“Why do they need a wall?” War for the Planet of the Apes

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“This is a holy war … it will become a planet of apes, and we will become your cattle.”

– The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) to ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) in War for the Planet of the Apes

 

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

– Sinclair Lewis

 

 

 

Beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continuing with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), 20th Century Fox effectively rebooted the campy Charlton Heston 60s film series as the thinking person’s summer popcorn franchise – the kind of smart fare which fulfills the original aim of early science fiction writers to craft instructive, cautionary allegories against humanity’s baser nature. The prequel trilogy comes to a powerful and timely close with this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes, wherein Caesar and his band of highly evolved simians take their final stand against a rapidly devolving humankind.

Andy Serkis returns via motion capture performance as the sensitive and haunted ape leader Caesar. It is an absolute crime that the Motion Picture Academy has not had the wisdom to honor his work somehow. His Caesar is more fully realized, more affecting that about 90% of the flesh-and-blood performances we see in most Hollywood blockbusters. C’est la vie.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Facing Serkis’ Caesar and delivering one of the best, most nuanced performances of his career is Woody Harrelson as the Heart of Darkness-inspired “Colonel,” a demagogue whose preoccupation with humanity’s impending obsolescence has led him to twist evangelical faith and jingoistic patriotism into a toxic stew of runaway fascism and military brutality. Oh, and he wants to enslave Caesar’s apes to build a big wall. Um, yeah.

(At one point, one of Caesar’s ape followers asks earnestly, “Why do they need a wall?” It gets a knowingly uncomfortable laugh from the audience, and there is a deliciously ironic plot point that hinges upon said wall which I dare not spoil.)

Believe it or not, the film is more subtle than what I’ve described might lead you to believe, and returning director Matt Reeves, working from a script co-written with Mark Bomback, refuses to supply the audience easy answers or melodramatic villains to boo and hiss. Caesar admittedly walks a higher ground, hoping to avoid bloodshed but realizing that pacifism will be impossible in the face of a humankind that fears what it does not understand and responds to its loss of privilege and hegemony with blind rage.

The Colonel, on the other hand, witnesses his family and friends literally losing their powers of cognition and speech, sliding into oblivion as a result of the “simian flu” that wiped most of humanity off the globe in the prior film. His hate-filled futility is as heartbreaking as it is maddening, as relatable as it is horrifying. He loses his own humanity in pursuit of preserving Humanity writ large: he is a man who sees empathy as a tactical flaw and who thinks there is no worse insult than “so emotional” (which ironically he hurls repeatedly at Caesar, a “damn dirty ape”). Kudos to the filmmakers and to Harrelson for the bravery of this depiction.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

As atmospheric and philosophical as the film is, however, it is still a movie about talking monkeys after all and, as such, remains crackling entertainment.

Steve Zahn is a welcome new addition as “Bad Ape,” a skittish but wise chimp whose survival instincts lead Caesar both straight into danger and then right back out of it. Any comic relief in the picture – there ain’t much – comes from Zahn, one of Hollywood’s most underrated players, as a Yoda-esque hermit who would prefer to hide in the ruins and survive off mankind’s detritus. It’s a warm, soulful, and funny performance, and another that I wish could be remembered open-mindedly at Oscar time.

Whether you struggle with a societal hierarchy that blithely deems mankind the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder or with a world wherein aggressive self-preservation too often seems the only order of the day, you will find resonant themes in these 21st century Planet of the Apes films. Yes, they are summer escapist fare but they are also disturbingly prescient, and, if we want them to remain “escapist fare,” we should probably all change our ways posthaste.

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

 

 

“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Guest Blogger: “Enough…enough. No more denial from any one of us.” EARTHLINGS (film)

earthlingsMy talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton takes on the Joaquin Phoenix-narrated documentary Earthlings … enjoy!

View her original post here, and find out more about her, her work, her columns and her books at her website susieduncansexton.com

“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.” – Count Leo Tolstoy

I watched the documentary EARTHLINGS which arrived from AUSTRALIA today, and now I’ll never be the same. I care even more than I did already about even-ing up the score on behalf of all of those species so much in need of help from the human species! Thanks, Roy, for sending the film and for seeing to it that I got my eyes opened up even more than they are already!

THIS DOCUMENTARY IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING, and I highly recommend that the earthlings who call themselves/ourselves “humans” view this important film before any more time passes. You’ll rediscover your heart with this entry which should be required viewing. We must all change; we must all care; we must all stop the madness and the denial and make this world right. Now!

Susie Duncan Sexton with James Dean Gallery owner and friend David Loehr

Susie with James Dean Gallery owner and friend David Loehr

I am still reeling from the importance of the film and am sorry that I waited so long to watch what all of us need to witness – young and old, the compassionate and the callous. I am totally disenchanted with the human race: why are people so insanely cruel, why has society failed to evolve? We should hang our heads in shame. We shall none of us be pleased with ourselves for allowing this disrespect for life to continue – as we advance into what must become the “civilized” 21st century – and for looking the other way and for failing to speak up no matter what the consequences of activist caring might be.

(Oh, begone, you nasties who hurt and murder all species! I am so ready to take on that world and round those creeps up, starting in my own hometown. Those sexed up church goers making money hand over fist on animal slaughter? Some of our “finest” citizens.)

Required viewing, especially for those who are young enough to attempt to reverse the damage humans have wrought, throughout the ages, due to ignorance and thoughtlessness and greed and certainly an insatiable appetite for unbridled cruelty. I highly recommend that we finally begin to educate young minds to seek to be kind.

As they say, “a must see” – no more looking away. Our looking at/seeing/seeking the truth cannot compare to the pain and suffering we inflict upon every other species second by second by second. Enough…enough. No more denial from any one of us.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

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P.S. Enjoy the below Valentine (“Fifty Shades of … Nice”) made by my father Don and given to my mom today – movie themed and very sweet!

Susie 2015 Valentine 2 Susie 2015 Valentine

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Best-dressed rebel in history …” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I will admit that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is just not exactly my cup of tea. My first exposure was the initial episode in the cinematic franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence. My biggest issue, ultimately, may have been with the marketing, which likely didn’t do the movie (or its source material) any favors.

Y’see, I grew up in a small town, the daily paper of which now peppers its pages every fall with one image after another of young bow-hunting girls and their “prizes” – bloody deer carcasses. Lots of them. One sad image after another of a toothy kid, grinning madly, not as if they’d just won a science fair or a spelling bee, but because they killed some defenseless creature. And that bugs me. Are these kids the target audience for these movies? Or are people who find this kind of “sportsman”-proselytizing offensive the audience? I don’t know.

The reason I share this bit of soap-boxing is because the original film seemed oddly positioned at some strange Venn Diagram nexus where Harry Potter-philes and Twi-hards meet neurotic survivalists and Cabela’s frequent flyer-card holders. I wasn’t exactly sure the core demographic, and perhaps Hollywood was trying a bit too hard to appeal to all comers. I heard a lot of rhetoric that somehow Katniss Everdeen, “the girl on fire,” with her furrowed brow and propensity for zapping squirrels and people with her trusty bow and arrow was a great antidote to the Disney princess affliction that was miring our nation’s young women in a malaise of pink chiffon. Maybe. But are those the only two choices? Archery and violence or toddlers and tiaras? Sigh.

Well, I guess I played my hand a bit early on this one, eh?

Said marketing/positioning celebrated the games aspect of the narrative, while missing entirely the inherent social satire. Granted, the marketers likely chose the more sale-able commodity, but, for someone persnickety like yours truly, this approach has made it that much harder for me to warm up to this particular franchise. (Divergent is more my speed.)

Blessedly, The Hunger Games film series has evolved and moved past the gimmicky hook of watching teenagers slaughter each other before national audiences in an oppressed dystopian near-future. (Gee, why is it that I don’t get that these flicks are good wholesome family fun?!) This brings us to the third installment in the franchise (after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire), the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Those of you ready to jump down my blogging throat in dismissal of my critique of the series’ omnipresent marketing framework? How’s about you read that title again: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And convince me that the third book in this literary trilogy was not unnecessarily hacked into two parts to fill Lionsgate’s coffers with extra coin. Just sayin’. (No, I’m not the first to point this out, but it seems a fair critique on all fronts.)

This latest film continues the revolution that Katniss began fomenting in Panem (the future stand-in for an America run into the ground, no doubt by a lethal combo of Democrats and Republicans). Mockingjay spends the bulk of its running time underground, quite literally, as Katniss and her pals find themselves sequestered away in the mysterious District 13, a militarized sector that all had thought long-destroyed.

District 13 is the home of the Rebel Alliance (oops, wrong franchise) … the rebellion led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, a subtle-yet-steely breath of fresh gravitas) with the assistance of games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly a bore in one of his final roles), weapon-smith Beetee (always sparkling Jeffrey Wright), and fashionista-cum-PR-wonk Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, a standout as she curdles Effie’s cartoonish buffoonery into sharp social commentary). The saving grace of these films has always been in the casting (Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have both done some of their best work in the series), and this entry is no exception.

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lawrence and her bag of actorly tricks are starting to show some wear and tear with Mockingjay. The film is two hours of treading water before the big blowout with movie number four, and Lawrence suffers for it. (As do sidekicks Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.) Lawrence, saddled with what appears to be an Elvira wig from a bad Halloween costume, glares and pouts, glowers and mopes, without a heckuva lot to do. There’s a lot of talking and talking and talking about various political machinations, most of which bored me silly, and, by the time, Lawrence loses her sh*t in the third act because Peeta is in some grave peril (yet again), I found myself giggling and not one whit concerned for any of these thinly drawn characters.

Here is the interesting concept that Mockingjay (Part 1!) presents, however: wars are won and lost not by bravery or valor or even violence, but by public relations. The sly-est and most engaging moments in the film are when the forces of good and bad start to blur in their relentless uses of videographic propaganda (kinda like our fall election). The first two films laid this groundwork with jack-o-lantern-headed reality TV pundit Caesar Flickerman (a truly unhinged Stanley Tucci) and his broadcast of the super-violent Hunger Games as both public diversion and punitive restraint (boob tube as carrot and stick). This latest entry shows how that machine is employed in times of great social unrest, echoing eerily some of the latest trials and tribulations affecting race relations in present-day America.

For a series so superficially savvy about the strategic implications of marketing and PR on societal oppression, you’d think The Hunger Games’ real-world advertising campaigns wouldn’t seem so tone-deaf. At one point, Effie hisses with glee at Katniss, “You are going to be the best-dressed rebel in HISTORY!” Banks as Effie clearly gets the irony of that line and zings it to the rafters. But, then, I remembered seeing a Katniss Barbie doll (dressed in the same chic skin-tight jump suit) at Wal-Mart earlier this Black Friday “sell, sell, sell!” week, and I realized how hollow that irony actually was. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war…

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Until you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears: Seven Psychopaths

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

I should preface this review of director Martin McDonagh’s latest film Seven Psychopaths by admitting that I have never given into the cult of actor Sam Rockwell. He has bubbled under the radar in a number of indie films over the past 15 years, and many have succumbed to his smarmy, winky, “isn’t life ridiculous,” Gen X charms. Alas, I am not one of those fawning fans. (The first time I ever suffered through him was in his shuffling, toothpick-chewing, pseudo-villain role in Charlie’s Angels ten years ago, and, to my mind, he has been recycling the same schtick ever since.)

Conversely, I long ago gave into the cult of Christopher Walken, who, like Rockwell, also pretty much gives the same performance in every film. In Walken’s case, though, it is a wide-eyed, acerbic, halting, wackadoodle, “life. is. ridiculous” delivery that I find charming. Why the hypocrisy on my part? I can only ascribe it to this: Rockwell’s self-indulgence is always in service to Rockwell; Walken’s self-indulgence is in service to the script.

With that paradigm in mind, it should come as no surprise that Seven Psychopaths worked best for me in those quiet, gentle moments when Walken – playing a reformed, Quaker (!) revenge killer who now kidnaps/returns dogs for reward money – interacts with his dear, cancer-stricken wife or his criminal cohorts as mayhem otherwise ensues. And, similarly unsurprising, the film falls apart for me in the final act when it is all about Rockwell’s character staging some sort of zany cinematic gunfight standoff with Woody Harrelson, a gangland thug who just wants his Shih Tzu returned. (This is all done while Rockwell sports an ever-so-dear, bear-shaped knit hat…and THAT would be the kind of twee, self-indulgent touch I mean.)

What is the film about exactly? I’m not sure. I suspect it was meant to be some kind of postmodern meditation on a culture whose warped idea of manhood is all about guns and violence and posturing to the detriment of meaningful human interaction. There are some fine and funny moments throughout with a great supporting cast. Harrelson is a joy as he continues to ride a career resurgence as a witty character-actor, and Tom Waits is spectacular as one of the psychopaths in question, who simply pines for the return of his long, lost love while petting his white fluffy rabbit (literally). However, the script seems to have been written by committee as if every goofy Quentin Tarantino-esque cliche was tossed into a blender, and I guess I just didn’t quite understand the point.

A few final observations. First, I didn’t know how I would stand the dog kidnapping angle, but I will say the film/actors were so sweet-natured about it and Walken is so heartfelt and dear that it ended up oddly charming.  Second, I’m not sure when Colin Farrell crossed over to achieving a likable, decent acting presence, but I enjoyed him and his reactions to the film’s random acts of absurdity. He kept the shenanigans nicely grounded. Finally, my mom once said about the theme song to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, “It has such a pretty melody…but it is ruined by the need to shoehorn the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beast’ into the chorus.” The same is true of this movie – by the fifth time the word “psychopath” is invoked by one of the characters, it just sounds silly…by the twentieth, if not thirtieth, you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears.