Another accomplished director swats at Marvel — Ken Loach

ken-LoachNow it’s Ken Loach, veteran of the British film scene, who burns Marvel Movies a new one.

The director of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Bread and Roses,” “Jimmy’s Hall” and many Celtic-flavored dramas in the UK, has added his complaints to those of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Loach, correctly, I have to say, called the output of the blockbuster building Marvel Studios “commodities, like hamburgers.”

One of the consequences of the rise of comic book blockbusters is the loss of status, vision and control in the title “director.” Hollywood isn’t producing directors with any staying power, treating rising stars as nothing special, ignoring the legends of the profession.

Overseas, and in indie film, directors are still auteurs. Hollywood? Get us The Russo Brothers, or somebody from TV (British TV, preferably, as in the Potter pictures) — somebody CHEAP who can make the trains run on time.

And if you say, “Ken Loach? Who’s he?” That’s on you. Loach, Leigh, Holofcener, legions of directors with style, distinct voices, who insist on making movies ABOUT something, have no place at Marvel, or at Disney — which has become a blockbuster remake or bust studio. Joe Johnston, Ken Brannagh, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon and Patty Jenkins all had “names” before taking on comic book directing duties. But while thus employed, all they could stamp their projects with was a little cute dialogue and a vague notion of a point of view.

Marvel and its ilk are the death of auteurism, and directors who claim that label are rebelling. No matter how old they are.

 

 

 

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Movie Review: Naomie Harris must pick a side in “Black and Blue”

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“Black and Blue” is a lean, simple, pulse-pounding thriller built around an intensely relatable star, a perfectly alarming villain and a story that has the ring of “ripped from today’s headlines” about it.

It’s a genre picture, plain and simple — a clean cop chased by dirty cops through an arresting setting — foggy, rainy and wintry New Orleans. Director Deon Taylor, of “The Intruder” and “Traffik,” working from a Peter A. Dowling script (“Flightplan,” “Reasonable Doubt”), keeps us guessing which of the three or four obvious directions this can play out with will be one the characters choose.

And damned if they don’t manage a surprise or two, almost in spite of themselves.

Naomie Harris, a slip of a thing who is Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s James Bond, plays Alicia West, a Big Easy native who returns from military service to take a job on one of the nation’s more notorious police forces.

Growing up in the 9th Ward, she is idealistic enough to think relating to the few folks she still knows there, making conversation in the best “community policing” fashion, will let her affect change.

A veteran of the force (James Moses Black) sets her straight.
“WE are your people,” he says. She’s no longer black. “You’re blue, now.”

That is put almost instantly to the test when she witnesses the execution of some young drug dealers.

Alicia, a rookie, but a veteran once stationed in Kandahar, has no problem with the new department-issued body cams. That’s what seals her fate. It’s on while Narc Malone (a ferocious Frank Grillo) pulls the trigger. He’s barely attempted to explain “This ISN’T what it looks like,” when a subordinate riddles Alicia with bullets. If not for the bullet proof vest, her wounds would be worse.

Now, she’s on the run, unarmed — she dropped her gun — with a dead cell phone and a vest-attached camera archiving explosive video that exposes a vast, corrupt conspiracy within her precinct. Who can she trust? How can she survive, on foot and bleeding?

How will justice be done?

Early scenes neatly establish her inability to reconnect with “her” people, among them Milo (Tyrese Gibson), the older brother of a friend, and a onetime teen pal (Nafessa Williams) who runs with the wrong crowd, and is all “I don’t KNOW her” now.

It’s no surprise when doors slam in Alicia’s face as she frantically runs from house to house.

“Oh HELL nawwwww”

Early scenes have also established the soul-crushing brutality of police relations with the African American community in the 9th. Routine thumpings under the guise of “stop and frisk,” a real cop as prosecutor/judge and jury complex amongst “Blue,” who are “armed, and with a bullet proof vest” have traumatized much of the populace.

And this woman, this “You one’a THEM” whom bystanders, drug dealers and frantic hunting cops call “Bitch” about 400 times, and in 400 different ways, wants help?

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Gibson does some of his best screen acting by doing less, playing a man beaten down by a life of limited choices, a system and constant violent, humiliating encounters with those who claim “To protect and serve.”

Grillo is emerging as the finest heavy of his generation, a villain with native cunning and a ruthlessness built on a calculus that he lets you see in every raised eyebrow or steely glare.

But Harris is the key here, letting us see how troubled she is about the state of her city and of relations between the “black” and the “blue.” We believe her idealism, her good intentions and her naivete. And we appreciate her wide-eyed panic.

“They’re trying to KILL me, man!”

I don’t want to oversell “Black and Blue.” It doesn’t transcend its genre. But it doesn’t waste our time, modulates its chase with alternating brisk and slow pacing, hand-held camera sprints interrupted by bursts of violence and stops, every so often, at a moral crossroad.

“She’s ain’t one’a us. She picked her side!”

The cleverness of the picture is that we doubt she has, and we’re never confident either “side” will pick her.

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MPAA Rating: R for violence and language

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Frank Grillo, Mike Colter, Nefessa Williams and Reid Scott

Credits: Directed by Deon Taylor, script by Peter A. Dowling. A Screen Gems release.

Running time: 1:48

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Next screening? Bad cops chase a good one in “BLACK AND BLUE”

Love Naomi Harris. Frank Grillo is one of the better heavies making movies today.

Fingers crossed for “Black and Blue” lives matter, which opens Friday.

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Movie Preview — “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the FINAL trailer

What do you think? Does it sell the picture? Promise improvements over the other formulaic and recycled installments in the saga?

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Movie Review: “The Great Alaskan Race”

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The story that inspired the Iditarod dogsled race is one of the great pieces of Alaskan lore, a genuine tear jerker about heroic mushers and dogs dashing through a deathly cold winter to deliver diptheria serum to Nome, which was teetering on the edge of a pandemic.

There was a pretty good kids’ cartoon, “Balto,” named for the lead dog in the last leg of that “Race to Mercy,” and if you ever visit Central Park, you can see a beloved statue to him commemorating that feat, a bronze sculpture rubbed shiny by the thousands of kids’ hands that touch it every year.

“The Great Alaskan Race” reaches for those tears, but may best be appreciated by being the most historically accurate — if fictionalized and not wholly complete — version of this story we’re likely to get.

Actor turned actor, writer and director Brian Presley (“U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage”) stars as the hero of that relay run, Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian immigrant who covered the longest legs of that 674 miles sprint, and the most dangerous — over the frozen surface of the Norton Sound.

Other mushers included the guy who handled the first leg, from Nenana — Wild Bill Shannon (James Russo) and the Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen (Will Wallace).

The pandemic, coming close on the heels of the global plague named the “Spanish Influenza” outbreak, gripped America’s newspapers, and was covered by the first radio station in Alaska.

The town doctor, Curtis Welch (Treat Williams) was the one who diagnosed the illness that was starting to pick off Native Inuit and other locals, some of them children, and who sounded the alarm.

The territorial governor, Scott Bone, portrayed as a drinker who worried about “bad press” by Bruce Davison, gambled on the dogs even as the big local newspaper publisher (Henry Thomas) railed at him in print for not using open cockpit airplanes in the dead of winter to make the run, for using this “Stone Age solution” to a crisis.

The teams would hand off a cylinder of anti-toxin after runs to places like Whiskey Creek, along the Iditarod Trail, a sled dog mail route that passed through a mining town named for what the miners told the pay master about how much ore they’d cleared that day –– “I did a rod.”

Presley’s 85 minute film points out that there had already been a sled dog race, that Seppala and his now-aged lead-dog Togo were undisputed masters of the All Alaska Sweepstakes.

There’s grousing and panic amongst the iced-over townsfolk and mushers — “You know what we don’t need in Hell? A Devil’s Advocate!”

“You know the rule of 40? Never run a dog at 40 above or 40 below?”

The film’s fictional elements add some drama. It has Seppala losing his Native Inuit wife to the Spanish Flu years before. Yes, his daughter Sigrid (Emma Presley) was at risk. No, she wasn’t already sick when he made his desperate dash.

Pressley’s movie cuts between static and dramatically flat — save for a bit of emotion from Williams, playing the doctor — interiors and grim depictions of the deathly cold, ice fog and whiteout blizzard conditions of the trail. It undercuts the film’s tension when the “drama” consists of the governor having another drink, arguments, mild-mannered debates, characters like Nurse Constance (Brea Bee) expressing worry and concern.

The radio narration of the “Serum Run” progress is a tried and true storytelling crutch, but a tired one. In a variety of ways, the storytelling, editing and music fail to deliver the harrowing suspense the story needs to move forward. Perhaps Pressley got TOO caught up in including so many way points, so much back story, so many characters.

And it’s not like he didn’t take liberties and shortcuts with the history presented here.

Neither of the Norwegian mushers are performed with an accent. There’s no hint that they’re immigrants.

But the movie’s great sin of omission is one ordained by history itself. Most of the mushers were Inuit, Athabaskans — natives — postal workers used to covering that trail. Their names didn’t feature in newspaper accounts, nor do they here. The PC Police call that “whitewashing,” and in this case, the label is warranted. Inuit figure in the film story of — as victims. The only acknowledgement of this postal connection is the presence of Post Office Inspector Edward Wetzler (Petrie Willink), who had the governor’s ear during the crisis.

As I noted at the outset, this is probably the most accurate version of this story we’re likely to see told on the big screen. Dramatically, though, it feels like a pulled punch. There’s pathos here, from Presley’s desperate, dog-and-daughter-loving Seppala, from Williams. It’s just not enough.

And if you’re hanging your movie’s rep on its accuracy, maybe listen to a few Norwegians speaking English on Youtube, or watch a few John Qualen performances from the ’40s and ’50s. These characters almost certainly had accebts.

Wiping Native and immigrant heroes out of your movie makes its own statement, and it’s not a flattering one.

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MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, brief bloody images, some language and smoking.

Cast: Brian Presley, Treat Williams, Bruce Davison, Henry Thomas and James Russo

Credits: Written and directed by Brian Presley. A P12 Films release.

Running time: 1:25

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Coppola joins Scorsese, two Italian American movie-making masters who agree, Marvel Movies suck

frank2.jpgScorsese said Marvel  movies weren’t “cinema,” and he wasn’t wrong.

Now Francis Ford Coppola has weighed in with what the tights-wearing “superhero” movies aren’t doing that great movies do.

The “Godfather” of “Godfather” movies calls Marvel movies “despicable.”

Naah. Doesn’t matter what two old, old men, who happen to be the greatest living American filmmakers, say about Marvel or DC or the genre. It’s all about brand, “cool digital fights,” swagger and wisecracks and pandering to the fans, right?

Who cares what the great storytellers have to say about aueteurs like the Russo Brothers?

 

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Netflixable? “Spivak” finds love in a most unorthodox way

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“Spivak” is a hapless indie comedy about the last guy in the world you’d figure would “get the girl.”

Yes, Michael Cera’s in it. No, he’s not the “last guy” this time around.

It’s a “Swingers” that doesn’t swing.

The filmmakers behind “Pumpkin” and “Dead Man on Campus” turn to actor and Tarantino mascot Michael Bacall, whose writing credits (“Scott Pilgrm vs. The World,” “21 Jump Street”) as their anti-hero, the anti-social librarian and would-be writer who is as out of place in L.A. as any shorter, younger version of Steve Buscemi can be.

Wally Spivak lives with roommates, who can’t finish or publish this novel he’s been struggling with for three and a half years, and who crushes on the uninterested Sasha (Chloe Wepper), who has invited him to her “Unlovables” Valentine’s Day Party.

He’s rather go home and sulk. But that means walking past the successful fraud Robby Lebeau (Cera), whose just published memoir, “MacArthur Park’d” is about his days of addiction and sexual hustling at the famous nearby park.

“See the article about me in ‘The Paris Review?’ Just gotta get published, Wally.”

Pals Jesse and Kevin (Mark Webber, Elden Henson) drag him out on Valentine’s Day, figuring they’ll hook up with “desperate” women. That doesn’t exactly work out. Wally just snoozes, which is howw they drag him to Vegas in the wee hours to this place they’ve heard is a “sure thing.”

In the cavernous, empty and cover-charged Elysium, they nurse their drinks as Wally, against all odds, is approached and invited to her room by the first gorgeous woman (Maggie Lawson of TV’s “Psych”). No, she’s not a hooker, his first thought (and ours).

It turns Jeanine is a fellow Angelino about to get married. And she and her intended use Vegas as their “one last night of sex with somebody else” adventure.

Running into her and Chuck (Brit Robert Kazinsky of “True Blood”) repeatedly is too awkward. So the couple decides to make a project of Wally. They’ll fix him up. You know, with an L.A. Laker Girl (Ahna O’Reilly of TV’s “Kingdom”). They’ll golf together, weekend at Catalina.

Chuck, a golf pro, wants to read Wally’s book.

And all this changes Wally’s not, if not Wally.

The thesis here, passed on to Wally by his concerned pals, is that “great writers live interesting lives.” He’s got to get out and live to do that. Even Robby Lebeau managed that, after a fashion.

But you can take the lump out of the library and not the library out of the lump. Wally pouts, broods and cannot manage the socializing. Little moments here and there, but not enough to keep the interest of a Laker Girl.

And that’s true of the movie, too. Wally is too unlikable, and even pity for him feels misplaced.

The awkward moments outnumber the actually amusing ones, and neither is much evident in this script. I didn’t quote any funny lines, because truthfully, there aren’t any that stood out.

Bacall? He’s still better as a bit player, even in a movie built around him.

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA

Cast:  Michael Bacall, Maggie Lawson, Robert Kazinsky, Elden Henson, Mark Webber, Ahna O’Reilly and Michael Cera

Credits: Written and directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:31

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Netflixable? A troubled boy of “Seventeen (Diecisiete)” finds his purpose in a dog in this Spanish dramedy

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Héctor, who is “Seventeen,” is the troubled loner everybody in his Spanish reform school picks on. The kids — all reprobates, like him — ridicule the way he took the judge’s edict that he use his two years confined there studying the Spanish criminal code, “to learn the difference between right and wrong,” she says (in Spanish, with English subtitles).

The kids call him “Abogado” (lawyer) and steal his criminal code book from him.

But the fuming, on-the-spectrum Héctor will fix them, we assume. We see him scheming and working in wood shop. He’s machined and carved a stake! When he finishes it, he scrawls a number on it.

He cadges some masking tape and lashes the reformatory-issued slippers he wears to his feet.

First chance he gets, he bolts across the soccer field, scrambles up over the high fencing, just outrunning the guards, and sprints down a path…past other stakes.

When he’s caught, even though he’s very, very fast, he sticks that stake in the ground to mark how far he got on attempt number 20.

“Seventeen” lives on such moments, a little “Cool Hand Luke” there, a hint of every feuding siblings on a quest comedy here, with just enough of Héctor’s (Biel Montoro) ingenuity in all things petty criminal (we’ve seen him steal a motorcycle and break into a mall as it closes in the opening) for his brother Ismael (Nacho Sánchez of Netflix’s “The Ministry of Time” series) to ask him the question we all are by the film’s midway mark.

“Now what, MacGuyver?”

Daniel Sánchez Arévalo — he did “Gordos, (Fat People)” — tells us a story of brothers, a dying grandmother, a missing dog and a cownapped cow in this smart and amusing, if slow-moving, dramedy.

The dog in question is the first sign the audience, and Héctor’s in-school counselor (Itsaso Arana) have that there’s humanity in him. He seems to take no pleasure in his shoplifting, mall-crashing and motor-scooter theft. He wears one expression all the time –sullen. He blames brother Ismael for his incarceration.

An abused therapy-mutt he is assigned lets us see him care about someone or something else. He names the fuzzball “Sheep,” trains him and gives him love, which we were beginning to wonder if he was even capable of.

Then the dog is adopted out. And this time, Héctor’s stake stays in his pocket. He makes his get-away.

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He finds his brother living in an RV. “Marta” kicked him out. Ismael knows the kid only has two months left in his sentence. Héctor’s two days shy of his 18th birthday. Any crimes he commits while they look for the people who adopted this dog will get him put in prison, after two days.

Oh, and there’s their abuela (grandma). She (Lola Cordón) is dying, and before they can find the mutt, they must check granny out of the home so they can grant her dying wish — to be buried next to her late husband in the village of their youth.

So we’ve got a kid on the lam, a heart-broken older brother who raised him and wants to give up on him the way Marta gave up on him and a very old woman whose oxygen intake is falling by the hour.

“Dark comedy” is “comedia oscura” in Spanish, fyi.

But “Seventeen” reaches for more than that. It lets us see how this dog is just outside proof of the feelings he’s capable of, an extension of how he’s doted on his grandmother. The hunt of the adopted dog underlines that. He won’t leave a dog they find in a junkyard, refusing to leave the loyal but now sickly animal in the minivan he was in when his master died in a car crash.

I can’t say “Seventeen” sprints by, but its many grace notes make up for the slack pace.

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA (criminal behavior, alcohol)

Cast: Biel Montoro, Nacho Sánchez, Itsaso Arana, Chani Martín and Lola Cordón.

Credits: Directed by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, script by Araceli Sánchez and Daniel Sánchez Arévalo. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:39

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BOX OFFICE: “Malecifent 2” conjures up $36 million, “Zombieland 2” clears $26

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Projections had “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” clearing $42 on its opening weekend.

A Disney original, or at least sequel to an original, it had branding and all sorts of things going for it. Too violent, mediocre cut-and-paste fantasy script, a cast relying on Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning to put butts in the seats turned out to be an overreach.

It did $36 million, not bad, but as it will be chased out of the top spot momentarily, not great.

Disney has limited its release slate so that proven properties such as remakes of animated classics and “Maleficent” sequels are all it is releasing. This is their weakest opening this year. Not a sign of things to come. Or is it?

“Zomebieland: Double Tap” is ten years removed from the film that spawned it. That distance showed in the cast, the cast’s general weak enthusiasm, and an audience that will wait for it on video, for the most part. It did $26.7 million, per Variety.

“Joker” cleared $30 million for second place, and will be back in first by Tuesday, I figure.

“Hustlers” cleared the $100 million mark.

“Downton Abbey” is a Focus Features-record-setting $88 million and counting. $100 million for that one? Maybe.

“Judy” crawled back into the Top Ten, improving Renee Zellweger’s Oscar nomination chances.

“JoJo Rabbit” and “The Lighthouse” managed $65-70,000 per screen in New York and LA, in limited release.

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Documentary Review: Springsteen imagines himself one of those “Western Stars”

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  For his 19th album, “Western Stars,” Hall of Fame rocker Bruce Springsteen turned his working class Americana short-stories-as-songs Southwestern in setting, and made his accompaniment orchestral.
  And since he wasn’t going to tour to support it, he set out to make a “command performance” documentary, playing with a 30 piece orchestra — lots of strings — with a studio band that included accordion, pedal steel and banjo, Country and Western music staples.
  It’s just him — in extreme, handsome close-ups — and assorted Gibson acoustic guitars, wife Patti Scialfa on guitar and backing vocals, four other backup singers and the rest of the orchestra, a large film crew and a few select guests playing in a gorgeous, bowed-roof 19th century barn on his New Jersey estate.
  The songs hit on familiar themes as he takes on the guise of a hitch hiker, a crane operator, a songwriter aspiring to Nashville glory, and not getting anywhere, an itinerant cowboy “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” a faded “Western Star” and a veteran stunt man.
  He sings about waiting for his baby to get there on the “Tuscon Train,” he croons an ode to “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” and the “Moonlight Motel,” and takes stock of his career “Somewhere North of Nashville.”
  And in between the songs, there’s a lot of somewhat labored narration, a quasi-poetic form of “liner notes” where he explains the dichotomy, the conflict of wanting to be that classic American loner vs. the need for community. He’s telling us how to receive the songs, adding a little biography about his life, his personal failings and struggles.
  He co-directed the film, so he covers those words with endless shots of him driving   the same sandy road in his ’70s El Camino, drinks pouring in either a soundstage recreation of a bar, or the deadest, quietest honky tonk in existence, of him taking off and putting on a cowboy hat, close-ups of his cowboy boots, and of hi –, a lonesome sort, leading a horse through Joshua Tree National Monument. No, he doesn’t ride it.
  Sound kind of boring? It is.
  The concert is studio recording pristine, with nary a flash of the passion, abandon and free-wheeling his epic concerts are famous for. When he sings about “stones in my mouth,” in “Stones,” that’s pretty much what he’s giving us — a straight-faced.stone-faced performance devoid of expression or spontaneity.
  “Lifeless” is the right word for it.
  There isn’t enough audience to warrant stage banter, which is why there’s rarely so much as applause between numbers. These are sessions, live on tape, repeated in performance until they’re damned near perfect. And damned near lifeless.

The faithful are going to want to see it, no matter what, as there is no tour for the album. The songs are perfectly serviceable, painting pictures of a stuntman (“Drive Fast”) with “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone, A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.”

He’s paying tribute to the great Country songwriter Jimmy Webb, he says, the fellow who wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” But the “concert” portion of “Western Stars” underlines its essential shortcoming with its encore, a spirited take on Larry Weiss’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a huge hit for Glen Campbell.

Whatever “Americana” short stories Springtsteen was reaching for, nothing he serves up here is remotely as memorable or as interesting. A musical quotation from Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” here, a Jimmy Webb’s Arizona there.  The generic images of these short stories can’t help but remind one of all the storytelling singer-songwriters who cover the same ground, Willie Nelson among them.

As a film, I am stuck comparing it to Neil Young’s recent, rushed and self-directed recording-process documentary “Mountaintop,” a singer-songwriter not attempting the ambitious re-invention Springsteen is here, but playing and writing with passion and political purpose. Springsteen seems exhausted by comparison, although neither film has all that much to recommend it, cinematically.

  A not-terribly-satisfying recent Asbury Park music history doc gave us more Springsteen biography without his laconic narration.

Then there was Steven Tyler’s vanity project trip to Nashville, “Out on a Limb,” which was, at least, amusing in addition to misguided.

“Western Stars,” earning limited release Oct. 25, isn’t misguided. It’s just dull and self-serious. But if you’re Bruce Springsteen, nobody around you’s going to point that out.

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MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements, alcohol and smoking images, and brief language

Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Patty Scialfa

Credits: Directed by Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny, narration by Bruce Springsteen. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:24

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