Monday, 27 July 2015

Movie Review: The Butler (2013)

The story of a black butler who served at the White House under numerous administrations, The Butler is a mildly enjoyable drama centred on the history of the black civil rights movement as experienced from a unique vantage point.

On a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines is a young boy helping his parents in the fields when his mother is raped and his father is killed by the farm's owner (Alex Pettyfer). The plantation's matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Cecil and converts him to a house servant. As a teenager, Cecil leaves his origins behind and makes his way north, stumbling into a job at a modest hotel and eventually securing a position at the fancy Excelsior Hotel in Washington DC. By the late 1950s Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is offered the coveted position of White House butler, with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and his Vice President Nixon (John Cusack) in office.

Cecil marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they start a family, although his long hours at work take a toll on their marriage. Their son Louis (David Oyelowo) grows into an idealistic young man seeking to translate theoretical black rights into actual societal change in the South. Much to Cecil's consternation, Louis becomes an activist who lands in jail with alarming regularity, and eventually joins Dr. Martin Luther King's circle. Meanwhile, Cecil observes the successive administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Nixon grapple with the changing social landscape, as blacks slowly and painfully gain the rights to equal treatment.

Very loosely inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who worked as a White House butler for 34 years, The Butler (also known as Lee Daniels' The Butler) is a staid recounting of the civil rights movements from the late 1950s to the election of Barack Obama as the first black President. Directed by Daniels, the film revisits familiar material from the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan eras (Carter and Ford are afterthoughts), as Cecil Gaines finds himself with an unlikely front row seat to more than 30 years of White House history.

The Butler suffers from being an observer of history rather than having any meaningful part in shaping it. Cecil Gaines actually instigates precious little over the more than two hours of running time. History happens around him, and he catches snippets of it. While the focus on the civil rights struggle provides an admirably concise summary of an essential slice of American history, the film never gains traction as a drama and does not generate any emotion momentum. All the screen time invested on Gaines' family life, including Gloria' frustration with her husband's long absences, her drinking problems, and her toying with the idea of an extra-marital affair with a neighbour (Terrence Howard) is quite mundane and more tedious than engaging.

Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go looking for sources of tension, and find them more in the fully manufactured story of Louis Gaines. The activist son fighting at street level in the deep South for the meaningful fulfillment of black rights is carrying on his father's legacy, but of course Cecil only sees a headstrong young man potentially throwing away a hard-earned opportunity for a respectable life. Louis appears to show up at every major incident in black history, including Dr. Martin Luther King's motel room on the day he was killed. The estrangement between father and son takes over as the focal point of the film, but is too easily fabricated and just as conveniently resolved.

Forest Whitaker is fully committed in portraying Cecil from a young man carving out the early stages of his life to a stooped old grandfather witnessing the election of the first black US President. The performance is good, but is more concerned with studious aging rather than capturing any compelling dynamism. David Oyelowo provides the most watchable character, bringing a steely eyed intensity to the generation of black youth that pushed a dream into real change. The huge supporting cast includes Cuba Gooding, Jr. as another White House butler, while Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda bring Ronald and Nancy Reagan to the screen.

The Butler moves with elegance, and allows events to surround him while maintaining a watchful eye. The film offers as interesting a perspective as can be expected from the standpoint of the silent witness.

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Saturday, 25 July 2015

Movie Review: Grown Ups (2010)

A low-brow comedy slapped together with nominal effort, Grown Ups is almost condescending in its minimalist attitude and lack of talent application.

A group of five snotty 12 year old friends overachieve and win a school basketball championship. Thirty years later, their beloved coach dies, and they gather for his funeral along with their wives and kids. Lenny (Adam Sandler) is now a successful talent agent and is married to uppity fashion designer Roxanne (Salma Hayek). Eric (Kevin James) has been less successful in his career and is married to Sally (Maria Bello), who is still breastfeeding their four-year-old son. Kurt (Chris Rock) is a stay-at-home-dad, married to the pregnant Deanne (Maya Rudolph) and having to tolerate her loudmouth mother (Ebony Jo-Ann).

The group is rounded out by Higgy (David Spade), who never settled down and is still chasing women, and Rob (Rob Schneider), who always had a thing for older women and is now married to the much older Gloria (Joyce Van Patten). After spreading the coach's ashes, the group settles down for a countryside weekend of fun and adventure, and they learn a few truths and air out some issues related to the pas and their relationships.

Purportedly directed by Dennis Dugan and co-written by Sandler, Grown Ups is as vacuous as it sounds. The project smells of a group of comedians gathering for a week of fun, ad-libbing most of the dialogue, cracking a few jokes, and wrapping the whole thing in the flimsiest of premises to pretend that this is a film worth releasing. Somehow the movie reportedly cost $80 million, while what's on the screen resembles a glorified family vacation video. More remarkably, Grown Ups grossed $270 million, testament to the dumb power of the lowest common denominator.

There is undoubted talent involved, and there are some laughs to be had, all of the really silly variety. But the lame pranks outnumber the good moments by a good two to one margin, and all the scenes involving Rock, Spade and Schneider are more awkward than funny. Sandler and James do better, and they are halfway believable as fathers doing their best to deal with middle-age issues. Steve Buscemi shows up late as a member of the local dimwits who challenge Lenny and his friends to a rematch of that famous grade school basketball final.

The ladies have way too much talent to be involved in this project. Hayek, Bello and Rudolph hide their embarrassment, deliver their punchlines with no conviction, and scurry off to cash their cheques.

Despite offering some laughs, Grown Ups is nothing if not juvenile.

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Thursday, 23 July 2015

Movie Review: Dying Young (1991)

A romantic drama that advertises its premise in the title and proceeds to under-deliver, Dying Young is an irritating film that occupies the space between phony and awkward.

In San Francisco, Hilary (Julia Roberts) is a young woman who catches her boyfriend cheating and immediately dumps him and flees to the house of her dotty mother (Ellen Burstyn). With a vague background as a nursing student, Hilary responds to an ad for a live-in care giver, and is hired by cancer patient Victor (Campbell Scott), the 28 year old scion of a very wealthy family. Victor wants Hilary by his side as he goes through chemotherapy treatment for his leukemia.

Hilary learns to cope with the horrid aftermath of the chemotherapy sessions, and helps Victor through difficult days and nights as his body reacts to the chemicals. Soon he is feeling better, declares himself healthy, and scoops Hilary off to Mendocino, where they rent an old house and settle down to life as a couple. They make friends, including the hunky Gordon (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his mother Estelle (Colleen Dewhurst). Hilary and Victor start to fall in love, but reality will eventually catch up with them.

Directed by Joel Schumacher, Dying Young never rings true. What may have worked as a sappy novel by Marti Leimbach falls flat on the screen, with neither the events nor the characters leaving any kind on impression. The romance never catches fire, the motivations of Hilary and Victor come across as plain idiotic, and their actions farcical. Their relationship is based on the outright lies that Victor feeds to Hilary, and a ridiculously make-believe life in a rural cottage. As a side note, Victor's family seems unwilling or hopelessly inept when it comes to finding the missing and very sick heir to a fortune.

Julia Roberts is the only thing worth watching in Dying Young, and despite the poor material she almost saves the film. Hilary is not far removed from Pretty Woman's Vivian, and Roberts gives her some depth and background as an under-educated Oakland girl feeling very much out of her depth in the company of money and privilege. The few scenes that work benefit from Roberts finding nuances of frustration and anger as she adjusts to the opportunities offered by her growing attachment to a sick man. Schumacher's cameras clearly love Roberts, and the director finds every opportunity to linger on his star.

In contrast Campbell Scott (George C.'s son) limits his acting to staring into the mid-distance and sometimes breaking into a goofy smile, and several passages of his dialogue are delivered in an inaudible whisper. Both Ellen Burstyn and Colleen Dewhurst are wasted, while Vince D'Onofrio appears unsure as what his role is supposed to be: friend, handyman or wannabe lover. The scenes of banter involving Hilary, Gordon and Victor are beyond contrived. Hilary's girlfriend Shauna (A.J. Johnson) is unceremoniously dumped on the side of the movie early on and never heard from again.

Despite Roberts' effervescent presence, with an agonizingly prolonged running time of close to two hours Dying Young doesn't die soon enough.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Movie Review: Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (2011)

A romantic comedy-drama, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen offers an unusual premise and an exotic setting, but still does not manage to elevate the central romance beyond the mundane.

In London, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) works for a consulting firm that manages the financial investments of the very wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) of Yemen. Harriet reaches out to tweedy government fisheries scientist Dr. Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) to assist on an unusual project: Muhammed is an avid fisherman and wants to establish a salmon spawning habitat in Yemen, to create employment and help build a local industry. Fred can think of dozens of reasons why this is bad idea that is unlikely to ever work. But the British government in the form of the Prime Minister's Press Secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an interest in the project, and Fred is arm-twisted into helping to make it happen.

Harriet's soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison) is shipped off to the Afghanistan war, while Fred's long-term marriage to the icy cold Mary (Rachael Stirling) is disintegrating due to an utter absence of passion. Fred and Harriet start to work closely together, while Muhammed's outlook on life helps to awaken Fred's long-dormant spiritual side. With the construction of a salmon habitat in the middle of the Yemeni desert beginning to resemble an unlikely success, Fred and Harriet grow ever closer and a tentative romance blossoms. But there are many surprises to come, including sinister threats against Muhammed's entire project.

A British production directed by Lasse Hallström as an adaptation of the Paul Torday book, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen deserves admiration for creating a relatively original background context. A slick consultant and an introverted scientist combining forces to pursue a magnanimous sheikh's dream of creating a salmon run in the desert of a foreign land is admittedly unique. The script (by Simon Beaufoy) exploits the opportunities embedded in the idea to good comic effect, and brings in bumbling government workers and political interests tripping over each other in search of career preservation and positive political spin. Despite bouncing between London, the Sheikh's Scottish estate and the exotic Yemeni desert locations, Hallström keeps good control of the film's scope, and wraps up in 107 minutes.

The result is a film where the backdrop premise is better than the primary romance, because unfortunately the relationship between Fred and Harriet is extraordinarily bland and fully contrived. The film takes no emotional risks by unceremoniously getting rid of boyfriend Robert and wife Mary early in the proceedings, clearing the decks for the stiff scientist and self-assured consultant to gradually spend more time with each other and fall in love. And this they do most predictably in the middle third, to the point where Hallström, in an effort to inject any sort of drama, has to manufacture tension related to whether or not farmed salmon will know enough about their species to swim upstream.

The scientific parts of the film are glossed over. Once Fred expresses all his misgivings about the project, the film pushes ahead and appears to lose interest in how the engineering challenges are overcome. Plans materialize, heavy equipment shows up in the desert, and infrastructure just gets built at remarkable speed, with nary a comment or discussion about the ingenuity at play. Also poor is a vague and severely underdeveloped subplot related to Sheik Muhammed's enemies. This is a film where faceless and undefined bad guys show up to cause significant harm and havoc, but it is deemed completely unnecessary to explore the cause or origin of their discontent.

Fortunately, the performances come to the rescue of the lame emotions. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt never set the screen on fire, but do develop a reasonably convincing affable relationship, and the film at least provides a serviceable scenario of co-workers growing increasingly fond of each other. Amr Waked is adequate as the distinguished Arabian sheikh with both material and spiritual wealth. Kristen Scott Thomas has the most fun and introduces the comic relief as the government secretary manufacturing good publicity at every opportunity, and improvising when every good opportunity turns into a disaster.

Neither exquisitely seasoned nor stinking bad, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen lands somewhere between the big one and small fry.

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Monday, 20 July 2015

Movie Review: Nixon (1995)

A thorough but subjective political biography, Nixon features a dedicated Anthony Hopkins performance in the title role, but otherwise suffers from an unbalanced tone and never finds a rational perspective.

With the evolving Watergate scandal of the early 1970s providing an anchor point, the film jumps around the history of President Richard Nixon's life. There are scenes from his childhood years, with Nixon raised in a relatively poor but proud household. His strict father owned a grocery store and saw life as a daily struggle, while his mother (Mary Steenburgen) took on the duties of instilling the fear of God in her children. Tragedies involving tuberculosis struck two of Nixon's brothers during his formative years. An ineffective football player in college, Nixon's lack of a tony education at an elite university remained a constant source of inferiority and self-doubt.

Nixon rose to prominence as part of Senator McCarthy's communist witch hunt team, and became a two-term Vice President under President Eisenhower. There are vague hints that Nixon was involved in planning the Bay of Pigs fiasco. His long-term backroom team consisted of advisors Bob Haldeman (James Woods), John Ehrlichman (J.T. Walsh), and John N. Mitchell (E.G. Marshall), and together they seemed destined for the top. But Nixon's political career was derailed when he narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to the young, suave and rich John Kennedy, a defeat that deeply humiliated Nixon. A further setback in the 1962 California Governor's race seemed to end Nixon's career in politics. He makes a promise to his wife Pat (Joan Allen) to never run again for public office.

The assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson's surprise decision not to run in the 1968 election collectively pave the way for an unlikely comeback. Spurred on by a group of right-wing businessmen and anti-Castro dissidents, Nixon achieves his dream and is elected President. He is immediately confronted by a nation deeply divided over the bloody Vietnam War, a conflict that Nixon struggles to end. With the assistance of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino), Nixon achieves better success in foreign relation, with his 1972 visit to China a particular highlight.

But with leaks to the media creating a steady stream of bad news stories, Nixon's White House descends into siege mentality, and he believes all the bad news stories to be personal attacks. Nixon introduces an elaborate eavesdropping system to have all his conversations taped, and a surreptitious team of "plumbers" including Howard Hunt (Ed Harris) and Gordon Liddy (John Diehl) is created to plug leaks and dig up dirt on Nixon's perceived enemies. The plumbers initiate the clumsy Watergate break-in, and the subsequent White House cover-up proves to be the undoing of the President.

Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, Nixon is an impressive history of probably the most controversial President to ever occupy the Oval Office. With the Director's Cut running towards 210 minutes, the film is an in-depth retrospective and attempts to touch all the key events in Nixon's life, from childhood to resignation. With Anthony Hopkins dominating the screen with a bearish stance and a politician's larger than life persona, the film rarely drags, despite its enormous breadth.

But what Stone fails to do is settle on an angle of approach. The film mixes tones of conspiracy into a straightforward biopic and adds elements of overwrought tragedy. Stone clearly has limited respect or admiration for his subject, and spends an inordinate amount of time presenting Nixon as an uncouth brawler, close to paranoid, probably involved in a deep dark conspiracy, obsessed with Kennedy, and unable to separate his personal identity from the nation's politics. It's a disappointingly shallow treatment of a complex subject, with the director's disdain wrapped in an auteur's vision of grandeur.

Stone also appears to lose his nerve towards the close of his epic. Perhaps realizing that a mammoth film about a man being portrayed as almost cartoonishly flawed is a self-contradictory project, Nixon ends with a rush to demonstrate sympathy and elevate Nixon's legacy to places that the film cannot support. When Stone has his opportunities to underline Nixon's achievements, for example the historic trip to China, ending the Vietnam War or thawing the Cold War with Russia, he offers barely any context and instead fritters away these scenes with trite directorial touches and the most inane dialogue between world leaders. Stone goes out of his way to mock Nixon's achievements at every turn, but then realizes his oversights too late.

Stylistically the film falls victim to Stone wanting to provide constant reminders that he is in charge. Intermittent black and white photography, fake grainy film stock, character hallucinations, and editing stunts are deployed in large numbers to jazz up the film, but often serve to distract rather than enrich. The Director's Cut features a particularly awful long scene featuring a meeting between Nixon and CIA Director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston). The sequence is bloated with endless close-ups of flowers, and should have forever remained on the cutting room floor.

The scenes between Nixon and his wife Pat emerge as the best avenue to get to know the man, and here does Stone better. With Joan Allen standing her ground against Hopkins, the stressed connection between career politician and suffering wife provides a lens onto Nixon's talents: charming when needed, always persuasive, quite stubborn, and power hungry at the expense of almost everything else. From the huge supporting cast, James Woods as Bob Haldeman, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig and David Hyde Pierce as John Dean make the deepest indents. Paul Sorvino and Bob Hoskins have fun in breezy portrayals of Kissinger and J. Edgar Hoover respectively.

Nixon is a flawed epic, a biography that impresses in scope and dedication but that also veers too far into jaundiced territory to do justice to its subject.

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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Movie Review: The Place Beyond The Pines (2012)

An intense character study spanning two generations, The Place Beyond The Pines takes an in-depth look at the complexities of responsibility, destiny and the lingering impacts of today's actions on the long term future.

In upstate New York, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a low life drifter, good at only one thing: riding a motorcycle. Luke bumps into former girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) and learns that her infant son Jason is his child. Although Romina has moved on and is now with another man, Luke is determined to insert himself into her life to try and be a father. To earn an income he accepts a job at the ramshackle car repair shop of Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). But Luke seeks more money to try and impress Romina and buy things for Jason. He forms a bank robbery partnership with Robin, with Luke's motorcycle riding skills helping achieve smooth getaways.

Luke's misadventures with the law eventually result in a tangle with rookie police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). A trained lawyer and the son of a respected judge (Harris Yulin), Avery is ambitious, and the incident with Luke traumatizes him. He then stumbles onto a police corruption ring led by officer Deluca (Ray Liotta). Avery's career blossoms into power and politics at the expense of his wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne). Years later, Avery's neglected son A.J. (Emory Cohen) is in high school and drifting into a life of drugs, alcohol and parties. He meets and starts to befriend Jason (Dane DeHaan), now also a teenager at the same school.

Directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond The Pines is long, moody and humourless. It is also a gripping drama, singularly focussed on the ambitions and failures of its central characters. Cianfrance creates detailed portraits of two men grappling with what life has to offer, and finds the compelling threads that connect the actions, motivations and destinies of Luke and Avery. And it's stylishly assembled, Cianfrance finding the neon, shadows, perspectives and camera angles to give every shot dynamic potential.

The film runs for 140 minutes, and it could easily have shed 20 minutes with no loss in quality. Cianfrance is a fan of pregnant pauses and gloomy stares punctuating almost every conversation, and while he goes searching for the rivers of anger and frustration boiling under the surface of dysfunctional relationships, he also stretches the ability of his story to carry weighty loads of profound meaning at every turn.

But the themes explored by the film are elaborate and often fascinating. Luke is desperate to find some meaning to rescue his sorry life, and unexpectedly finds it in Jason. His attempts to do good only lead to worse conflicts. Avery is also looking to define himself as something separate from his father, and without looking for it finds himself at a crucial fork in the road of life. He steers towards public good, but falls victim to insidious arrogance. Both men find elaborate ways to damage the most important relationships in their life, and hurt the people they love most. The sons inherit and then amplify the emotional bruises inflicted by their fathers, either propagating or repeating behavioural patterns with the added ferocity of a new generation.

In a movie fixated on its characters the performances have to be good, and the cast delivers. Ryan Gosling has the meatier role and creates in Luke a memorable tragic loser, who will find a way to make the wrong move at every opportunity. Bradley Cooper is more reserved as Avery, but does pull off a smooth transition from shaky rookie police officer to smarmy and power-hungry politician. Gosling and Cooper share just the one scene together, as they sequentially hand-off the first two thirds of the movie.

Eva Mendes gives Romania plenty of spirit while Rose Byrne takes Jennifer to more passive aggressive territory. The final third of the film loses star power and transitions to Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan as sons unknowingly living in the shadows of their fathers, and they are adequate.

Delving into some of the essential predispositions of the human condition, The Place Beyond The Pines is a rare combination of ambitious and intimate.

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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Movie Review: The Sea Hawk (1940)

An Errol Flynn swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk combines swordplay, pirates and politics in a story loosely inspired by the contest between England and Spain to rule the world in Elizabethan times.

King Philip II of Spain (Montagu Love) dispatches his ambassador Don José Álvarez de Córdoba (Claude Rains) to the court of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson). Philip wants Don José to distract Elizabeth into thinking that Spain has no evil intentions, while in reality he is plotting to expand Spain's influence using a powerful armada. England's navy is weak, and Elizabeth is reliant on a small group of independent war ships known as the sea hawks to defend the English channel.

Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) is one such gentlemanly hawk, and his ship Albatross intercepts and destroys Don José's vessel, and delivers the ambassador and his entourage including Captain López (Gilbert Roland) and niece Doña María (Brenda Marshall) as prisoners to Elizabeth. Despite being on opposing sides, Thorpe and María start to fall in love. But Spain has a powerful ally in the form of Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) embedded in Elizabeth's inner circle, and Philip's plan remains intact. Nevertheless, Elizabeth trusts Thorpe's instincts and agrees to his covert mission to sail to Panama and intercept crucial supplies used by the Spaniards to equip their navy. Thorpe's ambitious ambush goes awry, creating a vacuum in Elizabeth's defences and an opportunity for the Spaniards to strike.

The tenth collaboration between star Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz, The Sea Hawk does not disappoint. By now the formula of adventure, sword fights, romance and politics was perfected, and the film breezes through its 127 minutes without a wasted moment. The script credited to Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller keeps the action hopping from sea to shore, and balances the boisterous naval battles with plenty of court intrigue and political maneuvering.

Only loosely based on historical events, The Sea Hawk started life as an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel, and ended up borrowing inspiration from the exploits of Sir Francis Drake. By the time the film was competed and released in 1940, it became a useful opportunity to rally British morale in the early days of World War Two. The film ends with the Queen giving a rousing speech in which she commits to defend freedom at all costs.

Errol Flynn is his smoothly charismatic best, although there are elements of going-through-the-motions that do creep into his performance. And even he can't spark the romance, which emerges as the film's weakest link. The underwhelming Brenda Marshall struggles for relevance, the role of Doña María simply not developed enough to generate the required passion, and Flynn's eyes seem to ache for Olivia de Havilland. Thorpe and María share the one meaningful romantic scene together, and the rest of their relationship consists of longing from afar and brief moments stolen amidst the unfolding action.

Unexpectedly, the more complicated relationship between Thorpe and Elizabeth piques the interest quite a bit more, with Flora Robson biting into the monarch's role with obvious relish. Claude Rains is a reliable conniving politician, while Gilbert Roland and Henry Daniell give the enemies of Thorpe some sharp edges. The supporting case includes Donald Crisp as Sir John, a loyalist member of Elizabeth's circle, Alan Hale as Mr. Pitt, Thorpe's second-in-command, and James Stephenson.

The Flynn / Curtiz collaborations are rightly remembered for their impressive action scenes and The Sea Hawk lives up to expectations. The opening attack by Albatross on Don José's ship is a masterpiece of thrilling execution, while the climax features plenty of sword fights to showcase Flynn at his swashbuckling best. Less well acknowledged is the how much attention Flynn's adventures invested in events unfolding far from the battlefields. The Sea Hawk delves into the high stakes games played by Kings, Queens, and their power hungry advisors. As history it may be mostly imaginative, but The Sea Hawk takes the time to reveal the hands that move the chess pieces.

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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Movie Review: Self/less (2015)

A science fiction thriller that emphasizes routine action scenes and gradually discards the science elements, Self/less enjoys its moments but lacks the ambition needed to pursue more original avenues.

Damon Hayes (Ben Kingsley) is a wealthy real estate tycoon operating in New York City. Along with his long-time business partner Martin (Victor Garber), Hayes has a lock on every big deal, and ruthlessly outmanoeuvres his opponents. But Damon is also very sick, close to death, and on very bad terms with his activist daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery). He is placed in contact with the youthful and mysterious Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), who promises Damon eternal life. For a very large fee, Albright can transfer Damon's brain into an artificially created young man's body.

Damon agrees, the procedure seems to go well, and Damon goes through rehab to get used to functioning in the body of a fit man (Ryan Reynolds). He moves to New Orleans to start a new life, befriends Anton (Derek Luke) and starts to enjoy the party privileges of a being very wealthy and eligible man. But troublesome flashes of brain-generated imagery persist, despite Albright prescribing pills to reduce their occurrence. Damon starts to investigate what his brain is trying to tell him, leading to a dangerous surprise about his new body involving grieving widow Claire (Natalie Martinez) and her once very sick daughter.

Self/less is not a cradle of originality. The science fiction themes related to body regeneration, the use of dead victims for nefarious purposes, and memory fragments surviving a supposedly clean slate have been well covered in many other films. Back in 1978, Coma explored the exploitation of human bodies for profit, as did Extreme Measures in 1996. The role of Professor Albright as the genius scientist breaking all moral rules in the name of scientific progress is particularly clichéd, and channels characters like Michael Drucker from the 2000 Schwarzenegger film The 6th Day.

Nevertheless, Self/less is a serviceable movie, delivered with a quality shine by director Tarsem Singh. The opening 30 minutes are more engaging as Damian grapples with his mortality and explores what the dark corners of science can offer. Ben Kingsley brings his unmistakable solemnity to the role of a lonely billionaire with a massive ego, weighing surrender to disease against an expensive leap into an unknown future pregnant with potentially huge returns. His relationship with daughter Claire is underdeveloped but does add a touch of human vulnerability to the character, and provides him with a failure worth remedying should he be afforded more time.

But while the film sets up the opportunity to explore issues such as immortality and the potential for high achievers to use their bonus time either wisely or otherwise, the script (by David and Àlex Pastor) subsequently steers clear of more cerebral undertakings, and settles down in rather familiar thriller territory. The action elements are at least well constructed, Tarsem building tension, deploying relatively rational editing, and using Reynolds' charisma to keep the film reasonably grounded. He even finds a somewhat clever twist for the climax of an otherwise routine car chase shoot-out.

The cast is as average as the material. Reynolds is adequate but is never quite able to project the elderly Damian. Goode cannot do much with Professor Albright other than the stereotype of a scientist convincing himself that his god-like tendencies are all for the betterment of humankind. In contrast Natalie Martinez brings edge and more steeliness than usual to the role of the puzzled widow who suddenly has to confront a new reality. Self/less borrows most of its pieces from other films, but at least makes some of them a bit better.

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Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Movie Review: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

A romance-comedy set against an upcoming end-of-the-world scenario, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is wistful masterpiece, an exceptionally fresh take on an old genre. The flickering connection between two neighbours falling in love as the planet faces extinction touches the collective human soul.

A large asteroid is on a collision path with Earth, nothing can avert the tragedy and impact is expected in three weeks. The planet will be destroyed. Insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) has been abandoned by his wife, but tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy by actually showing up for work. Remarkably, some customers are still calling him. Dodge is introverted, refuses to partake in the debauchery that adults are now engaging in, and deeply regrets giving up on Olivia, the high school love of his life.

His next door neighbour is Penny (Keira Knightley), who is involved in a disintegrating relationship with boyfriend Owen (Adam Brody). Penny is lively, disorganized, can sleep through anything, and is desperate to reconnect with her parents. When riots and looting break out Dodge and Penny flee the neighbourhood together, along with Sorry, an abandoned dog. Penny promises to help Dodge find Olivia, and with all commercial flights grounded he promises to help her find a plane that can fly her to her parents. Along the way they meet Glenn (William Petersen), who has prepared for the end in his own way, and they share a meal at a restaurant that is now serving a lot more than just food.

As Penny and Dodge fall in love they cross paths with a small-town police officer still fulfilling his duties, and visit Penny's old boyfriend Speck (Derek Luke), who fully intends to survive the apocalypse. As the moment of impact draws near, Penny and Dodge confront the sum total of their lives and are forced to reassess their priorities.

Directed and written by Lorene Scafaria, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is a marvelous achievement. By setting a romance against the ticking clock to end all ticking clocks, Scafaria instills doomsday comedy and plenty of raw fervor. The result is a film that soars into the passion of what it means to unexpectedly fall in love, with the world figuratively and literally falling to pieces.

The central romance is a poignant affair, both Dodge and Penny desperate in their own way to salvage something in the few remaining days on earth.  Dodge is downbeat, abandoned and pretty sure that his life has been a total loss. The promise of finding the elusive Olivia provides him with a final spark to pursue. Penny is practical but also frantic, not as much dwelling on the impending end as regretting that her ditziness may have cost her the last chance to say goodbye to her parents. Together they make for an indelible couple embarking on a happily haphazard road trip.

Seeking A Friend does not just exploit its premise as a cheap plot device. In the background of the unfolding romance, Scafaria covers the gamut of how society is likely to react to the end of the world. Some people commit suicide. Others hire assassins to do the dirty deed. Some corporate workers still show up at work, as does Dodge's housekeeper Elsa. Looters take over the streets, but only in some neighbourhoods; other remain untouched. Dodge's friends throw drug-fueled orgies where children are exposed to all the sins of the adults. A neighbourhood restaurant redefines the standards of friendly service. Speck and his buddies hunker down with guns, ammo, pop and chips, fully intending to survive and repopulate earth. Rarely has a romance offered such an immersive backdrop.

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley together deliver some of their best screen work. Carell is excellent as a man resigned to quietly withdrawing from life, and then allows Dodge to ever so gradually come out of his shell under Penny's influence. Knightley is even better, creating in Penny a woman in love with a hectic life and happy to run with it right to the end. Martin Sheen appears late in a pivotal role that packs a sentimental punch.

The film enjoys several stunningly memorable scenes. At Speck's bunker, Penny uses a satellite phone to call her parents. In one of Knightley's career highlights, she is devastatingly heartbreaking talking to a parent that she will likely never see again. Another overwhelming scene has Penny and Dodge stumbling onto a peaceful group of people deciding to calmly wait out the end of the world by enjoying each other's company at a small beach. In stark contrast to the depravity, riots, looting and suicides witnessed earlier, this collection of parents and children just celebrate what they have had and await the end in contentment.

And as the moment of impact finally arrives, Scafaria finds the meaning of life in two people connecting, side by side, finding the only closeness that matters at the time when it matters most. One of the best films of 2012, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World shines brightest at the most bittersweet end, when love's eternality is most apparent.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Movie Review: Class (1983)

A high school sex comedy, Class boasts a remarkable cast and appears intent on exploring some serious issues before getting lost in a tonal no-man's land.

Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) is a new senior student at the exclusive all-boys Vernon Academy somewhere in New England. His roommate is the fun-loving "Skip" (Rob Lowe), who comes from a rich and established family. After trading painfully embarrassing pranks, Jonathan and Skip become good friends.

Skip encourages the tentative Jonathan to take a weekend trip to Chicago to gain confidence in his dealings with women. Jonathan does so, and to his surprise meets and starts a torrid sexual affair with the much older Ellen (Jacqueline Bisset). Having a mature woman as a lover changes Jonathan, as he gains immeasurably in confidence and becomes one of the most popular boys at Vernon. But when Christmas break arrives and Jonathan heads off to meet Skip's family, he is in for a huge shock.

Directed by Lewis John Carlino, Class struggles to define itself. The film spends a lot of time on routine campus high-jinx inspired by Animal House and its countless imitators. But gradually the narrative shifts uncomfortably towards the complications stemming from a sex drenched relationship between a younger man and an older woman. Serious themes are suddenly scattered across the screen. Lust is confused with love, troublesome stalking phone calls are introduced, and the loneliness of the emotionally abandoned rich wife emerges as a potential interesting plot line.

But the script by Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt is capable of introducing weighty matters but proves clueless in dealing with them once hatched. Class stumbles into awkward territory where a host of unresolved ideas run headlong into a rudimentary comedy, and the mess ends with an embarrassing fist fight that reveals nothing except the limitation of the writing.

Andrew McCarthy (in his debut) and Rob Lowe do establish a credible rapport of friendship that builds during the film and adds a dose of interest. Jacqueline Bisset plays off her screen persona as a sexpot, here becoming the dream mature woman capable of transforming an adolescent into adulthood in one night.

The three principals are supported by a talented supporting crew, with John Cusack (also in his debut), Alan Ruck, Casey Siemaszko, Virginia Madsen and Joan Cusack appearing as students. Stuart Margolin is the mysterious mustached investigator who descends on the school late in the proceedings to uncover wrong-doings, and Cliff Robertson is Skip's father. It's an unusually deep cast for what is ultimately an underdeveloped and lightweight high school romp, and the surprisingly good acting talent set against the bumpy script adds to the film's identity crisis.

Class is not without its merits, but the curriculum is a most messy muddle.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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