Shutter Island(2/19/2010)

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In the December of 2002, Martin Scorsese released his decades in the making passion project Gangs of New York to an outstanding round of indifference.  The film was generally seen as a disappointment by critics, and while it was nominated for ten Oscars it didn’t manage to win any of them.  Since then, Scorsese has lightened up and basically used his skills as a master craftsman to be the most prominent director for hire among commercial projects made for adults.  This pattern was established with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator and his cops and crooks crime thriller The Departed.  Neither of these projects was particularly personal or wildly ambitious, but they were impeccably crafted and Scorsese was able to add a degree of depth to both seemingly breezy projects that other directors might not have bothered with.  After The Departed became an Oscar winning triumph, Scorsese realized he was on to a good thing and now he’s followed it up with another glossy genre exercise in Shutter Island, a Hollywood thriller starring his new favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Set in 1954, the film begins on a slow boat ferrying passengers out to the titular Massachusetts island which is home to a federal mental institution whose patients are all violent offenders.  The one of the passengers U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a splitting headache.  He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to the island to help track down an escaped patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer).  The institution is being run by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who’s professional philosophy differs from his lobotomy/electroshock fixated peers and his mental hospital is meant as a testing ground for his more humane methods.  But as his investigation continues, the doctors at the institution begin to seem increasingly uncooperative, as if they don’t want Solando to be found, as if they’re hiding something.

With this film Scorsese is unapologetically indulging his interest in noir and pulp trappings.  DiCaprio is clad in a full Sam Spade outfit and wears it well while Ruffalo’s every line delivery is straight out of the noir sidekick handbook.  The island itself fits perfectly into the sort of New England Gothic aesthetic (complete with a lighthouse), and the whole scenario feels like something out of The Most Dangerous Game and there’s something almost Lovecraftian about the way he combines setting, psychology and dread.  This somber tone is of the utmost importance to the film and I suspect that generating this atmosphere was the primary thing that drew Scorsese to this material.  As the movie moves on, this sort of oppressive tone will be the chief weapon that Scorsese uses to keep the audience on edge.  Also adding to the atmosphere are a series of haunting and very well crafted flashbacks and dream sequences which use great special effects in order to make surreal dreamlike images.

DiCaprio, whose proving to be an actor who rarely disappoints, is always at his best when working with Scorsese and this film is no exception.  I was a bit uneasy about his work in the first few scenes, but as the film goes on DiCaprio seems to ease into the role.  He is again sporting a Boston accent as he did in The Departed and he seems to really be in his element when he’s playing a violent sort of streetwise type.  Mark Ruffalo meanwhile has this sort of thankless task of playing a sidekick who is almost entirely reactionary, his lines rarely amount to more than “are you sure boss” and “if you say so.”  It’s a character I would have liked to see written better.

Among the other characters in this all-star cast are Michelle Williams, who plays DiCaprio’s deceased wife in a variety of flashbacks and dream sequences, provides a pretty interesting presence and Emily Mortimer is also quite effective in her scenes.  Jackie Earle Haley is playing to his strengths in a small but memorable part as an inmate and acting veteran Max von Sydow is simply overqualified for his small role as a creepy German psychologist.  The one performance I would really take issue with is that of Ben Kingsley, an actor who seems to be really hit or miss lately and who seems to be on autopilot throughout this film.  I felt no conviction from him throughout the film and he really brought nothing to his role.

The film inhabits a world in which no one including yourself is to be trusted, it’s almost Polanski-esque in its portrayal of Paranoia, the film’s central theme.  As DiCaprio’s character progresses through the film he begins to break down, to question his surroundings and what’s real.  The film walks this tightrope of paranoia and confusion really well for the better part of its running time, but is ultimately undercut by its final ten minutes.  In the film’s penultimate sequence we’re given a pretty silly twist ending that’s explained with all the subtlety of the Fred Richmond speech at the end of Psycho.  This ending doesn’t really add a lot to the film and it kills the ambiguity that it had inhabited so comfortably up to that point.  Were I writing the film I would have avoided a simple explanation for the events and left the audience at a point where they are unsure whether or not DiCaprio’s paranoia is justified.

To many critics this ending will be the ultimate deal breaker but it certainly isn’t for me, because, frankly, I’m willing to forgive ten problematic minutes when the preceding two hours were as successful as they were here.  The film’s story is mostly hokum, but this isn’t really a plot driven movie in the strictest sense, the goal is more to bring the audience along for the psychological journey of its protagonist.  In this sense it is a psychological thriller in the purest sense; it keeps you on edge by, essentially, sending the character you empathize with further and further into the deep end.  If you’re willing to go on this journey, the film will reward you, but don’t go in expecting this to be some sort of puzzle that you’re supposed to figure out before you’re supposed to because that will only end in disappointment.   If nothing else, Scorsese displays a masterful grasp of tone, atmosphere, and visual design over the course of the film’s running time, and even though this is middling within Scorsese’s body of work, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

***1/2 out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Halloween II(2/5/2010)

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Dammit Rob Zombie, why can’t you ever live up to your potential?  For those who don’t know, Rob Zombie is a rock star turned film director who has embraced violent 70s grindhouse films as his aesthetic of choice.  His debut film, The House of 1000 Corpses, showed some potential in spite of its many flaws and this potential was tapped into for its sequel The Devil’s Rejects.  Rejects remains Rob Zombie’s only complete success as he choose to follow it up by making an awful remake of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.  Granted, Rob Zombie was probably able to inject that project with more interesting ideas than the average music video director would have, but the movie he made was an aggressively unpleasant piece of work.  I had a viscerally uncomfortable experience watching that thing and it wasn’t in a good or deliberate way. It was so visually dark, so pointlessly violent and worst of all it was a completely unneeded remake.  His sequel to that remake is probably a little better than the 2007 film, if only because it’s treading on less sacred ground, but it’s remains a complete mess that should generally be avoided.

Set a few years after the initial remake, this sequel follows Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) as she lives with the fallout of her brush with danger.  It should probably ne noted that it was the director’s cut which I saw, in which Strode’s life is a mess.  This is actually one of the more successful aspects of the movie; I found this depiction of the character a lot more interesting than the one in the 2007 film.  Meanwhile Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who apparently survived his violent death in the 2007 film, has written a book about Michael Myers and is on a high profile tour to promote it.  This sub-plot is probably the worst part of the whole movie, Dr. Loomis is one of the most iconic non-violent characters in horror cinema and this depiction of him is completely out of character, which I could forgive if I thought he served any real story purpose but he doesn’t.

Amidst all this, Michael Myers also comes out of the woodwork and starts randomly killing people. The handling of the actual Myers material is particularly weird, as he feels almost like an afterthought in his own flick.  Also, the logistics of his stalking does not make very much sense.  He seems to just emerge at all parts of the town in order to murder people, how he manages to travel from place to place so fast is never explained.  A lot of the killing scenes almost just feel like filler, inserted into the movie in order to increase the violence quotient, which is the same purpose that the well executed but bizarre and pointless twenty minute dream sequence that opens the film.

Stylistically, Zombie feels a bit more at home with this movie than he did in the 2007 film.  Zombie shoots the film in a pretty cheap and gritty way, and this suits his style better than the Carpenter imitating that was going on in the 2007 film.  He also seems a bit more willing to include Zombie-esque tangential kitsch which is can occasionally be fun.  This is probably what saves the film from unwatchability, I certainly didn’t find it as actively unpleasant as that 2007 version, but this is an incredibly flawed work just the same.

*1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Adventureland(1/30/2009)

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Greg Mottola’s 2009 film, Adventureland, is at this point probably most discussed for its misleading advertising campaign.  Miramax took a film that was a fairly low-key coming of age film and made it out to look like a broad Apatow-style comedy through its trailers and posters.  Being the follower of film discussion and criticism that I am, I was forewarned about this ruse and knew not to be turned off by the problematic advertising.  The problem is that the movie I’d been told to expect was just as problematic for me as the one in the advertisements.  The semi-autobiographical coming of age story genre is something I’ve grown an increasing disinterest in.  It’s an over-used and often indulgent format, and even though it’s supposed to be a very personal style of story, a whole lot of them seem to follow a similar formula.  Additionally, I had the displeasure of working at an amusement park in my past, and I’m really not at a point where I want to nostalgically look back on that experience.  So this movie was in a place where it needed to work pretty exceptionally well to impress me, but with all the praise it’s gotten I knew I needed to give it a chance.

Set in the summer of 1987, the film is about a young man named James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s recently earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and plans to attend the Columbia Graduate School in the fall, but first he must earn some money while living with his parents in Pittsburgh over the summer.  Brennan realizes that he doesn’t really have the experience for most jobs in the area, so in desperation he gets a job as a midway operator at a local amusement park.  The employees at the park have formed something of a community together lead by married co-managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig).  Brennan befriends some of his co-workers like Joel (Martin Starr) and Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), but the most important person he meets is Emily “Em” Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a girl with a troubled family life but who is smart and has a lot of spirit.  Brennan’s friendship with “Em” eventually turns into a romance, but Brennan doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with girls and over the course of the summer he’s going to come to form bond with both her and his other co-workers that’s different from any of the relationships he’s had at his preppy college.

What’s probably the film’s strongest aspect is its realism.  This is not a heightened movie, the characters are down to earth and as developed as they should be.  These characters change over the course of the film, and they are also very capable of surprising the audience with their depth.  Take the boss played by Bill Hader for example, he seems like simple comic relief side character at first, but as the film goes on he reveals himself to be a really good natured leader willing to help his employees.  There’s also a refreshing economic realism to the proceedings.  Most Hollywood films about teenagers are set in lavish suburbs where every young person has their own car, live in swanky houses and are played by future Maxim models.  That’s not the case with film, where people are believably living with real world pressures and live similarly real lifestyles.

Unfortunately, for all the film gets right in its setting and tone, I still think it falls into a lot of the pitfalls of the coming of age genre.  While I liked all the way the characters interacted, the film’s main conflict is a pretty standard issue love triangle.  The movie also isn’t above a few annoying tropes like one of those scenes where a couple are in conflict simply because they’re too stupid to sit down and rationally discuss their problems.  Also, this is a movie that could have been pretty well served by some actual comedy to go along with it.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a broad comedy along the lines of Greg Mottola’s Superbad, but some real laughter would have really gone a long way toward distancing the film from the standard issue coming of age narrative that I’ve been mentioning a lot in this review.  Ultimately that formula is probably the main thing preventing me from really embracing this otherwise very well made film.  The film simply treads on one of my pet peeves and it’s hard to overcome that, I suspect it will work better for those who don’t share my distaste for that format.

*** out of Four

Crazy Heart(1/31/2010)

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[Editor’s Note: This review employs a literary device in which the reviewer exaggerates his opinion of the country music genre and its fans for comedic effect.  Those who lack a sense of humor in regards to this subject are advised not to read further.]

I’m going to say right from the top, in the interest of full disclosure, that I hate country music like poison.  I do sort of like folk music and vaguely country influenced rock music, but my prejudices against pure country music run pretty deep.  To me country is the music of rednecks, hillbillies, and yokels and nothing will ever change that.  Are my feelings rooted more in culture wars than in musical aesthetics?  Maybe, but I’ll maintain that I do dislike the music just as much as the anti-intellectual culture that seems to have sprung up around it.  So, it was with great reluctance that I decided to see a movie that was centrally about this most disgusting of musical creations.  Fortunately for the producers of the new country-themed film, Crazy Heart, I quite like Jeff Bridges and the reviews of his performance in said film have been ecstatic.  Consequently, I was willing to ignore the hick music and give the movie a chance simply because the dude abides.

The movie follows a man who goes by the name Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a washed and alcoholic up country singer who’s been reduced to playing at undignified stops like bowling alleys which he needs to travel to in a rickety old truck.  Blake’s career is in a tailspin and his only real hope is the humiliating prospect of making a duet album with a protégé of his named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) whose gone on to much greater commercial success. During a gig at a small bar in Santa Fe, Blake is asked to give an interview to an aspiring local reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Craddock is a single mother who’s not really in a much better position in life than Blake.  They form a friendship that quickly turns into a romance that will give Blake’s life new meaning, but it might just be too late for this alcoholic wreck of a man.

The elephant in the room whenever this movie comes up is last year’s sleeper hit The Wrestler.  While the two films were undoubtedly produced separately and neither is likely to have ripped off the other, the similarities are nonetheless uncanny.  Both are films about entertainers who have aged to the point of irrelevance in their fields and are now playing embarrassingly small venues while dealing with substance abuse issues.  Both films also have their characters forming relationships with younger single mothers who are also having career issues.  Of the two movies, The Wrestler is a drastically superior take on the subject matter and Crazy Heart suffers significantly by comparison.  While The Wrestler used the setup to make a grander statement about the seductive nature of fame and about addiction as a whole, Crazy Heart is a movie that operates on a much more literal level and which is also unwilling to fully explore the darkest aspects of the material.  What’s more, comparing the aesthetic skills of, Scott Cooper (a not overly ambitious first-time director) to the likes of Darren Aronofsky just isn’t really fair.

Also like The Wrestler, this is a film that’s been heavily acclaimed for its lead performance, in this case by Jeff Bridges.  While I liked Bridge’s performance a lot, I can’t exactly say it quite lived up to the hype for me.  On the bright side, Bridge’s is a charmer and he pretty effectively conveys how his character can be a self destructive jerk at times while still remain likable.  On the other hand, I’m not sure he really makes the kind of transformation you expect out of a performance that’s been hyped this much, I can definitely see The Dude shine through at times during the movie.  I suspect that a lot of the performance’s praise has come from various pundit’s desire to see the long overdue Bridges win an Academy Award, and while I wouldn’t necessarily object to the actor being rewarded I don’t think his work here quite lives up to the better work done by the likes of Matt Daemon, Colin Firth, Sam Rockwell this year.

As for the film’s other acclaimed performance, that of Maggie Gyllenhaal, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, Gyllenhaal does a perfectly good job in the film with some dialogue that could have been pretty problematic in the hands of a lesser actor.  However I have this nagging feeling that she was still miscast.  By problem largely centers around Gyllenhaal’s age: she’s almost half Bridges’ age.  I’ve got to say that these “geezer gets the girl” movies don’t really ring all that true to me, especially when the age difference isn’t really acknowledged.  One could maybe argue that the comparable relationship in The Wrestler also had an age difference (albeit a much smaller one than in this film), but the relationship their never really developed into a full on romance.  I also have mixed feelings about the presence of Collin Farrell in the movie.  On one hand this Irish ruffian doesn’t seem like an authentic good ol’ boy at all, but that may have actually been the intent.  The character he plays is supposed to seem like a bit of an inauthentic phony, and from a certain perspective Farrell would seem to be the perfect actor to be just that.

Finally I’m going to have to deal with the film’s music, and as I previously explained, that was the one element of the film I most dreaded having to deal with.  While the film certainly hasn’t converted me into an admirer of this cracker-ass music, I will admit that the music here was not as excruciating as I had expected.  Cooper was wise to make Bad Blake a relic of the Outlaw Country movement, which is generally one of the more agreeable brands of hillbilly music.  The Outlaw performers, like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, all had a rebellious aspect that put them a bit more in the spirit of rock and rollers than yokels who play most other forms of country music.  They seemed like genuinely cool people who somehow fell in with the wrong crowd.

The music here was mostly written and produced by a team consisting of veteran country guy Stephen Bruton, newcomer Ryan Bingham (who has a small role in the film), and the much buzzed producer T-Bone Burnett.  Jeff Bridges and even Collin Farrell performed all their own singing and seemed to do a pretty good job at it.  I don’t really have much of a reference point to judge any of this stuff; the songs all kind of sounded the same to me.  Even the song expected to win an Oscar nomination, “The Weary Kind,” didn’t sound much better or worse than the rest of the music in the film even though the characters seem to think it is.  The only song here that came close to impressing this hardened country-hater was a tune called “Fallin’ and Flying,” which seemed significantly better than the much hyped “Kind” and I’m not sure why one is getting more praise than the other.

Ultimately, my “responsible critic” conscious is telling me to set aside my petty Blue State prejudices and ignore the fact that this movie celebrates a form of music that I normally cannot tolerate.  In judging the movie I’m just going to pretend that the music being played was something decent like Rock, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, or even Folk in order to give the movie a fair assessment.  All in all, this is a pretty good story and it’s a pretty well put together movie, but it lacks a certain spark of originality that it needs.  As unfortunate as the film’s proximity to The Wrestler is, the project would still probably feel pretty derivative of other works even if that prior project hadn’t come out first (Tender Mercies comes to mind).  So, if you can tolerate the music give this a chance, but if you’re not a fan like I am I don’t think there’s really enough here to recommend it to non-fans.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch Up: Whatever Works(1/6/2010)

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With a filmography of more than forty films made over the course of four decades, Woody Allen is an undeniable cinematic institution.  He can be counted on to make a film every single year and even when they fail they tend to be pretty watchable.  His newest film, Whatever Works, would certainly fall into that camp of “watchable failure,” but as far as that caliber of Allen goes this one is particularly poor.  The problem, reportedly, is that this script was actually written in the late seventies as a vehicle for  Zero Mostel but was set aside after that actor’s death.  The script was pulled out of a drawer as Allen was facing a purposed actor’s strike that would have threatened his film a year pace.

The story concerns Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), a former physics professor who’s recently gone through a divorce.  He’s your typical stand in for Allen himself and his apathetic outlook and neurotic habits will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Woody Allen movie before.  One day Yelnikoff meets a 21 year old runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) on the streets of New York who he takes in for the night.  Melodie was a southern belle from a Christian conservative family and she ran to New York looking for success.  Of course the personalities of the two clash, but Melodie tries to relate to this older, pessimistic, intellectual and eventually opposites attract and they up and get hitched.  It seems like it’s working out pretty well, but then Melodie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and then father (Ed Begley Jr.) show up, and they are not big fans of Mr. Yelnikoff.

Probably the biggest problem with the movie is that Melodie (and most of the other characters to some extent) are stereotypes.  I get the feeling that Woody Allen doesn’t spend to much time talking with anyone outside of bohemian circles in New York, London, and maybe Spain, and his insights into southern conservatives are lacking.  These feel less like real people than someone’s outside perception of what “those people” are going to be like.  Allen almost gets away with this because the New York characters are in many ways just as close to being caricatures as the southern ones, and there’s also a running theme of mutual misunderstanding among all parties involved, but the whole thing just generally feels pretty far from the cutting edge of culture wars satire.

Worse than all that, the Boris Yelnikoff character is really poorly brought to life.  The whole character feels identical to numerous other Woody Allen protagonists in the past both in attitude and in actions.  His relationship hang-ups are familiar and tired, and his personality adds nothing new to the table either, he’s the same kind of cynical neurotic that Allen has been writing for years.  Of course the character might have been salvaged if Allen had either personally delivered an inspired performance or if he had cast an appropriate surrogate in the role.  Instead he cast Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld who’s excellently played himself on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.  This seemed good on paper, David is a similarly neurotic Jewish comedian who’s long been called “the west coast Woody Allen,” but if anything this film proves that David is a writer first and a performer second.  Sure, he has a shtick that has served him well on one show, but he seems incapable of doing anything else.  Here he’s speaking and behaving exactly like he does on TV and he isn’t bringing anything to the material.

Some of the supporting cast comes off a little better, particularly Patricia Clarkson, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing a pretty over the top character who goes through a similarly over the top transformation over the course of the film.  Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Begley Jr. also do the best they can with this thoroughly lazy and pedestrian material, but there’s only so much that either of them can do.  Ultimately this is pretty clearly a film that Allen churned out to maintain his movie a year pace, and while it isn’t a complete disaster, it definitely isn’t something to be watched by anyone who isn’t a Woody Allen die hard.

** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Trick ‘r Treat(1/2/2010)

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When I first heard that there was a movie called Trick ‘r Treat in production my first thought was “are they really making a remake of that heavy metal horror film that Ozzy was in?”  As it turns out, they weren’t.  The movie is actually a horror anthology consisting of four independent but occasionally intersecting stories all taking place on the same Halloween night.  That’s a lot more respectable than a remake of the lamest horror film of the 80s, but apparently the powers that be didn’t agree, which was why this ended up going straight to DVD.  This destiny has less to do with the film’s actual caliber than it does to do with quirks of the release schedules.  The film has been largely accepted by horror junkies in festivals like Austin Butt-Numb-a-thon, Toronto After Dark, Fantastic Fest, and Screamfest, because of this I decided to give the film a watch in spite of its stigma as a direct to DVD horror title.

As previously mentioned, the film consists of four separate stories and while they subtly intersect every once in a while they are mostly independent.  One of the stories deals with a psychotic elementary school teacher (Dylan Baker) who poisons his trick or treat candy, one deals with a group of children investigating the haunted wreckage of a crashed school bus, one deals with a group of teenagers (Anna Paquin, Lauren Lee Smith, et al.) who are staked by a vampire, and the final story deals with a cranky old man (Brian Cox) who’s attacked by a pint-sized sprite with a gunny-sack over his head.  The gunny-sack-headed thing actually turns up in all the stories, if only as a background figure.  Think of him as the movie’s crypt keeper, but without the winning personality.  Not all of these stories are quite what they appear, pretty much all of them have a twist to them at the end.

Of the three stories, the one with Brian Cox is easily the strongest.  That story comes the closest to be a legitimate piece of horror and Cox (an eminently overqualified actor) chews the scenery nicely.  The rest are pretty problematic.  I found the crazy principle story to be particularly weak, mainly because it was devoid of suspense and was generally a weak opener to the film.  The story of the four kids also suffers, first from the illogicly short walk the kids apparently need to make in order to reach a ravine in the middle of nowhere and also because it probably had the least inventive twist of the whole film.  The Anna Paquin story fares a little better than those two, it feels like that story get the bulk of the film’s budget and Paquin also elevates it a little, but its twist opens it up to a fairly big plot hole.

The biggest problem this film has is that it isn’t even remotely scary.  It also isn’t suspenseful, it isn’t chilling, it isn’t creepy, it isn’t eerie, it doesn’t even have jump scares, or even a noteworthy amount of gore.  If you go into this expecting a full on horror movie you will be sorely disappointed.  Many will counter that this is meant as a horror-comedy, but this doesn’t impress me either because this isn’t really very funny either.  What this is, is a lark of a movie that’s playing around with the traditions of Halloween and some traditional horror material.  The film’s occasional adoption of comic book text boxes implies that it is trying to operate within the confines of the EC comics horror tradition that inspired Creepshow, “Tales From the Crypt,” and to some extent this year’s Drag Me To Hell, but as silly as Creepshow was it at least had some legitimate creepiness in the E.G. Marshall segment.

This is one of those movies that has become a cause for its fanbase, because it got stepped on by Hollywood people feel the need to stand up and “support” it.  Is the movie worthy of this kind of grassroots support?  No.  There is more skill on display in it than in the average direct to video movie, but if I think Hollywood might have had the right idea on this one.  For one thing the movie is only an hour and seventeen minutes long and I would have felt a little ripped off if I had to pay full price for it.  That’s not to say that it should have been longer, the pacing probably wouldn’t have allowed for that, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Pretty much the only way I can see this really working is if you rent it on a weekend and watch it on a night with your friends when you all probably aren’t paying a particularly large amount of attention and are possibly a bit tipsy.  If you’re looking for something to fill an evening like that, this will probably satisfy, but in a context that involves more scrutiny I’d skip it.

** out of Four