Friday, 22 June 2018

Movie Review: A United Kingdom (2016)


A biographical romance and historical drama based on a true story, A United Kingdom couples a story of deep love with colonial geopolitical intrigue.

It's 1947, and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is studying law in London, as part of his preparation to take over as King of Bechuanaland, the tiny landlocked British protectorate bordering South Africa. Bechuanaland is being ruled by Seretse's uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) as Regent until Seretse comes of age. At a dance event Seretse meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a humble office assistant. After a whirlwind courtship they fall deeply in love and decide to get married.

He is black, she is white, and this represents a big problem for the South African government, which is embarking on the abhorrent policy of apartheid. Britain needs natural resources from South Africa, and is therefore pressured to scupper the marriage. Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British government representative in Southern Africa, delivers the message to Seretse and Ruth that they are not to wed. But the young lovers are as stubborn as they are in love, and indeed do head off to Bechuanaland as a married couple, setting off a diplomatic crisis that would last for years.

Directed by Amma Asante and written by Guy Hibbert, A United Kingdom is an inspirational story of nation building. While the film is almost too reverential towards the central couple, who are portrayed as essentially without any faults, Asante succeeds in constructing a remarkably gripping tale of love and idealism holding firm against dirty games of global economic convenience.

The film clocks in at 10 minutes under two hours, and Asante packs an exceptional amount of content into the efficient running time. With uniformly brisk pacing, A United Kingdom gallops through the romance, introduces the ominous diplomatic forces lining up against the mixed marriage, follows the couple through their difficult early days in Africa, and delves into the power struggle between Seretse and his uncle. And that's just the first half.

Still to come is a dramatic escalation of British muscle flexing, a heartbreaking separation, a broken  promise that exposes that futility of ever trusting politicians, and invigorating machinations involving natural resource exploration and misrepresentations of government inquiry findings. The film never stands still, and if anything can be accused of all too rarely pausing for reflection. A clever use of contrasting colours maintains the energy level: the African scenes burst with yellows and oranges; the London scenes are more staid and grey.

David Oyelowo owns the film with a domineering performance, whether quietly expressing his resolve or emotionally rallying his countrymen. Rosamund Pike gets relatively fewer scenes to shine, holding steady as the stoically resilient woman and supportive wife.

A United Kingdom deserves plenty of credit for allowing the romance to underpin the story rather than dominate the narrative, and for not shying away from often underrepresented issues of disreputable international diplomacy as practiced by fading colonial powers. A good love is hard to find, but better still is devotion to the land and an unwavering commitment to justice.






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Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Movie Review: Queen Of Katwe (2016)


A rags-to-prominence story, Queen Of Katwe is standard feel-good fare delivered with honest intentions.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl living the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda. Her widowed mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) is poor but principled and doing her best to raise Phiona and her many siblings the right way. One day Phiona stumbles into a ramshackle classroom where volunteer football coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) teaches chess to disadvantaged kids.

Phiona learns chess from scratch and displays a natural talent for the game. She emerges as the most talented of Katende's students, and he starts enrolling the kids in prestigious school chess tournaments, where they have to fight the stigma of being from the slums. Phiona continues to excel and international opportunities open up for her. But on the home front, Nakku's situation becomes dire when the family is evicted for non-payment of rent, Phiona's brother is involved in a motorcycle crash and her older sister falls in with the wrong crowd.

Produced by Disney, directed by Mira Nair and based on a true story, Queen Of Katwe continues the series of based-on-real-events Disney sports-themed films like 2015's McFarland and 2014's Million Dollar Arm. The premise of underprivileged youth finding their calling through an unlikely sports opportunity is an eternal and exhausted cliche, and Queen Of Katwe is essentially predictable from the opening credits to the closing scroll.

But at least Nair and writer William Wheeler do a few things right. The film is almost entirely set in Africa (there is a brief trip to a tournament in Russia), and Nair colours the movie with the bursting, earthy tones of the continent. There is no white saviour in sight, this being a story of black Africans helping black Africans. And for a Disney film, Queen Of Katwe does not shy away from portraying the squalor of the slums. Although the depictions of Phiona's world are still relatively sterilized, issues of homelessness, prostitution, the lack of basic civic infrastructure (like storm sewers) and rudimentary medical care make it to the screen.

Also interesting is the tension that develops when Phiona is exposed to the potential for a better life through her travels and rubbing shoulders with kids from more fortunate backgrounds. She starts to resent her humble surroundings and a chasm opens between her and Nakku.

David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o deliver earnest performances, Oyelowo more reserved and Nyong'o marginally overdoing the motherly anger bit. The rest of the cast is made up of unknowns and amateurs, newcomer Madina Nalwanga serviceable in the central role.

Queen Of Katwe is impossible not to like, and but as entertainment never deviates from lukewarm.






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Monday, 18 June 2018

Movie Review: The Infiltrator (2016)


A thoughtful biographical crime drama, The Infiltrator delves into the murky world of undercover enforcement work targeting ruthless drug cartels.

It's the mid-1908s, and Colombian drugs are flooding into the United States. Veteran Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover as Bob Musella, pretending to be a well-connected businessman capable of laundering illicit money in large quantities. With the help of fellow-agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), Mazur starts with one informant and works his way up to meeting leading cartel member Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his glamorous wife Gloria (Elena Anaya).

Mazur is married to the long-suffering Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), but as part of his cover has to pretend  he has a fiancée. His boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan) arranges for rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) to play the role of bride-to-be, causing more tension with Evelyn. Mazur even recruits his elegant Aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis) to help in the charade. Mazur and Ertz earn the trust of Alcaino and Gloria, leading to difficult decisions as the customs trap prepares to snap shut on the cartel members and their corrupt international financiers.

Directed by Brad Furman and written by Ellen Brown Furman based on Mazur's book of the same name, The Infiltrator is a slick character-based dive into the real world of crime investigations. This is an exposé of honour among barbarous criminals in expensive suits operating from boardrooms, bank headquarters and multi-million dollar apartments, where one word can be the difference between absolute trust and a bullet in the back of the head.

The film does suffer from a slow and marginally disorienting start, with too many characters and incidents introduced too quickly. Once the story settles down, the latches click and the tension ramps up into a gripping thriller shaped around people dedicated to their work on both sides of the law.

Almost by definition Mazur has to distance himself from his real identity to sell his cover. Maintaining trust with Evelyn is essential to his well-being, and yet Mazur has to develop a convincingly affectionate relationship with Ertz, and together they need to appear genuinely close to the Alcainos. The Infiltrator thrives in the milieu of emotional complexity necessary to pull off a dangerous deception.

The Infiltrator does take a few quick detours to short and sharp scenes of violence that serve as reminders of the brutality lurking behind the surface. And there is no shortage of colourful personalities populating the world of large-scale drug smuggling, with the slimy Javier Ospina (Yul Vazquez) in his all-white suits particularly troubling.

At the middle of it all Cranston is excellent as the crusty Mazur, who could retire at any time but insists on finagling his way into the lion's den, his craggy face equally effective reflecting a life invested in enforcement or selling the fake story of money laundering on a grand scale.

The powerful forces of organized and well-resourced crime require a special brand of enforcement, and The Infiltrator deploys courageous chicanery to serve the cause.






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Sunday, 17 June 2018

Movie Review: Steve Jobs (2015)


An honest portrayal of a deeply flawed genius, Steve Jobs presents the portrait of the man through a unique structure, revealing his passion, obsession, and distinctive character traits.

The film is divided into three chapters, each depicting the anxious period just before a key product launch in the remarkable career of Jobs (Michael Fassbender). The same group of people interact with him prior to each presentation:
  • Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his marketing executive and chief confidant. 
  • Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the Apple co-founder, seeking recognition for Apple's early success and navigating a strained relationship with Jobs.
  • John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the executive brought into Apple by Jobs, as well as Jobs' mentor and sometime nemesis.
  • Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), a long-term member of the Apple technical design team.
  • Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Jobs' former girlfriend and the mother of his daughter Lisa.
  • Lisa herself, from child to young adult.
The three product launches are the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which Jobs predicted would be a mass market success (wrong) and revolutionize the industry (eventually right); the first NeXT computer in 1988 after Jobs was ousted from Apple; and the Apple iMac in 1998, after he returned to the company and embarked on a remarkable run of success that transformed Apple into one of the largest and most successful business behemoths in history.

Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Aaron Sorkin and based on the Walter Isaacson book, Steve Jobs is an exhilarating talk fest. A series of rapid fire conversations in the build-up to high-stakes product launches, the film succeeds in highlighting the exhausting essence of a detail-obsessed man who both saw and defined the future of consumer electronics, and never yielded to what was convenient in pursuit of his vision.

The three-chapter structure traces Jobs' nuanced transformation as he ages and is buffeted by the realities of the business world. Although his core beliefs never change, he softens around the edges, listening just a bit more to the often exasperated Joanna, growing more accepting of Lisa's role in his life, and mending a few, if not all, damaged fences, notably with Sculley.

Sorkin's script is brilliant, the prose sharp but not overwhelming. The dialogue, while essentially made up, teases out all aspects of Jobs' insecurities and obstinacy, and the collision of his quirks with his objectives. Sorkin and Boyle never shy away from Jobs' stubborn obsessiveness with details that may not matter to anyone else, with Hertzfeld a regular victim, nor from Jobs' unwillingness to ever share the limelight or open a crack of recognition coveted by Wozniak.

The film also reveals Jobs' streak of ruthlessness in navigating the unforgiving waters of high stakes business, sometimes losing out in a big way (his ouster from Apple), and at other times charting a devious course back to glory (hyping an essentially empty NeXT cube to win an invite back to run Apple).

All the performances are perfect, with Fassbender getting into Jobs' skin and projecting a layer of arrogant confidence covering up a mass of complex unresolved issues. Winslet matches him word for word, comfortably finding Hoffman's courage in recognizing her role as the one person who can sometimes reach an often impossible man.

Steve Jobs is a worthy homage to a reluctant father, dismissive boss, traumatized orphan, friend to very few, unapologetic ideas poacher, and a legend possessing a laser focus on the concept of closed-system designs that would go on to dominate the world.






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Saturday, 16 June 2018

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)


A supernatural horror film, Hereditary takes far too long to unveil what proves to be a limp plot.

Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenaged son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) live in a secluded house in a rural setting. A miniature artist preparing models for an upcoming show, Annie is more relieved than sad when her difficult and mysterious mother Ellen passes away. Ellen was close to Charlie (Milly Shapiro), while Annie has a strained relationship with Peter.

In addition to a history of mental illness and strange deaths in her family, Annie suffers from incidents of sleepwalking. She is further unhinged when she catches glimpses of Ellen's ghostly presence, but then a shocking incident tears the family apart. Annie struggles to cope, but gets some help from the kindly Joan (Ann Dowd), a member of a support group who claims that she can teach Annie to be a medium and conjure up the dead.

Directed and written by Ari Aster, Hereditary clocks in at a laborious two hours. And while the initial investment in characters and family dynamics is promising and appreciated, eventually the film comprehensively collapses under the weight of all set-up and no pay-off. A threat of some sort has to emerge to sustain the horror, but Aster leaves it all too late, and the tension is long gone by the time the film starts to bother to explain itself.

Finally, in the closing 15 minutes, really bad things start to happen, but the mumbo jumbo that passes for an explanation barely registers, and the impact is minimal. What is supposed to be climactic horror instead evokes "whatever" shrugs and threatens to descend into unintentional laughs.

Annie's dedication to her miniature art offers interesting cinematography opportunities but is ultimately discarded as a narrative theme. A fully invested Toni Collette performance is wasted, while the rest of the cast is largely dreary, with only young Milly Shapiro able to inject a healthy dose of spookiness.

Hereditary's best horror moment occurs relatively early, an unexpected and violent loss that doubles down on Annie's agony. The distraught mother at her darkest hour should have been a powerful premise, but presented with an opportunity to genuinely frazzle, Hereditary fizzles instead.






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Movie Review: Miami Vice (2006)


A big-screen adaptation of the 1980s television hit series, Miami Vice is slow, moody, overcomplicated and disjointed.

In Miami, undercover police detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) interrupt an investigation of human traffickers when their former informant Alonzo (John Hawkes) tangles with brutal white supremacist drugs and weapons distributors and two undercover FBI agents end up dead. With his security operation compromised, the FBI's John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) recruits Sonny and Rico to infiltrate the Colombian drug cartels and uncover the Miami distribution network.

The cops create a high speed air and sea transportation business as their cover to sell services to the illegal narcotics industry. In Haiti they connect with middleman smuggler José Yero (John Ortiz) and his mysterious partner Isabella (Gong Li) and are soon transporting drugs into the US. Yero never fully trusts Cockett, who quickly instigates a steamy romance with Isabella, the go-between with reclusive drug cartel kingpin Montoya (Luis Tosar). When the Aryan Brotherhood goons kidnap Rico's girlfriend Trudy (Naomie Harris) to gain leverage, a violent showdown looms.

Directed and written by Michael Mann, Miami Vice is a pretentious mess. A kaleidoscope of vivid colours, silhouettes, cool threads, fast cars and pretty scenery cannot hide the total absence of chemistry between Sonny and Rico, who come across as strangers to each others rather than partners. Worse still is a plot that drowns in convulsions of its own makings and takes forever to gain traction, with no character depth on either side of the law.

Just when Mann appears to be gaining a handle on the material he loses all momentum with a distracting, laborious and unconvincing romance between Crockett and Isabella, who share even less chemistry than Crockett and Tubbs. The romance is so poorly conceived it's never even clear whether the lovers are playing each other or genuinely in love, and the lack of clarity is far from intentional.

And it all ends in a shootout that negates the endless two hours that went before it. Miami Vice sets up a complex police investigation supposedly to gain evidence to arrest and convict, but ends in a free-for-all bloodbath. While the climax is admittedly well executed, if it was going to be ok to shoot up the joint, then creating painstaking undercover work was a waste of everybody's time.

Miami Vice commits a cardinal sin: converting a fun and sleek concept into an outright bore.






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Movie Review: The Founder (2016)


A fast-paced and surprisingly engaging story about empire building in post-war America, The Founder explores the origins of one of the world's most iconic food brands.

It's 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) has spent his career as a traveling salesman, often neglecting his wife Ethel (Laura Dern). Now he is trying to sell modern milkshake machines to restaurants, with little success. When he unexpectedly receives an order for eight machines from one restaurant in San Bernardino, he drives over to investigate.

He finds an enormously popular local restaurant called McDonald's, serving standardized burgers, fries and shakes in large volumes, thanks to a fine-tuned food production system devised by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald.

Ray spots a business opportunity for rapid expansion and franchising across the country. The brothers are reluctant, especially Dick. But they eventually offer Ray a strict contract to head up expansion efforts while they maintain control over every decision. After a slow start Ray hits on a formula combining the efficient food production system with a family-run ethos, but his plans for rapid success are thwarted by the conservative brothers.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Founder is a warts-and-all look at the brilliant businessman who invented fast food burger chains, and a refreshing business story that is mostly about business, rather than any contrived romance or character quirks. Kroc spotted the opportunity within the food production system conceived by the McDonalds brothers, and his genius was to extrapolate one elegant concept, designed to produce consistent food fast, into a business behemoth.

The Founder reveals the sharp claws and ruthless attitude needed to create a big-time business. Far from a puff piece, the Robert D. Siegel script is unblinking when it comes to Kroc's character. This is a relentless man with oceans of persistence and no limits on ambition, hardened by years on the road having doors slammed in his face. Comfortable ignoring and often belittling his wife, he first charms Mac and Dick and later plays extreme hardball to gain control of the chain that holds their name -- all with a smarmy smile. Neither squeamish nor necessarily principled, when it's time to trample on others, Kroc is in his real element.

The Founder could have done more to flesh out some of Kroc's allies and associates who helped him thrive. Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) gets one pivotal scene, reorienting Kroc's focus from restaurants to real estate, but otherwise disappears. Long-time partner Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke) barely registers. Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) fares better as the woman who catches his eye as his expansion plans catch fire.

In the central role Michael Keaton is full of energy, and marginally overacts. John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman counterbalance Keaton's animation with laid-back representations of old-fashioned (and soon endangered) values.

Ray Krok generated immense wealth from selling mass-produced junk food using someone else's invented process. The Founder is an astute microcosm of what it takes to will the American dream into reality.






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Thursday, 14 June 2018

Movie Review: Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005)


A comedy action thriller, Mr. And Mrs. Smith enjoys tremendous chemistry between its two stars, a high-energy attitude, and a sharp script.

John Smith (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) are a married couple. Both are assassins-for-hire and they keep their profession hidden from each other. Five or six years into the marriage, the layering of secrets is straining their relationship. Things get worse when they are independently tasked to kill the same target, and then instructed to take each other out.

Jane Smith: [after firing three shots through a wall at John] Still alive, baby?

The premise cannot be any simpler, and yet director Doug Liman, working from a Simon Kinberg script, creates an exceptionally enjoyable movie out of it. Mr. And Mrs. Smith is a tongue-in-cheek joyride through the world of professional assassins and domesticity, and indeed the entire film works as a commentary on the doldrums that beset a marriage and how to overcome them.

John Smith: [over the car phone, trying to beat Jane home] That's the second time you've tried to kill me today.
Jane Smith: [over her speakerphone, trying to beat John home] Oh, come on, it was just a little bomb.

At two hours long the film does threaten to overstay its welcome, but Liman methodically goes about organizing the story into three parts. The introduction sets up the premise and the business of secret professional killing hidden from a wobbly marriage. The middle third is all about Mr. and Mrs. Smith gunning for each other. The final segment has them sorting out their issues and driving towards a raucous conclusion.

John Smith: We have an unusual problem here, Jane. You obviously want me dead, and I'm less and less concerned for your well-being.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ignite Mr. And Mrs. Smith with ferocious chemistry. From their opening meeting in Bogota to the final beautifully choreographed wild shootout, Pitt and Smith share a smooth rapport, whether exchanging edgy barbs, trading bullets, or enjoying sizzling sex. The stellar supporting cast includes Vince Vaughn, Kerry Washington, Adam Brody, Keith David and Michelle Monaghan, but none of them get more than a few token scenes: this is very much the Pitt and Jolie show.

John Smith: [after firing a rocket launcher] We should so not be allowed to buy these.

The action scenes are over-the-top, elegantly directed, and spiced with a steady stream of verbal sparring. Touches of humour are applied in just the right doses, serving as reminders that the film does not take itself too seriously.

John Smith: [after Jane checks his crotch for a weapon] That's all John, sweetheart.

It’s always better for a couple to cooperate towards a common purpose. For Mr. And Mrs. Smith, killing is their business, and business is better together.






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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Movie Review: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


A comedy about family and dashed dreams, The Royal Tenenbaums introduces plenty of peculiar characters but drowns them in uninspiring incompetence.

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) separates from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), shocking their three young kids Chas, Richie and the adopted Margot. Each of the children possesses genius talent: Chas in business, Richie in tennis and Margot in writing. Meanwhile, Richie's best friend Eli's spends all his hours with the Tenenbaums.

Twenty two years later a financially broke but still upbeat Royal learns that Etheline may be falling in love with her accountant Henry (Danny Glover), and reappears at the family home to try and win back her love and make amends with the children.

The now-grown kids are not doing so well. Richie (Luke Wilson) is a has-been tennis prodigy after suffering an on-court meltdown during a competitive match; Chas (Ben Stiller) has become paranoid after losing his wife in a fire, and the still morose Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is stuck in a miserable marriage with Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and having an affair with Eli (Owen Wilson).

Directed by Wes Anderson and exquisitely photographed by Robert Yeoman, The Royal Tenenbaums features character quantity and compositional splendour but not narrative quality. While the film exhibits all the typical Anderson quirkiness, the various plot threads never weave together, and the story idles rather than thrives.

The opening is promising, and the emerging potential of genius kids offers no shortage of possibilities. But after the time jump the children emerge as adults who never blossomed, and The Royal Tenenbaums has nowhere to go. Despite a game cast there is limited enjoyment to be found in watching multiple wasted lives weighed down by the luggage of broken hearts, decades-long grudges, neglect and unmet expectations, but this is where the film resides, and no amount of attempted dry humour can save it.

The script lacks a cutting edge, the dialogue is listless, and the characters range from boring to irritating, with none likeable. Attempts to inject some drama and humour include two men (other than her husband) in love with Margot, a suicide attempt, and a brief Benny Hill-style madcap chase. None succeed in enlivening proceedings.

The cast members pose rather than act, in typical Anderson fashion precise symmetrical scene composition more important than individual showiness. The Royal Tenenbaums is always intriguing to look at, but more as a series of paintings than an engaging movie.






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Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Movie Review: Acts Of Violence (2018)


A dumb action thriller, Acts Of Violence is underproduced, badly written and blandly executed.

In Cleveland, Deklan MacGregor (Cole Hauser) is an army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His brothers Brandon (Shawn Ashmore) and Roman MacGregor (Ashton Holmes) are better adjusted, with Brandon married to Jessa (Tiffany Brouwer) and Roman engaged to Mia (Melissa Bolona).

When Mia goes out to party with her girlfriends, she insults goons working for human trafficker Max (Mike Epps). Soon Mia is abducted and held in captivity. Deklan rallies his brothers to mount a paramilitary rescue operation, while detectives James Avery (Bruce Willis) and Brooke Baker (Sophia Bush) try to keep up with the escalating violence.

Directed by Brett Donowho, Acts Of Violence is a soulless and witless grade Z flick, stultifyingly familiar and routine. The production values are at the basic television level, with the film apparently shot in 15 days, and Willis on set for a grand total of one day.

Despite the obvious lack of polish, Donowho deserves some credit for delivering coherent, jerk-free action sequences, amidst a ridiculous plot full of holes, a complete absence of character depth, wooden acting, and stock dialogue.

The attempts to introduce familial ties as an emotional anchor flounder on the rocks of insincerity, while the PTSD theme is introduced in the first scene and then essentially ignored. While cheap action films will always be around, it is sad to see the once mighty Bruce Willis reduced to this.






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