Movie Review: Oscar nominated “Redemption” captures the despair, hope and social usefulness of “canning”


They’ve been a familiar sight on the streets of New York, increasingly familiar in hard times, rarer when restaurants, factories and other employers are hiring.

“Canners” collect cans and bottles for New York State’s five cent redemption fee, piecing together enough money for a meal, a cup of coffee, a cheap bottle of vodka or the simple necessities of life by pushing carts, toting bags and riding bikes to places that will pay to redeem their day’s haul.

They are the stuff of myth and legend, subject of movies, TV news profiles (“She paid for college by collecting cans!”). Myth? Because nobody’s getting rich or going to college with scores of people scouring the city competing for the millions of cans and bottles tossed out each day.

The Oscar-nominated documentary short “Redemption” (now on HBO, Netflix and elsewhere) humanizes these people and personalizes this agonizing, aggravating, soul-crushing work. Veteran documentary makers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (“China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province“) take a “Dazed and Confused” trek through the boroughs, letting the folks doing this tell their own stories.

They can be affable, like Walter, an unemployed cook rendered unemployable, we’d guess, by a drinking problem. The Jamaican Jamie listens (conveniently) to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” while he bikes his haul to a center, glad to meet a Guatemalan who, like him, can’t find another factory job after losing his last one.

“It bothers some people to see going through their garbage.”

There’s the territorial Anne, a “real” New Yorker (lots of attitude), an IBM retiree willing to fight the pushy, cursing Chinese immigrants who lost their sweatshop jobs and try to chase her off this or that dumpster.

The stories are, to a one, touching in their humanity. Nuve, a single-mom in Queens, straining to keep her kids clothed and fed and in school, working a day job and rummaging for redemption money on the side.

“It isn’t much, but it’s honorable work,” she says between the tears.

“Redemption” is a little slice of the New York immigrant experience for those who have few skills, poor English and whose luck runs out.


It’s also an argument for a return of bottle and can redemption programs in other states, which abandoned them when cola companies switched from glass bottles to aluminum cans. All over the South, for instance, streets and roadsides and parks are littered with recyclable bottles and cans. In Florida, where I live, there are plenty of back roads in which you can walk for long stretches, along the shoulder, and never set foot on the ground. There are that many cans and bottles tossed out car windows, dumped by long haul truckers at the end of a trip. Piles and piles of them.

And the problem worsens because there is no incentive other than good citizenship to clean up after oneself. Generations in Virginia, N.C., S.C., Fla. and elsewhere have been raised to just toss this stuff, and that has morphed into “toss it wherever.” Sure, recycling plastic bottles saves the ocean and returns an oil-based product to the economy. Recycle 14 cans and you’ve kept ten pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere.

But aluminum, on its own, is worth about a penny per can. Even a modest .5 redemption is enough incentive — not to get slobs to change their habits — to make the effort to collect them. That’s five times as much, per item. A truly progressive state would make it .10 per bottle or can, and get the whole works cleaned up.

Think of it as a work program for the homeless, a bare-bones safety net for the out of luck or unemployable. “Redemption” reminds us that these are real people, struggling, and that every thing else in life is working against them. Make the math, at least, work in their favor and the streets and parks will be cleaner, as well as the air.


MPAA Rating: unrated, with some profanity

Cast: Walter, Jamie, Nuve, Anna, many others
Credits: Directed by Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill An HBO release.

Running time: :35

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Box Office: “Don’t Breathe” chases a weak summer off the screen as its last winner

boxThat bust of a summer comic book blockbuster “Suicide Squad” clung to the top spot at the box office like grim death for much of August. Bad reviews, plummeting ticket sales notwithstanding, there was nothing that could knock it off.

Until the summer’s second horror hit, “Don’t Breathe” came a knocking.

The Screen Gems sleeper opened to $22 million, very good for a non-franchise film, a record for Sony’s bargain-bin division studio, too. Good reviews helped, but the horror audience usually shows up — and usually in slightly smaller numbers.

“Suicide Squad” will manage about half that this weekend, which will take it to $282 million at the domestic box office. That and the foreign take don’t make this an epic bomb (See “The B.F.G.” for that), but considering how much it cost, breaking even seems like a challenge only creative accounting can solve.

Jason Statham’s return to Bronson Country, a widely-released but little seen “Mechanic” sequel, will open to about $7 million. Weak.

The other wide openings, “Hands of Stone,” a boxing bio-pic about Roberto Duran, and “Southside With You,” a first-date romance about Michelle and Barack Obama, didn’t crack the top ten and were only on 800 or so screens. They could have, but neither was going to blow up the box office.

“Ben-Hur” is fading fast.

“Bad Moms” knew its audience and marketed itself accordingly. It will clear the $100 million mark by Labor Day, probably before next Friday.

“Sausage Party” will be within reach of $90 million — and clear it — by next weekend.

“Pete’s Dragon” won’t come close to that, all-in. Nor will the charming “Kubo and the Two Strings.” 



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Movie Review: Netflix’s “The Fundamentals of Caring” has tone problems

“The Fundamentals of Caring” is a PG or PG-13 dramedy straining to earn an R. Lightweight, with heavy underpinnings, it wins a laugh here and there and occasionally rises to “cute.”

But if you want an example of a script whose author doesn’t know tone, how to match the subject to the characters and make the story connect to its audience, this is it.

Writer-director Rob Burnett, freed from his “Late Show with David Letterman” duties, underscores every F-bomb in the screenplay. He litters the screen with tone-deaf profanities even as he reaches for the heartstrings or tries to wring maximum laughs from a featherweight road comedy about a heavy-hearted caregiver trying to brighten the statistically-short life of a teen with muscular dystrophy in his care.

Yes, it’s “Me Before You” without the overwhelming wealth, the cynicism or the silly love story.

Paul Rudd is Ben, a sad-faced novelist who has “retired” from that and taken up the one thing he figures he can still do for a living — caregiving. He’s had the six week course, and learned, as the film’s title suggests, “the fundamentals.”

Remember “ALOHA,” his instructor lectures. “Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, Ask Again.” He’s memorized the “commandments” of this important, overlooked livelihood, or at least, he should have.

“I cannot  take care of another until I first take care of myself.”

His first-ever suburban Washington state job is given, reluctantly, by a warm but demanding British expat (the wonderful Jennifer Ehle). He must care for this single mom’s teen son, Trevor, who has muscular dystrophy and “realistically,” 7-10 years of life left. “So let’s try to do everything right.”

The patient, as such movies/novels demand, is a jerk. He insults, swears for shock value and fakes seizures just to rattle the new guy. He’s rigid about his routine, but he lets down his guard. There’s this map he’s marked up, every odd roadside attraction within reach, all pointing to “the World’s Deepest Pit” mine, a vast quarry that becomes their quarry when Ben, inevitably, suggests they go there.

Baby-faced Selena Gomez puffs on teen-friendly cigarettes and throws a little bluntness and flirtation Trevor’s way as a hitchhiker they pick up. Straining to ensure a more grownup film career after her child stardom, she relishes every profanity Burnett gives her. They’re like two TV-made conspirators who decided swearing is the difference between television and indie film.

No, it’s the diff between broadcast TV and premium cable TV — lame premium cable.

The backstories here have no real surprises — Ben is fleeing from a divorce papers process server and a tragedy in his past, Trevor has another important stop to make on the road and Dot (Gomez) is thumbing to Denver to get away from…something.

Rudd could play this guy’s light side and sad baggage in his sleep. And Roberts (“Submarine”, “22 Jump Street”) is adequate, if not memorable as this cardboard cutout of “handicapped.”

A couple of laughs are all we get, a touching twinge here and there. You can’t help but wonder if there was more in this material that Burnett lost track of. Like a lazy stand-up comic, he relies on F-bombs for laughs, without realizing how quickly they lose their comic effect with overuse.



MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity, sexual and scatological humor

Cast: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Bobby Cannavale
Credits: Written and directed by Rob Burnett, based on a Jonathan Levison novel. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:49

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Best Movies of the Summer? 2016 produced some winners

This wasn’t a cinematic summer for the record books, or the memory banks.

Desultory sequels (“Bourne”, “Independence Day”), raunchy comedies that didn’t quite get there (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”) and their ilk dominated the season, in terms of conversation.

I preferred “Swiss Army Man” to “The Lobster,” “Maggie’s Plan” to “Cafe Society,” “Our Kind of Traitor” to “Jason Bourne.”

But a summer that produced a trio of not-half-bad horror hits (“The Shallows,””Lights Out” and “Don’t Breathe”) even as it earned billions off inadequate comic book movies, from “Captain America” to “Suicide Squad” and shruggable cartoons (“Finding Dory,” “Secret Life of Pets”) isn’t a total write-off.

So let’s remember the memorable and see what most of us missed.

“In Order of Disappearance” is a stellar Stellan Skarsgard vehicle, and that vehicle is a Norwegian snowplow. He plays a rural plow operator whose son is murdered, by mistake, by Norske mobsters. And he sets out (on his plow, sometimes) to get to the bottom of things and make them pay. The cops are clueless, the bad guys very slow to catch on to this existential threat in a snowsuit. Dark and bleakly funny, the best thriller of the summer.

hell1“Hell or High Water” is a terrific heist picture that almost takes the bad taste of this summer’s cinema out of your mouth, all by itself. Forget that Chris Pine was in the forgettable “Star Trek Beyond,” and that Ben Foster was wasted in the godawful “Warcraft.” They’re superb as bank-robbing brothers hounded by aged Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges. A sly commentary on the politics of despair and West Texas working class poverty.

“Anthropoid” didn’t earn the reviews it might have. A World War II story of fatalistic and in-over-their-heads Czech patriots planning to kill the Nazi overlord of their occupied country, its matter-of-fact screw-ups and mistake-prone heroes (Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan) make it almost documentary real. The little melodrama in it comes from real life, real history. Tense and terrific.

“Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World” is Werner Herzog’s documentary amble into Internet history and the world it has made for us. The cinema’s great German philosopher finds loneliness, disconnection and despair, but hope and human progress in our newly-wired state. Weirdly wonderful, as most of his documentaries are.

 “Kubo and the Two Strings” isn’t Animated Cinema’s Second Coming. It’s a stop-motion animated folk tale by Laika, the little studio that turned out “Coraline,” and it’s funny and action-packed and terribly touching. Did I mention beautiful? Gorgeous hand-made sets, computer-assisted puppet animation, a real wonder to behold. Pity people wasted so much money on “Pets” and “Dory.” This is better.

“The Phenom” is a somber, low-key baseball drama that frankly, has more to offer than this already forgotten baseball season. Ethan Hawke is the wayward dad, father to the titular “Phenom” (Johnny Simmons) and a one-time phenom himself. Paul Giamatti’s the shrink trying to cure the kid’s mental hangups and bad daddy issues. Surprisingly affecting, well-played and subtle.

“Maggie’s Plan” tames Greta Gerwig — a little — and offers showcases for Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore in an ever-so-sophisticated love triangle set in New York academia. Winsome and winning, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. A Woody Allen comedy that has nothing to do with Woody, or the wooden Woody movies of today.

“Frank Zappa: Eat That Question” is a most revealing documentary that remembers the brilliant, biting and embittered musician who taught us not to “eat that yellow snow.” In vintage interviews dating back to Zappa’s precocious, attention-seeking youth, we get a feel for the misanthropic genius and his slow-to-sink-in music.

flor“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not just Meryl Streep’s latest tour de force Oscar bait. It’s a startlingly sweet remembrance of a woman with no talent, but with the money to pursue her dream of a life in song. Hugh Grant is the common law husband who feeds her delusions, Simon Helberg the piano accompanist who marches from incredulous to sympathetic as he keeps her in time (if not on pitch) and Christian McKay the New York columnist out to set Florence straight about her “talent.”

“Sausage Party” is a sly pitch for reason and atheism over superstition and irrationality masquerading as a dirty cartoon about filthy, sex-obsessed and pot loving weiners and the “buns” they’d love to score with. Easily the most surprising hit of the summer, a snarky sleeper with more laughs than the last three Seth Rogen movies put together.

Summer is over, in any event. The surest sign of that is the August release slate — more adult oriented comedies and dramas (“Florence,””Hell or High Water,” “In Order of Disappearance”) pouring out, all in anticipation of “Awards’ Season,” which gets underway in earnest in September.

Will any of these films be remembered when we start handing out the trophies? “Kubo,” certainly, “Florence” maybe, “Lo and Behold,” probably.




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Weekend Movies: Great reviews for “Southside with You,” “Don’t Breathe,” mixed ones for “Hands of Stone”

The Obamas’ First Date, aka “Southside With You,” is earning the best reviews of this, the final weekend in August. A sweet, smart and talky long afternoon turning to dreamy Chicago night, it’s a first-date romance the way Hollywood used to make them. Only cleverer, deeper, more political.

Either all movie critics are Obama liberals or this is a pretty good movie, now in limited release. I figure both are the case. 

Equally lauded and limited is the fiercely funny Norwegian “comedy” “In Order of Disappearance,” a bleak and bloody and yet amusing tale of a snowplow operator Dad’s revenge as he seeks those who murdered his son. Stellan Skarsgard is way cool — no other phrase for it — as the dad.

order2 “Don’t Breathe” is the second solid and scary horror hit of the summer, a surprisingly effective chiller about robbers breaking in a blind man’s house, only to have the tables turn on them in the deadliest ways. Good to see Stephen Lang score a hit. Terrific reviews across the board, for this one.

Will Latin America and Latino Norte America turn out for “Hands of Stone,” a somewhat sanitized officially sanctioned bio-pic of the fighter Roberto Duran? It’s a decent enough genre picture, at least as good as the over-rated “Creed.” Edgar Ramirez is terrific in the title role, Usher Raymond good as Sugar Ray Leonard and Robert DeNiro holds it all together as the trainer who handled the Yanqui-hating Duran and gave him his best years. Mixed reviews for this one. 

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Movie Preview: “Rings” brings a horror franchise back from the dead


It’s still about a video, a girl in a well, and J-horror hairstyles. And people dying after watching that video and allowing that hairstyle in the door. Through their TV. Thought they might update “The Ring” to something more Pokemon Go in terms of technology. Spooky, looks a lot less Japanese, less exotic and less novel. “Rings” inspired by “The Ring” opens in October.

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Movie Review: Audiences take “Don’t Breathe” order seriously


They give away the whole movie in the trailers.

Predatory, and quite pretty, teens try to rob a blind old hermit living a desolate corner of Detroit. He turns the tables on them, turns the lights out and they find his awful “secret.”

But damned if “Don’t Breathe” doesn’t work. If you’ve despaired of ever going to a movie again without having to listen to inane chatter amidst the scattered cell-phone screens lit up with texting addicts, this is the horror movie for you.

What happens on the screen spreads to the audience. The silence, like the fear, is contagious.

Jane Levy (“Evil Dead”), Dylan Minette (“Scandal”) and Daniel Zovatto (“It Follows”) are dead-enders looking for a way out of Detroit’s urban wasteland. They burgle houses like seasoned crooks, because Alex (Minette) is the son of a guy who works at one of those home security firms. They know the pass codes of most every house they hit.

Alex crushes on Rocky (Levy), whose miserable home life and endangered little sister are reason enough to want to flee to California. But she’s hooked up with a real hoodlum, Money (Zovatto).

Money has the underworld connections, the corn rows and the rusted Camaro necessary to do the deeds. And he’s ruthless, trashing the houses of the better off, urinating on pricey carpets, the works. Alex is careful, knowing the difference between larceny and grand larceny. Keep the amounts stolen low. Money isn’t.

Their “one last score” is a blind veteran living in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood, a guy who collected a big cash settlement for an accident years before. They’ll drug his rottweiler, gas his bedroom, find his stash and split for California.

But things don’t go according to plan. They never do.


Director Fede Alvarez helmed the recent remake of “Evil Dead,” and he and his co-writer (Rodo Sayagues) aren’t above dropping cheap jolts at us, every few minutes, like clockwork. They’re heavy on the foreshadowing, as Alvarez’s camera tracks past big, forbidding padlocks, menacing tools and the pistol he keeps lashed under the blind man’s bed.

What they get absolutely right is the silence, the quavering fear of the three as they try to let this burly, blind and armed ex-soldier (Stephen Lang of “Gettysburg”) lurch past them in a big, rambling house he knows by heart.

And there’s the darkness — scenes shot in the grays of night-vision goggles, as our wide-eyed young actors flee from the “monster” they’ve intruded on and who is now hunting them down in a house he knows, and they do not.

Job One for any competent horror director is getting the right terrified reactions from his or her cast, and Alvarez manages that, and how. The saucer-eyed Levy does that, covering her own mouth at the horrors she sees, the horrors she fears and the horrors she realizes she’s bringing down upon them all.

I could have done without a talky, explain everybody’s motivations third act. But there’s no getting around the crowd-pleasing nature of the bloody, vengeful and self-righteous wrath that rains down upon one and all in the finale.

The only times you’ll breathe in “Don’t Breathe” is when you can’t fight the urge to shout instructions to the embattled characters on the screen.


MPAA Rating: R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references

Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minette, Daniel Zovatto
Credits: Directed by Fede Alvarez, script by Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues. A Screen Gems release.

Running time: 1:28

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Movie Preview: “La La Land” looks loverly

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in an LA romance from the folks who made “Whiplash, a movie utterly unlike “Whiplash.” Sumptuous.

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Movie Review: Anna Gunn hides her cards well in “Equity”


Every shaker and mover in the world of Wall Street captured in “Equity” is wary, guarded, downright paranoid you might say.

Each and every character has reason to be. Backs will be stabbed, and each knows this because in this world, you’re either stabbing or getting stabbed. There’s no in between.

The principals are all women throwing elbows in what we used to call “a man’s world,” struggling to survive, to endure the sexism and hostility, the different standards they’re being held to.

They’re learning that “It is OK to do it for ourselves,” says investment banker Naomi Bishop, played with a poker-faced fury by Anna Gunn of TV’s “Breaking Bad.” Naomi is a fortysomething IPO (Initial Public Offering) specialist having a rough patch. Her Jenga-playing boss is telling her “It’s not your year,” and she’s frantically treading water, hoping this next deal will allow her to prove him wrong.


Naomi is single, having a romance with a colleague from the company’s hedge fund division (James Purefoy) and holding back her up-and-coming associate, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who figures she’s overdue for a raise.

Erin has her own paranoia. In this ruthless business, she lives in mortal fear of a baby bump. With all the “meet for drinks” wheeling and dealing here, she knows somebody will find her out.

Then there’s Naomi’s old classmate, now a prosecutor with the SEC. Sam (Alysia Reiner) is hunting the folks looking for “an edge” in every IPO, that inside information that will allow them to manipulate a stock price and make a killing doing it.

The telling scene comes early — an alumni gathering where Naomi speaks to young women about to enter business and confesses “I like money…I like knowing that I have it.” She is happy — OK, happy-ish — that the day has arrived when women can allow themselves to be just as ambitious, just as greedy, just as cutthroat as their male counterparts.

But while Naomi may rebuff Erin’s salary demands and be quick to blame her if things go wrong, when the boss (Lee Tergesen) wants to know who she can let go in the latest round of layoffs, it is men who work for her she is ready to throw under the bus. Childless and single, she figures out Erin’s baby secret, but keeps it to herself.

The script, from a story by actresses Thomas and Reiner, is fiercely feminine and adept at juggling conflicting agendas and “needs.” It’s informative in showing the way one woman’s “edge” is, from the Security and Exchange Commission’s point of view, another’s lapse in compliance.

These are women willing to use their wiles, when all else fails. They’re smart and self-interested, and occasionally cunning. But this isn’t a soap opera, none of the cliched crying binges or catfights materialize, and the only melodramatic splashes come in an uptempo third act.

The cattiness comes from the other sex. The men are, almost to a one, scoundrels, save for the aged mentors on each side.

“Equity” coasts for too long on petty indignities Naomi must soldier through, and minor intrigues involving a new “invulnerable” social network, its youngish/sexist founder (Samuel Roukin) who seems underwhelmed at having to depend on a woman to take his company public.

But those third act fireworks pay off. And Gunn presents a clinic in close-to-the-vest card playing, a banker in a panic whose greatest fear is that she will let others see that fear and use it against her.


MPAA Rating: R for language throughout

Cast: Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan ThomasAlysia Reiner
Credits: Directed by Meera Menon, script by Amy Fox. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: Brosnan plays a tycoon whose “I.T.” troubles are just beginning


Pierce Brosnan has wizened from the days when he sipped martinis, “shaken, not stirred,” into roles as assorted well-heeled men who sip Scotch in their designer homes. Or private jets.

It’s not that he’s out of the action hero game. Films such as “The November Man,” “No Escape” and “Survivor” still pose him with a pistol on the poster as assorted agents, ex-agents, hit-men, etc. But even if he still has that Bondian hint of danger about him, at 63, he’s more suited to characters trying to hang on to what they’ve got than hungry hunters settling grudges, carrying out final hits and the like.

In “I.T.,” he plays a private aviation tycoon whose only means of saving his company is a new app that enables private jet owners to hire out and make more efficient use of their aircraft.

Mike Regan, assorted news stories on CNN and NPR tell us, is 52. And if Ireland (where they shot this) can pass for suburban Washington, D.C., why not? No need to trust every crusty close-up, which gives up his actual mileage.

Regan is something of a technophobe. He needs his wife’s (Anna Friel) help to operate the coffee maker. And he needs his IT team to make the app work and ensure that his Power Point presentation to his worried employees goes smoothly.

It doesn’t, but an IT temp on staff (James Frecheville of “The Drop” and “Animal Kingdom”) saves the day. That prompts Mike to invite the guy to fix the wi-fi in his new “smart” house. They discuss the house’s complicated electronics, so many devices interconnected, so many with cameras built into them. They’re turned off.

“I like my privacy,” Mike purrs, over his latest Scotch.

“Privacy’s dead, Mike,” Ed, the IT guy, declares. “Privacy isn’t a right. It’s a privilege.”

it1Ed proceeds to prove that to Mike by assuming a familiarity, a friendship. He takes that further when he inveigles his way into the life of Mike’s teenage daughter (Stefanie Scott). As boundaries fall and Ed fails to pick up signals that Mike doesn’t want them to fall, they fall out. And that’s when the real trouble begins.

“You are not the master of the universe, Mike.”

Director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) can’t smooth out the abrupt edges of this thriller, and can’t improve the script’s weary archetypes. Ed is ex-NSA (of course), lives alone in a nearly-abandoned building with only a wall of video screens to keep him company (of course). He stalks waitresses and reaches out through social media, where mixed messages and confused signals are rampant.

He’s a lonely loner in a vintage Charger, raving along to Missing Persons’ “What are Words For?” as if he’s never figured out the answer to that question, and never will. Frechville gives off a sinister vibe that we sense, even if Mike doesn’t, the first time we meet Ed.

Brosnan plays a classic technophobe here, a man whose house, family, business and wired-in Maserati are all threatened by this privacy-averse child of the voyeuristic/electronic New World Order. He responds by switching to his analog ancient Mustang, and a fixer (Michael Nyqvist of the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) as old as he is. And he responds with violence, which of course begets more violence.

It’s all quite predictable — save for the sinister use of the music of Missing Persons — and a trifle bland. But the depictions of password-access mayhem are chillingly real, and Brosnan gets across the helplessness that many his age, all over the world, feel at the new tech and the new rules — no rules at all — threatening his ruin.


MPAA Rating: Unrated, with bloody violence, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, James FrechevilleStefanie Scott, Anna Friel, Michael Nyqvist
Credits: Directed by John Moore, script by Dan Kay and William Wisher, Jr. An RLJ Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:35

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