33 posts categorized "Biopic"

November 24, 2017

I, TONYA

I_tonyaCraig Gillespie, the Australian director behind the great magical realist film “Lars and the Real Girl” (from 2007) is destined to become a household name based on his work for this unforgettable film. “I, Tonya” is a beautifully crafted and executed brief biopic of Tonya Harding, an American figure skater made notorious by the same American media landscape that that gave rise to the presidential ascendancy of Donald Trump.

The film is as much a snapshot of American hypocrisies, and its ingrained ideology of cruelty, as it is a diligent portrayal of a gifted figure skater trapped by her impoverished social circumstances and abusive relations with the people closest to her — namely her mother and her husband.

With its convincing depictions of Margo Robbie [apparently] executing Harding’s signature triple axel in mind- blowing competition figure skating sequences, “I, Tonya” (written by screenwriter Steven Rogers) adopts a narrative style that flips between direct-to-camera confessionals and straight-ahead drama.

The subject matter is pitch dark but the film's tone frequently borders on slapstick. Robbie’s performance is an exercise in acting-chops virtuosity; she holds nothing back. Even when Robbie’s audacious portrayal turns her natural beauty into a monstrous visage, you can’t help but accept and respect Tonya Harding as a human being doing her best against impossible odds. An Oscar nomination most certainly looms for Robbie. 

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Intimidated, bullied, and ruthlessly punished by her self-promoting mother LaVona (brilliantly played by the ever-dependable Allison Janney), Tonya Harding is shown to have grown up indoctrinated by a white trash mentality synonymous with Donald Trump’s reckless approach to the world. Romantically following the first boy who pays her any attention brings a streak of bad luck when Tonya takes up with, and marries, Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gillooly. Every bit as physically abusive as Tonya’s mother, Jeff Gillooly delivers love with his fists, and even with a gun, when he’s sufficiently frustrated. He doesn’t keep good company either, as evidenced by his best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a man clearly suffering from intellectual developmental disorder.

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This is not by any means a feel-good movie. Every beat of mental and physical anguish that Margot Robbie nails with her pitch-perfect portrayal of Tonya Harding, brings the audience to an intimate understanding of story misstated and mishandled by the media and by the judge who oversaw Harding’s case related to a brutal attack against fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by Shane Stint (Ricky Russert).

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Even this film’s supporting roles are perfectly cast. Julianne Nicholson is wonderful as Harding’s skating coach Diane Rawlinson. For his part Bobby Cannavale does a lot with a little as a “Hard Copy” tabloid producer whose bent for exploitation runs as deep as TMZ’s Harvey Levin.     

Rated  R. 119 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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October 29, 2016

SNOWDEN

SnowdenOliver Stone achieves his obvious, if straightforward, motivations at telling Edward Snowden’s journey from Coast Guard brat to grand scale whistleblower.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt fulfills his thorough portrayal of Edward Snowden with an easy meticulousness that is comforting in its confidence. This is Oscar-worthy stuff. Shailene Woodley gives a serviceable performance as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, even if the chemistry isn’t what could have been with a better cast actress.

Stone takes dramatic liberties to fill the screen with richly stylized sets, such as the artistically lit NSA location where Snowden smuggles out a boatload of classified information. We take these artificial environments on their own merits as places where inorganic computers [run by robot-like men] dissect every second of every person’s life on the planet, from cradle to the grave. Anyone looking for a 100% factual depiction of Edward Snowden’s complex journey is playing a mug’s game. Glossy though this rendition of Snowden's ongoing path to justice is, this movie runs like a Swiss watch

There is no question that Edward Snowden exhibited a rare brand of bravery that deserves a good dose of character study at the movies. “Snowden” manages to be as entertaining and informative as you would expect from the filmmaker responsible for “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “JFK.”

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“Snowden” fits into to fact-based political thrillers like “All the President’s Men.” What makes it different is that this is the story of one man, a computer genius with a deeply rooted sense of integrity and responsibility. This is a personal story about one man, whose brave disclosures effect all of humanity. The unspoken hook of the film is why the NSA hasn’t been shut down since Snowden’s leaked documents prove this unconstitutional surveillance of our global citizenry is going on.

I have no idea if this film will change anyone’s mind about whether Edward Snowden is the greatest patriot of the 21st century. That isn’t the goal of this movie.

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Rated R. 134 mins. (B+) (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)


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April 04, 2016

BORN TO BE BLUE

BLUEEthan Hawke certainly has the acting chops to play the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What's more, Hawke resembles Chet in middle age before the ravages of heroin devastated his iconic good looks. But there’s more to Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker than keen acting skills and physical resemblance; demons. The Gen X survivor who caught fire in 1994 with “Reality Bites” has battled plenty of personal sprites, all the while testing the limits of his talents by writing (plays, novels and screenplays), directing, and acting. Always acting. His work here represents his finest performance to date.

“Hello fear. Hello death. Fuck you.” Hawke’s Baker repeats the lines being fed to him by the scantily clad actress playing a one-night stand in a film-within-the-film about his life. She uses a tourniquet to tie his arm off before giving him his first shot of heroin. He’s a wounded child seeking sex, approval, escape, and love in equal parts. Chet’s personal life comes barging though the hotel room door in the guise of his jealous girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). The narrative telescope compresses as black and white turns to color. We’re on a film set in 1966 Hollywood where Chet tries his hand at playing himself for a film director who rescued him from a filthy Italian jail where he was due to spend the next couple of years. So it is that writer/director Robert Budreau submerges his audience into the appropriately cold narrative waters of Chet Baker’s mid-life story.

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The role of Chet Baker’s heroin addiction in ruling, and ruining, his life is fully expressed when he tells Jane that he’s “only hurting himself.” Hawke downplays the self-delusion in the statement. Passive aggression is just another defense mechanism in Baker’s arsenal of survival tricks.

When angry drug dealers pistol-whip Chet in the mouth, the vicious attack comes with the cruel soubriquet, “no more jazz motherfucker.” Relearning to play the horn with dentures means creating three placements of embrasure — left, right, and center. As painful as it is watching Baker bleeding from the mouth while attempting to play, Hawke’s performance hooks us.

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Where Don Cheadle’s concurrently running Miles Davis filmic love letter “Miles Ahead” is an ambitious embrace of the great jazz trumpeter’s music, humor, and imagination, “Born to be Blue” is an impressionistic chamber piece made up of composite elements from Baker’s life. Linear facts don’t matter. Both films eschew the traditional biopic formula, and in so doing achieve a sublime dramatic effect of floating through the air that both trumpet players breathed. Forget about dueling super-heroes, “Born to be Blue” and “Miles Ahead” are the real McCoy to see phenomenally gifted men sparring for supremacy on their chosen field of battle. The blood and spit they spill is in the service of a transcendent musical beauty that no comic book creation can imagine.

Rated R. 97 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 11, 2015

STEVE JOBS — NYFF53

JobsFor a movie that resists the traditional biopic movie formula of career-high-and-low flashbacks (witness Ashton Kutcher’s disastrous “Jobs” about the same subject — now streaming on Netflix), “Steve Jobs” is a droning tone poem of a character study. That the Apple CEO seems to have never digested the milk of human kindness supports our shared realization that capitalism’s ruthless quest for unlimited profit is headed to a dead end.  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s flawed format sets the abstruse biographical narrative in three acts, each placed in the backstage areas of auditoriums, at different points in Jobs’s career. The petulant “genius” prepares to introduce Apple products that exemplify his bloated career as a cult figure who might have been drawn from Mike Myers’s Dieter character from the “Saturday Night Live” Sprockets skits. The difference is that Jobs made people pay to “touch his monkey.” 

Sorkin’s affinity for overlapping conversations, infused with artificial traveling tension (à la television’s “The Newsroom”), wears thin just when the movie should take off, namely at the start of its second act. In each tortured segment, we catch Michael Fassbinder’s mercurial computer mastermind getting ready to go on stage to introduce his latest creation. Distractions abound. Jobs’s temper explodes, as when his production team fails to make the Apple II computer say “hello” to the audience of press and industry at the product launch. The Steve Jobs presented here is an egomaniacal huckster with a gift for gab and a mean streak when it comes to women. Don’t look for any humanity here because the Steve Jobs we come to know from this film may as well be a capitalist robot come to “save” humanity by extracting its money. No need to thank this cult leader, profit and worship are all he desires.  

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In this ostensibly cinematically dynamic hotel environment of dressing-room mirrors and nervous assistants, Jobs suffers the company of people to whom he should be loyal, but can’t find it in himself to even be civil. First up are Steve’s ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) and her five-hear-old daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss). Chrisann is furious over Steve’s public denial of being Lisa’s father in a magazine interview where Jobs couched Chrisann in a brutally misogynistic analogy. Steve Jobs isn’t in the business of giving apologies. While he gloats over the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s worth, Chrisann lives in poverty. Only after she holds his feet to the fire does he finally agree to financially support her and their daughter. Talk about a wealthy skinflint not worthy of procreating, Steve Jobs puts the cherry on the cake.   

Danny Boyle does an admirable job of adding dimension and resonance to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Boyle deploys three different camera formats, one for each act. The filmmaker uses 16mm film for the first act, circa 1984 before shifting to glossy 35mm footage for the film’s 1988- era second act. Naturally the film’s final act (circa 1988) is filmed digitally. The artistic effort shines through even if it can’t elevate such a flawed script. The movie is too pat. 

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Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak (to whom Jobs refers as “Rainman”) is presented as two sides of an ongoing joke. All Woz wants, and he wants it really bad, is for his partner-in-crime (they stole the software they used to design their early computers) to acknowledge the “Apple II team” for their contributions to the company. Wozniak’s request seems more than reasonable since Jobs continues to milk that team’s success while tinkering with future failures, like the NeXT computer platform.

Walter Isaacson’s authorized Steve Jobs biography might have been the basis for Sorkin’s adaptation, but this film is all surface and punchlines. Jobs brags that “musicians play their instruments,” but that he “plays the orchestra.” Where, you might wonder does he do that? Off-Broadway perhaps?

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Even by anti-hero standards, Steve Jobs was a bad person who treated the people closest to him like dirt. Besides, he was no Elon Musk when it comes to inventing. This movie helps in its own heavy-handed way at peeling back onion layers of a conceptual inventor who took all of the credit for other people’s work. As many of us know, it’s not always the best idea to meet your heroes. Personally, I never found much fascination with Steve Jobs. After seeing this movie, that hasn't changed.   

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October 10, 2015

MILES AHEAD — NYFF53

Miles Don Cheadle’s independently produced labor of love is an exquisitely polished love letter to the iconic genius who revolutionized music five times over during the 20th century. This is a big movie with Miles Davis’s music and mind, front and center. Narrative information seeps from every pore of this appropriately larger-than-life film.  

Clever filmic storytelling devices filter historical fact with apocryphal cinematic flourishes to get at Miles Davis's charismatic personality. The filmmakers adopt a daring and original approach that works like a charm. As Don Cheadle said at the New York Film Festival press screening, this is the kind of movie Miles would have wanted to act in. One viewing isn’t anywhere near enough to drink in all that this great movie has to offer. This film has multiple Oscar nominations written all over it even if the powers that be will make sure no such thing ever occurs. Nonetheless, film-lovers will seek this motherfucker out. 

Cheadle directs himself with attention to the story’s overarching tonal and rhythmic ebbs of musical influence. A lot of thought and attention went into every note that the audience hears.

We see Miles Davis when we see Cheadle playing the trumpet. His transformation is absolute. The effect is hypnotizing. It would be selling the veteran actor short to say that he was clearly born to play Miles Davis if only for his similarly structured visage of Davis's handsome and athletic bearing. There is so much more to Don Cheadle's dramatized incarnation of a legend that you should stop reading this review and just get down with the movie.

The diligent Cheadle walked many psychological and physical miles in Davis's ubiquitous shoes to arrive at the incredibly high level of performance that he gives here. I'd give him the Best Actor Oscar right this minute. It simply doesn't get any better than this. Dustin Hoffman in "Lenny"? Yep, this movie does all that and more. "Pollock"? Yes, Cheadle shows off real horn chops just as Ed Harris threw real paint as Jackson Pollock. And, still this movie does so much more than either of those estimable examples of the biopic genre achieves. It is no small feat to reinvent the biopic genre. Tarantino might talk shit about biopics, but I bet he'd love this one. Witness Aaron Sorkin's failed attempt at the same goal with "Steve Jobs," a movie that comes nowhere near the level of narrative sophistication that "Miles Ahead" flicks, punches, and grooves on like nobody's business.  

When asked at a New York Film Festival premiere screening how he juggled so many tasks while making the picture, Mr. Cheadle replied, “Drugs.” Watching his wonderfully inspired portrayal of Miles Davis is like taking an emotionally charged musical journey drug for the audience. It doesn't hurt that Mile's former bandmate Herbie Hancock oversaw the film's musical aspects with the assistance of veteran composer Robert Glasper

Don Cheadle Directing Miles Ahead
Cheadle and his fellow screenwriters break the typical biopic cradle-to-grave format with an approach compatible to the way Miles Davis's actively creative mind worked. Sturdily constructed subplots weave between two days during Miles’s ‘70s era retirement from music, and earlier periods related to his time with Frances Davis (1958 – 1968), the woman featured on the cover of Davis’s 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.” A hot chemistry boils between Cheadle and the impossibly beautiful actress who plays Frances with an elegant poise and feminine power that is out of this world. Muse? You bet.

The “Sketches of Spain” recording sessions make for a cool peek at Miles directing his band with the assistance of Gill Evans (Jeffrey Grover). We are entranced by Cheadle’s elegant command of his characterization.

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“Miles Ahead” has a floating sense of Miles Davis’s human essence hovering everywhere you look. Everything works. Especially enjoyable is Cheadle’s pitch-perfect delivery of Miles’s wonderfully laconic sense of humor, as expressed though his famously rasp of a voice. (Miles blew out his vocal chords when he yelled while recovering from polyp surgery). Hilarious zingers fly left and right. The picture is funnier than most Hollywood comedies.

It goes on. The artistic cinematic ingenuity on display here is staggering. The film’s lighting and production designs are lush like you can’t believe. Naturally, the film’s editing (courtesy of John Axelrad and Kayla Emter) is perfect down to the millisecond. These filmmakers clearly took their time. You never doubt the shifting tempos that map out the thickly layered storyline.

Although the film doesn't open until April, 2016, it is being given a limited release qualifying run, in order for it to be considered for the 2016 Oscars. 

MILES AHEAD
As the only film at the 53rd New York Film Festival to feature black actors, “Miles Ahead” made a powerful statement that transcends the music of Miles Davis as an ongoing social and cultural connector. Don Cheadle makes a point to include a scene where Miles tells a reporter not to call his music “Jazz.” “Call it social music,” Miles says. Cool man. Dig it, 'cause if you can't dig this, you can't dig nothin'.

Rated R. 100 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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September 26, 2015

THE WALK — NYFF 53

WalkA palm-sweating love letter to the Twin Towers, Robert Zemeckis’s meaningfully 3D-embellished telling of Philippe Petit’s journey to stepping on a cable strung more than 110 stories above Manhattan’s ground is at once thrilling, moving, and larger-than-life. Indeed, your palms will sweat, and many tears will spill. The film’s confidently employed 3D effects support Petit’s heartfelt narrative with jolts of visual authenticity. Be prepared for a couple of window-breaking scenes that could make you recoil in your seat to get out of their way. High angle shots, looking down from above the towers, provide a dizzying context for Petit's incredible achievement. 

Based on Petit’s 2002 memoir (“The Reach the Clouds: My Highwire Walk between the Twin Towers”), this wildly entertaining film switches between presentational and representational approaches that function surprisingly well for the subject. You can’t help but be swept up by it. By the standards of Hollywood big-spectacle movies, none come close to packing this much emotional juice. “The Walk” is a TKO you don’t see coming.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt impeccably inhabits the ambitious, if fanatical, French tightrope walker with a spot-on Parisian accent and demanding physical skills born of the eight-days that the gifted actor spent training with Petit in order to walk on a wire. Though executed with Green Screen visual effects, and with the help of a stunt-double, Gordon-Levitt was required to perform on a tightrope 12-feet from the ground.

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Philippe Petit speaks directly to the audience from his elevated perch on the Statue of Liberty’s torch overlooking the Twin Towers. Again and again the film returns to Petit’s fourth-wall-breaking narration on the Hudson River to bring the audience inside his intimate story via an effectively pronounced passion for something that most of us have a tough time getting our heads around, namely walking on a cable strung between the World Trade Center in 1974. When the “walk” does occur, it carries with it a profound sense of social and personal fulfillment. The inspirational power of Petit’s death-defying walk makes sense for the human scale of his performance, and its historical context. The film exists as an elucidating cinematic document of how Petit’s rebellious act transcends more things than anyone could imagine at the time that he did it.

Early on, Zemeckis uses evocative black-and-white sequences of Petit developing his act on the streets of Paris. Splashes of color enter in. A baguette, which the unicycling Petit steals from a sidewalk café, takes on its true color against the somber gray urban background. Such visual flourishes of detail-oriented expression consistently connect to characters’ actions with a seamless fluency.

Zemickis and co-screenwriter keep Petit’s personal history moving with a lean editing style that satisfies any audience expectation before you know what that anticipation might be.

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Ben Kingsley brings his ineffable signature charm to bear as Petit’s wire-walking mentor Papa Rudy, with whom Philippe shares a contentious but respectful relationship. Kingsley’s wonderful supporting performance is every bit as Oscar worthy as Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal is for a leading role. This is a movie that you will never forget. Take the family, and enjoy.

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Rated PG. 123 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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November 24, 2014

THE IMITATION GAME

What Becomes an Enigma Most?
Benedict Cumberbatch Transforms Into Alan Turing

Imitation GameGenius mathematician Alan Turning finally takes center stage as the father of the modern computer, an unsung British hero of World War II, and as a victim of Britain’s draconian punishment of gays in this well-rounded biopic about the man who broke the Nazi’s cryptographic code machine — the “Enigma.” The only complaint that could be made about this film is that it remains so hermetically neat that it keeps its audience at more of a distance than it should. Adapted from Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” “The Imitation Game” liberally employs biopic genre conventions but resists staidness by way of its outstanding performances, not the least by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing.

During a year in which a trio of British biopics (see “Mr. Turner” and “The Theory of Everything”) promise to temporarily relieve Hollywood-weary audiences of their disgust with America’s money-obsessed corporate movie machine, “The Imitation Game” presents the most politically relevant of the mini-genre. Gay marriage is a cultural inevitability in America, but the road to getting there was covered with lives snuffed out by ignorance and prejudice. Britain has its own penance to do.

The film’s title derives from a scientific game devised by Alan Turing to discover if a machine can think. It also obliquely refers to Turing’s double life as a homosexual man living with a secret that could and did ruin his life.

In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he [Turing] was treated.”

Late last year, Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal pardon of Alan Turning. The fact that Turning was never guilty of a crime in the first place is augmented by the fact that he made, in Winston Churchill’s words, “the most important achievement of anyone during the war.” It is estimated that Turning’s work on breaking the Enigma code hastened the end of World War II by somewhere between two and four years, thus saving many thousands, if not millions, of lives.

As “The Imitation Game’s” director Morten Tyldum has stated, “There’s nothing to pardon. He [Turning] was prosecuted for being a gay man. If anything, it’s him and his family who should pardon them [the British government] — and us — for letting that happen.”

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Based on his socially awkward behavior and prodigious talent for math and puzzle solving, it’s reasonable to presume that Alan Turing fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. When Turing interviews with Royal Navy Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) for a top-secret wartime job at the UK’s Bletchley Park Government Code and Cypher School, he nearly blows it due to his off-putting demeanor. Once hired to work with a group of less gifted code-breakers, led by Mathew Goode’s Hugh Alexander, Turing can’t help alienating his co-workers to the point that they want to inflict bodily harm upon him. The tense atmosphere inside their “Hut 8” warehouse work space is made all the more urgent by the Nazi’s combat effectiveness enabled by the complex code machine.

The Germans are winning the war while Turing struggles with the concept of creating an algorithm capable of digesting the Enigma’s many millions of code possibilities as reinvented on a daily basis. Undeterred by his distrustful commander, and some of the inept members of his team, Turing pens a personal letter to Churchill, who soon empowers the ambitious logician with the ability to fire and hire members of his team.

Working from a puzzle that takes him eight minutes to solve, Turing recruits Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a woman capable of solving the same brainteaser in less than six minutes. Joan’s induction into the Hut 8 crew allows her to help Alan get along better with the rest of the unit. A relationship of convenience, more than attraction, blossoms between Joan and Alan.

The hook in the narrative resides in a haunting flashback sequence that outlines the nature of Turing’s boyhood friendship with his classmate Christopher Morcom. The minimal recollections explain Turing’s longing sense of romanticism and loss that causes him to name the machine he designs to break the Enigma, Christopher.

Complete with a spoken recurrent theme line that could, and should, have been relegated to a movie poster tagline (“Sometimes it's the people that no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine”), the success of “The Imitation Game” comes down to Benedict Cumberbatch’s sensitive portrayal of a complex personality.

The actor, known for his infallible portrayals in films such as “The Fifth Estate” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” possesses the innate ability to color his roles with dark and light notes that carry an essential depth of authentic human experience.

Cumberbatch isn’t afraid to exhibit negative traits because he is at peace with the duality of nature and his place as a conduit of intelligence and emotion. Here is an actor who doesn’t imitate; he inhabits. Wouldn’t it be something if three Best Actor Oscar nominations went to British actors? Between Timothy Spall (“Mr. Turner”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), and Benedict Cumberbatch, that would be quite a race.

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Rated PG-13. 114 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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