Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

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Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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

Eye in the Sky

'Eye in the Sky' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Eye in the Sky presents an intriguing, if not familiar moral conundrum as a British Army Colonel weighs the pros and cons of pulling the trigger on a drone missile strike that could eliminate top terrorist targets sheltered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In the end the results aren’t entirely surprising, so why such a rewarding experience when all is said and done?

Even though it’s Helen Mirren’s intense stare that threatens to burn a hole in the official release poster, Peter Travers is so right: this is one hell of a way for the late Alan Rickman to bow out. Not that Mirren isn’t worth mentioning (she definitely is), but Rickman’s last on-screen performance is so stoic it’s uncanny. It’s almost as if he was trying to make this one count. His Lt. General Frank Benson isn’t the focal point of Gavin Hood’s seventh feature film but the images I’ve taken home with me are those of his face, twisted into a look of total disgust as he awaits critical decisions to be made at higher levels — the whole bureaucratic chess game he finds himself caught in while precious time ticks away taking an obvious toll.

It’s like he’s waging his own private battle with his female co-star to see who can emote more intensely, evoking all of the anguish perhaps a real-life general or colonel might not necessarily publicize in the interest of keeping their underlings as calm, cool and collected as possible. Still, Eye in the Sky‘s script is incredibly stressful and part of the reason the film is so brilliant is we understand precisely why our leaders become so exasperated at times.

The mission in question is to take out three terrorist suspects who rank #3, #4 and #5 on the British government’s list of most valuable assets, and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) hasn’t been this close to capturing them in six years. They have a vantage point from 20,000 feet, a drone plane piloted by relative veteran Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), both stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They also have ground control in the form of Barkhad Abdi‘s Jama Farah, who is put into a particularly precarious position remote-controlling a camera built to resemble an insect. He is to infiltrate the house and verify the identities of those inside. The footage he is able to get is chilling: the suspects appear to be donning vests rigged with explosive devices and it also appears that they will attempt to detonate the bombs in a public setting.

Making matters worse is a child who appears on the scene hoping to sell bread for her family. It’s the same child we happen to be introduced to from the outset, a sweet girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who is being privately educated by her parents and learning to hula-hoop in her backyard, out of sight of the patrolling ISIS guardsmen who have been imposing Sharia Law upon the land. In Colonel Powell’s eyes the mission status, which has changed from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’ since the new intel provided by the bug camera, cannot be aborted simply because of one potential collateral damage concern. While a high-ranking American government official agrees via Skype, others don’t see it the same way.

What makes Eye in the Sky such gripping viewing manifests as a truly collaborative effort between writer and director. Guy Hibbert’s script is provocative, emotional and convincing, but it would mean little without Hood’s ability to attract a diverse cast of international talent and to play to each of his actor’s strengths. There’s no one perspective that dominates; an impressive mix of strong roles and comparable screen time given to each lends the film a relatively comprehensive bird’s eye view rather than attempting to encourage controversy. How are governments able to justify civilian casualties as a byproduct of eliminating terrorist suspects, or, more broadly (and hence less novel an idea): is losing one life worth the price of many? When actions are taken the judgment is left up to us; this was never going to be a win-win situation, but ultimately was the right call made?

Dame Hellen Mirren is front-and-center when it comes to asking that question: is it worth it? As the commanding, intense Colonel Powell Mirren might never have been better. She exudes strength as a woman put into a hell of a position on this day. But support comes from unexpected places, such as Paul’s emotionally conflicted pilot who at one point feels it is in his best interest to challenge his superior when it comes to reevaluating the situation once the girl sets up on this street corner. Consider Steve Watts his finest hour as a performer as he frequently shoulders the emotional burden of having a finger on the trigger. It’s his vulnerability that’s just as frequently in the cross hairs.

Then, of course, is Rickman, seated in the situation room somewhere in London, far removed from the dangers themselves but visibly perturbed by the action — or lack thereof — taken in assuring the British armed forces are legally OK to pull that trigger. On his plate are the repercussions of British-American relations, given that one of the targets is an American who radicalized years ago. That’s to go along with the aforementioned unwanted publicity following a potential killing of an innocent youth. Things become messy alarmingly quickly; the grimace he bears suggesting much about the limits of his own considerable power.

Eye in the Sky works as a taut political thriller as well as a compelling ethics debate. Again, and generally speaking, this isn’t a debate we’re having for the first time but it suits the times we live in, particularly as technology plays a larger role in the armed forces and how nations perceive the character of others as they decide to fire (or not fire, in some cases) on their targets. I may never have been taken by surprise by how things played out, but that doesn’t mean the film failed to earn my empathy. This is a smart, engaging and intense drama whose incisive commentary on the matter is provided by a cast and crew that remind us why they’re getting paid to do what they do.

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Recommendation: A strong cast and a strong(er) script make Eye in the Sky a worthwhile drama seeing unfold on the big screen. I recommend most strongly to fans of Dame Helen Mirren, or those wanting to see Alan Rickman in his final performance — either or works. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

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

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

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Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Craig; Danny Strong

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Take your best shot, Mr. Lawrence. I’m ready for anything. Or, I thought I was.

Four films, three years and nearly $2 billion in global box office receipts later, we arrive at the bittersweet farewell to a remarkable franchise, one that has been so captivating since its inception it hooked one of the biggest cynics I know of the young adult film adaptations from the get-go. That person is me. I tend not to give a lot of credit to these films, feeling so comfortable in my dismissal of many of these movies that when their poor performance (commercial and/or critical) pops up on my screen a few days later, my only response is a simple, satisfied chuckle. Then I click out of the screen and move on.

There’s been something markedly different about Katniss Everdeen and her targeted bow and arrows though. And I swear it’s not because I happen to think Jennifer Lawrence is really cute. Okay, well I suppose that helps. But Shailene Woodley is a babe too! I’m not going to mince my words here: physical attraction is a big part of it, but what has really helped up the ante for the cinematic treatment(s) of Suzanne Collins’ best-sellers has been an emphasis on genuine emotion filtered through an uncommonly bleak political lens.

Collins’ final novel being split into two films has caused quite the stir amongst passionate fans of both the film and book franchise, and while it’s difficult to argue the motives for expanding the HGCU (that’s the Hunger Games Cinematic Universe) into a quadrilogy are fueled by anything other than reaping financial rewards, I personally have enjoyed getting to spend this much more time with some truly well-developed and exceptionally memorable characters.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, then, wastes no time in immersing audiences right into the psychological, and now physical, turmoil that has consumed the two victors of the 74th Hunger Games: Peeta is still suffering from the trauma he endured at the hands of President Snow having been captured after the events of Catching Fire, while Katniss recovers from neck injuries sustained in his attack upon her during one of his psychotic breaks.

The reality of this franchise ending is surprisingly difficult to reconcile. On one level, and as one might expect, this final chapter manifests as the most somber one yet as we watch the events of the previous films sculpt the faces of the familiar into expressions of deep despair, the weight of full-fledged war carried upon Katniss’ shoulders and anyone who has stood by her in the belief that the nation shouldn’t be subjected to Snow’s oppression any longer. There emerges a strong emotional rift between Katniss and Peeta, who can no longer be trusted. All that stuff’s easier to swallow when compared to the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman though. In his final on-screen appearance, his Plutarch Heavensbee is notably less prevalent, yet his spirit, in all of its organic, non-digitized glory, leaves a lasting impression.

The stakes have never been higher, yet the premise so simple. To the surprise of no one, Katniss’ only goal is killing President Snow. Like, for real this time. Feeling restricted in her capacity as merely a symbol of hope for the people of Panem, she’s determined to get back to doing real damage and will abandon protocol laid out by District 13 leader Alma Coin that’s been set in place to protect her. She joins a squad of soldiers led by Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes) who are tasked with following behind the other troops into the Capitol in order to film one final segment  for District 13’s anti-Snow propagandistic documentary.

Katniss of course is less concerned with the documentation as she is with finishing what she had started so long ago. In so doing, she must confront her deepest moral quandaries yet. The choices she must make as she marches through a Capitol that resembles Berlin circa post-World War 2, only outfitted with death traps that make the Quarter Quell look like child’s play by comparison, will be next to impossible and will more often than not require her to decide how many lives she’s willing to sacrifice to secure a brighter future for Panem.

Lawrence has fared exceptionally well since taking over the reigns from Gary Ross who established The Hunger Games as an uncommonly intelligent and bleak young adult film franchise. Obviously it is author Suzanne Collins to whom we should be most indebted for conjuring such an elaborate and audaciously political system over which fans, both casual and dedicated alike, have obsessed. After all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate those who have been faithful to the series just for the star power and the experience from those who have been so inspired by coetaneous themes of social and political injustice as to become more politically active.

When I inevitably buy the box set, I’ll in all likelihood be confirming the fact that rather than playing out as individual, disjointed stories, this franchise operates as a cohesive whole, cranking up the personal tension between Katniss and Snow methodically, assimilating audiences effortlessly over a three-year period by playing up the ruthless villainy of Donald Sutherland’s white-ness (not a reference to his complexion) versus the purity of the Girl on Fire and her intentions of restoring the balance. Maybe if it’s not the religion of the church of the Mockingjay that’s compelling, nor how supposedly faithful the films have been to the source material, it’s the level of conviction and passion in Lawrence’s vision.

Jennifer Lawrence has blossomed into a reliable actress and that’s largely thanks to her contributions to these large-scale, larger-budget spectacles. (Yes, David O’Russell, you may have her now but Gary Ross developed her skill set.) Her consistency will be one of the aspects I’ll be missing most in the coming Novembers. Nevermind Woody Harrelson and his kind and affable Haymitch. Stanley Tucci’s hairdo. Elizabeth Banks and her eternally upbeat Effie Trinket. The nastiness of the Games, or of Sutherland’s tyranny. Indeed, if there is one word you could boil these films down to, it’s just that: consistent. That’s a rare quality to find in a franchise these days. Just ask the Terminator.

Jennifer Lawrence, Mahershala Ali and Liam Hemsworth in 'The Hunger Games Mockingjay - Pt 2'

Recommendation: A lot can be said about the decision to split Mockingjay into two parts but this reviewer is a fan of it. It’s given me time to enjoy these characters more and the expansion of the series over four films/years has made for one of the most impressive film franchises I’ve ever seen. These films mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but if I were to make a recommendation for this film, it’s that you can appreciate it on its own almost as much as a part of a bigger picture. Almost, is the key word though. A spectacular finish to an uncommonly engaging story has been delivered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him Katniss, if you end all of this, all those deaths . . . they mean something.”

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

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

No Escape

Release: Wednesday, August 26, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Erick Dowdle; Drew Dowdle

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle

No Escape shouldn’t work as well as it does and yet, strong performances from an unlikely cast make for a taut thriller that plays to the tune of Taken, becoming an often absurd yet emotionally resonant tale of survival.

Owen Wilson finds inspiration in drama once again as family man Jack Dwyer whose recent job change has moved him, his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (nine-year-old actress Claire Geare) to a nondescript Southeast Asian country. Feeling immediately displaced the family bumps into a friendly man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan, in the ideal post-James Bond cameo) who helps arrange some transportation for them at the airport.

Jack has joined Cardiff, a conglomerate that distributes clean water to third-world nations. He reassures his older daughter that this job will be more stable since this company is much bigger than his old one. The one thing he doesn’t mention is that all they need now is to overcome some culture shock. And then come to terms with the fact that his very presence is about to put all their lives at risk when the city erupts suddenly in a violent and bloody revolt. It quickly becomes clear how unwelcome foreigners like Jack are in this place, as locals set about on a ruthless murdering spree that ends up accounting for three-quarters of the total runtime. Opening lucidly, the dialogue-lite narrative allows precious little time for Wilson and Bell to settle into these decidedly restrained performances as heads of household. But it’s just enough.

No Escape certainly isn’t complicated. This is a contemporary survival film, demanding the bare minimum from viewers in terms of intellectual engagement. In fact it is so plot-less — we watch as a desperate family clings to life bouncing from point A to point B — drama develops emotionally rather than logically, à la Taken. Simply ignore all the (good) changes of fortune this family manages to experience throughout this harrowing adventure. If you are able to mentally block out the fact that in this world Asians are either the ones doing the killing or the ones being killed, you are all the better for it. With a little luck those feelings of resentment, annoyance, maybe even anger born out of the injustices we are forced to watch eventually will subside and yield some sense of relief come the film’s predictable albeit preferable conclusion.

Although I suspect leaving the theater completely satisfied isn’t going to be possible for a few. This isn’t the most pleasant film you’ll watch this year. The violence is brutal and virtually unrelenting from the half-hour mark onward and, as it was in another Owen Wilson-led drama set behind enemy lines, the bloodletting-as-demarcation-between-good-guy-and-bad-guy is ill advised. Nor is it a subtle technique; the Dwyers get so good at dodging bullets you might assume they stepped off the plane and into the matrix rather than an Asian country.

Yet this is hardly the film’s undoing. Where No Escape lacks in sensitivity and subtlety it compensates with a strong family dynamic. Wilson plays one of his most affable and natural characters in years, while Bell turns a new leaf as his loving, trusting wife trying her best to deal with such chaotic circumstances. There’s nary a sign of Bell’s comedic background here. The two children are realized honestly and convincingly, and best of all they aren’t saddled with the cliches that make kids in movies annoying and one-dimensional. Indeed, if there’s a reason to care at all about the film’s politics, it’s that this charming Western family doesn’t deserve to be any sort of target.

The Dowdles — John directed while his brother Drew wrote the story — don’t have the most original thriller in their pockets but their product isn’t false advertising. This is pretty thrilling stuff, even if the sociopolitical commentary is sloppy, and any attempts to immerse us in the culture are half-hearted at best. (Ironically the last thing we want is to be further immersed in this place once those first shots have been fired.) Brosnan bears worth mentioning as well, offering some much-needed grit as an apparent agent of the night, popping in ever so conveniently when the Dwyers seem to have met their fates. Hammond isn’t a well-established character but he’s also too likable to dismiss. Plus, you know, he’s got those skills that come in really handy. And a British accent that gives No Escape the facade of ‘international thriller’ it longs for.

From a strictly entertainment standpoint, the brothers Dowdle extract a consistently engaging journey out of chaos and hostility. The effort reminds us through solid performances and often confronting and pervasive violence, that there are few motivations stronger than a person’s will to survive.

Recommendation: Unquestionably flawed movie delivers the goods in the form of hard-hitting action sequences that go beyond mere visual panache. No Escape is trying to say something with its bloodiness, but unfortunately the script isn’t nearly good enough to warrant much comment on that. If, like me, you’ve been waiting for Wilson to do something different with his talents, then wait no more. His partnership with Brosnan is as entertaining as it seems on paper. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “We’ve got to get ourselves to the American Embassy.”

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 

Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

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

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

The Imitation Game

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Release: Friday, November 28, 2014

[Theater] 

Written by: Graham Moore

Directed by: Morten Tyldum

The most glorious name in the biz has found a way to take his game to yet another level.

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the minutia of how authentic Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of one of Britain’s greatest minds comes across, without giving thought to how the rest of the film stacks up around him. Ditto that to making comparisons between this and Ron Howard’s ode to one of the world’s greatest economists, John Forbes Nash. In terms of the latter, things become a bit too surreal during The Imitation Game‘s very own “eureka!” moment, wherein our esteemed Alan Turing is inspired suddenly by a beautiful woman he meets at a bar.

Unfortunately such comparisons call attention to themselves as the vast majority of Tyldum’s creation complies with the unspoken, unwritten code of conduct that a great many directors guiltily adhere to for reasons unknown: your film has to feel safe and History-channel-friendly. Tonally, this is a rather restrained production — the Norwegian director paying respect to a man who hasn’t received due credit; boldly choosing to avoid confronting his viewers with graphic violence or flurries of emotionally distressing scenes. There are broad and narrow brushstrokes applied in shaping Turing’s life, both pre- and post-Bletchley Park and the mix results in a thoroughly enjoyable picture, even if this is paint-by-numbers filming at its finest.

The Imitation Game centers around the years Turing and his limited pool of resources — the other mathematicians he could just barely tolerate (an exaggeration for the film’s purposes; Turing actually got along well with his colleagues in reality) — spend in Bletchley, a private sector within the southern English burrough of Birmingham specifically dedicated to intercepting and deciphering German code during the war. Tyldum offers intercutting scenes to Turing’s school years where he is presented as a rather confident young man, even at that age. Flash forward to the present to find a genius standing like a statue even in the face of almost certain failure — and possible death at the hands of the government should he choose to reveal any information to the outside world.

The end game here boils down to the same objective that these people somehow reached back in 1945: Turing wanted to develop a device to intercept and decipher code at a much faster rate than the current method his “team” had been going on. (Anyone feel up for manually deciphering 150 million million different code combinations?) He upsets more people when his device fails to produce the results expected immediately. Instead it would take some time — and some mediocre threats from his higher-ups, particularly Commander Alistair Denniston (Charles Dance), who, during one of the film’s more amusing opening scenes, is understandably rubbed the wrong way by his latest hire.

The medium of the moving picture affords even the most dutiful director a great deal of freedom to operate, and Tyldum’s project demonstrates that you can tweak factual accuracy for the sake of creating a compelling watch that teases what matters most out of some truly remarkable circumstances. There is a lot of information he chooses not to share, and the things he does choose to share makes Turing out to be brutally lacking in social etiquette when really he was just difficult to figure out. Damn mathematicians being all hoity-toity and whatnot. . .

Cumberbatch is surrounded by a cast that contributes solid efforts, despite every single one of its members feeling like props to support the main character (essentially, I guess that’s what these individuals really were, all cogs in a much larger machine). Even Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke is not as luminous as she could be, though Knightley’s work cannot be faulted. She’s very good as the only female team member in a time where she was considered out of place, but unfortunately this political point is not at all capitalized on.

Safe but supremely entertaining and an important story to be told, The Imitation Game feels less inspired as it does obligatory but there’s nothing really wrong with that. This is a film that may be begging for Oscar’s attention in February but it does deserve at least some with what Cumberbatch has been able to accomplish here.

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3-5Recommendation: Coupled with a bravura performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and a suitably respectful tone The Imitation Game at times feels like a history lesson, but only in the manner in which that connotation seems positive. History is often violent, and history is often extremely surprising. The problem is how to get non-film students (and non-history majors) to appreciate that. Here’s a film that may fabricate a few things in order to allow its themes to be properly expressed, but the intention is to never skew reality. Rather it is to condense events into a timeline that the people who have ignored Turing for too long should be able to appreciate.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

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Kill the Messenger

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

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3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

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A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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TBT: Team America – World Police (2004)

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So, today’s a fairly crowded day on the calendar for yours truly. Somehow this Thursday would become one in which we would be simultaneously celebrating a brand new theme for TBT, as well as my blog’s third birthday/anniversary and, oh yeah, the Fourth of freaking* July! That’s how things go sometimes, I suppose. Call it the perfect storm of me trying to catch up on everything. Now, on to the subject at hand. Given the perfect timing for this new theme, let’s jump right into a movie that is likely to divide my readers straight down the middle (or maybe not). For several reasons. These will become obvious as we start talking about

Today’s food for thought: Team America – World Police

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Force-feeding you your freedom since: October 11, 2004

[DVD]

AMER. . . . .You know what? No. No, I’m not going to even try to open the review that way. That’s just way too easy.

While that beyond-enthusiastic anthem reverberates off the walls of your brain I’ll steer the focus in a different direction. You may recall the kind of frenzy Team America – World Police threw everyone into at the time of release. This was a film — one involving marionettes and toilet humor — that managed to not only make fun of how seriously North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jung Il took himself, but it did so without drawing his ire and possibly waging war with American filmmakers. Or Americans in a much broader sense. Yeah, that would be more likely.

This was a film that banked on audiences being well-adjusted enough to not be completely offended by what is essentially jingoistic porn. And. . .wow. I really mean that quite literally. I had forgotten about that one scene. . .

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“Huuuzzaahhh!!!!”

Team America – World Police is the brainchild of two men who probably don’t need to produce actual offspring. Sorry if that’s incredibly cold, but hear me out. This is Trey Parker and Matt Stone we’re talking about, the parents of South Park. As such, this film spares no expense at sounding, acting and looking (at times) an awful lot like the hit animated show now about to debut it’s one billionth season. The duo’s second theatrical effort, Team America was at once a cult hit whose ‘cult’ has swollen to mainstream-fandom levels. Rightly so, because it occasionally borders on genius. It’s alright if you consider this over-the-top comedy as being subservient to only a niched market, however. This is a loud, proud film that was just begging for everyone’s attention, even if it didn’t ultimately earn it from everyone.

While our fearless — but not stringless — heroes traverse the world stopping bad things from happening and generally being an awesome spectacle to behold, in North Korea a storm’s a-brewing with the nefarious Kim Jong-Il plotting to convert every major city on the planet to third-world rubble. After the team suffers a major loss during their visit to Paris, they must scout a new team member and eventually come across popular Broadway actor Gary Johnston (voice of Parker). Yes indeed, we’re not talking about the fact that they took out both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, but what we are looking at is a real loss of. . .puppet life.

Following an unfortunate sequence of events, Gary finds himself gutted by the fact his acting talent has led to much chaos and failure despite the World Police’s best efforts to keep America safe and sound. This will eventually lead to second-chance opportunities Gary and the team desperately need. It will also lead to one of the film’s most offensive and downright disgusting scenes. Unfortunately scenes such as these are virtually requisites with anything South Park-related. This “act of faith,” along with one or two other brief scenes, are merely collateral damage for sharing in the duo’s unabashedly vulgar sense of humor.

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“Hold me closer, tiny dictator. . .”

The vulgarity will no doubt continue to repel, maybe even repel more than it has attracted viewers. It’s certainly a hurdle one must get over in order to fully embrace the madness that is this movie. The type of film this is often earns its horrendous reputation in a hurry, and for those certain select scenes it is often a reputation well-deserved. Yet to dismiss Team America: World Police as a pointless exercise in gross-out and an effort to simply stir up controversy (not so unlike the upcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy vehicle The Interview) would be to ignore its intricacies and intelligence. Secondary to the scathing commentary about America’s image overseas is the depravity, the violence, the ugliness.

Not to mention, the silliness.

If you are willing to give a thought to the prevailing ideas herein, you’re sure to find a movie worth turning to again and again any time you find the tumult of the current political climate an unbearable white noise. Pop in the DVD and settle in for some hearty chuckles.

And of course, the song.  F**k yeah!!!

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4-0Recommendation: Fans of South Park have no reason not to have already seen World Police a million times by now. Or at least once through. This is an absolute riot, best served up to those who can stomach some fairly vulgar and crass material. There’s certainly worse stuff out there, but perhaps this section is more useful as a ‘who not to recommend this film to.’ If you’re not a fan of the show, may I suggest spending your Fourth of July with a different patriotic film.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: Upon reading the one-line pitch for the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, Parker and Stone both found the concept to be absolutely absurd and hilarious, prompting them to get started on spoofing the very idea, using life-like marionettes to up the ante. The plan was to create the film and have it ready for release the day after the official release of said disaster film. It soon was brought to their attention that such a move could prove to be less of a joke as a legal matter. They scrapped the idea and began pitching Team America instead.

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TBT: Wedding Crashers (2005)

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Throwback Thursday March-es on with the final entry of the month hitting on yet another comic note. Really, comedies are pretty easy to review for this feature since they make up a majority of what I have in my DVD collection. They lay strewn across my floor in front of my T.V. and very often I find myself weaving a path through them as I shuffle throughout my apartment. When nothing seemed to be standing out for this week, a white and red cover grabbed my attention and it was none other than another solid comedy featuring two actors who often find their contributions to comedy maligned, sometimes perhaps excessively so. Though I don’t deny the accusations of the pair becoming a predictable routine at this point, I cannot and will not hate on the chemistry that is quite evident between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Sure, their usage has been at times misjudged or mishandled. Such is the nature of what they’ve chosen to do this point in their careers; its a very hit and miss approach. And maybe they are more miss than hit, and so be it. Very similarly to a post I did last year, I think I’ll use this space to get on my high horse as I defend why I support a movie like 

Today’s food for thought: Wedding Crashers

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Release: July 15, 2005

[DVD]

If you are going to crash a wedding, you better do it with a Vince Vaughn who is in Swingers-mode and the other guy who looks like he’d be willing to throw back a shot with you even at the most inopportune of times. Yes indeed, if you happen to have the likes of Jeremy Grey (Vaughn) and John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) in your midst you may well get your tickets to the boobs-‘n-booty show punched if you even so much as take a sip of their outrageous Kool Aid. Just don’t drink the other stuff, unless getting roofied is your sort of thing.

You might consider them, particularly Vaughn’s larger-than-life Jeremy, as a pair of frat guys who strategically and perpetually avoided growing up. That’s precisely who both of them were, and that’s precisely the lesson to be learned in Wedding Crashers. One needed only to mention the term ‘wedding season’ to witness them pitching tents in the crotch of their pants. They may have posed as divorce mediators at the film’s open, but off the clock (which is to say for the rest of the duration) they posed as anything but when in the presence of their other ‘clientele,’ single women they picked up at weddings. In their world of hard partying, ‘mazel tov’ may as well have meant ‘Hello’ and ‘get lost’ was translated as ‘I love you.’

David Dobkin followed up Shanghai Nights with this completely reckless and gleeful joyride that pit Vaughn and Wilson alongside one another as they assumed their most infectious roles to date. Other terms that might apply: sleazy; dishonest; desperate. Sure, those are all good, although they are largely dismissive of how good Vaughn and Wilson’s chemistry was here. Vaughn was the yang to Wilson’s comedic yin. Or the other way around; whatever, it still works.

Jeremy and John had become quite skilled in the art of the con, and with the latest season of festivities drawing to a close, Jeremy decided to raise the stakes and the thrills by crashing a major wedding event hosted by none other than U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William Cleary (Christopher Walken). It would be the last big hoorah of the year. His partner’s reluctance to dive in headfirst, however, caused Jeremy to question his commitment to the cause, perhaps even to their friendship.

And because this was a movie, John eventually caved and the next thing we knew we were waist-deep in politicians, pretense and another ridiculous scheme concocted by the two sex-fiends/lawyers. While the day was intended to honor Secretary Cleary’s daughter’s wedlock, neither she nor her husband-to-be were intended to be the focus. What ensued proved you can’t apply peanut butter without jelly: Vaughn and Wilson shared the screen so as to never really draw more attention to the other. In tandem, the two were fantastic, with Vaughn working his size and a very goofy, doe-eyed stare to his advantage while Wilson poured on the saccharine sweetness like they were molasses. Both had proved to be successful strategies in the weddings leading up to this. Would they be as successful with the women they inevitably meet at this spectacular occasion? Or would their hard-on for hard partying go flaccid right at the last second?

This raunchfest not only benefitted from the two great and energetic lead performances in Vaughn and Wilson, it featured an intensely humorous antagonist in Bradley Cooper’s break-out performance as Sack Large (yes, that indeed would make it Large Sack if ever to be written out on a legal document). Cooper at the time was convincing as this tough-guy jock who really had no interest in his girlfriend, Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams), other than to make her his trophy wife, but the character is so much funnier now when one pauses to consider how against-type he was playing. But he was not alone in the strong contributor category. A very strange man named Todd (played by Keir O’Donnell), the son of the prestigious William Cleary provided a great foil for Vaughn’s Jeremy as Jeremy reluctantly became entangled in the family with the excitable red-head woman he intended to one-night stand. Todd took affection to Jeremy and this side story offers up some of the film’s most painful guffaws.

Not forgetting the quality Will Ferrell cameo as Chazz, who was the notorious albeit deluded man who invented ‘the rules of wedding crashing,’ or the beautiful montage of half-naked women being bedded in the film’s earlygoing set to the classic celebratory song ‘Shout,’ Wedding Crashers has assured its place among the great raunchy comedies of modern day filmmaking. It has all the trademarks of a classic, in the interest of full (frontal nudity) disclosure.

With increasing numbers of people subscribing to the notion that the Vaughn-Wilson comedy vehicle has long since run out of gas, perhaps a revisiting of Wedding Crashers is in order, just to remind one’s self of why the pattern exists at all. Why have they been recycling themselves? What once worked really well that doesn’t so much anymore? It’s hard to imagine there being another Crashers-quality match-up between Vaughn and Wilson, even for this fan. 2005 spawned a comedy that simply hit all the right notes, romantic, comedic and otherwise.

Yes indeed, we have a stage-five clinger on our hands.

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3-5Recommendation: It’s a great reminder of the potential Vaughn and Wilson have on screen together. Having not reached a comedic level like it since, it’s easy to understand a lot of the complaints guided their way yet some of it seems excessive. Wedding Crashers sees the two in fine form, along with it bringing out sterling performances from a varied and deeply talented crew of comedians and comediennes. This one’s for anyone who ever said weddings can’t be fun. What a blast this procession is.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “It’s the first quarter of the big game and you wanna toss up a Hail Mary! I’d like to be pimps from Oakland, or cowboys from Arizona, but it’s not Halloween. Grow up Peter Pan, Count Chocula. Look, we’ve been to a million weddings. And guess what, we’ve rocked them all!”

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