Friday, April 25, 2014

About Time (2013) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for, Nov. 4, 2013.

Time travel stories are tricky things. Although there’s no hard-and-fast way to develop one, consistency is a key. As a screenwriter, when you’re dealing with things like reworking history and spinning off alternate universes, it’s necessary to stick to a series of established rules. Figure out how time travel works in your story and don’t vary from it. By violating this basic precept, writer/director Richard Curtis (supposedly marking his final time behind the camera) turns his romantic fable into a mish-mash of contradictions and contrivances. With more attention to detail, this could have worked, but the time travel aspects are so badly executed that the movie as a whole falters and eventually rips apart at the seams.

We know from Curtis’ past endeavors that he’s a romantic, so the presence of sentimentality (bordering at times on mawkishness) isn’t a surprise. However, where films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually can boast a portion of incisive wit to go along with the soft center, About Time’s sweetness tends toward saccharine. There’s a bit of Groundhog Day here, only not as clever. There’s some of The Time Traveler’s Wife (italicized by Rachel McAdams’ participation in both projects), but not as emotionally effective. And there are echoes of The Butterfly Effect without the overt darkness. In fact, while it’s possible to compare About Time to numerous other films, the comparison will rarely be favorable toward this movie.

The central conceit is that 21-year old Tim (Domhall Gleeson) can travel in time. There are limitations, of course: he can only venture backward in his own personal time stream and he has to find a dark, quiet spot to do the deed. I have no problem with this; for there to be a story, you have to accept this premise. The problems emerge from the inconsistencies that result from Curtis changing the rules on the fly.

Tim learns the ropes from his father (Bill Nighy, Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who is also a time traveler. Then he starts trying things on his own. His primary goal in life is to get a girlfriend. He sets his sights on a gorgeous blond named Charlotte (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) but that doesn’t work. Up next is Mary (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris). It takes three meet cutes before Tim and Mary have a life together but Tim’s occasional time traveling adventures threaten to mess up their happy home. However, this being a Richard Curtis movie, things turn out all right in the end.

The actors do capable jobs with their material. Domhall Gleeson, who often plays slightly awkward secondary characters, is affable and amusing, but not really leading man material in a romantic comedy. Rachel McAdams plays a part she can probably do in her sleep and, to be truthful, she doesn’t bring a lot to the role except a nice smile and a pretty face. Mary isn’t much of a character - beyond being Tim’s life goal she’s mostly a blank slate. Bill Nighy, as is almost always the case, shamelessly steals scenes. The same is true of Lydia Wilson, who play’s Tim’s flighty sister, Kit Kat. I don’t recall having seen her in anything previously, although I wouldn’t mind additional future exposure. Based on her work here, she seems equally at home with comedy and drama.

Although About Time doesn’t work as a whole, there are a few memorable scenes. One that stands out is the first meeting between Tim and Mary, which takes place in a restaurant where everything is in total blackness. Later, there are a few touching moments between Tim and his dad, although the final one ends with an unforgiveable cheat. It’s okay for Curtis to want to manipulate the audience but doing it by invalidating his cardinal rule is a poor approach.

About Time may work better for those who don’t really pay attention to the logic of the narrative. This seems to have been written for those willing to ignore internal inconsistencies and just go with the flow. The basic framework is about a nerd getting the girl and settling down to have a life with her - solid material for a middling dramatic comedy. It’s ironic that the spice Curtis adds to the mix results in a noxious flavor. On the whole, I could see why some might call About Time pleasant and inoffensive. But if Curtis wanted to write a story involving time travel, he should have at least expended the requisite effort to do something that’s consistent and makes sense, rather than just making things up as he goes along. Some viewers may not care but, for those who do, it’s pretty damn inexcusable. [Berardinelli's rating: ** out of 4]

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance, space-time

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Man of Steel (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on June 13, 2013.

Man of Steel represents the latest attempt by Warner Brothers to revive a Superman franchise that, since its stunning 1878 revival, has been abominably treated for about 30 years (ever since Richard Donner was unceremoniously fired from Superman II). This movie certainly looks and feels a lot different than any of its predecessors, and that's not just because of the crappy 3-D. It's more of a science fiction/fantasy adventure than a superhero movie. In a way that's good, because it doesn't come across like a tired retread of every origin story we've ever seen. On the other hand, it's not good, because the sci-fi feel has been overly influenced by the likes of Independence Day and Transformers. That's right: blow everything up, real good! Pyrotechnics! Special Effects! CGI up the wazoo! For those who crave cinematic mayhem, Man of Steel is right up your alley (and it will make a ton of money). But something important has been lost along the way: heart. This is a cold, sterile motion picture. The characters are so thinly drawn that it's tough to get much feel for them. And one senses that director Zack Snyder is less interested in Superman than he is in the orgy of destruction he gets to rain down on Metropolis. Somewhere, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay are smiling.

Man of Steel opens with the obligatory introductory Krypton sequence. It's some of the best material the movie has to offer; the dying planet is visually impressive and the acting by Russell Crowe as Jor-El is some of the best work the actor has provided in a long time. Gone is the flat, stilted interpretation offered by Marlon Brando sleepwalking his way through the role on the way to a fat paycheck. Crowe's Jor-El is heroic and charismatic. With Krypton nearing its end, he places his little boy into a spacecraft and sends him to Earth. Meanwhile, the hard-ass General Zod (Michael Shannon in full scenery-chewing mode) attempts a coup, fails, and is sentenced to spend some time in The Phantom Zone for his troubles.

The first time we meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), he's trying out for The Deadliest Catch. After saving some men on a doomed oil rig, Clark floats around in the water experiencing convenient flashbacks to his childhood living in Kansas with Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner). Once these are done, he heads north and, after paying homage to the diner scene in Superman II, reaches the Fortress of Solitude, which is actually a spaceship buried under arctic ice. In that frozen wasteland, he also meets intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who immediately falls for the big hunk after he saves her life. In the spaceship, Clark meets an avatar of his dad and gets his costume. It's around this time that Zod and his followers, freed from The Phantom Zone, reach Earth and Superman must choose between continuing to live anonymously or taking a front seat as the planet's defender. Unlike Zod in Superman II, who came to conquer, this Zod comes to destroy.

Man of Steel is, first and foremost, a great spectacle. The effects work is first rate and the action sequences, of which there are many, are delivered with a kinetic punch. The tone is dour - humor is at a premium and, on those rare occasions when it's there, the delivery is decidedly low-key. The movie wants desperately to be taken seriously and viewed as something more than a comic book film. Perhaps, in the end, that's one reason why Man of Steel rarely feels heroic and never truly soars. Sure, Superman eventually wins but at the cost of thousands of lives (we're not given a specific body count but it has to be very high).

Christopher Nolan's influence will be hotly debated, especially since the producer has been coy about the full extent of his involvement in the final product, stating only that it's Zack Synder's film. Indeed, Man of Steel is closer to Watchmen than to Batman Begins in terms of its look and feel. It's a style over substance thing, spectacle over heart. Snyder never ceases to amaze visually but one could make a compelling case that he misses what defines Superman's uniqueness. It makes sense for Batman to live in the dark but Superman has always been a figure of light and truth. That's one reason he's a difficult movie subject because there's no ambiguity about who he is and what he represents, and there's something about the darkness that pervades Man of Steel that feels wrong for the character.

The choice of Henry Cavill to don the cape is inspired; Cavill is easily the most accomplished actor thus far to fill the role and, while no one will ever fully eclipse what Christopher Reeve brought to the screen, Cavill uses Man of Steel as an opportunity to lay the foundation for what could be a long and memorable run. He combines the matinee appeal of Reeve and Brandon Routh with a stronger resume although, truth be told, the screenplay under uses his range. The main requirement for Cavill is to look the part.

As a cookie-cutter super-villain, Michael Shannon does a good job overacting. He snarls and yells and exudes menace. He rants and does all sorts of nasty things. In the end, however, it's the name Zod that puts Shannon at a disadvantage because it forces him to exist in the long shadow of Terence Stamp. Stamp's Zod is arguably one of the twenty most memorable movie bad guys and Shannon doesn't touch him. The other casting miscalculation is Amy Adams as Lois Lane; the part doesn't fit. [Blogger’s comment… I disagree. Amy Adams is excellent.]  On the other hand, there are some great choices, although most of them are sadly underused. Laurence Fishburne makes a terrific Perry White, although he has very little screen time. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are great as Clark's Earth parents although Costner in particular deserves more screen time.

Man of Steel delivers forcefully on its promise to take Superman in a different direction. Perhaps that's a good idea; after all, Richard Donner (with an assist from Richard Lester) has done the traditional Superman as well as it can be done. But a lot is missing, and the most telling absence is the element that makes Superman more the hero of his own story rather than the pawn of special effects. This is a less promising opening act than Batman Begins because it mines so little new territory. Remakes like Man of Steel are about intangibles like tone and style and how well the soul of the central conceit has been maintained. Snyder succeeds in making this movie sufficiently different to justify its existence. The open question is whether this Superman can spearhead a franchise that aspires to greatness or whether this new dark vision is merely window dressing. [Berardinelli's rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: action, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Frozen (2013) [PG] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, Nov. 26, 2013.

For the briefest of moments, while watching Frozen, I felt like I was back in the early ‘90s, experiencing one of the memorable early second wave of Disney animated films. The sensation passed quickly - Frozen is, after all, in 3-D and uses CGI (not hand-drawn) animation - but some vestige lingered. This movie, co-directed by screenwriter Jennifer Lee and animation maestro Chris Buck, has been assembled by people with a genuine love of films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and they have imbued Frozen with the spirit of those productions. Even a key conceit - true love’s kiss - is employed, although there’s a bit of a twist as to how it’s incorporated.

Frozen has been in development in one form or another at Disney for more than a decade, starting life as a more straightforward adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen’s The Snow Queen before being reconstructed by Lee. At one point, former animation A-listers Linda Woolverton and Alan Menken were involved but, although neither lent their talents to the final version of Frozen, Christophe Beck’s score echoes Menken’s work for The Little Mermaid and the mix of whimsy, romance, and energy Woolverton brought to Beauty and the Beast is in evidence. Visually, the movie is a bright, splashy, beautifully rendered tale. The 3-D offers the usual tradeoff - a dimmer, less vibrant picture in exchange for greater texture.

Although there is the usual Disney romance between a princess - in this case, Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) - and a peasant - in this case, ice-cutter Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) - the primary relationship in Frozen is between sisters. Anna is the younger sibling of Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), and the emotional heart of the movie beats in the feelings these two have for each other and how they come to acknowledge and express them. Because Elsa possesses a magical power over ice and snow, but can’t control her abilities, she represses her love for Anna lest she accidentally hurt her sister. When things go awry on the day of her coronation, she flees the city for an ice palace built on a lonely mountain, but Anna tracks her down (with the help of Kristoff).

No Disney movie would be complete without a side dish of cute. To that end, we have the almost-but-not-quite-talking reindeer, Sven. Slightly more annoying is Olaf (Josh Gad), whose brand of humor is on the irritating side of silly. Still, I'm sure Disney knows what they're doing with a character like this: the kids will love him. His overly cartoonish presence, however, clashes with the seriousness of some of the darker, more serious elements.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Frozen is that there’s no obvious villain - no Wicked Stepmother, Evil Witch, or Ursula. To the extent that there’s a bad guy, he’s more like a second-rate Gaston. As in Beauty and the Beast, the human antagonist is secondary; the primary conflict is between one of the characters and an elemental force she cannot harness. This is also a rare Disney animated movie to focus in a positive and substantive way on the relationship between sisters.

Frozen represents a return to a format that, although once a Disney staple, has fallen into disfavor during recent years: the musical. The recent trend in animated films is to feature a pop tune or two but to ignore the Broadway-inspired song and dance approach that characterized the animated films of the early ‘90s. Frozen does more than merely pay lip service to this kind of movie: it embraces it fully. Admittedly, the songs (music by Christophe Beck, lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez) aren’t strong enough for viewers to leave theaters humming them, but neither are they completely limp and unmemorable. There are eight numbers and the voice actors do the singing. As was the case in the past, a recognizable pop star sings a reprise of a song over the end credits (in this case, Demi Lovato’s rendition of Let It Go).

For older viewers, nostalgia will play a part in Frozen’s appeal. It’s almost impossible not to like the film if you grew up consuming Disney animation. Children will enjoy the movie for all the reasons that kids normally like animated films: they’re breezy, fast-paced, bright, not hard to follow, and awash in eye candy. Frozen isn’t as sophisticated as last year’s Wreck It Ralph (also written by Lee) but it’s an appealing throwback - not great Disney but good enough to engage viewers young and old. [Berardinelli's rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: animation, adventure, comedy, family, fantasy, musical

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Philomena (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Claudia Puig for USA Today, on November 21, 2013.

Philomena will induce sorrow and anger. Smiles, fortunately, are also in the mix. The tale of a cynical journalist who helps an elderly woman learn what happened to the young son who was taken away from her is compelling, poignant and gently funny. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope and also plays the journalist. Judi Dench brings the Irish-born Philomena to life with good humor and dignity. It’s a wonderfully memorable performance by one of the acting world’s greats.

Philomena reaches her sunset years needing to unburden herself of a secret that’s been consuming her for half a century. She had never told the family she later had about the son she gave birth to at 16 and the three years she spent with him in a strict Catholic convent. Forced to give him up for adoption, she has never gotten over the loss. Privately, Philomena has visited the Irish convent inquiring about the sweet boy she named Anthony. She was treated with patronizing courtesy, offered tea, but no empathy - and zero information.

After she tearfully spills her story to her adult daughter, on what would be Anthony’s 50th birthday, her daughter connects Philomena with former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). The reporter initially resists what he dismisses as a human interest feature. He’s a political reporter. But, drawn by her sad tale, he spends five years helping Philomena search for her son, sorting through a tangled web of secrets and hidden truths.

Director Stephen Frears compassionately chronicles an emotional personal odyssey and intelligently explores a larger socio-cultural issue. The shame that the Catholic Church imposed upon unwed mothers is made palpable. The church in Ireland is also exposed for profiting from the adoptions of these babies.

Only a few plot holes keep the film from greatness. Coogan and Pope tidily adapted the script from Sixsmith’s 2009 book, adding a road trip in which Philomena and Martin travel to the United States. That’s where the most shattering revelations emerge, but it’s also where the film trips up somewhat.

Philomena’s son was adopted along with Mary, a little girl who was his beloved best pal as a toddler. When Philomena encounters Mary (Mare Winningham) as an adult, the film seems to have left some crucial dialogue - or perhaps an emotional scene - on the cutting-room floor. We’ve come to know the good-natured, chatty Philomena, and her reaction upon seeing Mary after five decades is uncharacteristically muted.

Otherwise, the story is fascinating and the performances are convincing, with charming chemistry between Coogan and Dench. Philomena is still a devout woman, despite her cruel treatment from severe Irish nuns as a young girl (sensitively played in flashbacks by Sophie Kennedy Clarke). She was bound in a kind of indentured servitude at the convent - three years of labor in the convent laundry in exchange for the medical care she and her young son received. Philomena Lee’s cheery strength and quiet determination is deeply moving. She will not be made into a victim, nor does she lose her abiding faith.

Philomena makes a winning holiday movie, embodying the ideals of what the season is truly about: forgiveness, kindness and goodwill toward one’s fellow man. [Claudia Puig's rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: biography, drama

Friday, April 11, 2014

Love Is All You Need (2013) [R] ****

A film review by Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer Movie Critic, May 25, 2013.

Susanne Bier, the Danish director who emerged from Lars von Trier’s militantly minimalist Dogma school, is hardly known for her romantic comedies. Damaged war veterans, paralyzed accident victims, dark family secrets… not exactly a laugh riot.

And so, while Love Is All You Need has a certain feel-good Hollywood vibe (if the English-language remake isn’t in development as we speak, then I’ll eat my muesli right now), it also has breast cancer and betrayal and not-gladly-suffered fools going for it, too.

The movie stars the quite wonderful Trine Dyrholm as Ida, a beautician recovering from chemotherapy and a mastectomy - and from finding her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) intimately engaged with a ditsy young blond named Tilde (Christiane Schaumburg-Müller). Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind), the daughter of Ida and her philandering spouse, is about to be married, and so it’s off to an overgrown but idyllic estate on the Italian coast. The place belongs to the father of Astrid’s fiancé, Patrick (Sebastian Jessen). Philip, the father, lives and works in Denmark, he is English, and he is played by Pierce Brosnan. A widower, and a workaholic, he barks orders at his staff and takes his cell phone with him everywhere he goes.

Need I say more? Ida, still reeling from her cancer and her lout of a husband, and Philip, who has closed his life off to the possibility of love, meet-cute in the airport parking lot (a fender bender), and then find themselves sharing an airplane and then walking along the beach and strolling through lemon trees, bickering at first and then not bickering at all.

Brosnan is good, and he and Dyrholm erase any and all signs of contrivance in the script. Their characters’ respective offspring have their own issues to deal with as the wedding day approaches, and, yes, Ida’s husband is there, oblivious to the embarrassment he’s caused by bringing his bimbo lover along on the trip.

The original Danish title of Love Is All You Need translates as The Bald Hairdresser. That’s less cute and clichéd, and more intriguing, perhaps. But Love Is All You Need works fine. Bier and her two leads make you want to believe it’s true.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) [R] ****

A film review by Steven Rea, for The Inquirer, December 23, 2013.

Been there, done that.

As thrilling a filmmaker as Martin Scorsese continues to be, and as wild a performance as Leonardo DiCaprio dishes up as its morally bankrupt master of the universe, The Wolf of Wall Street seems almost entirely unnecessary. A story of stockbroker rapacity in the anything-goes ‘90s? Cocaine and hookers? Fast cars and fancy yachts? Trophy wives and pesky feds?

For three hours.


Adapted from the best-selling memoir by Jordan Belfort, the Bronx-born trader whose pump-and-dump schemes and penny-stock frauds made him millions - leaving duped investors with busted bank accounts - The Wolf of Wall Street tracks the rise and fall of its merrily debauched antihero, from his brief stint at an old-money brokerage house to his drug-fueled glory days as the CEO of an epic con.

Yes, there’s a prison sentence at the end of the road. But Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, pretty much shrug that off for what it was: 22 months in a country club ringed by barbed wire.

Moral of the story (did we say the movie was three hours long?): Crime pays. As long as you believe in yourself, and convince other people likewise, it doesn’t matter how many rules are broken, dreams smashed, lives destroyed.

Pass the Quaaludes, why don’tcha?

So, even though it’s kind of fun watching DiCaprio go kablooey, shimmying around in his $2,000 suits and bellowing boiler-room battle cries (and that knee-walking exit from the country club, a surreal DUI episode - amazing!), it’s also depressingly predictable.

Joining Scorsese’s go-to star (this is the director and DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration) are Jonah Hill, playing a fictionalized, wacko version of Belfort’s right-hand man; Matthew McConaughey as a Wall Streeter who mentored a young, green Belfort (key advice: masturbate a lot); Rob Reiner as Belfort’s proud pop; and Margot Robbie as the blond bombshell with the Brooklyn accent whom Belfort jettisons his first wife for.

The whole bunch of them are good. So is the music, and the cinematography. A-list all the way, baby.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic love song to rampant excess. Maybe it’s ironic – it’s certainly hallucinogenic - but it feels unhealthily worshipful at times, too. That last shot of the poor mug of an FBI guy, played by Kyle Chandler, on his grim subway commute?

He’s the sap in this story, he’s the sucker. There’s no nobility there and little in the way of upward mobility, either.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street really that obvious? I’m afraid so.

Labels: biography, comedy, crime, drama

Thursday, April 3, 2014

I Give It a Year (2013) [R] ***

A film review by Peter Bradshaw, for on February 7, 2013.

Dan Mazer is the blackbelt comedy writer who worked with Sacha Baron Cohen on Ali G and Borat in their TV and movie incarnations. Now, as writer and director, he has been set the challenge of delivering a mainstream Anglo-Hollywood romantic comedy in the classic [Richard] Curtis / Working Title manner. The result is funny and plausible, with a fair bit of newly modish Bridesmaids-y bad taste, though I kept getting the sense that the romantic comedy template meant Mazer couldn't really let rip with pure comedy pessimism and cynicism in the way he might have liked.

Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne are Josh and Nat, two intelligent and attractive people who got married way too quickly: their fundamental incompatibility is now making itself agonizingly plain, especially as they are clearly attracted to other people, namely Josh's old flame, Chloe (Anna Faris), and Nat's dishy American client, Guy (Simon Baker). Josh's embarrassing best mate (and indeed best man) is Danny, played by Stephen Merchant, whose comedy has a heavy [Ricky] Gervaisian residue at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. There are plenty of laughs, especially from Olivia Colman as a marriage guidance counselor who breaks off sessions to argue with her husband on her mobile.

Labels: comedy, romance

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Drinking Buddies (2013) [R] ****

A film review by Michael Phillips for on August 21, 2013

A short glass of 3.2 beer, Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies has the advantage of a name cast that happens also to be talented: Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as employees of a Chicago microbrewery, at work and play; Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick as their significant others, though as in all Swanberg films the significance of all the relationships at hand is up for debate, for grabs and for a halfhearted change of partners.

The casting advantage is also a disadvantage, in that the skillful quartet at the center of Drinking Buddies reveals the weaknesses in the material. The occasional honest moments emerge nonverbally, as when the camera catches a few seconds of second thoughts flitting across Wilde's face, for example. The skeletal storyline engineers an attraction between her character, a hard-drinking key player in the male-dominated craft brewery, and Johnson's fun-loving colleague. It's clear they like each other. It's clear, too, that their partners are mutually attracted. The only question in Drinking Buddies is who's going to transgress first and to what degree.

Chicago-based Swanberg shot the film last year in various Chicago locations and on the beach in southern Michigan, where the two couples spend a weekend together. Like a lot of indie filmmakers, Swanberg, who wrote, directed and edited, encourages looseness on set, leading to plenty of improvised variations on whatever was written. Now and then, a sharp bit of casual-sounding dialogue spices things, as when Livingston, sampling a microbrew at a tasting, is asked to describe the combination of flavors and comes up with jelly sandwiches… dark clouds of puberty on the horizon…

What happens in Drinking Buddies isn't a matter of surprise or insight; it's more a matter of four people, plus a handful of side characters (Jason Sudeikis, Wilde's squeeze off screen, plays a co-worker), beering their way into passive-aggressive compromising situations and then avoiding the Big Talks that might prove difficult or messy.

The male leads aren't particularly differentiated; both feel undeserving of their good fortune. I probably spent the first month wondering what was in it for her, Livingston's character confesses to Kendrick's.

The chemistry between Wilde's character and Johnson's, meantime, is established through their high jinks (smearing cold cuts on each other's faces, etc.) and the way they crack each other up. Drinking Buddies has a cleaner structure than Swanberg's earlier wanderings, but after several projects I still don't know what compels him as a filmmaker or if he has anything to suggest other than Women Are Hard to Figure Out and Relationships Are Hard to Sustain. My favorite moment, ironically, belongs to Swanberg, the sometime actor; his few seconds of rage as a motorist blocked in the street on moving day is funny and nicely unexpected, especially after all the inconsequential mutterings in between rounds.

Labels: drama, romance