Sunday, 22 May 2016

Movie Review: The Turning Point (1977)

A melodrama in the world of ballet, The Turning Point has little to say, repeats itself endlessly, and then settles for a series of excruciatingly tiresome ballet-on-film sequences.

The American Ballet Company arrives in Oklahoma City on a tour stop, prompting a reunion between principle dancer Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft) and her childhood friend DeeDee Rogers (Shirley MacLaine). DeeDee may or may not have been good enough to compete for top roles with Emma, but she settled for a life of domesticity after getting pregnant and marrying fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt). While Emma achieved the pinnacle of ballet stardom, DeeDee and Wayne became dance teachers and raised three children, including the talented Emilia (Leslie Browne).

DeeDee never came to terms with her decision to walk away from the potential world of glamour, but is pleased when Emma spots the potential in Emilia and invites her to join the Company. DeeDee relocates to New York as Emilia's career begins to take off, leading to continued friction between DeeDee and Emma, whose own career is fading fast. Meanwhile Emilia begins to discover what it takes to get to the top, and starts a relationship with the charismatic Russian dancer Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov).

Directed by Herbert Ross and loosely based on the true-life story of Leslie Browne (who effectively plays herself), the goddaughter of Ross' wife Nora Kaye, The Turning Point holds some interest through the dance career versus family debate, but the conflict is set early and never evolves. The characters of DeeDee and Emma are who they are; they are introduced in the first 20 minutes and never evolve. DeeDee grinds on, endlessly bringing up the past and unable to moved beyond her own decisions from decades prior. Emma is the steely-eyed diva who seized her chance and never looked back. Despite the best efforts of Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, over two hours the women never progress in any meaningful way.

Which leaves Ross with plenty of time to kill, and he defaults to filming ballet sequence after ballet sequence. Watching ballet in the theatre is sufficient drudgery, but the live experience at least adds some drama. Watching ballet on film kills any narrative momentum dead in its tracks, and The Turning Point is padded with a solid 30 minutes of stage-bound performances that have nothing to do with the story, complete with on-screen captions introducing the piece, the music and the choreography. The film morphs into an education and attempted celebration of an art form for ballet fans, leaving behind everyone else. MacLaine and Bancroft are more often than not reduced to painfully fake reaction shots.

In a moment of mass imbecility, somehow the film garnered an incredible eleven Academy Award nominations, the most egregious going to the supporting performances by Browne (wooden) and Baryshnikov (who dances a lot but does not act all) for playing versions of themselves and doing little else. The writing nomination is also beyond belief, the Arthur Laurents script unable to create anything resembling an arc for any of the characters, and resorting to a butt-slapping cat fight between middle aged women. Fortunately the Academy came to its collective senses in time and the film was comprehensively and deservedly shut-out on Awards night.

In MacLaine and Bancroft The Turning Point has classy actresses in the lead roles doing their best. They are thoroughly smothered by the tutus, the ballet shoes and the uninspired drama stretching in vain to justify a cinematic experience.

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Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)

A deep-space science fiction horror adventure, Prometheus builds up towards some tense moments with a space crew searching for superior alien beings who may have created humanity. But despite a glossy production, the film's lofty themes are not matched by shoddy characterizations and perfunctory expositions.

In the year 2089, scientists and lovers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover ancient caves in Scotland denoting alien shapes and a star map. The imagery matches others found throughout the world, leading Shaw and Holloway to conclude that aliens, dubbed The Engineers, created humankind. Aging billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), seeking the secret to eternal life, is enthralled enough to fund an expedition to make contact with humanity's creators.

By 2093, the Weyland-funded spaceship Prometheus arrives near the destination planet. Shaw and Holloway lead the scientific expedition and are accompanied by a motley crew of other experts and explorers. The icy cold Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) commands the mission with authoritative zeal, and the vessel is captained by the more laid back Janek (Idris Elba). The robot-in-charge is David (Michael Fassbender), and he keeps the ship functioning until the crew awakens. They land and start to explore the planet's surface, finding dome-shaped installations seemingly built by the Engineers. But there are also signs that the Engineers themselves ran into trouble, and the Prometheus crew is soon threatened by internal strife as well as a horrific external menace.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Prometheus is a prequel-of-sorts to Alien, but with a more philosophical focus. The film never quite decides what it wants to be, and ends up as an uneven mishmash of origins-of-life philosophy, creature-versus-human battles for survival, and petty human conflicts. The aesthetics are gorgeous on the alien planet surface, and there are moments of effective and yucky-gooey horror, but the film is sold short by a script that truncates thoughtfulness in a rush to create conflict.

The film introduces concepts related to no less than the creation of humanity and the relationship between the creator and the created. But lacking proper courage to delve into its own themes, the conversation is limited to ancient scrawls on cave walls, and a few dialogue exchanges that barely go beyond the superficial. The extent of explaining the entire thesis behind a superior race creating humanity resides with interpretations of ancient carvings, a quite dubious premise on which to launch a trillion dollar expedition.

Instead of exploring big ideas with conviction, the script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) hurriedly seeks villains with an agenda, and populates the crew with excitable and cursory characters lacking in depth and context rushing to betray one another and unleash predictable surprises.

The year may be 2093, but scientific rigour and on-board procedures have taken many steps backwards. The Prometheus crew is made up of unconvincing scientists, technicians and assorted victims-to-be. Discipline is the first casualty even before any threats appear, and the slipshod trampling over dangerous artifacts and mishandling of potentially deadly foreign matter denotes a script rushing to set-pieces and leaving large plot holes in its wake. And when they arrive, many of the highlights appear to mimic the better moments from Alien.

Shaw gets a sketched-in background story, and Noomi Rapace is effective as the most empathetic of the characters, often holding the film together. She also enjoys the most memorable moment, an impromptu self-administered emergency surgery. Michael Fassbender is also good as David the robot-in-human-form, but his secretive machinations are derivative and occasionally cross the line into ludicrous mad-scientist villainy.

Prometheus is one third interesting science, one third questionable ideology, and one third character interaction balderdash.

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Movie Review: The Siege (1998)

A New York City under martial law terrorism thriller, The Siege is a weird combination of the prescient and the ridiculous.

The CIA in cooperation with U.S. Army General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) caries out the extra-judicial abduction and extradition of Sheik Akhmed bin Talal, the accused mastermind behind a spate of terrorist attacks against US interests. The Sheik's supporters, working out of various Brooklyn-based cells, initiate a terrorism campaign in New York City to secure his release, including blowing up a bus full of civilians. FBI Agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and his Lebanese-born partner Agent Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) try to make sense of the attacks but are kept in the dark by CIA officer Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), who hovers around the investigation both helping and hindering Hub's work.

Elise eventually reveals to Hub that she controls an agent with contacts among the terrorists, a man named Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila). Before Hub can do enough to disrupt the cells, more attacks are unleashed and civilians casualties mount, causing an uproar across the country. The calls for the army to be deployed in New York intensify, leading to a confrontation between Devereaux and Hubbard.

Directed by Edward Zwick, The Siege was released three years before the events of September 11, 2001. As such, the film deserves credit for predicting a lot of what happens when a country and a city are placed in the cross hairs of terrorists. The backlash against the Muslim community, the demands to throw immigrants out of the country, the illegal torture of suspects, and the hysteria that leads to the erosion of civil liberties all actually did happen in various forms after 9/11, and here Zwick and his team of three screenwriters capture close variations of the same.

Much less successful are the characterizations and some of the depictions of conflict between various arms of a government under crisis. The Siege is quick to have the FBI, the CIA and the Army at each others' throats, issuing threats with guns and rifles drawn, and arresting and incarcerating each other. While there are always jurisdictional turf wars, tensions and finger pointing, The Siege carries this element to ludicrous extremes and starts to lose credibility as soon as Hubble and Elise fail to communicate at the most basic level.

And in general, the characters are quite one-dimensional despite an impressive cast. Annette Bening gets the most to work with as Elise gradually reveals a backstory inspired by the 1990-91 Gulf War, but otherwise there is little depth to Hubbard, Haddad and Devereaux. Also lacking is any thoughtful context to the acts of terrorism as spoken by the perpetrators. They remain silent and faceless killers, their agenda and motivations filled in by others.

The Siege does enjoy well-polished moments of tension and urban horror as cruel atrocities are committed against an urban population. The depictions of the US Army as a blunt instrument that only knows to crudely trample on whatever terrain it is deployed to also ring true. In tackling the thorny issue of how to react to bloodthirsty terrorists without resorting to their tactics, the film manages to be prophetic and preposterous in equal measures..

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Movie Review: The Killers (1964)

A taut noir thriller, The Killers is a crisp, violent mystery. The story of two hitmen seeking the background story of their latest victim is a captivating journey through doomed romance, greed and betrayal.

Professional killers Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) stride into a school for the blind and shoot dead instructor Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who doesn't even try to avoid them. Charlie is intrigued by Johnny's behaviour, and although he knows better than to ask questions about his targets, he initiates a quest to find out more, fuelled by rumours that Johnny was involved in a heist of $1 million.

Charlie: It's not only the money. Maybe we get that and maybe we don't. But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run... why, all of a sudden, he'd rather die.

Charlie and Lee travel to Miami, where they meet Johnny's former partner, a car mechanic named Earl (Claude Akins). In a flashback he reveals that Johnny was a promising race car driver whose career was derailed when he fell madly in love with the ravishing Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), a rich girl looking for a distraction. Sheila's sugar daddy is the shadowy and very rich businessman Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). Charlie and Lee next travel to New Orleans to meet Browning's associate Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), who is now running a gym. In another flashback he recounts a subsequent tale about the carefully planned theft of a mail truck, which reignited the passion between Sheila and Johnny, much to Browning's chagrin.

Charlie: Whoever laid this contract wasn't worried about the million dollars, and the only people that don't worry about a million dollars are the people that have a million dollars.

Directed by Don Siegel as a loose adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story, The Killers started life as a made-for-television production. Due to uncompromising levels of violence, it turned into a cinematic release, and a terrific modern film noir. Helped enormously by an in-your-face attitude oozing icy coolness generated by the slick personalities of Charlie (unflappable) and Lee (playful), the film sprints through its 93 minutes of running time, not wasting a moment as the story of lust, crime and double cross unfolds simultaneously in the past and the present.

The Gene L. Coon script lines up most of the classic noir elements and executes perfectly. The film opens with a quick murder, Sheila is a perfect femme fatale capable of making any man bend to her will, Johnny is the ideal sap filled with passion but insufficient control, and Browning represents the shadowy power broker hiding behind a facade of respectability. Siegel adds plenty of oblique angles to complement the edgy action and witty dialogue.

A large part of the film centres on Johnny as an ace car driver, and the on-track and off-road action adds to the manic pace of the film. Siegel pushes rear-projection technology to its limit, and if the film has a weakness it resides in an ambition to capture exciting in-vehicle angles not matched by the available budget.

Siegel assembled what turned into a terrific cast. Lee Marvin finally received his first top billing as Charlie the thoughtful hitman, and he makes a lasting impression as the silver haired cerebral man of action. Clu Gulager almost steals every scene he's in as the younger sidekick Lee, both his dialogue and antics hinting at hyperactivity channeled in lethal directions. Angie Dickinson is a perfect fit as the femme fatale capable of breaking hearts and manipulating minds to further whatever agenda pleases her. And John Cassavetes pushes the intensity needle to its limit, as a racing driver with a wrecked career and a wounded heart.

The supporting cast is deep and effective. Ronald Reagan (in his last film role) gets to play his first villain, and proves to be a surprisingly effective bad guy. Claude Akins and Norman Fell get bigger than usual roles and deliver better than usual performances.

Browning: I approve of larceny; homicide is against my principles.

The Killers will not be satisfied until they get to the bottom of the story: why did Johnny North accept his death so meekly, and what happened to the missing million dollars. The road to all the answers is fast, frantic and littered with victims.

Charlie, to Sheila: Lady, I don't have the time.

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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Movie Review: McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971)

A different kind of Western, McCabe And Mrs. Miller features two flawed characters trying to carve out a better life through entrepreneurial instincts. The setting, aesthetics and grim realism create a memorable and unique visual experience.

Professional gambler McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into a small ramshackle mining town in the dreary Northwest and senses an opportunity to make some money. Noting the near total absence of women to satisfy the frustrated men, he imports three whores and sets up prostitution tents. But McCabe, who may or may not have a background of having killed a man, is not thinking big enough. Professional prostitute and sharp businesswoman Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town and convinces him to partner with her to build a classy saloon with baths, gambling and high class rooms for a larger number of prostitutes.

Constance, who also has a love for opium, brings in a gaggle of whores from Seattle, McCabe fronts the money, and the saloon is built. The business initially struggles but eventually thrives, while McCabe and Constance become a couple of sorts, although she holds on to her sex-for-money ethos. Their success attracts the attention of a mining corporation represented by businessmen Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland). They offer a large amount of money for McCabe to sell all his holdings, setting off a series of events that will challenge all of McCabe's skills.

Directed and co-written by Robert Altman and filmed in British Columbia, McCabe And Mrs. Miller steers clear of all traditional Western elements. There is no quest, no heroism, no revenge motive, no wrong that needs to be righted, no journey towards redemption, no sheriffs, no outlaws, and for the first two thirds of the film, not even a conflict to speak of. Instead Altman focuses on the struggle of unremarkable individuals to just live and create a business, perhaps one of the more realistic portrayals of common life in frontier territory.

Coupled with the unique subject matter, Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond create a a washed-out aesthetic, the negative somewhere between sepia-toned and destroyed beyond repair, with the intention of creating a visual experience evocative of pictures from the era. It works. Combined with Pacific coast rain, mud, snow and general grey bleakness, McCabe And Mrs. Miller is distinctively dreary.

Not everything about the film is as successful. The lack of drama and tension takes a toll, the interesting but limited characters of McCabe and Constance only able to carry the film so far. The audio soundtrack pursues realism by featuring plenty of mumbling, simultaneous talking and a general abundance of background noise. And the secondary characters barely make an impact. Many of the men and whores populating the emerging town of Presbyterian Church are interchangeable beneath their bedraggled clothes and layers of grime. The cast includes the likes of René Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine and William Devane.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie bring to life two enduring characters. McCabe is one of the best fits with Beatty's persona, and he keeps his sex appeal in check by underscoring the shades of dimwittedness within the character. Christie creates in Constance a no-nonsense prostitute with a nose for business, and that is all she wants to reveal. McCabe tries hard to create a meaningful relationship between them, but Constance knows enough to set hard boundaries.

McCabe And Mrs. Miller ends with the shadow of capitalism creeping across the West. Corporations move in, the big look to swallow the small, and men of modest means will have to understand their role. Finally there are good guys stripped of legends, bad guys cashing a pay cheque, and shootouts in the snow. It all takes place away from the public eye, as one difficult era draws to a close and the more surreptitious age of company dominance through questionable tactics slithers towards the ocean.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

Movie Review: Bugsy (1991)

An uneven biography of Ben "Bugsy" Siegel's later years, Bugsy tries to turn a mobster into a visionary and a lover, and succeeds only in patches.

It's the early 1940s, and charismatic criminal Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) is dispatched by his gang to open new territories in California. Despite advice from his lifelong crime partner Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to adopt a slow and low-key approach, Siegel wastes no time in flashing his money around Los Angeles and taking control of the local extortion rackets, including recruiting his main rival Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) as his chief lieutenant.

Through his connection with childhood friend George (a reference to actor George Raft, portrayed by Joe Mantegna), Bugsy also falls in love with the Hollywood scene. He is immediately infatuated with starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), who has a long history of association with gangsters and assorted semi-celebrities. She initially plays hard to get but eventually they become a couple, despite Siegel being married to Esta (Wendy Phillips).

Bugsy then divides his time between managing a criminal empire, sometimes with extreme brutality, and juggling domestic duties with one wife, two kids and one lover. He eventually turns his attention to the Nevada desert, where he imagines the possibility of opening a resort offering gambling, sex and luxury accommodation. But the Flamingo resort proves to be easy to envision but difficult to build, straining all of Bugsy's relationships.

That the movie is called Bugsy while the main character seethes in anger against any use of that nickname is a hint of the problems that nibble away at the film's intentions. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by James Toback, Bugsy was a long-term Warren Beatty project, who saw an intriguing subject matter in the cold blooded killer who got involved in the early business of building Las Vegas. He is a dreamer seeking love to fill the void in his soul caused by wanton violence; he is also a goofy family man, a fast talker, and a bad businessman with no sense for money. Unfortunately Levinson and Toback get lost in the puzzle of a complex man, and the film never latches onto a worthwhile arc.

Trying too hard to soften the man's edges, the film ignores Bugsy's formative years as a cold-blooded hitman. Beatty's magnetism instead shifts the focus to creating a likeable guy who falls hard for an alluring woman and then pursues an enigmatic vision. The romance elements occupy the centre of the film and take far too long, with occasional jarring interruptions for scenes demonstrating Siegel's propensity for extreme anger. In pursuit of a fiction better than fact, compared to the real story the film overplays Bugsy's role in initiating the Flamingo project.

Beatty and Bening became a real-life couple soon after the film's release, and they do share unquestionable on-screen chemistry. Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley are serviceable but offer little beyond typical grim gangster traits. Elliott Gould has a couple of pivotal scenes as a none-too-bright Siegel associate who evolves from dimwit to a real problem.

Ennio Morricone contributes one of his least memorable scores, the emphasis on romance undermining any attempts to build rousing music worthy of a grand criminal enterprise. The film does look magnificent, with rich colours and lavish wardrobes capturing the glamour of Los Angeles at the height of the studio era.

Bugsy is a glossy but episodic effort, often stumbling over itself as it oscillates wildly between the red mist of bloodthirsty outrage and the soft glow of cutesy romance.

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Sunday, 15 May 2016

Movie Review: Money Monster (2016)

A hostage thriller, Money Monster addresses the collision between television celebrity business advice and the real world where investment decisions can have ruinous implications.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) hosts the weekly live Money Monster show on cable television where he dishes out stock investment tips in a glib flash-and-dash format. The more grounded Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is his producer, and she stitches the show together despite Lee's often juvenile antics. During live filming, the stage is invaded by Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), a deeply disturbed man waving a gun. He forces Lee to put on an explosive vest and insists that the cameras keep rolling.

Kyle is upset that he followed Lee's advice on a previous show and invested all his life savings in the stock of a company called IBIS Global Capital, run by CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West), who has now disappeared. IBIS stock promptly tanked when the company lost $800 million due to a so-called algorithm glitch. Live on-air, Kyle rails against the corrupt system. With Patty communicating through his earpiece, Lee regains his composure and tries to buy time by trying to find answers as to what really went wrong with the stock. The solution to the mystery of the missing millions passes through IBIS Chief of Communications Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), as well as an algorithm expert in Seoul, hackers in Iceland, and a miners' strike in South Africa.

Directed by Jodie Foster, Money Monster works well when it's within the confines of the television studio. With an unstable Kyle hijacking the show, Lee's world flashing before his eyes and Patty trying to maintain some semblance of control, Foster constructs a taut story that gives a face to the victims of stock market machinations and exposes the shallow world of television punditry. The film maintains a steady current of tension, with the aggressor's instability invading the carefully crafted world of slick marketing, and just the right drizzle of humour injected to keep the drama in check.

The script (co-written by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden) works its way to the uncomfortable foundations of the modern system of capitalism. Honest blue collar working men like Kyle are the recession victims, and their only mistake is trusting the make-believe world of charlatans like Lee Gates, a modern-day snake oil salesman. Walt Camby is revered for creating wealth by transferring money using inexplicable software, and while he is the celebrity of the business world men like Kyle simply pay the price in wrecked lives.

The parts of the film away from the studio are not as impressive. Foster takes brief sojourns to Asia, Europe and Africa to underline the interconnected modern world of global finance, but these scenes end up being mere snippets. The final third breaks out of the studio completely with the quest for answers spilling into the streets of Manhattan, and the film starts to unfortunately resemble a contrived Bruce Willis type action film.

The two central performances are excellent and never flag. George Clooney and Julia Roberts, despite sharing few scenes together, exude smooth star charisma and confidence. Clooney's wattage translates perfectly to the cocky personality of Lee Gates, forced through the hostage ordeal to see himself as others see him. Roberts' calm performance allows Patty to emerge as the one voice of reason is a world gone quite mad in pursuit of riches and revenge. Jack O'Connell is suitably unhinged, giving Kyle depth as a man seeking apologies and answers, but not without faults of his own.

In a world where money is virtual and no questions are asked as long as wealth is created out of thin air, Money Monster has no heroes, just victims and charlatans.

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Saturday, 14 May 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)

An alien invasion science fiction extravaganza, Independence Day packs a globe-full of carnage into the story of yucky invaders intent on destroying Earth, and the human efforts to repel them.

With July 4th approaching, a menacing armada of mammoth alien spaceships arrives over Earth, disrupts all satellite communications and takes up station above major cities. US President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former air force pilot, is unsure of the aliens' motives and whether or not to order an evacuation. His advisors include the stoic General William Grey (Robert Loggia), excitable Secretary of Defense Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn) and Communications Director Constance Spano (Margaret Colin).

Constance's former husband is David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an intellectually gifted MIT graduate whose lack of ambition has landed him a job as a satellite technician at a television station. David decodes the aliens' inter-fleet communication signal, revealing their countdown towards a massive hostile attack. David and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch) rush to the White House to try and warn the President. In Los Angeles, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is a cocky air force pilot, debating whether to propose to long-term girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), an exotic dancer. He interrupts his vacation and reports back to base upon witnessing the alien spaceship above LA.

The aliens do indeed attack as predicted by David, causing massive loss of life and the destruction of entire cities. The President is hustled off on Air Force One, but the First Lady (Mary McDonnell) isn't so lucky. Hiller joins an air force counterattack, but the advanced technology of the invaders proves too strong. President Whitmore faces a monumental challenge to save the human species, and the path to unlocking an effective military counter strategy passes through the government's secretive Area 51 facility in the Nevada desert.

Directed by Roland Emmerich, Independence Day is a throwback to 1950s style humans vs. aliens sci-fi thrillers. With the advantage of glitzy special effects and charming actors radiating heroism, the film rides a cool groove of action and devastation, set against end-of-the-world excitement. The film takes its time in the first 30 minutes to establish an interesting set of characters, and once the aliens reveal their intent, Emmerich kicks off more than two hours of merriment and mayhem around a simple question: how will humans fight back when faced with nothing less than a surprise war of annihilation with superior extraterrestrials.

For all the sound, fury and glib one-liners, not all of Independence Day is as slick as it would like to be. The scenes of massive spaceships hovering over cities are impressive, but never quite satisfying with the enemy craft rarely fully defined. In general the computer-generated scenes of destruction are hit-and-miss, with the scale sometimes appearing suspect. To maintain family-friendliness there is a notable absence of corpses in scenes where survivors stumble through the wreckage of cities reduced to rubble. The technological key to defeating the aliens, once found, is barely explained, with star charisma expected to be more important than even an iota of scientific discourse.

The romance elements are standard fare for the genre without getting too much in the way, while the independence day hokum about the rebirth of humanity on America's birthday is adequate for easily excitable patriotic young minds, but is best not dwelled upon.

But star charisma is what Independence Day is all about, and the combination of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum does not disappoint. Smith oozes star power, gets the best lines and the snappiest attitude, and emerges as a hero as both an ace pilot and a man sticking by his exotic dancer girlfriend. Goldblum plays perfectly off his persona as the geeky-but-potentially-cool science guy cultivated around The Fly and Jurassic Park. Bill Pullman is adequate but lands in more bland territory compared to his two co-stars.

The secondary cast adds plenty of texture and is better than the regulation stock characters. Robert Loggia adds stature as the General standing by the side of the President, James Rebhorn is his counterweight as a Secretary of Defence playing politics at the wrong time, and Judd Hirsch get an expanded presence as David's slightly overwhelmed but still thoughtful father. Randy Quaid achieves one his better supporting roles as an alcoholic crop duster with a colourful history related to the aliens, and eventually finds his inner Slim Pickens.

Flashy and furiously fun, Independence Day has much to celebrate.

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Monday, 9 May 2016

Movie Review: A Hologram For The King (2016)

A truncated drama and romance, A Hologram For The King plays with a smattering of potentially interesting ideas and does little with most of them.

Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is an experienced but down-on-his-luck salesperson who has lost his house and divorced his wife in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Now working for a technology company, Clay is sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch a major sale of holographic teleconferencing equipment. Once in the Kingdom, Clay suffers from jet lag and is exposed to culture shock and the slow pace of doing business, with appointments not met and promises not kept. He is helped to a degree by driver/guide Yousef (Alexander Black), who is suffering through his own personal crisis, and Danish consultant Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who has more experience in navigating local customs.

Clay is also struggling with a lumpy growth on his back, a condition that finally forces him to seek the help of Doctor Zahra Hakim (Sarita Choudhury). She is also going through a divorce, and the two connect and start to explore the potential for romance. But in a conservative society with its own set of rules, Alan will have challenges ahead in both his business and personal quests.

Directed and written by Tom Tykwer, A Hologram For The King introduces several intriguing themes but fails to find a compelling voice. Alan Clay's past failures are featured in tiny snippets that hint at his failed marriage and regrettable previous business decisions (he relocated a bicycle manufacturing business to China), but these are at best sketched-in headlines with no depth.

The culture shock angle gets the most exposition, but is ultimately left floundering. It's never clear if the film is trying to be factual, disrespectful or judgemental of Saudi culture. Yousef the driver is intended as a gateway to explaining local customs and gets plenty of screen time, including a visit to his ancestral village, but his story ends in an unconvincing whimper. The entire interaction with Hanne appears and vanishes like a hallucinatory desert mirage.

The romance is handled better. Although the serious parts of the relationship with Zahra arrive late, the bonding progresses quickly and there are some pleasing moments of maturity in observing two life-hardened adults as they navigate their way to much-needed relief and pleasure.

Tom Hanks is the main reason to watch A Hologram For The King, and he gives a typically dependable performance. Despite the limited material, Hanks infuses depth into the character, and is convincing in portraying the bottled up frustration of a man close to the limit but forced to push for one final deal in a foreign land. Most of the main Saudi characters, including Yousef and Zahra, are unfortunately portrayed by other ethnicities, while Tom Skerritt appears briefly as Alan's antagonized dad.

A Hologram For A King ends in a remarkable rush, Tykwer seemingly running out of interest and curtailing all the plot elements in 30 seconds of narration. It's a frustratingly fitting end to an overall unsatisfactory experience.

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

Movie Review: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Based on real events, Black Hawk Down is a stellar war movie. The depiction of the Battle of Mogadishu is a stirring story of a mission gone wrong, and the men who had to subsequently rescue each other and limit the damage.

It's October 1993, and US forces including Army Rangers and elite Delta Force troops are stationed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Initially deployed on a famine relief mission, the US military is getting embroiled in a local civil war among squabbling warlords who do not hesitate to use starvation as a weapon. Powerful militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid is designated as the worst of the bad guys. Delta Force operators do capture arms dealer Osman Ali Atto (George Harris), but are no closer to shutting down Aidid's operation.

Based on sketchy intelligence, Major William Garrison (Sam Shepard) hurriedly cobbles together a mission to try and capture Aidid and his top aides while they meet at a safe house. American troops backed by helicopters leave the safety of their airport headquarters and delve into the dense Aidid stronghold of Bakaara Market within the labyrinthine confines of Mogadishu. Intended to last less than an hour, everything that can go wrong on the mission does go wrong, with thousands of militiamen taking up arms against the small American extraction team and shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters. The American forces get caught in a nightlong quagmire, incurring heavy losses while they try to rescue fallen soldiers and escape from a city filled with countless enemies.

Directed by Ridley Scott and based on the best-selling book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down is an exhilarating war movie. After a slowish start to establish the premise, the film explodes into an unrelenting two hours of non-stop intensity as the battle is covered from several angles. As far as representing the grim agony of street warfare in third world cities against overwhelming opposing forces, the film stands a class apart. Scott and cinematographer Sławomir Idziak capture the chaos, confusion and danger-around-every-corner that characterizes modern urban warfare.

Soldiers are separated from each other, seemingly straightforward tasks like getting to the crash sites and rescuing the pilots turn into cascading disasters, with the rescuers needing rescue. Every block is a battleground, every window, doorway and rooftop a source of danger. Soldiers perform impromptu surgery, while others push ahead despite wounds and exposure to comrades killed under horrific circumstances. The film rams home both the insanity of war and the courage of the men who make it their profession,

Black Hawk Down does get a few things wrong. The Somalis are all faceless hordes, the definition of a blood thirsty enemy presented with no context. Back in the early 1950s Hollywood started to humanize natives in Westerns and then Germans in World War II movies. To produce a 2001 film without a modicum of perspective on what the other side is willing to die for is quite myopic.

Also relatively poor is the lack of distinction among the American fighting men. Josh Harnett, Tom Sizemore and Eric Bana emerge as individuals due to defined character traits, but the rest of the men are effectively interchangeable, and once bulked up in equipment and helmets, they all look the same. The large cast includes Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Piven and William Fichtner.

But the objective of the film is to celebrate the armed forces, and to snatch a moral victory out of an astounding defeat which carried huge local tactical and overall strategic resonance. After the Mogadishu humiliation the US was seen as weak, defeatable, and quick to cut and run. But at the level of the fighting men, Black Hawk Down does reinforce the one-for-all and all-for-one ethos of the military, the heroic sacrifices, and no-man-left-behind principles. Against overwhelming odds the street battles feature countless examples of men risking their lives to help others, a band of brothers mentality that turns individuals into an army.

Loud, severe and imperfect, Black Hawk Down passionately captures the ugly realities of war as waged in hostile cities.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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