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Pain & Gain

11 Apr

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Synopsis: “A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.” (Rated R; 2 hours, 9 minutes)

Extremely entertaining, funny, and “based on a true story”. Why the quotation marks? I’ll get to that later… It’s somewhat shocking that the movie is by Michael Bay, the same director who loves to make bloated mega-movies like Transformers and Pearl Harbor. To be fair I generally love his movies, but that’s because I have the ability to enjoy big, loud, brainless garbage. Give me Armageddon any day and I’ll leave the movie theater super happy. And let’s not forget this is the same director who recently went viral after doing this at a major CES convention.

At the end of the day, he managed to make a movie that was small (by his standards), and caused some controversy by turning the bad guys into the likable protagonists, and making the real life victim into a character you dislike and root against. Read more about that right here. But I’m not here to pass judgment on the choice of the writers and filmmakers on portraying the story authentically, because purely as a movie THIS. WAS. FUN.

Mark Wahlberg continues to be shockingly hilarious in his recent roles (my favorite is still The Other Guys), he plays stupid SO well in this movie, and he’s INCREDIBLY built (far more than usual) for the role; his biceps were almost as big as The Rock’s… speaking of which The Rock is pretty darn funny himself as a super-sensitive thug. Don’t get me wrong, this may have cracked Adi and myself up, but it’s a comedy for the Tarantino crowd; it’s dark and violent, but nonetheless a surprisingly well-made Michael Bay movie I can easily recommend, even if it did insult the real people it was based on…

The movie was better than Bay’s The Island, an over-the-top sci-fi flop that I managed to enjoy in spite of its badness, and it still wasn’t as much fun as his classic action extravaganza The Rock – I miss Sean Connery!!!

Quality Rating: B+ (I almost gave it an A- but I suppose there should be SOME social responsibility to not only changing the true story, but doing it in a way that offends the still-living victims, right?)

Boaz Rating: A (Still, it was so much fun to watch play out!)

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The Sapphires

10 Apr

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Synopsis: “It’s 1968, and four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain the US troops in Vietnam.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

This movie was a big hit back in Australia, but really flew under the radar in America – as most “foreign” films do. In this case there’s no excuse by people who don’t like to read subtitles, because unless you have an American brain that’s unable to process accents, there should be no problem. (On a side note, am I allowed to write that it sounds ignorant when people state that they “don’t like foreign films”? Is that supposed to be another way of saying “I don’t like to read”?)

This likable little movie is based on the true story about a white drunk man who sees the potential in a group of Aboriginal girls to turn them into a singing group, and take them to Vietnam to perform for the troops. This being the 1960’s the movie obviously involves strong elements of racism, but the movie focuses less on the external elements against them, and is more about their own internal dynamics. For American audiences, seeing Aboriginal actresses will be less familiar, and it was quite refreshing to my eyes; and of course Chris O’Dowd continues to be extremely likable and funny. (Two of his more well-known roles would be the Irish cop in Bridesmaids, and as Jessa’s husband in Girls.)

The movie was a cute little “rise to stardom” story which was made solidly and competently, and packaged this true story dramedy-musical into an enjoyable flick. If you’re curious to know more about these girls, here is a “where are they now” story for your reading pleasure. It wasn’t anything you needed to see in theaters, but is certainly a decent option for an iTunes download.

The movie was better than Joyful Noise, a completely boring flick that is also about a group of people trying to move from gospel to popular music. The movie wasn’t nearly as good as That Thing You Do! Admit it, the second I mentioned That Thing You Do! you were already humming this song in your head.

Quality Rating: B (Everything about it was competent, and interesting, but it was basically a really good TV movie.)

Boaz Rating: B+ (Put Chris O’Dowd into a movie and it gains a bit of an edge.)

Admission (“My Take On A Bipolar Film”)

16 Apr

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Synopsis: “A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 57 minutes)

It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama…It’s a comedy AND a drama!

Sometimes you can’t have it both ways. You just need to stand your ground, choose a direction to take, and run with it. Otherwise you find yourself stuck in the weird purgatory of a dramedy that doesn’t quite work, and you’re left with a so-so movie that nobody sees or talks about like Admission. It’s a shame, because it’s a movie that actually has so much going for it:

-The actors are popular and extremely well-liked. This includes Tina Fey, who as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, or Sarah Palin on SNL, has become America’s (goofy) Sweetheart . It’s hard not to find her both funny and endearing. You also have Paul Rudd who seems like one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood today with 3 movies last year plus a stint on Parks & Recreation (possibly the funniest show on network TV today). Is it even possible to dislike the guy? I’m definitely a big fan, whether he’s playing a sweet guy as he did in I Love You, Man, or even when he’s playing a bit of a jerk as he did in Role Models; he’s always so entertainingly charming and funny.

-Director Paul Weitz is someone I REALLY want to see make a great movie again. He started with American Pie which everyone enjoyed (assuming they had a raunchy sense of humor), and soon made two movies in a row which were rare dramedies that worked incredibly well. The first was About A Boy, arguably Hugh Grant’s best work, an absolutely hilarious and touching film that fired on all cylinders. If you have never seen it you should make that a priority. (SIDE NOTE: Nicholas Hoult, the little boy from that movie has grown up to become the lead actor in two movies I have reviewed and enjoyed this very year: Warm Bodies, and Jack The Giant Slayer.) Weitz then made another very good dramedy starring Dennis Quaid  and Topher Grace, called In Good Company. Unfortunately, that was back in 2004, and he hasn’t impressed anyone with a movie since.

-A dramedy is a difficult genre to master since you don’t want to be too funny and you lose your authenticity, and you can’t go too serious or it becomes an unfunny drama. But since this same director had made a few successful ones (as mentioned above) I was hoping he of all people could make it work. Unfortunately, something in the direction of the performances, or in the actual writing didn’t translate onto the screen, and the actors were left being their usual charming selves in a movie where that created a confusing tone that just didn’t work.

Allow me to bring in a personal example that perfectly illustrates what happened. This week my friends Chari and Sara organized an extremely creative surprise party for Chari’s husband Eli, where some friends competed in a version of Chopped, while others including myself were the judges. In this game the contestants were given a few seemingly random ingredients and were then given 10 minutes to gather supplies, followed by 20 minutes to create some sort of concoction out of those ingredients. The result ideally must work as a creative and tasty dish. Some were better than others, but at one point possibly the most delicious creation came from my friend Noah, who can cook most people under the table. The trouble was, he and his teammate took the ingredients that don’t easily work together, and actually made two different dishes. Each morsel was separately scrumptious, but we realized that they didn’t actually make it one single dish because it would be difficult to make those tastes work together as one. Admission took its two different tastes, and just threw them in a pot together and hoped for the best. (SIDE NOTE: We felt awful doing it since it was absolutely delicious, but we “chopped” Noah’s dish due to what we decided was deviating from the rules, even though it was culinarily the right choice!)

Not that this is what happened, but in my imagination the studio had a serious script, hired a few box office draws who are AMAZING with comedy, and someone freaked out when they weren’t utilizing those comedic actors; thus they went back and peppered the script with some silly and zany scenes that took full advantage of Rudd and Fey. The trouble was that those scenes just didn’t work in the context of a woman dealing with her mother (played as an eccentric feminist by Lily Tomlin) having  a mastectomy, or a  dull British professor (played by the usually wonderful Michael Sheen) leaving Tina Fey for another woman. Every time you saw Michael Sheen on the screen, it involved some sort of bumbling, unfunny slapstick; and Lily Tomlin was meant to be a comically eccentric woman, but you couldn’t get past the fact that she was a sad, sad character. (In one awful throwaway gag of “what were they thinking?!”, Tomlin’s fake replacement post-mastectomy breasts slid over, so she looked “hilariously” funny. Except the movie wasn’t enough of a comedy to make a rare cancer joke work, and instead you were left wondering what the hell the writer was thinking.

Karen Croner had last written a movie 15 years ago in 1998, the solid Meryl Streep cancer drama One True Thing, and somehow landed the job as the only screenwriter for this dramedy. It felt like she didn’t know whether Admission should be serious or funny, so instead she made it a bit of both, where you were meant to care about the characters in the way a drama wants you to care, but then Tina Fey still said inane things as if she was back in 30 Rock. As the viewer you just KNEW it wasn’t authentic – it completely clashed with the tone.

What’s ironic is that I actually enjoyed the two different types of movies that were there, but not both of them together. I liked watching two of my favorite actors on screen acting with one another, and being naturally funny. And I enjoyed the drama of a woman who has remained emotionally disconnected from students applying to Princeton for years, until she finally woke up and started to care TOO much when one could be her son. But melding those two movies into one was like watching a cautionary tale of what NOT to do in film school. That’s the thing with dramedies, it’s hard to put your finger on what makes one work authentically (Silver Linings PlaybookAbout A Boy), versus when the combinations of drama and comedy just create a bit of a mess.

The actor who played her son was Nat Wolff, lead singer and keyboardist of the Nickelodeon show The Naked Brothers Band. He played the role with a cross between cute awkwardness, and someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome. The problem is that I started off by accepting that he had Asperger’s, but soon realized he was just meant to be a sweet genius with nothing odd or “off” about him. Literally the first scene in the movie represented his personality one way, and the rest of the movie switched gears and he was totally “normal” (unless you consider “smart” to be abnormal), and it was Tina Fey who acted like a buffoon, creating yet another tonal disparity.

I didn’t actually dislike the movie. Being the rather easygoing movie-lover that I am, I had a good time watching it in spite of my many criticisms; but it had such potential to become a good movie with these same talented actors that I was really disappointed it didn’t come together properly. Every time I would finally start to get involved in the story, Tina Fey would suddenly have a comically (and pathetically) goofy run-in with Michael Sheen, and it would just lose me all over again.

The movie was better than Rob Reiner’s Alex & Emma, a forgettably bad movie that took the comedic Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, and didn’t know what to do with them in the dramatic scenes. It was however hugely disappointing compared to Paul Weitz’s brilliant About A Boy, which was part of the reason I felt so let-down by this one.

Quality Rating: C (The actors did a fine job across the board with the material they had, I just strongly question the material itself)

Boaz Rating: B-

Starbuck

13 Apr

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Synopsis: “As his lover announces her pregnancy, a fortysomething slacker receives other life-changing news: 142 people, all of them the result of artificial insemination, have filed a class action lawsuit against him, their biological father.” (Rated R; 1 hour, 49 minutes)

When a movie has subtitles and is seen in a little art house cinema, should that make it better than mainstream fluff? Of course not, it just means it’s on a lower budget and has passed through more hoops to get onto American screens, so we’re often USED to only the best of the best making their way here.

No, this is by no means a great movie, it’s not even a very good movie in fact, but it’s an enjoyable film that I’m not surprised is coming out later this year with its own American remake starring Vince Vaughn. In fact, the little bit of  research I’ve done is telling…Starbuck was a French Canadian movie that actually came out in 2011. It was a huge hit for Quebec but was never released in American for some reason (maybe because it’s cute, but not great?). Then, just months before the Vince Vaughn starring remake is scheduled to be released in theaters, they brought the original to theaters here. I suppose that makes sense, since I left this silly but likable movie wanting to know if they’ll take the best elements of it, remove the silly unbelievable parts, and make a better remake. Probably not, but a movie-lover can dream, can’t he?

The movie itself stars Patrick Huard as a pretty convincing loser. A guy who has made nothing of his life, and you really have no reason to trust that he’s going to ever stop being a loser. Then he finds out his sperm donations from decades earlier fathered 533 children. While trying to avoid them finding out who he is, he finds himself looking into his kids one by one, not telling them who he is. That’s the basic premise and of course I won’t give spoilers. What I will say is the good, the bad and the ugly:

The good

The story was sweet, with plenty of touching and funny moments. It’s basically a movie that was built to be a fluffy crowd-pleaser, and it did its job. He’s a funny loser, his best friend/lawyer is a big fat funny loser, and there are plenty of decent laughs. Some of the moments between him and his unknowing kids were poignant, especially one who lives with special needs. And one way or another you end up rooting for him and this movie to have a happy ending. Like I said, it’s made to be a crowd-pleaser.

The bad

So much of what I described above just FELT manufactured and trite. It was extremely predictable from start to finish. Many of the lines of dialogue just felt…off. And if you will indulge me for a moment, I want to compare this movie to something seemingly random: last year’s violent cop drama End Of Watch. Before you start thinking I’m a crazy person, there’s logic behind my madness. The fantastic and riveting movie from last year suffered from one potential flaw: too much crazy stuff kept happening. Just about every day that Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña went through was the most dramatic, insane thing that should happen once in the lifetime of an actual cop. It was basically a movie that countless policemen said was AMAZING, but totally unbelievable how much each scene was contrived to drum up endless amounts of drama in the movie. This wasn’t necessarily even a flaw, because once you accepted that you would be watching over-the-top things happening, they were made oh-so-well, and you were on the edge of your seat excited, scared and concerned for the characters. It really was one of the best films of 2012.

So what does that have to do with Starbuck? His character would randomly look into each of his kids, but he would catch so many of them in over-the-top dramatic moments of their lives. Instead of just watching them serve coffee in a coffee shop, or walk to work as a lawyer, he would catch them in the midst of crises or other “big” moments, and at a certain point you couldn’t help but feel the behind-the-scenes machinations of the writers creating drama just to make the movie “bigger”. Sensationalism at the cost of authenticity. Plenty of Hollywood movies do it, and I’m sure the remake will do the same, but somehow when I watch a popular foreign film I just…have higher expectations that it won’t stoop to such manipulative, predictable tricks. Still, some of it was portrayed with tenderness and was still effectively sweet.

The ugly

There were certain moments that I can’t really get into because they would spoil the plot; scenes that were SO inane and illogical that Adi and Sarah each turned to me and rolled their eyes at the same time. Listen, when a woman gives birth she is NOT walking around normally (with no help nor hospital staff) an hour later as if nothing happened. I’m not someone who cares when they mess up technical jargon in movies, but this is pretty basic stuff here, sheesh. And when an entire decision that the main character has to make is based on something that MAKES NO SENSE, and that the movie doesn’t even try to address, explain or fix, it is simply infuriating. It creates a crux to the movie that holds no weight, and as a result just loses the audience a bit. This doesn’t matter much in straight up comedies, because you’re less interested in the characters and it’s mostly about the jokes along the way. But a movie like Starbuck isn’t SUPPOSED to just be a dumb comedy; it’s meant to be a sweet comedy, like Little Miss Sunshine, something that makes you laugh but also makes you care a great deal. In order for that to fully work, you can’t be silently screaming at key elements of the premise! I really hope that the American remake will fix these pieces, but moments ago I just lost most of my optimism that any significant fixes would be made. Why? Because I just researched who will be writing and directing this remake, would you care to guess? Ken Scott, the SAME writer/director who made this original. Here’s to hoping he recognized his own flaws and is looking to redeem those mistakes…

At the end of the day, I’ve spent so much time putting down the movies’ downsides, but truly you won’t be able to help but enjoy the story and how it develops. It’s never great, but you should feel yourself rooting for him and laughing enough times that it makes a nice little 2 hours in the cinema. I just hope that it will end up as the rare time that a big budget American remake is better than the original.

The movie was better than Made In America, a lame 1993 comedy where Ted Danson was a sperm donor for Whoopi Goldberg. It wasn’t as good as the underrated Jason Bateman comedy The Switch, where he “accidentally” donated his sperm to Jennifer Aniston, which was a much funnier and more touching than people gave credit for.

Quality Rating: B-

Boaz Rating: B+

Stoker

18 Mar

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Synopsis: “After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.” (Rated R; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

Strangely enough, this was the second film I’ve seen in 2013 that was the English-language debut of a Korean filmmaker.  The first was The Last Stand (reviewed within that link), while this one is the debut of Chan-wook Park, the violently inventive director of OldboyI saw both films with Jared (purely by happenstance), and although The Last Stand was a more mindlessly entertaining movie, Stoker is a fascinating, highly creative, stylized attempt at making a “Hitchcock” film. At times though, it became too stylized, and I’m not sure there was even a point for all of it; but the good outweighed the silly, and I continue to be impressed by Park’s work.

The thing that sticks out the most within the movie has to be its sound. Not the music – though that plays a part as well – but rather each and every sound effect is so deliberate and grating that it becomes a supporting character to the story. A wine glass slowly pushed across the table brings a troubling screeching sound to the foreground that creates a mood of unease. The metronome above the piano ticks away and builds a tension that clashes with the pleasant music being played on the piano. In fact, these sounds brought me back to the movie Atonement, which also utilized each and every noise in the foreground (rather than the background where the Foley artists like to subtlely show-off their work). It’s an interesting device, and certainly felt consistent with the heavily stylized camerawork. Scenes that had happened either in reality or in the imagination of the main characters would flash on the screen in an interesting way; making you wonder what was an actual flashback versus what could be fantasy.

The thing is that style will never outperform substance for my personal liking, and thus when this movie began I was afraid it would be all style and little substance. Images such as a spider climbing up Mia Wasikowska’s leg may have been visually interesting, but I don’t know that they were ever explained. Luckily, about half an hour into the film the plot became interesting, and provided me with my fair share of “whoa” moments. When it was over, I told Adi and Jared that I felt like I was watching a really cool modern day, over-stylized Hitchcock film, with dashes of Dexter thrown in for good measure.

The writer of the movie turned out to be Wentworth Miller, aka Michael Scofield from the show Prison Break (the main character). It was his debut screenplay, and it will be interesting to see what he does next as a writer. It also amuses me to note that almost everyone involved in the movie was “faking it”. Chan-wook Park was trying to make his way through an English language film for his first time (he used an interpreter), while a very British Wentworth Miller was writing American words of dialogue for Mia Wasikowska (Australian), Nicole Kidman (Australian), Jacki Weaver (Australian) and Matthew Goode (English). I watch a movie like this and just wonder: if the entire cast was already Australian, why not just let them BE Australian? The acting would inevitably be even better if they don’t have to focus on “faking it” and I don’t see how the story would suffer or even be affected. Though I will say that Matthew Goode was highly effectively creepy as the mysterious uncle who shows up.  I was excited to see  Alden Ehrenreich again, the main actor who I spoke highly of in my Beautiful Creatures review. However, between the short nature of his role, and his bizarre character development which made NO sense, I’m going to have to wait until his next movie to be impressed.

The actors each did an interesting job overall, though I wouldn’t  count on walking out being able to understand each and every plot point, character development, and imagery. Instead just enjoy the sounds, the visuals and the development of a cool, twisted story.

The movie was better than Hitchcock, the blandly ordinary biopic about his making of the movie Psycho, which lacked any of Stoker’s imagination or danger. The movie was not nearly as great as Atonement, which also used sound as a central personality of the movie, as well as the director’s film Oldboy which was an insane adrenaline rush of a revenge movie that I recommend to any action fan reading this.

Quality Rating: B (Many points given for its style and creativity, but many more removed for having too much of it, along with it not all making sense even by the end)

Boaz Rating: B+ (This is a movie where how I felt changed throughout the experience, going from lows to highs and back to lows again; but the coolness factor throughout the climax was too much to not give it an overall positive Boaz Rating)

Quartet

11 Feb

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Synopsis: “At a home for retired musicians, the annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and the former wife of one of the residents.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour 37 minutes)

Movies about aging generally have an innate ability to affect me. In the most devastating of times it can be like the current Best Picture nominee Amour (previously reviewed in this blog), but more typically it is in a cute comedy interspersed with moments of sadness. This can range from films such as The Full Monty to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie that immediately comes to mind when watching this one. Just last year Marigold Hotel was released, also starred Maggie Smith, and was about older British people in a strange kind of retirement facility.

Quartet is about a beautiful retirement estate for old musicians. The wonderful thing about it is the tremendous life that flows through the movie, which is essentially about how aging deteriorates us all. One of the opening shots of the movie is of an old hand playing beautiful piano music, but grabbing itself carefully from some ailment, and Billy Connolly being examined by the doctor and clearly getting sicker. But rather than spending most of the movie focusing on each person and feeling sorry for them, it sidesteps that for the most part and focuses on what each and every one of these elderly musicians CAN still do. And that even if it’s less great than it used to be, it still feels pretty damn good doing what you can in life.

These messages may sound wonderful, or they may sound corny, and they may be cliched; possibly a combination of all three. But Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with some pretty great British actors portraying aging with all of its frustrations, but also with an “it’s not over for us” attitude that really inspires. One of the most wonderful elements to the movie is that most of the supporting actors are real, older musicians, and it made it all the more lovely to watch them perform throughout the movie. Some of them were playing the clarinet while trying to catch their breath, and others were singing opera, but all were a heck of a lot better than most of us can ever hope to be, whether they’ve gone downhill or not. It’s just a lovely sight to see interspersed throughout the movie.

Bonus points for Billy Connolly acting as an old horn-dog, and Tom Courtenay for what feels like a very natural and raw performance.

I’m not claiming the movie has the most original story, nor that it isn’t full of predictable scenes; but it just does everything in a very likable way that made me care about each and every character and makes me hope that we all can retire in a facility half as beautiful as the one they live in!

On a more personal note, this was the first movie I saw as an engaged man, and we both really loved the story which includes hope and love that can last a lifetime!

The movie was a bit better than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which also portrayed some characters living their twilight years in retirement; but not as good as Another Year, which included some English characters aging in an absolutely magnificent movie by Mike Leigh.

Quality Rating: B+ (A somewhat typical movie but set in such an unusual context that really makes it extra special.)

Boaz Rating: B+

Stand Up Guys

2 Feb

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Synopsis: “A pair of aging con men try to get the old gang back together for one last hurrah before one of the guys takes his last assignment – to kill his comrade.” (Rated R; 1 hour 33 minutes)

A bromance for the ages…or I should say, for the aged.

It”s an extremely dark and unusual premise, but plays out kind of adorably: At the start of the movie Al Pacino is released from prison and picked up by Christopher Walken, his best friend. The premise is that Walken is under orders to kill Pacino by the next morning or he himself will be killed. So you have this one last night they’re spending together, bonding and reminiscing, and it’s filmed in a very sweet, likable way. The fact that these actors have such a long history in the movies playing these sorts of criminals, you instantly believe that they used to be criminals together and are now old, tired men. And it’s a cute, playful movie full of them trying to live it up like they’re younger again while clearly they’re total anachronisms in the modern world. In fact it took a long time during the movie to even realize that it wasn’t meant to be the 70’s because they’re so stuck in the past that it takes ages to see a car, TV or phone that isn’t super old-school – Adi and I were honestly trying to figure out WHEN it all took place.

It’s a cute comedy mixed with the underlying nervous tension of what is yet to come with the dark premise, and mixed in with a strong dash of some twisted subplots of sex and violence. As a slow but satisfying character comedy, I believe most audiences will enjoy it, and it doesn’t hurt that Alan Arkin is his usual amusing self (though I don’t know why he was nominated for Argo considering he’s always the same character).

Let me sum my thoughts up this way: any movie that has old men breaking into a pharmacy to steal blood pressure medication is already better than most comedies; and any movie that stars Walken, Pacino and Arkin and lets them basically riff off each other and reminisce should be enjoyable for most movie fans even if it’s also a bit sad watching these powerhouses of yore doing the scariest thing of all…aging.

The movie was better than Diamonds, a movie where Kirk Douglas is an old man looking for stolen diamonds that was boring rather than sweet or funny. It wasn’t quite as inventively funny or quirky as Bubba Ho-Tep, where elderly Elvis Presley and JFK (played by a black man, naturally) fight an Egyptian mummy in an old age home….yeah, if you haven’t seen that one and that premise sounds like fun, it is!

Quality Rating: B (Good fun, though it had comic timing that didn’t always hit the mark, but it was always enjoyable)

Boaz Rating: B+