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Monday, May 27

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Airbags

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

And the hits keep on coming. After staggering a bit in the quality department with Drillbit Taylor, the House of Judd Apatow produces another unqualified winner. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which Apatow produced) is the story of Peter (Jason Segel, Seth Rogen's very tall friend in Knocked Up), a musician for a successful television cop show starring his girlfriend, actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). The two have been a couple for many years, but one day she announces that she's leaving him. The scene would be tragic if Peter wasn't completely naked in what might be the most memorable breakup scene ever filmed. Peter wallows in a sea of self-pity over his loss until his friend Brian (SNL's Bill Hader, who seems to get funnier each time I see him) suggests that Peter take a vacation somewhere to take his mind off things. Peter remembers Sarah talking about a resort in Hawaii, and so he hops on a plane and decides to take a trip. Soon after arriving in this island paradise where couples are getting married or honeymooning all around him, Peter runs into Sarah along with her rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (the scene-stealing Russell Brand). The couple are essentially in a non-stop game of slap-and-tickle, and Peter's world is shattered once again at the beginning of what promises to be the worst vacation ever.

Most of what I've just outlined takes up about the first 20-30 minutes of the film. What the film could have done is turn Peter into a stalker trying to ruin his ex-girlfriend's spirited and athletic sex vacation. But the screenplay (by Segel) is much smarter and more layered than that. Peter makes friends with Rachel (Mila Kunis from "That '70s Show"), the front-desk clerk at the resort. Their relationship seems more based on her taking pity on him, but a really nice friendship develops that eases his suffering a little bit at a time. First-time director Nicholas Stoller (a writer for the Apatow-created TV show "Undeclared") shows a nice touch for drawing these characters and making us really enjoy their company. As with many Apatow films, there are no villains, just people we are meant to like more than others. We even grow mildly fond of Sarah by the end of the film, especially after the best-written scene in the film in which she finally explains to Peter why she ended their relationship (reasons that seem wholly acceptable and universal).

Sure, we still get the patented extended cameos from the Apatow stable. Paul Rudd is on hand as a dim-witted surfing instructor who gives Peter some truly uninspired life coaching. And the exceptional Jonah Hill plays a waiter at the resort who happens to be an obsessive fan of Aldous the rock star. Forgetting Sarah Marshall has a lot of nice touches, such as the snippets of Peter's Dracula-inspired rock opera and the unconventional track that Peter and Rachel's relationship takes. Segel not only shows that he has a gift for screenwriting one of the best romantic-comedies I've seen in years, but he really shines here as an actor. I was afraid Segel would wear the hang-dog face he has for much of the film's early scenes, but once he begins to relax and consider his life and future with Sarah, he takes on a truly likable tone without sapping it up. Peter is a flawed character, to be sure, but those flaws are part of his charm and not something to be eliminated or "fixed" by a woman.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall makes comedy and relationship movies look easy and effortless. I've never been of the school that Bell is the end-all most beautiful, desirable woman on the planet (she seems like a lovely person, don't get me wrong), but my exposure to her work has been limited. That said, she's totally fearless in this film, getting put through the sex-comedy paces without compromise. There's a quick montage of her sexual escapades with the rock star that is a riot, and a botched rekindling with Peter late in the film is awe-inspiring if only because it's one of the most awkward sequences ever committed to film. As for Kunis, she's more my type and she wears her role as part-rebound, part-therapist to Peter perfectly. It's extremely difficult to find flaws with this wonderful film. Some might grumble about the standard-issue Apatow running time of two hours, but I didn't even notice the time. I was too busy laughing. And when I wasn't laughing, I was trying to figure out what jokes I missed while I was laughing. And if you have issues with long running times, look at it this way: you pay the same ticket price for a hilarious two-hour R-rated movie as you do a 85-minute piece of crap PG-13-rated comedy. So which film should you really be grumbling about? Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the comedy to beat this year.

My Blueberry Nights

Sometimes when other critics come down hard on a movie, I'm either right there with them or at least I understand why people might not like a film. But with the latest bit of sumptuous filmmaking from Wong Kar Wai, I am truly baffled by some of the hateful criticism lobbed at this movie. Granted, the version being shown in the United States is about 15-20 minutes shorter than the version that played at Cannes last year and the version that played in virtually every other country in the world (gee, thanks, Weinstein Company), so perhaps in those missing minutes there is something so egregious that my fragile mind would have simply imploded with loathing. But I don't think so. My Blueberry Nights is filled with the kind of beautiful visions and actors that Wong has graced us with in the past (In the Mood for Love; 2046; Chungking Express).

It's the modest story of a New York woman named Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones) who is jilted by her lover and spends the next several weeks hoping to run into him at a diner run by Jude Law. The two form a strange and beautiful fondness for each other, and right when things look like they might click between them, she decides to travel the country in search of herself. Along the way, she continues to send Law postcards detailing her adventures. She lands a job as a waitress in a dive bar in Tennessee, where she meets a regular customer (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz). In Nevada, she crosses paths with a professional and highly unlucky gambler (Natalie Portman). But we always get the sense that in the end she will return to her humble diner owner. There's no real drama in My Blueberry Nights, just a succession of interesting conversations, attractive performers and an underlying sense of loneliness and tragedy. Do we ever get a sense that she discovers the "real" her? Not especially, but I'm still glad I got to spend time with her and her acquaintances. The film draws us in through Jones' understated but still compelling acting. She seems utterly unaware of acting for the cameras, and this makes her seem very natural and genuine. But she pulls us in, and we are quite deeply wanting her to find herself and land where she will be most fulfilled.

My Blueberry Nights is far more simple and straight-forward than Wong's previous films. He's not trying as hard to push the overly dramatic melodrama on his audience, and the result is a more naturalistic, almost home-spun piece that I found very easy to settle into. And unlike Wong's earlier works, which always seem to focus on two people who do not belong together, here the couple clearly do. Then the director and co-writer (with pulp crime novelist Lawrence Block) spend most of the film ripping out our hearts by keeping this couple apart and having separate lives to become emotionally prepared for their reunion. This deceptive romantic sketch is loaded with longing and a deep heart, and I still reflect on its beauty weeks after I first saw it.

To read my exclusive interview with My Blueberry Nights director Wong Kar Wai, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Forbidden Kingdom

So what if this film is about 10 or 15 years too late to truly capitalize on the peak talents of its two stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, in a film together for the first time here. That doesn't mean The Forbidden Kingdom can't be good, right? Right!? So maybe this isn't the ideal vehicle to pair up these two legends, but that doesn't mean this film is a complete disaster. Right off the bat, I thought we were in serious trouble. Young American Jason (Michael Angarano of Lords of Dogtown and last year's Man in the Chair) is obsessed with Hong Kong action films, so much so that he makes regular visits to the Chinese neighborhood of his unnamed city seeking out bootleg/import copies of films that never made it stateside at a shop run by an old Chinese man played by an almost-unrecognizable Chan. He is bullied by psycho fellow students in scenes that seem right out of The Karate Kid (this film seems like a weird combo of that film and The Wizard of Oz). He is forced to help rob the old Chinese man, who is killed during the crime, but before he dies he bestows an ancient staff on the boy and tells him to make sure it gets to its rightful owner. Jason is transported to a mystical, ancient version of China where he meets a kung fu master (Chan out of old-man make-up and with long hair) and a monk, played by Jet Li. Like Chan, Li works double duty, also playing a mystical being known as the Monkey King, a role so bizarre that long-time fans of his probably owe it to themselves to check out the film just to watch Li's spirited performance.

As the group (which eventually includes a beautiful young love interest for Jason) travels across China to return the staff to its unknown owner, Chan and Li teach Jason the true meaning of kung fu, and in a short time make him something of a master at it, as white teens are inclined to be. Since the martial arts choreography is handed by Woo Ping Yuen (Kill Bill; The Matrix trilogy; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the Drunken Master films), you at least know the fight scenes are going to be pretty great, and they are. But it made me a bit sad to think that it took an American-made, English-language film to bring these two martial arts masters together for the first time. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King; Stuart Little; The Haunted Mansion) clearly has a great love for the old-school chop-socky movies, and he does his best to mimic their style, especially when it comes to the over-the-top villains on display. Maybe it's my own bias against the idea of this film to begin with that made me resistant to it from the beginning. That being said, it did grow on me thanks to some killer fight sequences and the film's many references to kung fu films of the past. And as much as this is the story of a white boy in China, Minkoff keeps the sassy, fish-out-of-water dialogue to a minimum. I'm guessing that if I saw the film again, I'd be able to enjoy myself a lot more. The Forbidden Kingdom is not the appalling, slap-in-the-face insult to martial arts films that I thought it would be, but it's far from high art. I found myself having fun at times, but I also grew rapidly impatient when there was no fighting on the screen. Derive from that description and your own personal love of martial arts movies whatever you can. I don't think I can quite recommend this, but those of you who don't consider yourselves purists might enjoy this one.

88 Minutes

Where do I even begin with this fucking thing? To call the long-delayed Al Pacino time-crunch thriller 88 Minutes ludicrous is to insult films or books or plays or haikus that attempt to be outrageous in fun and creative ways. No, 88 Minutes isn't fun-and-playful ludicrous. Its overdrive pace (which still manages to feel achingly slow) and plot is so ridiculous that it feels as if elements from every thriller ever made were thrown into a Kitchen Aid at the Turbo Mix setting. And here's the more obnoxious thing: movies that count down to something and constantly remind you how much time is left are without fail a terrible idea. It's like having a clock right next to the screen reminding you how much movie is left. Who the hell wants that?

Pacino (looking dead tired) plays Dr. Jack Gramm, a forensic psychiatrist for the FBI, whose testimony in the trial of an alleged serial killer (Neal McDonough) got the guy the death sentence. McDonough swears the entire time the good doctor has lied under oath to secure the conviction, and he's quite convincing. Jump ahead a few years to the date of the execution. A murder with the same m.o. as the original set of killings occurs and suddenly doubt is cast on the conviction. Let's stop here for a second and ask, Why does no one in this movie question the timing of this new killing? It's the damn day of the execution, people! Not only is there a fresh body, but the victim is also a student of Dr. Gramm's. The coincidences are mounting, and still no one really calls these remarkable coincidences into question.

Around the time the body is discovered, Gramm receives a threatening phone call saying that he only has 88 minutes to live, and every so often through the course of the film, the same modulated voice gives Gramm an update on his time left on earth. Rather than use the many resources available to him as an employee of the FBI (or simply lock himself in a safe room until the 88 minutes has expired), Gramm decides to investigate the threats and the murder himself. Since the voice on the phone is disguised, we can assume the identity of the caller is one of the characters in the film, and there are quite a few from which to choose, most of them good-looking women. There's Amy Brenneman as Gramm's lesbian office assistant, Alicia Witt as his teaching assistant, Leelee Sobieski as his attentive student, Deborah Kara Unger as the dean of the school where Gramm teaches and William Forsythe as one of Gramm's best friends at the agency (for the record, Forsythe is neither good looking nor a woman, but I always love seeing him on screen). I picked out the killer about five minutes after the character is introduced in the film. It ain't that tough.

88 Minutes is a mess. Each step Pacino takes is more idiotic than the last, and screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson (one of the creators of "Las Vegas") and director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes; Red Corner) should know better than to unnecessarily complicate a plot that has this much potential. What's worse, Pacino's next film also features Avnet behind the camera (for the fall release Righteous Kill with Robert De Niro), but let's focus on one disaster at a time. This film might frustrate to such a degree, you'll want to punch somebody or do yourself bodily harm. Sure, you could credit Gramm's behavior to arrogance. It certainly looks possible that he may have fabricated evidence or coached witnesses in the past, but it was all in the name of putting away dangerous criminals. The film skims these weighty topics without diving in and examining any of them. And that's too bad because a little explanation about motivation on several characters' parts would have gone a long way toward making a much better film out of this material. You know what? I have officially spent way more time talking about this movie than I'd intended, and now I'm done with it. This movie is slick junk, and not the good kind.

Young@Heart

I've been on a documentary kick lately. I've been catching up on docs I missed at SXSW and have seen some truly inspired works that I'll probably compile into a single report. I just interviewed Errol Morris this week about his harrowing new film and Morgan Spurlock about the film chronicling his tour of the Middle East in search of Osama Bin Laden. But few documentaries of late have made me as happy about being alive as Young@Heart, an uplifting, glorious, funny, entertaining and deeply touching work about a senior citizens chorus in New England that specializes in songs you wouldn't really think seniors would be singing. If you've ever wanted to see folks in their 80s and 90s sing Radiohead, James Brown, The Clash, Prince and even Sonic Youth, look no further. I was absolutely convinced that this film would be the most manipulative movie I saw all year, and I could not have been more wrong. This film was the closing night offering at SXSW for a reason: because it absolutely rules.

Chorus Director Bob Cilman is a pushy SOB who pulls no punches if one of the members isn't pulling their weight or if he thinks a song isn't going to work for the group. His process of teaching the songs to the chorus is remarkable, and the speed at which they learn to perform them is incredible. But unlike most chorus groups, the Young@Heart Chorus must be versatile and adapt quickly in the always-likely event that one of its members becomes sick or even dies. (This is a major influence even during the short time filmmaker Stephen Walker follows the group's progress as they rehearse for a new show.) So watching one singer perform a solo version of Coldplay's "Fix You" while oxygen tubes run into his nose takes on a meaning that is undeniable. But the film is far from all serious. I laughed so often during Young@Heart that I missed a great deal of dialogue. This film is a stitch. I particularly loved Eileen Hall, a 92-year-old (when the film was made a couple years ago) British war bride, who opens the film with a show-stopping version of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." The movie (which concludes with highlights from the finished show) is a guaranteed crowd pleaser that will introduce you to some of the most delightful individuals you will ever see on film. I hope I'm able to sing "I Feel Good" when I'm that old. You will adore this movie.

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?

In the school of documentaries where the filmmaker decides not only to place himself in front of the camera to discuss whatever subject matter he/she is discussing, but also to become the focus of the film, Morgan Spurlock is at the top of the heap. His Super Size Me is classic "taking one for the team" as he ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. His fantastic FX series "30 Days" is often powerful in unexpected ways as he and others live the life of a person sometimes totally unlike them, often diametrically opposed to their core beliefs. The show actually makes me anxious in the best possible way. But his latest feature, in which he and a film crew set out to find the world's top terrorist is a bit different. Sure, Spurlock is still squarely in the middle of the action—from military survival training to going country to country in the Middle East on his hunt.

I was never 100 percent convinced that Spurlock was really looking for Bin Laden, but that's not really the point. He was spurred on to make this journey happen when he and his wife discovered that they were unexpectedly pregnant, which led him to consider the world in which he would bring his baby into and the type of world that could spawn a man like Bin Laden. So armed with etiquette lessons and a friendly demeanor Spurlock travels to some of the world's hottest hot zones hoping to shed light on the state of the Middle East and the world. He interviews leaders and everyday people hoping to discover the source of anti-American feelings in the region, how Bin Laden could come from such a prosperous family in Saudi Arabia and to experience first-hand the overwhelming amount of hospitality given by the people.

Where in the World is just as interesting for what it doesn't do as for what it does. It doesn't engage in a major bashing of the Bush administration; nor does the film tackle the much-touted belief that the U.S. knows where Bin Laden is, but that it's far more profitable and useful in maintaining power to keep him alive. Spurlock's goal is not to create world peace, but his slightly hippie-ish approach to this film makes it feel that way at times. When he's not asking random store clerks where Bin Laden is hiding, he's making sure to point out just how much "like us" these people are that he is seeing. If you care at all about this film, you probably already know whether or not Spurlock finds his intended target. But that never stops the movie from being a great crash course in Middle Eastern politics. I was particularly intrigued by his visits to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he is attacked by Orthodox Jews, which is funny to watch until you realize that the guy was probably in serious danger.

I believe Spurlock set out to make a movie that might inspire others to consider other cultures before setting down a path toward hating a certain country or people or religious group. He wants a peaceful place to raise his child, and while the film often comes across as unfocused, the messages that do come through are positive and hugely entertaining. Spurlock is gifted in front of the camera, and his people skills are second to none. You can't help but wonder what would have happened if the director and his crew did, somehow, arrange a meeting with Bin Laden. Could they handle it? Would they have even gone through with it? As a guy eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child, Spurlock would have been crazy to go through with something like that, and I guess that was always in the back of my mind while watching this still-entertaining and humorous work. I'd say if you're a fan of Spurlock's, you'll probably have more fun with the new "30 Days" season starting at the beginning of June than you will with Where in the World is OBL? The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Visitor

Actor-writer-director Thomas McCarthy (perhaps best known as the Baltimore Sun reporter who makes up his stories in the final season of HBO's "The Wire") made a little miracle of a film five years ago called The Station Agent, a film that took me completely off guard and one that I still marvel at when I stumble upon it on cable. Nothing about that film feels phony, and McCarthy moves from scene to scene so gracefully that it's tough to believe an actual script exists for the film. The film is not about plot twists or big ideas; it's a simple story about a small handful of characters simply existing in each other's lives and becoming better people as a result. With his latest work, The Visitor, McCarthy has done exactly the same thing, perhaps even more so and done it to such perfection that I'm champing at the bit waiting for the rest of you to see this marvelous film about loneliness, connection and a firm belief that it's never too late to change your life for the better.

Richard Jenkins (the dead father on "Six Feet Under") plays Walter Vale, a professor who keeps an apartment in New York City that he never visits or lives in. When he's asked at the last minute to fill in for a colleague at a conference in NYC, he's resistant but does his duty assuming he'll stay in this apartment he's clearly been avoiding for many years. When he gets there, he discovers a young couple (Haaz Sleiman as Tarek and Danai Jekesai Gurira as Zainab) living there, and he finds out that someone has duped them into thinking the apartment was for rent. The normally closed-off Walter allows the couple (whom he suspects are illegal immigrants) to stay until they find another place, and ends up becoming particularly close to Tarek, who makes a decent living as an African drummer in a jazz band. After Walter finishes up his duties at the conference, he decides to stick around New York and rediscover it through the eyes and activities of his new roommates. Jenkins plays Walter as a man who was clearly capable of great emotion, and for some reason has shut himself off after some great tragedy that is eventually revealed. Through this young couple, the real passionate Walter begins to resurface, and he even picks up Tarek's drum in a slightly embarrassing but spirited attempt to tap out a few verses.

Just as Walter is settling into his new and exciting life, Tarek is arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, and it is discovered that he's illegally in the country. Soon he's in a holding cell in an INS compound, and Walter is determined to get him out. The striking Hiam Abbass (Munich) plays Tarek's mother Mouna, who arrives after not hearing from her son for many days, and soon the two are waging a campaign to get Tarek released. At the same time, Walter is waging his own campaign to win Mouna's heart. (OK, I made that sound utterly cheesy; the film is in no way that cheesy.)

The Visitor is so alive and interesting that you can't help feeling close to these characters. McCarthy is perhaps giving us his two cents on this country's treatment of immigrants, but this is in no way a message film (it certainly doesn't play out like one). Its real purpose is to put us inside Walter's mind and heart, and show us what's at stake in his world if this small community around him is disbanded. The movie also reminds us that not all life changes are necessarily giant steps taken all at once. In most cases, the movements are so small you don't even notice them happening until you've arrived at a new place. This is the same process he revealed to us with The Station Agent, and he captures it again here. My immediate reaction upon seeing The Visitor was, "Where the hell did that come from, and may I have some more please?" If you're one of those fine folks who loves a small, but transcendent work to discover and turn other people onto, you've found your movie. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Zombie Strippers

I don't use the word "surreal" very often; I feel it's misused or overused so often that I've all but eliminated it from my vocabulary. But I experienced just such a moment earlier this week when I walked into the screening room where I see many of my press screenings here in Chicago and watched Zombie Strippers with some of the top critics in Chicago, representing the finest the Windy City film criticism universe has to offer. Quite often some of these fine men and women of the print and broadcast media get treated better by the local film publicists; they get invited to screenings that online types like myself are excluded from, and we typically have to wait until the night before a film opens to see it for review. But for the fairly crowded screening of Zombie Strippers, starring Robert Englund and porn legend Jenna Jameson, we were all equals.

So why was this experience so surreal? I've watched some fairly explicit stuff in this screening room before, but nothing quite like Zombie Strippers, the kind of silly exploitation stuff that you might stumble upon during a late-night, cable-scanning exercise, the kind you have when you're just on the verge of falling asleep but you want to give those 500 channels one last chance to prove their worth. You might stumble upon this movie during one of its dozen or so striptease sequences or perhaps one of the exceptionally gory head-exploding moments, and you simply would be trapped into watching it until the end. Sure, you'd feel dirty and ashamed when it was over, but you had no option once you spotted a naked walking-dead stripper work a brass pole with a vengeance and then pluck an unsuspecting customer from the crowd, take him into a private room and proceed to eat him down to the bone. Oh yeah, that's the stuff.

I'm certainly not completely dismissing Zombie Strippers as T&A garbage, especially since the T&A portions of the film actually work the best of any element of the film. The film's attempt at satire (such as an early newscast sequence in which it is announced the George W. Bush has won his fourth term as president) is way too broad and resulted in almost no laughs. As a zombie film it's passable, especially when it comes to the gore, although much of the truly gruesome stuff is clearly CGI. Still, I can't dismiss a film that doesn't just feature headshots, it has a million head explosions complete with skull fragments, brain matter and various other goop. Indeed, the fake blood flows non-stop. Even the film's attempt to show us the backstage workings of an illegal strip club (I was never quite sure what was so illegal about it since nothing out of the ordinary was going on) seem ridiculous as Englund and his cronies overact to no one's delight.

What did work is the subtle subtext that certain adult entertainers will do anything to their bodies to make a buck, including becoming a zombie (which apparently makes you a truly uninhibited dancer). The message is driven home with a little extra kick with Jameson in the cast, since she has clearly had a ridiculous amount of work done to her face (at the very least). Many of the girls struggle to decide whether to do the zombie makeover or not (in this film, zombie strippers apparently only attack you when you ask them to). I'm not going to even attempt to make a case that Zombie Strippers is worth plunking down real money to see in a theater (sadly for Chicago residents, the film is only opening at the AMC South Barrington theaters), but the movie never fails to entertain amidst the terrible jokes, excruciating acting and lame plot. But the film delivers on blood and babes, and where I come from that still means something. Amen!

Flight of the Red Balloon

I first saw this film back in October during the Chicago Film Festival, and I made a point to catch it for three reasons: it starred Juliette Binoche; it pays tribute to one of my favorite films as a child, the 1956 Albert Lamorisse short The Red Balloon; and it is directed by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose Three Times and The Puppetmaster are masterworks of simplicity. The largely plotless film center on a frazzled single mother (Binoche) who is an expert puppeteer and the Taiwanese film student she hires as a nanny to her 7-year-old son, who indeed has a red balloon following him at times. Flight of the Red Balloon is a love letter to Paris told from the point of view of an outsider who is still enamored by the city's classically seductive qualities and the hectic bustle of everyday Parisian life.

With much of its dialogue improvised, the film has many long stretches where Hou simply plants his camera in one end of Binoche's tiny apartment and watches the comings and goings of neighbors, maintenance workers and friends in and out of the cramped space. Sometimes all of this aimless activity is pretty fascinating stuff; other times it is dreadfully tedious. But most of the time, this film is deeply hypnotic, and it's very difficult to make Juliette Binoche boring under any circumstances. She cuts through the wandering film to paint a portrait of a frustrated artist, a mother who wants more for her child and a genuinely good person with loads of flaws. Patience is a virtue with Red Balloon, but Binoche's fine acting eases us into a good place. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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