Movie Review Transformers: Age of Extinction

transformers Here we go again. And again. Annnndddd again. Oh wait – and once again. And, far as I can ascertain, we are still not done pounding the car-robot-alien-Transformers into the grave, because Transformers 5 is currently in pre-production. All this from a set of toys. Toys which were so complicated that I, as a mother of boy people, was incapable of actually transforming. It’s a lot like this movie. No amount of money, CGI, star power, beauty or Continue reading

Movie Review Into The Storm

 

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As a child I absolutely loved the 70’s disaster films THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO and EARTHQUAKE. They were exciting, they felt all too real and they had big name stars. In fact I think my life-long love affair with Gene Hackman was all because of that stupid upside-down cruise ship. I don’t look to my disaster films to teach me lessons about life or love per se. I look to them to give me a thrill ride without monsters. Or Vin Diesel. Lately, with the incremental advances in CGI, I find all too often Continue reading

Movie Review Snowpiercer

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Is SNOWPIERCER the best movie you’ve never heard of? Possibly so. But really do we have to label things that way? I don’t feel the need to categorize the film in any way – and maybe, because it is such a mix of genres, so layered and so unusual that it just cannot be fairly categorized. Someone said that SNOWPIERCER is the “best movie of 2014 thus far.” That’s a very big statement. I do not feel it is ‘the best,’ nor do I feel qualified to issue that title (except for the fact that A MOST WANTED MAN is the best film of 2014 so far…). However, it is without question Continue reading

Movie Review A Most Wanted Man

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Like many John le Carré stories A MOST WANTED MAN is so populous that it’s hard to aim at a single target and fire for a kill. There is more than merely the narrative – there is the undeniable fact that this is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last film and I have given great consideration to how much that affects my feelings and assessment of the film. Hoffman was a spectacular talent; he had the unique and rare ability to Continue reading

Movie Review Sex Tape

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Maybe you’re married. Maybe you have a few kids too. You work. You are supposed to exercise. And oh yes, there are chores and people just keep needing to be fed. Do you play golf? Book club? Well then that leaves you absolutely no time for sex. For many couples this is what they have come to despite their acrobatic Ironman-quality early sex life. Many many couples are just too damn busy and tired to get it on. And the premise of this movie, the potent premise, that so many of us can now, or could at one time identify with, is the challenge and desire to maintain hot, crazed Continue reading

Movie Review Cold In July

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Have you ever awakened to a sound in the middle of the night? A sound you know is real and out of place? In the moments which follow what do you choose as your course of action; to cower and pray that whatever menace lurks outside your room abates, or do you go out to confront it in the dark? If you are Richard Dane, ordinary, 1980s-mullett wearing Texas guy, you get your rarely if ever used handgun, load it with trembling hands and head towards the sound, gun aimed high. Then, panic and a slip of the finger you fire, altering more than just your two lives in a flash. COLD IN JULY sets its audience up with a fairly standard scenario where we feel confident we know the story – remorse, shame, marital and internal conflict and ensuing paranoia from such a traumatic event. Where we end up 109 minutes later however is an altogether different world.

We didn’t think you had it in you‘ is said to upstanding citizen Richard Dane on more than one occasion following his fatal shot to his intruder, a wanted felon. Dane is played by Michael C. Hall who here bears zero resemblance to his calculating, cold hearted serial killer DEXTER. He is a fumbling, fearful, weakling afraid at every turn and facing the relentless petty displeasure of his wife. The plot turns on Dane shifting him from the hunter into the hunted by a convincing and frightening ex-con named Russel. Dane grimaces and winces through police efforts to protect him when he realizes that he is being stalked by a force more experienced and cunning than he realized. His opponent Russel is portrayed by a suddenly old but potently menacing Sam Shepard. As the story progresses in slithers a testosterone fueled, smooth, polished and seductive Don Johnson. Not straying far from his typical role he fits well here, assumes control with ease and adds a needed and balanced third leg to the films power trio with Hall and Shepard.

COLD IN JULY keeps shifting the ground underneath its characters in ways we never expect. What seems like a straightforward cat and mouse game spirals out of control. We sense that something is amiss, something bigger, something lurking beneath, but exactly what we can never get a grip on until its in our face. I felt at times manipulated, but that’s the whole point – we believe we know what to expect in life with a few curve balls thrown our way. Our little existences filled with floral sofas and pictures of our children are just props to distract us from the reality that at any moment bad things can happen to us  – because of us – over which we have no control. We suffocate ourselves trying to stay ‘safe’ until we have to make a choice. We have control only over the choices we make and COLD IN JULY forces us to bear witness to some huge, hairy and startling moral and ethical choices which obliterate our tidy ideas of who is good, bad, predatory, victimized, honest and more. Like a jigsaw puzzle which has been cast to the ground, the same pieces are there but the picture is unrecognizable. I am typically drawn to stories about the relativity of right versus wrong, the ambiguity and fluidity of how our iron clad concepts change in a flash because of context, and COLD IN JULY does an excellent job of demonstrating that flux. The film also gives Richard Dane a hefty dose of growing up. As he recalls the ‘Richard’ who shot the intruder he knows that man no longer lives in him, and while he may bear physical and mental scars from the ugliness he has witnessed and participated in, he is happy to be rid of the earlier version of himself. He is a wholly changed man into whom a hardness has taken root.

COLD IN JULY is a visually beautiful film. It is soaked with saturated color like a stained glass window, filled with blackness, light and streaming hues it is a pleasure just to watch. Red coffee cups gleam like rubies, upholstery glows and envelops Richard as he travels farther and farther from his original life. The aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the narrative which is brutal and monstrous. Camera angles keep you ever so slightly off balance and overall the film is skillfully shot by cinematographer Ryan Samul who collaborated previously with writer/director Jim Mickle on WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and STAND LAKE. While I felt that WE ARE WHAT WE ARE had great a great premise and potentially thrilling drama, it plodded along and never reached down and remembered it had a set of balls, so to speak. COLD IN JULY in contrast brings forth pointed and effective tension all the way to the end, and its characters are convincing and accessible. Much like BLUE RUIN, another excellent film of this genre, COLD IN JULY brings us a regular guy recreating himself through extraordinary events, and daring its audience to stay with him as far as we can to the limits of our beliefs, but not beyond. That is a delicate balance and requires great skill on all levels; writing, directing and acting. Like almost all movies these days it could lose 10 minutes or so and be just as, if not more effective, but even so it doesn’t lose you. There are small slices of humor that feel natural and in no way undermine or lessen the gravity of the narrative. The film is compellingly cast, glorious to watch and, like turning down an unknown dirt road, takes you on an unexpected, bumpy, and potentially dangerous journey.

Director: Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell,
Nick Damici
Rating: R
Running time: 109 minutes

Movie Review Cold In July

Movie Review The Fault in Our Stars

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Kids with cancer. That movie about kids with cancer. I can’t handle kids dying. Why would I want to watch that?

I have heard all of the above and I am here to tell you that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is about love. That’s it. Love. Love between individuals, family members, the love we are lucky enough to receive, and – moreover – to give in our lives no matter how long they last. Like a funeral is not really for the deceased, it is the love we give out that blesses our human experience more than anything else and bring us closer to eternal life. That not only happens to be the message of this film, and it does a deft job of delivering it, but it is conveniently how I myself feel about love as well. That was handy when, using my sole tissue a full three more times more than it was designed for, I could remember that I was crying for those I have loved and lost, not for the loss of those who have loved me. Generally I do not summarize plots nor will I do so here, but the film, based on the best-selling book of the same name by John Green, is a story about two teenagers battling cancer who fall in love. I feel that I can safely divulge that much without spoiling the trajectory of the story. Aside from the practical trials and the emotional agony of anyone living with and being treated for cancer, the story addresses the existential questions regarding self-definition, destiny, death and our human need for certainty and answers in a completely ambiguous existence. These themes are heavy and universal and there are some no doubt who will say its easy to provoke emotion with a story about teens with cancer, but no… it’s not easy to effectively do so no matter what pretext you set it in. Director Josh Boone brings forth true feeling, dare I say empathy, with nuanced parallels which do not pander to the audience, and builds his characters with skill. Aside from being a bit too long at 125 minutes, I was impressed by the fact that this is only his second feature film.

Hazel, portrayed in her best acting to date by Shailene Woodley, is a teenager battling lung cancer and consequently severely diminished lung function. She ferries her portable oxygen tank around like Paris Hilton carries a small dog. Far from resembling anything fashionable, rather it is an ever-present byproduct of that which she cannot escape, which will ultimately deal her an untimely death and hints at being a corpse which follows her at all times. The audience is pressed to see her beauty under the plastic tubing embracing her face, which has a conspicuous lack of makeup. Augustus “Gus” (Ansel Elgort) is her fellow cancer “survivor” who has lost a leg to bone cancer. Elgort accelerates hard and fast with cocky, bombastic smart aleck Gus who honestly tested my patience and willingness to engage. And yet, by films’ end, we appreciate and forgive him the facade as the necessary bravado needed by his character. After encountering one another at one of her excruciating support group meetings the film follows the path of their relationship and their disease. Their friendship begins with Hazel’s recommendation of a book which has absorbed her, given her a vocabulary for life with cancer, and which creates a destination point for the narrative arc of the story. Along the way to our ultimate destination and our false summit so to speak, the book underscores questions I suspect all cancer patients must ask; How does one separate who they are from their cancer story? How do we who love them, distinguish the person from his or her illness? And how much of who one is, who one has become, is because of his or her illness? Similarly, how does one – can one – separate a work of art from the artist himself? Can we love a piece of art and possibly hate its creator? There is a well crafted and not-too-heavy scene where Hazel and Gus are discussing their beliefs, and the “point” of life in a jocular game show kind of way which craftily avoids any mention of God. It is immediately followed with the answer: Love. That’s when I lost my shit the first time. Just as Hazel and Gus struggle with love in the face of certain looming death and the ensuing pain of loss, we must look at the uncertainty of how little time any of us may have left. Can he or she who is dying control and deny another’s love for them in an effort to spare them inevitable pain? Will it work and is that even the right and fair choice? It may be tomorrow or it may be 80 years away but we each face those questions – if we are lucky. Boone does not shove pathos down our throats, but lays a universal truth plainly at our feet to jump into or step over. Cancer is a facile and succinct framework to flesh out love, passion, pain, meaning, beliefs and so much more, and Hazel herself puts it perfectly, “The only thing worse than biting it from cancer is kids biting it from cancer.”

The supporting cast of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is capable but never detracts from the two leads. Laura Dern plays Hazel’s mother with a well-balanced mix of stoicism and edge of panic. She is neither the suffering martyr nor the iron maiden filled with denial, and her character is granted one of the best written exchanges in the film. That’s when I lost my shit the second time, just in case you’re keeping score. Gus’ best friend Issac (Nat Wolff), also a cancer survivor, verges on the humor-as-coping-mechanism a bit too much but ultimately presents as a more tortured soul which is satisfying and far more believable. Willem Dafoe brings gravity to what could have been a fairy tale aspect to the film, and provides a different and important perspective on illness, pain and loss which keeps the story grounded in a possible reality. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is sad. It poses questions applicable to each of us – ill or well. It effectively reawakens first love in our hearts. It inspires deep gratitude (hopefully) in those of us who are well. And it does not make cancer look sexy. It is not however a P.T. Anderson film mind you. Sure there’s a soft pedal here, beautiful people who happen to be terminally ill but remain pretty darn beautiful, tragedy which alters lives forever but with a sparkle of hope. And that’s ok. And in spite of yourself you will feel. And that’s the whole point folks…

Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammel and Nat Wolff
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes

Originally written for ScreenRelish

Movie Review The Fault in Our Stars

 

New DVD Releases – June 2014

Hundreds of films come out on DVD each month; recent theatrical releases, straight to DVD, re-releases, and I’ve pared down the tsunami to those I feel are truly noteworthy. This month some GREAT films are coming out if you missed them in the theater. Enjoy!

June 3

Lone Survivor – a good solid war film with some amazing effects and raw emotion. My review here.
Mirage Men – UFOs and how the US military actively encouraged the alien myth as part of their Cold War counterintelligence arsenal.
The Motel Life – Two brothers involved in a hit-and-run have to flee their Reno motel. Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin

June 10

Devil’s Knot – Noted director Atom Egoyan’s dramatized take on the West Memphis 3 case. With Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Elias Koteas and Dane DeHaan (of Amazing Spiderman 2)
L’Eclisse – Winner of the Jury Special Prize at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s story of a doomed love affair is considered a postmodern masterpiece.
A Short History of Decay – a failed Brooklyn writer visits his ailing parents in Florida with sibling stress, a dying relationship and a whole lot of introspection. Milos Forman is executive producer.
Tim’s Vermeer – A wicked smart guy with a whole lot of money (and time on his hands) decides to paint an exact reproduction of a Johannes Vermeer painting using the identical methods of the Dutch Master. If you are remotely interested in painting and/or art history this documentary is a fascinating exploration of light, technique and the magic of art.

June 17

Ernest & Celestine – Nominated for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year at this year’s Academy Awards, this charming French film tells of the friendship between and bear and a mouse. Voiced by Forrest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Nick Offerman and Jeffrey Wright among others.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – The latest and possibly greatest Wes Anderson feature is a kaleidoscope-colored adventure farce with a stellar cast. As only Wes can do – do not miss this one!
Joe – a dark and moody story of an unusual friendship between a teenager and an ex-con played by Nicolas Cage in what could be a come-back role for him. My review here.
The Lego Movie – A animated comedy fun adventure from the director of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street with, you know, Legos. With Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, and of course, Morgan Freeman’s voice talent.

June 24

Enemy – In one of the best films I’ve seen in years, a quiet professor seeks out his exact double after spotting him in an obscure movie. Directed by Denis Villeneuve who brought us last year’s PRISONERS, this film stars Jake Gyllenhaal in dual roles. Read my review here.
Some Velvet Morning – Writer/Director Neil LaBute has a way of ripping the rug out from under you and making it hurt, but like it. With Stanley Tucci.

New DVD Releases June 2014

 

Movie Review Deliver Us From Evil

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My required horror movie companion for this film put it pretty succinctly when he said, “The title should really be, ‘Deliver us From THIS Evil…,’ ” and that’s about right. I have been contemplating the following question: I am not a horror fan. I am a scared, wimpy chicken-shit wuss when it comes to horror films. (That’s my confession for the day). However, precisely because of that I am the perfect person to review horror, don’t you think? Horror aficionados see all kinds of scary stuff and become jaded about it. A thousand corpses here, a thousand corpses there, whatever. I, on the other hand, will be scared shitless at pretty much anything and therefore be better able to unbiasedly judge the film’s sleepless-night-poop-in-your-pants factor. Let me tell you that I needed no sleeping pill whatsoever, slept like a baby and laughed out loud at DELIVER US FROM EVIL. That doesn’t bode well for this film. I did close my eyes for a few scenes and get a great blow-by-blow sportscaster style narrative of what was going on (OK, we have a big bag, there’s dead guy in it, yeah, he’s dead – OH WAIT – his eyes are moving. But he’s dead. Definitely dead.) I went to see this film for three reasons; it is set in my hometown of New York City, it is based on ‘true events,’ and it stars Eric Bana for whom, after I laid down on the train-tracks for Viggo Mortensen, would happily reassemble my bloody pieces back together. Tragically, even Eric Bana couldn’t make this experience worth it.

DELIVER US FROM EVIL is based upon a book of the same name written by New York City Police Sgt. Ralph Sarchie. Sarchie, played in the film by Bana, was a hardened detective who comes to investigate a few truly bizarre and ultimately linked cases and these are the basis for the movie. He has an impossibly patient and understanding wife played by Olivia Munn and a cute young daughter. He also has a constantly quipping partner played by Joel McHale (SONS OF ANARCHY, TED). whose non-stop one liners defuse the small amount of suspenseful tension present in the film but there’s not much to his character, or for him to work with, in the role. He’s a one trick pony NYC cop who has seen it all and can only be cynical in the face of anything and everything. Sarchie is a nonpracticing Catholic who has the standard skepticism about the role of evil in the crimes he is investigating. With the appearance of Edgar Ramirez who plays Father Mendoza, Sarchie becomes involved in Mendoza’s exorcisms and ends up a true believer. Our primary source of evil in the movie, Santino, is one of three veterans of the Iraqi war and we come to learn that it is he who carried that primal evil back with him from Iraq. No fruits or livestock please, but super evil is fine as long as you declare it at customs. Santino is a shadowy sweatshirt clad figure who, because he appears to be the world’s sloppiest house-painter, has streaky black and white paint on his face for most of the film until it is replaced by carefully placed rivers of blood. In reality, he looks remarkably like a young Alice Cooper after a sweaty performance wearing a hoodie. Not scary. Kinda funny. There is a whole lot of frothing at the mouth (in various colors and textures) tons of blood (they used very good quality fake blood though) and you will come away with a new found fluency in Latin you previously thought impossible. The music of The Doors also plays a major role in the film and one which provided me with most of my comic relief. Also I might add here that it seems to rain more in the Bronx than anywhere on earth. It is always raining. Rain = evil. I’m from New York and let me tell you, if deep evil exists in New York City my bet is it’s in Staten Island, not the Bronx. Bana does his best to show some emotional struggle between processing the events he experiences on the job and his life at home. Ramirez as Father Mendoza however is utterly unconvincing as a priest, let alone one who has the strength of character and faith to eject evil spirits from the human soul. There was a glimmer of what could have been intelligent content in DELIVER US FROM EVIL in dialogue between Mendoza and Sarchie about the nature of evil. The film also toys with the idea that the most potent evil lies in the events of our lives which we cannot release and by which we are tortured. Those threads – those concepts – would have elevated the movie to be more than just the sum of bloody battles it ends up being.

I sense that DELIVER US FROM EVIL was in and out of editing for months and months. New directions and pieces of the story are introduced and do not hold together in any fluid way. The dialogue is flat, predictable and every syllable of Ramirez’ delivery is wooden and uninspired. There are film versions of true stories which are terrifying; THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, JAWS, THE EXORCIST, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and many more. Part of what makes those films truly terrifying is that they are good films. Director Scott Derrickson also directed THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE which I understood was legitimately frightening. Demonic possession stories are more or less always about faith versus doubt and the universality of that struggle. More than any number of scary images, the possibility that doubt and lack of faith renders us vulnerable to evil, however you define it, is a terrifying concept and one we all confront at some point in our lives. The fear which lies within us, and the fear about what we may have to confront in life is true horror. A shred more of that emotional/spiritual/psychological exploration could have made DELIVER US FROM EVIL scary. And yes, maybe need new underwear. One thing I know for sure is that Ray Manzarek is rolling in his grave.

Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Sean Harris
Rating: not yet rated
Running Time: 118minutes

Movie Review Deliver Us From Evil

Movie Review Chef

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One of the problem with vanity projects is that, in the end, they tend to be mostly about vanity. For almost all of his career, I have been a big fan of Jon Favreau’s work both in front of and behind the camera. Favreau is a character actor. It may sound bitchy, and believe me I am willing to own it, but there are some actors regardless of gender, who are just not leading material. It has not so much to do with looks than it does presence. A bearing. A manner. Even in indie films, quirky films, even that hideous French guy from HOLY MOTORS (Denis Lavant) has all that and more, but unfortunately in my opinion, Favreau does not. What he does possess is good screenwriting ability, a decent sense of humor and he is a skilled director of high energy and legitimately funny films (ELF, ZATHURA, IRON MAN/IRON MAN 2, & COWBOYS AND ALIENS). I have enjoyed his numerous cameos in all variety of films and frankly he should stick to that in front of the camera. Do I find irony in the fact that I am basically giving his film a review which is wildly similar to the poor review in the film that his character Chef Carl Casper receives? Yes. Sadly that is irony which I don’t want to be a part of but have to call it like it is.

CHEF is very good at two things: making you very very hungry, and learning what Jon Favreau likes to eat and music he enjoys. CHEF features some of the most beautifully filmed sumptuous food porn I have possibly ever seen. Juicy, tender pink cutlets and sensuous fruits made into slippery sauces, shining caramelized sugar, dripping meaty…I digress. There is an inherent sensuousness to great cooking and food in general and there is a scene in CHEF bursting with possibility and the breathlessly sensuous Scarlet Johanssen which is meant to be deeply sensual. She clearly gets it – and gives it –  but Favreau cannot deliver despite his best efforts. Worthy of praise for sure is CHEF’s supporting cast. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannevale are not only believable in their own right, presenting the warped reality of most kitchen staff with their high octane personalities, but they are a great buddy couple. Their timing and interplay works wonderfully and they are one of the most enjoyable elements of the film. Scarlett Johannssen is a powerful and beautiful front-of-the-house manager and token female hottie in the sea of overbearing male presences. Sophia Vergara is stunning and likeable in her role as Casper’s ex-wife with whom he has unresolved issues, and Emjay Anthony does a great job as Casper’s son who is at the magical junction of old enough to be the most internet saavy guy in the room yet boyish enough to be emotionally vulnerable. The highly feared and tide turning food critic Ramsey Michel is played to perfection by the talented Oliver Platt. Add in Dustin Hoffman as the fascistic restaurant owner and the Robert Downey Jr. as a magnate and you have a cast which serves primarily to demonstrate just how tragically lacking Favreau is as a leading man. Favreau comes off as a overly sensitive, insecure and needy boy like the only male in an all girls home-ec class. Chefs tend to be powerful and commanding, not desperate for reassurance and childishly petulant. He is not believable as a father, as a star chef, an artist and , in a story which at its heart is about creativity, destruction and transformation, did not inspire an ounce of sympathy from me. We want to pull for Chef Casper, to champion him, but really I wanted to slap him.

CHEF has some good laughs and some great scenery. The first part of the film, which takes place in the restaurant responsible for Chef Casper’s social media annihilation, is tight and well written. With it’s commercail kitchen mini-society and lines such as, ‘You’re trending Bro,’ we can feel the impending doom which serves as the story’s turning point. It is however when CHEF leaves the restaurant and, literally, jumps on the open road that the film unravels. What should be brazen, enthusiastic and free spirited, is instead uneven, plodding, and interminable. We know what’s coming – just bring it on already! Chef Casper does his best to engage his son and make us feel that there is bondong going on, but he is utterly inauthentic as a father, even one who has been conspicuously and injuriously absent too much of the time. It seemed as though Favreau was trying to emulate Tony Soprano’ s parenting style and it bombs. Emjay Anthony shows real nuance as Percy his son but it plays against the dull edge of Favreau’s father role. Expectations can be dangerous things and maybe watching CHEF for its scenery and food, supporting cast and some good laughs is enough. Maybe not. It wasn’t for me. But I have a great idea: In a twist on the usual path, Let’ find a foreign filmmaker to remake CHEF and bring it to the broiled, glazed and juicy pinnacle of delciousness it is meant to be.

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannevale, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr.
Rating: R
Running Time: 115 Minutes (should be 90)

Movie Review Chef