Sunday, 23 November 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

An elaborate and ambitious science fiction adventure grounded in science fact, Interstellar tackles no less than the survival of the human race in a story about explorers desperately searching for alternative life-sustaining planets.

In the near future, Earth is suffering through a devastating drought. Dust bowls have created "the blight", almost all crops have been destroyed, only corn can be grown, and farming is again the one occupation that matters. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to hold his family together, particularly young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who is hard-headed and strongly attached to her Dad.

Mysterious gravitational signals lead Cooper and Murphy to NASA's secretive headquarters, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is the brain behind a series of missions to explore planets that can serve as a potential new home for humanity. A wormhole apparently placed by superior alien beings has appeared near Saturn and is providing a shortcut to another galaxy, and individual astronauts have already landed on several promising planets, although communication back through the wormhole is garbled and limited. Brand recruits Cooper to lead a mission to visit the three most promising planets and report back. In the meantime Brand continues to work on solving the intractable problem of how to transport billions of humans to a distant planet, should one prove to be livable.

Murph is inconsolable that her Dad is leaving her behind and embarking on a seemingly impossible journey, but Cooper nevertheless joins Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and two other astronauts as they travel through the wormhole and start the tour of three candidate planets. Relativity means that the years pass much more slowly for the space travellers, and back on earth Murph (Jessica Chastain) grows up to join Professor Brand's team, as time runs out and humanity's fate hangs in the balance.

From the mind of director Christopher Nolan, who also co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, Interstellar is probably the most thought-provoking and visionary science fiction film since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan sets out to apply the best known facts and theories about space travel into a credible narrative, and delivers a story that expands the looming threat of destructive climate-driven change into a desperate and existential quest for an alternative home planet.

For most of its 169 minutes, Interstellar is a visual feast. Whether on a barren earth covered with choking dust, or out in space as the astronauts swing by Saturn, travel through the wormhole, snuggle up to a black hole and then land on the surfaces of planets filled with either hope or death, Nolan offers up a spectacular set of rich and memorable images. Less impressive is the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, which falls short of the intended soul-stirring impact but nevertheless drowns out too much of the low-key dialogue.

Unlike Kubrick's masterpiece, Nolan attempts to keep Interstellar grounded in events back home, and the central relationship between Cooper and Murph is intended as the emotional core of the film. In trying to wrap his film around an enormous span extending from an affecting father-daughter bond to wormholes, black holes, relativity and multiple hostile planets, Nolan overreaches. The drama between the absentee father and his emotionally abandoned and deeply resentful daughter rarely connects.

When it does, it is thanks to McConaughey's deeply felt performance. The film's most impressive human moment by far is a simple close-up of Cooper's face, light years away from Earth, as he watches a grainy video from home. Caine and Chastain provide steady support, while John Lithgow, Casey Affleck and Ellen Burstyn enhance the cast depth. Matt Damon makes an unexpected appearance, demonstrating the human frailties that will continue to threaten the existence of the species.

The final 30 minutes of Interstellar unravel rather quickly. There is just too much happening too quickly, with rudimentary Morse code, book ciphers and the complexities of gravity, time travel and the eternal power of love as unleashed by black holes colliding into a muddle. One character is reduced to running down hallways throwing sheets of scientific papers into the air in a high school level demonstration of happiness. In the context of a movie approaching three hours, it is inexcusable to rush an ending that is neither abstract nor properly elucidated.

But Interstellar is a gem in other ways. It is a thrilling journey into what might be possible, and what may become a terrifying necessity.

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Movie Review: White Heat (1949)

A hard-hitting and action-packed gangland thriller, White Heat boasts an absorbing story, enduring characters and James Cagney in top form.

Cody Jarrett  (Cagney) is a ruthless, psychotic gang leader. He leads his mob on a daring armed robbery of a mail train in the California mountains, killing several innocent men in the process. Cody is unhappily married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), but his real, intimate attachment is to his Ma (Margaret Wycherly). Despite the large cash haul secured from the train robbery, there are deep divisions within Cody's gang, amplified by the need to hide out in a cold mountain cabin. His second in command "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran) has ambitions to usurp Cody's authority, and Big Ed also has his eyes on Verna.

By tracking Ma's car, US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) closes in on the gang's hideout, forcing Cody into the open. To escape facing justice for multiple murders, Cody confesses to a lessor non-violent crime and is sentenced to a relatively short stint behind bars. Evans is not fooled, and inserts undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) as Cody's cell-mate to keep tabs on Cody's plans and uncover the identity of his money-laundering associate. Hank gradually gains Cody's trust, and just in time. Despite Ma's best efforts, Big Ed and Verna forge an uneasy alliance and make their move to usurp Cody, who breaks out, retaliates and plans his next big job: a payroll robbery at a chemical plant.

Perhaps the finest example in Warner Bros. long catalogue of hardboiled crime thrillers, and a magnificent highlight in James Cagney's career, White Heat is a complex, gripping tale of rampant gangsters and the policemen charged with tracking them down. Director Raoul Walsh expertly constructs a compelling three-act drama over almost two hours, with no wasted moments and a level of tension than increases as Cody's options are gradually diminished.

With a finely polished script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, the first act introduces Cody, the gang, wife Verna and Ma, and it is the uncomfortably close relationship with Ma that immediately jumps out as the biggest influence in Cody's life. As he suffers from severe migraines, it is Ma who comforts him, encourages him to get to the "top of the world", and advises him on how to manage his gang members. Meanwhile, Cody treats the luscious Verna with nothing but disdain.

The second act switches gears to life in prison, and Walsh patiently allows Hank to gain Cody's trust, no easy task when Cody's natural instinct is to suspect everyone. It's a careful, layered process, police work at its best within the jungle rules of incarceration. White Heat is notable for highlighting excellence in advanced police techniques, including the use of multiple unmarked squad cars to surreptitiously track Ma's vehicle, and then radio signal emitters to remotely triangulate the location of a moving truck.

And finally Walsh steers the film towards a sensational climax, Cody finding renewed resolve to reassert his authority, seek revenge on those who betrayed him and pull off a spectacular payroll heist, with Hank caught in the dangerous middle.

Cody Jarrett emerges as a rounded, genuine villain, struggling against mental illness, the emotional scars of what must have been a twisted childhood, and frequent physical pain. While never slipping into false sympathy, Cagney allows Cody to become a believable person never equipped to understand the feelings of his victims. Wycherly's role is small but unforgettable, a mother never seen to be violent but nevertheless capable of motivating her son to extremes of coldblooded cruelty. There is never any doubt that Ma is Cody's biggest cheerleader, and he lives his life to please her.

With gritty, bullet-drenched and often explosive action driven by a psychotic criminal striving for the top, White Heat sizzles.

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

A story about talent, training, motivation and ambition in the music world, Whiplash shines the spotlight on what it takes to succeed, and at what cost.

The Shaffer Conservatory in New York is the best music school in the country, and Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a dedicated student drummer with ambitions to be the best in the business. Andrew is spotted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the legendary leader of the school's senior band. Andrew quickly establishes his credentials and graduates to the lead drummer position, while remaining close with his father (Paul Reiser), and starting a tentative relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the cashier at the local movie house.

Fletcher's punishing teaching and motivational methods are brutal, and rely on intimidation, humiliation, exhausting repetition and physical exertion. He pushes his students to be their best, at an enormous emotional cost. Andrew proves his talent and helps the Shaffer band to success at music competitions. But despite his best effort, Andrew finds Fletcher impossible to please, and the relationship between teacher and student reaches a dangerous breaking point.

Whiplash is a simple two-character story about raw talent being forged by the fires of fear into potentially exceptional ability. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, the film explores familiar territory often seen in sports films, where talent alone is not enough, and achievements are only grasped when coaching, motivation and heart come together. Chazelle even throws in a family dinner scene where Andrew goes out of his way to puncture the overglorified arena of sports achievement. In Whiplash, music is all that matters, and the requirements in terms of blood, sweat and tears are as demanding as any other domain.

In expanding to 106 minutes, Whiplash does probably push its points further than they need to go. There are several occasions where Andrew's badly bruised hands are literally dripping blood onto the drum kit, and a couple of the confrontations between Andrew and Fletcher are over the top in their theatrics.

But the two central characters are never less than enigmatic. At age 59 and after a lifetime spent mostly in background character parts, J.K. Simmons lands the role of a lifetime and makes the most of it. Terence Fletcher is a conceited force of nature, a rule-by-terror music teacher, the type of coach hated every day of the year except on the night that awards are handed out. With his politically incorrect bellowing and emotionally abusive behaviour, Fletcher is also the type of employee that a high-achieving school would tolerate due to his unfailing ability to deliver the competition wins that maintain the school's reputation.

Miles Teller gets the more rational and therefore less showy part, and he is also excellent. Teller keeps Norman balanced as an individual with his own set of issues, and never trips into bland victim or hero status. Norman is driven, ambitious and carries hard-headed ideas about success, as Nicole will find out. And as much as Fletcher is willing to push, Norman is willing to push back. Teller creates a believable young man taking on the greatest challenge of his life.

Against the backdrop of a terrific jazz band music score, Chazelle makes his key points with effortless intensity: anything worthwhile has to be earned, unleashing individual full potential is no easy task, and sometimes, worst enemies and essential allies are one and the same. Whiplash's lessons are not necessarily new, but they are delivered with pounding passion.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Movie Review: They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

An ambitious biographical epic, They Died With Their Boots On is a stellar example of grand storytelling, Hollywood style. The chequered history of George Custer makes for an action-packed and yet human story, recounted with impressive vigour and traces of humour.

Before the Civil War, George Custer (Errol Flynn) enlists at West Point Military Academy with ambitions to join the cavalry. He proves to be an undisciplined free spirit, unable to follow rules, his record tarnished with frequent transgressions. He clashes with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy), and meets and falls in love with Elizabeth Bacon (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of businessman Samuel Bacon (Gene Lockhart).

When the Civil War does erupt Custer is rushed into service in the Union Army despite his unpromising performance. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) takes a shine to the young man and assigns him to the Cavalry. Custer proves to be an unconventional and fearless military commander, incurring losses but achieving significant victories. In the chaos of war, he is quickly promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He marries Elizabeth, continues to lead his troops from the front, and contributes to the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

In a post-war funk Custer crosses path with Sharp, now part of an unscrupulous railroad expansion business cartel. Custer refuses to go into business, rejoins the military and is assigned to command Fort Lincoln deep in the Dakota Territory. With Indians under the leadership of Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn) still ruling the territories and threatening trade routes, Custer gets help from grizzled old-timer California Joe (Charley Grapewin) and sets about to whip the fort regiment into shape and forge peace. But events and corporate interests will conspire against him, culminating in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

An enthusiastic version of the Custer story, They Died With Their Boots On is a galloping 140 minutes packed with adventure, war, politics and ultimately tragedy. Director Raoul Walsh expertly paces the film to alternate swashbuckling moments of Flynn doing what Flynn does best with more measured character-building scenes, delving into quieter moments where politicians, generals and businessmen helped to shape the key events in his life. The one missing aspect is Custer's childhood and upbringing, but the film is none the poorer for the omission. He arrives at West Point as an oddball adult, and remains a true contrarian throughout his colourful career.

In the context of Hollywood's early 1940s era, They Died With Their Boots On is remarkably accurate. Custer's abject mediocrity at West Point, his unexpected over-achievement in the Civil War, his bold battlefield tactics, his post-war involvement in the intersection of politics with commerce, and the romance with Elizabeth Bacon are all represented, and bring to life a rounded hero rightfully celebrated in his time. His last stand and demise at Little Big Horn are romanticized in Custer's favour as a great sacrifice, but the film is commendable for capturing a compelling Custer with all his faults, and all his strengths.

The film boasts a progressive portrayal of the Indian tribes, who are presented as defending their land, willing to accept peace, and then victims of a betrayal driven by unscrupulous business interests.  The screenplay (by Æneas MacKenzie, Wally Kline and Lenore J. Coffee) also excels at injecting the typically ignored backroom machinations of business and politics, providing the movie with an added dimension of intrigue outside the more traditional battlefield exploits. And throughout Custer's adventures, moments of humour and human traits and foibles are teased out, turning the legend into a man.

They Died With Their Boots On was the eighth and final teaming of Flynn and de Havilland. They are easily comfortable with each other, their romance and marriage an inspiration and then foundation for Custer's exploits. Their last scene together is prolonged and poignant: Custer's farewell to Elizabeth as he prepares for the fateful battle with Crazy Horse is carefully constructed by Walsh to heighten the impending tragedy. Flynn and de Havilland give the scene a deep maturity as the couple dance around what needs to be fully understood but absolutely unsaid. Flynn again demonstrates admirable range and no shortage of charisma in the acting scenes, while Arthur Kennedy as Ned Sharp is a worthy and tenacious adversary.

Custer's legacy was much more than just his final stand, and They Died With Their Boots On flamboyantly celebrates an adventure-seeking maverick who lived life to the fullest.

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Movie Review: The Matrix (1999)

An innovative science fiction action classic, The Matrix is a a highly stylized merging of creativity, technology and stunning combat. The film that introduced the world to bullet time is a breathless journey to a disguised dystopian future, filled with memorable characters and no shortage of breathless thrills.

In a near-future world, computer hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) finds himself sucked into an underground conspiracy. Anderson tangles with government agent types, and then meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), a rebel member who connects Anderson with her leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus recruits Thomas to the cause, and reveals the stunning reality that intelligent machines have taken over the world, and are keeping all humans in a state of suspended animation participating in an imagined reality called The Matrix, while harvesting all human energy to power the needs of the machines.

Thomas joins Morpheus' group, which includes Trinity and other rescued humans hiding out in a small levitating ship escaping detection in huge underworld sewer systems. Morpheus believes that Thomas is the One with the unique skills to combat the machines and bring down the Matrix, and names him Neo. Thomas undergoes intensive combat training before Morpheus introduces him to The Oracle (Gloria Foster), a woman who can foretell whether he is indeed the saviour. Her conclusions are vague. Morpheus is captured by the machines, Trinity and Neo fall in love, there is a traitor among the rebels, and Neo is going to have to swing into action before he has a chance to be sure of his own abilities and destiny.

The Matrix is a unique combination of thought-provoking content, a visually dazzling style, and breathless action scenes. The Wachowski brothers (Laurence, later Lana, and Andrew) create a rich cinematic experience filled with ideas to ponder about society, the role of artificial intelligence, what reality means, the power of the individual, and the importance of self-belief and love for the survival of the human race.

Similar to all of the best science fiction movies, there is no limit to the depth of the philosophical discussions that the film can prompt. But in simple terms the Matrix can represent mundane societal conformity, while also serving as a stark warning about an emerging world overwhelmed with technological influence, to the point where the needs of the machines are paramount.

Beyond the ominous science, The Matrix offers groundbreaking filmmaking imagery for the action genre. The Wachowskis combine the balletic beauty of martial arts with an impressive array of guns, slow down time while maintaining hyperactive camera work, and invent something called bullet time. The result is action redefined, bullets as active participants, new dimensions of motion created, and the previously physically impossible suddenly not only possible but necessary for survival. When Neo requests Guns. Lots of guns. prior to commencing the climactic battle, he isn't kidding, and the Wachowskis are not shy about putting them to use. The three minute lobby battle that follows sets a new standard for staging mesmeric shootouts with ornate elegance.

The look of the film is dominated by a green-black hue recalling computer monitors, while all the cool characters get to wear shades and long black leather trench coats to emphasize their extreme bad ass factors. Keanu Reeves grows into the role of Neo, his passive expressions ideally suited to the first half of the film as Thomas is awakened to a new reality. Laurence Fishburne creates the mountainous presence at the centre of the rebellion, while Carrie-Anne Moss discovers her career calling as the enigmatic Trinity.

A hyperkinetic treat for the mind and the eyes, The Matrix is a sublime triumph.

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Movie Review: Touch Of Evil (1958)

A stylish film noir, Touch Of Evil is an unpredictable mystery propelled by cultural tensions, compelling characters and a central murder that serves as a catalyst for all manner of sordid events.

A bomb is planted in the trunk of a car on the Mexican side of a border town. Soon after the car crosses into the US, the bomb explodes, killing an influential businessman and his floozy. Mexican detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are among the first on the scene. But police captain Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) soon arrive and take over the investigation. Vargas wants to help solve the case since the bomb was planted in Mexico, but Quinlan isn't too welcoming.

Vargas is embroiled in a battle with the corrupt Grandi family. Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) starts a campaign of intimidation targeted at Susie, distracting Vargas from the bombing case. An increasingly morose, overweight and out of shape Quinlan visits his old flame Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), but she's shocked by how badly he's aged. Quinlan's investigation then leads to the arrest of a Mexican man called Sanchez (Victor Milan), the secret lover of the dead man's daughter. But Vargas questions the methods used by Quinlan and Menzies, and starts to delve into Quinlan's history, uncovering plenty of  dubious behaviour. Quinlan and Grandi form an uneasy alliance as they now both have a reason to get rid of Vargas, as Susie finds herself isolated at a remote motel and threatened by drug-fuelled thugs.

Directed and written by Welles, Touch Of Evil is celebrated for its brilliant single-take opening sequence. In a remarkably fluid and uninterrupted three minutes and twenty seconds, Welles' camera tracks the bomb as it is placed in the target car and crosses the border, while Vargas and Susie, out for a walk, unknowingly and on several occasions stroll in and out of the ticking bomb's path. The scene ends with a powerful explosion, an artistic exclamation mark that sets in motion the events that will define the film.

The bomb and the double murder turn out to be a relative sideshow in an intensifying battle of wills featuring Captain Quinlan, detective Vargas and the extended Grandi clan. Quinlan instantly learns to dislike Vargas, maybe because he is a Mexican poking his nose in Quinlan's affairs, but more likely because Vargas appears to be incorruptible. Joe Grandi does not need any more reasons to dislike Vargas, the Grandi family's drug business having been the target of Vargas' enforcement efforts. It does not take long for Quinlan and Grandi to recognize their common interests, except that Quinlan is usually a few steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to games of deceit.

Captain Hank Quinlan is one of Welles' greatest creations. Fat, sweaty, grumpy and just plain tired, Quinlan crosses the ethics line as a matter of routine, his mind plotting the downfall of his enemies in multiple dimensions concurrently. Quinlan speaks with a deep rumble at the start and end of every sentence, reluctantly sharing his thoughts and acerbic opinions only in fragments. Less impressive but still interesting is Charlton Heston as a Mexican. The most American of epic heroes does his best, but his stature, accent and overall attitude remain entrenched in the Heston persona, the actor unable to impart sufficient cultural nuance to break away from his established base.

Welles fills the film with sharp shadows, asymmetrical lighting, plenty of nighttime activity, edgy, tilted camera angles, and no shortage of creepy characters even in the secondary roles. Dennis Weaver is unforgettable as the shifty, terrified night manager at the motel where Susie ends up, while Marlene Dietrich is the ghost from Quinlan's past; except that he is so long past his prime that she doesn't bother with trying to recognize him. Zsa Zsa Gabor gets a small role at the Mexican strip club.

Touch Of Evil benefits from a sense of genuine uncertainty, the cast encouraged during rehearsals to improvise and enhance their events and characters. With Quinlan, Vargas and Grandi all working at cross-purposes and with an international border limiting their reach and authority, anything can and does happen. Susie is unknowingly trapped by Grandi in a creepy motel (just a few years before Janet Leigh checked into even more dangerous accommodations), Vargas ends up investigating Quinlan in the Captain's own back yard, an illicit cross-cultural love affair may or may not be the reason for the bombing, Sanchez may be innocent or may be framed by Quinlan and Menzies, and Quinlan is busy plotting against all to save his reputation.

What is certain is that evil is at play, trust is in short supply, long-standing alliances will be tested, reputations are at stake, and more lives are likely to be lost before a measure of peace is restored to a small community on either side of a once-quiet border crossing.

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Saturday, 15 November 2014

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

The most impressive World War Two film since Saving Private Ryan, Fury borrows heavily from Spielberg's classic but also defines its own overwhelming intensity. Director and writer David Ayer delivers a stunningly gritty look at men in cramped surroundings fighting through a prolonged and ugly war that simply refuses to end quietly.

It's April, 1945, World War Two in Europe is in its final days and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany. Hitler has ordered every man, woman and child to defend the fatherland. The end result is not in doubt, and yet the fighting grinds on. On the front lines veteran Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) commands a US Army Sherman tank nicknamed Fury, with an experienced and tight crew consisting of gunner Swan (Shia LaBeouf), loader Travis (Jon Bernthal), and driver Garcia (Michael Peña). The fifth crew member and assistant driver has just been killed, his guts splattered all over the tank. In the prevailing chaos army typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned to Fury as the replacement crew member.

Norman has never seen the inside of a tank before, and never killed anyone, and he is initially a poor fit within Fury's battle hardened crew. With vicious fighting continuing against ever more desperate German defenders, Wardaddy takes it upon himself to teach Norman the ways of war, forcing him to kill and badgering him into shape. When Fury participates in seizing a German town, Norman starts to understand the merciless brutality required of him. Wardaddy rewards him by arranging private time in the company of an attractive local German woman (Alicia von Rittberg), but this causes resentment among the other crew members. Still ahead for Fury is a bruising encounter with an imposing Tiger tank, and an attempt to seize and hold a strategic crossroads.

The parallels with Saving Private Ryan are obvious: a tight-knit fighting unit with every member sure of his task, a respected veteran leading the group, the new, untrained guy who struggles to integrate, and the final mission within the confused front lines against overwhelming numbers, resulting in heroism and sacrifice. Ayer gives Wardaddy a sharper edge as a commander who has long since adopted a kill-on-sight philosophy, unafraid to terminate captured prisoners, particularly hated members of the Waffen-SS. And Fury benefits from the focus on a single tank and its claustrophobic interior, a world which offers the promise of a protective shell and the threat of an instant casket.

The episodes of battle are fierce, loud and gory. There is a charge against defensive fortifications to rescue stranded infantry troops, the assault on the small town, a furious tactical battle against the imposing Tiger, and then the defence of the crossroads. Ayer delivers these scenes with unblinking violence, death greeting men, tanks and civilians in loud, frequent and unforgiving bursts, who lives and who dies determined by courage, fortitude and the incessant twists of fate.

And as Fury trundles across the terrain between battles, there are shots of corpses flattened into the mud, splattered faces of explosion victims, and dead civilian victims of the SS hanging from posts, as warning to those who refuse to partake in the defence of their country in the war's final convulsion. Rarely has the hellish aspect of war been so nonchalantly conveyed through the hardened eyes of the soldiers who make it so.

Fury offers plenty of opportunities to build the crew into real people. Ayer finds the men inside the tank hardened into soldiers resigned to a reality of violence, hoping for but not anticipating an ending, and evolved into a working family that now enjoys the job of war. There are anxieties in the buildups, adrenaline pumping thrills when the shooting starts, and euphoria when the battle ends and lives are intact. Swan emerges as Wardaddy's closest friend and advisor, but still a subordinate, while Norman is the young innocent who must adapt or die before his ineptitude costs too many more lives.

The pivotal character scene takes place in the apartment of the German woman Irma and her niece Emma, Wardaddy finding a place of relative refuge to clean-up, eat and maybe offer Norman a respite from the shock of battle. The scene has an unusual tautness. The Americans are not anymore liberators or rescuers; they are now invaders, taking over the territory and homes of their enemy, free to have their way with defenceless women. Wardaddy seems to be deciding on his next step in real time, measuring just how much victor justice to impose. Ayer patiently allows the drama to unfold, the conflict evolving from potential violence against women to the dangerous fracturing of trust among men who need to depend on each other to live.

Fury's final battle is as over the top as the crossroads are a surreal depiction of the intersection of hell and sacrifice. Nothing about the last stand should make sense, but in the context of a world gone insane with bloodlust, it the perfect ending to a war twitching towards an agonizing denouement, dragging as many victims as possible along with it.

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Movie Review: Halloween (1978)

The small, independent B-film that became a sensational international success and launched the slasher flick genre, Halloween is a brilliant piece of compact film making. John Carpenter creates a masterpiece of mood, mounting tension and frenzied horror, all embellished with an unsettling killer's point-of-view perspective.

In the small suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois, 6 year old Michael Myers stabs his sister Judith to death on October 31 1963. Committed to a high security mental institution, he slips into a seemingly catatonic, non-communicative state. At age 21 Michael (Nick Castle) is deemed to be a low risk and transferred to a hospital, much to the horror of his doctor, the psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Michael soon breaks out and makes his way back to Haddonfield, killing anyone who gets in his way. Once Dr. Loomis realizes that Michael is on the loose, he gives chase.

Back in his hometown, a masked and threatening Michael starts stalking reserved teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her more outgoing friends Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). It's Halloween night again, Laurie has babysitting duties while Annie and Lynda want to have fun with their boyfriends. The streets are crawling with trick-or-treating kids, Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are frantically looking for Michael, but the bodies start to stack up as Michael goes on a murderous rampage.

Halloween was produced on a $350,000 budget, and generated $70 million at the box office. Hollywood was awakened to the profitable potential of easy to make horror films, and Michael Myers became the first serial killer of teens to spawn a franchise of sequels, soon to be followed by Jason (Friday The 13th), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and a host of lessor imitators.

Halloween popularized the essential building blocks of the slasher genre, including the larger than life killer who is next-to-impossible to kill, a world populated mostly by teens, and the final girl trope. The film also established some essential rules for who lives and who dies. Laurie is polite, modest and avoids boys and sexual adventurism. She also takes her baby-sitting responsibilities seriously. The victims tend to be more outgoing, less responsible, chasing boys, and quicker to enjoy sex. Poor Judith gets next to no screen time: she has sex with her boyfriend and dies within the first few minutes of the genre's birth, the first of countless girls to pay the ultimate price for on-screen carnal pleasure.

Carpenter co-wrote Halloween with Debra Hill, and the script celebrates its simplicity. The first act establishes Michael's background (monster is born); the second act is all about stalking (monster prepares to strike); the third act is a frantic kill-fest, with Michael picking off his victims and closing in on Laurie (monster on the loose). Michael is the impersonation of the bogeyman from every child's nightmare, his mask rendering him faceless and his lumbering, imposing gait seemingly unstoppable. And it's all happening on Halloween, the kids under Laurie's care getting a close-up view of a real demon unleashed on the harrowing night.

Halloween is filled with classic, unforgettable moments. The opening single-take sequence through Michael's first-person view is jarring at many levels, the viewer forced to see the world through a menacing killer's eyes. The reveal that Michael, having just slaughtered his sister with a massive knife, is just a kid, is a shocking moment, Carpenter lingering on parents staring incredulously at their young, murderous son. The stalking scenes ratchet up the tension through Michael's sheer presence, as he starts popping up everywhere that Laurie and her friends want to be, behind the bushes, under the laundry line, across the street, standing, observing, plotting, threatening. Nothing violent happens for much of the middle half of the film; just an exquisite build-up of tension.

Carpenter's simple musical theme demonstrated how 10 notes on the piano can conjure up a mood of creeping cataclysm, and adds a suffocating sense of dread to the unfolding carnage. Donald Pleasence was the one known actor Carpenter was able to afford, and he provides Halloween with an anchor of adult sanity, the one observer who forecasts Michael's evil intentions and swings into action to try and save a community. As the daughter of Janet Leigh, moviedom's most famous victim of a deranged murderer, Jamie Lee Curtis was perhaps fated to play Laurie. This was her film debut, and she went on to reign as the "scream queen" in a series of horror films before transitioning to bigger and better roles.

Simple, effective and creative, Halloween slashes its way to classic status.

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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Movie Review: American Psycho (2000)

An edgy societal satire, American Psycho takes a cold look at the destructive impacts of an insular culture dominated by avarice and egotism. Laced with cynicism and sly humour, the film creates a surreal world where twisted extremes are the jaded normal in damaged minds.

It's the late 1980s in Manhattan, and the me decade has transformed a generation of young men into soulless, greedy, narcissistic and shallow coke-snorting machines. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an investment banker at a mergers and acquisitions firm, one of many vice presidents interchangeable to the point that their own superiors cannot tell them apart. The VPs compete with each other by boasting about the most arcane details of their business cards.

Patrick lives in a spotless apartment, hangs out at the trendiest restaurants and clubs, goes out with his fiancee Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), and murders people for sport. He has slipped from detached to purely psychotic, killing for the thrill because nothing else excites him. His victims include a homeless man and a conceited banker called Paul Allen (Jared Leto). Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) starts to investigate the Allen murder and suspects Patrick of hiding something. Meanwhile, Patrick enjoys a threesome with two prostitutes before turning violent and bruising them both. His assistant Jean (Chloë Sevigny) knows nothing of Patrick's violent tendencies and seems to have a crush on him; he takes her out on a date, and her life hangs in the balance. With Kimball closing in, Patrick's carefully protected secret life threatens to break into the open and out of control.

American Psycho shocks with its detached violence and sex, human emotions truncated to nothingness within the cold soul of a man reduced to the equivalent of roboticism. When Patrick is engaged in sex he is focussed only on admiring his own image in the mirror, and he sets the mood for murder by boasting about his music knowledge, relaying canned commentary about the likes of Huey Lewis and the News and Peter Gabriel. In short Patrick cares for nothing and no one, but is fully obsessed with himself. It's a chilling vision of psychosis, and the frostiness permeates every aspect of the film.

Director Mary Harron creates a sanitized aesthetic where the men look alike, sound the same, dress in the similar clothes and are generally indistinguishable from each other. It's an environment where everyone is rich and there are no individuals. Patrick's quest to carve out an identity and find genuine feelings leads him to the darkest corners of his damaged brain, where threesomes with prostitutes and the casual murder of the poor and the rich, men and women, acquaintances and strangers are the only remaining acts that promise satisfaction.

American Psycho benefits from the cool vibe of the pervasive aloofness and also suffers from it. When nothing matters to Patrick or his colleagues, it's difficult to care for any of them, whether through irony or genuine empathy. Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner also leave large voids where Patrick's work resides. A highly-paid vice president must do something worthwhile other than ogle his assistant for a living; the film misses the opportunity to colour in the soul-sucking world where deals are plenty, the money flows and it all means nothing.

Christian Bale delivers a forceful performance, alternating between laid back and murderous, the dichotomy of tidy relaxation and bloody violence creating the chasm sucking Patrick's life into the abyss. The supporting cast members are adequate but not memorable, Willem Dafoe particularly suffering from an underwritten role.

American Psycho delivers its message of lost souls seeking solace in serpentine surroundings with frigid efficiency. The emotionless brutality is effective, but also creates a film that can be admired from afar but hardly embraced.

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Monday, 3 November 2014

Movie Review: MASH (1970)

An inept war satire, MASH enjoyed a moment of notoriety but dated quickly and badly.

In the Korean War, three doctors are serving at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital: Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) have no regard for authority and get their kicks by making fun of everyone around them. Particular targets include a nurse they nickname Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) and religious surgeon Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Hawkeye and his friends also pretend to help a gay man who wants to kill himself, and conspire to rig a football match. The hospital's commander, Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is neither interested nor capable of controlling the surgeons.

There was a small moment in time circa 1970 when MASH was considered the epitome of anti-establishment cool. With the deeply unpopular Vietnam War (clearly the intended target of the film, despite the Korean War setting) rumbling on and the anti-war movement blossoming, MASH spoke to a brief time and place. That moment has long past, and what remains is a ghastly exercise in dated smug satire, neither funny nor smart, just stale.

MASH establishes its intention with the opening song "Suicide Is Painless", setting the scene for a film that will take cheap shots at any target. Women, religion, gays, blacks, sports, nurses and of course the military are all fair game, as the Ring Lardner, Jr. script aims its archaic canon at any and all topics that can possibly be found near the battlefield. MASH is an unfunny version of Animal House set at a military hospital. But while frat boys are allowed to be stupid almost by definition, doctors behaving badly when all around them are engaged in war are much less funny.

MASH is trying to say that war is hell, the doctors are conscripted against their will, and therefore all rules can be broken. It doesn't wash. Hawkeye, Trapper John and Duke arrive at the front carrying misogynistic, homophobic and anti-religious attitudes, and proceed to dispense their brand of hurtful humour all over their mobile hospital. Director Robert Altman does not bother to portray them as transformed into jerks due to war; they are naturally born jerks.

The film is episodic, lacking in any actual plot, and ever more desperate to find the next laugh. The hijinx are intercut with serious scenes of the surgeons patching up wounded soldiers in the field hospital, as another intended message may have been that the tension of saving lives is an excuse for abject behavior. But again Altman misses the mark entirely in failing to set any context. Isn't saving lives what these surgeons are supposed to do, war or no war?

By the end of the decade MASH's luster had been mercifully trampled by movies that thoughtfully examined the needless horrors and human damage of the Vietnam conflict, including Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. The eighties brought Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and in less than 20 years MASH was relegated to its proper spot in history: a poor movie that stumbled onto some undeserved recognition, like the idiot who didn't know how to react to tragedy other than by emitting an embarrassing and attention-seeking guffaw.

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