Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

Recommendation: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

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

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

Decades Blogathon – Zodiac (2007)

And here’s review #2 for Day 5. It’s a review from Zoe of The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger, and she’s here to talk about David Fincher’s Zodiac from 2007. Please do check it out!

three rows back

Welcome to Week 2, Day 5 of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Thomas J.For those who don’t know, the blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and today it’s the turn of the one and only Zoe from the one and only Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger who, unlike director David Fincher only needs one take to nail the 2007 true crime classic Zodiac.

“I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.” – Robert Graysmith

SYNOPSIS: A serial killer in the San Francisco Bay area taunts police with his letters and cryptic messages. We follow the investigators and reporters in…

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Now You See Me 2

'Now You See Me 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ed Solomon; Pete Chiarelli

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

The implausible Now You See Me sequel — yes, this is a thing — is a magic trick you can see right through from the very beginning. For all the entertainment it seeks to provide, the film delivers an equal dose of numbing visual effects that do nothing but obscure any theoretical cinematic magic wand-shaking under the blinding lights of confused, contrived, utterly lazy storytelling.

Three of the Four Horsemen are back. And no, not from vacation. Well, it was kind of like a vacation. Since the events of the first, the pompous pranksters — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have gone into hiding after exposing the unethical business practices of one Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and fleecing him out of millions of his own easy-earned cash. (Much like director Jon M. Chu has done to us, minus the whole money coming easy part). Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, seemingly jaded by the realities of becoming part of the global underground society of illusionists called The Eye, is nowhere to be found. She’s better off.

Uninspired tale finds the group once more answering the call of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who, now firmly in control of his puppets (remember that twist?), has this big spectacle planned out during which they’ll expose a tech wizard’s . . . unethical tech-ing practices, some bloke named Owen Case (Ben Lamb), who in no short order becomes nothing more than target practice when it’s learned that the film’s actual villain is Daniel Radcliffe’s even bigger tech geek Walter Mabry.

What does Mabry have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me the opportunity to rave over the next rabbit Now You See Me 2 tries to pull out of its hat. Turns out, Merritt has an evil twin named Chase who works for Mabry, and in one of many underwhelming action sequences he manages to capture the Horsemen and take them to Mabry’s lair (muahaha!), where they’re informed of a high-risk but high-reward job, likely the trickiest task they will have ever pulled off. Do they have a choice? In an exchange that confesses the depths of this film’s Oscar-baiting screenplay, the Horsemen are told they either “do this or die.” Well, I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

In the meantime, Mabry’s been busy trying to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen from afar, hijacking the aforementioned show by letting the public know that, hey, yeah, remember how Jack Wilder died? Well, he didn’t really. Also, Rhodes is a two-faced cop and is working with the Horsemen. Be outraged, people. Be very outraged. As a result, Agent Rhodes suddenly becomes Agent Rogues when he and the rest of the magicians find themselves scrapping to clear their name all while trying to eliminate the threat of Mabry.

It’s not exactly the most original conceit, but this new globetrotting adventure could have spawned a genuinely exciting mystery thriller if put in the right hands. Co-writers Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli were not those hands. Their story, one that at least adheres to the spirit of reckless abandon established in the original, leans entirely on the magic of post-production tinkering, and with Chu’s terribly flat direction further promoting contrivance and convenience, Now You See Me 2 quickly wears out its welcome.

Not helping matters is a runtime that eclipses two hours and a couple of surprisingly annoying performances from Lizzy Caplan, who plays Fisher’s “replacement” Lulu May — because there has to be a Horsewoman, obviously — and one half of Harrelson’s performance as the evil twin Chase. ‘Harrelson’ and ‘annoying’ don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence but then again the guy is a consummate actor. He really can do and be anything. As to Caplan, someone should have taken away the fourteenth Red Bull she was guzzling before stepping on set. This is way too much team spirit for a movie not named Bring It On.

More irksome than Harrelson’s sinister side and Caplan’s insufferably peppy presence is the film’s knack for reducing living legends like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to cardboard cutouts. Neither Caine convinces he’s this bad of a dude nor Freeman of his ever-complicated backstory. You could defend this as an exercise in allowing actors to have some genuine fun while collecting another paycheck. There’s no shame in putting together a supergroup of talent like this for a bit of escapist entertainment but Caine and Freeman couldn’t look more bored.

Now You See Me 2 pulls gimmicks and cheap tricks left and right in its quest to prove editing can on its own sustain a story. The approach suggests the filmmakers think audiences won’t know the difference between ‘real’ magic and clever camerawork. It’s actually pretty insulting.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.48.20 PM

Recommendation: Eyeballs, get ready to roll. Now You See Me 2 takes the worst tendencies of its predecessor and magnifies them. I can handle cheesy films, and NYSM2 is certainly cheesy but it’s more problematic in terms of convincing us that what’s happening in front of us is real. The irony of that is pretty hard to reconcile. This is the epitome of surface gloss hiding no real depth. With that in mind I can’t recommend watching this one to anyone who felt the first one was kind of silly. What follows is much sillier. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Hell will look like a day at the spa once I’m through with the Four Horseman.” / “You had me at ‘Hell.'”

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 

Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

decisions, decisions, decisions

Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

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

Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Release: Friday, May 1, 2015

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon

In the chaotic and climactic final twenty minutes a wistfulness arose within me, and though I didn’t let it fully disengage me from one of the year’s most ambitious CGI spectacles I was annoyed I let it happen. I knew it was going to, though. That feeling that, after all of this battling against the hype machine, this was it. This was all it could have been.

And of course it was; it makes sense. Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the much-anticipated follow-up to that most grandiose uniting of superheroes from far-flung corners of the globe but in the end it is still just a movie. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s a lot of movie but even that kind of length ends up shortchanging those who have built this up in their heads as some kind of singular event. I honestly put the blame on Joss Whedon, though. Maybe if he hadn’t made Marvel’s The Avengers such a spectacular escape little old film fans like me wouldn’t have unfairly begun wielding our hopes and expectations like a shield of vibranium against which the man would have little hope of defending himself.

The one thing he won’t have to hope for is a solid box office presence, though. That’s perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed about his new film.

james-spader-as-ultron

AGE OF JAMES SPADER

Age of Ultron arrives at a time when superhero movies have . . . okay, forget that. Instead: yay, summer! Rather than detangling the network of superhero film reel that’s enabled this one to happen, I think it’s best to cut to the chase and talk all things artificially intelligent and Hydra-related. Whedon wastes no time in appealing to our appropriately elevated adrenaline levels by introducing the gang kicking ass and taking names in the remote European nation of Sokovia, the location of a Hydra outpost. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has gotten a hold of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. His most notable creations become Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who take pleasure in being the collective thorn in the Avengers’ collective side.

Following their successful stand against some of Hydra’s henchmen, the Avengers return to headquarters and celebrate, but only briefly. Given Stark’s affinity for constantly tinkering with his creations he uses the A.I. he and Banner discover within the scepter to jumpstart his long-dormant and secretive Ultron project, a program he believes will be humanity’s best chance of living in a safer world.

Amidst one of the more memorable scenes — Thor ribbing his companions into trying to lift his hammer knowing full well none of them will succeed, only to be gobsmacked by Steve Rogers’ ability to actually influence it ever so subtly — a worst case scenario rears its ugly head as Ultron’s sentience rapidly exceeds Stark’s ability to control it. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly deduces people are no good; that the only way Earth will be safe is to eradicate them. One thing I was impressed by was how my cynicism was put in perspective in the face of a vengeful, ten-foot tall robot with evil red eyes.

If there’s anything that bundles together Age of Ultron‘s dizzying number of thematic and physical ambitions it’s the notion that not everything created by a billionaire genius can be controlled. Not by him, and not even by Whedon. The arrival of a one-of-a-kind android in Spader, whose own image rather disappointingly supersedes that of his on-screen counterpart, heralds an age in which over-ambition, even born out of purely good intentions, very well might mean the downfall of everything. That’s obviously not going to be the case for the MCU. Still, this bloated sequel is not the joyride its predecessor was.

hulk-vs-the-hulkbuster

SUPERHERO FATIGUE V. SUPERHERO INDIFFERENCE

In propelling the complex mythos and relationships that have endeared millions to this lone property into the future, Whedon has incidentally obligatorily spawned an environment in which everything is expected to get more and more extreme. Unfortunately that’s kind of an issue that can be traced back to the Avengers’ cinematic birth in 2012. How the Infinity War sequels are supposed to top this is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt Marvel will demand it from the Russo brothers. I suspect we are yet to enter the darkest days facing our fearless heroes, and if this middle film is a barometer of anything, it’s solemnity.

But like Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man, just because the story takes a darker turn — these properties are, after all, reflecting a reality that seems to be growing ever more hostile — this doesn’t discount Age of Ultron‘s potential to be an enjoyable summer getaway. Rather, I have found it easy to forget about that potential, and much more challenging to be as enthusiastic as Whedon’s canvas continues spreading to include lesser-known players, heroes who are admittedly cleverly worked into the picture, but who don’t mean as much if you haven’t done your Avengers homework. (And I am referring to the comics.) There’s something about the hatred Ultron directs primarily towards Tony Stark and secondarily to the human population at large that screams ‘classic movie villainy,’ yet the same can’t be said about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s decision to shift loyalties.

Perhaps my detachment from the Maximoff twins, in particular, stems from my failure to be entertained by Elizabeth Olsen trying on a Russian accent. Equally distracting is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Beach Boys hairdo. These two needed their own cinematic introduction before showing up in ostensibly pivotal roles here. The Vision means little to me, although his . . . odd genetic make-up is something to behold. If this all sounds like a personal problem, that’s because it likely is. Whereas some are experiencing the inevitable ‘superhero fatigue,’ I find I may have accidentally banished myself to the realm of superhero indifference.

What Age of Ultron ultimately assembles (and stop me when this sounds familiar) is an overstuffed extravaganza that tries, mostly succeeding, to incorporate as much of the popular Marvel legacy as a single film can handle before breaking and before turning off as many of its several hundred million viewers as possible. It’s the epitome of blockbuster in a blockbuster age. It’s a mighty compromise between getting really technical and remaining lowest-common-denominator entertainment. I feel as unique as the Avengers are, they deserve something not quite as mundane.

At the same time, what else could I have expected out of a summer movie? While I don’t feel like my expectations turned on me as drastically as Stark’s program did him, like him I am reluctant to admit it was pretty much my fault. . .

an-awkward-standoff

3-5Recommendation: Featuring Whedon’s trademark comic relief and ability to weave together multiple story lines, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron unfortunately might signal what has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It’s a film of excess but also a film that minimizes enjoyment to pack in as much information and spectacle as possible. Diehards will no doubt lap this up. Anything less though, are sure to find things that could have been much better. A recommended watch in the large format, but unlike the first one I can’t say you need to see it twice in such a fashion. There is a mid-credits scene that you should stick around for.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.”

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

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

TBT: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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Mercifully the month of February comes to an end this weekend. I say this not because of the romantic theme I’ve put everyone through on this feature over the last couple of weeks (I guess that’s bad enough), but because the weather around here has been downright crazy. Last night I put my car in a ditch. Or almost did. I live on one of the nastiest roads in Knoxville and last night I almost fell victim to its twists and turns. Thankfully I was helped out in a matter of minutes. So I’m really ready to move on to some better weather, and hopefully some sunshine.

Today’s food for thought: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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Erasing painful memories since: March 19, 2004

[DVD]

The fact that Jim Carrey’s unforgettably restrained performance became overshadowed by universal themes of love and heartbreak isn’t a flaw within Michel Gondry’s psychosomatic journey. Quite the opposite in fact. You could say the same for Kate Winslet’s turn as Agent Orange-haired Clementine and to a lesser extent the collective of Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson. Tremendous performances had a hand in building this production into something memorable but the lasting impact was more a result of everything coalescing together. There are few films that made us feel the way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made us feel.

Reflecting upon past relationships, whether they went out with a bang or quietly petered out wasn’t the film’s duty; it has always been our own. Eternal Sunshine isn’t fiction, it’s the brutal truth.

I don’t know if I’m a Joel Barish but there has got to be some part of me that has been, at one point or another. Just the same as the women I’ve dated have reflected some qualities of Clementine, regardless of whether this would ever be something we’d ever bring up. In the film, Joel’s recent ex has undergone an experimental procedure to rid any and all memories of him and once Joel learns of this he wants the very same treatment. In the real world we might jump the gun and label this hardcore bitterness, but screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, along with French director Michel Gondry, expressed it not only as a powerful plot device but an indicator that what once was a beautiful harmony between two individuals had finally reached a critical low point, a proper divorce devoid of the paperwork and legalese.

Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson)’s office personified that which we like to dismiss as a useless emotion. In this dreamscape bitterness and regret functioned, and functioned extremely effectively. As Joel undergoes the procedure at home, with the help of sleazy assistants Stan (Ruffalo) and Patrick (Wood) a switch is flipped somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind that tells him this might be a mistake. He soon begins fighting the process every step of the way in an effort to keep Clementine in his life in any capacity. Anyone who has denied they have done something similar is either a rare exception or is lying to themselves, though understandably (and hopefully) there were less wires and computers involved.

The device is ingenious, but I too would be lying if I said that’s the only thing that propelled Eternal Sunshine into the realm of the classic romantic-comedy (if ever there were such a thing). Describing it like that is like describing one’s relationship as a classic, actually. It’s just awkward and doesn’t feel quite right. Performances and chemistry, yeah they were all in attendance and in great abundance — who knew Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey had the potential together to make Leo jealous? — but let’s dive below the surface. It was the handiwork of those behind the cameras, intertwining the real with the psychological world; juxtaposing Joel’s emotional hangover against evidence explaining it. This was a beautiful relationship insofar as it was properly if not painfully documented. The first encounter on the train to Montauk. The house on the beach, Joel and Clementine sitting on its steps. The pair sprawling out on a frozen lake.

Gondry’s film was as much a visual treat as it was a maze through the mind and heart. Innovative cinematography and set design was largely responsible for relaying an entire spectrum of emotion. I’d also like to back up a bit and not totally neglect Jim Carrey here. My brief address of him earlier isn’t indicative of how I feel about him as Joel Barish. He’d been good before in films I have yet to see (I won’t mention those because, you know . . . embarrassment) but he set a new standard in this one, putting such a distance between his Ace Ventura personality and a character that one might reasonable assert as how he might have been growing up in a desperately impoverished Canadian household, maybe sans the disdain for love and Hallmark holidays. The argument purporting Carrey’s inability to emote was officially rendered invalid with Eternal Sunshine.

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5-0Recommendation: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique work of cinematic art. For those into that sort of thing, particularly when it comes to diving into the murky waters of discussing relationship problems — how they begin and how they are resolved — I can not think of too many better than this one. It’s at times pretty heavy but manages to uphold a quirky comedic tone that never allows drama to devolve into melodrama. Performances are universally great and for those looking for a more three-dimensional Jim Carrey may I suggest you give this one a look.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

TBTrivia: The voice whispering the above quotation is actually a combination of Kate Winslet’s voice echoing itself, and the voice of an editor working at Focus Features. Apparently, the editor was asked to do a quick voice-over, before Winslet arrived, and it was kept in the final cut.

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

Foxcatcher

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Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: E. Max Frye; Dan Futterman 

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Enigmas like paranoid-schizophrenic John Eleuthère du Pont prove it was prudent for both Steve Carell and the Americanized The Office to bid adieu to one another. Of course, that transition was as much a matter of inevitability as the tragedy we traipse toward in Foxcatcher, but a fog of doubt descended quickly in the wake of the departure of one of prime time television’s most ridiculous characters. What comes next? What do you hope to achieve, Michael Scott?

Obviously the answer ‘to be the best in the world’ won’t suffice. In this grim and isolated setting Carell has a funny way of suggesting that this has actually been the goal for some time now. At the very least, there brims beneath a haggard physique this desire to be taken more seriously; that’s if taking next year’s Oscars by storm is out of the question.

Carell hooks up with New York native Bennett Miller (whose directorial CV includes 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball) along with the incredibly versatile Mark Ruffalo and an ever-more watchable Channing Tatum on the set of the inauspicious Liseter Hall Farm — some 200 acres of land acquired and later expanded upon by the wealthy Du Pont family, a prominent American clan built primarily upon the manufacturing of gunpowder. To say Carell portrays the mentally disturbed, socially repressed heir to the Du Pont family fortune would be a criminal understatement. Carell keeps the beak (okay so it’s exaggerated a bit) but dispenses with the comedic charade and his warmth as a basically decent human being. It’s in the way he slowly, deliberately breathes and speaks in an entirely unnatural cadence that defines this as a tour-de-force performance you won’t want to miss.

Meanwhile, Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo) Schultz are accomplished wrestlers, both having won Gold medals in the 1984 Olympics in Seoul, although older brother David is the vastly more celebrated athlete. You’ll have a difficult time recognizing Tatum in this fragile, downbeat portrayal of a younger brother trying anything to make his life work for him. He’s categorically not the same actor I was introduced to in 21 Jump Street. Ruffalo effects a gentle soul whose family life trumps what he does for a living. Though his stoutness suggests he won’t ever be taken down easily, his willingness to abandon psychological sanctuary for the opportunity to rise to the top once more just isn’t present. It is in Mark.

Miller’s uncompromising vision requires everyone to dig deeper than they have ever before. Even Vanessa Redgrave, who plays matriarchal Jean du Pont and gets all of three lines to speak. For at the heart of Foxcatcher exists a profoundly troubled mother-son relationship; whereas Jean has prided herself on a tradition of equestrian excellence — Foxcatcher Farm is a thoroughbred racing stable after all — her son wishes to coach and inspire a group of young men into Olympic training and medal contention.

John’s desperation to be validated by his own blood yields his cruel treatment of two athletes he essentially stalks and coerces into a game of psychological abuse and manipulation. He says he would love to see America soar once again — this trio of the Schultz brothers and Coach du Pont would surely be a force to be reckoned with even during the Olympic trials — but what he really means is that he would love to see his mother smile at him. Just once. A pat on the back could go a long way. But Jean declares the sport to be ‘low,’ and something she wishes to not even recognize, lest it be the downfall of the Du Pont legacy. The irony is seated before her during one of the film’s more revealing scenes.

Regrettably Sienna Miller, as David’s wife Nancy, and Anthony Michael Hall feel a tad underused, though they aren’t the centerpiece. The moral of this story: Tatum and Ruffalo are heartbreakingly good. They unquestionably appreciate the significance of whom they represent here. They’re two of the most decorated wrestlers in history, winning more NCAA, U.S. Open, World and Olympic titles than any other American brother duo who took to the floor. The circumstances are ripe for tragedy. Miller certainly capitalizes, creating a quiet, slow-burning thriller that refuses to compromise intensity for Hollywood glitz and glam. There aren’t too many films out right now that will make you feel quite as uncomfortable with such little violence or bloodshed depicted.

Credit that to the fact that this all actually took place. Now that’s a chilling thought.

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4-5Recommendation: Foxcatcher is a harrowing experience that deserves a much wider release than it has received. A slow roll-out of one of the best-acted dramas of 2014 is just not the way this beauty of a film should have been treated yo. Of course, I ain’t got no say in the matter. But if we could scrap, like 1,000 screenings of that stupid The Interview flick and replace it with something much more substantial and meaningful, you won’t find me complaining. I don’t think I need to mention performances anymore here, so rather what I’d recommend is checking this one out for a solid — if slightly contrived — recounting of an American Dream shattered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A coach is a father. A coach is a mentor. A coach has great power on an athlete’s life.”

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

Begin Again

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Release: Friday, June 27, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

A disgraced record label executive has a chance run-in with a down-on-her-luck musician at a bar and the two forge a friendship that inspires more than great music — it reinvigorates one another’s thirst for life.

The Hulk takes a chill pill as Mark Ruffalo fits himself back into a decidedly more human outfit in John Carney’s musical romantic-comedy Begin Again. Instead of wreaking havoc on everything around him in a physical manner, Dan’s going about the same by butting heads with top execs at the label he started up years ago. His idealistic approach to talent management and discovery is viewed as a product of a bygone era in this company and it puts him at odds with the future of the label. His life quickly unravels.

The film’s secondary focus is Keira Knightley’s emotionally fragile yet three-dimensional Gretta, a guitarist from England whose longtime boyfriend is finding massive popularity in America, particularly in Los Angeles. Begin Again spends much of its second act detailing the spiraling downward of this at-once mesmeric and repulsively stagnant relationship between two musicians struggling to find themselves. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine juggles being Knightley’s heart throb and heart ache impressively as Dave, a man whose artistic integrity as well as devotion to Gretta slowly disintegrates as his star brightens.

Gretta, on the other hand, refuses to bend in the wind. Her firm grasp on her own creative control rings more authentic than manipulative; the choice more a microcosm of an entire population of aspiring artists or even successful ones who have remained true to their roots. So it’s no surprise when she becomes embroiled in drunken conversation with a man who claims to be a formerly successful record producer (yeah, this Dan guy) that we can almost feel it as the stranger smacks straight into the brick wall that is Gretta’s defense mechanism in the face of this awkward business proposition. She claims she is no performer; rather, she creates music at will.

Despite her biting tone, her discomfort seems to stem less from Dan’s crash-landing in her life as it does from being in the present moment. Her very existence here in this spot is the problem. Owed mostly to the ingenuity of the way Carney has constructed this tale, her backstory is explained and introduced in a wholly satisfying way, one that provides the bar scene a greater depth that’s often missing in these ‘when boy-meets-girl’ encounters.

Along with a pair of wonderful lead performances (Ruffalo and Knightley share the kind of chemistry that’s seemingly only developed over many a season of working together) Begin Again also distinguishes itself by not settling for the typical rom-com story arc. It certainly follows structure, but whereas most tend to fail as far as providing surprises is concerned, this little slice of life as a musician in the big city has some wiggle room in terms of deviating from the norm. An unconventional dynamic between the musician and record producer is largely responsible for this. Sidelined for much of the running time is Dan’s estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) who work their way onto the fringe as Dan attempts to pull his life back together.

Indeed, Dan and Gretta may be down but not down for the count. Inspired by the sound Gretta was able to produce with an acoustic guitar and just her voice — yes, that bit from the previews is every bit as charming in the film, especially since it’s prolonged — Dan starts coming up with ideas about what to do next with his career. Will the chance run-in with this talent be enough to turn things around in his life or has he back-peddled too far?

The exploration of the soul through the prism of music is not particularly inventive, but when done right it is rewarding. Doubly so when the music and the story against which its set as a backdrop are both high in quality. Now and again Begin Again contains a few music video-esque sequences (look to the songs ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home’) that seem to heighten both the visual and audio senses. It’s a unique sensory experience that seems to verify Carney’s talents as a genre director. Many will say his 2006 production Once is the superior film to this, considering the thematic and tonal similarities each share. It may be a lesser film but there is no denying the feel-good vibes. These are the kinds of films we can’t really tire of.

At least, not quite as quickly.

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3-5

Recommendation: Featuring a plethora of good songs and talented performers to back up these songs, Begin Again offers an interesting cinematic experience that succeeds in pleasing genre fans, Ruffalo fans, Knightley fans and fans of rich acoustic melodies. Though not always the most original tale, Carney’s drama often overcomes through sheer likability.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not a performer, I just write songs from time to time.”

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

Thanks For Sharing

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Release: Friday, September 20, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

….and now that you have, please don’t ever share again. It might cost us our friendship.

So said Gwyneth Paltrow to Mark Ruffalo’s Adam, who’s celebrating five years of celibacy. Well, maybe ‘celebrating’ is a poor choice of words for this situation, but still. Ruffalo plays a dude who is reticent to having any kind of relationship with another woman at this stage in his life, and the other two lead roles here in Tim Robbin’s Mike and Josh Gad’s Neil, have at some point invariably come to this conclusion in their own journeys through rehabilitation.

The three meet in a support group primarily for sex addiction. The opening scenes show them sharing anecdotes, as well as informing each other of any progress they might be making day-to-day. Each of the three main characters is at a different stage in that progression towards health. For Mike, he’s a recovering alcoholic as well as a former abusive husband and father and has been for years seeking solace in therapy. For Adam, this means being five years removed from his last sexual encounter. Then there’s Neil, who seemingly can’t get a grip on anything at all and it would be a miracle if he went a day without masturbation. Initially, his character would appear to be the most chronic sufferer of a disease which many might view as simply an excuse or a reason to be antisocial. Thanks For Sharing attempts to rectify the stigma, but in so doing, director Stuart Blumberg causes more of a blemish on the subject because it’s far too preachy.

The acting all around is something close to remarkable and has little, if anything, to do with the depressing nature of this film. Ruffalo and Paltrow have great chemistry — not just in the bedroom, either. Tim Robbins is a heartbreaking central figure in that, in some sense, he’s the oldest of this trio and would thereby seem to be at a more advanced stage in his rehab; to assume as much would be a gross oversight though. He’s very much still dependent on therapy.

Then there’s Josh Gad, who I’m slowly starting to build much respect for. He continues to take on roles that are self-deprecating but he manages to portray them in such a way as to come off as ‘the loser,’ but a lovable loser. His Neil might be the best showcase of Gad’s talents. A few other supporting roles contribute, and not the least of which is Pink (a.k.a. Alecia Moore)’s Dede, who joins the support group further into the film; as well, Patrick Fugit plays Mike’s son, Danny, who suddenly reappears in Mike’s life at perhaps an inopportune moment.

There’s no denying Thanks For Sharing‘s bold subject matter — sex addiction is quite the taboo topic and this very fact begs a lot of interesting questions and suggests many an intriguing angle that the director might have and should have taken. Instead, Blumberg relies on old-fashioned romantic-comedy formula to get us through the awkwardness of it all. Relationships are developed as well as they are lost with the snap of a finger. While this is an oversimplification of certain developments and won’t make a great deal of sense until you watch the film yourself, it greatly detracted from any of my intrigue I had going into this film, and quite frankly the management of the relationships — namely between Ruffalo and Paltrow — was intensely annoying and equally so, too-pat and Hollywood-ized.

Let’s get one thing straight: the topic up for master debating in this motion picture is anything but glamorous. Yet Blumberg hires some pretty damn good looking people to bring a deeply personal — and to be repetitive, tabooed — story to the big screen. Please forgive me if the next statement comes off as cruel, but Josh Gad seems to be the most accurately cast actor to fulfill the requirements of a dramatized pervert. He’s a great actor. And he looks the part. I have a very difficult time doing the same with Mark Ruffalo (all Hulkified and shit) and the gorgeous Pepper Potts. There’s an element of insincerity in the cast’s attractiveness that simply doesn’t gel with what is at times some pretty excruciating material.

As Phoebe, Paltrow rarely has been more enticing, but still the object of her affections can’t trust her seemingly good intentions. One of the first things she tells Adam is that she “will never date another addict.” Having much difficulty in finding the right moment, Adam can’t bring himself to admit his problems to her; and then when that day comes, things go down just as one might expect. However, the movie cannot exactly be blamed for forcing an all-too conventional relationship into the story. Adam and Phoebe’s relationship is anything BUT conventional. Yet it’s still somewhat wholly unsatisfying and frustrating.

Fortunately, and to reiterate, the same things can’t be said of Gad’s Neil and his own journey. He becomes more of a centerpiece than Adam in some ways. And one of the more interesting threads ongoing is the complicated relationship between Neil and Adam. Partnered together in the rehab program, Adam is Neil’s “sponsor,” which roughly translates to some kind of confidant. At times, Neil is a gut-wrenchingly tragic character, but he has far more redemption than Adam seems to get or deserve. The same might have applied to Tim Robbin’s Mike had his character not been written as purely a stereotype. While the relationship between him and his son served as a heartwarming subplot, his place in the universe, his “kind” is chalked up to nothing more than a series of cliches.

In short, Thanks For Sharing is one of those hodgepodges of great talent mixing with sub-par material and gratuitously somber direction. There are great moments throughout — particularly pertaining to the meetings with everyone admitting their stories to one another — but there’s rarely a scene that doesn’t beg the question, “This couldn’t have been handled any better than this?” As its Blumberg’s debut feature, perhaps its just inexperience. I applaud him for embracing such a polarizing issue like this, but unfortunately this just feels far too safe for a drama, and too stiff to be labeled comedy for me to definitively approve of the guy as a director just yet.

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2-5Recommendation: There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Blumberg’s first film; however, it’s not developed enough to recommend fully. Catch it on a rental or Netflix or something later; this won’t be anything that will be remembered too soon, which is a shame, considering it’s one of the more interesting-sounding films I had heard of this year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins. 

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

Margaret

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2011 (limited)

[Redbox]

Though the movie has no disclaimer, you should probably bring along your psychologist to this one, since you’ll be in need of immediate therapy after watching Margaret, a highly emotional, lengthy film about a girl who’s attempting to rectify her involvement in a horrific traffic accident.

Don’t let the title throw you. Anna Paquin (True Blood)actually plays the moody protagonist Lisa Cohen, a relatively wealthy New York City teen, daughter of a somewhat successful stage actor (played by J. Smith-Cameron). One day she’s out searching for the perfect cowboy hat and then sees a Metropolitan Transit Authority driver wearing one. In the light of day, surely it would have been easier to just get on the bus and ask him where he got it, but then, we’d have no story. Rather, she frantically tries to keep pace with the slow-moving bus, waving at the driver (Mark Ruffal0) and signaling to his head. With his eyes on Lisa and not the road, the driver blows a red light and strikes a crossing pedestrian. We’re left with a scene of agony, blood and the turn of the movie. The first twenty minutes will shock you.

However, I have no clue how the film then stretched out for another 130. Click here to read about some of the issues it had with the TRT.

After the wreck, we are presented with thorough day-in-the-life scripture. We get to know her home life is not all that great; that her father is distant, living off odd jobs in the Hollywood grind (presumably), and we know she likes to flirt. We meet her schoolteachers: Matt Damon playing the sympathetic geometry teacher who ultimately takes some wrong angles with one of his students; Matthew Broderick as an English instructor not quite in control of his classroom. Among peers, Lisa’s intelligent, proactive and in possession of a great scholarship.

But it all comes apart at the seams after the accident, and her emotional turmoil tightens its grip not only around Lisa’s, but our throats. Turning to adults for advice instead of close friends and even her own mother, Paquin does an excellent job portraying Lisa’s precocious nature; she’s awkward, and hellishly aggressive in trying to privately assess her role in the death of Monica. However, as the implications of her unique circumstances begin to bear more practical relevance (cops, lawyers, families, etc), we also start to feel a bit repelled by it all.

It’s right around the time Lisa decides she will change her statement to local police about how the accident happened, that we notice a change in our lead role here. Originally claiming that the driver had the right-of-way because the signal was green, Lisa needs the truth to come out so justice can be done. But the further into the movie we venture —  that is to say, the deeper we go into her mind — the more abrasive and downright unpleasant Lisa is, and it becomes more difficult to empathize.   While it’s clear the reasons why we tire of her “stridence” (a bomb she drops on Emily, lifelong friend of the dead woman, during one of several severe verbal confrontations), the emotional fragility of this young girl simply overwhelms the picture — leaving us stranded in our seats, fighting for our heart rates to calm down. You’re not meant to be strung out in a movie, in my opinion, but this one certainly will recede the hairline a little.

While there is a fitting resolution, it is not a pleasant one at all. Lisa and her mother Joan are viewing an opera. The weight of the last weeks of Lisa’s life culminate in a breakdown in the theatre, and the two embrace before credits roll. It all ends quietly, as if the movie itself had finally just, … given up. And what do we end up with?

The wrongful death suit settlement they desired after withering the legal procedures and that had consumed Lisa’s, well, for all intents and purposes — her entire being — was worth $350K but that wasn’t enough for either of them. They wanted him gone from the transportation services, but that didn’t happen either due to a conflicting labor dispute among MTA members.

No. In the end there was hope for the reconnect of Lisa with her mother, as they both wept and seemed to be closer together for the first time all movie. But as far as shedding the burden carried by both herself and Emily, it seemed to be rather hopeless.

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2-5Recommendation: I wasn’t a fan, but then again, I don’t think I could kick it on the streets of New York City in the first place.

Rated: R

Running Time: 149 mins.

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

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