Monday, 2 May 2016

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2007)

An epic oilman drama, There Will Be Blood is an engrossing character study with an astonishing subject matter. The fictional story of Daniel Plainview delves into the psyche of men brilliant enough and mad enough to independently create new industries out of nothing.

The film starts in 1898, with Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) mining a single hole in the New Mexico desert, looking for any precious mineral. By 1902, with a few men now working with him, he discovers oil in California. One of his men is a single dad and dies in a work accident. Daniel adopts the infant, known only as D.W., as his own. By 1911 Daniel is travelling the state and expanding his burgeoning oil business by persuading farmers to sell their land. Daniel uses D.W. to portray a wholesome family-man image.

Acting on a tip Daniel sets his sights on the rugged, rocky and remote property owned by the Sunday family near Little Boston. He reaches a deal with the patriarch Abel, but finds his son Eli (Paul Dano) quite a handful. Eli wants proceeds from the land sale to start his own church, and gets his way. Daniel ties up all the land around the Sunday property and is soon running a major drilling operation, looking for the elusive first oil strike.

Eli gets his church up and running as well. The two men don't get along, but both are eventually successful. Daniel does suffer several tragedies, and Eli attributes the mishaps to Daniel's refusal to respect Eli's church. With the oil business booming, Daniel remains fiercely independent, and his stubbornness will both help and hinder his prospects of getting his enormous oil supplies to market.

Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson as an adaptation of the Upton Sinclair book Oil!, There Will Be Blood is an audacious story of crooked business and suspect religion, nation building by deceit and soul seduction by chicanery, two sides of the same coin inspiring the transformation of rural America.

The film clocks in at 158 minutes, and its a continuously enthralling viewing experience. Anderson moves through the years quickly, and punctuates the film with powerful landmark events, including frequent, sudden work site mishaps as the rudimentary oil industry gets off the ground. An innovative Jonny Greenwood soundtrack contributes to the mood of civilization evolving into the industrial age where hitherto unimaginable riches are possible, and souls are now in need of more impassioned cleansing to wipe away the creeping greed.

The film uses an economy of words and the majesty of image, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit, to create an astounding aesthetic. There Will Be Blood is about wide open spaces ready to be subjugated by men with grand ambition and the ability to sweet talk others out of land, money and the future. Anderson allows Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday to represent themselves with no added commentary, and in the process avoids passing judgement. Neither the obsession with oil as a new business nor the creeping influence of pseudo religion as a vehicle for controlling the impressionable are presented as good or bad.

Plainview's traits include steely determination, a deep reservoir of stubbornness, and a talent for sweet-talking. He is a force of nature unleashed on the landscape, and neither the people nor the natural resources will be the same once Plainview and his ilk roll through. Anderson allows Eli Sunday fewer scenes to make his mark, but these are enough. Eli gets into his groove with passionate sermons complete with wide-eyed theatrics to represent devil banishment and fake healing, and his congregation eats up his babble as quickly and easily as they follow Plainview to the dream of riches.

Daniel Day-Lewis devours the film in one of his outstanding performances. His aura is dominant and overpowering, and Day-Lewis ensures that what Plainview doesn't gain by persuasion he obtains through intimidation. Remarkably, Day-Lewis is matched by Paul Dano, who was a late replacement for the role of Eli Sunday. Dano creates a low-key, surreptitious presence, erupting into life in his sermons but otherwise claiming the fake moral high ground in Eli's own pursuit of building wealth through worship.

There Will Be Blood ends with a confrontation for the ages, a scene of magnificent score settling and retribution, two ruthless men locking horns and representing the ultimate battle between the brain and the heart. Both happen to be corrupted beyond salvation, but that will not stop plenty of blood from being spilled.


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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Movie Review: Harold And Maude (1971)

A dark romantic comedy about nothing less than death and its place in life, Harold And Maude is low-key, eccentric and always engaging.

Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man suffocating under his domineering but very rich mother (Vivian Pickles). They live in a huge estate, and Harold mostly occupies himself with staging ever more elaborate mock suicides to try and get a reaction out of his mother. She is routinely dismissive. Harold's other past-time is attending the funerals of strangers, and he buys an old hearse to drive around in. Sessions with a psychiatrist don't appear to help.

Harold spots the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) attending many of the same funeral services. She approaches him and they strike up an unusual friendship. A former radical protester for the cause of the day, the whimsical Maude loves art, music, and plants, but mostly appreciates life and lives it according to her own rules. She freely "borrows" the cars of others, disobeying all traffic rules, and relocates trees to help them grow. As Harold's mother arranges a series of dates to try and get him to settle down, he grows more attached to Maude, who is finally giving him something to love.

Directed by Hal Ashby, Harold And Maude is a film with modest ambition and exceptional scope. Scenes of gruesome yet funny mock suicides alternate with the warmth of an unlikely friendship, and Ashby achieves a steady tone where dark humour, pathos, and the essence of being alive comfortably cohabitate.

Essentially a two-person character study constructed with humour through a series of off-kilter encounters, the film charts the natural progression of a relationship between two unique individuals. Harold is a young man seemingly pining to die, Maude is an old but sprightly woman literally racing around in life, and in each other they find liberation.

Maude gravitates towards teaching the morose Harold about the value of a life lived fully with principles that adhere to no rules and behaviours that respect no standards. She sets her own boundaries and joyously explains herself to anyone willing to listen, and in Harold she finds a willing student. Her guiding principle is the limited time available before death, and the need to enjoy every minute with no constraints.

Harold finally finds a reason to start enjoying life once he gets to know Maude. Stifled to the point of emotional strangulation by his domineering mother, Harold is dead in all but name until Maude comes into his life. She provides a reference point to how life can be lived, and he awakens to the joys of emotional independence and unrestricted love.

Harold And Maude bravely goes where few films have gone before and since. An extrapolation of themes from The Graduate, Harold represents burnt out youth completely detached from the achievement of his parents, and Maude the strangely alluring older woman. Her attractiveness starts out as more intellectual than physical, and the love that develops between them is less a seduction than an education. The age difference carries greater shock value, and Ashby deploys the services of no less than a screen priest to articulate just how hideous their relationship must appear to greater society.

Harold And Maude don't care. When nothing less than understanding what it means to be alive is at stake, jolting society out of its stuffy confines is a small price to pay.

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Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)

A superhero profane comedy, Deadpool deploys sarcasm and juvenile jokes in large doses to try and paper over the lack of content.

The story is partially told in flashback. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes a taxi to a freeway where he waits to ambush the motorcade of his foe, a man named Francis (Ed Skrein). As Deadpool causes carnage on the highway, he recalls his origin story. Wade Wilson (Reynolds) was a former military special forces soldier from a troubled family who became a low-level mercenary, helping low-lifes settle the score with lower-lifes. He met and fell in love with "escort" Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and they were planning to marry when Wade found out that his body was ravaged by terminal cancer.

He accepted an offer from a mysterious recruiter (Jed Rees) to undergo life-altering treatment. Francis (who prefers the name Ajax) and his sidekick Angel Dust (Gina Carano) dish out the subsequent brutal "medical" treatment that resembles a prolonged torture session, permanently disfiguring Wilson's body but also curing him and providing him with self-healing powers. He adopts the persona of Deadpool and is now seeking vengeance against Francis, and refusing the pleas of X-Men superheros Colossus (voice of Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) to join the forces of good and resist revenge temptations.

Directed by Tim Miller, Deadpool offers panache and plenty of attitude but also tedious repetition of the genre's worst excesses. Together, the fine eye of artistry and the foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed barrage of one-liners provide some relief from an otherwise tepid experience. The story is remarkably slight and flimsy, and without the cynical narration and over-the-top humour with plenty of fourth wall breaks, the film would have very little to offer.

As it is the final act descends into the usual boring territory of mass destruction and carnage using unconstrained amounts of CGI. The stuntmen and CPUs take over, destroying virtual sets imagined against the Vancouver skyline. The twin dilemmas of whether Deadpool will re-win the love of his girl and join the good-guys of X-Men are nowhere near interesting enough to compensate for the childish action on display.

Ryan Reynolds is passable and Morena Baccarin as Vanessa matches him as they both emphasize sizzling sexual attraction over any character redeeming traits or acting talent. The supporting cast offers the usual assortment of hissing villains and interchangeable good guys and bad guys quick to unleash violence on each other.

Deadpool is rude and crude and offers moments of genuine fun, but the infusion of edgy attitude cannot mask yet another tired and formulaic genre rehash.

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Movie Review: The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

A romantic drama, The Fault In Our Stars sets a teenage love story in the world of terminal disease. The film is squarely aimed at the young adult market and never rises above carefully constructed emotions designed to elicit sighs and tears in just the right amounts at just the right time.

In Indianapolis, teenager Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a cancer survivor who made a miraculous recovery from the edge of death. She now lives day to day with her defective lungs requiring continuous breathing through tubes connected an ever-present portable oxygen tank. Her parents Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell) encourage her to join a support group where she meets the hunky Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), and a romance blossoms between them.

Gus has an artificial leg as a result of his own previous bout with cancer. Hazel introduces him to her favourite book An Imperial Affliction by the author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), now a recluse living in Holland. Gus helps Hazel connect with van Houten, who invites her to drop in on him and discuss the book should she ever be in Amsterdam. Despite Hazel's frail health, the relationship with Gus becomes ever more serious and soon they are joined by Frannie for a trip to Amsterdam, where complications await.

Directed by Josh Boone and adapted from the John Green book, The Fault In Our Stars is earnest in its intentions but also almost mechanical in its execution.  For anyone outside the target age group of 12 to 17, it's easy to appreciate the effort but difficult to fully invest in the obvious connect-the-dots story evolution. The attractive stars, the wistful narration, the modern caring parents, the terminal disease, the puppyish love, the trip of a lifetime to a European dream destination, and the caustic author who shatters the illusion that anything matters. Of course it all culminates in true romance and true tears due to true tragedy.

Boone makes the best of the material, directing with restraint and avoiding most of the obvious cliches, except for a jaw-droppingly obvious travelogue montage of  Amsterdam and a clumsy side-trip to Anne Frank's house where romance awkwardly erupts in the attic. He is helped enormously by Shailene Woodley, who does shine as Hazel and carries the film through all its patches, never overselling the tough survivor elements and displaying enough warmth as a believably precocious teenager. Ansel Elgort is not as convincing, Willem Dafoe pulls his performance from the scorched drawer, and Laura Dern is relegated to worried but nevertheless reasonably cool mom.

The theme of life and love carrying on and emerging from the wreckage of horrid disease is predictably uplifting, and the film carries its message on its sleeve: it's better to experience the full joys of life despite the inevitable moments of despair than to surrender to emotional numbness in anticipation of the end.

The Fault In Our Stars is efficient to a fault. It delivers on all its calculated promises with admirable quality, and does little else.

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Movie Review: Mommie Dearest (1981)

A trashy biographical drama, Mommie Dearest reveals Joan Crawford's home life as a train wreck of abuse and narcissism, with adopted daughter Tina the primary victim. The film has all the quality and thoughtfulness of a sleazy made-for-TV hack job.

It's the late 1930s and MGM star Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is at her commercial peak. Twice divorced she longs for a child, and her lawyer friend and lover Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest) helps to arrange for the adoption of a girl (played as a child by Mara Hobel and as a young adult by Diana Scarwid).

Self-centred and egotistical, Joan places herself in the spotlight of her own world, suffers from wild mood swings, has strong hang-ups about cleanliness, and allows her career frustrations and disappointments to spill into her home. She has no understanding of what it takes to be a mother, and unleashes regular torrents of abuse on young Tina. The results are harrowing incidents of physical and emotional attacks which continue even as Tina matures into an adult.

Directed by Frank Perry and based on the tell-all book by Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest looks, sounds and just feels cheap. For all the attempts to portray Hollywood glitz and glamour, the production just reeks of cheap television values. The script (co-written by Perry, producer Frank Yablans and others) consists of nothing but trite stock lines of dialogue that never come close to sounding real, and the film, painfully overlong at over two hours, just kills time between the episodes of abuse.

There are no meaningful attempts to try and find the people behind the facades, or the causes of Joan Crawford's clearly distressed behaviour. Her faults according to her daughter are just thrown upon the screen as a child would see them, and that is all the film has to offer. As an exercise in sordid shock tactics the film wallows in the gutter, and it's not even a serious contender as a human drama.

The one success story is the makeup and hairdressing talent to transform Faye Dunaway into Joan Crawford. But then her acting takes over and Dunaway is all wide-eyed hysteria, lurching from personal meltdowns to professional eruptions. The supporting cast barely qualifies as talented enough for daytime television, but then the material does not require the likes of Steve Forrest and Howard Da Silva (as Louis B. Mayer) to do much other than be obvious about all the bad acting. Diana Scarwid appears in the second half as the gown-up Tina and at least adds a measure of restraint.

Mommie Dearest is filmmaking at the level of a breathless gossip column: squalid and vulgar.

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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Movie Review: The Osterman Weekend (1983)

A muddled thriller and the final film directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Osterman Weekend has a weak script and distracted execution.

CIA agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) loses his wife to an assassination. His subsequent investigation leads him to uncover a Soviet spy network known as Omega, consisting of three former college classmates: plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), stock trader Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and television producer with radical tendencies Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson). Fassett convinces CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) that he can turn at least one of the spies into a double agent, with the help of controversial television journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), also a former classmate of the men.

Fassett and Danforth lean on Tanner and cajole him into helping out with the plot. On a weekend when the Omega three are converging at Tanner's secluded house with their wives, Fassett wires the place up with numerous cameras and microphones. From a command post in the woods Fassett then orchestrates mind games against the spies to try to unhinge them and get at least one of them to consider becoming a double. But all is not what it seems, and before the weekend is over Tanner will find family, including his wife Ali (Meg Foster), son and dog, placed in grave danger.

Other than a top notch cast in decent form, not much about The Osterman Weekend works. Based on a Robert Ludlum novel, the film was a B-production that gained unexpected, and as it turned out, undeserved cachet when Peckinpah signed on as director, despite his failing health. By then considered a washed-up force, Peckinpah accepted the opportunity to restart his career, which led to many star names signing on to the project.

They need not have bothered. The script is mostly stuck in the early 1970s (the book was published in 1972), when the theme of surveillance was fresh and scary and captured in a spate of films like The Conversation and The Anderson Tapes. Here Peckinpah takes advantage of one more decade of sexual liberation on the screen by injecting plenty of scenes of bedroom frolicking as captured by hidden cameras, but it's all a sideshow that serves to needlessly distract from an already convoluted premise. Merete Van Kamp (Fassett's wife), Meg Foster (Tanner's wife), Helen Shaver (Tremayne's frequently drugged wife) and Cassie Yates (Cardone's wife) take turns appearing in various stages of undress, and it's almost all gratuitous.

But at least the sex and nudity are understandable as exploitation. The spy versus spy script is almost beyond comprehension, a victim of a lazy adaptation by Alan Sharp, perhaps grappling with weak source material. The reasons behind the central assassination of Fassett's wife are glossed over. The actual crimes committed by the Omega threesome are never explained. What proves to be incredibly sloppy approval from Danforth for Fassett to proceed with his high-risk, well-resourced mission turns out to be an inexcusable gaping hole.

When the bullets start flying and the violence escalates, the film offers middle-aged white collar men who are suddenly experts at combat and exceptional survival skills. And Tanner's profession as a hard-hitting, in-your-face journalist and interviewer exposing military cover-ups awkwardly mixes in an altogether dissonant tone that simply does not fit with the rest of the film's theme.

There is enough talent in the cast to ensure that The Osterman Weekend is not a total loss, with John Hurt committed in the most complex role as the emotionally wounded agent Fassett. Rutger Hauer, in the midst of his career purple patch, Craig T. Nelson, despite a bit of a ridiculous moustache, and a stodgy Lancaster are all serviceable.

True to form the project ended with Peckinpah embroiled in a battle with the producers, who wrestled control of the final cut and re-edited the film to try and improve legibility. By the end of 1984 Peckinpah was dead, aged 59. The Osterman Weekend is mess of a final note to end a career on, but perhaps also a most appropriate one.

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Saturday, 23 April 2016

Movie Review: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

A boisterous adventure with excitement around every corner, Raiders Of The Lost Ark introduced a new screen hero in the form of Indiana Jones and repopularized the clean fun of escapist treasure hunt movies with clean-cut heroes racing against hissing villains.

It's 1936, and archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) battles through the jungles of South America, invades a booby-trapped ancient temple, overcomes a couple of betrayals and gets his hands on a precious golden idol. Unfortunately, at the moment of triumph his rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) seizes the treasure, and Indy barely escapes with his life.

Back at the college campus where Indiana has a day job as tweedy professor alongside museum curator Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), he is hired by government officials to track down the lost Ark of the Covenant, a long lost stone casket with mythical powers believed to contain the remnants of the ten commandments. The Nazis are close to uncovering the Ark's burial site in the Egyptian desert, and any army carrying the Ark would be undefeatable.

Indiana swings into action and makes a stop in Nepal, where he reconnects with the feisty Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of Indy's former professor who has in her possession an ancient medallion essential to finding the Ark. In Egypt Indy and Marion team up with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), an expert excavator, and they have to fend off repeated assassination and kidnapping attempts and race against Belloq and his Nazi-financed expedition to uncover the Ark's whereabouts.

After the phenomenal success of Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounter Of The Third Kind, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood. They teamed up on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with Lucas producing and Spielberg directing, to launch what would become one of the most famous and successful franchises in film history. Inspired by the matinee serials of the 1930s, Raiders is a rollicking thrill-a-minute adventure, with a handsome and endlessly resourceful hero, a feisty ex-girlfriend, a faithful side-kick, and despicable villains, all fuelled by an old-fashioned globe-spanning chase for hidden treasure.

joie-de-vivre permeates every cliffhanger moment, the outcome of each climax never in doubt, just the ingenuity of the escape. Several of the film's scenes have become instantly recognizable and legendary screen moments: Indy escaping from a massive rolling boulder in the film's opening sequence; confronting a band of thugs in a Cairo market, including a showdown with a seriously determined sword-wielding assassin; Indy and Marion contending with a massive snake pit; and Indy wrestling for control of a truck, sliding underneath the chassis and using his whip to pull himself back up.

The character of Indiana Jones is the gadget-free James Bond of archaeology. There is no difficult situation that he cannot handle, often by improvising solutions when all seems lost. Using his whip (often), his gun (rarely) and his smarts (always), he may take the occasional beating but always manoeuvres the elements to his advantage. A plane propeller helps him against a sturdier foe in a punishing fist fight, fearsome snakes slithering out of wall cavities point the way to survival, and he has no hesitation latching on to the outside of a Nazi U-boat to pursue his objective (how he survives the subsequent journey is left to the imagination).

The John Williams music score is suitably rousing (with more than a passing resemblance to the Star Wars music). Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe stylishly elevate the film beyond its simple adventure status by frequently playing with lights, shadows and silhouettes, and finding interesting perspectives at every opportunity. Many of these angles involve projecting Jones' image as a shadow, emphasizing the man but not the actor, helping to turn the fedora-wearing, whip-carrying image into iconic status.

While most of the action is PG-rated and thrilling for the younger set, Raiders also carries an unexpected edge to keep the adults alert: Spielberg sprinkles some serious violence, blood splatter and gore into the adventure, and the sadism of chief Nazi torture merchant Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) is a particularly effective example of pure vileness.

Spielberg plucked Harrison Ford from the supporting Han Solo role and Indiana Jones turned him into the megastar of the 1980s. Already 40 years old and a good 15 years after his early uncredited film appearances, Ford found his niche as the ruggedly handsome hero radiating smart determination and not fully aware of his animal magnetism. Karen Allen has rarely been better as his ex-flame, now out-drinking the locals at her bar in Nepal while waiting for her opportunity to again match wits with the man who abandoned her under murky circumstances.

Raiders Of The Ark is a classy adventure with an irresistible attitude: self-deprecating, playful, fast paced and brimming with fun.

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Movie Review: Juno (2007)

A teenage pregnancy comedy-drama, Juno is bright, breezy and refreshingly honest. Understated directing by Jason Reitman, a radiant Ellen Page performance and a witty script by Diablo Cody elevate the film to classic status.

In suburban Minnesota, 16 year old high school student Juno MacGuff (Page) finds herself pregnant after having sex once with her best friend and classmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno considers having an abortion but cannot go though with it, and with the help of best girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she reveals her condition to her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney).

Juno connects with childless yuppie couple Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), and arranges for a private adoption. Vanessa is desperate to be a mom, but Juno senses that Mark, a former rock musician now reduced to composing television commercial jingles, is not nearly as enthusiastic. As the pregnancy progresses Juno has to face scorn at her school, and her friendship with Bleeker is strained to the breaking point. She finds herself spending more time with Mark, and starts to question what it takes for two people to stick together and raise a family.

Juno is a small, lighthearted film that treats its subject matter with refreshing candor. The characters and events come across as simply real, free of theatrics, and a plain yet wacky matter-of-factness permeates through the economical 96 minutes of running time. This is a film about teenage pregnancy that contains no lectures, recriminations, episodes of tears or adult/child shouting matches. Instead, Juno is filled with the soul of grounded individuals carrying on and dealing with the stresses and issues at hand as best as they know how, and climbing the hill of the next challenge along the way.

There are moments of tension, with Juno and stepmom Bren having a hot/cold relationship and the realities of the pregnancy proving too difficult for Juno and Bleeker to deal with as a couple. But the film never descends into banal territory, and instead always latches on to the fundamental humanness of the characters, where humour, some cynicism and plenty of emotional survival instincts reside.

Diablo Cody wrote the original script with plenty of inspiration from her real life. She captures high school teen talk at its most fluent, Juno and Leah adept at rattling off the euphemisms reflective of their time, all conveyed with the attitude of 16 year olds caught somewhere between fierce individuality and the typical need to find acceptance. Juno has moments of childlike brattiness mixed in with lucid realizations of what the challenges of the adult world are all about, and the film shines in portraying a girl literally evolving into a woman, physically and emotionally.

Jason Reitman directs with a tactful yet distinctive touch, allowing the story and his main character to dominate, while adding nimble stylistic touches. Filmed in and around Vancouver and perfectly capturing middle class suburbia, the changing seasons represent the three trimester of Juno's pregnancy, the high school varsity runners pant year round as everything else changes, and the adults carry as much baggage as the high schoolers do, only it's less visible but much heavier. Meanwhile the distinctive music of singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson provides a backdrop of laid back lo-fi puzzlement, reflective of the typically warped high school ecosystem thrown further askew by Juno's pregnancy.

Ellen Page lights up the screen as Juno. The Canadian actress was 20 at the time of filming and convincingly plays at 16, bringing to the role edginess, humour and the over-excited self-confidence of a teenager. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are delicious as the couple who seem to have it all, but with a palpable current of tension running from their tight smiles and into every room of their too-perfect home.

Juno is the perfect little film, a jewel of self-aware quirkiness.

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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Movie Review: Eye In The Sky (2015)

A taut military drama that delves into the moral grey zone of drone strikes, Eye In The Sky is a riveting spectacle. The realities of modern warfare are captured through the eyes of those with the power of life and death over suspects and innocents alike.

From her base in England, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) remotely commands Kenyan special forces in a mission to capture Nairobi-based high-level terrorists, including radicalized British and American citizens. In a wood-paneled meeting room, Katherine's superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) monitors the mission in the company of government officials. In the desert outside Las Vegas, American drone pilot 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) assisted by Airman First Class Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) provide "eye in the sky" support capabilities for the mission. Back on the ground in Nairobi, a Kenyan undercover team including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is closest to the action.

Events on the ground move quickly, and Katherine uncovers a safe house and a terrorist cell actively preparing to deploy two suicide bombers. She makes the decision to switch the mission from "capture" to "kill" with a drone missile strike. But she requires approval for the lethal attack from Benson and the cadre of politicians, prompting a round of hand-wringing about legalities and rules of engagement by British and American politicians across the globe. In the meantime civilians are in the vicinity of the safe house, in particular one young girl who sells bread just outside the house's perimeter wall. Destroying the house may save lives but will also likely mean civilian casualties, and Katherine, Benson, elected officials and the drone pilots are faced with a stark choice.

Directed by Gavin Hood and written by Guy Hibbert, Eye In The Sky is an efficient 102 minutes of gripping war drama. The decision to launch or not to launch a deadly missile strike to thwart a pending double suicide bombing is turned into an agonizing, prolonged and international quest to define what constitutes justifiable murder. A companion piece to Good Kill with elements borrowed from the classic Fail-Safe, Eye In The Sky is all about the dilemma of death: who dies, who lives, the value of an individual life in the cross-hairs, and the trade-off in knowingly hurting an innocent few for the sake of the innocent many.

The missile targets include British and American citizens who have joined the jihadists, and the collateral damage is likely to include Kenyan children; and yet destroying the safe house may prevent a terrorist atrocity. There are no easy answers, and while military commanders like Powell and Benson are quick to demand a decision and apply pressure for decisive military action to be approved, it is the civilian lawyers, politicians and their advisors who will have to make and defend the call, after digesting imperfect information and even less perfect forecasts of bomb damage impacts.

In pushing his points about the cold calculus of a hot war, Hibbert's script does carry some emotions a few notches too far. A couple of the politicians are sacrificed on the altar of buffoonery, while the mood within the drone pilot compound borders on incredulously unprofessional. Meanwhile Katherine Powell does all she can to sway decisions in her favour, and seeks to bend information to create assessments for politicians to swallow.

Helen Mirren is at her perfect best, portraying a soldier parking all humanity aside in a relentless pursuit of her targets. Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Benson provides potent support in one of his final performances, Benson's higher rank inhabiting the more surreal world of politicians and necessitating a more circumspect approach to prodding for a decision.

Hood achieves contrasting aesthetics, from the chaos of the enemy-controlled neighbourhood in Nairobi where the safe house is uncovered to Powell's war room and Watts' drone command unit, both mostly lit by the glare of computer screens. Meanwhile Benson's surroundings exude government blandness while British and American politicians gallivant across the world selling weapons and making friends with one-party states.

Eye In The Sky plays out in the modern theatre of war, where bombs are controlled from thousands of miles away and missions are tracked in real time in three countries at once. For all the high-tech gadgets, spyware and miniature cameras, it is still innocent civilians who will take the brunt of any explosion, no matter whose finger is on the trigger.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

A superlative boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby is the story of a woman determined to box her way to a meaningful life, and the reluctant trainer who has to decide if he wants to help her get there.

Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a grizzled elderly trainer and an expert cut man, now running a gym more derelict than most. His only friend and confidant is the equally old former boxer Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who lost an eye in his final fight (with Frankie in his corner) and is now reduced to the role of gym janitor. As a result, Frankie has developed a reputation for being too cautious in managing the careers of his fighters, and they tend to leave him for other managers when on the cusp of glory. Frankie is also estranged from his daughter, who returns all his letters unopened.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) invites herself to the gym and starts pestering Frankie to train her. He wants nothing to do with training a woman, perceiving women's boxing as a passing fad. Maggie is from a white trash family and is nothing if not persistent, saving every penny from her waitressing job to buy better equipment. Frankie eventually relents and agrees to train her as long as she doesn't question any of his instructions. Together they start the long road to success, with unexpected outcomes.

Directed by Eastwood, written by Paul Haggis and narrated with soul by Freeman, Million Dollar Baby contains plenty of plot after Frankie finally agrees to work with Maggie. But it is not possible to reveal more of the narrative without spoiling the movie. Suffice to say that the drama extends to ecstasies and agonies rarely captured in screen sports stories, and the final 45 minutes takes a stunning twist towards a new realm that both shocks and captivates. This is a film that transcends its genre to touch the essence of the human spirit, with both Frankie and Maggie forced to confront what really matters and the definition of life itself.

Maggie's arc is the story of boxing, the sport an escape road from a wasted life of ruin, with the bonus offer of a potential shot at glory. Eastwood provides only snippets of Maggie's despicable family background, and it's enough to justify all her desire to do whatever it takes to escape her default status. Meanwhile plenty of texture is derived from the interaction between Frankie and Eddie, two veterans more than worn out by the battles of days past, but still unable to leave the sport behind.

Frankie tries to fill the emptiness in his life by learning languages and reading refined literature. None of it helps. His oxygen is obtained ringside, living vicariously through every punch and feint, looking for opponent weaknesses and developing knock-out strategies for his fighters. Eddie is more grounded, still keeping his eye on the talent at the gym as he drags his janitorial buckets around, looking for the spark of talent that can be nurtured into a contender, and encouraging the no-hopers to at least dream big. The conversations between the two, about everything from the regrets of yesteryear to the holes in Eddie's socks, add enormous depth to the film.

Eddie's narration is almost poetic in its mystical reverence towards the sport of boxing, where everything seems backwards. Boxers step out to attack, step in to defend, use the right foot to push left and the left foot to veer right. Self protection is the basis for destroying an opponent, and boxers control their breathing in the most breathtaking moments. It's a sport where victory comes from pummeling an opponent but only within preset rules, and one life can change for the better when another life lies in agony, face down on the canvas.

And the film has the old-fashioned patience of a 15 round bout going the distance. Eastwood allows himself a running time of 132 minutes, and plenty of scenes add in the necessary shadings to flesh out Frankie, Eddie and Maggie into deeply affecting characters. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman create unforgettable and imperfect people, all three stubborn enough to withstand the rigours of the sport, and all three full of individual warts, passion, heroism and perseverance.

Million Dollar Baby avoids anything that looks glamorous. Even Maggie's higher profile fights exude the ambiance of a sport struggling for relevance, and most of her lower rung bouts are little more than sideshows in local gymnasia. There is finally money to be made at an inordinately high cost. Frankie and Maggie confront the risks and rewards together, and find both to be more than they could have ever imagined.

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