Archives for posts with tag: 4 out of 5

Okay, Pixar, okay. We get it. You have figured out how optimally to tug at our heartstrings.

MV5BYjQ5NjM0Y2YtNjZkNC00ZDhkLWJjMWItN2QyNzFkMDE3ZjAxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODIxMzk5NjA@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Coco is a solid installment in the series of Pixar-unexpected-weeping features. Fortunately it is also clever and adorable.

A boy, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), grows up in a family in which music has been banned, because his great-great-grandfather left to go be a great musician and never came back. They make shoes instead. His great-grandmother, the eponymous Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), is extremely old and her memory is going. Jaime Camil (Rogelio from “Jane the Virgin”) is his mild-mannered dad!

Now, Miguel, inevitably, loves music. He idolizes the late singer and guitarist Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), and, on the Day of the Dead, attempts to steal his guitar to compete in a talent show. Because his family has destroyed his own guitar. And because he’s oddly okay with grave-robbing.

Well, it’s the Day of the Dead, so the division between the worlds of the dead and the living is permeable, and Miguel accidentally ends up in the world of the dead. His street dog also comes. He runs into most of his dead relatives, as well as a good-for-nothing skeleton called Héctor (Gael García Bernal). Héctor is in danger of being forgotten–his photo is not displayed by his family and his soul is not given ofrendas, and he is desperately trying to cross over and provide somebody, at least, with a photograph. He and Miguel make a deal to help each other. Shenanigans, as they say, ensue.

The world of the dead is brilliantly and hilariously drawn, particularly the bureaucracy that dictates whether or not the souls can visit their families and the customs officers who comment on the quality of the ofrendas. It is also desperately–desperately–sad. We see the fate of a soul who has been entirely forgotten, and it is heartbreaking.

The animation is gorgeous, the songs are good, and somehow a world full of skeletons is only moderately disconcerting. Oh, and the Frida Kahlo gags are great.

Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes
Score: 4/5

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Do you need a good cry? Try this movie.

MV5BZjM5ZDNlOGUtMjhlOS00NjNiLTg4M2MtNzVhMDY3MDlkYzg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_UY268_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Western Australia, some time after the battle of Gallipoli has started but long before it has ended. A farmer’s son, Archy (Mark Lee), is learning from his uncle (Bill Kerr) how to be a great sprinter. He is blond and handsome and 18. We also immediately learn that, in addition to being fast and a good big brother, he is not racist. Also, of course, and against the wishes of his family and the Australian government, he wishes to join the light cavalry.

A drifter, Frank (Mel Gibson), loses his last twenty pounds betting on himself to beat Archy in a footrace. They are both extremely fast. Fate throws them together, and by various schemes and long desert treks, Archy fails to get Frank into the light cavalry as Frank cannot ride a horse. Archy, because he is desperately too nice, feels bad about this. But Frank is skint so he and his laughably Australian friends join the infantry.

Naturally, Frank and Archy both end up at Gallipoli, as many men from Western Australia did, and also naturally, as speedsters, they end up as runners when the telephones give out, which is always. They are there under the command of Major Barton (Bill Hunter, in the first sympathetic rôle in which I’ve ever seen him), whose wife has sent him off with a kiss and a bottle of champagne to drink on their anniversary.

I need hardly tell you that this does not go well. Watches are not synchronized. Artillery bombardments are inadequate. Major Barton does not wait until his anniversary to drink his bubbles. Communications go down. Self-sacrifice breaks out like a rash. Everybody dies.

Do you need an odd-couple story to make Gallipoli sad? No. Is this one pretty well done? Yes.

Director: Peter Weir
Rating: PG
Length: 110 minutes
Score: 4/5

“Disney made a movie about Polynesia” is not a sentence calculated to get me to buy a ticket. “Jemaine Clement plays a giant evil crab” might have done better, but no one told me.

MV5BMjI4MzU5NTExNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY1MTEwMDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Moana is really good. It’s simple, compelling, and well-executed. Also gorgeous. A young Polynesian woman (Auli’i Cravalho) is raised to be the chief of her island. She has a kooky and mystical grandmother (the inimitable Rachel House), a cute pig, and a very stupid chicken. Then things on the island start to die, and Moana must go on a quest to restore the heart (a small jade token) to the goddess Te Fiti. To do this, she enlists the help of the demigod Maui. Who is played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Obviously.

He is arrogant and hilarious; she is naïve but plucky.  They encounter monsters, gods, and the ocean, which is usually on their side but also can get tetchy. The best of these is a giant crab called Tamatoa, who is the god of something or other and is voiced side-splittingly by Jemaine Clement.

Romance at no point enters the story, even in negation. This is markedly better than the treatment in Brave or Frozen. In fact, across the board Moana is much more the girl-power film those were trying to be. And as far as I can tell it’s not racist.

Stray observations:

  • Like, Moana, I’m excited for your freedom and self-actualization and stuff but you literally don’t know how to handle an out-rigger and it was stupid to steal one and head off by yourself.
  • The coconut pirates are baffling and unnecessary.
  • “Oh, I see. She’s taken a barnacle, and she’s covered it in bioluminescent algae. As a diversion.”

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams
Rating: PG
Length: 107 minutes
Score: 4/5

Northanger Abbey is perhaps Jane Austen’s least appreciated book, at least by me, for much of my life. I thought it would be like the others, but it’s not. It’s even spoofier, and it’s a spoof of Gothic novels. Now, Gothic novels are kind of bad. The Mysteries of Udolpho is remarkable chiefly because absolutely nothing (and nothing shocking) happens in it.

Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) has read too many novels, and she thinks life resembles them. When she ends up in an old country house, she nearly ruins her life by treating it and its inhabitants as if it were a castle in a Gothic novel.

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This TV adaptation is near-perfect. The younger son of the Tilney house, Henry (JJ Feild), likes her, and is tolerant of her many faults. He calls her on them, but not insultingly. His sister, Eleanor (Catherine Walker), is gentle and mature. If they were the only three people in the novel, you might observe, it would be very boring. But Catherine also encounters less virtuous and much dumber people: Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan), who is an insincere fortune-hunter who tries to entrap both Catherine’s brother and Henry’s; John Thorpe (William Beck), Isabella’s brother, who is a blowhard and wants to marry Catherine for her (nonexistent) money; Captain Tilney (Mark Dymond) and General Tilney (Liam Cunningham), who are cold-hearted and generally unpleasant.

My only real quibble with it is that John Thorpe is not good-looking enough to be a plausible alternative to Henry. He’s unbearable and he looks like the back end of a cab. It’s not charming for Catherine to be taken in. But everyone else is great–JJ Feild is exactly handsome enough for Henry, Felicity Jones is adorably but not irritatingly naïve, and all the adults are hilariously one-dimensional dramatic types. Carey Mulligan is hateful.

Of this run of made-for-TV Austens, this is the most pleasant. It’s like a small gelato of period cuteness.

Director: Jon Jones
Rating: so delightfully light
Length: 84 minutes
Score: 4/5

MV5BMjMyNDkzMzI1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODcxODg5MjI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Or, Thor: Ragnarok.

So. The Thor movies might be my favorite, as an oeuvre, because the Iron Man movies start out over-written and the Captain America movies become tedious. The Thor movies are just kind of joyously bad.

Except this one, which is joyously rather good.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) dies, which depresses his sons and releases his daughter, Hela (Cate Blanchett), from imprisonment. She is the goddess of death, and she wants to take over Asgard. She manages to banish both Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to a garbage planet on which Thor becomes an enslaved gladiator and Loki becomes a member of the local dirtbag elite, because of course. This planet is managed by Jeff Goldblum (Jeff Goldblum), who runs the fights and has a hilarious and bloodthirsty assistant, Topaz (Rachel House). Also there is Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), an angry drunk lady (Tessa Thompson), and a sentient walking rock called Korg, who is voiced by Taika Waititi and exists solely for comic relief. He is terrific.

Naturally much of the film is the attempt to get back to Asgard and deal with Hela, but, unlike other Marvel movies which would take the “dead dad” and “goddess of death” and “fraternal friction” tropes and go to a miserable place of tiresome angst, Ragnarok keeps it light. That is not to say that this film does not take things seriously–it does, but with Waititi’s deft touch it does not get bogged down in the gravity. The movie is a little too long, but the pacing is sufficiently frenetic that this rarely grates.

And the soundtrack is great. It’s not trying too hard to motivate a specific kind of nostalgia (Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m looking at you), but is instead humorously on-the-nose: Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for Thor’s theme or “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka during what seems like an acid trip.

Stray observations:

  • “I’m not a witch.” “Then why are you dressed like one?”
  • Is Loki ever going to get a real person haircut? Also: this was a return to the original Thor‘s endless string of squirrelly Loki faces and I am at home for that.
  • I’m glad that Idris Elba isn’t too proud to continue being in these movies. A soupçon of Heimdall is very welcome.

Director: Taika Waititi
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes
Score: 4/5

MV5BMjE5MTEwNjIxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODk1NzYyMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Unsurprisingly, War and Remembrance the miniseries is the sequel to The Winds of War, as the novel is. The book is worse than Winds of War, but the miniseries is much, much better. It is no more faithful to the source material, but the screenwriting and acting are drastically improved.

Leading the charge here is the recasting of several major characters. Jane Seymour replaces Ali MacGraw as Natalie Jastrow and is so much better in the rôle it’s hard to believe. John Gielgud replaces John Houseman as Aaron Jastrow–this, too, is an improvement, though less marked (and is no real reflection on John Houseman). Finally, Hart Bochner takes over for Jan-Michael Vincent as Byron Henry, and he is better looking and more convincing.

The war is on, and Herman Wouk bows to statistical necessity and starts killing off major characters, although he still manages to pull some punches. The Henrys lose Warren (Michael Woods) on a bombing run in the Pacific, and his widow Janice (Sharon Stone! Sharon Stone!) starts messing around with Byron’s XO, even though Byron’s XO is terrible. Rhoda Henry (still Polly Bergen) takes this as an opportunity to have an attack of conscience about her infidelities and starts emotionally blackmailing Pug (still Robert Mitchum), so he, man-like, gets all guilty and Protestant. This makes poor Pamela Tudsbury (still Victoria Tennant) have feelings.

This is all largely to remind you that there’s a war in the Pacific and in Russia and sometimes in England, but the heart of the story is Natalie and Aaron Jastrow. It begins in their villa in Siena, and ends, via Marseilles, Geneva, and Theresienstadt, in Auschwitz. Avram Rabinowitz (Sami Frey) tries to get them to Palestine on a refugee ship, but under pressure of various kinds they decide against it, and a long, inexorable process is set in motion. In parallel with this, Byron moves heaven and earth in an attempt to find and rescue them. It is hideous to watch, but well done.

The production is overall more careful than the first installment, though there are inevitably bits on which they cheap out. The clothes are marginally better, although again we fall back on uniform and Natalie in rags. The main problem is that it is so, so long. Feature film length is a more palatable amount of the War. This is Wouk’s point, of course, so it’s not an accident.

Stray observations:

  • I suspect General Eisenhower is impossible to cast–his particular brand of funny looks is not common.  E. G. Marshall does not work for me. Ralph Bellamy as FDR and the recently late Robert Hardy as Churchill are better.
  • Obviously we have to deal with the Valkyrie plot. It’s not as good as the film, but Sky du Mont is an acceptable Stauffenberg.

Director: Dan Curtis
Rating: TV-MA
Length: 27 hours
Score: 4/5

MV5BN2YyZjQ0NTEtNzU5MS00NGZkLTg0MTEtYzJmMWY3MWRhZjM2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDA4NzMyOA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_There were a lot of deeply irritating things about this movie, so I’ll just get them out of the way at the start. First, it suffered from having the sound mixing set to “human voices are irrelevant,” like all Christopher Nolan films. Second, it had stupid intertitles and explanatory text. If you can’t figure out that the BEF is trapped on the beach in Dunkirk trying to evacuate, from 106 minutes of a film called “Dunkirk,” either the film is very bad or you are very dense. Third, the chronological fiddling was misguided. The film follows the men on the beach for a week, a boat from England for a day, and three Spitfires for an hour–concurrently. This means that time moves at different rates for the various characters and you watch various events from different points of view at different times. It’s confusing and pretentious. At least once it destroys suspense.

Admirably, the film doesn’t do the thing where it has old men in cigars in a panelled room in London arranging things blithely while young men die. It has only the bored tired disgust of the officers on the ground actually trying to fix the situation: an army colonel (James D’Arcy) and a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh). Also admirably it does not indulge in the modern taste for gore, which largely allows it to avoid a certain kind of cynical emotionalism (Saving Private Ryan, I am looking at you). Instead, Branagh flatly informs D’Arcy that a wounded man on a stretcher takes the space of seven standing men. Bleak.

On the beach too it is miserable, and we see the vicissitudes of a soldier’s life there by following Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he flees German guns and then keeps getting not entirely evacuated. On the way he runs into Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Harry Styles, for some reason. It’s wet.

In the air we have Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) in Spitfires, trying to provide air cover for the evacuation. This consists of the best film air combat I have ever seen: it makes you try to crane your neck to see the enemy planes better. They’re both charming and Tom Hardy’s weird mouth is hidden for most of it, which is a plus.

At sea is the Moonstone, a yacht out of Weymouth, crewed by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and another young man, George (Barry Keoghan). They have joined other small vessels from the south coast to help bring their men off. On the way they pull Cillian Murphy out of the water; he is, as usual, dangerously intense. Mr. Dawson is perhaps a bit too unflappable and good, but it’s earned, and Mark Rylance is a superb actor, so you buy it.

The film’s main and significant virtue is its roundedness. Awful things happen–there is an apparent randomness to death that rings and is true–and men do awful things, which is also true. But amazing things happen, and men and women do amazing things, which, thank God, is true as well.

Stray observations:

  • Very few of the characters in the film have names, and the star is the synecdochic “Tommy.” I can’t decide if I love this or hate this.
  • I have a personal antipathy towards Aneurin Barnard’s face, so I didn’t care a jot about his character; I suspect you are supposed to.
  • This gives the impression that the RAF was composed of literally three Spitfires. That’s a little bit true, of course, but not quite.
  • It is a shockingly dark-haired and brown-eyed BEF. And I know we assume that blonds in films are Nazis, but couldn’t we have had a ginger or two? There were some Scottish accents flying around. (Literally: Collins, one of the pilots, is Scottish. And blond, in fairness. As is Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Glynn-Carney. But that’s RAF, Royal Navy, and civilian respectively. No blonds in the army at all.)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: PG-13, which is a relief
Length: 106 minutes
Score: 4/5

During the wars against Napoleon, the government, in the person of Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West, who has not aged especially well and who is wearing an awful wig), seeks assistance from a Yorkshireman magician, Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). Thus events are set in motion.

Mr Norrell is not especially keen on the practice of magic, but he does manage to terrify the French fleet and bring Lady Pole (Alice Englert) back from the dead. To do the latter he must enlist the help of the Gentleman (Marc Warren), who then proceeds to be generally ominous and specifically cruel. This appears to come as a surprise to everyone, which bugged the living crap out of me in the book and did not seem better in the miniseries: has it ever worked out to raise someone from the dead? does that not always come with trade-offs you eventually realize you really didn’t want to make? So she goes bananas and everyone is unhappy about it, particularly her husband and a servant in their house, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare). Stephen is also being chased around by the Gentleman, and he also hates it.

MV5BOTZkMDViYzQtMGNhNi00N2EyLWI2ZTQtM2FiOWNlNWYyYjEwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjExMjk0ODk@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Enter another magician, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), who is more engaging than Mr Norrell but less cautious. He becomes the Army’s magician and serves along Wellington (Ronan Vibert) in the Peninsula and at Waterloo. He has a lovely wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley). His relationship with Mr Norrell is fraught.

A fringe of servants, hangers-on, and academics fill out the cast. Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) is particularly squirrelly and interesting; Mr Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) are charmingly naïve and just trying to help. Plus there’s a vagabond street magician, Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who babbles about somebody called the Raven King early, and confuses you. Things become more and more involved and unpleasant, but it never quite loses the plot.

In general, the production is admirable, although blue filters are becoming an irritating crutch. The casting is careful and concerned more with fidelity to the book than good looks, which is unusual. The plot is simplified but manages not to lose essentials; unfortunately it does lose the charm of the dry, academic tone of the novel (your mileage may vary on how charming you find that, I guess).

If you like fantasy without dragons and gratuitous nudity and are not immediately annoyed by a man in a top hat, give it a shot.

Stray observations:

  • Strange encounters a young lady in Venice, a Miss Flora Greysteel (Lucinda Dryzek). Her face is very familiar but hard to place–she was young Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie nearly a decade and a half ago.
  • They cheap out on Waterloo, and it’s incoherent and disappointing. Relatedly, Ronan Vibert is not good-looking enough to play the Iron Duke. But it’s fun to have Jamie Parker around as the honorable and slightly sardonic Major Grant!
  • Edward Petherbridge plays the mad king George! Haven’t seen him around in ages.

Director: Toby Haynes
Rating: TV-MA, probably, for creep factor rather than sex or violence
Length: 7 one-hour episodes
Score: 4/5

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So this was always going to be refried Captain America. And to a certain extent they tried to make it not that, but not so much that they could avoid a guy, named Steve, leaving his lady love, in a plane, with a horrible weapon on board, and not planning to make it back. So not very hard.

Which is a shame, because a lot of the other stuff was quite good. It’s the first DC Comics movie in a while that didn’t make me fall asleep or want to die, for starters (Between this and “Powerless,” there’s rather a charm offensive going on, isn’t there?). Lucy Davis as a harried secretary was delightful. And Diana’s advance across No Man’s Land was visually stunning and emotionally affecting.

Quick capsule of the plot, for those of you currently living under rocks: Diana (Gal Gadot) is raised on the island of Amazons, who are biding their time until Ares is released back into the world and they must defeat him. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is an American spy and pilot who stumbles upon them. Diana decides that she must help him rescue the Germans from the influence of Ares. Imperial Germany is represented by General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who are developing a still more terrible gas to release in the trenches. With their ragtag bunch of not-heroes–a vaguely shell-shocked Scottish sniper, Charlie (Ewen Bremner), a womanizing would-be actor, Samir (Saïd Taghmaoui), and a First Nations smuggler whose name I didn’t catch and who is billed as Chief (Eugene Brave Rock)–they go into Belgium in search of the plant that produces this weapon.

Diana’s childhood and origin story are well done, and her relationships with her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) are largely charming if, you know, pretty exposition-heavy. The introduction of Steve and their mutual lack of comprehension is played for perhaps not enough laughs, and Diana’s failure to understand Edwardian fashion would be unbearable if not for Lucy Davis’s tremendous side-eye. The action stuff is not half-assed, although I suspect the effects will age rather badly. The film utterly fails to give the audience a sense of the scope of the war.

And this might be where it lost me. Diana–despite being a superweapon and speaking however many languages–was painfully dense. She never figured out how big the war was, partly because she interrupted everyone who tried to explain, and her constant lecturing just made her look self-righteous and naïve. Which, pardon me, is not a great look. I get that we’re trying to say something deep about humanity and evil or whatever, and something feminist about how women something or other, but if your paladin is too dumb to understand metaphors or numbers larger than four, it’s rough.

She was gorgeous and noble and athletic and her trench salon blowout was truly remarkable, but complete the goddamn thought.

Stray observations:

  • I would have thought that, in an equestrian society without the male gaze, there might be more trousers.
  • It was nice to see some downtrodden Belgian soldiers with their tasseled caps; they always get skipped. In fact, there is a refreshing variety generally of Allied forces.
  • She knows the difference between hydrogen- and sulfur-based weaponized gases, but not what the “front” is? Okay.

Director: Patty Jenkins
Rating: PG-13
Length: 141 minutes
Score: 4/5

MV5BYWFlY2E3ODQtZWNiNi00ZGU4LTkzNWEtZTQ2ZTViMWRhYjIzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_We begin in a boy’s youth, as his grandfather teaches him to shoot wolves. He hesitates, and the wolf disembowels their horse.

We then launch in medias res, as Soviet recruits are ferried across the Volga to fight the Nazis in what you can already say is the ruins of Stalingrad. Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is among them. He is the boy of the earlier incident, but he is not one of the lucky few to be given a rifle before being sent into the hell between the German guns and those that ensure he will not retreat. Vassily starts out with a convincing expression of terrified panic on his face, but somehow Mr. Law manages to escalate as the film goes on.

After that first abortive offensive, Vassily is avoiding the Nazi mopping-up by hiding in a fountain full of corpses. There he is joined by the young political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), whose car has just blown up, whose glasses are broken, whose competence with a gun is merely nominal, and who is generally having a really bad case of the Mondays. He fumbles with a rifle he finds until Vassily takes it from him and rapidly kills every Nazi he can see. Danilov, in true Soviet style, makes Vassily into a Hero of the Motherland, with a new fancy sniper rifle, fanmail, and slightly exaggerated rustic bona fides. They become fast friends, but Danilov also sells the heroism to a young(ish) Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins).

Two complications emerge. The first is a beautiful woman, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), who can both read German and shoot, and thus bounces back and forth awkwardly between Danilov’s staff and Vassily’s band of miracle-workers. The second is a Nazi sniper, a Major König (Ed Harris), who has come all the way from Berlin to kill Vassily.

It doesn’t seem as though many saw this film, perhaps because in early 2001 it was still fashionable to imagine that we had solved the problem of war. It was particularly unpalatable at the time to consider a war in which neither side was hunky freedom-loving good guys. To be sure, Enemy at the Gates never for a moment questions that the Nazis must be stopped, but it also pulls no punches about the miseries of Soviet life–the wolf has already taken everything you love, the film tells you, but you must continue to fight.

Overlooking this movie, however, was a collective failure in judgement, because it’s rather good. It is affecting without being emotionally manipulative, unlike the vast majority of WWII movies. Everyone, particularly Hoskins and Harris, is well cast; it is difficult to believe that Ed Harris has only played a Nazi officer in one other film, as far as I can tell. You want to like Fiennes, but political officers are necessarily squirrelly. Weisz and Law are impossibly beautiful, and impossibly young, but they are carefully encrusted in dirt, so it isn’t jarring. They joke adorably about how Vassily’s crisp new uniform will probably be taken back directly after a photo-op.

Heads up, though, an entirely plausible number of people die.

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Score: 4/5