Saturday, 24 June 2017

Movie Review: You Again (2010)


A bland retribution comedy, You Again has neither laughs nor romance, and proceeds to waste a good cast.

In her high school years Marni (Kristen Bell) was an outcast ugly duckling, regularly and mercilessly bullied by J-J (Odette Yustman), the coolest cheerleader at the school. Six years later, Marni has moved to Los Angeles and blossomed into a confident public relations executive. Marni returns home to the house of her parents Gail and Mark (Jamie Lee Curtis and Victor Garber) to attend the wedding of her brother Will (James Wolk), and is shocked to discover that Will's fiancée is none other than J-J, who now goes by Joanna.

Joanna pretends to not remember Marni at all, and presents herself as a kind-hearted family-oriented charitable do-gooder. The situation gets more complex when Joanna's aunt Ramona (Sigourney Weaver) arrives ahead of the wedding, as Gail and Ramona were best frenemies during their high school years. Ramona is now a high powered owner of a luxury hotel chain, while Gail, who was the most popular girl in school, has settled for domestic bliss. In the face of Joanna's charm assault Marni feels belittled and starts to regress into her high school victim persona, and decides to do all she can to unmask Joanna's true character and disrupt her brother's wedding day.

Directed by Andy Fickman, You Again has a couple of good ideas but does not do much with them. The long shadows cast by high school experiences should be a rich environment for both comedy and personal growth, and Marni wilting under the pressure of being back home and playing second fiddle to Joanna is an interesting enough set-up. But Fickman and screenwriter Moe Jelline default fairly quickly to witless juvenile antics and childish execution.

The script is nowhere near sharp enough to overcome the character's wide-eyed cluelessness, and the film is caught in no man's land where outlandish actions are devoid of any sense of irony or satire. The dull lowlights include physical altercations, dishes being thrown, food dumped on heads and people pushed into swimming pools, the latter prosaic climax telegraphed in bold letters.

The cast has too much talent for the material. Kristen Bell is game and commits herself to the role, but cannot pull the film out of the doldrums. Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis enjoy a few dueling moments but then succumb to the tedious surroundings.

You Again flickers with some promise but is extinguished by listless delivery.






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Movie Review: I Give It A Year (2013)


A romantic comedy with a difference, I Give It A Year takes a subversive perspective on the genre and achieves edgy success.

The film starts with London couple Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) nine months into their marriage and already comprehensively in the emotional doldrums. In flashback, their troubles are revealed, starting with a messy wedding day punctuated by a best-man speech from hell courtesy of Josh's friend Danny (Stephen Merchant). Josh is a struggling writer, Nat is a high powered advertising executive, they share little in common, and their home life quickly descends into mutual irritations.

But their real challenges begin when Josh's ex-girlfriend social worker Chloe (Anna Faris) reemerges, and it's clear that they still have feelings for each other. Meanwhile Nat meets dashing rich executive and potential new client Guy (Simon Barker), and he aggressively pursues a romance. Josh is much more interested in Chloe, Nat is really interested in Guy, and the inconvenience of their young marriage is just getting in the way.

Directed and written by Dan Mazer, I Give It A Year is a less than serious shot in the arm for the rom-com genre, and it lands its punches exactly as intended. This is a foul-mouthed, no holds barred adult-oriented comedy, stressing the laughs much more than the romance, and finding many quite hilarious moments. Mazer sets out to dismantle as many cliches as he can find, and conjures up frequent scenes of awkwardness that nibble away at any notions of fluffy romance.

Merchant's unfiltered brand of politically incorrect comedy acts as a regular dose of disruptive steroids and contributes to the film's ethos. Elsewhere a clumsy attempted threesome does not work as well but makes the point of dispelling the thrill of that act. Much better is a ridiculously funny highlight featuring a delicious combination of two excited doves, a violinist, a platter of oysters and a ceiling fan.

The film's intentions are to demonstrate how a seemingly perfect union can takes a wrong turn, some temptations are too good to ignore, and mistakes of the heart can lead to domestic misery. It's all delivered with a self-deprecating tone, helped by an appealing Rose Byrne performance. She occupies the space where professional ambitions, opportunities for lust and the tug of faithfulness collide in a mushroom cloud of guilt. Rafe Spall plays his part, but is overshadowed by both Byrne and Anna Faris, who delivers the most honest performance as a down to earth woman unaware of her appeal.

The cast also includes Minnie Driver as a caustic and long-married mutual friend, and Olivia Colman as a less than helpful marriage counselor.

Playful and incendiary, I Give It A Year cheerfully sticks needles into the doll of familiarity.






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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Movie Review: The Counselor (2013)


An uneven drug smuggling thriller, The Counselor wastes its premise on pretentious tangential topics.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is deeply in love with his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) and travels to Amsterdam to buy her an expensive engagement diamond. He is also secretly broke, and turns to his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) to get involved in a drug deal with potential for a huge return. Reiner's latest girlfriend is the wild vixen Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Reiner connects The Counselor with middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges the money transfer and sets the deal in motion.

In Mexico the large drug shipment is hidden in a sewage truck and crosses the border into the United States. By coincidence The Counselor's imprisoned client Ruth (Rosie Perez) asks for his help to extricate her son out of an extreme speeding offence. He obliges, unaware that the young man is known as the Green Hornet and is a key part of the drug transfer chain. When the Green Hornet is decapitated and the drug shipment stolen, The Counselor's life unravels as the victimized cartel moves in to seek bloody revenge on all involved.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor boasts a tremendous cast and lavish production values, but still manages to miss the mark by a wide margin.  This is a talky would-be thriller that invests substantive time in all the wrong areas.

Almost all the problems reside in McCarthy's too clever by half screenplay. The characters enjoy long scenes of dialogue, and McCarthy sees fit to have them converse about philosophy, sexual antics including masturbation with vehicles, the obscure details of diamond quality, and confessions to Catholic priests. Most of these topics have little if anything to do with the plot or the character evolutions. The script expounds on the drug cartel's fondness for a gruesome strangulation assassination device and snuff films. It goes without saying that both items will play a role later in the film, but the telegraphing is hopelessly obvious.

Critical details, such as the cause and extent of The Counselor's money problems, are skipped entirely. Seemingly important characters are dropped late into the film with no explanation. As the world closes in on him The Counselor makes tracks to Mexico, and suddenly he is receiving a lecture on the realities of life and the consequences of decision making from Jefe (Rubén Blades), a high-ranking but previously unannounced cartel member.

Meanwhile Scott directs the few scenes of action with plenty of verve, as the journey of the decrepit sewage truck emerges as the most interesting aspect of the film. But despite the slick delivery, the pawns are on display but the puppet masters remain hidden. The Counselor shows us the dramatic outcomes of some serious scheming, but lazily skips the intellectual effort of having the plotters explain themselves. After all, it is more fun to show a woman gyrating against the windshield of a sportscar than engage in actually relevant discourse.






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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Movie Review: Meek's Cutoff (2010)


A ponderous Western, Meek's Cutoff recreates life on the trail, and mostly reveals how boring it must have been.

It's 1845, in Oregon. A small group of travelers, including couples Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) and Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), is crossing hostile, desert-like territory, led by renowned guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite the women being confined to a subservient role, Emily begins to voice her opinion that Meek is actually lost. With the group running low on water, the sense of unease increases as day after day they move slowly through arid terrain and a succession of nondescript ridges.

The group dynamics change when they capture a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who had been stalking them. The Indian cannot speak English, but may offer them a way to water, or may lead them into an ambush. Meek favours killing him, but Emily insists that he live. The travelers carry on, this time following the native, unsure of their fate.

An independent production directed by Kelly Reichardt, Meek's Cutoff is inspired by real events, and fully invests in a sense of realism. This is a slow-moving journey that starts and ends on the trail, with limited character definition and an emphasis on the physical rigours of opening up the west by walking across uncharted lands. Filmed in an old-fashioned boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, there is little plot to speak of, the people remain mostly sketches, and on-screen events consist mostly of people moving slowly across barren terrain. The six bulls pulling the three wagons are given almost as much prominence as the humans.

While there is educational value in accurately portraying the ordeals of the frontier, as a cinematic viewing experience Meek's Cutoff lacks almost everything necessary for engagement. The travelers are barely distinguishable, the repetitive drudgery is grinding, many scenes of dialogue are intentionally inaudible, and a good one third of the film takes places at night in barely-lit scenes. It's almost as though Reichardt sets out to make the 104 minutes as tiresome as possible to elicit sympathy for her group of migrants.

An indicative sequence has Emily needing to fire two musket shots into the air as a signal. This being 1845, the musket requires an elaborate procedure to reload. Emily's entire cumbersome multi-step method to load the powder, ready the gun and fire the second shot is captured by Reichardt's static camera over what seems like an eternity to make the point that firing more than one shot was no easy matter. Informative, but hardly inspirational.

Meek's Cutoff offers a few points of interest, but insufficient redeeming features to ease the slow motion agony on both sides of the screen.






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Monday, 19 June 2017

Movie Review: The Secret Of Convict Lake (1951)


A Western with a difference, The Secret Of Convict Lake is a tight and tense drama set in an isolated community during an unforgiving winter storm.

It's 1871, and six convicts escape from Carson City and make their way on foot across a mountain range in a snow storm. The chasing posse has to turn back due to the harrowing conditions, and the escapees are presumed dead. One of them does perish, but the remaining five, including the level-headed Jim Canfield (Glenn Ford), conniving Johnny Greer (Zachary Scott) and the young but ailing Clyde (Richard Hylton) make it over the peak and down to the tiny community of Monte Diablo Lake.

There they find only women, including Marcia (Gene Tierney), her future sister-in-law Rachel (Ann Dvorak), the young and innocent Barbara (Barbara Bates), and the bedridden but strong willed Granny (Ethel Barrymore). The men of the community, including Marcia's fiance Rudy (Harry Carter), are away on a long-term prospecting trip.

Initially the women have the weapons and the upper hand, and the five men are confined to a lodge. Johnny is convinced that Jim has hidden $40,000 in stolen money, but gradually other truths emerge: Jim does indeed have links to the Monte Diablo community, involving a revenge motive due to false murder testimony. Tensions and emotions rise as Jim and Marcia are strangely attracted to each other, Johnny pursues the frosty Rachel to gain an edge, and Clyde emerges as potentially the most dangerous of them all at Barbara's expense.

Loosely inspired by real events, directed by Michael Gordon and co-written by an uncredited Ben Hecht, The Secret of Convict Lake is an unfortunately forgotten gem. Packing an astounding amount of plot, conspiracy and character dynamics into its 83 minutes, this is an enjoyably intricate and thoughtful Western exploring original territory.

Gordon plays with the power dynamics between men and women as well as the struggle for domination between the men themselves, as the story reveals its layered secrets on its own terms. Despite some clunky action scene staging and editing, the resolution is exceptionally clever, and the denouement pushes the boundaries of the cinematic era.

This is a Western with an abundance of narrative arcs, and the ever shifting character motivations and evolutions dramatically enhance the film. Jim, Marcia and Rachel all undergo transformations as the storm-enforced confinement unfolds, while Johnny and Clyde reveal a lot more about themselves than first meets the eye. Once the inevitable gun smoke clears, an entire community has been changed forever, and indeed Monte Diablo Lake gains a new name.

The Secret Of Convict Lake carries seeds of stories later extrapolated in better known films. The theme of sexual tension between prisoners and women standing on guard appears in the classic The Beguiled, while a group of men and women starting out on a hostile footing in an isolated setting but developing unexpected relationships was exploited for fun in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. The Secret Of Convict Lake adds a surprisingly intriguing personal double-cross and revenge story, conflict between future sisters-in-law, and lonely women unable to resist the temptation of treacherous men.

Glenn Ford plays to his strengths as an almost honest man caught up in crooked events, Jim Canfield victimized to the point of not caring about the consequences of his grim course of action. Gene Tierney emerges as the most resilient of the local women, initially unaware of her role in the dangerous showdown looming at her doorstep but gradually distinguishing between the shades of grey.

Underrated and mostly forgotten, The Secret Of Convict Lake is well worth rediscovering.






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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)


A superhero adventure, Wonder Woman combines perfunctory Greek mythology with wartime heroics in an entertaining package. The film pushes female empowerment in the name of peace, but is nevertheless weighed down by the genre's heavy anchors.

On the hidden fog-shrouded island of Themyscira, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) is the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), leader of an all-woman Amazonian tribe tasked by Zeus to maintain peace and be ready to fight off warmongering god Ares. Diana is trained by her warrior aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright) to be a fierce combatant, while Hippolyta hints to her daughter that she possesses special powers.

Diana rescues British spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from drowning when his plane crash lands in the adjacent sea. She soon learns that the Great War is raging, and assuming that Ares must be behind the carnage, she perceives it her duty to leave Themyscira and put a stop to the evil. She accompanies Steve to London where he connects with politician Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), and then onto the trenches of the front lines, where Diana discovers her powers as Wonder Woman. She then has to find a way to stop General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who is planning to unleash a new highly destructive poison gas with the help of the evil Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya).

Directed by Patty Jenkins with a budget close to $150 million, Wonder Woman finally comes to the big screen after decades of false starts. The delays were partially caused by the critical and commercial failures of Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) casting doubt on the marketability of a female protagonist in the overcrowded superhero space. Within the tight confines of the genre, Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg get almost everything right, mixing a mythology-heavy origins story with a World War One action adventure filled with raucous action, villains and the requisite sidekicks.

Themes of duty, sacrifice and the essence of humanity are dealt with in straightforward broad brush strokes. Wonder Woman is a novice in the big bad world of humans, and the film benefits from her sense of learning and discovery. Her initial childlike naivete has to be replaced by a better understanding of the complexities of what humans are capable of, and her journey underpins the film's narrative.

Moments of humour also help, including a conversation between Diana and Steve about sexuality and procreation, and reactions to Diana's warrior mentality invading London circa 1918 and the muddy trenches of a stalemated front.

But for all its polished elements, this is a superhero movie, and the genre is tightly handcuffed by its childish fundamentals. There will be many large scale battles, there will be an overabundance of CGI, and there will be many large explosions, pyrotechnics and destruction on a mammoth scale. It's all remarkably predictable and unspools at the expected intervals, the special effects methodically gaining the upper hand over the humans as the end credits approach. A lot of the dialogue is stiff, and most of the characters are superficial. The 140 minutes do begin to drag.

Helping maintain interest is a terrific Gal Gadot performance. She steps into the role with ease, proving a perfect fit and immediately owning the best Wonder Woman attributes: feminine strength, smarts and curiosity in a perfectly calibrated athletic package.

In a creatively exhausted genre running on fumes, Wonder Woman is a brighter spark than most.






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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Movie Review: Shall We Dance? (2004)


A romantic comedy, Shall We Dance? is a gentle twirl through the turbulent waters of middle age.

In Chicago, John Clark (Richard Gere) is a well-established lawyer specializing in executing wills. Happily married to Beverly (Susan Sarandon) and the father of two teenagers, John is nevertheless hitting a full-fledged middle age emotional crisis, feeling empty inside after nearly 20 years of the same marriage and the same career. On his daily train commute he regularly spots a sad-looking Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring out of the window of Miss Mitzi's ballroom dance studio. On a whim John signs up for evening dance classes and keeps his new hobby a secret.

At the studio John meets fellow novice dancers Chic (Bobby Cannavale) and Vern (Omar Miller), and veteran resident dancer Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), who still dreams of competing to win. He also stumbles onto co-worker Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci), who leads a secret life of dancing. John learns that Paulina is recovering from a broken relationship, but she rebuffs his tentative advances. John is reinvigorated by the joy of dancing and new friendships, but Beverly starts to suspect that her husband is having an affair and hires a private detective (Richard Jenkins) to investigate.

Directed by Peter Chelsom, Shall We Dance? is a remake of a 1996 Japanese film. The Hollywood version settles down for a relaxed tone, sprinkling mild humour and melancholy in equal measures while avoiding extremes in any direction. The film is easy to like as it works its way to the predictable uplifting resolutions, but also stays at the shallow end of the pool.

Unusually for a relatively lightweight film about dance and angst, this is a male perspective. While Chelsom never quite explains why the first world problems in John Clark's privileged life are worth caring about, the numbness brought upon by a daily routine simultaneously drudgerous and frantic is familiar enough. Gere does a fine job as man quietly venturing outside his zone of comfort without knowing quite why and feeling deeply guilty about keeping any secrets.

The dance sequences are staged with a mixture of fun and flamboyance. None of the performances are meant to showcase expert dancers, and the film benefits from the self-deprecatory attitude conveyed by dance amateurs stepping out for personal reasons. Paulina is the exception, and Jennifer Lopez delivers a subdued performance as the temporarily fallen star licking her wounds as she gathers the courage to go again.

Mimicking the studio awkwardness, the relationship dynamics between the characters remain refreshingly clumsy, John never quite knowing how to say the right things to neither Beverly nor Paulina. And that may not be a bad thing. The loudmouthed Bobbie speaks her mind, causes carnage and may be the loneliest character in the film.

A simple message delivered in a fleeting package, Shall We Dance? is an invitation to refresh a stale psyche by embracing small risks.






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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Movie Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)


A slow-moving version of Jesus' life story as described in the Gospel, The Greatest Story Ever Told lacks cinematic heart and soul. The film best resembles a well-intentioned but creatively challenged Catholic high school play on a big budget.

Jesus is born in a Bethlehem barn, in the presence of three elderly men who traveled a long distance guided by a bright star. The Roman client king Herod the Great (Claude Rains), fearing a prophecy about the birth of a great leader, orders the killing of all infants in Bethlehem, but Jesus is smuggled to safety. More than thirty years later John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) is proclaiming the imminent arrival of God's messenger, calling on all to repent and baptizing them in the Jordan river.

Jesus (Max von Sydow) appears and is baptized by John, before heading to the hills and meeting the Dark Hermit (Donald Pleasence), a personification of Satan. Jesus then returns to civilization and starts preaching his teachings of love, tolerance and humility, gaining followers including James, Matthew, and Judas (David McCallum). King Herod Antipas (Jose Ferrer) starts to hear of Jesus, his followers and his healing miracles, as does the prefect of Judaea Pontius Pilate (Telly Savalas). With Jesus' followers multiplying and his reputation spreading, King Herod and Pontius Pilate conspire to arrest him.

A grand, costly film produced and directed by George Stevens, The Greatest Story Ever Told arrived late in the cycle of Hollywood's historical epics, and helped bring to an end the popularity of the genre. For all its good intentions, the film is stiff, overly reverential, and awkwardly staged. At close to three and a half hours (there are also longer and shorter versions), it is also protracted and tiresome, with a snoozy Alfred Newman music score.

Adding to the sense of stagey aloofness, the film was shot with the single camera Cinerama process. The already slow pacing suffers from the resultant stiff character placement and interactions, with very few close-ups and characters seemingly never facing each other even when exchanging dialogue. Many scenes feature static postcard-style arrangements, and most of the film suffers from Every Word Bring Spoken Is Important And Shall Be Recorded In A Future Film syndrome.

The film runs through most of the highlights of Jesus' life, although surprisingly his walk on water and feeding the multitudes occur off-camera. The raising of Lazarus is a highlight, but Stevens focuses on reactions rather than the event itself.

Continuing the trend previously seen in The Longest Day and How The West Was Won, Stevens employed pretty much every star name in Hollywood. A familiar face appears in almost every role, including Van Heflin, Dorothy McGuire, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Michael Ansara, Carroll Baker, Angela Lansbury, Robert Loggia, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo and Sidney Poitier. Most of the stars get one scene, and some have literally a few seconds of screen time. And it only takes about two seconds for John Wayne's cowboy drawl to ruin the film's emotional highlight.

Faring better are Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston in the two most prominent roles. von Sydow was cast because he was a relative unknown, and brings a quiet dignity to the proceedings, doing his best in difficult circumstances. Heston knows a cheesy epic when he sees one, and tears into the role of John The Baptist with venom.

The Greatest Story Ever Told is useful as a straightforward history lesson on a familiar topic, but is much less engaging as a movie.






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Movie Review: Megan Leavey (2017)


A dog-meets-girl drama, Megan Leavey is a deeply personal story stretched well beyond its limits.

Megan (Kate Mara) is a young woman from rural New York, depressed after the death of her best friend. She enlists in the Marines, and during training stumbles onto the K9 dog unit under the command of Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common). She forms a bond with military combat dog Rex, a strong-willed German shepherd.

After training Megan and Rex are deployed to Iraq, where Rex's bomb-sniffing capabilities save lives. Megan also meets and develops a relationship with fellow dog handler Matt Morales (Ramón Rodríguez). Both Megan and Rex are injured in the line of duty, and after returning to civilian life Megan sets out on a mission to rescue her dog.

Based on a true story and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Megan Leavey is an earnest enough tale of friendship between two outcasts. It is also a deeply personal and fairly small drama, more appropriate as a television movie-of-the-week than on the big screen. Despite the best efforts of Cowperthwaite, a game Kate Mara, one clever dog and a team of three writers, there simply isn't enough content to capture and maintain attention.

The middle third of the film is by far the most powerful. Megan and Rex are deployed to Iraq, where Megan starts out alone but slowly wins the respect of her fellow Marines. The in-field scenes are excellent and capture high levels of tension as Megan guides Rex towards sniffing out improvised explosive devices in a hostile environment.

Unfortunately, the film starts slowly and the opening act at the Marine training camp is routine in the extreme. And the final third, with Megan back in the civilian world and desperate to reunite with Rex, is endlessly mopey. There is only so much resonant emotion that can be squeezed out of one woman's quest to find her dog, and Megan Leavey chews the idea to shreds.






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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Movie Review: Romy And Michele's High School Reunion (1997)


An unfunny comedy, Romy And Michele's High School Reunion celebrates dumbness with predictably vacuous results.

Originally from Tucson, dumb blondes Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) are best friends now living as roommates in Los Angeles. Ten years out of high school, Romy is a lowly receptionist at an auto dealership, Michel is unemployed, and neither have a boyfriend. Romy bumps into former classmate Heather (Janeane Garofalo) and learns that the 10 year class reunion is coming up.

Romy and Michele take a trip down memory lane and recall that they were outcasts at high school, not belonging to any group, shunned by the pretty girl clique commanded by Christie Masters (Julia Campbell), and ignored by the hunky Billy Christensen (Vincent Ventresca). However the nerdy Sandy Frink (Alan Cumming) did have a crush on Michele. Romy and Michele decide to attend the reunion despite what they now perceive as a post-school sad life, and invent an unlikely story of career success to cover-up their shortcomings, resulting in unexpected consequences.

Slumming near the bottom of the comedy barrel, director David Mirkin and writer Robin Schiff choose the easiest possible stereotypical targets in the clueless blondes with mush for brains. Romy and Michele are all blank stares and stilted monosyllabic dialogue. Credit to Sorvino and Kudrow for bringing these two women to life, but for what purpose?

The jokes are bland, the situations contrived, the argument between the lifelong friends artificial. The set-up seems to take forever and includes a detour to a fantasy scene designed to artificially prolong the running time to cinematic length. When the real big reunion finally arrives a solid hour into the 90 minute film, there is no payoff. The laughs are forced, the humour barely above schoolyard level and exactly one character appears to have matured in 10 years, a pretty depressing collective achievement. The "be yourself" message is comprehensively dead on arrival.

In the absence of a single person worth catching up with, Romy And Michele's High School Reunion is a dull yawner.






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