Mortdecai

mortdecai-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Aronson

Directed by: David Koepp

Charlie Mortdecai has a sensitive gag reflex. He endearingly calls it a ‘sympathetic gag.’ After seeing Johnny Depp embrace an entirely new level of bizarre here, I’m pretty sure I’ve developed something similar, except mine’s not out of sympathy. I’m genuinely disgusted by how bad this movie is.

If like me at my apparently most vulnerable you were unfortunate enough to stumble into a theater only to have Johnny Depp harass your sense of humor and goodwill for slightly more than an hour and a half, you might agree that there is a huge difference between the gags featured in decent comedies and the ones provided here. Two types of gags activating two completely different parts of your body.

The apple of Charlie’s eye, his so-called great love Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), gags in the film because she is taken aback by her man’s interest in sprouting hair on his upper lip. A fashion faux pas at the very least, the mustache might be the funniest bit of the entire film. Mortdecai is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. If anyone’s in need of an explanation as to why I would willingly put myself through something that sounds this bad, I need only to refer you to some of the media I have included with this review. I hardly gag in response to a mustachioed Olivia Munn. No siree. Nope.

A plot synopsis is as follows: Depp aims to get to the bottom of the theft of a particular Goya painting, or something or other. As a man who dabbles in more than just facial hair and beautiful women, his character caricature is both financially and personally invested in the stolen art. His recent coming into debt compels him to find it, as does a recent visit from Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor, the poor chap), a man who has had a thing for Johanna ever since he first laid eyes on her. (When she’s saddled with a douchebag of Mortdecai’s stature, who can blame him?) Together, the art snobs and Constable Can’t Get Any travel the world over to locate the missing Goya, thought to bear a code somewhere on it potentially leading to a stash of untold amounts of Nazi gold.

The prime suspect is — well, it doesn’t matter who that is. Essentially everyone’s a suspect, even Mortdecai but after he’s kidnapped by Russian mobsters and his very ability to reproduce is threatened in no small way — how about some electrocuted bollocks to go along with this heaping helping of what the fuck? — it’s clear that Mortdecai, in spite of himself, hasn’t actually taken the precious artwork for himself. Jock will back him up on that, too. Jock (Paul Bettany), referred to as Mortdecai’s man-servant no less than 70 million times because repeating already lame jokes always seems to do the trick with audiences, is a good bloke despite his zipper problems. That he’s always got Charlie’s back takes precedence over his incredible womanizing abilities. Believe it or not, he’s the most likable character of the whole lot. I’m still scratching my head though as to why he signed on for this one.

People are going to be gunning for Depp after this one. That much is certain. But his colorful performance actually triggered some chuckles deep within. Maybe I feel dirty for admitting that. But he’s not the overriding issue with David Koepp’s impossibly dumb movie. The real killing blow is Mortdecai‘s inability to realize it’s potential. Or to even care about it! It can’t take itself seriously for even one second. Majority of the gags do not land, save for the physical ones that land on the floor; the characters are off-the-map ridiculous (Olivia Munn as a nymphomaniac — makes sense, if you’re going to cast someone that beautiful she may as well be a sex addict too; Jeff Goldblum is in the frame for all of two minutes, but suddenly collapses after being poisoned — I’m not sure if that was in the script or just his subtle way of saying “get me out of this farce”); the humor is too low-brow and monotonous even if occasionally it strikes a nerve. Nothing scatological here, but nothing memorable either.

An adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comedy anthology, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, this movie is elegant in its failings. It’s difficult to imagine this squeezes out any of the zest of that book series. Unfortunately this is a production so feeble in its construction and so ill-advised in its overwhelming inanity it’s highly unlikely I’ll get around to checking out the source material. For higher-quality entertainment, you’d be better off getting your balls zapped by some angry Russians.

johnny-depp-and-paul-bettany-in-mortdecai

1-0Recommendation: This was pretty bad. I . . . I don’t know if I recommend Mortdecai on any level to anyone outside of those with a penchant for s. (I think that’s what led me into this theater, along with the three other poor saps that were there with me. Here I was, thinking my taste in movies was pretty decent . . . )

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole!”

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

TBT: Flubber (1997)

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As we close out the first month of TBT’s for the year 2015 here, I’d just like to remind everyone not to panic. Although it seems like the calendar is already rushing by, uh. . . well, actually. Yeah it is just rushing by. I had a thought there for a second and lost it. This is getting a bit silly, that I’ve already done one month’s worth of these things (and it’s been a long month too — there were five Thursdays this month). At the same time, we are getting that much further away from the terrible day wherein our beloved Robin Williams left us. I’ve never been able to stop thinking about that day really. So I thought it was high time we revisit one of his lesser known, perhaps lesser-quality roles in 

Today’s food for thought: Flubber.

flubber

Bouncing off the walls since: November 26, 1997

[VHS]

It may not be a good movie, much less a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, but who doesn’t remember flubber — either the title or the namesake green, gooey stretchy stuff? This is one of those movies that just reeks of ’90s cheese, but personally that’s a scent I enjoy. Robin Williams may be one of the only good things about this flick about a college professor attempting to save the local college by raising money through his science experiments, but that was really enough for me as a kid.

Flubber helped pass the time on so many car trips my family used to take out West. All five of us Littles schlocked into the family SUV, a travel-sized TV shoved in between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat aimed back at three youngsters struggling to not get on each other’s last nerve over the course of a 20-plus hour journey. Ah yes, these were the days. For 28-year-old me, Flubber represents innocence if nothing else. This ain’t a film built to withstand even the most generous of criticism. It’s poorly written, hastily executed and mired in virtually every cliche you can attach flying rubber to.

But it’s a film that guards some oh-so-precious memories I have swimming around in the old noggin. Memories of how when we finally broke out into the open plains of the sprawling mid-west just beyond St. Louis, how the sun would take forever to set over the horizon; memories of how tight-knit a family unit can be for some time before the inevitable adolescent stages set in and slowly but surely pull the dynamic into an entirely new direction. I’m still very much close with my brother, my sister and my mom and dad. But we don’t take these car trips anymore. We’ve sort of grown out of them. Just like when (or if) I choose to go back and watch Flubber now, I’ll notice how much my critical mind will not allow me to just enjoy the film for what it presents: good-natured, high-spirited mischief.

Robin Williams is Professor Philip Brainard, a well-meaning man but whose dedication to science overshadows pretty much everything else in his life. He has attempted to marry his sweetheart Sara (Marcia Gay Harden) on a couple of occasions but each time something has come up. On the eve of the third go-around, Philip discovers an unusual compound that contains a ridiculous amount of energy that only increases as it interacts with other objects; he sets his ‘It’s Time to Get Married Finally’ alarm but sets it for the wrong time. Sara understandably has had enough. Enter a typically smarmy Christopher McDonald as Philip’s former partner, Wilson Croft, who has his heart set on making up for Philip’s indiscretions with his (former) lover as well as financially benefitting from Philip’s hard work.

The fictitious Medfield College, where Sara is college president, is in trouble if this new energy source fails to demonstrate its practical applications. A majority of the film is spent watching professor attempt to simply keep flubber in control. He thwarts home invaders in the process of discovering that his creation actually has personality and energy in overwhelming abundance. I’m sure if I go back and watch now, I’d be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the energetic green goo and Williams’ off-screen persona. As he slowly starts mastering how to control flubber, he starts to really have some fun. He sticks it to the shoes of college basketball players to make them jump higher and run faster (and the team of course ends up winning the game), and he liberally applies it to a number of everyday objects including a golf ball, a basketball and his car.

It has been years since I’ve last experienced the whiz-bang-pop of Les Mayfield’s creation, but I still fondly remember Professor Brainard’s curious floating robot, Weebo (voiced by Jodi Benson). If it wasn’t Williams’ appropriately whacked-out hairdo or his fumbling professor that’s memorable, then surely it’s the little yellow, round droid that leaves an impression. Dear Weebo, the voice of reason and optimism in times of hardship and heartbreak, you were a strange but wonderful invention of this film. It was very sad indeed watching you get struck down by a bad guy with a baseball bat. This is the kind of movie that inspires the child in me to question what kind of trouble I would get into if I had some flubber of my very own. What kind of good would I be able to do with it, if any? Would I use it for personal gain, or would I share my creation with others? Would I save that local college so I could rekindle my love with someone whom I’ve had great difficulty in expressing my true feelings for? Would I use it for a specific purpose, i.e. kicking Christopher McDonald’s ass?

Flubber is not a memorable film if you’re just considering the story. But the title of the movie alone is fun to play around with. Is it a noun, a verb, an adjective? Is it alive or just a chemical/CGI creation of Disney? Most importantly: what happens when you accidentally ingest the stuff . . . . would it taste good?

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

2-5Recommendation: This modern spin on the 1961 Robert Stevenson film about a professor who discovers an anti-gravity substance is perhaps not the best use of Robin Williams’ talents but it features him in a lovable enough capacity. A few elements on the periphery help make this one a fun outing for youngsters — i.e. the titular green goo and Professor Brainard’s robotic helpers. It is highly slapstick, though and could have benefitted from stronger writing. If you haven’t ever seen this, I’d be willing to recommend checking it out if you have kids.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

TBTrivia: According to Wil Wheaton, in the scenes that he was in with Robin Williams, they would film a take the way it was supposed to be filmed. After that take, Williams would often want to improvise scenes differently than the script, just for fun. Those scenes were not added to the actual film, but there were enough scenes to make an entirely different movie.

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

Blackhat

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl

Directed by: Michael Mann

Even with an hilariously miscast Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat is utterly forgettable.

Something that’s less forgettable is its horrendous opening weekend performance. Set against a budget of $70 million, Michael Mann’s cybercrime would-be-thriller brought in a grand total of $1.7 million in its debut, necessarily deeming Blackhat one of the biggest box office bombs in cinematic history given its wide release status.

At best, the pairing of a Hollywood hunk with a predominantly international cast is amusing if for the opportunity to count all the ways in which the film panders to a global audience. If that wasn’t enough, the lack of chemistry between the towering Brit and his computer hacking buddies — Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai, and Wei Tang’s Chen Lien, who are brother and sister in the film — are the glitches that bring this story to its knees.

Mr. Mann captures some compelling action sequences but the stunt work goes to waste when we’re having trouble even believing the actors in roles that have them staring at computer screens for most of the time. Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a computer hacker serving prison time because he’s a real bastard behind keyboard and mouse. His direct involvement isn’t made clear right away, but two major events occur at the film’s open that we’re meant to pay attention to (but can’t because they’re somewhat trivialized by a confusing series of shots detailing the inner workings of computers): a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong experiences a catastrophic coolant malfunction, while the Mercantile Trade Exchange based in Chicago gets hacked.

Whoever’s clever enough to hack these systems is going to have to answer for the damage, or so say some stern-looking Chinese government officials. They enlist the help of the FBI, in the form of Agent Carol (Viola Davis in an ironic performance; her voice is so monotonous she sounds more of a computer hacker than anyone else) in bringing those responsible to justice. At first, everyone believes these attacks to be the work of Thor. They may as well be. Hemsworth-as-hacker is about as out of place as his demigod was on Earth.

Hathaway’s asked to help solve the crimes together with Dawai and the FBI in tow, but his condition is that his prison sentence be commuted and that he gets to have the cute girl in the end.  Though he does not make the second request, you know this is happening regardless. And how. Talk about some majorly underdeveloped character arcs. The team are soon bouncing all over the globe in an effort to track down the cyber terrorists, who are now aiming to take out more nuclear reactors in order to flood an expansive tin mine in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The terrorists’ goals aren’t exactly revelatory but they work well enough to assume a threat. But in a movie like Blackhat, where more time is spent deciphering code and, apparently, studying the inner workings of hard drives, the real world doesn’t take center stage. Or when the threat finally becomes truly palpable, any audience member not in possession of a degree in computer science has long since tuned out. An error message reads on the front of their foreheads: this does not compute. This does not compel.

The director should be credited for his commitment to getting things right. The focus on the technical aspects, even if excruciatingly boring at times, is impressive. Unfortunately computer screens and staring at endless code sequences — unless we’re in the Matrix — do not on their own make for an interesting product. Then, when we get to the action sequences they’re too short-lived to make much of an impression. I suppose I could keep going here, but the review might get a little mean-spirited. I’m no blackhat critic, out for malicious intent. Out for revenge upon the world just because.

I just happen to think this movie vastly underserves both its audience — on either side of the Atlantic — and its particularly timely themes.

This. A whole lot of this.

This. A whole lot of this. Exciting, right?

1-5Recommendation: Blackhat has grand aspirations but it squanders them in a navel-gazing screenplay that is more interested in getting underneath the keyboard instead of into the minds of some high-profile cyber-terrorists. Fans of Chris Hemsworth will also be wise to stay clear of this one, this isn’t his best effort. I’m not even sure if I can recommend this one to the geekiest of computer geeks.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “You are no longer in control. . .”

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 

The Guest

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Release: Wednesday, September 17, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by:  Simon Barrett 

Directed by: Adam Wingard

British actor Dan Stevens elevates Adam Wingard’s thought-provoking and emotional mystery thriller to bloody awesome levels.

Though The Guest isn’t exactly a title free from spoiler potential, you’d be hard-pressed to make accurate guesses as to what ultimately becomes of a family willing to let a stranger into their house when he claims to be a close friend of their son Caleb who was recently killed in the war in Afghanistan. Even if you are particularly adept at mentally tracing the rough outline of a conclusion still unwitnessed, good luck coloring it in as well as Wingard’s continued collaboration with screenwriter Simon Barrett does.

The Guest, simplistic in its structure but anything but in terms of how it bathes its own guests in psychological discomfort, is definitely better because of Stevens. Though, Barrett’s script admittedly takes us to some interesting places. I have a bone to pick with those last two words, though. Those interesting places are still spaces we’ve seen many an actor in years past inhabit but for a brief flash only to then fade again. Whatever happens to the generic — are their creations rendered redundant in the face of superior genre films? Does A no longer count if B comes along and does it better? More relevant to what we’re talking about here, should we be concerned The Guest roots itself in questionable — albeit in the context of this story, understandable — human behavior?

Wingard, young and eager to prove his burgeoning talent, takes some risks in depicting degrees of emotional and psychological vulnerability. His project begins on shaky legs. The opening scenes are rushed and feel (taste?) slightly undercooked. But his destination demands greater attention. No matter your thoughts on what transpires over 70-ish minutes, the final 20 or so will command exactly that. Perhaps its Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser as the rather wooden parental figures that allow skepticism to arise sooner than it should (i.e. right out of the starting gate).

Or maybe doubt is sprung from some sort of scale we internally create in realizing how everything just pales in comparison to Downton Abbey‘s dapper Matthew Crawley. Dan Stevens as the enigmatic stranger beholden to the unseen soldier, save for a photograph set atop the stone mantel above the Peterson’s fireplace, is in good company when considering the likes of Ryan Gosling’s strong but silent type in Drive; Jake Gyllenhaal’s talkier but arguably more deranged journalist Lou Bloom; Robert DeNiro’s delirious cabbie Travis Bickle. But when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear no one can really put David Collins into a corner. As a character, he may be cool but the thespian possesses so much power in his voice alone — never mind those washboard abs, heyyy-ohh!!! — he threatens to overtake the screen.

It’s the kind of breakout performance that will be his own challenge to outrun; Gosling only now seems a little more sociable since his days with Refn. May only God forgive Stevens for taking a second shot at becoming the unsettling, yet disconcertingly charming type.

Similarly disconcerting is The Guest‘s tendency to leave one questioning a few details along the way. Plot developments seem to turn conveniently but aren’t so obvious as to be off-putting. There is a notable divide in performance quality between the titular character and the several other main characters, but nothing comes across as too cheesy. Most importantly, such gut-wrenching adherence to real emotion and real settings, banal as a few of the latter are, overwhelms and leaves little to question in terms of the director’s intent. Wingard intended to provoke a startling mixture of empathy, dread and revulsion. We empathize with the Peterson’s plight, while dreading what their decisions may cost them.

Wingard’s generation of suspense is exquisite and if You’re Next was entertaining in that regard, his most recent effort certainly ups the ante.

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4-0Recommendation: I haven’t even mentioned the Drive-esque soundtrack. So, there’s this to consider beyond The Guest‘s incredible lead performance, it’s mood and psychologically revealing depiction of a typical American family being stuck between a rock and a hard place. (I’m sorry for being so vague in this review; if I give away more info about it the shock of the experience will be greatly reduced.) If you want to know more about this film, be my guest and rent this as soon as possible. I refuse to say more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “You did the right thing. I don’t blame you.”

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

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

TBT: Airplane! (1980)

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We continue our silly little exploits of the film industry of yesteryear throughout this, the 2,015th January since the A.D. era officially got underway, and yes this time we are going to get good and silly indeed. I took a poll last week to see what kind of film everyone would like to see next (I didn’t really, but I totally should have — that is actually a good idea) and the results that never were proved to be overwhelming: we need a spoof. Not necessarily a brainless exercise, but something lighthearted and perhaps more palatable than the recent stuff that’s finding its way into cinemas as of late. It’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy

Today’s food for thought: Airplane!

airplane

Now landing at gate 22 . . . 23 . . . 24 . . . 25 . . . 26 since: July 2, 1980

[VHS]

Surely I can’t be serious, only now getting to write up something about one of cinema’s proudest achievements in the realm of deadpan comedies/inane spoofs . . . Well, guess what? I am serious. And don’t call me ___________ .

It looks like I picked the wrong week to nearly call it quits on the blog, as I totally forgot how many things Lloyd Bridges’ McCroskey voluntarily quit during his time as an air traffic controller — smoking, drinking, amphetamines. Sniffing glue. I mean, it’d be a tad selfish to stop this one thing I do when others are out there making far bigger sacrifices than I. Of all the sacrifices, it has to be Ted Striker (Robert Hays)’s that becomes . . . most . . . striking in this movie. He hates flying, ever since his days in the war, and yet he chooses to board a flight whose fate will be left completely up in the air thanks to a bad case of food poisoning that affects both flight crew and passengers alike. He will have to land the Boeing 707 on his own, plain and simple.

A straightforward review of this spoof simply won’t fly. Punny enough, that’s why I’m going to let the cheese do the talking this time. Here are ten quotes that the film Airplane cannot afford to leave the ground without; without these moments the comedy, you might say, would suffer from terminal unfunniness. (Okay, I’m done. . . I promise.)

Hanging Lady: Nervous?

Ted Striker: Yes.

HL: First time?

TS: No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.

 

Roger Murdock: Flight 2-0-9’er, you are cleared for take-off.

Captain Oveur: Roger!

Roger Murdock: Huh?

ATC: L.A. departure frequency, 123 point 9’er.

Oveur: Roger!

RM: Huh?

Victor Basta: Requesting vector, over.

Oveur: What?

ATC: Flight 2-0-9’er cleared for vector 324.

RM: We have clearance, Clarence.

Oveur: Roger, Roger. What’s our vector Victor?

ATC: Tower’s radio clearance, over!

Oveur: That’s Clarence Oveur, over.

ATC: Over.

Oveur: Roger!

RM: Huh?

ATC: Roger, over!

RM: What?

Oveur: Huh?

VB: Who?

 

Ted Striker: [flashing back to the bar he frequented during the war] It was a rough place — the seediest dive on the wharf. Populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. It was worse than Detroit.

 

Jack: What’s going on? We have a right to know the truth!

Dr. Rumack: [to all passengers] All right, I’m going to level with you all. But what’s most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic. [his nose begins to grow]

Rumack: Now, it is true that one of the crew members is ill . . . slightly ill. [the nose continues to grow longer and longer]

Rumack: But the other two pilots . . . they’re just fine. They’re at the controls flying the plane . . . free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.

 

Dr. Rumack: You’d better tell Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.

Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?

Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

 

Elaine Dickinson: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your stewardess speaking. We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused, this is due to periodic air pockets we encountered; there’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?

 

Dr. Rumack: Extremely serious. It starts with a slight fever and dryness of the throat. When the virus penetrates the red blood cells, the victim becomes dizzy, begins to experience an itchy rash, then the poison goes to work on the central nervous system; severe muscle spasms followed by the inevitable drooling. [Oveur experiencing each symptom as the doctor describes them.]

Rumack: At this point, the entire digestive system collapses accompanied by uncontrollable flatulence. . . . until, finally, the poor bastard is reduced to a quivering wasted piece of jelly.

 

Steve McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this? [hands him the weather report]

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch, or a pterodactyl . . .

 

Ted Striker: [as the plane loses an engine] The oil pressure. I forgot to check the oil pressure! When Kramer hears about this, the shit’s going to hit the fan! [meanwhile, in the office, feces hits a fan and explodes all over the room]

 

Airport Male Announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

Airport Female Announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

AMA later on: The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.

AFA: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a red zone.

AMA: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There’s never stopping in a white zone.

AFA: Don’t you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping!

AMA: Listen Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again.

AMA, later still: There’s just no stopping in a white zone.

AFA: Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion.

AMA: It’s really the only sensible thing to do, if it’s done safely. Therapeutically there’s no danger involved.

airplane

4-5Recommendation: We all know this section is here because of formatting reasons. I do not need to recommend the best spoof ever to anyone. You’ve either seen Airplane or you have not. Though it may be one of my favorite creations of all time, I can see where the over-the-top silliness and perpetual pun-spinning wears out its welcome for those wanting something with a little more logic to it. But where’s the fun in being logical?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 88 mins.

TBTrivia: Crazy coincidence: three of the film’s characters who had no comedic acting experience prior to Airplane — Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Barbara Billingsley — all passed away in 2010, the film’s 30th anniversary year.

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

Photo credits: http://www.canalpiloto.com.br; http://www.imdb.com 

American Sniper

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Hall

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

In Dirty Harry’s return to slightly more confident filmmaking, Bradley Cooper is one bad man. I mean, his Chris Kyle is a good man, but a bad . . . ah, never mind.

The Odessa, Texas native is the center of attention in a biopic entrusted to one of the biggest names in the business, but somehow the math just doesn’t add up. Cooper may never have been better, Eastwood never more patriotic, yet American Sniper is a slog and somewhat this. Somehow, following along with Chris as he leaves his family on four separate occasions to go fight against insurgents in Iraq between 1999 and 2008 feels less inspired as it does repetitive. Eastwood’s style here may suit the subject but perhaps it’s the subject that doesn’t really lend itself to major blockbuster filmmaking. Why do I smell a missed opportunity for a heartbreaking documentary here?

There’s another issue at play, one that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but absolutely is worth mentioning. American Sniper falls victim to its trailer, a tense two minutes that can’t help but fess up to Eastwood’s most sincere depictions of the kind of pressure that rides on snipers as they determine whether or not to take that shot. I do understand it’s not really fair to judge the film proper on a particularly revealing piece of marketing; after all, one could theoretically ruin their Interstellar experience by watching those clips of Gargantua too many times. But it’s so easy to do just that here, even if there aren’t any black holes in the Middle East. Far be it from me to tell you how to consume your entertainment but if you’ve watched the trailer for American Sniper then you are privy to virtually as much information as those slapping down $10-12 for tickets at the box office.

Eastwood’s directorial touch doesn’t help matters as he provides only a cursory look into the domestic life of an increasingly despondent soldier. A thoroughly masculine figure to begin with, Chris’s former life as a cowboy is halted abruptly by his interest in contributing muscle to the American cause after seeing a story about recent terrorist activity in the Middle East on T.V. He is motivated to the point of signing up for the Navy SEALs, though he is initially rejected. Some indeterminate time later he comes across a gorgeous brunette at a bar. Jason Hall’s script affords a modicum of humanity to this soon-to-be relationship, a level that is somewhat respectable. Sienna Miller would be compelling as housewife Taya but the switching back and forth between Chris’s duties in Iraq and her location in sunny Texas leaves a lot to be desired.

What’s more concerning is that Eastwood’s lazy construction makes mundane the soldier’s return(s) to Iraq. Aside from what’s easily observable — the escalation of violence during each subsequent visit, and the fact that a bounty is put on the head of the most deadly sniper in American history — Tour One looks just like Tour Four. Perhaps that’s how it really is. I have never served; I cannot talk at any great length about that. And I want to be careful in describing how I feel about these sequences as I don’t want to give the impression I don’t respect what multiple tours mean to those who have undergone them. From strictly a creative standpoint, American Sniper wears out its welcome and begins firing blanks much too soon.

Scenes built entirely out of fist-clenching tension, however, do not wear out theirs. And as a corollary, the violence Chris is perpetually surrounded by — and that which understandably upsets Taya the most — is an element Eastwood appears comfortable handling. I guess such is his duty. Reduced in intensity as they may be thanks to the trailers, the hair-raising shoot outs play a large part in defining Chris as a sniper, as a soldier, as a human being. More importantly it gives the film’s version of Chris an obstacle to get over, an enemy if there ever were one. Widely regarded as the “legend” of the Iraq War, his estimated 160 kills via sniping from obscure rooftops function in the film as not simply a plot device but this character’s responsibility to country and to his fellow soldiers. The film does a wonderful job of emphasizing the sniper’s compassion in a time and place where such a quality is rare if existent at all.

It’s the kind of reverence you can easily tie in with Eastwood’s emphasis on fatherhood and the paternal instinct, both evident in his prolific career as a filmmaker in both acting and directorial capacities. It doesn’t factor into American Sniper as much, though the opening scenes featuring Chris with his father together hunting deer in a forest tinged golden from the low angles of the sun’s rays suggest he is still concerned about constructing a layered character study. It’s yet another interesting angle overshadowed by the director’s predilection for predictable story structure.

There’s nothing offensive about the way Clint Eastwood, himself a legend, has put this story together. American Sniper is just not the most interesting version that could have been told, nor is it the most original. Like Sienna Miller in that black nightgown of hers, we wish we could have been shown more. The more testosterone-filled among us anyway.

sammy-sheik-in-american-sniper

3-0Recommendation: Clint Eastwood wears his patriotism on his sleeves and Brad Cooper wears Extra-Large in American Sniper, a very average war film centered around a not-so-average American finding his life’s calling. Between Cooper’s dedication to his character and Eastwood’s devotion to exemplifying courage and obsession in equal measure, the film is not something you should miss if you have served any amount of time overseas (or at home — just not in prison, of course). For everyone else, this is going to be one of the best uses of Redbox/Netflix you’ll have in a while.

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m ready. I’m ready to come home. I’m ready to come home, baby!”

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TBT: Caddyshack (1980)

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Okay, so I admit it’s not quite golf season yet. However it has been ‘good movie’ season for a couple of weeks now so I think it’s time we feature a quality comedy in this month’s batch of TBTs. And you might as well throw in the very compelling reason that this comes very close to being this blogger’s favorite comedy ever. Also, having seen Hot Tub Time Machine over Christmas I was painfully reminded of how much the film industry misses Chevy Chase as a comedian. Saw him in that thing (forgetting he was in it) and had trouble recognizing him. It’s time to scrub that image from my memory by commemorating his excellent work in

Today’s food for thought: Caddyshack. 

caddyshack

Harassing gophers and golfers alike since: July 25, 1980

[DVD]

I’m not really sure whose movie this is. The gopher’s? Carl Spackler’s? Judge Smails’? This was actually the late Harold Ramis’ directorial debut, but with the way Rodney Dangerfield takes the luxurious golf resort by storm you’d think it was his own work he felt comfortable improvising over.

A tough pill to swallow, knowing we live in an era without Ramis now and that his infectious sense of humor isn’t likely to be duplicated anytime soon. But he did leave us several great gifts behind for us to cherish, and this is certainly one of them. A zany comedy stuffed to the brim with memorable characters, strange plot developments and absurd sight gags, Caddyshack freewheels its way from one silly scene to another, incidentally weaving a timeless tale about “the snobs versus the slobs” in the process. Golf season has never been this much fun; I don’t care how great it was speculating whether it was a car accident or a neglected wife that gave Tiger those scratches on his face in 2009.

Danny (Michael O’Keefe) needs a part-time job to save up money for college. He wants to be a caddy at Bushwood. So he becomes one. He wants to impress the club owner, and he ends up sleeping with Smails’ promiscuous daughter Lacey (Cindy Morgan). (Whoops.) At the end of the day though Danny just wants to be a good person and maybe even a father, so he makes it all up to the girl he’s actually dating, Maggie (Sarah Holcomb), when he admits to her that caddying isn’t all he’s been doing around Bushwood.

While on the grounds Danny falls under the tutelage of one Ty Webb (Chase), who helps him less with his real-world concerns as he does boost his confidence. Ty is a good guy and a better golfer, who could care less about the tradition of this so-esteemed white-people-only resort. Ty is there for the booze, the babes and the. . . wait, who the eff is this new guy?!

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Al Czervik (Dangerfield) arrives with a golf bag the size of Africa and a brand new ‘tude to awaken the crotchety, ostensibly whites-only golf club from its comatose state of stuffy traditionalism. A cantankerous, boisterous personality, Al seeks primarily to irritate everyone named Judge Smails. He accomplishes this through a series of hijinks that understandably upset the overbearing, silver-haired braggart:

  1. consistent insults, ranging from his disproval of golf attire to him hitting on Judge’s wife, implying she “must have been something before electricity.”
  2. his obnoxious presence on the golf course (party on the ninth hole, anyone?)
  3. sinking Smail’s beloved schooner during its christening
  4. claiming he’s not interested in becoming a member of Bushwood, but rather someone who’s looking at the property in terms of development for potential condominiums

But this isn’t about Judge, this isn’t about Al — hell, this isn’t even about Danny and his girlfriend who is so Irish it hurts. This story boils down to a psychological battle between a varmint and groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray). Carl had been doing a swell job of making sure Bushwood was in as fine a form as it can be, whilst maintaining his own personal economy, which consisted of extensive supplies of weed, alcohol and self-loathing. The guy’s a hero. But that was before the gopher got inside his head. Obsessed with maintaining the grounds, Carl goes about trying to keep pests away from the greens, and by pests I do mean ridiculously bad CGI-ed gophers who scurry through underground tunnels only to resurface at another hole in time to bust out the cutest little gopher dance that you ever did see.

Caddyshack is a rather giddy and silly film. It’s also a comedy classic. Amongst the raucous set presence of outlandish comedian Rodney Dangerfield serving up ample doses of crazy in each of his scenes (a scene-stealer if there ever was one), Chevy Chase’s nonchalance as resident pro golfer — not to be believed either, which makes it even better if you ask me — and the drama that unfolds between Bill Murray and a goddamn gopher, rests a true Harold Ramis test piece. We miss you dearly, Mr. Ramis. Golf courses just haven’t been nearly as humorous since you left us.

I don’t care how fun it is to make fun of Tiger Woods ever since his little “accident” six years ago. I only wish you had written that script . . .

bill-murray-in-caddyshack

4-0Recommendation: Would it be just too obvious to state that you don’t have to be a golfer to appreciate Caddyshack? Yeah, okay, maybe. Perhaps what Caddyshack should be recommended for is in how it so cleverly and effectively subverts the sport as a stuck-up culture. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: Chevy Chase and Bill Murray could not stand one another ever since some stuff went down on Saturday Night Live back in the day. They only have one scene together in the entire film, during a scene that was scripted on the fly over a lunch one afternoon in which Ty drives a ball through Carl’s ramshackle house windows. The scene they share is perhaps one of the best in the entire film, in my eyes. 

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Inherent Vice

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Release: January 9, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by:  Paul Thomas Anderson

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Andersonian school of thought is that one ought to at least work a little for their entertainment. A movie featuring a bunch of booze, bongs and babes doesn’t seem like it would be hard to follow along with, but if you don’t know Anderson then know this: the undertaking is going to be inherently complex.

You know when you are being told that story about someone that knew someone else by way of their sister’s bestie who had a rude neighbor and it was that neighbor’s uncle who was important — and by the time Uncle has factored in to the story your attention is well on its way out the door? A similar phenomenon has been known to occur with this already infamously meandering tale about sex, drugs, a lot of paranoia and a little Private Eye-ing.

I suggest passing on this joint if you are the type to tune out of the Uncle anecdote before we even get to the Neighbor. For there are a whole lot of people to meet, an even greater pile of Hindu Kush to burn through and a sea of narrative drift and perhaps indulgently long takes to overcome before arriving at a conclusion that really doesn’t deliver much in the way of closure.

Joaquin Phoenix is tapped to portray a character in a story everyone thought impossible to adapt to the silver screen. Though the buzz has morphed into something else now: the adaptation is possible but perhaps not without throwing a lot of people, the stoned and the sober alike, into confusion after one too many character introductions. But let’s start from the beginning. Doc Sportello is awoken on his surf-side couch in southern California by the sudden reappearance of his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him she’s got a new boyfriend.

The new Mr. Wonderful is someone of fair prominence, a shady real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). There is a plot, either perceived or actual — just like a great many other situations at hand here — by Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her extra-somethin’-somethin’ (Jordan Christian-Hearn) to have Mickey institutionalized for his wanting to join a clan of neo-Nazis, despite his being brought up Jewish.

This appears to be mission numero uno. On top of this, however, a smorgasbord of subplots start working their way into the fold, including one involving one of Mickey’s bodyguards, who currently owes a lot of dough to some thug named . . . ah, what’s the use with names . . . the guy is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. When Doc goes to investigate the bodyguard’s whereabouts he stumbles upon not a private home but a brothel; when he’s knocked unconscious there he awakens not to the sight of two beautiful girls fighting over his stash of smokable items but rather a disgruntled right-wing, anti-hippie detective named (this one’s important) Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an absolutely hilarious Josh Brolin) who demands he tell him who killed the bodyguard. And, who is responsible for the recent disappearance of Wolfmann and Shasta Fay.

Ding-ding-ding. Suddenly the priorities change for Doc. But first, another puff. Given the news of his “ex old lady,” he plunges himself deep into the murky waters of the So-Cal beach scene of the early ’70s, a scene that’s loath to obfuscate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable lifestyles — weed is for losers guys, but not cocaine — and assorted other addictions. Doc is a fish-out-of-water 9 times out of 10 as he’s high 10 times out of those same 10, possessing a kind of nonchalance that manifests more often as befuddlement. And of course Bigfoot, himself a former hippie but now more interested in gaining power and prestige, has a field day taking apart and putting back together the cliché that is Doc Sportello.

Behind the year’s best mutton chops lies a surprisingly perceptive private investigator, and a remorseful ex-boyfriend. Though the complexities of Inherent Vice don’t make it easy to access anything on a very deep level, Doc is easy to love. His life choices probably aren’t acceptable to many but when compared to the filth and squalor surrounding him, a misery that encrusts itself upon these shores like barnacles on a ship hull, his vices feel harmless. As Doc works alongside Bigfoot as a favor to him rather than being converted into an informant as requested, he is aided in the unraveling of this seemingly never-ending yarn by a true friend in Sauncho Smilax (Benecio del Toro), a man posing as a criminal lawyer.

There is no point in being vague: I did not understand or keep up with everything that went on during this incredibly sprawling investigation. I could have honestly benefitted from reading the book but there’s something about being confined in a theater chair, completely engrossed by what you’re watching without really any sense of direction or a clear path to the end. Inherent Vice is mesmeric in its ambition. Poetic in its cinematography; entertaining by virtue of its thematic depravity.

Ultimately and unfortunately, not an experience everyone will get high off of though.

benecio-del-toro-and-joaquin-phoenix-in-inherent-vice

3-5Recommendation: Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, we may not have the most coherent film ever but this is quite intentional. Readers of DSB, this is also not the most coherent review ever either. Intentional? I think not. This is a damned hard film to describe and I actually really dig that about it. The fundamentals are there for me: stunning cinematography, solid performances enhanced by an incredibly entertaining wardrobe selection, humor, an interesting plot and a hell of an atmosphere. If any of that appeals, hit this one in theaters while you can.

Rated: R

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder,’ but he’s done good.”

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The Gambler

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Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Huh. So that’s what it feels like to be completely ripped off by a movie.

I mean, completely. Like, I know it’s dumb to go all-in on a movie that has received so little attention and marketing for something that features the likes of Marky-Mark, the great John Goodman and a rising star in Brie Larson, but come on. Am I this much of a sucker? I just bought into a game that keeps on taking without ever giving back. I hate the dealer. Dealer always wins.

The lovable Mark Wahlberg drops 61 pounds (!) in order to get into the depraved character of Jim Bennett, some twit who spends his nights gambling and his days professing his love for literary genius in front of a bunch of disinterested college students. The legit job is the one he enjoys less, though he does enjoy holding this appreciation for elite novelists over his students, wielding his intellectual superiority as if it were some shield designed to protect him from the stabbings of his accusers, those who don’t give a shit about English lit. But as Rupert Wyatt is about to explain, there are better tools for Jim to rail against society with.

Like a gambling addiction! In my mind, shelling out one’s salary on a game of Black Jack on a regular basis, only to lose more often than win, constitutes a legitimate disease, and Wahlberg’s Jim is very sick. For nearly two hours he seems to acknowledge all the ways in which this lifestyle is wrong for him and yet continues to revel in it as he sinks into almost insurmountable debt, eventually having to be staked by the shadiest player in the room, some crazy named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) just so he can play his way out of his predicament. His actions throughout this entire film reveal a man who is not only incapable of change, but immune to it. I openly embrace characters who are severely flawed; there’d be virtually no entertainment business (or compelling literature) without them. I also don’t much mind when they aren’t dealt detailed development, so long as the lack of character development doesn’t take away from the ultimate experience.

Jim Bennett could have gotten into a three-way with Brie Larson’s Amy Phillips and his own mother (Jessica Lange) and still failed to find the motivation to change his ways. And that scene might have actually been interesting. But The Gambler insists on impressing (I’m wondering if depressing is an appropriate synonym here) those who have gambled their way into the theater with how much it enjoys the smell of its own stagnation. Jim goes from owing money to the charismatic Neville, to convincing Asian mafia — there’s always a higher power to answer to — that he’s worth their trouble, to taking a trip to the bank with mom for a casual $240,000 withdrawal. That’ll be in cash, please.

And that’s of course before he comes up against the film’s actual threat, a nakeder-than-life John Goodman as Frank and his tough-guy “cabbie”/right-hand man Big Ernie (Domenick Lombardozzi). Excluding Larson, who is woefully neglected in a role that reduces her to eying Marky-Mark’s character rather than becoming a flesh-and-blood character (Larson is far more effective as a texting addict in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s amusing Don Jon), supporting performances feel inspired. Inspired to the point where the supporting roles outweigh Wahlberg’s. When you have supporting roles more memorable than that of your lead, particularly when the lead comes in the form of a major player like Mark Wahlberg, you have a problem.

So I came out on the losing end here. That’s alright; the dealer wasn’t my type anyway. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here, and I know for a fact there are a few things to become fixated on in Wyatt’s overhauling of the apparently far superior 1974 thriller with James Caan. Things like the fact that while Jim Bennett remains a perpetual screw-up, he attracts the attention of beautiful women like April. Nonsensical. The phenomenon of how we always buy into the star power of Mark Wahlberg without thinking for a second about the material that will surround him.

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Naked & sweaty man-date with John Goodman

2-0Recommendation: The Gambler turns out to be a thriller without the thrills; merely a good-looking production lacking much in the way of originality, enthusiasm or particularly strong acting. Though the latter is much less of an issue, the repetition of Jim Bennett’s gambling problem becomes more than a little wearisome as this story doesn’t force any action or compelling reason to stick by his side. Wahlberg is likable, sure, but this character — and this very disappointing film — are not so much. I do not really recommend.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel.”

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TBT: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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In trying to keep with a theme for this month’s batch of TBT’s, I have failed. 😦 I kind of put myself in a bad spot by opening the month (and the year) with Arnie’s disastrous adventure involving Armageddon in End of Days, a film I didn’t really feel comfortable with “associating” with any others as it’s just so poorly made. Unless I wanted a month of movies that fell well below their potentials I would have to go with some randoms for January. With that in mind, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and explore 

Today’s food for thought: Saving Private Ryan.

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Storming Normandy since: July 24, 1998

[DVD]

Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is one of those films you can recall precisely where you were when you first watched it. For me, that was crammed into a small bedroom in Columbus, Ohio on a road trip me and a high school friend took in the fall of 2003. He had suggested watching it since he had never seen it, and up until that point I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic over putting myself through something I had heard was so grisly violent. Finally, on the last night of being in town, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

I’m not sure how many I’m talking to here when I say that if you are anything like I was, reluctant, you have good reason to be if you have yet to experience Saving Private Ryan, particularly the opening half hour. More akin to a form of psychological boot camp designed to test viewers’ resolve than just another confronting scene of blood and gore, the infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy beach cements the film as essential viewing. The reality of war has never manifested as a nightmare so uniquely absurd, what with bodies being engulfed in walls of fire only to emerge as liquefied flesh.

Grenades rendering the very unlucky without a face.

That boy crying out for his mama.

Good thing film can’t tap into our sense of smell and taste; although there comes a point where the blood becomes so much its coppery taste is palpable. It’s also ironic: while wartime violence is something no one should ever witness, this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore.

After I had made it through this part and the room had righted itself again — I sometimes get the feeling the room is turning sideways whenever I get very uncomfortable in my seat — I felt uplifted, as though I had just achieved something. At the same time I felt callousness as I had this sense that whatever would pass by my eyes next would not be as severe as . . . well, that. There would be continued loss of life and likely there’d be other confronting passages — goodbye, Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — but I knew even then that Spielberg had crafted something unique once Tom Hanks and his band of brothers gained the hill and bunkers and managed to regroup.

Saving Private Ryan is a title that explains itself but for the sake of coloring the picture: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is unaware that his three other brothers have all been killed in battle over the last week, and it is now up to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his company (which is comprised of several names that would later become major players in the entertainment biz, including Vin Diesel) to track him down and ensure his safe return to the States. There’s a tension that somewhat dissipates once we’re off the beach, a transition some have misconstrued as the film losing its strength. That may be true, but only insofar as the opening scenes possess a power that no film can really maintain. Spielberg wasn’t setting out to be masochistic in his choices, nor did he have intentions of frustrating those expecting the bloodletting to continue for two full hours uninterrupted. In his orchestration of the D-Day landing, yes we suffer. And audiences suffer a lot in this sweeping chronicle, but not for nothing.

After the bunkers the narrative distinctly shifts gears, for we move behind enemy lines with Miller et al as they forge ahead through wastelands created by aerial bombings and the crushing weight of Nazi tanks and troops. We escape pervasive, shocking violence but move into a realm that’s arguably more disturbing; the aftermath of war upon civilization. The mission proper gets underway and we move through towns that now bare more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than anything on Earth, searching for a needle in a gigantic, blood-soaked haystack. Spielberg scatters all kinds of present danger across a steadily sprawling map. From hair-raising sniper shoot-outs to savage hand-to-hand combat in abandoned homes the brutality of war manifests itself in far more personal ways.

The violence doesn’t go away because you . . . excuse me, I . . . wanted it to. Because you want the room to stop spinning like crazy. Because you feel ill. All of these things are symptoms of a person who either watches films too seriously (probably true) or effects of a director whose vision refuses to be compromised. The notion that something has been banned in several countries based on realistic depictions of wartime violence and not because it features a lot of graphic sex scenes necessarily places the film on a short list of extremely disturbing films that are remarkably without great controversy. Rightfully so. Steven Spielberg’s film, though difficult to watch and of the variety that’s good to watch once and be done with, is a cinematic landmark, and quite possibly the standard to which all war films are going to forever be held. Even the ones that have preceded it.

Not that any of this was my immediate impression having randomly thrown this on on a crappy tube-TV in Ohio. It would take me years to comprehend the depravity of its violence, and for me to appreciate how hard it is for a filmmaker to recreate such atrocities with such an unflinching eye, an urgency to tell it like it is.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don't. I hope I am not alone.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don’t. I hope I am not alone.

5-0Recommendation: Far from comfortable, Saving Private Ryan is compulsory viewing. An extraordinary achievement in practical special effects and committed storytelling. A powerful vision of the sheer scale and desperation of the D-Day invasion (thanks goes to Mr. Alan Turing for his helping Britain decipher the German Enigma code so they’d know where to invade and when). An altogether unforgettable experience. For all these reasons and quite a few more, you should commit yourself to this film if you have not already. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 169 mins.

TBTrivia: In the German-dubbed version of the movie, one of the actors, himself a German veteran of the Normandy invasion, couldn’t deal with the emotional realism of the film and dropped out and had to be replaced.

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