Sunday, 18 February 2018

Movie Review: The Intern (2015)


A charming intergenerational workplace comedy, The Intern benefits from smart character dynamics and elegant execution.

In New York City, Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is 70 years old, widowed, retired, and looking for a new challenge. After a 40-year career spent with a phone book publisher, Ben is hired as a Senior Intern with the successful e-commerce apparel company About The Fit and assigned to help the company's founder and CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Despite his old fashioned suits and habits, Ben quickly becomes popular with the company's young workforce. He catches the eye of in-house masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo), who is thrilled to find another mature co-worker.

Initially the harried Jules has no time for Ben, but gradually he gains her trust, first as her driver then as a confidant and friend. He learns that the company's investors are seeking a new CEO to help manage the explosive growth and reduce Jules' workload. She is reluctant to give up control, but also wants to do the right thing. Ben also meets Jules' stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) and young daughter Paige, and starts to notice the stresses on the home front.

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, The Intern chooses weighty modern themes and tackles them with unusual astuteness. The subject matters include the challenges women face as leaders, particularly in managing family time; the cultural gap between boomers and millennials; the awkward re-entry into the workforce at an older age; and the difficult transition from start-up to an established business with explosive growth.

Even the sub-themes are relevant. The Millenials' struggle to find affordable housing and the awkward dynamics of a new romance at an older age play out in the background. To Meyers' credit, the film demonstrates a deft touch and teases out all the necessary conflict points while sidestepping melodramatics and overt lecturing.

The two main characters are well written and contribute enormously to the film's appeal. Neither Ben nor Jules are perfect. He is old fashioned, almost too reverential, and finds it difficult to express his thoughts. She is overworked, overcommitted, overstimulated and always distracted when home. And yet both are genuine and well-meaning, and The Intern is more about common ground and welcome new perspectives than it is about a clash of generations. Ben offers Jules a sturdy sounding board and the voice of experience; she offers him a renewed lease on life. Both move towards new beginnings as a result of the internship.

Refreshingly, the film excludes any form of antagonist or contrived crises. Everytime the film threatens to go in such directions Meyers pulls it back into the pragmatic realm, and apart from a comic interlude related to an errant e-mail, The Intern exudes the welcome warmth of grounded humanity.

In one of his much better late career outings, Robert De Niro holds the film's centre and delivers a controlled performance, allowing Ben's calm maturity to shine through, enhanced by his understanding and acceptance of how the world has evolved. Anne Hathaway contributes the energy of a frazzled executive running on adrenaline, and shines in a couple of revelatory scenes.

Witty and composed, The Intern brings out the best of the old and the new.






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Saturday, 17 February 2018

Movie Review: Days Of Thunder (1990)


A sports drama and romance, Days Of Thunder is a sophomoric redux of Top Gun with fast cars replacing fast fighter jets.

Car dealership owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) convinces semi-retired engine builder Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to get back into NASCAR racing and mentor hot new driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise). Harry reluctantly agrees, as Cole proves to be naturally talented but clueless about car mechanics and race craft.

On-track Cole tangles frequently with aggressive driver Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), until he finally starts to listen to Harry and learns how to win. But a big crash sends both Cole and Rowdy into hospital, where Cole meets and starts a relationship with neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman). With Cole temporarily out of commission, hot new rookie Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) gets a chance to prove himself, and soon he is challenging Cole for on-track supremacy.

Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise get back together to retell an overly-family story: the talented but troubled young man with all the talent in the world who just needs a mentor to guide him to his true potential. Days Of Thunder of course also throws in the cheesy romance with the beautiful woman in a position of authority, this time Nicole Kidman convincing no one as a neurosurgeon.

Deprived of the opportunity to film elegant fighter jet against orange skies, Tony Scott is reduced to the grittiness of the race track, and he makes all the wrong choices. NASCAR is reduced to a ridiculous jousting contest, drivers using their cars as weapons at every opportunity, dangerous manoeuvres the order of the day as the competitors routinely look to crash each other and "put him in the wall".

The characters are shallow, the emotions derived from the self-help pop-psychology bargain bin, and the final triumph as obvious as it is hollow. None other than Robert Towne wrote the banal script, which mostly consists of cliched lines.

Duvall does his best to inject undeserved gravitas, and despite the familiarity of the material Cruise exudes his special brand of star power, although here it veers towards self-parody.

Days Of Thunder is a race of blunders, going around in predictable circles.






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Movie Review: The Terminal (2004)


A mild comedy, drama and romance, The Terminal offers harmless entertainment in a message-heavy but slick production.

Tourist Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at New York's JFK airport and is refused entry. While Viktor was in the air, the government of his fictional home country of Krakozhia was deposed as a civil war erupted. Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the airport's Acting Customs Director, deems Viktor  stateless and status-less, and restricts him to the international transfer lounge until the State Department can figure out a solution.

Hours turn into days then weeks and months. Viktor creates a sleeping area at an unused gate, teaches himself better English, and befriends airport employees including customs agent Dolores (Zoë Saldana), a janitor (Kumar Pallana), a baggage handler (Chi McBride) and a catering company employee (Diego Luna). Viktor also meets and is entranced by flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). They become his family of sorts as Dixon dreams up ways to get rid of his unwanted guest.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Terminal offers family-friendly entertainment, celebrating diversity, the American cultural mosaic and the value of immigrants who love their original homeland yet are willing to also love the United States. The film is partially inspired by a real-world case of a seemingly stateless man who lived for years at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Set almost entirely in a purpose-built set, The Terminal condenses societal tensions into one building teaming with commerce, where the fate of new arrivees is decided with an abrupt passport stamp.

The Terminal's messaging is heavy-handed, as Spielberg launches into blunt metaphors and stark characterizations. Frank Dixon is the antagonist careerist white man holding all the power and wielding it irresponsibly, while most of the other characters are visible minorities or outsiders struggling for a better life. The emotional strings are weighed down with syrup, from the secret contents of Viktor's peanut box (the revelation is both mundane and clumsy) to Amelia's search for true love in all the wrong time zones. Meanwhile all of Viktor's new friends are decent and jovial folks hiding secrets.

The film clocks in at an unnecessarily long 128 minutes, and despite the lack of a deft touch Spielberg still delivers a polished package. The good elements include dynamic Janusz Kamiński cinematography that makes the most out of the elaborate set, and a typically dependable Tom Hanks performance. Hanks grows into the role, starting out at an unfortunately cartoonish level but evolving into well-rounded character with plenty of steel in his core, surrounded by Hank's forte of universal human decency.

Predictably amiable, The Terminal is certainly a functional building, designed to be better than bland but less than thrilling.






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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Movie Review: Walk The Line (2005)


A musical biography, Walk The Line chronicles the career and personal life of country singer Johnny Cash.

As a child growing up on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas, Johnny is traumatized by the accidental death of his older brother Jack, and never overcomes his strict father Ray (Robert Patrick) believing the wrong son died. After a stint in the army stationed in Germany, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) marries his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin). They settle in Memphis and start a family. He is useless as a salesperson and instead dreams of a music career.

With unpaid bills and eviction notices mounting, he records his first song, local success follows and he starts touring. On the road John meets vivacious country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and is immediately smitten. They are both married to others, but start a deep friendship that goes through ups and down as Cash's fame spreads with a succession of hits. June refuses to become romantically embroiled while Johnny is married. He is soon addicted to drugs and alcohol, and both his career and his health start to suffer.

Directed and co-written by James Mangold, Walk The Line is a satisfying mix of biography, romance and drama. The film covers Cash's life from childhood in the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, and Mangold finds some good anchors to hang the story on. The death of beloved older brother Jack is a childhood trauma that resonates throughout John's life, and the strained relationship with his father Ray is another long-running source of tension.

But it's the love story between Cash and June that emerges as the defining relationship in John's life, and Mangold is able to portray the aching longing between two performers meant for each other but held back by personal circumstances. June is the more thoughtful adult in this couple, doing the math and concluding that as long as John is married there is no payoff in yielding to his desperate appeals for deep commitment. Their journey towards finding each other is long, painful and convoluted, but Mangold nails the resolution in the film's emotional highlight (which takes place on stage, of course).

In terms of Cash's musical career, the film features many of his most famous hits, delivered with conviction by Phoenix in a series of performances in various venues, ranging from tiny school auditoriums to massive stadia. Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire, and Home Of The Blues all make an appearance. The film starts with Cash's legendary show inside Folsom Prison, and loops back much later to reveal the event's place in his legacy.

Joaquin Phoenix finds all the different facets of Cash, from fresh faced and eager to washed up and worn down by all the pills and alcohol. Reese Witherspoon won the Best Actress Academy Award as June Carter, an energetic entertainer with a remarkably firm grip on reality despite the craziness of life on the road as a mother of young kids.

At well over two hours the film does drag, and the scenes of moping and personal disintegration caused by substance abuse do soldier on long after the point is made. But overall Walk The Line is a heartfelt and worthy tribute, both to the man himself and the woman standing by his side through good songs and bad.






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Monday, 12 February 2018

Movie Review: Heaven's Gate (1980)


An epic and lyrical western, Heaven's Gate is nearly as bad as its catastrophic reputation.

Twenty years after graduating from Harvard, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is the Marshal of Johnson County, Wyoming. Poor European immigrants are arriving in large numbers to settle and farm the land, creating tensions with a cattlemen's Association led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). James' intellectual classmate from Harvard William Irvine (John Hurt) is part of Canton's entourage, but frequently drunk. In the town of Casper, a large number of men assemble, recruited as hired guns by the Association. A target list of 125 settlers is drawn up and a $50 bounty is offered on each head.

Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) is one of the gunmen, but he tries to scare off the settlers rather than kill them. He also competes with James for the attention of Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the local whore and James' lover. Local businessman John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges) allies himself with the settlers. As Canton's men start to hunt down their targets, the immigrants have to find ways to fight back and the situation escalates towards an all-out war.

Written and directed by Michael Cimino and loosely based on the actual events of the Johnson County War, Heaven's Gate is legendary for all the wrong reasons. Four times over budget, one year late, beset by production problems including rampant animal cruelty, ridiculously long at 3 hours and 40 minutes, and ultimately a financial disaster that hastened the demise of studio United Artists, the film comprehensively ended the New Hollywood era, killing off the concept of celebrated directors having unchecked creative control.

Cimino, fresh off the unexpected success of The Deer Hunter, appeared intent on out-doing Francis Ford Coppola. He exhibited ultra-egotistical on-set behaviour and seemed to measure his achievements by length of film, ending the production at 1.3 million feet (220 hours) to exceed Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The Heaven's Gate music is also clearly derived from The Godfather theme.

All of which would be forgiven and excused if the final on-screen product was any good, but it's not. Heaven's Gate has perhaps 90 minutes of story and 130 minutes of insufferable bloat. Countless scenes contribute nothing to the narrative, and every scene, whether relevant or not, runs for many minutes longer than necessary. The Harvard graduation and waltz, the rollerblading dance, the endless scenes of agitated crowds, the cockfight and the epilogue are some of the more famous examples of the bilge suffocating the film.

To add to the misery, despite the mammoth length the film is fundamentally lacking in any character depth or development. Averill, Champion and Ella are the three main characters, and they remain plastic creations throughout, generating no emotion or empathy, stock passengers in their own story. Kristofferson, Walken and Huppert can all be fine actors, but they drown in nothingness where time and space stand still. Plenty of deathly slow scenes come and go with barely any dialogue, the characters part of the scenery or worse, swallowed by the armies of extras.

Filmed entirely on location and mostly in Montana, the film carries a sickly brown-yellow tinge throughout, taking away from the beautiful epic and rustic settings and the elaborate framing. The sound quality is frequently atrocious, with large stretches of dialogue inaudible and incomprehensible. The ill-defined immigrants speak and shout in their own language, sometimes for minutes on end, with no subtitles.

The final hour does pick up as Cimino finally bears down and the conflict erupts into the open, but redemption is out of reach. Heaven's Gate is an arduous ode to unchecked self-admiration.






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Movie Review: The Divorcee (1930)


A social drama, The Divorcee examines temptation and the double standards set for men and women.

A group of New York-based friends frequently socialize together. Jerry (Norma Shearer) accepts a marriage proposal from Ted (Chester Morris), breaking the heart of Paul (Conrad Nagel), who very much had his sights set on Jerry. Despondent, Paul gets drunk and causes a car crash resulting in facial injuries to Dorothy (Helen Johnson).

Jerry and Ted get married and seem to have an idyllic union. But on their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Ted has had a fling with Janice (Mary Doran). Emotionally crushed, Jerry is tempted to stray with Don (Robert Montgomery), who is Ted's best friend. Divorce follows, and Jerry lives the single carefree life. Meanwhile Paul has married Dorothy out of guilt, but has not yet given up on winning back Jerry's heart.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and based on the book Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, The Divorcee showcases relationship dynamics among society's elites. With remarkable honesty, the film explores themes of monogamy, betrayal and the quest for happiness as a couple. Both the men and the women are seeking elusive romantic bliss, but the film is most interested in how the same behavior is perceived through different gender lenses.

At the heart of the film is a deep and genuine love between the vivacious and confident Jerry and Ted. After learning of his drunken affair she seeks to redress the the balance with her own dalliance. But what she sees as a neutralization of the score he perceives as an insurmountable betrayal and cause for divorce. Jerry then tries her hand at the unattached lifestyle, and finds herself dangerously close to wrecking another marriage, this time the loveless union between Paul and Dorothy.

The Divorcee deserves credit for sequentially placing Jerry in the position of being single, then married, then as a disruptor, and in a mostly non-judgemental context. Norma Shearer fought for the role to break away from her docile image, and nabbed the Best Actress Academy Award for a multi-faceted performance.

While Jerry commands the film as a compelling character as she navigates the ups and downs of her love life, the rest of the characters remain rather shallow. The men in particular are one dimensional and not helped by a rather listless cast. Overall the performances are overemotive, with many of the cast members veterans of the silent era.

The route may be convoluted, but The Divorcee is a woman determined to find her perfect match, on her own terms.






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Sunday, 11 February 2018

Movie Review: Shaft (1971)


A seminal blaxploitation action film, Shaft provides low budget urban thrills laced with plenty of race commentary.

In New York City, private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) fends off two goons and the attention of police Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) before being recruited for a job by Harlem mob boss Bumpy (Moses Gunn), whose daughter Marcy has been kidnapped. Bumpy suspects that rival gang leader Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) may have something to do with the abduction.

Shaft tracks Ben down, triggering an ambush and forcing the two men to work together. Shaft pieces together clues and learns that the Mafia is planning to move in on Bumpy's Harlem turf, and a full-scale gang war is about to erupt with Marcy held as a bargaining chip. With both Androzzi and Bumpy eager for a quick resolution, Shaft and Ben have to find Marcy and avoid open street warfare.

Directed by Gordon Parks and based on the book by Ernest Tidyman, Shaft was one of the earliest action movies with broad appeal to feature a black man as the cool and confident hero. Parks made the decision to cast Richard Roundtree in the lead role (staying true to the novel), and in doing so ignited a new subgenre and pushed the movies forward into a new era.

More influential than good, the film itself is a relatively clunky detective story. The small budget, extremely limited acting talent and rudimentary directing and editing skills are often painfully obvious. A good chunk of the 100 minutes is invested in following Shaft around the streets of New York, pounding the sidewalk, crossing this street and then that street, and shaking down contacts and informants. It's all set to the Isaac Hayes' funk-rich soundtrack, perhaps more famous and authoritative than the film itself.

As for the plot, it's standard fare gang tensions and bamboozled cops building up to a tense final 20 minutes in which Shaft and friends attempt a covert and dangerous infiltration and rescue mission. What matters much more than the story is the attitude, and the script (co-written by Tidyman) is laced with black power stereotypes, including Shaft oozing in confidence, capitalizing on his towering stature, dismissing all symbols of authority, and having his way with the ladies on demand.

Mediocre in quality but immense in consequence, Shaft rules the bustling street.






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Saturday, 10 February 2018

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman (2017)


A biographical musical, The Greatest Showman celebrates the life of circus impresario P.T. Barnum.

The son of a tailor and orphaned at a young age, Barnum dreams big and falls in love early with Charity, the daughter of his father's aristocratic client. They stay in touch through her school years, then Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (Michelle Williams) get married, settle in New York City and have two daughters. When he is laid off from an accounting job at shipping company he risks everything to open a museum of wax figures and stuffed animals.

Business is slow, and his daughters encourage Barnum to add more living things and sensations. He recruits freaks and outcasts, and the museum becomes a big hit but also draws protests and scorn from critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks). Barnum convinces respected playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join him as a junior partner to help attract a more high brow audience. On a trip to London Barnum recruits Swedish singing sensation  Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) for a grand tour of the United States. He starts rubbing shoulders with society's elites, but also drift away from Charity.

Directed by Michael Gracey (with an assist from James Mangold, credited as Executive Producer), The Greatest Showman took eight years to make it to the screen but arrived just in time to unabashedly reaffirm diversity's value at a time of social division. While the story is loosely inspired by Barnum's life, the real message is that every person is a treasure, in whatever shape, size, or colour.

The circus world as a whole and Barnum's shows in particular may very well have exploited people who are different. The film skates over the questionable profit motives and instead embraces the opportunity for the outcasts of society to step forward and enjoy the spotlight. The film's feel-good energy stemming from the spirit of the underdog is irresistible.

As for Barnum's story, this is a conventional arc about a man trying to fill the gaping hole in his soul caused by childhood poverty, and stretching beyond what is necessary. Barnum's talent is such that he is successful at whatever he does, but he will need to learn that not all accomplishments equate to increased happiness.

Gracey deserves credit for delivering a relatively content-rich musical without bloat, as The Greatest Showman clocks in at a very reasonable 105 minutes. The musical numbers are surprisingly good, well-timed and short. A Million Dreams, The Other Side and showstopper This Is Me are delivered with joyous conviction, the singing powerful and the choreography simple but effective. In terms of pure artistry, the duet Rewrite The Stars allows Efron and Zendaya (playing Carlyle's potential lover, her skin colour a scandal for his social circle) to literally soar.

The performances are more about enthusiasm than craft, and Jackman does not disappoint with a  high energy portrayal of Barnum fueled by eternal optimism. Williams plays along, less convincing in the singing numbers but credible as the family anchor. Efron and Zendaya offer athletic support.

Uncomplicated, honest and well produced, The Greatest Showman may not be an accurate history lesson but it is an exuberant shout in favour of a society enriched by unique individuality.






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Movie Review: Violet And Daisy (2011)


An action thriller with dramatic elements, Violet And Daisy borrows heavily from Tarantino in a story about two teenaged girl assassins on a mission that goes sideways.

In New York City, cool and carefree teenagers Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) work as a duo to assassinate targets selected by their handler Russ (Danny Trejo). After successfully completing a complex mission, Violet and Daisy reluctantly accept another quick and seemingly simple assignment because they need money to buy new dresses.

Their new target is known as just The Guy (James Gandolfini), and his crime is stealing money from gangsters. Violet and Daisy literally fall asleep on the job in The Guy's apartment, triggering a series of events in which they get to know the Guy much more than they intended, with Daisy in particular becoming sympathetic to his difficult relationship with his daughter. Meanwhile, the girls tangle with another hit squad, repeatedly run out of bullets, and learn some truths about each other.

Written, directed and co-produced by Geoffrey S. Fletcher, Violet And Daisy starts strong with direct echoes of Pulp Fiction and The Killers, but then stalls. The opening sequence features Violet and Daisy dressed as nuns, delivering pizza, engaged in banter and then blowing away an army of goons. The scene is magnificently Tarantinoesque, but also sets up expectations that Fletcher cannot deliver on.

Most of the rest of the film takes place in The Guy's non-descript apartment. The script falls short and does not sustain the drama-in-a-room premise. It's painfully clear that Fletcher runs out of ideas about halfway through, and fuzzy interventions by another assassin and a dream sequence start to meander towards incoherent territory.

Punchy interludes do liven up proceedings, including another shootout follows by an internal bleeding dance that corrals nasty and hilarious into the same loop.

If there is an underlying theme it appears to relate to father-daughter issues, with The Guy giving up hope as his daughter gives up on him and Violet dealing with absentee daddy and suppressed memory syndromes. But the film is too far into cartoonish violence combined with bubblegum irreverence to be taken seriously, no matter what the topic.

The three central performances are accomplished and deserved better material. Gandolfini delivers a controlled turn as a man close to the point of not caring, while Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan dive without hesitation into the make-believe world of giddy trigger-happy teenaged killers salivating about the latest fashion trend between hits. When assassins are motivated by designer dresses, the end must be near.







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Movie Review: Night Train To Lisbon (2013)


A morose political drama and romance, Night Train To Lisbon packs in plenty of plot but remains more ponderous than provocative.

In Berne, grey professor Raimund (Jeremy Irons) rescues a woman before she can jump off a bridge. She promptly flees, and in her coat pocket Raimund finds a book and a train ticket to Lisbon. Impulsively he hops onto the train, and en route reads the book, which turns out to be a memoir by Amadeu (Jack Huston), a young aristocratic Portuguese doctor. Raimund is deeply affected by the lyrical prose, and in Lisbon goes looking for the author. He visits Amadeu's sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling), and learns that the doctor died in 1974.

Through a fortuitous accident Raimund meets optometrist Mariana (Martina Gedeck), whose uncle João (Tom Courtenay) knew Amadeu. Raimund also talks to Amadeu's teacher, the priest Father Bartolomeu (Christophe Lee). Slowly Raimund pieces together the history of a group of idealistic college graduates involved in the underground resistance against the Salazar dictatorship in the early 1970s. The group consisted of Amadeu, his best friend Jorge (August Diehl), João and the beautiful Estefânia (Mélanie Laurent). As Raimund learns about the struggles and loves of the young activists, he questions his own restrained life.

An adaptation of the Pascal Mercier novel directed Bille August, Night Train To Lisbon has ambitions to be an intellectual and literary mystery. While the tone is earnest, the pacing thoughtful, and the content rich, the film also leans towards excessive self-absorption. August succumbs early and often to narration consisting of excerpts from Amadeu's book that may or may not be profound, but are certainly out of place. And Raimund's entire search-for-identity quest is off target, his suddenly instinctive and persistent actions inconsistent with the character.

The girl-on-the-bridge opening is a beguiling mystery, but the film takes far too long to circle back to the incident, and overall no one in Lisbon appears to hesitate before revealing long held personal secrets to the inquisitive stranger from Berne. And far too much time is spent with Raimund going back and forth between Adriana and Jorge, the plotline revealed through intentionally interrupted drips that may work on the written page but not in a 110 minute screen treatment.

The flashback scenes, where the film spends a good half of its running time, come with their own problems. The acting talent is generally about two levels down from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Christopher Lee, and the young activists appear to exist out of context. August spends next to no time establishing the framework of the Salazar regime, and tries to fit a full plot about young anti-government agitators, complete with a love triangle, into half of a movie's length. Unexpectedly it all comes across as half-baked and borderline amateurish.

Night Train To Lisbon has good intentions to recount a worthwhile story, but is thwarted by clumsy execution.






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