Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Movie Review: Monster's Ball (2001)

A somber drama, Monster's Ball is the story of two damaged people connecting under a dark cloud of grief. The film resonates with the raw power of human emotions reaching for the warmth of companionship to overcome unspeakable anguish.

In Georgia, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are both prison guards at the local penitentiary. They live with Hank's father Buck (Peter Boyle), a loudmouthed racist and himself a retired prison guard. Hank is a widower and has inherited his dad's racist tendencies.

Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is a black death row prisoner about to be executed, with Hank and Sonny charged with overseeing his capital punishment by electric chair. Lawrence leaves behind his wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and obese son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Sonny does not handle the execution well, unleashing Hank's wrath. Meanwhile, Leticia is penniless, and about to lose her house, her car and her job. Tragedies strike both Hank and Leticia, and a chance encounter brings them together for an unlikely relationship.

A compact two character study, Monster's Ball delves into the soul-shaking impact of loss on the psyche. Directed by Marc Forster with a measured pace and an eye for detail, the film refuses to take any easy short cuts. Neither Hank nor Leticia are necessarily likeable characters, and the calamities that befall them are shocking. Both of them rightfully hold themselves at least partially responsible for their losses, and the film distinguishes itself by staring at gaping, self-inflicted emotional wounds.

The film invests heavily in both characters to set the individual contexts. Hank and Leticia start their relationship approximately halfway through the film, and by then, both have been rounded into genuine people, products of their environment and their choices. The parallels between their independent lives are compelling. Hank abuses Sonny because he believes him to be weak; Letitia berates Tyrell for being overweight. Hank is already a widower; Leticia becomes one, with Hank an active participant in Lawrence's state-sanctioned demise. And as much as fate has a hand in the losses that they will experience, the spectre of personal responsibility hovers over both.

When they finally meet and engage, Foster charts a relationship course that is at once fragile and intense. The fierce intimacy between Hank and Leticia is more about physical release than mutual tenderness. They tentatively get to know each other while already relying on the relationship, Hank shocking himself by starting to care about a black person while discharging himself from the vestiges of his old life. Meanwhile, Leticia wonders if his financial, physical and moral support will actually help heal her anguish and guilt.

The film is fully dependent on the two central performances, and both Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry deliver. Thornton stays well within himself, portraying Hank as a man's man, his father's son, more influenced by the despicable attitudes of the old man than he cares to show or acknowledge. Berry became the first black woman to win the Best Actress Academy Award. She keeps Leticia real, human and impressively pragmatic.

The film ends with Leticia facing yet another unwanted surprise, and another potentially life-altering decision point. Again Monster's Ball quietly chooses the more difficult road, Leticia representing real people forced to make wrenching trade-offs just to be able to shake hands with life.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Movie Review: Starsky And Hutch (2004)

A comedy action film, Starsky And Hutch attempts to both satirize and pay homage to the 1970s television police show. Instead it errs on the side of stupidity and dissolves into a puddle of irrelevance.

It's 1975 in Bay City. Detective David Starsky (Ben Stiller) is an intense officer, overzealously chasing after every last petty thief. Captain Doby (Fred Williamson) is exasperated by Starsky's inability to work with others, and partners him with Detective Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), an officer so laid back he mingles with criminals and sometimes joins them on heists for fun. Hutch maintains Huggy Bear Brown (Snoop Dogg) as an underworld contact.

Drug lord Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) and his second-in-command Kevin Jutsum (Jason Bateman) are planning a major drug deal involving undetectable cocaine, modified to smell like sugar. Reese mingles in high society, owns a fancy yacht, and tries to pretend that he is an upstanding family man. But when one of Reece's henchmen shows up dead face down in the river, Starsky and Hutch get on the case and start to close in on Reese's operations.

A film which is essentially entirely forgotten a few minutes after the credits roll, Starsky And Hutch consists of an endless series of mind numbingly bad set-pieces, aiming for funny but achieving crass. See Starsky and Hutch dress up like the guys from Easy Rider for an aborted scene at a biker bar. Crack up laughing as Starsky and Hutch pretend to be mimes as they infiltrate a Bat Mitzvah. Be enthralled as Starsky chases a thief across rooftops. Laugh out loud at Huggy Bear pretending to be a golf caddy. Guffaw as Starsky unknowingly get high on cocaine and engages in a satirical disco dancing duel that was old in 1980.

Or better yet, don't. As directed by Todd Phillips, the film offers nothing beyond the obvious, the churlish and the vulgar, with the personalities of Starsky and Hutch more much more fingernails-on-chalkboard grating than funny. The film reaches an absolute low in a prison visit scene, with an uncredited Will Ferrell registering a personal career worst as an inmate who demands that the two detectives act out sexual fetishes.

In a minor role, Juliette Lewis is wasted, while Amy Smart and Carmen Electra show up to fulfill every immature boy's cheerleader fantasy.

The bright spots? It's good to see 1970s action stalwart Fred Williamson as the constantly irritated Captain Doby. And the real Starsky and Hutch, namely Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, show up for a late cameo. Incredible as it may seem, the 2004 version of Starsky And Hutch makes the bad acting and bad television from three decades past appear stellar.

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Monday, 5 October 2015

Movie Review: No Country For Old Men (2007)

A fascinatingly morose drama set in rural Texas, No Country For Old Men delves into the decaying soul of society through the fragmented story of a drug deal gone really, really bad near the Mexican border. With a chase for a bagful of cash animating what remains of burnt out emotions, absolutely nothing matters except the grim reality of random unpredictability.

Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a third generation county sheriff in rural Texas. Aging and emotionally exhausted, Ed Tom has seen it all, and realizes that the worst is yet to come. With assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) roaming the countryside, killing at will, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a local welder and hunter, stumbles upon a gruesome scene in the desert: five pick-up trucks riddled with bullets, more than a dozen dead Mexicans, a massive stash of unclaimed drugs, and a large amount of cash in a small case. Llewelyn takes the cash, which immediately makes him a target for Anton's clients.

Anton is a dispassionate killing machine who has reduced the vagaries of life to a coin toss. He dispatches his clients and goes after the money himself, using a transponder hidden in the bag to track down Llewelyn, who is now fully on the run. Ed Tom finds himself with a mounting body count and hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with the escalating carnage, which is about to get a lot worse when Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), another gun for hire, enters the fray.

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men is a spiritual companion piece to Fargo. But this time around, as evil spreads through the land, local enforcement in the shape of Ed Tom is exhausted, pessimistic and keenly aware how futile his efforts are. The film adapts the Cormac McCarthy novel with an unsettling matter-of-factness: horrible things are happening and will continue to happen, and there is not much that any one person can do.

Filmed with a love for open landscapes, an appreciation for the enormity of rural Texas, and all the places where men can decide to embrace darkness, No Country For Old Men discards any typical Hollywood expectations of heroism, righteousness prevailing, or happiness somehow making its way into the story. Ed Tom is the only character who would care about any of these things, and he is long past caring.

Almost every other character in the film is either seduced or obsessed by money, power, greed or death. The territory is filled with opportunities for villainy, and men like Anton, Llewelyn, Carson and their financiers are free to roam in search of profit most foul. They also know that they are all one wrong turn away from death, much like all the dead gangsters, their dead dogs and bullet-riddled pick-up trucks in the desert. And even thinking of good deeds is a bad idea. Llewelyn's troubles start when he decides to try and give a dying man his last sip of water.

After setting its own boundaries, the film proceeds to test the limits of traditional cinematic rules. A couple of characters are presented with care as interesting protagonists, only to be summarily, almost shockingly, knocked-off with contemptuous disdain. The one certainty is the uncertainty of randomized fate and destiny, and the Coens challenge expectations about who deserves to live and die, and why.

At the core of the mounting body count, the character of Anton Chigurh is one of the most intriguing hitmen to ever bloody the screen. Javier Bardem brings Anton to life with a lumbering lethality, a detached assassin carving a path of destruction across the Texas backroads. His weapon of choice is the cattle gun, a most appropriate representation of what he thinks of his fellow humans. With supposed heroes like Ed Tom recognizing their limitations and promptly yielding, the most terrifying conclusion is that the future belongs to men like Anton.

No Country For Old Men is a place where anything can happen. The only real expectation is that it's all bad, and for everyone.

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Sunday, 4 October 2015

Movie Review: Collateral (2004)

A moody thriller, Collateral creates a cool vibe through the story of one long night for a taxi driver forced to chauffeur an assassin around Los Angeles. The film rises above the routine thanks to an intense focus on characters and dedicated performances from Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

Max (Foxx) drives a taxi on the night shift, dreaming of collecting enough money to start his own limousine company. Early in the night, he gives Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) a ride. She is a lawyer in town to handle a big case, and their small talk evolves into a deeper conversation, surprising them both. Max's next fare is Vincent (Cruise), a well dressed man from out of town, who offers Max $600 to drive him to a series of stops throughout the night. Max reluctantly agrees. He is quickly regretting his decision when at Vincent's first stop, a dead body is launched out of an apartment window and crashes down on Max's taxi waiting below.

Vincent is an assassin for hire, in town to eliminate a series of targets in one night. Max is effectively a hostage chauffeur, and every time he tries to escape from Max's clutches, the situation gets worse. As the night progresses and the body count mounts, detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) of the Los Angeles Police Department starts to connect the dots, but he runs into an FBI operation led by agent Pedrosa (Bruce McGill), who is mounting surveillance on drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem). When Annie is suddenly embroiled in the events of the wild night, Max finds himself much more invested in the mayhem than he ever could have imagined.

Gorgeously filmed in low light with extensive use of reflection, shadows, and concentrated light sources, Collateral takes place over a single long night, as Max experiences the shift from hell. The film achieves a sleek, dark look, and creates a steady current of tension as Vince goes about his business with systemic efficiency. Director Michael Mann finds a well-tuned groove where scenes alternate between sharp violence and character development, and for most of the film, a perfect balance is maintained. Unfortunately but predictably, the final act does spiral out of control, and tilts towards unlikely everyman heroics. Max transforms from victimized taxi driver to a man of action, and the film drops a notch or two.

But the narrative heart throbs strong, and all the energy is derived from the evolving dynamic of the Vince - Max relationship. The two men communicate constantly, getting to know each other as Vince evaluates and eliminates all risks and Max desperately tries to talk his way out of hell. In the process, both men find their convictions being challenged. Max's dream of starting his own limousine business has been 12 years in the waiting, and Vince calls him on it, drawing a sharp distinction between the comfort of having a dream and the effort required to demonstrate ambition. Max probes Vince's nihilistic psyche and finds a man who cares for nothing because no one ever cared for him. Both men don't like it, but a bond develops between them nonetheless.

Some of the set-pieces are extremely clever. The initial dead body landing on Max's taxi is a high- volume announcement to kick off the dark part of the night. Even better is an episode at a mostly empty jazz club, where Vince goes to kill some time, dragging Max with him. The interaction that follows with club owner Daniel Baker (Barry Shabaka Henley) is as smooth as the jazz music, until business intervenes. Less impressive is a muddled shootout at a crowded nightclub that stretches all credibility.

A large part of the film's success rests with the two lead performances. Tom Cruise plays against type and demonstrate a high level of comfort as a bad guy. He maintains his unflappable persona as he crosses to the dark side and creates a killing machine that oozes slick personality. Jamie Foxx earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for bringing Max to life, a nice guy hiding his own frailties from himself. It is only when Max sees himself through Vince's eyes that he awakens to his faults, and ironically it is Vince who will need to deal with a Max deciding to get mad about his life.

Jada Pickett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem and Bruce McGill have relatively small roles and ensure a strong depth to the supporting cast, but the film is primarily a showcase for the two leads.

Polished and effortlessly fluid, Collateral slices through the Los Angeles night, bolstered by quality execution.

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Movie Review: RoboCop (1987)

A near-future science fiction action thriller, RoboCop has rollicking fun with the introduction of a semi-human robotic police officer into a decaying urban landscape dominated by gangs and a corrupt corporation.

In a dismal future Detroit, megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is given control over the city's overstretched police force. Senior President Richard "Dick" Jones (Ronny Cox) plans to introduce the mammoth ED-209 tank-scale robot to keep control of the streets, but the machine malfunctions in the worst possible way and the program is scrapped by the Chairman (Dan O'Herlihy). Instead, OCP executive Robert "Bob" Morton (Miguel Ferrer) rushes his alternative plan into place: reanimating deceased police officers into almost indestructible robots.

Police officer Alex Murphy (Paul Weller) is transferred into Old Detroit, the worst precinct in the city, and partnered with officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The pair soon fall into the clutches of vicious gang lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his trigger-happy friends. Murphy is repeatedly shot, including a bullet through the head, and attempts to revive him fail. He is reconstituted as RoboCop, and is soon helping to get criminals off the street. But RoboCop begins to experience flashes of his old life as Murphy, and sets out to bring Boddicker to justice. Meanwhile, the power struggle between Jones and Morton turns nasty, as OCP's grander objectives are revealed, placing RoboCop and Lewis in grave danger.

A cross between cheesy low budget science fiction and sly social commentary, RoboCop contains many of director Paul Verhoeven's favourite trademarks: a dysfunctional society merrily marching to the beat of bad television reporting and worse corporate control. The violence is of the jarring in-your-face variety, the satirical humour is subtle and never far from the surface, and the message about science-gone-wrong in the hands of the profit sector resonates with a sharp jab.

Clocking in at an efficient 100 minutes, RoboCop builds quick momentum and maintains it with a no nonsense style. Characters say what they mean, bad guys are evil, sleazy or both. Boddicker and Jones make for a perfectly vile pair of villains, and officers Murphy and Lewis are the overmatched forces of good arrayed against heavily weaponized gangsters. When Murphy becomes RoboCop, his impressive new abilities are not so much an advantage as a leveller. The dystopian Detroit aesthetic is only a few high rises removed from Mad Max's preferred terrain.

The action highlights are plenty and packed with fun. ED-209 disrupts a board meeting in a classic case of meeting adjourned with finality for one unfortunate middle manager. Officer Murphy meets his end in a grim abandoned warehouse, shot multiple times by the worst examples of human refuse. And to set up the rip-roaring climax, Boddicker gets his hands on several of those futuristic rifle weapons of mass destruction that only exist to embolden on-screen mayhem.

Through it all, Verhoeven has plenty to say about an extrapolated near-future. Every social service is for sale to the private sector in RoboCop, with OCP tackling policing as only the latest in a series of expansions into what used to be the domain of government. The battle for control of the streets is already lost, and the clean-up placed in the hands of those who can profit from deploying hardware, the city as proving grounds for military applications. The sergeant in charge of the Old Detroit police precinct is routinely shoved aside by OCP executives, a relic of the failed old methods of public safety. Unfettered privatization will expand to fill any void (and it's hinted that the enforcement void is created by Boddicker with OCP's blessing), as long as there is a profit to be made in the product lifecycle.

An action film that is smart, brassy and perceptive, RoboCop pounds out its message in gleaming bullet-proof armour.

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Movie review: What Women Want (2000)

A romantic comedy with a supernatural spin, What Women Want enjoys impressive star power but rides roughshod over its clever premise and fumbles the search for an attractive tone.

Advertising executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is a magnet for the ladies but treats them with dismissive disdain. Divorced from Gigi (Lauren Holly) and an absentee dad to his 15 year old daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), Nick is shocked when he is passed over for a promotion. Instead, his boss Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda) hires Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt) to lead the creative team, in an attempt to reorient the firm's ad campaigns to better appeal to women.

While trying on women's products to get in touch with his feminine side, Nick suffers an electrocution accident, and gains the supernatural ability to hear the inner thoughts of women. After first panicking and visiting therapist Dr. Perkins (an uncredited Bette Midler), Nick starts to use his new powers to advance his career. He gains inspiration from the hidden thoughts and feelings of women around him, and starts to steal Darcy's ideas to enhance his credentials on women-oriented campaigns. But Nick and Darcy also start to fall in love, complicating his attempts to undermine her performance.

What Women Want playfully tackles the age-old topic of men wishing they could better understand women. The premise has plenty of potential, and the film enjoys moments of good humour, befuddlement and personal awakening as Nick hears the inner thoughts of new boss Darcy, daughter Alex, barista Lola (Marisa Tomei) and office girl Erin (Judy Greer).

But director Nancy Meyers frequently bludgeons the film towards the ridiculous, encouraging Gibson to overact to distraction. Whenever there is a choice between subtle and stupid, Meyers chooses the low road, aiming for the broad laugh and glaring emotion when a more astute direction was available. The film hurtles towards the obvious, and in its rush misses opportunities to delve into gender issues with sensitivity. Thanks to a tonally challenged script, the workplace tensions between Nick and Darcy don't work as planned. What is intended to be competitive comes across as collaborative, undermining the latter part of the film's dynamic. With the romance between Nick and Darcy also difficult to digest, the better moments are in the subplots with Alex and Erin.

Nick's powers allow him to try and bridge the generational divide with his daughter, and several moments in the father-daughter journey bravely delve into awkward territory. Even more promising, but less developed, is Nick suddenly becoming aware of Erin's depressed state as an effectively invisible woman shuffling files within the office, wondering whether anywhere cares if she is even alive. Through Erin's story the film hints at important issues related to gender gaps and power dynamics in the workplace, and with more courage, Meyers could have better explored this territory.

Much less successful is the subplot involving Lola the frustrated barista, which is introduced, developed and then truncated with heavy-handed clumsiness, Marisa Tomei emerging as the film's main casualty.

With Frank Sinatra classics dominating the soundtrack and adding to the triple-underline attitude of the film, What Women Want places the delivery burden on Gibson and Hunt to bring the film home. The two attractive stars make the most of the material but are only rarely unable to steer in thought-provoking directions. What Women Want poses good questions, but provides answers that are more frivolous fun and less fascinating flavour.

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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Movie Review: The Thin Red Line (1998)

A lyrical World War Two drama, The Thin Red Line explores the psychology of soldierhood in the context of the Guadalcanal campaign. The film mixes intense battle action with slow moving, narration-driven introspection scenes to create a unique but not always successful experience.

A collection of soldiers are thrust into battle when the United States mounts an invasion of Guadalcanal to halt the Japanese plans to control the south Pacific. The men include Witt (Jim Caviezel), who is thoughtful and philosophical about the war's purpose and always one step away from wandering off on unauthorized leave; Welch (Sean Penn) a no-nonsense down to earth soldier's soldier; and Staros (Elias Koteas), a Captain who cares about his men, perhaps too much.

The hard-driving Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is the local commander, and he is eager to make up for lost time after being passed over for promotions throughout his career. Captain Gaff (John Cusack) is Tall's loyal second-in-command. The soldiers engage in fierce combat to dislodge the Japanese from a strategic hilltop, and then push on towards the Japanese rear positions. But territory is gained at a high cost, and each man has to deal with the chaos of war in his own way.

At times, The Thin Red Line represents war as wall paper with a soundtrack of pensive poetry. The visuals may be impressive, and the narration a morose and thoughtful reflection of soldiers' thoughts, but the pace, particularly in the opening and closing 45 minutes, is as close to watching paint dry as a movie can get. Terrence Malick directs with his trademark disregard for what may be popular, opting instead to focus on the beauty of a Pacific paradise being invaded by the ugliness of war. With a running time of close to three hours, the film occasionally rewards patience, but also tests it to the limit.

The action scenes, when they come, are heart-pounding, all the more so thanks to the contrast with the languid pace of the set-up. The middle of The Thin Red Line is an absorbing, meat-grinder of a battle in three phases. The US soldiers are first pinned down and picked off by unseen Japanese troops dug into the hillside. The middle phase finds a small group of soldiers charging at the key Japanese fortification to try and force a breakthrough. The final phase involves a rout of the Japanese
rear lines.

Malick matches Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (also from 1998) in capturing the agony and ecstasy of war, the pulsating kill-or-be-killed calculus quickly disposing of human pauses once the battle is joined. This is a war film that is not afraid to show fighting men as confused, terrified and error-prone. When heroes do step forward, they do stand out, although in their rush to claim glory, commanders like Tall also find ways to cheapen the achievements earned on the battlefield.

Less successful is the attempt to humanize the soldiers. Despite the mammoth running length, there are just too many individuals cluttering up the front lines, and too many actors given too little to do. With Malick endlessly focusing his cameras on wildlife and still life, the soldiers are shortchanged into insignificance. The likes of Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and Jared Leto are reduced to little more than extras in the context of a three hour film. John Travolta and George Clooney are each on screen for about 30 seconds. Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn and, to lesser extent, John Cusack are treated marginally better, but the film is definitely stained with the mark of name actors slipped into meaningless roles to try and salvage box office.

The movie offers up two half-hearted character conflict points, and they are both overdrawn. Tall and Staros clash about battle tactics, with Staros refusing  to obey orders that would have put his men in harm's way. The stand-off between the two men is prolonged to the point of exhaustion. Meanwhile, in a bizarre chase for dramatic tension that goes nowhere, the loyal Gaff dares to demand from Tall that the men be supplied with water as they fight. Ponderously spouted narration about the futility of war does not make up for the lack of genuine narrative substance.

Flawed as it is, The Thin Red Line is a worthwhile and cerebral addition to the catalogue of war epics that care more about damage caused than territory gained. The film may choose aesthetics over content, but it never loses sight of the losses on all sides.

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Movie Review: Top Gun (1986)

A glitzy drama and clunky romance set in the world of elite navy aviators, Top Gun has all the slickness of a polished sales pitch, and all the emotional depth that can be expected when hardware is the subject of worship.

Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a cocky, instinctive naval pilot, living under the cloud of his father, also a Navy pilot who died in mysterious circumstances. Maverick flies F-14A Tomcats with his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards). After a close encounter with enemy MiG 28s over the Indian Ocean, Maverick and Goose are chosen to join the elite "Top Gun" aerial combat training school at Miramar, Florida.

The intense training features numerous flights to sharpen dogfighting skills, overseen by the legendary "Viper" (Tom Skerritt) and "Jester" (Michael Ironside). Maverick finds himself in an alpha male competition with Tom "Iceman" Kazanski (Val Kilmer), a more cerebral pilot, for the prize of top graduate. Maverick also starts a steamy relationship with Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), an astrophysicist and civilian instructor. With the course drawing to a close and Maverick locked in an intense competition with Iceman, tragedy strikes, severely shaking Maverick's self-belief.

A thrilling piece of 1980s confectionery, Top Gun is ridiculous, mindless fun. Every man has a hokey nickname, every woman melts in front of the military uniforms, and every line of dialogue is cringe-worthy. The romance is klutzy, Kelly McGillis puts herself in the running for least convincing astrophysicist in film history (have there been others?), and the music serves as a reminder about how terrifically awful 1980s soundtracks could contrive to be. The geopolitics are at kindergarten level while the manly competitions make it all the way to Grade 8 maturity.

And yet. There is something about the unabashed gloss of Top Gun that allows it to rise above. Director Tony Scott displays a genuine flair for transforming lethal machinery into objects of desire, and Top Gun is filled with quite magnificent aerial photography. The glistening sun, the open skies, the golden silhouettes, and the roar of overpowered fighter jets designed to manoeuvre and kill with maximum efficiency are combined to create an irresistible aesthetic. As an advertisement for life as a navy pilot, the film is an undisputed winner.

Which all means that the story is utterly irrelevant, and serves as a distant backdrop to the sexually charged engines and people. And it's really best not to look too closely at all the decisions made by the military brass, culminating in sending young men off to war on their graduation day and shoving a pilot into combat while he is in a near catatonic state. It's drama torn from the pages of ideas too foolish to be considered as comics.

Tom Cruise continued his rapid rise to the very top with a magnetic performance as the moody, motorcycle-riding, Ray-Ban wearing Maverick. He does not need to act as much as be present and allow his natural pizzazz to glow, and he just radiates energy on the ground and in the sky. Val Kilmer displays a different kind of intensity, still charismatic but adding a snarly meanness. The other guys range from marginally goofy (Edwards as Goose) to pure macho (Skerritt and Ironside, taking it all too seriously).

The black hole is Kelly McGillis, and she threatens to swallow up the entire film with a stunningly unconvincing performance that screams vapid love interest, with Charlie reduced to a ten year old's idea of a fantasy woman. Deep in the cast, Meg Ryan shows up as Goose's wife and Tim Robbins makes a late appearance as a co-pilot.

While most of the individual elements fall flat, as a whole Top Gun amounts to a nonsensical success story. The film rides a crazy, unapologetic energy, buying into its own boyish joy, taking the breath away and inviting all to be swept into the thrill of the danger zone.

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Movie Review: Everest (2015)

Based on the tragic true story of the ill fated May 1996 campaign when eight climbers died over two days, Everest boasts some majestic cinematography, but fundamentally fails to create sufficient human drama to properly resonate.

New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced mountain climber, has invented Everest tourism, whereby relatively inexperienced climbers are guided in large groups up to the world's highest peak. Now others are jumping on the bandwagon, including brash American expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), creating a logjam of guides and ill-equipped tourists all wishing to reach the summit in the narrow climbing season window. Rob leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) behind for his latest assault on the mountain.

His group includes Texas doctor Beck (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug (John Hawkes), Japanese mountaineer Yasuko (Naoko Mori) and Outdoor magazine journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). Rob's Base Camp support staff consists of logistics manager Helen (Emily Watson) and the group's doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki). Rob and Scott create an uneasy alliance to better manage their way through the crowd of climbing groups, with Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) adding experience to Scott's team. May 10 is the designated day to reach the summit, but a variety of mishaps result in the climb falling dangerously behind schedule, just as a monstrous storm moves in.

The events of May 10 and 11 1996 shocked the world, and placed a focus on mountain climbing tourism, sparking debates about the wisdom of treating Everest like any other item on an adventurer's bucket list. Several books were later written by survivors, including Krakauer's best-selling Into Thin Air and Boukreev's rebuttal The Climb.

With the survivors understandably differing, sometimes bitterly, on many details of exactly what happened on those two chaotic days, the film Everest is not based on any single account. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur and co-written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, the film tries to stick to the known facts. Hall is portrayed as a well-intentioned, experienced guide faced with difficult decisions borne out of his love for expanding the appeal of mountain climbing. All the other characters are presented in a rather emotionless manner, their actions provided with the most basic motivation and left to be.

This leaves Everest with plenty of people and not much drama. The battle whereby a mammoth mountain teams up with a massive blizzard to shake off small humans provides plenty of opportunity for astounding cinematography by Salvatore Totino, but is otherwise asymmetrical in the extreme. From the first majestic shots of the intimidating Everest peak and the explanations about the dead zone where the human body starts to die at high altitude, the contest is settled. Kormákur does his best to zoom in on the climbers struggling up and then down the hill, but when everyone is bundled in multiple layers of climbing gear and conversations are reduced to shouting over howling winds, it's difficult to distinguish the characters, or to develop empathy.

Hall and Beck are provided with sketched-in worried-women-back-home, a loving and pregnant partner in Hall's case and a relatively angry and estranged wife for Beck. The rest of the climbers are defined in the broadest terms: Yasuko is aiming to check-off all of the world's tallest peaks; Doug is getting too old and wants one last crack at reaching the peak. Plenty of other faceless climbers trudge through the snow and die with barely an introduction. The actors do what they can, but other than Jason Clarke as Hall and Josh Brolin as Beck, the likes of Gyllenhaal, Knightley, Worthington and Wright are reduced to glorified cameos with disjointed snippets of screen time.

Krakauer, meanwhile, is trying to understand the age-old question of why climbers do what they do. Of course there is no satisfying answer to that conundrum. Some humans will always seek an escape from the mundane by testing themselves against nature, no matter how many times nature tilts the elements in her favour. Everest tries for deeper meaning, but settles for the same conclusion: the people may try hard but the mountain always wins.

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Friday, 2 October 2015

Movie Review: Gladiator (2000)

An epic drama set in the glory days of the Roman Empire, Gladiator is a rousing story of one noble warrior's quest for revenge against the evil forces of a corrupt Emperor. Director Ridley Scott reinvigorated the grand historical epic genre, while star Russell Crowe established himself as a charismatically intense hero, comfortable in any epoch.

The Roman Empire, in 180 AD. Ageing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is in poor health and reaching the end of his life. His army, under the command of General Maximus (Crowe), crushes the Germanic tribes and the Empire stands unchallenged. Marcus has a power-hungry but weak, unworthy and immoral son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), and a clever daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), who long ago was Maximus' lover. Maximus is a phenomenally skilled warrior and strategist, but longs to return to his farm in Spain, where his wife and son are waiting.

Maximus, preparing to give the battle order: At my signal, unleash hell.

With corruption running rampant through Rome, several Senators, including Gacchus (Derek Jacobi) and Gaius (John Shrapnel), are disillusioned with the Emperor and seek the creation of a Republic. Marcus regrets a life preoccupied with warfare, and decides that the respected and honourable Maximus should succeed him as Emperor to bring political stability and good governance back to the Empire. Before Marcus can publicly announce his decision, Commodus kills him and seizes power and orders the death of Maximum.

Maximus escapes, but his wife and son are brutally killed by Commodus' men. The former general is sold into slavery, eventually becoming the property of Proximo (Oliver Reed), who owns a stable of gladiators in the far reaches of the Empire. Maximus proves himself a popular killing machine, and establishes a reputation among the blood thirsty crowds as "the Spaniard". He also befriends fellow slave gladiators Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Möller).

In Rome, Commodus struggles to rule, while Lucilla is caught between loyalty to her brother, worry about his intentions towards her young son, and the restless Senators. Commodus tries to improve his popularity by sponsoring 150 days of games, including returning gladiator battles to the Colosseum. Eventually Proximo and his men are invited back to compete, allowing Maximus to return to Rome. He is single-mindedly determined to find his revenge against Commodus, but first has to survive the brutal gladiator battles.

Maximus, revealing his identity: My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions. Loyal servant to the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife – and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

Inspired by actual history but very much a work of fiction, Gladiator offers more than 150 minutes of rollicking action and tumultuous human conflict. The film is unrelenting in offering up awe-inspiring scenes of combat and carnage interspersed with healthy doses of character development driven by themes of loyalty, mistrust, ambition and cold revenge. At its core the film is about a conflict between two men who both insist on having their own way with history, and neither will settle until the other is destroyed.

The battle scenes deliver tense excitement, Scott able to mix close combat with enough strategic perspective to maintain coherence. Whether the death and destruction is unleashed deep in the Germanic forests or the relatively tighter confines of the Colosseum, Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson adopt an often jerky soldier's eye view of battle, with just enough wider shots to provide context. There is plenty of blood, gore and dismemberment to convey ferocity, with individuals who matter frequently placed in harms way to ensure that the danger registers.

But the strength of the film lies ultimately with character depth rather than stacks of corpses. As simple as the story is, it is also undoubtedly compelling. Maximum is as pure and humble as a man as he is merciless as a battle warrior, a loyal soldier who kills Rome's enemies as needed but always yearns to return to the peacefulness of home. Commodus is his antithesis, morally bankrupt, power hungry despite being undeserving, and caring much less about the glory of Rome than personal adulation. Heroes and villains don't come much more white and black than what Gladiator offers, but both men are presented as unyielding and flawed. Maximus allows his quest for revenge to consume him, while Commodus becomes obsessed with the need to publicly usurp and humiliate the popular gladiator once he returns to Rome.

In the wings are two other characters facing moments of truth. Lucilla is forced to navigate the treacherous path where her brother is an unworthy Emperor, her young son is heir apparent and therefore in mortal danger, and her former lover is intent on causing mayhem in the hallways of power. Proximo's story is much more modest: a former gladiator himself, Proximo finds himself in possession of the purest killing machine that can provide him with unlimited riches. But Proximo grows to realize that the Spaniard is destined for a higher purpose, and men like Proximo get to choose their side of history, but don't get to shape the outcome.

Proximo, to Maximus: Then listen to me. Learn from me. I wasn't the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.

Visually, Scott offers a spectacular recreation of Rome in all its glory, including breathtaking views of a reconstructed Colosseum brought back to raucous life. Many scenes feature seemingly thousands of extras, with live actors blended seamlessly with CGI effects. And in one battle, a few angry tigers enter the fray to join in the bloodletting. In the middle of it all, Russell Crowe commands the action with unflappable self-belief, oozing star power with the confidence of a man on a mission he believes to be absolutely righteous. Joaquin Phoenix manages the unenviable task of creating a hateable villain, his Commodus consisting of insidious lies, barely concealed deceit, and soulless betrayal in the pursuit of power.

Oliver Reed and Connie Nielsen offer commendable support in the main secondary roles. Reed passed away partway through filming, and his scenes where completed with the help of doubles and imaginative computer trickery. Djimon Hounsou gets a rather underwritten role as another gladiator in Proximo's stable who befriends Maximus.

Gladiator is a towering achievement, a celebration of the clash between the worst and the best that manhood offers: from pathetic selfish self-aggrandizement to saving the soul of an Empire.

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