Don John (2013), Written, Directed and Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt

As far as directorial debuts go, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon is quite an auspicious one.

A rather unconventional romantic comedy, Don Jon follows the romantic travails of the eponymous Jon (played by Levitt), I suppose one would classify him as a “stud,” and who balances his structured life with an unhealthy relationship with a very specific form of “online entertainment.”

All of this comes awry when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) a seductive woman who has her own perspective on love and romance and with all of her best efforts tries to find that ideal in the form of Jon. She wants her ‘happily ever after.’ For the filmgoer, these characters represent dueling sides of expectations for love, sex and relationships. Between the laughs and these somewhat divergent views there is an ambivalence that resides in the middle, replete with life’s ups and downs. This is why the film ends the way it does – “real talk” in the truest cinematic sense.

Film Title: Don Jon

Performance wise, everyone serves his or her roles quite well. JGL seems an unlikely “player,” but he acquits himself well. His leading lady, ScarJo goes back to her “Noo Yawk” roots and plays a manipulative vixen very well. In a small, but key to the plot supporting role, Julianne Moore does what she does best. Other performances of note include Brie Larson as his silent yet observant sister and Tony Danza, as the tree from whence Jon comes. Finally, as an added treat, there are a couple of cameo appearances in the film.

Film Title: Don Jon

All of this aside, are there aspects of the narrative that I wished were more fully formed? Of course – in particular, as an exercise in exploring a very paradoxical cultural fascination with female sexuality (often in its most explicit form), I am not sure the film will resonate with any but the most self-aware of individuals. Still, it is start. I think that this type of artistic refinement is a skill that will come with practice. Hopefully, JGL will continue to hone his craft and become a skillful and effective storyteller.

Film Title: Don Jon

 

 

 

i luv cinema Pick: Blue Caprice (2013)

Blue Caprice is director Alexandre Moors’ debut feature and tells the story of Beltway Sniper, John Allan Muhammed (portrayed by Isaiah Washington) and his protégé/accomplice, teen Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond).  While the film centers on the events 2002 reign of terror, there is also a strong emphasis on the twisted ‘father/son’ bond that developed between the two men.

BlueCaprice

Moors, through his steady handling of the subject, succeeds in creating and maintaining a high level of dramatic tension while also weaving into the film archival footage from the events that terrorized the metro Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. Although we know WHAT is going to happen, the story captures its audience by telling the HOW and (possibly) WHY.

I for one was watching in anticipation for that flashpoint which could have possibly marked the point of no return for the main characters (on film and in real life, which I am guessing was one of the director’s intentions when pursuing this project).

Obviously for purposes of the narrative, some of the information and details have been slightly altered and/or condensed, but not in any manner, at least by my opinion, that takes the story in any exploitative direction. The film could have gone the route of showing in graphic detail the horrors of the shootings, but instead handles the subject in a tactful manner all without minimizing the sheer terror surrounding the incident

For my part, as the credits drew to a close,  the one thing I think the film does make abundantly clear is Muhammed using Malvo as a pawn and proxy for the murderous rampage – by falsely representing things noticeably absent Malvo’s life: a father figure and stable home life. It was a compelling and ultimately sad thing to watch unfold onscreen.

While Washington and Richmond dominate the action on screen with aplomb, Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams each put in solid performances as Muhammed’s army buddy and wife, with whom Muhammed and Malvo stay as Muhammed grooms Malvo to execute his plan.

Even before seeing this film, it had made my list of films of note from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its thoughtful execution reaffirms this.

Blue Caprice is currently in select cinemas and available for rental/streaming through SundanceNow.

‘Touchy Feely’ Left Me Feeling ……

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Keeper, Safety Not Guaranteed), Touchy Feely stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais as a sibling pair that could not be any more dissimilar.

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Abby (DeWitt) is a Seattle-based masseur renowned for her ability to heal her clientele through her remarkable touch. Her brother Paul (Pais) on the other hand is a dentist with a practice that is fledgling, to say the very least. He is assisted in office by his equally emotionally awkward daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), with whom he has a strange co-dependent relationship.

Everyone’s lives are turned upside down, when almost simultaneously – Abby develops a crippling aversion to human bodily contact, while Paul sees his business thrive with reports of his having the ability to heal all ailments of the mouth. As one can imagine this reversal of fortune on the professional front has reverberations on their emotional and personal lives. Abby’s ‘touch-o-phobia’ hinders her relationship with boyfriend (Scoot McNarry). Contrastly, Paul begins a  journey to discover the source of his newly gained powers, thus bringing him into the sphere of Bronwyn (Allison Janney).

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While it had its funny (and emotionally resonate) moments, I should readily admit that this type of film is not necessarily my cup of tea – too high a ‘quirkiness quotient.’ Don’t get me wrong, the performances are well delivered and evoke a degree of sincerity, but in the end, I felt like in trying to be offbeat, Touchy Feely missed a beat, leaving me exiting the screening with more questions than I was happy with. For example, the B-story of Jenny (Page) seems a bit trivial and inconsequential to the overall plot mechanics in my opinion. In many ways, it feels like it was an add-on to put Page’s acting on display. This quibble also relates to a larger problem I had with the film – the pacing and editing sometimes left me WHERE I was in the story and how one moment connected to another. This did not occur frequently, but the unevenness cropped up enough to give me pause for the duration of the film.

Ultimately, Touchy Feely is a well-intentioned film but its heavy-handedness in the direction of the unconventional, make it a miss for me.

 

Short Term 12 Delivers on All Levels

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton took his own personal experience as a worked in a California group home as the basis for his latest project, Short Term 12. A standout at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (and based on Cretton’s 2009 Sundance short), Short Term 12 offers a personalized and harrowing insight into the lives of the staff and residents of a children’s ‘short-term facility’ in California.

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At the film’s opening, we are introduced to Grace (Brie Larson), by way of Nate (Rami Malek), the newest staff member. Grace heads of the very young staff a staff that surprisingly appear very close in age to their charges. As the story progresses we meet other members of staff and residents of the campus, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield), Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), Grace’s coworker and boyfriend.

Often in ensemble pieces, it is hard to connect with many of the characters we encounter. Here that was not the case. I really felt that the loved was shared among all and felt a profound connection to the characters’ lives. Cretton accomplished this by not just focusing on an individual/story for an elapsed time, he gives his audience just enough information at points of the narrative that allow us, over the film’s run time, to create a complex and complete picture. It was done exceptionally well.

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The performances of the students in the group home, many of them with limited or non-existent previous screen credits; they leap off the screen and connect with the viewer on a raw, emotionally charged level. In his turn as the emotionally troubled, ‘about to age out of the system’ Marcus, Keith Stanfield has a standout performance.

Simply put, Short Term 12 is a moving story, well told and featuring some really good performances across the board.

Short Term 12 is currently showing in select cinemas across the country.

The Boys are Back and Headed to “The World’s End” (2013)

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I cannot imagine any better place to catch at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY (more on this later) for the final installment of Edgar Wright’sCornetto,” a.k.a “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy, The World’s End.

For the uninitiated, the trilogy started in 2004 with the hilarious zombie (we don’t say the zed word!) installment, Shaun of the Dead followed a few years later by the police spoof Hot Fuzz. Headlining each of these films are Wright’s frequent partners-in-crime, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. If you are worried that you have to catch up on these films before catching this feature, DON’T; this series is a trilogy in the loosest sense – many of the key players happen to be the same but the stories are totally different and not interconnected in any way. However, that said, you would do yourself a great cinematic disservice if you chose not to catch the prior two.

Now that this is all settled, here is my summary of the action that takes place in The World’s End:

The year is 1990 and in the suburban U.K. enclave of Newton Haven, five buddies decide to celebrate the end of school by embarking on an epic pub crawl. Sadly they fall short of their quest, with the last pub on the list, The World’s End eluding them. Fast forward roughly 20 years later, and we seen the boys, now men (obviously) in their adult stations, far away from the days of reckless youth – they are responsible husbands, fathers, career men – with the exception of Gary King (played by Simon Pegg). Gary is a manchild, who never moved past those halcyon adolescent years. Despite years of estrangement, he decides to “get the band back together” to finish what they started oh so many years ago. The crew includes Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan). After convincing them to return to Newton Haven to complete the long-delayed mission, they notice that things are not quite as they remember them and soon find themselves on a mission of an entirely different sort …

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At this point, the film descends (ascends) into a race against time to save humanity, really. It achieves this while making us laugh. In addition, there is theme that strikes a chord with the film’s target demo – it is a piece that underneath the surface includes some retrospective on vanished youth and lives approaching middle age, often at a pace that is a little more rapid than one wants.

My thoughts? The balance of comedy sci-fi works in a way similar to how the previous films revised and re-imagined the zombie and buddy-cop film genres respectively with the same, enjoyable result. Obviously Pegg (who again co-wrote with Wright) and Frost are the most recognizable performers and as always deliver the goods (I am especially a fan of Mr. Frost’s performances), it should be duly noted the rest of the cast, including (among others) Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan are equally effective at bringing the right amount of laughter and enjoyment to the proceedings.

The Wright-Pegg stable of comedy films (and television shows) definitely carry a certain cache with them, in this case making an end product that has a VERY loyal following who share their fan-boy devotion to many of Generation X’s cultural milestones. I say this because, as always, it may not be suited to everyone’s taste and some of the comedy MAY (just may) be lost in translation to moviegoers not familiar with some of the cultural references in the film. In my mind, this is another reason you may want to see the first two films before The World’s End. In fact, this is exactly what I did.

As part of the promotion leading up to the release of the film, cinemas nationwide were running Cornetto trilogy marathons, exhibiting the three films in a row. I tell you, I think sitting in the theater with a large group of like-minded folks was the perfect way to usher in the screening of The World’s End. Just wanted to put that out there.

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At this late date, I highly doubt you will able to have this experience of seeing all three on the big screen; regardless, The World’s End is recommended viewing.

My Thoughts on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey”

Originally released in the UK in 2011, The Story of Film: An Odyssey got its US television broadcast premier Monday night (9/2) on TCM. An inspired piece, the documentary spans 15-episodes and is presented by UK-based film critic Mark Cousin, its content adapted from his 2004 book The Story of Film. Each episode covering a fixed span of time serves as an “introduction” to a series of films related to the theme of the episode.

Story of Film

What is it about you may ask? Well, it is exactly as advertised on the tin – it traces the history of cinema as an art form, starting with the visionaries and pioneers (Edison, Lumiere Brothers) and eventually working its way up to contemporary cinema.

How it gets there is unique to say the very least. It is often a personal insight that combines history with the more technical aspects of the movie-making process, all the while interconnecting these elements to the entire world of cinema, past and present. In that way it truly spans all corners of the globe and looks at film from a decidedly international perspective.

Be warned, as I was earlier in the evening: it does contain some plot revelations (“spoilers”) to films that you may have yet to see; for example, in the first episode (the only one I have seen so far), the ending of Once Upon a Time in the West was revealed. Will this stop me from watching? Heck nah. I find the history and the various clips chosen to accompany the documentary far too compelling to turn away.

Well that's a shame ...

Well that’s a shame …

It should also be noted that the documentary is narrated by Mr. Cousins himself, and is delivered in what I can only describe as an unconventional manner. I suppose may be due in part with his rather distinctive brogue (although Northern Irish, Mr. Cousins is currently based in Scotland). Another characteristic I have surmised early on is that some of the statements made by M. Cousins may come off as rather jarring and opinionated. In his preamble to Episode 1, he states that Casablanca is not a classic film. What the … ? However, upon further reflection, I realize this does not mean that he is saying the film is bad or unworthy of special merit, praise or noteworthiness, but rather I suspect/hope he is trying to blow wide open, to challenge and expand our notions about what he calls “the language of film,” in a way that moves beyond films being merely a Hollywood convention. In other words, Casablanca may very well be a landmark of American film making history, but it is just one in a larger canon of what makes cinema CINEMA. Even in this light, or maybe because of this, I am here for all of it.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey will air new episodes every Monday night through December, with a repeat airing on Tuesday, although the accompanying films will be new each evening.

Have you seen this documentary (in part or in whole)? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thérèse (2012)

It has been a while since I first saw Thérèse, French director Claude Miller’s final film. Upon seeing it, I made the decision to sit on putting together my reaction piece, for I felt almost certain that Thérèse was destined to get even the most limited theatrical run here in the States for the following three reasons:

  1. It’s French
  2. It was an ‘Official Selection’ of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival
  3. It stars Audrey Tautou

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Audrey Tautou assumes the eponymous role, itself sourced from the 1927 novel (titled Thérèse Desqueyroux) written by François Mauriac. Interestingly enough,  Thérèse was previously adapted in 1962. But I digress– we are here to talk about the most recent version. So, without further ado, WHAT exactly is this film about?

Well, here you go (via the official synopsis):

Thérèse is a heroine from the same school as other literary heroines, such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. Married less for love than for convenience, Thérèse feels suffocated by her marriage to Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). Although she is afforded a comfortable country life, she soon grows tired and her frustrations sets her mind in motion. This desire to break free is exacerbated by the arrival of Thérèse’s best friend Anne and Bernard’s sister (Anaïs Demoustier), who promptly falls madly in love with a handsome young Portuguese man who is deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the family. Anne’s simmering passion makes Thérèse feel like she is missing out on something in her life. She sees Anne’s passion leads her to go to any length to keep her lover by her side. Soon, Thérèse begins her own fight against the oppressive Desqueyroux family.

Wow! That surely is a mouthful – Anna Karenina and/or Madame Bovary?

As for my own reaction? I have not read the source material so I may lose a little of the story’s context. But from what I am able to synthesize from the film is that thematically, there is a common idea that all of these ‘heroines’ in their own way, are trying to challenge the status quo and rise above their repressive, provincial lives. I don’t think I am spoiling anything for my readers to say that in end, in all these examples, unfortunately, circumstances do not end well for the protagonist and they are left to pay for their insolence.

Looking at the film in terms of its complete execution, let me just say this – while the performances were all well-played, I left the screening with an overwhelming cold response, lacking any emotion. I can only hope to assume that in part, this is what the director Claude Miller was going for – to create a stolid world in so much allowing us, the audience to feel what the titular character feels, and in turn, evoking a sympathetic response so we understand and possibly forgive the lengths Thérèse goes to break free from her imprisonment. I cannot even say I felt ANY response to her actions (either positive or negative), I just felt like wow, that sure is crazy to both her actions and the subsequent fallout including the film’s conclusion. Again, this reaction is based solely on how I feel the film has presented the narrative. I have a feeling that the source material would go a long ways in getting me to a point of at least understanding Thérèse’s plight. Like I said, in the end, my reaction and response will always circle back ’round to the barren cold feeling that jumped off the screen while I was watching the film.

On a positive note, the film’s primary setting of south west France looks absolutely lovely.

Thérèse opens in cinemas today (23 August).

Prince Avalanche (2013)

With the exception of Undertow and the beginning of his critically noteworthy George Washington (so that doesn’t count), I obviously have not seen many David Gordon Green films. And yet, I am very aware of his “varied” cinematic CV. I defer to his IMDB entry for further evidence.

It has been said in many circles that visually, his films owe a great deal to the photographically aesthetic of one Terrence Malick. Check out this article from earlier this year that examines the Terrence Malick Effect. The expectation of carrying such a moniker means is that his films should be equally panoramic, picture perfect views that evoke a visual poetry.

I say all this as a preamble (or ramble, whichever you prefer) for my look at his latest feature, Prince Avalanche.

Starring Emile Hirsch (Lance) and Paul Rudd (Alvin), the film takes place among the burnt out forests of rural Texas during the 1980s. Lance and Alvin are part of the road crew assigned with the mundane task of painting highway traffic lines on the remote highway that cuts through the devastated landscape. For the audience we are taken through this daily ritual that serves as the backdrop to bear witness to Alvin and Lance’s relationship and the comedic (and slightly dramatic) ebbs and flows that result from their interaction. A major part of what makes their relationship intriguing is that they could not be any more dissimilar in temperament and situation in life. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Alvin’s girlfriend in Lance’s older brother and that Lance got the job at her urging.

As someone who is a little more familiar with the work of Malick, if I were to do a comparative analysis of this film’s style, I would say there might be traces of Malick’s influence. Cinematographer and frequent Green collaborator Tim Orr makes a large area devastated by the wildfires feels much more intimate in its natural closeups and how the environment plays along with our protagonists.

A bright spot of the film is the performance of Joyce Payne who, prior to this film had no acting experience. Earlier, during the location scouting, the filmmakers came upon they came upon Payne as she was rummaging through the remains of her house that succumbed to the wildfires. As a result of the encounter, she was asked to take part in Prince Avalanche in the role that we see on the screen, as an enigmatic, other-worldly figure who captures the audience with her recounting her own experiences. All of her work in the film is improvised.

Similarly enjoying was the occasional presence of bombastic Lance LeGault’s truck driver. On a more somber note, LeGault passed away shortly after the film wrapped.

In the end, I am at a bit of a loss for which side I come down on this film (is it necessary to come down on one side or another really?). I did chuckle a few times at the relationship dynamic being played out on screen (credit to Hirsch and Rudd), but not necessarily enough to say that I was overcome with laughter at any moment. But that is not to say I did that Avalanche did not pass the time in an entertaining fashion.

Also, the pacing of the film may not be to everyone’s pace. The story moves along, but not fast enough for some.

As I finished collecting my notes on Prince Avalanche, I took a moment to see what a few others have said about the film. Overwhelmingly the response has been positive, with many calling this a return to form for Green. That may be accurate, but without my seeing his full body of work (although I suspect bigger studio productions such as Pineapple Express, The Sitter and Your Highness may be first many minds as a few wrong turns on the road), I cannot levy such a judgment.

For folks who have seen his full oeuvre, maybe they can share their thoughts on the film in the Comments section, please?

Prince Avalanche is currently in select cinemas.

 

Reasons to See “Pacific Rim”

Now I must admit that initially my interest in seeing Pacific Rim was not high at all. Initially I found the trailer a little bit confounding. Sure I knew that it was a Guillermo del Toro film that featured big robots and monsters, but I was uncertain as to whether that would be enough to pique my interest and part with my hard-earned cash. Add to that my general ignorance as to the plot. So, as the release date for this film approached, the most I knew in the lead up was that this is the film delToro did INSTEAD of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

However as 2013 rolled forward and summer blockbuster season drew nearer, I became more and more curious about Pacific Rim if for no other reason that I kept seeing the trailer in the preview of other movies I was seeing. Besides, seeing more of Idris Elba did not hurt matters. Taken in its whole, each step of the way gleaned a much clearer sense of what the film’s storyline.

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If any of you still have not seen this film and/or generally have no clue what it is about, let me borrow the movie’s official synopsis:

When legions of monstrous creatures, known as Kaiju, started rising from the sea, a war began that would take millions of lives and consume humanity’s resources for years on end. To combat the giant Kaiju, a special type of weapon was devised: massive robots, called Jaegers, which are controlled simultaneously by two pilots whose minds are locked in a neural bridge. But even the Jaegers are proving nearly defenseless in the face of the relentless Kaiju. On the verge of defeat, the forces defending mankind have no choice but to turn to two unlikely heroes—a washed up former pilot (Charlie Hunnam) and an untested trainee (Rinko Kikuchi)—who are teamed to drive a legendary but seemingly obsolete Jaeger from the past. Together, they stand as mankind’s last hope against the mounting apocalypse.

Sounds like fun, eh? So you must be wondering by now what I thought (or maybe not) of it. Well, either way, here you go – all I can say is that I am glad that I bought the hype because what I saw earlier this month was one of the best movies not only for the summer, but for the year as well. My reasoning? Take a look down below for a couple of my thoughts.

 

The Ensemble Cast

This cast is an eclectic mix of performers that really work well together and leave you invested in their mission to move the plot forward. Guillermo delToro has the talent for assembling an interesting collection of people who work well as an ensemble.

 

Shout-out to An Awesome Heroine

Maybe I am biased because I am a girl but I love when women take care of business on the big screen. Mako (Kikuchi) is equally strong and lithe.  She clearly holds her own.

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Pacific Rim Knows What is Was & Still Executes it With Aplomb

I will not bother to mention the numerous variations of huge monsters and machines banging about genre of action picture that have graced the silver screen, but let’s say that at best, they are a hodgepodge of loud, spectacular audio and visuals and really not much else. For what it is worth in the case of Pacific Rim there were actually characters that were relevant and that you had some attachment to. Credit where credit is due; see note on cast (above).

Also, I think that for many folks (consciously or not), just because a film’s subject is not what one would consider award-winning cinema (at least on the surface), that thoughtful, deliberate execution should not be applied. As I stated above, just throwing a bunch of stuff at the screen that has people go OOH and AAH is not enough; a lot of movie audiences are smarter than that. Again, credit to the overseer of this endeavor, Guillermo delToro for making an actioner with a little more weight to it.

I know his vision and imagination may not be suited for everyone’s taste (heck, I am still wrapping my head around Pan’s Labyrinth), but he does have a way of blending moments of action, suspense, and emotion with the right amount of humor just for good measure. Here the humor is marked by the presence of  1) the mad scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, recalling for me classic duos like Charters and Caldicott) and 2) Hellboy himself, Ron Perlmann.

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One side note – this is yet another of those rare cases, where I really am glad that I saw the film in IMAX 3D.

 

Conclusion

In what has thus far been a rather disappointing summer at the multiplex, Pacific Rim was a fun and refreshing addition. This is one that definitely deserves to be seen.

Weekend Vieiwing Recap

Hope everyone had a wonderful weekend – especially my countrymen, many of whom most likely are recovering from a rather long holiday break. I for one loved mine. I stuffed myself silly, got to see the Wimbledon fortnight to draw to a resounding close (especially on the gentlemen’s side – GO ANDY MURRAY!!), went to the cinema and caught up on some must-see TV. So, without further ado, let me recap on the latter half of my weekend activities.

 

ORPHAN BLACK – Season One (BBC America)
I must admit I was always intrigued by this series ever since I saw the adverts for it. But unfortunately for me I have the TV viewing attention of a gnat and can only focus on about one or two first-run shows in a given a season. Well with the summer in full swing and no new epis coming up, I was able to turn my attentions to this captivating sci-fi drama. Lead by the talented Tatiana Maslany who assumes many characters, the show will and leave you convinced that these are all totally different people (I smell an Emmy in her future). I do not want to divulge too much of the plot (although some clever folks may be able to read between the lines), but all I can say is that this ten-episode arc is must-see TV, leaving the stage set for what is sure to be an equally exciting sophomore season.

ORPHAN BLACK EPISODE 101/102 D7

 

THE HEAT (in Cinemas)
Directed by: Paul Feig
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock
This is one film that did not immediately fall on my radar but I had heard good things about it so I said what the heck – might as well go for it! I am glad I did. Granted, there were some problems I had with the film (moments of narrative unevenness, etc.), these were minor problems at that. When you take the film for what it is worth – a buddy cop comedy – it delivers and most assuredly past the all-important “laugh test.” Also, it was great fun for a change to see Sandra Bullock in a comedic role that is straight up meant to make us laugh with only the slightest hint of a romantic interest. But again, McCarthy takes the cake with her rapid-fire delivery and funny one-liners.

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What did you watch this weekend?