Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Movie Review: The Princess Bride (1987)

A fantasy romance comedy, The Princes Bride rides a wave of seductive cheekiness and delivers for both adults and their kids.

Grandpa (Peter Falk) visits his sick grandson (Fred Savage) and reads to him The Princess Bride. The story is set in medieval times, in a land ruled over by the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his brutal head henchman Count Tyrone Rugen (Christopher Guest). Buttercup (Robin Wright) is a beautiful young woman who loves to ride her horse. She falls deeply in love with her farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes), but they are separated when he goes off to find his fortune. Word arrives that Westley has been captured and likely killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Humperdinck chooses Buttercup to be his bride, but his real intent is to start a war for personal gain. Humperdinck hires master criminal Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his gang, consisting of the giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and master swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to kidnap Buttercup, kill her and blame the death on a neighbouring kingdom. A mysterious masked man in black gives chase, eventually disposing of Vizzini, rescuing Buttercup and escaping into the scary Fire Swamp. The masked man turns out to be Westley, coming back to reclaim his true love. But Humperdinck will not give up easily, and the lovers will need to overcome captivity and torture to seal their destiny.

Directed by Rob Reiner and breezily written by William Goldman, The Princess Bride is part romance adventure, part swashbuckler, and all clever satire. The package could not be any more perfect, as the film delivers action, thrills, laughs and pure first love for younger audience members, while maintaining a glint-in-the-eye edge of evil wit for their parents.

The overarching theme of true-love-will-conquer-all hovers over the film like an exquisite rainbow, and at the heart of the movie Robin Wright and Cary Elwes deliver honest performances full of heroism underpinned by the conviction that no matter what, they belong together. But The Princess Bride shines because of the diversity of interesting characters and sub-stories, and Goldman excels in creating a world of colourful scoundrels and side kicks. The charismatic Inigo Montoya carries a major revenge sub-plot of his own, and Mandy Patinkin has rarely been better as Inigo forces his way into a co-lead role with Buttercup and Westley. The transformation of Inigo and the giant Fezzik from bad guys to good allies is another strong anchor theme in the film, and the two also provide a steady stream of humour.

And our heroes have not one, not two, but three villains to contend with. Humperdinck may be the head antagonist, and he emerges as a paper tiger, a man equal parts unearned power and distasteful cowardice. More potent is the darkly menacing Count Tyrone, a heartless torturer with a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. Meanwhile, in a relatively brief but unforgettable role, Wallace Shawn creates in Vizzini an inconceivably irritating criminal, a short man ruling over his gang with smarts until he outsmarts himself in a cerebral confrontation with the masked man in black. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane show up in small and campy comic relief parts.

Reiner respects the setting of his story and does not shy away from some mildly disturbing scenes of torture, and adds blood when necessary to emphasize the outcome of key sword battles. As a counterbalance and to relieve any mounting tension, a large part of the film's charm resides in the frequent returns to the grandson's bedroom, as he starts out full of skepticism but gradually warms up to all the thrills and yes, smoochy romance that the story being read by grandpa has to offer. For the young and old alike, The Princess Bride casts an immaculate magical spell.

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Saturday, 27 June 2015

Movie Review: Blood Diamond (2006)

A geopolitical action drama about the trade in African war zone diamonds, Blood Diamond is a masterpiece. With remarkable fluidity and through an engrossing story, the film delves into the multiple woes inflicted on Africa in the name of greed, power and the chase for personal fortunes.

In Sierra Leone, the family of fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is shattered by the raging civil war. Solomon is enslaved by the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and put to work in a diamond mine. His son Dia is also eventually captured by the RUF and transformed into a child soldier. While working in the mine, Solomon finds a rare large pink diamond. In the chaos caused by a government troop attack, he hurriedly manages to bury it.

Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scrappy arms dealer who illegally trades weapons for diamonds, and then exports the gems out of neighbouring Liberia. Born in what was Rhodesia, orphaned at an early age and trained by South Africa's apartheid army, Danny is cynical about the prospects of Africa ever breaking out of the violence cycle. When his latest deal goes bad, Danny spends the night in jail where he crosses paths with Solomon and hears about the large pink diamond. Danny also meets journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who is investigating how the illegal trade in diamonds helps to finance Africa's civil wars.

With the RUF gaining in strength and attacking the capital Freetown, Danny pressures Solomon into showing him where the buried diamond is. In return Danny promises to help find Solomon's family. As the country disintegrates into chaos, South African mercenaries enter the conflict to try and seize control of the mines. Danny relentlessly pursues the diamond, Solomon remains intent on reuniting with his family, and Maddy realizes that Danny has all the information she needs to link Africa's agony with the international diamond trade.

Directed by Edward Zwick, Blood Diamond is an example of how to expertly construct a beautiful message film. The Charles Leavitt script tackles not only blood diamonds but also the horror of child soldiers, the agony of mass civilian displacement and the continuous anarchy of violence that grips Africa, and does it through a provocative story that ties international consumerism with the convulsions of a continent in turmoil. Blood Diamond is never preachy, but through its human-centred and action-packed narrative, its makes its points with devastating power.

At 143 minutes, the film has epic ambitions, and it does not disappoint. Against a canvass of multiple themes, the focus on just the three characters works remarkably well. Archer as the cynical mercenary both benefiting from and perpetuating turmoil, Solomon as the local victim caught up in the greed of other and Maddy as the idealistic but determined foreign observer provide plenty of opportunities for Zwick to vigorously chase after the threads that come together in the mines, villages and cities of Sierra Leone.

The action set-pieces are delivered with explosive bombast. Highlights include the RUF's attack on Freetown and the mercenary army's helicopter pummeling a diamond mine, in both cases Zwick capturing what it means to be caught up in the chaos of a battle zone. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra and the understated but poignant music by James Newton Howard contribute to the majesty of Africa's landscape and misery of squalor, death and destruction.

But for all the weaponry and brutality on display, Blood Diamond is much more about story than action. This is a lament about a continent blessed with beauty and natural resources but cursed with conflict, barbarism and death. The script spares no villains, and points fingers at international corporations, outside meddlers, local governments, barbaric revolutionaries, internal strife and unadulterated greed. The uniforms on all sides are different and range from suits to ragtag fatigues, but their actions have the same outcomes and harm the same victims, men, women and children displaced, enslaved, militarized, hacked and killed.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of his career-best performances as Danny Archer. DiCaprio sustains a cocky Rhodesian / South African accent and attitude, an African man who has personally experienced the worst that the continent has to offer and in return is contributing to its decline. Djimon Hounsou as Solomon is equally authoritative as Archer's counterpoint, a simple man who survives on pure optimism about his family's future. Jennifer Connelly does her best in the lesser role of journalist Maddy Bowen, a character that required more grime, less glamour and more pragmatism than the script was able to offer.

The film's themes are captured in two simple metaphors, the acronym TIA (This Is Africa) and the red soil that feeds the continent and hides its riches. Before his quest for the large diamond is over, Danny Archer will understand his true role in both. Blood Diamond is an absorbing experience, an eloquent yet hard-hitting exploration of the agonizing tragedies afflicting a continent and shaming the world.

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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Movie Review: Romancing The Stone (1984)

An action adventure romance, Romancing The Stone carries a lighthearted attitude into a jungle romp and emerges with plenty to smile about.

Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a New York-based best-selling author of soapy romances. Lonely and timid, Joan's quiet life could not be more different than Angelina's, the resourceful and fearless heroine of her books, but she still aspires to find the perfect chivalrous husband.

One day Joan receives a mysterious package in the mail containing an arcane map. In Colombia, Joan's brother-in-law is killed by thugs working for the brutal Colonel Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), who is looking for the map. Meanwhile, in Cartagena Joan's sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) is kidnapped by treasure-hunting cousins Ralph (Danny DeVito) and Ira (Zack Norman). Joan has to travel to Colombia to exchange the map for Elaine's freedom.

From the moment Joan steps off the plane she is in a lot of trouble, boarding the wrong bus, heading in the wrong direction, and being pursued by both Zolo and Ralph. Stranded in the remote mountains and about to be harmed by Zolo, Joan is rescued by Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas), a mysterious and somewhat conceited adventurer. Joan buys Jack's services to escort her to Cartagena, but there are plenty of wild adventures to be had avoiding bad guys and discovering clues to the buried treasure before Joan can try and save Elaine's life.

With Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) having revived the old-fashioned thrill-a-minute adventure genre, Romancing The Stone arrived just in time to take full advantage, although the script was actually written by waitress Diane Thomas before Raiders ever hit the screens. With his career in a bit of a lull Douglas took on production duties and appointed relative unknown Robert Zemeckis to direct. The film sparkles with a sense of fun and boasts an attitude that straddles a fine line between irreverent and sincere. Romancing The Stone rides the wave of Turner's sultry sex appeal, Douglas' suddenly re-emergent leading man status, and Danny DeVito's comic relief.

The script lacks a sharp wit and dry edge, instead focusing on a more feminine perspective as Joan breaks out of a self-imposed shell to find her risk-taking spirit. In the bargain she discovers passion with Jack, and Romancing The Stone works because of the surprisingly good attraction between the novelist uncovering her wild side and the maverick learning that it feels good to have a companion.

Zemeckis keeps the action hopping in the Colombia jungle (actual filming took place in Mexico), but with a notable over-reliance on routine chase-and-shoot scenes, with almost all bullets missing their target. Ojeda as Zolo makes for an effective if utterly cartoonish villain, and DeVito establishes his credentials as a bumbling sidekick riding his luck with a greedy reach exceeding his capabilities.

Romancing The Stone does not necessarily offer much that is new, but it delivers on its simple promises with a toothy crocodile smile.

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Friday, 19 June 2015

Movie Review: Bride Wars (2009)

A brain dead comedy about best friends who become worst enemies and competing brides-to-be, Bride Wars is a monumental embarrassment.

In New York City, Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) have been friends since childhood. As young girls they witnessed the perfect June wedding at the Plaza Hotel, and so they grew up with the common dream of getting married at the Plaza in June. Now Liv is a high-powered, highly-paid lawyer, and Emma is a humble school teacher, but despite their personality differences they remain best friends.

Their boyfriends propose around the same time, but a mix-up at the office of wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) means that both their weddings are booked at the same day on the same hour. Liv and Emma both refuse to give up the date and then turn against each other, working hard to sabotage the competing wedding as their big day approaches.

The kind of film that gives chick flicks a really bad name, Bride Wars is a miserable excuse for entertainment. Directed by Gary Winick, this is an unfunny, unintelligent film, catering to women's most base instincts. From the fantasy dream of the perfect wedding to the cattiness of destroying a life-long friendship over trivialities, Bride Wars offers nothing but a bad, witless exercise in vacuous, self-obsessed behaviour.

And very little of it is funny. There is maybe one laugh in the still too long 89 minutes of running time, as the film quickly disintegrates into two women one-upping each other with stupid pranks. Liv sabotages Emma's pre-wedding sun-tan skin tone into traffic-cone orange. Emma sabotages Liv's pre-wedding hair colour into a blonde-and-blue disaster. Emma gate-crashes Liv's bacherolette party. Liv spreads a rumour that Emma is pregnant. Winick delivers all the antics with the subtlety of a rusted mechanical bull.

The extent of character development stops at the icy Liv learning to be more vulnerable and the meek Emma learning to be more assertive. Anne Hathaway deals with the thin material as best as she can, and often she single-handedly tries to pull the film out of the gutter, to no avail. Kate Hudson's level of comfort is unfortunately much more aligned with the mindless fare on offer. Candice Bergen not only suffers the indignity of having to appear in the film, but offers up useless narration just to make matters worse. The men who stand around and do next to nothing as the brides wage war include Chris Pratt, Bryan Greenberg and Steve Howey.

Crude and dull, Bride Wars is a lot of noise on an unnecessary front.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Movie Review: Playing God (1997)

A poorly executed action drama, Playing God aims for a cerebral angle in the story of a flawed surgeon falling into the sphere of a criminal, but fails on every count.

In Los Angeles, Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) is a disgraced former doctor who lost his licence after his persistent drug use caused the death of a patient undergoing an operation. While buying his latest batch of drugs at a dingy bar, the emotionally down and out Eugene is in the right place at the right time to save the life of a gangland shooting victim. Eugene's heroics are witnessed by the enigmatic Claire (Angelina Jolie). Her charismatic boss is mobster Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton), and he quickly connects with Eugene and unofficially appoints him as his personal medic, responsible for patching up injured friends or foes as the situation requires.

Eugene learns that Raymond is involved in a dispute with Russian mobsters (including Peter Stormare as Dimitri), but wants to move into bigger illegal business deals with Chinese racketeers. Meanwhile Eugene and Claire start to develop feelings for each other, and the FBI move in to try and pressure Eugene to inform on Raymond's activities.

Flush from success on TV's The X Files, Duchovny attempted to carve out a film career but instead landed in this mess. Filmed in 1995 but not released until two years later due to negative audience test scores, Playing God trips all over itself and lands in a bloody puddle of incompetence. This is a shoddily produced film filled with barely coherent scenes, and no attempt to delve into characters, motivation, or context beyond the most superficial level.

Duchovny's contribution to the shambolic failure is not insubstantial. His approach to the role of Dr. Sands is to stand aside with an expression of drugged-out stupor, and then spring into action with life-saving medical heroics. A scene later, repeat. He may be a victim of an astonishingly bad script by Mark Haskell Smith, but Duchovny's blankness certainly does not do much to better the material.

Director Andy Wilson tries for a narration-heavy neo-noir vibe, and gets nowhere. The tone oscillates wildly between serious, comic, violent and gory, but is never actually smart or engaging. To keep the character of Eugene relevant, almost every scene has to end with someone close-to-death and needing the doctor's intervention, and the film inadvertently encourages a distracting "guess the next victim to be saved" parlour game.

Meanwhile, Timothy Hutton gradually slips into madman persona as the villain Raymond Blossom, and by the end enters full-on wild psychotic mode, fully eroding any sense of serious drama. Angelina Jolie, in one of her earlier and very forgettable roles as Claire, is given instructions to look serious and sultry without being told what exactly she is doing in the movie other than providing decoration. A clutch of faceless FBI agents enter the action late in the proceedings and just add to the overall amateurish feel.

The premise of a humiliated doctor getting embroiled in gang warfare must have seemed like a good idea on paper. Resoundingly botching the concept, Playing God is a plain dog.

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Movie Review: L.A. Story (1991)

A comedy romance loaded with biting satire of Los Angeles life, L.A. Story hits most of its intended targets, but also chooses ridiculously easy targets to aim at.

Harris Telemacher (Steve Martin) is the wacky weatherman on a Los Angeles television station. He is in a rocky relationship with girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), but they break up when he discovers her sleeping with his agent. Harris slips into a lonely funk, but then meets British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant), and they start to fall in love. A freeway changeable message sign starts to communicate with Harris, providing him with advice on love and life, and urging him to take risks. But Sara's ex-husband Roland (Richard E. Grant ) would like to win her back, while Harris finds himself irresistibly attracted to young salesgirl Sandee (Sarah Jessica Parker).

Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, L.A. Story's primary objective is to make as much fun of Los Angeles as possible. And all the usual topics that are worth poking are here: the predictable and rarely changing weather, the obsession with driving for even the shortest trips, gun violence on the highways, California cuisine, plastic surgery, inane topics of conversation, earthquakes, and the trendy restaurants that are impossible for normal people to get into. Martin packs his story with deserved digs at his city, and generates a steady stream of laughs.

But beyond the broad satire, the rest of the film is thin on the ground. Victoria Tennant was Mrs. Steve Martin at the time of filming, and there is a whiff of a personal project about the movie. Martin attempts to elevate the central romance to something mystical, complete with a freeway sign that provides oblique life advice and a sojourn into a fantasy garden where everything old is new again. It's all rather emotionally obvious, and the film starts to resemble a couple's photo collection, special to them but ordinary to others. A sideshow running gag involving Harris being filmed rollerblading through museums and art galleries misses the mark and goes nowhere.

The other romantic comedy elements are lined up and knocked off according to the genre's well- established traditions, Harris and Sara both lonely and struggling to fit in, falling for each other, and then labouring to overcome the usual complications of lingering past and present attachments.

The supporting characters offer little that is memorable, with one exception. The best performance by far is delivered by Sarah Jessica Parker, who creates in Sandee a free-spirited, carefree young woman who can never stop twirling, bouncing, rotating and climbing all over Harris, all while incessantly chewing gum. Amidst all the satire, Sandee is Los Angeles, young, alive, positive, adventurous, incapable of standing still, and often clueless.

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Sunday, 14 June 2015

Movie Review: Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

A winds-of-change drama set at Wellesley College in 1953, Mona Lisa Smile tackles women's issues as attitudes transition from a post-War focus on domesticity to the initial rumbles of feminism.

Moving from California, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) joins the faculty of the prestigious all-women Wellesley College near Boston as an Art History teacher. In her early thirties, Katherine is already considered dangerously close to being past the age of marriage. Katherine becomes friends with her landlord Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), who has grown too old too soon after losing her husband, and roommate Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), the independent minded College nurse. And while she finds her students phenomenally smart and well-educated, the entire focus of their lives is on finding a husband before finishing college.

The students include Joan (Julia Stiles), who has potential to study law at Yale should she choose to look past a future as a housewife; Betty (Kirsten Dunst), the most privileged of a privileged bunch and already planning her wedding; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a free spirit seeking plenty of sexual adventure and harbouring a deep crush on Professor of Italian Studies Bill Dunbar (Dominic West); and the plain Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), who is considered least likely to snag a husband.

Katherine tries to instill in her students a greater sense of ambition, urging them to look into futures that could offer something different than husbands, kids and housework. She faces a significant backlash from both the students, who have been raised with predefined expectations, and the College administrators, who do not take kindly to Katherine challenging time-honoured traditions. Katherine also has to sort out her personal life, with Bill taking an interest in her, and her California boyfriend Paul (John Slattery) seeking a commitment.

Directed by Mike Newell, Mona Lisa Smile delves into the status of women as they see themselves. With plenty of intelligent characters at interesting crossroads in life, the film never lacks for variety, opposing viewpoints and conflict.  The script (by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal) manages to create an academic environment where minds are free to explore big questions about the future, the value of education, and the ambitions of women relative to society's expectations. There is no shortage of perspectives, and the film does a fine job of challenging both old and new attitudes.

Katherine Watson is a catalyst for change, holding on to her principles and not afraid to shake the established structure. Some branches will fall on her head and she will learn as much as she will teach. Mona Lisa Smile gets the pacing of history right, and Katherine discovers that grand societal changes do not come easily or quickly and for every two steps forward there is at least one step back.

The film also has a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve, with a couple of curves in the road ahead for the students over the course of their one year interaction with Katherine. Betty and Joan in particular will find their trajectories disrupted by Katherine, and not in the way that they could have expected. With her mother represent the prevailing feminine power elite, Betty will have the most heated clashes with Katherine, encounters that will change them both. Joan holds the most promise as being open and able to disrupt the status quo, but Katherine will learn the most about the pace of change from Joan's journey.

The film engages because Katherine and her students are women worth knowing in any era, and it is refreshing for a film to feature a cast of uniformly smart women, elevating their discourse and sparring to a refreshingly educated level. They still poke and needle each other and push each other's buttons, but within a context of striving to achieve either the aspirations of the past or the promise of the future.

Filmed on the Wellesley College campus, Mona Lisa Smile tries hard to recapture the 1950s at a New England campus for the elite. But there is a lingering sense of slightly modernized setting and attitudes. Julia Roberts contributes to this by not trying too hard to change a pre-established persona that is strongly linked with a more recent era. Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin represent some of the best young acting talent assembled into one film, but they also go only so far in being convincing as 1950s daughters of what would become the Greatest Generation.

The tension between a woman's outward smile and her internal dissatisfaction gives the film it's name. Mona Lisa Smile does not necessarily provide all the answers, but does perceptively ask some of the questions at the heart of modern social evolution.

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Friday, 12 June 2015

Movie Review: Henry's Crime (2010)

A quirky heist movie wrapped into an unlikely love story, Henry's Crime adopts a low key approach and serves up a fine mixture of drama, comedy and romance.

In Buffalo, Henry Torne (Keanu Reeves) is a highway toll booth attendant, very much at an emotional dead end. His soulless life is disconnected from any dreams or ambitions, and he is oblivious to his wife Debbie (Judy Greer) wanting to start a family. When old high school friends Eddie Vibes (Fisher Stevens) and Joe (Danny Hoch) come calling, Henry almost sleepwalks his way into being the getaway driver for a botched bank hold up. He is caught and sentenced to three years.

His cell mate is long-term prisoner Max (James Caan), a grizzled con man now much more comfortable behind bars than in the real world, and the two men become friends. Debbie leaves Henry, who serves his time and decides to do something with his life. When he revisits the scene of the attempted bank robbery, Henry is accidentally struck by a vehicle driven by Julie (Vera Farmiga), an actress rehearsing for Chekov's The Cherry Orchard in a theatre across the street. From an old newspaper article Henry discovers that a prohibition-era tunnel connects the theatre and the bank, leading straight into the vault. He decides to rob the bank in a plan that will involve Max, Julie, Joe, plenty of digging, amateur theatrics and some unwanted plot crashers.

An independent film directed by Malcolm Venville and co-produced by Reeves, Henry's Crime is an elegant story of transformation. The ending may be a bit contrived and the attempts at some comic farce come across as forced. But Venville taps into a rich vein of cool serenity, and lovingly places at the heart of his film three characters who are well worth knowing.

The script by Sacha Gervasi and David N. White zooms into the lives of Henry, Max and Julie, and finds three sympathetic people ready for a change. Henry's life was at a standstill before he went to prison, and having served the time and lost his wife, he finally decides that he may as well enjoy the thrill of committing the crime. Henry's slow paced thought process is perfectly suited to Reeves' deliberate method of almost non-acting.

Max injects the animation as the confidence man now short of confidence and happy to spend the rest of his life behind bars, despite being eligible for release. Henry offers Max a no-lose proposition: get out, commit a crime, get caught and go back to prison, where Max wants to be anyway, or evade capture and make it rich. James Caan rolls back the years and delivers a cleverly engaging performance, giving Max plenty of sarcastic wisdom from the school of hard knocks.

And Julie also wants out, in her case out of Buffalo towards Hollywood. Julie is cold and her acting talent is limited at best, but she at least talks the good talk about seeking a bigger dream. In Henry she finds a man who may light the flame in her heart, but as luggage goes, Henry, a convict planning a heist, is carrying plenty. Vera Farmiga delivers a lively performance befitting a stage actress labouring to please an imperious director (played with panache by Peter Stormare).

The three characters provide Henry's Crime with softly glowing core, and they play off each other with wacky humour. The film never takes itself too seriously, and thrives off an undercurrent of character-driven wit. Meanwhile life works hard at imitating art, The Cherry Orchard rehearsals providing an apt backdrop for unfolding modern day weirdness. The dreary Buffalo setting encourages thoughts of new beginnings anywhere else, while a bouncy soundtrack and music score by Blake Ley rounds out the movie's relaxed vibe. Henry's Crime may not be perfect, but it's an enjoyable frolic.

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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Movie Review: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A dark fantasy drama with a mean streak of humour, Edward Scissorhands is a fiercely original treatment of the comfortably familiar fitting-in theme.

The film is set in a suburban subdivision located at the base of a mountain, with a Gothic mansion on top looming over the quaint houses. On a snowy night, an old lady tucks her granddaughter in and recounts a story that happened years ago, triggering a film-long flashback. Avon lady Peg (Dianne Wiest), a subdivision resident, is having a bad day, and with nothing to lose decides to head up to the mansion to try and make a sale. Inside she finds the place empty except for a frightened young man called Edward (Johnny Depp), with large scissors for hands. Edward was created by The Inventor (Vincent Price), who died before he could complete Edward and provide him with proper hands. Peg feels sorry for Edward and takes him home. Peg's husband Bill (Alan Arkin) and son Kevin are initially stunned but accept Edward as a new member of the family.

Edward is scared and his massive scissor hands cause plenty of accidents, but with Peg's help he slowly starts to adapt to suburban life. The gossipy neighbours, including the over-sexed Joyce (Kathy Baker), are fascinated, and Edward becomes a local celebrity when he demonstrates artistic talent for sculptural hedges, trimming the fur of pet dogs, and providing the women with stylish hair cuts. When Peg's daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) returns from a camping trip, she is initially horrified to find Edward in her room, but gradually Kim and Edward develop feelings for each other, which is bad news for Kim's aggressive boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall).

Directed and co-produced by Tim Burton and written by Caroline Thompson, Edward Scissorhands is a dark masterpiece. With brisk pacing Burton unleashes his irresistible fantasy on a comically idealized suburban world stuck in an undefined hybrid of the 1950s and 1970s, with every house sporting a bright monochrome paint job. The mansion on the hill, of course, stands in stark contrast, the brooding outsider bathed in black, dark blues and darker greys.

Peg and her neighbours go about their business of pursuing the American dream, the women left at home during the day to gossip and cause mischief while the men drive to work in the morning and come back in the evening with army-like discipline. Edward is dropped into this immaculately manicured world, and his dream is just to be part of the human family. Not too tall and definitely not superficially handsome, Edward is pasty but enigmatic. Remarkably, he is generally accepted as is, and only the complications caused by affairs of the heart cause him grief.

The central themes of belonging, finding a home, and stumbling upon love run through the film. Once Kim makes her appearance the candle of romance flickers to life, but the darkness also seeps in, with Edward causing unintended grief by wanting to love and be loved. The film suggests that the ability to care and love is fundamentally human, and a non-human invention such as Edward can live alongside humans but will struggle to share in the true fulfillment brought upon by mutual passion.

Burton makes use of plenty of clever point-of-view shots, particularly from Edward's perspective, to highlight the experience of the newcomer with an incomplete skill set. Whether it's Peg being excessively nice with her make-up kit or Edward trying to capture any vegetable to eat at dinner, Burton frequently invites the viewer to live in Edward's shoes, dramatically enhancing the film's impact even in the smallest moments daily life.

Johnny Depp launched his career with his portrayal of Edward. It's an unforgettable performance centred on almost silent pathos. Depp's understated expressions convey sadness, fear, panic, bewilderment, anger and sometimes happiness, and later on he captures what it means to find wistful infatuation and a potential first romance. Wiest represents middle America's capacity to display a big and welcoming heart, while Ryder does well in a quick transition from callous to caring. Kathy Baker plays neighbour Joyce for broad laughs, as intended.

Edward Scissorhands delivers on all its multi-genre promises, mixing drama, humour, fantasy and romance with an emotionally satisfying cutting edge.

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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Movie Review: The Homesman (2014)

A pretty-to-look-at western exploring themes of survival within the desolation of frontier territory, The Homesman offers a relatively original premise and a unique perspective, but otherwise gets bogged down in lengthy stretches devoid of meaningful progression.

In the tiny western town of Loup City in the Nebraska Territory, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a wealthy single woman, looking after a homestead all by herself and still hoping to attract a husband. But her plain looks and bossy personality keep any potential suitors well away. After a long and severe winter, three married women from the small local community exhibit signs of severe mental instability due to child loss, abuse and isolation. After a plea from Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), Mary Bee is the only person who volunteers to accompany the women on a grueling five week wagon journey to the much larger community of Hebron, Iowa, where a church can offer some medical care.

At the start of the trip Mary Bee saves the life of a grizzled loner who calls himself George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and tempts him with money to accompany her. He reluctantly agrees, they pick up the sick women and set off into the wilderness. Along the way they will encounter hostile Indians and bandits, with their non-communicative, irrational and sometimes hostile patients further complicating an already difficult trek.

Directed by Jones and adapted from the book by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman offers a rare women's view of the west. Unfolding at a slow and deliberate pace, the film presents the frontier as unforgiving and arduous, a place where women are pushed to the limits of endurance, often shouldering the full load of housekeeping, parenting and crop-tending and striving to meet the unrealistic expectations of the rough men they call husbands and fathers.

The prevailing theme is rampant emotional damage, with all the main characters in The Homesman long-term casualties of the survival grind. The men do suffer, but use sadistic or violent behaviour as an outlet. The women are only able to absorb so much before aging fast and folding within themselves. While the three wives who have psychologically collapsed can no longer conceal the trauma, Mary Bee is also battling roaring demons fed by loneliness, rejection and despair, and waiting to emerge at a time of their choosing.

As a viewing experience, The Homesman struggles to offer much beyond its relatively unique perspective. The flashbacks used to provide context around the sick wives' traumas are muddled and insufficient to draw them out as characters. Mary Bee's cargo therefore remains impersonal, and the entire film hinges on the relationship between her and George. The tension between a determined and desperate woman and a frontiersman well past caring about anything other than the money in his pocket does provides a decent narrative foundation. But rather than evolve over the course of the journey, they will both simply reveal more of their true selves, and the film settles for being an examination of two people choosing different paths to cope with the rigours of the wild west.

The film is visually beautiful, Jones and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto taking their time with plenty of open vista shots of an untamed west coloured by exquisite sunsets, Mary Bee's slow-moving wagon incongruously making its way through stunning but hostile and rarely traveled terrain.

In the two central roles Swank and Jones do not disappoint, and deliver solemn performances filled with the pain of past mistakes and the uncertainty of the present. In addition to Lithgow, the supporting cast also includes James Spader as a land developer who tangles with George, and a brief, late appearance by Meryl Streep, a city dweller whose calm presence provides a sharp contrast between the struggles in the territories and the relative comforts afforded in established larger communities.

The Homesman offers a journey that travels at the speed of two mules pulling a heavy wagon. It's not always graceful, but it does move ahead stubbornly, on its own terms.

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