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ratings and reviews from

Along Came Polly     2 Stars

 The body of the film lacks continuity. There are bits of business that seem like they will payoff later but never do, and the scenes fluctuate wildly in their pacing. Although the film fails to work as a whole, there are moments that generate real laughter. Philip Seymour Hoffman uses his potent physicality to get laughs out of both an introductory pratfall and a handful of basketball scenes. In his too few scenes, Alec Baldwin finds the perfect tone as Stiller's boss, combining authority, unctuousness, insincerity, and affection in equal measure. Stiller himself is very comfortable playing this type of character — for him it is the equivalent of an old pair of sneakers. He's fine, but he does nothing new. Jennifer Aniston could have been interesting, but aside from goading Stiller's character into coming out of his shell, she has almost nothing to play. The film glosses over her emotional issues in order to focus on Stiller's gastrointestinal issues. Along Came Polly lacks inspiration, but for all its faults, it does give the supporting performers enough room to make it better than it could have been.

Big Fish     3 Stars

Burton's never had the ability to fully overcome weak material — no matter how hard he may try — and Big Fish is no exception. It's clear that Burton has more interest in visualizing the lush, meandering yarn-spinning of the elder Ed Bloom (Albert Finney, played in his youth by a buoyant Ewan McGregor) than he does in dramatizing the alienation of his son William (a humorless Billy Crudup), and that imbalance hamstrings the picture. As sumptuous as some of the fantastical vignettes may be, their vague symbolism and general pointlessness grows tiring; Burton was able to pack more philosophical weight into Pee-Wee's search for his lost bicycle than he can into an aging man's need to hyperbolize away his deadbeat-dad status. That said, there are sequences that make the film worthwhile: a loopy, vibrant WWII adventure that suggests the pulpy genius of mid-'70s Spielberg or the interlude which casts Bloom as a harebrained inventor — one of Burton's pet obsessions. The Fellini-esque ending might activate a tear duct or two, but ultimately, Big Fish's emotion feels curiously unearned.

The Butterfly Effect     2.5 Stars

Cold Mountain     3 Stars

Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain is at once a beautifully shot, contemplative film about the Civil War South, and a messy, uneven narrative that fails to fully engage the viewer. Chief among the film's problems is its unbalanced mix of romance, war drama, road movie, and ensemble film elements. Considering the fact that this film is, at its heart, a romance, it is unfortunate that the leads lack chemistry. Although part of this may be due to the fact that both actors are playing very internalized characters — Kidman a shy and unsure belle, and Law a thoughtful, yet introverted, man of few words — they just do not stir up the requisite amount of passion when onscreen together for their love story to be compelling. There is also little foundation for their relationship in the story line since they barely interact with each other before their separation.

 The film is bursting at the seams with colorful "country folk," disturbing opportunists, and sad souls — many populated by recognizable character actors and minor stars. From the sinful Southern preacher played by the always-intriguing Philip Seymour Hoffman to the desperate, widowed young mother portrayed with ferocity by Natalie Portman, these characters are the lifeblood of the film. The larger supporting roles are taken by those in Ada's life, including a devastating turn by Kathy Baker as her neighbor and a moving turn by Donald Sutherland as Ada's wise father. Renée Zellweger's feisty performance as a down-home girl who helps Ada run her farm, becoming her closest friend in the process, may be considered by some as hamming it up or chewing the scenery; however, her character injects life into the film where it would otherwise have fallen horribly flat. The problem with all of these many performances is that they upstage the two leads. In this barrage of characters, even many cameo performers come across as full-blooded, three-dimensional personalities, while Ada and Inman seem more like blank slates.

One should be warned that the film is very gruesome and brutal in parts, truly depicting the savagery of war and the anarchy that overran the South as the Civil War was being lost. This brutality, characterized at first on the actual battlefield, but also in many of the characters' heartless actions, threatens to overwhelm the love story and any hope the film seeks to offer. The movie seems to want its romance to be the unifying element, but the love story ends up feeling more like an ineffectual backdrop most of the time, not strong enough to balance out the disheartening elements of the film. Cold Mountain is really a beautifully crafted movie; it's just a shame that many of its disparate elements could not come together to create a cohesive cinematic experience.

Harry Potter and the Prisioner of Azkaban     4 Stars

New Potter series director Alfonso Cuarón clearly remembers what it's like to be 13. From raging hormones and expanding egos to crippling self-doubt and hope despite it, the hallmarks of youth are apparent in virtually every frame of Prisoner of Azkaban. The actors, of course, play no small role: Daniel Radcliffe has improved exponentially, while Rupert Grint continues to exhibit an impressive knack for comic timing. Emma Watson is perfect as Hermione; similar to Michael Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore, Watson emanates wit and power, and, in staying with her character, communicates a sense of harried urgency in everything she does. The veteran British actors making up the Hogwarts staff are equally impressive. Emma Thompson, in particular, is delightfully batty as the boy-who-cried-Grim divination teacher, while Alan Rickman's Professor Snape is as unfathomable and complicated as ever. Though David Thewlis offers a solid performance as the haunted Professor Lupin, Gary Oldman is perhaps the most notable newcomer to the film series. With little time to spare, Oldman manages to express the tragic but unerringly loyal nature of Sirius Black.

The nature of the soul and the life-altering effects of circumstance and choice are the two key elements of Prisoner of Azkaban, and Cuarón, to his credit, has helmed a production that is all soul. Even without the rich description of the book, the essence of the characters and the world they inhabit are more apparent than they have ever been, and the CGI fits into the "Potterverse" so seamlessly, it's easy to forget that Hippogriffs (a sort of half-eagle, half-horse) aren't part of the natural world. The only real fault in Cuarón's Azkaban, as devoted fans have duly noted, is the all-too-brief Shrieking Shack showdown, and the omission of Harry's final talk with Dumbledore. Besides depriving audiences of some well-needed history (why Snape hates Sirius enough to enjoy watching the soul sucked out of his body, the extent of the friendship between the Marauders, and the significance of the stag shape of Harry's Patronus, for instance), Dumbledore's explanation concerning the vast implications of the actions we take, and the life-debt Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) now owes Harry because of a spontaneous decision, is not just an integral aspect to Prisoner, but to the series as a whole. Yet, even with a key scene conspicuously missing, this adaptation, more than its predecessors, gives an inkling into the tremendous success of the Harry Potter franchise, because Prisoner of Azkaban finally got what Harry is about — magic, the bonds of friendship, and a whole lot of heart

Igby Goes Down     2.5 Stars

Although it followed Tadpole and The Good Girl in 2002's "Catcher in the Rye" revival, this urgently cynical picture is a far cry from Gary Winick's sweet fable or Miguel Arteta's tragicomic treatise on good intentions. Playing the rebel without a cause for neither melancholy warmth nor laughs, Kieran Culkin invests his bratty character with a black heart and an air of indifference, both of which he retains even when the credits roll; if this isn't a star-making performance, something's wrong. Meanwhile, a cast as varied in age as it is in reputation helps delineate the ugly truths that shape Igby's outlook. Thus far in his career, Ryan Phillippe has been convincing only when playing toffee-nosed connivers, and here, once again, he proves that typecasting can be a good thing. Meanwhile, Amanda Peet continues to display the deliciously nasty edge that made her role in Changing Lanes such a surprising pleasure. As Sookie, the conflicted love interest, Claire Danes overcomes a series of career missteps to remind us why she mattered in the first place. Meanwhile, old pros Jeff Goldblum and Susan Sarandon navigate their Upper West Side world with icy authority and deadpan comic timing. Confident first-time writer/director Burr Steers, who has acted in films by Quentin Tarantino and Whit Stillman, shows a clearer affinity for the latter director's well-heeled angst, but he never treats his walking-wounded characters with flip humor or contempt. Elegantly acted, impeccably written and stylishly filmed, Igby Goes Down will prove unworthy only for audiences who require an uplifting emotional arc in even the most soul-weary story.

Kill Bill Vol 1    4 Stars

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the work of a master filmmaker falling in love with directing all over again. After a layoff of six years, Tarantino pulls out all the stops to serve up an entertaining shot of action cinema. The film has momentum and an infectious sense of over-the-top fun that manifests itself in the various styles Tarantino employs. The anime section is brilliantly conceived and, quite frankly, live actors performing the story would have probably kept the film from getting an R rating. The same is true of the decision to film in black-and-white during the final battle. Had the splattering blood and flying limbs been presented in color, the ratings board would probably have balked. However, by choosing to shoot the sequence in black-and-white, Tarantino gets around that problem and forces the viewer to concentrate more on the choreography and the editing than the bloodshed. Judging this film is dicey, as it truly is nothing more than the first-half of a movie that was always intended to be a three-hour extravaganza. Kill Bill Vol. 2 will hit theaters the following year and although it could either add depth to Vol. 1 or reveal it as an emotionally empty exercise in (admittedly highly entertaining) style(s), the fact is that anybody who sits through the setup will not want to miss the conclusion.

Kill Bill Vol 2    4 Stars

The first half of Kill Bill, released to theaters six months before the conclusion, celebrated the moviegeek elements of Tarantino's personality — specifically the geek who has absorbed every Sonny Chiba movie. Where Volume 1 offered the most visually freewheeling Tarantino work ever, Volume 2 showcases how deliberate his intentions are. Take the training sequence with Pai Mei: This looks like every kung fu movie that ever played on a Saturday afternoon on your local UHF station. The cheesy zooms, the arch dialogue, and the faux-mystical bearded mentor are all intricately planned and in place. These elements are not kitsch; Tarantino genuinely loves these genre tropes and wants nothing more than to share that love with the audience while never taking his eye off the story. This is exactly what he accomplishes in Kill Bill, and he does it with confidence. For each Perils of Pauline-like death that awaits The Bride, Tarantino has taken great effort to explain how the skills she has developed over time allow her to escape. That is never more true than in the climactic face-off with Bill. Thank goodness Warren Beatty ended up not playing the part because it is hard to fathom a more perfect choice than David Carradine, whose work here, with his deep, laconic voice and subtly menacing physical confidence, recalls Robert Mitchum. Their nearly 40-minute showdown is much more mental and emotional than physical. That the performers, the film, and the audience so easily adjusts to this new battlefield reveals the writer in Tarantino — and makes clear his remarkable achievement. Tarantino proves, as he has with each of his films, that a good story well-told will support any and all visual flourishes. He has not transcended the generic revenge story line he has utilized, he has simply made one of the best possible films of that type. While other movie geeks will spend years cataloguing the various musical and camera lifts in Kill Bill, the people who understand and appreciate fine storytelling should marvel at how — in just four movies — Tarantino has become arguably the best crime writer of his generation.

Lost In Translation     4.5 Stars

Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is a low-key but emotionally penetrating story that contains a multitude of feelings. Simultaneously delicate yet assured, the film is about two people who find each other at the right time in their lives. Scarlett Johansson's confused and lonely Charlotte is smart enough to know that her marriage may be a mistake, but she is not emotionally equipped to know how to handle the problem. Her outstanding performance balances sadness, intelligence, vulnerability, and self-possession. Bill Murray gives the finest performance of his career as the actor who is, thanks to an emotionally stunted marriage and a sell-out career move, suffering from a mid-life crisis. Bob Harris could keep people at a distance with his comedic armor, much like Bill Murray, but he is at a phase in life where he is tired of acting that way. Murray delivers a disciplined, nuanced performance that deserves the highest forms of praise. Coppola herself shows that The Virgin Suicides was not beginner's luck. She frames Japan so that the audience feels how "foreign" it is for her two protagonists, while still showing great respect for the people and the culture even when her characters, in their more selfish moments, do not. With two films to her credit, Sofia Coppola has proven herself to be a master of tone and indirect characterization. The natures of the people in this film are revealed through behavior and through conversations that usually have very little to do with the plot. We get a glimpse of the depth of Charlotte's unhappiness in a phone call to a friend, and Bob's karaoke performance reveals his contained emotions for this young woman who has touched him in ways he believed were untouchable. Lost in Translation is a beautiful film. It is beautifully shot, but most importantly what passes between Bob and Charlotte is beautiful. Their time together will stay with each of them, and the viewer, for a very long time.

Monster     4 Stars

Perhaps Charlize Theron's awe-inspiring performance will be the thing that people remember most about Monster, but the film as a whole marks a surprisingly scrupulous and thought-provoking treatment of sensational subject matter from writer/director Patty Jenkins, making her feature debut. The film is good enough to be more than just a companion piece to filmmaker Nick Broomfield's outstanding documentaries on serial killer Aileen Wuornos, but a viewing of those documentaries validates both Jenkins' vision and Theron's amazingly accurate portrayal of the woman. Theron perfectly captures the way, for example, the sides of Wuornos' mouth turn downward in repose. Theron's turn is not a mere imitation, but captures the tormented spirit of the woman. The crux of the film is the unexpected romantic relationship that forms between Wuornos and Selby. Selby, a fictional stand-in for Wuornos' real-life paramour, Tyria Moore, is well played by (Christina Ricci). Monster has been unfairly criticized for romanticizing Wuornos' depravity, but the film simply shows us that these brutal actions were undertaken by a real live woman, driven to desperation by a lifetime of abuse and newfound financial pressures. The film portrays her actions in a way that makes them comprehensible, but not defensible. Ironically, Aileen's first opportunity to be loved is what effectively pushes her over the edge, until she gradually slips away into madness. As with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the underlying issue is class. The truth of precisely what Wuornos did and why may never be known, but Monster is an accomplished, absorbing, and assiduously moral film that feels like truth.

Mystic River 4.5 Stars

The film is a mournful and effective murder mystery, but beyond that, it is a wrenching character study and a trenchant exploration of the dark themes that have been prevalent in Eastwood's work throughout the later part of his directing career. Violence is rampant in Mystic River, and even when its consequences rip the souls from these characters, they do not learn from it. The film is a showcase for Sean Penn, playing Jimmy, an emotionally volatile ex-con who casts aside his efforts to live within the law when his beloved daughter is brutally murdered, and Tim Robbins' heartbreaking performance as Dave, a man broken by an insurmountable childhood trauma. These actors receive excellent support from Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne as the homicide detectives stoically investigating the crime and Thomas Guiry as the daughter's secretive boyfriend. Laura Linney and especially Marcia Gay Harden, as Jimmy and Dave's wives, respectfully, do excellent work, but the script falls short in fleshing out their characters' motivations. Gracefully shot (by Tom Stern) and edited (by longtime Eastwood collaborator Joel Cox), the film suffers from a somewhat contrived and familiar story line, but still manages to build up considerable emotional weight. While Mystic River is too uneven to rank with Eastwood's best work, its strong performances and uncompromising bleakness make for a powerfully moving cinematic experience.

Sea Biscuit     2.5 Stars

The triumphant story of comebacks — for a horse, for the characters, and for a country — should appeal to anyone. The acting is top-notch. As star-crossed jockey Red Pollard, Tobey Maguire proves once again that he is arguably the best actor of his generation. There is a scene where he sees the horse again after both have been injured. He hobbles faster than he should to touch Seabiscuit and it is a fabulous piece of acting — a perfect synthesis of physical movement, facial expression, and speech that makes the audience believe that this moment is happening to this character for the very first time. Chris Cooper is reliably wise and rugged as the mysterious trainer, and Jeff Bridges finds the perfect notes as both a gifted salesman and a grieving father. Even first time actor and respected jockey Gary Stevens manages to communicate a great deal about his character with very little screen time. While all of the excellent work in front of and behind the camera leads to some smashing entertainment, the film feels just slightly less than the sum of its parts. What it lacks is a sense of a personal stake from the filmmakers. They are making something from their heads and not their hearts, and while that does not diminish the achievement, it does make it something slightly less than art. Seabiscuit is old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, in the best sense of the phrase.

Secret Window     2.5 Stars

The mystery certainly isn't in the characters. From the tortured writer to the gruff private investigator all the way to the wary yet sympathetic ex-wife, the cast of Secret Window staunchly adheres to their respective caricatures. The ending is hardly a revelation, either; it could have only been more clichéd had the culprit been a butler. Based on a novella by the ever-prolific Stephen King, the secret in Secret Window lies somewhere inside the film's unrealized potential. The shorter length could have eased the heady task of adapting the written word of King, who has, in the past, dedicated hundreds of pages to subjects ranging from omniscient turtles to a gargantuan imaginary library subject to exploitation by malevolent aliens. With no lengthy, abstract concepts to omit or include at risk of hindering the plot, Secret Window had the means to have been something much greater than it was. Unfortunately, it could never quite decide between being a horrific journey of self-discovery or a divorce comedy with a macabre twist. The result is a film that seems thoroughly uncomfortable in its own skin, and hovers on the fine, mediocre line between boring and suspenseful for just long enough to make its ultimate degeneration that much more disappointing. Johnny Depp plays Mort Rainey, a moderately successful author whose depression and subsequent writer's block stem from three things: the split from his wife, his feelings of guilt and anger regarding the split from his wife, and the awareness that when it comes to writing, he's just a hack at heart. Depp does an admirable job with his limitations, and despite being a pitiful character with potentially psychotic undertones, he is easy to like. Similarly, John Turturro in the role of an unhinged author bent on avenging what he believes is plagiarism by Mort, is easy to hate, particularly after he begins driving screwdrivers into innocent heads of both the canine and human variety. However, the actors could not wholly save an essentially weak film; they could only provide a temporary distraction. In the end, the "secret window" offers little more than a glimpse at a story that lost its originality long ago.

Shattered Glass     4 Stars

The world of bookish, passive-aggressive reporters doesn't seem like the stuff of compelling drama, but Billy Ray's Shattered Glass manages to make one egghead's pathetic desperation a rousing time at the movies. Comparisons to The Paper Chase or even All the President's Men aren't that far out of line: Glass presents a sad, late-'90s alternate universe to Woodward and Bernstein, where journalists — ostensible purveyors of truth — have to scramble to ferret out the lies in their own offices. Unlike Steven Spielberg's jocular Catch Me If You Can, Shattered Glass doesn't offer a pat explanation for its anti-hero's pathological lying. He isn't abandoned by a parent, and it isn't implied by anyone other than Hayden Christensen's Stephen Glass that he's attempting to live up to stratospheric expectations "back home." Instead, the character's rationale is inherent in Christensen's cagey, live-wire performance: He's a composite of every dog-ate-my-homework brown-noser that ever walked into a newsroom, classroom, or job interview, desperate for approbation and willing to stroke any ego to get it. A-list screenwriter Ray takes some liberties of his own in the name of cinema — conflating a character here and there, and focusing almost solely on the piece that brought Glass down — but the result is a tightly crafted, swiftly edited exposé that never curries obvious audience sympathy.

Shrek 2 4 Stars

Where the original Shrek was stuffed to the breaking point with jokes and bits of business, Shrek 2 has a much more relaxed tone. The most notable improvement this film makes over its predecessor, aside from the sophistication of the animation, is the belief the filmmakers have in the material. To be sure, the jokes are plentiful, but none of them feel as desperate as some of the material in Shrek. The biggest problem with the sequel, though, is that the film just is not funny enough. There are few big laughs in the film because the screenwriters have elected to tell a story that is rather intricate in its emotional deceptions. Where the first film's plot existed so that the endless string of bits could be played out, Shrek 2 actually aims for real poignancy, sentimentality, and character development. Had the filmmakers created characters with more complexity, or figured out how to make the film funnier, they could have topped the original. Instead they have made a film that is on occasion rather dull. Only Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Antonio Banderas as a swashbuckling rogue cat retain the energy of the first Shrek. They get just about all of the best moments, although Rupert Everett hits all the right notes as the very vain and very spoiled Prince Charming. These characters exhibit the best aspects of the anarchic spirit that helped make the first film a blockbuster. Undoubtedly, there will be a third Shrek film, and if they match the comedy of the first with the confidence of the second, DreamWorks will have made the best animated film in its short history.

Spiderman 2 4 Stars

Sam Raimi raises the bar of excellence with Spider-Man 2, a highly evolved sequel that brims with superb comedy, heartfelt characters, and dazzling visuals that nail the wall-crawler's universe in a fully respectable and exciting way. With the luxury of having the origin story behind them, the filmmakers let loose with this one, all the while still staying true to the character-driven focus that made the first film so fresh and appealing. Tobey Maguire again holds the spotlight amazingly well, this time comically tortured by his director, who seems to finally be having fun with the franchise. Back is Raimi's energetic visual style, something that has been missing since his Darkman days and one thing that the original was sorely lacking. Of course, the hero always needs a villain, and this time it's Alfred Molina playing a Doc Oc that isn't over-the-top in the usual flamboyant way, but brimming with a conflicted sense of sadness mixed with maniacal purpose. His tentacles deserve credit as well, as they add little touches of flair even when they aren't throwing Spidey through walls or bashing up city streets. Kirsten Dunst delivers another charming performance, while James Franco takes the Harry Osbourne character through the next step in his tragic arc, pointing straight toward events in the third film. The real surprise is Rosemary Harris as a truly touching Aunt May, who ends up being the emotional backbone of the story. Her speeches to Peter are devastating and resonate throughout the film as the events are played out. Again, it's this kind of attention to character that really makes the series shine. While Spider-Man 2 is a visual feast brimming with action, it never plays dumb to its characters or the audience. Raimi and company have effectively expanded on the world they created, making every scene essential to what has happened before and a building block of what's to come. Eagle-eyed fans will appreciate the nods to various other characters in the universe, the most immediate being Dylan Baker as Dr. Curt Conners (who eventually becomes The Lizard in the comics), along with Daniel Gillies's John Jameson, whose character is a direct setup for canine villain Man-Wolf. However close to perfect the final film is, there are a few things that don't ring so true — Harry Osbourne needs a little more sympathy instead of being angry from the get-go, while Peter's tall and skinny neighbor supplies a great laugh, but doesn't end up serving much of a purpose in the end. Still, those are nitpicks and very well might end up paying off by the time the third movie rolls around. With advanced effects, a much more satisfying Danny Elfman score, and a filmmaker at the top of his game leading the charge, Spider-Man 2 is a classic superhero movie that deserves the near-unanimous praise that it has garnered.

Starsky and Hutch    2 Stars

With Road Trip and Old School, Todd Phillips revealed himself to be a pedestrian imagemaker, but also showed he had the confidence to let funny performers have enough room to do what they do best. Teaming him with the very talented Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller for a big-screen adaptation of Starsky and Hutch must have seemed like a decent idea, but the finished product lacks much spark. The usually potent chemistry between the leads never quite works like it has in the past (Zoolander, Meet the Parents). While their improvisatory banter in this film is generally amusing, it often falls short of actually producing laughs. Vince Vaughn, who provided the best moments in Phillips' Old School, comes off best by playing the bad guy exactly like a '70s TV villain. He makes no effort to break the fourth wall — he is about the only actor not treating the film like a lark. Although the costumes get some decent laughs (the suit Vaughn wears at his daughter's bat mitzvah may be the funniest thing in the film), there is something perfunctory about Starsky & Hutch that makes it seem like an even greater disappointment considering the talent in front of the camera. The end-of-the-film cameos by David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser are handled by the old-timers without a whiff of embarrassment. That may be an indication of what is wrong with the film. A parody as affectionate as this will provide pleasant entertainment for those with a fondness for the source material, but for most people it will fail to produce enough laughs.

The Sweetest Thing     1.5 Stars

Essentially a dimwitted imitation of Theres Something About Mary, this boring and stupid comedy is a waste of both film stock and the talents of Cameron Diaz, who should have known better. Mary achieved heights of comic hilarity because its low-brow jokes were built on a solid foundation of painful but fascinating truths: the deceptions and phony postures of courtship; the unhealthy defining of one's self-worth based on the desirability of a mate; and the selfishness of romance versus the selflessness of real love. Instead of reaching for any such similar narrative depth, screenwriter Nancy Pimental and director Roger Kumble have taken a paint-by-numbers approach in their effort to mimic the success of the Farrelly brothers. Add an ejaculate-related sequence there and a goofy song-and-dance routine here, get the same appealing, Cheshire cat-grinning star of the film you're plagiarizing, and voila, instant smash, right? Wrong, to the tune of a well-deserved box-office haul only about half the project's budget. Hollywood is a factory that exists to manufacture cheap knock-offs of successful or innovative products, so there's nothing inherently criminal about finding inspiration in a hit film. But if filmmakers are going to create a literal carbon copy, they'd better bring at least some original quality or fresh twist to the table, or face the indifference of an audience that is at least sophisticated enough to smell a total rip-off. The sweetest thing about The Sweetest Thing is that the world is unlikely to be inflicted with a sequel.