Friday, 18 April 2014

Movie Review: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)


A psychological thriller with horror elements, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? burrows into the dark days when stardom fades and reality bites, with two aging sisters gnawing at each other.

In 1917, vaudevillian child star "Baby" Jane Hudson captivates audiences with a song and dance routine, but driven by her manager and father Ray (Dave Willock), she's an egotistical brat. By the 1930's Jane's sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) is the one who has achieved stardom in the movie business, with Jane (Bette Davis) fading fast and lacking the talent to succeed on film. In a sudden tragedy, Blanche breaks her back and is paralyzed in a car crash apparently caused by Jane. Both their careers come to an abrupt end.

25 years later, the sisters are living together in a modest Hollywood house, Blanche confined to a wheelchair and to her upstairs room, with the increasingly erratic Jane looking after her sister but drinking heavily and harbouring misguided dreams of a return to show business stardom. Living with the guilt of causing her sister's paralysis but beginning to lose touch with reality, Jane starts to psychologically torture Blanche, cutting her off from the outside world and starving her. Housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) is Blanche's only ally, while Jane recruits struggling pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) as an accompanist as she starts to plan an unlikely return to the stage.

A comeback project for both Crawford and Davis, who carried on a legendary off-screen feud, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is an engrossing exploration of the unsavoury side of sibling rivalry long after the spotlights have faded. The story of Jane and Blanche progresses from sad to macabre, two women who both tasted the heights, never got along, and are now forced to deal with each other while wallowing in the scrapheap of show business.

Working from a Lukas Heller screenplay adaptation of the Henry Farrell book, director Robert Aldrich gradually tracks Jane's journey into heinous delusion. Her destruction of Blanche is just another step towards a return to glamour that exists only in Jane's twisted mind. Jane impersonates Blanche's voice, forges her signature, and starts to serve her nasty surprises in her food, all to gain the upper psychological hand and break loose from Blanche's moral superiority. Filmed in black and white and mostly confined to the house shared by the sisters, the claustrophobic visual experience, featuring frequent close-ups, mimics Blanche's physical helplessness and Jane's mental entrapment.

Everything about the film is downbeat to reflect the sisters' mounting misery, from the caked-on make-up that Jane wears in a failed attempt to stave-off ageing to Blanche's inability to move around in her own house. Even the secondary characters are gloomy, Elvira a perpetually serious housekeeper, increasingly suspicious of what Jane is plotting, while the man-giant Edwin is a picture of clueless desperation, still living with his mother and looking for any break. The talentless Edwin sees through Jane's lunacy, but he plays along in pursuit of easy money.

Both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford turned back the years and reignited their careers. Davis received her tenth and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her fearless portrayal of Jane. While the madness part is relatively easy, the genius of her performance is in keeping Jane just barely on the edge of reason, able to function well enough to advance her contorted plans. Crawford gets the more sympathetic and stable role, portraying Blanche as attempting to maintain some level of normalcy while being at the mercy of her sister and worried that Jane's grip on reality is loosening.

As it turned out, what happened to Baby Jane was a sad, twisted and riveting drama. This kid is definitely not alright.





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Movie Review: The Nanny Diaries (2007)


An adaptation of the best-selling novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, The Nanny Diaries finds a decent balance between social commentary and humour as a college graduate from New Jersey dives into the upper crust world of New York's wealthiest families.

Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is at a crossroads in life, recently graduated from college, and resisting a push by her mother Judy (Donna Murphy) to pursue a career in finance. Annie stumbles into a summer job as a nanny for a woman to be known only as Mrs. X (Laura Linney), her husband Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) and their young son Grayer (Nicholas Art). The rich X's live among New York's elite on Manhattan's Upper East side.

Treating her experience as an anthropological expedition into a world she knows nothing about, Annie finds plenty of turmoil in the X household, just beneath the stiff social facade of affluence and happiness. Mr. X is a workaholic executive ignoring his family and barely concealing an affair, Mrs. X is miserable and emotionally stilted, and Grayer receives no meaningful attention from his parents. After a rough start Annie forms a deep bond with Grayer and meets the hunky neighbour to be known only as Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans). But with the marriage of the Xs disintegrating, Annie finds herself caught in the crossfire, with Grayer as the most vulnerable potential victim.

Co-directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, The Nanny Diaries compacts the book into a useful film experience, and achieves the dual objective of delivering some laughs while probing the meaning of parenting and the blind pitfalls of a money-soaked lifestyle that promises everything except actual fulfilment.

But the film does not pull back from a uniformly unflattering portrayal of New York's nobility. While the script (also by Berman and Pulcini) enjoys taking broad shots at mommies who don't know that first thing about parenting and absentee narcissistic fathers, the broad stereotyping deprives the film of some much-needed depth.

Otherwise, approaching Annie's experience as an anthropology lesson is a clever narrative device, enhanced by museum-style natural history displays drawn from various cultures. There are also references to Mary Poppins sprinkled into the movie, mostly in the form of an umbrella that fortuitously makes appearances at key moments in Annie's summer of nanny adventuredome.

Scarlett Johansson gives Annie the necessary resolve mixed with the timidness of a young but smart woman thrown into a foreign culture. Johannson conveys the quiet disbelief at the absurdity of Mrs. X's world, without descending into snarky sarcasm. Laura Linney is confined to the role of the wife forced to conform to the expectations of an unsympathetic peer group, Linney easily able to capture the coldness of Mrs. X's lonely world, without diving below the surface iciness. Singer Alicia Keys gets a spirited supporting role as Annie's best friend.

The Nanny Diaries is an undemanding film, not exactly fluffy but never threatening to be more than a superficial treatment of a potentially provocative topic.





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Movie Review: Titanic (1997)


A spectacular and tragic epic, Titanic is a haunting love story set within one of the most somber disasters of modern times.

In 1996, treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) retrieves a safe from the wreck of Titanic and finds within it a portrait of a nude young woman wearing only a precious necklace. The elderly Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart) hears of the find on the news, and steps forward as the woman in the portrait, joining Brock's search vessel to recount her story.

Southampton, 1912. On the way to the United States, a young Rose (Kate Winslet) boards the gigantic new ocean liner Titanic with her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) and wealthy fiancé Cal (Billy Zane) as first class passengers. The free-spirited Rose is being forced to marry the detestable Cal for financial reasons. Meanwhile, on the Southampton waterfront scrappy young artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins his third class ticket in a poker game just before Titanic departs, and joins the maiden voyage of the unsinkable ship.

With Cal's behaviour confirming her worst suspicions about a miserable future that lies in wait, a disconsolate Rose attempts to commit suicide by throwing herself overboard. Jacks talks her out of it, and much to the disgust of Cal, his bodyguard Lovejoy (David Warner) and Ruth, Rose and Jack start a friendship which evolves into a romance across class lines. Jack encourages Rose to follow her passion and break free from the shackles of Ruth of Cal. As her sense of adventure comes to life, Rose poses nude for Jack wearing the priceless Heart of the Ocean necklace, a gift from Cal. Meanwhile, Titanic's Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill) is encouraged by J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), an executive with the ship's owner White Star Line, to travel as fast as possible. This makes Titanic less manoeuvrable in the dangerous North Atlantic waters, and when an iceberg is spotted late, the great ship is unable to avoid a ruinous collision. With the hull torn open and several compartments flooded, the ship's designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) realizes that Titanic will indeed sink within a couple of hours. In the ensuing chaos of more than 2,200 people attempting an evacuation into the chilly waters of the Atlantic and a criminal undersupply of lifeboats, Rose and Jack try to save their love and each other.

Directed by James Cameron and featuring a dazzling full-scale reconstruction of the doomed ship and incredible special effects, Titanic soars by placing a small, very human love story at the heart of unimaginable tragedy. The Romeo and Juliet romance between Jack and Rose provides a tender face to the victims of the disaster, and transcends the headlines to create warm poignancy in the midst of chilling death.

The mammoth 194 minutes of running time pass by effortlessly. The first hour establishes the modern-day preface and the characters on board the doomed ship. Cameron, who also wrote the script after meticulously researching the passengers and their background, mixes his fictional lovers with real-life participants in the drama, including the "unsinkable" Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), Captain Smith, cut-throat executive Ismay and humble designer Andrews. Many of the ship's famous first-class passengers, officers, crew and band members are also based on real-life counterparts.

The second hour focusses on the rapidly deepening relationship between Jack and Rose. This is a transformational experience for Rose. Although her independent streak was always there, Jack awakens her spirit, and she progresses from obedient daughter and unhappy fiancée to a woman embracing what life can offer. Finding the courage to pose for Jack is the hinge event of her life, as she literally and figuratively sheds the past and embraces opportunity.

The final hour is a simply awe-inspiring recreation of the Titanic's sinking. Using a combination of special effects, death-defying stunts and filming in gigantic tanks, the loss of Titanic is recreated as a poetic calamity on an unimaginable scale. As the grand ship sinks, passengers die in agony and the worst of human behaviour comes to the fore, Jack and Rose fight to stay alive and stay together, and Cameron finds the essence of life, surrounded by death. Titanic's demise in the shadow of Jack and Rose's love is, quite simply, one of the finest prolonged sequences set to film.

The denouement is back on Brock Lovett's ship, as both Brock and the elderly Rose find what they have long been looking for.

DiCaprio and Winslet were both catapulted into superstardom, as they gave Jack and Rose the simple innocence and determined rebellion the propels young love against all obstacles. Kathy Bates as the brassy Molly Brown and Billy Zane as the privileged but selfish Cal are the most prominent members of a deep supporting cast.

Titanic was the most expensive film ever made upon its release, and went on to become the world's highest grossing film, until surpassed by Cameron's own Avatar (2009). Titanic is a remarkable triumph, one of cinema's all-time crowning achievements in both visual excellence and emotional impact.





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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Movie Review: Solitary Man (2009)


An impressive study of a late-onset middle age crisis, Solitary Man delves into the damaged soul of a man on a desperate run from change.

Aging car dealer tycoon Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is advised by his doctor that his heart may not be healthy, and more tests are needed. Ben refuses to follow up with any further exams. Six years later, Ben's life is in a downward spiral. He has left his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon), and his business is in trouble. Found guilty of fraud, Ben had to pay a ruinous fine just to stay out of prison. He is now in a relationship with Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), primarily because she has high-level contacts that can help him land a sweet new car dealership location.

Ben tries to maintain a relationship with his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) and his young grandson, but his erratic behaviour doesn't help: Ben has become an irresponsible sex addict, particularly lusting after college girls. He accompanies Jordan's daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a college interview weekend, where they meet earnest student Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg). Ben and Allyson sleep together, which ruptures Ben's relationship with Jordan, destroying his business prospects and driving him deeper into the financial hole. He has to turn to humble campus restaurant owner Jimmy (Danny DeVito) for a job, but his troubles are far from over.

At almost exactly 90 minutes, Solitary Man is an efficient drama about the fear of losing the prime of life. Written by Brian Koppelman and co-directed by Koppelman and David Levien, the film follows the trajectory of Ben Kalmen as he veers off course and into an orbit of his own making, where rules can be flaunted with no consequence as long as the march of time is covered by a veneer of superficiality. Kalmen is a tortured soul denying the certainty of aging, seeking immediate and accelerated profit and youthful sex in a futile attempt to compensate for the creeping years.

Michael Douglas delivers one of his most complete performances, understated, determined and raw, finding the anchor of self-deception that keeps Ben grounded in his own world while reality slips by, his life deconstruction obvious to all except himself. In support, Imogen Poots is particularly memorable as Allyson, coldly demonstrating the other side of the coin, revealing why college-aged girls may enjoy a fling with a much older man. It's not about being attracted to power anymore; the experience has much more to do with ticking off fantasies and pushing the buttons of irritating parents.

The other women in the movie suffer somewhat at the hand of the sharp editing, Susan Sarandon and Mary-Louise Parker particularly short-changed. Jesse Eisenberg's role as a potential protege is also underwritten. Jenna Fischer fares better as Ben's suffering daughter, trying to keep her young boy in touch with his grandpa while resenting her father's descent into a life of irresponsibility.

Not surprisingly, Kalmen's suppression of the self-evident leads him headlong into a brick wall, a figurative and literal physical bruising which at least forces pause and reflection. The trip towards selfish self-gratification may seem exhilarating, but it ends in a lonely place.





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Friday, 11 April 2014

Movie Review: Beautiful Girls (1996)


A character-rich study with a focus on growing up and finding the right relationship, Beautiful Girls is a winsome slice of small-town life.

Sensitive piano player Willie (Timothy Hutton), now based in New York City, return to his snowy small hometown of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, for a high school reunion. Willie reconnects with his old school buddies who never left town, and are now all in their late twenties: Tommy (Matt Dillon), Mo (Noah Emmerich), Paul (Michael Rapaport), Kev (Max Perlich), and Stanley (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

Tommy ("Birdman") was the school football star, and he never grew up. Now running a small snowplow company, Tommy is seeing Sharon (Mira Sorvino), but carrying on an affair with his married high school sweetheart Derian (Lauren Holly). Mo is happily married to Sarah (Anne Bobby), and is the most settled of the group. Paul is also a snowplower and has not moved beyond the supermodel pin-up phase nor learned to deal with real women. He is having trouble letting go of former girlfriend Jan (Martha Plimpton), who is now dating someone else. Kev is Tommy's sidekick, while hardworking Stanley ("Stinky") is operating his own restaurant.

As Willie catches up with the lives and loves of his buddies, he meets and befriends his neighbours' daughter, precocious 13 year old Marty (Natalie Portman), and contemplates his future with long-term New York girlfriend Tracy (Annabeth Gish). The town's wisemouth hairdresser Gina (Rosie O'Donnell) dishes out advice to anyone who listens, while Stinky's stunningly beautiful cousin Andera (Uma Thurman) arrives in town, and causes a stir among the guys.

A film with no heroes, villains, central romance, irony or glib humour, Beautiful Girls is simply about people trying to assemble the puzzle of adulthood. With echoes of Mystic Pizza (1988), Beautiful Girls excels at creating rounded, flawed characters worth caring about. Director Ted Demme, working from a fine script by Scott Rosenberg, quickly establishes the guys, the girls and the complex dynamics between them, bringing the tapestry of life to the quiet streets of Knights Ridge.

The film glides easily between the no less than 16 friends and relatives who make up Willie's ecosystem, and just as Willie drops into the lives-in-progress of his friends, the film catches all the relevant stories mid-stream. Paul is struggling to cope with Jan leaving him behind, Tommy is caught between the devoted Sharon and the lusty Derian, while Mo and Stinky are just getting on with lives that have traded glamour for maturity.

The catalysts are the outsiders and newcomers. Young Marty brings an inquisitive mind and an open heart into Willie's life, their chats developing into a credible crush that is intellectually impossible but emotionally real. Andera, with her big-city outlook and no nostalgic attachments to Knights Ridge, sees things for what they are, piercing through Paul's amateur attempts at making Jan jealous, immediately reading Tommy's immaturity, and finding in Willie the one man worth nudging towards the right side of the commitment fence.

To drive the narrative forward, Rosenberg does allow the members of Willie's circle to quickly open up and talk through their issues. Guys like Tommy and Paul may be stuck in teenage mode and unable to grapple with what it means to be men, but they are nevertheless not shy about talking through their thoughts, emotions and viewpoints. This ability to share is at odds with the often emotionally stilted reality of relatively immature guys.

The performances from the ensemble cast strike a perfect tone, the characters all translated into real people navigating the choppy waters of small town living and mismanaged expectations. Hutton, Dillon, and Rapaport form the strongest bond at the heart of the many friendships, but Natalie Portman, all of 14 during filming, steals the movie with a stunning performance, finding the thin edge between child and adult, smart but not sassy, sensitive but not sentimental. Her relationship with Willie becomes a trigger for a better future: he sees himself through her eyes as a man worth living up to the name. The most beautiful girl, as it turns out, is also the youngest, and her beauty radiates through her belief in tomorrow's possibilities.





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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Movie Review: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)


A romantic comedy with two stars operating out of their normal zone of comfort, The Bride Came C.O.D. is vaguely likeable but rarely sparkles.

In Los Angeles, heiress Joan Winfield (Bette Davis), daughter of tycoon Lucius K. Winfield (Eugene Pallette), agrees to marry bandleader Alan Brice (Jack Carson), much to the disgust of her father. Looking for a scoop, gossip reporter Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin) convinces the couple to fly to Las Vegas and elope. Financially strapped independent airline operator Steve Collins (James Cagney) strikes a deal with Lucius: Steve will kidnap Joan to prevent the marriage and deliver her back to her father in exchange for a much-needed monetary reward.

The plan goes sideways when Steve's plane, with the kidnapped Joan on board, crash lands into the desert near the border between California and Nevada. Steve and Joan make their way to the almost-abandoned mining town of Bonanza, where they find "Pop" Tolliver (Harry Davenport), the one remaining resident. As Lucius, Alan, Tommy and police authorities scramble to make their way to Bonanza, some to proceed with the wedding, others to prevent it, and the cops to arrest Steve for kidnapping, a thorny romance blossoms between Joan and Steve.

The Bride Came C.O.D. is a pleasant diversion, with some good dialogue, passable comedy and an efficient running time of just over 90 minutes. Joan frequently tangles with cactus, the detour to an abandoned town is a fresh angle, and the character of Pop, making up the population of one, instills a healthy dose of caustic humour.

But casting the queen of drama and the king of gangsters in a romantic comedy was always going to be a risky proposition, and The Bride Came C.O.D. does not escape the predictable pitfalls. Davis and Cagney do their best, and are never less than engaging, but the the required chemistry simply never materializes, and the lack of heat is not helped by pedestrian character sketching.

At least three writers had a hand in the slight script, which nevertheless forgets to flesh out Joan and Steve. She's a flighty heiress fighting for independence from Daddy, he's a scrappy pilot fighting to save his business, and that's all that Davis, Cagney and director William Keighley have to work with. As they stumble through the desert and then tangle with Pop and the mine tunnels of Bonanza, precious little else is revealed about the supposed lovers. Joan and Steve have to end up together because they are the two lead characters, and not because they ever come close to finding true feelings for each other.

The film ends with some prolonged confusion regarding the exact location of Bonanza: whether it's in California or Nevada may decide if Steve can be arrested and whether Joan and Alan can get legally married. The Bride Came C.O.D. is similarly caught straddling the fence, with some good elements but not enough momentum to decisively stake out its territory.





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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Movie Review: Armageddon (1998)


A spectacular science fiction disaster adventure, Armageddon is a thrilling battle between hardened men and a killer asteroid. The film quickly jettisons common sense for outright escapism, a trade-off that succeeds thanks to a breakneck pace and a committed cast.

A large, Texas-sized asteroid is discovered on a planet-annihilating collision course with Earth. With the impact predicted to occur within 18 days, advance fragments of rock start pounding the planet, destroying portions of New York City. Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is tasked with developing a strategy to save Earth, and settles on a plan to land a group of expert drillers on the asteroid as it passes near the moon, drill an 800 foot hole, and detonate a nuclear device deep within the rock's core.

Truman turns to veteran oil rig driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to lead the team. Stamper agrees, as long as he can use his regular crew of ruffians, including AJ (Ben Affleck), Rockhound (Steve Buscemi), Chick (Will Patton), Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan)  and Oscar (Owen Wilson). AJ is deeply in love with Stamper's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler), a relationship that Harry is not thrilled about. The men undergo intensive astronaut training and are then launched in two advanced space shuttles for a rendezvous with the killer asteroid, with limited time to fulfill their dangerous mission and save civilization.

One of the noisiest and craziest science fiction films is also among the best all-action spectacles from the 1990s. Armageddon is a dizzying experience, with everything dialled to over-the-top, from the end-of-the-world premise to the ridiculous oil-riggers-in-space concept. Director Michael Bay crams in explosions, wildfires, wanton destruction and narrow escapes into every corner of the movie's 151 minutes, deploying frantic editing to portray the carnage and even contriving to transform a routine refuelling stop at the International Earth Station into fiery fiasco.

Once the action switches to the asteroid, the screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J. J. Abrams unleashes crash landings, canyon jumps, equipment failures, tragic team losses and groundquakes to add to episodes of space dementia and the ever-reliable secret military "Plan B" that threatens to jeopardize Stamper and his crew. There is not a moment that is not pressed into the service of endless thrills and death-defying escapades.

And yet, somehow, Bay pulls it all together, away from camp and towards rampant entertainment. As the tension mounts and the asteroid hurtles towards Earth, a good streak of self-deprecating wit keeps the action grounded, and the character of the fiercely self-confident Harry Stamper is among Bruce Willlis' best screen creations, providing a phenomenal focus for the sprawling film, and a centre of gravity for the mission.

His crew is efficiently coloured in with enough definition to create interest, with AJ as the surrogate son who wants to be a son-in-law, Rockhound a genius redneck, and Chick as the failed father regretting the life that passed him by. The likes of Aerosmith, Journey and Bon Jovi contribute to the thumping soundtrack.

By the time Armageddon reaches its climax, with self-sacrifice to the fore and individual acts of ultimate valour required to save the planet, Bay is able to strip his epic down to the human level of a father, a daughter, and the necessity to break one small promise in order to fulfill a greater mission. Armageddon flies on the ludicrous edge of control, but it always hurtles in the right direction.





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Monday, 7 April 2014

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)


A funky adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby targets a young audience by mixing modern music into the 1920s setting. The film is artistic and vibrant, but falls short in the search for authentic soul.

With a booming stock market fuelling the New York of the Roaring Twenties, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is trying to make a career for himself as a bond trader. Next door to Nick's small house in the Long Island village of West Egg is the grand mansion of the mysterious and extremely wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Every weekend, all of New York's social elite descend onto the Gatsby mansion to attend lavish and wild parties, although few of the guests know who Gatsby is and none of them know how he accumulated his wealth.

Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay with her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and at Daisy's house Nick meets golf pro Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Nick also learns that Tom is carrying on an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of car mechanic George (Jason Clarke). As Nick and Gatsby become friends, Nick learns that Daisy was the love of Gatsby's life, and their idyllic romance was rudely interrupted by the Great War. Now Gatsby has scrapped his way from abject poverty to ridiculous wealth, and wants to win Daisy back. But despite his infidelities Tom will not give up on his wife so easily, triggering a cascading series of tragic events.

The Great Gatsby is full of colour, music, energy and style. Director Baz Luhrmann stages the grand love story of Jay Gatsby with plenty of larger than life panache, the set designs creating vivid landscapes into which the characters are carefully placed. The backdrops, lighting, colours, silhouettes and costumes are close to perfect, but this is where The Great Gatsby starts to falter: The film resembles a series of impeccable set pieces storyboarding the Fitzgerald novel.

With every frame a meticulous composition, the outcome is a glossy poster rather than a thoughtful interpretation, a face value recreation that is unable to get past events and into character depth. The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce finds no penetration, Gatsby's profound sense of loss and longing distinctly missing within all the glitz.

But the film's sheer aesthetic brilliance and instinctive rush to beauty are undeniable. The inclusion of modern party music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Ray, will.i.am and Jack White, among others, is a typically audacious Luhrmann move intended to make the film more relevant to a young and modern audience. The injection of energy is potent and the lyrical content of the selections is well matched to the narrative. But mixing new music into a 90 year old setting only serves to more fully block the film's ability to delve into the essence of its central romance.

And rather than bringing characters to life, the actors veer into the earnest theatricality of being consumed by the story's reputation. Leonardo DiCaprio oozes charisma fuelled by inexplicable millions, and does bring to Gatsby vulnerability if not poignancy. Maguire adds little as a too passive Carraway, and Mulligan fully looks the part as Daisy but remains an inaccessible scintillation rather than a real person. In a bullish performance Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan emerges as the only other presence strong enough to compete with the exuberant surroundings.

A feast for the eyes and ears but not so much for the heart, The Great Gatsby is fun and provocative but not so evocative.





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Saturday, 5 April 2014

CD Review: Individual Thought Patterns, by Death (1993)


Despite overhauling half of the band membership, the fifth studio album from Death continues the trend established on 1991's Human. Individual Thought Patterns features robust melodic death metal with jazz shadings played at a pace of controlled franticism.

And although the attention span remains short, and just one track survives beyond the 4:30 mark, there is now a clearer direction to most of the songs, a welcome cohesiveness that helps to give the music better structure.

Chuck Schuldiner leads from the front again, his truncated, spit-it-out-in-two-word-increments vocals evoking a general anger at whateverness. Schuldiner's songwriting is now more curious about the potential for strong and slower melodic themes to stitch together the music, both Overactive Imagination and Nothing Is Everything benefitting greatly from bewitching spells of lyricism.

The more jazzy elements don't work as well, title track Individual Thought Patterns tripping over itself with scattered and repetitive convolutions.

In support, Gene Hoglan is the fourth drummer to feature on the band's first five albums, and he bangs away to good effect, providing able support and texture to Schuldiner's complex structures. Andy LaRocque takes a break from King Diamond and suddenly provides Death with a potent one-two punch on the guitar front, the band's harmonies noticeably richer.

Individual Thought Patterns is an appropriate summary of Death's catalogue, the title and the contents encompassing both the innovation that the band never stopped pursuing, and the philosophy of cramming many disparate ideas into every track, for better or for worse.


Band:

Chuck Schuldiner - Guitar, Vocals
Andy LaRocque - Guitar
Steve DiGiorgio - Bass
Gene Hoglan - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Overactive Imagination - 9
2. In Human Form - 7
3. Jealousy - 7
4. Trapped In A Corner - 7
5. Nothing Is Everything - 9
6. Mentally Blind - 7
7. Individual Thought Patterns - 6
8. Destiny - 7
9. Out Of Touch - 7
10. The Philosopher - 7

Average: 7.30

Produced by Scott Burns and Chuck Schuldiner.
Engineered by Scott Burns.

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Thursday, 3 April 2014

Movie Review: Enemy Of The State (1998)


A classy techno-thriller, Enemy Of The State finds a groove where political conspiracy meets sleek action and rides it all the way to excellence.

At a secluded park, Washington DC National Security Agency official Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) arranges for the murder of Congressman Phil Hammersley (Jason Robards), who is opposed to the passage of legislation that would give security agencies expanded powers of surveillance. The murder is captured by a hidden camera deployed to film wildlife. The digital file of the assassination ends up with corporate lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), who is grappling with an ugly case involving mafia corruption. Dean gets help on his court cases from old flame Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), a go-between with a mysterious investigator known only as Brill.

To recover the incriminating file Reynolds activates an illicit operation to track Dean's movements, infiltrate his life, and destroy his credit, marriage and reputation. By using satellites, commandeering surveillance networks and deploying the latest spy bugs and tracking devices, Reynolds' team force Dean into a life on the run. An attempt to frame Dean for murder forces him to seek help from the reclusive Brill (Gene Hackman), an ex-NSA agent. Together Dean and Brill have to find a way to end Reynolds' reign of terror.

One of director Tony Scott's more intelligent outings, Enemy Of The State was perceptive in 1998 but became a frightful predictor of reality 15 years later when whistleblower Edward Snowden lifted the lid on the actual surveillance reach of intelligence agencies. If Enemy Of The State was exaggerated by the imagination of screenwriter David Marconi, it ironically became a template for agencies to strive for in the Patriot Act era.

Intersections with reality aside, the film is a slick thrill ride. Scott creates an almost plausible narrative to hang the action on, and the story of an innocent but smart victim getting snagged into a sprawling conspiracy is a modern interpretation of a classic Hitchcock theme, but with a better MacGuffin in the digital assassination file.

The pacing is brisk, and the visual style is consumed with all that satellite, camera, computer and snooping technology has to offer. The opening 30 minutes set up the premise with professional care, allowing the hectic middle third to launch with breathless precision as the technology is unleashed to turn Dean's life into a living nightmare. The final act is clever, as Marconi finds a blood-soaked but satisfying climax, Dean arranging for his problems old and new to meet in a greasy kitchen filled with hidden weapons and short tempers.

Enemy Of The State was the first serious role that Will Smith tackled after achieving superstardom, and he demonstrates plenty of charisma and control to channel his energy away from comedy and towards the rollercoaster man-on-the-run structure. Smith still gets to unleash some funny ad-libbed lines, but for the most part Dean is a man hunted by much greater forces, and has to deploy wit and desperate physicality rather than humour to stay alive.

Two veterans provide distinguished support, Jon Voight and Gene Hackman carrying their well-earned battle scars into a final confrontation between political expediency and lone wolf ideology. The film also gets the demographics of the techno-wizards right, a young and dishevelled group including Jack Black, Scott Caan, Jake Busey and Loren Dean tapping away at the array of keyboards to deploy surveillance technology as a weapon of mass intimidation. In addition to Robards as the world-weary Senator, Gabriel Byrne shows up in a small role as the frantic Dean tries to track down Brill.

Prescient and pointy, Enemy Of The State is a frightful vision of what could happen when glitzy tools fall into the grubby hands of the paranoid and power hungry.





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