Thursday, 4 February 2016

Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)


An epic story of survival in the wilderness, The Revenant is a stunningly beautiful western exploring the limits of human endurance against a backdrop of frontier barbarism.

It's 1823, and a scrappy team of fur trappers deep in the barely explored territories of the northern Louisiana Purchase is attacked and mostly slaughtered by natives. A small group of trappers escapes the massacre, including experienced hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the greedy and selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), young trapper Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of the party.

Glass is inspired by visions and memories of his deceased wife (Grace Dove), and starts to guide the party overland towards Fort Kiowa. But Fitzgerald, who is living with the scars of being partially scalped by natives, challenges his leadership at every step. Meanwhile, a native chief and his men are searching in the same area for Powaqa, a native woman kidnapped by a party of French explorers.

While out scouting ahead of his group, Glass is attacked and badly mauled by a grizzly bear and scarcely hangs on to life. Henry leaves him in the care of Fitzgerald, Hawk and Bridger, who promise to give him a decent burial once he expires. But Fitzgerald had ideas of his own, and Glass is abandoned in the wilderness, badly hurt but very much alive. He embarks on a long journey back to a semblance of civilization, his determination to stay alive despite the harsh elements fuelled by a burning desire to seek revenge.

The Revenant is a grim, ferocious western, a story of individual survival in an untamed land.   Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and running for a surprisingly swift 156 minutes with relatively little dialogue, the film is a feast for the eyes and a challenge for the mind, offering a raw beauty but also unrelenting and almost physically exhausting to watch. For the men carving a path in uncharted territories, every step is a struggle, and every encounter with man, beast or nature a potentially existential battle.

Loosely inspired by the real adventures of fur trapper Hugh Glass, the story is a deglamourized view of how the west was explored. Men expire suddenly and sometimes in large numbers, and the deaths are often gruesome, bodies left behind with no semblance of dignity. Encounters with natives are mostly wordless. Sometimes a common humanity is found; more often killing comes first, followed by a startling absence of emotion. And nature still dominates, whether through a blanket of uncompromising winter eager to consume men's feeble attempts to exploit the land, or with wild animals stomping their turf and blithely dismissing human competition.

Filmed in British Columbia and Alberta, The Revenant is visually stunning. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture imposing vistas of winter in the wild, for the most part ignoring CGI and embracing the harsh reality of the frontier. The actors and crew famously battled deep-freeze temperatures and filming was limited to one hour at dusk, infusing the film with sunset hues and a genuine sense of end-of-the-day cold exhaustion. Lubezki's cameras are just as impressive in close-up shots, with plenty of point-of-view perspectives and fluid movements circling the characters as they confront the unforgiving landscape.

Leonardo DiCaprio dominates the film with a dedicated performance filled with passion and intensity. His version of Hugh Glass is a man of few words but plenty of resources and an unrivalled devotion to survival. The rest of the cast members are often difficult to differentiate, buried beneath layers of grey rags, bushy beards and thick accents.

The Revenant's main theme is life and death walking close together. For the trappers, explorers and natives, nature offers life and demands death in return. Glass' encounter with the bear pushes him into the clutches of annihilation, but the film treats existence as a binary condition, either alive or not, and with Glass life persists. Enraged by a sense of injustice and equipped with exceptional survivalist skills, he will have another, almost metaphorical encounter with an animal, this time simulating a full rebirth.

Glass works his way back to an approximation of functional health and achieves dominion over life and death, this time with the power to decide whether man or nature get the final say. The fragile journey of a father and husband from near extinction to mastery over man's fate is the story of humanity, where savagery and compassion compete for the evolutionary space within.






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Monday, 1 February 2016

Movie Review: One Fine Day (1996)


A good quality romantic comedy, One Fine Day enjoys star power in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney, and settles into a pleasant if entirely predictable story of an unlikely romance developing between two stressed single parents.

In New York City, businesswoman Melanie Parker (Pfeiffer) is divorced and raising her young son Sammy on her own. Sammy's dad is a rock band drummer who frequently misses family events. Jack Taylor (Clooney) is a popular newspaper columnist, also divorced, and sharing parenting duties for his young daughter Maggie, who is Sammy's classmate. One frantic morning Jack's lack of organization results in both Sammy and Maggie missing the bus and then the boat for a day-long school trip. Jack and Melanie are stuck with their kids on a working day, and Melanie is immediately hostile towards Jack.

A further mix-up results in Melanie and Jack switching mobile phones, further complicating their schedules. Eventually they are both forced to agree to trade-off caring for the two children. Melanie tries to prepare for a big presentation at her office despite Sammy's disruptive presence, while the more laid back Jack tries to untangle a big political corruption scandal that may cost him his job, while caring for Maggie and sometimes Sammy. As the day rolls on, Melanie and Jack move from animosity to romance.

Directed by Michael Hoffman, One Fine Day is a small notch above standard rom-com fare. Most of the shine comes from the two leading actors lending their considerable charisma to the principal roles. Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney both possess high wattage, and they turn on the charm to good effect, allowing the sparks of love to emerge slowly from the mess of a chaotic day spent chasing kids and fulfilling work duties. Pfeiffer is comfortable and assured as an established star, while Clooney is on the cusp of finding his big-screen groove, and together they make for an attractive couple.

The film offers one relatively fresh angle by presenting both protagonists as divorced single parents, juggling high-stress careers and child care, their work routines easily thrown into disarray when the kids' plans are disrupted. Melanie and Jack are on an equal social footing, extending to an equivalent level of mutual cynical mistrust due to still-healing scars from failed marriages. The jaded realism adds a welcome wrinkle to the couple's evolving dynamic.

Not surprisingly, there is little else in One Fine Day that is even remotely original as the film moves through all the usual gears. The laughs are mild, the kids are cute, the office bosses are crusty, the moments of crisis are never too threatening, the dash to the climax (appropriately, the destination is kids' soccer pitch) is frantic, and the ending is as preordained as the sun setting at the end of the day. Of course, the locations are scrubbed clean and the music is dreamy.

The running time unnecessarily creeps towards two hours, and the film outstays its welcome well after it is apparent that Melanie and Jack will find a way to end their fine day on a positive note. The relatively under-used supporting cast does not help. While the kids (Alex D. Linz and Mae Whitman) are sound and avoid descending into an overdose of cutesiness, Charles Durning as Jack's boss and Amanda Peet as an office vamp get very few scenes to make an impact.

One Fine Day delivers exactly what the genre demands in the form of a far-fetched meet-cute come true, with the bonus of luminous leads investing enough talent to tilt the balance towards enjoyment rather than tediousness.






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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Movie Review: Coyote Ugly (2000)


A trite romantic drama set in the world of bar top dancing, Coyote Ugly lines up and kicks out tired clichés to fill the time between the many scenes of hot women cavorting on the bar to loud music.

Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo) leaves her New Jersey home and overweight toll booth operator dad Bill (John Goodman) to seek a career as a songwriter in New York City. Violet suffers from stage fright, a condition that also afflicted her late mother, and her inability to perform in front of a crowd hampers opportunities to get her material heard. Meanwhile she can't break through the front door of any of the record companies or talent agencies, and her apartment is robbed to compound her misery. Violet does meet handsome Australian burger flipper Kevin O'Donnell (Adam Garcia), and they start a relationship.

Desperate to find some employment, Violet stumbles onto work at Coyote Ugly, a rough and tumble bar owned by Lil Lovell (Maria Bello, portraying the real-life bar owner), where attractive waitresses including Cammie (Izabella Miko) and Rachel (Bridget Moynahan) rev up customers with seductive bar top dances. The timid Violet can't join the dancing but eventually finds the courage to sing along with the jukebox. Kevin insists that she not give up on her dream to be a serious song writer and prods her to overcome her stage fright. Her dad Bill is crushed when he discovers what kind of bar Violet is working at, and Kevin's pushiness threatens to rupture the one remaining good relationship in her life.

Directed by David McNally and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Coyote Ugly is based on a magazine article by none other than Elizabeth Gilbert, who would go on to write more mawkish material like Eat, Pray, Love. The film is an unapologetic excuse to feature plenty of bar top dancing scenes, micro-edited down to artificially create energy and remove any traces of talent on either side of the camera. With a script apparently penned by an uncoordinated army of eight writers, Coyote Ugly is a standard innocent-girl-in-the-big-bad-city-falls-in-love story, the dancing scenes attempting to chase away the dullness but only adding another layer of asininity.

In this world a hip shake and a shoulder shimmy are inexplicably enough to send bar patrons into a whooping frenzy while the alcohol pumps kick into overdrive. The girls prance up and down the bar, spraying customers with water, juggling bottles and breathing fire, creating a wet dream environment for the young adolescent mind. For everyone else, no amount of gyration can cover up the utter banality of both the story and the action at the bar.

The struggle-to-make-it and romance elements are pulled from the laborious drawer. Every career door slams in Violet's face with a thud, stage fright is a hackneyed emotional hurdle, and lover-to-be Kevin is a remarkably charming and available prince in cook's clothing but of course he hides his own deep dark sob story.

Coyote Ugly is saved from being an utter debacle by Piper Perabo, the relative unknown plucked from obscurity and dropped into the lead role for a big budget production. Perabo is much better than the material deserves, and she somehow rises above the dross to deliver a relatively genuine and empathetic performance. Perabo combines small town smarts with a sharp edge and quick wit, and avoids most of the dopey innocence that typically accompanies the role.

The rest of the cast is more consistent with the sluggish story, with Goodman in particular veering towards obesity in both weight and melodrama. Tyra Banks has a small role as a former bar top dancer and LeAnn Rimes appears briefly as herself.

Coyote Ugly refers to waking up sober after a one night stand, and feeling the urge to gnaw off, coyote style, an arm trapped under a repulsive man. The film is not quite that bad, but does leave behind the sense of time wasted chasing an ill-conceived impulse.






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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)


A comedy about friendship and coming of age, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a deceptively simple story about a high school teen getting a jump start on life as an adult.

Resourceful Chicago high school senior Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) feigns sickness, fools his parents (Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward) and skips school for the day. After some effort, he convinces his uptight and frequently sick friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) to also take the day off. Together they concoct a plan to smuggle Ferris' girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) out of school, from under the nose of principal Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), a ruse that involves driving the precious vintage Ferrari belonging to Cameron's dad. Ferris also spreads rumours that he is practically on his death bed, triggering an outpouring of sympathy that spreads throughout the city.

Both Rooney and Ferris' sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) are convinced that Ferris is not sick at all and separately set out to catch him in the act. Meanwhile Ferris, Cameron and Sloane enjoy a day that includes trips to the Sears Tower observation deck, a Cubs baseball game, a meal at a snooty restaurant, visits to the art gallery and the mercantile exchange, and impromptu participation on a parade float. Rooney and Jeannie suffer their own misadventures as they try to uncover what the trio are up to, and Ferris will need all his wits to wrap up the day with no one the wiser.

Written and directed by John Hughes in the heart of his personal golden era, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the definitive teen dream movie. The film is funny, fast-paced and also the perfect Chicago travelogue, Hughes showcasing the best that his favourite city has to offer on a gloriously sunny day. The central character is cool, calm and courageous, always several smart steps ahead of anyone trying to ruin his day. And the film's mantra of life moves pretty fast -- if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it, may as well be the most perfect pre-written excuse to occasionally step off the treadmill and test all of society's rules.

Ferris narrates the film and regularly breaks the fourth wall, adding to his appeal and firmly pulling the audience to his side and against his adversaries. And Ferris' opponents are easy to boo, with Rooney the worst type of bug-eyed foam-at-the-mouth authority figure, and Jeannie the sibling too worried about what her brother is up to rather than carving her own path (her perspective only changes upon meeting her own rebel in the form of Charlie Sheen).

Building on his break-out success in 1983's WarGames, Broderick finds his perfect role as Ferris Bueller. His boyish charm and the sly but disarming smile are deployed to full effect, and it's impossible to dislike his roguishness. Indeed, a large part of the film's appeal lies in Ferris being universally liked by all the high school factions, an impossible ideal that elevates the character's powers to legendary status in teen circles.

While superficially about a kid who takes a day off, Hughes has a couple of not-so-hidden agendas, and he reveals them early. Not too many high school kids skipping school choose to go to an art gallery, the mercantile exchange, or a stuffy restaurant. Fewer still would propose marriage to their girlfriend. These are literal and figurative adult actions and destinations, and the intrepid Ferris is using his last day off crack open the door to the grown-up world that he and his friends will need to soon live in.

And the greater purpose of the day emerges in the relationship between Ferris and Cameron. Initially Ferris' insistence that Cameron join him in skipping school appears self-serving (he needs to drive that Ferrari!), but Cameron's quietly tortured character emerges as the one spot of darkness at the heart of the film. Ferris' agenda blossoms as the afternoon progresses, and rather than achieving personal fulfillment, his goal is revealed to be much more about providing an emotional lift to a friend in need, the most satisfying act on a most lively day off.






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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Movie Review: The Freshman (1990)


A crime comedy mixing mobster satire with broad laughs, The Freshman benefits from a fine Marlon Brando performance riffing on his godfather persona, and an engaged Matthew Broderick. The film is astute and entertainingly frivolous in equal patches.

Clark Kellog (Broderick), raised by his wildlife-loving but otherwise obtuse step-father Dwight (Kenneth Welsh), leaves his rural Vermont home behind and heads to New York University to study film making. Within minutes of arriving in the big city, Clark meets the fast-talking Victor (Bruno Kirby), who offers Clark a ride but promptly steals all his money and luggage. Eventually Victor makes amends by introducing Clark to his uncle Carmine Sabatini (Brando), a businessman with a lucrative job offer that can't be refused.

Sabatini professes great admiration for Clark, who is intimidated into accepting a well-paid job as a driver tasked with transferring unspecified cargo from the airport to New Jersey. He also meets Sabatini's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), and with bewildering speed she professes her love for Clark and starts to talk of marriage. The cargo turns out to be a rare Komodo dragon being illegally imported into the care of the mysterious Larry London (Maximilian Schell), a flamboyant chef. Clark realizes that he has been sucked into an illicit and bizarre scheme involving gourmet meals featuring near-extinct species. He quickly wants out, but escaping Sabatini's web will be a complicated process.

The running joke in The Freshman is that everyone recognizes Carmine Sabatini as a spitting image of Don Corleone, but no one quite gets to say it. Brando mumbles his way through the role and has great fun recreating one of his greatest screen characters, but in this case the crime boss appears to be involved in nothing more serious than arranging over-priced banquets for air-headed rich guests.

The Freshman is filled with this kind of attractive asymmetry, where characters appear to be stereotypes but then step sideways into unfamiliar and quirky territory. Sabatini's pregnant pronouncements can be construed as either profound or simplistic, and his affection towards Clark may or may not be a real surrogate father-son bond, Victor oscillates between scruffy thief and resourceful potential brother-in-law, while Tina innocently combines mobster's daughter with a potentially genuine attachment to Clark. Larry London hints at a Nazi-laced evil past, but he could also be just an inventive cook.

Director and writer Andrew Bergman succeeds for the most part in threading the needle where Clark's ludicrous adventure stays on the right side of plausibly ridiculous. Broderick's fresh-faced, wide-eyed persona is a good match for Brando's dark and domineering boss, and the two create the film's best moments in several long conversational scenes. The Komodo dragon is also excellent and dominates a quite perfect comedy sequence as Clark and his film school friend (Frank Whaley) grapple with the reptile on an eventful trip from the airport to a hidden New Jersey zoo-of-sorts.

Some of the story details are less well constructed, and late on Bergman quick-fries a plot about corrupt conservation officers, while step-father Dwight reappears but is shortchanged into sitting in the back of a car and saying little.

The Freshman is a refined comedy which delivers a range of laughs without taking itself too seriously.






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Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Movie Review: 50 First Dates (2004)


A romantic comedy with a clumsy premise, 50 First Dates reunites Adam Sandler with Drew Barrymore, but is weighed down with thin material and too many juvenile elements.

In Hawaii, marine veterinarian Henry Roth (Sandler) is a renowned womanizer, carrying on quick affairs with ladies on vacation mode and dumping them with regularity. After a sailing mishap he washes up at a secluded beachfront diner and meets the attractive Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore). They chat and make a connection. Following up the next day, Henry is shocked that Lucy does not remember him. He learns that a year ago she was in a car accident, suffered a brain injury and is now unable to retain short-term memories. Every day for Lucy is a blissfully unaware clean-slate repeat of the day before her accident, orchestrated by her family and friends.

Henry meets Lucy's fisherman father Marlin (Blake Clark) and dimwit brother Doug (Sean Astin). They eventually start to trust Henry as someone who cares for Lucy, and he convinces them to try a new approach, allowing Lucy to watch a video every morning explaining her circumstance and then letting her live through a new but real present day. And every day Henry waits for Lucy to get over the shock and sadness and then proceeds to win her affection. But finding long-term happiness with someone who cannot build new memories will not be easy.

Sandler and Barrymore clicked in 1998's The Wedding Singer, and they do share a sweet chemistry and easy affinity. Her natural perkiness and his inexpressive confidence mix well at a comfortable rather than spark-inducing wattage, quite suitable for a romance that is more about building a relationship than the mindless pursuit of lust.

But unfortunately Sandler cannot help but populate too much of the film with low-brow humour to appeal to his core fan base. The numerous scenes with Rob Schneider as Henry's idiot friend, Sean Astin as Lucy's lisping and steroid-inhaling brother, and Lusia Strus as Henry's sexually ambiguous work colleague are as infantile as comedy gets, and appeal only to Sandler fans with a mental age of five and under. A large walrus and a small penguin also get plenty of screen time.

Although the best laugh does involve Barrymore, Schneider and a baseball bat, tellingly Barrymore barely appears in any of the scenes with the inelegant co-stars, as if Sandler was engineering two separate films at once, one full of shallow antics for the morons in the crowd, and another a romance for the couples. The many puerile moments both undermine the cuter romantic elements and reveal the shallowness of the available ideas. Stripped of the padding, 50 First Dates would barely find an hour's worth of material.

The parts of the film that do focus on the two central characters are merely adequate. Director Peter Segal nudges the back half of the story towards some modestly thoughtful scenes exploring how Lucy could be prodded to live in the present despite her condition. Barrymore is fine as the woman who has to re-learn about her life every morning, but Sandler brings little to the film apart from his stock lethargic persona. Neither character is provided with any sort of depth or backstory. Dan Aykroyd has a small role as Lucy's doctor, and Maya Rudolph appears in one scene.

50 First Dates holds some promise for a pleasant evening but turns out to be gawky, pimply and rather crude.






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Monday, 18 January 2016

Movie Review: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)


A romantic comedy drama, Punch-Drunk Love mixes issues of emotional depression with love, but is ultimately too quirky for its own good.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a businessman specializing in the distribution of novelty gadgets, and works out of a warehouse in Los Angeles. Barry is lonely, unmarried, and has seven sisters who mercilessly tease him. One strange morning he witnesses a bizarre car crash, picks up a harmonium mysteriously placed on the sidewalk near his work, and meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who is dropping off her car for repairs. Barry also starts to buy a large amount of pudding in the hopes of collecting millions of frequent travel points through a special brand promotion.

Feeling really lonely one night, Barry calls a sex chat hot line and gives away all his personal and credit information before talking to a girl calling herself Georgia. Lena turns out to be a colleague of one of Barry's sisters, and she persists enough to start a relationship with him, and this eventually blossoms into a romance. Meanwhile Georgia tries to extort money out of Barry, and when he resists, her boss Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cheap furniture salesman, unleashes goons to intimidate Barry into paying up. But empowered by his new found love for Lena, Barry discovers new inner strength to fight back.

After delivering the complex multi-story Magnolia at over 3 hours, Paul Thomas Anderson looked for a smaller, simpler project. Punch-Drunk Love was the outcome, and on this evidence, Anderson should stick to ambitious epics. While well produced, gorgeously photographed and containing some points of interest, Punch -Drunk Love is low key to the point of irrelevance, a story that carries its embrace of eccentricity to eye-rolling territory. The film is supposed to celebrate the rejuvenating and physical power of love, but generally just falls flat, with neither the comedy nor the romance elements ever finding a zone of comfort.

The harmonium sits on Barry's desk, a mountain of pudding is piled on the warehouse floor, where the workers seem to specialize in wrecking things. Barry wears the same blue suit for most of the scenes but cannot explain why, and explodes into uncontrollable rages that should make him extremely unattractive if not downright dangerous to someone like Lena. He makes up for his fits of anger by otherwise being laid back to the edge of abject lethargy.

Scenes are dragged out to exhaustion, the thin script (written by Anderson) struggling to meaningfully fill the 95 minutes of screen time. Despite the absence of material Adam Sandler does his best, and delivers an engaging and mostly reserved performance. Ironically, this is one of the few times that Sandler gets to work with a celebrated director, and he stumbles into a piece of abstraction. Punch-Drunk Love is a sparse effort trying to fill space with nothingness, and not unexpectedly drifts away into immateriality.






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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Movie Review: Dan In Real Life (2007)


A mild romantic comedy, Dan In Real Life has a cute premise but weak follow-through.

In New Jersey, Dan Burns (Steve Carell) writes a newspaper relationship advice column. A widower, he is overprotective and struggling to raise three daughters on his own as they go through puberty and puppy love issues. In a despondent mood, Dan drives with his daughters to Rhode Island for a long weekend family reunion at the beach front home of his parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest). Also in attendance are Dan's siblings and their families, including his brother Mitch (Dane Cook), a hunky bachelor and fitness trainer.

Dan meets the attractive Marie (Juliette Binoche) at the local bookstore, and they immediately sense an attraction. They chat over coffee and she snaps him out of his moodiness. They part on a promise to meet again although she does tell him that she is just starting a new relationship. Back at the beach house, Dan is shocked to re-encounter Marie, who has arrived at the family reunion as Mitch's new girlfriend. They keep their bookstore encounter a secret. As the weekend progresses Mitch and Marie fawn all over each other as the rest of the family falls in love with the vivacious, worldly and clever Marie, while Dan is pushed to extremes of jealousy and childish behaviour.

Directed by Peter Hedges, Dan In Real Life has a single idea to work with, and doesn't do much with it. The film hinges on Dan and Marie first deeply connecting with each other after a single encounter, and then keeping their sudden attachment a secret from the sprawling family. This is all established within the first 30 minutes, and for the next hour Hedges (who also co-wrote the script) wanders around the beach house looking for opportunities for Dan to act childish.

This not only gets tiresome quickly, but also undermines the film's premise. Dan's pouty behaviour is only rarely funny and generally makes him exceptionally unattractive, and a smart woman like Marie should have recognized his emotionally immaturity and cast him adrift instead of stringing him along. But then Marie's purported intelligence is already undermined by her attachment to the hunky but relatively dull Mitch, further eroding the movie's rationality.

The film attempts to win cheap sentimental points late on by throwing in sappy moments related to Dan's deceased wife and his relationship with his girls, but by then the infatuation triangle between Dan, Marie and Mitch has unraveled beyond salvation.

A talented cast is merely adequate. Carell does show an aptitude for the more subdued side of the comedy spectrum, but too often sleepwalks through the film with a single passive aggressive stance of simmering jealousy. Binoche is perky but borderline annoying. The rest of the family members are almost interchangeable and lack definition. Emily Blunt shows up in a couple of scenes as a bubbly childhood friend of Dan's, and a potential pawn in the spite battles. Amy Ryan has a minor role as Dan's sister-in-law.

Dan In Real Life arrives at the vacation house with good intentions to have a fun time, but is caught at the beach all wet and without a towel.






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Saturday, 16 January 2016

Movie Review: The Danish Girl (2015)


A drama loosely inspired by real events, The Danish Girl is the story of artist Einar Wegener who underwent a pioneering sexual transformation to become Lili Elbe. The film features remarkable performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, but suffers from slow pacing and a narrow focus.

It's the mid-1920s in Copenhagen, and landscape artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is celebrated in cultural circles. His wife Gerda (Alicia) is also an artist but still struggling to establish herself. Einar starts to display a strong emotional attraction towards women's clothing, and Gerda encourages him to model for her in a dress. She then helps Einar attend a social party as a woman, and the persona of Lili emerges. A physical encounter with a man called Henrik (Ben Whishaw) causes confusion and resentment, with Einar and Gerda unsure whether Henrik is attracted to Lili as a woman or Einar as a cross-dresser.

Einar starts to feel more comfortable as a woman, and gradually Lili becomes the more dominant presence. Gerda's career takes an upturn when her contemplative paintings of Lili find a market, but with her marriage in turmoil, she turns to Einar's childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) for help. Lili consults with a succession of doctors to find a pathway to happiness, and finally starts to work with doctor Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) on a potential groundbreaking sex reassignment surgery.

Directed by Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl takes quite a few liberties with the story, but remains an affecting and well-intentioned film. Einar's transformation to Lili is portrayed as difficult, courageous and slow, a journey of self discovery made more challenging by the artists' public profile and happy home life. The film is a quiet and considered human drama, and unfolds with plenty of tenderness. It is also visually appealing, the artistic social circles of Copenhagen and later Paris of the 1920s recreated with understated elegance.

However, the film is also quite slow and singular. The pacing is anemic, scenes often stretched thin and well past their usefulness as Hooper struggles to find enough material to fill two hours. The Lucinda Coxon script is also unable to branch into any real breadth. The secondary characters hover around Einar and Gerda in a state of undefined animation. Lili's clumsy interactions with Henrik and later Hans' blatant pursuit of the vulnerable Gerda are fragments of sub-plots that fail to properly progress.

The two central performances are excellent. Eddie Redmayne seamlessly evolves with his character from Einar to Lili. And as Lili, Redmayne is perfect in continuing the transition from a stiff man learning to emerge as a woman, and then gradually as a confident woman who can longer imagine functioning as a man. Alicia Vikander is excellent in strong support, The Danish Girl also the story of an astute wife grappling with a seismic shift in her life's expectations. Vikander keeps Gerda balanced between tentatively supportive and understandably bewildered, always keeping an eye on her own happiness and never dropping into sappy self-sacrifice territory.

An essential story of individual and societal progression, The Danish Girl is sometimes poignant but also ponderous.






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Friday, 15 January 2016

Movie Review: Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)


A Vietnam War comedy drama, Good Morning, Vietnam ignited Robin Williams' film career. His manic performance as Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer showcases his genius comic talents, and director Barry Levinson surrounds him with a weighty story that satirizes war without undermining its gravity.

It's 1965 and the US troop build-up in Vietnam is gaining strength. The Saigon-based Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts bland announcements, heavily censored news and anemic music. Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives as the new DJ, and immediately shakes the place up. He launches into high energy and hilarious monologues, plays rock 'n' roll music, makes fun of the news and the military, and threatens to ignore the censors. His supervisors Lieutenant Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sergeant Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) are horrified, but the troops quickly become fans and the new DJ achieves celebrity status.

Despite the protestations of his assistant Private Eddie Garlick (Forest Whitaker), Cronauer spots local beauty Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) and starts to romantically pursue her. He establishes a friendship with her brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran) and designates himself as an English language teacher to get closer to Trinh, and starts to understand the local culture and customs. But the war is getting more serious, bombings and bloodshed arrive in Saigon, and the military brass start to lose patience with Cronauer and his antics.

Good Morning, Vietnam is an often raucous comedy with a heavy heart. Director Barry Levinson constructs an anti-war film propelled by a counter-culture hero, but also manages to separate the soldiers from their superiors, and the politicians from the troops. The war is portrayed as both an idiotic policy and a massive troop deployment adventure, an army doing what it does in bumbling through a foreign land, while politicians blindly equate increased numbers with better odds of winning. Meanwhile there are civilians and families witnessing their land being torn apart, and its all playing out to a soundtrack of revolutionary rock.

After having struggled for several years to translate his undoubted talent into an appealing big screen presence, Good Morning, Vietnam is Williams' spectacular film career launch party. Once experienced, his performance as Cronauer is impossible to forget. He is a force of nature, his mostly improvised rapid fire delivery of sarcastic and biting humour from behind the broadcast microphone is unconstrained in content and intensity. Keeping up with Williams is exhilarating and exhausting, and the film derives boundless energy from his manic intensity.

But there is a lot more to the film than the central performance. The script by Mitch Markowitz, loosely inspired by the real Cronauer's experiences, mercilessly satirizes the military leadership, but in its second half is also a serious look at the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Cronauer's pursuit of Trinh, his brush with the culture, and his eventual wanderings within the labyrinths of Vietnam's jungles (he walks in circles) and Saigon's back alleys (he gets quickly disoriented) are unmistakable metaphors.

Like America, Cronauer may think he has all the answers, all the swagger and all the confidence to get what he wants, but the country, the city and the people are much more complex than he imagines, and with the best of intentions he stumbles into an unintended mess. Unlike the glib tripe served up by MASH, here war is of course a target, but the violence of war always hurts, and the conflict's long term implications are on display for those who wish to probe.

Williams needed straight men to withstand his barrage of humour, and the supporting cast deliver. Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh have rarely been better as Hauk and Dickerson, stiff military officers who suffer the most when Cronauer jerks their precious radio station towards pandemonium. Forest Whitaker represents the soldiers who quickly get and adopt the new DJ as one of their own, and celebrate his exuberance like a fresh breeze in the jungle heat.

Good Morning, Vietnam ends with revelations, hard truths, and a soft ball game. Some lessons will be learned by individuals on the ground, but there is less hope for the detached decision makers in offices. And as always, pieces of broken language and sports culture are left strewn on the dusty streets, sometimes the only useful legacy of warfare.






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