Saturday, 25 October 2014

CD Review: Houses Of The Holy, by Led Zeppelin (1973)

Led Zeppelin's fifth album in five years, Houses Of The Holy finds the world's biggest and most famous band cruising at a rarefied altitude of unusually high quality. This is a record of remarkable consistency, every track an exquisitely constructed marvel of sophisticated music.

The sound is orchestral, dreamy and rich. With shadings of funk, jazz and rock, as usual the album is undefinable as a genre and unmistakable as Zeppelin. There is an occasional burst of pure metal, and the band generally settles down to the comfort of mid-tempo instrumental segments punctuated by Robert Plant's searing vocals.

The highlights are many. Dancing Days unleashes an infectious riff and majestic guitar work from Jimmy Page. No Quarter is a 7 minute journey to whole other solar system, Plant's anguished, hushed vocals playing with a haunting melody and thumping drumming from John Bonham, with Page contributing a buzzy hook for the ages. And The Ocean is the crown jewel of the album, Bonham putting on a drumming clinic while Page lets loose yet another timeless riff with a diamond edge. The band even find the time to sprinkle clever humour onto the album, The Crunge still looking for that confounded bridge on a song that has none.

Every other track on the album earns its place and leaves its mark. Almost effortlessly, Houses Of The Holy is another confirmation of the band's genius and one the best albums of the seventies.


Jimmy Page - Guitar
Robert Plant - Vocals
John Bonham - Drums
John Paul Jones - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Song Remains The Same - 8
2. The Rain Song - 8
3. Over The Hills And Far Away - 8
4. The Crunge - 8
5. Dancing Days - 9
6. D'yer Mak'er - 8
7. No Quarter - 9
8. The Ocean - 10

Average: 8.50

Produced by Jimmy Page.

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CD Review: No Prayer For The Dying, by Iron Maiden (1990)

One decade into their career, Iron Maiden release No Prayer For The Dying as their eighth studio album, and it's a poor effort. The dawn of the 1990s breaks with the band firmly stuck in the early eighties, lacking in any new cutting edge, their sound now a mish-mash of recycled elements from days gone by.

Guitarist Janick Gers joins the band to replace the departed Adrian Smith, and first two tracks demonstrate plenty of renewed vigour. Tail Gunner and Holy Smoke are both traditional high-tempo Maiden cuts, delivered with energy full of promise.

The rest of the album singularly fails to deliver. The other eight tracks are high on repetition, low on innovation, and mostly just go through the motions with a notable absence of spirit. Hooks In You is the worst of the bunch, while Bring Your Daughter...To The Slaughter somehow earned the distinction of being Maiden's first (and so far only) number one single on the UK charts, a boost of encouragement that the band did not need. Written by Bruce Dickinson as a solo effort for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child horror film, the band adopted Bring Your Daughter... as a Maiden song. Commercially brilliant, artistically suspect.

The album ends with Mother Russia, a plodding retread of cobbled together old glories that would have sounded fresh seven years prior. No Prayer For The Dying is a creative dead zone that no amount of praying can help.


Janick Gers - Guitar
Nicko McBrain - Drums
Bruce Dickinson - Vocals
Dave Murray - Guitar
Steve Harris - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Tail Gunner - 9
2. Holy Smoke - 10
3. No Prayer For The Dying - 7
4. Public Enema Number One - 7
5. Fates Warning - 7
6. The Assassin - 7
7. Run Silent Run Deep - 7
8. Hooks In You - 6
9. Bring Your Daughter...To The Slaughter - 7
10. Mother Russia - 7

Average: 7.40

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Martin Birch.

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Movie Review: Training Day (2001)

A pounding police thriller, Training Day dives into the dark cesspool where criminals and detectives all begin to look alike. The film is a polished, high energy character study, with an enthralling central performance by Denzel Washington.

Los Angeles police officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is taking the initial steps towards becoming a detective on the anti-narcotics squad. Paired with veteran detective Alonzo Harris (Washington), Jake embarks on his first day of training as a passenger in Alonzo's car, cruising the streets of LA on the lookout for criminal activity. Alonzo knows his way around the streets and gives Jake a constant stream of advice about survival skills and what a real life of fighting crime is all about. But Jake quickly learns that Alonzo operates way outside normal procedures. Before the morning is out, Alonzo forces Jake to smoke drugs, and after Jake intervenes to disrupt a street rape, he allows the potential rapists to walk away.

Alonzo also has a personal agenda for the day. He has upset some Russian mobsters and needs to raise a million dollars by midnight to avoid their wrath. Alonzo steals cash from a drug dealer named Sandman, and uses the money to pay off his police superiors (known as the Three Wise Men) in exchange for receiving the go-ahead to raid and shake-down master criminal Roger (Scott Glenn). That operation goes badly in many different ways, creating a huge rift between Jake and Alonzo. Before the end of the day Jake will need to learn quickly in order to stay alive and decide on what kind of future he wants.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Ayer, Training Day walks along the blurred line between right and wrong and finds plenty of dead bodies. Alonzo inhabits a ruthless world of powerful dealers and brutal gangsters, and has long since decided that no amount of proper policing will make an iota of difference. So he has adopted more effective and less traditional methods, stretching the definition of his badge to act as judge, jury and executioner in addition to law officer. The results justify the means in his mind, and no one really seems to care, because all others on the side of the law are at least as corrupt.

Until Jake comes along. With an outsider's view Jake is horrified by Alonzo's methods, but initially accepting that maybe this is what it takes to fight drugs on the front lines. But Jake has caught Alonzo on a really challenging day, and Alonzo has plans to use the naive Jake in his elaborate scheme to extricates himself from the target hairs of the Russian mob. Jake's education will proceed at fast-forward, his training day packed with a lifetime's worth of incidents. He will need to learn quickly or die trying.

Filmed on location is some of the worst neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, Training Day has the surreal look of a decaying social landscape. Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore recall the downtrodden feel of 1970s crime movies, with Alonzo cruising through gritty neighbourhoods dominated by desperation, unemployment and gang members. It does not need to be said: the idea that justice will ever penetrate into this world is visually incongruous.

Denzel Washington became the second black man (after Sidney Poitier) to win the Best Actor Academy Award. Washington creates in Alonzo Harris a smooth talking and supremely confident puppet master, convinced that he can talk his way into any situation and talk his way out of any problem. And when the time for talking is done, he does not hesitate to whip out the guns to emphasize his demands. Washington is appropriately larger than life, effortless and exhausting, a police officer so far past the line that he forgot the line even exists.

Ethan Hawke provides the perfect foil as Jake Hoyt, an unspoiled idealist exposed head-on to Alonzo's crazy world. The supporting cast also includes Tom Berenger in one scene as a member of the Three Wise Men, and Eva Mendes as Alonzo's mistress.

Packed with the power, fury and conviction of two men committed to their conflicting beliefs, Training Day is one intense inauguration.

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Movie Review: The Quick And The Dead (1995)

A western with all the style and none of the substance, The Quick And The Dead is filled with clever artistic touches but is also well short when it comes to essential elements like rounded characters and plot depth.

In the small town of Redemption, former outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman) rules over the population with an iron fist as a self-appointed sheriff, judge and executioner. The Lady (Sharon Stone) rides into town seeking revenge against Herod for an ancient wrong, and registers to participate in an annual quick draw gunfight elimination contest, hoping to give Herod his due. The other entrants include gunslinger Ace Hanlon (Lance Henriksen), bounty hunter Clay Cantrell (Keith David), and The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), who claims to be Herod's son. Herod also forces his former partner in crime Cort (Russell Crowe) to join the contest.

Cort has renounced violence and become a priest, but Herod is having none of it, holding Cort in shackles and forcing him to participate in the gunfight series or die. As the contestants are thinned out through successive and increasingly deadly duels, The Kid, The Lady and Cort emerge as the main challengers looking knock Herod off his perch. But beating the old man at his own brutal game will not be easy.

Directed by Sam Raimi and co-produced by Stone, the film is notable for featuring significant pre-stardom roles for DiCaprio and Crowe, both promoted and supported by Stone. In a case of too many ideas all poorly developed, the film tries, with limited success, to be an amalgamation of relevant classic western themes, including revenge, corruption, betrayal, profiteering, redemption and the struggle between religion and the gun.

But Raimi does deliver on all the required aesthetics. The Quick And The Dead looks gorgeous, from Stone's layered clothes to the town's simple layout. The camera angles are often brilliant, the gunfights are filmed with plenty of panache, and the town's clock tower stands witness to all manner of courage and death on the dusty main street. There are plenty of Leonesque touches, from tight close-ups of the eyes to the long dusters used by Herod's men, plus a few special Raimiesque flourishes when it comes to portraying bullet damage.

But The Quick And The Dead is missing almost everything else. The characters are presented in broad brush format, the backstories are rudimentary, the dialogue is a barrage of recycles clichés, and The Lady's revenge motive is borrowed wholesale from Once Upon A Time In The West.

The plot is reduced to a series of successive gunfights, the film falling into the trap of too many punchlines and not enough set-up. Any showdown moment loses its impact when repeated endlessly, and The Quick And The Dead has too many moments when one gunfighter is quick, and the other dead.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Movie Review: Coma (1978)

A medical conspiracy thriller about mysteriously botched surgeries, Coma enjoys some effective evil-lurks-here moments but provides limited character development and pushes its action elements to some creaky extremes.

At Boston Memorial Hospital, Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is young, bright, talented and fighting against still-pervasive sexism. Her relationship with Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) is wobbling, but Susan's world is really rocked when her good friend Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles) undergoes a routine medical procedure, and slips into a permanent coma. Susan tries to investigate the cause, and finds a troubling pattern of similar cases: a high number of otherwise healthy patients are not waking up from simple surgeries at Boston Memorial.

Chief of Anaesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) and Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark) both want Susan to stop poking her nose in the hospital's business, as does Mark.  But yet another coma case involving the rugged Sean Murphy (Tom Selleck) convinces Susan that something is very wrong. She learns that all the coma patients are transferred to an intimidating out-of-town medical centre called The Jefferson Institute, where nurse Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) holds court. Susan pushes ahead with her detective work, and soon finds her own life in real danger.

An adaptation of Robin Cook's bestseller with a script by director Michael Crichton, Coma tries hard but can't fully shake the shackles of a simple premise that takes forever to develop, hindered by what looks like a suspiciously low budget and stilted secondary characters.

As the film rather clumsily winds its way to the painfully obvious illegal organ trade big reveal, it offers a few good elements. Bujold is an enthusiastic contributor, diving into the role of Susan Wheeler with conviction and giving the film's strong feminist stance plenty of steel. Wheeler is battling a male dominated world as much as a sinister conspiracy, and in many ways the condescending treatment she receives from most of the men in her life is as shocking as the coma plot. Bujold turns Wheeler into a pocket of serious energy that will not be silenced, creating a plucky heroine to cheer for.

Also worth watching is the Jefferson Institute, a building so sinister that just the exterior is enough to convince that nothing good can be happening inside. With excellent contributions from cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Crichton lovingly lingers on the soulless concrete facade, and then reveals the inside to be no less hostile. Nurse Emerson, in day-to-day charge of the facility, may as well have a heart of stone and steel, for all the humanity that she displays. It's a relatively small role for Elizabeth Ashley, but a most memorable one.

Otherwise, the film spends too much time with Susan sleuthing through labs to uncover clues, then running down abandoned hallways to escape a faceless killer, in a classic example of doctor-overnight-turns-into-action-woman. She then ups her game and further detaches the film from reality by crawling through remarkably clean and well-lit utility shafts. It's all good non-intellectual fun, Coma's intriguing dose of science ultimately succumbing to traditional action movie chestnuts.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Movie Review: Good Will Hunting (1997)

A drama about the value of intellect as a natural gift, Good Will Hunting is a dazzling achievement. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck announce their proper arrival into the movie industry with a witty script about a young man withholding his own potential behind a wall of acrid charisma.

In Boston, Will Hunting (Damon) lives on the wrong side of town, and is working as a janitor sweeping the floor at MIT. Will is an orphan and had a rough childhood, but he is also a cocky genius, supremely confident and a voracious reader, with a particular aptitude for solving complex math problems. To avoid any risk of disappointment, Will emotionally pushes everyone away and shuns any opportunity to improve his lot in life. He prefers instead to pick fights with hoodlums and hang out with his blue collar friends, particularly best buddy Chuckie (Affleck). Will's advanced mathematical skills come to the attention of renowned MIT Professor Gerry Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), just as Will lands in legal trouble for striking a police officer during a meaningless street brawl.

As a condition of avoiding serving time, Gerry agrees to take Will under his wing and make sure that he sees a therapist. Will and Lambeau work well together tackling math problems, but finding a therapist who can penetrate Will's hard exterior proves difficult. Eventually Gerry reaches out to his former college classmate Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychology professor himself struggling with the death of his wife. Will starts dating Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver), but opening up to her will prove to be as difficult as having meaningful conversations with Sean.

Co-written by Affleck and Damon and directed by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting is an intellectual Cinderfella drama. While not exactly rags to riches, Will's journey is from the streets of South Boston to the hallowed halls of MIT, and more importantly, his awakening to the power of vulnerability and the potential for a better life. With a smart script and a spellbinding diamond-in-the-rough central character, the film captivates as it delves into the psyche and spirit of a charismatic genius looking for a cause.

Gerry and Sean represent two distinct father figures and two separate paths available to Will, should he choose to break out of his thick crust of mistrust. Gerry tries to appeal to Will's intellect and charts a course towards potential business success. At great personal cost, Sean batters away at Will's armour, trying to unleash a spirit with unlimited all-round potential. It's a fascinating two-pronged probe on a young man smarter than both his mentors. With Skylar presenting a tantalizing look at what is possible, deep down Will Hunting realizes that to make good, something has to change, and Sean may be his last chance to find out what an alternative future may look like.

The therapy sessions between doctor and unwilling patient held in Sean's cluttered office are at the heart of the film. Sean's own open wound due to his wife's death gives the film a third dimension, and Will an initial target to bore in on as he attempts to destroy Sean as quickly as all the other shrinks. But Sean recovers, regroups and patiently invests the time it takes to reach into the heart of a man who has decided that he never wants to be reached again. The climax of these sessions may be a bit more cinematic than convincing, but the process is a captivating study in progressive cerebral interaction between two determined men, and remarkably excellent filmmaking.

With an unforgettable performance, Matt Damon establishes his screen persona as a smart man with boyish looks and a wickedly playful streak. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Sean, giving the doctor plenty of complex humanity and a steely resolve to not give up on Will when it would have been easy to do so. The complex relationship between Sean and Gerry also helps to provide depth, Stellan Skarsgård doing his bit to create an appropriately arrogant but still genial celebrity professor.

While making good use of the attractive Boston locations, Van Sant keeps the mood buoyant, mixing drama with touches of humour and sprinklings of friendship and romance. Good Will Hunting is a most rewarding expedition.

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Monday, 20 October 2014

Movie Review: The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

An uproarious sex comedy, The 40 Year-Old Virgin hits all its targets by mixing wild humour with the gentle awkwardness of a man struggling to make the jump into full adulthood.

Andy (Steve Carell) is a lonely 40 year old, living on his own and working in the stockroom of a technology superstore. Andy is into comic books and toy collectibles, and has no social life to speak of. His work colleagues include David (Paul Rudd), still not over a failed relationship, Jay (Romany Malco), a loud and fast-talking ladies man, and Cal (Seth Rogen) who is smarter than he looks and in search of kinkier experiences. When Andy's co-workers find out that he is still a virgin and has almost given up looking for a meaningful relationship, they set about trying to help him.

Andy is hesitant but starts to take the advice of his new friends. Predictably, most of the experiences end in disaster. However, he does slowly gain some confidence to interact with women, and local business owner Trish (Catherine Keener) catches his eye. Bookstore clerk Beth (Elizabeth Banks) is also a potential partner, while Andy's boss and store manager Paula (Jane Lynch) graciously offers her services to help him with his predicament. But Andy gathers up his courage and embarks on a relationship with Trish without revealing to her that he is a virgin, and also gets to know her teenaged daughter Marla (Kat Dennings), herself grappling with upcoming initial sexual experience issues.

Directed by Judd Apatow, who co-wrote with Carell, The 40-Year Old Virgin is a laugh-fest driven both by characters and situations. Andy and his friends are just on the right side of believable as underachieving men searching for new ways to remain irresponsible, keeping the film away from farce. The comic set-pieces also maintain a toehold in the realm of the possible, from Andy receiving a chest waxing to joining Marla at a pregnancy prevention clinic.

The wilder moments are more hit and miss. A highlight is Andy, whose driving skills are limited to a bicycle, getting trapped into a car ride from hell with a very drunk driver in the form of club girl Nicky (Leslie Mann, Mrs. Apatow in a memorable and nonchalantly oblivious turn). Not as funny is a truncated and unnecessary encounter with a transvestite prostitute.

Amidst the mayhem, the film manages to explore the role of sex in a relationship from the male perspective. An annoying hindrance, an absolute necessity, a dangerous distraction, and the ultimate expression of commitment, sex proves to be important in all the ways that Andy feared and craved. Meanwhile, David, Jay and Cal also get their own dose of sexual education, and not in any way that they expected.

Steve Carell is crucial to the film's success, and his performance as Andy nails the essentially likable man drifting into a life of loneliness due more to inertia than any actual hang-up. Catherine Keener emerges as the perfect counterpart, a woman who has had perhaps too much life happen to her too soon, and is happy to go slow with a man who clearly needs to.

The supporting cast is rich in comic talent, with Apatow frequently deploying them in an undercurrent of dangerous mischievousness rather than brazen madcappery.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin is prodded out of his comfort zone and onto the path of responsibility in an adult world. And it's a laugh-out-loud transition, worth the years of waiting in unintended abstinence.

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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Movie Review: In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

A simmering murder mystery overheated to the boiling point by racial tensions, In The Heat Of The Night is a seminal cinematic achievement, a turning point in the portrayal of blacks on the screen and a riveting small town thriller.

In the small southern backwater of Sparta, Mississippi, night patrolman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds wealthy businessman Mr. Colbert dead in the street, killed with a blow to the head. The local redneck police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) orders a sweep of the town, and Wood picks up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station. Black, well-dressed and very much a stranger, Tibbs is immediately a suspect, and Gillespie treats him with racist contempt. But Gillespie is stunned to learn that Tibbs is a Philadelphia police detective, passing through Sparta while visiting his mother.

Through a combination of pressure from his superior and his personal pride, Tibbs stays in Sparta to help solve the murder, while Gillespie is grudgingly convinced by Sparta's mayor (William Schallert) to accept Tibbs' help. Tibbs and Gillespie never really get along, but start to tolerate each other as they track down persons of interest including Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), small-time drifter Harvey (Scott Wilson), Colbert's business rival Endicott (Larry Gates), and late night diner counterman Ralph (Anthony James). Sam Wood also emerges as a suspect, as well as being implicated in a sordid unwanted pregnancy involving a 16 year old local girl. With Mrs. Colbert threatening to pull her late husband's investment out of town and Tibbs attracting an increasing number of enemies, the pressure mounts to catch the murderer.

Directed by Norman Jewison and written by Stirling Silliphant based on the John Ball book, In The Heat Of The Night draws one of the most distinct before-and-after lines in Hollywood movie history. Poitier's Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, also from 1967, portrayed a black man being accepted into a white liberal educated family. In The Heat Of The Night has no such acceptance: Virgil Tibbs is a qualitatively better law officer than Gillespie; and through his sheer force of conviction, Tibbs will prove to Sparta and all its bigoted residents that a black man will overcome deep-rooted racism and serve the cause of justice.

For all its redefining of racial relations, In The Heat Of The Night is also a fine, complex murder mystery. In sweltering heat made worse by prevailing hot winds of xenophobia, plenty of suspects emerge as the potential killer, and Tibbs gathers personal enemies by focusing the investigation in unexpected directions. He is convinced that the drifter Harvey is innocent when plenty of evidence points to his guilt, and Tibbs rocks the town to its core by suspecting Endicott and then getting involved in the unwanted pregnancy case. The film's climax does feel rushed, and Jewison would have done better to provide some of the secondary characters a bit more room to breathe.

In The Heat Of The Night maintains its tension by not caving in to any easy moments of reconciliation. To the bitter end, Gillespie just barely finds a way to work with Tibbs, and never misses an opportunity to make Tibbs' life harder than it needs to be. The film avoids becoming a buddy movie, as Gillespie's respect grows by barely perceptible increments. It's only in the final scene that Tibbs gets the benefit of the slightest kind gesture and phrase, and even then, Gillespie wraps his gratitude with a tinge of relief that the two are finally parting ways.

Two moments from the film stand out and earn their place in movie history. In the first, when Gillespie, who has been callously referring to Tibbs as "boy", asks Tibbs what they call him in Philadelphia, he roars back "They call me MISTER Tibbs!."  And in the second, Endicott is insulted that he is considered a suspect in the Colbert murder and slaps Tibbs hard. Tibbs returns the slap, just as hard. It's a shocking, time-stands-still moment, a black man striking a respected white cotton magnate deep in the south.

The two central performances are perfect, primarily because they don't stray from the essence of the two characters. Poitier emphasizes Tibbs' pride, confidence and hints of justified arrogance. Steiger keeps Gillespie true to a small-town cop, refusing to admit that he is in over his head, furiously chewing his gum to compensate for the absence of any useful detective skills, while eyeing Tibbs with a combination of suspicion and contempt.

In The Heat Of The Night the movies encountered an inflection point. A murder was committed, and race relations on the big screen changed forever.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Movie Review: Men, Women, And Children (2014)

An episodic look at relationships and sexuality in the online age, Men, Women, And Children is a mildly interesting probe of modern family dysfunctionalities, but the film stumbles on unjustified pretensions.

The focus is on the loosely related lives of high school teenagers and their parents in a middle-class suburban Texas community. Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) are parents who have worked their way into a stagnant marriage. Don harbours a healthy online porn habit and Helen is no longer attracted to her husband. Individually, they both use the Internet to spice up their sex lives with extramarital affairs. Meanwhile their 15 year old son Chris (Travis) is so jaded by online porn that he can only be aroused by extreme fetishes. Chris' classmate Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is the high school's extroverted cheerleader and claims to be sexually experienced. Hannah has an online web site managed by her single-mom Joan (Judy Greer), featuring provocative modeling photos. Joan never made it in Hollywood, and is hoping to help her daughter into the career that she missed out on.

Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is obsessed with Internet safety for teenagers, and controls every online move made by her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who starts a tentative friendship with Tim (Ansel Elgort). Formerly the school's football star, Tim has quit the team and now immerses himself in online gaming as he drowns into a depression caused by his mother abandoning the family. Meanwhile Tim's dad Kent (Dean Norris) kindles a relationship with Joan. Allison (Elena Kampouris) is also a cheerleader, and friends with Hannah and Brandy, but she is suffering from anorexia, and turns to online support from fellow anorexics to ward off food temptations. Allison is looking for a her first sexual experience, and has a crush on an uncaring football player.

Men, Women, And Children is narrated by Emma Thompson, and frequently interrupted by pablum about the Voyager space probe hurtling through space and out of the solar system. Both the supercilious narration and the we-are-all-alone preachiness confirm the hubris hinted at in the film's title. Somehow director and co-writer Jason Reitman thought that he was making a deeply profound movie about humanity's destiny; rather, this is a modest film about a collection of people struggling with routine growing up and growing old issues in the Internet age. Men, Women And Children would have been better with more focus on characters and less galactic preachiness.

On the positive side, the stories are provocative, as intended, and fuelled by the online world's dramatic facilitation of access to explicit sexuality and seemingly anonymous interaction. Reitman is able to generate empathy for all the key characters. Refreshingly all the men, women and children are well-intentioned and doing the best with what they know. The teenagers are grappling with generational angst and awakening sexual desire in a world seemingly drenched by sex, the adults are groping through the fog of middle-age and the complexities of parenting, where the theoretical and the practical collide. And it's all happening aided and abetted by screens of all sizes, their glow the new essential backdrop for every important decision and communication.

Whether intentionally or through oversight, the film omits any families and characters who can be classified as normally happy. While unconflicted characters are admittedly less interesting, they would provide a useful reference point in a sea of turmoil. Brandy is the closest thing to a normal teen that the film offers, but even she has online secrets waiting to be revealed.

The performances err towards the entrenched side of adequate, with both Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer not helped by over-the-top parental characters that push the boundaries well past reasonable. Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt and young Kaitlyn Deaver emerge with the most credit.

Men, Women, And Children is close to being a worthwhile chronicle of digitally-driven familial dynamics. The film needed less pomposity and more tenderness to properly wriggle into the heart.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Movie Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

A classic few-against-many western, Rio Bravo is a study of determination against the odds. The story of a sheriff and his two allies doggedly holding out against the overwhelming forces of a corrupt businessman is a thrilling standoff in defence of what is right.

When the dimwitted Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) shoots and kills a man in a saloon fight, he is arrested by Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Chance holds Joe in the town's small jail, guarded by old timer Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Chance's only other ally is his deputy Dude (Dean Martin), who is struggling to escape the clutches of severe alcohol dependency. Chance has to await a Marshall who will arrive within days to transport the prisoner. The problem is that Joe's brother Nathan (John Russell) is the richest landowner in the area, and he wants his brother set free.

As the siege grips the town, Chance gradually gains a few allies. Young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) first insists on minding his own business but starts to change his mind after his mentor Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) is killed by Nathan's men. Meanwhile card shark Feathers (Angie Dickinson) arrives in town and catches Chance's eye. Nathan intensifies his efforts to intimidate and threaten Chance into releasing Joe, but the lawman and his allies are determined to bring Joe to justice, leading to a series of ever more violent skirmishes with Nathan's men.

A response and rebuke aimed squarely at High Noon (1952), in Rio Bravo the sheriff is comfortable standing tall on his own. Wayne and director Howard Hawks wanted to portray a law officer who refuses help from the ordinary townsfolk, but gets it anyway. In this version of America, the hero stands up to his individual responsibilities despite the obvious risks, and by doing so inspires others to step forward.

Rio Bravo is a masterpiece of mounting tension, as a state of physical and psychological siege creates a perfect canvass for classic western themes. Chance, Stumpy and Dude have to defend a shrinking perimeter around the jailhouse, their enemies already present inside and outside the town, and ready to pounce at any instant and upon any sign of weakness. And Chance's allies are far from perfect or dependable. Dude's battle against the bottle hangs in the balance, and the movie opens with a brilliant, dialogue-free scene of Dude reduced to retrieving coins from a spittoon to get yet another drink. Stumpy is an old-timer, trigger happy but handicapped by a limp leg and a caustic attitude.

Arrayed against these three is an army of cowboys on Nathan Burdette's payroll, plus mercenaries happy to kill in exchange for Nathan's money. Gradually Nathan tightens the noose and intimidates or kills those who express support for Chance. But still the community does not turn its back. Hotel keeper Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), wagon master Wheeler, gunslinger Colorado and the passionate Feathers all show varying degrees of support, and as the stand-off moves towards an inevitably violent climax, their support becomes more overt and active.

The script by Jules Furthman Leigh and Brackett Hawks mixes plenty of character interaction and development with bursts of action to keep the pressure building. By the time Hawks unleashes all the guns to explode into action for the raucous final showdown, Chance and his friends are remarkably well developed, having faced down their real demons and come to terms with their destinies.

John Wayne is iconic as John T. Chance ("T for trouble", according to Feathers), a man who knows his role, ready with an answer for everything but reduced to a puddle of uncertainty when placed in the cross hairs of Feathers' affection. Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson rarely had better roles. Martin is the most complex character in the film, Dude struggling against his past potential, present dependency and unsure if he deserves a second chance for a better future. Dickinson is a combination of confidence and sensuality that allows Feathers to match wits and stubborn commitment with Chance.

Rio Bravo celebrates righteous struggles against enemies both external and internal. As is often the case, winning the fight against self-doubt makes disposing of outside foes that much easier.

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