Greenland

Release: Friday, December 18, 2020 (VOD)

👀 Amazon Prime 

Written by: Chris Sparling

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Starring: Gerard Butler; Morena Baccarin; Roger Dale Floyd; David Denman; Hope Davis; Scott Glenn; a comet named Clark

Distributor: STXfilms 

 

 

 

***/*****

Downbeat disaster movie Greenland reunites star Gerard Butler with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh and for the second time running they’ve delivered solid if logically shaky entertainment. There’s clearly a synergy between these two for they will collaborate again on a Greenland sequel, a prospect that seems justified beyond the profit margin. 

A comet is coming to town and a bearded Butler has to get himself and his family to safety, or whatever around here passes for safety when it turns out the threat isn’t one cohesive object but rather a large group of fragments. What was supposed to be a spectacular near-earth passing witnessed on TV now has extinction level event written all over it. Comet forecasting isn’t an exact science but boy does the situation deteriorate quickly. Florida gets obliterated, and soon enough mass panic grips society.

Waugh’s doomsday thriller has a different, more serious thrust than something the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might concoct. More concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads rather than what’s happening in the sky, Greenland imagines a scenario where one’s employment status determines whether they are invited to the apocalyptic afterparty. When Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected by the government for emergency sheltering, hope for safe passage is dashed by a pesky medical detail which prevents them from boarding a plane and thrusts them into the very chaos the patriarch’s shrewdly selected career path was about to spare them from.

As if navigating the collapse of society as a family isn’t scary enough — jet fuel, open gunfire and panicked mobs at Robbins Air Force Base make for a lethal combination — Chris Sparling’s screenplay further ratchets up the drama by scattering the Garritys across the map, splitting the time fairly evenly between the two camps. Butler in particular is impressive downplaying his action hero persona, convincing as an everyman who disgusts himself with the things he ends up doing in an attempt to reunite with his loved ones.

Meanwhile Alison hatches a plan to rendezvous back at her father (Scott Glenn)’s farmstead. Baccarin is rock-solid in the role, and if our sympathies aren’t already aligned with her — John’s presumably had an affair, something that’s only ever hinted at a couple of times throughout — they are wholly and completely when Nathan is imperiled by opportunists posing as Good Samaritans (David Denman and Hope Davis, both very good in their contributions to the Worst Of side of the humanitarian ledger).

Despite some serendipitous turns that force the plot to go where it needs to, Greenland maintains a level of gritty realism that feels rare for the genre and wrings fairly consistent tension from the often unpleasant exchanges between strangers. Even the grand finale is understated, the antithesis of Michael Bay. A select few moments of cheap-looking CGI confess to the modest ($35 million) budget, but for the most part the intimate scope creatively disguises those limitations.

Marginally worse than Black Friday at Wal-Mart

Moral of the Story: The anarchic, human angle and an atypical Gerard Butler performance make Greenland a pretty easy recommendation for fans of end-of-the-world thrillers. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “My friend Teddy says your life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. I think it would be better if it did that while you lived. That way, you could see all the good memories and be happy.”

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

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #3

My apologies for a lack of content this month. It’s been a rough May. With all that’s going on right now I’m surprised I’m even this sane. I sincerely hope my fellow bloggers and readers have been holding up okay and doing whatever they can to stay healthy, positive and productive/creative.

The one thing I wanted to make sure I kept up with this month is the Actor Profile feature, particularly as I missed out on the first two months this year. This month’s SJP is a good example of what happens when you gamble and select a movie you’ve never seen before. This crime noir from the early 2000s is a fairly obscure title, even within the context of the Coens’ filmography. All I knew going in is that this movie features a very young Scarlett Johansson, at something like 15 years old, and that she isn’t a star in it. As it turns out, the part is barely above a cameo appearance. Still, for however short-lived her appearance is, the role is narratively important and it’s fun to see her in a Coen brothers movie before fame came a-knockin’ on her door. (She would later appear in her second Coen brothers movie, the 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!)

Scarlett Johansson as Rachel ‘Birdy’ Abundas in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There*

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong. (IMDb)

Character Background: Birdy is a minor supporting character who ends up having a major impact on the main character of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in 1940s Santa Rosa, California — a man barely present in his own life. The teenage daughter of alcoholic lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins), Birdy is a typical high school student who hasn’t set her sights on any particular career path just yet, though she thinks she might want to become a veterinarian.

She might also have a talent for the piano, but who could really say? Not Ed, that’s for sure, who can’t distinguish a classical Beethoven sonata from a warm-up exercise. Birdy has a strange effect on Ed, the man who never talks. When he first comes across her at a Christmas party thrown at the department store where his wife (Frances McDormand) works, he’s immediately entranced. Drawn to her beauty, sure, but also to the beauty of the music. Birdy is the walking manifestation of hope for someone as hopeless as Ed. Once his wife is sent to jail he finds himself spending more time with her, and through major fault of his own assumes — fantasizes, ultimately — a gifted pianist with great potential, whose career he imagines himself managing. It’s all hogwash of course; he’s not only old enough to be her father but there’s a fundamental misperception of who each other really is that makes this relationship dynamic both amusing and awkward, something that tends to come to a head in that bizarro car ride scene.

What she brings to the movie: Birdy may be more of a plot device than a three-dimensional character but Johansson, at just 15 years old, already has presence and here she’s wielding that powerfully seductive voice to her character’s advantage, turning a fairly typical teenager into a symbol of temptation. She also just fits in to the 1940s aesthetic, her face cherubic and hair in a short bob and the conservative use of make-up allowing her natural beauty to shine through.

Key Scene: One of but a few pretty bizarre forks in the road in the second half of this increasingly surreal movie. Oh, heavens to Betsy, it’s all just a weird scene misunderstanding.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* Ethan Coen also directed but only joel was credited 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters)

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Max Botkin; Kerry Williamson

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola

In the context of Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s dystopian crime thriller What Happened to Monday — a.k.a. Seven Sisters — China’s methods of dealing with an extraordinary overpopulation crisis would be no less controversial but they would also no longer be the exception; rather, the opposite. In a not-so-distant future we’ve exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and organizations like the Child Allocation Bureau have become necessary evils, instituting similar if not harsher one-child-per-family mandates across the globe. Unlike in China, where violators face stiff financial penalties, in the film excess offspring are taken away and put into cryogenic sleep, after which they’re promised to “wake up to a better world.”

Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe)’s life becomes impossibly complicated when his wife dies after giving birth to identical septuplets (all played by one actress at the child and adult stages — Clara Read and Noomi Rapace respectively). To protect his illegally large family Terrence establishes a complex set of rules that will allow his daughters to come and go from the house with some degree of freedom. Each is named after a day of the week and is allowed to go out on “their day.” When they do, they assume a collective, physical identity of one Karen Settman, their mother. To keep a consistent image every detail of each trip outside is shared with the group so everyone remains on the same page.

This routine is maintained for some 30 years, until finally one of the siblings fails to return home after work. Fearing her capture at the hands of the C.A.B.’s head honcho Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), an intense, scary woman who believes the One Child Policy is the only way to save future generations from living in the same squalor, the six other ‘Karen Settmans’ debate whether to turn themselves in or risk blowing their cover by going to save the one.

Regrettably What Happened to Monday is defined by broad shapes and genre tropes. It features seven different personalities but the overall piece fails to establish one of its very own. Rapace continues to use her striking beauty to channel chameleonic qualities and they, along with her hairstylists, are put to great use here. She elevates the entire picture, giving it a bleeding heart, as does a surprisingly grounded performance from Dafoe as dear old dad. But the latter isn’t tasked with interacting with his own likeness on screen.

It’s impressive how much two actors can inform a film’s personality, yet they’re still not enough to overcome clumsy writing that throws aside logic and narrative cohesion in service of an increasingly action-laden plot. As the dire circumstances devolve the incompetence of the bad guys never ceases to amaze. It approaches something close to a farce with the number of convenient plot mechanics that force us into a grand reveal that’s never as grand or as shocking as it should have been.

Still, the film’s well-made enough to be frivolously entertaining. Wirkola’s firm if unremarkable direction gets us from Point A to Point B with enough style, grit and emotion to make What Happened to Monday an above-average dystopian drama worth recommending to those who are less fussy. And Rapace’s ability to emote more than makes up for much of the less successful thematic ruminations. As we watch a family getting torn apart in a variety of cruel ways, it’s the actress’ unique expressiveness that magnifies the emotion, that gets us to re-invest just a little bit more, in spite of everything.

Recommendation: Emotionally engaging but ultimately familiar and never as deeply cutting as it could be, as an epic family tragedy that unfolds piecewise, What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters) offers enough solid thrills and wicked action sequences to be memorable but as a broader commentary on what’s going on in our world today as far as overpopulation, this movie fails to express its concern in a way that’s truly noticeable, much less urgent.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “What happens to one of you, happens to all of you.” 

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

The Beguiled

Release: Friday, June 30, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

The Beguiled is an unsettling, moody drama set against the American Civil War that finds a wounded Union soldier being taken in and nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a secret all-girls school in Virginia. These women, who have lived a pious but sheltered life, find themselves irrevocably changed by the intrusion of the outside world upon their guarded stoop. Beware: the sexual tension can be killer.

It’s not often you see a film set during this period told from the point of view of women. History is never short of a few omissions, and here is a fictional yarn that seems to inhabit such a space. It tells a story not necessarily about the Civil War, per se, but one heavily influenced by it — a mirroring of war’s disruptive and destructive nature. The Beguiled is a movie chiefly about sexual repression, but if with that description you think you’ve got it figured out, think again. This is a much broader critique of society, for when our most basic needs are not met how desperate we become, how quickly we seem to forget our humanity. The Beguiled tends to prove how thin a veil civility really can be.

Colin Farrell inherits the part famously played by Clint Eastwood in an against-type role as Corporal John McBurney, a fighter for the Union cause who suffers a leg injury and, somewhat ignobly, abandons the war. (Cowardice is certainly not a trait you see Eastwood embracing all too often, though it’s even harder to picture him playing the part of an Irish immigrant.) When a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out one day picking mushrooms, she comes across the bloodied man and bravely decides to help him hobble back to the school. There, the stern Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) assesses his condition and determines they have no choice but to tend to the wounded, but also that no other pleasantries shall be extended the stranger.

As he convalesces, McBurney begins having a strange effect on some of the girls — particularly the ones who are, in theory anyway, coming-of-age. The strictures of their daily existence have clearly stunted emotional growth. Natural instincts are bound like hands behind one’s back. The mere physical presence of the soldier, whose intentions are purposefully left unclear, introduces a palpable tension which the narrative relies increasingly upon as the film develops. The Beguiled doesn’t offer much in the way of visceral drama; the battles raging all around are so tangential they don’t even appear in frame. Inside this house a different kind of war is quietly being waged. And not for nothing, the injury the soldier has sustained serves as a pretty effective reminder of what he has left behind.

There is a caveat to unlocking the film’s dark secrets. To get to the good stuff, you have to endure an excruciatingly slow opening half hour. I sat through the entirety of The Bling Ring, but struggled not to walk out early here. Such is the meditative nature of the film. The deliberate pace and sparse action — even dialogue — remains a necessary evil if you are to appreciate the gravity of the simple act of betrayal that occurs later on.

Fortunately the impressive cast assembled makes even these drier, less eventful scenes more watchable. Coppola attracts a range of talent and ages to fulfill the roles of this tight-knit community still hanging on, tooth and nail, to their way of life while the unpredictable violence continues to rage on all around, shaping the world into something too ugly and dangerous for any of them to be a part of. But at what cost has this sheltering from perceived harm come?

Kirsten Dunst, a Coppola favorite (Marie Antoinette; The Virgin Suicides) once again delivers in a complex role as schoolteacher Edwina Morrow. Her character demonstrates stability, an unyielding devotion to the education of the young girls. But then she also has eyes for the newcomer. Dunst is a real stand-out in a pivotal role, whose conviction in the character is really only matched by Kidman’s impressive solemnity and Elle Fanning’s precariously hormonal state. The trio are given ample support from two young up-and-comers in Angourie Rice (the precocious young detective from The Nice Guys) and the aforementioned Laurence (Billy Hope’s voice of reason in Southpaw), who crucially contribute innocence and naivety to an increasingly hostile and unstable environment.

The Beguiled may be defined more by its cast than by anything it offers in the way of escapism. Drowned out by the indefatigable wave of superhero films that has been en vogue for close to a decade now, it’s something of an unconventional mid-summer release. You won’t have much competition for seats in the theater, that’s for sure. But don’t be like me. Don’t be so quick to judge the film by its tedious opening, by the preciousness of its appearance. This is a grim affair, whose wildly unpredictable shift in mood will linger long after credits roll. It’s arguably the darkest film Sofia Coppola has made thus far. That counts for a lot in my book.

Recommendation: Darkly and disturbingly seductive. The Southern gothic drama The Beguiled pairs a great cast with a director with an avant-garde style that is, notably, suppressed here in favor of allowing the performances to rise to the top. It’s not the film everyone’s going to this July, but it offers a lot to recommend for fans of Coppola, the cast and period dramas with a unique perspective. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “We can show ’em some real Southern hospitality . . . “

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

Anomalisa

'Anomalisa' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman; Duke Johnson

Someone please give Michael Stone a hug. I’m starting an online petition to see if we can get Michael Stone just one good hug, because he really, really, really, really, really needs one. Either him or writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure who needs it more. Anomalisa is perhaps the slowest trek through misery and loneliness he has yet made, and that’s even keeping in mind 2008’s Synecdoche, New York.

Very much like that epic slog, Kaufman’s latest, an experiment in stop-motion that feels very much overdue considering his offbeat and peculiar sensibilities seem tailor made for the style, is almost too cold to handle let alone enjoy. But it is something to admire and admire I did; I just wish I could put my arms around the thing and connect with it on the level Kaufman clearly wanted me to. The misanthropy is one thing; I can handle misanthropic characters. I often eagerly embrace them and go on to love them. It’s the monotony that really killed my enthusiasm over this technical achievement.

Michael (David Thewlis) is a successful customer service agent whose latest book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ has just been published. He’s traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech to other service agents looking to boost their careers. At the same time he’s promoting the new book and . . . searching for a way out of his current marriage and domestic life, both of which have whittled his zest for life down to the bone. He becomes smitten by a woman he meets that is somehow “different” than everyone else — meaning, she’s the only other supporting character not voiced by Tom Noonan. (He is credited simply with the responsibility of voicing Everyone Else.)

Michael’s staying at the Fregoli Hotel. It’s a swanky joint whose odd name isn’t meant to merely induce giggles (although it is a pretty funny word); ‘fregoli’ is actually a social anxiety/disorder in which the sufferer sees everyone around them as the same person, voice and all. Michael seems to be experiencing that very delusion but it’s not clear at first whether this is just how this guy views Cincinnati — after all he already scoffs at the lesser intelligence of anyone else who happens to be in the room with him — or whether he’s suffering the effects of a psychological condition that’s gone untreated far too long — something he himself ponders often.

Anomalisa confines itself almost entirely within the walls of this hotel. The limited setting is successful in inducing boredom and cabin fever. We watch as Michael shuffles around, utterly disconnected from the world and disinterested in doing much beyond finding some ice cubes to put into a glass and make a drink. That scene takes approximately ten minutes to eventuate. After this he shuffles around some more, grumbling over the introductory remarks in his speech notes. The shuffling takes us on a tour of the Fregoli and its many oddities, including, but not limited to the hotel manager himself. (Again, Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan everywhere.) He also gets obsessed with tracking down old acquaintances that either turn out to be painfully awkward, generally unpleasant episodes or wild goose chases. All this running around while annoyingly doing nothing eventually introduces us and Michael to two adoring fans, a couple of local girls who somehow find the author a very interesting man.

One girl, a chatty blonde who is more outspoken than her considerably stranger and more socially awkward friend Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is saddled with, you guessed right, a man’s voice. Leigh Lisa stands out for her unique voice and face in a sea of sameness. Her demeanor is strange but beguiling, at least it is to Michael. To us she comes across a kind of simpleton with a knack for contributing to the film’s quota of depressing introspective soliloquies. Also, her voice eventually starts breaking into that of Tom Noonan. Nothing good ever seems to last.

Aha! We have struck a nerve. Temporary constructs like one-night stands are radically misconstrued for representing the start of something new, something fresh. Poor Michael can’t figure out how to even start spelling ‘h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s’ let alone experience it. Anomalisa is an exercise in wallowing in self-pity despite its billing as a dramatic comedy; Michael’s stuck-in-a-rut attitude feels more suffocating and hopeless than The Lobster‘s persecution of single folk. It’s certainly more uncomfortable. It bears all the hallmarks of a Kaufman think-piece, one that delves far beneath the surface of the kinds of conversations a great many screenwriters offer up. There’s no denying Anomalisa is uniquely his. But the lack of interesting material feels unfamiliar.

Michael, torn between leaving his family behind for a fresh new start and a responsibility to his son . . . oh wait, yeah that’s right. He doesn’t really seem to care about that either as he can barely muster the interest to speak with him on the phone for longer than five minutes. Yeah, forget this guy man. And almost everything about this really tedious, beautiful, boring, complex, ultimately off-putting experience.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Anomalisa'

Recommendation: “The most human film of the year,” maybe. But the most entertaining? Hardly. Charlie Kaufman has built a reputation for being a tough filmmaker to embrace and Anomalisa is just another solid example. It’s a film for the Kaufman purists I think. Unless you are a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting through true downers, I have to say give this one the old swerve if you’re the least bit skeptical on the filmmaker. Damn. I really wanted to like this, too. So I’m kicking it an extra slice for the technical marvel that it really is. The stop motion is incredible, truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”

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

The Lobster

'The Lobster'

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos; Efthymis Filippou

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Outré black comedy The Lobster might be likened to a religious experience for those looking for their fix of anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments. If you look hard enough you  could even find enough evidence to validate its romance label as well, but it’s so weird and so brutally dispassionate, even the most bitterly spurned, those who firmly believe they’re forever damned to loneliness, may become exhausted in their effort to keep up with its madness. And really, this dystopia is quite mad:

Single people are being persecuted; they’re getting abducted from The City — somewhere in England or Ireland if accents are anything to go by — and brought to an isolated hotel miles away where the staff insist they find a suitable romantic partner within 45 days, otherwise they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and cast out into the woods beyond. Turns out, it’s neither a joke nor a mind game. There’s a room actually called The Transformation Room where, apparently, it all goes down. Should the unlucky sod find him or herself still single on day 45, Olivia Colman’s hotel manager advises them to partake in some activity that they won’t be able to once transformed. A one-night stand, for example, would be a waste of precious time given that animals still have the ability to fornicate.

Our best chance for understanding how the world operates in The Lobster lies in David (Colin Farrell) and his journey from being recently dumped to finding companionship in the most unlikely of places. And I know that’s a cliché, but I’m talking the epitome of unlikely places; so much so that the symmetry is almost cloying when he runs into Rachel Weisz’ Short-Sighted Woman after his ordeal at the hotel. He escapes and finds a group of stragglers abiding to their own equally radical but opposing ideals: The Loners, led somewhat ironically by Léa Seydoux and constituted by fellow hotel escapees, are vehemently against the pursuit of romance and intimacy.

Dress codes and segregative practices — you can extrapolate the latter to the two major factions we come across, as well as to the way single people and couples are treated differently in The Hotel — lay the groundwork for brutal revelations: in this world, the sum total of who we are is measured by our ability to attract a mate. Single people are lower down in the social hierarchy than couples. Sex isn’t much more than a survival strategy; it’s procreation, not love, that conquers all. The steel-blues and grays of Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography reinforce an achingly melancholic mood.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his fifth feature presentation, tackles the loneliness and despair of single-hood, an approach that dovetails nicely with the sacrifice of being in a relationship and he does so with a conviction as forceful as an avalanche against a lone pine tree. Strange, stilted dialogue castrates the piece of humanity, while the frankness of conversations recalls Wes Anderson . . . really, really pessimistic Wes Anderson.

One might naturally assume Lanthimos has it out for those who can’t help but remain stubbornly (or maybe just hopelessly) single, but he’s actually more critical of the societal pressure that falls upon everyone to couple up. While there are few rules governing how “loners” should meet others, The Hotel encourages bonding over physical traits, even ailments and/or disabilities, no matter how superficial those connections may seem. Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man goes to some extreme lengths to get with this girl he likes who happens to suffer from frequent nose bleeds. John C. Reilly is convinced once he meets a woman with a speech impediment like his he’s set for life. Suicide entices some to escape in a different way. All of this becomes a driving force for David to make the decisions he makes.

There’s not a lot of happiness in The Lobster. I think that much is obvious. But it bears mentioning again. The warning sirens must be heard clearly before too many enter the film with certain expectations. It’s one of the most brutal black comedies I’ve seen, capped off by one of the most memorable endings 2016 has yet produced. Presently I struggle to reconcile my enjoyment of Lanthimos’ work, when only two years ago, I was babbling incessantly about my distaste for John Michael McDonagh’s similarly pessimistic Calvary. The two share more in common than I really would like to admit.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 12.22.09 AM

Recommendation: The mileage one gets out of this cynical view on modern relationships I think will depend on one’s own propensity for being cynical themselves. Performances are universally strong, although this is very much a ‘message’ film. However, that message is unlikely to make an impact upon those who can’t latch on to the absurd tone, dialogue/speech patterns and occasionally shocking developments. This is quite a heavy watch but it’s also one of the most unique releases 2016 currently has on tap.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Why a lobster?” / “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”

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

Demolition

'Demolition' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Sipe

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has played a variety of oddballs in his time. He’s navigated his way carefully through a maze of mental illness — including, but certainly not limited to, sociopathy, obsession and depression — and often bravely inhabited characters who we’re almost dared to embrace at the expense of our own conscience. But even when he’s playing characters who are either lowlives or who find themselves at low points in their lives, rarely do we regret spending time watching him.

Alas, that is the case in Demolition, the new film from Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée. I suppose the good news is that I can’t remember the last time I was able to say Gyllenhaal failed to captivate me, wasted my time or anything similarly negative. I’m not talking about a movie in which he starred or had a juicy supporting part, but something he appeared in. That’s quite a streak this utterly directionless and ultimately pointless black comedy has just broken. If I were the movie, I’d feel pretty bad about that, because while Gyllenhaal has certainly been better, the fact the film passes without significance isn’t entirely his fault.

Demolition is the story of a successful investment banker who seems to mentally check out of reality following a traumatic event in which he and his wife are involved in a bad car accident. Rather than breaking down into tears or exhibiting any of the symptoms someone in his position would typically exhibit, particularly in the immediate aftermath, his Davis Mitchell feels nothing. He seemingly moves on with his life as if nothing happened. We, the appalled, are challenged to interpret whether his behavior is something indicative of some kind of mental deficiency, or if he’s just a coldhearted bastard. (Either way, there’s something wrong with him.)

Bryan Sipe’s talky, introspective but ultimately forgettable script pivots around a rather crass catalytic event in which Davis — and this is just hours after his beloved Julia (Heather Lind) has succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident — begins writing a series of letters to the company that owns the vending machine that just screwed him out of a pack of peanut M&M’s. I know. Life is unfair. For awhile we’re lead to believe that these letters are just a way for him to vent, that perhaps he’s just this bad at expressing anguish. After all, grief is grief and there aren’t really any rules for dealing with this shit.

But then we learn that Davis’ letters are being received by a customer service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, less annoying than usual) — a customer service rep in desperate need of a raise because she’s seemingly the only one who ever pays attention to such outmoded forms of communication. Complaint letters being read. Pah! What a quaint idea. The set-up is so serendipitous it’s ridiculous. Maybe if Davis were a character we could actually get behind, the fact Karen’s entirely too trusting of a strange man might not be something we’d notice. After all, Karen’s essentially a polar opposite to Davis, a kind-hearted soul who’s struggling financially as a single mother raising a bratty kid who can’t stay unsuspended from school.

Davis finds comfort in divulging intensely personal tidbits about his marriage and his childhood through letters to someone he’s never met. He’s also further alienating himself from the brutal truth of being made a widower at the ripe age of 30-something. What begins as a pen-pal relationship soon turns into clandestine phone calls whose tones range from stalker-ish to flirtatious; meanwhile Julia’s parents are still trying to get over their loss. Those phone calls that then turn into face-to-face meet-ups aren’t the extent of Davis’ ‘descent.’ (I put that word in quotes because Davis himself admits he didn’t even know Julia that well, other than that marrying her was an easy thing to do. So, good chance this guy was insufferable even when she was alive.)

Promotional material for Demolition seems fixated on the character physically destroying things. There’s the clip of him taking a bulldozer to his posh, angular, suburban abode and a bathroom stall at his office lying in pieces on the floor. By the time we actually get around to these moments we’re so numb to what we’re seeing they don’t really register. There’s a faint whiff of tragedy underlining Davis’ increasingly absurd behavior but it’s all for naught because the story and the character haven’t given us any reason to feel empathy; this is quite literally 100 minutes of watching Gyllenhaal getting free license to go willy-nilly with a sledgehammer and other construction materials.

In fact it becomes so difficult to identify with Davis we end up feeling terrible for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) as Phil continues to give Davis entirely too much leeway around the office. (Does he have much choice? Um, how about firing him?) Perhaps the only behavior Davis displays that we can understand is his lack of ability to stay invested in work-related projects. In an early scene, Davis is recounting what it was like getting to know Phil in the early stages of his relationship. Not one to mince words, Phil shouts down from the top of a flight of stairs, “I don’t like you Davis.” Yeah, no kidding. We’re with you on that one, Phil. Fortunately for us, we figured that out within about an hour. You had to endure this man’s sociopathic behavior for years.

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Recommendation: Demolition revolves around a through-and-through unlikable protagonist, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But the story also asks us to start taking sides (with him) as Davis begins a new relationship — to the film’s credit, one that’s only ever platonic — with a customer service rep who decides she likes the way he writes. Everything just feels so false. Jean-Marc Vallée has dealt with the selfish, brooding, sociopathic and self-destructive type before but this one really pushes limits. One for actor/director completionists only.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”

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

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

'Batman vs Superman - Dawn of Justice' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 25, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Terrio; David S. Goyer

Directed by: Zack Snyder

I see civil war erupting between the die-hards and the casual-hards (and let me quickly interrupt myself here: casual-hards are people like me who don’t really have a firm grasp on either the mythos or even all of the character trajectories in the source material, we’re just here for the spectacle, that is, the overall product not simply the CGI spectacle). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mould-breaker but it does provide in its last half hour set one of the most intense assaults on the senses that cinema has ever created.

It’s overlong, it’s melodramatic, it’s preachy and more often than not it’s a child kicking its foot in the dirt with hands in pockets because it doesn’t know how to play nice with everyone else and now is forced to spend time alone. Maybe its playing out so scornfully is a function of a super-human sense that no matter what it does, some critics are just going to tear it limb from limb. Similar to how the fanbase is likely to poke holes all through its not-so-textured skin, columnists at large — probably not Lois Lane or Perry White though — are going to have, and have been having this week, a field day trying to convince the rest of the populace why it’s not something you should go and see. Hilarious. That’s like an armor-less Batman going toe-to-toe with a Kryptonian and expecting to emerge the victor.

Despite the film suffering once again from gorging on an overabundance of material, the overarching narrative remains simple and simply compelling: this is the episode where the Batman and the man of steel get into a bit of a spat. An older, wiser and ever more embittered Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) fears the powers of the metahuman known as Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) will perpetually go unchecked unless he intervenes. Meanwhile, the other guy doesn’t think much of all the vigilantism in Gotham that has only succeeded in perpetuating the “weed effect,” as a dejected Batman himself puts it — you crush one weed and pull it out only for another to grow in its place. He’s talking, of course, about criminals. The Dark Knight hasn’t done shit in the way of gardening in the last several years when we first swoop in to meet him.

Zack Snyder, putting himself in the crosshairs much like J.J. Abrams did last year, reaffirms that his gritty style challenges the senses, and that your eyes and ears in particular best come prepared in this bombastic epic that pits the stealthy deceptiveness of Batman against the brutal physicality of Superman — a being, it ought to be said, finds himself falling out of favor with much of mankind following the destructive events in Metropolis two years prior. There’s much anticipation for how a modern film could or should handle the DC Universe’s version of the Neo-Agent Smith battle (sans the whole thing about one of them being a total psycho bent on the unequivocal destruction of man), and yet, for all that’s at stake, Snyder impressively manages to contain his excitement, teasing out the relationship patiently . . . perhaps too patiently for some.

That’s why half of the film manifests as a relatively slow meditation on a number of more human concerns: things like aging, losing one’s relevance, sense of purpose and the loss of innocence are all touched, though never harped upon. Some areas could use some expansion, surely. And yes, that would mean sacrificing a bit of the pixelated action sequences later on. But it’s the steady camerawork of Larry Fong that guides us through the seedy streets of a broken Metropolis, as well as a still-despairing Gotham, an observance of how both time and people have moved on. There’s a bittersweetness to the way Affleck carries himself as a 40-ish-year-old man in a cape whom most have forgotten about by now. There’s a longing for a return to the time when Kal-El first thundered his way to earth, an aura of mystery (or is that terror?) swirling about his godly physique and impossible strength.

Dawn of Justice is most powerful when it’s sending up the deific Kal-El; there are some unforgettable shots of the man in the red cape, one in particular of him hovering above a flooded town, a mother reaching out to him from the rooftop of a submerged house recalls Regan’s possessed soul clawing for the form of Pazuzu outside her window, only in this case we’d like to think the reach is one towards heaven and not hell. Then there’s the image of Cavill’s face imploding in the vacuum of space, his body dangling in suspended animation before awakening once again. If you were asking me which figure is done the most justice (e-hem), I favor Cavill’s Superman. As an image, he’s too powerful, too ferocious, too graceful to ignore. And the Brit looks comfortable as ever in the suit.

It’s not for a lack of trying for Affleck. Unfortunately he’s in a similar position as Jared Leto, attempting to put his own spin on an icon that has been so solidified in the most recent Dark Knight trilogy that any steps taken to divorce from that image will inevitably be labeled as at best inferior and at worst unholy. Affleck doesn’t seem to mind the pressure though; he’s convincing as a surlier, lonelier billionaire with a penchant for creating lots of fancy, shiny new toys and Jeremy Irons as Alfred makes for wonderful companionship but it’s just not the same as Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It’s just not. For these most somber of circumstances though, perhaps this is the Dark Knight we deserve.

For all of its visual symbolism and the bravado with which Cavfleck (please let me be the person to coin that one) carries itself throughout, there are some questionable decisions that hold Dawn of Justice back from becoming the classic it is so close to being. I’m not referring to Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliantly unhinged performance as the evil genius Lex Luthor — his nervous, passive-aggressive and awkward countenance isn’t a natural thing to watch at first but the guy builds some serious strength as the movie plods forward and as his position in this universe becomes slightly more clear. I’m also not referring to the limited screen time afforded Gal Gadot’s ass-kicking Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (though this was an aspect that let me down considerably).

No, the concern is more of a financial nature, and how the studio seems to have mishandled the responsibility of allocating resources properly. For a film budgeted at an estimated $250 million (you can make 25 movies for that price tag), it sure doesn’t look like it. Perhaps part of the issue here is inherent in the sprawling ambition of the story. Because we are dealing with so much complexity, one of the battles Snyder and company picked was to close the physical gap between Metropolis and Gotham, such that only the Delaware River separates these two disparate worlds. When human-Krypton-Bat drama eventually reaches critical mass and the ultimate threat is revealed, so much happens in one indeterminate pile of rubble that nothing looks good.

In some ways the quasi-headache that the action set piece becomes finds us at the threshold of ridiculousness; our demand for quality superhero cinema shouldn’t rely on CGI orgies to get the job done. But that’s old news since the superhero movie fad took off (thanks Iron Man). The only way it seems possible to hit home how crazy these creations are is to go upwards, in one direction. In keeping with what Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch decrees during one of the inevitable government intervention scenes, unilateral decision making is bad for business. But that still doesn’t really answer the mystery as to why, with all of this money, the CGI renderings in particular stand-out moments look like extracts from films in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s bizarre.

What’s not bizarre is the critical derision Dawn of Justice is suffering. This is what happened with Man of Steel, remember? Superman stepped in and parted the red sea of fandom. Dawn of Justice is mind-blowing in some aspects and lacks restraint, thereby quality control and thereby consistency, in others. It’s huge and it’s a few trims shy of a true final cut. But it is at the basic level, entertaining and that’s all this little dude wanted out of a movie of this scale. Maybe I regret not being a fanboy?

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Recommendation: . . . do I . . . do I have to say something here? Really? Okay. Well, if you’re on the fence about this, the good news is that Ben Affleck isn’t a disaster (he’s also no Christian Bale) and that the film also makes some room for female talent and as macho as the film is, the timing of Wonder Woman is spine-tingly well-judged. She’s reason enough to go see this. So is Jeremy Irons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 153 mins.

Quoted: “The Red Capes are coming! The Red Capes are coming!”

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Photo credits: http://www.ernest93.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens movie poster

Release: Friday, December 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: J.J. Abrams; Lawrence Kasdan; Michael Arndt

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

It’s admittedly difficult to resist feeling giddy when the familiar yellow text starts scrolling into the distance against a background strewn with stars. As John Williams’ iconic score trumpets the arrival of a new era in perhaps the only franchise that seems to matter, excitement slowly gives way to anticipation; anticipation to expectation; expectation to . . . well, this is where the path surely divides.

J.J. Abrams has found success on multiple fronts with his helming of George Lucas’ most lucrative creation. Never mind the fact he managed a dubious transition between both Star-themed universes. His film manifests as a surprisingly efficient blend of fan service and sound judgment. As canon-expanding as it is reverential but without indulging so much it becomes impenetrable to the outsider looking in. The Force Awakens also benefits from the work of a casting director who knows how to put the right pieces in place. On a project of this scale no aspect is unworthy of mention.

POE AND THE MAPQUEST MAGUFFIN 

The Force Awakens grafts nicely together with the story arcs presented in the original trilogy. Set approximately three decades into the future the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, has gone missing following a failed attempt to rebuild Jedi forces that ended in death and destruction thanks to dark warrior Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, for some reason).

The shadows of its predecessors are never far behind, though much to the franchise’s credit, there’s a lot of comfort in familiarity.

Rising out of the ashes of Darth Vader and his Death Star comes Ren and The First Order, suitably villainous nomenclature for the second coming of the Galactic Empire. Resistance Forces, into which Oscar Isaac’s skilled pilot Poe Dameron fits like a Skywalker into cinemythology, carry on the burden of the fallen Republic. There are hauntingly beautiful shots of alien sunrises, strange-looking-people montages, and compulsory (but still pulse-quickening) light saber duels. There’s even a repurposed AT-AT.

Early on Poe comes into possession of a digital map detailing the whereabouts of the apparently self-exiled Jedi. In an effort to keep the secret from falling into the wrong hands, he hides the file in his droid BB-8. Call him the R2-D2 of 2015. After a few close encounters and a chance run-in with defecting Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) that ends in Poe’s crashing back into the very planet he was trying to escape, the bot proves to be an indispensable asset. BB-8 becomes the target of both the Resistance and the First Order, and the task of protecting it at all costs falls to Finn (née Stormtrooper FN-2187) and the orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), who represents another of the year’s resilient, beguiling, tough leading ladies.

The trio eventually encounter an aging Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewie, whose loudly applauded first appearances surely won’t prove to be unique to my screening. They meet after crashing a ship following an escape from heavy Stormtrooper fire on the planet Jakku; a ship that turns out to be none other than the Millennium Falcon. Once Solo learns of the precious information the others are sitting on, he volunteers assistance all while Finn is still trying to escape to an entirely different star system, fearing the repercussions of his actions. And he wants to take Rey with him, but she has her heart set on returning home.

YOU AND YOUR SHINY NEW TOY

There’s nothing wholly original about the Abrams/Kasdan-revised script (originally written by Michael Arndt) but above average turns from newcomers Ridley and Boyega make the film easily accessible and a great deal more fun. They’re also unburdened with any sense of forced-awkward intimacy that, if things were different, could’ve earned Lucas a possible Golden Raspberry nomination.

Little time for that though, when you’re trying to take the production (and yourself) a little more seriously. Pride is most definitely at stake here. There’s an unshakable sense Abrams feels compelled to stay to a safe and conventional narrative arc, one that is largely predictable from beginning to end; that he knows and is quite possibly intimidated by how much is at stake with this production. But Episode VII doesn’t play out mechanically or with a sense of cautious restraint. There is restraint being exercised — imagining forty-five minutes having been cut from the opening action sequences and a few other significant confrontations isn’t very hard to do — but if anything the slightly more somber and straight-faced approach suits the drama.

I’ve never been able to categorize any of the installments as drama and yet, for the first time, there is a kind of gravity to proceedings that not only demands but earns attention. That’s not to say the film completely lacks humor, though. And I’ll spare details about what looms in the shadows but I will say this: unfortunately this film hasn’t been immune to Weak Villain syndrome. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you’re to get to the heart and soul of a body soon to be excoriated by dissenters.

Rather the reason, any reason to care about what happens rests upon the shoulders of the embattled Finn and Rey, the newcomers to a saga that clearly has territory left to be explored. Ridley might be the most impressive of the lot, optimizing her natural beauty with a strong, confident persona that betrays her apparently tragic past and fairly impoverished life on Jakku. She also might be the most compelling character. Boyega maintains an easy charm throughout, affording a humanity to the iconic, conformist Stormtroopers that will never be looked at the same way again.

And Lupita Nyong’o receives a sweet supporting role as Maz Kanata, an inquisitive but kind-hearted alien who proves helpful in protecting BB-8 from the First Order. Completely rendered in CGI I didn’t even realize it was Nyong’o until credits rolled, yet she offers a character that will be as difficult to forget as some of the main players.

At times it’s painfully obvious how much Star Wars relies on recognizability rather than its content. It will be interesting to see how many repeat viewings a select few character introductions will hold up to before they start feeling a little too protracted. A little too flashy. And the admittedly imposing Kylo Ren bears more than a passing resemblance to the series’ arguably most familiar character. That ain’t coincidence, all familial backstory accounted for and acknowledged. But let’s be honest, the flashiness can’t be avoided; it’s a new chapter in a major story spanning decades, and everything feels new and shiny again. Perhaps more importantly for me than for others: the new toy isn’t all shine and gloss. It has real functionality, too.

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Recommendation: Once again a fairly redundant section of the page here; The Force Awakens doesn’t exactly need my endorsement but for what it’s worth, as a decided non-fan of the series, I really had a good time with this movie. More entertaining and diverting than something I can take really seriously, I was expecting to not like the film. So . . . that is . . . that is kind of neat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not how the Force works!”

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

Photo credits: http://www.business2community.com; http://www.imdb.com