Sunday, 1 March 2015

Movie Review: The Virgin Suicides (1999)


A tender story of how girlhood can go terribly wrong, The Virgin Suicides is a wispy tragedy, softly unfolding with a sentient style.

It's 1975, in the suburbs of Detroit. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) have five daughters ranging in age from 13 to 17. Mr. Lisbon is a schoolteacher, his wife a homemaker, and they are deeply religious, keeping their daughters sheltered and away from social activities. Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A. J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) become the subject of fascination bordering on obsession for the boys in their neighbourhood. The level of curiosity is amplified when the youngest girl Cecilia attempts suicide by slashing her wrists, but she is saved.

Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito) advises the Lisbons that they need to allow their daughters to mingle more with their classmates. The first party hosted by the girls ends tragically when Cecilia does indeed succeed in killing herself. The surviving sisters tentatively start to socialize more, but when the free-spirited Lux falls under the spell of Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the coolest boy in the school, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon clamp down harder, triggering grim consequences.

Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, adapting the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, is a hypnotizing journey into the perilous world of growing up. The Virgin Suicides is a bleak story delivered with a delicate touch, capturing the suburban melancholia that emerges with the loss of innocence. Coppola bathes the film in happy colours, soft light, and an airy, remarkably open atmosphere, contrasting the image of flourishing suburbia with the suffocation within families behind closed doors. Death is hovering nearby, the disease-infested neighbourhood elm trees the subject of much agony: should they be left to die naturally or chopped to avoid infecting others.

Seen through the eyes of teenaged boys, The Virgin Suicides treats girls in adolescence as a fragile mystery fraught with peril. They are easily knocked off course by good intentions tarnished with religious dogma, misguided parental rules metastasizing into a horror show of desperation fuelled by confinement. And the film stands outside the girls and observes them as objects of fascination, young women emerging as enigmas to their parents, and most acutely to the boys who would, under normal circumstances, become the men in their lives.

Despite the raging drama of girls fighting to breathe the oxygen of adulthood, Coppola constructs The Virgin Suicides with remarkable calm, and the film avoids guilt trips, finger pointing and recriminations. Below the seemingly staid surface, the tension may boil, but in the day to day lives of the girls, their school and their neighbourhood, the emotions are in check. Smatterings of gossip and interludes of uneasy silences hint at the turmoil; most of what is wrong is left unsaid. The soundtrack by French duo Air perfectly captures the dolefulness of the film, Playground Love a devastatingly evocative theme song.

In addition to Woods, Turner and DeViro, the supporting cast is sprinkled with interesting faces. As Trip Fontaine, Josh Hartnett delivers a refreshingly assured and animated performance. Michael ParĂ© plays the adult Trip, Scott Glenn has a small role as a priest, and Giovanni Ribisi provides low-key narration. A young Hayden Christensen appears as one of the neighbourhood boys.

But this is a story of five sisters, and as the most adventurous of the Lisbon daughters, Kirsten Dunst shines in a role that lives in the twilight zone between individualism and calamity. Never outwardly rebellious, Dunst allows Lux to smile through life's limits as her young mind assesses ever dwindling options, from breaking a strict curfew to exploring what the roof has to offer when the outdoors are off limits. And when the conditions of growing up become even more stifling, she invites the curious boys indoors, to discover for themselves the images of truncated hope.






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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Movie Review: Pretty In Pink (1986)


A high school comedy, romance and drama wrapped into a pink package, Pretty In Pink delves into the politics of love across social class divides, and finds real teenagers grappling with the details of growing up.

Andie (Molly Ringwald) comes from a lower income family and lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her father Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), who has not yet recovered from being abandoned by his wife. Andie is clever, resourceful and takes on the responsibility of keeping her father somewhat functional. At a high school dominated by rich kids, Andie fends off the sexual advances of the lecherous Steff (James Spader), but harbours a crush on his shy friend Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Both Steff and Blane come from monied families and social norms dictate that they stay away from poor girls like Andie. Meanwhile, Andie's best friend since childhood is the extroverted Duckie (Jon Cryer). He is deeply infatuated with her, but she just considers him a reliable if sometimes annoying buddy.

Blane finds the courage to approach Andie and they start dating. Steff is incredulous that his best friend is associating with what he considers an unworthy girl, while Duckie is heartbroken that the love of his life has eyes for someone else. With the big night of the prom approaching, Andie finds herself at the centre of a turbulent romantic drama with ripple effects disturbing established expectations.

Written by John Hughes, directed by Howard Deutch, and packed with new wave music from the likes of The Psychedelic Furs, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and New Order, Pretty In Pink is a cultural milestone. It followed on the heels of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, as Hughes established himself the dean of smart high school films, with Molly Ringwald his primary muse and a generational role model. Andrew McCarthy's presence helps to classify Pretty In Pink as part of the loosely defined 1980s brat pack series of films.

The story itself is a simple riff on Romeo and Juliet, with teenage emotions exaggerated by throbbing hormones and the intensity of the high school experience. Pretty In Pink may be a touch over-scrubbed. Andie is just a shade too perfect, Blane carries a hint of white knight, and Duckie's individualistic free spirit at times reaches into comic relief territory. The ending (changed from the original intent) caters more to fairy tale fantasies rather than gritty reality.

But Hughes again demonstrates his unusually high level of respect for many his characters, with Andie, Duckie, Blane and Jack all developed into rounded people worth knowing. Even Andie's friend and boss at the mall record store Iona (a sparkly Annie Potts) benefits from creditable depth. And the characters all come to life within an efficient 96 minute package.

Through his characters and with a mix of humour and pathos driven by the thumping soundtrack, Hughes delves into some of his favourite issues, including the fuzzy borders between friendship and love, the cliques that dominate high school social interaction, and building difficult bridges across chasms of wealth and privilege. Other than Jack, this is a discovery world made up exclusively of teens, the school teachers a mere inconvenience to be navigated on the road to understanding the truths that define adulthood.

Molly Ringwald is at her best, her subtle expressions a constant source of critical embellishment. Ringwald narrows her eyes, cocks her head and purses her mouth just so, never over elaborating and always with the quizzical innocence of a mature teenager walking the tightrope towards becoming a grown-up. Andie loves pink; Ringwald adds the texture, shades and patterns to bring the one colour to cheerful life.






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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Movie Review: Pride And Prejudice (1940)


An adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride And Prejudice is an enchanting romance, combining sparkling touches of humour with clever commentary about men and women engaged in pitched battles of attraction across class lines.

The time is Old England circa 1830, and the village of Meryton is abuzz with news of the arrival of the rich and eligible Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester), his sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort ) and his even more rich and more eligible friend Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier). Particularly interested in the newcomers is Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), who is raising five girls, and none of them are yet married.

Mrs. Bennet: Look at them! Five of them without dowries. What's to become of them?
Mr. Bennet: Yes, what's to become of the wretched creatures? Perhaps we should have drowned some of them at birth.

Mr. Bingley quickly sets his eyes on eldest daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and that relationship flourishes. But Darcy carries the condescending attitude of the very rich, and although he expresses interest in wooing the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (Greer Garson), she wants nothing to do with his arrogance.

Elizabeth: At this moment it's difficult to believe that you're so proud.
Mr. Darcy: At this moment it's difficult to believe that you're so prejudiced.

Darcy and Elizabeth dance around their mutual attraction, often clashing and repelling each other. Meanwhile there is trouble in the Bennet household, where due to the lack of male heirs the estate is being inherited by the distasteful Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper). He also sets his eyes on proposing to Elizabeth. But a ruinous scandal appears to strike the family when younger sister Lydia (Ann Rutherford) runs off with an unscrupulous military man, seemingly destroying Elizabeth's chances of ever finding happiness.

As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Pride And Prejudice does everything right in adapting the book to the screen. The story is simplified, entire characters and events from the novel are deleted, and the narrative is streamlined to fit into a compact package that clocks in at just under two hours. The primary focus is maintained on Elizabeth and Darcy, although the secondary characters contribute plenty of entertaining support.

The screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin is based on the Helen Jerome dramatization for a stage production, and the crisp dialogue exchanges contribute to a film where clever wit comes to the fore. Leonard also does a remarkable job of expanding the film's scope with numerous locations, settings and outdoor scenes, creating a rich visual experience to complement the exuberant dresses on display. The wardrobe design deserves a special mention, as Pride And Prejudice is a showcase of women's fashions from around 1830. The hats and dresses are memorable for their ridiculous sizes and flourishes, often dwarfing the actresses.

The story celebrates women's independence, as represented by the proud, headstrong, outspoken and exceptionally smart Elizabeth. A remarkable character for 1940, never mind 1830, Elizabeth stands up for herself and for her family, and is willing to give up a very rich potential husband unless she is assured that he will marry her for all the right reasons. Greer Garson brings Elizabeth to life with a winning combination of civil strength and self-belief. Laurence Olivier is more stiff, in keeping with Darcy's rigid adherence to the rules of behaviour manufactured for the most wealthy.

Elizabeth: Oh, if you want to be really refined, you have to be dead. There's no one as dignified as a mummy.

All around Elizabeth are others who are more traditionally engaged in the courtship dance of the times, and the film shines in portraying the ridiculous protocols, customs and attitudes of English men and women looking for their life mates. In a class-obsessed society, the upper classes want to look down their noses at the middle class riffraff, but can't help but follow their hearts even if it means holding their figurative noses to mingle with ordinary folk.

Caroline Bingley: Entertaining the rustics is not as difficult as I feared. Any simple, childish game seems to amuse them excessively.

Pride And Prejudice is a brisk romp through the world of romantic quests in difficult societal terrain, a place where eras change, but the complexities and pitfalls stay the same.






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Monday, 16 February 2015

Movie review: Rendition (2007)


A stunning post 9/11 thriller, Rendition delves into the dark world of interrogation gone mad, rampant terrorism, and a Middle East in the death grip of failed policies at all levels.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is a chemical engineer living with his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) in Chicago. Originally from Egypt, Anwar has lived in the US for 20 years and holds a Green Card. Returning home from a business trip to South Africa, Anwar is intercepted on orders from the CIA's Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), questioned by agent Lee Mayers (J.K. Simmons) and shipped off to Egypt for further interrogation on an extraordinary rendition. There is no evidence that Anwar has committed any wrong doing; but according to the CIA his cell phone has been receiving calls from a number connected with known terrorist Rashid.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, a suicide bomber targets police chief Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) at a public square coffee shop, but he survives, as does CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who happens to be in the area. The attack is claimed by Rashid's group. Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach ) is missing from home, involved in a rebellious love affair with classmate Khalid (Moa Khouas). Abasi is placed in charge of torturing Anwar to extract information about his connections with Rashid, with Freeman observing the interrogation. Back in the US, a frantic and very pregnant Isabella connects with former classmate Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), now an aid to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), and they start to ask questions about Anwar's disappearance.

As directed by Gavin Hood from a Kelley Sane script, Rendition shines a light on some of the worst atrocities committed against innocent individuals by the United States government in the panicked years after September 11 2001. Although it remains unsaid (just as Egypt is only referred to as "North Africa"), Rendition is inspired by the real cases of Khalid El-Masri and Maher Arar. Both were innocent men separately captured for the flimsiest of reasons and transported to black sites in the Middle East, where they suffered through months of torture before being released.

Rendition is a complex, intellectual, and fearless film. From its opening scene of a devastating suicide bombing in a bustling square to the climax revealing a stunning compositional sleight of hand, it demands total engagement. A solid half of the film is in Arabic with sub-titles, and Hood insists on covering the intersecting events from all perspectives: the Arabs and the Americans; the torturer, the tortured and the observer; the anguished family members (of both Anwar and Abasi) and the cold bureaucrats; the civilians and the terrorists; events in Washington DC and the narrowest of Arab streets. The film is a miracle of careful assembly, lack of compromise and tight storytelling.

This is also an astoundingly effective character-driven thriller. For Anwar, Isabelle, Abasi, Douglas, Fatima and Khalid once the life-defining struggles start there is no let-up, and the film's two hours are packed with growing desperation as even powerful people come face to face with seemingly unstoppable events intent on colliding in the worst possible way.

While the film is a clear denunciation of extraordinary renditions, screenwriter Sane makes sure that the case for and against is articulated. The character of Corinne Whitman (an icy cold Meryl Streep) is provided with several opportunities to defend the practice in the name of guarding against terrorist atrocities, and the secrets of Anwar's cell phone are cleverly deployed to keep the unknowns unknown. Even the suicide bombers are provided with a backstory and a set of motivations.

Rendition loops in on itself in a breathtaking arc, ending with violence hitting home, brutality breeding brutality, the cycle of death continuing, widening, swallowing the innocent and the guilty. Many eyes for one eye, many teeth for one tooth, an exponential escalation of hell on earth.






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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Movie Review: Twilight (1998)


A neo-noir with a sturdy cast of veterans, Twilight is only partially successful. The stars shine bright, but the plot and execution are unable to weave the necessary spell.

Harry Ross (Paul Newman) is an ex-cop, an ex-private investigator, and an ex-drunk. He helps his friend Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), a former Hollywood star now suffering from cancer, by retrieving Jack's runaway daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) from Mexico where she is on the loose with lover Jeff (Liev Schreiber). The unfortunate chapter results in Harry being accidentally shot perilously close to his private parts. Jack and his wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon), another once-glamorous movie star, allow Harry to live on their property in return for miscellaneous favours.

For his next task, Jack asks Harry to deliver an envelope to a woman called Gloria Lamar (Margo Martindale). The transaction smacks of a blackmail plot, and Harry's suspicions are confirmed when he stumbles upon a fatally bloodied but still shooting private detective Lester Ivar (M. Emmet Walsh) at Gloria's apartment. Police Lieutenant Verna Hollander (Stockard Channing) starts breathing down Harry's neck, but he gets help from former cop Raymond Hope (James Garner), another of Jack's fix-it men. Harry's sleuthing uncovers a 20 year old Hollywood mystery involving the disappearance of Cartherine's first husband, and the more he delves into the the past, the more people die in the present.

Directed by Robert Benton from a script he co-wrote with Richard Russo, Twilight assembles some of Hollywood's finest aging talent. A movie with Newman, Sarandon, Hackman and Garner is bound to be eminently watchable, and all four deploy their weight to create and sustain a platform of quality that pushes Twilight towards respectability. Newman is never less than compelling, acknowledging his age as he creaks his way through modern dangers to uncover the ghosts of the past. Hackman, Sarandon and Garner do the best that they can with the rather thin material afforded to their characters.

While the attempt to recreate the grim tones and dark aura of noir films from decades ago is laudable, the story lacks the strength to properly engage. There are fundamental missing elements that leave the experience adding up to less than the sum of its parts. The central missteps include a rather unconvincing and bland blackmail plot, and the poorly developed characters of Jack and Catherine Ames. They are supposed to be at the core of the mystery, their passion and influence from 20 years ago triggering evil that still surrounds their lives. But as written, Jack and Catherine are more amiable than conniving, with Sarandon particularly victimized by a script that utterly fails to bring out any genuine sparkle of maliciousness or deadly seductive talents.

The stylistic shadings are superficial at best, and mostly consist of plenty of smoking and drinking, but little else to evoke the noir aesthetic. Other weaknesses include the lack of any authoritarian threat from Verna, her closeness to Harry undermining the menace that detectives are supposed to represent to the likes of Harry and Jack. The riffraff characters get in the way without contributing much, Gloria, Jeff and ridiculous wannabe sidekick Reuben (Giancarlo Esposito) come and go without much impact.

More work should have been given to Reese Witherspoon as Mel, a potential underage sexpot who could have driven the plot towards The Big Sleep territory. Also underused is M. Emmet Walsh as Lester Ivar. His one scene is the absolute highlight, and Lester is exactly the dishevelled and dangerous type of character who lives and dies to enliven noir films. Here he just gets to die, helping Twilight to register as a good idea that doesn't quite work out.






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Saturday, 14 February 2015

Movie review: Sabrina (1954)


A sophisticated romantic comedy with a bright cast and an enjoyable love triangle, Sabrina sparkles with wit and talent.

The Larrabee family are rich industrialists who control multiple companies and throw lavish parties at their grand mansion. Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart) runs the business empire with cold efficiency, while his younger brother David (William Holden) is the careless playboy, already married and divorced several times. Thomas Fairchild (John Williams) is the loyal family chauffeur, and he lives above the garage with his impressionable daughter Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn).

Sabrina harbours a long-term crush on David, and when she is finally convinced that he does not even know that she exists, she tries to kill herself but is saved by Linus. Thomas packs off his daughter to Paris, where she enrolls in cooking school. Two years later, she returns as a much more sophisticated woman, with a stylish look and a new confidence to get what she wants. David is immediately smitten, but Linus has arranged for his younger brother to marry Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer) in the interest of furthering a major business deal. Linus starts to spend time with Sabrina to distract her from David, and an unexpected love triangle develops.

Fresh from her break-out performance in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn was quickly paired with more top Hollywood talent in the form of Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and director Billy Wilder. With a screenplay by  Wilder and Ernest Lehman, Sabrina is a lighthearted delight, making best use of Hepburn's charms and cajoling a uniquely engaging performance out of Bogart.

In many ways turning the premise of Roman Holiday on its head, in Sabrina Hepburn plays the commoner mingling with the upper classes, and she proves her range with an equally convincing turn. Whether barefoot and star-struck standing on a tree early in the film or at the height of sophistication and stealing all hearts in her post-Paris transformation, Hepburn oozes understated star power, effortlessly commanding the screen with her searching eyes and undeniable presence.

Hepburn provides an injection of life into Bogart's screen persona. Linus Larrabee has all the decisive attributes of a typical Bogart character, but despite the age difference his romance with Sabrina rings true. Both Linus and Sabrina have their hearts clearly set on other targets (David in her case, new business opportunities in his case), so when their relationship starts to warm up it crackles with the familiar current of unintended attraction.

Despite venturing into territory as dark as attempted suicide and the thorny issues of classism, Wilder manages to keep the mood jovial with exquisite pacing. The film bounces along at an energetic clip, and allows all three of the lead characters plenty of opportunities to develop along individual arcs. Sabrina uses Paris to mature from girl to woman, David finally sets his eyes on a woman that he might settle down with, and Linus awakens to the opportunities offered by a world outside the corporate boardroom.

And it's all delivered with touches of refreshing humour, including David dealing with the consequences of sitting on wine glasses, Linus wholeheartedly embracing the technology of plastics, and the patriarch Oliver Larrabee (William Hampden) slipping into the dottiness of old age.

She may be only the chauffeur's daughter, but Sabrina is the one who takes the Larrabee family on a wild ride.






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Friday, 13 February 2015

Movie Review: Syriana (2005)


An intellectual tour-de-force delving into the morass of Middle East geo-politics, Syriana launches a thrilling multi-pronged probe of its subject, and emerges with a realistic portrait of a depressing impasse.

The film tackles several interlinked sub-stories. Weary CIA Agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney) tangles with arms dealers in Tehran, and in the process loses control of a sophisticated anti-tank missile. His next assignment is to travel to Beirut and assassinate Prince Nassir (Alexander Siddig), the progressive heir to an oil-rich Arab country. Once in Beirut, Barnes crosses paths with the militant group Hezbollah, particularly the brutal Mussawi (Mark Strong).

Big oil companies in the US want Nassir out of the way because he threatens to upset the status quo. Idealistic energy consultant Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) overcomes the tragic loss of his young son to become Nassir's trusted advisor, and together they plan Nassir's modernization of his country.

A large merger of oil companies Connex and Killen is unfolding in the United States. The consolidated company will control vast oil and gas reserves in the Middle East and Asia, and is most interested in stability. Attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is hired to investigate the proposed merger, which appears to be a fait accompli. Bennet's boss is political power broker Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), working behind the scenes to ensure that the more compliant Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) ascends to the throne instead of Nassir.

The merger of Connex and Killen results in mass layoffs in the oil fields of the Middle East. One of the casualties is Pakistani migrant worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and once unemployed he drifts under the Islamist influence of charismatic recruiter Muhammad Sheikh Agiza (Amr Waked). Wasim is radicalized and prepared for a terrorist suicide mission, using the anti-tank missile seized in Tehran.

Delving into the world of Middle East politics is a daunting task, and Syriana succeeds with aplomb. The fast paced episodic structure preferred by director Stephen Gaghan (adapting the book See No Evil by Robert Baer) is a perfect fit with the fragmented yet labyrinthine relationships that define the region. And other than ignoring the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Gaghan expertly assembles the pieces of the puzzle and tightly packs the 128 minutes of running time with multiple stories of ever increasing tension.

While Syriana's structure works in its favour, it also allows Gaghan to get away with some short-hand. The various stories hold enormous impact thanks to the short sharp jabs style of delivery, but this also leaves plenty that is unsaid and unexplained. The need to fill in the blanks serves the film's intellectual credentials but also gives it a free pass to gloss over what could have been interesting details.

There are few happy emotions in Syriana. The film mimics the Middle East's pathetic entrapment into a cycle of pessimism driven by greed and the crushing imperatives of oil, which flows along with espionage, arms trading, corruption, corporotocracy, torture, extremes of wealth and poverty, militant Islam and terrorism. The polluted streams of evil feed off each other and accelerate the downward spiral of violence and subjugation, sucking entire societies into the vortex. Progressive voices are trampled because the system is dependent on maintaining the existing structure among the entrenched power brokers, and change represents an unacceptable risk to the production of oil and profits.

The ensemble cast members are all appropriately dour or conniving. Clooney won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Bob Barnes (effectively Baer's character), a disillusioned agent who has seen too many battles and too many betrayals in the back alleys of the Middle East, but knows of no other life. Christopher Plummer is at his oily best as a literal backroom kingmaker. Matt Damon and Akbar Kurtha represent the earnest but naive attitude of optimism that occasionally sprouts in the region, and their characters predictably hurtle towards the impenetrable brick wall of international rules set by others. Also in the cast are Chris Cooper as a Killen executive, Amanda Peet as Bryan Woodman's wife, and William Hurt as one of Barnes' few trusted allies at the CIA.

By the time Gaghan wraps up his stories, all his key characters have been profoundly impacted, and of course absolutely no meaningful positive change has been achieved. In the Middle East potential saviours are swallowed by the desert, drowned in oil, and quickly forgotten as the tide of oil-fuelled violence marches on abated.






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Thursday, 12 February 2015

Movie Review: The Chase (1966)


A southern drama about a small town simmering with social tensions, The Chase promises much and offers a cast filled with talent. But it stays in the oven for too long, emerging as an overcooked and tough to chew mess of a meal.

In deep rural Texas, convicted criminal Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has busted out of prison and is on the run. News of the escape reaches the nearby small town where Bubber was born and raised, and the townsfolk are immediately thrown into a frenzy of anxiety and anticipation. Businessman Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) pretty much owns the town and likes to think that he controls everything and everyone in it, including Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando). Val's son Jake (James Fox) is the heir apparent to his father's empire, and is trapped in a marriage of convenience to Elizabeth (Diana Hyland), while carrying on an open affair with Anna Reeves (Jane Fonda), Bubber's lonely wife.

Meek banker Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) desperately wants to be part of Val's inner circle, but his wife Emily (Janice Rule) is tired of waiting for Edwin to make something of himself. She is having an affair with the seemingly more presentable but equally married Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford). Fuller is part of a group of gun-toting men who believe themselves to be above the law and almost openly disrespect Sheriff Calder's authority. Over the course of one day and one night, Bubber edges ever closer to the town, emotions boil over, and Calder and his wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson) find themselves increasingly isolated as they try to keep a lid on a town about to explode.

Early on it becomes clear that there is not much chasing going on in The Chase. Directed by Arthur Penn (who later disowned it) and produced by Sam Spiegel, the film enjoys some moments and benefits from a remarkable cast in good form. But the ambition overreaches the narrative premise, and the film gets caught spinning in place. The Lillian Hellman script (heavily doctored by Spiegel) tries to create a tense boiling pot of a town galvanized by the wait for a dangerous criminal, but the attempt is only partially successful.

The story gets into trouble early. To start, there is little that is dangerous about Robert Redford as Bubber Reeves, who is portrayed as more of a victim than a criminal. With his perfectly coiffed hair catching the light just so in the Texas wilderness and his good boy looks betraying any attempt at evil, the threat that is supposed to exist at the centre of the film dissolves in Redford's substantial star charisma.

In the town itself, there are just too many unsavoury characters making life miserable for each other. Most of the residents appear to be carrying on extramarital affairs, while the prevailing agony, bitterness and resentment is in keeping with the mean spirited nature of a community rife with vigilantism, classism and racism. They all appear dissatisfied and wretchedly unhappy, and they all seem to deserve it.

The sheer number of minor characters causes the film to lose momentum. There are snippets of numerous sub-stories including Bubber's parents; a religious old woman who putters around town; another elderly couple; a gaggle of teenagers; and a land owner/loan shark who serves as the perpetual interested observer. None gain traction and all get in the way, to the point that at a climactic moment late in the film, it's not even unclear which tertiary character pulled the critical trigger.

In the middle of the over-ripened fruit Sheriff Calder and his wife Ruby are an oasis of goodness, and The Chase gradually veers towards traditional one-good-man-against-a-bad-town territory. Bubber almost turns into a MacGuffin, a catalyst to trigger a story of the lawman confronting the corruption that lurks within. And whenever Brando or Dickinson are on the screen, The Chase picks itself up and does much better, Brando ironically bringing a laconic intensity to the only likeable character in the film, while Calder and Ruby appear to enjoy the only rational relationship in this forgotten corner of Texas.

In the film's most memorable scene, Penn practices playing with bucketfuls of blood (a skill he would put to good use in 1967's Bonnie And Clyde) by subjecting Brando to a vicious beating at the hands of the town's gun-happy vigilante men. It's an excessive sequence, in keeping with the overheated tone of why stop at a single punch when ten will do. The Chase is tolerable fare, with enough going on to maintain interest but too much going on to gain and maintain focus.






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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)


An impressive story of war and its brutal impacts, American Sniper celebrates the most lethal sniper in the Unites States military history, but also examines the lasting and far-reaching damage caused by war at the most personal levels.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was brought up in Texas, and demonstrated an aptitude for hunting at a young age. He drifted into adulthood and a potential career as a rodeo cowboy before finding his calling and enlisting in the Navy SEALs. While undergoing the brutal training program and honing his skills as a military sniper, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller), and soon after their wedding Kyle is deployed to Iraq as a sniper in the post September 11, 2001 world.

In the urban carnage created by the US invasion of Iraq, Kyle's mission is to protect on-the-ground troops by eliminating threats from elevated vantage points. He kills and kills again, including enemy combatants and men, women and children readying grenades and improvised explosive devices. Kyle establishes himself as a legend for his sharp-shooting skills, but all the killing takes its toll. Back in Texas, with a growing family, Kyle is detached, unable to cope, and exhibits PTSD symptoms. His only escape is to repeatedly re-enlist and return to the war zone. By the time he embarks on his fourth tour of duty, his home life is in tatters. his emotions are bottled up and his nerves are shattered.

A relentless descent into the battle zone and into the human damage caused by war, American Sniper is a brilliant exploration of the stress and dysfunction spawned in battle and embedded into the sturdiest of souls. Director Clint Eastwood creates unrelenting tension on the streets of Baghdad, and then carries the mental destruction (in the case of Kyle) and the physical disability (suffered by many other veterans) to the heart of the United States. The modern psychological cost of war in individual human terms has rarely been as well conveyed on the screen.

Based on Kyle's autobiographical book of the same name adapted by Jason Hall, American Sniper portrays Kyle as the perfect soldier. Taught to be a "sheepdog" from a young age, Kyle's views of the world are simple, and this allows him to pull the trigger while aiming at anyone who falls into the "wolf" category. Kyle is unconcerned with the complexities of war and its causes and is happy to serve his country by killing hundreds of enemies, and the film derives its power by portraying the horrible mental devastation suffered by the most straightforward of soldiers. If even he can fall victim to battlefield trauma, how high is the cost among more complex men and women who pause to think about the purpose of war and the families of their targets?

American Sniper also addresses the hero-worship culture, and portrays Kyle as a man whose exploits are quick to earn plaudits from fellow soldiers, but whose achievements mean very little back at home. Between his tours of duty Kyle rages that the Unites States appears oblivious to the war going on in Iraq, and in Texas he is just a husband and dad who can't seem to focus on either job. It's back on the dusty streets of Iraq that he is now in his element, and a life of heroically facing danger, violence and death becomes the only life that he can properly function in.

Eastwood relentlessly builds the tension within American Sniper, the film piling on the pressure with expertly executed battle scenes that promise death at any instant, Marines kicking down doors and going house to house to search for insurgents while Kyle keeps watch through his scope, every local Iraqi a potential target. The film is awash with sudden bullet impacts, intense fire fights, and the nervousness that comes with knowing that things are about to go very wrong, but not knowing exactly how, when, and where. Kyle's actions do lead to innocent victims getting hurt and badly, and as many kills as he does register, he is most distressed by the Marines who got hurt on his watch because he was unable to neutralize enough enemy threats.

Bradley Cooper delivers another excellent performance, bulking up into the muscular body of a dedicated SEAL but maintaining the innocent spirit of a soldier serving his country as best as he knows how and unsure how to deal with the distorted aftermath. Sienna Miller anchors the US-based scenes as the young wife and then mother abandoned by a husband who is absent either physically or mentally. Miller's highlight comes early, Taya's initial barroom meeting with Kyle establishing her credentials as a woman who will demand to set the agenda.

Explosive, tense and thoughtful, American Sniper hits all its targets.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Movie Review: Roman Holiday (1953)


Audrey Hepburn's grand introduction to global stardom, Roman Holiday is a perfect romance, with the story of a vibrant but weary princess on the loose in Rome tinged with comedy and poignancy.

Young and glamorous Royal Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is on an extensive goodwill tour of Europe on behalf of her unnamed country, and nearing exhaustion. Not allowed to make any of her own decisions and over scheduled with ceremonial events, she finally suffers a breakdown in Rome, throws a royal fit that rocks her entourage, and is given a sedative. But in the middle of the night Ann decides that what she needs is a break from the madness of formality, and she escapes from the embassy compound, intent on playing tourist.

Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is a laid back American journalist based in Rome. He stumbles upon Ann sleeping on an outdoor bench, and allows her to crash at his apartment until the she sleeps off the sedation. Joe eventually realizes that Ann is the missing princess, and with the help of his photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert), he plans to secure the surreptitious scoop of a lifetime. But as Joe and Ann spend more time together in Rome, they grow fond of each other and both have to reevaluate their motives.

Roman Holiday compiles the best elements of a successful romance into a flawless package. Two attractive leads from contrasting backgrounds, an exotic setting, a sprinkling of royalty, mischief, and a rebellious spirit, and the coming together of the young innocent princess with the worldly journalist. The film wears its pure romantic intentions on its lapel, and celebrates the magic that can happen in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Roman Holiday is a rich and leisurely stroll through the land of the possible, an exquisitely assembled piece of film making.

With Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons both unavailable, director William Wyler plucked the 24 year old Hepburn from obscurity and gave her the chance of a lifetime, and she grasped it with both hands. Combining classic beauty with friendly accessibility and a pragmatic girl-next-door outlook on life, Hepburn establishes her coquettish persona in a few short scenes, and fearlessly matches the veteran Peck, step for step as she marches into stardom.

Peck proves to be the perfect partner for Hepburn's stepping out party, his gentlemanly air conveying distinguished experience and paving the way for Hepburn to stride into Hollywood's glamour circle, clutching the Best Actress Academy Award.

Wyler also insisted that Roman Holiday be filmed entirely on location in Rome, an astute decision that immeasurably adds to the authenticity of the experience. The familiar and famous locations, including the Fontana di Trevi, the Piazza Venezia, the Spanish Steps and Colosseum provide a backdrop that emphasizes Ann's desire to break free and see the sights unconfined by protocol, while the many Italian supporting actors in small roles add a distinctive and genuine flavour that sets Roman Holiday apart from backlot productions.

The classic scenes are many, sprinkled like gold dust throughout the film. Joe expertly rolling the blissfully sleeping Ann off his precious bed and onto the couch; Ann and Joe motoring through Rome and eventually into trouble on a scooter; Joe surprising Ann at the Mouth Of Truth; Joe none-too-subtly bruising Irving into understanding his plan for a scoop; Ann introducing herself to Irving as Anya Smith and earning the nickname "Smitty" for her troubles; and the wild rumble with government agents at the docks where Ann gets to demonstrate her guitar weaponry skills. Roman Holiday is filled with clever touches of humour and caring, the fertile ground for affection to blossom.

And just as often as Wyler and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton hit the right notes, they also avoid the traps that tend to diminish cinematic romances. Once Ann and Joe start to enjoy their time together, the risks to the relationship are not extraneous; rather the potential lovers themselves have to assess the complexities of where their emotions are heading and balance immediate personal fulfillment with longer-term realistic expectations. And the ending finds contentment in a mature resolution that respects the context.

Roman Holiday is a classy romance, and an impeccable launch for the most elegant of stars.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


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