to select this one if you’re keen on shutting down your brain, stuffing some popcorn down the hatch and laughing like a hyena at a few scenes featuring Hart doing his thing. Oh yeah, and there’s just a killer hot girl in it. The damsel in distress thing should really draw in a crowd. Boom.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Thank you, ass-face.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: The Price of Gold

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Release: Thursday, January 16, 2014

[ESPN]

Why? Why? Why. . . .wasn’t there more security in the building at the time of the incident?

In this relatively high-profile documentary, we are entreated to an inside look into the lives of two gifted female figure skaters — Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan — and how their worlds would ultimately intersect in dramatic fashion prior to the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, which took place in Lillehammer, Norway.

Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burstein, whose filmography includes feature films such as Going the Distance, The Kid Stays in the Picture and a documentary spoof on The Breakfast Club called American Teen, takes on the responsibility of revealing the truth of what happened behind the curtains — literally — following Nancy Kerrigan’s practice skate session the evening of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan, having barely left the ice, was assaulted by an unidentified man and clubbed across her right knee with a police baton, rendering her unable to skate for the competition and quite possibly for the upcoming Olympics.

ESPN’s latest 30-for-30 couldn’t have had better timing, what with the Sochi Games a mere three weeks away. Burstein’s work here is all the more impacting thanks to the (okay. . .yes, intentional) scheduling of its airing. Centering around an exclusive interview with Tonya Harding with a variety of other interviewees both current and past, The Price of Gold buries its head into the controversy and tries to establish who was responsible for the attack. It has other goals as well, such as verifying whether or not this could have been an attempt by Harding’s camp to improve her odds of winning the gold medal, and showing how this singular event came to be the catalyst for a resurgence in the event’s popularity.

The two skaters both came from humble beginnings — Harding much more so, as she was born into a poorer family that could barely afford her to go to the skating sessions she attended as a child. Her mother, an abusive alcoholic, never truly supported her daughter’s passion. Kerrigan, on the other hand, while certainly not from wealth, grew up in a slightly more privileged family and as the documentary expands, we get to appreciate the subtle differences in the two athletes. (Naysayers be damned, this is an athletic sport.) But Harding found it much more difficult to rise to the top in her sport as her reputation for being the skater from the wrong side of the tracks never really helped her image.

As Tony Kornheiser (a personal favorite sports analyst of yours truly) points out, figure skaters are the dainty, precious commodities corporate America is interested in seeing achieve Gold medal status, if only because they represent the red, white and blue. Nevermind the fact that these are extremely young girls pushing their bodies (and minds) to their absolute limits. With the Olympics being the largest stage imaginable for any competitor, the slightest sense of anything out of the ordinary occurring in the weeks and/or months leading up to the event potentially can spell disaster. No one could have seen anything like this coming, though.

Like most (if not all) 30-for-30 documentaries, there’s no special, winning formula to the proceedings. Its structure is quite linear. Tracing the developmental stages of these girls’ careers and their relative trajectories heading into the Games, the focus is primarily on Harding, seeing as though Kerrigan declined to be interviewed. Frequent cuts back to the chat with the 43-year-old reveal her reactions now to the events being described and depicted in archived footage in the meantime. One cannot help but feel that some part of her perhaps deserved what was coming. One does not get the strongest sense that this was an innocent skater terrorized by a media storm; yet one cannot dismiss the sense of sorrow they feel towards a woman caught in constantly abusive environments.

Her first marriage to Jeff Gillooly continued the pattern of physical abuse and emotional fragility — hardly the picture of a world-class figure skater. This image she carried with her became such a burden that when the incident occurred, her name was instantly linked to it. But, as it turned out, the national opinion wasn’t so prejudicial.

The Price of Gold is jam-packed with fascinating footage. Burstein has done quite a job assembling a story that nitpicks through what can only be considered one of the most controversial and bizarre occurrences in Olympic history. . .in sports history. Quite likely, there will never be a Games quite like the 1994 Winter Olympics again. However, she is lacking one critical piece of the puzzle — an up-to-date conversation with the other side: Nancy Kerrigan. Though it would be harsh to consider it a misstep considering Kerrigan’s understandable resistance to being thrust back into the spotlight and talking about her own blemished history — and the documentary can’t be considered biased because of this — the end product does suffer a little bit as a result.

Imagine the juxtaposition of these would-be conflicting interviews. The depth of perspective. We get a little taste of that from the footage taken back in the early to mid-90’s, but there is so much more to speculate about how these two people have grown and changed since. There are interviews from the Kerrigan camp (her current husband gets some camera time) but it’s just not the same. We have to believe Burstein tried her best to get her involved, but at the end of the day, The Price of Gold falls just short of gold and lands on the second-highest podium position because of one simple trip up.

Such is the nature of competitive skating, too. Now here’s a photo gallery of what figure skating looks like to those who don’t partake in it:

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And here’s just an awesome pic of Tonya (right) getting her clock cleaned when she started boxing.

Click here to read more 30-for-30 reviews.

3-5Recommendation: For anyone interested in learning more about the backstory, The Price of Gold is quite valuable. It’s surprisingly digestible and enticing (particularly for sports fans who don’t necessarily buy into figure skating as a “legitimate” sport), with the interviews with Harding and others being at the top of the list of reasons you should see into this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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As we continue to make our way through Roald Dahl January, I can’t help but think this has been one of my favorite months for this thread. Of course, this particular January is stuffed with five Thursdays, so I am going to have to dig deep to find five film adaptations of this man’s brilliant work. The flip side to that coin is, getting to spend just a little bit more time immersed in the many wonderful creations of Mr. Dahl. And here, today, the 16th of the month, I may have run into one of my favorites. This throwback diverges from the previous ones this month in that not only have I never seen this film before but I have yet to get to the book upon which it’s based. Since the film is relatively new, it’s more understandable to miss out on that; but missing out on a book I should have grown up reading? What happened?! While it’s been a long journey in getting to this one, it was far more worth the wait than I could have imagined. 

Today’s food for thought: Fantastic Mr. Fox

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Release: November 25, 2009

[Netflix]

One just has to wonder what this film might have been like had it been released much earlier, and had it been placed into the hands of someone other than the great Wes Anderson, for there is no denying that while this is a Roald Dahl story, the film product is the epitome of Wes Andersonian filmography.

Where does one start to review a film as mesmerizing as this? There’s a myriad of things that work for this stop-animation comedy that deals with a particularly clever fox who can’t help but revert to his animalistic ways by stealing chickens from farmers. One of the more logical places to start might be the animation itself. As noted in previous throwbacks, Dahl’s children’s books were infused with a palpable sense of danger and all possessed considerably dark thematic elements that distinguish his style.

While the decision to use this amusing form of animation does help to soften some of the more adult concepts presented, stop animation in many other ways enhances the peculiarities of Dahl’s visions. From the way these animals and critters move — sometimes at hilarious speeds — to the personalities the animation endows each one of them with, one can only hope Dahl might have approved of this rather modern adaptation (he hated the way Mel Stuart brought Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory to life on-screen).

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Good old Bill, getting into the proper. . .head space. . .for his role.

Currently having the distinction of being the most contemporary/recent adaptation of any Roald Dahl book, Fantastic Mr. Fox just as easily should be recognized for possessing one of the most stacked casts doing impressive voice over work in an animated feature. Those who dropped whatever they were doing and ran to join Anderson’s side this time around include George Clooney as Mr. Fox; Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox; Willem Dafoe as the Rat; and Adrien Brody as the Field Mouse. Of course, there are the Anderson regulars: Bill Murray joins as Badger, Fox’s lawyer; Jason Schwartzman gets grumpy as Ash, the Fox family’s youngest cub; brother Eric Anderson voices Kristofferson, Ash’s strange cousin; and Owen Wilson has a brief albeit humorous turn as Coach Skip, an athletic trainer at Ash’s school. With names like this dominating an extensive cast, the film instantly gets deeper. Nevermind the intelligent script and the delightful little story.

George and Meryl give the foxes unforgettable personalities as two adventurous foxes who once got a kick out of stealing chickens from farmers, but when Felicity tells the mister about being pregnant, it’s clear they have to find a new, safer way of living. With Ash around now, the family must settle into life in a hole, although Mr. Fox knows he can provide better for his family. He wants to move them into the giant tree they’ve been living underground by for twelve (fox) years. Unable to suppress his animal instincts, he starts eying three infamously dangerous and hostile farms, overlooked by some truly nasty men, eying them on a daily basis to see how many chickens he can afford to get away with stealing. He just can’t let the wife know, though.

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So he enlists the help of an awkward fellow named Kylie Sven Opossum (voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky), and his nephew (since Kristofferson has proven himself a valuable asset to this mission, a fact that does not sit well with son, Ash) in his quest to do one last big job. In three nights, the pair snatch a couple of birds from the farms and attempt to make off with some alcoholic cider brewed by the meanest of the lot — the turkey and apple farmer, Frank Bean. Naturally, things go awry and the trio incur the wrath of these farmers who will stop at nothing to rid their farms and the town of these pesky animals.

Over the course of an hour and a half, journey into the gold-tinged world of Wes Anderson and company as the brilliant Fox makes moves to intentionally help those who he loves the most while also making mistakes that unintentionally endanger the entire population of the local animal community. Watch as the farmers employ increasingly hostile tactics to sniff out the foxes from the holes into which they have tunneled deeply and watch as they hilariously fail more often than they succeed. The entire experience is something of a revelation if you have never seen a stop-animation film before; although the film makes such good use of it that even if this kind of artistry isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll still find yourself grinning ear-to-ear thanks to an intelligently drafted script and well-defined characters.

Anderson’s adaption is an achievement. Its Oscar nominations were rightfully earned (damn you, Up). Not only is the story completely immersive, characters this endearing are rare to find, even by Pixar standards (the fact that this is not one of their creations frankly makes the film feel that much more original). The voice work is note-perfect for every character, with Clooney leaving the most lasting impression, while Murray’s character makes badgers everywhere look decent.

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4-5Recommendation: A wonderful, wonderful little gem of a film, Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s biggest accomplishment is having universal appeal. There’s arguably more that satiates mature viewers’ desires to see the world recreated in more simplistic terms than a child’s wanting to see a fox talking and burrowing tunnels at insane speeds. Those things are good too. Not only is this a great family film, it’s a timeless classic. Fans of Wes Anderson obviously have almost no excuse for missing this one, either. (How crazy is this, by the way? We are now 3-for-3 for perfect scores in the month of January. . .so much for unbiased reviews, right?)

Rated: PG

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “Am I being flirted with by a psychotic rat?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.ramweb.org; http://www.imdb.com

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

“A folk singer with a cat. Is that part of your act? Every time you hit a C-major, does he puke a hairball?”

For whatever it’s worth, this line delivered by John Goodman’s character was intended to hurt Llewyn Davis’ feelings, not the cat’s. I suppose if the poor feline had to audition for its (substantial) role as Llewyn’s traveling pants, it probably managed to develop a thick skin (fur?) and wasn’t quite as sensitive as all the other Garfield-looking actors who didn’t get the part.

If that’s not a strange enough introduction to throw you completely off-balance, then you definitely need to see this film. Somehow the intro will seem more fitting and less like a rambling filler paragraph. The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) step forward into the limelight once again with a darkly comical week-in-the-life of a permanently embittered yet talented musician who constantly fumbled in his attempts to make something of himself against the backdrop of the folk music scene in 1960s New York City. If Greenwich Village (largely a residential borough of west Lower Manhattan) was the rose garden in which young artists blossomed, Llewyn would be the thorn of thorns growing on the tallest rose stem. Antisocial and abrasive, the character is not the kind one would immediately associate with potentially award-winning storytelling.

Ordinarily that presumption — that miserable characters tend to make for bad times at the movies — is a good one to keep in the back pocket; why pay money for an experience that’s going to ultimately irritate or rub you the wrong way? While that reservation is still understandable here, writing off the Coens’ latest gem as not a good film because the main character doesn’t appeal would be a mistake.

For starters, missing this film means missing out on Oscar Isaac’s sharpest performance to date, and it also means missing a chance to see/hear Justin Timberlake do some real singing. (For the readers who are choosing to stay through this review even after I have mentioned that name, I thank you kindly. And yes, I do accept tips.) In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to see this film is for the music. That the performers have a chance to incorporate their musical inclinations is surprisingly rewarding; Isaac’s voice is incredible. Timberlake is quite tolerable since his contributions are minimal, yet they endure as much as Isaac’s mopey face; and the film serves as a great showcase for Carey Mulligan’s beautiful voice as well.

However great the many musical imbuements are (and they really are something), all they do is factor into the story — a story of a struggling musician trying to be noticed in a world filled with competing interests and, perhaps, more favorable personalities. These interludes demonstrate these people at their best. When the spotlight turns off of them (particularly Llewyn) though, the Coens’ carefully constructed tone and mood — even the cityscape — seems that much darker.

Isaac portrays a character loosely based on the music and experiences of folk singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Indeed, there was no such folk singer named Llewyn Davis — a reality that is difficult to accept considering the power of Isaac’s essence. Instead, the Coen brothers drafted up a period piece so rich in detail they created real, breathing human beings; even fictitious acts like Davis, like Al Cody (Adam Driver), like duos such as Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) (who actually were based on the real-life duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray) are byproducts of a fully-realized script that epitomizes one particular point in music history.

Such is the value of the ticket into this particular Coen production: the sense of time and place. Steeped in a little corner of America that was brimming with talent in a much-overlooked genre, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer to what’s ostensibly the 60s; so much so, that the story presented comes in second to the ambience. Llewyn was once part of a duo himself, but after his friend and fellow songwriter decided to commit suicide, he has been left in an aching hollow, a dark melancholy from which he seemingly cannot awaken. His last album (which he recorded with his late friend) hasn’t sold well at all, rendering him completely broke. So he bounces from couch to couch, finding increasingly desperate ways of securing the next gig that may or may not tide him over for awhile. Llewyn doesn’t so much live as much as he exists.

On top of his real-world issues, Llewyn has a myriad of ideological problems that don’t seem to help his cause. He can’t fathom why audiences are taking to other acts more than his own; why does everything he touch seemingly fall to pieces? His jealousy of Jim and Jean might be understandable on a more personal level, and yet, for him, it’s so much more. Llewyn doesn’t like people, clearly. Painfully ironically, he has plenty of kind-hearted “friends” and acquaintances who have been trying to help him out and get him off of his feet. (Hey, at least there’s the cat. . . .he won’t help to pay rent or whatever, but, meow. . .)

The directorial duo of brothers weave a slight, if daydreaming, narrative in between rousing on-screen performances and tremendous stage presences. It’s difficult to believe Isaac and Mulligan — and, yes. . .okay, Timberlake, get in here too — are this talented, musically as well as visually. We don’t see Llewyn do much other than mope around between apartments he’s staying in, smoke cigarettes and complain; but we do meet a full cast of characters who do more than their fair share of bringing this story to life. John Goodman adds some color (as per usual) as Roland Turner, a jazz musician Llewyn meets on the road who might be more obnoxious than he is; Garrett Hedlund makes a brief appearance as Turner’s driver, cigarette un-sharing, beat-poet Johnny Five; and F. Murray Abraham plays up the big whig (or as big as they get at this point) Bud Grossman, a potential label representative Llewyn has been eyeing in Chicago, his possible ticket for getting out of all of this mess.

The Coens won’t make it easy on the viewer (after all, they did hire Justin Timberlake. . . but in all honesty, he’s nothing to worry about here). Inside Llewyn Davis suffers from a minor case of anti-hero. However, in this case, the viewer must be able to distinguish between bad person and great performance. Isaac turns in an affecting performance; arguably one of the more memorable of 2013. Capturing the drama and the anxieties of working in this kind of market during this time in this place is a task left up to Joel and Ethan Coen. And they deliver, as only they can.

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4-0Recommendation: Inside Llewyn Davis may very well appeal to far more fans of Coens’ previous work than to newcomers, but it should also have a strong sway with anyone who loves good music. Packed full of great little songs, a few of which are sung to perfection by the cast, the film is a real joy to watch unfold, despite it’s rough-around-the-edges subject and the circumstances surrounding him/it. The performances are stellar, and, unless the Oscars are completely and unabashedly fixed (maybe they are), they should receive at least some sort of recognition come February.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus (and 2012)

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Release: Friday, July 12, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Despite the poster, Michael Cera doesn’t spend the entire film running around, looking like he’s about to elope with part of a cactus. He does come close to doing just that, though, at one point or another, but come on. If you are sitting there thinking this is going to be a movie of any reasonable consequence, well, please by all means. . .pass that sweet cactus juice because I want to trip balls with you too.

Yes, friends, that is the kind of “aim high” movie we have on our hands here. A young student (read: nuisance) traveling abroad named Jamie (Cera) is desperate to find a chunk of the fabled San Pedro cactus, as its liquid contents apparently can make you hallucinate intensely. He just has to tick this off his list as he makes his way — abrasively — along the Chilean coast.

He’s not alone in his mission. Inexplicably he has found three or four locals who regularly want to hang around him, a few quiet Chilean boys who all seem equally infatuated with this crazy plant. One night at a party in the last town Jamie’s been staying in, he casually tosses out an invitation to join him on his mission to find this magical cactus — an invitation to an interesting woman who calls herself ‘Crystal Fairy.’ With thick, dark hair and a vibrant personality, Gaby Hoffman (Volcano, Field of Dreams)’s a striking presence, if for no reason other than how much she contrasts the rest of the scenery.

The next day on the road we find out what kind of person Jamie really is. When he discovers that he has invited this ‘hippie chick’ along with them on their journey, he immediately starts wishing he hadn’t. In fact he tries denying he really invited her. At the same time, we discover Cera’s capacity for acting — literally, acting — like a complete jackanape.

One truly hopes he is simply a surprisingly convincing character actor, and nothing more. Jamie is a massive thorn in the side, a quality that’s pretty evident from the get-go; however as the film goes on his character intentionally becomes the issue we have to deal with, more and more.

Slight as the film is, characters are everything. Dislike him or even hate him, it doesn’t change the fact that Cera actually makes for a rather effective anti-hero. Jamie is so unlikable that any transformational experience that supposedly does happen in this film happens solely in his character’s attitude. He goes from unbearable to slightly more tolerable come the end. Is that a good enough reason to get a lot of peeps to watch this film? Probably not. But it’s one of the only things a viewer is likely to notice or recall after seeing it.

Crystal Fairy tries, and tries pretty hard, to matter. It ekes out a rather. . .shall I say, “flashy?”. . . show from Hoffman, whose performance starkly contrasts from Cera’s more hyped-up and exasperating Jamie. They are good performances, but they are not particularly fun or interesting to watch. Even more so the group of friends of Jamie’s who all seem relegated to one-word lines for the entire hour and a half. None of them factored in whatsoever and weren’t effective in portraying what was intended to be a safe ‘middleground’ in opinion during each moment where Jamie and Crystal Fairy butted heads.

What’s most disappointing about the quietness of this film is that the journey was one advertised as a magical, adventurous experience — a unique little quirk of a film. This is an unspectacular psychedelic with a needlessly flashy street name. Unfortunately, Crystal Fairy overall does not compel enough as a trip worth taking.

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1-5Recommendation: Here’s a great movie to watch if you want convincing that Michael Cera can really be irritating. I’ve always read things about him being an irritating actor, and yet I have not seen a role that has really gotten on my nerves. This wouldn’t be a problem necessarily if the writing was better and if the events here mattered one iota. But they don’t, and all you really end up doing is roaming in a no-man’s land of a cinematic experience.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com