Mike Kueber's Blog

November 6, 2016

Saturday Night at the Movies #151 – The Crown

Filed under: Movie reviews,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 11:10 pm
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The Crown was released on Netflix this week, and I binged its ten episodes this weekend.   As a British period film, it was recommended for Downton Abbey fans, and that certainly includes me.

The first season of The Crown centers on post-war Great Britain and Queen Elizabeth II for the first ten years after her 1947 marriage.  Five additional seasons covering approximately a decade each are already planned.

Because Downton Abbey is still fresh on my mind, it was impossible not to compare the two.  Indeed, after watching the first episode, I made the following comment to a friend:

  • I watched first episode, too, and although I like the King, Phillip, and Elizabeth, the cast of interesting people needs to be bigger.  I saw 2 or 3 former Downton characters, like I usually do when watching a British show.

But subsequent episodes in Season One did not expand the cast significantly.  Yes, we get to know Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret, but everything revolves around Elizabeth and her relationships with her father King George VI and his husband Prince Phillip.  And her dominance among the cast is OK because this is not an ensemble movie; rather, it is about the crown that has fallen on Elizabeth’s head.

Elizabeth is played marvelously by Claire Foy.  Although the modern world now knows the Queen as a dowdy, matronly woman, old photos reveal an attractive woman, and Foy is certainly that.  And she projects warmth and good judgment.  Those traits might seem to complement each other, and they would in a normal life of an English countrywoman, but because the crown fell on Elizabeth’s head so young, she is often torn between doing the right thing as a warm, sensible countrywoman (which she was) and the right thing for a monarch (which she is learning to be).

Of course, my nature is to question formality and tradition, so my inclination is to side with Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward VIII, who abdicated the crown for love, and her sister Princess Margaret, who had similar romantic issues.  But I couldn’t help but admiring Elizabeth for deciding that a thriving Monarchy was sometimes more important than satisfying her personal preferences.

After my second day of viewing, I wrote the following to my friend:

  • I watched five more episodes yesterday, and they kept me watching, despite the mundane, pedestrian content.  I almost believe the life of a queen is a burden that the woman would prefer not to assume, although surely Lady Mary of Downton Abbey would have loved it.  The Queen seems to be a bit like Forest Gump, always around the big events, and even plays a larger role than expected.  Obviously, the Diana years in later seasons will be fascinating.

I’m sure that subsequent seasons will further present conflicts between common sense and thinking like a monarch.  And examine how a monarch gets involved, but not too involved with the politicians.  If the Earl of Grantham sometimes felt besieged in trying to keep Downton Abbey viable, I’m sure Elizabeth would say that is child’s play compared to saving the Monarchy.

As an American, I don’t really appreciate the Monarchy and I don’t know why Brits would want to subsidize the modern British Royal Family.  Perhaps I will learn this in subsequent seasons.  Can’t wait.

May 17, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #150 – Babel and Another Year

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:33 am
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Another Year (2010) is a character-driven, kitchen-sink drama written and directed by Mike Leigh.  “Kitchen-sink drama” is described by Wikipedia as movies or plays that concern domestic situations of working class Britons living in cramped rented accommodations and spending their off-hours drinking in grimy pubs, to explore social issues and political controversies, typically from a leftist or socialist perspective.  Kitchen-sink is the specialty of Leigh, and he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.  Kitchen-sink is the opposite of glamourous, and Leigh regularly draws from a stable of ordinary-looking, homely stars.  This movie stars the following actors, with their number of appearances in Leigh movies – Leslie Manville (9), Ruth Sheen (6), Peter Wight (6), and Jim Broadbent (4).

The critics loved Another Year (92%), but the audience was not quite as enthused (74%).  I split the difference and give it a strong three stars out of four because the characters and their ordinary lives were quite interesting, but the solid couple (Sheen and Broadbent) can’t fully carry their two lamentable, almost worthless, pathetic friends (Manville and Wight).

Babel (2006) is another artsy movie by the director who won this year’s directing Oscar, Birdman’s Alejandro González Iñárritu.  The movie is artsy because it intertwines three seemingly different stories in different countries that turn out to be interrelated.  Too bad that none of the characters, including, Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett, are engaging, nor are the disparate lifestyles in Morocco, Japan, and border San Diego/Tijuana.  If the director wants me to think that ordinary lives throughout the world have the ability to affect my ordinary life, he has failed to intrigue me.  The Rotten Tomato Critics approve the movie at 69% and the audience is a bit more favorable at 77%.  I give it only two stars out of four.

May 11, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #149 – The Kill Team and Selma

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 12:01 am
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The Kill Team (2013) is a documentary about a soldier in Afghanistan, Adam Whitfield, who falls under the control of an evil sergeant Calvin Gibbs who murders three Afghan civilians for sport.  Initially in his tour, Whitfield is able to avoid participating in Gibbs’ atrocities, but eventually he is pressured to pull the trigger on an innocent victim.

Whitfield’s ultimate capitulation is especially tragic not only because he was near the end of his tour, but also because he had visited with his Marine-vet father in the middle of his tour and was advised that his survival depended on not exposing Gibbs until they returned to America from Afghanistan.  Unfortunately for Whitfield, someone else played whistle-blower and exposed Gibbs, Whitfield, and several others.

The story is told from the perspective of Whitfield and his parents, who feel their son was in an impossible position.  They all seem to be solid Americans, and you don’t want to see anything bad happen to the kid.  But the dead Afghan, a middle-age father, deserves justice, too. In the end, justice is served, IMO.

The Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 90%, with the audience at 79%.  That’s about right, as I give it three and a half stars out of four.

Selma (2014) is the controversial, Academy-nominated historical drama about MLK and the voting-rights marches emanating from Selma, AL in 1965.  The movie is controversial because it portrays LBJ as an obstructionist to voting rights, while his defenders declare that to be patently untrue.  As a historical drama, however, the movie works well. The storyline, the writing, and the acting are fine.  The Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 99%, and the audience is less enthused at 87%.  I only give the movie three stars out of four because I don’t like being reminded of how badly southerners treated blacks 50 years ago, although I suppose it is unrealistic to expect that a milder form of that treatment doesn’t exist today.

May 6, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #148 – Wild

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:17 am
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I previously blogged about the 2012 book Wild by Cheryl Strayed and found it to be excellent.  The story of her physical and mental trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was fascinating.   The 2014 movie based on the book, not so good.  In fact, I found it to be horrible.

Perhaps the problem is the movie’s star, Reese Witherspoon.  While Cheryl Strayed was likeable, or even lovable, Cheryl Strayed as played by Reese Witherspoon is not.  Cheryl Strayed in the book may have been surprised by the challenges presented by the PCT, but she was not the unprepared ditz that Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon was.  And Cheryl Strayed in the book had serious pre-trek issues (drugs & sex), but the reader is drawn to her and roots for her; Reese Witherspoon not so much.  Of course, I didn’t enjoy Witherspoon in Legally Blonde or Walk the Line, either.  And I like her boyfriend, Thomas Sadoski, from Newsroom even less.

Witherspoon received an Oscar nomination for her acting, as did her mother Laura Dern.  And 90% of the Rotten Tomato critics like it, and 78% of its audience.  I, however, only give it one star out of four.

April 12, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #147 – 21 Grams and Fury

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:26 am
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21 Grams (2003) is a nonlinear movie – i.e., events are not presented in chronological order – about the lives of three individuals (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Bernicio del Toro) before and after a horrible car-pedestrian accident. This artsy movie was directed by artsy Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who recently won an Oscar for Birdman.  Although I almost gave up on the movie early on, I stuck with it and ended up finding it very satisfying.  All three lead actors did a good job, and two of them – Watts and del Toro – received Oscar nominations.  The Rotten Tomatoes scored the movie at 80% and the audience liked it even better at 86%.  I’m not that generous and give it three stars out of four.  Incidentally, the title of the movie comes from the scientific theory that a body loses 21 grams when it dies, and some have suggested that this is the weight of a soul leaving the body.  Interesting.

Fury (2014) is a violent WWII movie about a group of guys in a tank trying to survive the last few weeks of the war.  The Rotten Tomatoes consensus:

  • Overall, Fury is a well-acted, suitably raw depiction of the horrors of war that offers visceral battle scenes but doesn’t quite live up to its larger ambitions.”

I’m not sure what those “larger ambitions” are.  The acting is good (Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal), and so is the production, but none of the characters is worth caring about.  The Rotten Tomato scores are almost as good as 21 Grams, with 77% from the critics and 85% from the audience, but I give it only two stars out of four.

April 6, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #146 – Beyond the Lights and Imitation Game and Sunday Book Review #156 – 41 by George W. Bush

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:32 am
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Beyond the Lights (2014) is a low-budget romantic drama about two young adults who are being pushed toward achievement by their ultra-ambitious single parents. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker are the kids – a successful singer and an aspiring politician, respectively – and Minnie Driver and Danny Glover are the single parents with big dreams.

I previously saw Mbatha-Raw in Belle, a period drama in which she played a mulatto, and she is even more attractive here.  She starts Beyond the Lights by attempting to commit suicide, and flashbacks never fully reveal what precipitated her action. Parker does minimal acting, but the former college wrestler likes to take his shirt off.

Like Belle, the Rotten Tomato critics (81%) and audience (80%) enjoyed the movie. Me, not so much. I give it only two and a half stars out of four.

Imitation Game (2014) is another of this year’s Oscar nominees, and I found it much more satisfying than some of the other artsy films that were nominated – e.g., Whiplash, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as a math genius who helps Great Britain break a German code during World War II, but this idiosyncratic war hero is also afflicted by his then-illegal homosexuality in flashbacks and going-forward scenes.   His co-stars are a bit jarring to me because Keira Knightley is not convincing as a math genius and his two other co-stars, Allen Leech and Matthew Goode, play characters nearly identical to the roles they played in Downton Abbey Season Five. The Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 89% and the audience is a bit more favorable at 92%. That’s about right. Based on Cumberbatch and the fascinating story, I give it three and a half stars out of four.

41 (2014) is George W. Bush’s paean to his dad, George H.W. Bush. Although I admire Bush-41, I still expect a book to include provide me, if not with any great insights, at least with some interesting information. In that regard, this book fails. There is virtually nothing in the book that I hadn’t already read somewhere else.

April 5, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #145 and Sunday Book Review #155 – Downton Abbey

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:19 pm
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Downton Abbey (2010-2015) is a BBC series that was imported to America by PBS. It recently finished its fifth season and announced that its sixth season will be its last. As with Pride & Prejudice, it is about the landed gentry in Great Britain, but it occurs in the early 1900s, while P&P occurred in the early 1800s. Another similarity with P&P is that both involve a family of daughters, which means that the family will lose its “entailed” estate to a distant male relative. A dissimilarity is that P&P focused almost exclusively on the family and its neighbors while Downton Abbey focuses as much on the lives of the servant class and its interaction with the gentry class.

What I love about Downton Abbey is the writing (so witty) and the acting (superb). Some of the DVDs include special sections that describe the wonderful production values. The Rotten Tomato critics score the five seasons at 95%, 100%, 78%, 69%, and 80%. The audience is a bit less erratic – 93%, 94%, 86%, 76%, and 83%. I loved all five seasons with four stars out of four, but Season Three with Matthew and Mary was the best.

Based on my earlier fascination with Pride & Prejudice, I went on to read an annotated edition of Jane Austen’s book and Deborah Moggach’s wonderful script for the 2005 movie adaptation of the book. Since then, I have become just as fascinated by Downton Abbey, and was fortunate to find both the script and definitive annotations for Seasons One and Two in two books in the San Antonio Public Library. A similar book for Season Three is scheduled for publication later this year in December.

These script books contain the definitive annotations because they are provided by the series’ creator and writer, Julian Fellowes. He explains not only historical context, but also why the characters act as they do and say what they do. It is also interesting to learn about how filming deviates from the script and how the actors have as much control over character development as the creator and writer of the series. Not as interesting are the numerous references to incidents in Fellowes’s life that prompted him to create similar incidents in the series.

Downton Abbey is special to most people because of the characters and their relationships, and these books are invaluable in bringing greater depth of understanding to the viewers and readers.

March 26, 2015

Saturday Night at the Stylized Movies #144 – Birdman

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:42 am
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During Pride & Prejudice (2005), there is a dance scene when all of the dancers except Darcy and Elizabeth magically disappear and the star-crossed couple is left alone on the dance floor. I thought the scene was effective, but not especially significant. I was more interested in the characters’ wonderful dialogue.

But then I watched another movie, Anna Karenina (2012), by the same director, Joe Wright, and the same leading lady, Keira Knightley. This critically acclaimed movie was stuffed with a surfeit of similar magical, unrealistic scenes that I thought detracted from the story. The Wikipedia article on the movie noted that critics approved the production design while “criticizing the script and Wright’s apparent preference for style over substance.”

That was my first exposure to the concepts of production design and movie style. Doing some additional research on a Film Reference website, I learned production design falls on a spectrum between realism and stylization:

  • As in every cinematic subdiscipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, “realism” should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) is often predetermined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.
  • At the “realistic” end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film is most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.
  • Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. These designs try instead to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film’s duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized.

Birdman (2014) is a heavily stylized movie, with Michael Keaton starring as a former Hollywood superhero who, while attempting a comeback with a Broadway play, seems to continually converse with his erstwhile character, Birdman.

Count me as someone who leans strongly toward the realistic movies instead of a movie that ingeniously creates an alternate environment. The Rotten Tomato critics loved Birdman at 97%, while the audience was less enthralled at 80%. The movie won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, as did its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I previously wrote about Iñárritu’s first movie (2001), Amores Perror (Love is a Bitch), and complained about its dark story.  Upon further reflection, I should have also noted that the movie was heavily stylized.

The same can be said for Birdman – dark characters and heavily stylized. Not my cup of tea, but apparently what the Oscar people like.  I give it only two stars out of four.

I think this subject is analogous to modern-art paintings. The critics believe it is more artistic to paint something that doesn’t look real. Reality is deep enough for me.

March 6, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #143 – A Love Song for Bobby Long

A few days ago, John Travolta was widely mocked for planting an “awkward” kiss on Scarlett Johansson on the Academy Award’s red carpet.  The implication was that the 61-year-old actor was a Biden-esque groper inflicting unwelcome attention on a much younger beauty. The situation seemed similar to the even-older sportscaster Brent Musburger once talking about the beauty of an Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend.

The responses of the women in both situations was essentially the same. The quarterback’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, immediately came to Musburger’s defense:

  • “I think the media has been really unfair to (Musburger). I think if he had said something along the line if we were hot or sexy, I think that would be a little bit different. The fact that he said we were beautiful and gorgeous, I don’t think any woman wouldn’t be flattered by that. I appreciate it, but at the same time I don’t think I needed an apology.”

Similarly, Scarlett Johansson came to Travolta’s defense:

  • The image that is circulating is an unfortunate still-frame from a live-action encounter that was very sweet and totally welcome. That still photo does not reflect what preceded and followed if you see the moment live. Yet another way we are misguided, misinformed and sensationalized by the 24-hour news cycle. I haven’t seen John in some years and it is always a pleasure to be greeted by him. There is nothing strange, creepy or inappropriate about John Travolta.”

While reading about the Oscar’s incident, I learned that Johansson and Travolta had starred in a 2004 movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long,” and I decided to take a chance on it. After watching the movie, I am not the slightest surprised that Johansson took umbrage at the media making fun of Travolta over the kiss. Not only did they co-star in the movie, which makes his familiarity with her reasonable, but also they had great chemistry in the movie as father-daughter.

Although the Rotten Tomato critics panned the movie (43%), the audience loved it (80%), and I agree with the audience. The movie is about a couple of Southern literate guys who have gone bohemian, and I can’t imagine a better place than New Orleans (maybe NYC or Austin) to go that route. The duo becomes a trio when Johansson arrives from Florida to take the place of her recently-deceased singer-mom. All three characters are interesting and worth rooting for.

I give the movie three and a half stars out of four.  And I say, quit picking on us old geezers who, like Augustus McCrae, have a little sport left in them.

February 26, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #142 – Laggies, The Good Lie, About Time, Amores Perros, The Judge, and Whiplash

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 5:40 am

Laggies (2014) is a romantic comedy set in Seattle involving a slacker (Keira Knightley). Part of her problem is professional (she is trained as a counselor, but doesn’t feel that is her calling) and part of it is personal (she has a clique of life-time friends, but those friends don’t really speak on her wavelength). Her boyfriend/fiancé (Mark Webber) seems OK, but he is as close to the clique as he is to her.

After a friend’s wedding, Keira’s boyfriend proposes, and because she cannot think of a reason to say no, she accepts. But she immediately gets cold feet and vanishes for a week while pretending to attend an out-of-town career-development seminar. In fact, she stays in town and crashes with a high-school girl she recently befriended. The girl happens to have a cool, divorced dad/lawyer (Sam Rockwell).

The Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 69%, but the audience approval was only 53%. Parts of the storyline was forced and implausible, and for too long it was unclear which man was the better catch, but in the end, Keira seems to have figured it out. I think the critics got it right and I give the movie three stars out of four.

Incidentally, regarding the title, Wikipedia says:

  • The directors have explained that choosing the title “Laggies” was a complex decision. Shelton revealed that she had never heard of the term laggies before making the film, but screenwriter Andrea Seigel insisted it was a common term for adult slackers. As the film was made, Shelton realized that no one except Seigel had heard of laggies before. However, the title stuck, although in the UK the film was released as Say When.

Put me in Seigel’s camp. I don’t specifically recall using the term “laggie,” but its meaning seems obvious. While the reference to “adult slacker” is fine, I think it more closely is associated with the term, laggard.

The Good Lie (2014) is a critically-acclaimed movie, but it is given short shrift by Wikipedia. The popular online source of information describes the movie’s plot as follows:

  • Four young Sudanese refugees (known as Lost Boys of Sudan) are helped by Carrie Davis, a brash American woman after they win a lottery for relocation to the United States.”

Even the Netflix wrapper contains a lengthier summary:

  • In this fact-based drama, a young Sudanese War refugee wins a lottery that allows him to start life anew in the United States. But adapting to his new home presents challenges — both for the ‘lost boy’ and for the American woman who’s helping him.”

Amazingly, the Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 87% and its audience at 83%, but its review of the movie provides a clue for these numbers:

  • The Good Lie sacrifices real-life nuance in order to turn its true story into a Hollywood production, but the results still add up to a compelling, well-acted, and deeply moving drama.”

In other words, the movie is a sappy, hokey, feel-good film. I almost stopped watching after 15 minutes because the storyline was so unrealistic, but by the end I couldn’t help rooting for these immigrants because of their values and their humility. Reese Witherspoon stars, but the movie is not about her; it is about the Lost Boys of Sudan. I give it two and a half stars out of four.

About Time (2013) is a British movie about a guy, dorky Domhnall Gleeson, who learns at age 21 that he can travel back in time and revise the way he behaved in the past. It is a trait that all his male ancestors also possessed. Being a dork, Gleeson uses this newly discovered ability to have numerous do-overs of romantic encounters, most especially with the love of his life, played by Rachel McAdams. The Rotten Tomato critics approve the movie at 69%, but the audience is more favorable at 81%. I suspect the audience loves the movie because of a standard successful formula of matching an ordinary, unassuming guy (Gleeson) with a beautiful, but warm and approachable woman (McAdams) – e.g., Something About Mary. I love the movie because of the aforementioned romance, but also because it prompts the viewer to think about what is important in life. I give it three and a half stars out of four.

Birdman won the Best Movie Oscar last week, and its director, Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu, also won the Best Director Oscar. While waiting for Birdman to become available on Netflix, I decided to examine Inirritu’s pedigree.

He made his directorial start with his so-called trilogy of death, starting with Amores Perror (Love is a Bitch) in 2001. Amores is available on Netflix streaming. I was encouraged by the film’s Rotten Tomato ratings, 94% and 92% respectively, and I was not disappointed by the bit-too-long, triptych movie (153 minutes).

It is exactly what I would expect from someone who will eventually win an Oscar for Best Director – dark characters and complicated storyline. The triptych format allows three strata of urban Mexican life to be interwoven around the concept of personal loyalty. I give it only a solid three stars instead of better because I am not a big fan of dark films.

The Judge (2014) is a mix between a crime mystery, courtroom drama, and a character study of an estranged, successful son (Robert Downey, Jr.) trying to make up with his old, cantankerous father (Robert Duvall). Before watching the movie, I told a friend that I don’t enjoy Downey movies because I consider him to be wimpy, like James Spader, but I was wrong. He has a line in the movie accusing his brothers of being MIA from the queue when they were born that handed out testicles; Downey obviously maintained his place in said line.

The movie received mixed reviews from critics (47%), but the audience was much more favorable (73%). Count me with the audience. Both of the lead actors play flawed characters, but they are likeable. I’m not even sure why I liked Downey so much because he has so many unfavorable characteristics. Further, things have happened in his earlier life that seem irredeemable, such as losing his wife because of neglect, permanently injuring his brother’s major-league baseball prospects because of a car accident while driving high, and having his estranged saintly mother die before meeting her five-year-old granddaughter. No fairy-tale ending here. I give it three stars out of four.

Whiplash (2014) is about a kid (Miles Teller) attending a music college and being pushed by an intense taskmaster (J.K. Simmons). The taskmaster is reminiscent of tennis or gymnastic teachers who have well-documented reputations for cruelty in trying to produce exceptionally skilled performers. The movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and 95% of the Rotten Tomato critics like it. The audience was even more supportive at 96%.

Me – not so much. Simmons (Dr. Skoda on Law & Order) is excellent and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but Teller is thoroughly dislikeable and unsympathetic as an arrogant, insecure kid raised by a pusillanimous, insecure dad played by Paul Reiser. I give the movie only one and a half stars out of four.

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