Reel Opinions

Monday, August 28, 2006

How to Eat Fried Worms

One thing I certainly cannot criticize the new family film, How to Eat Fried Worms, for is that it lives up to its title. There is much digesting of the little squirmers during the course of the film, more so than any 90-minute long movie probably needs. That being said, what I can criticize the movie for is being a loud, annoying, and overly loose adaptation of a children's novel that is loved by many. In bringing the book to the big screen, writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) has removed all the joy from the source material, and instead has given us an overly crude and juvenile comedy that will appeal only to the 10 and under set. Without the familiar title attached to lure in audiences, this movie wouldn't stand a chance. With so many better family films out there, why would any parent want to sit through something like this?

The plot (such as it is) centers around an elementary school kid named Billy Forrester (Luke Benward) who is forced to move into a new town and a new school when his dad (Tom Cavanagh) gets a new job. Billy is not happy at the idea of being a new kid, and sure enough, the second he rides his bike up to his new school, the local bully Joe (Adam Hicks) targets him. What starts as a childish prank, when Joe and his friends secretly replace the drink in Billy's thermos with some freshly dug up earthworms, quickly escalates out of control when our hero tries to act cool and pretends that he eats worms all the time. Joe the bully calls Billy's bluff, and challenges him to a bet where he will have to eat 10 worms in one day this coming Saturday. Having no one on his side except for the sweet school outcast girl, Erica (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Billy is forced to take the challenge in order to stand up to Joe's bullying.

How eating 10 worms in a single day proves anything about our hero's worth, your guess is as good as mine. Even if Billy wins the bet (the prize being that if Billy eats all 10 of the worms, Joe has to show up to school on Monday with worms in his pants), wouldn't that in fact make him the target of even more bullying? In fact, How to Eat Fried Worms seems confused about what message it wants to bring forth to children. It tells us we should stand up to bullies by doing whatever stupid dare they want us to do. It will somehow make Billy cool to the other kids that he saw Joe's challenge, and the kids will respect him. If that doesn't make any sense to you, then try this. The movie then switches gears and tells us that we are supposed to sympathize and be nice to bullies, because they have really crummy home lives, and they act out to deal with the abuse they get at home. (Joe has an older brother who teases him.) Okay, so we're supposed to stand up to bullies by taking on their humiliating challenges and degrading ourselves, but we're also supposed to stand up for them as well, because they're just misunderstood? I'm still trying to figure out what message we were supposed to leave with this movie, other than worms really do not taste good no matter how you try to prepare them. And I don't think anyone needs an entire movie in order to inform them of that.

How to Eat Fried Worms is a plotless, 90-minute long gross out joke in search of a point. Once the bet is set about 20 minutes into the movie, the remaining 70 minutes is a stomach churning and endless series of close up shots of worms being slurped, swallowed, ground up, chewed up, and "flavored" with everything from lard to hot sauce to an omelette. I'm sure kids in the single digit age group will find this stuff hilarious, but any adult or somewhat mature teenager will probably be squirming in their seats as much as the little earth crawlers do in this movie. The kids keep on screaming how gross it is (as if we don't know that already), and the movie keeps on coming up with different ways to show kids doing cruel things to worms and to each other. This is one pointless, ugly and vile movie, and the fact that it tries to attach a message about respecting others is almost as disgusting as anything in the movie itself, as it obviously exists solely to gross out and nothing more. The characters are a mere afterthought (the kids are just one big batch of cliches and obnoxious screamers), the adults are downright idiots (there's a spaced out teacher, an ignorant principal, a crazy old hag who runs a bait shop, and some clueless parents), and the entire movie has the look and production values of a Saturday morning special that would be right at home on the Nickelodeon channel. Bob Dolman's flat and characterless direction doesn't help matters much, as he only seems interested in graphic sight gags of worm abuse.

A tasteless movie like this needs a bland cast, and Fried Worms does not disappoint in this department. Luke Benward is passable as the put-upon hero, but we never truly sympathize with him as much as we should. This is most likely because the movie makes him out to be an idiot, going back to the whole why would eating 10 worms make you popular thing I mentioned earlier. His parents, portrayed by Tom Cavanagh and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, are about as fleshed out and interesting as a mom and dad from a 1950s family sitcom. The dad, in particular, seems to hail from the world of Leave It to Beaver, as we never really learn what he does at work, and almost every scene he's in revolves around him sitting down, putting his arm around his son, and having a heartfelt talk while sappy music plays on the soundtrack. The other kids in this movie are generally a screaming chorus that the screenplay does very little to develop. Other than a pointless and unnecessary scene where a couple of the kids play a dancing video game at a convenience store that comes literally out of nowhere, they pretty much do nothing but scream about worms, and react in disgust as Billy swallows them down. The only stand out is young Hallie Kate Eisenberg, as Billy's equally put-upon friend. You may remember Eisenberg as that little girl who used to lip synch to songs on the Pepsi commercials in the mid 90s, or from her small role in the film Bicentennial Man. She is likeable in her performance, and is one of the few characters who has a shred of intelligence and doesn't act like she hails from outer space. Too bad the main thing Dolman's screenplay can think of having her do is watch the worm eating action from afar, and say "boys are so weird" over and over while she shakes her head.

Since the movie doesn't even try to follow the original book (the only thing similar is the title, there's a bet about eating worms, and some of the character names), How to Eat Fried Worms pretty much has lost all purpose in the translation. The film's production company, Walden Media, is a studio that prides itself on bringing children's literary classics to the big screen. They've had a pretty hit and miss record so far with films like Holes, Chronicles of Narnia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Hoot. This is their worst effort yet. Maybe they should have thought twice about bringing a book where the main plot point is a kid eating worms to the big screen. So, even though the movie winds up living up to its title, perhaps the question here is did anyone want it to?

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Saturday, August 26, 2006


Over the past couple years, the Disney Studio has stumbled upon a seemingly fool proof way to make money. They simply search the news archives for any sports story that could easily be molded into a crowd pleasing underdog story, buy the rights, bang out a screen story that leaves out any rough patches or acts of bad behavior the real life person in the story may have been a part of, release the film, and watch the money flow. It is a plan that has worked for a long string of similarly themed films including The Rookie, Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and Glory Road. Disney seems poised to cover just about every major sport, so I'm sure we'll eventually get to a point where we'll see the "inspirational true story" about some guy who lost his arm in a factory accident, but persevered against all odds, and went on to become a champion ping pong player despite his one-armed handicap. Until that movie arrives, we'll have to settle for their latest entry, Invincible - a by the numbers underdog story that does little to convince us the story needed to be told on the screen in the first place.

The most recent sports figure to be glorified by the Disney Studio is Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg). Vince is living in hard times. It's the mid 70s, and there are massive job strikes and unemployment the nation over. He's just lost his day job as a substitute teacher, and now only has his night time bar job to pay the increasing bills. Worst of all, his wife of five years recently moved out, taking everything they own with her, and only leaving a bitter note behind saying that he'll never amount to anything. When all hope seems lost, a miracle arrives in the form of the new coach of Vince's favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) has come up with a plan that he thinks will restore the fans' faith in the team after a lengthy losing streak. He will hold open try outs where anyone from off the street can try out for the Eagles training camp, and aim for a position on the team's final roster for the season. Vince is egged on by his friends at the bar to try out for the team, since they figure he has nothing to lose. To the surprise of the Coach and everyone at the try out, Vince ends up being the best of the hopefuls that day, despite the fact that he's never actually played in any professional game. Vince finally has a chance to prove his ex-wife and everyone else who has ever doubted him wrong by toughing it out through the team's grueling training camp.

For a movie that's supposed to be about Vince Papale, Invincible takes a pretty limited scope, focusing only on a couple months in the man's sport career. Since I do not follow football (or most professional sports, for that matter), I had never heard of the guy or of his story. Having seen the movie, I feel like I know about as much about the guy and his story than I did when I walked into the theater. We never truly get a sense of who Vince is, or why he stays so loyal to the Philadelphia Eagles, even though they seem to be the worst team in the world when he attends one of their games at the beginning of the movie. We never get a real sense to the turmoil in his relationship with the wife who winds up leaving him (she appears in one scene, asking when their lives are going to get better, then she's gone), or the true extent of his relationships with the people around him. The most we learn about Papale is that he likes to talk with the guys at the local bar about football, and diss the rival team, the New York Giants. We don't even get to see much of Papale's professional football career, which seems a bit odd considering it is the heart of the story. We get a lot of montages and scenes of him in training, the coach decides to give him a shot and put him on the team even though the other heads wanted to cut him, and then we only get to watch one real game of Papale's career before the end credits start to role. The story strangely seems to be beginning right when it ends. Even worse, we never get any sense about the relationship between Vince and his fellow teammates. We know they hate him for most of the movie, because he's an outsider and not a pro. Yet, during the big game climax, the team is supportive and nice toward him, despite the film never bothering to explain this change in heart of the entire Philadelphia Eagles.

Invincible tries to fill in the gaps with a love interest story where Vince begins to fall for a pretty young blonde who works at the bar (Elizabeth Banks). The subplot is supposed to represent him moving on with his life after the incident with his wife, but it is so underdeveloped that it barely even registers with the audience. The movie keeps on going back to this plot of the two shyly getting closer (she too is nervous about getting involved, as she also had a recent bad break up), but never bothers to develop the characters, keeping them emotionally distant. There's certainly nothing wrong with the actors playing the roles. Mark Wahlberg is a likeable everyman character who gets a shot at the big time, Elizabeth Banks is attractive and sweet in her performance, and despite being completely underdeveloped and underwritten, Greg Kinnear as the team's head coach gets a couple good scenes here and there when he's dealing with his supportive wife and kids. Despite the good performances, the movie never digs deep enough into anyone who enters the story. Everyone is kept at arm's length, and we seem to learn as little as possible about them, almost as if the movie is afraid to get to know them better. This is a major mistake when it comes to a bio-picture. Instead of the inspiring true life story that it strives to be, Invincible comes across as being about some cardboard cut out characters who like to hang out at a bar and play football all day.

The thing that ultimately winds up saving the day, and makes the movie worth watching at least once, is the overall look and style of the film. First time filmmaker Ericson Core has an obvious eye for detail, as every scene looks like a perfect representation of its time period. The clothes, the furnishings and the hair styles all have an appropriate look for the time, giving the film a time capsule feel. And thanks to the full cooperation of the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles team, everything looks authentic and real during the game scenes. The football sequences featured in the film are expertly filmed, fast-paced, exciting and fun to watch. It's a shame the movie has to keep on going back to that underdeveloped love story that the screenplay obviously cares little about when the football scenes are much more exciting. And as is to be expected, the movie features a soundtrack filled to the brim with a large variety of classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s that do a good job of fitting the mood of the present scene. The look of this film was obviously handled with great care. It's too bad the screenplay did not receive the same amount of effort.

While never offensive or unwatchable, Invincible proves to be far too slight to deserve the big screen treatment. It's almost comes across as a lot of time, talent and energy being wasted for nothing. Vince Papale's story of going from down on his luck blue collar everyman to professional sports player sounds like a can't miss idea for an inspirational sports movie. Yet, for some reason, the movie never quite bothers to get close enough to its own subject. I was actually surprised to find out that this was an authorized bio-movie, and that the real life Papale was actually there on the set. With how little the movie seems to know about him, it almost comes across as an unauthorized film. Official or not, Invincible hardly lives up to its name.

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Friday, August 25, 2006


When it comes to intentionally stupid and crude comedies, Beerfest has one heck of a concept. Too bad it's backed up by one lousy screenplay. Mysteriously popular Canadian comedy group, Broken Lizard (who shot to fame a couple years ago with their debut film, Super Troopers), once again prove that they have no idea what they're doing when it comes to comedy. Oh sure, they have some great ideas, and there are a couple of good gags scattered about the film, but the movie aims too low in its low brow humor, and the timing is completely off. Director and co-star Jay Chandrasekhar (last year's Dukes of Hazzard movie) and the rest of the cast seem to be having a great time up there on the screen, but we're left feeling like the only way we could be having that much fun is if we were as drunk as their characters are.

Beerfest takes Fight Club and just about every sports movie cliche for its inspiration, and views it through a pair of beer goggles. The action kicks off when American brothers Jan (Paul Soter) and Todd Wolfhouse (Erik Stolhanske) are sent to Germany to spread the ashes of their recently departed German grandfather (Donald Sutherland in an embarrassing cameo) in a "sacred family place". The sacred place turns out to be an underground beer drinking competition that is held every year called Beerfest, where the best drinkers the world over compete in a series of increasingly stupid Olympic-style chug games. It turns out their beloved grandfather is notorious on this side of the world for past misdeeds, and the two brothers are ridiculed and humiliated by the undefeated German drinking team. With the sting of defeat fresh in their minds, Jan and Todd are determined to defeat the Germans and restore their family name when the next competition rolls around. They have one year to form a crack team of beer guzzlers, and enter the competition as the USA Team. The team of misfits includes a nerdy scientist with a certain unhealthy scientific interest in frogs (Steve Lemme), an overweight eating competition champion (Kevin Heffernan), and a former drinking game master turned male prostitute (Jay Chandrasekhar).

Beerfest is a sports parody movie for people who thought previous intentionally stupid sports parody films like Dodgeball and Baseketball were too intelligent and slow for their tastes. Once it gets a pesky disclaimer out of the way at the very beginning, warning the audience not to try the kind of stuff the characters do in this movie, Beerfest pretty much becomes an endless series of rapid fire gags that revolve around public drunkenness and every part of the human body being violated in some way, shape, or form. In a way, I somewhat admired the uncontrolled anarchy of the film. I liked the premise, and there are a couple good gags scattered about the film. There are some funny jabs at movie cliches (a main character dies, only to be replaced by his twin brother who suddenly shows up, and is played by the same actor), and one or two gross out gags that made me chuckle despite how juvenile I knew they were. I also liked veteran comic actress, Cloris Leachman, as the grandmother of the two main characters who has a not-so secret past of being a prostitute. The complements end here, however, as the rest of Beerfest just doesn't measure up no matter how much you lower your expectations.

Even though Mr. Chandrasekhar has directed all of Broken Lizard's past films, his directing style still looks like that of an amateur. He has no sense of pacing or timing, which is murder for a comedy that relies on rapid fire gags for its laughs. Some of the jokes seem to be dragged out long after we get the point and stop laughing (like a scene where Chandrasekhar's character hits on a woman in a bar while he's drunk), and there are others that don't even bother to give us a proper pay off. For example, at one point, the guys learn that the championship German team train themselves for the big game by drinking the urine of a ram. (Don't ask.) The guys decide to try this tactic, and the movie shows them chasing down a ram. Afterward, the film cuts to them chugging mugs full of urine, only to make disgusted faces at each other, and then moves on to the next scene. In order for the scene to work, we need a gag to go along with it. The sight alone of seeing these guys drinking urine isn't funny, there needs to be more. A good gross out comedy would have built upon this idea, and given us more than just having the actors mugging at each other in disgust. Even juvenile humor has standards, and the humor found throughout Beerfest is so below par it almost borders on being pathetic.

As mentioned earlier, the cast of this film (made up of the Broken Lizard comedy group and one or two Saturday Night Live veterans) seem to be having a grand old time. But then, why shouldn't they? They were given permission by a major studio to do a movie where they do nothing but hang out with friends, drink beer, and do stupid pratfalls and gross out jokes. They were probably laughing all the way to the bank. I'm sure they got more laughs when the studio greenlighted this idea than there are actually found in the movie itself. There are a couple of lines that made me crack a smile, but most of the jokes are an embarrassing collection of scenes where the guys act up under the influence of alcohol. They're not allowed to do anything actually funny, we're just supposed to laugh at their drunken antics and continuous thunder belches that are so loud I think the walls of the theater actually shook once. I have no problem seeing the Broken Lizard guys giving bad or unfunny performances, but seeing Donald Sutherland's performance in this film just plain made me mad. I've always had a soft spot for the guy, but the second he started talking in that awful attempt at a German accent, I just shook my head. I don't care if this movie's a comedy, there's no excuse for an actor who has done some respectable work to give a performance that bad. With An American Haunting and now this, Sutherland's really having a rough 2006.

While not a complete failure, Beerfest simply does not have the laughs to go with its concept. And, much like Talladega Nights, the film suffers from an overlong running time that could have easily been remedied in the editing room. I'm sorry, but if your film's plot revolves around nothing but five guys binge drinking for a year, it does not need to run for almost two hours. There's hardly enough genuine laughs to hold a half hour short film. If you really need to see this movie, I would suggest waiting for the DVD, as I'm sure it will be a lot better with the alcoholic beverage featured so prominently throughout. Or, better yet, track down a copy of Strange Brew, still the best beer-themed comedy out there. Beerfest is a bitter comedy brew that does not go down easy, and kind of leaves you feeling queasy when it's all done.

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Little Miss Sunshine

It's funny how a continued downward spiral of a certain genre can make you forget how good a formula once was. In this case, Little Miss Sunshine is the savior of the road trip comedy, a genre that has not seen a truly memorable entry since the 1987 John Hughes classic, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. After a series of forgettable entries (the most recent being the Robin Williams stinker, RV), Little Miss Sunshine is a much needed shot of intelligence and maturity. Bittersweet, honest, sometimes sad and often consistently funny, this is not only the best example of the genre in years, but also one of the best films of 2006.

The film covers a weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family as they drive cross country from New Mexico to California to attend a junior beauty pageant. The young hopeful who inspires the trip is 7-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby yet spirited little girl who studies adult TV beauty pageants every day for inspiration. She has made the cut due to a last minute cancellation of another hopeful, and her entire family piles into a battered down bus for the trip. The clan includes failed motivational speaker father Richard (Greg Kinnear), fed up housewife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a drug-addicted smart-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin), an isolated teen who is intentionally not speaking to anyone named Dwayne (Paul Dano), and depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who has just been released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. During the 800-mile journey, the family will be forced to face their feelings for each other, and their own personal demons.

With a screenplay that constantly teeters on the line between the absurd and heartbreaking reality, Little Miss Sunshine becomes something of a small wonder. It is a movie that is often hilariously funny, but is also touching in many scenes. Despite the crazy situations the characters find themselves in, there is a lot of feelings of pain, isolation, loneliness, and sadness in just about all the adult characters that they try to keep to themselves mostly for the sake of young Olive. The movie knows how to handle its tricky personal issues and the comedy so that the movie's shifts in tone seem natural, instead of desperate or awkward. Some of the scenarios the family encounters during the trip come dangerously close to crossing the line (especially the final outcome of the grandfather character), but the movie never loses sight of its winning combination. And even though the characters are often at each other's throats, the script is smart enough not to make them annoying by having them constantly bicker with one another. The characters are likeable, easy to get behind, and developed well enough that we wind up seeing parts of ourselves in them.

Despite the dark undertones of Little Miss Sunshine, and numerous references to death, suicide and depression, the movie is never heavy or downbeat. Looking back on that sentence, I'll understand if you think I'm out of my head. This is a hopeful movie that never loses sight of the promise of happiness, no matter how bad the lives of the characters may be. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have crafted an uplifting and spirited comedy-drama out of some very unlikely material. As well as building some very strong laughs, Sunshine knows how to push the right emotional buttons in every scene. There are many memorable small moments throughout, such as teenage son Dwayne's eventual break down, and Uncle Frank's awkward reunion with someone from his past at a gas station. Each of these scenes are good enough to make small short films of their own. This is a near pitch-perfect movie that rarely if ever makes a wrong turn or a misstep.

All of this is topped off by a first-rate cast all the way around. As the frustrated and tired parents, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are realistic and winning in their respective roles. Kinnear in particular plays a man who expects nothing but success out of his family members and others, yet can't seem to reach success himself. He is a character who could have come across as hateful and unlikeable in the wrong hands, but Kinnear knows how to make us relate to him, and is probably one of his strongest performances in recent memory. As the hopeful and bright Olive, Abigail Breslin is a real find. The younger sister of fellow child actor, Spencer Breslin (Zoom, The Shaggy Dog), she has already surpassed her brother with just this one film, as her performance here tops anything her older sibling has ever done in his entire career. The real stand out, however, is Steve Carell who continues his winning streak with the closest thing he's had to a dramatic performance. He is quiet, reserved, and thoughtful in his performance, yet he also gets some of the film's funniest lines. In the span of one year, Carell has successfully changed from small-time supporting roles to leading man, and has become one my favorite actors. I truly hope his work in this film is recognized come award time next year.

With so many comedies (and movies in general) that fail to make any impression at all, Little Miss Sunshine is filled with enough emotion, laughs, and wonderful moments to almost make me forget about the rest of the mediocrity that comes out of Hollywood every year. It is truly a wonderful film, and hopefully it will receive the attention it deserves. It's just now starting to receive a wide release, so there's really no reason for you to miss it. I go to the movies for many reasons. I go to escape, I go to get lost in the story and the characters, and I go to be entertained. Little Miss Sunshine does all that and more.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

The hard part about reviewing An Inconvenient Truth is not trying to bring across that it's a good movie, because it certainly is. The hard part is trying to convince your reader that a movie that is practically nothing but Al Gore lecturing to people about global warming is worth their hard-earned movie dollar. That, obviously, is a tricky area, as Mr. Gore has widely been ridiculed for his sometimes rather flat (for lack of a better word) personality and the way he would sometimes present himself in public. The Al Gore portrayed in this film is personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable about the topic he covers. He obviously cares a lot about his topic, and it comes through in his performance and to the audience. While on paper, watching Al Gore talking about the environment for an hour and 45 minutes sounds like a cure for insomnia, the film is actually rewarding and informative.

Director Davis Guggenheim has brought Al Gore's acclaimed lecture on global warming that he has given all over the world to the big screen. Gore's presentation is very simple and to the point. He uses graphs, comparison photos (showing areas showing signs of global warming before and current), charts, statistics, and occasionally multimedia (animation clips created for the lecture, and some taken from TV). During his lecture, he talks about the effects that global warming has had on the weather patterns, on the Earth itself, and on the people of the world. He brings forth some alarming figures and statistics, backed up by photos and documents. He also uses personal experiences, talking about first-hand encounters with these events, and close friends and colleagues past and present who have inspired his views. The film is never preachy and usually honest, never relying on cheap scare tactics. Yes, some of the before and after photos of glaciers and mountains are quite literally jaw-dropping, but he wisely does not play up the drama, and usually lets the photos speak for themselves.

The film is not set entirely in a confined lecture hall. Occasionally, the filmmakers follow Gore during his travels to different locations where he gives his lecture, and the people that he meets outside of his presentation. The most poignant and important moment of the film, to me personally, is when the film crew follows Gore to the remains of the family farm where he spent a good part of his childhood. As he shows us the different areas, and talks about his family and their business, he mentions that one of the key crops his father grew was tobacco. Although the Surgeon General eventually started cracking down hard on tobacco, his father mostly ignored the dangers, and did not think much that one of his daughters was a heavy smoker. He realized it was too late when the daughter passed away from lung cancer, and never dealt with tobacco crops ever again. Not only is the way Gore tells the story touching and heartfelt, but it also eventually ties into one of his main topics that we have to do something about the problem before it is too late to do anything. The way that he uses personal experiences or life stories, and mixes them into his message is wisely not heavy handed or manipulative, but flows naturally into his subject.

The thing that I think will surprise anyone who happens to see An Inconvenient Truth is that Al Gore is actually quite entertaining and charming in his delivery and presentation. We are viewing the man outside of the campaign trail and the spin zone of politics, and instead are hearing him talking one-on-one with us and his audiences during his lecture about a subject that is very dear to him, and that he has been following since his days in school. He is passionate but never preachy, and he is also very funny sometimes. There are a surprising number of laugh out loud moments in the film, both in Gore's clever wording and the way he delivers his lines. He comes across natural as a speaker in this film, and is actually very likeable. He does not talk down to the audience, nor does he make things needlessly complex. He does rely heavily on statistics, figures and graphs, but he keeps them simple so that just about anyone can understand.

Naturally, An Inconvenient Truth is not exactly a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. But, it is a movie that I think needs to be seen. Its message is clear and concise, and told in a way that is never sappy or accusing. Gore wisely does not use his forum to attack others who disagree with him. Sure, he pokes a little fun at the opposition now and then, but he mainly uses his show as a chance to share his views and offer a wake up call about evidence that can be found all around us. With intelligence, personality and wit, Al Gore makes his point known, and has become one of the biggest entertainment surprises of the summer movie season.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006


A thought occurred to me while watching Accepted. Whereas once the college campus comedy flourished with the likes of such classics as Animal House and the original Revenge of the Nerds, the genre has all but dried up with only the occasional Old School or Van Wilder popping up every so often. If Accepted proves anything, it's that maybe the genre died because there's just nothing left that hasn't been done already. While certainly watchable, first time director Steve Pink fails to keep the laughs coming after a fairly successful first half hour. When the film starts to run out of gas, we are forced to check off the genre cliches in order to keep ourselves entertained.

Things seem bleak for recent high school graduate Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) when he is rejected by every college he applies for. His old fashioned parents (Mark Derwin and Ann Cusack) hold firm to the belief that a person is nothing without a college education, and wear their shame over the fact that their son has not been able to get into any college on their faces for all the world to see. Desperate for a way to get back into his parents' good graces, he teams up with his nerdy best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill from The 40-Year Old Virgin) to create a website and a fake acceptance letter for a fake college called the South Harmon Institute of Technology (or S.H.I.T. as it is affectionately called). Bartleby teams up with his friends to turn an abandoned mental hospital into a suitable campus, and hires a disgruntled former teacher turned foul mouthed shoe salesman (Lewis Black from TV's The Daily Show) to pose as the campus Dean. The parents buy the act, but things take a turn for the worst when a large group of slackers, stoners, and losers show up at the front door of South Harmon. It seems that they too have been rejected by every college they applied to, only to be accepted by the fake one Bartleby and his friends created. In order to keep the scam running, Bartleby will have to introduce a rather unorthodox way of teaching, and avoid the advances of the evil Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) from a rival college who wants to expose the scheme and shut South Harmon down so he can use the land for his own purposes.

Let's face it, just about everything you can do in a college comedy has been done, and Accepted does absolutely nothing to break the mold. A wild beer party set to the song "Blirtzkreig Bop" by The Ramones? Check. An evil dean teaming up with an equally evil jock frat boy to ruin the fun of the main characters? Check. A pretty and popular girl is dating the evil frat boy until she finds out that he is unfaithful, and discovers that the dorkier main character is much more caring and understanding toward her? Come on, do I even need to say it? The film actually starts off pretty strong, and seems that it will be a parody of the education system. The early scenes where Bartleby and his friends try to pass off a ranting extremist as their Dean to their parents are fun, and there are plenty of laughs in the film's first half hour. I actually started to get comfortable that the movie knew what it was doing. But then the other students show up at the door of South Harmon, and things quickly go downhill once the movie becomes an endless series of music montages set to the wild students partying to rock music, skateboarding, smashing into things, and blowing stuff up. The film never quite lives up to the promise the first half hints at, which is a shame, because the writers had a strong thing going here before they lost their nerve.

What's most bizarre about Accepted is the studio's insistence on watering down a film tailor made for an R-rating so it can receive a PG-13. This gives the film an overly sanitized feel that betrays everything the movie stands for. Didn't anyone at the studio realize that this was going to hurt the movie more than it helped? Why cater to a preteen audience when they're not even the audience that you're supposed to be targeting in the first place? And another thing, your decision to tone the movie down is obviously going to keep your core college audience away, as they will instead decide to wait for the "Unrated" DVD release later this year. Not only will this hurt the film's chances at the box office, it just doesn't make a lot of sense in the long run. Besides, a lot of the jokes are not appropriate for the preteen crowd, including the students and faculty referring to themselves as "shitheads" numerous times because of South Harmon's abbreviation. Because of this unwise censoring decision, numerous jokes are set up only to have no punchline or pay off whatsoever. I really would have liked to have seen some of the classes the students come up with South Harmon, which includes everything from "Slacking 101" to "The Decline and Fall of Chevy Chase". (Now there's a college course I would seriously sign up for.) But, aside from a few fleeting glimpses during certain montages, we never get a true sense as to what the school is about.

Perhaps what's more bizarre than the studio's decision to market the film to the wrong crowd is the filmmaker's decision to cast the 28-year old Justin Long as the 18-year old Bartleby Gaines. While Mr. Long certainly has a boyish face and doesn't come across as out of place as a teenager as he probably should, it still seems somewhat awkward to see him trying to pass himself off as a high school student, and talking about plans to create a fake ID. I really hope that he can advance into some more adult roles soon, because it's going to start to become very creepy if he's still playing these kind of roles in about two years or so. The rest of the cast are a nondescript group of stoners, idiot, and geek stereotypes that have been around in these kind of movies since the 80s. The one and only stand out in the cast is Lewis Black as the borderline psychotic former teacher. He generates the biggest laugh out loud moments during his early scenes that it's a shame the movie all but forgets about him as it goes along. We get little bits and pieces of his rants against society and the education system during his "lectures" that he gives to the students of South Harmon, but I have a sense we missed out on the good parts due to the film's PG-13 rating. Lewis Black is an underused comic gem in this movie, and it's the filmmaker's own fault that he was not used to the best of his ability.

In the end, Accepted comes across as being almost hypocritical due to its own sanitized tone. The movie ends with a long and impassioned speech about the values of free thinking and anti-conformity. Then they go and give into corporate greed, censoring the movie to their desires. It certainly doesn't make any sense to me, and it winds up making the film less than it could have and should have been. Ask yourself this question: Would Animal House be remembered as fondly today if director John Landis toned down John Belushi's performance? It's too bad that the makers of Accepted never asked themselves this question while they were in the editing room. Maybe if they had, we'd have a better movie.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Material Girls

Every once in a while, an actor or actress comes along who is popular, yet I cannot for the life of me understand why. Preteen idol Hilary Duff is one such actress. She launched to fame at the tender age of 14 with a TV series called Lizzie McGuire. Now, I never watched the show, so for all I know, her work on the series could have been nothing short of brilliant. I have high doubts of that, mind you, but I'm willing to give the girl the benefit of the doubt, because in each and every screen performance she gives, she mystifies and annoys me even more. Here is a girl with the looks of a Barbie doll, along with the personality and screen presence to match, and has not had a single hit film aside from the Cheaper By the Dozen movies (where she mostly stayed in the background in both films) and a movie based on her TV show. Yet, for some reason, the studios keep on casting her, and I keep on wondering what people possibly see in her. I would not wish for anyone's career to peak with Lizzie McGuire, but if her latest film Material Girls is any indication, Hilary Duff will be lucky if she still has a career by the time she graduates from college.

To call Material Girls stupid would be far too generous. Heck, calling it brain dead would be all too kind. The best way I can describe Material Girls is that it is the cinematic equivalent of a drooling lobotomy patient. Here is one of the most lifeless and pathetic excuses for a comedy I have seen in a long time, and no I am not forgetting last year's piece of cinematic pain, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. At least Rob Schneider's movie made me hate it with a passion. This movie is like staring at a brick wall for over an hour and a half, and about as fulfilling as banging your head against one for the same amount of time. The film's ad campaign would like you to believe that it is a parody of wealthy socialites who are famous simply for being famous. I'm all for the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Ritchies, and Olsen Twins of the world getting their cinematic skewering, but this movie is far too dim-witted to attempt even that. Labored and amateurish on just about every level, Material Girls is not so much a movie as it is an insult to the intelligence of Miss Duff's many young fans.

The plot centers around a pair of LA socialite sisters named Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava (real life sister Haylie Duff) Marchetta. They are the heirs to their late father's cosmetics company, as well as the spokesmodels. Mostly, though, they are more famous for their fancy lifestyle and lavish party hopping. Tragedy strikes when a scandal is uncovered, revealing that one of the company's facial care products has severe side effects. The Marchetta sisters are instantly vilified by the press and media, and find their perfect and pampered world falling apart around them. With their company in financial jeopardy and their beloved mansion now a smoldering rubble (after the girls accidentally burn it down), they are forced to move in with their kindly former maid Inez (Maria Conchita Alonso), and find themselves being pressured to turn the company over to their long-time business rival Fabiella (Anjelica Huston, slumming it up in a minor role). Now that they are forced to rely on themselves for the first time, the Marchetta sisters will have to find a way to save their futures when they discover that the entire scandal may be a set up from somewhere inside the company.

When making Material Girls, director Martha Coolidge (The Prince and Me) must have forgotten that just because the main characters have low IQs doesn't mean that the screenplay and everything else has to match their level. Here is a movie so unfocused and below average that I almost find it hard to believe that a major studio backed the project. You can tell that nobody cared about this movie because in a large number of scenes, the dialogue isn't even dubbed to the lips of the actors very well. Characters will be talking, but their mouths will start moving a second or two later. Or someone's mouth will stop moving, but the dialogue continues over. I've seen Japanese monster movies dubbed better than this. Needless to say, it becomes distracting very quickly. Not that there's much up there on the screen to hold our interest, mind you. The insipid plight of Tanzie and Ava is all but impossible to care for because they never seem to have things that bad. As soon as their house burns down, they are welcomed with open arms by a loving and caring friend who supports them whole heartedly. And even though they are encouraged by this friend to get a job and earn their own money, not once do they actually work. There is a job interview scene, but then the movie forgets all about it, and never brings up the fact that they need jobs ever again. The Marchettas never seem to ever be in any real danger, especially since if they are forced to sell the company to their rival, they wind up with $60 million. So, let me get this straight, no matter if they win or lose, they still wind up richer than you or I ever will be for doing nothing at all? And we're supposed to be rallying behind them?

The young heroines seem to change drastically from scene to scene, almost as if the three screenwriters credited kept on trying out different versions of the characters on each page of the script. One minute, they're dim and clueless (they refer to the Spice Girls as "classic rock"), the next they're vain and egotistical, and sometimes they're sympathetic and smart (Hilary Duff's character has college aspirations of pursuing a major in chemistry at a prestigious school, but this plot point is quickly dropped and never quite resolved). The schizophrenic nature of the girls make it hard to exactly pin down just how we are supposed to feel about them. Are we supposed to be laughing at them because they're stupid? Are we supposed to be pulling for them? The movie seems to be just as confused as we are. Perhaps it is for the best, as there is not one single character in this movie worth our interest. Everyone in this movie is either a one-note personality, an offensive stereotype, or a bland pretty boy with no personality whatsoever. These are people who like to sling insults at each other that don't even make any sense. At one point, Ava Marchetta is told off by a guy when he tells her she's (and I quote) "all frosting without the cupcake". I heard the words coming out of the actor's mouth, but my brain could not register what it was supposed to mean, or why Ava was so offended by the remark. Maybe some things in life are better off left misunderstood. Or maybe Material Girls is just an exceedingly stupid movie. Take your pick, there are no wrong answers.

No performance, no matter how layered or researched, could survive a movie like this. And indeed, the below average acting of everyone involved is simply the icing on this cake of pain. (Or perhaps the frosting on this cupcake of pain?) Hilary and Haylie Duff have an obvious easy chemistry together, which should come as no surprise, but neither one are able to create a single memorable scene or moment, whether alone or apart. They seem to be simply trying to earn laughs by staring vacantly at the other actors or the camera. I can't tell if this is intentional or not, but I'm going to let them pass, since their characters are supposed to be idiots to begin with. They don't get to do anything particularly funny, and some scenes even seem to be building to them doing something funny, only to have it cut to the next scene before it happens. Former child actor Lukas Haas (who once starred alongside Harrison Ford in Witness) seems positively lost and bored as a free lawyer trying to help the girls out with their business problems. My guess is he was wondering how he went from co-starring with Harrison Ford to acting alongside the Duff sisters. Anjelica Huston is merely cashing a paycheck in a glorified cameo as the girls' vain business rival. Really, the only performance that seems even the slightest bit genuine comes from Maria Conchita Alonso. She at least is a voice of reason and gets to display some intelligence in a movie filled with very dumb people. However, since the characters and the movie itself decides to ignore her advice, she's simply fighting a losing battle.

To give you a good idea of the audience's reaction to this film, my screening was filled with Hilary Duff's core fan base of young girls and preteens. And throughout most of Material Girls, the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. There was the occasional mild chuckle during some of the film's slapstick gags, but they could barely be heard over the film itself. This movie is a flat out failure almost as soon as the opening credits start up, and we are "treated" to the Duff sisters' rendition of the classic Madonna song that inspired the title of the film. I don't know what this movie was trying to do exactly. Duff's fans were disappointed, it didn't even try to make fun of its own socialite target, and it doesn't hold a single laugh or thought in its empty little head. By the time it was all over, I felt a little bit dumber having just watched it. And believe me, I felt dumb enough buying a ticket to another Hilary Duff movie to start with.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

Who knew that the most fun I would have at the movies this year would come in the form of Samuel L. Jackson battling vicious snakes on a commercial airliner? Certainly not I. I love it when a movie takes me by surprise and just gets me completely wrapped up in the experience. And Snakes on a Plane is definitely a most pleasant surprise. Forget the massive amount of Internet fan hype that has been building up the past year, and forget the fact that the plot is ludicrous. This is the best example of "thrill ride" movie making I have seen in a long time. It's exciting, it's fast paced, it's thrilling, and it's even funny at times. For pure check your brain at the door entertainment, you can't do much better than this.

When a young man named Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) happens to witness vicious Asian crimelord Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murdering an innocent man, it's up to FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) to protect him when Kim's goons start coming after Sean. It would seem that Sean's only choice is to testify in court about what he saw, and the only way he can do that is to make a flight from Hawaii to LA under the personal care of Neville to make sure that Sean arrives at the courthouse safely. Unknown to the unsuspecting passengers and crew of the flight, Kim has smuggled aboard a time release box filled with poisonous snakes from all corners of the world. When the snakes are unleashed, they instantly set about destroying everything and everyone in sight under the influence of a chemical that makes them unnaturally aggressive. With the life of everyone on board in great danger, Neville must find a way to take the situation under control, keep Sean alive, and keep the plane flying to its destination.

While no one will certainly mistake it for art, Snakes on a Plane is so tremendously enjoyable, you really won't have time to care. Director David R. Ellis (Cellular) and screenwriters Sebastian Gutierrez and John Heffernan know how to walk that thin line between intentionally cheesy and all out camp, so that we are laughing with the movie and not at it. The first half hour is devoted to setting up the characters, and introduces us to the large variety of colorful characters that we will be spending the next hour and 40 minutes with, including everyone from a germaphobic rap star to a resourceful flight attendant (Julianna Margulies) who is taking her final flight for the airline before she moves onto another job. After that, all bets are off. As soon as the time release box holding the snakes is opened, the movie picks up speed and never lets up. It's almost amazing how the film knows how to make the best out of its confined environments without making the movie seem repetitive. The movie does this by presenting various problems and situations that keep on arising throughout the film. And yet, the movie never seems gimmicky or desperate. The movie creates plausible tension, and knows how to keep us nearly breathless as events unfold. Despite how silly the premise may sound in the above synopsis, the film treats it mostly seriously, with only some one-liners (which are actually funny for a change) or over the top gore scenes (I dare you not to shake your head and laugh at the outcome of the guy who finds a snake in the toilet.) to help lighten the mood.

And then there are the snakes themselves. Using a wide variety of different species and sizes (including one so large I almost can't believe that it's for real), the movie effectively creeps us out with a parade of the slithery serpents that seem to start coming out of the walls. These snakes are not played for laughs, nor are they given any personalities (thank God). They are single-minded killing machines that pounce and strike, and even turn on each other from time to time. They are portrayed in a somewhat realistic light, which I appreciated. They don't do anything that I find hard to believe that a snake doped up on aggressive drugs could pull off. More so than the snakes themselves, it is their accompanying attack scenes that make them so memorable. In a year filled with watered down PG-13 horror films, it's wonderful to see a movie like Snakes on a Plane depict the outcome of its victims in such hilariously over the top detail. Actually, the film was originally targeted for a more family friendly rating, but the filmmakers wisely decided to do some reshoots and bump the film up to a hard R-rating. Definitely a good decision this time around, as I don't think the film would be half as much fun in its original format. For anyone who grew up on the over the top horror films of the 80s, and have been lamenting the removal of all fun from recent entries in the genre, you will welcome this film with open arms.

Usually in a movie like this, the cast and characters are a mere second thought. While I certainly wouldn't call any of the characters in this movie developed or well-written, there are a number of surprisingly likeable characters in this movie, and not one single one got on my nerves, which really came as a surprise to me. Did anyone ever have any doubt that Samuel L. Jackson could carry a movie like this? If anyone did, they will be proven wrong. Jackson not only comes across as a great badass hero for this film, but his performance is immensely likeable. Sure, the role is not exactly deep, but Jackson makes the most out of it, and he delivers his one liners and dialogue with tremendous glee that carries out onto the audience. Julianna Magulies is a strong female lead, and it's certainly nice to see a female lead that does not end up as a love interest for the hero for a change. Also notable is Lin Shaye as an elderly flight attendant who gets a couple good scenes as she tries to keep the passengers safe, and is warm and winning in her performance. The passengers are mainly a faceless and personality-deprived collection of screamers and future snake victims, but there are a couple stand outs, chief amongst them Rachel Blanchard who is surprisingly funny and sympathetic as pampered rich girl passenger Mercedes.

While I was watching this film, I was reminded of another horror film that tried to combine thrills and laughs that came out in April called Slither. I wasn't very fond of that movie, as I felt it took too long to get to where it was going, and it wasn't very funny either. Snakes on a Plane does everything right that the previous film just couldn't grasp. It gives the audience exactly what they want, and it's entertaining to boot. I certainly wasn't expecting much walking in, but I wound up leaving the theater with a goofy grin on my face and laughing to myself as I thought back on certain scenes. That's the best kind of impression a movie like this can leave on its audience. While it probably won't earn a place on my "Best of the Year" list, if anyone ever asks me what movie entertained me the most, I will most likely say Snakes on a Plane.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Step Up

The oh-so modest ad campaign for the new teen dance drama, Step Up, proudly proclaims that once in a while a movie comes along that speaks to an entire generation, and that this is supposed to be that movie. The announcer then goes on to say that it's the most fun you can have at the movies this year. Mind you, these are not quotes created by some hack critic who got bought off by the Disney-Touchstone studio, this is the actual ad campaign that they are using to promote the film. With promises like that, your movie has a lot to deliver, and Step Up just doesn't deliver the goods. Choreographer turned first-time filmmaker Anne Fletcher obviously never met a cliche she didn't like, and fills her film to the brim with just about every one she can think of. The fact that there was another dance movie released back in April that covered many of the same areas (Take the Lead) only makes matters even worse.

I could pretty much sum this movie's entire plot in one simple sentence, and that would be "Take every inner city and dance movie cliche you can think of and cram them together". But, for the sake of those of you who are actually insane enough to care about what this movie is about, I'll go into more detail. Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum from She's the Man) is a troubled high school student who hangs out with unruly gang members, jacks cars, and breaks into buildings. One night, Tyler is caught by a security guard after his friends and him break into a local school of the arts and start trashing a set for the play that some students are performing. He is sentenced to perform community service at the school, and one day while mopping the floor, he happens to notice a beautiful young dancer named Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan, who also starred in Take the Lead). Nora has a lot of problems of her own. A big dance show is coming up, and her partner recently injured himself, so he can't perform. Worst of all, if she doesn't win over the crowd at the show and get picked to join a professional company, Nora will have to go to a boring and stuffy old college that her unsympathetic mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) picked out for her. Desperate for a partner, she picks Tyler, and the two naturally start to hit it off with each other, even though they come from different lifestyles. Of course, Tyler's old hood friends start to feel betrayed that he's spending more time with her than with them, and Nora has a jealous boyfriend (Josh Henderson) who doesn't like the ill-mannered Tyler.

Although it suffered from many of the same cliches problems, at least Take the Lead had some entertaining and energetic dance performance scenes that grabbed our attention. It also had a good star turn from Antonio Banderas who made a likeable mentor to the troubled kids. Step Up, on the other hand, has nothing to help lift it above the pit of mediocrity it digs for itself. Despite having an almost 12 year history in the industry staging dance sequences (everything from The Mask to The 40-Year Old Virgin), choreographer and director Anne Fletcher just can't breathe any life or excitement out of her dance segments. The dancers are certainly talented, but they just don't do anything that we haven't seen done before, and they come across as being rather pedestrian and bland. That's a big problem when your film's main plot builds up to a big dance talent competition that's supposed to blow everyone away, and what we get looks like something out of an amateur music video filmed in a teenager's garage. Not once did a feel a rush or did my mouth crack a smile like watching good dancing can sometimes do. It would certainly be nice if we got to see a larger variety of dance moves, but a majority of the scenes are montages that feature Tyler and Nora trying to do the same moves over and over again. When your movie's about dancing, and your dance sequences cannot even excite an audience full of preteen girls, you know you're doing something wrong.

When the movie is not spinning its wheels with numerous uninspired dance sequences, we're treated to a plot we have seen done many times before and done much better. The screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg and Duane Adler (Save the Last Dance) just can't drum up enough inspiration to make us care about the characters or anything that happens to them. A lot of this has to do with how overly sanitized the entire film feels. For someone who supposedly comes from a bad side of town, and hangs out with career criminals, Tyler certainly doesn't seem to have it as bad as the movie would like to have us believe. He's supposed to have a hurried mother who doesn't have time for him and an alcoholic father, but both characters barely appear in the film, and the only family member we ever get to see is his adorable younger sister, so his home life doesn't seem that bad. Even when he's hanging out with his hood friends, things seem pretty dull. Aside from having a gun pointed at his face early in the movie, and the little brother of his best friend getting shot, the worst thing these kids run into is accidentally setting off a car alarm and running away. When he starts showing up at the school of the arts, he's supposed to be portrayed as a wild rebel who has a dangerous way of thinking, but he seemed to conform to Nora's standards pretty quickly, and hardly does anything that backs up his "bad boy" status. I guess the filmmakers felt that they needed to keep things fairly clean to ensure a "family friendly" rating, but it still makes it rather hard to buy Tyler as a rebel when he willingly joins Nora's ballet class without even rolling an eye or mouthing off.

The most uninspired aspect of Step Up, however, would have to be the performances. Not only does everyone look way too old to be in high school, but they simply don't have the slightest bit of charisma to carry a film. Channing Tatum seems to confuse mumbling and narrowing his eyes for acting, coasting through his entire performance with as little emotion as possible. Jenna Dewan holds up a little better, but she doesn't have any chemistry with Tatum during their scenes, not even when they're dancing. Their dances are supposed to be an extension of their relationship, and for most of the film, they act like two people who have never met each other before and are dancing together for the first time. The rest of the cast is mainly made up of minority actors playing tired minority gang and musician stereotypes. Not one single character stands out or rings true in this movie. They are just an interchangeable mix of faces that could be filled by any attractive early to mid-twenty something.

With absolutely nothing to help it stand out, Step Up quickly wears out its welcome, and you start checking your watch a lot sooner than you probably should for a movie that runs for almost two hours. It's never quite unwatchable, but there's just nothing up there on the big screen to warrant its existence. I really have no idea what the people at the Disney Studios saw in this movie that made them feel it deserved such an important-sounding ad campaign. Maybe they saw a different cut of the film than I did. All I know is Step Up slips up big time.

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