Friday, 17 April 2015

Movie Review: The First Wives Club (1996)

A sharply written comedy about the pitfalls women face in middle age, The First Wives Club is an often hilarious film with a superb cast in top form.

After graduating from college as best friends, Annie (Diane Keaton), Brenda (Bette Midler), Elise (Goldie Hawn) and Cynthia (Stockard Channing) drift apart and pursue their lives. About 25 years later, Cynthia commits suicide after her husband leaves her for another, younger woman. Annie, Brenda and Elise reconnect at the memorial service, and discover that they are all being badly treated by their men.

Brenda dedicated her life to her family, only for her husband Morty (Dan Hedaya), the owner of a chain of electronics stores, to leave her for the much younger Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker). Elise became a famous Hollywood star and helped her husband Bill (Victor Garber) establish himself as a producer. He now wants a divorce and has his eye on young starlet Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley). Annie, an accommodating apologist still tolerating the nagging of her mother Catherine (Eileen Heckart), wants to desperately believe that she has a salvageable marriage to husband Aaron (Stephen Collins), a marketing executive. But she also discovers that he is having an affair with their joint therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden).

Driven by anger and a desire for revenge, the three women band together to heap misery on the men. Deploying Elise's financial clout and with help from interior decorator Duarto (Bronson Pinchot) and New York socialite Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith), Brenda tries to find a way to manipulate the naive Shelly and bring down Morty's retail empire. Annie joins forces with her daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas) and tries to manoeuvre her way into a position of influence at Aaron's marketing firm. Elise does her best to ensure that Bill gets very little from their share of the assets. But the ladies soon clash among themselves and realize that revenge alone may not provide the satisfaction that they seek.

Directed by Hugh Wilson and written by Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick, The First Wives Club is a snappy riot. The film generates its laughs from the strength of its likable characters, and successfully steers clear of cheap gags. While some set-ups are unfortunately quite contrived (for example, the ladies end up descending a building on a barely-controlled window cleaning platform), most of the film's energy is derived from the angst of real women grappling with the unfairness of life.

Elise: You think just because I'm a movie star, I don't have feelings, well, you're wrong! I do have feelings! I'm an actress! I have ALL of them!

And while the film is first and foremost a comedy of empowerment, it also has a lot to say about the ghastly treatment handed out by men as they approach middle-age, find success and dump the women who helped to get them there. There isn't a sympathetic main male character anywhere to be found (the hapless Duarto comes closest), and while the men are driven by blind lust and the superficiality of good looks, women are presented as both allies (Gunilla, Chris, Catherine) and back-stabbing, gold-digging enemies (Phoebe, Shelley, Leslie).

Brenda: Where's Shelly?
Morty: In the car.
Brenda: Glove compartment?
Morty: Trunk.

The dialogue exchanges are a particular highlight. Almost every conversation, jab and retort is polished to a shine and dipped in irony, sarcasm, or venom. They don't always work, but most of them do, and in the hands of the brilliant cast, the film becomes a showcase for clever verbal sparring and timing excellence.

Elise: You've got some nerve! I drink because I am a sensitive and highly strung person!
Brenda: No, that's why your co-stars drink!
Elise: I am not a DRUNK!
Brenda: Oh really? Let's examine the evidence! Look! All bottles! And gallon jugs!
Elise: I had GUESTS.
Brenda: Who, Guns N' Roses?!

Watching Keaton, Hawn and Midler bounce off each other is a delight, and the screen glows with what appears to be a genuine rapport as they share equal screen time. Hawn happily represents the youth obsessed culture of Hollywood and allows herself to play with the extremes of injections, face lifts and plastic surgery. Midler embrases the frumpyness trap of middle age motherhood, while Keaton carries the flag of women with the crying need to believe that everything will work out., and who stand ready to take all the blame when they don't. All three evolve out of necessity into take-charge women ready to dish out pain, and the film rides on their wave of transformation.

The supporting cast is unusually deep, with Sarah Jessica Parker sparkling as the hilariously dim Shelly. The likes of Ivana Trump, Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Kathie Lee Gifford make minor guest appearances, and J.K. Simmons appears in a bit part.

Ivana: Ladies, you have to be strong and independent. And remember...
Elise: What?
Ivana: Don't get mad... get everything.

The ending goes searching for a greater meaning and falters a bit as it moves away from the core premise. Although The First Wives Club is not necessarily perfect, this group of fun-loving ladies is well worth joining.

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Thursday, 16 April 2015

Movie Review: Mata Hari (1931)

A spy drama and an intense romance, Mata Hari features Greta Garbo at her best and a satisfyingly convoluted story of suspicion and enticement in wartime Paris.

It's Paris in 1917, the World War is raging and Paris is gripped by spy fever. Counterintelligence chief Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) is convinced that exotic dancer Mata Hari (Garbo) is a spy working for the Germans, but cannot prove it. After a dangerous flight over Europe, Russia's Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), a young and handsome pilot, lands in Paris with an important message. His superior General Serge Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) introduces him to Mata, and Alexis is immediately smitten.

Mata is indeed a spy, and her stern handler Andriani (Lewis Stone) instructs her to find the contents of the messages being transported by Alexis. Both Shubin and Alexis believe that they are in love with Mata, and she has to play a dangerous game of seduction to extract information while evading Dubois' ever tightening noose.

Directed by George Fitzmaurice, Mata Hari helped to popularize the misty legend of the sexy Dutch dancer who mesmerized the Parisian upper classes while possibly passing on information to the Germans. The film features just the one dance early on to establish Mata's allure, and then invests in the power dynamics between men and women engaged in dangerous battles of sexual conquest while trading in war secrets.

Most of the film is set indoors, and apart from the ending it all takes place over a couple of days and nights as Alexis awaits his return orders. Fitzmaurice manages to generate reasonable tension from longish scenes of dialogue, efficiently introducing the characters, their motivations and the Parisian society context before settling down to chart a battle of wills between spies, lovers, and spyhunters. Mata needs to stay one step ahead of Dubois while extricating the information she needs from Shubin and Alexis, and the film is essentially a clever chess game of move and countermove, with love and sex clouding the judgement of several pieces.

The film is a showcase for the enigmatic Garbo, convincing as a slinky dancer and a conniving, quick-thinking agent. A modern performer ahead of her cinematic times, at 26 years old she commands her screen with her combination of sensuality and intelligence, and adds a small dose of vulnerability when Mata succumbs to love. The men in contrast are merely adequate, firmly stranded in the wide-eyed theatricality of the early talkie era.

The film reaches a magical peak in a prolonged sequence as Mata wraps Alexis around her fingers, gradually nudging him to forsake all that he holds sacred for the privilege of one night of pleasure. Mata ends the night owning Alexis' soul and his secrets, and he is none the wiser. Men may control all the war machines, but they are no match for the guile of one woman on a mission.

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Sunday, 5 April 2015

Movie Review: Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)

Another retelling of the legend, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves rides the charisma of star Kevin Costner but is an otherwise overlong and unnecessary rehash of a familiar story.

Robin Of Locksley (Costner) is part of King Richard The Lionheart's latest Crusade. Things are not going well and Robin is imprisoned in Jerusalem. He makes his escape along with a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman). As Robin sails back to England, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) assisted by his cousin Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott) and the evil witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan) takes advantage of the vacuum created by the King's absence to make a grab for power. Robin's father Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed) refuses to join the Sheriff and is killed.

Robin and Azeem arrive in England to find the Locksley estate destroyed. Robin connects with his childhood friend Marian Dubois (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a cousin of the King, but she is playing a cagey game of staying on good terms with the Sheriff to protect her estate. The Sheriff identifies Robin as a threat to his plans, prompting Robin and Azeem to escape into Sherwood Forest where they join forces with a band of farmers and misfits hiding from the Sheriff's brutality and high taxes. Robin organizes the group, which includes Little John (Nick Brimble), Will Scarlet (Christian Slater) and eventually Friar Tuck (Mike McShane), into a band of thieves, and they start to gather wealth by hijacking gold shipments while Robin plots a course to stop the Sheriff and avenge his father.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is an amiable enough romp through the legend. The film ticks all the boxes from action to romance, but cannot avoid a sense of paint by numbers, an assembly of elements lacking a soul. The settings are grand, the early scenes in Jerusalem are welcome, and when the swords clash and the arrows fly, the battles scenes achieve the requisite level of excitement and drama.

But the film carries an uneven tone, sometimes dipping into slapstick, occasionally trying for
commentary about social justice, dabbling with tension among the ranks of the thieves, sprinkling some supernatural dust, deploying the requisite swashbuckling, playing with the theme of avenge thy father, and injecting romance here and there. It sometimes works in individual patches, but Reynolds is never able to create a unifying theme, and the severely bloated running time of 155 minutes does not help.

Star Kevin Costner coasts through the film with a "look how handsome I am!" posture, not really even trying to do much more than wow the camera with star power. Morgan Freeman is much better, and appears to be the only member of the cast with the necessary solemnity matched with wit to rise above the silliness. The bad guys lack venom and undermine the more dramatic aspects of the movie. Alan Rickman is mostly goofy as the Sheriff, and Michael Wincott is wasted as a less than fearsome Guy of Gisborne. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio tries hard but is never quite able to generate the required passion.

The film bursts into life in the final 30 minutes and offers a rollicking climax, the people rising up to bring down the Sheriff and his cronies as Robin claims his love and saves the day. The pivotal sword battle between Robin and the Sheriff raises an enjoyable bit of sweat. But when the dust settles and Sean Connery strides in for his cameo and Bryan Adams sings his smash hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You", it becomes apparent that Connery in two minutes is better than Costner in two hours, the song is better than the romance, and this version of Robin Hood recycles that which need not be recycled.

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Saturday, 4 April 2015

Movie Review: Men Of Honor (2000)

Inspired by the true story of Carl Brashear, the first African American master diver in the United States Navy, Men Of Honor is a respectable effort with quality performances, but doesn't fully escape the trap of sanctifying its hero.

Born and raised in Kentucky and heavily influenced by his noble father Mac (Carl Lumbly), Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) leaves the life of a sharecropper and joins the Navy in 1948. Assigned the menial task of ship's cook similar to all other enlisted colored men, Carl refuses to conform or yield to racism and catches the eye of Captain Pullman (Powers Boothe), who re-assigns him as a seaman. But it is the heroism and determination of Master Chief diver Leslie Sunday (Robert De Niro) that inspires Carl, and he sets his sights on becoming the Navy's first black Master Chief diver. Meanwhile, a case of over-enthusiasm harms Sunday's lungs and ends his career as an active diver.

After numerous attempts Carl is accepted into the Diving and Salvage School in New Jersey. With Sunday as his instructor, Carl encounters rampant racism from the other trainees, as well as the base commander Pappy (Hal Holbrook). But he doggedly overcomes all hurdles and strives to complete the program, grudgingly earning the respect of Sunday. But just when Carl thinks that he has achieved his lifelong dream, he suffers another devastating blow that threatens all that he has worked for.

Tidily directed by George Tillman Jr., Men Of Honor is a straightforward story of uncommon persistence in the face of adversity. Because he is black, Carl he has to work three times as hard and show remarkable restraint to reach his goals, and his story is one of patience and remarkable tenacity. He is presented as a faultless man, rarely setting a foot wrong and never saying a bad word. Carl's singular focus is on achieving his career goal, and he will do whatever is asked of him to get there. His mission becomes a case of indestructible resolve forcing everyone else to finally concede the obvious: a black man can be as good as, if not better, than a white man. Remarkably, in the prime of his career Carl faces another form of discrimination, and has to fight yet another battle for his rights in the face of rampant disbelief from the Navy hierarchy.

As with many biographies, real life represents the film's strength and its weakness. History dictates that Carl will overcome every obstacle placed in his way, and admirable as the story is, it is also by default stripped of any overarching drama. The narrative becomes one of chronicling successive victories over many acts of individual and systemic discrimination, but it's a linear structure devoid of surprises or depth, and many of the most dramatic moments carry hints of being contrived.

The two central performances are never less than exactly what the material requires. Gooding Jr. presents Carl Brashear as a good and earnest man, always living up to his father's ideals and never descending to the levels of those who attempt to put him down. De Niro gets the more splashy part as the non-conforming Leslie Sunday (a fictional composite of many men from Brashear's life), an expert diver and proficient hell raiser who is happy to break all the Navy's rules. It is ordained that Brashear will eventually earn Sunday's respect, and the growing bond between the two men is one of the film's foundations

In addition to Holbrook and Boothe, there are small roles for Michael Rapaport as another trainee and Aunjanue Ellis as a medical student who becomes Brashear's tutor, girlfriend and then wife. Charlize Theron contributes a rather bewildering turn as Sunday's too-flashy wife.

Men Of Honor is a tribute to an impressive man who broke down racial barriers. The film may not reach dramatic heights of cinematic achievement, but it is brimming with heart and good intentions.

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Movie Review: I Spy (2002)

A real stinker of a buddy cop comedy, I Spy is about 20 years behind the times in both premise and execution.

US national security secret agent Alex Scott (Owen Wilson) is meek and hesitant, and resents the superstar status of his colleague Carlos (Gary Cole), who always seems to get the latest and best spy gizmos to play with. Alex's next mission is in Budapest, where he is to connect with beautiful Agent Rachel Wright (Famke Janssen) and recover a missing state of the art "switchblade" stealth military jet. International arms dealer Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell) has stolen the jet and is about to auction it off to the highest bidder.

Meanwhile arrogant world boxing champion Kelly Robinson (Eddie Murphy) easily improves his record to 57-0 and sets up his next title defense in Budapest. Alex's plan is to infiltrate Arnold's swish party by pretending to be part of Kelly's glamourous entourage. The secret agent and the boxer immediately clash and have difficulty working together, but once in Budapest they are forced to cooperate to escape from a continuous stream of trouble.

Directed by Betty Thomas and with up to six different writers having a hand in cobbling together an atrocious script, it is difficult to believe just how lame I Spy is. This is the sort of film that went out of style in the mid-1980s, around the time of efforts such as Spies Like Us (1985). Somehow, the I Spy producers (including 1980s stalwarts Mario Kassar and Hungary's Andrew G. Vajna) believed that warming over stale elements from a bygone era when Murphy was at his prime would pass for entertainment. It does not.

The jokes are not funny, the characters are bland, and the premise is tired. The action scenes are nothing short of excruciating and primarily wallow in the muck of derivation. The relationship between the two men is an awful rehash of countless previous teamings between cop and civilian. The character of Alex Scott is a mix of juvenile and imbecilic, and his childish lusting after Rachel Wright is simply embarrassing. Murphy's motor mouth offers the few moments of relief, but the days when his fresh edge could save a movie are long gone. McDowell and Janssen mail in their performances with insufficient postage to arrive in Budapest.

I Spy with my little eye a pathetic turkey.

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Movie Review: French Connection II (1975)

A sequel that doubles down on the grit factor and victimizes its abrasive hero, French Connection II is a more intimate crime drama, and features one of Gee Hackman's finest performances.

New York Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) heads to Marseille to find and capture the elusive drug export king Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle's rude and disrespectful attitude gets him off to a bad start with his French counterpart Inspector Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), and things just get worse when Doyle causes the death of an undercover police agent during a drug lab bust. Meanwhile Charnier is working on his next big deal, involving a massive quantity of drugs hidden within the hull of a large freighter.

Despite not knowing the language or the culture and acting very much like a fish out of water, Doyle decides to make his presence known around the city in the hopes of flushing out Charnier. The plan works, but not as intended. Charnier does spot Doyle and has him kidnapped, held prisoner in a derelict hotel room and shot up full of heroin over several weeks to humiliate him and turn him into a junkie. The nearly dead Doyle is then dumped outside the police station. Barthélémy helps Doyle through a painful cold turkey withdrawal. Once he recovers Doyle sets out yet again to find Charnier, this time driven by personal revenge.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, French Connection II is fully set in Marseille, as Doyle enters the lion's den and goes after Charnier on his own turf. The film wisely does not try to match or outdo the original, and the sequel is more of a slow-burning character study than an action movie.

Doyle is without a partner, has no back-up that he can properly communicate with, and does not know anything about the city. It eventually dawns on him that he is maybe being used as bait, with Barthélémy tasked to tail him and pounce once Charnier makes his move. But all of Barthélémy's resources prove useless, and Doyle has to endure a near-death experience as he is reduced to a quivering addict at the hands of Charnier's henchmen.

The film clocks in at two hours, and there is an argument to be made that trimming ten minutes off the running time would have benefited the pacing. The scenes of Doyle's captivity and subsequent cold turkey withdrawal are long, intense, and disturbing. Frankenheimer makes use of close-ups, sweat, and deglamourized sets to hammer home the dreadful power of heroin, and the ease with which a confident and cocky detective is reduced to begging for the next hit. This is also Doyle's penance, his abject disrespect for the city and culture where he is a guest culminating in the worst possible punishment.

Long as the film is, it provides Hackman with a vehicle to shine. By zooming in on an isolated detective enduring his worst nightmare, Frankenheimer leans heavily on his star, and Hackman delivers with genuine verve. The cold turkey sequence requires Hackman to convey a brain on the painful, hesitant, and agonizing path to something resembling recovery, and Hackman alternates between determination, despair and delusion, Doyle hanging on for dear life to the emotional help provided by Barthélémy (an understated and elegant performance by Fresson). And once Doyle is again able to function, Hackman finds the space where the chastened detective is now driven by his personal demons to seek and destroy, having himself been victimized by Charnier's product.

After the measured build-up, the ending is frantic. Doyle's journey comes to an end first in flames of fury and then at great physical cost, an international chase converging down to two men from different worlds, both refusing to yield.

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Friday, 3 April 2015

Movie Review: Eraser (1996)

A big budget Arnold Schwarzenegger action extravaganza, Eraser is fresh out of new ideas and settles down to recycle the violence, heavy weaponry and attitude from many previous and better productions.

John Kruger (Schwarzenegger) is the best agent working for the Witness Security Protection Program (WITSEC), the government bureau responsible for making critical witnesses disappear before and after they testify against violent criminals. Kruger first saves the life of careless mob witness Johnny Casteleone (Robert Pastorelli), and is then assigned by his WITSEC supervisor Robert DeGuerin (James Caan) to protect Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams). She works at high tech weapons manufacturer Cyrez, and has uncovered evidence that Cyrez is illegally exporting advanced weapons to enemies of the United States.

WITSEC Chief Arthur Beller (James Coburn) advises Kruger that a lot of well-connected people will want Lee dead, and he is soon proven right. Kruger has his hands full fending off enemies, but manages to stash Lee in a New York safe house. Soon many witnesses that are supposed to be under protection turn up dead, revealing a mole within the agency and forcing DeGuerin and Kruger to swing into action to try and reach Lee before the death squads. Kruger soon realizes that he is surrounded by traitors, and as the deadline for a huge illegal weapons deal approaches, he finds an unlikely ally in Casteleone as he tries to thwart the bad guys and keep Lee alive.

John Kruger is big, strong, robotic, works alone and is pretty much indestructible. It does not matter how many times he is shot, stabbed, buried in rubble or otherwise hurt. In the very next scene his injuries are irrelevant and the mayhem continues. In short, he represents the shorthand summary of many previous Schwarzenegger characters, and he blazes through the film fending off countless enemies, shooting, maiming and overcoming villains no matter how outnumbered or hurt he may be.

Eraser is directed by Chuck Russell, and he keeps the action coming at the pace needed to satisfy the undiscerning viewer, which also conveniently covers up the numerous plot holes and disinterested acting. Caan and Coburn sleepwalk through the film, miles and years away from their era of relevance, while Vanessa Williams appears to try hard but cannot overcome a fundamental lack of ability to act. Schwarzenegger does not try to act; he just times the delivery of his one liners to maximum effect, and some of these actually work.

In terms of stunts and set-pieces, Russell does deliver a few gems amidst the prevailing and predictable silliness. There is a long free fall from a plane, a New York zoo aquarium shoot-out that involves some massive and quite hungry alligators, and a cool handheld rail gun with wall-penetrating visibility. Of course the film ends with Arnie destroying his surroundings carrying not one, but two of the massive weapons. When it's Schwarzenegger doing the erasing, only the biggest and baddest erasers will do.

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Movie Review: The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1947)

A fantasy romance set in England, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir is a charming love story between a lively young widow and the crusty ghost of a dead sea captain. The absurd premise works ridiculously well.

It's early in the 1900s, and one year on from the death of her husband Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is fed up living with her stifling in-laws in London. She packs up her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper Martha (Edna Best) and heads to the coast. She tangles with real estate agent Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) and insists on renting Gull Cottage, a long-abandoned estate known to be haunted. Lucy soon encounters the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), the former owner of the house. He tries to scare her away but she is unmoved, and they soon negotiate a co-existence deal: he will allow her to stay in the house as long as she allows him to peacefully haunt her bedroom (formerly his room) at will, and he stays away from scaring Anna.

Over the following weeks and months the Captain and Lucy get to know each other, he calls her Lucia and she learns about his love of the sea and his eventful, adventurous life. When she hits a financial crisis he inspires her to write a book about his life. But when Lucy meets the attractive Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a successful author of children's books, the relationship between the ghost and Mrs. Muir is further complicated.

Directed with a deft touch by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir is a whimsical tale of impossible love serving as inspiration for a life change. An adaptation of the novel by R. A. Dick, the film strikes all the right notes. Instead of slipping into contrived drama or overwrought emotions, the film draws inspiration from the gorgeous yet rugged setting and confidently strides in self assured directions, pushing boundaries wherever it can.

The two central characters offer genuine emotional depth, and elevate the film from romance to an inquisitive exploration of life's opportunities, gained and lost. Lucy Muir is a feisty heroine who stares down the scare tactics of a ghost and pushes back to create a mutually respectful relationship. The presence of a ghost is treated as a matter of fact, and the Captain never compromises his salty language and manly ideals, but still finds the space to graciously accommodate a woman in his estate and his heart.

Of course the prolonged interaction with the ghost may just be a creation of Lucy's mind to focus her courage, as a young woman breaking all the social norms and setting off on her own in a conservative society. Captain Gregg serves as inspiration and motivation, prodding Lucy onwards to confront her fears, define her own life, achieve financial independence and dare to again interact with men. Miles Fairly emerges as the first potential opportunity for Lucy to find a suitable man, and the lessons learned from the Captain will serve her well in dealing with forthcoming emotional upheavals.

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison allow the film to sparkle, creating a compelling couple and finding the strangest chemistry built on contrast, a combustible mix of stubbornness, honesty and admiration. He is supposed to be gruff, she is supposed to be fragile, but Tierney and Harrison delve into the complexities below the surface to find the independence that binds the characters.

George Sanders arrives relatively late and adds the heartfelt passion of an author who is perhaps too eager to add excitement to a life he perceives as dull. Edna Best is excellent as the housekeeper who is also a lifelong and trusted companion, while Natalie Wood in an early role is amiable as young Anna.

Bernard Herrman conjures up one of his most celebrated music scores to augment the romance, contributing enormous depth to the majestic setting of a seaside house witnessing a poignant love. The Ghost And Mrs. Muir then goes on to offer one of the all-time weepiest and most bittersweet endings, a triumph of the souls that lives on for the ages.

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Movie Review: The Gunman (2015)

Sean Penn joins the club of over-50 stars wading into mindless action territory. The Gunman at least offers a mildly interesting backstory involving the shadowy world of corporations funding mercenaries in Africa, but then slips into gratuitous and non-stop shoot-outs across European locations.

It's 2006 and Jim Terrier (Penn) and his colleague Felix (Javier Bardem) are part of an international security organization purportedly providing protection services for aid workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Jim is fully in love with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor helping the local population. Felix is jealous and also has his eyes on Annie. Meanwhile, she is clueless about the real work that Jim and Felix undertake: assassinations requested by multinational corporations for political purposes.

After acting as trigger man in a high-profile hit to eliminate the Congo's popular mining minister, Jim has to flee the country. Eight years later, believing that he has left his sordid past behind, Jim returns to the Congo in a humanitarian capacity, only to find himself the target of a well-funded assassination plot. He flees back to Europe and tracks down his former employers and partners. He finds Felix now married to Annie, and uncovers a violent plot to eliminate all traces of the team that carried out the Congo assassination many years prior.

Directed by Frenchman Pierre Morel and heavily funded by French and Spanish production companies, The Gunman looks slick but ultimately defaults to a soulless exercise in bland film making. The scenes in the Congo and the mercenary background offer flickers of hope for a more ambitious project, but most of the final two thirds of the movie are of the "man on the run who fights back" variety, a story told countless times before that disintegrates into a blur of set-pieces featuring endless shoot-outs and physical confrontations.

This is the type of film where all the men are muscular ex-special forces, all the villains hiss with evil, the hero has all sorts of military tricks up his sleeve, and is humanized with headaches due to lifetime of concussions. It all plays out at 100 miles per hour and Morel undoubtedly knows his way around action scenes, but beyond the flying bullets and spurting blood, there is precious little else to hang onto.

Sean Penn looks terrific for a 54 year old man, and frequently finds reasons to take his shirt off and display his lean physique. His mere presence adds intensity to the film, and rescues it from the lowest reaches of the action bucket. Bardem is there to further bolster the Spanish box-office. Jasmine Trinca is mostly wasted, while Idris Elba shows up really late in the proceedings as an Interpol agent. Ray Winstone adds an admirable dash of character as a fixer in the mercenary underworld.

The Gunman is trigger happy, and that is all.

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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)

A masterpiece police action thriller, The French Connection sets a new standard in unadulterated grittiness. The story of an international drug deal unfolding on the streets of New York is measured, complex, intense and often explosive.

In Marseille, master drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is planning his next big drug export deal. His henchman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) eliminates an undercover detective, and Charnier meets fading movie star Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) who will help conceal the drug shipment. In New York, drug squad detectives Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo (Roy Scheider) shake down small-time local hoods, and notice a scarcity of product on the street. All the dealers are waiting for the next big shipment.

Doyle and Russo identify store owner Salvatore 'Sal' Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his wife Angie (Arlene Faber) as key contacts in the drug trade and place them under surveillance. The Bocas lead the detectives to wealthy lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), who may have the resources to buy and distribute the incoming drugs. Soon Charnier, Nicoli and Devereaux arrive in New York by boat and connect with Boca. The detectives have their hands full keeping tabs on Charnier and his crew, waiting for the deal to be made and for the large drug shipment to be found.

Directed by William Friedkin as an adaptation of the Robin Moore book, The French Connection is inspired by real events, and unfolds with a street-level realism that commands immediate attention. There is nothing glamorous, fun or happy about the investigation required to disrupt a major drug deal, and no gadgets or easily available information to crack the case. The French Connection is all about persistent police work, painstaking surveillance, and making sense of the vague connections between poorly defined dots. Friedkin constructs a police procedural with plenty of verve, set against the backdrop of a delapidating New York City.

The French Connection features a prolonged car chase scene that fully earns its legendary status. After Doyle survives an assassination attempt by Nicoli, the hitman tries to make his escape on board an elevated transit train and Doyle gives chase by car at street level. The subsequent tire-burning quest features stunt driving at its finest and expert nose-of-vehicle camera placement by Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman, as Doyle dodges busy urban traffic to keep up with the train. Nicoli plays his part by commandeering the train and bypassing station stops, stretching the chase across numerous blocks. It is a breathless, frantic scene, a punctuation mark in the middle of the cat-and-mouse surveillance game between officers and criminals.

The less than appealing character of Popeye Doyle adds immeasurably to the film. Doyle is no hero, and has no experience busting sophisticated criminals. He is rude, crude, and lives his life chasing low-life drug dealers in run down and dimly lit bars. Other than his partner Cloudy, Doyle does not get along well with others, maybe because a previous hunch cost the life of another officer. Doyle has to work hard to convince his superior that Boca is a criminal worth keeping tabs on, and overall he grabs the threads of the conspiracy through the heroism of sheer doggedness rather than smarts.

And Gene Hackman finds the role of his career in Doyle, in a delicious portrayal that relishes the unkempt aspects of the detective but always hints at a stubborn willingness to dig deeper and outlast the bad guys with pure effort. Hackman happily welcomes the roughness around the edges, and creates a stark contrast with Fernando Rey's smooth, well-dressed suave European criminal. Friedkin perfectly catches the sophistication disparity with a scene featuring Chartier enjoying a multi-course gourmet meal while Doyle is confined to the sidewalk, wolfing down junk pizza.

The French Connection hurtles towards a marvelous mess of showdown, where everything may be resolved to the satisfaction of no one. When the business is the lucrative international drug trade, there are no quick and easy victories, just outcome fragments that prolong the struggle between profit and justice for another day.

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