Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Movie Review: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

A comic parody of 1930s-style gangster films, Johnny Dangerously tries hard but misses most of its targets.

Johnny Kelly (Michael Keaton) now operates a pet store. He catches a would-be young thief in the act, sits him down and explains that crime does not pay by recounting his life story. Johnny was brought up on the street corners of New York City, and his Ma (Maureen Stapleton) was perpetually sick and in need of expensive surgical procedures. To secure the money Johnny drifted into a life of crime and joined the gang of Jocko Dundee (Peter Boyle), saving Jocko's life in a gunfight with the rival gang of Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri).

Johnny adopts the flashy surname of Dangerously and rises through the ranks to become Jocko's second in command while fending off the threat of long-time rival Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo). He meets and marries showgirl Lil Sheridan (Marilu Henner), and helps his brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) get an education as a lawyer. Jocko and Johnny have the law in control by keeping District Attorney Burr (Danny DeVito) on the payroll, but trouble arrives when Tommy graduates and embarks on an anti-crime career, setting himself on a collision course with his brother.

Directed by Amy Heckerling and written by a clumsy committee of four, Johnny Dangerously is only occasionally funny. Heckerling and Keaton were coming off successful but small films in the form of Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Mr. Mom respectively, and perhaps bit off more than they were ready to chew. Despite a barrage of jokes and visual gags, Johnny Dangerously sets the sophistication bar quite low, and most of the humour is ho-hum at best. Making matters worse, the set design is just too slick, giving the film an inappropriate polished and theatrical shine, while the central performances of Keaton, Boyle, Henner, and Piscopo stop just short of winking at the audience and shouting to the rafters.

The better moments come from secondary sources. Gang boss Moronie is an expert at mangling the English language and draws the best laughs with some classic sputtered lines, while Burr's quietly frantic and ultimately fruitless attempts at controlling Tommy make best use of DeVito's talents. And when Johnny calls on the services of a priest on the way to a possible date with the electric chair, the priest's supposedly Latin ramblings are simply priceless.

Roman Moroni, testifying at a congressional-style hearing: I would like to direct this to the distinguished members of the panel: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights. Dis somanumbatching country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be taken away by a bunch of fargin iceholes... like yourselves.

The rest of the film is conspicuously forgettable, and features too many obvious repetitions of jokes that run out of steam early but are anyway mercilessly re-deployed. Despite a smattering of good intentions, Johnny is neither on the spot nor in the least bit dangerous.

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Movie Review: Julia (1977)

A pre-war drama centred on the friendship of two women who carve different paths in life, Julia is beautifully filmed and deliberately paced, but also somewhat misdirected.

It's the 1930s, and Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is an aspiring writer struggling to finish her first play. Her friend and lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) is in turns encouraging and gruff, prodding her to be the best that she can be but also intolerant of her complaining. Dashiell advises Lilly to travel to Europe for some inspiration and to catch up with her childhood friend, the idealistic social justice crusader Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). Lilly settles down for a stint of writing in Paris, but rushes to Vienna when she learns that Julia has been brutalized by the authorities for her anti-fascist activism. Once Julia is released from hospital, Lilly is unable to find her.

Lilly returns to the US, completes her first play, and achieves great success. Now a celebrated playwright, she embarks on a tour of Europe with Alan Campbell (Hal Holbrook) and his wife, but before she can set off to Moscow, she is unexpectedly approached by the mysterious Johann (Maximilian Schell) with a pleading message from Julia. Lilly can help rescue hundreds of political prisoners by smuggling $50,000 into Berlin for use by an underground network of activists to bribe prison officials into releasing detainees. Lilly has to decide whether she wants to risk her own life by getting involved in a dangerous world she knows nothing about.

Based on an apparently fictional chapter from Hellman's 1973 book of memoirs Pentimento, Julia is a grand story of a friendship suddenly thrust into the turbulence of impending evil. Gorgeous to look at and filmed with rich flourishes, Julia unfolds at a leisurely pace, small gestures allowed the time to register, the thoughts, concerns and talents of the tentative Lilly unfurling in measured doses as she achieves success and is then awakened to a world about to go insane.

However, and for all the excellence and talent on display, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Julia chose the right title but the wrong story. Of the two women, Julia is by far the more intriguing, but she disappears from the movie for long stretches. While Lilly's tangential incursion into danger as a reluctant furtive courier generates good drama and unfolds with potent tension, Lilly is simply not that interesting. For the entirety of the central trip to Berlin, Lilly is a hapless participant in a much bigger game, steered by others every step of the way, incapable of making any decisions herself. Lilly is as much along for the ride as the film's audience, while tantalizing hints reveal that the mostly unseen Julia is busy fighting for justice as fascism grabs Europe by the throat.

But director Fred Zinnemann overcomes most of the shortcomings of the Alvin Sargent script and delivers a dazzling old fashioned visual treat. Julia is all about ambitious staging, spectacular sets, and stunning use of colour, smoke and costumes. From Hammett's beach house to the train journey and various locales throughout Europe, Zinnemann creates impressive vistas that linger long in the memory.

Also effective are the frequent flashbacks of Julia and Lilly as teenaged friends (played by Lisa Pelikan and Susan Jones respectively) maturing into young adults, the vignettes serving to bring out the women's nascent personalities. The common theme is always of Julia as the passionate instigator and Lilly as the passive disciple. Their relationship blossoms into the love of deep friendship, and the film stops short of hinting at a physical connection, other than through the malicious gossip network that comes back to hurt Lilly.

Fonda and Redgrave are in top form, and deliver alluring performances. Fonda gets the screen time and has to convey more apprehension and self-doubt. Redgrave makes intermittent but telling appearances, and gives Julia an edgy commitment to global justice fuelled by large doses of self-belief. Redgrave won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, and Robards won the men's equivalent for his relatively traditional turn as author Hammett. Meryl Streep makes her film debut as a haughty member of Lilly's social circle.

Julia could have invested more time on its compelling title character, but the film never falters as high quality entertainment.

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Monday, 24 November 2014

Movie Review: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

A family drama rich with longing for bygone days, How Green Was My Valley is an irresistible homage to the bright eyed innocence of childhood awakening to the convolutions of an adult world.

In Wales of the 1800s, members of the respected Morgan family make a living by working in the local coal mine, much like everyone else in their scenic village community tucked into the lush countryside. The family patriarch Gwilym (Donald Crisp) still works in the mine, while his wife Beth (Sara Allgood) maintains the household with help from daughter Angharad (Maureen O'Hara). The eldest five sons Ianto, Ivor, Davy, Gwilym Jr and Owen work with their father, while 10 year old youngest son Huw (Roddy McDowall) is smart enough to go to school, but is also eager to follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers.

Change slowly but surely comes to the valley. Wages are driven down due to the availability of too many workers, triggering a strike and calls for a union that create a wedge between the more traditional Gwilym and his sons. Ivor gets married to the beautiful Bronwyn (Anna Lee), and Huw develops an immediate crush on his sister-in-law. The handsome Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) arrives as the new preacher in the village and catches Angharad's eye. Huw and his mother are hurt on a snowy night, while Angharad is pressured into marrying Mr. Evans, the son of the mine's owner. Huw has misadventures at school, there are tragic accidents within the mine, and Angharad tries to find a way to once again be with Mr. Gruffydd.

The adaptation of the 1939 Richard Llewellyn novel is a nostalgic celebration of childhood, family and simpler times. Told through the eyes of young Huw, How Green Was My Valley unapologetically pines for days of yore, and yearns for people who have since departed and places that have since changed.

With a Wold War rendering filming in Europe a difficult proposition, California locations and Irish accents have to suffice as representations of Wales. Director John Ford nevertheless strikes all the right notes, creating the most picturesque of mythical villages, where all the miners sing their way to and from work, the community is united, laughter is aplenty and families look out for each other and respect their elders. Then reality starts to creep into Huw's perspective, as labour strife, family divisions, economic realities and impossible affairs of the heart start to tear the family apart, and the community of his childhood disintegrates.

The film touches on a broad range of issues, including social class divisions, workers' rights, religion, and economic immigration. As Huw experiences more adult interaction, he is exposed to hypocrisy within the church community, business imperatives dispensing with surplus workers, malicious community gossip, loveless marriages, physical trauma and harrowing bullying by classmates and teachers alike. It's a lot to pack into a two hour movie, which means that no one topic dominates, but Ford keeps the film pointed in a steady direction and the pace remarkably measured, while making sure that every scene is worthy of a postcard.

Roddy McDowall was 13 years old at the time of filming and had already been acting for three year. He delivers a remarkably mature performance, the events in the valley unfolding from his viewpoint, and Huw emerging as the central character in a changing landscape. McDowall displays a range of emotion including respect for his father, worry for his family, fear for the future and the courage to adapt, all without resorting to bathos. The other performances are steady and more traditional, Maureen O'Hara as Angharad provided with the most promising adult role but ultimately not much evolution.

How Green Was My Valley succeeds as an attractive trip down memory lane tugging at the heartstrings that connect family and community, a case of the grass being greener on the other side of childhood.

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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Movie Review: White Heat (1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Movie Review: The Matrix (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Movie Review: Touch Of Evil (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.