Tag Archives: Film Review

Inside-Out (2015)

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Pixar used to be the reliable go-to studio when it came to animation. For ten years they didn’t make a bad film. These days with their last great original film was Up back in 2010, which was followed by three sequels and the dubiously received Brave. With another three sequels scheduled for the years to come, things aren’t looking up. Pete Docter’s Inside-Out, even despite the fabulously uninteresting short that precedes it (Lava), shines out like a beacon in the wasteland of unsuccessful Pixar films. I want to make it clear that I, like everyone else, am human, and as such loved this film and cried from about the point that a certain pink fluffy character leaves the story to the end, however:

Inside-Out sees a union of the new capabilities of photo-realistic CGI with a more retro, colourful style thanks to its dual story structure. The action takes place simultaneously in a realist grey-toned San Francisco where 11-year old Riley suddenly finds herself after a house move and also in her head. Her mind is run by five emotions, personified into glowing fibrous beings. The film is essentially one short narrative about Riley accepting her new home accompanied by an incredibly intricate allegory of the same story. The allegory in fact is so powerful that you come to care about these figments of a fictional character even more than the fictional character herself. The journey of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) through the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind controls the “real-world” action but is more colourful, more poignant and more alive than the San-Francisco streets that Riley so hates.

The emotional punch of Inside-Out comes from its grace and delicacy. From being an over-bearing dictator in the film’s first act, rejecting anything that isn’t happy, Joy slowly learns to understand and appreciate the value of the other emotions, especially Sadness. It’s a sweet way to understand the loss of childish innocence and the emergence of a subtler, wider personality in the young girl. In one of the best scenes Joy reassures herself by playing an old memory of Riley skating and dances along. Quite apart from the beauty of the shot this scene demonstrates a real care and attention to detail as Riley practices genuine Ice-Skating moves in a very realistic way.

Yet there’s something unsettlingly familiar and safe about this fantastical world of the long-term memory. Who can forget the great chase sequence through airport conveyor belts in Toy Story 2, or for that matter the door warehouse in Monsters Inc.? Well, if you liked complex, illogically large, multi-coloured mechanisms you’re in for a treat because that’s exactly what the long-term memory looks like. Furthermore, while Bing-Bong is undoubtedly the unsung star of this film, his story arc of the loveable companion who accepts that he must leave for the heroine’s own good can’t help but remind us of Sulley and Boo and an altogether more creative and original time.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

firefliesI start this with the same proviso as my The Wind Rises review. I, generally speaking do not like Studio Ghibli films. One day when I have seen the last few that have never passed before my eyes I will explain in more detail why. However, for now, I decided to watch Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but rather Isao Takahata which, given how people talk, one would assume is a rare breed – not so, only half of the Studio Ghibli films were ever directed by Miyazaki, yet somehow he gets all the glory and is almost synonymous with the production house name.

Anyway, Grave of the Fireflies certainly has a different flavour to the happy-go-lucky Ghibli films one hears most about. Based on the autobiographical short story from Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans, brother and sister after the bombing of their hometown in the Second World War. It’s not what one expects when you throw an animated film into the DVD player, but then neither is Waltz with Bashir and that’s a fascinating film. In fact, Waltz with Bashir is about the closest I’ve seen to an equivalent film, animation certainly not meant for children and set in a warzone.

Grave of the Fireflies has come under attack precisely for its war-time setting. Many say that it’s an anti-war film, showing the tragedy that young people have to live through as a result of a war they have no part in. Certainly this idea crops up as adults try to force Seita to help the war effort rather than feed and protect his sister, as if the fighting were not only his fault, but his responsibility. Yet more than anything else Grave of the Fireflies seems to entirely ignore the war, letting it just be a backdrop and excuse for the shelter-dwelling existence of these children. The morality of the war, those fighting in it and the concept at large is reduced to a strange juxtaposition that never gets resolved: the war is the source of all their problems and the eventual death of these two children, yet at various intervals the army is portrayed as a glorious institution and Seita is oddly distraught at the defeat of the Japanese army, when that very defeat was his only way out of the wartime famine he’d been living through.

Undeniably there are moments when this film is absolutely beautiful. The first scene where Seita and Setsuko release the fireflies in their home is a wonderful depiction of the innocence of childhood and the joy of small pleasures while living through hell. However, this restrained and elegant mood doesn’t last – the method of animating tears is so jarringly ugly that it breaks you out of the film every time, and these kids do a lot of crying. Yet quite apart from that, the film seems to be created solely to make an audience cry, not necessarily to move them or inspire dialogue about the horrors of war, but just to pull at the heartstrings in a clumsy way. Undoubtedly, you will find yourself crying at the end of it. Undeniably it is very very sad, but this emotion doesn’t come from any great filmmaking prowess. Any film about a five year old dying will make you cry, and most of them don’t need to show you a cutesy montage of said five year old happily enjoying the life she just lost to ram the message home. At best it’s a hamfisted approach to a delicate subject, at worst it’s a manipulative and cynical film that refuses to engage with either the tragedy of war, or the problem of making children believe in the glory of war on any serious level.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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Wes Anderson, it cannot be denied, has his own style. HIs shots are framed with a laser accuracy on an oddly organised and symmetrical world that seems to have fallen through a bath of retro whimsy. This style came to a beautiful fruition in both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Royal Tenenbaums is an earlier film, and one of the films that gained Anderson his religiously obsessive cult following. As the film opens with an unbearably twee chapter heading, as if the fairytale was coming to life before our eyes you understand that you’re in for the same Anderson style that we’re all now used to.

The Royal Tenenbaums are a family where each member is a universe and personality unto themselves, apart from their servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) who is a loosely sketched Indian stereotype, and apart from Richie (Luke Wilson) who is a vague re-imagining of Bjorn Borg. The rest have their own clichés and foibles that constitute the entirety of their personality. This is carried through in everything they do, right down to their unchanging costumes, flagging to the viewer that these are not real people, they’re archetypes from someone’s imagination play-acting at being people. For example, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), is an ex-playwright going through a creative slump. Her role in the film is the disenfranchised outsider since she’s the “adopted child”. She has emblematically been a smoker since age 12 but hid it from her family in order to create distance and mystery. The whole film could be her creation, dispassionate, sarcastic and depressingly hollow.

Fittingly the mother figure, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is an archaeologist. The Royal Tenenbaums is a film entirely about bringing out the skeletons in closets that hang around family homes. This happens when Royal (Gene Hackman), the absentee father who never bothered to get a divorce tries to win back his family’s love – not for any good reason, but out of a misplaced misogynistic and racist outrage that his wife wants to divorce him for her black accountant, who he makes racist quips at throughout the film. His plan to do so is to fake a terminal illness so that he can live rent-free in the family home and mess up his wife’s burgeoning romance.

However, despite all the forcibly injected quirk and orthogonal camera angles it would be naïve to think that this family has anything radically different to deal with than any other, over and above their affectations. If anything, the problems these people deal with are exclusively the result of the pigeon-holes they all put themselves into. Margot is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life and falling in love, away from her family. Richie had a successful tennis career before he confronted his relationship with his sister. Chas (Ben Stiller) is the only character who sees any real emotional growth through the film, neurotic and paranoid after his wife’s death he decides to clear any danger from his childrens’ lives and thus starts to rob them of any childhood. Even here the message is unclear – Royal manages to win back Chas’ affection by lavishing the attention he never gave Chas on Chas’ kids and by buying them a dog.

All this is epitomised in the character of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). He was Richie’s childhood friend and now Margot’s lover, although there’s not really any love shared between them. His contact with the Tenenbaums led him into their messy incestuous world and a drug addiction. When Royal eventually does die of an unrelated cause the whole family, as well as Eli, shows up to his funeral. Even his gravestone is a lie, making him out better than he was. At the end of it all you can only conclude that sometimes people who make each other’s lives significantly worse will somehow end up sticking together anyway. It’s too flippant to be a tragedy but too depressing to be a comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums just leaves a taste of dissatisfaction with life lingering in the mouth.

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic:             3/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

Laurence Anyways (2012)

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Third in the Xavier Dolan series of reviews is Laurence Anyways. This is one of the few films that I’ve reviewed here on this blog that I felt absolutely obligated to watch twice before putting pen to paper, and probably an even rarer example of me changing my mind radically on a second viewing.

I think part of this change is that Laurence Anyways doesn’t make sense on the first viewing. It’s engaging and very beautifully shot but the earliest scenes make very little sense when you don’t know the end. For example, early in the film Laurence finds himself teaching a class on Celine and asking whether artistic talent can overtake the marginalised reputation of the person writing. It’s an interesting question, but not one whose significance is clear when you don’t know that Laurence himself is, as we later discover, a trans woman, and thus a member of these marginalised groups. The only clue the first time viewer has had is the opening shots, which while they clearly show shocked reactions to a woman walking, give no clue as to the fact that this woman is in fact the man that the film cuts to ten years earlier. It feels like Dolan almost wanted to use the backwards film structure of Betrayal and 5×2 but shied away at the last minute. After all, the film does end with the central couple’s first meeting. It could have just as easily started with their parting.

This couple is the heart of the film. Dolan avoids making Laurence’s transition into the main story; it’s not what’s really happening. While, of course, the ten-year span tracks the transition implicitly it’s only because the relationship at the core of the film spans those same ten years. The two lead performances allow this film to thrive, both are sensitive and deep portrayals that take into account the changes that time brings. In places their dynamic becomes very hard to watch since they remain through the whole film two people who love each other but simply cannot be together. Yes, they were crazily in love and a happy couple but they were more crazy than anything else at that time. Both of them fail to communicate what they’re going through, keeping secrets for years or having it all come out in a screaming match.

Suzanne Clément heartbreakingly portrays her character’s struggle, Fredérique never truly accepts Laurence as a woman, still being in love with Laurence the man. She loses it seeing him dressed in womens’ clothes and hearing people refer to him as her girlfriend. At their first breakup even Laurence understands this, and comes in mens’ clothes, planting the seeds of hope that keep the pair of them circling round each other for the years to come. Fredérique lives in the illusion that Laurence’s transition was what kept them apart. In fact it was her caring for him and loving him enough to be on his side during the transition that kept the sinking ship together.

Melvil Poupaud’s portrayal of Laurence is more subtle still. Laurence is not a cliché of a transgender woman. He’s not a flamboyant drag queen about it and even refuses to wear wigs, preferring his awkwardly male hair until he can grow it down. He is contrasted to a group of drag queens and old dames whose expression is all about performance and self-marginalisation while Laurence yearns for a quiet acceptance of his self. Poupaud does a good job of never quite making Laurence seem fully female until the very end, the last moments when Fredérique finally accepts that she’s in love with a man that doesn’t exist anymore, even if this woman bares his face and name. Until that time Laurence lives in the denial that he can get her back despite being a woman, and she fools herself that it’s just dress-up. At this point in the film Xavier Dolan throws clothes from the sky in a music video style interlude – one of many – just to really land the point. It’s stylish, but the film would have been fine without it.

Unfortunately, despite the very interesting story and character relationships, even including the other women in Laurence’s life, his mother, Fredérique’s sister, there is just simply too much of this film. Structurally it doesn’t hold together. Quite apart from the parts that don’t have meaning until you watch it a second time, at which point they do slot beautifully into place, there are sections that just don’t need to be there. The rose club Laurence finds himself with are interesting for a while and create an interesting comparison but they don’t move anything forwards, they’re just dead time. In other places it seems as if Dolan falls back on his editing skills and ability to create effortlessly stylish cult-classic scenes to fill in for a structural default, like the ball that Fredérique finds herself at and the aforementioned falling clothes.

The film is nearly three hours long, and feels it, probably less and less on each subsequent viewing but that’s still a problem. There are parts that could have been cut out, which would probably make more sense of the whole if you didn’t have so much time to forget all of the million scenes that have gone on to try and sort out which ones were relevant or not. We’ve seen what Xavier Dolan can do in 100 minutes in Les amours imaginaires and J’ai tué ma mere. Why did he suddenly need the extra 70?

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Les Belles de Nuit – 1952

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One of the wonderful things about cinema is that despite the relative youth of the medium it came into being at a time that was so democratic and individualist that it seems one can never run out of it. The sheer number of filmmakers existent across the globe at any point in time means that variety really is the spice of life, in terms of style and content, when tracking back through the archives.

Thus is the optimism that René Clair’s 1952 film has left me with. Made just after the second world war, a time when French society was desperately trying to justify itself after the upheaval of it’s war regime les belles de nuit traces French history elegantly backwards. It seems as if Clair is trying to assert his contemporary France by calling up the national memory of bygone eras. We see France in the not-at-all-nostalgically-named Belle Époque, the revolutionary wars, the old monarchy and the time of the musketeers.

But les belles de nuit is not a political film, despite the potential for socio-historical analysis. The heart of the film rests on the performance of a certain foppish and endearing Gérard Philippe, down and out pianist dreaming of love. And this he does, literally. He shuts himself off from his real life in order to chase the fantasy women he sees in his dreams of the past. It’s not that his normal life is unsatisfactory, far from it – his friends worry for him, he has a beautiful girl in love with him and he’s a talented musician. The film explores what happens when someone can’t see the joy in their own life and feels the need to escape. It’s a little like a cross between Midnight in Paris and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The interest from a cinematic point of view comes from a humourous lightness of touch that removes the potential for melodrama but fails to fall into parody or silliness. Yes, the film is funny, the dream sequences complete with moving pantomime theatre sets are indulgent and kitsch – but they’re dreams and the shifting narrative sands and archetypes of dreaming are rendered so well that the humour itself becomes poetic, rather than the film hovering and to-ing and fro-ing between gags and serious moments. Every potential joke that can be made, within the limits of the natural absurdity of life, is made. Even when it’s patently ridiculous and ironic to the extreme the running gags never seem impossible, just unlucky.

Most importantly Les Belles de Nuit is enjoyable. Certainly, it opens doors to speak about artistic inspiration, the significance of dreams, the dangers of naïve nostalgia and the necessity to appreciate what you have while you have it, but when all is said and done you will still be able to put on this film, sit down and pass a good hour and a half laughing and smiling with the characters on screen.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:     3/5

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Ce que je trouve magnifique dans le cinéma c’est que, malgré sa naissance relativement récente, il nous est venu à un moment de l’histoire si démocratique et individualiste qu’il me semble impossible de l’épuiser. C’est-à-dire que la quantité de cinéastes qui auront existé dans tous les coins du monde à n’importe quel moment donné produit une variété de styles et de thématiques vraiment époustouflante, surtout quand on le regarde avec du recul.

C’est à cela que m’a fait penser ce film de René Clair. Réalisé en 1952 juste après la deuxième guerre mondiale, époque troublée de la France après l’Occupation, Les Belles de nuit retraverse l’histoire de la France avec élégance et grâce. Il semble exprimer ce qu’est la France en 1952 à travers une mise en valeur de ce qu’elle était auparavant. Il nous montre la France de la Belle Époque, les guerres en Algérie, l’Ancien Régime et le règne de Louis XIII.

Mais Les Belles de nuit n’est pas à proprement dire un film politique, malgré la forte possibilité d’une analyse socio-historique. Au coeur de ce film se trouve le fin jeu de comédien d’un certain Gérard Philippe, tout charmant en tant que pianiste fauché qui rêve d’amour. Ceci est ce qu’il fait, littéralement. Il rejette sa propre vie pour retrouver les femmes imaginaires dont il rêve chaque nuit dans ses rêves des mondes passés. Ce n’est pas que sa vraie vie est invivable, bien au contraire – ses amis s’occupent de lui, une belle jeune fille est amoureuse de lui et il est lui-même un musicien doué. Ce film examine donc les conséquences quand on n’arrive pas à apprécier sa propre vie et qu’on sent un besoin d’y échapper. C’est un peu à mi-chemin entre It’s a Wonderful Life ­and Midnight in Paris.

D’un point de vue cinématographique l’intérêt vient du style léger et humoristique qui allège le potentiel de mélodrame en même temps qu’il évite de (se) dégénérer en parodie, voire en niaiserie. Oui, certes, le film est drôle, surtout les séquences de rêve où le décor bouge et semble tiré d’une mauvaise pantomime – mais ce sont des rêves et c’est exactement ça qui rend si bien la sensation de flou narratif qu’on sent tous dans les rêves. L’humeur elle-même devient poétique, plutôt qu’un basculement fatiguant entre le sérieux et le drôle tout au long du film. Chaque blague qui peut se faire, en tenant compte de l’absurdité indéniable de la vie, se fait. Même quand la situation devient ridicule et ironique à l’extrême, les blagues ne semblent jamais venir du royaume de l’impossible, juste de la mauvaise chance.

Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Les Belles de Nuit, c’est qu’on s’amuse en le regardant. Oui, on peut y tirer des discours sur l’inspiration poétique, la signification des rêves, les dangers d’une nostalgie naïve et surtout la nécessité d’apprécier la vie pendant qu’on la vit, mais en fin de compte ce sera encore possible de s’asseoir devant ce film et de passer un bon moment avec les personnages qu’il nous présente.

*Note from the blogger – the French translation is not a permanent feature on this blog, however more will be appearing especially for French Cinema on an ongoing basis of when I feel I can adequately express everything said in the English in French* 

 

Whiplash – 2014

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Damien Chavelle’s film boils down to one primary question: what does it take to achieve greatness? Doubtless there’s a price, as even the title suggests. Anyone moving too fast risks injury. We’ve seen a good number of these masochistic high achiever narratives in recent years but unlike Black Swan and The Social Network, for example, Whiplash steers away from the question of whether greatness is worth the price. This is more taken as evident by the two main characters and so imbues the film with a very different energy.

Whiplash is a character study of 19 year old drummer Andrew Reiman (Miles Teller). In his time at the (fictional) Schaffer Conservatory he becomes the protégé of the despotic conductor Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons. Much has been made of Simmons’ performance, which is by all counts extraordinary, his ability to switch between nurturing and terrifying while remaining a coherent and relatable human is astounding. Yet I don’t want to repeat what has been already thoroughly and more aptly lauded. Sadly much of the praise for Simmons seems to downplay Teller’s performance as Reiman, accusing him of being flat, or worse, a “blank slate”. Quite on the contrary, Teller’s performance is subtle and reels in the viewer. In the same way as the opening shot shows us Reiman from afar and the closing shot zooms in on his face we totally enter this character’s universe through the film. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate, making someone shy, difficult and clearly flawed into the hero we all stand behind.

In many ways Whiplash is a purification of the determined genius theme. The small side-plot where Reiman throws away a chance at a relationship is just that, a side-plot: whereas this served as Zuckerberg’s sole character motivation in Fincher’s Social Network. The only obstacle Reiman faces is his own limits and resolve. His power resides in being as self-sacrificing as possible, even seeking comfort in the arms of his father is seen as a lack of motivation and hence a weakness. His bleeding fingers from too much practice are treated as necessary battle scars and a kind of symbolic ascension to the mythical higher plane of “greatness”. Perhaps it’s a sign of residual unacceptance that these same actions, the frantic pursuit of perfection in art through self-destruction, are seen as a tragedy and framed as a slow descent into madness in Black Swan when it’s performed by a woman. Either way Fletcher’s role in the narrative falls in harmony with his role as conductor, in the long run both invisible and instrumental in teasing the potential out of this drummer. Fletcher becomes the despotic father figure finally pulling Reiman out of the nest to fly.

The script is what really shines here; it could almost be a play. It would probably be a very good play. This is not to say that it lacks cinematic elements, more that it goes a little overboard on occasion. Sitting in a cinema with eighty percent of the screen blurred in a soft-focus close up is never a rewarding experience and many scenes are filled with this kind of close-up, quick-cutting that starts to feel like time-filler after a while. The jazz scenes vary between genius and irritating. A choppy cut on every new instrument is not a new or edgy way to film music and it gets to seem a little like a cheap music video from time to time. However the film is so engaging and well structured that you can forgive. The final scene is triumphant, finishing on a drum solo it seems to perfect sum up the film, its main character and its proposed philosophy all at once. It’s not perfect, it may even be self-indulgent, but it’s daring and engaging and demands your attention and forgiveness for its faults because it may just be the closest thing to genius you get to see.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:       5/5

The Lego Movie – 2014

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It’s hard not to feel encroached upon by the endless parade of branding and merchandise surrounding animated films. With Shrek turning out to be the multi-sequelled hydra it set out to mock and the announcement of a Frozen 2 and a Toy Story 4, a film whose name itself is a product would seem to be another manifestation of the problem. But this, thankfully, is not yet the fate of The Lego Movie even nearly a year after its release. But then again this is coming from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel of equal quality so there was little to fear.

There’s something about Lego that has been begging to be made into a film for years. I personally have never come across someone with even the vaguest passing interest in cinema that never made a Lego stop motion. Not all of them matched up to the masterful creations that blow up youtube, but then most of them were made with cameraphones. The Lego Movie didn’t opt for stop motion, although technically speaking it could have been done, if you had more Lego than is possibly imaginable and several lifetimes to go with it. Instead this Lego is CGI, but still for the most part obeying the laws of movement within the Lego universe – ie: the bricks don’t change size. Ever. Everything is built entirely to scale in the computers out of Lego pieces that genuinely exist in the physical world. This makes the whole film seem more tactile, in places the Lego even has fingerprints and scuff-marks as if you’d brought your own plastic bricks to life. When the film does slip in a few moments of stop motion and even live action sequences they are so well matched to the CGI Lego world that it doesn’t even feel like a break. What’s even better is that the real world is slowly woven into the story and the fabric of the animation throughout the film so that when Emmett (our adorable everyman voiced by Chris Pratt) finally makes it into Live-Action-Land it doesn’t feel like a gimmick tacked onto the end of the movie just to show some cool Lego structures that actually got built.

Yet while you’re watching this film you don’t really take notice of the painstaking attention to detail and the incredible technological feat and scale of imagination that went into this film. You are most likely too busy laughing. The jokes come thick and fast and are so dead-pan that many of them can be missed on the first viewing. It’s an ebullient, joyful humour that’s never laughing too much at anyone in particular. There’s a genuine heart to the film that doesn’t fall into cynicism, not even towards Lego Batman, the most reproachable minifigure you’ll ever see. The characters fall somewhere between stereotype and archetype as well as mixing in some well-known faces from popular culture so the experience is more like hanging out with an old group of friends than watching a brand new set of characters. It’s comforting and relaxing without being predictable.

What’s more is that this film belongs to the perpetually diminishing number of films that can genuinely be called “family films” in that every member of a family can enjoy them. It’s a kids’ film, yes. But some of those jokes will be flying over their heads and I doubt they’ll be appreciating the ironic deconstruction of mass-produced uniformity that lingers over the film as an ever-present fate worse than death. At its core it wants to say something about being creative and allowing your imagination to run free. This is, as the film aptly shows, most often something adults need to be told more than kids. The child, every child is the hero here and it appeals to nostalgia and hope for the future at the same time. It’s hard not to be uplifted by this film, even if in a few places the plot almost meanders off and the message feels a little as if it’s being delivered with a hammer it’s well-meaning, it’s fun and it captures some childish joy that everyone wants to hold on to.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            3/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5