Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)


Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.

 

A Movie A Day #81: The Great White Hype (1996, directed by Reginald Hudlin)


The Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) has a problem.  He is the richest and the best known fight promoter in America but the current (and undefeated) heavyweight champion is just too good.  No one is paying to watch James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) fight because Roper always wins.  Sultan has a plan, though.  Before Roper turned professional, he lost a fight to Terry Conklin (Peter Berg).  Conklin has long since retired from boxing and is now a heavy metal, progressive musician.  Sultan convinces Conklin to come out of retirement and face Roper in a rematch.  Since Conklin is white and Roper is black, Sultan stands to make a killing as white boxing fans get swept up in all the hype about Conklin being the latest “great white hope.”

In the days leading up to the fight, crusading journalist Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to expose the crooked Sultan before getting seduced into his inner circle.  Meanwhile, boxer Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) and his manager, Hassan El Rukk’n (Jamie Foxx), unsuccessfully pursue a match with Roper.  Conklin gets back into shape while Roper eats ice cream and watches Dolemite.

In its attempt to satirize boxing, The Great White Hype runs into a huge problem.  The fight game is already so shady that it is beyond satire.  This was especially true in the 90s, when the The Great White Hype was first released.  (Even more than the famous Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney title fight, The Great White Hype’s obvious inspiration was the heavily promoted, two-minute fight between Mike Tyson and Peter McNeeley.)  The Great White Hype is a very busy film but nothing in it can match Oliver McCall’s mental breakdown in the middle of his fight with Lennox Lewis, Andrew Golota twice fighting Riddick Bowe and twice getting disqualified for low blows, or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

The Great White Hype has an only in the 90s supporting cast, featuring everyone from Jon Lovitz to Cheech Marin to, for some reason, Corbin Bernsen.  Damon Wayans is the least convincing heavyweight champion since Tommy Morrison essentially played himself in Rocky V.  The Rev. Sultan was meant to be a take on Don King and Samuel L. Jackson was a good pick for the role but the real Don King is so openly corrupt and flamboyant that he’s almost immune to parody.

When it comes to trying to take down Don King, I think Duke puts it best.

Back to School Part II #35: One Eight Seven (dir by Kevin Reynolds)


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I’m writing this review from memory so you’re going to have to bear with me.  187 is one of those films that seems to show up on late night cable constantly, which is how I saw it.  I probably should rewatch it for this review but … no.  I don’t want to have to sit through it again.

See, here’s the thing with 187.  It’s a film where Samuel L. Jackson plays a high school science teacher and, just by definition, that should make it the greatest film ever and yet it isn’t.

Originally, Jackson’s working in New York but then he ends up failing one of his students (played by Method Man).  Method Man ends up giving Jackson a textbook on which he has written 187 on every single page.  Jackson immediately realizes that 187 is the name of the movie that he’s in.  “Always good to meet a fan,” he thinks but then suddenly, it dawns on him that 187 is also police code for homicide!  Jackson asks the school administration for help.  They ignore him (probably because everyone knows that Samuel L. Jackson is too much of a badass to be scared by some numbers in a textbook) and he ends up getting stabbed several times in the back.

Agck!

We jump forward 15 months.  Jackson has recovered from nearly being killed and he’s still determined to teach.  He wants to make a difference!  But he’s decided that New York kids are too homicidal so he transfers to a school in Los Angeles.  Surprise!  It turns out that students in Los Angeles are just as dangerous as the ones in New York.  During his first day as a substitute teacher, Jackson is writing his name on a chalk board.  Someone throws a crumpled ball of paper at him.  Jackson flinches as it hits his back.

FLASHBACK TIME!

Now, here’s the thing: the idea of Samuel L. Jackson teaching in an inner city high school and taking on a bunch of gang members sounds totally kickass.  And you spend this entire two-hour movie waiting for Samuel L. Jackson to have one of those wonderful Samuel L. Jackson moments when he fixes someone with that powerful glare and suddenly speaks in the voice of angry and vengeful God.  You keep waiting but, with the exception of a few moments, it never seems to happen.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t expecting Jackson to say, “I’m sick of these motherfucking gangstas in this motherfucking classroom!”  It would have been great if he had said that but, after a few minutes of watching the movie, I realized that he probably wouldn’t.  187 is obviously meant to be a serious movie about America’s educational crisis.  Watching it, you get the feeling that 187‘s director, Kevin “I know Kevin Costner” Reynolds, woke up every morning and said, “I am making the most important film ever today!”

But whatever good intentions that the filmmakers may have had, it’s no excuse for totally wasting Samuel L. Jackson.  When you’ve got a powerful actor like Samuel L. Jackson, why do you waste him in such a thinly written role?  When you finally do allow him to do something big and Samuel L. Jackson-like, why do you waste so much dramatic potential by having him do almost all of it off-screen?  Jackson finally does get a great Samuel L. Jackson moment towards the end of the film but that’s just because there’s a big plot twist that doesn’t make any sense.  The end of 187 reminds the viewer that an ironic ending has to be earned.  It just can’t be slapped onto the film.

I mean, I don’t want to toss out any spoilers because, for all I know, 187 is going to be on Cinemax tonight.  If you’re up at 3 in the morning, you might end up watching it and God knows, I don’t want to be accused of giving away the ending.   But let me ask you this — if you’ve finally captured someone who you’ve spent an entire two-hour film trying to kill, would you then suddenly decide to play a game of Russian roulette?

Anyway, 187 should be avoided because it totally wastes Samuel L. Jackson and that’s kind of unforgivable.

Film Review: Keanu (dir by Peter Atencio)


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“KEANU!”

Meow!

“ARE YOU OKAY, KEANU!?”

Meow!

Greetings, fellow lovers of movies and cats!  So, Jeff and I just saw the new comedy, Keanu.  It’s the first film to star the quickly-becoming legendary comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and it’s full of the type of humor that made their Comedy Central show, Key & Peele, such a success.  Perhaps even more importantly, the film stars an amazingly adorable little kitten!

You’ve seen the trailer, right?  You know how, when Peele first holds up his new kitten, Key immediately starts laughing and says, “Oh my God, that’s the cutest cat I’ve ever seen in my life!?”  Well, he’s not lying.  While I don’t think any cat is cuter than that one that I live with, Keanu the Kitten is definitely the cutest cat that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Add to that, this kitten can act!  When this kitten stares, you truly believe that he’s listening to the dialogue being exchanged.  When he runs through a gunfight while bullets fly around him, you truly believe that this kitten is running for his life and you breathe a sigh of relief when he survives.  When he meows, your heart melts with each squeaky sound.  This is one amazingly talented kitten!

And it’s not surprising the everyone in the film wants Keanu.  The 17th Street Blips (led by Method Man and created as the result of a merger between the Bloods and the Crips) not only want Keanu but they want to rename him New Jack as well.  Their rival (played by Luis Guzman) wants Keanu and plans to rename him Eglesias.  Two mysterious assassins — the much feared, very sadistic, and always silent Allentown Boys — want Keanu too.  Since they don’t speak, they never say what they want to name him but it would probably be something cool.

And what really makes the film work is that none of them have a reason for wanting Keanu beyond the fact that he is literally the cutest kitten in Los Angeles.  This film is full of dangerous and violent people but all of them love this cat.  Everyone wants Keanu.

Well, I should say that everyone wants Keanu except for Anna Faris, who plays herself.  All Anna Faris wants is a chance to do the latest designer drug, Holy Shit.  (“It’s like smoking crack with God!” Method Man explains.)  It’s probably a good thing that Anna Faris doesn’t want a cat because, as this movie reveals, she also has a potentially dangerous fascination with sharp swords and playing truth or dare.

Of course, Keanu technically belongs to Rell (Jordan Peele).  They say that cats chose their owners and Keanu definitely does that when he shows up outside of Rell’s house.  Rell has just been dumped by his girlfriend and existence has no meaning for him.  But once Keanu shows up, Rell again learns to embrace life.  He spends two weeks taking pictures of Keanu reenacting scenes from classic movies.  But when the 17th Street Blips break into his house, mistakenly thinking that Rell has a supply of Holy Shit, they take Keanu for themselves.

Rell and his cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) team up to track down and retrieve Keanu from the Blips but there’s a problem.  Rell may brag about growing up in New York and Clarence may have stories about his childhood on the streets of Detroit but both of them are painfully out-of-place in the violent world of Blips and Anna Faris.  (Clarence is obsessed with George Michael while Rell “sounds like John Ritter all the time.”)  Fortunately, Rell and Clarence happen to look exactly like the Allentown Boys.  Method Man makes a deal with them.  If Rell and Clarence — who are now going by the names TekTonic and Sharktank — train the Blips then he will give them Keanu.

(Method Man’s character is actually named Cheddar.  Jeff just pointed out to me that Method Man previously played a character named Cheese on The Wire.)

While Rell struggles to fit in with the Blips, the nominally more straight-laced Clarence (who, unlike Rell, doesn’t even smoke weed) is soon having the time of his life.  It turns out that Clarence specializes in corporate team building and he’s excited to introduce these techniques to Blips.  (During one shootout, Clarence proudly announces, “They’re communicating!”)

Admittedly, Keanu is an uneven film.  It’s essentially a collection skits and some of them are funnier than others.  However, Key and Peele both bring so much commitment to bringing this insane story to life that they literally carry the audience over the occasional rough spot.  It may not be perfect but it’s a film that announces that, whether on TV or in the movies, Key & Peele are a comedic force to be reckoned with.

Plus, that kitten is so damn cute!

(And, in case you were wondering, Keanu Reeves does make an appearance of sorts.)

This film is 90 minutes of laughter and that’s certainly something that we all need right now!  See Keanu!

(Since you’ve probably already seen the trailer for Keanuhere it is, if you haven’t — let’s close this review with some exclusive audition footage.)

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

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Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #123: The Cobbler (dir by Thomas McCarthy)


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Oh, Cobbler, Cobbler — what a frustrating film you are!

There was a time when everyone was excited about seeing The Cobbler.  It was originally scheduled to come out in 2014 and, along with Men, Women, & Children, it was supposed to be part of the dramatic recreation of Adam Sandler.

After all, one of the main reason why critics like me hate to see Adam Sandler devoting his time to stuff like That’s My Boy is because, in the past, Sandler has actually proven himself to be a surprisingly good and likable dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, dramatic Sandler films never seem to make much money and, as a result, Sandler goes back to making films where he, David Spade, and Chris Rock play former high school classmates.  If only one Sandler dramedy could be a success, we tell ourselves, then he’d never feel the need to make another movie like Jack and Jill

(And yes, I realize that’s probably wishful thinking on our part.  Even if Adam Sandler somehow won an Oscar, I get the feeling he’d follow the win by starting work on Grown Ups 3….)

The Cobbler promised that not only would Sandler be playing a more low-key role than usual but he would also be directed by Thomas McCarthy, who previously directed the excellent The Visitor and Win Win.  Based on his previous films, McCarthy seemed to be the perfect filmmaker to give Adam Sandler some credibility.

And, let’s not forget, that not only would Sandler be working with Thomas McCarthy but Men, Women, & Children was being directed by Jason Reitman!  At one point, it truly appeared that 2014 was going to be the year that we saw the rebirth of Adam Sandler.

And then Men, Women, & Children came out and was a disaster, despite the fact that Sandler got fairly good reviews.  Meanwhile, rumors started to swirl that just maybe The Cobbler wasn’t as good as McCarthy’s previous film.  When The Cobbler‘s release date was pushed back to 2015 … well, we all knew what that meant.

Anyway, The Cobbler was released in a few theaters earlier this year and on VOD.  It’s now available on Netflix.  I watched it last week and it’s really not as bad as I expected it to be.  Of course, that’s not to say that it’s particularly good either.  It’s not terrible but it is disappointing.  Considering the director and the supporting cast (Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens, and Melonie Diaz, who was way too good in Fruitvale Station for you not to regret how this film totally wastes her), The Cobbler should at least be interesting.  Instead, it’s just kind of bland.

However, Adam Sandler does give a pretty good performance.  In this film, he plays Max, a shy and emotionally withdrawn cobbler.  He comes from a long line of cobblers and he inherited his store from his father (Dustin Hoffman).  Years before the film begins, Max’s father mysteriously vanished.  Now, Max spends his time going to and from work and taking care of his dementia-stricken mother.  His only friend is Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), the paternal barber who works next door.

In the basement of Max’s shop, there’s an old stitching machine.  About 30 minutes into the film, Max discovers that if be puts on a pair of shoes that have been repaired using the machine, he can physically transform into whoever owns the shoes.  After experimenting with being different people, Max eventually puts on his father’s shoes.  Transforming into his father, he has dinner with his mother.

The next morning, his mother dies.  Max cannot even afford to buy her a good headstone.  However, a local criminal (played by Method Man) has dropped off his shoes to be repaired.  Perhaps, by wearing the criminal’s shoes, Max can come up with the money…

I’m probably making The Cobbler sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  And seriously, it sounds like it should a really good and thought-provoking movie.  Unfortunately, McCarthy awkwardly tries to combine the broadly comedic elements (i.e., Sandler transforming into a variety of eccentric characters) with the dramatic (which includes not only Max’s anger at his father but a few murders as well).  The film never finds a consistent tone and, as such, it remains an interesting idea in search of a stronger narrative.  Watching the film as it wanders from scene to scene, it’s impossible not to mourn all of the missed opportunities.

But, as I said, Adam Sandler does well.  Hiding his face behind a beard and only occasionally offering up a sad smile, Sandler gives a low-key performance that is full of very genuine melancholy.  In this film, he proves that he can act when he wants to.  You just wish that the rest of The Cobbler lived up to his performance.

Unfortunately, as far as the box office is concerned, The Cobbler is the least financially successful film that Sandler has ever appeared in.  This means that plans for Grown-Ups 3 are probably already underway…

(For those keeping track of the progress of Embracing The Melodrama Part II, we are now 123 reviews down with 3 to go.)