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Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomic_blonde_ver3Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.

Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.

This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).

The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.

atomic-blonde-movie-charlize-theron-sofia-boutella-2Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.

The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.

The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.

atomicblondethumb-1489171817898_1280wAtomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Unlike many of my critical brethren, I do not view Michael Bay as the devil incarnate. I think the man has definite talent and is one of the finest visual stylists working in the realm of film. I’ve enjoyed about half of the Transformers franchise and don’t consider it the end-all-be-all of modern American cinema. Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what the detractors have railed against from the start: a cacophonous ejaculation of incomprehensible nonsense. The charge has often been made against Bay’s long filmography that his stories are unintelligible, but Transformers 5 proves to be the new measuring point for incensed incredulity. This isn’t only the worst Transformers entry in a seemingly never-ending franchise (thanks product placement, merchandising, and toy sales) but an early contender for worst film of 2017.

Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is hiding out with other Autobots in a South Dakota junkyard awaiting the return of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime ventured into space to find the remnants of the Autobot home world, Cybertron. Once found, he’s brainwashed by the Cybertron goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan) into being her servant. She’s after an ancient staff that will prove to be the key to restarting Cybertron. It was last seen on Earth during the Dark Ages and rumor has it was given to Merlin. Cade is enlisted by a centuries-long secret society to help find the staff before the evil forces at bay get hold of it.

It feels like the Transformers 5 writers were on a week-long cocaine bender when they cobbled together this impenetrable narrative. Let me give you but a taste of the confusing, muddled, and overall mind-numbing plot as it exists. There’s a magic staff from the robot world that will recharge the robot world, and it just so happens 12 robot knights, which form a giant robot dragon, landed on Earth and gave it to Merlin, played by a soused Stanley Tucci who was already a different character in the fourth Transformers movie, who then established a secret order that would keep the giant alien robots secret even as they were doing things as high-profile as literally killing Hitler, and the members of this secret society include Frederick Douglass and Queen Elizabeth and Shia LeBouf, and this staff needs to be retrieved from an underwater spaceship under Stonehenge by Merlin’s blood progeny and will be aided by an alien talisman that forms an alien sword that does something, and the evil alien robots are going to recharge their planet by scraping the Earth’s crust, which has horns protruding from it that once aligned with Pangaea, and there’s an evil alien robot goddess who brainwashes Optimus Prime to retrieve her magical items on demand and then Megatron is being hired the U.S. government and a team of special ops are trailing him to get to the staff and… I’m sorry; did your brain start bleeding out your ears? I looked over to my friend Ben Bailey during the screening and saw him slumped over in his chair and thought, for a fraction of a second, that the movie had literally killed him (he had just fallen asleep for the third time). What an ignoble end.

The movie is a nonstop barrage of yelling and movement, an assault on the senses that leaves you dumbfounded and dazed, and without anything to moor onto. Almost every single actor is on screen for one of two purposes: quips or exposition. These are not characters but devices for words that ultimately don’t make sense. Wahlberg has two different female sidekicks. For the first half, he’s got a plucky teen that serves as a surrogate daughter figure. Izabella (Isabella Moner) is a kid with attitude and carefully arranged strands of hair that always fall over her face in every single shot in the entire movie. Izabella’s introduction actually might be the highlight of an otherwise soul-crushing experience. Then Wahlberg leaves for England and he adopts a new sidekick, this time the hot smart woman who changes into a more comfortable outfit but literally keeps her heels. Vivian (Laura Haddock) is pretty much the next in a long line of highly sexualized, tawny female characters under Bay’s alluring gaze (I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.”). Her mother doesn’t care about the end of the human world, or her daughter’s many academic credentials, and instead pesters her about getting herself a man. This leads to one of the film’s worst comedic moments, as Vivian’s mother and friends giggle and eavesdrop on her and Wahlberg trashing a library as a spontaneous bout of sexy time. Wouldn’t it be weird for anyone’s mother to take pleasure in listening to your escapades and offer a play-by-play?

But the strangest characters are Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton and his 4-foot robot ninja (voiced by Jim Carter). You can clearly tell that Hopkins didn’t care at all what he was saying. He uncorks ungainly monologues with relish and then transitions into strained comedy as a doddering old man. The robot butler begins as a C3PO-esque prim and proper servant with a disarming fighting ability, and it works. However, as the movie progresses, the robot butler gets downright belligerent and seemingly drunk. It’s truly bizarre, as if this robot is acting out to be seen like he’s one of the cool kids, but whom exactly is he trying to impress? At one point, he tells Wahlberg that he is “on my shit list” and torpedoes out of a submarine, brings back fish, prepares a sushi dinner for the humans while supplying ingredients that were totally not found on a WWII-era sub that was parked as a tourist locale up until 20 minutes ago. The character makes no sense and seems to bounce around behavioral extremes. Take this passage late into the film:

Robot Butler: “Of all the earls I’ve served-“
Me: “You were the greatest?”
Robot Butler: “-You were the coolest.”
Me: “Whaaaaaaaa?”

Another confusing part of the film is the setting of its story. We’re five movies in to an alien civil war taking place on Earth, so you would assume that normal life shouldn’t feel normal after so many catastrophes. Egypt was destroyed in the second film (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), Chicago was decimated in the third film, and China was blown up in the fourth film. It’s about time that people started paying attention to these things and behaving differently. A new government agency is tasked with hunting down Transformers and there are war zone portions of the world that are quarantined, but that’s about it. I initially thought this fifth movie was going to take place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Earth where human beings have to struggle to survive. That’s not Transformers 5 at all. It seems all too easy to ignore reality; Wahlberg’s daughter is away at college. After four movies, the world of this franchise needed a jump in its stakes. Bay’s films have always possessed an alarming sense of urgency but it rarely feels earned. Characters yelling, running, and explosions going off like fireworks isn’t the same thing as genuinely developed stakes.

Another confusing aspect of Transformers 5 is Bay’s jumbled aspect ratios (i.e. how wide the frame of the movie is presented). Sizeable portions were shot on IMAX, which has become all the rage for action movie directors since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was three different aspect ratios that jumped from shot to shot. Two characters will be having a conversation and the aspect ratio will cycle and it rips me out of the movie every time (there are SIX credited editors). The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences worked because they were sustained sequences. I expect the higher-grade IMAX film stock for the expansive action or picturesque landscapes to take in the natural splendor. What I wasn’t expecting was measly interior conversations to be filmed in IMAX. Did I really need to watch a conversation with Vivian and her mother in IMAX to fully appreciate their bookshelf? Like much else in this perfunctory movie, this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-aspect-ratio makes no sense.

I don’t normally like to quote myself, but reading over my concluding paragraph of 2011’s Dark of the Moon, I was struck by how much of my assessment could equally apply to the fifth film, even down to the exact running-time: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise built around the concept of robots that fight. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a ‘popcorn movie’ can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too.” Take this assessment and times it by ten for The Last Knight. The incomprehensible plotting, infantile humor, nonchalant misogyny, empty action bombast, and dispiriting nature of the film are enough to suck the life out of you. I was bored tremendously and contemplated walking out on the movie (I stayed for you, dear reader). It feels like the screenplay was put into a blender. Transformers 5 is exhausting and exhaustively mechanical, and if this is the first start in a larger Expanded Transformers Cinematic Universe (ETCU?) then resistance may be futile. Still, it’s worth fighting against brain-dead spectacle that only moves you to the exits.

Nate’s Grade: D

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.

In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.

Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.

One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.

The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.

I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.

Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.

The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.

The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.

Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10cl_posterThe mysterious sequel to the 2008 found footage monster movie sprung from nowhere, surreptitiously filmed without the general public having any idea of its connection to Cloverfield until mere weeks before its release. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day publicity magic act, something that J.J. Abrams is known for with his crusade against spoilers. The biggest surprise about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that the best parts of a slick and suspenseful movie are the parts that have nothing to do with Cloverfield. The majority of the film’s first two acts take place entirely in a bunker with one possibly disturbed individual played by a terrifically unsettled John Goodman. The unease and dread build nicely and the reveals are paced out in a clever manner to make us second-guess and second-guess our second-guesses. There’s a great moment during an awkward game of charades where Goodman’s character can’t conceive of calling a woman by the term “woman,” instead relying upon patronizing terms like “girl” or “princess.” There’s a darkness and a fury under the surface that should remind of Goodman’s expert turn in Barton Fink. This is a finely suspenseful and mysterious chamber piece until we leave the bunker and the movie officially connects into the Cloverfield universe. It’s a little sloppy and makes for a tonally inconsistent finale. It’s not enough to ruin the movie by any means but it certainly lessens the smartly constructed suspense and paranoia. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) makes for an effective survival thriller heroine, and her line reading of “Oh come on” is a divine highlight. As a Cloverfield movie, this opens up the space for a wider variety of humans vs. monsters stories, but as a movie, it plays at peak performance when it follows its own lead.

Nate’s Grade: B

Flight (2012)

The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.

It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.

Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.

I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.

It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.

I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this not to reconfirm my red-blooded heterosexuality but because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.

Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.

I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

ParaNorman (2012)

The gorgeously animated stop-motion film ParaNorman is a terrific sight for the eyes. There’s a certain magic to stop-motion, the tangible nature of it all, the knowledge that these intricate worlds actually existed. Like Coraline, the previous film by the same animation house, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this handcrafted world. The animation is so fluid, so sprightly, and displays a rich artistic tone. The story, about a kid who can see ghosts, is noticeably less ambitious. The characters are a tad one-dimensional (bratty older sister, dimwitted jock, socially awkward chubby best friend, etc.) and the plot is fairly predictable, but what really elevates ParaNorman is its sense of humor. I was laughing heartily throughout the movie, not just a giggle or a chortle but good, solid laughs. ParaNorman has an irreverent sense of humor with some surprisingly adult-oriented gags (nothing to worry about parents). With these virtues, the movie becomes an entertaining horror comedy aimed at young teens and older adults. It’s a fun movie, short of a saggy second act, and the animation is aces.

Nate’s Grade: B

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith, love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man is a natural promoter. Earlier in the year, the indie filmmaker self-distributed his first foray into horror films, Red State, on a nationwide tour of screenings. I first saw Red State way back in March when Smith visited Springfield, Ohio to screen the film and then answer questions afterwards. I’ve been trying to wrestle with my critical opinion in the ensuing months. Fortunately for me, Smith has made it extremely easy to revisit my thoughts. Red State eschewed the traditional theatrical release pattern for a new digital-age model. It was available on demand through cable systems, available for download, and even broadcast in special theaters for a one-night only event. A month later the film hit DVD. In its better moments, Red State is the unholy union of Quentin Tarantino’s love of language, and penchant for jolting violence, and the Coen brothers’ nihilistic, cock-eyed sensibilities. This is strange new territory for the man. I wish I could say Red State is worthy of all the attention, though this sinister, messy, gritty little movie can work its wicked mojo, at least for a while.

The Five Points Church is a notorious family-operated cult. Under the guidance of their shepherd, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), this fundamentalist Christian group pickets the funerals of dead soldiers, haranguing the grieved that their loved ones are dead because “God hates fags” (excuse me for failing to put two and two together). A group of teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) is lured to Sara’s (Melissa Leo) trailer with the promise of sex. The middle-aged woman plies her young bucks with drinks and they are knocked out. The boys awaken to find they are inside the Five Points compound and witness to Abin Cooper’s solution to sinners. Rather than railing with signs, the family has decided to take a more hands-on approach and execute them. While this is going on, a sheriff’s deputy alerts the authorities and the ATF rolls up to the compound. Lead by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), the government agency engages in a firefight with the rightwing cult. Ordered to take down the compound, and all witnesses, the various characters will try and escape with their lives, never knowing when that fateful moment of atonement may drop.

What Smith does well for a genre novice is to keep his audience constantly upended. Just when we think we’ve settled on a protagonist and a plotline, suddenly Smith switches gears. The surprises are sudden and often merciless, leaving the audience little room to adjust. In a genre usually beholden to formula, the consistency of Smith’s surprises makes for a darkly satisfying viewing. Watching Red State demands due attention. Naturally, not all of these tonal shifts work to the movie’s best interest. The final shift, to all-out action thriller, is the most leaden. The Ruby Ridge/Waco-style standoff allows for a lot of gunfire but very little action. We mostly just cut back and forth between the two sides firing and, inexplicably high numbers, being shot in the face. It can get repetitive and seem like all the mounting tension gets squandered. There is a nice storyline within of one family member, Cheyenne (Kerry Bische), forming a plan to save the compound’s children and escape. Bische (the lead on the last season of TV’s Scrubs) makes fantastic use of her limited screen time to render the anxiety and fear of her character. She’s second only to Parks in the performance department as far as I’m concerned. Then the climax comes along and Smith teases being audacious, going in a fire-and-brimstone angle that would completely obliterate audience expectations. And just when it seems like we’re about to get something radical… Smith falls back to what he knows – dialogue. For the final five minutes, Smith concludes his narrative with two government officials explaining what happened in florid detail. It’s a fairly big letdown.

The setup of luring teens to their doom is an old horror staple, though usually the ones doing the sacrifices are card-carrying Satanists. And when exactly would a Satanist be in a situation needing to prove their validity with a membership card (“I’m sorry Mr. Darkseed, but we can’t give you the ten percent discount on all those goat skulls unless we see some valid photo ID.”)? Smith flips the switch religious allegiance. Instead of Satanists or some other misunderstood fringe religion, the cult is a group of pious Christians. There’s plenty of room to work here and Smith refrains from making easy associations; the Five Points nutjobs aren’t meant to represent Christians as a whole or Christianity. They are extremists, and they will go to extreme measures. Ostensibly based upon the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, you keep waiting for Smith to satirically carve up the clan, but this never really occurs beyond the superficial. Smith’s writerly instincts give Abin Cooper a ten-minute sermon/platform where the guy just unloads a hate-filled diatribe against homosexuals and progressives. For many, this will be the make it or break it point of the film. There are some genuinely tense moments to the first half of Red State. There’s one scene where the camera holds on Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) inside a wired cage. He rattles and screams and generally comes unglued, and we too piece together what he hears, dreading what is to come. The many escapes and narrow calls are also harrowing and finely edited to ratchet up suspense.

It seems, though, that Smith’s bleak screenplay does not present any characters we can truly root for. Horror has been shifting this way for the past twenty years. Thanks to the rise of the slasher flick, audience empathy has shifted from being with the running/screaming victims to being with the gruesome yet personable killers. Red State has a high body count but you won’t feel much when those bodies hit the floor. You’ll feel a jolt of shock, but from an empathy standpoint the needle barely registers. Sure, we don’t want people to be tortured and we want the abused to escape torment, but that’s not the same as characterization. The closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) feels like the start of an idea more than anything else. The trio of teen boys is presented with as little care as any other throwaway slasher flick. They are but meat for the grinder, our entryway into this hidden and spooky fundamental world. These aren’t so much characters as bodies waiting to be slain. The people are set up so they can be knocked down. This issue can become troubling when Smith wants us to rethink our loyalties, especially once the siege has begun. He wants us, dares us, to start feeling empathy for members of the Five Points Church. The problem is that the plot’s adherence to shock value and the underbelly of human nature has desensitized our empathy. When the ATF starts firing most in the audience will probably just cheer, not reflectively question the moral relativism. I doubt anyone will be switching allegiances midway through.

Cults are usually held together with a charismatic leader, and Red State has that in spades with Parks. The man just dissolves into his twisted character, a preacher that uses the Word of God to indoctrinate and arm for his own holy war. Parks has done fine supporting work before in the stable of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, but Red State is the actor’s biggest modern showcase yet. The man makes your skin crawl the way he can wrap hate into a honeyed, easily digestible product. Abin holds sway over his flock and likewise Parks commands the screen. He provides grandeur and menace to Smith’s words. It’s not a scenery-chewing performance; Parks doesn’t go for the obvious notes when he can hit something deeper and more unsettling. You get a sense that this man fully believes the dogma he teaches, and that makes him all the more terrifying. The other actors peopling Red State are fine, though Leo (Oscar-winner for The Fighter) seems a bit unrestrained especially in contrast with Parks. Goodman (TV’s Treme) gets to talk on the phone a lot to his unseen superiors. The end of the film just descends into frenzied yelling on everyone’s part.

Credited as a horror movie, though I view it more of a survivalist thriller but I suppose genre specifications are subjective, regardless, Red State is miles away from Smith’s usual output. The movie has its share of creeping dread and menace, thanks to Parks’ transfixing performance. The screenplay is unrepentantly dark, cruelly cutting down lives with shocking acuity. The constant surprises and upheavals are a way to keep the audience guessing, though the shock value starts to wear off by the noisy, repetitive gun battle climax. It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of commentary Smith is presenting. Obviously he doesn’t side with the hateful fundamentalists (this is probably why he pulls back at the end), but he also shows the government’s reaction to religious zealots to be morally queasy at best. It’s hard to get a read what the commentary is, and with horror, if you don’t take a stab at commentary then you’re just watching high-gloss snuff films. Red State resembles a snuff film in several ways and not just in its grimy aesthetics. You feel a little dirty after it’s over, and you can’t help but question your motives for watching it. Plus you can’t help but think it could have been better done (note: I have never watched an actual snuff film, you sickos, but the point remains).

Nate’s Grade: B-

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