Post Date Aug 27

Drinking Buddies

Magnolia Pictures
Rated R for language throughout.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

“Drinking Buddies” is a crackling screwball comedy refracted through a low-key, mumblecore prism.

Admittedly, I’m not terribly fond of the word mumblecore and find it reductive — not unlike the phrases “chick flick” or “Oscar bait” to describe certain kinds of films — but for the sake of argument and to avoid wordiness, let’s just call it that for now. Mumblecore is, after all, the indie oeuvre that spawned “Drinking Buddies” writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg with early films like 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”

But like his contemporaries the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton, Swanberg has emerged from the low-budget, meandering trappings of the genre and made a movie that reflects a maturity in its structure, production values and narrative drive.

That’s not to say that this is a glossy piece of formulaic, studio filmmaking by any means. The thing that makes these movies engaging is the sense of realism they create, the effortless naturalism of the aesthetic and dialogue. Scenes are shot intimately, highlighting their recognizable imperfection — that includes quiet, understated rhythms that are borderline boring. More often, though, “Drinking Buddies” not only provides the sensation that we’re eavesdropping on the employees of a Chicago microbrewery, it also makes us want to hang out with them and grab a pint. Or two. Or three …

The word “drinking” in the title isn’t just a suggestion or a metaphor. It’s what these people do all day, every day — and night. (It is very easy to imagine the drinking games this film will inspire.) Like the excellent indie romance “The Spectacular Now,” “Drinking Buddies” follows its characters as they straddle the line between hard partying and full-blown alcoholism — and watches them stumble over it. Unlike Miles Teller’s heavy-drinking high school senior in “The Spectacular Now,” though, these characters actually have to drink. After all, it’s work-related.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, who runs the brewery’s office. She’s also the only woman who works there. She’s also quite possibly the coolest chick alive — or at least, that’s how she appears at the start. She can hang with the boys, be as crass as they are, match them pint-for-pint but still maintain her femininity. Wilde radiates outrageous beauty and screen presence even in little makeup, jeans and a tank top that aren’t particularly stylish; in time, though, her character’s selfish side comes shining through.

Jake Johnson co-stars as her co-worker, Luke. He does a lot of the grunt work around the place, so his amiably scruffy demeanor and perpetual trucker hat are more than just an affected hipster facade. He’s fast-talking and quick-witted; nothing is inappropriate or off limits. He is brazenly confident in his own skin but can also show unexpected kindness.

More like brother and sister who are constantly teasing each other than just best friends, Kate and Luke share an insane amount of chemistry, both verbally and physically. Watching the two of them together, either sparring energetically or enjoying quieter, dryer banter, is the chief joy of “Drinking Buddies.” It’s clear that they’re in love with each other, that they’re meant to be together, but wouldn’t you know it? They’re both seeing other people.

Luke has been in a longtime serious relationship with special-ed teacher Jill (the always-adorable Anna Kendrick); lately, the two have been talking marriage. It’s to the film’s credit that Jill never comes off as a shrill, nagging harpy when she brings up the topic of making wedding plans. Kate, meanwhile, has been dating record producer Chris (Ron Livingston) for about eight months now. But the fact that he doesn’t drink beer — and that he gently scolds her for setting her bottle down on his stylish, mid-century modern coffee table — clearly bodes ill for their relationship.

The possibility of change becomes especially evident when Kate and Luke introduce their significant others at a party at the brewery, and again when the four of them go away together for a weekend at Chris’ lake house. While Jill and Chris go on a hike in the woods, Kate and Luke stay inside, playing blackjack and — you guessed it — drinking beer.

But while “Drinking Buddies” evolves in terms of plot and emotion, it doesn’t necessarily go where you might expect, and it never hews to the conventions of a romantic comedy. Yes, there are romantic sparks and there’s a ton of humor. But “Drinking Buddies” seems more interested in observing the details of daily life than striving for a forced, feel-good sense of closure. Ultimately, it feels like its own unique brew altogether: sweet and silly and sad. And above all, hoppy.

Post Date Aug 26

Revisiting Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert

After the debacle that was Miley Cyrus’ performance at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, I felt the need to revisit my review of her 2008 3-D movie, “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” I remember hoping back then, when she was only 15, that she’d avoid the madness that plagues so many child stars as they make the transition to adulthood.

No such luck, apparently.

Anyway, here’s a look back at a gentler, simpler time when she was just bein’ Miley, and not trying so hard to shock us. Although I suppose I should thank her for introducing me to the concept of “twerking.” Enjoy …

Walt Disney Pictures
Rated G.
Running time: 74 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

As an adult sitting through the 3-D Hannah Montana concert film, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed — but not by the piercing screech of thousands of frantic 9-year-olds, the crisp digital imagery or the catchiness of the Disney star’s peppy tunes.

Rather, the sensation is one of longing: You wish desperately for Miley Cyrus, the singing, dancing, songwriting, trendsetting dynamo, to avoid turning into Britney Spears. She’s insanely likable and talented, with poise and presence beyond her years. It’s all out there in front of her, and watching the 15-year-old on stage and behind the scenes, you just pray that she’ll turn out all right and not get swept away by the insanity of pop-star celebrity.

Of course, the tween girls for whom “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert” was intended won’t be thinking about this. They’ll just be giddy to feel so close to their idol.

With the three-dimensional effects, it feels as if Cyrus is walking right up you on the catwalk, her perky entourage of backup dancers in tow. One trick — in which she bounces a drumstick on the floor and sends it flying toward the camera — might just make you flinch.

Little girls will be happy to hear the “Hannah Montana” star perform their favorite songs and thrilled to catch a peek of the real Miley backstage — although the moments are carefully chosen to maintain her well-crafted wholesome image.

Watching her interact with her country-singer dad is entertaining, though, simply because they play off each other so easily. And you have to give Billy Ray Cyrus credit for showing a sense of humor about his place on the food chain — at one point, he jokes to her about how he’s played every Indian reservation casino from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But certainly the show is the thing, and Cyrus — both as herself and as her blond-tressed, television alter ego — runs through all those songs that have been stuck in your head for months, since your kids probably play them nonstop. They include “We Got the Party,” “Nobody’s Perfect” and, of course, “The Best of Both Worlds.” Those nonthreatening Jonas Brothers — Nick, Joe and Kevin — come out for a few songs, too. And if you’re really paying attention, you can catch the moment when Cyrus dashes off stage and is replaced briefly by a body double to buy time for a wardrobe change — which caused a tizzy on the Internet but was a total non-story from the get-go.

Once the movie (and the ringing in your ears) stops, though, it’s obvious why Cyrus has become such a phenomenon. She’s pretty and stylish but never a mean girl; energetic and popular but not conceited. She makes it easy to imagine what it would be like to be friends with her — or at least dress like her. Which you can do because, you know, there’s also a Hannah Montana clothing line.

Post Date Aug 23 — Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Movie ReviewSet in a foster-care center for troubled teens, the indie drama “Short Term 12” could have been painfully mawkish. Instead, it’s powerful in its understatement. I loved reviewing this small gem for

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Post Date Aug 23 — Paradise: Faith

Paradise: Faith Movie ReviewThe austere Austrian film “Paradise: Faith” features acts of religious fervor that are so crazy, they’re sure to startle the devout and non-believers alike. I had the unique pleasure of reviewing it for

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Post Date Aug 20

The World’s End

Focus Features
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

Finally — finally! — the most entertaining movie of the summer arrives, just as August is coming to a close.

Actually, “The World’s End” might be the best time you’ll have at the movies all year. It is a complete blast: urgently paced, hilariously clever and blisteringly profane.

The latest genre tweak from director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, following 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” and 2007’s “Hot Fuzz,” is simultaneously their most ambitious and their most effective. Whereas “Shaun” was a satirical send-up up zombie horror and “Fuzz” had fun with mismatched buddy-cop conventions, “The World’s End” dares to take on a genre that’s even larger and more complex, at least from a technical perspective: the sci-fi apocalypse extravaganza.

But it’s also about the notion of the end of the world from a personal perspective — about the loss of a sense of adventure, about growing up and getting lame — and the nostalgic lengths to which we’ll go to recapture that sense of youthful vibrancy. An elaborate pub crawl is all that stands in the way of one man and his personal destiny — or destruction.

Pegg is that Peter Pan figure opposite a buttoned-down Frost in a reversal of the roles they played in “Hot Fuzz.” It’s an ensemble comedy, with excellent British character actors Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan rounding out the drunken crew. But Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Wright as usual, damn near steals the entire movie through sheer force of will. His Gary King is an insane whirlwind — charismatic but clueless, and also clearly damaged and needy. When he’s on screen, you can’t stop watching him. I was only half-joking on Twitter when I suggested starting a best-actor Oscar campaign for Pegg now; he shows that much range and he’s that good.

As much of a stunted, self-centered screw-up as Gary is, though, he also ends up being the voice of reason when society gets broken down to its basest elements and most primal instincts. But first: beer, and lots of it.

At the film’s start, Gary is reminiscing during a group therapy session about the highlight of his youth and, as it turns out, his entire life: attempting to conquer “The Golden Mile,” an epic quest of drinking a pint of beer at each of the 12 pubs in his quaint English hometown of Newton Haven over one night. As we see in a flashback, he and his four best mates tried to make it from one end to the other to celebrate their high school graduation in June 1990 — and failed. Now, Gary realizes he must complete the mission in order to attain the sense of satisfaction and self-worth that’s eluded him all this time.

But he can’t do it alone, so he rounds up the rest of “The Five Musketeers,” as he calls them, all of whom are in varying states of reluctance to join him: fastidious real estate agent Oliver (Freeman); wealthy architect Steven (Considine); meek car salesman Peter (Marsan); and the toughest get of all, his former best friend Andy (Frost), a corporate lawyer who hasn’t spoken to him or had a drink in 16 years.

While they’ve all carved out traditional lives for themselves with careers and wives and kids, Gary has happily maintained the outlook of an impetuous teenager, with the wardrobe to match. That includes his vintage Sisters of Mercy black T-shirt to go with his cherished cassette of tunes from that magical era. (As in their other films, the soundtrack to “The World’s End” is great, full of early-’90s hits from British bands including The Stone Roses, Blur, Happy Mondays and The Soup Dragons.)

Reuniting as a group for the first time in a long time, they naturally need a few pubs and a few pints to get reacquainted and loosen up. The fluid editing that’s a signature of the trio’s films is thrillingly on display on these early stops, creating an infectious energy. Who wouldn’t want to go drinking with these guys? But Pegg and Wright’s script is as sharply observant in the low-key moments as it is wildly hilarious exchanges; the arrival of Rosamund Pike as Oliver’s sister — whom Gary and Steven still pine for — adds another touch of humanity.

And then all hell breaks loose.

I would not dream of giving away any clues as to the source of the mayhem in this seemingly tranquil hamlet. The tonal shift comes quickly, but it absolutely works. It is just the most amazing thing to watch: “The World’s End” becomes a totally different kind of movie about halfway through — intense, paranoid, violent — yet maintains the dry, rapid-fire wit that made its earlier scenes such a joy to watch. It also goes into more dramatic territory than “Shaun” or “Fuzz” ever dared, allowing the actors more vulnerability in the past — especially Pegg and Frost — and they rise beautifully to the challenge.

Maybe “The World’s End” goes over the top in its effects-laden climax. But when you have the balls — and the brains — to smash genres the way Wright & Co. do, you may as well smash them to bits.

Post Date Aug 16


Jobs Movie ReviewOpen Road Films
Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language.
Running time: 127 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

The irony in “Jobs,” about the late Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs, is not how a man could be so beloved and yet be such a bastard. The irony is that a man who treasured innovation and sleek, stylish design should be the subject of a film that’s so bland and bloated.

Director Joshua Michael Stern has given us the worst kind of cursory biopic: It spends a great deal of time recreating key events in a complex, famous person’s life without offering any real insight into what made him tick. (Jobs died in 2011 of pancreatic cancer at 56.) You would never know from watching “Jobs” that’s it’s about a person who changed the way all of us live our lives on a daily basis. I’m typing this review on my MacBook Pro, for example, and I just got a voicemail on my iPhone. This Steve Jobs operates in a vacuum in bedrooms and boardrooms, in garages and generic office space.

We know we’re in trouble from the very start; before heading into a lengthy flashback, the film begins in 2001 with Jobs introducing the iPod to an enraptured audience of disciples at Apple headquarters. It’s not enough to have them all leap to their feet in a frenzied standing ovation — heavy-handed, feel-good music swells to indicate to us that this is a major, inspiring moment.

As Jobs, Ashton Kutcher basks in the applause in that familiar hunched-over stance in dorky dad jeans and wire-rim glasses, his dark hair and beard now white. Kutcher has proven that there’s more substance to him than the endearingly dippy persona of Kelso on ‘That ’70s Show” and one of the “Dude, Where’s My Car?” dudes would suggest. But despite being media-savvy himself, he wasn’t ready to portray a technological and cultural titan — not just yet. Kutcher operates in two modes as Jobs: He’s either quietly and mysteriously pondering his next groundbreaking project, or he’s loudly and cruelly berating anyone who dares question his vision.

Then again, Matt Whiteley’s script doesn’t give him much more to work with. Too often, it feels like a repetitive series of meetings of middle-aged white men sitting around a conference-room table; at the other extreme, it makes giant leaps in time and leaves important questions unanswered. Stern, meanwhile, adds nothing with really obvious musical cues, as if loud ’70s rock tunes with on-the-nose lyrics will create a sense of propulsive forward momentum. Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” plays during Jobs’ acid-dropping college days; Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” with its distinctive guitar riff, blares as Jobs and his pals put together their first computers. (I was, however,  happy to hear “Walk on the Ocean” by Toad the Wet Sprocket during the mid-’90s section of Jobs’ life. Those were good years.)

“Jobs” follows the man from his barefoot days at Reed College and his first job at Atari (where his boss declares he’s impossible to work with) through the creation of Apple Computers in his parents’ garage with pal Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad from Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon,” who provides the rare traces of pathos and humanity here). Investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) steps in with financial support and poof! An empire is born.

From there, it’s a series of professional ups and downs. Jobs is hailed as a genius but also blamed for perfectionistic production delays and drops in the company’s stock price. His feud is with Microsoft guru Bill Gates emerges from nowhere and then just as quickly disappears. His cruelty to underlings is explained away with the cliche of power changing him. Eventually, he is the victim of a bloody coup (led by J.K. Simmons as board president and Matthew Modine as chief executive officer) but in time he returns, triumphant.

While we see the nuts and bolts of the machinery Jobs creates, we have a harder time understanding what he’s made of as a man. He was adopted, yet he coldly casts aside his own daughter when she’s still in his girlfriend’s womb and later denies paternity and visitation rights. Apparently, he and daughter Lisa have reconciled by the time he’s living a cushy life decades later as a consultant before coming back as Apple’s CEO. How that happened — or who his new beautiful and nameless new wife is, for example — are fundamental pieces that would have helped flesh him out as a human being.

There’s much bandying about of Jobs’ mantra that you need to offer people what they want before they even know they want it. The people behind “Jobs” theoretically knew that people would want an insightful film about an enormously influential figure, but they didn’t deliver it.

Post Date Aug 16 — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Ain't Them Bodies Saints Movie Review“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a devastatingly beautiful film with an absolutely terrible title. It borrows more than a tad from Terrence Malick but also heralds the emergence of a talented filmmaker in David Lowery. My review for

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Post Date Aug 14

Kick-Ass 2

Universal Pictures
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content and brief nudity.
Running time: 103 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

Jim Carrey’s character in “Kick-Ass 2,” an ex-mobster and born-again Christian who’s transformed himself into a vigilante crimefighter named Colonel Stars and Stripes, carries a handgun on his person at all times. He keeps it unloaded, though, because he doesn’t actually want to use it — he just wants the bad guys he confronts to think he’s willing and able to pull the trigger.

This becomes a noteworthy plot point, which is intriguing for a couple of reasons. Since wrapping the film, Carrey famously has distanced himself from the finished product, saying he now feels squeamish about promoting it given the enormous amount of gun violence it contains. But the unloaded gun is also unfortunately a rather apt metaphor for the movie itself. “Kick-Ass 2” may look powerful, but doesn’t have much real pop.

Part of the problem is that the novelty of the original “Kick-Ass” is gone. The idea of a pint-sized, preteen, potty-mouthed assassin was exciting and daringly hilarious when the first film came out in 2010. Now, Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl — and Chloe Grace Moretz, the confident and likable actress who plays her — are a little older and a little wiser, which also makes this sequel a little heavier.

The larger issue is the direction, especially in the action sequences, of which there are many. The “Kick-Ass” world springs from the graphically violent comics by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. While Matthew Vaughn brought the action to life with great style and verve in directing the first film — the whole thing had a thrilling energy about it, really — writer-director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t stage these segments of the sequel with nearly as much fluidity or finesse. Wadlow is entirely too fond of using shaky-cam during fight sequences; rather than upping the tension, this approach creates chaos, and it detracts from the intricacy and complex choreography of these massive showdowns.

“Kick-Ass 2” is actually more compelling in its relatable, real-world moments, as Mindy tries to navigate the many social perils that await any high-school freshman. It’s a precarious time under optimal circumstances, but she must endure the added burden of having recently lost her beloved father/crime-fighting partner, Big Daddy. And while many kids feel like they don’t fit in at this awkward stage, the fact that 15-year-old Mindy is a coolly efficient killing machine really and truly makes her an outcast — but a self-imposed one. And that makes her more interesting. Rather than longing to fit in with the cool girls, she tests the shark-filled waters on her own terms, then exacts her revenge when she gets bitten.

Mindy would much rather carry on the proud legacy she shared with Big Daddy (played by Nicolas Cage in the original) of righting wrongs and keeping the city safe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s back as nerdy high school senior Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, is eager to fight alongside her. (The title is “Kick-Ass 2,” but this really feels like Hit-Girl’s movie; the secretly sexy Taylor-Johnson doesn’t get much to work with in the character-development department.) Dave’s superhero exploits from the first film made him a bit of a celebrity around town, to the point that he’s inspired legions of wannabes to don homemade costumes, assume mysterious identities and troll the streets at night looking for their own asses to kick.

But Mindy’s been ordered to pack away her throwing stars and nunchucks and hang up the sparkly purple get-up for good; her father’s best friend, Marcus (Morris Chestnut), who’s now her guardian, promised to keep her safe, so he forbids her from fighting any more crime. This abstinence from ass-whooping becomes increasingly difficult when Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose father Kick-Ass killed in spectacular fashion in part one, reinvents himself as a supervillain called The Motherfucker to seek revenge. This essentially calls on him to bark out orders in a lisp while dressed in his mother’s domnatrix gear. It’s an amusingly ridiculous image at first, but as the costume becomes more elaborate, it feels like its sole purpose is to shock.

Just as The Motherfucker assembles an army of henchmen (and women) to take out Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass joins a ragtag team of good guys calling themselves Justice Forever. Their leader is the intensely earnest Colonel Stars and Stripes, a camo-clad crusader with a patriotic German shepherd by his side. Carrey is unrecognizable here, even once the mask comes off, with his buzz cut, gold teeth and gravelly New York accent. Millar was right when he said in response to Carrey’s detachment from the film that he’s great in the role; it’s a dialed-down performance but no less insane than his wilder, well-known work.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, with too many characters and subplots to keep track of, that’s probably because it is. “Kick-Ass 2” suffers from a lack of narrative focus as well as inconsistent pacing. It lurches into action frantically, noisily, then screeches to a halt for cliched conversations about finding the inner superhero hiding within all of us.

For a film that seems so subversive on its surface, “Kick-Ass 2” is really rather feel-good after all.

Post Date Aug 10

We’re the Millers

We're the Millers Movie Review

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for crude sexual content, passive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity.
Running time: 110 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Jennifer Aniston is beautiful and stylish and envied with her trend-setting hair and yoga-toned body and the ability to achieve longevity in a fickle industry with her girl-next-door likability. But man, is she terrible at picking movie roles.

For the most part, that is. When she’s dared to go small and dark in indie dramas — as a miserable store clerk in 2002’s “The Good Girl,” or a miserable maid in 2006’s “Friends With Money” — she’s gotten a chance to stretch, and flex, and it’s been exciting to watch. Who knew that was in her all this time when she was playing girlfriends and wives and magical women who make things better for the men in their lives? I actually had to go onto IMDb just now to remind myself what “Love Happens” was. That’s how forgettably bland some of her big-studio choices have been.

All of which makes her performance in “We’re the Millers” so welcome, and so refreshing for its dirtiness. Aniston co-stars as Rose, a stripper (with a heart of gold, of course) who gets roped into helping Jason Sudeikis’ small-time drug dealer transport an enormous supply of pot into the United States from Mexico. She is reluctant to do this at first. She can’t stand Sudeikis’ cocky, quick-talking David, her grungy neighbor in the apartment building where she’s on the verge of being evicted. Naturally, this means they’ll fall for each other. (You’ve seen a movie before, right?)

David lands in deep trouble with the drug kingpin he works for (Ed Helms, looking slick and skinny as he plays against type) when a bunch of street thugs steal his weed and cash. To make it right, he must travel across the border and bring back a “smidge” of marijuana. He comes up with a plan to pretend he’s part of a wholesome American family on vacation, complete with a flashy, tricked-out RV — which comes in handy when he finds out how much pot he’s really picking up. But first, he needs a fake family, so he recruits Rose to play his loving wife along with runaway street urchin Casey (Emma Roberts) and eager-beaver virgin Kenny (Will Poulter) to pose as his clean-cut teenage children.

Will this fake family end up functioning as a real family in time? Of course they will. It’s pure formula — you can tell where “We’re the Millers” is going from the billboards alone. But to its credit, the comedy from director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”), from a script by small army of writers, stays mean and maintains a bit of an edge even when it threatens to go all soft and gooey. Scattered scenes produce laugh-out-loud moments, up to and including the ad-libbed outtakes during the closing credits (which frustratingly suggest an even better movie was possible if the actors had been given even more room to roam).

A scene in which Casey and Rose take turns teaching the innocent Kenny how to kiss is a prime example of the film’s subversive instincts. Actual tension builds, even though the punch line is pretty predictable. Sudeikis and Aniston also have some amusingly awkward exchanges with a legitimately wholesome American family on a road trip with their daughter, played with prim goofiness by Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn. And Mark L. Young proves himself to be a scene-stealer as a gangsta rapper/Kid Rock wannabe named Scottie P. who brazenly hits on Casey and makes the ersatz Miller parents feel very old and stodgy in their disapproval.

Yes, the ethnic stereotypes are cliched and borderline offensive. Yes, the myriad pop culture references are hit and miss, as they are always wont to be. But there are enough laughs throughout to make “We’re the Millers” worthwhile as we enter the dog days of summer.

As for Aniston’s abilities as a stripper — er, exotic dancer: She looks spectacular, but she is incredibly stiff. But that’s part of the joke, and she’s clearly in on it, with no apologies.

Post Date Aug 10 — Off Label

Off Label Movie ReviewMy review of the documentary “Off Label,” an indictment of Big Pharma that tries to encompass so many people and so many angles in such a short amount of time, it ends up breezing through them and providing glimpses that feel rushed and unsatisfying.

Read the review here