Nerve – Film Review

Dare Poster

With Pokemon Go gripping countless thousands while its popularity bewilders everyone else, the idea of an on-line game like Nerve existing is simply horrifying yet oddly plausible, and that’s what runs through your mind throughout the whole of the film.

Based on a popular 2012 young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve is an on-line game described as something like Truth or Dare but without the Truth. Players sign up and are given a dare by those who watch.  Those who play and complete the dare are rewarded with payment.  When Vee (Emma Roberts) signs up and is given her first dare, it’s a simple one.  She’s to kiss a stranger for five seconds, which she does, and is rewarded with $100 paid directly into her bank.

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By all accounts, Vee, short for the wonderfully named Venus Delmonico, is a bright girl.  She’s a high-schooler just about to graduate and move on to college.  It’s when her best friend, cheerleader Sydney (Emily Meade) has the nerve to moon the bleachers during a cheer that Vee realizes something else is going on.  Sydney is a Nerve player, and even though that dare to moon the crowds has caused a suspension from school, the girl doesn’t care.  She’s a player and she won, and to her that’s all that matters.

Vee is drawn in and makes a rash decision to sign up on-line and play.  It’s meant to be a one-time thing.  Take the dare, kiss the stranger, win the $100 and quit.  But like many things, especially if it involves what seems like easy money, Vee takes the next dare, wins a slightly bigger pot and keeps going until the dare develops into something more dangerous, and then it’s too late.  Nerve knows everything about its players – social security numbers, passwords, bank accounts, everything – and to fail at a task, or to go to the police for that matter, is to have your life wiped out.  Vee has no choice.  She has to keep taking the next dare.

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With images of on-line pages, messages, and tweets flashing across the screen as fast as a hacker can click, Nerve watchers observe every movement of the players on their phones or desktops.  Trapped in a nightmare with no escape, Vee has to continue forward.  She can either win the night by completing every given dare in order to become the new Nerve champion, or lose everything, maybe even her life.  With assistance from Ian (Dave Franco) who finds himself equally trapped in the game, the couple do what they can to beat the system, and it all takes place during one long night in New York while all the watchers watch.

Nerve is continually unsettling.  It’s the kind of film where, as viewed through the eyes of an adult, you want to reach out and shake sense into these characters.  Viewing events as they spiral out of control with lives about to be ruined so quickly while others cheer the characters on isn’t altogether an easy watch, especially when you can see how simple it would have been to avoid getting sucked in to playing the game.  It makes you uncomfortable.  But Nerve isn’t aimed at adults.  It’s a teenage affair, and without the life experience of knowing how things work and the devastating consequences that follow, it’s not difficult to understand why these characters would allow themselves to be cajoled by friends to take part in such an irresponsible game.

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In its favor, the film picks up during the climactic moments when Vee and Ian are faced with an impossible task with no possible way of winning.  You know there’s some of kind of trick going on but it’s not easy to see what it is and how it’s all going to unfold, and in that sense, as a thriller with a twist ending, Nerve works and it comes with a perverse sense of satisfaction, even relief.  But even though the teenage crime-thriller eventually displays the danger and sheer stupidity of signing up to play the game, the film still presents early events with a sense of risky fun too hard to resist; an addictive youthful adrenaline rush that comes with playing.  The film may imply that taking part in a game like Nerve is eventually the wrong course of action, but it’s still presented as an inviting challenge for thrill seekers with risks worth taking if it means temporary on-line fame and a financial gain to boot.

It may be fiction, but If something like Pokemon Go can cause fights, car wrecks, accidents and even gun play, the thought that someone could develop a variation of an on-line game inspired by a film that hands out dares to its youthful players with a financial reward makes Nerve all the more unsettling. Especially when its bright, neon-lit, electronic widescreen cinematography creates a world that appears so seductively attractive.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  96 Minutes     Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie – Film Review

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Imagine you’re the designated driver at a friend’s house party.  Everyone around you is floating around the room in an alcohol-induced stupor; talking, laughing, spilling things, maybe even falling over, and they’re all finding everything, no matter how mundane, hilarious.  Yet, there you are, sober, on a different plane, and wondering what it is that everyone else finds so funny.

That’s what it’s like sitting in the audience watching the new comedy from Britain, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie; they’re all drunk and you’ve got the keys to the car.

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As a huge fan of the TV series, the one thing that becomes obvious from the get-go is that here is not the place to climb on board the Ab Fab carousel and expect to know what’s going on.  If you’ve never been on the ride before you’ll have no idea why people around you are already laughing at the mere appearance of the film’s two colorful leads.  Enjoyment of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie depends on prior knowledge.  You have to know who these people are, why they’re behaving as they do, why the mother is the child and why the daughter is the mother-figure to get the joke.  Without it you’ll forever feel like that designated driver; you’re witnessing the party but you’re not really part of it.

Running at a scant 86 minutes, the film can be thought of as being either a celebration or a valentine of everything you’ve ever known about Ab Fab during the height of its TV popularity.  All characters return and all are played by the original actors, plus there’s an endless array of cameo celebrities.  American audiences will know some, but not all.

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Edina ‘Eddy’ Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders, who also wrote the rambling script) is now in her sixties.  She’s still celebrity obsessed, she still parties until she can’t walk, and she still spends as though she actually has money in the bank, even though she doesn’t.  Her PR firm is no longer doing well and her autobiography is rejected for publication.  As the head of publishing (Mark Gatiss) tells Eddy, “You think your life’s interesting.  It’s not.”

Eddy’s best friend and drunken socialite toady, Patsy (Joanna Lumley) is no help.  When told by Eddy’s long-suffering daughter Saffy (Julia Swahala) that nothing is free and that the two women may have to pay for the champagne they keep wanting to drink, Patsy responds in horror, “Since when?”

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Then Eddy overhears a nugget of celebrity news.  Supermodel Kate Moss (the real supermodel Kate Moss) has left her PR agent and might be looking for a new one.  Determined to snag a new client, Eddy overdoes the casual approach at a party and accidentally knocks the model over a balcony and into the inky blackness of the River Thames.  The model never surfaces.  On the run from possible manslaughter charges, Eddy and Patsy flee to the South of France.

Like the TV show at its seemingly most undisciplined, the film blathers; its laughs come from the behavior of characters whose traits are already known, not necessarily from anything new or a situation freshly explored.  The shallowness of being obsessed with famous names and always having to wear the newest of overpriced, up-scale trinkets is rife for comment and parody, but Ab Fab: The Movie doesn’t go there.  It’s more concerned with the drunken, comedic slapdash antics of Eddy and Patsy who have never grown-up.  That’s perfectly fine if, as a fan of the show, that’s all you’re looking for, but a full-length feature creates the opportunity to add something more.  Here it never happens.  Though there is a moment of self-reflection later in the film when Eddy, thinking that her life is almost over, admits, “All I’ve ever wanted is not to be fat or old.” 

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Saunders and Lumley are much beloved together – and deservedly so, they’re a great TV comedy duo – but that chemistry created on the British telly doesn’t transfer quite so well to the larger screen when nothing new, other than age, is developed.  There are no big laughs that come from clever dialog, just a lot of eccentric pratfalls and oddball behavior that bring smiles of recognition, but that’s only as a result of knowing and having been with these people before.  Newbies may be clueless.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  86 Minutes     Overall rating:  4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Cafe Society – Film Review

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Simply put, Woody Allen’s Café Society is a sumptuous looking romantic comedy of 1930’s Hollywood at its most glamorous.  Without the style of media existing today and the ability for cameras, TMZ reporters and online gossip, speculation and uninformed opinion to continually puncture the mystique, actors up there on that giant screen and beautifully framed in black and white were cinematic gods.

With gorgeous set designs of nightclubs and pool parties and seemingly unlimited extras stylishly dressed, populating every corner of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s strikingly good-looking screen, Café Society never ceases to be anything other than undeniably attractive.  Plus, the fact that the stars of the day are named rather than seen only adds to that sense of mystique experienced by audiences during Hollywood’s by-gone era.  It’s a dazzling setup.  But when the backdrop becomes more interesting than the story, then there’s an issue, and the issue is one of plot.

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Young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his east coast family and moves west to California.  His Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) is an agent to the stars – “I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers” –  and Bobby hopes that this family connection will kick-start a career in the movies in any capacity, even if it means starting in the mail room.

You have a deer-in-the-headlights quality,” states Uncle Phil’s young secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) with whom Bobby is immediately smitten.  But with love comes complications – in this case, an unexpected triangle – and young Bobby, probably for the first time, feels the pangs of life and love’s disappointments.

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Interesting plot points regarding Bobby’s family, the east coast gangster relative and Bobby’s later rise in the nightclub world are narrated by Allen with a surprisingly sluggish pronunciation.  They come in short bursts with important events merely glimpsed; teasers for moments we should have seen in more detail, but used as time-passing bridges; plot-fillers to get us to the next, lengthier and less interesting scene.  Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the least interesting character is the central figure, and that has nothing to do with Eisenberg’s performance, it’s Woody Allen’s script.

Filmmaker Allen seems rarely influenced by current movie trends.  His titles are always the same – black screen, white credits often accompanied by a light, jaunty jazz period recording – and his style of story-telling is straight forward and unfussy.  It’s only in the casting such as Eisenberg, Carrell, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively where something of today seeps into his film.

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While rarely laugh-out-loud funny, there are plenty of quotables. When mom writes to her son, she advises, “Live every day like it’s your last, and someday you’ll be right.”   Plus, later when a more world-weary Bobby reflects back on events, he tells Vonnie that, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic writer.”  They’re good lines, and you hear Allen’s voice in every one of them, but they’re buried in a mediocre script.  Ultimately, Café Society is a pleasant enough way to spend 85 minutes at the movies but by the fade out you’re left with the feeling that nothing much of interest has really happened.  The best moments were told not shown.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  85 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Shrek The Musical – Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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Even though William Steig’s original 1990 book is given credit, it’s really the 2001 animated feature upon which Shrek The Musical is based.  And audiences wouldn’t want it any other way.

Since its debut on Broadway in 2008, the show has become quite the theatrical industry.  Various altered versions toured the globe; some of the jokes and fairy tale ensemble characters were re-written to appeal to local fairy tale lore, plus edited, scaled down productions were made available for youth theatre productions and schools. No two productions, wherever they were performed, were ever the same.

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The version of Shrek The Musical now playing at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria circles back to Broadway.  With just a little tweaking here and there, including even a Trump reference, it’s the kind of big, brash, brightly covered, summer holiday gag-fest guaranteed to make family audiences feel giddy with delight as they leave the theatre with the biggest of grins on their faces and I’m a Believer circling like an ear-worm in their heads.

Presented with its own fairy tale proscenium arch within ABT’s sizable stage, courtesy of Jim Hunter’s always colorfully pleasing set design, Shrek The Musical pretty much follows the same path as the original film.  Many of the same jokes and situations are left intact – “Then in the morning,” declares Donkey (Deonte L. Warren), “I’m making waffles!” – but it all comes with a thoroughly pleasing Broadway flare, including the score.

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With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, Shrek’s score is peppered with memorable hooks that intentionally borrow from other musicals, including Dreamgirls, Gypsy, a flag-waving moment from Les Miserables, and even Defying Gravity with that climactic, rebel yell from Wicked.  Even clips of dialog from other mediums are thrown in for fun.  When Shrek (Jason Simon) states, “That’ll do, Donkey, that’ll do,’ he’s quoting Babe.  It’s like a free-for-all of quick-fire gags made all the funnier if you recognize the joke’s origin; and if you don’t, much like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, there’ll be another joke just around the corner.  But with all this self-deprecating, theatrical humor, there’s a moment when the show takes on a life of its own and it comes just before the intermission.

When Shrek and Donkey sing with passion of Who I’d Be and then are joined by Princess Fiona (Liz Fallon) after she’s morphed into an ogre, the moment becomes pure Broadway as ABT’s orchestra, under Adam Berger’s direction, rises and voices soar.  It brings the house down and leaves you breathless with the desire to get the intermission over with as quick as possible in order to get back to the show.

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Events that work in animation don’t always flow as well when presented in the flesh.  Depending on where you’re sitting in the ABT’s vast auditorium not everyone is going to follow the demise of the show’s principle villain or understand what just happened.  Plus, by insisting that the well-cast fairy-tale ensemble and their voices adhere as closely as possible to the film, actors can’t fully express themselves as they might want – it’s all in Lottie Dixon’s costumes and masks and Amanda Gran’s wigs – and the high-pitched squeals of certain characters echoing their movie counterparts can actually annoy after a short time when heard live.  But that’s not an issue with the show’s four leads.

David Brumfield’s comically eye-rolling, broad delivery of the villainous and short in stature Lord Farquaad is continually laugh-out-loud funny.  So, too is Deonte L. Warren’s motor mouth Donkey who plays his character less like Eddie Murphy from the film and more like a bug-eyed Little Richard in grey fur and hooves.  Jason Simon, who scored so well with ABT audiences as Tevye in the recent production of Fiddler on the Roof, injects warmth, heart and humor as the ogre Shrek despite being buried under a ton of green makeup and thick costume padding, but it’s Liz Fallon’s Fiona that steals the show.  With outstanding comic timing plus a soaring voice, not to mention a great dancer to boot, Liz’s personality fills the stage from wing to wing when she’s on.  In this Shrek, Liz is a comedy musical dynamo and it’s easily her best ABT performance to date.

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Supported with lively choreography from Kurtis W. Overby, director Mace Archer has recreated the fun and energy of the original production and re-shaped it for the ABT stage.  It’s not altogether great theatre.  As with several film-to-theatre adaptations – Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Tarzan spring to mind – Shrek The Musical is another example of an American costumed fairy tale musical loosely resembling a seasonal European pantomime but without the audience participation.  Though with Shrek, the connection of pantomime is even closer.  As pleasant as those Disney productions were, Shrek The Musical has a bigger advantage – it’s very, very funny.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website

Posted in Theatre

The Infiltrator – Film Review

Infiltrator Poster

In the riveting new real-life drama, The Infiltrator from director Brad Furman, Bryan Cranston is just right as U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur.  He’s the principle player in an operation that helped bust the money-laundering organization of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and it’s Mazur’s autobiography upon which the film is based.

It’s 1985.  While the Mazur family plays in the living room, an ad on TV tells the nation’s youngsters to just say no to drugs.  It isn’t working.  Cocaine continues to flood the country from neighbors in the south; the majority smuggled through customs in Florida.  From time to time, while there might be small drug-busting victories for custom officers, it isn’t nearly enough.  Chasing the drugs doesn’t appear to be the answer.  “What if we chased the money?” Mazur proposes.  It’s an idea that meets the approval of his tough boss, Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan, whose no-nonsense toughness is fast becoming scarier with every new performance).

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Taking his undercover identity from a gravestone where the birth dates seem appropriate, Mazur becomes Bob Musella, a somewhat shady businessman who knows a thing or two about money-laundering.  Infiltrating Colombia’s drug cartels, Mazur successfully presents his Musella as someone who can take the cartel’s dirty money and ‘clean’ it for them by moving it around in large sums with the assistance of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) then hiding it into seemingly legitimate companies.

Promise me this is the last one,” Mazur’s wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), asks of her husband.  “I Promise,” he replies as he readies his new identity.  He could have retired.  He could have remained safely in the background, but there’s a drive that keeps Mazur doing what he does.  It might be his undercover associate Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) who declares that he loves doing what he does – going undercover and mixing in dangerous circles is Abreu’s drug of choice – but it’s clear that Mazur feels the same adrenaline rush, and it’s clearly addictive.

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The power of The Infiltrator is how effectively it pulls you in from the beginning.  Screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman does a remarkable job adapting a complicated story and streamlining it to a level that retains its intelligence without compromising its complexities; despite the large amount of characters and the never-ending globe-trotting, the film is never difficult to follow.

Mazur’s home life and his relationship with his wife becomes just as interesting as his undercover work, especially when the two world’s collide.  While posing as Musella at a nightclub, ever faithful to his wife, the agent can’t quite go through with having sex with a lap-dancer – she’s a paid gift from the cartel contacts – and he invents a story about having a fiancée.  This causes a dilemma for the customs agent.  Another agent (Diane Kruger) has to be recruited in order to maintain Mazur’s story.  She becomes his fiancée, and even though this is her first undercover operation, rather than remaining simply decoration by looking attractive and linking her arm to Musella’s at parties, she develops into a surprising asset.

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Particularly effective is a scene where Mazur takes his wife to a restaurant for an anniversary dinner.  It’s here where Evelyn gets an all too real glimpse of the kind of world her husband rarely talks about.  A cartel member recognizes Mazur and greets him at his table.  Mazur changes immediately into his undercover identity, changes his style of speech and action in front of his distraught wife, and becomes violent with the restaurant waiter when the employee brings an anniversary cake to the table.  Mazur, as Musella, insists he asked for a birthday cake.  In keeping with the kind of behavior associated with those he’s dealing with, the agent thrusts the innocent waiter’s face into the cake.  Evelyn is appalled at her husband’s behavior but is quick to realize it’s part of his job, especially when she’s introduced as his secretary.  “You could have retired,” she will later remind him.

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The casting is good throughout with performances that always convince, even in small roles such as Olympia Dukakis as Mazur’s conniving Aunt Vicky and Jason Issacs as government agent Mark Jackowski.  Plus, even though he’s unseen for the first half of the film, once Benjamin Bratt as Roberto Alcaino is introduced, an immediate sense of danger is established.  Alcaino answers directly to Pablo Escobar.  The character never threatens Musella and always makes a point of treating the agent and his fiancée with respect as they discuss money over drinks, but because of his position of authority with the cartel and his direct link to Escobar, you can never relax in his presence.  Without seemingly trying, Bratt exudes a constant sense of endangerment.  The fact that you might even like him makes the character all the more effective.  Like the film itself, you can’t take your eyes away.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  127 Minutes     Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The BFG – Film Review

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Roald Dahl’s The BFG may be considered one of his lesser known children’s fantasies, but those familiar with the 1982 novel should be thrilled with Steven Spielberg’s big screen adaptation.  With some tweaking of details and a slightly different conclusion once the adventure itself is resolved, the film is pretty close to the book.  And it’s a total, magical delight, even if it makes no sense at all.

As an adult, in order to enjoy the film, you need to switch off all logic.  Children should have no trouble, but the literal minded may and probably will.  Interestingly, despite Dahl’s often dark approach and his uncompromising story-telling manner, The BFG doesn’t possess that perceived underlining nastiness that often accompanies many of his children’s tales.  There are some scary giants, much bigger than the big friendly one of the title, and their sole purpose is to eat beans – that’s beans as in human-beans – and some close-ups of their heavily detailed faces with oversized features as they lean into the camera may alarm smaller audience members.  But generally there should be no problem.

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Opening with a night-time, dreamy fairytale look of Westminster Bridge while Big Ben chimes in the background, this is London at an earlier time, probably the early eighties.  At an orphanage situated not far from a noisy pub lives young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and Sophie doesn’t sleep well.  Outside in the quiet, deserted, cobbled streets somewhere around three in the morning there’s a giant; a tall, lanky, long-limbed giant with a long nose and large ears that hears all.  His job is to plant pleasant dreams into the minds of sleeping children, but he’s not supposed to be seen.  Peering through the curtains of her orphanage, the bespectacled Sophie sees him, even though she’s just told herself to never get out of bed, never go to the window and to never look behind the curtain.

Now that he’s discovered, the giant (Mark Rylance) reaches in and grabs the little orphan. With a hop, skip and a really long jump across the country, the giant, or the BFG as Sophie will later call him, takes the girl back to Giant Land, which geographically is a little difficult to locate as the dials on a compass tend to spin when you’re near the area; you have to know where you’re going.

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Once on Giant Land, Sophie finds that her lanky giant is about as caring and as friendly as you would want out of someone who happens to be several storeys high. The problem is not Sophie’s BFG; it’s those other, nastier, bigger giants, all nine of them, who eat children.  Recently, they’ve taken to hopping out of Giant Land and back to England to various orphanages, kidnapping children in order to eat.  None of that is ever seen, by the way; it’s inferred.  With help from Buckingham Palace, the Royal Guards, the military and the Queen herself (Penelope Wilton) Sophie and her BFG all team together to solve the problem of those ever-hungry giants once and for all.

It’s all childlike nonsense, of course, which is why going into any detail about almost anything will mean little on the printed page.  Just know that Mark Rylance, last seen in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies as the Soviet on trial, brings life, warmth and humanity to the character of the big friendly giant.  With his distorted, CGI enhanced features, a twinkle in his eyes and an accent that makes him sound like a Devonshire country yokel – his dialect is known as gobblefunk – he’s an astonishing invention that continually enchants and amuses.

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Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie with her youthful, ever inquiring face that lights up the screen, is equally enchanting, though it’s interesting that a character with a North West English accent should be cast as an orphan living in the south.  It spoils nothing, and audiences outside of Gt. Britain shouldn’t even notice, but it’s curious, all the same.

Plus, the scenes at Buckingham Palace which could have been disastrous are consistently great fun as the Queen plays host at meal time to Sophie and the BFG.  The giant isn’t too pleased with the coffee so he shares a bottle of his own green liquid refreshment where the bubbles fall down instead of up and create a comical moment of colorful flatulence known as a whizzpopper.  It’s funny, not to mention rude enough to see the Queen of England let rip a whizzpopper – the anticipation of what’s about to happen after everyone samples the green drink will have you laughing before the event occurs – but the look on the faces of her three corgis once they glance up after having sipped from their bowl and realize what’s about to happen is priceless.

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For some youngsters with a low attention span, several of the early, establishing scenes may feel like a lull, but the film more than makes up for it once Sophie and her BFG arrive in Giant Land.  There’s beauty to be enjoyed when the little girl and the giant visit an upside-down world and gather the very material that dreams are made of.  Like the giant who plants those hypnotic, magical dreams into the minds of sleeping children, director Spielberg does the same to us through his film.  Whether The BFG will become a classic is difficult to say, only time and repeated viewings will tell, but while you have the chance to see it on a big screen before it eventually routes to the home market, do so.  And with giants like these, the bigger the screen the better.

MPAA Rating:  PG   Length:  115 Minutes   Overall Rating:  9 (out of 10)

Posted in Film