Reel Opinions

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 10th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

Happy New Year, everybody!  And happy 10th anniversary to the Reel Stinkers Awards, where I jot down my thoughts on the very worst films that stole my time in the past year!

2015 was a pretty good year overall, and of the 135 movies that I watched during that time, there weren't as many huge stinkers as in some past years.  I actually had kind of a hard time coming up with the Top 10 picks for the year's worst, as a lot of the stuff I didn't like was more mediocre than flat out terrible.  Of course, there was a lot of good stuff too, great stuff even!  As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2016!

And now, I'm proud to give you...


10. MORTDECAI - This movie makes a big mistake early on, and then it just keeps on making that mistake over and over.  It thinks that a comedy can get laughs just by having people acting funny, instead of actually being funny.  This is a stunningly tone deaf farce that seems like it was made by amateurs, which is why it's shocking to see pros like Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Betany and Ewan McGregor involved.  The main culprit behind the film's failure is Depp, who plays Charlie Mortdecai, an art dealer and part-time con artist.  His portrayal of Charlie is that of a cartoonish British aristocratic buffoon.  He speaks with a silly accent, has a paper-thin handlebar mustache above his lip, and behaves kind of like a cross between Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and Austin Powers.  Depp is constantly up on the screen, expelling energy and throwing himself completely into the bizarre performance, but we do not laugh, because he never actually does or says anything that is funny.  Mortdecai also has a large cast of supporting characters, played by recognizable actors like Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn.  But again, the screenplay gives them nothing to do, so they often come across as actors who just happened to be passing by the set on the day they were shooting.  Everybody here is either personality deprived, or built around a single visual gag that the movie repeats every time the character is on screen.  Just like Depp, everyone is forced to speak in silly accents, projectile vomit and get slapped around in broad slapstick fights that don't generate laughs, because there is nothing behind the joke.  The filmmakers were obviously going for a Pink Panther tone with its comedy, as the slapstick farce mixed with the detective story often brings to mind the films that featured Peter Sellers as the bungling Clouseau.  But the movie misses the point completely in just about every way.

09. HOT PURSUIT -  There was no reason that Hot Pursuit needed to be made, just like there is no reason to watch it.  It doesn't have a single original thought, there are no laughs, and it contains nothing that we haven't seen dozens of times before.  It exists solely to rob the time and money of the audience, and to waste the talents of Reese Witherspoon.  Here, she stars in a witless buddy action comedy that teams her up with Sofia Vergara, who gives the single most obnoxious screen performance of 2015, if not the most unlikable performance I have seen in quite a while.  Vergara seems to find it necessary to be as shrill as possible, and shriek most of her lines at the highest decibel.  She is shrill, unfunny, and completely unlikable.  She is supposed to be the comedic live wire of the film, but her character and Vergara's performance had the effect of nails on a chalkboard to me.  Maybe these two women could act well together, but that would require them to be in a movie that gave them character development.  This is a movie that likes to make jokes about how short Witherspoon is, and is under the mistaken impression that having women screaming during non-stop car chases and shootouts are funny.  Could the movie have been saved by some clever dialogue?  Perhaps, but nobody in this movie is allowed to talk about anything that doesn't advance the plot.  The filmmakers seem to have stripped Hot Pursuit to the most basic essentials, but in the process stripped away the characters and laughs.

08. PAN -  Director Joe Wright has had a great amount of success adapting books like Atonement and the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice to the big screen.  But when he tries to come up with an origin story for Peter Pan, the result is a soulless 3D thrill ride that does little to enchant and even less to entertain.  Pan is easily the loudest and one of the most cumbersome movies of the year.   This is one of those movies where things are constantly happening, but they seldom make sense, or they're potentially good ideas that aren't fleshed out.  Pirate ships fly through the air, complete with bungee jumping pirates who look like something out of a Cirque du Soleil show, mermaids swim, martial arts fighters bounce off of and battle one another on massive trampolines, crocodiles leap out of the water to snatch their prey, and fairies flitter about.  At the center of it all is Hugh Jackman, unrecognizable under a lot of make up and weird facial hair, as the leader of the pirates, Captain Blackbeard.  Jackman has a twinkle in his eye, and he seems to be trying his hardest to sell this stuff, but it gets lost in the clutter of all the CG and gimmicky 3D effects that overpower the human characters.  There's little to care about, and it doesn't take long before the movie starts to feel like an overproduced assault on the senses.  From the overblown and pointless action scenes (including an unnecessary dogfight between a flying pirate ship and a World War II plane), to out of the blue musical numbers of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit (and no, I'm not kidding), the film is simply a huge budget run amok.  In fact, this movie is so obsessed with throwing gobs of special effects at us, it forgets that it's supposed to be telling us the backstory of Peter Pan.  All Pan wants to do is bombard you with so much junk you can't even think straight while watching it.

07. JUPITER ASCENDING -  It takes a certain kind of talent to pull off a movie this inept.  Lesser filmmakers would have stopped at just merely making a bad movie.  Jupiter Ascending shoots for the moon when it comes to awfulness, and reaches it.  Sure, the movie looks like it cost a few hundred million to make.  But if you strip away the big budget and name actors, make it black and white and replace the complex alien worlds with cardboard cutout sets, this script would be right at home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The movie is the brainchild of Andy and Lana Wachowski, who got their start in indie films, then hit it big with The Matrix.  Here, the filmmaking duo strike out completely.  It's not just the fact that there seems to be no detectable heart or soul behind the picture, and that it often comes across as a really expensive technical demo that leaves no impression on the audience.  It's also the fact that the dialogue is some of the worst I have heard in a Sci-Fi movie since the Star Wars prequels.  It''s clear that the movie wants to be about something, and dazzle our imaginations with its massive alien worlds.  But look behind the visual splendor and droning dialogue about purpose and destiny, and you will find very little.  I will be honest, the only thing that kept me in my theater seat was seeing just how wrong the movie was going to go next.  And then there are the performances.  The lead stars, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, both give such wooden and lifeless portrayals, you wonder if they were a little embarrassed to be involved with this project. (The fact that Tatum refused to do any publicity for the film offers support to this theory.) And then you have Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, giving what is easily the year's most hilariously awful over the top performance as the villain, where he alternates between whispering and screaming his lines at a moment's notice with no rhyme or reason.  Some people tried to defend this movie's completely off tone and off the wall plot by saying it was intended to be some kind of comedy, but I don't buy it.  This was simply a misguided Sci-Fi epic that was supposed to spark our imaginations, but wound up getting laughed right off the screen by audiences and critics with its overall goofiness.

06: SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE - I must report that I did not laugh once while watching this movie.  It is not funny, thrilling or exciting at any point of time.  The obvious inspirations for the screenplay (credited to four different writers) are Zombieland and SuperBad, with perhaps a bit of Shaun of the Dead thrown in for good measure.  Those movies had smart and funny dialogue, plus characters we could get behind.  This movie gives us non-stop gross out jokes and obnoxious characters that we want to see get chomped by the zombie hoard.  It's an annoying movie that seems to think graphic slo-mo shots of heads exploding is the height of comedy.  This movie's idea of a joke is to have a zombie suddenly start singing a Britney Spears song for no reason.  Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse might have worked if it had a sense of satire, just as the previously mentioned Zombieland and Shaun did.  Instead, it's comprised of nothing but lame physical comedy that director and co-writer Christopher Landon (best known for writing the last few Paranormal Activity movies) doesn't know how to stage or pull off.  None of the jokes hit, and the audience ends up watching with stone-faced silence as the actors try to pretend that this is funny, instead of actually saying or doing things that are funny.  There were a number of scenes that I think were intended to get laughs, but honestly, I was just puzzled as to what the joke was supposed to be.  This is the kind of movie where you laugh at the title alone.  Maybe the poster art brings out a chuckle.  Those two aspects are clearly where all the creative energy behind this project went.  Everything else about it is dead in the water.  This is a repellent and ugly little comedy that never really shocks like it wants to.  It just offends us with its stupidity.

05: FANTASTIC FOUR -  If you have ever wanted to see a superhero movie where everybody seems to be on downers or depressants, here is Fantastic Four.  This is a drab-looking movie, shot mostly in dull grays and blues, and set almost entirely in the colorless walls of a military base.  This is a dour movie, where the superheroes, villains and side characters can hardly seem to muster any enthusiasm for themselves.  But most of all, the movie's just not fun at all.  This is the third attempt to bring these comic characters to the big screen (not counting the ultra cheap straight to video film from the early 90s that never got released), and probably the worst effort yet.  What's that?  You say you've never read the comics or seen the earlier movies, and you have no idea who these characters are, or even their relationship to each other?  Tough luck, says director Josh Trank (who did a much better movie about people with powers a few years ago called Chronicle) and his team of writers.  They assume you hold advance knowledge, and don't need to know such things.  Fantastic Four is quite odd for a superhero movie, as it seems tailor made to have its central characters not use their powers whenever possible.  There are no thrilling adventures, no daring escapes, no witty banter between the heroes...All they do for a majority of the film is sit in a military prison and mope over how they'll never be normal again.  Heck, the Fantastic Four barely get to interact with each other in this movie, even when they're sharing the screen together.  This is the cinematic equivalent of buying an adventure book, and having the pages be blank.  In this day and age of The Avengers, Iron Man, the Dark Knight movies and Guardians of the Galaxy, do we really need a superhero movie that seems to have the very essence of joy drained out of it?  If the movies I listed above represent some of the top of the genre, then this exists somewhere in that strange lower region where nobody involved seems to have cared much.

04. UNFINISHED BUSINESS -  Here is a real sad sack of a movie.  Nobody looks like they had fun while they were making it.  The movie is lifeless and gloomy.  Even the screenplay can barely muster any enthusiasm for itself, and is built of a bunch of scenes where little to nothing happens.  Unfinished Business just kind of sits there, looking at its feet for 90 minutes, and then quietly asks us to leave.  The ad campaign for the movie is a total bait and switch.  The trailers would like you to believe that this is a raunchy comedy with Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson (who should have known better than to appear in this) and Dave Franco playing uptight guys who cut loose during a business trip to Germany, and get into a lot of crazy alcohol-fueled situations inspired by The Hangover.  What you should know is that all those scenes of the characters partying is taken from a five minute montage that happens about 70 minutes into the film.  What the movie really is, or at least wants to be, is a heartfelt drama about Vaughn as a concerned dad trying to help his overweight preteen son overcome the bullies at school who are harassing him on line.  He's on this business trip so he can sign a deal that will give him the money to send his kid to a private school.  There are some attempts at humor during the trip, but every single joke falls flat.  There's not a single laugh to be had.  Believe me, I counted.  A lot of the movie hangs on the chemistry between the three leads, and the actors have none.  It's not that they're not trying, they just seem kind of defeated by the material they've been given.  Vaughn and Wilkinson, in particular, seem tired and unfocused.  And the movie's main running gag is that one of the guys is named Mike Pancake.  If you laughed at that name, you'll bust a gut here, as they repeat it a dozen times.  Unfinished Business certainly feels unfinished on just about every level.  It delivers no laughs, the dramatic moments are schmaltzy, and everybody within it seems to just be cashing a paycheck so they can wipe this movie off their resumes as quick as possible.

03. POINT BREAK - Here is a rare last minute addition to the list, as this was literally the last movie I happened to see in 2015.   Point Break is easily the most unnecessary remake we got this past year.  And no, I'm not forgetting the equally unnecessary remake of Poltergeist we got this past summer.  Nobody was asking for a remake.  There was no reason it needed to be made.  And judging by the box office returns and the vacant theater I saw my screening in, nobody wants to see it.  Watching this remake of the 1991 cult hit action film that originally starred Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze is like staring for almost two hours at a dusty, dried up husk of something that was once living.  It has no thrills, no personality, and probably the most uncharismatic and lifeless cast assembled for any movie I've seen in a very long time.  It takes a special kind of skill to build a movie around surfing, base jumping, rock climbing, and high speed motorcycles diving out the window on the upper levels of a skyscraper, and make it come across as boring.  And yet, through some warped miracle, director Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer have achieved just that.  There's absolutely nothing to be invested in.  We're watching a stunt reel, with occasional moments of dialogue that's so banal and dry, I don't know if any actor could have spoken it successfully.  The characters have no life, and the actors look like they have no idea what they're doing half the time.  I felt for them, as I had no idea why I was watching this movie.  Everything about it feels dry and lifeless.  The relationships between these characters are given little attention or focus, and there's not a single scene where anyone gets to display a personality.  There's no joy or emotion in this movie.  There's really little of anything.  It's a cynical enterprise designed solely to ride on the title of a popular movie, and maybe play on the nostalgia of the fans of the original.

02. JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS - This is an overly long, lethargic and cheaply made mess of nostalgia.  It completely misses what made the 1980s cartoon such a big hit with girls at the time, so much so that Jem was briefly able to dethrone the all-mighty Barbie as the queen of the fashion dolls.  The cartoon was a wild and raucous mix of MTV and Sci-Fi, with the kind of corniness only a show aimed at kids in the 1980s could get away with.  This live action film is a meandering and dull story about a Youtube star who almost loses her friends, and goes on a scavenger hunt set up by her dead father with the aid of an R2-D2 knockoff.  What's strange is despite the sluggish nature of the film, the plot rushes through itself at breakneck speed, almost as if director Jon M. Chu (who brought us both Justin Bieber documentaries) was as anxious for the movie to be over with as I was while I was watching it.  The plot of Jem takes place within the time span of a month or so, by my estimate.  And what happens to these characters during this one month?  Let's see...Our heroes become Internet celebrities, become a cultural phenomenon, get a record contract, create a rock band image and perfect dance routines, perform three concerts, break up with each other, get back together, go on a treasure hunt with a robot, fall in love, break into a record studio, receive a holographic recorded message from beyond the grave, inspire millions of young people to stand up for themselves, and change the course of the music industry forever.  The characters in this movie are so devoid of life and personality, it doesn't matter what crazy stuff happens to them, it still manages to be utterly dull.  Jem went on to be one of the biggest and most notorious bombs of 2015, as the movie changed so much from the original cartoon that fans were outraged just by the trailer alone, and refused to see it.  And thanks to how banal and uninspired the whole enterprise was, it couldn't attract any new fans.  Even with an extremely low budget of just $5 million, the movie barely made $2 million at the box office, and was gone in about a week from most theaters.  I truly wish everyone involved has better luck in the future, but honestly, I'm glad this terrible thing bombed so hard.

01. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 - To me, there was no question what movie would earn the top spot on my "worst of..." list this year.  The unmistakable stench of flop-sweat permeates from Hot Tub Time Machine 2, as actors who seem to know they're in a doomed project struggle to rise above the material.  The actors make their way through dialogue and scenes that the movie somehow thinks are funny, but they know are not.  This is a movie where only one question needs to be asked - What were they thinking?  This movie, an unnecessary sequel to 2010's Hot Tub Time Machine, features the same director and writer, as well as most of the same cast, except for John Cusack, who claims that he was never asked to appear in this sequel.  He should thank his lucky stars.  The talent may be mostly the same here, but the energy is gone.  The returning stars are trudging through this material.  They're gloomy, they're spent, and they seem to know they're trapped in a turkey.  This movie is what happens when a bunch of people are called back to make a sequel, but nobody really wants to do it.  In the history of bad comedy sequels, this ranks right down there with 1988's infamous Caddyshack II.  This is a movie without purpose.  It generates a bunch of scenes that are supposed to be comic, but simply are not.  This is due to two reasons - One being that we have no interest in these characters, and the other being that the movie is not once funny at any point in time. This is simply a dispirited production in every sense of the word.  Not only is the script pathetic, but the cast can barely seem to hide their doubts about it up there on the screen.  Nobody wants to be there, and it doesn't take long until the audience shares their misery.  I'm the sort who tries to look for something good in even the biggest bombs - a spark of life, or maybe a performance that stands out.  Here, I have nothing, because the movie gives nothing.  It's clear that everything that needed to be done with this idea was accomplished the first time around.  Here, everybody seems dumbfounded by this encore, and rightly so.  At the very least, we can take hope in the knowledge that there won't be a Hot Tub Time Machine 3.

Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!


The Boy Next Door, Taken 3, Blackhat, Strange Magic, The Loft, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Lazarus Effect, The Gunman, Furious 7, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Little Boy, Poltergeist, Ted 2, Magic Mike XXL, The Gallows, Self/Less, Pixels, Hitman: Agent 47, Sinister 2, We Are Your Friends, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, In the Heart of the Sea


Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

Point Break

Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending

Sofia Vergara in Hot Pursuit

Sequels to movies that didn't need sequels like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Kristen Chenoweth in The Boy Next Door and Strange Magic
Tom Wilkinson in Unfinished Business and Little Boy
Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Little Boy and Pixels
David Henrie in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and Little Boy
Ryan Guzman in The Boy Next Door and Jem and the Holograms
Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending and Magic Mike XXL

Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell as the Fantastic Four

Warner Bros., for bringing us Jupiter Ascending, Hot Pursuit, The Gallows, Magic Mike XXL, We Are Your Friends, Pan, In the Heart of the Sea and Point Break

Well, that's the worst of 2015 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2016, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Point Break

Point Break is easily the most unnecessary remake we got this past year.  And no, I'm not forgetting the equally unnecessary remake of Poltergeist we got this past summer.  Nobody was asking for a remake.  There was no reason it needed to be made.  And judging by the box office returns and the vacant theater I saw my screening in, nobody wants to see it.

Audiences are right to stay away.  Watching this remake of the 1991 cult hit action film is like staring for almost two hours at a dusty, dried up husk of something that was once living.  It has no thrills, no personality, and probably the most uncharismatic and lifeless cast assembled for any movie I've seen in a very long time.  It takes a special kind of skill to build a movie around surfing, base jumping, rock climbing, and high speed motorcycles diving out the window on the upper levels of a skyscraper, and make it come across as boring.  And yet, through some warped miracle, director Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer have achieved just that.  Is some of the action shot and performed well?  Quite well, yes.  But there's absolutely nothing to be invested in.  We're watching a stunt reel, with occasional moments of dialogue that's so banal and dry, I don't know if any actor could have spoken it successfully.  The characters have no personality, and the actors look like they have no idea what they're doing half the time.  I felt for them, as I had no idea why I was watching this movie.

The plot more or less shares the same basic structure as the original, with the prerequisite updates.  Our hero is the wonderfully named Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey), who used to be an extreme sports star, until an accident during a motorcycle stunt caused a close friend of his to die.  Somehow, this tragedy led him to join the FBI.  I mean, I can understand why he would want to leave his past behind, but why he went into law enforcement is never actually explained.  His supervisor on the force (Delroy Lindo) tells him about a group of criminals who are pulling off brazen robberies all over the world in a series of stunts that include everything from sky diving to parachuting.  The criminals are acting like modern day Robin Hoods, giving money, gold and diamonds back to the poor and desperate people of the world.  Johnny is able to recognize that the criminals are trying to perfect the "Ozaki Eight", a series of legendary death defying stunts that are supposed to honor the different elements of the Earth and represent the different forces of nature.  So, they're kind of like a really badass Captain Planet gang.

With his background in extreme sports, Johnny theorizes that he should infiltrate the group, win their trust, and find out what they're doing and where they plan to strike next.  Utah does indeed befriend the gang's leader, Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez), and is welcomed into the group.  As Johnny spends more time with the criminals, he actually starts to feel a certain connection with them, and starts to question where his loyalties truly lie, especially when he starts to fall for the sole female member of the group.  However, thanks to the leaden screenplay and lifeless performances, we never sense any of this.  We don't feel a friendship forming between Johnny and Bodhi, and we don't feel the emotional turmoil that Johnny is obviously supposed to be feeling about where his loyalties lie.  None of the actions have weight or consequence in this movie, and it simply feels like everybody's just making the minimal effort.

Instead of getting us into the minds and world of these characters, the 2015 Point Break devotes an unnecessary amount of screentime to endless stunts that, yes, are shot well, but really have no basis to the plot.  We feel nothing, not even when a character happens to die in a tragic snowboarding accident while on a mountain.  We knew nothing about him, and he had no memorable dialogue or moments, so why the movie feels the need to pause and try to get us emotional is beyond me.  Everything about this movie feels dry and lifeless.  The relationships between these characters are given little attention or focus, and there's not a single scene where anyone gets to display a personality.  There's no joy or emotion in this movie.  There's really little of anything.  It's a cynical enterprise designed solely to ride on the title of a popular movie, and maybe play on the nostalgia of the fans.

I ask again, why did this movie need to be made?  The original was no masterpiece, and wasn't exactly screaming for a new vision.  At least, certainly not this vision, that has had all the life drained from every facet of the film.  This is simply another case of a remake that will forever be ignored on the DVD shelf, as the fans continue to pick up the original.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015


I wanted to feel angry while I was watching Concussion.  Not just angry, I wanted to be enraged.  How could the NFL endanger the lives of their players by ignoring the fact that there was a serious disease linked with repetitive head trauma, and then denounce it completely?  But the movie doesn't want to make us angry.  Every time it gets close to doing so, it cuts to some piece of forced melodrama.  Concussion doesn't so much want to inform and get its audience involved, as it wants to be a prestige picture.

A prestige picture is the kind of movie that almost seems to be designed to win awards.  It takes a big star, in this case Will Smith, and then gives him an acting challenge.  In this case, Smith is playing the real life Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered there was a disease related to professional football players, and the constant injury they took to their heads in every game.  Smith does not really look like the real life Dr. Omalu, but he does sound a little like him, as he speaks with an African accent in the film.  The problem I had is that there's nothing behind the performance except the accent.  As portrayed by Smith, Omalu is stoic, noble and more than a little dull.  I'm sure these are not the words I would use to describe the real person if I ever had the chance to meet him.  But, just like the way this movie doesn't want to make us angry, it also doesn't want us to know much about Dr. Omalu.  It simply wants to have Will Smith face the camera, and say some kind of rousing speech in that accent of his that will look really good in a short clip when Award season comes early next year.  These scenes are naturally scored with an emotional and manipulative "inspirational" music score by James Newton Howard.

The story of Bennet's discovery of the disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been shoehorned into a traditional Hollywood formula mold by writer-director Peter Landesman.  In other words, the facts behind the story are emotional and powerful, while the film itself is safe, bland and predictable.  Every time the movie started to get interesting and I started to get angry about what I was seeing up on the screen, the movie would cut away to unconvincing love story between Omalu and his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that seems to have been thrown in because a Studio Executive thought the movie needed a romantic subplot.  It doesn't work at all.  The relationship between the two is never that strong or given that much attention in the first place, and it has little to nothing to do with the main plot.  And when the movie does try to tie their relationship to the plot (there's a laughable scene where Prema thinks she's being followed by a suspicious car, and thinks her life is in danger), it feels awkward and forced.  The movie seems to be constantly getting sidetracked from what's really important, and that's the suffering of the players and their families.

As Concussion kicks off, Omalu is a Nigerian neurologist training to be a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.  He has an unorthodox way of doing his job (he likes to talk to the body before he starts cutting it open), but is devoted to his job and respected by his boss (Albert Brooks).  One day, the body of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mark Webster is brought to him.  Webster had committed suicide after years of declining health, bankruptcy, and isolation.  Upon examining the brain, he learns that it appears healthy, but underneath, there are issues that no healthy 50 year old man should have.  He has discovered a disease that the NFL apparently wants to keep under wraps, and will go to extreme measures in order to do so.  As more similar cases with dead former football players turn up, Omalu knows he is onto something, and doesn't want to keep quiet.  He gets one ally in the former Steelers team doctor (Alec Baldwin), but at every move, he is harassed by fevered fans who think he is trying to destroy their favorite game, or by the NFL organization itself, who not only deny that the disease exists, but go out of their way to destroy Dr.Omalu's private life.

This material could have led to a really fascinating movie, I just know it.  But the screenplay is maddening in its determination to distract us from the real issue, and focus on Omalu's private life and relationships with his girlfriend and eventual wife, as well as his colleagues.  The real problem is that there is no one figure to stand against the good doctor in the film.  The NFL acts mostly as a shadowy organization in this movie, appearing only on TV and soundbites.  The movie could have used a character to represent the NFL's point of view, maybe someone who could debate with the doctor.  Omalu remains a stoic and passive figure, and while his cause is noble, we never really get a sense that he is standing against the odds, because those odds are usually hinted at more than depicted in the film.  It's like the movie is pulling its punches a little.  It doesn't want to offend too much, or rile up the audience too much.  It simply wants to follow lockstep in the tradition of a dozen "one man against the system" films just like it.

This is a fatal mistake to me.  A movie like this needs to be probing.  It needs to really get under the surface of the subject matter.  It can't be afraid to show us the grim realities, and the cost of the NFL ignoring this.  Concussion merely hints at the grim realities and costs.  It's bland, overly safe, and has mostly been designed as an acting showcase for Will Smith.  I get the sense that once he was on board, maybe the whole project was redesigned to fit his needs.  I could be wrong, but it certainly feels that way in the finished film, because there are so many moments that seem designed for Smith to grandstand and show off his acting prowess that it stops the entire film, and not in a good way.  The story becomes second, and the lead performance gets all the attention.  This is not the way to do this story.  We should be doing more than just admiring the fact that Will Smith can pull off an African accent.  We should be wanting to know more about the actual man and the real story behind the movie.

I can only wonder what an angrier and grittier filmmaker could have done with this story.  Perhaps Oliver Stone back in his prime could have knocked this one out of the park, and really made people sit up and take notice.  As it is, I simply cannot in any good conscience recommend this film.  It should have been designed to inspire and ignite conversation.  Instead, it got sidetracked by dreams of earning little golden statues for its lead performance.

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Daddy's Home

With Will Ferrell's usual filmmaking partner in crime, Adam McKay, off doing the brilliant darkly comic drama, The Big Short, Ferrell had to rely on Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2, We're the Millers) to helm his latest comedy, Daddy's Home.  The result ends up being a lot like most of Mr. Anders' film work up to now - A few scattered laughs, but nothing really all that special. 

The movie reunites Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg, who previously worked wonderfully together in the very funny The Other Guys.  This time, both stars are given much less to do, and even less to work with.  Oh, Ferrell does fine.  He's basically playing the same nice guy loser who keeps on getting humiliated to comedic effect that he's perfected in a variety of other films.  It's Wahlberg who seems to be flaying here.  His character, Dusty Mayron, is not so much a character as it is an idea.  His motives and intentions seem to change from scene to scene, and the movie never really seems to have a handle on him.  Therefore, Wahlberg just kind of flounders with the character.  It's not his fault, necessarily.  He's only playing the character the way it's been written.  But his part has been written badly, and the movie suffers because of it.

Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, a bit of a wimp, but an all around nice guy who's always dreamed of having children, but unfortunately can't, due to an unfortunate accident a few years ago.  As the film opens, Brad has a new wife in the lovely Sara (Linda Cardellini, horribly underused here), and the family he's always dreamed of with her two adorable little children from a previous marriage.  It's taken a long time, but Sara's kids are finally starting to respect Brad, and see him as a father figure.  Even her young daughter Megan (Scarlett Estevez) is starting to draw happy family pictures again, instead of pictures of Brad lying decapitated or being tortured, while the rest of the family stands smiling nearby.  But then, Sara's ruggedly handsome and motorcycle-riding ex-husband Dusty (Wahlberg) comes strolling back into town, and seems intent on winning the favor of the kids all over again.  Brad finds himself engaged in an increasingly escalating war for the affection of the children, while poor Sara is forced to do nothing but stand in the background and wring her hands nervously as this all plays out.

Are there funny moments scattered throughout Daddy's Home?  Absolutely.  While everyone can pretty much predict what's going to happen when Brad tries to ride Dusty's massive motorcycle, the movie still gets off some great visual gags out of the idea.  There are also some one liners that caught me off guard and made me laugh now and then.  But, these are just isolated moments.  They never build into a fully satisfying comedy.  It's like the writers viewed this movie as a series of moments, instead of a cohesive whole.  The rivalry between Brad and Dusty is supposed to be what carries the film, but it never builds to the momentum that it needs.  We can't really take sides, because the two dads at the center of the plot are so thinly written.  Brad is a generic nice guy who screws up a lot.  And Dusty?  Well, as I mentioned, I don't think even the filmmakers have a handle on who he's supposed to be, because he changes whenever the screenplay requires him to.

Is Dusty a deadbeat dad who doesn't know how to show his affections?  That certainly seems to be the case when he brings home a blind, mangy and angry dog that seems to be at death's door that he found in a storm drain for the kids to play with.  And yet, a couple scenes later, we learn that Dusty is also friends with the celebrity players on a professional basketball team.  So, he must be some kind of hotshot.  He does extreme sports, he can build a massive tree house and skateboard ramp in an afternoon, and he's popular with everyone he meets.  And yet, we learn nothing about the guy.  We know that he's willing to scheme and con Brad into embarrassing or humiliating situations, but we don't fully get a handle on who he is.  We're supposed to laugh at how much better he seems to be at everything than Ferrell's character, but that's not enough to build a character around, and that's why Wahlberg seems kind of lost during a lot of scenes.  He's a good sport and he plays along, but he doesn't get any laughs.

Outside of Ferrell and Wahlberg, there are two supporting characters that get the most attention.  One of them is a handyman (Hannibal Buress), who is initially hired to fix the house after an accident, but oddly ends up moving in when he becomes fast friends with Dusty, and winds up slacking around the house all day.  The other is Brad's boss at work (played by Thomas Haden Church), who likes to tell inappropriate stories about his ex-wives during business meetings.  Both manage to get some laughs, but you get the sense that they're just there to liven up the movie when the two stars are not up to the challenge.  It feels like the movie is trotting them out in desperation.  It knows that the stars aren't enough to carry this thing, so it pulls out some weirdo side characters whenever it needs a little jolt.  The Other Guys proved that the two leads can work wonderfully together and carry a film.  This one  proves that they need the right material in order to do so.

Daddy's Home is not a lifeless comedy, but it is a fairly low energy and disposable one.  What laughs it does have feel like an oasis in a long, dry stretch of material that just doesn't work.  I have no doubt it will make money over the holiday vacation period.  I also have no doubt that most people who see it won't remember much about it by the end of January.

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Joy is an untidy, yet entertaining little mess of a film.  It never quite has a handle on what it wants to be.  Is it a bio-picture?  Is it a comedy?  A drama?  A film about a woman rising above the odds and making a name for herself?  The movie is all of that, yet never settles on a consistent tone, because it never seems sure of itself.  And yet, we have another fine performance from Jennifer Lawrence (rebounding nicely from her lifeless performance in the last Hunger Games movie), and the movie is often quite often lovely to look at.

Co-writer and director David O. Russell (American Hustle) obviously intends his movie to be an exploration of the American Dream.  And while it's not as sharp of an examination on the subject as Russell could have given us, it's still smart enough and held my attention.  Lawrence fills the shoes of Joy Mangano, the real life woman who went from housewife to multi-millionaire after she designed the Miracle Mop.  Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that this is a rags to riches story.  And while it does have that element, the movie is not your conventional narrative.  It uses Joy as a representation of strong women in general, and women who usually are not saluted very often in the movies.  I admire that, and seeing what Joy had to go through just to get her invention noticed and even what she had to go through after becoming a success, it's easy to admire her.

Joy starts the movie off as a woman who feels like life has passed her by already.  She lives in a crowded house, which currently holds her feuding and divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen, both wonderful here), her ex-husband (a likable Edgar Ramirez) who doesn't have a real job and lives in her basement, her two young children, and her sweet natured grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), who told Joy when she was just a child that she can be and do anything that she dreams of, and still believes that she can.  She has a dead end job at an airline, and is constantly flailing about in life, trying to keep everyone around her happy.  Even if it's hidden, we can see some real steely determination in Joy's demeanor, and a lot of that comes from Lawrence's wonderful performance.  But it isn't until she accidentally cuts her hand while trying to pick up some pieces of broken glass with a conventional mop that she stumbles upon the idea that will change her life.

Using her daughter's crayons, she designs the early plans for a mop that you only have to wring one time, and that is designed of a lightweight plastic, as well as a cotton base that can be cleaned in a washing machine.  She hits up her father's current girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) for seed money, and we then get a behind the scenes look at the efforts Joy went through in order to get her invention noticed, including performing unsolicited demonstrations in the parking lot outside of a local K-Mart.  It isn't until she meets Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), the bright-eyed executive of the fledgling QVC home shopping network that someone finally takes her and her invention seriously.  Not only does he admire her Wonder Mop idea, but he eventually sees the potential in her selling the product on TV herself.  He admires that she is real, and eventually thinks customers will relate to that.  In fact, at one point he predicts that "one day television will be about and made by regular people".

In fact, the best moments in Joy are the scenes when Neil is showing her around the QVC studio, and we see how the programs were made back then.  The rest of the film, dealing with Joy's family struggles as well as her issues with getting people in the business world seriously are good, but also a lot more routine.  We've seen it all before, but at least it's being down well, and being performed by a strong cast.  Lawrence makes us care about Joy.  She's a strong figure who refuses to give up, no matter what she endures from the people around her.  I found myself greatly admiring her as the film went on.  Even if the movie doesn't always work and certain sections drag a little, it is the character of Joy and Lawrence's performance that held my interest.  Cooper is excellent also as Neil Walker, and the movie probably could have used much more of his on screen energy.

Will Joy be a tough sell for the holiday viewing crowd?  Possibly.  The ad campaign has been kind of vague about just what the film is supposed to be about.  But, despite its faults, this does end up being an oddly fascinating little film about a positive female figure in the world of business.  You can easily see the story of Joy Mangano making a very strong little feel good movie.  David O. Russell has made something a bit more quirky than that, but it's nonetheless entertaining.

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The Big Short

Here is easily one of the most entertaining movies I've seen all year, and it's about a subject that should in all fairness leave the audience feeling sad and angry - the 2008 global financial crisis.  The Big Short does succeed at informing us on what happened behind the scenes at the banks, as well as the small handful of people who saw the housing market crash coming up to three years before it did.  But, it does so much more than succeed at being informative and well-researched.  It's also surprisingly the funniest film I've seen this year.

But maybe it's not so surprising when you learn that the director and co-writer of the film is Adam McKay, a man who got his start writing for Saturday Night Live, and went on to create many hit comedic films like the Anchorman movies and The Other Guys.  McKay has not just chosen to make a factual drama about the events, although he does succeed at that when he needs to.  He has also thrown in some gallows humor, some amazing performances, as well as some unconventional film choices, such as having characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, or use celebrity cameos who suddenly pop up for no reason to explain some of the technical jargon that Wall Street people use in their everyday business.  The unorthodox approach is what makes the film so memorable and engaging to watch.  Yes, we can sense that McKay cares very deeply about the subject matter.  This was most likely a passion project for him.  But he also goes out of his way to entertain as he informs, and ends up creating one of the smartest Big Studio films of 2015.

But the comedic edge the film has is not just for entertainment value.  It adds to the narrative, and makes it flow so much better than a straight up dramatic approach would.  And yet, the comedy never once lessens the anger that we are supposed to feel about the story or what is happening up on the screen.  McKay is angry too, furious even.  He is simply lulling us in and making us comfortable using his traditional comedic style, before he really starts to hit us with the details of what happened to cause the economic meltdown.  It's a brilliant approach, and one that could have easily been a gamble.  Make the tone too light and comedic, and you lose the punch of the story.  Make the film too angry and grim, and the comedy would seem out of place.  The filmmakers know exactly what they're doing here.  So does the cast, who expertly play every angle of the incredibly smart screenplay credited to McKay and Charles Rudolph.  It's almost a small cinematic miracle that The Big Short came together as well as it did.

The movie uses Michael Lewis' nonfiction book about the events as its inspiration, and focuses only on a select few characters.  There are five main ones that the film chooses to focus on, including a socially awkward financial genius named Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who usually prefers to work barefoot in his office, a financial broker named Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who is tough and no-nonsense, yet hiding a personal secret of pain, a duo of young amateur brokers named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and James Shipley (Finn Whitrock), who see the whole situation as a way for them to get their foot in the door, and finally Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a fast talking investor.  The film kicks off back in 2005, when Burry discovers that the banks are overvaluing the bonds, and the inevitable housing and financial crash that will result.  But, since everything is going well at that time, no one will listen to him.  So, he decides to "short" the bonds, which essentially means betting against the housing market.  Baum and Vennett get on board shortly afterward, while Geller and Shipley essentially have the information fall right into their laps, and act under the advice of former broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

All of these actors are able to "deglamourize" themselves in order to play these roles.  Bale seems somewhat off and appropriately awkward as Burry, and is almost unrecognizable here.  Sure, Bale is no stranger to losing himself and completely disappearing into a role, but he uses that to particular great effect here.  Also memorable is Steve Carell, who is much more recognizable, but is giving a fantastic performance here.  He seems sharper and a little more dangerous here, though we still sympathize with him, especially when the movie hints at some personal tragedy in his character's background.  It's a very different performance for Carell (especially one that's intended to be somewhat comedic at times), but he pulls it off beautifully.  The other stars in the film don't get quite as much screen time that Bale and Carell do, but they still manage to make the most of it, especially Pitt, who wonderfully plays a man who is so disgusted with the world of banking that he used to inhabit, he has essentially gone "off the grid", growing his own food and living a simple life.

In a way, a movie like The Big Short had to be an unorthodox docudrama, because it needs to explain the terminology of the business, and the way things work on Wall Street, as well as the events that led to the inevitable crash.  Obviously, McKay was the right man for the job.  He's gone with the right approach, he got the right actors to tell the story, and in the end he has ultimately made a movie that is as smart and informative as it could have been, while at the same time making it as fun and as entertaining as Star Wars, which is undoubtedly playing at the cinema next door.  It never talks down to the audience, and it never feels like it's using gimmicks to get our attention.  Like Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street from a couple years ago, it uses energy and an off kilter presentation to grab our attention and educate us.  But, in the end, I think this is the better movie.  It's more focused, and the humor and the facts hit harder in the end.

Not only is this a great comedic drama, but it will leave you with a little chill at the end when you realize that nobody has learned their lesson from the events that are portrayed here.  That's a scary note to end on, but a necessary one.  This is simply a brilliant movie.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015


Sisters is not the best movie we could have gotten out of a pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but it does have some big laughs, and I was entertained.  The material itself is fairly flimsy, and almost seems to have been written with the intent that the two stars would be able to save it.  For the most part, they succeed.  Fey and Poehler have a natural chemistry (no surprise there), and are the sole reason to watch this movie.

As the title suggests, they play sisters who, as the laws of filmmaking suggest, are as different as can be.  Fey's Kate is a former party girl finding it hard to hold down a serious job, and has a teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) who is more mature than she is, and is tired of her mother's reckless ways.  Poehler plays Maura, the straight-laced one of the two who has never cut loose and had fun.  When their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) announce that they are selling the home that the girls grew up in and moving to an upscale retirement community, both Kate and Maura are shocked.  While digging through various childhood relics from the 80s in their old bedrooms, the two sisters decide to throw one last party with all of their old high school friends before the house gets sold to a smarmy couple from New York.  The party serves not only as a chance to have one last blast in their childhood home, but also a chance for Maura to have a romantic encounter with the handsome James (Ike Barinholtz) who lives nearby.  If you can guess that the party gets out of control, and that the house will be almost completely destroyed by the end, you've got all the smarts required to enjoy this.

While we have seen everything that Sisters has to offer many times before, Fey and Poehler are able to give the material enough energy that we don't exactly mind watching it one more time.  In terms of "girls gone bad" comedies, it's not quite as good as Bridesmaids (an obvious inspiration in a lot of the humor), but it's better than some of the pale imitators that movie inspired.  The two stars are even able to add their own hilarious spin on some cliched or expected scenes, such as the scene where they try on party outfits that they are too old to wear, and a shared dance off to early 90s music.  Their energy, chemistry and sharp dialogue that they exchange (which sounds largely improvised) is strong enough to carry the movie, despite the fact there's not a lot going on outside of their performances.

Indeed, what the movie could have used to really push it over the top are some stronger supporting characters.  We have an old high school rival of Kate's (Maya Rudolph), who keeps on attempting to crash and/or sabotage the party, a hulking drug dealer (John Cena) who keeps on looking like he's going to do something really funny but never does, and an obnoxious party animal (Bobby Moynihan) who thinks he's hilarious telling the same bad jokes he probably told when they were kids.  None of the characters outside of the two leads are written to have real personalities, and so they don't earn the same laughs.  The closest the movie comes to a strong supporting character is a Korean manicurist (Greta Lee) that the sisters befriend.  She gets some big laughs early on, but as the movie goes on, the script kind of loses interest and she never lives up to her potential.

This is why Fey and Poehler are so crucial to the film.  Without them, it would just be a lot of warmed over slapstick of adults trashing a house.  They get all the best dialogue, and are obviously having a great time working off each other.  They make this worth watching at least once.  Do I wish they had held out for a better script than this?  Kind of.  But the whole time I was watching it, I was grateful they were there.  It's not just their jokes that work, either.  They both are giving genuinely likable performances, and when the movie does slow down enough for them to get a little serious and develop their characters, they're effective.  This is one of those cases where if the stars were not present, the entire foundation of the film would collapse in on itself.

I would welcome seeing these two women work together again in a movie.  Sisters is a great vehicle for these talented comics.  It's just not that strong of a movie outside of that.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Walking into the theater and sensing the excitement around me, how could I not flashback to that day in May of 1999 when The Phantom Menace opened?  There was that same anticipation, that same sense that I was about to witness a cinematic event...I wouldn't be surprised if some of the people seated near me were also seated near me 16 years ago.  Thank goodness, this is where the similarities between Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens end.  Whereas that day long ago ended with personal disappointment and an overall sense of hype that could never be feasibly topped, today I walked out of the theater joyful, thrilled, and transported in such a way that only a truly great film can do.

Director and co-writer J J Abrams has done the seemingly impossible - He has revitalized the Star Wars saga so that it feels just as grand as when the original trilogy was new.  He has brought personality and joy back to the franchise.  Yes, the characters we grew up with are back.  We've got Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, and the comedy droid team of C-3PO and R2D2.  But the new characters that Abrams and fellow screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) have dreamed up are just as great, and may become just as memorable to fans over time, should the sequels treat them right.  The movie feels organic and alive.  Gone are the digital sets from the prequels, replaced with physical ones.  There are even quite a few physical special effects on display, with CG only being used when necessary.  What gave the original trilogy part of its charm is that it looked somewhat grungy and real.  The technology didn't always look perfect or practical.  This is something that was lost in the very shiny and glossy look of the prequel films.  The look of the film not only invokes the classics, but sets its own course that stands out from a lot of recent blockbusters.

Now here comes the hard part for me - How do you describe the plot of the film without spilling the beans, and raising the ire of just about every Star Wars fan (or film fan in general) who can't make it out to see it opening weekend, and has to wait until sometime later to see this movie? (Heaven forbid!) Especially in a film like this, where the tiniest of plot synopses could ruin some potential surprises.  I will do my best to be as vague as possible, but this latest adventure focuses on Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), a girl forced to hunt for scrap on a barren desert planet.  Just like a certain farm boy in the original movie, she's about to set off on an adventure bigger than she ever dreamed, and that adventure starts with the discovery of a cute little droid, BB-8, who I'm sure will sell countless merchandise for Disney, the new owners of the franchise after George Lucas sold it to them.  She's aided in her adventure by a young man named Finn (John Boyega), who has his own personal reasons for being on the run from the First Order, a military unit who looks to finish what the Empire started in the original trilogy.

The introduction of Rey as the first female lead in a Star Wars movie is both a bold move, and an obvious corporate strategy.  You can't help but view her as a strategic move to lure in the young and lucrative girl fanbase, especially when you walk through a department store, and see her face plastered all over different kinds of clothing for small girls.  But at the same time, she has been written to be an intelligent and sympathetic character, and Daisy Ridley makes an impressive big screen debut, giving her a lot more humility than your usual blockbuster hero.  She not only drives the plot, but she actively participates, and feels like a genuine part of the film universe.  Her youthful energy also serves as a nice counterbalance to Harrison Ford (whom she shares a lot of scenes with) as the aging Han Solo.  They play off of each other well, both dramatically and during lighter moments.  All in all, she's more than just a calculated effort to appeal to a demographic that's been somewhat left out of the franchise money train up until now.  She's an interesting character who sparks a lot of possibilities in future entries, and I'm genuinely looking forward to see how her story arc turns out.

The Force Awakens really not only resembles the earlier films in tone, plotting and style, but it actually sort of harkens back to the way blockbuster films used to be.  It's simple, it's cleanly edited, it dazzles the imagination and the senses, and the characters are able to stand out even surrounded by countless effects and creatures.  The technical wizardry carries the story and helps move it along, rather than take center stage.  This is also the first "event movie" in a very long time that has actually felt special to me.  After the yearly installments of The Hunger Games and its imitators, it's kind of nice to go back to a grand old space opera that's joyful, exhilarating in all the right ways, and doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary melodrama or franchise padding.  This movie emphasizes the characters, humor, genuine thrills and technical marvels.  The fans who have been following this series for the past 38 years will no doubt not only welcome this as a return to the material that they love, but a new and exciting story that they can actually care about.

But what about those who are not fans, or haven't been following this since they were young?  Is there enough here for them to be entertained?  I say, yes.  As someone who has enjoyed most of the previous films, but never exactly became fanatical about them, I can say that this entry has enough new to go with the old charm that just about anyone who sits down to watch it can find something to like.  All you have to have to enjoy this is a sense of adventure, and a love for classic storytelling.  It's hard to explain, but this movie elicited such a reaction of joy from me while I was watching it.  I wasn't just happy seeing the old characters back, I was thrilled to be having an entirely new experience that was not afraid to have fun.  I was excited by the action sequences, I was laughing at the one liners.  This is the rare filmgoing experience that reminded me of just how fun movies can be.  Of course, all movies set to achieve this at some level, but this one does it so effortlessly, you wonder why more filmmakers can't grasp it.

So, forget the inevitable broken box office records.  Forget the long lines that are likely to be stretching outside the theater through the entire holiday season over the next 2 weeks or so.  While you're at it, forget the fact that you've pretty much had this movie driven into your skull with constant exposure on television and media the past few months.  Just see The Force Awakens for what it really is - A cinematic thrill ride that not only actually manages to thrill, but is probably the most fun you will have had at the theater in a long time.

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