Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

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 

Captain Marvel

Release: Friday, March 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck; Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck

Captain Marvel figures to be a significant piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acting as both a standalone origins story and a precursor to Jon Favreau’s standard-setting Iron Man; ipso facto it predates the entire MCU. That’s a pretty bold decision considering how much we are preoccupied with the present and the future of our favorite characters. Unfortunately the story this film tells isn’t quite so bold, the awkward way it ties into the overarching saga arguably a distraction more than it is an exciting talking point. Yet by force of personality Captain Marvel overcomes its weaknesses, and there is no denying the Avengers will be adding another nuke to their already impressive arsenal.

Unbeknownst to me, Captain Marvel is a generic name that actually refers to several characters, the very first appearing in 1967 as Captain Mar-Vell, a male (albeit an alien) military officer sent to our humble corner of the universe to spy on us and who, having grown sympathetic to the plight of mankind, ultimately switched allegiances, becoming a protector of Earth and a traitor to his own race. Multiple incarnations followed, with the character’s gender constantly changing (e.g. Phyla-Vell was female while Khn’nr and others were male) — justified by the episodic nature of comics and their need and ability to adapt.

That brings us to Carol Danvers, a half-human, half-alien super-being whose specific powers — supersonic flight, incredible strength, an ability to control and manipulate energy forms — identify her as one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel realm. As such, she wins the lottery to become the first female subject of a Marvel movie, its 21st overall. Captain Marvel is a reliably entertaining chapter that balances humor with heartache, becoming just as much about the struggle to find her real identity as it is about her discovering her powers and how she decides to wield them. It may not be winning many points in the original storytelling department, but it does have a winning cast of characters, fronted by Brie Larson and a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg and provided depth by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, British actress Lashana Lynch . . . and one Hala of a cat.

Directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known heretofore for indie fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, keep their story pretty earthbound with only a few signature scenes sending us beyond our atmosphere. In terms of scale, it’s surely a bigger deal than Ant-Man, but if Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a tour of the cosmic town, Captain Marvel barely introduces us to our next-door neighbors. The relative intimacy certainly feels appropriate since the human side of the story manifests as a journey inward, into the heart and mind of a character unsure of herself. The superhero plot meanwhile draws elements from the Kree-Skrull War comic book storyline, setting up an intergalactic war between two alien races wherein we innocent earthlings get caught in the middle and need Captain Marvel to come to our defense.

Captain Marvel opens on an alien world known as Hala, the galactic capital of the Kree Empire. A young woman named Vers is awakening from a nightmare involving some older woman who looks a lot like Annette Bening, but that’s impossible since this kind of material is several fathoms beneath an actress of her caliber. But upon closer inspection I confirmed it is indeed Bening, playing a mystical figure referred to as the Supreme Intelligence, to whom Vers is sent at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is concerned about Vers’ inability to control her emotions. The Supreme Intelligence doubles down on that cautionary advice before sending the pair on a dangerous mission to rescue an undercover operative on a distant planet overrun by the enemy Skrulls. Naturally the mission goes awry when the team gets ambushed and Vers becomes separated from Yon-Rogg and her other Starforce colleagues, the former crash-landing on some scrap pile known as C-53 (a.k.a. Earth). Even worse, she’s a fish out of water in mid-90s L.A. and if fashion is anything to go by, it isn’t exactly our species’ finest hour (luckily she didn’t crash land a decade earlier).

Vers is soon intercepted by a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing gentlemen who work for an agency whose name should never have been provided in this film for continuity’s sake. A two-eyed Nick Fury and a Just For Men advocate in young Phil Coulson witness something extraordinary when a Skrull invader crashes the scene. Because the Skrulls have this ability to change their appearance, identifying friend from foe becomes problematic, with a notable alien named Talos taking the form of Fury’s higher-up and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Mendelsohn) and another impersonating Agent Coulson. After shaking this shape-shifting shit off Fury, at the direction of Talos the predictable script, leads Vers to a U.S. Air Force Base place of thematic relevance where she finds clues to her past life — photographic evidence of her as a pilot and news clippings presuming her dead after a disastrous testing of an experimental new engine designed by a Dr. Wendy Lawson (played by Spoiler Spoilerson).

She also learns she had a close friend in Maria Rambeau (Lynch), an important link in the ole’ jogging-the-memory chain (not to mention in the realm of the MCU at large — her daughter Monica, played by an instantly lovable Akira Akbar, ostensibly set to play yet another version of Captain Marvel in the sequel — Ms. Marvel, perhaps?). The scene at the house in Louisiana is among the film’s best, the emotion that comes pouring out here no doubt a result of the indie flavor the directing tandem have brought to this much bigger project. Whether it is Lynch describing what it feels like to see her bestie return from the dead — hence the longevity of the MCU,  the human cost of being in the superhero biz has always been handled in an interesting way — or Mendelsohn getting a really juicy character whose intentions are not what they first seem, Captain Marvel soars in these more grounded moments.

Even as the action takes a turn for the surprisingly cooperative, the character work is ultimately what saves Captain Marvel from its own Negative Zone of mediocrity. While the action sequences are worthy of the big screen treatment they aren’t as integral to the personality of the film as Larson is in the title role. At one time considered too young to play the part of an Air Force pilot (this was before the filmmakers double-checked with members of the American Air Force who confirmed it is possible for a 26-year-old to be so accomplished), Larson acquits herself with the utmost confidence, maturing from reckless and unpredictable to every bit the noble warrior hero she so advertises her people as to her de facto partner in Agent Fury.

Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is by far Larson’s most high-profile role to date and while the plight of the superhero is unfamiliar territory for someone who has developed herself through such intimate human dramas as Room and Short Term 12, you wouldn’t know it based on her confidence and how much fun she’s having here. And sorry to break it to the basement dwelling trolls who review-bombed her new movie, a perma-smile does not for a natural performance make. I personally don’t need to see someone smiling through every damn frame of the movie to know they’re enjoying themselves, or to know what this material and this role means to them.

What is this thing called The Oregon Trail?

Recommendation: While I didn’t think Captain Marvel is a game-changer — save for the first earthly encounter with the Skrulls the action scenes are pretty forgettable — it certainly has its strengths, namely the lead character and the friends she ends up making along the way. It might go without saying for most of these Important Marvel Movies but considering the way this one was seemingly preordained to fail by insecure men before it even opened, it really seems that ignoring the internet has never been more crucial in allowing you to experience the film on your own terms. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “You know anything about a lady blowing up a Blockbuster? Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag.”

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

Decades Blogathon – Stand By Me (1986)

1986

 

My apologies for a late posting today, folks. But better late than never, right? Joining in the discussion today we have Courtney from On the Screen Reviews. That site is a great one to go to if you’re looking for a variety of film reviews and yearly Top Tens. Check it out if you haven’t already, you won’t be sorry! Thanks again for helping us make this blogathon a great one Courtney, the floor is yours! 


Three Rows Back and Digital Shortbread are hosting the Decades Blogathon, a 10(ish) day event in which film critics take a look at movies from different decades. This month we’re choosing films from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016), and there’s no restrictions.

For my contribution, I’ve chosen to cover the coming-of-age classic that made the train dodge a timeless pastime, Stand by Me.

You guys wanna see a dead body . . . ?

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“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in 1959, a long time ago, but only if you measure in term of years.”

With the overhaul of pre-teen movies that force your brain to regress in order to comprehend, it should be unanimously agreed that Stand by Me follows a blueprint of movie making that seems impossible to recreate. Recent movies like Super 8 attempted to capture youthful nostalgia, but didn’t dig deep enough to reach the gritty reality of adolescence. Stand by Me offers no gimmicks, no aliens, no gadgets, but raw human emotion.

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Stand by Me is a movie about four 12-year-old-boys living in a small town in Oregon around 1959 who go on a total boy adventure Labor Day weekend to find an undiscovered dead body. It’s narrated in present-day by a novelist (Richard Dreyfuss) who recalls the weekend that inspired his writing. (That old 80s computer tho! If that doesn’t resonate with you, I don’t know what will!!!)

Their weekend journey is the first taste of real life for the four boys and the last real taste of innocence; I think this is what resonates with viewers like myself the most. It eliminates the awkward introduction of girls into their lifestyle (because they haven’t reached that point in life yet), and focuses on more pertinent philosophical questions of that age like “Do you think Mighty Mouse can beat Superman?” Conversations around the campfire seem endless and pinky swears seem bound in blood.

The movie takes another risk filmmakers refuse to take today — it’s rated R! It’s unpretentious, hilarious and absolutely genuine with its plot and dialogue. Kids at the age of 12 are going to swear as much as this movie suggests, so why bleep it out? Stand by Me keeps it real, most notably with it’s script, which translates to some of the best scenes by young actors in cinematic history.

Here are some of my favorites scenes:

Teddy’s Freakout

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The movie really hones in on small town life and what it’s like to know everybody. In the junk yard scene where the crotchety man calls Teddy’s (Corey Feldman) father “a looney,” Teddy erupts, “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your neck!” Firstly, what a creative and vulgarly descriptive insult! Teddy’s father allegedly stormed the beach at Normandy, and despite his father being total garbage to Teddy, he has the utmost respect for him. That’s commendable, and it unfolds layers of Teddy’s character that are deeper than one may anticipate. If it isn’t obvious, this movie really shows that boys have emotions too.

Kiefer Sutherland in any scene

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Kiefer Sutherland is a bona fide badass in this movie, and he’s one of the most believable assholes on screen in the 80s! It takes effort now-a-days to convince me that a character is the scum of the Earth, mostly due to poor acting or casting decisions, but Sutherland embodied every aspect of the sociopath Ace. Despite stealing every scene he’s in, the most character defining scene comes at the end where he affirms that he’s willing to kill a kid to get what he wants. Great acting and character embodiment by Sutherland. I would not fuck with him.

Train Dodge

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The train dodge scene is probably the scene most associated with the movie and one of my personal favorites. What I love about the train dodge is the giant metaphor being slammed in your face that the train is your life — it’s coming no matter what, and you damn sure better be ready for it. Not only is it one of the more hilarious, heart-pounding scenes, but it’s an affirmation that some kids can handle it and some can’t.

The Deer

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The deer scene comes as a breath of fresh air in-between dramatic scenes offering a reflection for both the character of Gordie and the audience. It showcases Gordie’s consciousness as a child in that he is in-tune with his creativity as an aspiring writer. There are also subtleties of the scene that I love — his smirk, the comic book he’s reading, the fact that no one else saw the deer and that he keeps the moment to himself . . . until now.

The Closing Scene

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“Chris did get out. He enrolled in the college-courses with me. And although it was hard, he gutted it out like he always did. He went onto college and eventually became a lawyer. Last week he entered a fast food restaurant. Just ahead of him, two men got into an argument. One of them pulled out a knife. Chris, who would always make the best peace tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly. Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever.”

I think the last scene of the boys is probably one of the most relevant for the actors. The final shot of Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) walking into the distance slowly fading away is an eerie premonition of his actual fate of an overdose at the age of 23. The final scene really shows how friends grow apart in life, and that’s okay. The boys all have revelations that each is struggling with something whether it’s being bullied over weight or having an abusive parent . . . they all persevere and it shapes their characters. The character of Chris Chambers is one of my favorites, because despite coming from a crappy family situation, he had the ability to make his life better. It may sound cliche, but it shows the power of perseverance without the director making it overly showy.

This is a movie that resonates with me long after viewing and it’s really never left me.

Let me know your favorite scenes from the movie!  GIF 6


Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Peanuts Movie

'The Peanuts Movie' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Shulz; Craig Shulz; Cornelius Uliano

Directed by: Steve Martino

In The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is still (mostly) the center of attention and adults remain out of sight, except for the few who lend their voices to the tune of a muffled, and possibly mangled, kazoo.

Here is a movie of extraordinarily simple pleasures, about a boy who crushes hard on the new redheaded girl at school and whose dog writes a compelling bit of fiction that details his most recent clash with the Red Barron. There is absolutely nothing here that you haven’t seen before, be it in previous incarnations of ‘Peanuts’ in celluloid form, in the comic strip or in any middling bit of entertainment aimed towards children 6-12. Surprisingly, in the comfortable and safe confines of unremarkable direction familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds deep pangs of nostalgia.

I can’t even remember the last time I watched or so much as looked at anything ‘Peanuts’-related. It has to be at least a decade since, not counting, of course, the teaser posters that were unveiled last year for this film. Three years ago this project was announced, but I don’t know where I was. Sleeping on top of a doghouse, perhaps? (I have always considered myself more of a Snoopy than a Charlie Brown.) This November marks the 65th anniversary of the comic strip’s debut, and the 50th anniversary since the first TV movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The strip itself ran for half a century, debuting in 1950 and ending in 2000. Of course, its beloved creator, Charles M. Shulz, passed away the day before his final Sunday strip ran in the papers.

As any ‘Peanuts’ fan knows the strip wasn’t destined for continuation as the Shulz family felt strongly about Charles remaining its first and only drawer. That might partially explain why we don’t get anything even close to original in The Peanuts Movie, a product now 15 years removed from the end of a significant era. Shulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan drafted a production that honors the legacy without stepping on any hand-drawn toes.

The formula requires introducing Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) to a “new” obstacle. Yes, he’s still having major issues with getting his kite to fly but when a new girl moves in next door, he finds himself with bigger fish to fry. Smitten by The Redheaded Girl, he remains paralyzed with fear when it comes to walking up to her and introducing himself. The conflict manifests as an amalgam of many smaller social anxieties good old Chuck has had in the past, be it overcoming Lucy’s bullying or avoiding Peppermint Patty’s advances: “You kind of like me, don’t you Chuck?” Charlie’s often been involved in love drama and that’s not the only thing that hasn’t changed here.

In the movie he must overcome his pessimism, and prove himself worthy of The Redheaded Girl’s affections.

In the movie he struggles, as he always has, to understand his place in the bigger picture when he aces a test and suddenly becomes popular.

In the movie he muffs the punt on the football, because Lucy is still a jerk.

The movie isn’t all about Charlie Brown, though. You guessed correctly. Snoopy, along with his trusted ally Woodstock (both of whom are given life thanks to archived recordings of Bill Melendez), dreams — writes, even — of the moment he rescues his own damsel in distress in the form of an exciting aerial adventure. The Red Barron, curse him, will stop at nothing to ensure Snoopy doesn’t succeed. A subplot as whimsical as it is perfunctory.

Here’s a production that manages to extend the legacy without expanding much of its horizon. It’s a win-win: we reap the benefits of being reunited with some of our favorite comic strip characters; the Shulz family will undoubtedly reap the financial benefits of the big screen treatment.

Charlie, Snoopy and Woodstock Got Talent

Recommendation: Good grief this is a nostalgic movie. Fans of ‘Peanuts’ should and probably will see this regardless of anything I write. I think it’s kind of telling that this is the first G-rated film I have reviewed on the blog. I just couldn’t resist diving back into this world, even if it is exactly the same as when I last left it.

Rated: G

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You say you’ll hold it, but what you really mean is you’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and I’ll kill myself.” 

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

Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

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

TBT: Flubber (1997)

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

Today’s food for thought: Flubber.

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Bouncing off the walls since: November 26, 1997

[VHS]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

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

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

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

TBT: Days of Thunder (1990)

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Welcome to September’s edition of TBT! Though I wasn’t wild about trying to theme out this particular thread over the course of even something as short as a month, seeing as though I have a slight issue with consistency and all. . .I feel there’s a very good reason to try it out for this month. Given that on September 27, the latest Ron Howard picture, Rush,  is set to drop, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at some badass car movies. Initially I was going to try to restrict the theme simply to racing movies, but since yours truly has pretty limited racing film experience, I broadened the theme to include any really cool movie involving high speed cars, car chases, and yes, race sequences. Whether the film is character-driven as it dives into famous racer profiles (as Rush will here in a couple of weeks; and boy, do I hope this film proves to be the bounce-back Howard needs after his latest outing, The Dilemma. . . ) or whether the film just happens to show some ludicrous albeit highly entertaining car stunts throughout, this is the month to get your adrenaline fix as we throw it back to some older films involving automobiles. Enjoy! 

Today’s food for thought: Days of Thunder

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Release: June 27, 1990

[DVD]

A very young, moody Tom Cruise dons the racing gloves and other appropriately goofy garb required of NASCAR drivers as he steps into the role of Cole Trickle, an extremely talented but emotionally unstable young driver who finds himself putting his foot back on the gas pedal following some events that likely could have sidelined him in the NASCAR world for the rest of his career. Fortunately, this is a movie and so his character will end up getting his perhaps all-too-easily-earned shot at redemption at some point or another.

Being the first of a series of three back-to-back films to star Nicole Kidman alongside Tom Cruise (the other two being Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut), Days of Thunder is a riveting action film which may not exactly be the most accurate portrayal of life in the NASCAR circuit but what it may lack in certain factual consistency it makes up for with its passionate storytelling and energetic, high-intensity race scenes.

There’s something about Days of Thunder and the way the late Tony Scott managed to capture the rambunctious, unpredictable and often grimy, filthy nature of the culture surrounding stock car racing. It is not tonally the most consistent film ever created, nor is it always as compelling as it ought to be, however there’s enough of a tinge of sentimentality in the capturing of sunset on race day, a nostalgic youth in the performances delivered by Cruise, Kidman and the intimidating veteran racer Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) that elevates the overall production.

Returning to this film is always a treat, given the solid cast and moments of terror and fear experienced on the track at high speeds. Indeed, one may not remember all that much from this film other than a couple of significant developments in the final race scene, Tom Cruise’s smile and Nicole Kidman’s accent when she gets mad (“Get out of the cahhh, Cole!”), but the few images and memories that one manages to keep from that first viewing are likely to be fond.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

During the Firecracker 400 race in Daytona, a massive wreck occurs and sweeps up both Rowdy and Cole who both sustain injuries — though Cole comes out with far less serious ones. Rowdy’s future all of a sudden is in jeopardy (at least in terms of performing on the track) since the attending doctor (cue the red-headed Australian actress) says he is suffering severe head trauma. While both racers have to take some time off, some interesting developments occur both on and off the track. Cole starts seeing this brilliant doctor for more than just the routine check-up, and soon their relationship blossoms. Meanwhile, another racer is brought onto the team to fill in for the still-recuperating Cole, a smug, arrogant driver named Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who’s only goal is to make everyone forget about Cole Trickle.

His confidence shaken, Cole finds himself struggling to make sense out of his own life and in particular, his career choice since all he wants to do is get back into his car and win. . . win big. But with the added perspective of his newfound romantic interest, perhaps there’s more to life than driving around in circles all day hoping to not get into another life-threatening wreck (you have to remember, this film was set/made during a time when safety protocol wasn’t quite up to the standards set today). To make matters worse, Cole finds himself fired from the team by Daland, after he and Russ get into an altercation following an illegal move made by Russ in pit lane. It would seem Cole is out of the scene and out of a job. Cue your typical ‘hero-seeks-consolation-from-jaded-mentor’ scene.

Cole seeks out Harry, who, after being humiliated at the race track in the wake of the fight, has isolated himself once again to his secluded farmhouse and is not exactly pleased to see Cole trying to make a return to racing — much less, ask for him to be involved. Of course, Harry caves — but will the team be the same ever again?

There are moments throughout the film that may induce some yawns, but in general the atmosphere created by Scott’s decidedly Southern film is thoroughly enjoyable and provides yet another different role for Tom Cruise — the man who seemingly has now seen and done it all. Duvall is reliably heartwarming as Cole’s mentor, friend and coworker, and perhaps this movie might not have been so inspiring had it lacked presence from a man of his stature. Kidman is, well. . . I don’t really like Kidman at all and continually find her annoying and repelling. Here, she’s more neutral even though at times her reasons to protect Cole and certainly her emotional flare-ups are questionably fleeting and unconvincing. She was brought in more for a foil for our protagonist to have second-thoughts about himself, more so than the romantic interest. It’s quite easy to see through her character. However, she’s the weakest link and the rest of the cast turn in solid work.

I touched on it at the beginning of the previous paragraph, but the fact that this is an atmospheric film needs to be emphasized more. As is true for many sporting events, going to races has the added bonus of one feeling like they’re contributing to some larger idea; the closer you get to sit to the track, the more you feel a part of the race, a part of the culture. The more you feel involved in a general sense. In that way, this film is quite impressive in detailing both spectacle and circumstance surrounding any given race (a few of the highlights include the Darlington “Lady in Black” Raceway and the Daytona 500). These aspects are what make it a truly enjoyable watch, a staple of the ’90s. In fact, I’d venture to argue that most of the enjoyment resides in these aspects, and not simply in the fact that the feature boasts one of America’s most popular big-screen performers. We’ll keep that between us, though, because I’m not sure how Tom Cruise’s ego would take that news. . .

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3-5Recommendation: This likely isn’t THE definitive racing movie, but it likely could be (for now) the definitive race movie based around NASCAR events. Its hardly a true story, though elements from real-life events were loosely referenced throughout. Any fan of the sport of racing in general should have passed the checkered flag by now but if you’re circling the last lap in getting around to this film, don’t worry about your position in this race. What matters is whether or not you cross the finish line at all. Days of Thunder is well worth the effort and time required to seek it out.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Where were you when this film came out? 

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Photo credits: http://www.idolosol.com; http://www.motorsportsretro.com 

TBT: Remember Blockbuster? Yeah, it’s still around

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Today’s Throwback post is just a wee bit different. Instead of ranting/raving about a movie from yesteryear, I’d like to go back and revisit some of the old avenues of moviegoing, during a time when I didn’t go to the theater as often (primarily because I was in school. . . well that, and I probably couldn’t get into most movies that were any good at the time because I was underage).

The thought dawned on me a little while ago about how little I so much as even think about renting movies from places like Blockbuster and whatever chains are still around in “fierce” competition with it. I still don’t have a Netflix account, but I’ll be looking to get one soon so renting films will be THAT much more convenient. With that said, I want to go back to a time and place where all we had were the stores to go buy/rent/check out stuff that’s just come out on DVD/VHS. In the process, I’m probably going to be very nostalgic and reminisce quite a lot — by definition that’s what this thread is all about — so I apologize if this becomes too emotional for anyone. . . .

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Opened: October, 1985 (Dallas, TX)

[Store]

Remember walking into that immensely packed store full of shelves that were cluttered with DVD, VHS and video game titles and packages? The smell of all that collective plastic and — yes, the carpets — are forever seared into my nose’s memory. It was the same feeling I believe people get when they enter old libraries — being amongst a collection of creations, some made for informative purposes, some for simple, pure escapism. Blockbuster is hardly as big as a library, but it may as well be the library of home video. The blue-and-yellow partially-ripped ticket graphic that comprised the company logo is one of my favorite logos from back in the day. It still is today, but unfortunately I see fewer and fewer of these signs. This is due to a couple of things changing: chiefly, the way we consume. The advent of Netflix, Redbox and other similarly convenient avenues through which we rent and purchase our movies — hello, streaming — make going to Blockbuster seem like you’re going out of your way to get a movie.

Secondly, these stores have been closing left and right. In 2004, Blockbuster hit its peak with over 9,000 stores in the United States. As of this year, that number is down to 500. I’m sure Knoxville, TN is hardly an exception either. There is still one in Farragut, where I grew up, and I think a few more are dotted around the area but man is it easy to forget that they are there now. While they still have over 2,500 stores worldwide, they no longer dominate the block as they once did. I think I’ve bought more movies from Wal-Mart than I have ever rented anything from Blockbuster. (Sorry, buddy. It’s true.)

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Even despite the store’s prolonged, if not inevitable, decrease in popularity, Blockbuster in the 1990s could have been the last bastion of the “classic family rental experience” (if there is such a thing). I think of it as the kindergarten of moviegoing from which I’d go on to realize how much I love film as a medium and a form of entertainment. When a competing chain (Hollywood Video) was constructed across the street, it got no love from the Little family. We continued to make our trips to the land of blue-and-yellow. (I think that chain is now defunct, as it was bought out in 2005 by Movie Gallery.) Aside from the obvious convenience of being able to order/rent movies online now and at good old Redbox, perhaps no experience can rival what it was like going into a Blockbuster and rummaging around through their seemingly endless shelves, searching for the perfect late-night entertainment (late night at the time meaning, like, 9 or 10 p.m.) The checking out process would rarely finish up without me insisting on buying some candy at the counter to go with it.

Alas, those days are long gone. Despite my fond memories of Blockbuster visits, it’s really now that is the time to rent — rent cheaply and rent a lot! If you’re going to Redbox, you may as well pick up a couple of titles since it’s all of $1.29 (I am irked by the fact that prices continue to go up on these, it used to be $1.09) per day that you keep hold of them. Netflix and other similar online/game console features allow you even more control over how much and what you want to watch on any given evening. If you watch movies on Netflix online, it’s even more portable. Take some flicks to go with you on that long drive back home. Flixter is a convenient new thing I’ve gotten into being an active visitor on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve earned a few free downloads including The Perfect Storm, The Iron Giant, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

I’m certainly not unhappy about the new options we have today. It IS incredibly convenient with the number of different ways you can obtain. . . stuff, and with any luck it can be less expensive at times as well. I know Netflix continues to raise their monthly rates, and the price on Redbox dailies have increased by two dimes but hey, who’s counting. It’s still damn affordable; moreso than the $12 or $15 at the box office for crying out loud. And the best news of all is that stores like Blockbuster Home Video are still around for you to pop in every once in a while to see what you may have missed in theaters, or to see if there’s something random out there you might be bold enough to try without knowing anything about beforehand. This may be one more edge these stores might still have over Redbox et al: diversity. I can’t say for sure, but I know that with each trip I take to Redbox (granted, I go A LOT) the selections seem to be more limited each time. They only seem to hold about 200 or so titles, and I guarantee the blue-and-yellow holds far more than that. There’s probably that many in the horror section alone.

If ever you’re feeling in the mood for browsing a physical library of DVDs, video games and other stuff, the doors to Blockbuster will be wide open — mainly because there aren’t too many folks traveling through them! But there’s no doubt the game has changed for these companies. It’s tough to imagine it getting any easier for them, either.

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But hey, what about you and your relationship with Blockbuster —

What/how was your first Blockbuster experience? When’s the last time you went, and do you remember what you rented? 

How many stores are left where you live? Do you go there at all? 

Do you use other outlets such as Netflix and Redbox? How often do you go out to see movies at the theaters, knowing there’s a cheaper option — renting at a later date? 


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Photo credits: http://www.wikipedia.org; http://www.salon.com; http://www.flickr.com