Sunday, 21 December 2014

Movie Review: The Nun's Story (1959)

A drama about the struggle to adhere to higher ideals, The Nun's Story is a sincere exploration of the conflict between two competing aspirations, both admirable.

In Belgium of the late 1920s, Gabrielle "Gaby" Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) enters a convent to start the process of becoming a nursing nun. Her father Hubert (Dean Jagger) is a famous surgeon, and Gaby's ambition is to provide medical services as a nun in Congo. Gaby commits herself to learning the proper habits of a nun, including long periods of silence, letting go of her past, frequent prayers, and public confession of every transgression in front of all the other nuns. Gaby makes good progress, takes her vows, and is granted the title Sister Luke. But she continues to struggle with the concept of absolute obedience and complete humility. Her background as the daughter of a recognized surgeon is a point of pride, and her love of medicine competes with her dedication to religious ceremony.

Sister Luke serves a stint in a Belgian mental hospital, and is finally assigned to the Congo, where she is disappointed to find herself stationed at a hospital for white people rather than helping the locals. But gradually she proves her value, and is assigned to help the abrasive Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) as his head surgical nurse. An unconventional emergency surgery, an unexpected illness, and a shocking incident bring Sister Luke and Fortunati close together, but she is called back to Belgium. When World War Two erupts, Sister Luke is forced to assess the discord between religious duty and the longing to pursue medical and political involvement.

Directed by Fred Zinnemann from a Robert Anderson adaptation of Kathryn Hulme's book (based on the life of her friend Marie Louise Habets), The Nun's Story is involving without necessarily touching the emotional heights that it aims for. The evolution of Gabrielle Van Der Mal into Sister Luke is a ponderous journey filled with introspection, self-evaluation, self-doubt and struggle to conform to an impossible ideal. This is a story about the search for personal fulfillment through individual endeavour, and for long stretches there is not much of interest going on outside of Gabrielle's discovery process and internal thoughts.

The film unfolds like a documentary, an earnest depiction of the sacrifices and ceremony involved in dedicating a life to the service of others. The lack of a narrative thrust makes for a slow but educational first two thirds of the protracted 149 minutes of running time. Hepburn as Gaby is almost silently swept along by the higher calling and fully immersed in unlearning any personal desires while striving for the appropriate inward and outward behaviours of a nun.

The final third of the movie picks up the pace, as Dr. Fortunati proves to be a turning point in Sister Luke's life, then World War Two interferes and pushes for a conclusion about her aspirations and beliefs. The film finally offers a sharply defined dilemma for the main character to grapple with, and the dramatic quotient positively benefits.

Zinnemann directs with his usual courtly approach, giving every scene stately time to breathe, impress and register. The initial transformation of Gaby into Sister Luke, which occupies the first hour, is filled with imposing ceremonies in the Mother House, allowing Zinnemann and his cinematographer Franz Planer to find impressive angles and capture lofty assembly halls filled with solemn extras, while the Franz Waxman music score adds to the ambiance. It's a visual and auditory feast, the dividend achieved from the leisurely pace.

Audrey Hepburn was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, and her performance is a rewarding study in restraint. Hepburn conveys all her internal conflict from within an ocean of calm and through the briefest of blurted expressions, and only late in the film does she start outwardly expressing clear thoughts that challenge the rules of others. The coarse and refreshingly blunt Peter Finch injects plenty of energy, but is on the screen for a relatively short stretch. The rest of the supporting cast is a large but rather interchangeable sea of faces representing all the nuns that Gaby interacts with over the years.

The Nun's Story is impressive and dignified. What the film lacks in intensity, it more than makes up for in quiet grandeur.

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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Movie Review: Torrid Zone (1940)

An enjoyable if lightweight adventure in an exotic land with romance, drama, humour and droll characters, Torrid Zone delivers ripe fruit.

Steve Case (Pat O'Brien) is the highly strung manager of an international fruit export company based in a literal banana republic. Case controls chief of police Juan Rodriguez (Frank Puglia), and orders him to deport newly arrived lounge singer Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan) because she is too hot for the locals. Case and Rodriguez also have problems with revolutionary leader Rosario (George Tobias), who is at least temporarily behind bars, while Plantation 7 is under-performing ever since Case's best man Nick Butler (James Cagney) quit after having an affair with Case's wife. The new man Anderson (Jerome Cowan) and his wife Gloria (Helen Vinson) are overwhelmed and unable to cope with Rosario's hit and run raids.

Case cajoles Butler back to work with the promise of a big bonus, Lee avoids deportation by easily duping Rodriguez and sidling up to Butler, Rosario escapes the execution squad and gets back to the mountains to lead his men. Butler tries to whip Plantation 7 back into productivity while figuring out a way to find Rosario's mountain hideout and subdue the revolution. But the real battle is on the plantation, where Lee and Gloria are hissing at each other, in a claws-out battle to claim the queen banana crown.

That Torrid Zone does not bother to name the country where all events are taking place is a good clue to the film's attitude. The opening globe hints at a country somewhere near the equator, and that's all that needs to be revealed. This is a jungle romp played very much tongue in cheek, and although broad comedy is not the intent, the film aims for, and mostly achieves an amiable vibe where the actors are having fun trading barbs, the outcome is predetermined, happy and not very important.

Lee (to Case): Mister, the stork that brought you must have been a vulture.

Director William Keighley, never accused of trying to infuse quality where none is needed, hustles the action along to can the movie in 88 minutes. He also forgets to provide any guidance to the likes of Pat O'Brien, who shouts his way through the film with the deftness of a gorilla, and Andy Devine (as a Case loyalist and Cagney's sidekick at Plantation 7), who deploys his high pitched squeaky voice to distraction. Cagney just plays himself and easily gets away with it, while Ann Sheridan emerges as the star of the film.

Lee (cutting off Butler's shirt so she can dress his wound): Oh, did I hurt you?
Butler (sarcastically): Oh, no. How could you hurt me by sticking a scissors in my arm?

While the character of Lee Donley has no business being in this unkempt environment or anywhere near men like Nick Butler, Steve Case or Rosario, the script plonks her there to stir the pot, and stir she does. Sheridan glides through the movie with the silkiness of Bacall on her most dangerous days, and gets all the best lines. Her verbal duel with Gloria Anderson is filled with gems, as two cats go at it in the jungle heat.

Lee (picking up a cigarette dropped by Gloria): I believe this is how the Chicago fire got started.
Gloria: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
Lee: History repeats itself.

The rest of the film stumbles along, large quantities of fruit moving on impressive trains, punctuated by Rosario cheating death on several occasions to continue leading his people's revolution. His guerrilla army seems to mainly consist of a small band of smelly nitwits more interested in banter than fighting, but it's all besides the point. Torrid Zone is a place where nothing is serious, and all the real action happens in the form of zingers paving the way for Nick and Lee to fall into each other's arms.

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Friday, 19 December 2014

Movie Review: Stella Dallas (1937)

A touching mother-daughter drama, Stella Dallas is an affecting and brilliantly conceived film, featuring a career-highlight performance from star Barbara Stanwyck.

In a Massachusetts factory town after the Great War, Stella Martin (Stanwyck) is eager to win the heart of the handsome and capable Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Now working in mid-management at the factory, Stephen comes from a once rich family, and lost his father to suicide and his bride-to-be Helen to another man. Stella eventually wins Stephen's heart; they get married and a year later daughter Laurel is born.

Stella is eager to be seen as a sophisticated society woman, but her behaviour is over-eager and more awkward than elegant. Stephen pleads with her to calm down and be herself, but she makes friends with the boorish Ed Munn (Alan Hale), further alienating Stephen who moves to New York to further his career. Left alone Stella dedicates her life to Laurel, who grows into a well-behaved young lady (Anne Shirley), devoted to her mother but still on good terms with her distant father. Stephen has meanwhile reconnected with Helen (Barbara O'Neil), now a widow with three boys of her own. With Stella struggling to remain relevant in Laurel's life, the fractured family reaches a crossroads.

Directed by King Vidor and based on the book by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas is an always engaging drama about a woman who reached for the stars of the good life but found her grasp exceeding her abilities to cope. Stella's basic social talent gives her a taste of a life that she could have enjoyed, but her fundamental lack of sophistication forces her to stumble, fall and ultimately reevaluate what is most important to her. This is not a film about happiness or sadness, just life, unintended consequences and the challenging decisions that must be confronted under less than ideal conditions.

The mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, and Laurel becomes the one anchor in Stella's life. Stella strives to give her daughter the best possible opportunities in life, and in return, Laurel gives her mother a reason to persevere. Rarely has a film so beautifully captured the complex and difficult bond of inter-dependence between mother and daughter.

Vidor keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, the progression of the familial relationships summarized through key scenes that demonstrate, rather than talk about, the evolution of connections between Stella, Stephen, Ed, Laurel and Helen. The film's editing and pacing is years ahead of its time, Vidor producing a masterclass of vignettes that say a thousand words without dialogue.

Ed clumsily snuffing out a cigar in young Laurel's bowl is shown but never mentioned; it represents a breaking point for Stephen. Stella's fashion disaster at the tennis club is never discussed by anyone except as gossip between unnamed strangers. Yet it is the moment of truth for both Stella and Laurel, the physical manifestation of Stella reaching the limits of her usefulness as a mother to the blossoming Laurel.

Barbara Stanwyck delivers the performance of her life as Stella Dallas, starting as a young flirty thing eager to land a prize husband, and ending as a mother willing to sacrifice the world for her daughter's happiness. It is to Stanwyck's enormous credit that she nails complex emotions without once resorting to over-the-top emotional outbursts or excessive melodrama. Indeed, Stanwyck scales the peaks of intensity by pulling back, delivering with silence and deft expressions mountains of feeling.

The many remarkable highlights include Stella lying awake in her train bunk bed, overhearing gossip, unable to do anything except quietly grieve for the embarrassment caused to her daughter. And the final scene, with Stella alone and silent, this time behind the fence, outside the window and in the rain witnessing her life carrying on without her, is devastating in its combination of outright relief and unimaginable pain on Stella's face.

This was the first of four Best Actress Academy Award nominations in eleven years for Stanwyck. She never won, but it is doubtful that she ever came closer to receiving the Oscar.

The supporting cast is solid, with Anne Shirley catching the eye as the grown up Laurel, a young woman caught between a deep love for her imperfect mother and the twinkling promises that only start to become available once Stella is sidelined.

Stella Dallas is an exceptional achievement, a film about people with emotions real and pure, ensuring enduring relevance.

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Movie Review: The Westerner (1940)

An entertaining big-budget Western, The Westerner helped to establish the genre as a serious venue for bringing to life engaging characters and exploring key themes in the West's progression.

It's the 1880s, and large numbers of settlers are arriving in Texas, putting up fences and producing crops to the chagrin of cattlemen who want the country to remain wide open for cattle grazing. In the small town of Vinegaroon, self-appointed Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) runs the local watering hole which doubles as his courtroom, with his rough, ready and regular customers providing a convenient jury pool. Bean is aware of the shifting social landscape and sides with the cattlemen, refusing to accept that the West is undergoing a fundamental change. He also worships stage performer Lily Langtry, plastering her pictures all over his saloon.

California-bound drifter Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is brought in front of Bean accused of stealing a horse. Harden is innocent, and recognizing Bean's fascination with Langtry saves himself from hanging by spinning long tales of personally having met Lily. Gradually Harden and Bean develop a thorny friendship, despite Harden lining himself up with the settler family of Jane Matthews (Doris Davenport). But when violence erupts and lives are lost in the battle between settlers and cattlemen, the two men are forced to finally confront each other, and matters are further complicated when it is announced that the one and only Lily Langtry will be arriving in Texas for a stage show.

A year after John Ford's Stagecoach revitalized the big-budget Western and proved that the genre can indeed be respectable and not just B-movie fodder produced on Poverty Row, William Wyler picked up the challenge and delivered another grand tale of the old West. Drawing inspiration from the life of the real and legendary Judge Roy Bean, The Westerner is a simple story of two resourceful men who discover that as much as they should be friends, the changing times will inevitably push them towards confrontation.

The Westerner is a story told with humour, elegance and two fine performances. The screenplay by Niven Busch and Jo Swerling keeps the mood light with plenty of wit and colourful secondary characters. The remarkable but real antics of Judge Roy Bean in self-appointing himself as the law and running a courtroom out of his saloon are genuinely funny, and the film celebrates one of the West's great eccentrics.

While Walter Brennan won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award (his third win in five years), his is the film's central performance, and Bean is its most compelling character. In his later years Brennan would become known as the cinematic goofy sidekick, good for a cheap laugh but little else. The Westerner may be his finest performance, as he gives the Judge depth, evil smarts, natural suspicion, and a potent mix of charm and deadly determination. Brennan's protective-aggressive portrayal of Bean's (apparently true) infatuation with Langtry is a particular joy.

In contrast Cooper is solid but unspectacular in a role that he only accepted reluctantly and to fulfill his contractual obligation to producer Samuel Goldwyn. Cooper recognized that Cole Harden is strictly second fiddle despite occupying the moral high ground. But The Westerner revealed the special magic that sparkles when Brennan and Cooper are together on the screen, and led to four more collaborations.

Despite the prevailing quality, the film is not without its faults. Wyler allows a few scenes to go on for longer than needed, and makes too much of Bean's obsession with obtaining a locket of Langtry's hair, which spills over into a drama between Harden and Jane.

But in addition to the two central characters, there is a plenty more going on in the film to compensate, and the tone easily switches to serious when needed. This is the story of the west evolving from wide open and generally lawless to a place where families are settling and hoping to raise children and tend the land. The era of the Roy Beans of the world is drawing to a close, and men like Harden will have more say as the new frontier evolves from rowdy to domesticated. The Westerner will endure, but only by transitioning from wild and carefree to thoughtful and considerate.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Movie Review: The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)

A low-key character study set in Atlantic City, The King Of Marvin Gardens celebrates early 1970s minimalism but toils to create drama around a small group of dreamers and drifters.

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) works as an overnight talk show host at a Philadelphia radio station, entertaining his audience with long-winded fictional stories. David lives in a large house with his grandfather and seems to be sleepwalking through life in a state of minor depression.  At the request of his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City, where he meets Jason's girlfriends Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson).

Jason is a perpetual dreamer, always on the lookout for the next big deal, and is involved with some unsavoury Atlantic City criminal types including crime boss Lewis (Scatman Crothers). Jason's latest vague scheme is to build a casino resort on a tiny island off the coast of Hawaii, and he wants David's support. The naïve Sally and Jessica dream of joining Jason in Hawaii, while engaging in their own competition to be Jason's prime play mate. With Jason full of ambition but utterly lacking in focus or ability, David has to decide how close he wants to be to his brother, while Sally and Jessica head towards a resolution of their own.

Directed by Bob Rafelson in one of six collaborations with Nicholson, The King Of Marvin Gardens zooms in on four people and stays there. With a rudimentary story that never intends to go anywhere, the script (by Jacob Brackman and Rafelson) takes its time to delve into the shifting emotions of David, Jason, Sally and Jessica. While the foursome are interesting enough, it is an undoubted struggle to sustain attention even for the shortish 104 minute running time.

It is clear early that David is carrying emotional wounds and is repressing his life to guard against any shocks. It's a different role for Nicholson, allowing him to stay deep within himself and express annoyance with minimal expressions and gestures. Jason is equally easy to categorize: a small time hustler who will always end up on the losing side of any deal. Jason is introduced in a jail cell, and he never does anything to suggest that his half-baked schemes will help him find better outcomes. Bruce Dern grabs the role and runs with it, making a splash but falling short of finding a glimmer of pathos that may have helped the film glow. Neither David nor Jason undergo much of a transformation as the two brothers bump up against each other and find little willingness for change.

Sally and Jessica are both potentially compelling characters, but the the film only offers piecemeal hints about their backstory, and they are never rounded out into people. It's a wasted opportunity to expand the film into a wider circle. The movie is Julia Ann Robinson's one major film credit before her tragic death in 1975.

To make up for the relative leanness of the material, The King Of Marvin Gardens boasts plenty of style. The opening scene is a classic close up of a Nicholson monologue in dark surroundings, Rafelson revealing the setting and surroundings ever so slowly and with a large dose of cleverness. The rest of the film is full of compelling Atlantic City scenery from the early 1970s, when old glories had well and truly faded and a thick sense of defeatism hung heavy over the boardwalk. Rafelson also takes several surreal side trips into dreamlike scenes that are fascinating in their non sequitur state. One such sequence features the foursome staging a simulated Miss America pageant, while other scenes suddenly transpose the characters to unusual settings on the beach, with almost no context.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is an adequate curiosity, never achieving regal status but presenting a worthwhile stroll in the company of conflicted brothers.

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Monday, 15 December 2014

Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Directed by Frank Capra, Meet John Doe is a feel-good story about populism, politics and pretense. The film is easy to enjoy, but lacks depth and sophistication.

Sassy newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job when the struggling daily paper is sold to tycoon publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). In her final column she writes about a letter she received from "John Doe" stating his intention to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, because he can't find a job and the world has become a grim place where people don't care about each other. John Doe and his letter are entirely manufactured by Ann. The published column is taken seriously and causes a political firestorm. Ann is re-hired to write a series of John Doe columns, outlining the source of his anger and creating a manifesto for a better society.

Vagabond "Long" John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired to pretend to be John Doe, with his every word scripted by Ann, who uses her deceased father's diary for inspiration. Willoughby's caustic travelling companion "The Colonel" (Walter Brennan) hangs around to witness the deception.

Willoughby plays along with Ann's every request, hoping to make enough money to fix a bum elbow and take another shot at a baseball career. The John Doe political phenomenon takes off across the country in the form of organized clubs promoting good neighbourliness and citizens looking out for each other. But Norton and his backroom backers harbour secret intentions of hijacking the John Doe movement as a springboard for a presidential election campaign, leaving Willoughby and Ann to struggle with the consequences of their actions.

Meet John Doe easily achieves it's objective of satirizing simplistic political messages, celebrating each individual and the power of neighbourliness while exposing the corrupt puppet masters behind every curtain. It's a simple slice of Americana effectively presented with Capra's typical charm. The plight of the average guy is once again placed front and centre as a gateway to a broader societal lesson, with simple solutions to complex problems easily devoured by the masses, a phenomenon that ironically reverberated in the real USA under the Tea Party banner 65 years later.

But the film itself stays on the same elementary plane occupied by its own message, and veers towards the simplistic. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin cannot quite find the dose of magic needed to elevate the themes and emotions towards something greater than the sum of the most basic ideas, and the film plateaus early and plays itself out with a combination of predictability and mild amusement.

Several scenes run much longer than they need to, from The Colonel's rant about "heelots" (hordes of heels in search of money) to the endless Bert Hanson story about forming the first John Doe club. The film seems unable to make a point without resorting to an overabundance of tiresome talk. It's never quite bland, but the absence of any true spark, wit, threat or sharp edge gives John Doe and his adventure a free pass towards a contrived ending that fails to resonate.

Gary Cooper is fine in a role that would have better belonged to James Stewart, but Cooper does all that he can with it. Long John Willoughby is the ultimate reluctant hero, and Cooper sheds any semblance of confidence and dives into the character's sideswiped puzzlement over sudden wealth, fame and influence. Any energy enjoyed by the film is provided by Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell. She enlivens the first half, but her character is subsequently tamed and takes a back seat as the Jon Doe phenomenon sweeps the nation and Long John' mounting dilemma becomes the centre of attention.

Not unexpectedly Ann falls in love with Long John, but only because the script demands it, and the film waves from afar at the notion of a romance without genuinely engaging in the concept. John Doe's story ends at the top of a building on Christmas Eve, the movie turns suddenly towards religion to find a quick exit, and an imperfect man again understands his value. It's all delivered with the best of intentions, and it's all just a bit twee.

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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The conclusion to the Jason Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum does not disappoint. An action-packed joy ride filled with breathless chases and ruthless violence in international settings, the film places an exclamation mark at the end of a high calibre modern spy story.

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still on a mission to understand his own past, reclaim his identity, and confront the CIA superiors who turned him into a ruthless assassin engaged in black operations. Equally determined to stop him are CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), who just want Bourne to be terminated to tie up the one remaining loose end with the illicit Treadstone and Blackbriar operations. CIA Deputy Director Pam Landy (Joan Allen) is also brought in to try and snare Bourne, but she is more sympathetic to his cause.

Bourne keys in on British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) who is receiving information about Blackbriar from a source within the CIA. Bourne connects with Ross in London in a meeting that ends with a CIA sharpshooter taking out Ross in a crowded train station. The trail leads to Madrid, where Bourne reconnects with agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who sides with him as they make their way onto Tangiers to track down the CIA source. There are more merciless assassins in wait, but Bourne doggedly makes his way to New York, to confront his past once and for all.

The Bourne Ultimatum sticks closely to the formula established for the franchise. Plenty of grim action, spies mercilessly chasing spies, hitmen galore, incredible stunts and feats of human durability, and the shortest possible narrative scenes to provide the action some structure to hang on. It's predictable, highly kinetic, and for this series, it works.

Almost everything in Ultimatum was seen before in Identity and Supremacy. The car chases, foot chases, motorbike chases, close-quarters combat, surveillance and panic in the streets are all here. Supremacy director Paul Greengrass returns for the third installment and polishes everything to a shine, the tension always high, the stakes for Bourne and his CIA controllers a matter of life and death, or for the higher ups at least a matter of saving a career and avoiding Congressional hearings.

With a story, style and characters that were never going to be blessed with the gift of originality, Greengrass pushes all the elements to the edge of credibility, and sometimes beyond. With each successive brush with death Jason Bourne appears to take on indestructible qualities, shrugging off his bone rattling injuries, instantaneously losing his scars and proceeding to travel effortlessly between countries and infiltrate the most secure of secretive buildings.

In one frantic foot sequence through Tangiers, Bourne jumps three or four times off of balconies and through apartment across the street, seemingly equipped with the ability to sense his enemy's movements through buildings several blocks away. The climactic carnage of the now mandatory car chase should be enough to a least send Bourne to the hospital for an extended stay. Instead he emerges from the wreck of what used to be his car unscathed, pointing his gun, ready for the next round.

Stylistically Greengrass finds the limit of his love for micro-edits, shoving the hand-held camera wherever it will shake the most and closest to the action, and then editing every chase and fight with the sharpest possible cutting. Greengrass doesn't so much capture the action as allow his cameras to be pummeled by the brute forces in every confrontation, challenging the eye and the brain to keep up. The effect walks the line between heart-pounding exhilaration and stomach-turning nausea.

The cast of veterans get on with the job with minimum deviation from the standard "this is serious" emoting. Matt Damon glides through the film fending off bad guys with the cold efficiency that comes with the certainty that the story only ends when the lion's den is infiltrated.  David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and, late in the game, Albert Finney form the triangle of men with secrets that need to be defended at all costs. Interestingly, Bourne is only ever helped by women during his Ultimatum adventure, with Julia Stiles and Joan Allen reprising roles from earlier installments and lending a more sympathetic ear to the man searching for the solution to his own mystery.

A suitable ending to a thrilling trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum tidies up the story with another jolt of frenzied excitement.

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Movie Review: The Theory Of Everything (2014)

A biopic about scientist Stephen Hawking, The Theory Of Everything is a romance highlighting a couple's unglamorous struggle against a vicious disease before Hawking achieved fame for his theories about space and time.

At Cambridge University in the 1960s, a young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is an awkward but brilliant physics student. He gains an interest in the origins of time, and starts a romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Just as Stephen is setting his research direction and getting serious about Jane, he is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, a condition that will atrophy his body but keep his brain intact. He is given two years to live. Jane insists on marrying him anyway, and they start a family which eventually grows to include three children.

Stephen's condition does not prove to be fatal, but he gradually loses control of most of his muscles, although he keeps on working and developing groundbreaking scientific theories. Jane holds the family together as best as she can, but with Stephen permanently confined to a wheelchair, she finally realizes that help is needed. Local church choir leader Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) volunteers to share the physical and emotional load, and he and Jane develop feelings for each other. Meanwhile, tarty nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) starts to play a larger role in Stephen's life. With the help of revolutionary computer-assisted technology Stephen writes and publishes A Brief History of Time, achieving scientific celebrity status but also fundamentally changing the household dynamic.

A mass entertainment biographical film about Stephen Hawking was never going to be about theoretical physics, and The Theory Of Everything steers as far away from the topic as possible without ignoring it all together. The film is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking, and so has it roots in an exploration of the family man rather than the scientist. The smatterings of physics and astronomy that do make it into the film revolve around the most superficial conversations about black holes and the origins of the universe, with most of subtext invested in whether the role of God in the creation of the universe can be consistent with emerging scientific theories.

With the science that made the man pushed to the edges of the story, The Theory Of Everything settles down to portray a romance, a familial struggle against disability, and finally two people drifting apart as Hawking's work propels him into the spotlight of what passes as celebrity in the scientific community. Many of the film's elements are familiar from previous fare such as A Beautiful Mind (scientist battles illness with help from wife and achieves peer recognition) and My Left Foot (artist battles handicap and achieves fame). The Theory Of Everything never reaches the emotional heights of Ron Howard' classic, but neither does it get consumed by the disability angle. Director James Marsh finds the space where real people live and struggle to stay alive and relevant, and creates a film that quietly celebrates the human spirit.

Eddie Redmayne gets half a film to act and half a film confined to a wheelchair, severely contorted and with limited ability to verbally communicate. He provides Hawking with a sparkling humanity and humour that transcends his deteriorating physical state. As storytelling the film does suffer from the main subject slipping first into incomprehensibility and then immobility, but Redmayne's greatest feat is keeping a glint in the eye as a reminder that while the body is almost totally failing, the brain is fine, beavering away to theoretically ponder the mysteries of the cosmos.

With a central character who gradually descends into a non-communicative state, the emotional centre was always going to be held by Jane, and the film is a tribute to the woman who saved Hawking from himself, gave him the will to live, and supported him through the years of obscurity. As often is the case when playing opposite a dominant physical performance (Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, Tom Cruise in Rain Man), Felicity Jones has the more difficult role to remain relevant and grounded, and her performance is a joy. From college student to hardened wife balancing her needs with an impossibly demanding husband, Jones shines as a woman who devotes her life to her love but remains on the real side of saintliness.

The Theory Of Everything uncovers the man behind the theories, and more importantly, the great woman who fell in love with a broken man and saved his soul.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Movie Review: Lust For Life (1956)

A rather laborious biography of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, Lust For Life is filled with good intentions and dedicated acting, but struggles to create a story for the man who died alone, unknown and penniless.

The film opens in the late 1800s with van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) trying to define what he wants to do in life. He attempts to establish himself as a priest in a tough mining region, but soon realizes that he prefers social work and rubbing shoulders with the miners rather than preaching to them. His brother Theo (James Donald) is an art dealer and extends continuous financial help as Vincent embarks on a fledgling career as an artist.

Vincent has plenty of passion but few useful social skills. He is rejected by the love of his life, starts a relationship with a lonely woman, and paints obsessively, honing his skills and looking for a break. He travels across Europe, from the countryside to Paris where he meets and briefly mingles with the impressionists, especially the flamboyant Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). Vincent generates a large volume of work, but finds no market for his paintings. With his physical and mental health starting to fail due to various ailments, he settles in the town of Arles, taking over a yellow house and revelling in the bright colours of the French countryside. Gaugin joins him for a stint, but tensions develop between the two men, and Vincent will face his final days on his own.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Lust For Life tackles a legendary subject but has little material to work with. The truth is that van Gogh did not live an exciting or celebrated life. He was a struggling and lonely artist, practicing his craft in the shadows of obscurity, struggling with undiagnosed and creeping sicknesses. With no family of his own, no friends who could tolerate him for too long, and no clients, van Gogh's life, unlike his work, is a sad but relatively boring canvas.

Absent an involving plot, Minnelli makes good use of the artist's letters to his brother to stitch together thoughts and emotions. The film is also filled with close-ups of van Gogh's paintings, and the credits acknowledge a long list of galleries and collectors for allowing the artist's paintings to be photographed for the film. Most notably, Minnelli bathes Lust For Life in vivid colours and an emphasis on bright reds and yellows, creating an aesthetic that resembles the bursts of life that define van Gogh's works.

Douglas throws himself into the role and delivers a serious, sometimes dour, performance. He conveys van Gogh as full of passion and sometimes fury at an unforgiving world, but also willing to be a student, learning from nature, and always striving to improve despite bleak prospects. Douglas' hard features are perfect for a character who only ever knew the hard life, and yet never stopped struggling to perfect his art. Anthony Quinn won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Gaugin. It's a relatively short but still earthy performance typical of Quinn, parking nuance at the door and doubling up on fervour.

Lust For Life does the best with what is available: intensity of spirit, burgeoning talent, and static images.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Movie Review: The Cable Guy (1996)

A stalker comic drama, The Cable Guy is part laugh-out funny and part creep-out serious. Jim Carrey stretches his persona into new territory, but ultimately the story occasionally trips on the gap between silly and tense.

Steve (Matthew Broderick) needs to install cable television service in his new apartment, having been kicked out of his old place by girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann). The cable guy Chip (Jim Carrey) arrives, appears quite strange, but quickly installs the cable while also rearranging Steve's furniture. Acting on a tip from his buddy Rick (Jack Black), Steve offers Chip a bribe in return for turning on pay-TV channels. Chip agrees, labels Steve a preferred customer, and pretends that they are now close friends.

Chip takes Steve on tour of a gigantic satellite dish that feeds the cable service. Afterwards, Chip starts to stalk Steve, interfering with his basketball game, installing unwanted high-grade audio and video equipment in his living room, throwing a wild party and insisting on going out for dinner together. Every time Steve tries to end the friendship, Chip ups the stakes with threats or pleas for pity. Finally, Chip starts to interfere in the relationship between Steve and Robin, as well as within Steve's family.

Directed by Ben Stiller, The Cable Guy generally works but with some static and distortion. Mostly played for laughs, Chip's more threatening behaviour inserts dark tones that can appear out of place. Carrey and Broderick maintain balance and a generally light mood, often overcoming the film's uneven moments with pure charisma.

The Lou Holtz Jr. script does struggle with the dosage between fun and fear, and runs out of good ideas fairly early. Once the premise is set, there is little of substance to build upon lonely and strange guy stalking normal dude with a combination of gifts, victim cards and life meddling. With the dynamic between the two characters mostly static, Stiller is forced into prolonging some pretty mediocre scenes well past their sell-by date, a medieval-style battle between Steve and Chip in a knight-themed restaurant serving as a particularly tedious example.

A real-crime courtroom drama runs in the background on numerous television channels within the film, featuring Stiller as a murderous twin who was a former sitcom child star. The parallel story seems intended as a representation of the new low for television culture, but Stiller the director treats it as an odd distraction, leaving lingering doubts as to whether the idea was ever fully baked.

Better is the overarching theme of the film. Chip is a victim of a childhood spent in front of the television as babysitter, his growth stunted, and his mind atrophied into an inability to conduct normal social interactions. The Cable Guy effectively plays with the cascading consequences of one wrong move, Steve's problems stemming from his singular request for Chip to illegally enable channels in return for a bribe.

Carrey is excellent in the title role, combining comedy and menace to good effect and frequently letting loose with his unique brand of physical comedy, but this time with sinister undertones. Broderick's laid-back attitude similarly works well, Steve a relatively predictable canvass for Chip to paint his plot on. George Segal and Diane Baker have small turns as Steve's parents, while Owen Wilson appears as Robin' new suitor.

The Cable Guy provides a good picture, but can't avoid some crossed wires.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.