Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Movie Review: Contraband (2012)

An complicated crime thriller, Contraband is murky, muddled and mindless.

In New Orleans, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a retired smuggler, now happily married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and the father of two kids. Kate's younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is caught up in a customs raid and has to ditch a cargo of drugs overboard, infuriating gangster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who paid $700,000 for the shipment. Chris and his friend Danny (Lukas Haas) go back into business for one final run to make enough money to pay off Briggs, leaving Kate and the kids in the care of Chris' good friend and former partner-in-crime Sebastian (Ben Foster).

Chris, Danny and Andy board the cargo ship of Captain Redmond Camp (J.K. Simmons) and arrange to pick up high quality counterfeit bills during a stop in Panama City. Once there, they tangle with the heavily armed gang of local criminal Gonzalo (Diego Luna), who is planning his own heist of expensive artwork. Nothing goes according to plan, as Captain Camp becomes suspicious and Briggs sets his sights on terrorizing Kate.

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur and an adaptation of an Icelandic film, Contraband is overstuffed with secondary characters, jumps around to numerous side-quests, and stretches credibility well past the snapping point. The tried and tested "one more job" cliche is fine if deployed correctly, but here the job becomes a convoluted make-it-up-on-the-fly mess of shifting objectives and multiple double-crosses among a bunch of crooks, none of them likeable enough to matter.

The action scenes are shoehorned into the film for the sake of injecting gratuitous energy boosts. A bloody hold-up of an armoured truck in Panama City leaves multiple fatalities strewn across the road but seemingly no ill-effects or consequences for Chris and his buddies. Earlier, Captain Camp's massive cargo ship slams into the docks, with several containers toppling to shore, all as part of an engine sabotage plot to gain Chris some on-shore time. The investigation of the crash starts and ends with one customs official waving her arms about.

Meanwhile the film's entire premise is undermined and suspect: Chris appears easily capable of physically and emotionally intimidating bad guy Briggs whenever he chooses to, calling into question the entire reason why Chris re-enters the life of crime to save Andy's hide.

Despite some shadings of style and no shortage of talent in the cast, Contraband is overplotted and underwhelming.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Movie Review: Maggie's Plan (2015)

A semi-serious romantic comedy, Maggie's Plan brings the subgenre down to earth with wry humour, a sprinkling of originality and flawed characters all around.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) works as a liaison between students and business at an arts college. Unable to find a long-term relationship, she decides to have a baby using the donated sperm of pickle merchant Guy (Travis Fimmel). But she then meets and falls in love with anthropology professor John (Ethan Hawke), who is married to haughty Columbia University Professor Georgette (Julianne Moore) and the father of two young children. John is writing his first fiction book and finds Maggie an inspiration.

John divorces Georgette, marries Maggie and they have a child of their own. But it does not take long for the magic to disappear from their marriage, and John's book project comprehensively stalls. Georgette is jilted, but remains in close touch with John, leading Maggie to hatch a new plan in her quest for happiness.

Directed and written by Rebecca Miller, Maggie's Plan breathes organic life into the eternally tired rom-com formula. This is a story about three adults entering the midstream of life and carrying plenty of baggage, ranging from unmet expectations to ticking biological clocks, and more than capable of making a brand new set of mistakes. In celebrating the quirky foibles of her characters, Miller sidesteps most of the cliches that beset idyllic romances desperate to generate laughs.

Maggie always has a plan and always over-plans, a trait she recognizes but is unable to control. The plot is a succession of Maggie plans, from artificial insemination to marrying John and finally finding a way out of the misery of a marriage she thought she wanted. Greta Gerwig is delightful as the self-aware Maggie, always ditzy enough to make a right-sized mess out of every situation.

Georgette, to Maggie: I don't know what to say. You're a funny person. There is something so pure about you. You know, and a little bit stupid. And it's a kind of innocence. You know, just so unconscious. I can't help it. I like you.

Georgette is controlling, arrogant and yet loving and passionate, and Julianne Moore luxuriates in a Scandinavian accent and a complex performance as a smart woman deservedly dumped but only slightly resentful. John is mainly oblivious to the emotions of others and needs something different from each of Maggie and Georgette, the former an intellectual superior capable of pushing him and the latter a cheerleader and muse. Ethan Hawke is sympathetic as the struggling academic trampled by two women at a more assertive stage in life.

Maggie's Plan maintains a low-key, grounded tone, the humour anchored in the consequences of intricate life altering plans that sound good in concept, but never quite unfold as intended.

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Movie Review: Color Of Night (1994)

A psychosexual suspense thriller, Color Of Night is a lurid mess.

New York psychiatrist Dr. Bill Capa (Bruce Willis) is shocked when one of his patients commits suicide. He relocates to Los Angeles to de-stress and reconnects with an old colleague, the vastly successful Dr. Bob Moore (Scott Bakula). Capa attends a group therapy session at Moore's office consisting of five disturbed patients: sex-obsessed Sondra (Lesley Ann Warren), obsessive-compulsive lawyer Clark (Brad Dourif), artist Casey (Kevin J. O'Connor), grieving widower Buck (Lance Henriksen) and the young Richie, who is suffering through a gender identity crisis.

Moore discloses that he has been receiving death threats, and one of the five patients is the likely suspect. Sure enough Moore is soon killed, and police Lieutenant Hector Martinez (Ruben Blades) asks Capa to take over the group sessions to try and identify the killer. Capa finds himself getting embroiled in the complex lives of the patients, and soon meets and starts a steamy relationship with the free spirited and mysterious Rose (Jane March).

Color Of Night is One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with the inmates not only running the asylum but also writing the script, and suddenly all is forgiven if Nurse Ratched would only come back. Boasting a plot that can only be described as batshit crazy, the film is a bewildering mix of amateur psychiatry, salacious eroticism and slasher horror.

Produced by Andrew Vajna and directed by Richard Rush, Color Of Night ventures into a mishmash of psychological and societal topics in search of maximum shock value. The downstream impacts of child abuse, the trauma of losing loved ones, gender identity, a spectacular suicide, multiple personality disorder, murder most gory, superfluous sex and nudity, a case of infidelity linking a police officer with a surviving victim of crime, a lesbian couple, bondage imagery, obsessive compulsive behaviour, an irrelevant car chase and one attempted murder-by-car-drop are all somehow wedged into the same story.

And weaving yet another thread through the jumbled ball of psychobabble is Dr. Capa suffering from trauma-induced color-blindness, an inability to see red due to the New York suicide of his patient, a condition unlikely to be resolved by the upcoming events in Los Angeles.

It all sounds like fertile ground for bad Mel Brooks-style comedy, but there is not a hint of irony or wit to be found. Instead Color Of Night is delivered as a straight-up neo-noir, complete with mumbled intermittent narration by Dr. Capa, mostly to describe the wispy Rose every time she approaches him in various variations of not-there outfits. But to Rush's credit, he does manage to hold the outlandish plot together, and as far as the film strays away from credibility, it does adhere to a perverse logic of its own creation within all the sleazy-chic sets.

Bruce Willis cruises through the film with a general attitude of cool bemusement in what turned out out to be training grounds for a much better second outing into the world of helping troubled minds. Jane March follows up one almost-always-naked film with another, and here her performance alternates between cringe-worthy and not bad, her less flighty scenes carrying admirable intensity.

Color Of Night is bad enough to be enjoyed, a sordid exercise in excess that splatters into strangely compelling wreckage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Movie Review: Disclosure (1994)

A drama about sexual harassment and dirty power politics in an office setting, Disclosure presents a compelling story in a sleek package, despite rampant over-the-top tendencies.

In Seattle, Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) is happily married to lawyer Susan (Caroline Goodall), and expected to be promoted to Vice President at a high-tech company about to yield a financial windfall through a merger. Tom receives news that the company's latest groundbreaking hardware device is experiencing significant quality control issues. He is then shocked to learn that President Bob Garvin (Donald Sutherland) has selected outsider Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore) for the VP job.

Meredith and Tom share a history as passionate lovers. Now she invites him to her office for an after-hours meeting and aggressively initiates sexual contact, which he resists. The next morning Meredith accuses Tom of sexual harassment. He starts receiving anonymous emails from "A Friend" encouraging him to fight back. Tom connects with lawyer Catherine Alvarez (Roma Maffia) and launches a harassment claim of his own. The resulting power struggle rocks the company and threatens Tom's career.

Directed by Barry Levinson and based on a Michael Crichton book, Disclosure is both tawdry and relevant. The film is not far from glossy magazine trash, where all characters believe themselves to be master manipulators and the sets are stylish over-representations of avant garde architecture masterpieces. Yet Disclosure fearlessly dives into the minefield of gender issues in the workplace, tackling the imbalance between men and women and covering all the territory from light pats on the bum to shoulder rubs and unwanted blowjobs in locked offices.

The plot spares no one, and all the characters have something to answer for. Meredith is a maneater, but all she can be accused of is behaving like men have done for ages. Tom Sanders is her principal victim, but he is less than honest with his wife and less than innocent in his treatment of his assistant. Bob Garvin is the master chess player, playing the game several moves ahead of everyone else, and with sickening oiliness. Several other office types, from veteran brown-nosers to young and insecure techies, bring Disclosure's world to life.

The plot does not even stop at the sexual battlefield. The film is also about the high profit, high risk, cut throat world of business mergers, and careers in the fast-paced technology industry. Levinson manages to cram in an exploration of the risks of offshore manufacturing in far-flung low-cost locales (Malaysia, in this case) and the emerging field of virtual reality.

Of course, all the plot elements come crashing together in a less-than-convincing finale filled with the usual assortment of losers licking wounds of various severities and winners who will carry forth into the next sordid campaign. Disclosure takes no prisoners, but dishes out plenty of guilty pleasure.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Movie Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

A teen high school drama and romance, The Spectacular Now treats its characters with respect but stumbles on some uneven tones.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is in his last year of high school, half-heartedly applying to colleges. Sutter is popular, but lives for the moment, barely studies, and has no plans for the future. He has a strained relationship with his mother Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and does not know much about his father except that he left the house years earlier. Sutter is also a heavy drinker, keeping a flask handy and gulping alcohol at every opportunity.

His long-term girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally dumps him when she catches him in the company of another girl, but Cassidy is really tired of Sutter's overall aimlessness. She starts a relationship with star athlete Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), but Sutter does not give up hope of winning her back. Meanwhile he meets the down-to-earth Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a hard working low profile student with her own dominating mother. Sutter takes Aimee on as a project to introduce her to the fun life, and gradually they prod each other towards change.

Directed by James Ponsoldt and co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now takes a relatively serious look at a teenager as he stands at the crossroads. The film sets out to draw a stark line of contrast between the carefree, live-for-today attitude and the more cerebral, worry-about-the-future stance most young people tend to find natural. Sutter very much belongs in the former camp, to the exasperation of his friends and teachers, but he sees little point in anything except enjoying the current moment.

How Sutter, a seemingly intelligent, caring and capable young man, came to be so indifferent to his own future is revealed slowly, Ponsoldt content to let the story unfold at a relaxed pace. The majority of the film is mostly occupied with Sutter being Sutter, working hard at doing nothing, tentatively exploring the strange and new attraction he senses towards Aimee while at the same time finding it difficult to let go of Cassidy.

The deliberate exposition is both a strength and weakness. While Sutter emerges as a well-rounded and deeply flawed character, the film is repetitive and entrenches his self-destructive behavioral patterns, including uncontrolled drinking, driving while impaired and an inability to motivate himself to study. When the moment of truth comes and Sutter has to evolve or wither, he has precious little time and space to convincingly maneuver.

With the entire film riffing on themes from Say Anything..., Miles Teller channels a more adrift version of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler. Shailene Woodley is impeccable as the star-struck new possible girlfriend, her quick entry into Sutter's hard drinking orbit one of the film's more disturbing themes. But The Spectacular Now reaches a gut-wrenching cinematic peak and emotional trough when Sutter finally and simultaneously catches up with his past and his future. Suddenly, aiming for the thrill of now does not appear all that spectacular.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Movie Review: Sydney White (2007)

A teen college campus comedy, Sydney White modernizes Snow White and lands enough good moments to satisfy its modest ambitions.

Sydney White (Amanda Bynes) is the down-to-earth daughter of a good-hearted plumber (John Schneider), brought up on various construction sites, and now heading off for her first year at college. Sydney's mother passed away when she was young, and her great ambition is to join the prestigious Kappa sorority that her mom belonged to.

At college Sydney meets roommate Dinky (Crystal Hunt), a fellow Kappa wannabe, and catches the eye of hunky Tyler Prince (Matt Long). But she quickly learns that current Kappa President Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton) is the reigning queen of the school. Rachel is vain, imperious and Tyler's jealous ex-girlfriend. She immediately perceives Sydney as a threat, and sets about blocking her sorority ambitions. Sydney falls in with a group of seven dorky campus outcasts, and starts to plot a different path to happiness.

Directed by Joe Nussbaum, Sydney White benefits from an appealing Amanda Bynes performance and a lighthearted touch. Bynes is all goofy mannerisms bolted to a grounded personality created with hammers and nails under her father's tutelage, and her stark contrast with the stuck-up Barbie dolls occupying the Kappa sorority gives the film plenty of impetus.

Meanwhile Nussbaum and screenwriter Chad Gomez Creasey ensure the story never takes itself too seriously, with enough clever Snow White references (including modern versions of the beauty ranking system and the poisoned Apple) to salute the fantasy without trampling all over it.

Sydney White is guilty of buying some laughs at the expense of stereotypes, but generally skates by on good will. The seven dwarves are socially awkward campus misfits who have retreated to a condemned house where they mainly keep to themselves. Gamers, nerds, an immigrant from Africa and a couple of students with psychological ailments are the target of laughs but also help propel a message of inclusion and the benefits of embracing inner dorkiness.

The romance elements remain at the preliminary swoon level, culminating in a just-in-time wake-up kiss. Even in college, a Prince's smoochy intervention is a welcome boost for a young woman's good fight against the resident witch.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Movie Review: The Miracle Season (2018)

A sports drama based on a true story, The Miracle Season is overloaded with honest intentions and weighed down with almost unbearable predictability.

In Iowa City, the West High School girls' volleyball team are the defending state champions, coached by the dour but respected Kathy "Bres" Bresnahan (Helen Hunt). The energetic, vivacious  and well-loved Caroline "Line" Found (Danika Yarosh) is their spark plug, setter and captain. Kelley Fliehler (Erin Moriarty) is Line's best friend and an average member of the team.

Line remains upbeat despite a season-opening loss to their rivals from City High, but tragedy strikes and Line is killed in a moped accident. Line's father Dr. Ernie Found (William Hurt) suffers a double blow when his wife Ellyn also dies after a long illness. The school community is devastated and the volleyball team members cannot even bring themselves to practice. Bres has to find a way to rally the team, and Kelley will need to find inner strength to step out from the shadow of her departed friend.

There is no doubt that the story of a team's triumph emerging from the tragedy of their star's death is inspirational. And The Miracle Season does many things right, with director Sean McNamara conjuring up plenty of poignant and tear-inducing moments. The opening 20 minutes in particular effectively establish Caroline's infectious personality, a petite girl bursting with an irresistible love for life and capable of filling the entire school building and then some with her confident and playful attitude.

And the film's positive, wholesome and healthy message for girls, almost all of whom behave impeccably towards each other throughout, is to be lauded.

All of which makes most of the rest of the film an unfortunate disappointment. With the outcome confirmed in the title, once Line leaves the movie the predictable decline and rebirth of the volleyball team's fortunes unfolds with utmost predictability. To overcome the strictly linear narrative The Miracle Season sorely needed more character depth to latch onto, but it is Line's spirit that remains the one dominant presence. Coach Bres, new captain Kelley and Line' father Dr. Ernie are never more than sketched in as people, while Kelley's teammates are particularly shortchanged, remaining largely interchangeable and never emerging from the background.

The on-court volleyball action is decent but also repetitive, occupying screen time that may have been better invested in characters. The Miracle Season carries worthwhile messages of self-belief, perseverance in the face of devastating doubt, and a community coming together to rise above, but as a cinematic experience, it lacks the smash.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Movie Review: Moon (2009)

A science fiction film, Moon sets up an intriguing premise based on isolation, but follows up with silly conspiracy elements that flounder in space.

In the future, Lunar Industries is a major company harvesting solar energy stored in rocks on the dark side of the moon and launching the resulting power-packed canisters back to Earth. The mining operation is mostly automated, and Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the only technician on-site, contracted to spend three years at the moon command centre to oversee operations. Sam's only company is the robot GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey), who controls the facility.

With his three years almost up, Sam is forlorn and starting to suffer from delusions. He is also frustrated that the main communications channel with Earth is inoperable, and the company does not seem to be in a hurry to fix it. The video transmittals back and forth with his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) are recorded and days late, adding to his sense of loneliness. When Sam ventures out to the mining fields to inspect a harvesting machine he suffers a crash, triggering a shocking discovery about Lunar Industries' work practices.

Moon's one significant twist arrives relatively early, and revealing it would defang the little bit of interest offered by the film. Sufficient to say that the Nathan Parker script, from a story by Duncan Jones, hinges on generating outrage around the use of technology that appears to be much closer to fruition and perfection than mining the sun's energy from the dark side of the moon and zipping it back to Earth.

As Sam Bell gets to grip with what the film, breathlessly, insists is a sinister conspiracy, director Duncan Jones loses his grip and the experience becomes a tiresome exercise in misdirected indignation. The pace is slow, the running time tedious even at just 97 minutes, and Jones struggles to find new content for much of the second half before resorting to a hackneyed climax.

What remains is a well-intentioned, limited budget independent science fiction film, filled with stark imagery both inside the control centre and on the moon's surface as the gigantic machinery silently goes about its business.

From a performance perspective the film is essentially a one-man show, and Sam Rockwell fills the screen with the alienation of a man left alone for too long, with only an infuriatingly compliant robot for company. Sam is at emotional capacity dealing with a busted communications system, unresolved tension with his wife back on Earth, and separation from his young daughter. Things do get both more interesting and more dangerous for him after the extraordinary post-crash revelation, but despite the excellent central performance Moon chooses the wrong orbit to follow, and gets lost in a narrative vacuum.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Movie Review: Hanna (2011)

A chase thriller, Hanna has a mildly intriguing premise but is an otherwise lacklustre exercise in routine run-and-chase action.

Teenager Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is being brought up in the Arctic wilderness away from any social contact by her father Erik (Eric Bana). He trains her to be a ruthless warrior and an expert in survival and multiple languages. When Hanna finally grows restless, Erik allows her to activate a beacon revealing their location to the CIA. Agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) immediately picks up the signal and sets in motion a plan to capture both Erik and Hanna.

Marissa and Erik shared a history within a secretive human DNA-altering CIA program before he broke away to care for Hanna. Now he is plotting revenge, and eludes his captors as he makes his way across Europe to a rendezvous point. Hanna allows herself to fall into Marissa's clutches, before embarking on a wild run from Morocco to Europe that sucks in an American tourist family. Meanwhile, Marissa turns to the unauthorized assassination team of Isaacs (Tom Hollander) to try and clean up the mess.

Directed by Joe Wright, Hanna deserves some recognition for attempting to introduce a new spin to the thriller genre. The opening 30 minutes, featuring Erik and Hanna living an off-the-grid arctic existence with the sole purpose of perfecting Hanna's endurance, survival, navigation and hunting skills, are a provocative proposition. Wright builds curiosity around the father-daughter pair, and a sturdy foundation is laid for the story to come.

Unfortunately, the rest of Hanna fails to live up to expectations. Once Hanna and Erik re-enter the civilized world, the film descends rapidly into most routine territory. The final hour is a succession of chase, fight and shoot scenes connected by the most rudimentary and underdeveloped plot points. Character development is forgotten in favour of the next set piece. While these are undeniably well-staged, Wright leaves his actors with precious little to work with, Saoirse Ronan stuck with a single expression of mild annoyance and Cate Blanchett channeling Cruella Deville. Eric Bana all but disappears from the film.

The one distraction from the mundane surroundings is offered by Hanna finding refuge with a clueless tourist family motoring through North Africa and Europe in an old-fashioned motorhome. Dad Sebastian (Jason Flemyng), mom Rachel (Olivia Williams), daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) and son Miles have no idea who Hanna is but she tags along, sometimes invited but mostly not. Some depth potential is offered in the burgeoning bond between Hanna and Sophie, but like almost everything in the film, that promise is trampled in the rush to the next implausible fracas with the bad guys.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Movie Review: A Perfect World (1993)

An escaped prisoner chase drama, A Perfect World is an engrossing study of an unlikely surrogate father-son relationship blossoming under the most unlikely circumstances.

The setting is rural Texas on Halloween, 1962. Convicted killers Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) break out of prison, seize eight year old boy Philip Perry (T.J. Lowther) hostage, and escape in a stolen car into the sparsely populated countryside. Butch is smooth and cerebral, Pugh is gruff and uncontrollable, and soon they have a showdown. Butch emerges victorious and continues his escape with Philip for company.

Grizzled Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) is tasked with tracking down the escapees, and he is unhappy to be joined by criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and an FBI sniper (Bradley Whitford). Red commandeers the Governor's high-tech trailer as his command-post-on-wheels for the chase. On the road, Butch and Philip warm up to each other. Both grew up without stable father figures, and Butch revels in playing a protective and fatherly role. Philip starts to enjoy the freedom of being away from his strict Jehovah's Witness mother, but Red will not give up his dogged pursuit.

Directed by Eastwood and written by John Lee Hancock, A Perfect World is a lyrical masterpiece. Featuring some of Costner's best acting work, a robust quest-for-freedom story, and the subtle forging of a man-child bond under duress, the film is a deep breath drawn from the air of making things right under all the wrong conditions. At two hours and twenty minutes, the pace is relaxed, the scenes extended to allow the emotion to seep through the narrative fabric and leave a rich impression.

Eastwood invests deliberate time to bring Butch Haynes to life as a memorably complex cinematic anti-hero. Butch was handed a bum deal early in life, and he made the worst of it, but given an unlikely opportunity to make some amends, he will take his shot to deliver what he never received. He effortlessly slips into the role of father and mentor, teaching, guiding and empowering Philip. Against the wide open Texas backdrops, the intimate scenes between Costner and youngster T. J. Lowther are some of the most affecting and honest screen portrayals of interaction between man and child.

And yet despite revealing the potential for rounded edges, Butch never loses the essence of who he is as a ruthless criminal, and the film wickedly drives to its conclusion about what, exactly, makes for a perfect combination of attributes in the world of men and boys.

The team in pursuit led by Eastwood's Red Garnett offers kinetic energy, internal tension, and no small amount of comic relief, as Philip's would-be rescuers struggle to catch up with Butch's cross-Texas excapade. Garnett is a mature and relatively settled-down version of Dirty Harry transported to rural Texas, while Laura Dern's Sally Gerber is the early-version psychological profiler trying to get into the criminal mind. Sally is obviously the polar opposite of all that Red stands for, and the evolution of their relationship adds an extra dimension to the film.

Expansive in ambition and scope yet affectionate and personal in scale, A Perfect World combines the best of both worlds.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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