Friday, 26 November 2021

Movie Review: Two Night Stand (2014)

A slight romantic comedy, Two Night Stand tries something new but is hampered by a lack of substance.

In New York, Megan (Analeigh Tipton) is in a funk after a bad break-up with a long-term boyfriend. She joins an on-line dating site, and prodded by her roommate Faiza (Jessica Szohr), seeks a one-night stand to blow off some sexual energy. Megan connects with Alec (Miles Teller), who is looking for the same thing. They have sex at his place, but the next morning a snow storm shuts down the city and she is stuck at his apartment.

Forced to spend the day together, Megan and Alec are initially judgmental and antagonistic, but gradually warm up to each other.

Jumbling the formula into a sex-fight-love progression, Two Night Stand looks for an edge with two characters willing to just scratch a physical itch and call it one night, but then forced to meet the partner behind the coupling. In a mere 86 minutes director Max Nichols and writer Mark Hammer create two twentysomethings already accumulating adult luggage, and both Megan and Alec are rounded into people worth knowing through insecurities and prickliness.

But by defaulting to weed as a mellow-out agent and conversations dominated by clogged toilets and the mechanics sex, Hammer demonstrates a limited capacity to stretch. Megan eventually reveals anxieties stemming from dashed expectations, only for Alec to counter with a really late yet de-rigour sucker-punch to derail the emerging romance. The final act involves police intervention and a prison cell, both real downers in trying to build a mood.

Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton are a notch better than the material and ride the ups and downs with admirable commitment. They find moments of chemistry, but not enough to counter the blizzard of mediocrity.

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Sunday, 21 November 2021

Movie Review: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

A science fiction action thriller, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a festival of simian special effects. The story struggles for relevance in the rumbling rush to the next CGI-generated highlight.

Ten years after a drug intended to treat Alzheimer's disease increased ape intelligence and almost wiped-out humanity, Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads a group of apes building a growing society in the forests outside San Francisco. His son Blue Eyes is learning about leadership, while Caesar's main military leader is the aggressive Kobo (Toby Kebbell).

The apes block a small group of humans, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), from exploring the forest to find and reactivate a hydroelectric dam. They are part of a San Francisco settlement led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), growing increasingly desperate for a power source. Malcolm believes he can reason with the apes and Caesar's instinct is to help. But just as Dreyfus does not believe the apes can be allies, Kobo is also suspicious and starts to agitate for war. 

The sequel to Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) starts off on a rickety foundation with a dumbfoundingly similar title, and the prolonged opening scenes are computer generated National Geographic-type explorations of apes in the forest. It takes a while, but director Matt Reeves eventually finds his footing and settles down to a basic conflict between apes and humans, with peacemakers and warmongers on both sides.

The film is adequate but never threatens to rise anywhere. Despite Andy Serkis' expressive heroics as Caesar, only so much interest can be generated by actors in monkey suits surrounded by digital monkeys hooting and hollering at each other in the forest. And large chunks of the overlong 130 minutes are exactly that.

The hawks on both sides have to get their way for the pixels to be truly unleashed, and the second half is full of bloated computer-generated combat, sometimes effective but often a confusing mess of digital firepower and destruction.

It's a tough slog when most of the human moments are not among the humans. Caesar has a family, allies and enemies, and they must have all watched The Lion King, as the dynamics of treachery and the next generation rising to the challenge play out with full predictability. In contrast Jason Clarke and Keri Russell have the thankless task of interacting with ape suits and green screens to demonstrate basic empathy.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes shows good and bad intentions on both sides, and concludes apes are no better than humans in their capabilities for internecine acts of self-destruction, a thoroughly depressing prospect for all mammals on a small planet.

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Movie Review: Red Joan (2018)

A World War Two spy drama, Red Joan is an attractive period piece but rarely delves beneath surface gloss.

In the year 2000, the elderly Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is arrested in England and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Her son Nick (Ben Miles), a lawyer, supports her through multiple interrogation sessions. In flashbacks her story is revealed, starting at Cambridge University in the late 1930s where a young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is studying physics. She befriends student communist sympathizers including the vivacious Sonya (Tereza Srbova), her cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) and their friend William (Freddie Gaminara). 

Joan and Leo embark on a romance. When the war starts she secures a job as an assistant to researcher Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) in Britain's top secret program to develop atomic weapons. When Leo relocates to Canada, Joan starts a romance with Max, although he is married. With the research program making progress and the USSR desperate to obtain atomic bomb technology, Leo re-emerges and pressures Joan to pass documents to the communists, with Sonya as the go-between.

Directed by Trevor Nunn and written by Lindsay Shapero, Red Joan is loosely inspired by the real-life story of Melita Norwood. The film always looks polished but lacks big-screen grandeur. With the war as a backdrop, events move briskly between chapters propelled by the frantic scientific work to win the atomic bomb research race. Tension between the allies and the dynamic of young people entering the real world in the midst of a crisis add a crackle of intensity.

The modern day scenes are set in sparse white-walled interrogation rooms, Judi Dench as the elderly Joan being grilled by humourless intelligence agents. Dench brings sorrowful intensity as she recalls wartime adventures and romances, but her performance bumps against the limits of a role not far from serving as token bookends to the real story being told.

The wartime scenes are a glossy recreation of a turbulent time, Joan blossoming within an exciting anything-goes milieu, first in an august academic setting then in a war where Soviets are allies, communism is a great transformational hope, and life could end at any moment. Sophie Cookson brings an appealing wide-eyed naivete to the role, but unfortunately for a woman at the drama's heart, she is portrayed as talented at physics, but poor in selecting her friends and judging people, and easily manipulated into ill-conceived romances.

After the war ends and the inquiry starts into the document leaks, the film loses momentum. Shapero takes a half-hearted stab at excusing the traitor as a global benevolence ambassador, Joan's justification for shipping atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets simplified to spreading knowledge as a deterrence strategy. It's a barely credible stance, and here it goes unchallenged. Red Joan is easy to enjoy, and just as easy to pass on.

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Saturday, 20 November 2021

Movie Review: Sound Of Metal (2019)

A drama about loss, Sound Of Metal bores into the psyche of one man confronting the sudden on-set of a life changing condition.

Recovering drug addict Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer for a two-person heavy metal band, supporting his girlfriend and lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke). While they are on a club tour living and traveling in an RV, Ruben experiences sudden severe hearing loss. A doctor advises the hearing will not naturally come back, an operation to install implants would cost up to $80,000, and Ruben should focus on preserving the little hearing he has left. 

Through a friend's referral Ruben reluctantly joins a commune for deaf recovering addicts run by Vietnam War veteran Joe (Paul Raci), while Lou departs to Paris where her father lives. Joe encourages Ruben to accept deafness, learn sign language, and volunteer with deaf kids. Ruben does make progress, but he remains full of concealed anger and intent on securing funds for the operation to restore his hearing.

A story of profound misfortune, Sound Of Metal is one character's journey into the unthinkable. Director Darius Marder co-wrote the script with Derek Cianfrance, and keeps the focus on a far-from-perfect man pushed into yet another crisis. The film is intimate, sometimes frustratingly constrained, and powered by the coiled rage of a restless Riz Ahmed performance.

The abrupt onset of deafness is all the more devastating because Ruben's life was on the upswing. Clean from drugs and even smoking, on a successful club tour, and devoted to his true love Lou, the worst seemed to be behind him. Now the loss of hearing drops a boulder on burgeoning optimism. It's no surprise that denial is Ruben's strongest response, followed by fixating on a short-cut bring-back-the-past solution without researching the implications.

The script railroads Ruben into a long episode on Joe's peculiar commune, where accepting deafness and thriving anyway is the laudable goal, but the rules designed for addicts don't always appear conducive to dealing with recent trauma. Here Marder explores the difference between the silence imposed and the value of elusive meditative stillness, and the narrative loses its way. The second act is only partially successful as a foundation for a reintegration and reunion where reality and recognition start to take hold.

The sound design is superlative, conveying Ruben's hearing difficulties with stunning impact. The concert roar of aggressive drums and Lou's forceful vocals yields to the disorienting inability to hear, only for the consequences of cochlear implant surgery to throw another wrench. Within its limited scope, The Sound Of Metal achieves hushed immersion.

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Movie Review: Second Act (2018)

A lightweight corporate comedy, the frivolous Second Act is even unsure what story it wants to tell.

In New York, fortysomething Maya DaVilla (Jennifer Lopez) is the Assistant Manager at a Value Shop store. Despite 15 years of experience and plenty of streetsmarts, she is passed over for a promotion because she lacks a college degree. Her relationship with boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia) is strained because he wants to start a family and she isn't ready, still haunted by the baby she had to place in adoption as a 17 year-old single mother.

Maya's best friend is the foul-mouthed Joan (Leah Remini). For Maya's birthday, Joan's teenaged son gifts her a spruced up on-line profile, inventing advanced education degrees and a sparkling record of philanthropy. She is soon offered a job by a major cosmetics company, where she is welcomed by the president Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) and his vice president daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). Maya feels guilty about landing a job based on fake credentials, but is quickly thrust into a competition with Zoe to develop a new skincare product. A shock revelation awaits.

Directed by Peter Segal, Second Act is a nausea-inducing affair, with a soapy self-empowerment song breaking out on the soundtrack every two minutes. Somehow the limp plot meanders from an oh-so-shallow streetsmarts versus booksmarts theme to a mother-daughter reunion and laments about past decisions and present lies. The race to develop a new skincare product works hard to demonstrate cluelessness about product research methods and the modern corporate work culture, while simultaneously underlining women's fixation on looks in a film supposedly about valuing anything but.

Some jokes from the script by Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas do land, mainly delivered by the supporting cast. Leah Remini is often the only tolerable presence on the screen, while Annaleigh Ashford (as an acerbic junior executive) and Charlyne Yi (as an intern with a fear of heights but no shortage of courage in other places) add the occasional spark. In contrast Jennifer Lopez never convinces, while Vanessa Hudgens struggles to hide the strain required to deliver lines.

Once all the saccharine resolutions are wrapped up in a bland bow, prolonged dreamy narration winds down the story, amplifying the sound of scraping at the bottom of the ideas barrel.

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Movie Review: Teen Spirit (2018)

A routine teen drama with music, Teen Spirit is firmly stuck in cliche underdog territory despite a strong central performance and an off-beat location.

Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning) is a shy music-loving seventeen year-old of Polish descent growing up on the Isle of Wight. She loves to sing and performs at the near-empty local bar, but tries to hide her passion from her disapproving mother Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska). One night she is applauded by the frumpy Vlad Brajkovic (Zlatko Buric), a former Croatian opera singer now mostly living inside the bottle.

Despite Maria's concerns, Violet enters the national Teen Spirit talent competition for aspiring singers, and recruits Vlad's help first as a guardian then as a vocal coach and manager. She makes it through the first few rounds, and her local high school band starts backing her. When Violet surprisingly qualifies for the finals in London and in front of a massive television audience, culture shocks await.

Director and writer Max Minghella's father Anthony was from the Isle of Wight off England's south coast, and Max uses the island as a suitably quirky setting and symbol of isolation from mainstream culture. But beyond an enjoyable first act introducing Violet and Vlad, the rest of Teen Spirit is quickly swallowed up by television-level material featuring a teenager fumbling her way into adulthood with pitfalls around every corner.

Elle Fanning is by far the best thing in the movie and works hard to create a downbeat but determined young woman, and she sings with conviction. Between navigating her mother's anxieties and looking for an outlet to define herself, Violet never smiles, and Fanning's posture conveys a teenager carrying the strain of a foggy future.

But she is not well served by a script unable to get under the character's skin. Despite a dark and shiny aesthetic, some fine directorial touches, and a welcome depiction of immigrants, the problems multiply once the competition starts. The film wades into overly familiar territory and hits every longshot and performer/coach cliche. Never-developed side-stories are thrown haphazardly at the screen, including Violet's missing father, Vlad's life regrets and estranged daughter, a few barely-defined rivals, and clumsy encounters with alcohol and boys.  

Rebecca Hall appears late and for a couple of scenes as a music industry shark ready to feed on young talent. Vlad offers trite advice about breathing, but how Violet draws the strength to advance from stiff empty-bar singer to a dynamic stage performer remains a total mystery. Teen Spirit tries to rock out, but recycles tired lyrics.

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Movie Review: The Girl In The Spider's Web (2018)

An action thriller, The Girl In The Spider's Web is overloaded with unlikely narrow escapes, but with enough brooding character angst to maintain interest.

When she was a child, Lisbeth Salander escaped from the estate of her abusive father, a powerful tycoon with connections to Russian mobsters. But her sister Camilla stayed behind and suffered years of exploitation.

Now the adult Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is a hacker based in Stockholm, and a vigilante targeting abusive men. She is contacted by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an ex-National Security Agency (NSA) employee, to steal and prevent the misuse of software he wrote for the NSA enabling anyone to take control of the world's military satellites. Lisbeth is successful, but her hack alerts the NSA's Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who travels to Stockholm to investigate. Gabriella Grane (Synnøve Macody Lund) of the Swedish Security Service does not welcome Ed's intrusion on her soil.

More dangerous is a violent gang that steals the code from Lisbeth before she can hand it to Frans. The software is protected by a pass code known only to Bader and his young son August, and they are both soon in danger. Lisbeth reaches out to reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help as the ghosts of the past catch up with her.

An adaptation of the book by David Lagercrantz based on Stieg Larsson's characters, The Girl In The Spider's Web takes the series in a new direction. The screenplay by Jay Basu, Steven Knight, and director Fede Álvarez, is packed full of action, and while the dark mood and subtext of abuse remain, here the emphasis is on a Bond-type conspiracy and a cliffhanger (sometimes literally) every 15 minutes.

Some of the thrills are excellent, including a motorcycle escape on an iced river, and a technology-enabled airport breakout. But others become repetitive and quite over-the-top. With Claire Foy wearing a singular expression of epic pissed-offness, Lisbeth escapes a massive gas explosion that destroys a neighbourhood, a hail of bullets, a really high jump, a torture session in a rubber suit, twice being drugged, and several physical scuffles with burly assassin-types. Her frequent near-death moments become numbing and steal away from the more cerebral and emotional parts of the drama.

And The Girl In The Spider's Web does contain enough ingredients for human-level interactions to deserve toned-down theatrics. Once revealed, the mastermind behind the conspiracy to steal the software provides excellent opportunities for the past and the present to collide, and the triple themes of abuse, revenge, and hacking defining Lisbeth's life merge into a compelling narrative. Meanwhile her relationship with young August is also rich with possibilities for personal growth.

In contrast, the bond between Lisbeth and Mikael suffers the most with the reorientation towards action. Here Mikael is very much a secondary character along for the ride, the writer out of place amidst all the stuntwork and flying limbs.

The Girl In The Spider's Web carries intricate threads, but the execution is more expedient than exquisite.

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Sunday, 14 November 2021

Movie Review: The Highwaymen (2019)

A chase drama and thriller, The Highwaymen follows two enforcement officers recruited to stop the carnage caused by Bonnie and Clyde. The film is patient, rich with details, and infused with grizzled humanity.

It's 1934 in Texas, and violent criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are folk heroes. After the pair embarrass Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson (Kathy Bates) by orchestrating a prison break, she reluctantly agrees to call upon retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to hunt down the couple. He teams up with his ex-partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) and despite advancing years and limited physical abilities they hit the road to try and intercept the elusive outlaw couple.

Working on the theory that criminals always go home, Hamer and Maney focus on the Dallas area, but the locals are protective of the famous couple and close ranks. Bonnie and Clyde's killing spree continues, with several police officers murdered and the FBI helpless. Hamer and Maney maintain a dogged pursuit and cross into neighbouring Oklahoma then Louisiana, and gradually gather enough clues to close-in on their targets.

An essential antidote to the romanticism of Bonnie And Clyde (1967), The Highwaymen is the other side of the story. Here the criminals are infrequently spotted bloodthirsty killers, ambushing and murdering police officers for fun, including Bonnie applying the final shotgun blast to the head of already fallen men. The John Fusco script demonstrates no sympathy towards any societal or economic justifications. Clyde's father (William Sadler) gets one long scene to try and explain his son's actions, and is summarily deflated by Hamer.

As for the folk hero status of the two murderers, The Highwaymen adopts an exasperated shake-of-the-head stance. For deep-seated reasons, this is a society that venerates anti-authoritarianism. Men like Frank Hamer and Maney Gault can do little other than bypass the nausea and get on with the job. 

And so director John Lee Hancock settles down to tell the story of two former Texas Rangers, themselves no strangers to bloodletting. They carry deep emotional scars, and at the start of the movie are hiding behind domesticity (Hamer is more successful) to bury the pain. Through Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch), the state calls upon them to unretire and sanctions two more killings.

Hamer and Maney are old, unable to run after suspects, and well past their sharp shooting days. What they do have is guile and experience, and gradually they recreate their partnership dynamic and make progress. Their quest is long, mistakes are made, and more people die. Through a draggy middle act, Hancock struggles to justify 132 minutes of running time, although the stark vistas of Texas and a landscape dotted with ramshackle depression-era migrant camps offer good visuals.

The two veteran actors help ride out the slow patches, the pauses for reflection well-paced to add texture without interrupting flow. Harrelson and Costner both co-produced and equally invest in their roles, Harrelson as Maney in particular showcasing a maturity to now discern the thin margins between right and wrong. 

The Highwaymen are destined to arrive at a well-known and culturally iconic climax. The joy is in the journey, and two seasoned experts ensure a worthwhile drive.

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Saturday, 13 November 2021

Movie Review: Dark Waters (2019)

A legal drama, Dark Waters pits an investigative lawyer against a giant corporation damaging the environment and human health. The clash between everyday victims and big business is potent but familiar.

In Cincinnati, lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works for Taft, a top legal firm specializing in representing chemical companies. He is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Robert's grandmother has lived all her life. Wilbur's cattle are being poisoned by chemicals dumped in a nearby landfill by the manufacturing giant DuPont, and no governmental agency appears interested in helping.

Robert's boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) approves a case. DuPont's head Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) is initially cooperative, but turns hostile when Robert uncovers the harmful impacts of PFOA, an unregulated chemical used in the manufacturing of Teflon. The case expands to the health impacts on the whole community, consuming years of Robert's life and threatening his health and the happiness of his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway).

Based on real events, Dark Waters is designed to cause outrage through revelations of profit-driven maleficence. Reminiscent of previous portrayals of corporate environmental negligence, here director Todd Haynes targets a large employer and respected corporation selling chemically-laden and potentially hazardous pans into every kitchen. The film strikes the expected David versus Goliath beats without ever quite soaring.

The drama is always engaging, but the emotional impact is dimmed by structural and artistic decisions. With the best of intentions the film tries to do too much, covering more than a decade of machinations. The focus meanders from a farmer's field to an elderly couple with health issues and finally a community subjected to large scale medical testing and subsequent prolonged research by a faceless panel. Rather than building to a crescendo the narrative is diluted into ups and downs, a realistic but drawn-out portrayal of a seemingly endless years-long struggle.

Robert Bilott is the heart of the story and the one constant presence through all the legal wranglings. As written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, this lawyer is grounded and well-intentioned, helped by humble origins. But Bilot is also presented as uncharismatic and generally dour, and Mark Ruffalo cannot do much except convey pained expressions as he endures frequent beratements by others. Faring worse is a wasted Anne Hathaway in a thankless and stock long-suffering-wife role.

The dilemmas inherent in standing up to a large employer enrich the narrative. DuPont is exposed as knowingly concealing evidence of harmful chemicals, but Dark Waters also acknowledges the backlash against challenging a company actively providing livelihoods and sustaining communities. 

Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman add to the downbeat mood by bathing the film in blue-grey hues, metaphorically representing the fog of forever chemicals dominating the environment. Non-stick pans place plenty of food on many tables, but the Teflon only looks clean.

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Thursday, 11 November 2021

Movie Review: Jesse James (1939)

A western loosely based on the notorious outlaw's exploits, Jesse James is a flamboyant and action-packed frontier adventure and romance.

After the end of the Civil War, the railroads expand west. In Missouri, unscrupulous agents intimidate farmers out of their land to clear the way for the train's arrival. Jesse James (Tyrone Power) and his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) support their mother (Jane Darwell) when she refuses to sell the family farm. In the ensuing fracas she is killed, Jesse exacts revenge, and the brothers go on the run.

As he evades the law Jesse maintains a romance with the love of his life Zerelda "Zee" Mimms (Nancy Kelly), the daughter of the Major (Henry Hull), a crusty Liberty City newspaper publisher. Will Wright (Randolph Scott) is the Marshal in town, and sympathetic to Jesse's anti-railroad cause. After Jesse and Frank commit a string of robberies targeting the rail companies, Will negotiates leniency if Jesse turns himself in. When the deal goes sour, the James brothers become notorious outlaws, attempting ever more dangerous heists and jeapardizing Jesse and Zee's dreams of domestic bliss.

While undoubtedly entertaining, the Nunnally Johnson script holds only the most tenuous connection with historical truth. For the most part Jesse James romantacizes a criminal and Confederate cause sympathizer into a folk hero fighting the good fight against evil corporate types. This is the Hollywood machine selling tickets by creating a mythology that caters to the American psyche, and doing so with brilliant craftsmanship.

Setting aside truth and fiction, Jesse James is a technicolour joy. The pacing is brisk, director Henry King intermingling scenes of action (some featuring audacious stunts) with romance and character interactions, and pausing when necessary at some powerful milestones. The tense night with Jesse in captivity and Frank plotting a breakout from under the noses of rail company executives is a highlight, as is the final chapter, Jesse's two possible destinies engaged in a battle for his soul as traitors gather. Humour is sprinkled in careful doses to liven the mood.

King does trace Jesse's descent from laudable defender of personal family property to hardened gang leader, and on a couple of occasions the soul-destroying realities of his criminal pursuits are brought to the fore. Tyrone Power's natural charm ensures a generally jovial portrayal, but he also brings a soullessness to the darkest hours dominated by an insatiable thirst to pull off the next big robbery.

Making excellent use of stunts, King's directing is kinetic energy in motion. A tracking shot of Jesse in silhouette making his way back-to-front atop a moving train is breathtaking. A seemingly impossible jump off a cliff is both controversial and stunning. And several chases and narrow escapes are punctuated by character improvisation captured by multiple careful camera placements.

Henry Fonda as older brother Frank shines in a couple of scenes, lacking Jesse's charisma but making up for it with cool guile. In addition to a sage Randolph Scott, the supporting cast also includes John Carradine as a sweaty Bob Ford, Brian Donlevy as the oily land expropriator, and Ernest Whitman as loyal servant Pinky.

Jesse James detaches from facts, but still finds spectacular success.

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