In the Tall Grass

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Vincenzo Natali

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

Last year Netflix inadvertently triggered the Bird Box Challenge, which set a new standard for stupidity when it comes to audience interaction/reaction. This year it’s given us another curio ripe for parody in the form of Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass. A horror film based on a novella cowritten by father-and-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, it’s about people wandering into an endless field of grass and, uh, getting something a little worse than lost, their only hope for survival lying in a big chunk of stone planted smack dab in the middle. In the Tall Grass doesn’t quite have the meme potential as Bird Box but it certainly invites mockery in the same way.

There’s a caveat to all this cynicism of course. I have not read the short story upon which the movie is based. Judging by the reviews from those who have, I’m not sure if that’s actually good or bad news. I do know my lack of background changes this review substantially; I can’t decry it as “yet another botched Stephen King adaptation.” Instead I can only review In the Tall Grass for what it is — a slightly above-average Netflix offering whose completely confusing, “let’s make this stuff up as we go along” narrative may or may not be worth your headache.

It’s a Friday, so I’m leaning more towards “is headache worthy.” The premise is nuts, but mostly works if you just go with the flow — and if you bring some of your own grass to the show, too. That can’t possibly hurt. It could make things more confusing, but then this is a maze so whack you can easily get lost in it stone cold sober. The ridiculousness starts with a brother and sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted), pulling off the road in the middle of corn belt USA. They’re en route to the west coast so Becky can find a family to adopt her yet-to-be-born baby. They then hear a cry for help coming from the nearby field, where grass grows high enough to conceal Shaquille O’Neal. A boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) claims he has been stuck in there for some time. Another voice begs them not to come in.

Throwing caution to the wind the pair enter anyway and quickly find that some funny business is going on. Getting separated is not just easy, it seems inevitable and disorientation is taken to a whole other level. I suppose here’s as good a place as any to praise the film for its technical prowess. In the Tall Grass is surprisingly stylish, cinematographer Craig Wrobleski providing a number of effective and dizzying camera angles that make the fields look both beautiful and menacing. Sound designer David Rose is indispensable in providing ambience, the rustling of the blades in the breeze at once soothing and ominous — combined with an eerie score by Mark Korven it really creates an unsettling atmosphere out of very simple elements.

The field is apparently playing for keeps with other lost souls, including a man named Ross (Patrick Wilson) who is the boy’s father. Some time ago he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) became separated while chasing down their son. He now stumbles across an increasingly panicking Becky, whose pregnancy is causing a great deal of discomfort on its own. Ross attempts to calm her, extolling the virtues of parenthood and then telling her he believes he’s found a way out of this seemingly never-ending maze. Meanwhile an equally disconcerted Cal encounters Tobin, who imparts wisdom in a creepily omniscient manner while burying a dead crow: “The grass doesn’t move dead things.”

In what appears to be the next day, none other than the dude who ran out on Becky arrives at the same field. Guilt has landed Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) here — either that or stalker tendencies, I’m still not sure which. This is where the story gets really gooey, plummeting us into a labyrinth of strange time paradoxes, an ever more hostile environment in which the grass takes on a decidedly more villainous role, where the significance of the rock takes on supernatural overtones. Where people who were literally moments ago discovered as rotting corpses are now alive and well. Where Patrick Wilson transforms from a real estate agent with a fondness for CCR to a David Koresh type with an infatuation with a stone monolith.

It isn’t an exceptionally large cast and the whole game is really just about survival. Yet Natali’s approach does not go as the crow flies. There are so many detours within the brush it can be challenging to keep up with everyone and who’s looking after whom, where loyalties truly lie. It doesn’t help that when things take a turn for the truly nightmarish the literal darkness conceals and consumes identities, obscuring friend from foe and human from, uh, grass people. In the Tall Grass is ultimately that film where the less you think the more you gain. Questions arise at every ill-advised zig and zag, and if you feel so inclined to take notes on the film’s internal logic as events unfold perhaps all of those will be answered by the film’s abrupt conclusion. Sometimes it’s best to not fight against yourself or the fait accompli the movie presents. For the most part the descent into madness is rendered with enough creativity and provocative imagery to make you think twice about entering a corn maze this Halloween.

We’re all losing our heads out here!

Recommendation: I’ve got to think this movie goes down as a bitter pill for those coming in with expectations set by the short story. For me, I’m a big Patrick Wilson fan so that definitely elevated the experience. The acting around him isn’t quite as convincing, but it’s enough to hook you in. The premise in itself is a good hook. But then there are elements like “grass people” that kind of make this movie just as easy (and fun) to mock as it is to embrace as a chilling tale of survivalism. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Here in the garden of forking paths, you didn’t make any one choice. You made every choice. And they all led back to me.”

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

Aquaman

Release: Friday, December 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick; Will Beall

Directed by: James Wan

Four weeks on and the box office still hasn’t dried up for DC’s latest superhero origins story, the rise of one Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman. Director James Wan has kinda done the unthinkable (not to mention given his bosses a nice Christmas present) by making a boatload of money — cracking the $1 billion mark this past weekend — with a movie that could not be more out of season. To me, a title like Aquaman screams summer blockbuster. Yet here we are in January, teeth chattering, talking about the highest-grossing DCEU film to date and the fifth-highest grossing film of 2018. Apparently, the fact that half the world still has months to go before they even start thinking about getting their beach bods back hasn’t been a factor.

Its release window isn’t the only thing whacky about Aquaman, a largely underwater-set action extravaganza starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa as the amphibious half-breed. Wan goes big on the special effects (as he always has, now just with more CGI pizzazz, and damn does this become a pretty thing to look at) but he goes pretty much all-out in trying to restore a little dignity to DC, proving his new employers aren’t nihilists obsessed with suffering. Aquaman embraces the absurdity inherent in its very existence, both in dialogue and in action, winking-and-nudging at the audience at every opportune moment — especially during those where bad guys are seen riding on souped-up seahorses, talking of uniting the Seven Seas and mounting an insurrection against those godless land-living creatures.

Aquaman certainly plays the part of a commercial-friendly summer winter blockbuster in terms of delivering big action spectacle, pounding the pavement immediately with an opening confrontation before moving on to successively bigger (and increasingly ridiculous) stand-offs that are as grand in scale as anything we have come across in the DCEU. If it isn’t Leviathan size, it’s the over-the-top masculinity of the combat scenes and the objects that are incorporated into them that make them larger than life — at one point I do believe the Fishboy can be seen conking an opponent on the noggin with the head of a missile. The fights are actually fairly clean — choreographically and just plain graphically — but what truly sets Aquaman apart in this regard is the exoticness of the locations, with half of the action taking place in ornate, gorgeously rendered submarine worlds where light refracts and splinters into shards of pale yellows and greens.

But (and here is the part where I expect to get laughed at) perhaps what is most unexpected from a DC film is the depth of the story, and I mean beyond the eyeball-popping pressures of the ocean bottom and gratuitous Amber Heard cleavage. (She plays Princess Mera, and aside from the predictably revealing outfits, this is probably her best role in years.) The thrust of the narrative concerns ideas of unity and cooperation and that works on scales both large and small. While the superhero thread follows the title character’s eventual acceptance of his status as a powerful leader, one who’s prophesied to bridge the two worlds (the land and the sea), the more human side finds Arthur struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his birth and the sacrifice his mother made in the interest of keeping her family safe.

As the mythology goes, Arthur is conceived out of a deep love between a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis, a once surface-level sovereignty now damned to the oceanic depths after a catastrophic meteor strike. As that opening fight scene reveals, Atlanna isn’t quite human. Her actions — falling in love with and marrying a human man with whom she conceives a child, who will possess the ability to communicate with all marine lifeforms — have made her a traitor to the people of Atlantis, and have earned the intense ire of Orm (Patrick Wilson), her other son and the current ruler of the aquatic civilization.

When Arthur comes of age and learns about his powers — fine-tuned with the guidance of trusted confidante Vulko (Willem Dafoe), also a ‘scientific advisor’ to King Orm — and what he represents to both sides, he of course does the very un-superheroic thing and hides away from the world, rejecting Atlantis and the very notion he can be a savior to all, including his own family. He isn’t entirely incapable of doing good deeds, as we observe in an early scene where he saves a gaggle of sailors from a Russian sub hijacking. In the process he also makes an enemy in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father Arthur mercilessly leaves to drown. Whoops.

Enter Princess Mera, who, despite this being the guy who actually defeated Steppenwolfe, begrudgingly convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis and face his half-brother, who has set his sights on the destruction of the surface world. Heard and Momoa share a playfully antagonistic chemistry that helps Aquaman stay afloat through its most silly moments. And while we’re on the subject, it is very awkward the way Wan crowbars in commentary on oceanic pollution in a film that really doesn’t want nor need to be taken seriously — that’s a reality that does need to be taken seriously, and inserting it here is more than corny, it’s disingenuous. As they embark on a globetrotting adventure to track down the Trident of Atlan, a powerful artifact that only the worthiest of Ocean Masters can wield, we endure the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert and then hop on over to the Italian isle of Sicily, experiencing setbacks (hello, Black Manta!) and personal revelations along the way.

Despite the patently absurd final battle and a few other sidebar items, at its core this is a family affair, with Arthur and Orm diametrically opposed in ideology yet almost one and the same in terms of conviction and what they are willing to sacrifice to win. Ultimately it is in Arthur’s longing for his parents to be together once more where Aquaman becomes arguably every bit the emotional journey as Diana Prince’s loss of innocence as depicted in Wonder Woman. His inner turmoil, expressed by a quite natural and earnest Momoa, help me more easily overlook the clunky narrative at-large, the predictable writing (who didn’t see that epic under-water kiss coming?) and cheesy dialogue: “Redheads, gotta love ’em!” [proceeds to throw self out of plane while a caged goat bleats in horror.]

Yes, Aquaman is conceptually whacky, narratively clunky and overly reliant on CGI on more than one occasion. But the numbers don’t lie. This movie is a crowd-pleasing good time that ticks the biggest Superhero Blockbuster box of all — prioritizing fun and escapist entertainment above all. Against many odds, Aquaman is a DCEU installment that swims far more than it sinks.

My trident is cooler than your trident.

Recommendation: This movie has been out for nearly five weeks as of this writing. You’ve either seen it or aren’t going to. Not much more I can really say here. (Oh, there is this: if you’ve wondered whatever happened to James Wan’s partner-in-heinous-crime from the Saw days, Leigh Whannell apparently appears as a cargo pilot in this film — which I find hilarious. The trajectories of these two filmmakers have been quite incomparable.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “What are we doing?”

“Hiding inside a whale. I got this from Pinocchio!”

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

The Commuter

Release: Friday, January 12, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Byron Willinger; Philip de Blasi; Ryan Engle

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Commuter is the fourth time director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have teamed up to deliver you the questionable goods. Sure, it was Pierre Morel’s Taken that discovered the fountain of ass-kicking youth within the 66-year-old actor, but it’s Serra who has really taken that template and run with it, testing its flexibility by placing the aging but clearly still agile action star in a variety of gritty situations. He’s experienced identity fraud, dealt with the Irish mafia and beaten up terrorists at cruising altitude. Though he hasn’t achieved much distinction with this approach, in championing quantity over quality the barceloní is at least giving us options.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to actually recommend something as . . . . bleghhh as The Commuter. Of all the vehicles built around Neeson’s very particular set of skills, the train thus far has proven to be the least effective. Or at least its villains have. The story is also disappointingly a retread of 2014, borrowing everything but the pilots and tray tables in their upright and locked position from that year’s Non-stop. 

In this one Neeson plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley who has been working in life insurance for the last ten years. He has taken the train in and out of the city every single day and because he has, Michael begins the film like everyone else, as persona very grata, before invariably getting roped into a murder conspiracy that could have fatal consequences for all. Think you’ve had a bad day? Try having this shoved on your plate after being unceremoniously let go from a job you desperately need.

Moments into yet another ordinary commute home (minus the whole being fired part) Michael is joined by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her capacity) who can’t help but dump the plot all over his lap. In an Agatha Christie way she informs Michael there is one passenger on board who “does not belong,” and that, hypothetically, if he were to locate that person he would be rewarded with $100,000. The catch is he has no idea what the person looks like, the days of profiling complete strangers are far behind him, and (again, hypothetically) he must find the individual before the train reaches the end of the line. When Michael finds a stash of Ben Franklins in a lavatory he discovers that there is nothing hypothetical about this proposal.

Rounding out cast notables are Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. The former, who reunites with Farmiga for the first time outside the realm of The Conjuring universe, offers a confidante in ex-partner Alex Murphy (like in RoboCop!) when things go all pear-shaped for Michael. Meanwhile Neill is absolutely wasted in the vastly underwritten role of Captain Name’s Not Important. At least one of them is meant to suggest something about corrupt cops and departments, but there’s just not enough material here to get a feel for what is being said about it. Yes, crooked cops. Those are . . . those are bad.

The Commuter should be praised for its commitment to realism — insofar as ‘real’ means mundane, uneventful. Yet that same tactic tends to tip the film itself into mundanity. Despite there being an attempt to survey the moral depths of his character, Michael just isn’t interesting enough to justify the sheer randomness of his involvement. On one hand, the film’s lack of big action feels appropriate, but then it leaves you with plenty of time to ponder on the motives of the villains. Or how many trains derail every year.

Look, what mechanizes these kinds of late-career action films doesn’t have to be some sophisticated scheme nor do they need to be borne out of a sociopolitical movement, but at the very least there should be some kind of weight behind the nefariousness. And if we never do believe the threat is strong enough to actually overpower him, for the love of Qui-Gon at least make the adventure compelling. The Commuter does neither of these things, and as a result leaves fans wanting off at the nearest possible stop.

“My career is running off the rails. Pah. Says who?”

Recommendation: B-grade Serra if you ask me. When much of life is about choice, why would you choose the rather uneventful and dramatically uninspired The Commuter? For those dreaming of the day they get Non-stop set on a train, well . . . . . . . dream no more.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “What’s in the bag?”

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

The Conjuring 2

'The Conjuring 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James Wan; Carey Hayes; Chad Hayes; David Leslie Johnson

Directed by: James Wan

The horror event of the year has arrived and no one is safe. Not the Warrens from nightmarish visions; not the British family whose home turns into a petri dish for malevolent spirits; not James Wan from criticism. I don’t want to spoil anything and say it’s all going to be okay for everyone, but at least for Wan it will be. He’s back with a fresh set of haunting images in The Conjuring 2, a literal spiritual sequel to the 2013 smash hit that found real-life paranormal activity investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) coming to the rescue of an innocent Rhode Island family.

The Conjuring established itself as elite horror in terms both commercial and critical, raking in roughly seven times its production budget ($20 million) in American box office receipts alone. Though Wan relied heavily on the jump scare tactic to rattle audiences, he compensated for familiarity by developing characters that were, for once, well worth embracing, particularly in the Warrens. The net effect? These people have become endeared to us, and now in their second outing, we dread what lies ahead because now we too are experienced.

It is true: The Conjuring 2 is really just more of the same stuff. Instead of the Perrons we are introduced to the (very British) Hodgsons. We watch as another family is torn apart without mercy. But isn’t that what we wanted anyway? Back then it became apparent, and fairly quickly, that audiences were willing to pay to become highly strung-out. And while we’re on the subject, let’s dispel a myth: the mark of a good horror film is measured by the stress it induces rather than how many times it physically startles you; if you want something scary, watch a war film or this year’s American presidential elections.

Did we not want a supernatural tale that feels undeniably human and that satiates, via convincing special effects and odd camera placements, our morbid curiosity for what on the surface appears to be demons rising from the underworld? How would it not be fair for us to anticipate another signature exorcism (with apologies to William Friedkin, of course) to wrap things up? The fairly familiar beats The Conjuring 2 delivers are everything we asked for. And then some.

This is less of a retread than you might think, and its foundation isn’t built upon dollars and cents. There’s a legitimate reason we’re going through this again. The haunting in Enfield represents another terrifying case file in the Warrens’ infamous career. There’s a sophistication about proceedings absent in lesser, cheaper offerings, the sort of B-flicks that would be more fun if they weren’t so painfully obviously rushed off the assembly line. Wan, a director who lives, eats and breathes horror, seizes the opportunity to delve further into the lives of the paranormal investigators and to provide a cinematic experience that could go on to be as difficult to forget as its predecessor.

Once again he uses love, not hate, as a driving force. We already know how capable the Warrens are — their many decorated shelves back home are testament to years of dangerous, grueling work — but this time they’re genuinely vulnerable, with Lorraine having a difficult time ridding herself of visions she’s been having since their Amityville days. Her husband’s concerned though he remains keenly aware of the hippocratic oath that binds them to their duties. That’s not the only moral conundrum addressed. The Warrens’ public image comes under fire when skeptics start coming out of the woodwork, including a live television debate that incenses the Warrens and, later, Franka Potente’s Anita Gregory, who challenges the pair directly over the validity of any of their claims, past and present. Media also play a role in creating, even influencing, perception.

The Enfield poltergeist (incidentally the project’s working and far superior title) is a being of exceptional power and takes as much pleasure in tormenting the Warrens as it does single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor). O’Connor, saddled with the unenviable task of mimicking Ellen Burstyn as she bears witness to severe behavioral changes in younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), commits to the single-mom archetype with ferocity. Fortunately for her, her story takes a backseat to how the Warrens respond to the latest call. This particular phantom takes on many forms, both clichéd (an old bitter man named Bill Wilkins) and more novel (green-eyed nuns and crooked men who move like the Babadook). While the evil is diluted somewhat by flimsy justification — Bill just wants the family to stop squatting in his house — its physical appearance is more than enough to disturb.

As was the case in The Conjuring, where we got to know the Perron family to the point where fate and consequence actually meant something to us, this is so much more than a ghost story. The spotlight falls more intensely on the Warrens this time around. Now it’s less about their expertise as it is about unwavering faith, about the deep love and trust these people have in one another. The Enfield case has haunted England ever since 1977, and manifested as one of the Warrens’ most notable challenges, if for no other reason than how personal everything became. Lorraine is convinced taking this job could spell disaster, and she pleads with her husband that, if they are to visit, they’ll operate in a more observational capacity rather than going fully hands-on. Of course, none of that matters when push really comes to shove.

I’m with Lorraine here. I’m not sure who else is, but I can’t be alone. I’m perfectly okay with playing the part of observer. I’d rather not get my hands dirty. Sitting back and watching lives fall apart amidst typically dull England weather is emotionally taxing enough for me. Touché, James Wan. You’ve made me believe sequels to horror films actually can be good.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 5.29.02 PM

Recommendation: Highly anticipated horror sequel manifests as a potent elixir featuring dramatic, thriller and even romance elements that help steer it away from films cut from the same cloth. As someone who has yet to experience the Insidious franchise, I can’t say whether these are Wan’s best efforts, but there’s little use in denying he has officially established himself as the go-to director when it comes to big-budget horror. This was so good I personally see no reason why a third and fourth couldn’t be produced. Like, I am actually asking for more for once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “It’s so small and light!”

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

Stretch

Release: Friday, March 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Where this guy’s going, he’s definitely going to need roads . . . and a lot of luck.

Joe Carnahan’s Stretch is best enjoyed when your guard is down, when you’re in the mood for watching something that, taken scene by scene, makes little to no sense but is a perfectly harmless distraction when looked at as a whole. It’s messy and clunky and clichéd and occasionally poorly acted but the whole point of Stretch is embracing the ridiculous. If having fun in a movie is all that you require, jump in the backseat and buckle in for a wild ride.

Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine make the most out of a rather bizarre script that has the former playing a down-on-his-luck L.A. limo driver and the latter a bearded whack job with more secrets than the American government. The driver (a.k.a. ‘Stretch’) has recently been dumped by his gorgeous girl Candace (Brooklyn Decker, ouch) and, reeling in the aftermath, has allowed himself to spiral out of control again, though careful not to reignite his cocaine and gambling addictions from years past.

One afternoon Stretch is pulled aside by his boss who tells him that their main competitor is putting them quickly out of business by stealing their clients. Making matters worse is a $6,000 gambling debt he owes to a thug who promises some very bad things if he doesn’t pay up by midnight that night. Desperate, Stretch begs an employee named Charlie (Jessica Alba) to help steal clients from the competition — a mysterious entity known only as The Jovi — to help him keep his job and to raise the money needed to . . . um, keep his life.

Over the course of the evening Stretch contends with a litany of oddballs and lunatics, starting with a very unhappy David Hasselhoff who, lo and behold, is swept off his feet by The Jovi at the last second. In retaliation, Charlie directs him to a client The Jovi usually picks up, the one and only Ray Liotta. Neither of these dramatized cameos compare to the eccentric billionaire playboy/lunatic that is Chris Pine’s Roger Karos, whose outrageous physical appearance conceals the Hollywood hunk inside (save for the piercing blue eyes). Karos promises he will make Stretch’s efforts worthwhile if he commits to not only being his chauffeur, but to retrieving a briefcase from a certain someone.

Stretch is packed to the brim with absurdities, but they mostly exist in the visual presentation and a few chance encounters. Narratively — as a story of redemption — the film couldn’t be more pedestrian. Wilson clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose, to become the “fire starter” Karos believes he can be. Wilson brings the fire in his performance, becoming the glue that holds together a lot of delicate pieces and thankfully he is quite the amiable fellow despite his history. As he journeys through the night, an eye on the clock as his midnight deadline rapidly approaches, Stretch receives a crash course in confidence-boosting. He transforms from a drunken pushover (or a fatalist, as Charlie describes him) to a man pushing over a lot of drunks to get to what matters most to him: delivering on his promises.

Carnahan certainly makes some trade-offs in his enthusiastic, over-the-top approach. There are a few moments where the goofiness is overbearing — do we really need the foreign subtitles placed beside a villain as he shouts his threats in perfectly understandable English? — and where the acting isn’t really acting, it’s shouting lines excitedly. It’s nonchalance. A good time to be a paid actor or actress. It may stretch credulity to the breaking point but ultimately the film manages to get to the end with minimal bumps and bruises.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a quick Friday night jolt of entertainment, I suggest firing up Netflix and taking in all that Stretch has to offer: pure, unadulterated ridiculousness with fun cameos and an absolutely zany supporting role from Chris Pine. Fans of him and Patrick Wilson are sure to find them highly enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “If you like stories about chance and coincidence and fate, then here’s one you’d never heard. Boy meets girl. Girl almost kills boy by running a red light at rush hour. Boy is T-boned at over 60 miles an hour.”

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

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