Sunday, April 14, 2013


With the success of the EVIL DEAD remake I wonder if young movie goers will understand the shock and outrage that came about with the initial release of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO. In 1960 this film stunned audiences around the world with what was then extreme footage. Compared to today's films it was nothing but that's the thing about classic films. To watch them and to get out of them what the film maker intended you have to place yourself back at that time rather than view it from today's standards.

But apparently there was plenty going on behind the scenes with the creation of PSYCHO as well and that is the story behind the new DVD release HITCHCOCK. Not only that the film is also a love story of a great director and the woman that helped him reach the pinnacle of his career. The two themes work side by side to tell an interesting story that holds your interest from start to finish.

The film opens with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) looking for a new project having just finished with the release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST to rather tame reviews. His wife Alma (Helen Mirren) is trying to get him to work with an old friend, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who has a new book in the making. But Hitchcock is searching for something no one expects, no one has seen. Eventually he comes across something other studios are bypassing, a popular book called PSYCHO.

Based on the true life story of Ed Gein, a small town man who seemed rather easygoing but who was cannibalizing corpses and using body parts to decorate his home, Hitchcock sees something unique here. The problem is no studio will back the picture with the funds necessary to make it. Discussing this at home Hitchcock and Alma decide to make the picture using their own funds. If the film is a success they can thumb their noses at the studio heads. If it fails, they lose all.

The production story told here revolves around Hitchcock's obsession with the blonde haired beauties that always took center stage in his films. While he never touched, he often found himself entranced by their beauty to the extent that he often times ignored the one woman who supported him from the start of his career to its end.

On the love story side we are witness to Alma's seemingly friendly interest in Whitfield. Working together in his secret beach house their efforts are truly platonic. Problems arise when Hitchcock finds Alma spending more time working there than on his project. His suspicions increase the more she's away to the point he actually becomes jealous, much the same feelings Alma has as he ogles the blondes in his films. Beneath the anger both have about their particular situations there is a deep love that lasted until their deaths.

The film is an interesting look behind the scenes of what became the biggest hit that Hitchcock had in his long career, a success he never exceeded. The main thing that makes it work is the performances by both lead actors here. Mirren offers a woman who loves her husband deeply yet feels ignored both by him and those who don't realize just how much she contributed to his success and she does it in both subtle and non-subtle ways. Hopkins turns in another outstanding performance as well. Where he could have simply done a caricature of Hitchcock he instead gives us the nuances that the man was known for but also displays the complexity and insecurity behind the genius that was there.

The movie was released but sparingly so to theaters and has received little push on the DVD market as well. That's sad because my guess is there are few young people today who know exactly who Hitchcock was and the amazing films he made. Ask and if you're lucky they may know PSYCHO but not the other films he is known for. This movie would make a great starting point to get them interested in the man and his films. It's entertaining and informative and leaves you wanting more.

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For those of us alive when the hostage crisis took place in the seventies we've not forgotten what tensions in the Middle East were like at that time. We had a president who showed a weak America and that was played upon by terrorists who had captured and held captive American hostages for 444 days in 1979 through 1981. Most born since those dates have little or no idea that it happened. It's become a forgotten page in history. Not so any longer.

ARGO tells the story not of those particular hostages but of 6 Americans who escaped from the Embassy before it was taken. Hidden in the home of the Canadian ambassador, a team of CIA operatives worked on plans to help them escape. With streets to overflowing with hostile protestors and terrorists the straight and easy methods were out. There was little that could be done and no plan seemed fool proof. But one might do the trick.

Ben Affleck (who also directed) stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who has planned escapes before. A chance look at a trade magazine and a plot forms in his head: pretend that a Hollywood production company is making a science fiction movie and take the 6 people out as members of the crew scouting locations. All it takes is finding a way to make it appear they came into the country so they can be taken out. With nothing but bad ideas on how to rescue these 6 people, this becomes the best worst idea.

Mendez sets about by recruiting a friend in John Chambers (John Goodman), the special effects man responsible for the make up in PLANET OF THE APES. He in turn helps Mendez connect with Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer of note in the past who agrees to help them set up a fake production company and to find the right script. Everything has to appear on the up and up to convince the Iranian government. A script is found, an office opened, ads posted in the trade magazines and a party with a reading of the movie is even held all to make it seem legit.

Backgrounds for each of the "crew" members are formed and set up for Mendez to provide each of the 6 still in Iran. They will have to know their cover stories to the letter if the plan is to work. Once Mendez gets the okay and lands in country, this becomes a point of contention among the 6. While their options are non-existent, a few have a problem coming to terms with this plan. Mendez assures them he will get them out.

The majority of the film involves the set up of the escape of the 6. The planning, the bureaucracy and the involvement of so many people with so many possibilities of the plan failing are covered. What is amazing is that these details are spun here in such a way as to never be boring or seem like the film lasts too long, unlike ZERO DARK THIRTY. Instead, Affleck has the pacing of the film done to perfection.

The last portion of the film involves the group as they finally leave the ambassador's home and head for the airport. Affleck again does a magnificent job as the tension mounts from minute to minute. Whether you know the results of this mission or not you soon find your palms sweating and heart racing as you wait to see if they escape or not.

ARGO was nominated for and won the Best Picture Oscar this past year. For once I have to agree with a win in that category. This is truly a movie worth watching more than once. The only sad note is that Affleck was overlooked when it came to direction. That award went to Ang Lee for LIFE OF PI. While I enjoyed that movie as well, I think perhaps Affleck should have edged out Lee. Perhaps one day Hollywood will recognize his talents behind the camera as well as in front.

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I'm always pleased when I come across something that surprises me and makes me smile out of the blue. The only sad part about the movie I'm writing about this week is that it's a French film. Why is that sad? Because there are far too many people in this world who won't take the chance, won't take the time and won't pay attention to what they're watching enough to see this film. Once they learn they'll have to read subtitles they'll pass it by. The sad thing is in doing so they'll miss one of the best movies of this past year. So take a chance, please.

THE INTOUCHABLES is the story of Driss (Omar Sy), a young black man recently released from jail and living in the low income housing area of Paris. The story opens with Driss seemingly applying for a job taking care of a wealthy quadriplegic man named Phillipe (Francois Cluzet). Phillipe is bored with each applicant and known for being a task master. When Driss comes in just asking them to sign his welfare papers so he can collect, Phillipe tells him to come back the next day.

Driss returns home to have his mother ask him to leave because of his past. With several brothers and sisters, he does so in the hopes of helping them. The next morning he returns to Phillipe's home and is told he's being hired temporarily to see if he works out. Most of the staff doesn't think he'll make it. But Phillipe see's something in him that the rest don't. More than that he knows Driss will offer him more honesty and straight forwardness than the rest of the staff.

Driss is amazed at his living conditions first. It's the first time he's had a room of his own let alone a custom bathroom for his own use. As Driss goes about his first day, he does indeed offer no ounce of sympathy for Phillipe and talks to him like any other person he would me. Phillipe finds this incredibly refreshing and actually finds something to smile about in the presence of Driss. Driss begins to learn Phillipe's daily routine and how things work around the house.

As the days go by the pair become not only employer and employee but friends as well. Both try to educate the other about the differences that they have. Where Phillipe attempts to expose Driss to opera and classical music, Driss tunes Phillipe into groups like Earth Wind & Fire. They come from different worlds but they find enjoyment in each other's company.

One of the tasks that Phillipe does each week is to write a letter to a lady pen pal he's been wooing for the past 6 months. Filled with expressions of romance Driss can't believe he's not tried to meet her and sets about doing so by calling her and then passing the phone to Phillipe. A meeting is scheduled but no one knows for sure what will happen.

The same is true of Driss' past catching up to him. Concerned about his family and the chance that his brother may turn up like him he keeps an eye on them from the sidelines and eventually must make a decision just who needs help more, his brother or Phillipe.

Through it all the Driss and Phillipe share small adventures that show both have a sense of wonder still and a love of life. Though confined to his wheelchair and unable to move anything but his head and neck, Phillipe learns to smile and laugh again.

There is a certain joy about this film that rubs off after viewing it. You'll find yourself literally laughing out loud at moments. I know I did. Best of all will be the life affirming knowledge that the film was based on a true story. What became of the pair is revealed just before the credits.

Acting is something that transcends language. The facial expressions and moves of an actor in film show that it is a visual art form rather than just the sounds made vocally. Yes, the things they say in this film will make you laugh but coupled with the actions both actors offer great performances here.

Nominated around the world for awards it's sad that it wasn't nominated for best foreign picture at this year's Academy Awards. It should have won hands down. So don't be afraid to try something different. Don't let the fact that this film is French scare you away. Take a moment and enjoy the story and laugh at all it has to offer. Easily one of the best films I've seen this past year. 

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It seems the Koreans have become the go to bad guys when it comes to trying to take down America. In the recent theater release OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (a good movie by the way) they take over the White House and capture the President. And in this week's pick on DVD, RED DAWN, they actually invade the US.

RED DAWN is a remake of the 1984 film that starred Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen. This time around the story remains similar and the cast is a new group of up and coming young stars.

Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is a Marine back from Afghanistan visiting his family. While his police chief dad welcomes him apparently there is some issue with his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck). The reunion is short lived as his first morning home the youngsters are awakened by a thunderous noise and then an airplane crashing into the house next door. Looking to see what is up they witness a mass invasion via parachute into their northwestern town.

The two jump in Jed's truck and head out, finding their father and then separating as armed soldiers begin trying to shoot at them. As they drive off they pick up a few other teens and head for the family cabin in the woods. Listening to the news they find out that the North Koreans have invaded the U.S. and taken over many major cities on the west coast. During the night two of the kids picked up head out on their own, taking the food that was in the house. They return later with the North Korean head Capt. Cho (Will Yun Lee), the mayor (whose son is part of the group) and the boy's father. When given a chance to call them to come out, he instead tells them to kill Capt. Cho and stop anything he does. This results in his death before their eyes and a thirst for vengeance.

With Jed in the lead this group of youngsters becomes an insurgent force, sabotaging various areas that are under the control of the North Koreans. Along the way they tag the places they go via spray paint with the word WOLVERINES, the name of the high school mascot. Their exploits inspire others to aid them even at the cost of death. As in the original, the team eventually comes into contact with a soldier in the U.S. Marines who lets them know what's been going on. Word of their exploits has reached them and they need their help.

On one hand the whole plot of this movie might seem far fetched. But when you suspend belief as all good movies ask you to do, you find yourself rooting and cheering for these young people out to fight the good fight, taking on an enemy that wants to do nothing more but destroy America.

The film holds plenty of well choreographed action scenes, plenty of gunplay and explosions and all involved present themselves incredibly well and believable in their roles. All of them come off as people you'd want in your corner if things turned bad. But there's another star of this film whose names won't appear in the credits.

That star is the American people and the spirit they possess. For far too long, for me at least, viewers have had to sit through countless movies where American's are portrayed as the real bad guys, the ones who do nothing but harm people around the world, who go crazy at the slightest thing and wreak havoc on innocent people no matter where they are. They have heroes that are anti-heroes at best, men who save the day but at the cost of abusing someone, raping some woman or being the nastiest person around. This has become the norm it seems. This movie doesn't have that.

Instead, the white hats and the black hats are easily identifiable here. And in today's world surprisingly enough that's a nice change. Maybe the world isn't all black and white, but when it comes to movies it's nice to feel that perhaps we aren't the terrible people that Hollywood would have us believe we are. RED DAWN is a movie that inspires while entertaining, giving you a sense of pride in this country. The same holds true of OLYMPUS. I hope these movies are successful enough to inspire more to be made but doubt it. Until then we can enjoy these movies and those made in the past. Maybe one day they'll learn. 

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While most of us are quite aware of the fact that the main source of oil these days comes from the Middle East most of us have no idea how it came to be discovered there or what brought about a change that allowed the oil to flow to the rest of the world. Many of the answers to these questions can be found in the new DVD release DAY OF THE FALCON.

The film opens with two warring leaders coming to terms with their boundaries. Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) is the more traditional of the two, following the guidelines of his religion as much as possible. Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas) is a more forward thinking ruler wishing more for his people. The two agree to keep the Yellow Belt, the land between their two countries, as neutral territories. To seal the deal Amar's sons will go with Nesib and be raised as his own to insure the peace.

Fifteen years pass and the peace holds until the day a Texas oil company official approaches Nesib. He tells him there is oil in the Yellow Belt. Nesib has always thought of himself as a ruler who has nothing and no way to provide for his people in a desert covered land. He sees this as an opportunity to grow incredible wealth and in return advance his people by building schools, hospitals and more. The only problem is that in mining these oil fields he has broken the peace agreement and the possibility of war opens once again.

When one of the two princes held as hostage for the peace is killed, his brother Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim) sets out to set things straight. What follows is his adventure in both worlds as he tries to find a compromise that will settle old scores, revenge the deaths in his family and create a world that will have both peace and prosperity.

The beginning of the film sets the stage for what follows so if you find it a bit tedious give it some time. Once Auda heads out to fulfill his destiny things begin to pick up and the action flows with the story rather than the story around it. The role of Nesib seems like a beneficent father figure for his people but of course too much power seems to lead to corruption and poor decision making.  The clash of cultures attempts to explain how things have turned out and in some ways does so, in others not so much.

The end result is an entertaining and informative film. In looking deeper you may find that the story has been tweaked a bit here and there to make it more film worth, but the gist of the story remains. While not quite LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the film is worth watching.

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It's hard to believe that there is a young generation out there that didn't experience 9/11 first hand. For those of us who lived through it, it doesn't seem all that long ago. So this generation can't quite grasp the importance of Osama Bin Laden's death. Still, two movies came out last year with that subject at their core. One seemed little more than a promotional piece for President Obama during an election year (going so far as to include an ill timed comment by Mitt Romney who had nothing to do with the subject matter) showing almost as much of him as the SEAL team that took Bin Laden out. The other was nominated for best picture and nearly won.

ZERO DARK THIRTY was noted for taking a few dramatic liberties (such as the main character actually being a composite of several main players in what unfolded) but that doesn't detract from the story being told. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a young CIA agent on her first time in the Middle East as the film opens. She's there during an interrogation and sees first hand how brutal it can be. While she shies away from it she stays silent.

The film moves quickly from place to place, time to time through the career of Maya. She doggedly pursues any lead that could find Bin Laden. One possible lead is a courier for messages he sends out but that falls to the wayside when he apparently is killed. It's not until later in the film that she learns he came from a family with 8 brothers and it was one of them killed not the man she was searching for.

Through her career we see how things change. Her passive nature turns to a desire to catch and kill her prey. When a friend is killed in a car bombing Maya becomes even more determined. Add to that a machine gun attack on her and she won't let anyone stand in her way, not even her immediate supervisors. Maya's in your face attitude may not win her a large number of friends but it does earn her respect.

No, this isn't a spoiler since we know the outcome of this story. Eventually a possible site for Bin Laden is found. When a table full of bureaucrats is asked if this is a 100% surety that Bin Laden is there they each take a turn hem hawing around with smaller percentages in mind. Only Maya has the courage to say this is as close to 100$ as they are likely to ever be.

Given the go ahead the last 30 minutes or so of the film deals with the SEAL team that was sent in to capture or kill Bin Laden. While the film to this point, nearly 2 hours, dealt with what it took to find him, this 30 minutes is shown from a tactical standpoint where we see the team organize then put into action the plan to take him out in action.

The thing that stands out about this film is that it seems more matter of fact than most movies made. There is no John Wayne type motivating and leading a group into the battle field. This is more what the situation was like, plain and simple. The only bad thing about that is that it plays out kind of bland.

Perhaps we're all still too close to the situation than we'd like to admit. Perhaps the wounds are still too exposed. Perhaps the death of Bin Laden was too quick and sudden to accept. While the story is an important one and this film does give credit where credit was due, it's still a bit slow paced and realistic to be considered entertainment. A good movie technically yes, but for enjoyment I'm not so sure. Whether you watch this film will be determined by your outlook on the situation. Yes it is a good movie, but go in knowing what to expect. 

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At some point in time there was a change in TV viewing for children. While a huge number of kids went through life watching things like SPACE GHOST, THE HERCULOIDS, HUCKLEBERRY HOUND, YOGI BEAR and JONNY QUEST we were apparently left uneducated by these shows. Do-gooders would have none of this and so made it their life's work to make sure that only educational, informative and mind altering shows would follow. All shows must have a message and that message must advance civilization. The result was that kids have grown up with the lamest of shows and most of us have increased the size of our personal DVD collections with collections of the classics that we share with our kids.

Once in a while something different comes along though in spite of the do-gooders. Such is the case with ANNOYING ORANGE. I'm not sure I can find a single socially redeeming moment of value in any of the episodes that I watched here. My guess is that those seeking that sort of thing will be sorely disappointed in the show and offer some blistering attacks on the stupidity that a piece of grade school mentality spewing fruit offers to kids.

But they're missing the point. These jokes are not aimed at adults. They're aimed at kids! I think far too many adults these days miss the fact that when you were a kid you were supposed to have fun. Instead we want all children to be math wizards and literary geniuses before they even begin going to school. So when do kids get that chance to have fun?

Annoying Orange is just what his title proclaims him to be, a piece of talking fruit that spews out annoying things to his friends, other fruits that have the ability to speak. Much like the old SPACE ANGEL program from way back, the show features fruits and vegetables with superimposed mouths that speak the lines. And trust me when I say the lines aren't Shakespeare. They're rather harmless jokes and youngsters will laugh at and probably repeat over and over again until and orange isn't the most annoying thing in the room. But that's all part of being a kid.

There are plenty of different ideas crammed into various episodes here that take us from knights of old to a pirate ship battle in a grocery store when the lights go out. Each offers a smidgen of talent and plenty of grade school laughs that kids will love. So I'll be one of the few that says as an adult I didn't enjoy the antics of Annoying Orange enough to want to visit him frequently but my guess is kids will watch this DVD over and over again.

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I've found that message movies for the most part offer incredibly boring films that while trying to speak from the heart inevitably fail to entertain or hold your attention for long. Rarely does one succeed. For the most part these movies fail miserably and disappear from memory quickly. How many can say that they're fans of LIONS FOR LAMBS? You don't recall it? Not a surprise.

For the most part message movies don't do much harm, though on rare occasions overzealous film makers tend to offer simplistic discussions promoting a topic they believe rather than an unbiased account. The majority of these movies seem to head straight to DVD rather than receive theatrical runs. That's not always a bad thing. Once in a while a decent movie comes out and gets into homes this way. Such is the case with A DARK TRUTH.

Andy Garcia stars as Jack Begosian, an ex-CIA agent who now hosts his own political talk radio program. Trying to rebuild his life and steer clear of his past, Begosian must face his history when he is asked by one of the owners of a water purification company to investigate the particulars of a small village in South America. It seems that almost everyone there died of something wrong in the water. Begosian at first refuses but when he is told that the leader of a small group trying to get the truth out is Francisco Francis (Forest Whittaker) he agrees. It seems that Begosian owes a debt to Francis but we're not aware of what that is until later.

On the run from corrupt leaders and military officials Francis and his group move through the jungle simply trying to avoid capture. Amazingly Begosian has no problem finding them though. He approaches them and offers them help at about the same time the military shows to take out as many as they can. On the run Begosian learns what the actual problem is and that Francis has the proof that will show the world what happened.

The message here becomes one of corporate greed and manipulation. The evil corporate giant that has contracts around the world in water purification and management has failed in the small town mentioned before. Rather than seek out a solution to the problem they instead have tried to erase it so they can continue to market their product around the world and increase their wealth. Why they wouldn't seek out a solution to the problem so they can continue to profit from a good product doesn't matter. What matters is portraying corporations as all evil, all bad and all willing to kill to keep information from reaching the public.

So yes, the film becomes predictable for the most part. It still is well made and acted and offers some mild entertainment. Just don't get sucked into the message. Are there terrible corporations in this world who will exploit the masses for a buck? I have little doubt. But cookie cutting movies will most likely not be the thing that leads to change. Still the movie offers a mild distraction and decent enough production values to make it worth watching.

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One day the found footage films may run their course. Let's hope that day is sooner rather than later. While it makes for an easy way for a film to be made for less money, it becomes rather annoying after a while. That being said some of these films still work, but not always.

THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY is one that does work but perhaps not for everyone. This is a movie with a slow build to a crescendo that is short, sweet and to the point. Some will feel ripped off by that, others will enjoy the film for what it is.

Professor John Venkenheim has degrees in history and English language. While this may seem an odd coupling he explains it to a young female documentary maker he has hired named Vicky to film his latest excursion. Displaying some well preserved hand written pages, he tells her that the basis and opening of the story of Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN was a series of letters sent to a woman whose brother was the captain of the ship Dr. Frankenstein took to the frozen north. Venkenheim claims that these are those letters and that they are real and not fiction.

Following news stories and information he has gathered, Venkenheim has hired a guide and intends to track down the creature from the story that he claims is still alive and roaming the vast North Country. While he seriously believes what he is about to do Vicky's crew is less than receptive to his ideas and ridicules him behind his back each chance they get. But they are being paid so off they go.

The film deals mostly with the journey that this group takes than with the actual creature. Their guide is a roughneck with plenty of character to go round. This is someone not to mess with or be taken lightly. When the group's snowmobiles are damaged in the night, it's this man who takes a rifle and sets out to find whoever is responsible. Is it the creature or someone else? The panic and fear in the group plays out well onscreen.

Don't let the cover of the DVD help you decide whether to watch or not. Don't expect a movie filled with the creature roaming the countryside with villagers in hot pursuit, torches raised. He actually has very little screen time. But the movie does offer some slow burn tension. If you like movies that are a little more in your face then skip this one. As for found footage films, this one isn't too bad.

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I absolutely loved GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. I would place it high in the ranks of my films that came out the year it was released and include it in my list of top notch horror films of all times. For me it hit every note exactly right. Not so with the follow up film which fails more often than it succeeds, the usual problem with most sequels.

If you haven't seen the original it revolves around a ghost hunters' type program that we find is more staged than reality. In that film the terror rises when they discover that the ghost are indeed real and that they prevent the crew from ever leaving unless they're placed in a body bag. It offered some truly scary moments and a general sense of unease that prevailed from start to finish.

The reason for its failure can be seen in the majority of the opening sequence which takes up perhaps the first half of the film. Instead of a professional crew we have a student film maker who along with his friends spends most of his time getting drunk and trying to have sex. When he begins to look into the disappearance of the original crew he eventually talks his group into seeking out the abandoned hospital and investigating it on their own. The problem is that the majority of film time here involves them partying and swearing like sailors as opposed to furthering the story along. The whole opening segment feels like wasted film and time and something to just fill out the story instead of add to it.

When the group finally gets to the hospital they're confronted by a guard who prevents them from entering. But this is a determined group and they eventually find their way in. When the guard enters to pull them out things begin to happen starting with the guard's death. Frightened and unable to leave, the group searches for a way out just like their predecessors did. It's not until later in the film that they stumble across the sole survivor of the original film, the host of the show, who has been trapped here for years. Can they escape with his help even though he hasn't been able to all this time?

That's the sort of stupid question that comes up in this film. The scares that we see are this time around more predictable than the first time even though there are some creepy moments to be seen. But the sense of discovery found the first time around is lacking this time and the whole initial sequences do nothing but make you want to reach for the fast forward button rather than wait until something happens.

I don't think I can even give this film an A for effort since it seems like so little effort went into making this a good picture. It feels like someone realized they had a cult hit on their hands and decided to keep the ball rolling rather than take the time to add something to the story. Sure the part with the old host adds something but at the sake of dead air time (no pun intended) prior it isn't worth it. Sorry but I can't recommend this movie to anyone, including fans of the first film.

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