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Lesson from Blue Valentine: relationships are boring
6 July 2011
I don't know if it is the director or the actors but there is no chemistry anywhere in this film. It plays like two actors trying to be the archetypal pushy male and the bored female and not quite pulling it off. Also, the tame sex scenes have been obviously exploited by the film makers to publicize the movie. Gosling is a fine actor; here he is given too much freedom as he doesn't seem to have any idea about how the masses make love or feel. His performance is the first failure of his career. But, it's not all his fault.

It's as if the copious rehearsal time has robbed the essence of what happens in real life. We act out our lives in surprising and inexplicable turns. There are no surprises here. Extensive acting play has taken the place of the spontaneity and complexity of real life. Then again, nobody will know the difference. This is a movie you're supposed to like. Even if it has nothing to do with the life you're living. It's what directors and actors think we are like but we are not that simple. Ever.
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10/10
Hearkens back to classic movie making while venturing onto new ground
18 June 2011
Perhaps it is because I've become addicted to classic cinema the last few years, but I find modern movies to be increasing shrill, clumsily assembled and soulless. One of the few directors breaking new ground while keeping his feet firmly planted in classic film making, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has crafted a work of art that defies simplistic interpretation.

Using the environment as the soundtrack instead of grating, discordant music so often spoiling films of our era, Boonmee bathes the viewer in succulent imagery, real life sounds and a spiritual depth that rings so true to the reality of our everyday lives, despite being set in rural Thailand. Like Antonioni, Weerasethakul understands the power of silence and the clarity of image.

Though not for everyone, it is a must see for anyone who treasures cinema. To my eyes and ears, it is a masterpiece. It is the way I wish more movies would be made - honestly, lovingly and lasting. And where else would you see a catfish making love to a princess and have it be so elegant. And where else would you found a line as beautiful and profound as, "Heaven is overrated. There is nothing there".
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Another Year (2010)
5/10
Some great performances, some not so
14 June 2011
Marred by overacting from one of the major actors (Lesley Manville as Mary) and a cloying, invasive score, this film could have been great. Critics surely loved it for how it represents an underrepresented segment of British society. Granted, there is a naturalness to relationship of the married couple that has been a long time coming. Too bad it's mired in exaggerated situations that are used to amplify the steadiness of the couple. It's a little too obvious contrivance. More for sociologists than film lovers, there's not enough here of interest to those other than people involved in the socio-economic conditions of the characters portrayed. And that violiny score...pure torture.
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Biutiful (2010)
4/10
A film made be irritating and make the viewer uncomfortable
28 May 2011
There's very little salvageable about this film. The acting, the camera work, the direction, the script, the environments, the sound design are all loud, obvious, shaky and blatant as if designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. There are rare, wonderful moments here but they disappear beneath the noise.

There's not much subtlety. It's stodgy and at the same time edgy, but not in a good way. A touch of humour or a lighter moment here or there would go a long way to making this an enriching experience. Granted, the film does pick up speed and smooth out the rough spots but only after the patience of the viewer has been tested.

A real shame the wonderful Incendies lost to this poorly-realized bit of pretension.
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Fish Tank (2009)
Stunning theatrical debut from Katie Jarvis and director Andrea Arnold
26 May 2011
I left this movie stunned and stilled. Katie Jarvis' expressionless voyage through her 15th year soaked my entire attention into her character's being until I was her. A masterful performance of reserve and barely suppressed anger, frustration and awe permeate Jarvis' every move. While the character does unforgivable things at times, she is never who she seems to be on the surface. One can't help but pull for Mia and empathize with her inherent goodness, masquerading as it is under a steely, cold demeanour.

Jarvis' extraordinary performance wouldn't make a whit of impact without a director's equally reserved yet insightful work. Arnold never forces the issue, save for a little bit of symbolic overindulgence near the end, letting the characters play out the story.

Jarvis isn't alone in her excellence. Michael Fassbinder is a wonder, a smooth talking machismo machine who never over exerts but provides the right nuance at the right moment. Kierston Wareing is equally as effective, raw yet vulnerable, but like her daughters you would never know it by her words alone.

Arnold is one of the few modern directors who does not employ gimmicks. Music is one of the most offending of all directing crutches. This director avoids incidental music except when it actually occurs as part of the story. In one scene in particular, crossing fields all you can hear are the rustling of the leaves and the weeds, much like Antonioni did with "Blow-Up". Without distracting synthesisers or orchestras, the scene has all the terror of the moment.

This is a rare movie of substance and grit. It sinks under your skin and won't let you go. It never overplays its hand and keeps you involved. Arnold, Fassbender and Jarvis weave a hypnotic tale that in most cases would alienate and aggravate. It takes real artistry to transform such a gritty tale into a work of art of subtly and reserve. Fassbender is fast becoming a star. It won't take longer for Jarvis to follow, should she want it bad enough. As for Arnold, I'm looking forward to her next work more than any other.
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Concise, taut, not a scene wasted. Prime for remake.
24 March 2011
This is the type of movie you rarely see anymore. It lives in a world of its own like a high-priced hooker. There is no fat, no excess, no bloat. If you are not sitting on the edge of your seat through this, you are not alive.

Rarely have I seen a more disciplined production. The director acts as a living being, unseen, unheard but there, always there, stalking your imagination and fears brilliantly. Blake Edwards is known for his comedy films. A pity. He was made for drama and suspense.

I don't usually propose remakes of classics. Modern directors know nothing of restraint and precise story telling without gimmickry. Edwards weaves this tale with all faculties present and accounted for. Acting? Check. Music? Check. Cinematography? Check. Script? Check. Lighting? Check. Acting? Check.

That's why I wish Clint Eastwood would remake this. Like his direction or not, he is economical in his art and fluid in his storytelling. Experiment in Terror is a forgotten classic that deserves to live another day. I don't think anyone could it justice these days other than Eastwood.
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Black Swan (2010)
5/10
Torture
19 March 2011
I suppose it is Aranofsky's artistic temperament, but this movie is torture to watch. The first half hour goes beyond torture. Portman gives a one-note performance that is difficult to watch. A little variety in tone might have made her character a bit more sympathetic. We're supposed to feel for her. Aranofsky's ineptitude ensures we don't. She is a blank slate, filmed upon a black canvas.

The look of the film is that of a rainy day. There is no colour here. Filmed through a bowl of pea soup, the life is drained out of every scene, leaving one robbed of emotional involvement. There is little beauty or elegance. Vincent Cassel, so wonderful in the Mesrine movies, works overtime to pronounce each word, lending to the overreaching artiness of this still life.

I suppose the ugliness of the film, the performances, the cinematography are all intended to alienate and cause discomfort in the audience. People love this movie. I guess some of us have a streak of masochism in us. Some of us don't.
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Smarty (1934)
Slight tale of masochistic woman in control
18 March 2011
At one point in this movie, Joan Blondell's character confides to a friend thoughts about her husband striking her, "That's just it. If he really loved me, he'd a hit me long ago." Very much a product of its time, this pre-Hays code tale reflects a morality that seems cruel and sexist now. But the main character revels in her time; cracking double entendres and frank admissions of how she likes to be physically abused yet control the men who love her.

Joan Blondell, infamous for her proclivity for shedding her clothes at parties, seems right at home in this role. Her risqué comments and coy delivery fit neatly within the framework of her character.

You could not make this movie today. Even the thought of a woman inviting physical abuse upon herself is taboo. But not in "Smarty". This brisk, if somewhat slight, film bathes in its taboo-breaking with a kind of so what bravado. The characters are friendly, even affectionate, with each other despite the blows, both physical and emotional. The breezy repartee ignores the reality of the situations, instead playing light thanks to a humorous script and crisp performances.

Yes, "Smarty" is a look back at a time before PC was de riguer and people like Will H. Hays, for better or worse, ruled cinema. If you can get past the glossing over of physical violence, you may just be lured into the lead character's web. Joan Blondell brings it. Watching her performance in this movie, I don't know why she wasn't a bigger star.
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The Big Sleep (1978)
7/10
It's not the 1946 original but a lot of fun nonetheless
6 March 2011
While I haven't read the novel upon which 'The Big Sleep' is based, I have seen the Bogart version. I really love the original. Bogie-Bacall - what's not to love? However, that version does suffer from Hays Code puritanism that robbed the edge from much of human desires and sexual foibles that obviously suppressed some of the underlying desires and sexual motives.

That's where the 1978 version excels - and fails. Let's start with the fails. In the original, the scenes in the bookshops near the beginning rule with Bogie's use of humour and the electric suggested tryst with Dorothy Malone's character. Sometimes the suggestion can be erotic enough. Perhaps that's why this version skips the fun and the implied sex for another more mundane approach.

The other fail is the atmosphere. This version lacks any. The original's shadows and textures evoked each scene and created moods. This version lacks any specific mood to instead tell a story in almost a heightened reality. The direction does the same, relying on straight-ahead narrative more like a TV movie than a theatrical film.

There's so much more here that succeeds. Despite his age, Mitchum is a fine Marlow, more cynical and world-weary than Bogart's version. The script is sharp, full of humour and wry observations. The biggest improvement is the depiction of sex. Freed of the tyranny of the forties' censorship, scenes like Carmen naked and stoned are much more realistic and make a more satisfying treatment, even if the innuendo is not as predominant.

OK, it's not the classic it could've been. It's still a decent flick to rent or watch on cable. Marlowe is solid, Candy Clark is wonderfully loony, Joan Collins is pure kitsch, Richard Boone plays the essence of evil. It's good to see James Stewart, even if his gentle disposition doesn't quite match the demeanour of a General. The supporting cast are almost uniformly intriguing and fun to watch. And what a cast!

The Big Sleep may be no masterpiece but it is great fun. Relax your expectations and enjoy it for what is - fine entertainment.
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One Week (I) (2008)
Solid performances, breathtaking cinematography, insipid music
26 February 2011
This is a quintessential Canadian flick. It is truly breathtaking in its capture of a huge, inscrutable country. The acting and direction are austere and understated. The characters are underscored and very real. The story is muted and unpretentious. But altogether it works some kind of magic.

But this a Canadian film. With that comes the weepy, folky, trite music that underscores the film. Canada has a history of producing some of the saddest-eyed, wimpy singer-songwriters of all time. This film manages to cram the sobbiest, sad-sack folksters of all time into almost every frame. (It's no wonder most of Canada's rockers move away.) You'd have thought an uplifting tale of self-discovery would warrant equally uplifting music to buoy the tale, but no. It's just too Canadian.

If you can ignore the crappy music, this movie will move you.
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Local Color (2006)
4/10
Fine expose of art appreciation but dull, dull, dull.
18 February 2011
I'm watching this now and I'm growing more impatient by the minute. Usually I like silence in movies but the pauses here within the dialog scream too loudly. Trevor Morgan's wretched performance doesn't help. Ray Liotta is saddled with an Archie Bunker stereotype that wears thin after his first scene. The actors have to constantly fight the inert direction. Not even Mueller-Stahl's solid work here can't save the film from grinding to a slow death. You can always predict the next scene. That's how clichéd it is (Karate Kid anyone). The stationary camera work is unimaginative and does nothing to evoke its subject matter.

Saying all that, this movie delivers to the layman when it comes to lessons in art. The observations on art are basic but astute. There are some decent rules of thumb for anybody to take to a museum or simply when looking at the world. The complexity of shapes and colors in everyday life are explored here in the guise of painting. Ruining all this is a closed-mindedness towards abstract art that doesn't make sense. Painting abstract artists and those who appreciate it as morons and dilettantes contradicts the film's basic message of life as art.

Better pacing, and better acting from the young actor, could have gone a long way to make this film work. For a film about colors and shapes, there is very little here to inspire or at which to marvel. Watch it only for Mueller-Stahl's performance and some minor lessons in how to look at the world.
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Tamara Drewe (2010)
6/10
An anti-feminist tale?
13 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Stephen Frears seems to have sleep-walked through this. After watching it, I find it hard to find any redeeming qualities in the whole mess. I guess that's the point. The characters are all cringe-worthy. The moral, if there is one, is completely corrupt. The story does little but paint caricatures of women and men. Yet, there is something in the aftertaste that is slightly beguiling.

No one in this film comes out better for the telling. The only likable character isn't likable at all. Beth is the dim-witted, dull wife of despicable famous author and the supposed victim of the piece. But she is so dull, so dim you don't give a rat's bum for her. Even her pining American suitor is so ineffectual that you want to pummel him.

But that's just what the idiot does to the husband. Here's the rub. The cheating husband is head-butted, gashed on the back of the head and trampled by a stampede of cows. Meanwhile the despicable titular character and a teenage witch who cause most of the pain are not only given a moral pass but rewarded in the end for their devious ways.

It's a curious mixture, this movie. I sense the comic strip upon which it is based has far more subtlety and wit. Then again, who knows? In a movie that rewards bad behaviour in women, where ineffectual men are the norm and the only punishment is heaped on a promiscuous male, you have a movie that seems not fully realized.

Technically, Tamara Drewe is a decent flick. It looks good. There are some memorable performances. The aftertaste lasts a little longer than the movie itself. That's a good thing. It's just that the whole thing feels kind of, well, icky. One character of merit wouldn't hurt. This is not a comic strip. It's a movie. As viewers, we need that one last bit of humanity to hang on to.
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The Pledge (I) (2001)
3/10
Inept ending spoils what could have been a fine film
8 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
What is this movie? A murder mystery? A character study? It's neither and both. It is in fact two movies in one. For the first 95%, it is an involving mystery. For the last 5%, it is a character study.

In the end, the mystery is barely resolved while the character Jack Nicholson plays is unconvincingly left hanging. You feel cheated. The action so carefully built up in the first part falls apart in seconds near the end. The resolution happens so quickly you hardly know it happened. Or did it? You almost wonder.

Nicholson's character is sketched so lightly, with so few clues to his inner workings, that you never really get a look at what makes him tick, making the ending feel like you have wasted the first almost two hours of your life. I don't blame Nicholson, he gives it his all.

There must be a story to this. Penn is a fine director with a sure hand. In fact, his direction for the most part here works as a story. But it is so poorly put together, I wonder if a producer or the studio took the film from Penn and re-cut it. In the end, the viewer is left without an adequate resolution, without knowing why Nicholson's character ended up the way he did.

The sad thing is that there is almost enough here to re-cut the movie for it be both a satisfying mystery while building the demise of Nicholson's character in an involving, empathetic way. Almost.
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5/10
Uniformly inspiring performances but insipid characters and glacial pacing ruin potentially fine film
3 February 2011
You know when you begin daydreaming early in a film, something is lacking. I missed much of the storyline because I began compiling my grocery list in my head while watching. I had to keep rewinding to catch up on dialog until I just gave up and salvaged what I could. That would be the acting. It is uniformly sublime. Sally Hawkins continues to dazzle - her performance here is about as far as you can get from her role in 'Happy Go Lucky'. Too bad her role in NLMG is so small.

It goes without saying that Carey Mulligan if fast becoming one of the finest actors in film. She takes a limp, passive character and breathes life where is so little. Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield also bring a little life to equally insipid characters, valiantly trying to enliven them from a walking dead state.

The direction, while steady, is unimaginative and dull. Scenes take too long. Some inspired editing would have given the story more homogeny and quickened the deadly pace. It doesn't help that a whiny score floats around this movie, invading its space rather than enhancing it. Pity is, there is a good movie somewhere here. It's just not on the screen.
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9/10
A rarity: a modern film that stands up to repeated viewings
31 January 2011
It took a couple of viewings for me to fully appreciate Broken Embraces. Almodovar unravels the complex tale of Harry Caine with unusual skill and nuance. A times sublime - especially the use of Penelope Cruz on silent film while her flesh and blood speaks the lines - and other times hilarious - the film within film, Girls and Suitcases - this movie never overextends itself, perfectly unveiling layer after layer.

All the performances hit the mark, Blanca Portillo in particular. Lluis Homar manages to sell his role, despite the difficulty of playing blind and seeing.

As usual with Almodovar, the cinematography is spell-bending. The El Golfo beach shots perfectly capturing the disorienting predicaments of the main characters.

If you've already watched Broken Embraces, watch it again. And then again. It remains fresh and intriguing yet reveals more and more gems with each viewing.
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Julia (2008)
5/10
Fine movie with some drawbacks, the acting being one of them
27 January 2011
Tilda Swinton is one of cinema's finest actors. She has quite a resume. She can do just about anything ... except for an American accent. Combine the exaggerated r's and overly-wrung pronunciations with endless hysteria, Swinton overplays her hand with this role. On one hand, it's a bravura performance. But by half way I had to hit pause to take a break from the shrieking. Swinton has such difficult time with the accent that the demands of screaming and yelling make her become grating.

I blame the director. He is not an actor's director. Another actor, Kate del Castillo, gives one of the most annoying performances of all time. It is simply atrocious. The rest of the cast fares much better.

Despite my reservations about Swinton's accent and outsized performance, she does prevail. By the end, her character softens considerably and Swinton is allowed to shine. The director comes through, too with a fine second half and saves the movie. Too bad about the first half.
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3/10
Wildly overrated, shot in yellow/green pallor with unlikeable characters
26 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This movie seems to be the critics' darling of 2010. Yes, it has a brilliant script. That is until the end, when one of the main character's legal staff absolves him of all guilt. Aaron Sorkin, I bet you didn't write that in the script. It was obviously put in later to make Zuckerberg not appear to be as much a monster as the rest of the script paints him to be. It's appropriate a legal person speaks those words because it is nothing more than a device to absolve the filmmakers from any legal recourse the real Mark Zuckerberg might take against them.

But that little bit of convenient cheating by the script is nothing compared to the vile yellow/green pallor that envelopes the film. David Fincher hates whites and blues. He refuses to use them. I scratch my head that all these high falootin' critics never mention that this film looks like it was shot on Mars. It looks horrible. My advice when you watch this at home is to remove the color and watch it in black and white. Along with the one-dimensional characters and flat acting (especially from the one-note Eisenberg), what you will get is a decent old-fashioned black and white movie. But not much else.

What really hurts is that the yellow/green David Fincher is currently spoiling the gorgeous earthbound whites/blues of Niels Arden Oplev's masterful "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and placing them onto the lifeless surface of Mars. Sacrilege.
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Shameless (2011– )
8/10
Fluid direction, crisp script, helmed by trio of fine performances
25 January 2011
Note: I have not seen the UK version.

I wasn't sure what to make of the first episode of Shameless. I wasn't sold on the characters and the direction seemed directionless. In fact, it wasn't until the third ep that my eyes were opened. It's as if the actors have found their mark and the characters have come to life.

While the ensemble cast is solid, and Macy is at his irascible best, it is the performance of three of the actors which makes Shameless something special. Emmy Rossum, as the 'adult' glue that holds the family together, has rightly received the most press. Her role requires a combination of strength, resolve, humour and vulnerability - qualities that would thwart a lesser actress. Rossum is able to convincingly bring it all together with fire and sexuality in addition to her other qualities.

Equally effective in his role as the younger brother Lip, Jeremy Allen White brings a world-weary innocence to his character. Blessed with a malleable physiognomy, White is at once rascal and protector of the brood. White makes us want to know Lip better. That's rare.

In a smaller role but probably my favourite is Emma Kenney as little sister Debbie. Her deadpan wisecracks supply the laugh-out-loud moments while her heartbreaking scenes of longing for parental love bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened soul. She can act toe-to-toe with Macy and still steal the scene.

The rest of the cast is almost as good. Their performances would be wasted, however, without a tight script and fluid - but not frenetic - direction. The third episode brought all these pieces together in a fascinating show. Whether the writing and direction can sustain this level of quality over a season we don't know. What we do have for now is some of the best ensemble acting you will see on TV or on film.
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RED (2010)
7/10
Solid entertainment but only entertainment
19 January 2011
I enjoyed this movie from the first frame to the last. The performances (save for the miscast Pigeon and giveaway phony American accent of Urban) are all superb. Willis has rarely been better. Malkovich, Cox and Mirren show their comic sides with nuance and humor. Most surprising of all is Parker whose self-assured comic timing and warmth enhances the rugged cynicism of the retired CIA agents.

Expertly edited, sharply directed, with a tight script, "Red" has nary a scene or word wasted. Of course, it's all make believe and almost cartoonish but that's what makes this film a delight. Add to this cake of delights a tasteful score with appropriate musical tracks so rarely used in the correct way any longer in modern cinema.

This is a fine popcorn movie that won't change you but will entertain and bring a smile to your face.
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Baghead (2008)
4/10
Could have been scary and entertaining but...
20 December 2008
... the irritating characters, especially Catherine, argue, whine and edge one another along. That's before the horror begins. The yelling and annoying characters drag down whatever strengths this movie might have.

The movie does have redeeming value. The editing is fine, the script OK. The camera work is too close up and leaves little freedom of movement which restricts the buildup. Other than the poor filming, the direction is otherwise crisp and unobtrusive.

The acting is marginal. The male characters are pitiful weaklings who, despite attractive females at their sides, are unable to have romantic or physical relationships with the women. As the women, the character Michelle talks like a Val a decade younger than the character's age. As said before Catherine, although a beauty, is antagonistic and sarcastic. Not a sympathetic character at all in a movie that needs a little warmth.
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Mickey One (1965)
60's nightmare a unrelenting delight
23 January 2001
This tour de force of cinema schizoid frenzy, almost a funhouse mirror of A Hard Day's Night released a year earlier, `Mickey One' is a living nightmare that makes you glad you like movies. Stan Getz wails warning notes in place of sunny melodies. Alarming jump cuts elbow their way with Fellini characters. The B&W is so sinful it hurts. Not playful in the least, `Mickey One' is a blaring signal of what was to become of the sixties, promising a world of unknown futures, guaranteeing nothing. But after seeing this film, a contemporary filmgoer predicted the sick feeling that all was not as sunny as the love generation promised. It's magical, for sure, but also unsettling, jarring, and totally original. This movie more than any other from its time reflects its time, it's own illusion and the cold hard reality of its situation; it's seamy underbelly seeping into every wall, every street, rarely painted in celluloid so true to time that still ticks today the same savage way.

Not all is perfect in this film. The looping, or dubbing, is awful - a sheet metal noise of monochromatic non-dimension noise that indeed propels the unreality of the surface but also dulls the knife edge of its message, whatever that is. I've seen better-dubbed foreign movies than this din. Perhaps it was designed that way. In a film so full of uneasiness, that could certainly be true.

Were not the Sixties a time of messages? Love it or not, you've got to give Arthur Penn his due for bypassing 60's sentimentality by jarring its viewers back into what they already knew too well - this was the most uncertain and edgy time in this country's history. Sort of an Altamont prediction in its way; a harrowing roller coaster ride that smoothes its rougher edges with just the right amount of post-fifties' alarms screaming in almost every frame. There is no escape anywhere in this movie.

Alexandra Stewart is a bonus - a glowing star reflected coldly in the shadow of Warren Beatty's rising star. Beauty so outrageous in these two you forget what beauty is supposed to be. I'm glad no one's dared make a sequel, but watch out, it's time will one day come. Just like Mickey's fate.
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