Saturday, 19 June 2021

Movie Review: Croupier (1998)

A casino drama, Croupier is a compact story emphasizing ambience and observation to create a smoky mood of bubbling corruption and conflicted morality.

In London, Jack (Clive Owen) is an aspiring but penniless writer originally from South Africa. His father Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball), a small-time hustler, arranges a job for him as a croupier at a casino managed by Reynolds (Alexander Morton). Jack is good at running the roulette and blackjack tables and uses the customers and other croupiers as inspiration to start writing again. He spots various contraventions of casino policies, including croupier Matt (Paul Reynolds) gambling and liaising with shady types. 

Jack's relationship with girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a store detective, suffers when he has a fling with croupier Bella (Kate Hardie). Then his job becomes much more complicated when regular customer Jani (Alex Kingston), also from South Africa and now seemingly owing a lot of money to the wrong people, offers him a lot of cash to enable a theft at the casino.

The actual plot of Croupier does not matter very much. In fact, the casino heist, muddily explained and botched in execution, only appears to be the most relevant narrative trajectory. Within the crisp 94 minutes director Mike Hodges and writer Paul Mayersberg are more interested in a character study and a dive into psychology at the shallow end of the smart pool. Jack therefore narrates with a fascination for the human condition, interrupting his words with his true thoughts as an atmosphere of deadened nothingness wafts over the lives and loves of unmotivated souls going through the same motions but hoping for different outcomes.

The casino manager Reynolds admits his joint is neither high-end glitz nor backroom scuzziness, just middle-of-the-road blandness. And so Jack gets to observe middle-of-the-road people come and go, metronomically losing money, a bit of graft here and there, but without high-roller pizzazz nor bedraggled desperation. Enough is going on to light the bulb of writing inspiration, and Jack creates super-cool alter ego Jake to embody his thoughts and emerge as the hero of his novel.

But Jack is not enduring a mediocre life and working in a mediocre facility by accident, and neither Jack nor Jake are as smart as they think they are. Others will have their say before the curtain rises on unlikely puppet masters, and unexpected rewards are found behind anonymous covers.

Clive Owen cruises through Croupier somewhere between comatose, bemused, and resigned, with enough behind his tired eyes and wry mouth to suggest hidden abilities happily squandered. Where money is willingly lost on games stacked in favour of the house, the only winners are those able to walk away from both sides of the table.

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Movie Review: The Negotiator (1998)

A hostage drama, The Negotiator promises a cerebral duel but defaults to flabby and bland thriller cliches.

Lieutenant Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is the top hostage negotiator with the Chicago Police Department, popular with his colleagues and a media celebrity. After Danny resolves yet another harrowing hostage ordeal by placing himself in danger, his wife Karen (Regina Taylor) pleads with him to take fewer risks. Danny's partner Nate then reveals knowledge of a corrupt group of officers stealing from the pension fund, including members of Internal Affairs, the supposed watchdog.

Nate is soon killed and Danny is framed, losing his badge. About to be charged and imprisoned, he barges into the office of Internal Affairs Inspector Terence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh), taking him and a group of others hostage. Danny will only talk with Lieutenant Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another expert negotiator. A prolonged hostage ordeal follows, with some members of the police force loyal to Danny but others wanting him permanently silenced.

Directed by F. Gary Gray and co-written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, The Negotiator sets the stage for what could have been a gripping battle of wits, but withdraws into mundane territory. After a long and patient introduction to define Danny Roman as a charismatic character worth caring about, the narrative starts to wobble with the half-baked introduction of the corruption plot. A good protagonist needs a worthy villain, but instead too many blank but possibly evil grim-faced police officers, some in suits and others in uniform, are thrown at the screen, none of them defined to any useful degree. 

The result is Danny attempting to smoke out unknown and invisible opponents, robbing the film of meaningful tension. Indeed, as the excessive 140 minutes drag on, incidental hostages Paul Giamatti (as a petty criminal) and Siobhan Fallon (as Niebaum's assistant) emerge as the next most interesting characters, which is not a good thing. 

Kevin Spacey as the other expert negotiator arrives too late into the movie and contributes little. Spacey appears curiously disinterested and is poorly served by an overcrowded command structure with multiple men trying to issue orders that are anyway ignored.

In any event writers DeMonaco and Fox don't have the courage to trust a mental showdown. The Negotiator resorts to computer clicks, procedural shootouts and flash-bang grenades. By the time the conspirators are revealed, the negotiations have long since been defeated by a lack of imagination. 

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Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Movie Review: The Notebook (2004)

A romantic drama, The Notebook weaves a lyrical spell with an appealing narrative structure bookending a destined love. Excellent performances and rich cinematography enhance the film's allure.

At a nursing home, the elderly Duke (James Garner) cares for a dementia patient (Gena Rowlands) by reading to her the story of a long-ago romance.

The events he recounts are shown in flashback, starting in the summer of 1940 at the resort community of Seabrook Island, South Carolina. At the carnival grounds, young lumberyard worker Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) is attracted to vacationing rich girl Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) and insists on a date. They eventually fall in love, but with summer ending and Allie's mother Anne (Joan Allen) believing Noah is not good enough for her daughter, the young lovers separate after a bad argument.

Noah heads off to war with his best friend Fin (Kevin Connolly), while Allie volunteers as a nurse and falls in love with recuperating soldier Lon (James Marsden), eventually agreeing to marry him. After the war, Noah embarks on a dream home renovation project with the help of his father Frank (Sam Shepard). Allie and Noah appear destined to remain apart, until she spots a newspaper article and sets out to discover if her first love was true.

An adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks book, The Notebook is well-made old-fashioned storytelling. Directed by Nick Cassavetes with an eye for blazing red skies and picturesque sunsets, the film draws strength from irony-free traditional themes of an everlasting love overcoming all obstacles, while late-in-life physical and mental ailments ensure no shortage of tears.

It's obvious early on that the elderly dementia patient is Allie and Duke is Noah, fanning the flames of their love until the very end. Veterans James Garner and Gena Rowlands bring earnest poise to life's twilight, Allie stranded in a lonely fog having forgotten her life, Noah persisting in sharing their eloquently written history, hoping to spark just a daily moment of remembrance. Combined with the tumultuous travails and separations of their young lives, this is a couple who earned their couplehood.

In the flashback scenes Cassavetes hits all the expected beats of courtship, with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams contributing oodles of young charisma. Noah is from the rougher side of town, she plays hard to get, and they bring refreshing honesty to their feisty bickering. But there is no denying the certainty of their love nor the usual impediments blocking their road to happiness, from disapproving parents to world wars and rival lovers. Despite being apart they never lose sight of each other, in a soulful definition of a union meant to be.

At 124 minutes The Notebook does go on, although writer Jan Sardi has the excuse of delving deep into both the first and final chapters of an enduring bond. Noah and Allie may be two ordinary people, but they also embody the universality of extraordinary love.

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Movie Review: Traffic (2000)

A multi-story crime epic, Traffic is an unblinking look at the illegal drug business on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Law enforcement officials, traffickers, addicts, and their families intermingle in overlapping hard-hitting narratives.

In the US, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) of Ohio is appointed as the President's new drug czar, leading the government's "war on drugs". Wakefield is unaware his high achieving 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) and her friends are dabbling in hard drugs. When Caroline's addiction becomes obvious, Robert's work and private lives collide and his relationship with wife Barbara (Amy Irving) is strained.

In Mexico, Tijuana police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) are in the middle of a turf war between two drug cartels. Javier is recruited by the powerful General Salazar (Tomas Milian) to help federal anti-drug efforts. On Salazar's instructions, Rodriguez arrests cartel assassin Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then tortured for information. Wakefield seeks allies in Mexico and identifies Salazar as a potential force for good.

In San Diego, police officers Montel (Don Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzmán) arrest businessman Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), who uses storefronts as cover for a drug distribution network. In return for leniency Ruiz identifies the wealthy Carlos Ayala (Stephen Bauer) as the powerful representative for one of the Tijuana cartels. Ayala is promptly arrested, stunning his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is living the high-society life oblivious to her husband's real business. Montel and Castro have to keep Ruiz alive long enough to testify, while Helena gets only slimy support from Ayala's lawyer Arnie (Dennis Quaid) and turns to the assassin Flores for more potent help.

Featuring an ensemble cast, brisk pacing and enough content to easily justify the 147 minutes of running time, Traffic delves into the high-profit, high-risk, high-damage drugs business from multiple perspectives. Written by Stephen Gaghan and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the core message promotes pragmatism about the depth of the problem and the inefficacy of simplistic solutions. The loosely connected stories shine the light on unlimited supply, insatiable demand and unimaginable profits fuelling a business larger than most governments. Not surprisingly, slogans, blunt initiatives and even good intentions fold under the pressure of corruption, addiction and violence.

Traffic is about an underworld filled with ruthless behaviour, but avoids any traditional action scenes. Gaghan and Soderbergh maintain focus on individuals, personalizing the dilemmas and boiling down a gargantuan industry to a human scale. From Ayala's smug confidence that he is untouchable, to young Caroline throwing away her future in search of the next hit, passing through Rodriguez realizing everything right is wrong, the futility of declaring war on a health crisis made worse by bad laws is laid bare.

As the drama jumps between various stories, Soderbergh (also the cinematographer) uses colour to signal locales. The scenes in Mexico start with an overexposed palette of reds and yellows, while Wakefield's journey of learning about his daughter is bathed in deep blues. Helena's scenes resemble a glossy magazine representing unearned wealth and privilege.

Some narrative weaknesses creep in at the edges. Judge Wakefield becomes an unlikely private investigator, taking to the scuzzy parts of town and barging through doors to try and save his daughter. Helena's transformation from clueless wife to shrewd operator is also remarkably swift.

But with the stellar cast in top form, Soderbergh navigates towards faint optimism within individual moments of hope. One victim is at least temporarily saved and some kids get to play a ball game. In a massive sea of despair, small victories have to matter.

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Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Movie Review: The Wedding Planner (2001)

A banal romantic comedy, The Wedding Planner is devoid of wit, humour and crisp ideas.

In San Francisco, Mary (Jennifer Lopez) is a hyper-competent wedding planner but has no love life of her own. When her heel is caught in a utility hole, she is rescued from disaster by pediatrician Steve (Matthew McConaughey). Mary's assistant Penny (Judy Greer) sets them up on a date, hoping to help Mary snap out of the emotional doldrums.

Although Mary and Steve have a good time, she is then shocked to learn he is the fiancé of her latest client, wealthy businesswoman Fran (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras). Mary feels deceived by Steve but continues organizing his wedding. Meanwhile, her widowed father (Alex Rocco) pushes her to consider marrying Massimo (Justin Chambers), a passionate young man recently arrived from Italy.

Directed by Adam Shankman, The Wedding Planner is an easy to forget, by-the-numbers rom-com. In the central roles Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey hardly seem to be trying and spend most of the movie bickering, while the supporting characters consist of mechanically recycled assorted friends, family members and business colleagues.

The romance is devoid of both laughs and any moments of poignancy, but stuffed full of the typical plastic devices lovers have to navigate before the pre-ordained ending. And so Steve is marrying Fran despite their obvious incompatibility, Mary is being pushed by her father to wed Massimo and learn to love him later, and the script by Michael Ellis and Pamela Falk chokes on superficial references to what love is or is not. The insipid soundtrack featuring interchangeable self-empowerment musical fluff does not help.

To obscure the lack of content Shankman takes a tour of wedding preparation scenery, from selecting the venue to finding the flowers, including a desperate detour to a statue park that degenerates into an adventure with crazy glue and detached private parts. Steve gets one scene at his workplace hospital, but otherwise must be the most under-employed doctor in San Francisco. 

And somehow it's not sufficient for Steve to save Mary's life once from her heel-stuck-in-the-utility-hole predicament, so the old standby of a damsel in distress on a runaway horse being rescued by her white knight is wedged into the proceedings. The Wedding Planner is regretfully cancelled due to an utter lack of creativity.

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Saturday, 12 June 2021

Movie Review: Shoot'Em Up (2007)

A jocular action film, Shoot'Em Up embraces Bugs Bunny cartoon sensibilities in a manic save-the-baby adventure. With non-stop impetus and an irrepressible attitude, this is a thrill ride to savour.

In the middle of the night, carrot-munching loner Smith (Clive Owen) sticks his nose in other people's business by attempting to protect a pregnant woman running from a horde of assassins. She gives birth, but is then killed. Smith escapes with the baby, and becomes the target of Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who is intent on eliminating the infant.

Smith connects with lactating prostitute Donna (Monica Bellucci), who reluctantly agrees to help look after the newborn they now call Oliver. Hertz starts to uncover Smith's elite military background and assembles an army of goons to hunt him down. Smith has to shoot his way out of numerous jams while keeping Donna and Oliver safe. He also uncovers a baby-killing conspiracy involving an evil gun-manufacturing company and a shady political gambit.

Clocking in at a mere 86 minutes, Shoot'Em Up is breathlessly fun and ridiculously entertaining. Writer and director Michael Davis unapologetically parks logic at the door and conjures up a series of outrageous set-pieces, all delivered with panache and feasting on an endless supply of bullets and bad guys.

And several highlights represent brilliant action filmmaking, combining jaw-dropping stuntwork with spirited music and pointed editing. Hertz's army of similarly-dressed men invades Smith's walk-up apartment, and the shoot-out that follows is an adrenaline rush set to Motorhead's Ace Of Spades. Later, Smith drops out of an aircraft, and an exhilarating aerial free-fall battle follows. Back on the ground, wise use of seat belts is demonstrated in a high speed head-on crash. And just for good measure, Davis finds a way to combine yet another shoot-out with an energetic sex session.

The plot propelling the madness is just as knowingly outrageous, having something to do with a secret baby factory, an ailing political candidate, and the gun lobby. None of it is intended to make sense, and it doesn't. Meanwhile, Smith's background is revealed in droplets to colour-in a fittingly damaged protagonist. Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti enjoy themselves in gleeful performances, and cut through the carnage with the symmetrical respect of a cartoon anti-hero and his indestructible nemesis.

The guiltiest of guilty pleasures, Shoot'Em Up fires at will and scores perfect insanity.

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Thursday, 10 June 2021

Movie Review: In The Bedroom (2001)

A family drama with crime elements, In The Bedroom quietly explores a marriage under severe stress, and emotional endurance tested by a frustrating justice system.

Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) are a middle-aged couple living in the lobster fishing community of Camden, Maine. Matt is a doctor and a veteran of the Navy, while Ruth is a music teacher, and together they are slightly bewildered as their college-aged son Frank (Nick Stahl) enjoys a summer romance with older divorcee Natalie (Marisa Tomei). She has two young kids from no-good ex-husband Richard Strout (William Mapother), the scion of the family operating the local cannery.

Ruth is worried Frank will throw away his college future to spend more time with Natalie, but Matt is more accommodating of his son's liaison. When Richard returns and starts to harass Natalie, Frank feels obligated to intervene, triggering events that will test every aspect of Matt and Ruth's lives.

Adding further details to the plot summary would spoil a brooding story of loss, rage and revenge crackling with understated tension. The seemingly routine travails of a small family residing in an idyllic seaside community take a sharp turn into tragedy, rocking the foundations of Matt and Ruth's marriage and flooding their bedroom sanctuary with grief and self-doubt. Director Todd Field co-wrote the script with Robert Festinger as an adaptation of an Andre Dubus short story, and creates an adult-oriented drama with ever-increasing turmoil punctuated by short and sharp eruptions of violence. 

The narrative draws strength from silence and the contrasting characters of Matt and Ruth. He keeps his emotions bottled and approaches every situation with detached calmness. She is a more expressive artist, carrying the weight of worry and more openly disapproving of their son Frank's fling with Natalie. When their world falls apart the creeping hostility between them becomes an impenetrable wall of unstated anger and coiled frustration.

The film is long at 131 minutes, and in the second half Field tests the material's depth with some repetitive scenes underlining already established dynamics. And despite the length, a couple of characters fade out of relevance. But superb performances from Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, both approaching career peaks, help overcome the slower patches. They are never better than when Matt and Ruth unleash their bottled-up anger at each other in a savage exchange of accusations. The supporting cast includes Karen Allen in a small role as a tough defence attorney.

In The Bedroom is where intimacy and trust reside. Faced with calamity and injustice, Matt and Ruth also need to create space for painful truths and new secrets. 

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Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Movie Review: Legally Blonde (2001)

A comedy about looking past superficialities, Legally Blonde celebrates do-anything empowerment with gloss, humour, and old-fashioned kindness.

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a fashion merchandising major at a California college, living the sorority lifestyle centred on shopping, make-up and manicures. She is crushed when boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) dumps her because she is unsuitable for his senator-in-the-making lifestyle as he heads out to Harvard Law School. 

Stung into action, Elle applies herself and remarkably gets accepted into Harvard Law School, but upon arrival finds Warner already has a new girlfriend in Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair). Elle persists and makes a good impression in the class of Professor Callahan (Victor Garber). She earns an internship opportunity while catching the eye of Callahan's assistant Emmett (Luke Wilson), and still finds time to teach dowdy manicurist Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) some sassy skills.

An adaptation of Amanda Brown's book based on her real-life experiences, Legally Blonde is fun, frivolous and wears its silliness with pride. The story of a smart woman deciding to ditch the ditzy lifestyle and focus on academics embraces concepts of self-belief and re-defined focus, but all themes are treated with feather touches. Director Robert Luketic keeps the mood bouncy, and pokes away with equal measures of playfulness at the vacuous sorority lifestyle and snooty law school haughtiness.

However, the air of dismissiveness sometimes borders on grating. Elle and her sorority sisters are treated as total airheads. The effort required to enter law school is reduced to Elle cramming for one exam and flaunting her bikini body in the application video. At Harvard the students are a combination of snarky and instinctively rude, and Elle's pathway to influencing a high-profile murder case is ridiculously short.

But this is a comedy, and Reese Witherspoon makes the most out of the role, ensuring Elle emits flashes of wit and a continuous stream of kindness, whether in her sorority or serious modes. Selma Blair is a suitable brunette nemesis, but Matthew Davis is an unfortunate non-entity, although his lack of presence underlines the futility of sorority women obsessing over useless men.

Within the final act of the brisk 96 minutes, Legally Blonde crams in courtroom antics featuring a murdered patriarch, his snooty daughter (Linda Cardellini), an accused step-mother (Ali Larter) and her alleged Latin lover, with no less than Raquel Welch making an appearance. It's a story-within-a-story, all to prove that understanding the latest shoe fashion trends and the fundamentals of a perm are essential legal skills.

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Movie Review: Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

A romantic comedy with zombies, Shaun Of The Dead finds plenty of laughs as a loser stumbles upon his purpose in life: fight-off zombie hordes and regain his girlfriend's love.

In London, 29-year-old sales assistant Shaun (Simon Pegg) is stuck in a stalled life. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is tired of spending every night at the Winchester Pub and threatens a break-up, preferring the company of her roommates David and Dianne (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis). Shaun has two flatmates: his good friend Ed (Nick Frost) is jovial and jobless, while the more serious Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) is frustrated at both of them for being slobs and not getting on with life.

Meanwhile, a zombie apocalypse is unfolding in London, but Shaun is oblivious to the increasing number of blood-sucking walking corpses. Eventually Shaun and Ed come face to face with two zombies and realize the whole city is over-run by the deadly creatures. Shaun springs to action and devises a plan to rescue Liz and his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton). But his father-in-law Philip (Bill Nighy) has already been bitten by a zombie, and taking refuge at the Winchester may not be the best of ideas.

A high-energy loony zombie comedy, Shaun Of The Dead thrives on a laid-back attitude, British humour, and lovable protagonists. Star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright co-wrote the screenplay and use the zombie apocalypse as a backdrop to several familiar themes, including squabbling roommates, a lovers' tiff and break-up, the flighty mum, tension between son and step-father, and the zombie-like routine of day-to-day life in the doldrums. Battling the undead becomes just another obstacle Shaun needs to overcome to put his life back together, once he decides to do so.

The opening act is patient, Wright taking his time filling in the admittedly limited details of Shaun's life. Try as he might this young man cannot do anything right, neither in his love life nor his career, but he does stand by his buddy Ed, who is even further behind the starting line of adulthood. As Shaun scrambles from his apartment to the local store then to work and the inevitable stop at the Winchester, his lifeless routine means he fails to see the increasing number of lifeless zombies roaming the streets.

Once Shaun and Ed finally come face to face with the apocalypse, Shaun Of The Dead kicks into a madcap gear and does not let up. The battles with the zombies are frequent and hilarious, Shaun finds the hero within, Ed discovers the joys of the outdoors, and together they make a formidable pair on a quest to save friends and family. Wright sometimes allows the tension within the group (Shaun and Liz's roommate David simply don't get along) to get in the way of the fun, but overall maintains durable momentum.

Many good people don't survive and tales of heroism abound; but the legend of Shaun Of The Dead will live forever down at the Winchester, where the namesake rifle over the bar may or may not be in working order.

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Sunday, 6 June 2021

Movie Review: The Man In The White Suit (1951)

A satirical comedy, The Man In The White Suit takes aim at industrial-scale inertia through the story of a potentially brilliant invention no one wants.

In Britain, Cambridge-educated chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is obsessed with creating an everlasting and stain-resistant fabric, but his unconventional research methods get him into trouble. After getting fired from the lab of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), he finds employment as a labourer at the textile factory owned by tycoon Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker). On the loading bays he befriends union activist Bertha (Vida Hope).

Sid finagles his way into the lab and resumes his research, and finds an ally in Birnley's daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). Alan is eventually convinced to back the explosive experimentation, and Sid perfects the formula for indestructible dirt-fighting cloth. But his discovery will disrupt the textile industry by curtailing sales and throwing workers off the job, and panic sets in among both capitalists and union leaders.

An Ealing Studios production, The Man In The White Suit takes a sparse premise and extends it into an acerbic commentary poking fun at both the money and labour wings of capitalism. The message of intransigence in the face of innovation is delivered with sharp and often exquisitely-timed humour, and Alec Guinness as a misfit inventor is suitably spiky. But director and co-writer Alexander Mackendrick also litters the story with too many interchangeable secondary characters in a sometimes desperate attempt to throw madcap quantity at the screen.

The build-up to Sid's invention is representative of both the film's strengths and choppiness. The young scientist hides in plain sight, rides a mean streak of persistence, and overcomes repeated terminations before his knowledge of modern lab equipment nets him another opportunity. But his attempts to get Birnley's attention by invading his house and the subsequent laboratory explosions are just overplayed, momentum seeping out to expose just how much work was required to stretch a sketch idea into an 85 minute movie.

The third act nails the message of an establishment fighting back with all its political might. The captains of industry and union activists scramble their resources, awakening to the risks of an invention that could upend all their jobs. But the humour and edginess suffer as Sid is sidelined, Mackendrick stuffing too many people into a few rooms and hoping for the best. Moments of slapstick and running-around-the-hallways cheapen the level of humour. 

But all is well that ends well. The resolution is a mix of pathos and confirmation the world of scaled-up commerce is as it should be, a place to maximize profit from established ideas while remaining willfully blind to upstarts carrying the blueprints of the future.

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