Friday, 15 February 2019

Movie Review: Parts Per Billion (2014)


An end-of-the-world drama and romance, Parts Per Billion features three loosely connected storylines but adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

A war in the Middle East results in biological weapons being launched. Winds spread the lethal airborne germs, triggering massive death on a global scale. In Michigan, three couples await the arrival of the end, with flashbacks filling in their backstories.

Anna (Teresa Palmer) is intently following the news and the looming disaster increases the intensity of her jealous attachment to fiancé and musician Erik (Penn Badgley). He is calmer and less interested in world events. Lawyer Mia (Rosario Dawson) has a successful career, while her husband Len (Josh Hartnett) is underemployed but supportive. Their relationship is under stress because she did not discourage the advances of an office colleague. They take refuge in their sealed basement as the germs arrive.

The elderly Andy and Esther (Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands) are at the hospital for medical tests when the airborne contamination strikes. Oxygen masks help them survive. He is struggling with feelings of guilt, as he was paid large sums of money to help develop the biological weapons now destroying humanity. The three couples share some associations: Erik is the grandson of Andy and Esther, Mia successfully defended and acquitted Andy in a legal case, and Len's sister Sarah (Alexis Bledel) is a nurse looking after Esther at the hospital.

Sharing some of the same contaminant properties as 2011's Contagion, Parts Per Billion focuses more on people and less on events. Writer and director Brian Horiuchi is interested in the lives and loves of relatively ordinary people, and leaves the broader response to the crisis, if any, off screen. The six central characters are relatable, but far from profoundly interesting. They are also passive victims and observers rather than protagonists.

From the vantage point of the three couples, people are dying en masse, television reports reveal powerless elected officials fleeing, and opportunities for salvation or rescue are not even mentioned. A sealed basement and stocks of supplies offer hope for Mia and Len, but only if they can tolerate each other in confined surroundings. Oxygen masks extend life for Andy and Esther as long as they can find more canisters at the hospital. Anna and Erik just embrace the end with understandable anxiety but overall ambivalent acceptance.

With the title referring to the measure of contamination but also the miniscule relevance of every individual in a global context, it may be fully Horiuchi's intent to highlight the banal nature of life and predictable appreciation of love as the end comes into focus. But the movie suffers mightily from the absence of momentum. Other than small revelations about the couples, not much of anything actually happens over 98 minutes spread thin across three sub-stories. The repetitive shallow expressions of love, anger, frustration and regret struggle to leave an impression.

Parts Per Billion rides in on an evil wind, but exits in a whimper.






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Thursday, 14 February 2019

Movie Review: The Three Faces Of Eve (1957)


A drama about multiple personality disorder, The Three Faces of Eve is a straightforward but nevertheless gripping story of mental trauma.

In suburban Georgia, housewife Eve White (Joanne Woodward) is the meek, submissive, and relatively unhappy wife of Ralph (David Wayne) and mother to young Bonnie. Eve experiences headache and blackout episodes, during which her behaviour changes. Psychiatrist Doctor Curtis Luther (Lee J. Cobb) with help from his associate Doctor Francis Day (Edwin Jerome) start treating Eve, and soon meet her second personality, who calls herself Eve Black. She is confident, playful, flirtatious, cannot stand Ralph and refuses to acknowledge Bonnie as her daughter.

Eve is hospitalized, her relationship with Ralph suffers, and Luther attempts to help them both understand her multiple personality disorder. But Ralph struggles to cope with his wife's condition, and Eve's situation takes another twist when a third personality, Jane, suddenly emerges.

Based on a true story and somberly narrated by Alastair Cooke, The Three Faces Of Eve is methodical storytelling enriched by a tremendous Joanne Woodward performance. Written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, the film is almost deferential towards both the emerging practice of psychiatry and Eve as a remarkable and relatively rare patient experiencing triple personalities.

What could have been an almost documentary-like recreation of factual events is elevated by Woodward delivering an unforgettable performance, convincingly transitioning between Eve's three personalities in a display of stunning virtuosity. The docile Eve White and the provocative Eve Black are completely different women in the same body, and Woodward brings them both to authentic life, often transitioning in seconds.

Jane is a stable middle ground, and in many ways the easiest of the three personalities to portray. By the time she emerges Dr. Luther is on his way to devising a treatment plan consisting of encouraging one personality to dominate, and Jane provides the most logical compromise. The late unleashing of repressed childhood memories adds a suitably bold exclamation point to the drama.

Johnson gives Eve Black free reign to contribute the juiciest episodes. She thrives on sexually enticing any and every man she encounters, including, perversely, the Ralph she despises but not enough to overcome her seduction instincts. Eve Black is also a danger to Bonnie, but loves life enough to intervene when Mrs. White's depression reaches a crisis point.

In a compact 90 minutes three different faces are revealed within a single extraordinary woman, and one actress shines with an extraordinary accomplishment.






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Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Movie Review: The Two Faces Of January (2014)


An on-the-run thriller, The Two Faces Of January aims for a mysterious and steamy premise but stumbles on a lack of smarts and sophistication.

Athens, 1962. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide and small time hustler. He is estranged from his family and recently skipped his father's funeral. Rydal spots American couple Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) enjoying their vacation, and is captivated by Colette's beauty. He befriends the pair, and learns that Chester is a wealthy investment banker.

A private detective catches up with Chester and attempts to shake him down to recover money Chester lost on behalf of dubious investors. Rydal stumbles upon the violent struggle between detective and banker, and helps Chester and Colette escape to Crete and also arranges for fake passports to allow them to flee the country. As the authorities start to catch up, tensions increase between the hard drinking Chester and the resourceful Rydal, with Colette caught between the two.

Author Patricia Highsmith is best known for writing Strangers On A Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Two Faces Of January was published in 1964, and is here brought to the screen by Hossein Amini, who also penned the screenplay. The title refers to the two faces of the Roman god Janus, an appropriately obscure reference to the unsatisfying plot. While the first half of the film holds plenty of promise, unfortunately the back end fades away into an uninspiring battle of wits.

The introduction of the sun-drenched Grecian settings and the intriguing characters create rich possibilities for story development. Rydal's shifty street smarts, Chester's shady background, the festering psychological wounds of Rydal's anger at his deceased dad, and the classic romantic triangle build up a sturdy narrative foundation.

But is all goes to nought. Chester starts to drink heavily, stupid decisions layer on top of each other, the trio push deeper into the Crete countryscape, and the film starts to resemble a wilderness adventure. A midnight sojourn into cavernous Greek ruins provides a backdrop for more bad judgment on all sides, necessitated by the plot but far from convincing. The final 45 minutes are consumed by a tired and rather inane game of cat and mouse that miserably fails to build up any tension.

A late and desperate lunge to bolster the surrogate father theme is unconvincing, Amini having failed to nurture the human connections necessary to earn the payoff.

The cast deserved better. Although Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac never stretch, they appear committed to the material and offer enough intensity to hint at what could have been a better movie. As it is, neither of January's faces offers the requisite allure.






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Monday, 11 February 2019

Movie Review: The Upside (2017)


An amiable buddy comedy with a few dramatic moments, The Upside explores an unlikely friendship between a depressed tycoon and a scrappy ex-convict.

In New York City, wealthy businessman and successful author Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is now a dour quadriplegic, looking to hire a new full-time live-in caregiver while still grieving the loss of his wife. Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) is on parole, unable to make support payments to his ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and desperate to collect signatures to prove to his parole officer that he is looking for work. Phil is intrigued by Dell's genuineness and hires him, shocking his prim business manager Yvonne Pendleton (Nicole Kidman).

Dell uses his street smarts to adapt to his new job, although Yvonne remains cold and tracks his every misstep to justify a termination. Dell and Phil begin to establish a friendship, with Phil encouraging Dell to think of new business opportunities and Dell helping his new boss enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. But when Dell pushes Phil to advance a burgeoning romance past the letter writing stage, the outcome is unexpected.

A Hollywood remake of the 2011 French hit The Intouchables, The Upside languished in limbo for about 18 months after the Weinstein Company's demise. Directed by Neil Burger with a script by Jon Hartmere, the film is a middle-of-the-road, feel-good story inspired by real events. Containing neither sharp edges nor blatant missteps, this is decent entertainment delivered in a polished package with good performances.

Phil and Dell come from different worlds and have plenty to learn from each other. They both dare to try something completely different, providing the story with robust impetus. Through the respect and warmth that evolves between the two men The Upside tackles themes of responsibility, accountability, grief and second chances. The film is strengthened by Dell's robust back story, where his strained relationship with Latrice is creating a deep chasm with his young son, and his criminal past still casts a long shadow on the present.

For all the good intentions on display, Hartmere and Burger cannot escape plenty of contrived set-ups to generate the requisite choppy moments. In his first visit to Phil's lavish apartment Dell acts on old instincts and helps himself to an item that becomes the MacGuffin for plenty of conflicts. And the meltdowns that both men have at crucial moments are more dictated by script requirements than any credible circumstances.

Most of the film's energy and laughs arrive courtesy of Kevin Hart, who easily fulfills comedy duties but also stretches towards admirable moments of drama, anger, frustration and poignancy. Confined to only moving from the neck upwards, Bryan Cranston conveys the resentment of a man angry at still being alive, initially most preoccupied with ensuring those around him understand his do-not-resuscitate instructions. Nicole Kidman is note-perfect as the tense and calculating Yvonne, a woman with an icy exterior bottling up all sorts of emotions.

The Upside delivers its simple message of hope for a better future no matter what how dire present circumstances are. It's largely conventional, but also innocuous.






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Saturday, 9 February 2019

Movie Review: Anastasia (1956)


A historical drama, Anastasia is the lavish but stodgy story of the mysterious woman who may have been Russian royalty.

After the Russian Bolshevik revolution, rumours persist that Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survived the 1918 killing of the imperial Romanov family. In Paris of 1928, Russian General Bounine (Yul Brynner) is under pressure by the exiled Russian community to produce the survivor after years of making promises. A $10 million inheritance account is at stake.

Bounine pursues a disoriented ex-mental patient (Ingrid Bergman) with a resemblance to Anastasia and prevents her from jumping into the Seine. Within eight days he polishes up her image, feeds her basic historical information and introduces her as the long-promised royal heir. She is met with a mixture of reverence, skepticism and opportunism, and displays sparks of knowledge adding intrigue to the possibility that she may, indeed, be who Bounine claims her to be.

Much to the General's disgust, she is also romantically pursued by Prince Paul (Ivan Desny), who may be more interested in her inheritance. But the big test resides in securing a meeting with the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Helen Hayes), Anastasia's Copenhagen-based grandmother.

Inspired by real events, Anastasia is an adaptation of the play by Marcelle Maurette. The story of young woman who may have survived a firing squad and re-emerged to revive hopes of a Russian imperial future carries all the necessary ingredients for a captivating film. But director Anatole Litvak is only partially successful. While a trace of wistfulness emerges from Anastasia's transformation from bedraggled street person to glamorous but possibly fake princess, the film never emotionally connects.

For long stretches Anastasia unfolds like an over-talkative and static filmed play, and some scenes drag on forever. The camera work is often uninspired, the CinemaScope format not helpful other than for incidental throwaway ballroom scenes. Other than Anastasia, who is more a victim than protagonist, none of the characters carry even the semblance of an arc worth investing in.

On the positive side, the theme of a haughty power-deprived community willing itself to believe in a fairytale princess carries appeal, and some of the settings and costumes are a feast for the eyes. Bounine runs a raucous Russian-themed nightclub with music, exotic performers, and flaming skewers. The exiled elite Russian community maintain a palatial if displaced lifestyle full of colour and grandeur. The scenes of Bounine training his ingenue to behave like royalty are a beguiling precursor to the Professor Higgins / Eliza Doolittle My Fair Lady dynamic.

Anastasia served as Ingrid Bergman's grand Hollywood comeback, and she is by far the standout performer, mixing the hesitancy of a lost and unstable soul with the emerging steely glint of a woman who may start to believe and enjoy the role being crafted for her. Brynner is mostly confined to monotonal rat-a-tat delivery complemented by beady-eyed determination to fool everyone all the time. Helen Hayes as the elderly Empress is content to maintain a fully theatrical mode. Akim Tamiroff is the most prominent member of the noisy Russian community surrounding Bounine's salesmanship.

A briefly captivating footnote of history, Anastasia is more curious than compelling.






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Thursday, 7 February 2019

Movie Review: The Rewrite (2014)


A romantic comedy with slightly more-than-typical substance, The Rewrite is an amiable-enough self-discovery story.

Los Angeles-based screenwriter Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant) has one big hit in his past, a movie called Paradise Misplaced. After a series of flops his agent Ellen (Caroline Aaron) suggests a change in scenery, and arranges a writer-in-residence teaching position at Binghampton University, New York. Keith accepts, intending to do as little work as possible since he believes writing is inspiration and cannot be taught.

Upon arriving on campus the womanizing Keith immediately starts a relationship with student Karen (Bella Heathcote), and selects only attractive women and unattractive men to populate his class. Single mom Holly (Marisa Tomei), who believes in second chances and that everyone can be taught to be better, forces her way into his class. Keith clashes with uptight professor Mary (Allison Janney), a Jane Austen specialist. As the semester progresses Keith starts to draw inspiration from his students, and awakens to a few realities about himself while a romance with Holly appears possible.

Taking the man's perspective, The Rewrite focuses less on traditional romantic comedy clichés and invests more in the central character's journey. Director and writer Marc Lawrence (a Binghampton graduate) is a frequent Hugh Grant collaborator, and knows how to get the best out of his star. Keith Michaels is the prototypical Grant persona, the lovable cad everready with a quip, quintessentially English, a hopeless skirt-chaser, and riding self-depreciation all the way to the bottom.

Lawrence creates fertile ground for the long journey of redemption. Binghampton represents Keith's last chance saloon, and the people he meets in his new surroundings provide the opportunity for him to either dig his hole deeper or climb out of it. His start is inauspicious, bedding Karen, insulting Mary, ignoring Holly and dismissing the value of teaching and learning.

The bulk of the movie is then about Keith working his way out of the doldrums and towards some sort of awakening to rediscover his purpose, and while it's all harmless and predictable, by rom-com standards The Rewrite provides respectable lightweight entertainment.

The Binghampton locations provide an attractive cerebral and calming aesthetic, while the the story demonstrates a genuine affection for teaching as a mutually fulfilling calling for teacher and students alike. In addition to Tomei and Janney, the strong supporting cast also includes J.K. Simmons as the school dean and Chris Elliott as a fellow professor and Shakespeare expert.

The Rewrite does not rewrite the history of romantic comedies, but does deliver a decent chapter.






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Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)


A confinement thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane builds up a fair amount of tension in a story of uncertain threats levels inside and outside a survival bunker.

In New Orleans, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) breaks up with her boyfriend and drives off. During the night and on an isolated rural stretch of highway, she crashes. When she wakes up, Michelle finds herself imprisoned in the well-equipped underground bunker of survivalist Howard (John Goodman). He claims to have rescued her from the crash scene, saving her life in the process as he insists humanity has effectively been annihilated due to an alien invasion and the air outside is irradiated.

The only other bunker occupant is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build the place. After overcoming initial tensions the trio settle down to a semblance of domesticity, passing the time playing board games and watching movies. But Howard is at least marginally unhinged and keeps bringing up his missing daughter. Michelle and Emmett have to decide whether staying inside the bunker is better than taking their chances on the outside.

A distant spiritual successor to Cloverfield and again produced by J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a more traditional thriller with some mild science fiction and horror moments. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, the film generates a steady current of suspense, with a stream of revelations maintaining an edge to Michelle's predicament. Every time Michelle resolves one problem another lies in wait, forcing her to adapt and re-adjust to changing realities.

The narrative draws most of its thrust from the two opposing forces of uncertainty. Life in the bunker with Howard carries an unnerving amount of danger, his behaviour erratic, sometimes threatening and his daughter references disconcerting. Whatever evil lives outside the bunker offers the prospect of a terrible outcome. One danger is known but maybe not an immediate source of harm, the other is unknown and potentially quickly lethal. 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the dilemma in the balance, Michelle forced to continuously assess the stay or flee tradeoffs.

Unfortunately the ending is weak and tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film, Trachtenberg seemingly cutting to a whole different movie and abandoning all the carefully assembled psychological tautness.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is admirable in the central role, providing Michelle with a credible range of emotions from panic at her captivity to a stoic determination to take control of her fate.

10 Cloverfield Lane offers shelter to an engaging heroine, but with some unwelcome creature features.






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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Movie Review: Destroyer (2018)


A crime and revenge investigative thriller, Destroyer offers a satisfyingly rich narrative and a complicated protagonist brought to life by an immense Nicole Kidman performance.

Veteran Los Angeles police detective Erin Bell (Kidman) attends the murder scene of an unknown victim. Erin is shunned by most of her colleagues, who consider her a hard-drinking has-been. After receiving a dye pack stained $100 bill in the mail, she deduces notorious gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell), who specializes in violent bank robberies, is back in action. Many years prior, Erin and Chris (Sebastian Stan), another LAPD detective, infiltrated Silas' gang in an operation that ended badly.

To track down Silas, Erin works through his associates, including former gang members Toby  (James Jordan) and Arturo (Zach Villa), as well as lawyer DiFranco (Bradley Whitford) and Silas' girlfriend and partner-in-crime Petra (Tatiana Maslany). Erin is simultaneously struggling to control the behaviour of her 16 year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), while in flashback, Erin and Chris' dangerous covert mission within Silas' den is revealed.

The story of a tough woman at the end of her rope, Destroyer boasts a multi-layered narrative riding the immense but contorted energy of a compelling central character. Nicole Kidman is exceptional both as the present day broken Erin tracking her nemesis, and the young, wide-eyed rookie sucked into a life of crime within Silas' orbit.

The film is engrossing thanks to Kidman's damaged rage, but it is much more than just a performance showcase. As directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer weaves a complex story of greed, romance, loss and retribution around Erin, with plenty of secrets and actions from both her past and present waiting to be disclosed. Everything that could have been predictable is shattered with confounding revelations.

The mother-daughter conflict does not work as well, the scenes of bad-tempered miscommunication between Erin and Shelby emerging as the most routine aspects of the film. Kusama also dangles a wilderness trek rich with possibilities but leaves it unresolved, while the character of Silas could have been provided with more texture.

But the film's weaker moments are outshone by the sharply executed human-centred action scenes, Kusama and Kidman always pausing at the right moments to convey Erin debating her options and gathering up her courage before jumping into action. Gradually the detective evolves into an unforgettable flawed warrior, not so much chasing a criminal as the demons haunting her soul.






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Movie Review: Cloverfield (2008)


A "found footage" monster movie, Cloverfield cleverly captures the perspective of defenceless civilians as a monster rampages through Manhattan.

The film is presented as an amateur video recorded by a group of New York City friends. Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing a farewell party for Jason's brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is relocating to Japan. Their talkative buddy Hud (T.J. Miller) is in charge of filming testimonials, and captures Rob arguing with his life-long friend Beth (Odette Yustman), who storms out. Meanwhile, Hud pursues the attention of Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

Thunderous explosions soon rock the area as a massive beast emerges from the ocean and starts to inflict massive death and destruction. The partygoers scatter and the army moves in, but the monster proves impervious to military weaponry. A phone call reveals Beth is in danger, so instead of evacuating, Rob, Jason, Lily, Hud and Marlena infiltrate the danger zone to try and reach Beth's apartment building.

With most monster movies focusing on the larger fight to defeat the creature, Cloverfield adopts the style of  and spends time with the little people who are usually the inconsequential rampage victims. Here it is the army, and to a certain extent the monster itself, that are in the background, while the film joins a small band of civilians trying to skirt the carnage. Helpless, weaponless and driven solely by courage, the survivors have to navigate a war zone using just their wits.

With the what and the why of the monster's invasion inconsequential, director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard (backed by producer J.J. Abrams) have to create a narrative foundation, and so the rather superficial story of Rob wanting to reach and rescue Beth is pushed into service. It's rather flimsy in terms of character interest, but sufficient to steer 85 minutes of action towards ground zero of destruction.

The film's real spectacle, for better or for worse, is the hand-held camera work. Deploying the technique popularized by The Blair Witch ProjectCloverfield absolutely delivers the gritty, amateur, and right-there cinéma vérité feel; it is also borderline nauseating. Reeves makes good use of the camera's constrained field of vision to deliver startling glimpses of the monster and its scampering kin (reminiscent of creatures from the Half-Life computer game), as well as a few effective shocks, notably when the group of survivors try to make progress in the spooky subway tunnels.

With pinches of humour, an amiable cast, and strategic dollops of gore, Cloverfield provides the requisite thrills, finally giving voice to the often trampled victims of massive ugly demons from the deep.






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Sunday, 3 February 2019

Movie Review: The World's End (2013)


A wayward invaders-amongst-us comedy, The World's End offers some fun but is hampered by a painful lack of ideas and weak execution.

In England, Gary King (Simon Pegg) is solidly in middle age and has wasted his life away. He still reminisces about the college night in Newton Haven when his group of friends attempted an epic pub crawl but only made it through nine of the twelve pubs before quitting. Gary reconnects with Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to convince them to try again and this time make it to all twelve establishments, ending at the appropriately named The World's End.

Other than Gary all the men have settled down into various careers and none are thrilled to see him, especially teetotaller Andy, but they humour their old friend mostly out of pity. They start the crawl again and bump into Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), who had a quickie in the bathroom with Gary on that fateful college night. But more worrisome is the gentrified new look of the pubs, and the weird behaviour of the locals, soon exposed as robots with dark blue blood.

Combining routine middle aged male angst and overly-familiar something-strange-is-going-on-around-here into a comedy bowl, director and co-writer (with Pegg) Edgar Wright tries to wring a good time out of a tired premise. The success is patchy at best, as The World's End desperately searches for meaningful content, overreaching wildly in its climax towards explaining the entire human condition through an argument with a set of lights.

Despite plenty of fun to be had in the combat scenes between the easily fragmentable, blue ink spewing robots and the guys, Wright and Pegg falter in building their film on a shallow character base. Gary is a prototypical fast-talking (and mostly lying) drunk loser stuck in the glories of high school, and is not provided with any redeeming character arc. His four friends are generally blank slates, and The World's End trawls within a level of interchangeable disinterest.

Rosamund Pike as Sam suffers most of all, and it's not certain anyone knew why she was in the movie. Pierce Brosnan offers a glorified cameo as the college professor who makes an appearance during the second attempt at pub crawl completionism.

As for themes Wright and Pegg may be loosely aiming for, choose from the bland freedom-is-all-that-matters to friendship-is-forever hokum, with a pit stop at it's-better-to-be-a-down-and-out-bum-than-a-generic-robot revelation. It's all drowned in repetitive drinking and fighting scenes until the utterly unconvincing finale. The guys are trying to make it to the final pub, but neither the journey nor the destination are worthwhile.






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