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Blu-ray Review HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Surrogates

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Jan 16, 2010.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Surrogates (Blu-ray)

    Directed by Jonathan Mostow

    Studio: Touchstone
    Year: 2009
    Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 89 minutes
    Rating: PG-13
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French
    Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
    Region: A
    MSRP: $ 39.99

    Release Date: January 26, 2010
    Review Date: January 16, 2010
    The Film
    A sci-fi thriller with an interesting premise that does a pretty good job hiding its plot inconsistencies and believability stretches, Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates is better than its middling box-office performance might lead you to believe. A top-flight production with excellent special effects and a nice acting challenge for Bruce Willis in two leading roles provides the film with a high degree of accessibility and some thoughtful musings on the value of the human touch.
    In the not-so-distant future, human beings have chosen to live their lives through surrogates: perfect, youthful android-like mechanisms who are tied into their hosts’ thought processes in such as way that they are virtual extensions of the original live beings. With life-threatening dangers from urban living now a thing of the past (since the hosts “think” their robotic alter egos from the comfort of their own homes), crime rates have gone down, and life is good for most of the world. But there are factions of the civilized world who don’t like the idea of humans not living in the real world, and these protesters have gotten their hands on a machine gun-like weapon that not only destroys the androids but the hosts on the other end of the thought waves, too. Detectives Thomas Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are hot on the trail of the destroyer weapon and the man (Jack Noseworthy) who’s firing it, but that information only leads to a more sinister conspiracy at higher levels of control both on the human anarchist side led by The Prophet (Ving Rhames) but also from the eccentric inventor (James Cromwell) of the surrogate technology whose son’s surrogate is among the first to be wiped out by this weapon of potential mass destruction.
    After directing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Jonathan Mostow now undertakes another doomsday thriller. Here, in a very compact eighty-nine minutes, he crams together two very well done chase scenes and a clock-ticking climax with literally the entire world on the brink of extinction. The premise of John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ interesting screenplay was taken from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The idea of a couch potato society operating through their brain waves using (often but not always) physically perfect specimens of the real humans is a very novel one (the film begins with an excellent sequence condensing fourteen years of scientific theory that leads us to the point of the start of the story), and for a change instead of the robots going awry, it’s actually human beings who are on the verge of annihilating their marvelous inventions along with the rest of the world as we know it. There are some missing links in the story construction which make the film noir-like mystery the detectives are trying to solve a little less than smoothly presented, but by the end of the movie, we understand the key heroes and villains and recognize the justifications behind their actions. But Bruce Willis’ real persona must survive a horrific car crash that surely would have killed any normal human being, and yet he walks away from it with only minor abrasions to his face. Leave your sense of disbelief at the door before watching this film.
    Bruce Willis plays two roles in the film: his human counterpart and the idealized twenty-years-younger version of himself (achieved through very heavily applied CGI to erase age on his face), and he turns in another excellent dramatic turn as the human yearns for a return to a life with his real-life wife (not the surrogate she insists on using) and the android remains stoic in the face of overwhelming odds against him. James Cromwell gets some strong dramatic moments as the inventor who loses his son due to his own miraculous invention and then begins to wonder if the miracle isn’t actually a nightmare. Jack Noseworthy shows both contempt and panic as the assassin on the run while Ving Rhames makes his brief appearance as The Prophet, a strong advocate for a return to a totally human society free from any surrogates, register strongly. As for the other key players, since their characters are androids throughout the film, their most important job is to play the indifference of the machines as their primary emotion, and Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike (as Willis’ wife), and Boris Kodjoe (as Willis’ boss) all triumphantly succeed at burying their feelings behind these rigid CGI-erased face masks.
    Video Quality
    The film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a very pristine 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The image is as sharp as can be, but colors are a bit variable due to an occasional blue-green filter that’s sometimes applied to the daylight photography to simulate an alternate reality. Certainly, there are no quibbles with black levels, and shadow detail is unimpeachable. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
    Audio Quality
    The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix does a first-rate job with the very active split surrounds which continually invade the soundfield. The LFE channel gets a very good workout from the frequent crashes and explosions, and only the slightest tendency to pull back on some instances where ambient sounds in the surround channels might have been advised prevent this from reaching reference level quality.
    Special Features
    The audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow is a well spoken and interesting one. Though he’s usually screen specific with his comments, he never fails to venture away from the scene at hand to offer up anecdotes about the filming or the original book in discussing its transition to the screen.
    All of the bonus feature material is presented in 1080p.
    “A More Perfect You: The Science of Surrogates is a fascinating 14 ½-minute featurette illustrating the aspects of scientific technology we have today that are very close indeed to the science on display in the film. Scientists conjecture about the possibilities of the motifs in the film becoming part of reality some day.
    “Breaking the Frame: A Graphic Novel Comes to Life” contains interviews with Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele who wrote and illustrated the original graphic novel The Surrogates about their conceptions for the story and illustrations and then screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris and director Jonathan Mostow commenting on their vision of the material for the screen. This runs 6 ½ minutes.
    There are four deleted scenes (actors playing surrogates in these scenes have not been digitally scrubbed so they do not look as they do in the finished film; it’s interesting to study the contrasts as before and after CGI) which may be played individually or in one 6-minute grouping.
    “I Will Not Bow” music video featuring Breaking Benjamin incorporates clips from the film and runs 3 ¾ minutes.
    The disc contains trailers for, among others, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Lost University, and Everybody’s Fine. The trailer for Surrogates is not provided.
    In Conclusion
    3.5/5 (not an average)
    Surrogates is an entertaining sci-fi film noir which combines action with some thoughtful questions about the value of human connection versus the possibilities of a perfect world without crime or violence. The Blu-ray release contains outstanding sound and picture and some bonus features not offered on the standard DVD of the film. Recommended!
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
  2. Ron-P

    Ron-P Producer

    Jul 25, 2000
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    This is a blind buy for me, looks very entertaining and I'm a huge Bruce Willis fan.
  3. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    I took part today in the second of three interview roundtables with Surrogates' director Jonathan Mostow. I thought those who enjoyed the movie or who are looking forward to the Blu-ray/DVD release next week would enjoy the questions and answers from my session:

    Q: This isn't your first time dealing with a high concept of man versus machine. Can you

    talk about why this concept intrigues you?
    Jonathan Mostow: It's true that I've touched on this thematic material before -- in fact,

    I think all my films in some way have dealt with the relationship between man and

    technology, so apparently, it's an idea that fascinates me. I assume your question

    implies a relationship between the ideas in Terminator and Surrogates, so I'll answer

    accordingly... Whereas T3 posed technology as a direct threat to mankind, I see

    Surrogates more as a movie that poses a question about technology -- specifically, what

    does it cost us -- in human terms -- to be able to have all this advanced technology in

    our lives. For example, we can do many things over the internet today -- witness this

    virtual roundtable, for example -- but do we lose something by omitting the person-to-

    person interaction that used to occur? I find it incredibly convenient to do these

    interviews without leaving town, but I miss the opportunity to sit in a room with the



    Q: Can you explain the casting choices in Surrogates? Did you go after anyone specific or

    were they cast for what the individual actors could bring to their roles?
    Jonathan Mostow: The interesting thing about casting this movie is that for the

    surrogates, we needed terrific actors who also looked physically perfect. Prior to this

    movie, I labored under the false perception that Hollywood is teaming with gorgeous great

    actors. Not necessarily so. Yes, there are many wonderful actors. And yes, there are many

    beautiful ones who look like underwear models But as we discovered, the subset of actors

    who fall into both categories is surprisingly small. We were lucky to get folks like

    Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe -- and we were equally fortunate to find a

    number of talented day players to round out the smaller roles in the cast. I must say

    that myself and everyone on the crew found it somewhat intimidating to be surrounded all

    day by such fabulous-looking people!


    Q: You've worked with special effects a lot prior to Surrogates. Can you explain the

    balance between practical and digital, and what you wanted to achieve for the film in

    special effects?
    Jonathan Mostow: My goal for the effects in this film was to make them invisible. There

    are over 800 vfx shots in Surrogates, but hopefully you'll be able to identify only a few

    of them. A vast quantity of them were digitally making the actors look like perfected

    versions of themselves.

    Q: One of the deleted scenes shows the surrogates' prejudice towards a human being among

    them. Why was this particular element cut?
    Jonathan Mostow: The scene you reference (Bruce and Radha in a bar) was cut, but the

    underlying idea is still in the movie -- although admittedly not as strongly as had we

    kept the scene. (There are references in the movie to "meatbags" and other moments that

    indicate a hostility and prejudice toward those who reject the surrogate way of life.) We

    cut the bar scene for narrative pacing reasons, although there are aspects of the scene

    which I like, which is why we included it in the Blu-ray version as a deleted scene.

    Q: I found the distinction between the surrogates and their human hanldlers interesting.

    Can you expound upon why such a drastic difference?
    Jonathan Mostow: The difference was logical. For starters, human operators would be out

    of shape -- they sit in their stim chairs all day not moving. They'd also appear kinda

    shlumpy, since they don't need to leave their homes (much less shower or dress), so who's

    gonna care if they stay in their pajamas all day. On the surrogate side of the equation,

    we imagined that based on human nature, in most cases, people would opt to operate

    idealized versions of themselves -- so if their surrogate looked in a mirror, for

    example, they'd see this fantastic-looking version of themselves. The contrast between

    these two looks was visually compelling -- for example, Boris Kodjoe's character, or


    Q: How do you approach the promotional campaign for a film and in what way do you enjoy

    participating most in promoting one of your films?
    Jonathan Mostow: I greatly enjoy the press phase of the film -- but not for reasons you

    might expect. For me, the press are often the first people to see the movie, so it's a

    chance for a filmmaker to sit down across the table from intelligent, thoughtful people

    and get feedback. (Of course, this virtual roundtable kinda removes the face-to-face

    element!) I also enjoy the questions, because they prompt me to think about things I

    wouldn't have thought about previously. For example, someone today asked about the

    thematic connections between T3 and Surrogates. But when I think about that, I realize

    that my other films have also been about man and technology. Journalists' questions often

    cause me to take a step back and look at things in a fresh perspective. Historically,

    I've enjoyed the travel associated with these press tours and making friends with some of

    the journalists across the world, but as I say, this virtual technology may be replacing

    a lot of that.

    Q: I really enjoyed listening to your audio commentary on the DVD. Talk about your

    approach to it. You seemed to enjoy it so much, you kept talking even as the credits were

    Jonathan Mostow: Thanks for the compliment. My approach to commentary is to provide the

    kind of info I'd like to hear if I was the consumer. I started listening to commentaries

    when they first began in the 80s on laserdisc. I remember a famous director who greatly

    disappointed me by babbling on about trivial nonsense -- such as what he had for lunch

    the day a particular scene was being filmed. I believe people should get their money's

    worth, so I'll provide as much useful information as space allows. My assumption in the

    commentary is that if you're listening to it, you probably liked the movie, or at least

    there was something that interested you enough to find out more about why specific

    choices were made. So I try to tailor my comments for that audience. The actual process

    is a bit weird, because you're sitting in a dark room, all alone, talking into a

    microphone with no feedback from anyone as to whether or not what you're saying is boring

    or not. So you send it out there and cross your fingers that people find it worthwhile --

    and don't fall asleep listening to your voice.

    Q: How involved was KNB Effects? What did they bring, if anything, to the film's effects

    Jonathan Mostow: KNB is a top-flight company that specializes in prosthetic devices for

    movies and creature design. They did a lot of great work that is heavily interwoven with

    CG techniques, so it's tricky to single out specific shots from the movie that are

    entirely theirs. They were great to work with.

    Q: Each of your films have boasted sound mixes that many have considered classic examples

    of sound design. Can you discuss your philosophy on sound when working with your sound

    designers in post-production?
    Jonathan Mostow: I really appreciate this question because sound is something I care

    deeply about and I believe that mixers I've worked with will probably tell you that few

    directors get as involved with sound as I do. Perhaps it's my musical background, but I

    have very sensitive ears, so I can discern details on a mixing stage that others often

    overlook. I'm very particular not only about the sound design (this is my third film with

    Oscar-winning sound editor Jon Johnson), but also about the mix itself. I think a good

    soundtrack helps immerse the audience in the movie. Ultimately, I believe a soundtrack is

    like a piece of orchestral movie -- a great one requires structure, dynamic range,

    emotional highs and lows and of course, definition. To me, the great thing about the DVD

    revolution -- more so than picture quality -- has been the introduction of 5.1 surround

    sound to the home.

    Q: Was there ever a discussion to create a SURROGATES-themed video game? The plot lends

    itself to a decent companion game.
    Jonathan Mostow: There are no discussions that I know of, but I agree, it would make the

    basis for a cool game.

    Q: Mr. Mostow, 2009 was an extraordinary year for science-fiction, from your film to

    Avatar, Star Trek and District 9. Why do you think so many good sci-fi rose to the

    surface last year, and do you think we'll see any good ones this year?
    Jonathan Mostow: First of all, thank you for mentioning our film in the same breath as

    those other movies -- all of which I loved. I don't think it's a coincidence that 2009

    was a good year for sci-fi. I think that as mankind faces these towering existential

    questions about how our lives our changing in the face of technological advancement, we

    will continue to see films that either overtly or subtly address these themes. From the

    time of the ancient Greeks, the role of plays, literature and now movies is to help

    society process the anxieties that rattle around in our collective subconscious. We now

    live in a time when many of our anxieties are based around issues of technology, so it

    would make sense to me that films with techno themes will become increasingly popular.

    Q: Do you supervise aspects (video transfer, extras or other elements) of the home video

    (DVD/Blu-Ray) release for your films?
    Jonathan Mostow: Yes. In the case of the video transfer, we did it at the same place we

    did the digital intermediate color timing for the movie (Company 3), so they are

    experienced in translating the algorithms that make the DVD closely resemble the

    theatrical version. I am deeply involved in that process, as is my cinematographer.

    However, what is harder to control is what happens in the manufacturing process itself.

    There are sometimes unpredictable anomalies that occur -- and then of course, the biggest

    issue is that everyone's viewing equipment is different, so what looks great on one

    person's system might not be the same on another's. We try to make the best educated

    guesses, anticipating the wide variations in how the disks will be played.

    Q: As far as I know in the movie there was some digital rejuvenation of Bruce Willis for

    his role as a robot. How did you do it and what do you foresee for this technique? Will

    we have forever young actors or actors that at anytime can play a younger or older

    version of themselves without makeup?
    Jonathan Mostow: For Bruce, we approached his surrogate look with a combination of

    traditional and digital techniques. In the former category, we gave him a blond wig, fake

    eyebrows, and of course, make up. In the digital arena, we smoothed his skin, removed

    wrinkles, facial imperfections and in some cases, actually reshaped his jaw-line to give

    him a more youthful appearance. Could this be done for other actors? Sure. It isn't

    cheap, so I don't see it catching on in a huge way, but certainly, some other movies have

    employed similar techniques. Technology being what it is, one can imagine a day in the

    future in which an aging movie star can keep playing roles in his 30s, but the

    interesting question is whether the audience will accept that, since they'll know that

    what they're seeing is fake. In the case of Surrogates, we discovered with test audiences

    that if we went too far with Bruce's look, it was too distracting, so in certain cases,

    we had to pull back a bit.

    Q: I imagine that before writing and creating the world of Surrogates you studied the

    topic. What is the scientific background of the movie and how far are we from what is

    seen in the movie?
    Jonathan Mostow: I did a fair amount of research for the movie, but really, what I

    discovered is that the best research was simply being a member of society in 2009. If you

    take a step back and look at how the world is changing, you realize that the ideas behind

    surrogacy have already taken root. We're doing more and more from home (this round-table

    for example), so really, the only ingredient that's missing is full-blown robotic

    facsimiles of humans. Having visited advanced labs where that work is occurring, my sense

    is that the technology is still decades away.

    Q: Boston's mix of old architecture and new, sleek buildings works wonderfully well for

    "Surrogates." I love the mixing of old and new architecture in a sci-fi film, something

    that has not really been done too often in since 1997's sci-fi film, "Gattaca". Can you

    discuss the process of picking a city and then scouting for specific locations?

    Jonathan Mostow: Thank you -- I talk about that in my DVD commentary. Boston is one of my

    favorite cities, so it was easy to pick it as a location for the film. And we certainly

    embraced the classic look not only in our exteriors but also the interior production

    design. To be frank, Boston made it to the short list of candidates based on the

    Massachusetts tax incentive, which allowed us to put more on the screen. Of the places

    offering great incentives, it was my favorite -- not only because of the architecture,

    but also because it's not been overshot. Once we got to Boston, then scouting locations

    was the same process as on any movie -- the key is to find locations that are visually

    interesting, help tell the story, can accommodate an army of hundreds of crew people and,

    most importantly, will allow filming. We had one location we really wanted -- a private

    aristocratic club in Boston -- and they had provisionally approved us, but then one day

    during a tech scout, an elderly member of their board of directors saw our crew and

    thought we looked like "ruffians". Our permission was revoked and we had to find another

    location. The great footnote to that story was that the president of the club was

    arrested a few months later for murder!

    Q: Do you have a preference in home audio: Dolby Digital or DTS? And are you pleased with

    Blu-ray's ability to have lossless audio?
    Jonathan Mostow: Personally, I prefer Dolby Digital, but only because my home theater is

    optimized for it. Obviously DTS is also a great format. I am thrilled with all the

    advances in Blu-ray audio.

    Q: On the movie's you've directed, you have done some rewrites. Was there anything in

    Surrogates you polished up on, or was it pretty much set by the time pre-production got

    under way?
    Jonathan Mostow: In the past, I've typically written my movies (Breakdown and U-571 were

    "spec" screenplays I wrote on my own and then subsequently sold, and then brought in

    collaborators once the films headed toward production.) On T3 and Surrogates, I did not

    work as a writer (both movies were written by the team of John Brancato and Michael

    Ferris). Surrogates was interesting in that the script was finished only one day before

    the Writers Guild strike of 2008, so by the time we started filming (which was shortly

    after the strike ended), there had been far less rewriting than would typically have

    occurred on a movie by that point.

    Q: The film does a magnificent job of portraying the difficulty and anxiety of characters

    forced to reintroduce themselves to the outside world after their surrogates have

    experienced it for them, which is certainly relevant in an era where so many communicate

    so much online. Can you comment on the task of balancing the quieter dramatic elements

    and the sci-fi thriller elements?
    Jonathan Mostow: When I was answering a question earlier about sound, I spoke about

    "dynamic range", which is the measure of the difference between the loudest and quietest

    moments. I think the same is true of drama -- and I find myself drawn to films that have

    the widest range possible. I like that this movie has helicopter chases and explosions,

    but also extremely quiet intimate moments in which the main character is alone with his

    thoughts (for example, the scene in which Bruce gets up out of his stim chair the first

    time we meet his "real" self.) As a director, I view it as my job to balance these two

    extremes in a way that gets the most out of both moments, and yet never lets you feel

    that the pace is flagging.

    Q: What was the most difficult element of the grahic novel to translate to the film?
    Jonathan Mostow: I'll give you a slightly different answer: The most difficult element to

    translate successfully would have been the distant future, which is why we decided not to

    do it. When we first decided to make the film, the production designer and I were excited

    about getting to make a film set in 2050. We planned flying cars, futuristic skyscapes --

    the whole nine yards. But as we began to look at other movies set in the future, we

    realized something -- that for all the talent and money we could throw at the problem,

    the result would likely feel fake. Because few films -- except perhaps some distopic ones

    like Blade Runner -- have managed to depict the future in a way that doesn't constantly

    distract the audience from the story with thoughts like "hey, look at those flying cars"

    or "hey, look at what phones are going to look like someday". We wanted the audience

    thinking only about our core idea -- which was robotic surrogates -- so we decided to set

    the movie in a time that looked very much like our own, except for the presence of the

    surrogate technology.

    Q: Are any of the props from Surrogates currently on display in your house?
    Jonathan Mostow: That question makes me chuckle, because to the chagrin of my family, I'm

    a bit of a pack rat and I like collecting junk from my films. I had planned to take one

    of the telephone booth-like "charging bays" and put it in my garage, but I forgot. Thanks

    for reminding me -- I'll see if it's still laying around someplace!

    Q: What aspect of filmmaking process do You like the most? Directing the actors? Doing

    research? Editing?
    Jonathan Mostow: Each phase has its appeal, but for me personally, I most enjoy post-

    production. For starters, the hours are civilized. It's indoors (try filming in zero

    degree weather at night, or at 130 degrees in a windstorm in the desert and you'll know

    what I mean). But what I enjoy most about post-production is that you're actually making

    the film in a very tactile way. You see, when you're finished shooting, you don't yet

    have the movie. You have thousands of pieces of the movie, but it's disassembled -- not

    unlike the parts of a model airplane kit. You've made the parts -- the individual shots

    -- but now comes the art and craft of editing, sound design, music and visual effects.

    Post-production is where you get to see the movie come together -- and it's amazing how

    much impact one can have in this phase -- because it's here that you're really focussed

    on telling the story -- pace, suspense, drama. To me, that's the essence of the

    filmmaking experience.
  4. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Director

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Thanks, Matt! That's a great interview.

    Were any of the questions yours?
  5. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    No, none of my questions were chosen. I wasn't surprised since they were more about the film's failure to reach blockbuster status and their suppositions about that. I wondered if maybe more carefully placed humor might have helped.
  6. Adam Gregorich


    Nov 20, 1999
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    Probably not. I don't think the studios find much humor in anything related to $$
  7. Adam Gregorich


    Nov 20, 1999
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  8. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator

    Mar 4, 2001
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    I enjoyed Surrogates in the theater. (And the lack of great success seems likely because it was a middling sci-fi movie; nothing special.) Thanks for posting the Q&A; I look forward to reading more of that later.
  9. David Deeb

    David Deeb Supporting Actor

    Nov 17, 2005
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    This was a fun movie. Surprised it hasn't gotten more attention. The BD looks and sounds great. Willis is excellent as ususal. It's not a sci-fi classic, but it is a very enjoyable 90:00 minutes, despite a couple of minor problems.

    Off topic: Like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in some scenes in X3, the characters here receive a youthful makeover via CGI. It's part of the story here and makes sense.

    However, as these type of effects improve & get cheaper (as all CGI tricks do), I fear an over-use of this effect simply to enhance real actors in any film, simply to make them look "better". I hope not.
  10. George_W_K

    George_W_K Screenwriter

    Feb 13, 2003
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    Thanks for the review and for posting that interview session, some really interesting stuff. I like Mostow's movies so I'm sure I'll like this one too. I didn't go to the theater to see this simply because of its runtime, way too short for me to spend the admission price when I can spend less on a rental and enjoy it on my set-up. Even if it were the best 89 minutes ever put to celluloid, it's a rule I follow so there ya go.

    Looking forward to checking this out!
  11. Paul Arnette

    Paul Arnette Cinematographer

    Jul 16, 2002
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    I rented this from Netflix and watched it last night. All in all, I'm glad I rented it. I found it really fell apart in the third act. After all, it is hard to create drama in front of a computer screen, or at least Ive always thought so.

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