Saturday, 24 January 2015

Movie Review: Selma (2014)

A biographical drama focusing on a specific chapter in Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, Selma looks for the man behind the image, and finds a leader struggling against self-doubt as he charts a course to change history.

It's 1964, and in the southern United States, blacks have the theoretical right to vote. Practically, they are denied that right by a maze of paperwork and ridiculous civic tests administered by bigots at small-town city halls. In the shadow of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, black civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) raises the issue with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is sympathetic but distracted by other agendas. Although King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are living under the constant shadow of death threats, King decides to push the issue by organizing peaceful marches deep in the south, and chooses the small town of Selma, Alabama as the rallying point.

Not all blacks are supportive of King's tactics, but he connects with members of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and they start to organize. Alabama's Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) does his best to inflame local opinions against King, and local sheriffs are quick to resort to brutality when the marches start. Johnson conspires with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to try and intimidate King into stopping the marches by creating a wedge in his relationship with Coretta. But King pushes ahead, the national media pick up the story, the marchers grow in strength, but the number of victims also mounts.

Selma does not spend much time on the marches themselves. Most of the 127 minutes are spent on the backroom politics that shaped public events, and on King's personal struggle to balance duties to his family, with his vision for his people and the trauma of placing individuals in harm's way. King was all of 35 years old when the events of the film took place, and director Ava DuVernay places the focus on the young man carrying an enormous burden, stripped from the legend.

For the first time the subject of a feature film, King in Selma is not just an imposing figure behind a microphone rousing a crowd (although there are several such scenes). Rather, DuVernay is more interested in how one man showed the courage to lead, move thousands, and change a country, despite opposition from the President, apprehension and dissent from on-the-ground black activists, and a marriage being rocked by threats and infidelity. The film is at its best when King is in small groups holding intense conversations, allowing waves of doubt to emerge, talking through the issues, deciding on the next action by assessing the trade offs, and then persuading others to join in.

Much like the marches, Selma moves slowly and deliberately. DuVernay contrasts dark rooms and prison cells with the harsh outside light, and unfurls the narrative at a gradual pace, allowing the enormity of the challenge to sink in. This does mean that the film drags on occasion, waiting for something to actually happen in amongst all the planning. When the climactic marches do finally start, DuVernay effectively marshals armies of extras, uncorks the tension that exists whenever history reaches a turning point, and finds impressive contrasts between those who define the future and those left behind on the sidelines, their raised middle finger a pathetic confirmation of their own extinction.

David Oyelowo steps in the shoes of King with confidence. While the speeches are delivered with the expected powerful cadence, it's in the many smaller, more intimate scenes, either with Coretta or with King's advisors, that Oyelowo shines. He creates the private King, passionate, determined, and yet often uncertain about his actions and the impact of his activism on his family. In a relatively few but pivotal scenes, Carmen Ejogo makes a strong impression, representing the home front where pride and fear reside side by side. Tom Wilkinson never quite gets the right angle on Lyndon Johnson. Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. have small roles in the court battle that helps determine the legality of the marches, while Gionanni Ribisi plays Johnson's main advisor.

Selma does not attempt to be the definitive statement about King, but it does provide a satisfying behind-the-scenes taste of his history-changing impact.

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Friday, 23 January 2015

Movie Review: The Green Mile (1999)

A prison drama that explores themes of life, death, compassion and retribution through the prism of death row, The Green Mile is a cerebral masterpiece of elegance.

The story is told in flashback, from the perspective of the elderly Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), who now lives in a seniors' home. Back in 1935, Paul (Tom Hanks) was the prison officer responsible for death row (known as The Green Mile due to the colour of the floor paint) at a Louisiana prison. He commands a small group of officers including veterans Brutus (David Morse) and Harry (Jeffrey DeMunn), the young Dean (Barry Pepper), and the detestable Percy (Doug Hutchison). Brutus, Harry and Dean are fiercely loyal to Paul, while Percy is an arrogant phony, and owes his job to family connections.

With Paul suffering through the agony of a urinary tract infection much to the bemusement of his wife Jan (Bonnie Hunt), new death row inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) arrives at the prison. A huge black man of few words, Coffey has been convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two young sisters. Paul recognizes Coffey as a gentle giant, soft-spoken, polite and seemingly incapable of violence. The same cannot be said for the next inmate to arrive: Wild Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is plain nuts, oscillating between hyperactive, deranged and psychotic. Meanwhile, prison warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell) is struggling through a personal tragedy: his wife Melinda (Patricia Clarkson) may have a brain tumor.

An agile mouse makes its presence felt in death row, and becomes best friends with inmate Del (Michael Jeter). Percy continues to exude the worst combination of cruel and smug, while Paul and his team practice mock electric chair executions, using janitor and handyman Toot-Toot (Harry Dean Stanton) as a willing prop. And then Coffey suddenly demonstrates remarkable powers, first on Paul and then on Del's mouse. Coffey's abilities force Paul and his crew to re-assess who their gigantic prisoner really is, and what should they be doing with him.

After achieving remarkable success with The Shawshank Redemption (1994), director Frank Darabont adapts another prison-based Stephen King novel and, incredibly, matches the accomplishment. The Green Mile is an exceptional film, 188 minutes of rich strorytelling with a deep focus on unforgettable characters and thought-provoking themes. Despite the long running length, the film is never less than engrossing. A steady stream of events provides a succession of set-piece highlights with lasting impacts, including executions, mouse antics, Percy's sadism, and Coffey gradually revealing his powers,

Meanwhile, the heinous crime that landed Coffey on death row plays out in the background, presented in a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, revealing victims most innocent and a perpetrator most violent. Paul looks past Coffey's gargantuan size and sees the incongruity between the crime and the man inside the cell. And once Coffey transitions from prisoner to someone who may be so much more, Paul is faced with a moral crisis not easily resolved.

The Green Mile is ultimately about human laws and procedures proving absolutely necessary to keep men like Wild Bill in check, but proving equally incapable of looking past superficialities when it comes to complex characters like Coffey. A massive black man found at the crime scene appears most guilty. He does not profess his innocence because he knows he has failed, but understanding his failure will require an ability to accept that a threatening appearance can be something other than a threat. It's a profound theme that strikes at the heart of every society's ability to deal humanely with what is different, unconventional, and potentially most supremely gifted.

Darabont makes it all work by creating a film that reveals its secrets like a book. Characters come alive, are sharply defined, and enriched by work, family and events. There is true friendship between Paul, Brutus, Harry and Dean of the type rarely seen on film. These men respect and care for each other, they calmly discuss issues, and cooperate to get things done, from solving the Percy problem to helping the warden and his wife. And when things go wrong, they cover for each other and quickly think on their feet to minimize the damage.

Paul's wife Jan, the warden Hal, his wife Melinda, and the scrappy Toot-Toot are tertiary characters who would not make it into most films. Here they play key roles and add depth to the unfolding drama, bringing Paul's home life into relief and in Melinda's case providing Coffey with a most unexpected opportunity to redress the balance on the Green Mile.

The performances from the large cast are uniformly impressive. Tom Hanks as Paul is both empathetic and stoic in face of daily interaction with men doomed to die. Michael Clarke Duncan delivers a monumental turn as Coffey, one of the most enduring characters to grace a film. Duncan gives John a searing simplicity that becomes a condemnation of social and religious norms, and Coffey emerges as a change agent in the lives of those he touches.

The Green Mile is where life comes to meet death. The film offers a path through which the lines are blurred, where death and life start to merge. There is life in death, death in life, and a re-appreciation of the value and meaning of each.

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Movie Review: August Rush (2007)

A modern day fairy tale, August Rush unabashedly celebrates pure love and the magical powers of music.

In New York City of 1995, Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) is a cellist and Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the lead singer in an Irish rock band. They meet at a party, it's love at first sight, they spend one night together and then separate. Fate keeps them apart, but Lyla is pregnant. Months later, an accident leaves Layla unconscious, the baby boy is delivered, and her father (William Sadler) hands him to social services. When Layla awakens, she is told that the baby died. Both Layla and Louis are miserable without each other, and abandon their musical dreams.

Eleven years later their son Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore) drifts away from a boys' shelter where he has spent his life and finds his way to Manhattan. Lyla is a music teacher in Chicago, and Louis is a businessman in San Francisco. Evan has music in his blood, and finds musical inspiration in all the sounds that surround him. He falls in with a group of street musicians controlled and exploited by Maxwell "The Wizard" Wallace (Robin Williams). Evan demonstrates incredible ability with the guitar, and The Wizard starts to imagine the riches that can come his way. He renames the boy August Rush to make him more difficult to find. By now Lyla is frantically looking for Evan thanks to her father's death bed confession, and Louis is desperately searching for Layla.

Directed by Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim), August Rush is a sweet story, unapologetically borrowing elements from Oliver Twist, and bathed in the soft light of eternal optimism. Evan is a child prodigy on par with Mozart in his ability to play and compose music, and just when the time is right Lyla and Louis follow their hearts, then their instincts and finally the music to arrive at the happy ending in Central Park.

As a package, it is almost impossible not to fall in love with the film's simple intentions and trust in pure innocence. This is not a film where common sense or logic need to prevail; rather, this is a place to reflect on the ethereal qualities of music, the silent and mutual attraction of souls destined to be together, and a mother's determined search for the son she never knew. The music score by Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer adds to the mood of poignant anticipation, while John Mathieson's cinematography makes good use of the New York City locations, with Washington Square particularly prominent.

Lyla, Louis and Evan clearly belong together, and spend the film overcoming obstacles to arrive at the same point in time and place. In true fable fashion all three are pure of heart and filled with nothing but good intentions, and the actors perform accordingly. Freddie Highmore exudes innocent bliss and a spirit naturally intertwined with music. Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are headstrong, passionate, and tender in their pursuit of the love that slipped through their fingers. Robin Williams makes for a worthy antagonist, channeling his inner Fagin as he heartlessly profits from child labour. Terrence Howard rounds out the cast as a social worker trying to help Evan.

As with all the best fairy tales, August Rush exists in a place where good will triumph over evil, love will survive and thrive, and the human spirit remains positive and optimistic, all set to great music and glowing in artistic light.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Movie Review: Wild Things (1998)

A neo-noir with an abundance of style and seduction, Wild Things saturates the screen with back-stabbing characters up to absolutely no good, although the fun goes somewhat off the rails in the final third.

In the posh Miami community of Blue Bay, hunky high school counsellor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is fending off the advances of cheerleader Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards). Sam used to be the lover of Kelly's mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), one of Blue Bay's richest women. Meanwhile, Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) is a white trash teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, holding a deep grudge against Sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) of the local police force. Suzie holds Ray responsible for the shooting death of a friend. Whenever he can, Sam tries to help Suzie, who is held in contempt by Kelly.

Blue Bay is rocked when Kelly accuses Sam of rape. Sandra hires high-priced attorney Tom Baxter (Robert Wagner) to seek justice for her daughter, while a shocked Sam can only afford cut-rate lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray) to represent him. The case makes headlines, and takes a sensational turn when Suzie comes forward to claim that she too was raped by Sam. With his prospects looking grim, Sam's fate is in the uncertain hands of the less than trustworthy Ken.

The synopsis covers barely half the film. Once Ken starts to interrogate Suzie, the revelations cause outright pandemonium, and the courtroom twist is only the first of many to come. Wild Things has plenty of secrets waiting to bust out, as the characters carry many hidden motivations and brutal scores to settle. This is a small film with a big agenda, drawing on the rich noir legacy to bring forward a convoluted story of seduction, big money, betrayal, revenge and class warfare in the Miami heat.

Wild Things is filmed in vivid colours, accompanied by a siren call of a George S. Clinton music score, dripping with the dangerous sensuality of the Florida swamps. And for the most part, director John McNaughton steers the film with silky smoothness, introducing the many characters and focusing on the pervasive lust in a community with too much money and too much time dedicated to rapacious pursuits.

Wild Things' appeal is in updating most of the noir elements into a hyper-driven modern context. The schemers are younger, the money bigger, the scandal more sensational, and the sex more intense, particularly a legendary threesome that provides an exclamation mark next to the film's crowning revelation. But the film also forges ahead with a plot that while comprehensible, just pushes for too many convolutions. Once the twists start coming, they never stop, and with a new reveal every few minutes as the film enters its final half an hour, the surprises lose their edge.

The cast is outstanding in depth and execution. The roles are almost all played straight, with Richards and Russell providing gallons of fervor, Campbell contributing dark broodiness, while Dillon and Bacon (who also served as executive producer) play the men who don't quite know how little control they have. Murray is a riot as a crooked lawyer in unkempt suits, with the twinkle in his eye suggesting that the ruffled persona may just be a camouflage for a sharper than expected mind. Where the wild things roam, nothing is as it seems.

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Movie Review: Unbroken (2014)

A wartime biopic, Unbroken recounts the admirable true survival story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, but fails to move past the never ending series of agonies.

The son of Italian immigrants, Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is heading towards a useless life until he channels his energy into athletics with the help of his brother Pete (Alex Russell). Louis becomes an Olympic middle-distance runner while still in college, and competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics while settings his sights on the 1940 Tokyo games. World War Two interferes, and Louis finds himself in the Air Force serving as a bombardier in the Pacific theatre. Out on a rescue mission, his plane crashes into the ocean, and Louis is stranded on a raft with fellow airmen Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson).

A brutal 47 day ordeal follows, with the trio battling a shortage of food and water, shark attacks, strafing from a Japanese war plane, and ocean storms. Louis survives and is finally taken prisoner, confined to a tiny cell on a Japanese-held island, and eventually transferred to a Tokyo prison camp. The sadistic warden Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe (Miyavi) relishes the opportunity to degrade an Olympian and ruthlessly picks on Louis, regularly administering beatings and other forms of humiliation bordering on torture. There is some relief when The Bird is transferred to another facility, but with the war coming to the doorsteps of Tokyo, there is yet more suffering ahead for Louis.

Zamperini's tale is harrowing, and director Angelina Jolie does an excellent job of chronicling the incredible ordeal that he had to survive. Unbroken is grim, unrelenting, and at 137 minutes, close to oppressive. It achieves the objective of celebrating a human spirit with a remarkable ability to bend but never break, while laying bare the brutalities that men can impart on each other in the name of war.

But a movie needs more than one scene of suffering followed by another scene of suffering, and here Unbroken falls short. Once the pattern is set on the raft, the film wallows in a wide open ocean of misery. There are precious few breaks for humour, humanity or meaningful dialogue. The 47 days on the raft appear to pass in real time, and Louis' subsequent experience in various Japanese camps is no less harsh. The script (co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen) makes its point and pounds away at it to exhaustion. The successive agonies experienced by Zamperini begin to merge into an indistinguishable blob, in a case of more is less.

Unbroken also suffers from a central character who is primarily a passive victim. Once the plane falls out of the sky, Zamperini is rarely in a position to influence events around him: he has no decisions to make and no moral dilemmas to confront. Instead, bad things happen and he just rolls with the punches (often literally) with the sole aim of surviving to see another day, much as young Jamie Graham does in Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun.

Jack O'Connell grits his teeth and gives Louis the pluck needed to stare down every impulse to fold and give in, but the actor has few scenes of human interaction to work with. Japanese musician Miyavi, in his acting debut, makes for an intimidating villain, worthy of hate. The rest of the characters enter and exit the film as almost interchangeable faces, wallpaper in Zamperini's journey through the hell of war captivity.

Jolie's directing is functional, with the cruel surroundings recreated in convincing fashion, from the desolate ocean to the Japanese prison camps and finally a coal mine where the prisoners are used as slave labour. Jolie gives the film a stark, soiled look, war's forgotten backdrops a grimy hell with no chance for glory.

Unbroken is a well-designed obstacle course of survival, but that is all there is.

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Monday, 19 January 2015

Movie Review: The Right Stuff (1983)

A grand celebration of the early days of the United States space exploration program, The Right Stuff is the finest level of ambitious drama. The story of men pushing against the farthest boundaries known to humanity is an exhilarating ride into new frontiers.

Soon after the end of World War Two, breaking the sound barrier is seen as the next major achievement in aviation. At Muroc Army Air Field in California, experimental aircraft are coming closer to the mythical threshold, and many pilots are dying as the equipment fails around them. Finally, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier in the rocket-powered Bell X-1, despite flying with broken ribs.

Chuck has the support of his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey), who understands her man's desire to never settle for ordinary. Into the 1950s, Muroc is renamed Edwards Air Force Base, and the local watering hole becomes the preferred gathering place for some of the country best pilots who gather at Edwards set new speed records and test the newest, fastest and most dangerous planes. Yeager remains the spiritual guide for all the pilots, and he continues to re-set the speed record, including getting to Mach 2.0.

When the Soviet Union surprises the world by launching the Sputnik satellite, the US government scrambles to catch up, and the Mercury space program is born. After a series of rigorous fitness and stamina tests, seven military pilots are chosen to lead America into space, including John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), and Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen). The men form a tight bond and are anointed as the brave new explorers of the 20th Century, celebrated by the press as an excited nation gears up to confront new frontiers.

Shepard becomes the first American to launch into space, followed by Grissom, but the latter's flight is blemished by a mishap upon splashdown. Glenn is then selected to become the first American to orbit the earth, and his flight will feature an unexpected distraction. Back at Edwards, Yeager recognizes the changing times, but continues doing his thing: flying the most dangerous airplanes as fast and high as they can go.

Now recognized as a classic and one of the best films of the 1980s, The Right Stuff was remarkably a commercial failure upon its release. In 1982 space movies meant Return Of The Jedi and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Audiences enamoured with light sabres, laser guns, warp speed and cute aliens were not ready for a reality-based ensemble piece about the seemingly mundane business of figuring out how to take the first tentative steps into space.

Clocking in at a remarkable 192 minutes, The Right Stuff flies by at the speed of the sound. Director Philip Kaufman adapted Tom Wolfe's bestseller into an almost mythical story of modern knights daring to confront the monsters that live in the unexplored world of space travel, riding at the pointy ends of rockets launched with rudimentary, still-evolving technology. Except that this is all based on true events, and the bravery demonstrated by men like Yeager and the first astronauts laid the groundwork for humans to walk in the moon, a mere 10 years after the Mercury 7 were selected.

Kaufman's masterstroke is in weaving Yeager's story in with the space program. The Right Stuff blends the Greatest Generation that won the war with their younger and cockier brothers, men who reaped the rewards of victory and were then ready to take on the world - and space. Yeager represents the inspirational warriors of war, while men like Glenn and Shepard are the warriors of space exploration, who would not exist without the security and confidence that came with victory.

The Right Stuff includes plenty of colour, character, and surrounding personalities to humanize the story. The link between celebrity, money and success is made early, as the pilots and the politicians realize that secrecy does not pay-off; handsome men and their incredible flying machines will make headlines, and the money to sustain the program and allow it to flourish will follow.

The wives of the pilots suffer in silence, but suffer they do. Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartwright) is humiliated by the ignominious treatment handed to her husband after his spacecraft sinks. Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) suffers through her husband Gordon's absolute belief in his abilities. And Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel) suffers from a severe stutter, a condition that will result in a painfully funny non-encounter with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (Donald Moffat).

For the most part, government types (including Jeff Goldblum as a pilot recruiter), bureaucrats (particularly John P. Ryan as the Head of the NASA Manned Space Program) and rocket scientists (mostly Germans who switched sides after the war) are given short thrift and treated either as incompetent or clueless. The humour is appreciated, but it is left to other movies to recount the role played by the politicians and engineers to enable space flight.

A film without any dominant performances, each of the main actors gets a few scenes to shine. Shepard casts the longest shadow, while among the astronauts Ed Harris finds the charisma that propelled John Glenn first into orbit and then onto a successful political career. Fred Ward, Scott Glenn and Dennis Quaid sparkle when called upon. Barbara Hershey enjoys the unusual role of the cool pilot's wife who threatens her husband to never change his death defying ways.

Kaufman and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel create a wide-open and blazing look for The Right Stuff, with stunning recreations of test flights, rocket launches and travel through space. Even the Earth-bound scenes at Edwards Air Base are characterized by flat terrain and open skies, an invitation for a brash nation to come forth and explore. The film is a wondrous visual experience, capturing a bright-eyed can-do spirit riding on not much more than bravado and a political imperative to keep up with and then overtake the Soviets, costs and risks be damned.

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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Movie Review: Laura (1944)

A classic film noir, Laura is a murder whodunnit filled with style, suspects, infatuation, and characters ready to deeply and truly betray each other.

Marketing executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been shot dead in her swanky New York City apartment. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is called in to investigate, and quickly turns his attention to flamboyant newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). Although much older than her, Waldo was Laura's protective mentor, vetting her lovers and showering her with gifts. In flashback Waldo introduces Mark to Laura's story, from which other murder suspects emerge.

Womanizing playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) was Laura's fiancé, and indeed she had just agreed to marry him, despite Waldo's dire warnings, before she was killed. Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) was Laura's icy aunt, and she was carrying on her own relationship with Shelby. And Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams) was Laura's loyal house servant. Now fully immersed in Laura's world, Mark finds himself falling in love with the image of the murder victim, as her haunting portrait looms large over him at her apartment.

Directed by Otto Preminger, Laura is a succulent mystery, a small film that comes together in just the right proportions to form a sparkling package. This is an investigation driven by complex emotions, entangled by love, lust and greed, a minefield of relationships that quickly entraps the detective.

About halfway through, Laura introduces the major plot twist, knocking the mystery on its head and steering the investigation in a new direction, with new evidence and a shocking new suspect suddenly entering the fray. The screenplay, by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt (adapting the Vera Caspary novel) builds up to that moment, introducing the characters in Laura's world, and then does not miss a beat as all previous assumptions are reset and Mark has to grapple with new realities.

At Laura's core are themes of agonizing, unreciprocated infatuation. Waldo is clearly obsessed and deeply possessive about Laura. She sees him as just a kind uncle figure. He wants a lot more, but is unlikely to ever get it. Laura's aunt Ann recognizes in the sleazy Shelby her ideal partner and perhaps her one last hope for a man of her own. Shelby perceives Ann as an easy victim to string along as a source of money, and has his eyes set on the younger and more glamorous Laura.

Mark is sucked into this world and gradually Laura starts to consume him. His investigation becomes about more than just finding a murderer; it is personal, as he succumbs to Laura's mysterious beauty while she dominates him from the high vantage point of her portrait. And Laura's character is a lingering enigma. A woman confident enough to hang a large self-portrait in her own apartment, and yet harbouring fundamental human weaknesses: she is incapable of pushing back against Waldo's domination, and unable to resist the dangerous charms of Shelby.

The mostly B+ cast members deliver functional performances, with Gene Tierney mesmeric in her most famous role. Laura benefits from the absence of star names, allowing Preminger to focus on the story and shift attention among the characters as required to follow the knotted threads of suspicion and doubt. And at the centre of the puzzle is Laura herself, a victim who nevertheless casts a spell with a cryptic sense of presence.

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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Movie Review: Chicago (2002)

Slick, sexy and sly, Chicago is a brash musical, a sizzling combination of media satire and pure sass.

It's Chicago in the 1920s. Showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) is a celebrity prisoner, awaiting trial for the murder of her husband and her sister. Wannabe entertainer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is married to the naive but devoted Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) while carrying on an affair with Fred Casely (Dominic West) who claims to have connections in show business. When Roxie realizes that Casely is just leading her along for the sex, she shoots him dead. Despite Amos' attempt to cover for her by claiming to be the shooter, Roxie is arrested and joins Velma behind bars at a prison overseen by the entrepreneurial "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah).

With the crime-obsessed media always looking for the next sensational story about women murderers, Roxie realizes that she can now aim for her dreams. She hires flamboyant lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to represent her, and he fires up a publicity machine to build sympathy for Roxie, with reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) leading the charge to portray Roxie as a victim. All this is at the expense of Velma, who finds herself yesterday's news. But with Roxie's court date fast approaching, millionaire heiress Kitty Baxter (Lucy Liu) is arrested for murder, distracting the media and forcing Roxie to think up new twists to regain the headlines.

Based on the Bob Fosse Broadway show originally produced in 1975 and revived in 1996, Chicago is more relevant than ever in the age of real-time news, saturation 24/7 coverage of sordid murders, and lust for celebrity. The basis of the musical resides in the true stories of accused murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, as covered by newspaper reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. If nothing else Chicago makes the point that not much has changed, other than the exponential magnification of the media's capability for self-induced frenzy, a most useful trait to be manipulated by those seeking the riches that come with cheap fame.

Chicago captured the Best Picture Academy Award, the first musical in 34 years to achieve the feat. And its an extraordinarily fun experience, thanks in large part to an incredibly catchy collection of musical numbers, staged by director Rob Marshall as intrinsic pieces of the plot, often through Roxie's stellar imagination. The many highlights include Velma performing the opener All That Jazz, the women prisoners recounting their stories in the purely magnificent Cell Block Tango, Billy re-imagining Roxie's crime and casting her as a victim for the press to lap-up in We Both Reached for the Gun, Billy explaining the courtroom art of Razzle Dazzle, and then performing an exquisite Tap Dance, before Roxie and Velma bring down the house with Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag. Marshall stays true to the stage show and colours the film with the stark black of satire, frequent backlighting, smoke and fluid camerawork adding breathtaking dynamism to the pointy Fosse-inspired choreography.

And its all drenched in oozing sexuality, Chicago striding into the world of women not afraid to use their bodies as a weapon to get what they want, and equally not afraid to turn to violence when their sexual supremacy is threatened. The edgy stage performances reflect women as wielding power and not afraid to use it. The victims are husbands, lovers, friends, family members and liars who dare to betray the women's love or lust, and it's the job of the Billy Flynns of the world to prove that a woman betrayed deserves her revenge, proportionate or not.

The casting choices are impeccable, and the three lead performances are uniformly excellent, with Zeta-Jones, Zellweger and Gere doing their own singing and dancing. Zellweger plays up her plain Jane personality, a woman whose ambition of stardom is not matched by her looks or talent, but who can nevertheless strive for the limelight with the help of frenemies like Billy and Velma. Zeta-Jones exudes the confidence of a wronged star, and whether on-stage or behind bars, she carries a dominant confidence that earned her the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. And Richard Gere is a revelation, unleashing his inner performer and having a blast with the musical numbers.

Drenched in style and substance, Chicago is rowdy, raunchy, and a rip-roaring riot.

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Movie Review: Terror Storm (1978)

A cheapo disaster / horror hybrid from Mexican schlockmeister René Cardona Jr., Terror Storm (also known as Cyclone) features horrid production values, atrocious performances, and a few former Hollywood types embarrassing themselves.

A massive storm unexpectedly wallops the Caribbean near an unnamed island. Out at sea, a plane is caught in the turbulence and crashes into the ocean. A fishing boat capsizes, and a tourist boat is stranded without power. The rescue effort is slow in coming. The survivors from the three incidents eventually converge onto the tourist boat, where water and food are running low, tensions are high, and the sharks are circling.

Cardona Jr. made a small career out of budget disaster films in the 1970s, ripping off the decade-long obsession with the genre and cobbling together Mexican / Italian / Spanish co-productions with enough funding to attract a few fading stars. Terror Storm features a sudden Caribbean storm, a plane crash, cannibalism (with crunchier details in the longer "international" version) and a late-in-the-day shark attack, all filmed using bargain-basement techniques, stock footage, and oh-so-obvious not-so-special effects.

To give credit where due, Terror Storm offers up several moral dilemmas worth mulling over, and the film's best moments are in the form of group discussions. Should a pet dog be treated with humanity and provided with precious water in dire circumstances. As the number of survivors on the tourist boat increases, the rationing of water supplies becomes an issue. And finally when cannibalism has to be considered, the topic is debated with some thoughtfulness.

But the few good moments are comprehensively swamped by the prevailing awfulness. The cyclone scenes on the island consist of detached shots of rushing water that appear to be sourced from a documentary. When extras are hit with water, mostly on the crashing plane, it is laughably obvious that they are being hosed down. And once the sharks start munching, they feast on undefined slabs of meat wrapped in white cloth, simulating the human victims. Unsuccessfully.

The dialogue is agonizing, and particularly during the on-island scenes, the words are delivered by actors with blank looks that scream for a mercy killing. Somehow, Arthur Kennedy (as a preacher), Carroll Baker (as the insufferable dog owner) and Lionel Stander (as a pompous tycoon) ended up in this mess, and all three ham it up with bewildering excitedness that does nothing to set their careers back on any sort of recovery. Needless to say, the set design is virtually non-existent. Terror Storm is a tedious exercise in waiting for the sharks to arrive and save the day.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Movie Review: Big Eyes (2014)

A biography of artist Margaret Keane during her time with conniving husband Walter, Big Eyes is an amiable drama with elements of comedy. The film is engaging, but also limited by the ultimately small scope of the story.

It's the 1950s, and Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) finds herself a divorced mother of young daughter Jane. She moves to San Francisco and pursues her hobby of painting sad children with big eyes, a singular motif in dozens of poses. Margaret meets fellow struggling artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who claims to be trained in Paris. They fall in love and quickly get married.

Walter has a slick hustler's attitude and an ability to sell anything. He starts to peddle Margaret's paintings, and once they start to generate interest, he claims them as his own. He convinces Margaret to go along with the ruse, on the basis that women artists are not taken seriously, and she agrees, signing the paintings simply Keane. The images of melancholy big eyed children become a cultural sensation, and Walter mass-markets the art through television appearances, prints, posters and postcards. The Keanes become extremely wealthy, but with Walter becoming more erratic and the love evaporating, the marriage heads towards trouble.

Director Tim Burton takes a break from his typical dark and brooding aesthetics, and dabbles in something altogether more routinely domestic. Big Eyes is a relatively straightforward but also true story of a snake oil salesman taking advantage of a vulnerable woman to peddle schlocky pop art. Everybody gets rich and for a while, a bit happy, until the fad passes and greed consumes the money machine.

Big Eyes has a bright and cheery look, celebrating 1950s faux chic with vivid colours and a sense of West Coast street optimism. The film never wallows for too long at any point in Margaret's journey from divorcée to maligned artist seeking redress, Burton keeping the pacing brisk and the focus firmly on the central couple's evolving relationship.

Throughout its second act, the film portrays Margaret as a victim suffering in silence and reluctantly going along for the ride, although never comfortable with Walter's misrepresentations, especially when it comes to lying to her daughter. But her years of acquiescence, squeamish as it may have been, cannot help but seep away sympathy from her corner. Combined with the redundant hokum of her artwork, Margaret is a difficult character to fully cheer for.

This takes nothing away from Amy Adams' committed performance. In a reserved but ultimately steely display, Adams conveys Margaret as full of quiet self-doubt, uncertainty and mounting suspicion that the man she hurriedly married is both less and more than what he initially appeared to be. Christoph Waltz gradually but steadily goes over the top, starting out with Walter as a smooth persuader and ending the film as a joke of a man, desperate to hang on to his castles in the air, his big eyes for unearned wealth having created an empire built on the fault line of mass deception.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.