Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Sophie will find out more about her mother’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from nothing, met each one of Sophie’s dads, and raised a daughter.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julie Waters, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, Cher

Director: Ol Parker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I happened to be in London in January of 2000 and was able to catch the original London cast of the smash hit, Mamma Mia! It was one of the most exciting nights I’ve had in the theater, not just because the show was enormously entertaining but because the audience just went absolutely nuts for it. I was in the highest point of a steep balcony and watching grown men and women shaking their groove thing to the finale megamix without fear of falling was a sight to behold. In touring productions over the past 18 years I’ve seen the same effect, audience members that came in looking glum but leaving with a crazed look in their eyes.

2008’s Mamma Mia! was a surprise hit, though anyone that didn’t expect a global phenomenon starring one of Hollywood’s most A-list stars to rake in some kind of cash likely isn’t still working in the industry today. Released in the summer months when people were tired of explosions and CGI, it was a perfect (if slightly underwhelming to me) summer antidote to the loud and noisy fare ticket buyers were bombarded with. If anything, it showed us how star Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) could turn even the silliest project on paper into a fully-formed performance with feeling.

When a sequel was announced, I was fairly surprised. After the box office success of the first one, it’s not that a sequel was unheard of, just unexpected. Hearing the gang was getting back together again with a few new additions was interesting and with new songs from the ABBA catalog being added the stage was set for a repeat of the fun frivolity the original almost outright encouraged.

Look, times are hard enough as it is so when movies like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are released there’s a certain amount of goodwill restraint I believe critics should utilize because while this is far from an equal, this prequel sequel has its heart and, often, voice in the right place.

So now we reach the point where we can’t go on without a few spoilers, but nothing that hasn’t already been hinted at by the trailers.

It’s been five years since about-to-be-wed Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) invited three men she thought might be her father to a taverna on a remote Greek island without telling her mother they are on their way. Comic and musical hijinks were the result and the film, like the stage musical it was based off of, ended with a spandex and platform heeled finale set to ABBA’s Waterloo. Now, Sophie is re-opening the hotel one year after her mother’s death while harboring a growing secret of her own. As the guests arrive, the film bounces back and forth between the present and 1979 to see how Donna (Lily James, Cinderella) came to the Greek fantasy island and made a life for herself.

It’s rough going for the first twenty minutes or so as the film dives headfirst into exposition and a few lesser known ABBA songs. A strange musical opening set at Oxford has valedictorian Donna doffing her cap and gown for a lycra bodysuit to bump and grind through the sunny but silly When I Kissed the Teacher along with her fellow Dynamos, Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). It’s an off-kilter and gangly way to introduce us to Donna and the film stays safely in idle mode until she lands in Paris and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner, Les Miserables) before heading off to Greece where she’ll sail away with young Bill (Josh Dylan), and fall in love with young Sam (Jeremy Irvine, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death).

While we’re getting this backstory, the events taking place in the present aren’t always as sunny. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper, Dracula Untold) are halfway around the world from eachother and experience the stress of a long-distance romance (explained in a sketchily sung One of Us) and other dads Harry (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) and Stellan Skarsgård (Avengers: Age of Ultron) can’t make the re-opening due to business commitments. Tanya (Christine Baranski, Into the Woods) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) do arrive and try to brighten Sophie’s spirits when a storm threatens to derail the proceedings.

It’s all set to a songlist from the ABBA canon, many repeated from the original film to lesser results. The old songs new to the sequel are clearly B-sides for a reason, though Baranski and Walters have fun with Angel Eyes. The biggest success is likely Dancing Queen, a highlight here just as it was in the first outing. It’s a huge production number set on land and sea, you’ll wish all boat rides had such excellent choreography.

The overall problem I had with the movie is that it feels like a project crafted around the availability of its returning cast. The movie was shot in London and plenty of it is done on green screen to recreate the Greek setting. Add to that a handful of cast members that feel like they filmed their scenes in several days (no surprise many did) and the film feels a bit clunky and unkempt. That being said, it takes about 90 minutes for the film to find any kind of rhythm or shape and that just happens to be the time that Cher (Mermaids) stops by.

It’s widely known Cher turned down the role of Tanya when produces approached her about it but we should all be glad she signed up to play Ruby, Sophie’s grandmother (try not to do the math when you consider Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep), a Las Vegas entertainer not much for family gatherings. Not long after Cher shows up and sings a bang-up version of Fernando, none other than Streep herself appears in a scene/song you’ll need some tissues for. It shouldn’t have, but it honestly caught me off guard how moving her performance was and it serves as a wistful reminder of the below the surface heart the rest of the movie was missing.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) might not improve on the formula introduced in Mamma Mia! in terms of cleverly blending songs in with the action but his film marks a vast improvement visually. He lets the camera take in more of the large action and dancing scenes, instead of quick cuts around the dancing he makes good use of the widescreen vistas. Like the first film, expect Greek tourism to get a bump from the lovely displays here.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Synopsis: The film will go back and forth in time to show how relationships forged in the past resonate in the present.

Release Date:  July 20, 2018

Thoughts: It has been a decade since the boffo stage hit Mamma Mia! danced its way to the big screen and made millions but it was a bit of a puzzlement when this sequel was announced.  Where did the film have to go and how many more ABBA tunes could be culled from their catalog for the characters to sing?  This first look at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (ugh, that title!) has arrived and, I warn you, it’s fairly alarming.  The sun drenched Greek setting is back as are most of the buoyant cast members…but someone is noticeably absent from most of the merriment.  Meryl Streep…or to be more specific, Streep’s character.  Sure, Streep (Hope Springs) is present in flashes but she’s not front and center like the original film and that’s inspired people to ask if the filmmakers killed her character off.  Not sure how I feel about that and even more unsure if it’s wise to make this a prequel when the back story was such a flimsy throwaway in the first place.  Director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has brought on Lily James (Darkest Hour) to play Streep in her twenties and landed Cher (Mermaids) to play her mother (!!!).  No question I’ll be lining up to see this but if it’s going in the direction I think, I’m already blue since the day I first saw this trailer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lady in the Van

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Synopsis: A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: It’s always tricky to adapt a play for the cinema. The confines of the stage can lead to a very intimate experience but these moments can be lost when the world is expanded to include other characters and settings. I’m not familiar with Alan Bennet’s true story of an elderly woman who lived in a van parked in his driveway for over a decade but I’m sure familiar with the people involved with bringing his 1999 play to life. Dame Maggie Smith (Quartet) created the role onstage and, spry as ever, looks to be an irascible delight in the titular role. She’s joined by the likes of Jim Broadbent (Paddington), Frances de la Tour (Mr. Holmes), Dominic Cooper (Dracula Untold), and James Corden (Into the Woods) under the direction of veteran theater director Nicholas Hytner. Smith can probably play this role in her sleep but I’m not one to begrudge a little resting on laurels when the talent is this good.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Miss You Already

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Synopsis: The friendship between two life-long girlfriends is put to the test when one starts a family and the other falls ill.

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: I love the movie Beaches.  There, it’s out there for all to read.  Yep, it’s one of those “chick flicks” that require a box of Kleenex and a god hug from someone you love when it’s over…but it does the trick time and time again.  I mention this because having seen the trailer for Miss You Already several times now I keep thinking how much this feels like a Beaches for a new generation.  Toni Collette (Tammy) is the friend that seems to be dying with dignity while Drew Barrymore (Blended) takes on the supportive chum that dries her tears.  Hopefully director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) can throw a few curveballs our way because while this looks like it could be fitfully entertaining, it also gives off a whiff of an also-ran affair.  Maybe it’s just that Barrymore seems so out of place here (no shocker since she got the role after both Jennifer Aniston and Rachel Weisz bowed out) but it’s Collette that will get my butt in the seat.

Movie Review ~ Dracula Untold

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad Tepes makes a deal with dangerous supernatural forces – whilst trying to avoid succumbing to the darkness himself.

Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Diarmaid Murtagh, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance

Director: Gary Shore

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: When it comes to films about Dracula I’m a, well, sucker.  I’m not sure where this childhood fascination came with the fanged count began but one need only look at my sequential years of Halloween costume pictures where I sported a black cape and a set of too big for my mouth fangs that eventually fit perfectly to see that there was nary a vampire vein I wasn’t willing to open.

Vampires have had their fair share of cinematic excursions over the decades in pretty much every genre in existence.  From the Bela Lugosi original to Christopher Lee’s long tenure for Hammer Studios to Chris Sarandon’s menacing 80s hunk of Fright Night and Gary Oldman’s highly stylized take on the count for Francis Ford Coppola, vampires had come a long way…only to be reduced to romantic glittery naval gazers in the Twilight films. The makers of Dracula Untold are counting on the big guy having a little blood left to feed the masses and it’s nice to report that while there isn’t a feast to be had, what’s on the plate is more satisfying than one would imagine.

The good thing about Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script is that it doesn’t feel like an outright “Dracula Project”.  I get the impression they used the legend of Vlad the Impaler as a jumping off point for their leather and sword action pic and went back later to add more mythology, fangs, and bloodletting to the mix. However they approached it, the film as a whole works surprisingly well because it has a strong backbone to support it during some of the less successful moments involving iffy special effects and an overstuffed ending leading to an unnecessary epilogue.

Leading the cast as the man who would become a vampire legend is Luke Evans who possesses the Eastern European looks to suggest a denizen of Transylvania but the British accent that makes one wonder if Prince Vlad was educated at Oxford.  Yes, friends, this is another of those movies set in a district where the UK dialect doesn’t make any sort of sense yet is widely employed by all who cross the screen.  Evans (The Raven) brings a considerable assuredness to Vlad, painting him as a one-time impaling warrior now content to rule his kingdom in peace with his lovely wife (Sarah Gadon, Enemy, with bosom appropriately heaving and on display) and son.

When a Turkish sultan and former comrade (a not the least bit believable Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, sporting enough eyeliner to write a short story) demands Vlad provide 1,000 boys (including his own progeny) as soldiers for his army, he refuses and incurs the impending wrath of destruction against his kingdom.  Turning to a mysterious figure (Charles Dance) that haunts a lonely mountain, Vlad is given the power of the vampire and has three days to reverse the effects while using his newfound power to destroy his enemy.

Director Gary Shore keeps the first half of the movie flowing nicely as a well-executed origin story that’s more interesting than it has any right to be.  With some handsome scenery and nicely constructed set pieces (no RenFest rickety buildings here, thank you very much) there’s an agreeable momentum built by all as Vlad moves toward the dark side of his growing vampiric prowess.  It’s only when it devolves into blurry battle sequences that mythology gets thrown out of the door in favor of some carefully edited PG-13 violence.  For a film about the famed blood drinker, there’s precious little of the red stuff on display.

Feeling longer than its 92 minutes, Dracula Untold still manages to keep pace with our expectations for most of its running length.  Aside from the aforementioned unfortunate epilogue that represents  both one ending too many and some obvious studio sequel pressure, by and large this is one Dracula story that earns its telling.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dracula Untold

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Synopsis: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad Tepes looks to make a deal with dangerous supernatural forces – without succumbing to the darkness himself.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts:  Okay, so along with my weakness for shark movies, creature features, Grease 2, Showgirls, and a bunch of other cinematic eye-rolls I have to say that I’m always up for a revisionist take on the vampire kingpin of ‘em all: Dracula. The origin of Dracula has been told countless times over the years from historically sound efforts to wildly fantastical takes on the myth with nary a drop of blood left unspilled. With a cast that includes Luke Evans (The Raven), Sarah Gadon (Enemy), and Dominic Cooper (Need for Speed), Dracula Untold looks to be in the campy-yet-serious group, catering to the Underworld and fan base but don’t think that will stop me from resting comfortably in my screening seat to see what new creases the creators have in store for this well-worn tale.

Down From the Shelf ~ Captain America: The First Avenger

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending USA ideals.

Stars: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I was feeling all together ho-hum about the Marvel franchise so far. Full disclosure, I was more of a DC Comics fan growing up and the Avengers universe was a bit of a foreign entity to me. That being said, I always had an appreciation for Captain America…even allowing myself to like (just a little!) the disastrous 1990 failed attempt to bring the character back to the big screen.

In July of 2011, audiences had already met Iron Man (twice!) and Thor and while I liked the initial Tony Stark adventure way more than I liked the muddled snoozer centered on the Norse warrior, I wasn’t totally sold that Captain America would live up to my expectations. So it was a nice surprise to find that not only was Captain America: The First Avenger a hugely entertaining film but that it achieved this by relying on an old-fashioned style of filmmaking that put the characters first and the special effects second.

Beginning in the present with the discovery of a familiar calling card, the film jumps back in time to the early 40’s when America was in the early stages of World War II. Looking for a few good soldiers, the US recruited an entire generation of men and women to serve their country overseas. Longing to be of service to Uncle Sam, scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally wimp-ized Chris Evans) can’t make it past the medical exam after half a dozen attempts. His passion catches the eye of a German scientist (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Rogers is soon in basic training as a candidate to create a new soldier.

Under the watchful eye of a grumpy Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) and pretty but tough Peggy Carter (dynamite Hayley Atwell), it isn’t long before Rogers is beefed up and buffed out thanks to a procedure concocted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, as Iron Man’s pappy) that makes him a freedom fighting machine. As much a piece of pro-America propaganda as was produced in the same time period, Captain America: The First Avenger occupies the rest of its run length with Rogers weathering the good and bad of his newfound power and a deadly battle with the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) a nasty Nazi with a typically nasty Nazi plot for world domination.

With his all-American looks, Evans (The Iceman) is the perfect figure to play such an all-American hero…even though the effect to make him look small at the beginning of the film is kinda goofy. Though he had to be convinced more than once to take the role, he’s the right man for the job. Weaving is appropriately frightening as the red-faced terror and Jones hrumphs with the best of them. I still feel that Atwell’s plucky heroine is the best female character to date in the Marvel franchise…here’ s hoping the rumored television series based on her Agent Carter comes to life.

A worthy origin story, the film reminded me a lot of The Rocketeer, Disney’s notorious 1991 flop that coincidentally was also directed by Joe Johnston. I liked The Rocketeer, flaws and all, and Johnston seems to be trying to redeem himself in the eyes of comic book aficionados everywhere. Unlike Iron Man and Thor, I never felt like Captain America: The First Avenger existed only to bridge the gap to the film that would become The Avengers a year later in 2012. It does supply the last bit of info before that movie arrived but is still enjoyed on its own merit.

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Movie Review ~ Need for Speed

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind.

Stars:  Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Though I want you to read the whole review, let me say right off the bat that there’s no real need to see Need for Speed.  It’s a hare-brained, noisy, overlong film that most will probably find subpar in comparison to other muscles and muscle car films like Fast & Furious 6.  Even with that disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I found myself enjoying Need for Speed more than I thought I would/could.

Based on a popular game from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed has a rather lenghty set-up that takes up a good half hour of your time but ably covers a lot of bases you’ll need to get something out of the final 100 minutes.  Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a good ole boy living in the kind of quaint small time town that so many city denizens would long to visit…for a weekend.  Taking over an auto-body shop from his recently deceased dad, he’s seeing the bills pile up and begrudgingly takes an offer from rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to soup up a car to be sold at auction.

Said car is a beaut and attracts the attention of a Julia, a comely associate (Imogen Poots) of a wealthy business man…and leads to a dangerous situation that sees Tobey imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  Upon his release he sets out for revenge, bringing Julia and a bunch of emotional baggage along for the ride.

A gigantically silly film, I couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the ride that the 3D converted film provides.  Needing to make it cross-country in less than 48 hours, Tobey burns rubber though scenic vistas while avoiding the police and an array of roadblocks both literal and figurative.  Culminating in an illegal street race across the beautiful coast of California, Need for Speed should be credited with never slowing down…because it’s only after the lights come up that you realize how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Compensating for his tiny facial features by pitching his gravely voice to the Christian Bale basement level and over emoting the simplest of line readings, Paul isn’t nearly as impressive here as he was in his award-winning turn on TV’s Breaking Bad.  He’s better than Cooper (Dead Man Down, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), though, who isn’t the formidable foe the character and movie calls for.  Michael Keaton (recently seen in 2014’s failed Robocop reboot) must have filmed his scenes in a day and laughed all the way to the bank as a hyper mastermind behind the final race.

The grand prix winner of the film is Poots who works the same kind of magic she did with That Awkward Moment earlier in 2014 by effectively stealing the role out from under her male counterparts.  I had forgotten she was in this so when she appeared on screen I had the feeling the movie was about to be kicked into a higher gear…and I was right.

Though it hits the skids plot-wise as it nears the finish line, director Scott Waugh stages some mighty fine action sequences that don’t fall victim to repetition.  Using very little in the way of visual effects, Waugh is able to up the ante on race films without coming off as showboating.  It adds a considerable amount of realism to a non-realistic flick and I enjoyed his employment of interesting camera angles.

This is a film I wish was released later in the summer when I could have seen it at a drive-in movie theater.  Though set in present day it has a pleasingly retro-vibe to it even if it lacks the overall cool factor that made classics like Bullitt so monumental in the race genre.  If you’re in the mood to put your brain on cruise control and can take your hands off the wheel, Need for Speed could be a road trip worth taking.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Need for Speed

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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins.

Release Date:  March 14, 2014

Thoughts: I’ll admit the first time I saw the preview for Need for Speed I feared we had lost star Aaron Paul to the Nicholas Cage darkside of films.  The more I saw it though (and I’ve seen it a LOT lately) I’m intrigued by what looks to be a popcorn flick (ala Fast & Furious 6) wanting to emulate those grindhouse-y films from decades ago but filtered through a modern lens.  It’s hard to balance a retro-feel with an updated approach but I find myself cautiously optimistic that this will deliver the goods.  Bonus points for having the intriguing Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) and Michael Keaton (Gung-Ho, also in the RoboCop reboot) on board in supporting roles.

Movie Review ~ Dead Man Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City, a crime lord’s right-hand man is seduced by a woman seeking retribution.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Have you ever been sitting in a movie theater and find yourself rooting for a bad movie to be good?  Maybe it’s the inherent “Minnesota Nice” in me or the understanding of all the work that goes into crafting a picture for mass consumption but I try to always hope for the best in even the worst situations.  Dead Man Down isn’t a total failure of epic proportions but its lack of any momentum or true surprise stings more than it should.

First off, you have a solid cast assembled.  Rapace made a name for herself in the US as the original Lisbeth Salander  in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo long before it was remade as a slick thriller by David Fincher.  In that film she worked with Dead Man Down director Oplev and produced a mini-miracle a performance.  It still bums me out she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her work. 

In Dead Man Down Rapace and Oplev are both a bit at sea, never finding the right tone or rhythm that this type of crime drama sorely needs.  One moment it’s a gritty examination of revenge and the next it’s a dark romantic comedy.  With neither theme getting the prime focus; it winds up just feeling disjointed and messy. 

That’s too bad because Farrell (Total Recall) knows exactly what kind of film he’s in and works hard to give his character some added nuance and depth.  Working for a villainous NYC crime boss (played too gently by Howard), his character is a brooding dude with a few secrets he’s working to keep hidden.  So it’s natural that he’s intrigued by Rapace’s scarred (emotionally and physically) neighbor who lives with her mother (woefully underused but quite kooky Huppert, Amour)– their exchanges have some nice pop to them but no real chemistry is ever created. 

Unfortunately, the blame falls on Rapace for that – her character often comes off as too child-like and twee.  Even though I liked Rapace in Promethus more than most, US films haven’t quite found the right place for her – something that’s probably as frustrating for her as it is for her fans. 

I kept waiting for the film to divert from its standard plot set-up and surprise me but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  You could tell there was a little nugget of a fine film waiting to be hatched but it didn’t have enough time to develop.  This may be worth a rental down the line but as a film you need to see in theaters…I’d pass on it.