THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alexandre Aja

Written by: Max Minghella

(based on the novel THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX by Liz Jensen)

Starring: Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Julian Wadham, Jane McGregor, Barbara Hershey & Aaron Paul

Alexandre Aja wowed horror fans with his tense gorefest HIGH TENSION and then went on to helm a couple of notable horror remakes (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, PIRANHA). In 2014, Aja slightly switched gears with dark fantasy HORNS. His shift from scares into fantastical thrillers continues with THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX. I don’t know what behind-the-scenes studio hijinks occurred, but I saw 9TH LIFE trailers in front of summer movies and it appeared that Aja’s latest outing was going nationwide. However, it has been dumped into an unspecified number of select theaters with no box office information available online. It appears that 9TH LIFE is already destined to become one of 2016’s more forgotten films, but that might be for the better. LOUIS DRAX is ambitious, curiously strange and does a handful of interesting things, but it also constantly drops the ball and frequently meanders to the edge of boredom.

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Based on the novel of the same name by Liz Jensen, this film is narrated by nine-year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth). Though he’s been in this world for less than a decade, Louis’s existence has been filled with unfortunate life-threatening accidents and amazing recoveries. Louis’s latest misfortune has involved plummeting off a cliff, winding up dead for two hours, resurrecting and then falling into a coma. Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) has been assigned to the young comatose boy and proceeds to investigate what may have occurred on the cliff, with Louis’s suspicious father (Aaron Paul) on the run and his mourning mother (Sarah Gadon) as a love-interest. From an out-of-body state, Louis watches the proceedings and tells his story to a strange sea monster.

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A kernel of a good movie lies somewhere within 9TH LIFE’s complicated layers and oddball missteps. The film has two solid performances, a somewhat successful fairy tale tone, and creative plot points. Though this movie has dark moments, it’s mostly guided by Louis’s innocent voice-over narration laying out the strange story. The writing is at its best during flashbacks of Louis’s earlier life. The scenes between young Aiden Longworth and Aaron Paul feel like they’re from a compelling, realistic family drama. To be fair, these are the only two actors in the film who seem to care about the material. The rest of the cast looks like they showed up for a quick buck.

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The lows of 9TH LIFE’s mixed bag acting are totally evident in Jamie Dornan’s phoned-in performance. Dornan slightly redeemed himself from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY embarrassment with tense historical-thriller ANTHROPOID earlier this year, but now, he has another dull-as-dirt character to make up for. The same can be said about Sarah Gadon as Natalie Drax, who mostly exists to make sullen facial expressions, unconvincingly serve as a seductress, and gloomily stand in the corner. At least Oliver Platt seems to be having fun as a strange psychiatrist, even if he only shows up for about ten minutes.

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The film’s whimsical tone, imaginative elements and interesting mystery are frequently drowned in a sea of bland would-be suspense and tedious pacing issues. Colorful atmosphere and vibrant visuals are seen in Louis Drax’s flashbacks and otherworldly experiences, while the hospital setting seems purposely washed out to the point of being downright ugly. The mystery being pieced together by Drax’s memories is a hundred times more compelling than watching Dornan’s generic doctor figure out that Louis obviously isn’t like other children.

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Not everything works about Louis Drax’s otherworldly adventure though, because a few fantasy elements occasionally seem awkward (that damn sea monster). Still, the audience is slightly rewarded, because these do mature into interesting plot developments. The script’s shaky tonal shifts, between dull hospital thriller and LOVELY BONES-esque fantasy, undermine the emotional impact of potentially powerful revelations. 9TH LIFE had me hooked to the point where I wanted to see what would happen next, but also dragged to a point where I wished that I cared more.

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THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX is an okay (at best) effort for Alexandre Aja. The film has creative moments, two solid performances and a few cool plot twists. However, these are frequently overshadowed by a dull-as-dirt glacial pacing, two phoned-in performances, and annoying melodrama. The visuals range from beautifully stylish to painfully washed-out, while the two very different storylines seem to be constantly at odds with each other. There’s enough quality here to recommend 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX as a drunken/sleep-deprived late-night cable viewing, but nothing else to warrant spending hard-earned cash or going to the effort of tracking a theater down. This is a mess. Granted, this film is an oddball one-of-a-kind mess, but it still remains a mess nonetheless.

Grade: C+

YEAR ONE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content throughout, brief Strong Language and Comic Violence

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg

Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde & June Diane Raphael

Harold Ramis proved himself to be a strong force in cinematic comedy with CADDYSHACK, VACATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. His final stint as a writer and director came in 2009’s YEAR ONE. The film was being promoted as a potential big summer blockbuster, but fell short of studio box office estimates and audience’s/critics’ expectations alike. YEAR ONE is far from Ramis’s best work, but there is entertainment to be found here. This film suffers from a jumbled narrative, cheap gross-out gags, and dusty jokes, but does contain solid moments and some clever writing.

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Zed is an overconfident hunter. Oh is a shy gatherer. Both are outcasts in their tribe, but Zed aims to change this by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This scheme backfires as Zed and Oh are banished from their small community and take off on history’s first road trip. Along their way, they run into a variety of colorful Biblical figures (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the city of Sodom). They quickly discover that they might have a further purpose to serve when the cavemen and cavewomen of their community are captured as slaves. Along the way, Zed tries to find himself as a hero and Oh has an internal debate about the existence of God.

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YEAR ONE isn’t up to the same level as Ramis’s other comedies. This is evident by an overreliance on gross-out gags. The film’s tone becomes entirely too juvenile in scenes of Jack Black eating poop, Michael Cera sleeping with a flatulent roommate, and an upside-down Cera urinating on himself. These cheap moments of crude humor stick out further when you consider how smartly written other parts of the screenplay are. Even though their dialogue quickly devolves into penis humor, the introduction of Abraham (a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing McLovin in Biblical times) is entertaining and borderline blasphemous. My personal favorite moments involve the wicked, guilt-ridden Cain (David Cross delivering the best performance in the film). Vinnie Jones also receives a few good scenes as the hulking Sargon, who mainly serves as an intimidating straight-man to the absurdity surrounding him.

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YEAR ONE’s biggest pitfall comes in Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh being the least interesting characters in the entire movie. Every performer surrounding them manages to be far more entertaining than these two boring protagonists. Black is doing his typical loud idiot shtick and Cera is playing his usual awkward persona, the would-be hook is that they’re doing these routines in various Biblical costumes. On a positive note, Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in as the overly flamboyant High Priest. Platt, David Cross, Vinnie Jones, and borderline sacrilegious humor are the film’s highlights. It’s a pity that the rest of the writing and performances aren’t nearly on the same level of hilarity.

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YEAR ONE’s flaws don’t simply stay with its overreliance on potty humor and bland protagonists, but also extends to a rather jumbled narrative. The film is essentially a Monty Python wannabe as it goes from skit-like segment to skit-like segment, but some of these (especially during the first third) don’t have any punch line to be found. When Oh is being attacked by a snake in the forbidden garden, we never see how it turns out. Less than ten minutes later, the same exact situation occurs again with a cougar and there’s still no punch line. A couple of haphazard lines of dialogue could have patched these plot gaps up, but the three screenwriters didn’t even bother to put that much effort into the script.

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While YEAR ONE has its moments (sacrifices being watched as sports-like entertainment, an intense” chase between two slow-moving carts, Cain being a constant asshole), it also relies far too much on poop, fart, and sex gags. It’s not that crude humor can’t be funny, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort being put into these jokes (save for a Eunuch character). YEAR ONE isn’t technically “good” due to a messy script, lame-brained jokes that fall flat, and two boring leads, but I enjoy it on a “guilty pleasure” level. If you’re looking for something that is light-hearted, dumb as a rock, and will kill 97 minutes of your life, then I’d recommend YEAR ONE on those merits. Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

CUT BANK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Matt Shakman

Written by: Roberto Patino

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern & Oliver Platt

CUT BANK is a movie that I discovered through its trailer. I previously had no idea this film even existed, in spite of it receiving a VOD release earlier this year and playing a couple of big film festivals last year. The well-cut trailer intrigued me as to whether or not this might be an undersung gem of 2015. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ventured out to the nearest Redbox and spent a dollar to see this flick. It seems that this is one of those many cases where the trailer is better than the movie its advertising, because CUT BANK is a film suffering from both an identity crisis and a bland script. The end result comes off like someone trying really hard to imitate the Coen brothers and not quite understanding what makes their movies work so well to begin with.

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Dwayne McLaren and his girlfriend, Cassandra, are recording a video in their small town of Cut Bank, Montana. Their little video shoot goes awry when they accidentally capture footage of a deadly crime in progress. The postman has been shot and killed by a mysterious stranger. Dwayne, who has been desperate to get out of his small town, sees this murder video as a possible ticket for a lot of money. However, the clumsy Sheriff Vogel is investigating the crime and finds that the simple crime is much more complicated than it originally appeared to be. While all of this is going on, creepy redneck Derby Milton is hunting, with deadly determination, for a mysterious package (that has disappeared with the mailman’s body). Through a series of events all of these characters will wind up encountering each other and not all of them will walk away alive.

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CUT BANK has a Coen vibe to it, whether that was intentional or not. However, it doesn’t quite have the story to back that up. Once an obvious plot revelation has been revealed in the first third, it becomes pretty apparent where everything will head. The screenplay doesn’t dissuade from that predictable route. One thing that CUT BANK does attempt to do is tell it’s crime story with a sense of humor. There are tense moments as well as attempts at comedy. However, the mash-up of these two genres doesn’t work nearly as well as other, better attempts that have come long before this film (e.g. anything from the Coens or Tarantino). Even with the tonal imbalance set aside, the main two protagonists in this story are ridiculously bland. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer just don’t sell their characters well, though the writing doesn’t do them any favors either. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton (who recently impressed in the first season of FX’s FARGO) and Bruce Dern (who received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in NEBRASKA) are handed equally boring roles. Thornton acts grumpy (what else is new?) and Dern acts even grumpier. That’s about all there is to their performances.

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This movie actually hits its stride in two subplots. John Malkovich is enjoyable to watch as the incapable Sheriff encountering his first murder on the job, which leads to scenes of him throwing up at crime scenes. A couple of Malkovich’s scenes also have him acting alongside Oliver Platt who plays a conniving businessman. However, Platt’s scenes only amount to about five minutes of total screen time. The best character and performance come from Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s unrecognizable as the central baddie. His character is the reclusive Derby Milton, a quiet hillbilly with a mean psychotic temper. Milton is just looking for his parcel and the mystery surrounding what exactly that is has a quirky pay-off, but not necessarily a satisfying one.

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CUT BANK is a weird, but predictable, movie that seems to be trying too hard to emulate the Coen brothers. It’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by way of FARGO and doesn’t manage to measure up to either of those films or stand by itself. The tonal shifts don’t work nearly as well as the director and writer probably intended them to and the performances are mixed across the board. The best pieces of the film come in Malkovich, Platt, and Stuhlberg. Even then, I can’t fully recommend the whole 90-minute experience for those three performances alone. If you stumble across this on late-night cable or while scanning Netflix out of boredom, then you could do far worse. However, I wouldn’t recommend going through much effort to watch this middle-of-the-road thriller.

Grade: C

THE TEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Crude Sexual Content including Dialogue and Nudity, and for Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: David Wain

Written by: David Wain & Ken Marino

Starring: Paul Rudd, Adam Brody, Winona Ryder, Gretchen Mol, Ken Marino, Oliver Platt, Liev Schreiber, Rob Corddry, Michael Ziegfeld & Jessica Alba

THE TEN flaunts a potentially fun concept. The writer/director of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and ROLE MODELS crafts an anthology centered around 10 comedic tales that cover the ten commandments. That sounds like a blast. David Wain is known for his weird and totally random sense of humor. His oddball jokes helped fuel a cult following in SUMMER and also supported a hilarious season of the Comedy Central’s bizarre short-lived STELLA. Unfortunately, David Wain isn’t at the top of his game in this messy anthology. THE TEN has some enjoyable segments, but succumbs to downright unfunny and lame skits that feel way too desperate. Paul Rudd serves as a narrator introducing each new commandment and his wooden delivery doesn’t do any favors to the film either. I’ll keep my descriptions of the segments/commandments vague (as some a couple of them last for two minutes tops), but will dive into my criticisms or praise to be found in each.

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THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP NO GOD BEFORE ME: After falling out of an airplane, a man becomes an unexpected celebrity and this newfound fame consumes him. This short plays out like a joke with no punchline. Though there are two brief chuckles, the best I can say about this segment is that it’s very brief (five minutes). The first commandment feels like a throwaway joke that was stretched on for five minutes. D

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THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN: A virginal librarian has a fling with a mysterious man in Mexico that produces an unexpected revelation. This short had some potential in its execution, but mostly plays out like a one-note joke. Again, it made me chuckle a couple of times, but that’s about all the reaction it got out of me. This is slightly worse than first segment, which doesn’t exactly kick off the comedic anthology on a strong note. D-

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THOU SHALT NOT MURDER: A doctor pulls a prank that has deadly consequences for his patient and dire ones for himself. This segment felt like a decent College Humor skit made its way into this film. I was amused, even if the laughs ranged on moronic. The short also sets up characters in two of the better segments down the line. B-

HONOR THY MOTHER AND THY FATHER: Two black children demand to know the identity of their biological father and their white mother goes to extreme lengths to give them the answer. This segment felt so awkward, stupid, and bad that it just stuck out like a sore thumb as easily the worst of the 10 shorts here. F

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THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOR’S GOODS: A pompous asshole (played wonderfully by Liev Schreiber) competes with his neighbor after an impromptu CAT scan machine purchase. The situation spirals out of control. I was cracking up during multiple parts of this segment and wish that the rest of the commandments were as entertaining. Easily the best tale of the bunch. A-

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THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE: The doctor from the third segment finds himself in prison. He’s cell mates with an abusive rapist but falls in love another prisoner (Rob Corddry). Though I can see most folks not enjoying this segment, Rob Corddry usually brings up the quality of any project he’s in. The dead-pan seriousness that this “romance” plays out in is also quite funny. B-

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THOU SHALT NOT STEAL: The seventh commandment is very hit or miss. A woman (introduced in the first segment) falls in love with a ventriloquist dummy. The serious execution of this unconventional romance bring most of the successful jokes, but there are almost an equal number of misses. The sheer stupidity of the tale will turn people off, but I enjoyed it as a bit of a guilty pleasure. C+

THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS: A heroin addict asks about the origin of a special brand of heroin. This leads into an impromptu piece of animation that aims for shock value and forgets any laughs to be had. This really felt like the turning point in which the movie (which already wasn’t great by any means) decided to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck. Unfortunately, nothing stuck at all. F

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THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY: Paul Rudd, already acting as a lifeless narrator in the wraparound, gets him time to shine here and the writing doesn’t do him any favors. Rudd would go on to be hilarious in later efforts (he’s arguably the funniest part of KNOCKED UP), but there’s no effort put into this brief segment from either Rudd or Wain. F

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REMEMBER THE SABBATH AND KEEP IT HOLY: The tenth commandment centers a man who would rather be naked at home on a Sunday than at church with his family. His newfound nudity gains popularity among his friends. Though this final segment may have gotten a brief chuckle out of me, it feels like this was a potentially funny joke that might have made for a small scene in a narrative feature, but gets stretched out to an excruciatingly long 10 minutes. It’s an ever so slight improvement above the last two tales, but sends the overall jumbled anthology out on a sour note. D-

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THE TEN has a cool premise, but doesn’t fully utilize it. The only commandment that I out-and-out loved was “Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Goods” as the dark sense of humor and Schreiber delivered solid laughs. There are also three that range between are okay (Shalt Not Murder, Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and Shalt Not Steal). The rest of the stories feel like a simple jokes stretched to their unfunny breaking points or phoned in attempts at shock value. In the end, I can’t recommend THE TEN. I’m sure somebody’s already said this before, but Thou Shalt Not See This Movie!

Grade: D+

KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Written by: Peter Landesman

(based on the book KILL THE MESSENGER by Gary Webb & Nick Schou)

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick & Michael K. Williams

There are plenty of reasons why KILL THE MESSENGER is a “good” movie. It addresses huge important issues and features a standout performance that ranks among Jeremy Renner’s best roles. Other talented faces pop in and out of the story as well. There are plenty of great moments as well. It’s a shame that bad pacing fumbles up the overall experience. For those interested in corruption, ignored history, and one of the earliest whistleblowers before Snowden, then MESSENGER is a worthwhile watch.

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In the mid-90’s, Gary Webb got an interesting tip that led him to publish a series of three articles known as “Dark Alliance.” Webb interviewed many drug dealers and criminals in order to unveil a conspiracy that led to a discovery of CIA officials who knew full well about cocaine being used to fund Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980’s. It was a crooked way of fueling a conflict that wasn’t getting full support from Congress. Obviously, Webb shedding light on a top-secret story wasn’t exactly what the CIA wanted. A massive smear campaign was launched against the man to discredit him rather than focus on genuine points in his articles. KILL THE MESSENGER is based on Webb’s entire ordeal with a conspiracy thriller vibe thrown into it for good measure.

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The two biggest reasons to see KILL THE MESSENGER are the true story behind the film and a knockout performance. If there’s anything this film gets completely right, it’s that I wanted to read up on the actual story about Gary Webb’s articles and get multiple points of view. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this plot though. Sometimes, it feels as if certain angles were prettied up in order to automatically see Gary Webb as a perfect hero figure (despite his past sins). It’s a tad manipulative and offering a more complex/flawed view would have made for a more challenging/realistic movie. Jeremy Renner knocks it out of the park as Webb! The actor pours so much emotion into his role that it’s great to watch him pretty much carry a decent movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Webb’s editor), Oliver Platt (Webb’s boss), Robert Patrick and Andy Garcia (drug dealers), Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (government agents) all deliver in their scenes, even if they only appear for a mere five minutes of screen time.

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The biggest killer of momentum in the film is the pacing. There are interesting scenes that totally work within the context of the movie, but also a couple of godawful stretches that border on tedious. There’s not a solid reason why this movie should run at nearly two hours. 20 minutes could have easily been snipped out for a tighter flick. Some of these include family dynamic clichés that failed to flesh out the story further or give any emotional weight to this movie version of Webb. Also, the insertion of clips (interviews with government officials or stock footage) as montages feels like a cheap technique of transitioning from scene to scene. It’s almost like a documentary approach was inserted into an otherwise traditional narrative and it’s as jarring a decision as it sounds.

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KILL THE MESSENGER did a good job of pissing me off and rightly so about at the upsetting true story at the core of the film. Jeremy Renner almost single-handedly makes the movie work with a great performance, while other capable actors make their presence known. Bad pacing really kills the building momentum. There are definitely standout plot points that needed to be kept, but a few unneeded clichés felt cheap. I am glad I watched KILL THE MESSENGER if only because it shed some light on a troubling story and got me interested enough to read up more on the facts behind the film. I can’t imagine ever watching it again, but it’s a decent flick.

Grade: B-

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